03 April 2014

Chess vs Life

An excellent recent article in Chess Life Online by FM Alisa Melekhina highlights some of the contradictions and conflicts that bedevil the life of a serious chessplayer.  Hers is only one example among many, but if you look around the chess community, it reflects some common truths - the most important one for improving players being that mastery requires time-intensive practice, which means dedicating a large part of your life to it.

For example, she relates how she spent four hours a day in high school in training, while now she is lucky to get four hours a week - which is not enough to maintain her edge for tournaments.  If you look at other up-and-coming masters such as Justus Williams and James Black (just to name recent American examples) you can see the same dogged work ethic and massive time commitment during their rise from Class levels to the master-level 2200 rating and beyond.  This is a useful reality check for those who think "talent" is some sort of magic carpet ride to mastery, or that significant progress can come without sustained, focused effort.

This simple but sometimes elusive truth I believe is the core of the problem - or challenge, depending on how you view it - of adult chess improvement.  How many people can possibly devote four hours a day to chess once out of their school years and in the working world?  Two hours a day?  Even just one hour a day on average, consistently?  In reality, very few people who work for a living have the combination of available time, energy and desire.  (Many of those who do not have to work for a living also lack these things, it is true, but at least they are not constrained by life responsibilities.)

The oft-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice required for mastery of a complex skill such as chess is simply an approximation, but the structural implications of it still hold for how you organize your life.  If you devote two hours a day to chess, that means you will reach your goal twice as fast as if you devoted one hour.  Four hours a day, four times as fast.  (No hours a day, never!)  The arithmetic in this sense is simple.

The learning process, however, is not strictly arithmetic in nature.  The more you become immersed in a subject, the more you tend to retain and make new breakthroughs in understanding, while you may not retain much at all if you only learn a particular subject in small doses and infrequently.  (This phenomenon is well known by anyone who halfheartedly studied a foreign language and can no longer speak more than a few words of it.)  Every person will have a certain threshold for effective study, then, which is necessary to pass on a frequent basis.  Distribution of time therefore becomes important, not just your total hours.  For example, doing intensive training for a half-hour a day, six days a week is more likely to result in sustained progress than 3 hours a day, once a week.

As an adult with the objective of improving my chess game, it is nice to have mastery as a goal, but one of the realizations that I have had on my journey since starting this blog is that, short of having the (rare) opportunity to take a year or two off from work to devote to training and studying, I am unlikely to achieve the master title.  Does that make progress pointless?  If you define the sum total of chess' worth to you as 2200 Elo or above, then it would be.  For me that is not the case, for a variety of reasons, ranging from simple enjoyment to competitive instincts to proven neurological benefits.

Returning to the idea of "chess versus life", one can view the two as mutually exclusive: life has demands and distractions that take away from your chess, while on the flip side studying a game for hours on end by definition means that you aren't doing anything else with your life.  This can be considered both an inconvenient truth and a negative way of looking at both sides of the chess/life coin.

I will end this meditation on the subject by offering the counter-argument and observation that integrating chess training and study into your life, by balancing both sides as best as you can and not succumbing to negativity about the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, may just make you both a better person and chessplayer.  Perhaps Alisa would agree.

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