zaterdag 5 april 2008

Freedom is to loose! Open letter to Chessloser.

Dear chessloser, You wonder what to do now!

When I read your post I felt a strong urge to reply. But my years of experience as a teacher and as trainer have taught me that it is very dangerous to give advise, if you don't know what the the exact problem is or what the other already did to fix the problem.

In my first year as a teacher at a university for applied sciences, I had to exam a female student. Before the exams I looked at the schedule in the restaurant. An other (older) colleague looked over my shoulder, and said: "I see that C.... is on your schedule". Having said no more he left, leaving me wonder why he would pick her name out of a list of 20 names.

As soon as the (oral) exam started I, as well as the co-examiner, found out why. C... walked into the room, and panic and anxiety were written all over her face. I tried to calm her down, offered her some coffee, told her that so far things had gone really well that morning and that all the students so far had passed. But it all was in vain. She picked up her coffee cup with trembling hands, tried to drink, but as she got the cup to her mouth, a sudden convulsive movement made her spill most of the coffee over the table. When the coffee spread over the table and contaminated our questionnaires, all three of us were frozen. I remember I looked at her, she looked at me, we all looked at the table, then looked at each other again. She tried to fight the tears in her eyes, but could not stop them. Then she started crying, softly.

Of course we did everything we could to normalise the situation and calm her down. So we cleaned the table. Told her that this was no problem at all, and started the exam again, giving her a glass of water to avoid new stains.

My philosophy with oral exams always has been that one should give a student the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge as much as possible, and that they are most likely to do so, if they have some confidence. So I always started with some "slam dunk questions", to make sure that the student could gain some confidence in the beginning and get rid of some nerves, before getting to the real testing questions.

This time I chose the easiest question that I could think of (not even on the questionnaire, that was unreadable after the coffee accident anyhow). And again those eyes! Sheer panic. And then silence, followed by a cramped face and more silence. So I tried to rephrase the question, attempting to make it completely monkey proof. But this aggravated the situation. She began to cry, loud this time. So loud in fact that we started to attract attention from people outside the room. We waited in silence and offered her paper handkerchiefs as hers began to ran out. We said as little as possible until she stopped crying.

As soon as she had dried her tears, we asked if she wanted to continue. To our relief she said that she didn't see any use in a continuance. There was some time left before the next candidate, so I thought that it was time to offer some advise, and suggested to her that there were ways to fix her problem. This was clearly the limit for her. Not only did she start to cry again, but she also got really angry with me and started yelling.

Did I know what she had already done? Would I believe her if she told me that she had done EVERYTHING to fix this. Could I possibly imagine how desperate her situation was? And that she would never ever pass an oral exam due to stress. And before I could make some suggestions, she summed up everything she had tried. It took five minutes or so to sum up. Leaving the distinct impression that this would offer enough material to write several breathtaking thesis's on "fear for failure".

The whole experience was intense enough to be a lifetime lesson. Since that day I try to be reserved when the occasion arises to give advice. But now there is this direct question, if not cry for help. What to do now? The only way I saw fit to give advise was to ask Chessloser to tell me what he had done so far to improve. After a few days he gave me the honor to reply and this is what he told me:

i've been studying chess, really paying attention and studying to learn and improve, for just over one year now. i've chosen one opening for white, one for black against 1.e4, and one for black against 1.d4 and tried to learn those openings through books on the openings and through master's games, to see how they played them. i also have a few books on tactics that i go over. other than that, i don't really have a "focused training schedule." but i'm not sure if that is what i need. i do have someone i study with, i analyze games, then we go over them and he answers any questions i have and teaches me through those games. but i don't know enough to know what questions to ask.

This information gave me enough to dare to give some advise. Chessloser is using a method of chess study that closely resembled mine when I was a student at Nijmegen University. In those days I studied chess with a very good chess friend. We analyzed our games together and often played blitz till dawn. We were 100% about chess. Even girls came second. Not to mention law school (my study) and philosophy (his). Studies which were more or less used for killing time between chess activities. He gained a lot of rating points in that period, I did hardly. When we met, I was somewhat stronger than him (50 points). When I left Nijmegen, he was a lot stronger than me (200 points).

I had to stop spending so much time on chess, since I got a full time job. Paradoxically enough, suddenly I made much more progress than in the years before. One of the main reasons was that I was on my own, and had to make some sense of chess study now that the entertaining evenings with my friend had stopped.

This was the moment that I began to work more systematically. The biggest jump however was after I did the course for "chesstrainer A" and "chesstrainer B". These made very clear to me on what didactic principles the stepsmethod was based, and what I should do to make progress. Just to avoid misunderstandings, the course was purely didactic, and there were no exercises to increase our own level. The only thing that came close to chess training for ourselves was the final exam for chesstrainer B in which we had to solve 12 exercises, a test to determine if we had step 6 level. Inspired by this course I began to do the steps myself. Being a 1850/1950 player at that time, I nevertheless did all the steps with the exception of step 1. And I did them exactly in the way we were taught to teach. After the theme exercises I would do the mixed exercises and after every solved position I would say out loud the theme of the exercise.

So I would sit behind the computer, solve a position and say: "pinned piece is a poor defender", or "kings attack, making a hole, regrouping material and mate.", or "decoy, taking piece and winning material". I did this in a regular schedule. At least three nights a week for one hour in a quiet environment. I felt in "the zone" as never before since puberty, and began to look at the board differently. I developed "chess vision". With the knowledge of today I would say that I was sharpening my motor skills.

And this my dear Chessloser is exactly my advise to you. Sharpen you motor skills. NOT by casually going through exercises, NOR by forcing yourself to do an over ambitious De La Maza schedule. But by returning to the basics and reestablish the basis of your chess skills. It seems to me that, just as I discovered for myself, the foundation of your skills is not good enough to ad new skills. If this indeed is the problem, no new knowledge will help you to improve. You need to unlearn and relearn. Methodically, gradually and determined. Use a schedule that does not interfere with higher priorities in life, but use the hours that you invest in chess study as well as you can. Just to give an illustration of my method of study I will give you three "step two positions" that I used, with solution and theme. (If you highlight the space between the brackets you will see solution and theme.)

White to move: (1 Rb5 double attack piece (Nb2) and square (b8) )

Black to move: (1 ..., Bg4 Discovered attack (battery), headpiece attacks material (Qf3), tailpiece attacks square (d3), extra credits for identifying "Pin" (Bg4. Qf3, Ke2) which prevents the queen defending d3. )

Black to move: (1 ..., Nc2+ eliminating defense, luring defender (Qd2) and taking material (Kxh6) )

Too simple? I don't think so. Remember the "micro drills" Michael de la Maza endorsed. He continued to do them, even after finishing the circles. Maybe those contributed more to his improvement than circle 4 to 7.

Hope this helps.


P.S. For those of you who wondered what has happened to C.... She graduated, but rivers of tears flooded the university building before she eventually did. And without Clause 5 (see below) she might never have.