Category Archives: Robert Pearson

Simple Meditation That Works

Whilst on vacation last week I was reading an old paperback that had been in my library for ages. I don’t remember clearly when I bought it, but inside it says it was printed in 1989. It had lain around these many years, just waiting for its moment…

Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School wrote Your Maximum Mind back in the mid-1980s when he was already quite well known as a ‘pioneer of mind-body medicine’. His book The Relaxation Response was a big seller the previous decade, and introduced many ‘Westerners’ to some of the spiritual and physical feats of ‘Easterners’ like internal and external temperature control, breathing and heartbeat dramatically slowed to ‘near death’, etc. The fact that Englishmen and other Europeans (not to mention ‘Easterners’ themselves0 had been writing about these things many years did nothing to diminish the luster of Dr. Benson’s work, for he had moving pictures and thermometers; this was no longer mysticism, this was science!

At any rate, Dr. Benson has helped many people through his work, and I now include myself among them. As I’ve noted before, I have read about and tried many, many ‘self-improvement’ techniques and strategies over the years. Some helped more than others. However, I had never really tried ‘meditation’, or at least stuck to it. Back when I was just a lad I read Part I of Crowley’s Book Four (free here, if you dare) and was quite interested in samadhi and all that, but really, I was pretty busy with girls, parties and chess tournaments then; sitting legs-crossed humming some sort of stuff paled for me before anything big happened. But then Crowley warned of exactly that. So it goes…

But back to last week. I grabbed something I hadn’t read before for the trip, or at least didn’t remember. Your Maximum Mind, sounds good! And I did the ‘relaxation response’ thing and something really clicked. It’s really quite a simple technique, you can see the basic steps here. In the years since, he’s modified it slightly; now instead of saying ‘any soothing, mellifluous sound, preferably with no meaning or association, to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts’ he thinks that phrases like ‘God is Love’ for a Christian or ‘Shalom’ for a Jew are useful. Just something that has real positive meaning for the person. For the non-religious, ‘one’ or ‘peace’ ought to do just fine.

Now the reader would be forgiven for asking at this point, “But what-all does this have to do with Chess Improvement“?

Indeed, what? I’ll just say that for me, this simple, powerful technique has, in one week, produced levels of calm, patience and balance that are quite amazing to me. I am reacting to events with much less physical tightening, less excitement and bodily stimulation. Already, the formula has become ingrained enough that I can just do three slow breaths and receive some of the benefits.

I haven’t played any chess since I started this practice, but given my previous experience with ‘nerves’ during serious games I cannot but think this would be very helpful. In addition, in the second part of the book the Relaxation Response is used as a first step to prepare the mind for higher performance conditioning and training in sports, education and writing. After a bit more practice with this basic and simple meditation exercise, i will move to using it as such and see if it can enhance and improve chess training.

I will happily share anything that works!

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Best Games v. Own Games

I’ve been thinking about a couple of older posts here, Tim’s Is Age Relevant to Chess Improvement? and my somewhat responsive Chess Master at Any Age? A Reply to Tim Hanke. The part that interests me is the idea in Rolf Wetzell’s book Chess Master…at Any Age to mainly study one’s ‘own games,’ though he includes playing through master games ‘guess the move’ style. I suppose that in a way that makes them one’s ‘own.’

Many a chess author has recommended that the chess improver obtain a volume of the ‘best games’ of the great players, like Botvinnik’s, Alekhine’s or Kasparov’s and play through them. While this method can hardly hurt your game, these days I wonder if it is the best way to spend the majority of one’s limited study time. It seems to me is that ‘best games’ books, as beautiful as they are, have certain flaws. First, they generally (with the exception of Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games) contain only wins by the player; there’s not a draw in sight. Second, they universally exclude games where the opponent blundered or played weakly. After all, they’re Best! Third they often (though not always) are annotated to show the Great One in a great light; errors of the winner are not always pointed out.

I am emphatically not here to tell you that you shouldn’t spend time with these classic books, games and authors. I am just wondering what the proper percentage of effort should be for it, versus tearing apart your own tournament games. And I wonder if it might be best to obtain a grandmaster tournament book and study ALL of the games, decisive and drawn, great and blunderful.

Not ‘guessing the move’ but thinking hard, as if the game meant something, and playing with positions, exploring alternatives. That method is undoubtedly the most important aspect, rather than which games you are using.

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The Chess Human Condition

I have touched previously on a few of the players I have known, including Bad Hair Guy and Dr. Porsche, and on Meetings With Remarkable Chess Masters, but just as the chess board can be seen as a kind of miniature model of the Universe, so too can chess players represent the wondrous and amusing diversity of the human condition.

“Stereotype” is now almost a forbidden concept, a Thought Crime to the politically correct, but of course it is extremely useful in the real world of politically incorrect human beings. The following are indeed stereotypes, but if you have played in more than a handful of chess tournaments you will have run into them. If you are a youngster just starting out in serious play, consider this a guide to what you can expect to face in the chess jungle:

The Relentlessly Combative

Anyone who continues beyond their first real chess tournament, like anyone who lasts beyond their first boxing match, must have a certain level of combativeness. Otherwise, they would revert to playing and thrashing their younger siblings, or perhaps needlepoint. But given that we all have this quality, in certain individuals it is taken to extremes. There is a school of thought that fighting with the organizers, other players and perhaps spectators is the way to an “edge” that will carry over into playing a fighting game. Robert J. Fischer was considered the very exemplar of this approach, which seemed to work well for him, except when it resulted in his withdrawal from a competition (Sousse Interzonal, Reshevsky match). Grandmaster Walter “Six-Time” Browne, who strove to emulate Fischer in almost every way from the Najdorf  Sicilian to the King’s Indian to the pairings disputes, and who was very enjoyable to watch, was the second greatest exponent of this mindset that I personally observed.

