An unexamined life is not worth living.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Turning Chess Knowledge into Playing Strength

It often happens that a chess player studies a lot, but the rating does not go up. On the other hand, sometimes one just plays in tournaments, and the rating keeps growing and growing, without the player putting much effort into learning chess theory. Today, I thought I’d break this down into pieces.

There are various sources of chess knowledge:

  • Grandmaster games in books and databases
  • Games you play and analyse yourself
  • Opening theory
  • Endgame books and theory
  • Tactical fragments and combinations

These contribute to your “chess culture”, but if you stare at an opening encyclopaedia all day, and cannot remember a thing a day later, that does not help you much in the next tournament. Success during any given game depends on how well you processed that information, and whether you turned it into so called chess skills:

  • correct play in fully memorized opening variations
    • Part of this is specific opening preparation against a given opponent
    • You’d rarely win a game by pure opening knowledge alone, but exact knowledge helps building a foundation for every game
  • correct play in fully memorized endgame positions
  • clock control/time management, staying calm in Zeitnot, if it does occur
  • ability to focus well and the same time not get too tired during the game
  • recognizing patterns in the opening, middlegame, endgame positions
    • this is really where the bulk of chess strength lies; using those patterns a stronger player can outplay a weaker opponent, spot a tactical chance, etc

Today I made an ‘observation’ - I spend time acquiring bits of chess knowledge year after year, but my skills stay about the same, at least my rating says so. For almost 10 years. While preserving one’s playing strength does not come for free, some progress would be nice too. So I wrote this up so that I can ask myself a few questions:

  • Could I be more efficient at acquiring skills while ploughing throw various sources of chess information?
  • Am I not acquiring enough “knowledge”?
    • do I not learn enough “new stuff”, fast enough for progress to be noticeable?
    • for every new bit that I learn – do I forget some other older bit of chess information, because that’s how memory works once you get older?
  • Does my newly acquired knowledge fail to consistently translate into immediate skills/strength?
    • Memorizing opening variations that no one plays against you would be one way of achieving that ‘goal’
    • Another example would be switching from one opening to another. That’s rarely going to make you a stronger player on a spot; at least in this case there is method behind the madness
  • In the end of the day – should I make sure that I am spending my time where it’s going to benefit my playing strength the most?
    • This is not a redundant question: one could be studying chess for pure enjoyment, with no particular purpose in mind

For myself, the answer is probably “yes” to all those questions! What about you?

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