Monday, April 25, 2016

Enjoying the exercises

Today it is exactly a month ago that I quitted the salt mines, in favour of working on a thought process. Which conclusions can be drawn?

Board vision.
The salt mines I have mined, were specifically designed for improving board vision. While solving exercises at CT the past month, I time and again asked myself: Is my failure or excessive time usage caused by poor board vision? In less then 1% of the cases I found that poor board vision played a decisive roll. In other words: you can't expect much improvement by salt mining when it comes to blitz problems at CT with a rating around 1700.

Context of the position.
I wanted to create a formal check-list with questions to interrogate the position. That was what I initially understood as being the thought process. In two weeks this check-list developed towards a list of only three questions, which are mainly useful to understand the context of the position:
  • How is the material balance?
  • Is the position about trap, double attack, promotion?
  • Which targets are likely to be going to provide the wood to gain?
Usually these questions can be answered in under 10 seconds.

The real thought process.
The real thought process developed in a quite different direction than just a check-list to get an idea of what the position is about. I had an important revelation about the role of the initiative.
In the past, I had tried to integrate CCT in my game. But since trial & error was my main approach to the game, I found it to be too time consuming. Most CCT can be refuted in an easy way, and to investigate all these moves without any filtering is a daunting task with too little returns for the time invested.

That all changed when I replaced trial & error by logical thinking. Logical thinking provides the filter that CCT needs. You only consider CCT moves which are logical. It is hard to describe how the application of chess logic develops overtime. Chess logic has its own patterns. Analysis of the positions reveal those logical patterns, which were previously overlooked. The unconscious brain works its magic, and the new patterns are assimilated without further ado.

It takes time to change more than a decade of old habit of trial & error. But after an initial dip of minus 70, I improved 50 points (reckoned from the initial starting point of 1700) during the past month. Analysis of spilled time shows that the room for improvement is gigantic, and I see no reason why an improvement to master level shouldn't be possible. I'm still talking about the niche of tactics solely, of course. The only uncertain factor is a change in the problems themselves when they become higher rated. But I have done a lot of 2200-2400 rated problems in the past (CT standard mode), and as far as I remember them, most are plain simple after analysis. Above 2400 the problems became more esoteric every now and then. It is my take that between master and grandmaster level the role of board vision will become more profound. When I reach a blitz level of 2000 at CT, I consider the improvement an epic success, and I will resume to play chess again.

Initially, doing chess exercises was fun. When you feel you make progress. But when exercising became excessive, initialized by the Knights Errant, fun gradually disappeared. I didn't detest it of course, since I don't do things I detest for a hobby. The exercises themselves were addictive, to a certain degree, but the fun mainly consisted of satisfying the curiosity how the human mind and learning works. I learned a whole bunch of things about these subjects.

With applying chess logic, the joy in exercising and in the positions themselves is back. Which is probably the most important thing that happened the past month.


  1. ". . .the joy in exercising and in the positions themselves is back."

    Interesting. I came to the same conclusion a long time ago. If it's not enjoyable, I certainly don't want to waste my time doing it. I don't mind working at the edge of my "comfort zone" in order to improve, but I draw the line at the MDLM level of insane intensity.

    My enjoyment of chess has become somewhat indirect. It is a means to the end of understanding my thinking rather than an end in itself.

    My last rated OTB tournament was in 1975. I was the 2nd highest rated player in a weekend tournament. My last game was against the highest rated player. Both of us were USCF Class A. I spent over 6 hours being "tortured" in a basic endgame - he had Rook and Bishop against my Rook, with no Pawns on the board. I KNEW it is a theoretically drawn endgame; he knew that it is a difficult endgame to hold. He continued to play just to see if I would screw it up, not because he thought he could win it. I held it, eventually pinning his Rook against his King, forcing off the Rooks. I was so furious that I have never played in another rated tournament. Who needs that kind of aggravation in something that is supposed to be "fun"?!?

