Monday, March 16, 2015

10 Types of Chesser III

01 Those who don’t train;

10 Those who don’t train, but say that they do.

37 ... Rf5
Andersson - Brynell, Malmo 1994 

Nobody does any chess training. Not really.

OK, that’s not entirely true. My friend and (for the most part former) blogging colleague Tom Chivers did a tonne of work in the year before he wrote his Improve Your Chess series back in 2008, Jonathan Hawkins evidently didn’t go From Amateur to IM and beyond without putting his back in to it and that Matthew Webb chappie is grafting away Up North somewhere. Those three are pretty much it, though.

Fair enough. Chess training is bastard hard work and it’s not exactly difficult to find something more pleasant or less demanding (or both) to do. So what if that thing is less productive in the greater scheme of things? Much less productive. Much much less productive.

Like blogging for instance.

Unlike us, pianists tend to learn their ABCs

Sustained significant improvement is incredibly rare amongst adult chessers. A club or tournament player can easily prove this to him or her self simply by looking around. This fact, needless to say, is not unconnected to the aforementioned absence of proper training amongst amateur chessers.

So it’s no great surprise that few of us are getting better despite the hours and money that we invest in the game. One thing that is odd, though, is that the patently obvious absence of training and improvement notwithstanding, a fair chunk of the chess world seems to believe it’s doing quite a lot of practice.

The contrast between what chessers and the rest of the world thinks counts as "study" has become particularly noticeable for me since I took up the piano around a year and a half ago. If pianists 'practiced' like we do they’d mostly spend their time listening to recordings of other people playing and have a bit of a jam for a few hours once every week or two. They don’t, though. Well, I’m sure there are loads of them doing exactly that, it’s just that they don’t delude themselves by calling what they do "practice". 

Not that I’m any different. I’ve probably spent more time practicing piano in the last twelve months than I have training at chess in the last quarter of a century. Actually, there’s no doubt about that at all. At the keyboard it’s focused, goal-oriented work following a structured programme. At chess board it’s ... well, I find it hard to say exactly, but 'general dicking about' seems like an more than adequate summary of my 'efforts'.

Black to play

The position at the head of the top of today’s blog tells you all you need to know about my chess training. I rediscovered it recently in a game from Kaufeld and Kern’s collection of Ulf Andersson’s games.

Alongside the diagram in my copy of the book I found I'd left myself a note in pencil which reads "calculate pawn ending". Black, Brynell, had played ... Rf5 in the game and Andersson went on to win. Evidently I thought that this would be a good position to study. Presumably Black loses if he trades too, Andersson would hardly have allowed the trade otherwise, but why not figure out exactly how?

I didn’t find any scribbled variations, though, and I usually make those kind of notes when I’ve looked at a position. I suppose I never got around to it. I just left myself a reminder of work to be done and then forgot all about it. Not exactly a rigorous approach to chess training, I think you’ll agree.

Ah well. At least I can console myself with the thought that I’m no different to anybody else. Nobody else is doing any work either so at least I’m not falling behind.


King and Pawn Index


Anonymous said...

The thing is: if you practise music, properly, you improve. It's guaranteed. Yesterday I could play a study at 100 bpm; today, after practising it for half an hour, I can play it at 114. Show me the kind of chess training that will produce that kind of improvement and I'll do it like a shot; but I'm not holding my breath.

Indeed some sensible people (e.g. Rowson) question whether most adult players are even capable of much improvement. I've never heard a similar suggestion in relation to music, or not from anyone with any knowledge of the subject anyway. There is probably a ceiling beyond which you are unlikely to progress, but you can certainly get to ABRSM grade 8 - which might be comparable to an Elo of perhaps 2000 or more. Are all chess players capable of reaching that level? I doubt it.


AngusF said...

As it happens, Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating, about training and improvement, arrived at my flat this morning. (According to the blurb on the back cover, Smith boosted his rating from 2093 to 2458 in just two years.)

... Some of the book’s ideas are illustrated through Ulf Andersson’s play and he’s the model player for a chapter on material imbalances and piece exchanges.

