I have had a life-long interest in the mental training and psychological methods that are often placed under the heading “self improvement,” and since I became an avid chess player 30 or so years ago I have looked at ways to use these methods for stronger practical play. In future I will explore a number of these with you, and hope you will share your experiences in this area on the entry for the post at Nigel’s Facebook page. Especially if you think I’m all wet.

The book Rapt by Winifred Gallagher argues that the quality of our lives depends to a great extent on what we choose to pay attention to, and how well we do so. I recommend you read the whole thing, but as far as chess play goes, a main point is that we really can focus (consciously) on only one thing at a time, and that our focus is narrower than we usually realize. In human vision, the eye has a limited number of receptors, and a little self-experimentation will prove to you how you actually see only a small part of the visual field at all clearly; the rest is a fuzzy haze filled in by your mind (for some fun examples, see here).

Apart from vision, what we focus on has many other effects on our experience; when presented a business opportunity, do we focus on risks, or rewards? While playing a game of chess are we able to focus on the game itself, or do we sometimes think about how many points our grading will go up if we win, or how much prize money might be ours if we win this one, then the last round? Despite my own study, work and training, I too have had thoughts like this during important games, and while I won my share, this can’t be helpful.

Grandmaster Frank Marshall has been quoted as saying that, “In chess, attention is more important than concentration.” (And say, look at the quote third below Marshall’s, from Nigel Davies! But that is another post). Whatever can that mean? Now that we have got the preliminaries out of the way, with the material gleaned from Rapt and other sources I present a practical list of ways to train and play that work with your human attention capabilities, in order to improve your chess:

Attention span is time-limited; use this to your advantage. The amount of time you can pay attention to one thing (like your next move) is limited, and resting your mind periodically during a game is the best thing you can do to ensure that you stay fresh for move 50, 60 or more if needed. At time controls like Game/90 or similar, I don’t think you should ever use more than 10 minutes for a move, no mater how complicated, and 6-8 is probably the maximum for actually finding anything useful. Time spent after that is likely to be wasted and tiring. Most moves need to be made in 2-3 minutes at modern time controls, so find a move and play it! It may not be the “best” but if you get into time pressure plus mental exhaustion what are the odds of a serious blunder?

Pay as much attention to your opponent’s position as your own. This has been a bête noire of mine throughout my chess career, and I believe from observation it’s true of many other players as well. I have a tendency to focus too much on my possibilities: I’m going to advance my center pawns! I’m going to attack his king side! The opponent, one may be sure, has plans of his own, but non-masters are less attentive to these. I’ve developed a couple of techniques to counter this tendency; one, what I describe as “Look at the opponent’s pieces.” Write that at the top of your score sheet before the game. If you spend a good bit of time visually attending to your opponent’s formation, where the focal points of his pieces come together and so on, you will notice things that you would miss if you spent too much time looking at your own pieces and considering the wonderful things you might do with them. Also, you may recall the old Soviet advice of calculating on your clock time and looking at “positional considerations” on your opponent’s time. I would change this to “calculate for your opponent” on his time! While his clock runs, pretend you are he (or she); find the best move. If the opponent plays something else, you may have a head start on why it’s not good! If you’re surprised, also good. Now you’ll be looking for what the opponent is trying to do to you with the move, instead of immediately starting in on what you want to do.

“Beware of the Guard Cat”

Switching our attention to something pleasant and non-chess related can help freshen it. Often we get up from our game for a stretch and end up looking at other games. I don’t think this is harmful, but it has worked well for me to look out a window at trees or grass or clouds for a few moments (or even the parking lot!). If no window is readily available, look at the people around you. Just for a moment, take your mind off of your game and look at their faces. What do you read there? What stories might they have to tell? This is not just some humanist baloney, but a very practical method for refreshing yourself. One to two minutes of focusing away from your board every 15 minutes or so, even if you don’t get up, is a recipe for staying mentally fresher.

Just for fun: 12 Concentration Exercises from 1918! I know that Frank Marshall said that attention was more important than concentration, but we haven’t really defined the difference, have we? Mental exercises like this have a long history, from Athens to Zen. I think they can only do one good. I would add that there are chess board versions: take a board and a knight. Forget for awhile all the clutter that comes from the 32-piece  starting position. Place the knight somewhere near the middle of the board. Visualize all the squares it can jump to and color them all a bright pink in your mind, until you actually see the color (some chess programs do this on command but that sort of passive viewing does little of value!). Hold this picture for 10 seconds. Do the same with a queen. Put both queen and knight on the board and turn all the squares they both control purple. Hold this picture for awhile. Make up your own variations with more pieces.

The possibilities for training our attention, improving out chess and having joy in doing so are limitless. Surf around the Web or Amazon for more ideas. I would especially recommend, again, paying more attention to our opponents, for if we can catch them paying more attention to themselves our chances of success dramatically increase.