Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Getting persnickety

 How do chess prodigies get their teachings when super grandmasters are not able to coach them?

I stumbled upon this serendipity and made this half serious and half with tongue in cheek statement. But the ensuing comments showed that I might try to develop a hypothesis from this.

  1. Basic tactics. Tactics with a name (black and white)
  2. Advanced tactics. Tactics with no name (50 shades of grey)
  3. Basic positional play. Manoeuvres with a name  (black and white)
  4. Advanced manoeuvres. Manoeuvres with no name (50 shades of grey)
  5. Basic knowledge. Knowledge with a name  (black and white)
  6. Advanced knowledge. Knowledge with no name (50 shades of grey)
The first four points, I reckon to be skill. The last two are knowledge, evidently.

I master points 1, 3 and 5 to a certain degree. And I assume that that applies to most adult plateauing club players. I have some black and white skills, and some black and white knowledge.

I reckon that from candidate masters and higher, they master point 1 to 5 to a certain degree. Kramnik had his epiphany in 1995, due to a lecture of Evgeny Bareev about prophylaxis. Kramnik wrote a Chessable course Thinking In Chess: A How To Guide about it, which I'm studying. Of course that is not going to help me, since it is about point 6, and that is about advanced knowledge and not skill.

I'm following a two-track policy. I'm working on point 2, advanced tactical skill. I have the feeling the method works, albeit I don't know how efficient it is. But at the end of this year, I will probably know whether it works or not for sure.

Working on advanced tactical skill is just a matter of methodically grinding on. Which creates some room for my mind to bimble around. Since skill is so paramount in chess, the advanced knowledge of point 6 is treated very stepmotherly. Usually point 5, knowledge of openings is way more appealing, even for the advanced chess player.

This two fold division in skill and knowledge, and in basic and advanced suffices to explain all chess development phenomena that we have encountered the past 18 years.

Of course knowledge is futile, when you have no skill to apply it over the board. Yet there lies a vast terra incognita ahead.


  1. So the answer to the question at the beginning of the post is: the coach provides the knowledge that is necessary for point 2 and 4. and the child prodigy absorbs this knowledge with system 1 and makes it a skill. And he forgets it as being knowledge.

  2. Whether I'm absorbing point 2, advanced tactics, in an efficient way, I don't know. The reason is that I don't know whether I have chosen the best knowledge to absorb, nor do I know whether I absorb it in the best way. The only way to find out is to try it.

  3. The skill is only vaguely related to the knowledge. If you learn system 1 how to take a bend in the road, you don't teach it the math that is involved. You only provide some constraints that it should estimate on the hand of the motor sound, the curve of the road and the speed whether it should shift gears back to 2 or to 3. That is why I keep saying that system 1 works its miracles. In the end, system 1 does the job, while system 2 has no idea how he did it.

  4. Maybe it is save to say that the knowledge provides the what, while the skill determines the how.

    1. We've “kicked the tires” several times on the distinction between having knowledge [KNOW THAT] and possessing skill [KNOW HOW]. I suspect there is no clean separation of these two categories; rather, there is considerable overlap, making it difficult (if not impossible) to cleanly separate them in practice.

      As a thought experiment, consider the case of the "Bishop, Knight and King versus King" [hereafter B+N+K vs K] ending. There are multiple layers of knowledge and skill involved in it.


      Ljubomir Ljubojevic vs Judit Polgar (1994) Melody Amber Blind 3rd (blindfold)

      According to the Nalimov Endgame Tablebase, it takes 27 moves to checkmate from the initial position (after triggering the 50 move rule - White’s 87th move). It took GM Polgar only 23 move to reach checkmate – while playing BLINDFOLD!

      I did a comparison of the game moves against the Nalimov endgame tablebase. Both GMs made 3 minor mistakes (IIRC, each time adding just 1 move to the length of the solution). GM Ljubojevic did make 1 significant mistake which reduced the number of moves required by 7; GM Polgar took immediate advantage of it, cutting him off from the wrong corner.

    2. In this post I experimented with two words which I have never used before. Persnickety and serendipity. Of the first one, I even didn't know it existed, while I have encountered the second one a few times in the past. I'm sure I have looked it up a few times, knowing myself. But it's frequency of occurrence in combination with the abstractness of the word.makes that I have trouble to remember the meaning.