... Also, there’s a chapter on theoretical endgames. Smith writes "I made a list of 100 endgames I thought were useful to learn. After that I challenged a friend to a competition. We had one month to study the 100 endings before we tested each other. At the competition, we had to play any ending the opponent had chosen from the list of 100 in a rapid game. After five challenges each, we crowned a winner"... As readers of the blog will know, Jonathan B has an interest in endings and has, from time to time, referenced Jesus de la Villa’s 100 Endings You Must Know.

Anonymous said...

In an earlier and longer comment - perhaps lost in the ether -in response to your perspicacious article I proposed an ECF governed set of web-hosted examinations at different levels so as to encourage amateur chess players to improve their proficiency. The examinations would comprise a set of positions, eg technical endings, that candidates would play against an engine as well as simple 'find the best move' questions. Successful candidates would earn a certificate of their level of achievement.

Mike Wickham

Anonymous said...

Listening to music can be just as enjoyable as playing. In the same way many people enjoy chess without being experts or fully understanding the game. Becoming an expert in the game must be very satisfying but requiring years of training. Not everything is so....take for example becoming a politician?

Niall said...

Some very interesting points made, and it’s probably true that most amateur chessers don’t work on their game, or their ‘work’ consists of playing blitz (online or IRL) and doing the odd tactical problem.
1. I think the problem with studying chess is that chess is very different from other competitive activities such as running or playing tennis, or even piano-playing.
For example, while improving at piano-playing does take a lot of hard work, it’s hard work that’s easier in some ways than chess study. You sit at the piano and pound away on the keys, doing the same bit over and over. But it’s the very physical nature of the work that means you know when you’re working effectively. If you’re pounding the keys, or the pavement, or hitting balls, you know you’re working.
The problem with chess is you can have the pieces out, sit looking at the board, but even then you have to fight with yourself to keep concentrating on the position, and not end up staring out the window thinking about what to have for dinner.
2. Another major problem is the lack of a curriculum, a set path for progress. Chess players tend to pick up bits of knowledge here and there, jump from one book to the next, do a bit of endgame study, then tactics, then have a look at that dodgy opening they hope to spring on the opponent next Saturday.
Regarding both points, I think Yusupov’s nine-book series can go some way to dealing with the concentration issue, as each lesson has end of chapter exam questions on which you have to get a certain number of points to move on to the next chapter, so you have no choice but to concentrate effectively. It also provides a complete syllabus, or at least claims to, I’m not a good enough chesser to know how true that is.
3. Time available to adult players is generally quite limited. I’ve been trying to get through a chapter a week on Yusupov, but for example I haven’t touched the book in the last fortnight due to meetings, grant applications, arbiting; all chess-related but of no use in improving my chess. So not only is time limited, but the efforts are irregular.

One final point. I’ve asked on forums before if anyone knows of any examples of adult chessplayers (say 25+) progressing after a long plateau. Apart from ‘Sure, lots of people have done it’ I don’t think I’ve got any names of people that made significant progress (says 200 points or more), so Rowson may be right. I’d love to prove him wrong though!

an ordinary chessplayer said...

@Niall, I can name two, but it's not lots of people. :)

(1) Rolf Wetzell did it. When I played against him in the 70's he was 20 years my senior and a longtime 1800*-ish player. Sometime in the 80's as a borderline 2000-player he studied his a** off and went over 2200*, so that's 200 points of improvement for a 50-yo. He played at my club every week and was noticeably better during that time so it was no gimmick. He still works hard at the game but age shows no mercy.

(2) I did it. I was a borderline 2000*-player at 20 and a medium expert (say 2150*) for many years, then I started in on the Informator combinations book and peaked at 2370*, gaining the FM title in the process. My openings were rubbish then, it was definitely the tactics work for me. That was probably 1993 so I was like 32. I had another peak a little higher some years later, but eventually I had to go earn some money.

