28 December 2013

Do study techniques matter in chess?

Part of the quest for chess improvement is, of course, some type of study plan.  I prefer to think of mine as being part of an overall training program, as this conveys more of the breadth and long-term nature of the improvement process.  Training is something that a professional athlete, martial artist or chessplayer is always doing, in some form or another, for their entire career.  Serious amateurs, ones who care about advancing their game, will also need to have their own training program - perhaps a less intense one and one that is not central to their livelihood, like the professionals, but nonetheless a program that is 1) structured in some fashion and 2) generally followed over time.  There are naturally a huge variety of ways to structure a chess training program or a personal study plan.  And unfortunately it can be difficult to follow any plan over time, as our energy wanes or other things disrupt our studies.

In "Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills" I made the assertion that it is more important for a player to train all the various skill sets before a tournament, rather than how exactly they go about it.  This parallels my general outlook on chess training, as captured in the early post "Reflections on Training".  A recent thoughtful comment queried whether after my experiences in chess training over the past two years, I think that study techniques matter - one way to rephrase the concept.  A good question and one that, to answer fully, requires some further reflection on the entire chess training process.

Looking at any training program, one must consider the performance objective and how to train the component parts that go into it.  For chessplayers, the primary long-term objective is to increase your playing strength to improve game performance; put more simply, to win more often and against stronger opponents.  While it's not completely cut-and-dried, chess can usefully be broken down into opening, middlegame and endgame phases, with different principles and techniques that dominate in each.  To use a sports analogy (as in "Chess vs. Tennis - sporting lessons"), if one is training to be a better tennis player, the primary objective (win more and against better opponents) is exactly the same, while the game can be broken down into elements such as your service game, return game, baseline play, net play and shot selection.  Other sports analogies can be used as well, for example long-distance running.  That is an excellent illustration of the fact that while it's important to train a variety of things, the main focus needs to be on actually doing the activity you are training for; runners can do other types of physical and mental training, but in the end the best training for running is, in fact, running.  (My view of chess training is broadly similar, as reflected in "Analyzing your own games is more than just analyzing your own games".)

I use the sporting analogy because it may help highlight the idea, in a more intuitive way, that chess performance in the end is a combination and culmination of many different things - training of component skills, application and integration of those skills in a "real-world" environment, judgment, mental toughness and creativity.  Perhaps it's because so much goes into a chess game or tournament that our egos often become involved and if we're not careful, it can seem like our personal worth is on the line with the result.  The same thing happens in sports - I consider chess to be a mental, individual sport - as athletes have good days and bad days in team matches, or in an individual sport get crushed in one tournament but then find the mental fortitude to do well in the next one.

So how does this broader perspective factor into the question of study techniques in chess?  I think improving players can often lose sight of the goal, namely improving playing strength and performance in actual games, while focusing on training component parts.  This is most obvious with tactics drills, where it is easy to keep solving problem after problem and honing your ability to find 1001 mating solutions in the quickest way possible, then fail to find the way forward in over-the-board situations where mating attacks are nowhere to be found.  While the description is somewhat exaggerated, this is in fact a common trap.

Does this mean that tactics drills are useless to improve your performance, as are other specific study techniques for openings, middlegames and endgames?  Of course not.  I used to be quite weak on tactics (believing myself to be a "positional" player - the subject of "Playing Styles Deconstructed" - and therefore not needing to dirty my hands with it).  Once I realized the folly of this, I greatly improved my tactical understanding and performance by studying Understanding Chess Tactics and applying myself on the Chess Tactics Server and the Chess.com tactics trainer.  I do believe, however, that any training program that fails to take a holistic approach to chess and instead focuses only on training a single component skill will ultimately fail.  Also, your training program must be realistic and calibrated to your current level of understanding - pushing the envelope, as mentioned in "Mindfulness and Effortful Study", but not ripping it to shreds.

Finally, an important consideration when determining how you should study, as compared to generally what should you study, is your learning style.  Learning styles vary greatly and I think this fact is underappreciated in the chess improvement community.  Some common training principles are worth emphasizing, as I did in the tournament chess skills post, but especially at the amateur level I'm a big believer in the "whatever works" school of training.  This is because it's done as a pastime, for love of the game, so the motivational factor is so important; if you hate a training method, you're simply not going to want to do it any more, regardless of how effective it is supposed to be (according to Authority X).  If you don't believe this is important, simply search through the chess improvement blogosphere, which is littered with dead "Seven Circles (of Hell)" blogs.


  1. I suspect that :" as older the player and as higher the rating" -> "as less improvement is possible" even with "perfect" training
    So my questions:
    Did you improve?
    And if you did improve
    How old are you? How much did you improve? and how?
    I hope im not too inquistorial ;)

    1. If you're asking about my personal improvement performance, that's an entirely different question than what goes into creating an effective training program. One can be an effective coach and craft such a program without being a star oneself (as is the case in all sports). Since you asked, though, quantitatively I'm significantly better than I used to be regarding my tactical ratings on the above sites (for what that is worth). Based on a limited number of rated tournament games since this blog started, I've also improved from being a 1600s player to being a 1700s player, although I haven't broken my previous scholastic career rating peak. Qualitatively, I have played a number of games that significantly exceeded my previous best efforts, including defeating a 2100 player. However, since I'm measuring my ultimate goal and success via tournament/OTB rated games performance, it will have to wait until I can play more than a handful of games a year to see how that turns out. It would also be good to be able to put more of a sustained effort into training, which my current job makes difficult; I know what I'm talking about regarding the "lacking energy" issue when pursuing a training program. In the meantime, I treat my online play - ideally one game weekly - as valuable for training purposes, but am not focused on my rating in that regard (focusing on ratings in the short term I think is bad anyway).

      Welcome any comparisons from your end, regarding your own performance over time in OTB games, since I've followed your blog for a while.

  2. After 30++ years of "no chess" i started playing online-blitzgames in the year 2004? Some years later i started OTB-Games and reached my pleateau - level of ~~1900 Elo in a few years. 2006? i have heard that tactics would be most important for the improving player so i started solving tatcics puzzles at tactic servers 2007? ( usually much more than 100 puzzles a day ). 2009 i recognised that i did not improve in my tactical skill. My rating at these servers did improve but my performance in unknown puzzles did not increase, my "improvement" was just at the puzzles i simply remembered more or less. The last ( 3? ) years i almost completly stopped playing chess and put all my energy in tactic puzzles. Temposchlucker, Munich and i found (seemingly) a method which seems to be able to improve the tactical skill but the method is very hard and its not shure the effect will be a long term effect.
    My chessplay is very bad 2013, i will lose many elo-points.

    I found no adult player which did improve in chess "a lot". Not even in tactics alone.

    1. Thanks for sharing, you've had some interesting experiences. As for me, I never had studied tactics prior to starting this blog, so my improvement in that area has been from a very low base.

  3. I am not entirely sure what counts as an 'adult' and what counts as a 'lot of improvement' but at age 16 I was 900s, age 23 I was 1300s and I am now 1800s.


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