      I read a lot of stuff from scientific sources lately, where the journalists use new words all the time. Some of them are abstract, but most of them are concrete. This week I read the verb "to stymie". That is a concrete word, and when I use it a few times, it will probably stick.

      I'm talking about this kind of low level knowledge that must be converted into skill. Low level knowledge with a high frequency of occurrence. That's why I work with themed problems that are only 3 moves deep. If I exercise the swallow's tail and the dovetail mate, there is always an anvil against which I crush the king. What I try is to learn to see the anvil before I'm going to try to make a move. The anvil is a salient cue, and educating the vulture to see it is the task at hand.

      There are a lot of tactics that have no name. There is a whole bunch of tempo moves that occur time and again, but that have only a global name like "giving a check". But these tempo moves usually fulfil a lot of different subtle tasks. I try to get an eye for such moves and their subsequent tasks.

      Low level and high frequency of occurrence are key. B+N+K vs K is high level and doesn't occur very often. If at all. Yet with a little knowledge like 1 chase the king to the edge 2 chase him to the right corner and 3 do an exchange trick with K and B (or was it N) in the corner, you might be able to reconstruct the solution. Whether you manage to do so within 50 moves and in time trouble remains to be seen.

      So it is a matter of gathering the right problem set while grinding on, and Bob's your uncle. I hope nothing will stymie me again.

    3. The skills which we must learn are fairly simple. Our pieces must work in unison to perform simple logical tasks. Like system 2 tells a story while system 1 retrieves the appropriate words. When system 1 isn't skilled enough, system 2 will construct a workaround. Like speaking a foreign language. When you don't know a word, you describe it. But such construction in chess is error prone and vulnerable by opponents with better skills.

      We must identify the missing skills with great persnicketiness.

    4. I wrestled with myself (and lost) regarding posting my previous comment, realizing in advance that the point I was trying to make would most likely be misunderstood and lost. I was NOT advocating for learning the B+N+K versus K ending at all, especially not learning to play it at the level of GM Polgar (or of GM Ljubojevic, for that matter).

      I was merely trying to use that ending as a clear-cut example that differentiating between knowledge and skill is not really as easy as it seems, and to demonstrate (obviously unsuccessfully) that thinking about the knowledge and skill required for that specific ending in the abstract might provide insight into the overlap and intermingling of knowledge and skill in general. Obviously the chosen example totally obscured the point.

      The 3 tidbits of “little knowledge” you mentioned above provide generic guidance, but may be insufficient (as you noted) for a successful overall result. Each “process” phase has its own “knowledge” requirements.

      When does the overall process (and the sub-processes) cease to be “knowledge” dependent and become "skill" dependent? I’m not sure that ever occurs 100%. I base that pessimistic assessment on the fact that both GMs made “mistakes” (as far as the optimal moves are concerned based on the Nalimov Endgame Tablebase) but (in the end) still managed to reach the desired result (at least for GM Polgar).

      In essence, I failed to make the case that the intertwining of knowledge and skill exists and ARE the fifty shades of gray.

      Just thinking differently about "black and white" issues like knowledge and skill and "seeing" fifty shades of gray.

      Nothing to “see” here; carry on.

    5. I'm not sure I misunderstood you. If you keep that feeling, don't cease to try to make your point. I'm no stranger to pigheadedness and bias, and sometimes it takes a while before I see the light.

      The borderline between black and white and grey is different for everybody. Depending of your level of plateauing. What for me is a grey area, is black and white for a grandmaster. A grandmasters black and white comprises both my black and white area AND my grey area. He has his own grey area, that goes beyond my areas 1, 2, 3 and 4.

      When something becomes a skill, it means that something that used to be grey becomes black and white. In a game two weeks ago I could clearly see that. I had trained mates in the middle of the board lately, and I played against a lower rated player. I sacrificed a rook to lure his king into the open. For me it was a black and white situation. I saw the anvil to crush the king glaring in the sun, so to speak. But for him it was a grey situation. He took the rook, since he didn't see the subsequent mate.

    6. I probably used the wrong semantics. But new insight says that something cannot be in the grey area AND a skill. Area 2 is a grey area FOR ME, but is a skill for a grandmaster. And the knowledge area 6 is the grey area of the grandmaster. That is confusing. I must change that in a future post, I assume.

    7. PART I:

      Temposchlucker wrote:

      1. The borderline between black and white and grey is different for everybody.

      This is why it is so difficult to discover and apply a universal adult chess improvement program. What “works” for ME may NOT “work” for YOU. We have to determine OUR personal gray areas AND how to convert them into black and white areas of skill. Much easier said than done!!