    1. I'm not very competitive myself (which is the main cause of accepting way too many draws) and usually look at a game as an opportunity to study, being not much interested in the outcome. In the same position as you describe I probably would have given up in order to be able to study the endgame at home. Or to enjoy the sun.

      I quitted the chess club when taking a break, two and a half year ago. One cause was that my rating was declining while studying my ass off, the other reason was that I had the feeling that I had not the slightest idea what I was doing while playing chess. Which is quite logical if trial & error is your main weapon of choice.

  2. New chess-improvement tool

    1. Aox, thanks for the referral. I signed up for it, but it seems to be in early beta stage; not much content there so far. I was already familiar with some of the underlying scientific theories regarding space practice, deliberate practice, and the positive impact of testing on learning.

      I did look through the list of References & Suggested Readings,but haven't pursued them (yet).

      I just finished reading Anders Ericcson's and Robert Pool's just published book PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. There are several chess-specific topics sprinkled throughout the book. The following is one that I found particularly intriguing from the viewpoint of chess SKILL improvement (I have also seen this same recommendation in several chess books; I wonder WHY - NOT!):

      Page 56: Similarly, chess masters don't develop some incredible memory for where individual pieces sit on a board. Instead, their memory is very content-dependent: it is only for patterns of the sort that would appear in a normal game. The ability to recognize and remember meaningful patterns arises from the way chess players develop their abilities. Anyone who is serious about developing skills on the chessboard will do it mainly by spending countless hours studying games played by the masters. You analyze a position in depth, predicting the next move, and if you get it wrong, you go back and figure out what [and WHY - added] you missed. Research has shown that the amount of time spent in this sort of analysis—not the amount of time spent playing chess with others—is the single most important predictor of a chess player's ability. It generally takes about ten years of this sort of practice to reach the level of grandmaster.

      I know this is somewhat off-topic for the current blog post, but NOT for the blog itself.

      Let's assume (merely for the sake of discussion - NOT argument) that studying master games is the path to Nirvana. If that is the case, and it is known to work, then why do we pursue other paths so intently? Is it because we instinctively recoil from the hard work required to not only play through massive numbers of games, but also analyze them? I think not, in light of the massive effort that has gone into traveling round and round the Seven Circles of Chessic Hell. Is it because we seek a "shortcut" that will enable us to gain the desired skills without expending as much hard work as the masters have done (or so we delude ourselves)? Should we abandon the search for partial-task training tools and just go to studying master games?

      I'm very curious as to what you all think about this.

    2. The positions at CT stem from master games, so that is exactly what I do: studying master games.

      If I find a shortcut, it will be the longest shortcut in the history of chess.

      Without kidding, if I see my performance at CT, then the only conclusion can be that I'm ridiculously bad at tactics. I refuse to think beyond the niche of tactics as long as I haven't fixed my ludicrous performance here. I'm sure that the methods I will find, will be perfectly adaptable to other areas of the game.

    3. Let's assume (merely for the sake of discussion - NOT argument) that studying master games is the path to Nirvana of chess ( The word nirvāṇa is from the verbal root √vā “blow” in the form of past participle vāna “blown” , prefixed with the preverb nis meaning “out” )
      then studying master tactics is the path to the tactical heaven.
      As Tempo said, we are doing exactly this: We analyze a position (CT-puzzle) in depth, predicting the next move, and if we get it wrong, we go back and figure out what [and WHY - added] we missed.

      See the last posts of tempo.

      You may read about chess training in the net, there most of the original papers can be found as pdf with For example this one

      There are other factors limiting the improvement in chess for example the age:

  3. is just a chessimo- ( former PCT ) -clone. But Chessimo dont make any new lessons. chessable seems to be open for any developer of new lessons.
    They already have Master games, Endgames and several openening repertoires.

  4. @Aox:

    I just re-read those two referenced papers; it has been awhile since I read them. Thanks for the reminder!

