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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Improving

      Trying to improve involves a lot of pain and anguish. I knew one player many years ago who was about 1700, but in a couple of years became a master then gave up chess and has not played to this day. He told me the difficulty of keeping his rating above 2200 was just too much work! Let’s face it. Assuming you don’t have natural talent, becoming good requires hard work! GMs (and aspiring GMs) spend at 6-8 hours a day studying. Some parents spend a small fortune on coaches and in some cases even move to other countries so their kids can become GMs. Of course, most of us will never go to those lengths, but it illustrates the point that hard work and a singleness of mind to dedicate yourself to winning is a prerequisite to improvement. Most of us don’t have it. I know I don’t. At some point I quit studying (and improving) because it got to be too much like work and I already had a job that required 8-10 hours a day without throwing in even more work.
      I knew that ‘retired’ master since he was a kid rated 1200; he used to hitch rides to tournaments with me, so I got to know his study habits. How did he do it? First, all of his spare time was devoted to studying chess. He was an expert on the openings he played. Not gambits! He knew the openings he played very well, including the plans involved for different lines. He knew basic endings and played over tons of games. That was pretty much it. I don’t know how he was tactically because from what I saw he never got into tactical positions too much and his positional play meant he usually had solid positions that were not prone to a lot of fireworks.
      Most of us have studied books on openings, middlegame strategy, tactics and endings, but still don’t improve much, so what’s missing? Could it be because we don’t play over a lot of games with the idea of absorbing them? I watched players browsing at a bookseller’s stall once just to see what people were looking at. Masters looked at game collections and tournament books (a relic of the past it seems) while lower rated players fondled the books on openings and the middlegame. At the club level it seems to me that if you have a decent opening knowledge that should be sufficient. It does not have to be ultra-sophisticated though because tactical skill, strategy and endgame knowledge will sooner or later come into play.
      One rather odd thing I heard was don’t play against weaker players. The reasoning was that pretty soon you will start to play like they do and you will get careless, thinking anything wins, even if it’s on a subconscious level. It creates bad habits. Maybe there is something to that…just try to get a really good player to play skittles against you. Most of the time they won’t. Not because the game won’t be interesting for them, but because they don’t want to start playing crappy chess! Playing against stronger players is a must if improvement is the goal.
      There are no shortcuts; the more knowledge you have of all facets of the game, the better you will be. US Senior Master Mark Buckley said that when he decided to improve, he determined to study all the areas of the game he did not like. He knew it was not going to be fun, but how else was he going to learn things like how to play endings for example?
      Most of us have disorganized study habits. I’m not sure exactly how to overcome that one! But for most of us our study, if you can call it that, means browsing through our latest book purchase, listening to some videos or clicking through some games in the database. It’s enjoyable, but you don’t actually learn anything. When we study we have to work. You have to ask yourself questions. You have to stop and try to understand what you are studying. And when it comes to playing over games you should try to guess the moves before looking at them. That’s not my idea…one of the greatest chess teachers of all time, CJS Purdy, said it. US Senior Master Ken Smith said it. A bunch of other masters have said it, too.
      The importance of studying strategy: These days almost everybody is into tactics and that is the first thing you have to look for before every move because it does not matter how ‘good’ your position is because if you blunder tactically it’s all over. However, tactics are not available on every move. For most of the game a sound tactical blow won’t be possible. So, once you determine there is no combination available, what are you going to do? You will employ strategy to create plans, stop opponent's plans, provoke weaknesses, prepare an attack, etc.
      Many coaches do not recommend training with an engine. They say you should train using a real set. But using a computer is so convenient; no rearranging the pieces all the time and no losing track of the position. The main reason for this recommendation though is probably because positions look different on a real board than they do on a computer screen. The claim is GMs and strong players, when they study, use an actual board. Computers are used, but it is for the purpose of information gathering. I am not sure I agree with this because it doesn’t square with a report by Kenneth A. Kiewra, Ph.D. & Thomas O'Connor, Ph.D. of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
      According to their report all the young masters began playing chess between 3 and 9 and these kids averaged devoting about 20 hours per week for eight years before attaining the rank of master. That translates into about 8,000 of practice to reach master. In addition, almost all of them studied with coaches and relied heavily on computers both to examine games in databases and to play against them. Most of them are also heavy into internet play. Then there is the matter of coaching. Most of them began to study under titled coaches within about two years after learning the moves.
      People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents - Andrew Carnegie. The majority of these kids focused on chess to the near exclusion of other interests. One parent said his kid was “sort of one dimensional” and had no interests outside of chess. The report stated most of them watched less than one hour of television a day; the national average is four.
      It appears these days that computers are essential for real improvement. One story has it that somebody mentioned to GM William Lombardy that he had a million game database and Lombardy just laughed and asked how many of those games had he actually played over. The point Lombardy missed was it was not the size of the database that mattered; nobody is going to play over a million games. The point of the database is to research games for openings, middlegame and endgame themes. I’ll bet Lombardy did the same thing in is playing days but instead of a computer, he probably used index cards. There are many more chess prodigies than ever before, and they mature at a more rapid pace and much of it is because of the tremendous amount of information they can retrieve from databases.
      Human positional intuition is not perfect and computers can sometimes not only find opening innovations, but will actually violate what seems to be positional rules by what the Soviets used to like to call ‘concrete analysis.’ Younger players who grew up with computers seem to accept this; older players are less accepting. Concrete analysis and calculation of variations is now the way GMs play and they often play what were once described as anti-positional moves. I noticed this phenomenon when I first played over the games in Shirov’s Fire on Board.
      When asked how many moves ahead he can think, Kasparov replied that it depended on the position stating, "Normally, I would calculate three to five moves," he said. "You don't need more.... But I can go much deeper if it is required." He noted that in a position involving forced moves it's possible to look ahead as many as 12 or 14 moves."
       One major difference between the way masters and GMs and the rest of us think is they try to refute their moves rather than finding ways to support it. In deciding on a move to make, players mentally plan the consequences of each move and psychological research has shown amateurs are more likely to convince themselves that bad moves will work out in their favor. Amateurs focus more on opponent’s moves that will benefit their plans and ignore moves that lead to their refutation. On the other hand, masters tended to try and find moves that would weaken their position. Strong players think about what their opponents will do much more in an attempt to falsify their own hypotheses.
       The process of hypothesis testing 'falsification' is often held as the principle that separates scientific and non-scientific thinking and is the best way to test a hypothesis. But cognitive research has shown that, in reality, many people find falsification difficult. Scientists have revealed that even they spend a great deal of their time searching for results that would bolster their theories. Trinity College Dublin psychologist Ruth Byrne speculated that the ability to falsify is somehow linked to the vast database of knowledge that experts such as GMs have accumulated. She said, "People who know their area are more likely to look for ways that things can go wrong for them."
      It looks like Orison Swett Marden was right when he wrote, “There is an infinite difference between mediocrity and superiority.”

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