Interleaving and Calculation Training

I recently read an interesting book called Make It Stick, subtitled ‘The Science of Successful Learning’. In it, the authors expound a number of ideas about effective learning, most of which are not particularly common practice, and discuss the science behind these ideas. Some , such as spaced repetition, I was already familiar with. Others, like ‘interleaving’ (the topic of today’s post), were new to me.

Interleaving means mixing up the practice of different types of problem in a single session. The first study cited is of children learning to throw beanbags into a bucket three feet away. One group’s practice is confined to a bucket three feet away; the other group practises throwing into buckets which are two and four feet distant (but not into a three foot bucket). In the test, which features only a bucket at three feet, the second group does markedly better, despite never having practised at that distance. Whilst this may be surprising, it is hard to see what relevance it might have for chess study.

In the second, more pertinent study, students were taught to calculate the volume of four different three dimensional shapes. One group practised solving all the exercises for one type, before moving on to the next type, solving all those exercises, and so on. The exercises for the other group were ordered randomly, so that a student could, for example, find herself solving one exercise for shape A, then one for shape C, then one for shape B and so on. Intuitively, I suspect most people would expect the first method to be more effective; it seems that it would allow the student to really master solving one type of exercise before turning her attention to the next type. Indeed, during practice the first group fared better. However, on the final test a week later, the first group averaged only 20%, while the second group eclipsed that score with an average of 63%. A possible explanation is that the effortful recall involved in remembering how to solve a particular type of exercise was very effective at strengthening the neural pathways for that particular skill; clearly this is something the second group had to do much more of during practice. The book goes into more detail, for those interested.

Another interesting book I own, but have yet to read very much of, is Calculation, from Jacob Aagaard’s highly acclaimed ‘Grandmaster Preparation’ series. In it, a few hundred difficult calculation exercises are presented, divided into themes such as ‘Candidate Moves’, ‘Comparison’ and ‘Elimination’ according to the calculation method most useful in solving them. Each theme has an explanation, which is followed immediately by exercises designed to reinforce that explanation in the student’s mind. I would imagine that Jacob intends students to read the book from start to end, following the same method as the first group in the volume calculation experiment presented above. I intend to use the second group’s method instead, and have used this tool to order the problems randomly. My hope is that the greater amount of effortful recall involved will result in far better retention of all methods after finishing the book, but of course with myself as the only experimental subject I will not be able to prove that it has worked. If any chess teachers out there would like to try an interleaving experiment with their students I would be very interested to hear the results!

P.S. For those of you coming here to read my ‘T-40 Review’, I have postponed this by a week and will be presenting a ‘T-39 Review’ next Sunday instead.

Road to 2100: T-43 Review

I have decided to appropriate an idea from my day job doing project management for Network Rail, and have a series of ‘T minus reviews’ leading up to my deadline for making 2100.  T- reviews give a snapshot of your progress towards a goal at a given point in time, and help you to identify any areas which require extra attention.  I propose to write the next one in three weeks (at ‘T-40′), and then every four weeks until the deadline (or until I hit my target).  Feel free to suggest changes to the format if there is additional information you would like to see.


FIDE standard: 1957 – 1981 (expected), +24 points

FIDE arena rapid: 1920 – 1920, +0 points (no games)

FIDE arena blitz: ~1980 – 1936, -44 points

The main news here is that I gained (well, regained) a healthy number of points at the recent European rail industry team chess tournament in Belgium (and also picked up the board three prize).  For some reason these have yet to show up on the rating list, but I expect they will do so on the next list.  I am also tracking my FIDE online arena ratings, as they should align reasonably well with my over-the-board FIDE rating.  I have yet to play a rapid game online, so no change there from my default starting rating of 1920.  I have lost a number of blitz rating points (not sure exactly how many as I did not note my rating in the last list), but I am not overly concerned as some of these can be attributed to the poor internet connection in my last house.  I have now moved house, and will be looking to use my improved internet connection to regain these points for the next report.

Assessment: Green (little cause for concern)


Though the rating gain is on track (if I gained 24 points for each review I would have crossed 2100 by T-24), the study is not.  My public study log reveals that I have done 590 minutes of deliberate practice since records began on the 20th of September against a target of 1800 minutes (three times as much).

Part of this shortfall may be unfairly caused by my strict recording of only ‘deliberate practice’.  Deliberate practice is a term coined by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson to describe effortful, highly focused practice, carefully designed to bring about maximum performance improvement.  It seems clear to me that problem-solving type activities fit this description, but less clear that analysis of one’s games fits.  A lot of my game analysis is done on my tablet on the way back from a game, and is not particularly intense or effortful, so I have not included it, although I still think it is useful.  Had I included this my study time would probably have nearly doubled.

