Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Do I Have To Setup The Board Again?

Here's a question:

When doing tactical exercises, how many of you actually bother to set it up on the board? Or do you solve them straight out of the book?

I admit that I am one the laziest people on this planet. When I do tactical exercises, I use Chessbase/Fritz's 3D board setup to setup the position and then try to solve it from there on the screen.

Okay, I admit that it's not ideal, I don't get a true graphical representation and my hand doesn't touch the pieces.

From the various advice in Daniel King Powerplay DVDs to Arthur Yusupov's Boost Your Chess book series, many chess authors and trainers have recommended doing it over the board.

The basic premise is that by physically moving the pieces, your mind connects the events and this adds as a self-reinforcement tool so that you can better remember the lesson learned.

The problem herein is that when trying to solve 5 tactical exercises, you need to setup the position 5 times. Setting up a board is no easy feat, you spend at least a few minutes just to setup the board. And then once you figured out the tactical puzzle, you replay the solution and this involves going back to the initial board position at the beginning over and over again as you run through the variations.

Some others have recommended setting up 2 boards, one to do the analysis and the other to act as a "variation" board to work through the different variations.

At this point, doing 1 puzzle can easily take as long as 10 minutes in terms of just running through the pieces, if not more. Try it for another 4 puzzles and suddenly, the task becomes extra onerous and you seemed to spend more time setting up the board than doing the tactical puzzles.

By putting the position inside Chessbase/Fritz and seeing it in 3D, I can run through the variations pretty quickly (true the 3D is nowhere near photorealistic as an actual board) with the touch of a mouse click (okay, several mouse clicks).

The point is: how well has my memory recalled the position by doing tactical puzzles this way?

In my case, surprisingly, not too bad. I find that I'm still able to recall certain puzzles once I recognise the formation/pattern and the solution to them but not all. However, if I were to redo the puzzles again and again, I find that the memory of the position somehow got "stuck" in my mind. Run it through 2-3 more times a few weeks later and it becomes embedded somewhere between medium-term and long-term memory.

True, none of us can be a Magnus Carlsen or Alexei Shirov where these GMs don't need to physically see the board to calculate variations so until we are all super GMs, what other recourse is there for us?

So what is your method of doing tactical studies? :)


  1. Really my only method of doing tactical studies is to play open games myself and study open games from annotated collections or books such as Vukovic's Art of Attack.

    I play through annotated games on the computer more often than on my board (also because I'm lazy, but also for other reasons; computer eval being one, the ability to save the game and easily annotate it being another). So far, I haven't been able to determine which benefits my play more, although I do believe that over-the-board visualisation is slightly more helpful than on-screen visualisation. But that's just speculation on my part. My general belief is that pieces are pieces.

  2. Also, hate to be the Chess Nazi (the Chess equivalent of the Grammar Nazi), and I like a picture of a cute chick playing chess as much as the next guy, but the mangled setup of the pieces kinda spoils it ;)

  3. The advice I've generally heard for solving tactical puzzles is to do them out of the book while "moving" the pieces around only in your head - just as you would do in a real game. Thus setting them up on a board and moving the pieces around by hand would only be a way, for example, to check your solution afterwards. But getting into the habit of moving around pieces with your hands (either on the board or with a mouse) when trying to solve *tactical* puzzles would be counter-productive as it undermines the visualization skills that you need to develop when analyzing tactical lines OTB.

    On the other hand, unless you are doing hardcore "blindfold" play training, when playing through annotated games you would either set up 2 physical boards (one for the main line and an analysis board for going through variations) or use a computer.

    Maybe I'm missing something, but that's been my understanding of the typical approaches for tackling tactical puzzles out of a book vs. annotated master games. :)

  4. Hi ChunkyRook:

    Kudos if you can do the translation from 2D->3D easily. I know that I can't do it very well. Somehow, in 3D, I lose myself in that the tactic doesn't look the same at all and I struggle to find the right continuation. However, in 2D, tactics seems to pop in my mind far easier and quicker. I can't explain it. Somehow the 3D aspect ratio is preventing me from seeing things more than I normally see in 2D.

    Nice spot on the missplaced kings and queens. I would've done the same. Funny I didn't notice that this time round. :)

    Hi Hank:

    I understand what you're getting at but the point of setting up the board is not to move the pieces around. It's to do the calculation in the head in 3D by looking at the board. It's to simulate an actual playing environment.

    It's only after we decided on the solution that we play the variation out by moving the pieces physically, spotting things that may have been missed or potential variations that had escaped our calculations.