      2. But new insight says that something cannot be in the grey area AND a skill.

      I disagree. Gray areas can exist in skills. Quoting (again) from GM Jonathan Rowson’s book Chess For Zebras: Thinking Differently about Black and White:

      [Start of quote]

      Knowledge and Skill

      Skill to do comes of doing. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
      . . .

      It is not easy to illustrate this distinction between knowledge and skill, because it is very subtle. One way to attempt to make it clearer s to re-describe it in slightly different terms. This is not difficult because I initially had the idea such a distinction was important for chess improvement after reading a chapter in a philosophy book called The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle. The second chapter of this book is called “Knowing How and Knowing That. Ryle actually uses chess to help to illustrate this distinction (my italics):

      “An ordinary chess-player can partly follow the tactics and strategy of a champion; perhaps after much study he will completely understand the methods used by the champion in certain particular matches. But he can never wholly anticipate how the champion will fight his next contest and he is never as quick or sure in his interpretations of the champion’s moves as the champion is making, or perhaps, in explaining, them … Learning how or improving in ability is not like learning that or acquiring information. Truths can be imparted, procedures can only be inculcated, and while inculcation is a gradual process, imparting is rather sudden. It makes sense to ask at what moment someone became apprised of a truth, but not to ask at what moment someone acquired a skill. ‘Part-trained’ is a significant phrase. ‘part-informed’ is not. Training is the art of setting tasks which the pupils have not yet accomplished but are not any longer quite incapable of accomplishing.”

    8. PART II:

      I think Ryle’s statement makes it clear that ‘know-how’ is the priority for good chess, not ‘know-that’. By this I mean that accumulating knowledge about openings and endings, etc., is only useful in so far as it helps you KNOW HOW to play the opening and the endgame, and this transition does NOT come automatically. Rather, as Ryle suggests, IT IS ACQUIRED THROUGH PAINSTAKING TRAINING AND PRACTICE. To be clear, I have nothing against knowledge, and it is true that stronger players tend to have ore knowledge of chess positions than weaker ones. What I am trying to make clear is that we tend to get the emphasis wrong. Another commentator, Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, captures this point as follows (my italics): “Skill is a way of dealing with things, not a derivation from theory. Doubtless, skill can be improved with the aid of theory, as when we learn about the inside and outside areas of our skis, but our skiing doesn’t improve until we get that knowledge back into the skill of skiing. Knowledge helps only when it descends into habits{KNOWLEDGE} and "knowing how" {SKILL}] means much to you, I came across a third saying much the same thing, in an article on Chesscafe.com by Nigel Davies called 'The How and the What'. Extracts are copied below with the author's kind permission: "I recently saw a newsgroup discussion about tournament preparation. Everything under the sun was mentioned from openings to endings and strategy to tactics with everyone having their own idea about how it should be done. I just commented that 'the how is more important than the what', leaving anyone reading this guessing as to what I meant. In fact the comment was deliberately enigmatic ... It really doesn't matter what you study, THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO USE THIS AS A TRAINING GROUND FOR THINKING RATHER THAN TRYING TO ASSIMILATE A MIND-NUMBING AMOUNT OF INFORMATION. In these days of a zillion different chess products, this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE THE PIECES AROUND THE BOARD AND PLAY WITH THE POSITION. Who does that? Amateurs don't, GMs do…”

      Players seeking to improve therefore need to place emphasis on developing their SKILL, not increasing their knowledge; to improve their ‘know-how’, and worry less about ‘knowing-that…’. They also need to focus less on the ‘what’ of chess, and more on the ‘how’ it is done. These are all different ways of saying the same thing and what it means is that if you want to get better at chess you need to place much less emphasis on ‘study’ whereby you increase your knowledge of positions, and place more emphasis on ‘training’, whereby you try to solve problems, play practice games, or perhaps try to beat a strong computer program from an advantageous position.

      [End of quote]

  5. I think it is realistic that at least a 21 fold repetition is needed to absorb all details of a 3 move tactic. So far, I have absorbed 6.5% of the database of 750 most frequent combinations. It is nothing to worry about whether my method to absorb is efficient or not, as long as it gets the job done. Which it does.

    What remains is the question whether I study the right stuff. For tactics I assume that it is good enough. But I'm wondering what is the best way to study positional manoeuvers. What is the best source?