I am going to try to establish a post- or pre-work chess study habit by the next report, either going into work early and studying there before most people arrive, or going to a coffee shop to study before returning home.  I think this will be more successful than trying to do all my study at home.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

That’s all for this review, and I hope to have better news in the next.  Let me know your thoughts and anything else you would like to see in the next review (for example, a games section) in the comments below.

Coach and Study Regime

As I mentioned recently, I have been looking for a coach.  I am delighted to say that I have now found one, and will be working with IM Tom Rendle.  We have had two sessions together so far, which showed great promise, and I hope it will be a long and fruitful relationship.

So far we have been de-constructing my thought process, trying to find the reasons why I frequently either fail to find or fail to choose the right move, and working on calculation.  This was not part of my earlier ‘2100 Plan’ for the simple reason that I did not have the confidence to do this on my own, but knew that I could successfully work on openings and endings alone.  However, it seems clear that managing to improve my thought process would have a positive impact on all parts of my game; with Tom’s help I believe that I can do this, so for now that is what I will be focusing on.

Study schedule

Tom has told me that when he seriously trying to improve, he played around 100 competitive games of chess a year.  This seems like a reasonable figure to aim for; ambitious, but just about achievable whilst working full-time.  Estimating an average of 3 hours per game, that comes to 300 hours, which I will aim to match 1:1 with study, making a total of 600 serious chess hours over the year, or about 12 hours per week (6 hours of study).

In the past, too many of my hours have been dedicated to activities of questionable benefit, like nodding along to a DVD explanation but not really paying full attention, or playing online blitz games.  Going forward I will try to make my tracked hours of study as efficient as possible, doing something the pschologist K. Anders Ericsson called ‘deliberate practise’.  I intend to discuss that concept more in the future, but for now I will just note that it will probably involve a lot of problem solving.  I will no doubt continue to do ‘softer’ chess activities, but these will be in addition to the 6 hours of hard study per week.


I have set up a Google spreadsheet to record my training on, and hope this will be a better way of sharing it than my old weekly progress reports.  If you would like an invitation to view and edit this spreadsheet, pop your email address in the form in the sidebar at the top right of your screen (no need to do so again if you have done so in the past).  Feel free to add your own tab to the spreadsheet if you have your own training goals you would like to be held accountable to.  I will also be doing progress updates on the blog, perhaps every four weeks, and am thinking about other metrics such as online ratings to track for these.


As stated above, I will be aiming to play 100 serious games by September 2016.  Of these, I would like at least half to be FIDE-rated.  I have created another Google spreadsheet to calculate how many FIDE-rated games I would need to play at various rating performances to reach 2100, and this indicates that I would need 49 games at an average performance of 2150 to hit the goal.  (This sheet may be of interest to people as well, since it can easily be modified for your own calculations, so I will also share this with people who sign up above.)

I am intending to play in the ‘Four Nations Chess League’ and the London Chess Classic this season, which together will give me around 20 FIDE-rated games.  That still leaves me 30+ to find, so tournament suggestions or invitations are welcome.

That’s it for now, and please do let me know your thoughts on anything I have written in the comments below.

Kavala Open, part 1

In August I played my first long tournament since last year’s Major Open, in sunny Kavala.  Kavala is a seaside town in eastern Greece, where the attractive beaches compete with the chessboard for players’ attention.  Fortunately, although my morning preparation may have suffered a little, they did not manage to prevent me from turning up at the board.

My preparation for the first round was sub-optimal, to put it mildly.  My Gatwick to Barcelona flight was delayed, which meant that I missed my connection to Thessaloniki.  Instead of putting me on the next direct flight, Vueling elected to send me first to Rome, then to Athens, and finally to Thessaloniki, which resulted in me reaching Kavala at around 2 am on the day of the first game, after a hellish 40-hour journey.  I was paired with an International Master, and after getting slightly the better of the opening, I miscalculated and lost quickly.

Round two saw me paired with an 1806-rated junior; always an unpredictable proposition, as they can easily be a couple of hundred points stronger than their published rating.  Despite still being tired, I played reasonably well and had good winning chances, but didn’t take them and only managed to draw.  The second day featured a double round, so after the long morning game I had to play again in the afternoon.  This did not go well, as can be seen below:

In Swiss tournaments, it can be very difficult to to put a bad start like this behind you.  I tried hard to come unaffected to the next game, but made a few questionable decisions at the board and shortly before the time control found myself close to defeat against another 1800 player.  Had I gone on to lose this game the entire tournament could well have been a disaster, but fortune smiled on me, and after hanging on grimly for a few moves my opponent blundered on move 41, handing me my first full point.  This buoyed my spirits considerably, and the following day I returned and played the following nice attacking game:
A report on the second half of the tournament will follow.  In the meantime, please comment below to let me know your thoughts on the first half.

