Friday, July 2, 2010

Self-Training Motivation

Why do players like myself constantly make excuses to justify that our time that we've set out to do for our chess training seems to take a back seat?

Chess, like it or not, is as much a game of memory and as well as a test of how your brain's cognitive abilities.

In order to improve our chess skills, we need to build small little memory building blocks of certain tactics/endgames (psychologists refer to this as "chunking") and from there, we memorise (internalise) these combinations and ideas and commit them to long-term memory.

Basic techniques like deflection, skewers, blockade, forks etc. needs to be remembered and used effectively if we are to get better at chess.

And the problem is that as we move up the rating chain, it requires more and more effort on our part to make a smaller gain. We need more time to learn and grasp new ideas, concepts and the unfortunate thing is that not many of us can be like Bobby Fischer, who can simply pick up a book and remember everything.

And this is what makes chess improvement so hard to do for adult working players. We have so precious limited time to invest in this sport.

Chess is indeed an easy game to learn but a hard one to master.


  1. I am also working adult and i agree with you. It is very difficult to master chess!! But still it is fun for me. I enjoy it and whenever i stop enjoying i take a break.

  2. I think memory is only one of the requirements to be good in chess. It is true that quite a few world champs had exceptional memory, for example, Alekhin, Fisher, Kasparov, etc. However, there are examples of top players whose memory was not that exceptional. One good example comes to mind is Karpov, who had to remind himself about all these theoretical lines all the time. Another example is Magnus Carlsen.

    Another component which is equally important is the brain power, which is essentially what you can do in your head. I can give you an example of my 9-year-old son, who in my view has a normal memory. However, in terms of brain power a few adults are able to do things that he currently can, like for example multiplying 2357*2357 in his head.

    Finally, the knowledge about the position, like which pieces to exchange and when, what are the plans in the middle game and which endgames are winnable and which are not, is also very important.

    Now if we take the example of Magnus I would think his strongest point is the second one. He is lucky to have Kasparov to fix the third one, but his memory/opening knowledge is currently the weakest link.

  3. Hi Kuldhir, glad to hear you're still enjoying and having fun from playing chess! :)

  4. Hi Vlad,

    You're right in that Karpov did not have as good a memory as other World Champions. After all, it is widely known that he had no shortage of helpers when it comes to preparation for opening knowledge given that the Soviet authorities at that time was able to devote a vast amount of resources to him (hence sparking the dislike that Kasparov had for him during the 80s).

    I did notice that with the deconstruction of the Soviet Union amidst the political turmoil in the early 90s, Karpov's helpers largely deserted him and he found it incredibly hard to cope with both the rise and increasing usage of computer chess engines and the vast knowledge of opening novelties which seem to be springing up everyday. Perhaps that's why he has resorted to 1.d4 openings in his latter years (?).

    I do think that all the world champions would had at least above average intelligence. I use the term intelligence loosely here in this sense that their ability to recall and rely on their chess knowledge and experience purely from memory must be extremely efficient. In other words, to them, recalling a vast quantity of memory chess "chunks" (via pattern recognition) is as easy as taking a breath of fresh air.

    It is interesting to note that the current World Champion Anand definitely had a far inferior memory bank (if you can call it as such) as compared with his challenger Topalov. However, Kramnik was right in that Anand seems to have a more in depth grasp of chess understanding than Topalov (as Smyslov said "chess truths") and it is that which he uses to convert to his advantage (esp. in Games 2 and 4).

    As for Carlsen, I do think that Carlsen actually does have a very good memory. I remembered watching his video on the Prince of Chess (when he was 12) some time ago and Carlsen could rather easily recall who were the players who played the game when he was randomly shown a game position in a book. It does show that while Carlsen's opening knowledge is not up to par with Topalov, he does have a very good memory. As for Kasparov helping him, Carlsen can only continue to get better and better.

    Finally, I have to say, that even if you did ask me what is 16*16, I would have taken far longer to calculate (256 btw is the answer - okay I cheated - I know that because 16 squared is 2 to the power of 8 and I do binary calculations everyday at work) but 2357*2357 is definitely beyond me even if you give 15 minutes to work it out in my head. So kudos to your son! :)


  5. My guess is that Karpov had a stellar memory, from his interviews and best games. He adds a lot of background games and also remembers his analysis during the game like an elephant. He seems very factual.

    To beat a better player, I think you need composure, make correct analyses, and be up for the game.

    To beat a weaker player, perhaps you mostly need only pattern-recognition. It's easy to say that a GM wins over and Expert with pattern-recognition. See how useless that can be?

    Getting someone out of their patterns is big the fast the game is, or for psychological purposes. Classic slow-chess, you do have to analyze your way out of a paper-bag so to speak, IMHO.

    Pattern-recognition can give you a big leg up in "not wanting to go down THIS road again."

    Pattern-recognition with tactics is legit, but I don't think that's what non-chess people with their documentaries are perhaps mostly referring to, since just about anyone can do that without taking decades and such.

  6. Hi LinuxGuy,

    Thanks for your feedback. I think that pattern recognition is one of the most valuable tool that most titled chess players have in their armoury.

    It is by no coincidence that GMs can remember tens of thousands of tactical positions and how they can use them to their advantage. If GMs can recognise that the game can lead to a winning endgame, they'll go straight to the endgame and beat you.

    To beat a better player, there is just no getting around it, you have to beat him by out-calculating him and building more of these blocks.

    Getting someone out of their pattern recognition is not as easy as it sounds, the main themes of skewers, deflections etc. are still fundamental. Pattern recognition does have its uses. If a player recognises a particular theme that he can use to get a winning advantage, he will use it. Pattern recognition blocks in chess are one of the basic foundations. Every player not only uses pattern recognition techniques to play their game but they also build on these patterns to construct more complex patterns.

    By having the basic pattern recognition themes down pat, they actually calculate less to the end of their pattern and this allows them to calculate longer variations without suffering from fatigue or time trouble, which is crucial when playing under classical time controls.

    IMHO of course.

    Thanks for your comments.


  7. Seriously? They're officially called "chunks"? I knew that, of course. Erm.

  8. Hi Chunky Rook, very cute. ;-)

    It is indeed called "chunking" and is very well known in the field of psychology.

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