Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The importance of being blunt

In case you wondered why I blog so much while chess is on the backburner due to the calling of life, I use blogging as a break from the things I have to do (ok, I mean to postpone them). Don't underestimate the amount of free time that is released by no study and no play. Besides that, I blog about topics that fill my mind. This way I get them out of the way (ok, that's just an excuse for postponing).

Polly created a nice metaphor which is worth repeating here:

An interesting picture to use with this article, but without the necessary components and wheels that will simply be a bike frame, and not a bicycle to travel on. We're like the frame, but without the different components of the game we will not be able to move forward in our quest to become better chess players. The coach or mentor is like the guy in the bike shop who helps us decide what we're going to put on that frame to make it go from expensive piece of titanium to a functioning bike. If we're doing it on our own we may look through parts catalogues and pick what we want ourselves, or get recommendations from our peers. We still have another step once we picked what we want to put on that frame. It needs to be built. We may choose to build it ourselves, or may may have the mechanic help us. Chess study is the same way. We may slug it out on our own using books, trainer servers, software, or we may have the coach help us put it all together. Just like the cyclist who decides he wants a lighter set of wheels, or make other changes to improve the ride, we do the same thing as chessplayers. Maybe all the tactics stuff was a good starter kit, but now to improve we need to swap out the tactics server for more intense opening or end game study. Maybe we need junk the 30 games of blitz a night for 1 game played at a traditional time limit. The possibilities are endless.

Sciurus asked the following question:

What makes a good framework? Is it a collection of important concepts and a coach aids with the selection to distinguish important from unimportant stuff? Or merely a bunch of important pattern that guide you to an answer via pattern recognition, which would bring us back to a very old topic? Or something else?

Let me try to explain.

Every conscientious chess author warns us to stay sharp. What often is forgotten that it is necessary to become blunt first. Only when you know the mainstream ideas the appeal to beware of exceptions make sense. The chess author of course knows the mainstream ideas very well already. So his appeal to stay sharp is due to a lack of empathy with amateurs. Amateurs need to learn the mainstream ideas first. They need to become blunt. That is where the framework comes in.

It is easy to become vague at this point. A term like framework invites to that. I will try to avoid that. To get the right picture we must ask ourselves the following question: What exactly is it that makes the endgame position of the previous posts simple for Likesforests while it looks like a mess where everything seems to be possible for Wormwood and me? The answer to this question gives the right idea what a framework is all about.

A framework helps to see a position as simple. It provides the clue to a position. Let's assume a position where the clue is the principle of two weaknesses. Let's assume we are not familiar with this principle. The chance that you find the right move by trial and error of logical looking candidate moves is probably close to zero. If you don't know that you have to induce a second weakness, you have to try the right move by accident, and mere calculation must show you that that is the right move to go. As said, the chance that that happens is close to zero, the fact that such random calculation costs time and energy makes matters even worse.

So the ultimate framework is the system that provides clues that make the positions simple. Maybe you have noticed that when you look at a grandmaster game for the first time, there are lots of mysterious moves. But when someone explains it to you, the moves look really simple. Or maybe you have noticed that if you think you have played a great game, and you come home and show it to somebody, all moves look so trivial? It only happens very seldom that a move remains difficult and non-trivial even after the underlying idea is explained.

As amateur you have one very big disadvantage. Before you study something, you have no means to decide if the study will be profitable. So you must gamble.

The ones who do know what will be profitable and what not, I mean the coaches, the authors of chessbooks and the grandmasters, lack the imagination which is necessary to know what the amateur needs. Despite the fact that they can provide the knowledge, they don't. Since they don't realize what is important for the amateur. While the amateur doesn't know what he is missing. So he can't ask.

So to build your framework from knowledge provided in chessbooks is a daunting task. Even if you have gathered all important parts, there is still something needed to make it work. You have to know which part is important and which is not. Only practice can help here. After working for 6 months on pawnendings with SOPE, PCT endgame module and Polgars endgame brick I was acquainted with all elements of pawnendings. But I had hardly ever used it in practice. I had no idea of the relative priority of the consecutive elements, as Marty pointed out in one of the comments. The study was unbalanced. With way too much focus on exceptions while I had no idea what was common in practice. I had never thought about the cohesy of the knowledge. The post of Polly was the first confrontation after a long time of the acquired knowledge with reality. Nothing came up in my mind. I must admit that firing up Rybka before thinking yourself is a bad habit. But why didn't anything came up? On some place in literature the importance of "an active king" was emphasized. But for me that was rather abstract. Now for the first time in practice I realized that an active king means that it can help a pawn to promote. I realized that in this position that was more important than anything else. The active white king made that the attack was stronger then to defend against the promotion of the black pawns. It was a reality check of theoretical knowledge.