The Final Year?

As seems to have become my habit recently, there has been a gap of many months since my last post.  This is not because I have not been playing chess; I have been continuing with London and UK league chess, and even travelled to Greece earlier this month to play in the Kavala Open (my first tournament abroad since Pardubice).  Nor is it because I lack ideas to post about; there are a number of chess-improvement topics I am quite excited about, and would like to share.  No – the lack of posts is because I have not been consistently working hard on my chess, and consequently have not been making progress. Without these things this blog has no reason to exist.  I could write about the ups and downs of club chess, or my untested training ideas, but many such blogs exist.  Without wishing to take anything away from those blogs, this one was supposed to be different.  It was supposed to be a test of what was possible for an average club player, with hard work and real commitment to getting stronger.  I know many of you share my frustration that I have not so far been able to realise this vision, and I recently received the following email from a reader:

“Hey. You had a nice goal, but not updating your website in a year or so and not leaving any comments about your progress is just cowardice. If you can’t reach your potential and have no improvement plans, you should make your viewers aware of that. Just admit that you were not up to the challenge – people will accept that – or make regular posts about your progress. Otherwise this site has nothing to provide.”

In light of the above, I have decided to set myself a deadline.  If I have not reached at least 2100 strength by the 1st of September 2016, I will set aside my goal to become a GM and discontinue this blog.  (A small disclaimer: by 2100 strength, I mean that ideally I would have passed 2100 ELO, but if it is abundantly clear that I have reached that level (e.g. I have performed well above it in my last few tournaments) but I haven’t been able to play enough games to gain the points, I may continue.)

This goal strikes me as very achievable, but given my previous failures to keep myself consistently motivated I will be taking no chances.  Einstein famously defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, so I will go about things slightly differently this time.  To this end I am finally looking to hire a coach.  Suggestions/applications for this position are welcome, and I am open to working in person or online.  Ideally I would work with my coach at least a couple of times a week, but if the coach’s rates make this unaffordable I would consider other arrangements.

I will post details of my new training regime once I have found a coach.  Given my previous failures I would understand if not everyone chose to follow this time round, but I hope at least some of you will choose to stick with me for what could be the final year of this project.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

Chess in London

I’ve been settled into my new job and new life in London for a while now, and an update is long overdue.  I’ll share a game and a few words about London chess today, and update you all on my training in a week or two.

Chess in London is quite different from chess in rural Somerset.  I’ve joined two clubs – The Drunken Knights in the London League, and Muswell Hill in the Middlesex League.  Both are rather strong; I generally played board 1 for my Somerset club, but would play board thirty-something for the Drunken Knights if they were ever at full strength.  My hope is that playing stronger players on a regular basis will be good for my chess.

Evening chess after a long day at work is, unsurprisingly, proving more of a struggle than after the shorter days I have been used to.  Fortunately upgrading my habitual Diet Coke to a Red Bull seems to keep me relatively alert, and although my chess has not leapt to Nakamura‘s or Sachdev‘s level, I am so far more-or-less holding my own, with 1.5/4 against mostly stronger opposition.  My most interesting game so far, against a new Drunken Knights, Muswell Hill and West is Best (my 4NCL team) teammate, is given below with brief comments:


The 2100 Plan

Some time after returning from China I began thinking seriously about chess improvement again, and devised a simple study plan.  It is my hope that the successful completion of this plan will result in my strength increasing by at least 100 points.  It is based on two observations about my game:

    1. Despite having spent many hours over the course of this project thinking about and working on my openings, my opening repertoire is still a sorry thing, cobbled together from different sources over the years, often with little regard to how well a particular opening suits me stylistically.  It is also full of holes, one early example of which can be seen below:

      I’ve played 1…e5 all my life, but after 3. Nc3 in a tournament game I would be forced to start thinking.

    2. My endgame knowledge is extremely patchy.  I recently purchased Silman’s Complete Endgame Course (excellent, by the way) and found that I didn’t even know everything presented in the ‘Class C’ (1400-1599 rating) section – knowledge that Silman thinks players rated 400-600 points lower than me should have.

      The position above is an example of the famous ‘Philidor position’.  Black to move draws easily with Rh6!  I expect I have known this in the past, but I had forgotten, and would probably have played Rh1?! in a tournament game (after which it is still a draw with best play, but black must demonstrate some technique).  (For anyone wondering, I did remember the even more fundamental ‘Lucena position’.)

