Catching a Firefly in a Bottle

Let’s step back for a moment and ponder why we even need to draw up a program of study for ourselves. Did Bobby Fischer become great by following a structured program? Many great players of past eras, and many grandmasters today, seem to have reached their positions of eminence rather haphazardly by following no rational plan whatsoever, but rather by doing whatever came naturally to them day to day: playing a lot, looking at their own games and the games of other top players, and talking about chess with their peers. They seem to have simply soaked up the game by spending a lot of time playing it and “hanging out in the chess culture.”

Let us untangle two logical strands, because the foregoing analysis is partly true and partly false. Yes, many top players probably have spent a lot of time “doing what they feel” rather than following a structured program. They began with a love for the game and a natural drive to excel; early success whetted their appetite for more success; and as they rose higher in the chess world, they probably benefited from an intuition, based on their past experience, about what they needed to do to continue to be successful.

But “doing what you feel” can take you only so far, and appearances can be deceptive. Based on what little I know of grandmasters, I would venture to say virtually all of them worked very hard to get where they are. We just don’t see them much outside of tournament settings, so we don’t realize it. Back in the early 1970s future grandmaster Ken Rogoff told a few of us at the Rochester Chess Club that he would grind his way through every game in every new Informant. It was hard work. And that was only one thing he did: presumably he did much more. Not all grandmasters may be that disciplined, but probably they have all worked hard in their own ways.

Most top grandmasters probably work very hard. At Linares in 1994 I asked Vladimir Kramnik, “What advice do you have for an amateur who wants to improve?” This intense young man, who would defeat Garry Kasparov for the world championship six years later, told me very seriously: “You must work hard every day. If you work hard for six months and take six months off, you will never get anywhere. You must work hard every day.” He added, to my surprise: “This tournament is a rest for me. It is relaxing, compared to my training.”

We amateurs cannot easily replicate the intense conditions of study and play that forge chess grandmasters. Nor do most of us have the right sort of friends or enough discretionary time, or frankly enough passion for chess to put in the effort required to join the elite. We can’t catch their lightning in a bottle, but if we set our sights lower, we can catch a firefly in a bottle. By setting limited realistic goals and putting in the necessary time and work, we can achieve success by our own definition. This is the main reason to draw up a program of study for ourselves.

Also, if we have a program of study, we can judge its effectiveness over time. If we don’t like the results we are getting from our program, we can make necessary adjustments. Without a program of study, we are much more likely to end up frustrated and dissatisfied with our progress. Even worse, we will not know what to do differently in the future to get better results.

I will venture to say that most amateurs fall far short of their chess potential in large part because they do not have a program of study. Consistency is everything, and so is keeping track of what you are doing. Looking at tactics for a week or so, then switching to rook endings, then doing nothing at all for a month because “my life is busy right now,” then playing in a weekend event on impulse and having a bad result, then deciding to change your openings because “they didn’t work” and some new books on other openings have caught your fancy: aimless behavior of this sort is the hallmark of the amateur. Naturally the amateur fails to make satisfactory progress, but he may not clearly understand why. He may believe and even say to a friend, “I have been spending a lot of time looking at tactics lately,” but without keeping a log, it is far too easy to fool yourself about how hard you are working. As computer programmers used to say, “GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.” You need good data. In reality, “spending a lot of time looking at tactics lately” may amount to an hour on Sunday afternoon when your motivation was fresh and strong, half an hour after supper on Monday as motivation ebbed, and good intentions on Tuesday night that were soon distracted by the game on TV (but you did have the book open next to you, and you solved a problem or two in your head—just didn’t get around to writing down the moves). The rest of the week, you thought about resuming your tactical studies, you felt guilty, and the book was out on the table, but you didn’t open it.

If you resolve to study tactics for an hour a day, and you keep a daily log of what you actually do, it is much harder to fool yourself. Your log will provide a true and objective record. If today’s entry is blank, you are forcibly reminded that you have not yet done what you meant to do. At the end of the week, vanity may still lead you to say to your friend, “I have been spending a lot of time looking at tactics lately,” but you at least will know the truth. The truth is a good starting point.