Thursday, February 17, 2005

Understanding vs Ability

Or: a few oppressing questions Part II

When we were childs my older brother and I slept in the same room.
Sometimes when we didn't fell asleep right away we played a game that we called "opposites".
One of us said a word, like "white" for example and the other had to say the opposite, "black".
At some moment I asked "horse"and my brother answered "cow".
A few words later my brother asked "cow"and I answered "bull".
Which maked a horse the same as a bull because they were both the opposite of a cow.
Then we started a loud debating about opposites, which was ended by the severe voice of my father who urged us to sleep.

Working with opposites is a very lazy way of thinking, which is extremely common and which leads to a lot of confusion and hence to useless discussions.
See for an example "tactical" vs "positional" at my post of last sunday.

Most of the time we try to compare things that are on a different level.
So is the comparison of "understanding" vs "ability".
As you might have seen on the right of this blog there is an aphorism (is this English?) "understanding is a low form of knowledge".
When I discovered this it was quite shocking because I always thought that understanding was the highest thing men could achieve.
But understanding alone is sterile.
Knowledge becomes alive when it is put into practice to achieve some goal. Otherwise it is dead and only an intellectual way of selftickling.

If you understand the knowledge, the knowledge is not part of your system. You have to remember it to put the knowledge to use. This proces of remembering is very vulnerable and prone to errors and forgetfulnes.
Beside that it is extreme slow.
When you understand how to play tennis that understanding is of little use in a game. You will miss every single ball.
The understanding part of the brain is far too slow to steer the body.
So it is with chess. People who are addicted to understanding (I was) tend to have falling flags.
How is it possible that correspondence-games are not on a higher level than the best OTB-games in spite of the endless extra hours that are put in?
Here is where ability comes in. First you have to understand, which convert random facts to knowledge. Then you have to assimilate this knowledge into your system.
The main tool of a master is not his understanding but his ability (of course I don't say it doesn't play any role).
That is easy to see. Otherwise it would not be possible to play simoultaneous against 30 people.
If he would be only 30 times faster he wouldn't win the most games. So he has to be even faster. The understanding part of the brains is far to slow for this.
Even after half a bottle of whisky most masters will kick you of the board, as you can find out in any chesscafe.
The understanding plays only a role in the early stages of learning.

So the assimilation of knowledge into your system has more stages, first understanding (=assimilation in the thinking part of the brain), later it becomes ability (=integral assimilation in your whole system). With ability it is not longer possible to point where it is located. You BECOME the knowledge.

If you halt the proces of knowledge-assimilation at the early stage of understanding you are STUCK. First you have to understand grandmastergames. Of course. But after that you have to make them part of yourself. For example by putting the very best parts of the mastergames in problems and to solve these problems over and over again. Until your synapses are reprogrammed.
There is really no contradiction here, only several stages of the same proces.


  1. First, you learn something. Then, you have to over-learn it. You have to know it backwards and frontwards and sidewards and diagonally. When you learn it enough, your brain will begin to "chunk" the information. Then, the patterns you see when you play and the way you calculate over the board will change. I often wondered why there weren't chess books written by grandmasters that taught someone how to get from novice to grandmaster step-by-step. Now, I think I know the reason.

    They can't write such a book. I'm convinced that grandmaster learning came in stages to them, just like ours does. However, they cannot express in words what their brains are doing, because they don't know. It just happens with enough study, thought, and exposure. Soon, it becomes automatic to see a weak square or an open file on the board and find a tactically-sound way to occupy it. Grandmasters don't miss tactical opportunities, because they are always thinking in terms of tactics regardless of whether they are implementing a plan or forking a queen and king. Why? Because they realize that that is how chess is played. You don't just move your knight from g1 to c5 in a series of moves. You gradually do it, and you do it in a way that forces your opponent to let you do it.

  2. Hi CD,

    Yes, quite, they even don't realize that they are looking for tactics, the same way one doesn't think about how to cycle when cycling.

  3. Interesting observations.

    I am still striving to get enough understanding to know just what the heck I'm supposed to be doing =D.

    Celtic's comment is interesting also. It makes me think of the vast difference of opinion about Nimzovich's "My System". People either love or hate it depending on whether it fit their stage of learning.

  4. Thanks for all these Wonderful Points. Very much helpful for beginner like me!! God bless