Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Another little intermezzo

There are 3 layers that play a role when writing a blog.

  • First there is what I'm trying to say. Sometime it's right, sometime it's wrong. Sometimes it's contradicting.
  • Then there is my vehicle, a sort of pseudo scientific techno-babble. This causes me the most headaches. The terminology I use has a scientific meaning of itself. Thus time and again I sin against scientific knowledge when using such terms. The problem is that I have no alternative. I tried to introduce many terms of my own, like duplo-attack and so, but that didn't catch on.
  • Third there is the science. Cognitive science is in it's very infancy, so at times some of its idea's now thought to be right will proof to be wrong. It is not done to write flat out in contradiction with scientific idea's, though. So when such idea is actually wrong but now thought to be right, it becomes an impediment in itself for expressing myself. Since I don't have scientific ambitions I want to treat it with respect, even when it eventually is wrong.
So again I have to ask the reader to bear with me and to look through the terminology in order to find out what is behind it.

For me the words procedural, effortless, unconscious, fast are tightly connected to each other and to the term 'motorskill'. The knowledge to ride a bike is a motorskill and the fast retrieval of 'Paris' as the capital of France is a motorskill. Scientificly wrong maybe, I don't know, but I don't bother.
Semantic, declarative, logic, reasoning, conscious, slow, with effort are in my terms connected to 'thinking'.
Knowledge can be both, but is usual used as declaritive.

On to the meat of the matter. I think very high of procedural knowledge as an element of chess improvement. I think it is that what makes the difference between an amateur and a grandmaster. Why is that? (Sorry if I repeat myself from earlier posts)

  • Magnus Carlson could beat me when he was 13. It is impossible that he had more chessknowledge than me at that age. I had read almost 100 books over and over again. Written by the finest grandmasters. Studied them deeply for decades with all my intelligence. I pondered them for hours. Something a 13 year old boy simply hasn't lived long enough for. If he beats me, it simply cannot be by the virtue of having more knowledge. He beats me swift, effortless, without thinking, unconscious. In short, with his procedural motorskills.
  • I played against a former French blitz champion. While he was talking against his friend he beated me while I played my pet variation which I had prepared for weeks. At the most dangerous moment he simply smelled a rat, looked for the first time seriously to the board for 20 seconds, hesitated, and played something that took all the venom out of the position. The difference in speed and the heedlessness of his play was overwhelming. No way that he thought much about the position.
  • In a simul I'm outplayed by usually simple means by somebody who has 1/40th of the time I have
Everything around grandmaster play breathens speed, speed, speed.

I don't frown upon semantic knowledge. Those who remember my series about narratives know better. A good narrative can play a big role, as LikesForests pointed out. If you have a clue in the position you have a chance to play out the position well which you haven't when you don't have a clue. But you need those speedy little motorskills which supports the execution of any task which is dictated by the narrative. The board has to be scanned, traps has to be seen, variations have to be visualised, facts have to be retrieved. Without those speedy motorskills the narrative is close to useless. You have a chance, but you are not able to make use of it. You don't only have to know what to do (the narrative), but you must have the tools for execution too (the speedy little motorskills).

In a comment to a post of LF I said:

The flaw of DLM's method for habitforming lies in the fact that it invites you to mechanically repeat the examples. That is not how habits are formed.
Troyis otoh provides you with positions that are slightly different each time, so passive anticipation on the answer is impossible. That keeps your attention active and you form your habits in no time.

The essential difference between both methods lies in attention. While DLM invites you to fly on the automatic pilot, the fact that you can't anticipate the problems of Troyis keeps you sharp.
My wife is a choir director and I counted that at average she remembers us five times per evening to pronounce our vocals well. That is 200 times a year! Allthough we copy her everytime during the next few minutes, we forget it soon. That indicates that passive repetition alone is not enough to form habits. No matter how often you repeat. You need an active attitude. You need active attention.

Right know I'm following a French language course. First you learn to parrot a few words, but then the words are combined to sententences with variation. Which you can no longer parrot since you can't anticipate what is to come. This method works remarkably well. The lack of anticipation keeps your attention active.

