Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Improve Your Chess IX: Earplugs

Why did I lose? Because the door kept banging shut behind my board. Because the geezer's throat I was playing kept gurgling. Because of the boredom of blokes and their predictability of prattle, couched away in the corner of their club. Because the light bulbs were weirdly buzzing. Because, because, because. Not because of my own failures of concentration, accentuated by a weakness to listen to distractions good or bad - and certainly not because I was outplayed from start to finish, after which I fished around for some noises to blame that unpleasant fact upon . . .

And so such excuses after losses went on - until I read what novelist Nicholson Baker had to say about the one thing that got his creative juices flowing. He described the effect of the thing as follows: "I can sit anywhere, in any loud place, and work. Everything becomes 20 feet farther away than it really is. The chirping, barking, jingling cash-drawer of a world is out of reach, and therefore more precious." I realised the solution to his problem might work as a solution to mine, too.

Now, don't worry. The solution won't delude you into believing that the world is a cash-drawer and more precious as such, or something. It was just that earplugs suddenly sounded to me a straight-forward aid to concentration and immersion into any activity (except music.) So I decided to try them myself during chess games. Remarkably quickly my results picked up; these two draws, for instance, can be taken as representative from a tournament where my performance grade averaged ten points higher than the rest of the season up to that point.

I had never drawn with an FM before, let alone against an IM - and then with earplugs, I'd done both in one tournament. Can earplugs alone really be responsible for such a sudden change? I'd like to answer yes, but in my case, it's hard to tell for sure because I began nearly all my attempts at chess improvement at approximately the same time. So instead, does it follow therefore that earplugs might be wholly responsible for my improvement, or maybe for none of it at all - and that there's no way to tell? Maybe . . .

But I think not: in my experience, earplugs have not only a practical value, but a philosophical one too. I might even go so far as to say that even as a placebo that filtered no noise, they would have had a useful function for me. And I think these other lessons earplugs taught me have helped improve my play in general, that there is a sort of Philosophy of Earplugs.

What I mean by this, is that committing to wearing earplugs represents not just a practical decision to filter out distractions as far as possible, but that it also engenders a philosophical attitude to the game. That attitude is to take as much responsibility as possible for your chess games: to say to yourself, so what if the opponent is noisy? The venue creaking? The door banging? I'm entirely on my own, insulated in silence, and everything is down to me. I have nothing to blame but myself. Botvinnik probably benefited from something similar, when he used to play seven hour training games next to a blaring radio or in a cigar-smoke filled room.

Aside from helping to ignore distractions, I think the Philosophy of Earplugs helps decision-making at the board itself, too. In the second link above, for instance, you'll find a position where I sacrificed two pawns and a knight to achieve a drawn endgame. I did this after fifteen minutes thought, and felt almost silly about playing the sequence - especially because of the look it provoked on my opponent's face! Would I have found the same sequence without earplugs? Maybe not. The aloneness of silence frees us from such self-consciousness, reminding us there is no-one listening to our thoughts, however daft they might turn out to be. So we are free to consider ludicrous-looking moves, free to feel unselfconscious about being out of book on move three and thinking for ten minutes, free to play chess as best we can.

In conclusion, try earplugs. Or if you're not distracted by noise, try the Philosophy of Earplugs anyhow!

And finally . . .

A few other bits and bobs before I sign the series off.

Firstly, I'm not the first to advise the use of earplugs for playing chess. In an entertaining article that I recently discovered Nigel Davies praises earplugs here, writing about advantages they bring such as: filtering out the noise of spectators, filtering out the snores of room-mates or other sources of noise in hotels, that you might not hear draw-offers, and so on.

Secondly, I'm amazed that earplug companies don't sponsor chess events, providing say one free pair to each competitor in a tournament and setting up a stall to sell further in bulk. Or alternatively sponsoring a league team that uses them, that sort of thing. Why not?

Thirdly, aside from the Philosophy of Earplugs, pragmatics are important too. Most earplugs sold on UK highstreets - that I've encountered - are orange and chubby, like those to the right. They all seem to be the same, and the cheapest I found were at Tesco. These also usually come with an informative instruction booklet and a handy mini-carry-case. However - and whilst accompanied by no such niceties - I definitely prefer the slimmer, cheaper, softer, yellow "Worksafe Earplugs" sold at Travis Perkins under the code SEP403 - although they are harder to come by.

Finally, this article is the last in this series. I've appreciated the feedback, discussion and links the series has generated, and I hope my posts might have helped improve your own chess in some little way! The series also now has an index.

PS. Beware the dangers of earplugs!


ejh said...

I do actually take earplugs to the Benasque tournament every year: mind you, this is because I stay on a campsite next to a busy river, and I can't sleep unless I block out some of the noise.

I have seen one titled player use them, and I'd consider it myself, if I could ever get them to stay in. I can't: I have the same problem with earphones. I don't know why, I'm not all that deformed.

For what it's worth, I think it's probably unwise to make it harder to hear draw offers clearly, if you're in a situation where there is any possible linguistic confusion, since any spoken response you make to the effect of "I'm sorry, what did you say?" may be misinterpreted as acceptance. Of course, this wouldn't happen if people followed the rule about marking draw offers on their scoresheets, but how many club players do that?

(Not that anybody ever offers me a draw, since almost inevitably I will have offered one already.)

Jonathan B said...

One of the things I've become aware of over the past couple of years is that I seem to be much more sensitive to noise than a lot of other people. Not just in terms of chess playing - although there's an obvious issue there - but in general life.

Unfortunately I found it really difficult to get earplugs that fit my ears too. It seems I have very narrow ear canals or whatever it is they're called.

These days I often make do with the poor substitute of trying to jam my little fingers into my ears as far as possible.

Anonymous said...

Greath advice, I'll probably give this one a go - but what do you suggest about coping with a very smelly opponent? Nose plugs?

Adam B.

Tom Chivers said...

Chewing gum!

Morgan Daniels said...

And how do you suggest dealing with an opponent chewing gum?

Tom Chivers said...

Loud noises.

Anonymous said...

Some woman in front of me at the football at Watford on Saturday was putting earplugs in her sons' ears. I thought that was the definition of an optimist!

Jonathan B said...


surely that would be turning up to see Watford in the first place.

Morgan Daniels said...

Andrew - are you a Watford fan? I was half planning on going to that game, being an Ipswich supporter. So glad I didn't.

transformation said...

I never go ANYWHERE without earplugs: near my bed, on airplanes, in my car, and in my bag each day to work, just in case. i have very sensative ears... long story, dk

transformation said...

PS, sometimes out to dinner in a pub, when by myself, i often wear them :)

Polly said...

I haven't tried earplugs, but I do resort to Mozart, Brahms, Bach, etc. I know there is great debate over listening to music while playing. I find it calms me down, or if I'm feeling lethargic I may have to put on something more lively. Sometimes something like the William Tell Overture is just what I need to shake me up a bit. Most of the time I need something soothing.

Some people find music distracting, but for the most part I find it helps in noisy situations. When it interferes with my thought process then I stop the music, but may just leave the ear buds in place.