  • You have to gather the elements of the framework from books etc..
  • The elements need to undergo a reality check. That is not the same as doing exercises of which you don't know if they are actual common in practice.
Only if the framework is put to the test and is sunken in, you can hope that it enlightens the task in a real game.

I noticed that in almost all my cc-games there comes a moment where I have no clue about what to do next. Actually that is a perfect indicator for lacunas in my framework. A pity that it is so difficult to find out what is the indicated way to go in such positions. For that, a coach would come in handy. Or maybe we should start a studygroup via the internet and comment on each others clueless positions?


  1. The context in which I have encountered frameworks (mostly scientific ones) would probably view a framework as a set of guiding principles (not quite as rigid as “rules”) that help us to approach a new set of circumstances and make sense of them by applying known logical correlations.

    That said, I think that probably every chess player has his own little framework (different players’ frameworks probably overlap frequently though), and those frameworks are always a “work in progress” that really never come to an end. You continue to build that framework as long as you play and study chess. Which might explain why so many strong players have difficulties passing information on to weaker players in a manner that makes sense to the weaker players – their framework is just too individual, too much defined by the stronger player’s own, unique process of learning, and always “in flux”.

  2. Chessaholic,
    I use the term framework mainly as a metaphor. Something to "hang your memories on". Without such structure you will not be able to retrieve the memories when you need them.

    I think that the main educational problem is a different level of triviality. If someone gives the instruction "go to the sixth floor" he doesn't expect the answer "I can't read, how do I recognize the sixth floor?" or "in which building?"

  3. The framework as clue-provider - I like that. And the chess blogosphere is often quick to respond to strange positions. However, I feel that different people approach these positions differently - may be because they are building their evaluations on a different framework? True, if there is truth to a chess position we should all get to the same conclusion. But the way to get there might differ vastly. So in the end it may just boil down to practice, practice, practice, with some refinement of the framework in between.

  4. Temposchlucker,

    That's a very interesting take on the "framework".

    I've always stuck to the notion (?) that with chess, one needs to have a very good and solid foundation (framework?) of basic chess before moving onto advanced stuff.

    That's why I am constantly studying tactics and endgames and only memorise a few opening lines (although that opening repertoire is slowly getting bigger by the month).

    as for junking blitz, i liked blitz but i need to be very careful of managing my time. in blitz, i can only look like 3-4 moves ahead in critical positions while in std time controls, i have the luxury of more. there's one thing i liked about blitz and that is, when i am preparing a new opening repertoire. i find that playing blitz using an opening repertoire over and over and over is like going on some kind of souped up training programme until that opening repertoire becomes engrained into my memory banks and is second nature. this allows me to make my opening moves very very quickly in OTB std games, utilising my time more efficiently.

    as for a chess coach able to separate the wheat from the chaff, i agree. a good chess coach should be able to point out your weaknesses and target your weak areas and make them known to you so you can improve on them. self-study can only take you so far (not to mention, finding the motivation to do it :) )

    as for endgames and why likesforest got the continuation instantly, i support a known theory that is almost similar to yours.

    if i was asked to memorise 12 different words in a certain order and asked to repeat that sequence, i would have great difficulty (near impossible) in doing it.

    however, if you were to say, memorise,"Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was as white as snow." suddenly, our brains process that info nearly instantly and we can repeat it effortlessly (almost automatic)- now see how much easier the task becomes.

    we have essentially broken down that sentence into manageable "chunks" or blocks.

    in the same way, likesforests looks at an endgame, that's because and i surmised, that he has built up a sample set of, how should i say, endgame building blocks in his memory.

    his brain is wired to the fact that he see endgames in blocks, blocks which can then be broken down and analysed. once our brain becomes accustomed and familiar with these endgame building blocks, our endgame technique will improve as we continue to put on blocks on top of one another, thereby forming some form of cognitive resemblance to the position on the chess board.

    maybe likesforests has a differing opinion and can offer an insight into how he evaluates a position.

    btw, i like your idea of sharing games and critiquing one another's games.

  5. sciurus, I don't think there usually exists a one truth for a position. I mean, when it does, it's of tactical nature, but even then it's not set in stone. because when you add time & complexity into the equation, winning that extra material might lose the game because you don't have the time to sort out the complications. exhibit A: sacs of tal, a lot of which were unsound but still winning because his opponents couldn't survive the complications.

    and in a non-tactical scenarios there are almost always various plans to choose from. an engine might put those choices into some order, but it doesn't really mean much. when you fritz any established opening, the engine will claim all kinds of silly things that go against known AND tested theory. sometimes you even need to give the engine the right move before it can see the 'truth'.

    and why isn't a single opening 'best' for all people? because it simply doesn't fit everybody's style. if there's no objective one truth in the most analyzed, the only fixed position in chess, the opening, then how could it hold for a general position? I say 'one truth for a position' is an exception, not an innate quality of all positions. and that's also why 'simple solid moves' or 'blunt chess' work so often.