It might be that learning a French word is a semantic effort. In fact I learned 95% of those words 35 years ago but I have forgotten them. But for the fast retrieval of words you seem to need those speedy little motorskills which supports the overall semantic effort. Without such support the talk will be slow and effortfull.

The problems with narratives is the transfer of knowledge to the board, a pet subject of Phaedrus. If you interview our choir members and ask them what is the most important thing in singing, they will answer within seconds "the pronouncation of our vocals". Yet they aren't able to follow their own advice. They miss those pesky little motorskills to support them. They miss the essential tools. To put their knowledge into practice.


  1. The flaw of DLM's method for habitforming lies in the fact that it invites you to mechanically repeat the examples. That is not how habits are formed.

    That is exactly how habits are formed. I mechanically repeat things when training for swimming, martial arts, etc.. Do simple drills where the exact same thing is done over and over.

    Perhaps not all habits are like this. E.g., driving a car is a little different every time, and you don't practice driving by sitting in a car and turning your wheel to the left over and over and over. It is a more organic and integrated process in which practicing on the individual components is less helpful than practicing the whole kit 'n' kiboodle.

  2. Blue,
    So obviously we must have an abuse of terms here.
    I made my efforts to be able to exclude some things. I improved about 50 ratingpoints in the period I did 100K+ tactical problems. An almost insignificant improvement. Our choir hasn't improved in pronouncation of vocals. This means that if habits are formed by doing things mechanically, habits and what I mean are clearly not the same. If motorskills are improving mechanically, without attention, that is, than motorskills are the wrong term either.

    That what is necessary to improve isn't trained mechanically. The training of the retrieval of French words isn't mechanically. The training by Troyis isn't mechanically.

  3. I think MDLM's method can work for forming habits, especially for simpler problem sets. Of course it depends how you do the Circles and all that, but I look at his problem as picking too complicated a problem set.

    At least for me. Clearly it helped him, a lot.

    But even MDLM needed time for them to work, before they were part of his game, he had to get out and drive after sitting there practicing shifting gears in a car in a parking lot.

  4. Blue,
    of course I can only know how I did the circles: mechanically. Maybe DLM found a modus to do them with active attention. Until counter evidence emerges: active attention is key.

  5. Tempo: I agree, and think that's why I saw such drastic improvements in learning rate when I changed how I did the Circles (as you are sick of hearing about, but others may not know it can be found here).

    In the next Rowson chapter, he gives a method that I've been using. We'll see if it helps. Basically it involves working 20 minutes on one position to practice concentration and concrete thinking.

  6. According to Cor van Wijgerden (author of the stepsmethod), active attention is of the utmost importance for transfer and improvement. He even rejects my studying in the train as it does not provide an adequate environment for study (but neither does my home with two young children creating havoc everyday).

    As another witness for the defense I call in Tom Chivers, who made remarkable progress after changing his study method according to Rowsons suggestions.

  7. Memorization does come into play, but also understanding of what it is you're working on. I use brute memorization and repetition to first learn the steps of a new form in Tae Kwon Do. Sometimes I have to do one movement over and over again until it becomes ingrained in my head and I can do it without thinking about it.

    Each part of the form is some type of defensive move. When the master explains what the movement is actually accomplishing it makes more sense. However would I be able to actually utilize the move in a situation where I'm being attacked for real? Am I developing the motor skill to apply it in real life?

    I think the same thing applies in chess. We can repeat things over and over again whether it's openings, middle game tactics, or a rook and pawn ending. We can practice these things, but the question remains in an actual game with pieces in different places, the pressure of our clock running down or being distracted by the annoying person next to us can we execute? A game of chess can be like getting out of our car late and night. There may be a nasty surprise that we're not expecting. How we deal with the situation can be mean the difference between winning, drawing or losing.

  8. Polly,
    it's quite good that you, like likesforests, stresses the importance of understanding. You must have a clue. With no clue all the skills in the world aren't going to help you.