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Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Revolutionary Thought on Improvement

While browsing through GM Alex Yermolinsky’s The Road to Chess Mastery, in the introduction to the section entitled Openings and Early Middlegame Structures, he wrote about how IM John Watson, in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy compared acquiring chess knowledge with learning a language. 

Yeromlinsky described how, at the age of 31, he moved from the Soviet Union to the United States and had to learn English.  He wrote how his adult mind tried to apply logical concepts to learning the language just like it was done with other subjects.  Break it down into parts, analyze each part separately, then systemize by drawing similarities between some of the parts and finally synthesize them into something that should work.  The result is disappointment because you still can’t speak the language.  But then he noted that he watched his kids picking up English on the fly without conscious effort.  He came to the conclusion that the trick was to “plunge into a new environment, just like kids do, and learn it from the inside…A native speaker doesn’t have to analyze and systematize the words and rules of his language…he just speaks it and anybody who wants to become like him has no other way than by imitating.”
John Watson said, and Yermolinsky agreed, chess can’t be studied as a science simply because of its nature; thus you shouldn’t even attempt to study the elements one by one.  Yermolinsky said, “I’d go even one step further and say that traditional methods of studying chess elements by taking them separately under a microscope is harmful to your development.”

He wrote that chess presents enough hard challenges and the last thing we need is to worry about is a “doing the right thing” attitude.  What he meant by that was worrying about following positional rules, etc.  As he pointed out, rules (like occupying open files with R’s) are nothing more than statistical data that work most of the time.  Just like studying a book on a foreign language does not make one proficient in the language, studying a chess book all by itself will not make one a proficient player.
 Yermolinsky went on to say that trying to apply acquired knowledge from books to every practical situation that appears on the chessboard is very often futile.  Actually, when you think about it, this has been the case for many years.  Today’s GM’s, thinking outside the box, accept as playable positions that the great players of bygone eras thought were not playable.  Read Alekhine’s comments on 1…g6; he didn’t think it was playable.  Today everybody knows better.

Yermolinsky’s thought was that it is best to teach by example and that “maybe chess should be observed, just like a language should be spoken around you in order to be understood and transformed into a skill.”
What I found interesting in this was that it is in agreement with US Senior Master Ken Smith’s thought that you should play over hundreds of unannotated master games, spending no more than 5-10 minutes per game, while trying to guess the next move.  Smith’s idea was to build up pattern recognition skills that could be applied to your games.  IM Jeremy Silman wrote, “Chess literature is being swamped with countless books on openings…tactics…the middlegame…the endgame and game collections….if techniques to improve your chess intuition can be taught, then the subject matter will be both interesting and practical… I feel that 99.9% of chess is based on some form of pattern recognition.
GM Susan Polgar wrote, “One of the biggest misconceptions about chess is it requires a lot of memorization. In reality, while some memorization is required, pattern recognition plays a crucial part in chess mastery.”
So, could it be that the secret of chess improvement could be in doing as Ken Smith suggested?  I once hung around in the bookseller’s room at a US Open and observed the books players gravitated to.  Lower rated players fondled the opening books.  Masters browsed game collections and, as was popular in those days, tournament books.  Masters seem to spend a lot of time analyzing and playing over GM games.  From my own experience of being a perennial 1600 player despite reading opening books, middlegame books by Fine, Euwe, Pachman, et al and studying Basic Chess Endings, my rating never went up.  Then, after playing over several hundred games as recommended by Smith, it shot up over 400 points.  Kids today have access to millions of games to play over using various chess programs and then can practice on the Internet where they can learn to apply what they have seen the GM’s do; is it any wonder there is such a plethora of 12 year old masters?

If Yermolinsky’s theory that studying a chess book all by itself will not make one a proficient player and that the best way to learn is just like learning a language…one should learn by observing the GM’s at play by playing over their games and if Yermolinsky, Watson and Smith are really right and observation and pattern recognition is so important, then why do so few authors mention it or recommend it?  Probably because, as Yermolinsky pointed out, you don’t need a lot of chess books.  And, seriously, what author is going to tell people that?  Could improvement really be that simple?

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