    Perhaps I see things somewhat differently (that's certainly no surprise to ME!). Somehow, focusing on one particular aspect (TACTICS) extracted from master games does not seem to be quite the same idea as studying master games. I cannot deny that the Ericcson quote "You analyze a position in depth, predicting the next move, and if you get it wrong, you go back and figure out what [and WHY - added] you missed." certainly lends its support to the approach of focusing on specific positions taken from master games. Perhaps I think of the training suggestion as requiring study of the entire game, rather than isolated snapshot(s) extracted from the game. For instance, I get Tim Brennan's TacticsTime email newsletter, and I have his two books of tactical problems taken from "ordinary" players' games. In several of these book problems, I can recognize that some of the problem positions are related (obviously taken from the same game) although usually there is no hint that they are related. It's a nice quick refresher to "solve" the tactics, so I guess that has some benefit in itself. However, it would be nice to see the entire game score, in order to get a "feel" for where the player might have gone wrong, and what (if any) improvement could be made. Tim's newsletter does have the entire game score, which is very helpful in that regard.

    I have seen recommendations that one should play through large quantities of master games (1) in connection with the openings that one plays regularly; (2) for pattern recognition building (not just for tactical motif/theme recognition); and (3) that it should be done at a fast pace (each game "processed" in less than 5 minutes).

    Have either of you ever devoted many (any?) training sessions to play through or studying large quantities of complete master games?

    I know that I have never spent much time working through large quantities of complete master games. I don't think I have ever memorized a single master game, although I can recognize certain positions from certain games, such as Torre's "windmill" against Lasker, or Anderssen's Immortal and Evergreen games.

    Again, I'm not trying to be argumentative; I'm simply curious. I'm all in for anything that improves your overall chess skill (NOT JUST KNOWLEDGE, although Gobet and Jansen expressly state that a huge quantity of explicit and implicit knowledge is required for high chess skill).

    TIA for your thoughts!

  5. I worked my way through a few hundreds master games. I didn't get much out of it, since I never reached positions with similarities.

    For me, it is just plain silly to try to build a shed when you hammer on your thumb and saw in your fingers the whole time. You need to master your tools first, to a certain degree.

    Most positional ideas aren't rocket science. But if you miss a tactic, you are going nowhere.

    Tactics are everywhere in a game. But most tactics will never manifest themselves explicit. Usually it goes like this: I want to bring my knight to that outpost. Bummer! I can't do that because of that discovered attack. Tactics work by forcing you and your opponent in certain directions because tactics have to be avoided. They are the cul-de-sacs of the chessboard. The threat of a tactic forces you in certain directions that weren't planned originally.

    Later is soon enough to study master games.

  6. @Robert
    with the help of "scholar" you can find more and/or new articles.
    "focusing on one particular aspect (TACTICS) extracted from master games" is not the same as idea as studying master games if you want to improve in OTB but it is the same idea if you want to improve in Chesstempo-rating ( =~ tactics ).

    It is hard to improve in chess. Chess is a sum of things like Tactics, Opening, Strategy, Endgame, Calculation, Visualisation ......
    Tempo and i chose ( independendly ) "tactics" to analyse the problem of improvement and possibly find a method for improvement ( at least in tactics ).
    If we cant find a method to improve to (lower) master level in tactics, then we dont need to work at the much much bigger goal to improve in OTB-Chess to master level. So while it might be possible to improve further in OTB ( maybe even a few hundred elo-points ) it would be impossible to reach master level at OTB if we cant improve in tactics to a (lowest) master level.

    Currently i learn these mastergames :
    Very nice book, especially in the cheap kindle version for my ipod, where you dont see any diagram until after the questions about the position )
    I use this book and these game to improve in visualisation by playing them "blindfolded"
    Amazon says about this book: "This book gives tips and techniques and then 20 chess masterpieces to play through and practice on, each one packed with questions about a future position. "
    So i hope to improve in visualisation and boardvision. After playing these games blinfolded in the book i look for comments of masters on that game in the net, to understand the game better and as step 3 i learn them by heart = memorise the moves.
    These 3 exercises : Visualisation, board visison and memorisation of long lines ???should??? help me to improve in calculation .. which is an important component of tactics.