These two observations led me to formulate the following three-step plan:

  1. Analyse all the serious games I have played in recent years, with a view to understanding which types of positions I play especially poorly and which types a little better.  I took my method from this Chessbase article and the book Chess for Tigers (a book which has been recommended to me many times, and which I have finally got round to buying, and, even more remarkably, reading cover-to-cover several times).
  2. Devise a complete opening repertoire based on the results of stage 1, and learn it thoroughly.
  3. Obtain a thorough grounding in endgame theory by reading Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual in its entirety.  Retain said grounding using a technique I will talk about in a future post.  This step has now been modified slightly to include reading the Silman book mentioned above before Dvoretsky (more about this in another post).

Of course, my openings and endgame knowledge are not the only two areas of my game which could be improved.  My calculation, positional understanding, and almost any other area you care to name leave much to be desired.  However, I’ve chosen those two areas to start with because it’s easy to see how to improve them and I’m fairly confident that my plan to do so will have measurable results.

The first stage has already been completed, and saw me look through around 175 of my long time-control games and record my observations in a spreadsheet.  It would certainly have been easier and I would have learned more if I had had a very strong player looking over my games with me, but even without that assistance I have gained one or two useful insights.  Stages 2 and 3 can be completed in any order, and I have been dabbling with both.  I am inclined now to focus on stage 3 until it is completed, before turning my full attention to stage 2.

Please let me know in the comments section what you think of my plan, but don’t be surprised if I disregard any suggestions to radically change it.  I believe my main problem so far has not been my method of study, but rather my frequent changes of approach, which has led to me starting to study many areas/openings/books and finishing very few.  I have learnt a thing or two about how not to get things done in the process, and my completion of the first stage makes me hopeful that this time I may be able to stick with the plan to the end.


Road to 2100

It’s been nearly four years since I started this blog with a post titled ‘Road to Grandmaster‘.  In the year following this announcement I worked quite hard on my chess, and made decent progress towards my goal, but in the ensuing three years my priorities shifted (to my degree, learning Mandarin in China and getting a job, respectively).  Although I never completely stopped playing or studying chess, with my focus elsewhere it’s not surprising that I wasn’t able to do more than maintain my level (at about 2000 rating, or weak ‘Expert’ strength).

The job thing is finally sorted: in three weeks’ time I will be moving to London to work for Network Rail, the company responsible for Britain’s rail infrastructure.  With this arranged, I find my thoughts turning more and more to resuming my chess improvement project and blog.  Of course, with a full-time job finding time for chess study will be challenging, and my chances of making Grandmaster don’t seem to be any better than they were when I started in 2010.  With that said, I enjoy writing about chess improvement, may still have some interesting things to say about it, and have found that at least a handful of people enjoy reading what I write.  This seems sufficient reason to start blogging again, though the blog will not be entirely as before: welcome to the ‘Road to 2100′.

Nope, it isn’t April the 1st.  While I won’t be changing the domain name, the revised aim, at least for the time being, is to achieve a 2100 rating.  I have been advised more than once either to set a more realistic final target, or to set intermediate targets, and this is me finally taking that advice.  The 2100 target is a bit of both; I certainly hope that the ‘road to 2100′ will prove to be merely a ‘large step to 2100′, and that before I know it I will be writing about improving to Candidate Master strength.  However, if and when I do reach 2100 (and any subsequent targets) I will make a decision about whether or not to continue based on my priorities in life at that time, which I can’t foresee now.

I also envisage the content of the blog changing somewhat.  Updates on my progress, tournament reports and analyses of my games will still appear, but they will be less frequent than before.  Instead, I hope to feature more content about the theory of learning in general and chess-learning in particular, and perhaps also instructional content helping lower-rated players with aspirations to improve to ‘Class A’ or ‘Expert’.

As before, my blogging will only be worth the time and effort which goes into it if I have readers who find some value or interest in my content.  I hope many of the old readers who have been with me from the beginning will continue with me in this new phase of the blog, and I welcome any new readers who have just found it.  Please say ‘Hi’ in the comments section below, and let me know if you have any ideas for what you would like to see on this new old blog.

The Future of Road to GM

I’ve now returned from my year in China, but the future of my project to become a Grandmaster is still uncertain.  In order to study chess it is absolutely necessary to be alive, and in order to remain alive for any length of time access to food, water and shelter is useful.  The acquisition of these requires money, so it is to the generation of said money that I now turn my attention.

It is my hope that at some point in the future I will once again be able to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to chess, but that point is not now.  I have set up an email list for the purpose of informing people if/when this project becomes active again.  You can sign up on the right.