(*) Ratings are USCF.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

A few more points about improvement: (a) Rolf's basic idea is that you improve by testing yourself. So, puzzles, solitaire chess, flashcards, etc. Since a chess game is a long series of pass-fail tests, it makes sense. There are a few books offering the same method, but most people would rather look at openings. (b) Thinking back, my improvement was not solely from the tactics work. Around that time I also went through Reuben Fine's "Basic Chess Endings" with a fine-toothed comb. If I look at the ChessBase file today it's pretty amazing how critically I was able to analyze those endgames back in the day. These days when I look at an endgame book I tend to just mouse in the moves passively. (c) I'm pretty sure all the computer stuff is just a trap. I was reading an online review of ChessBase and the blogger was all glowing about how great it was going to be for his game, but a couple of years later his rating was still the same. I think most amateurs use the computer like the television and the smartphone: as a way to avoid work.

Jonathan B said...

Thanks for all the comments. I wish I had time to reply.

I’m hoping to answer later tonight but in the expectation that I might run out of steam before then I’ll say thanks now and get back to you ASAP.


Niall said...

Thanks for the answer, An Ordinary Chessplayer. So lots of tactics and some endgame work is the way to go. As well as self-testing using the Yusupov books.

Jonathan B said...

Right gents,

a few comments (very much not in order of value, and if I haven’t addressed an issue it’s not because I haven’t enjoyed your contribution it’s just that I’ve picked stuff out at random and didn’t get to yours. Time is my enemy just now).

OCP: I was reading an online review of ChessBase and the blogger was all glowing about how great it was going to be for his game, but a couple of years later his rating was still the same. I think most amateurs use the computer like the television and the smartphone: as a way to avoid work.

I’m quite sure you’re right. And it’s not just computers. That was the main point of my article actually. I get that people don’t want to really practice /study chess. It’s hard work. What I don’t understand is why chess generates a culture of delusion that supports people justifying they’re non-study as being somehow useful.

I’ve heard the Yusupov books are very good and I know Matt Fletcher (who is often a visitor here) is working through them. They look pretty good.

Mike W:
Apologies if your comment got lost. I didn’t see it to mod it so I guess it never got as far as us.

I totally agree that setting up a curriculum like the ABRSM do for music is *exactly* what the ECF should be doing. Unfortunately I think they’re a million miles away from being able to do that. I say that not as a criticism of those involved. It’s simply an observation.

I agree with Nial that absence of a standard curriculum and haphazard learning is one of the things that holds even keen chessers back. There are certainly advantages to the 'eclectic' (i;m being kind there) approach but on balance it’s definitely a negative.

Jonathan B said...

Oh and one more thing about Rowson.

Did he *really* say adults don’t improve? I have read the Zebras book so I can’t say for sure, but I have read the first chapter and in that he says that adults won’t improve by acquiring more knowledge. That’s a rather different thing.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Now your blog is blocked at my work. I don't think they would do that based on just my browsing, but who knows?!

@Jonathan B - This is a great topic, and I totally agree with what you wrote. The notion of chess proficiency is interesting, because the setup now explicitly devalues this. It doesn't matter what you know, it only matters whether you can win. I don't know about your neck of the woods, but over here adult amateurs frequently lament that they "know a lot" but for "some reason" play much worse that that. In other words, everybody to a man thinks they are under-rated! Another popular delusion.

@Niall - "So lots of tactics and some endgame work is the way to go." I wouldn't say that. What I recommend is you carefully go over your most recent batch of games (say 30-50), and see where you are dropping your points. Then work on your weaknesses. THAT is the hardest work of all, people would rather do almost anything than work on their weaknesses. Just identifying them honestly is frightening enough apparently. Trust the players who beat you regularly to know precisely what your weaknesses are, that's why you look in your games for the answer. As a junior I studied openings and tactics, immediately after that I worked on the middlegame by looking at Nimzowitsch (and giving up all my previous openings). Then followed many years of dicking around, as JB puts it. In 1993 my weakness was endgames and tactics. By 1996 I had moved up, my rubbish openings no longer sufficed, so I had to work on openings. By 2000 I was starting to give up chess.

I think another player who improved significantly after a long plateau would be Jesse Kraai. Somehow he slipped my mind before.

Jonathan B said...

Chino Atako is another guy who made non-trivial rating improvement as an adult. He’s in the high 180s ECF now.