    Its to early to see any effects. I try to learn 50 games with this method and then make the decision if i want to continue.

  7. Thank you both for your replies! That was exactly what I was looking for.

    I've had a somewhat strange thought that sufficiently advanced tactical skill automagically begins to blend over into the strategical realm. Instead of tactics being used for offensive purposes, at that high skill level, tactics are used defensively against the strategical concepts of the opponent. Instead of always and only looking for opportunities to grab a tactical advantage, use tactics to keep the opponent from grabbing an advantage. So, your point about the necessity of developing tactical skill FIRST seems to fit in with that idea. Insufficient tactical skill seems to preclude being able to use even the simplest of positional ideas.

    I think this is the point that Emmanuel Neiman was making in Tune Your Chess Antenna: Know when (and where!) to look for winning combinations, Introduction, C. Principles of calculation:

    "The calculation of variations is the most difficult part of chess, and arguably the most important. If you learn [teach] a chimpanzee to play chess, and give him abilities in every part of the game but no calculating strength, he will remain a poor player. If you don't learn [teach] him anything, but give him the calculating ability of, say, a 2600 Elo grandmaster, then he will be around master level (2400). By the way, we don't use Chimpanzees, but machines, who don't have any intelligence at all. Yet, by mainly using calculation (to make it even more unfair, they are also given huge opening knowledge) they are able to beat the best players, however stupid they may be!"

    So, onward on the quest for greater tactical skill!

    @Aox: Please report your results after you make your decision about continuing to study master games. I am very interested in your conclusions. My previous attempts to do this coincide with Temposchlucker's "I didn't get much out of it, since I never reached positions with similarities." It is possible (highly likely?) that I did not have sufficient tactical skill to be able to gain anything useful from studying master games. In short, I couldn't "see" the tactical trees, so "seeing" the forest of positional play was simply not possible.

  8. The benefit of studying many master games are to learn many pattern.

    For example: you leanr pawnstructures and the method how to play these pawnstructures
    For example the hedgehog pwanstructure with black pawns at a6,b6,d6,e6,f7,g7,h7 and white having superior space with the pawns at c4 and e4.. here black either plays for the pawnbreaks d5 or b5 or black may play Kh8,Rg8 and push the g pawn.
    Such plans can be copied

    It is completly impossible that you never reached and position with similaritys.. you did not see them
    You defenitly had pawnstructures of mastergames but you did not recognised that fact and you did not recognised the planing of the related pawnbreaks or other maneuver played by the master which where directly related to these pawnstructures.

    But mastergames have tons of more to tell us:

    Do you know when a black a6,b5 should be attacked by a2-a4? When is the movesequence Nf3-e5 and then f2-f4 to support the centered knight beneficial?

    Did you recognised how capaplance did leave the middlegame and exchanged into one of his favored endgames?

    You can extract such infos by learning the games of one single master ( who will repeat his tricks over and over again) or by reading the master- games related to a pawnstructure where the comunity of masters create new plans.

    All this has not much to do with tactics.

    1. Well, of course I encountered similar positions. But positional advantages require subtle manoeuvring. If you don't master your tactical tool kit, you are just not able to handle that. When I first heard about the bishop pair, time and again I managed to get it after a lot of manoeuvring. While often ruining my position along the way. And when I finally obtained it, one of the bishops usually was traded off after a move or two, without me being able to prevent it. And that is how it usually went with all obtained positional advantages.

      I learned long ago the Luceena, but I never needed it since my games usually are decided long before move 35. And when I lately did an endgame exercise, it turned out I have forgotten how to handle it exactly.

      All this has not much to do with tactics. Without mastering tactics, you can't handle it.