    Blindfold training is very easy to do. Fritz 12 allows you to do blindfold training. The thing about blindfold training is that you don't need an actual board, you just need to remember how the position looks like. :)

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention about it being counter-productive as it undermines the visualisation skills that one needs to develop and I agree with you.


  5. Chunky Rook wrote: "the point of setting up the board is not to move the pieces around. It's to do the calculation in the head in 3D by looking at the board. It's to simulate an actual playing environment."

    -- Thanks for the clarification! In that case I guess I'd recommend setting up the 3D pieces only for those problems that are so difficult that they require you to spend on average 10-15 minutes to solve them. (Almost like a Stoyko exercise.) Because I guess there are two kinds of tactics training -- one kind where you try to solve a large number of easier puzzles in order to build up you tactical pattern recognition skills and internal "database" of tactical patterns (for which speed and efficiency are important in order to cover a lot of ground quickly, and it's not worth all the lost time it would take to set up those easy positions on a real board), and another kind of training where you work on tough positions where deep analysis and calculation of many variations is required (for which simulating real 3D OTB conditions is more helpful - maybe even using a chess clock?).

    Does that make sense?

    -- Hank

  6. Hi Hank,

    Yes, that makes perfect sense.

    Interesting. I've never thought of the exercises as being similar to Stoyko exercises (which are infinitely harder than the simple 3-5 move tactical exercises I normally do) although a lot of the puzzles I do are typically middlegame positions.

    One of my main weaknesses is indeed middlegame play and it's frustrating for me to see a game slip because I didn't follow the right plan or miss a tactical combination.

    I always use a chess clock in solving the puzzles. I notice that if I don't find the correct plan in 10 minutes, it's highly likely that I am not going to see it in real tournament play.

    Thanks for the great feedback!

  7. For what it is worth I think a combination of board, computer and straight from the book are all good.

    I usually have one book going where I don't set up the pieces. I also am going through some pgns where I play out the position against an engine. This is good because the engine might not play what I originally "calculated" it would! :)

    And I also derive a lot of pleasure (and pain) and benefit from setting up the problems on a board. I did that with every problem in "The Art of The Checkmate" I would spend however long I needed to come to a conclusion while looking at the board. I noticed that using this method I even learned the ones I got wrong!! So then I circled through the book just using the book.

    And it is even harder to use a board when you have a cat who thinks that means it is time to knock the pieces on the floor! :)

  8. Hi Tommyg,

    Wow. Simply wow. I think your training method will probably yield the best in terms of results!

    I wish I have the perserverance to do that!

    I'm very impressed. An interesting mention about what the engine might not play. I'd notice that in some of the older tactics book (70s-early 80s), the solutions to the puzzles are not the lines the engines would play. In fact, some of the puzzles show that it is possible to refute it in spite of the tactical shot or the worse thing to ever happen in a tactical combo - a Zwischenzug!

    LOL about your cat!

  9. Hey Tanc!

    I would add that my perseverance is aided by not doing ALL three at once.

    Right now I am working out of a book and testing checkmate patterns against an engine.

    After awhile of doing this I will take one of those away and substitute figuring out at the board.

    I have found that it is helpful to change formats every once in awhile. This keeps my brain engaged and allows me to keep moving forward.

    I also like using engines to test myself on endgame positions. (like those in pandolfini's book)

    With tablebases certain engines will fight harder for the draw in a "won" position. This makes me work harder and it also makes me understand the position more than just reading through what an author says.

    Right now I am concentrating only on King and Pawn endings. I have been working on those for a year. I am feeling better about them (better not great!) so I think it might be time to move to Rook endings for awhile.

    Another good thing about endgames: There are less pieces for my cat to knock over! :)

  10. Hi Tommyg,

    Great work on your progress! Keep it up! You're definitely doing far better than me in terms of chess training. I've been slacking off...... heaps.


  11. I like to play over games using a board, but for tactics that is quite an imposition.

    It is harder at the board, but I think I know why. At the board, you have pieces in the way that you have to "forget" that they are where they are 3 moves from now.

    There is a trick to that though, close your eyes and solve it in your head. Only look at the board so you know where everything is _currently_. ;-)

  12. Great idea!

    I admit that picturing tactics in my mind tends to tax my mind a lot in an actual board situation. This is because I'm unfamiliar with certain combinational motifs and it's hard to see in my mind once I get past remembering of where my pieces reside! LOL!