Monthly Archives: September 2011

One Year along the Road

It’s now been about a year since I started my ‘Road to Grandmaster’ project, so in this post I’ll give a brief summary of the year, before looking forward to the coming year.

The year started with a disastrous performance at Paignton last September – but this was before I’d started studying properly, and at the end of the summer club closed season. Things improved thereafter, and I thought the London Classic in December might be the start of a breakthrough. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite able to sustain the level achieved there over the remainder of the season. The British Major Open in August seemed like another breakthrough, but it was immediately followed by a miserable performance at Sunningdale (which may or may not be attributable partly to tiredness from playing back-to-back tournaments).

Does this year’s up-and-down performance represent improvement? I believe it does, though not as much as I’d have liked. My new ECF grade is 162 (equivalent to 1946 FIDE), up from 152 (1866 FIDE) last year. My latest rating, and first official FIDE rating, is 1966 on the September list, which marks an improvement of exactly 100 ELO points (admittedly involving a conversion between different rating systems) on my rating last year. It also marks a starting point; a point from which my progress towards the title can be measured directly, without the need for conversions.

Given that, despite many hours of hard work, my progress is not all that could be desired, is it clear that I do not have the innate talent required to become an excellent chess player? I’m not yet prepared to accept that as the only explanation. Let’s look at a hypothetical good day’s study from earlier in this summer holiday:

9 – 10 am: Solve tactics problems from CT-Art 4.0
10 – 11 am: Work through Dvoretsky’s ‘Endgame Manual
11 am – 12 noon: Work through Silman’s ‘How to Reassess Your Chess
12 noon – 1 pm: Lunch break
1 pm – 2 pm: Solve tactics problems from CT-Art 4.0
2 pm – 4 pm: Watch an opening DVD
8 pm – 9 pm: Play a couple of 15-minute games on ICC

Next day: repeat.

Looks great, doesn’t it? I used to think so too, but I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that this doesn’t necessarily represent an optimal way to study.

I put it to you that there are two main problems with the above example. Firstly, there are too many different types of material crammed into one day. To quote Nimzowitsch: ‘The simultaneous analysis of different types of positions merely generates confusion in your thoughts…’. Any lessons learned from Dvoretsky are likely to be forgotten when we start working through Silman immediately afterwards.

Secondly, because of the length of the day (seven hours’ study) it’s very difficult to maintain a high level of intensity. Indeed, just the first hour of focused problem-solving is tiring enough to make it difficult to engage fully with the challenging material which follows (Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual). The result is that at some point you end up clock-watching, waiting for the allotted time to end, or studying half-heartedly (e.g. watching a DVD passively, without taking notes, or reading a book without subjecting the author’s opinions to your own analysis).

Having said that, I don’t think the above day’s study is a bad one by any means. The real problem is that it’s not possible to maintain all the time. During term-time, for example, a day’s study might be 15 minutes tactics, half an hour watching a DVD, 15 minutes playing a game online and half an hour reading a middlegame book. With such reduced times it’s clear that nothing profound can be learned from any element of the day’s study. One way in which the pattern can be (and has been) disrupted during the holidays is in the lead-up to a tournament, when I’ve felt the need to flit from opening to opening trying to ‘plug the holes’ in my repertoire. Again, the net result is that very little is learned about any of the openings I play.

A new way of studying

These thoughts about how best to study were triggered by my friend FM Peter Poobalasingam, who introduced me to the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. As I understand it, the basic concept is to practice one element of your chosen discipline, over and over again, until you’ve really mastered it (or at least significantly improved at it). It could be the serve, or a stretched forehand volley in tennis; a particular shot is chosen and repeated many times. In music, it could be a short phrase which is practiced with a metronome until it’s been perfected at that speed (when the metronome can be sped up or you can move on to the next phrase).

I’d now like to complete the Nimzowitsch quote which I started earlier:

“The simultaneous analysis of different types of positions merely generates confusion in your thoughts, whereas a thorough study of one type cannot fail to raise the level of your positional understanding. If you, dear reader, with maximum available intensity sit down to study positions say, with a central file against a flank storm, it would not surprise me at all if as a result you observe a clearer judgement in the field of the endgame. The process of studying one typical position has the aim not only of analyzing this typical position, but also improving your positional understanding as a whole.”

I’ll also quote a reader, Chris Falter, who said the following in response to my ‘Summer of Chess’ post:

“You asked a question about what you should be studying, but I think the more important question is *how* you should be studying. I myself am just now figuring out (at the age of 50!) how important it is to actively engage with difficult material in order to improve. When I look at how I gained piano mastery decades ago, that was definitely the key. I would take on a piece that’s a little beyond my ability, work through it phrase by phrase, repeatedly, until I got it under my belt.”

This post is getting lengthy, so rather than analysing those quotations I’ll jump straight to my proposed new method of study.

• Do away with the weekly study time targets, and stop clock-watching and recording all my study to the nearest 5 minutes.
• Instead, have daily achievement aims, such as ‘Analyse game x.’
• Work until I feel I’ve learned something, or until I can no longer work at a high intensity, not until a set time.

The way I see this working in the next few weeks is in analysing my latest FIDE-rated games deeply. I intend to analyse them in batches by opening, in order to facilitate the drawing of conclusions about general problems I might have in certain types of position. For example, I might choose to start with my French Defence games, in which case I will analyse the first of these until I think I’ve done a good job of it and really learned something (which might take a day, or might take longer, but I plan not to be too concerned about that). Then I’ll move onto the next, and perhaps draw breath at the end of the French games to note connections and shared conclusions, before starting to look at my games in a different opening.

Finally, a word about how long I intend to keep trying to become a Grandmaster, and when I might call it a day. I intend to keep going for the following year (my final year of university), and then probably have a gap year in which I make a special effort. If at the end of that time I’ve not made significant progress then I will be forced to accept that it’s not a realistic aim, but I hope to have enjoyed the journey in any case.

This post has only really covered the ‘how to study’ bit of my proposed new method; a post with some new ideas about what to study will follow.

As always, I value your comments.