vrijdag 26 september 2008

First note on transfer

In an earlier post I had presented a framework for chess improvement (see below). The part of the framework that raised the most questions was the “transfer” block. And in many ways this was indeed a “black box”. The whole subject is more or less ignored in all major books or methods of chess improvement but the manuals for chesstrainers step 1 to 5 being a notable exception.

First of all, let me explain to you what transfer is to me. Transfer is using the patterns one has acquired by learning and/or training in a game. Working with beginning players in combination with the chess trainers course has opened my eyes to the gap that exists between solving exercises and playing a game. Very often I would see young players who could solve 3 to 4 ply deep tactics, yet who more often than not, put their pieces en prise several times in a game or miss 1 ply deep opportunities to capture a piece or execute a simple mate.

The way we were taught to handle this was to make a connection between the things our students had learned and playing a game. So every time I see a beginning player putting a piece en prise, I wait for his opponents move. If he misses the capture I will stop the game and ask both players: ‘Do you see undefended pieces or other targets (king, mating square)?’ And after they have pointed out all the targets I ask them, so what is the best move? This almost never fails to direct them to the best move.

The other method I use to improve transfer is to encourage beginning players to name the theme when they use a tactic. It is amazing what it does to them if they start saying out loud: “double attack: wood and square” or “Pinned piece is a poor defender”, etc.

All of this does wonders when players are climbing up from a rating of 1000 to 1600. But after reaching 1600 level the results are found to diminish. I believe that the reason for these diminishing returns is that the games above a certain level are no longer decided by basic tactics and themes that occur in almost every game. When I tell a player: "look for targets", and he sees almost every game decided because he or his opponent fail to do so, I have established a very direct connection between training and playing.

But when you improve and face stronger opposition, games are no longer decided anymore by these basic tactics. And this is where most of us get out of “the zone” of fast improvement. Improving gets harder and the connection between training and playing is lost again. So the big question is: can this connection be re-established? This will be addressed in my next post on transfer.

vrijdag 19 september 2008

Zen and the art of chess training

As stated my last post, I am still alive! And though my current audience may well be very limited after such a long and unannounced break, I feel that it is time now to resume posting. Contrary to the posts I wrote up to now, I will focus less on general training issues. Future posts will mainly tell you about my own struggle to improve, or at least keep my current level.

This is a real struggle, and I would not dare to begin posting about it, if I hadn't proven to myself that I had the determination to give it the required effort. And I think I have. For 20 weeks I have been working through step 6 of the stepsmethod. Every week doing at least 3 sheets of 12 exercises (see the bottom of this post to check out the planning sheet). And I really feel the pay off. already I can sense that I have mastered a few skills that I did not before.

It is too soon to tell if this will have any influence on my rating, but I am convinced that in the long term it will. Provided that I will continue to train like this. For the next 20 weeks I know what I have to do.

As for the period after that I also have a precise plan on what to do. Then I will come to phase two of my struggle with step 6. Phase two is going through all the positions that I could not solve. These positions are the true treasure of my study plan. These are the position I could not solve, not even after trying for 20 to 30 minutes. Most of the time I could not solve them because I did not find or even know the pattern. Others I missed because I did not calculate well enough.

Just to give you an example of the latter I give you this position. It did not take me long to see the pattern, yet I failed to give the correct sequence because I missed a crucial defense. It is white to move and win.

(Here I immediately saw 1 c5 Bb1. After a few minutes I came up with 2 c6?! Be4 3 Ne6! and after 3 ... fxe6 c7! the pawn will queen. So 3 ... Bxc6 is forced, and now 4 Nd4+ appears to be winning. But unfortunately it is not. Black can play 4 .... Ke4 (I completely missed that move) and after 5 Nxc6 Kd5 it is not clear how white can win. Much, much better is 2 Ne6! fxe6 3 c6 and black is completely lost. Did you find this one? Congratulations if you did.)

So many of us (me included) are tempted to seek for improvement within our comfort zone. But this is not where it can be found. They are like all those people who think that they can do what Zen monks do, just by meditating every day and setting up a Buddhist altar in the living room. They love the beautiful and comfortable Zen, not the brutal and true Zen.

In chess terms: they play over games and analysis casually, read the narratives about the game, read the psychological bogus, and think that this laid back approach will make them stronger. But even if they learn, it does not mean that their skills improve. I have yet to see a correspondence course that will teach anyone a swim stroke like the butterfly.

There is no way around it. Improvement, for most of us, is hard work. In my humble opinion this is what chess training is all about. Struggling to add patterns and sharpening your calculation skills. It is a bit like Randy Pausch said in his brilliant Last Lecture. When you want to get at a certain place, but face a wall, remember that this wall is build to keep out the other people. And even when you are ready to break down the wall and get to it, it is still not certain that you have find the 1% of useful advise Temposchlucker refers to.

In spite of itself, Zen is what we are talking about when we talk about peeling away the many-layered fabric of false identity. If you take away all the trappings of Zen -the teachings and ceremonies, the different schools, the postures and the koans, everything you think of as Zen- and throw it in the fire. What survives? What is the true core of Zen after all its veins and vanities have burned away?

The fire! The fire is what's left. The fire is Zen.

(Jed McKenna, Spiritual Warfare)


The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.