Relentless combativeness does not serve most of us well in trying to win chess games while still enjoying them. In your chess career you will encounter players who argue about the color of the squares, the pieces, the clock, whether your writing a ? on your score sheet is legal, whether you are adjusting your glasses too often, and whether your candy bar is causing their allergic reaction. They will roll their eyes, smile, laugh and snort after your moves. You must develop a vast, calm and empty space in your mind where all of these things fall soundlessly and without causing a ripple. But on the board, aye, there’s the place to be relentlessly, mercilessly combative. The rest is foolishness, worthy only of your amusement.

The Relentlessly Unorthodox

There are quite a few players right up through the ranks of master who seem to enjoy being different for difference’s sake. Though few become GMs, some are very strong players. Their unorthodoxy is, of course, mostly associated with the choice of opening, though I have known a few that extended this into the middle game by sacrificing material, regardless of whether it was good.

IM Michael Basman is perhaps the best known exponent of this approach, and has beaten many grandmasters with a variety of unorthodoxies. Hugh Myers is another good example, an interesting player, writer and man, who strove not just to explore but to use the byways of chess in practical play, with quite a bit of success.

Fortunately, most of the Unorthodox are not nearly as strong as Basman and Myers, and their reluctance to do the known and expected can usually be used against them if we take the right tack in meeting their attempts. The Unorthodoxers rely partly on shock and partly on our tendency to underestimate their moves. After 1. g4, for instance, many players of the black pieces believe they’re almost “winning” and proceed to recklessly storm forward with unjustified abandon to “destroy” the weakened king side. The right approach is just to “play chess” and find good moves until the opponent commits some additional errors. After all, the position is almost certainly still “a draw” after white’s first move, whatever it may be. Don’t get cocky, Kid.

Here’s an example from a game of my own. The opponent’s opening lands him in a bad position, but of course I didn’t play “perfect” chess and he had to make more errors for me to win. But I remember that at least I had the right mental approach after seeing his first few moves…

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Chess for Fun: Tim Krabbé’s Chess Curiosities

It is good to be reminded, from time to time, that “improvement” is more than just raising one’s grading. I presume everyone reading this plays chess because they enjoy it. Of course, we all like winning chess games, but understand that we are going to lose some, as well.

Beyond the fight in the competitive arena, chess has many other areas that I find fascinating, including the history of the game and its players, problems and studies and the unusual and sometimes bizarre “human interest” stories that come out when people interact with each other.

I’ll write about the historical part in a future post. For today, I point you to a treasure trove of fascinating games, positions and personalities, Tim Krabbé’s Chess Curiosities. If you’ve never had the opportunity to expand your chess horizons beyond the intricacies of the Semi-Slav and how to win rook endings, Chess Curiosities will provide hours, indeed, days, of enjoyment.

Now every thing there is not for every body; I don’t get too excited by the position that contains 53 consecutive checks, though I admire the thought and effort that went into it. But even for those “practical” players who disdain certain types of studies and problems, there is a wealth of the strange, the surprising and the beautiful.

Some examples: A Tragedy in Elista wherein two strong masters play a 127-move marathon with the result-changing mistakes coming thick and fast; The Ultimate Blunder (Resigning in Winning Positions); and  A Love Story With a Diagram.

For those who just want to see serious chess moves there are the wonderful and often almost unbelievable “110 Greatest Moves Ever Played” (start with 110-100 here and work you way up).

While no. 1, played by Spassky, indeed required a “leap of imagination” beyond the ordinary. my personal favorite is no. 8, played by Kholmov against Bronstein at Kiev 1964 (USSR Ch.). White to move and flabbergast:

The rest of the game is here, but do NOT peek until you have found and calculated the implications of the strongest move for White!

There is so much more at Chess Curiousities. It is a joy, and along the way you will find improvement material as well!

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Tyler Cowen, Computers and What They Mean For Chess Amateurs

Tyler Cowen is a chess master, food writer, world traveler, a blogger with over 40 million visitors and, incidentally, an influential economist and Professor at George Mason University; in other words, a polymath.

Let’s talk about the chess part.

As the noble blogger Kenilworthian noted back in 2006:

As a youngster, Professor Cowen played at the Westwood and Dumont Chess Clubs in Bergen County. As he improved, he played more often at the Manhattan and the Marshall, where the competition was stronger. By the time he was 16-years-old he was rated about 2350 (which would have put him on the same pace set by Bobby Fischer in the late 1950s).

Then he gave up the game.

“I realized I wasn’t going to become a professional. There are no benefits, no retirement. It was not the life I wanted to lead. And I fell in love with Economics.” As an economist, of course, he knows a lot about diminishing returns….

All of this is quite interesting in itself, but it’s a preliminary to why we should pay close attention to Prof. Cowen’s take on computers, chess and the interaction between the two. I urge you to read the whole thing, but I want to focus on a few points that seem to me to be different for non-masters (I’ll just say “amateurs” as shorthand), as his take is basically about computers and grandmaster chess:

1. Databases equalize preparation opportunities for the top players. Those who rise to the very top have very strong creative skills. In relative terms, being a chess “grind” is worth less than in times past.

Not necessarily for amateurs. By “preparation” he means openings, and the big difference here is that our games won’t depend on opening finesses at move 15 or 25 that lead to an initiative. Our games will most often be decided by tactical errors. Databases can be fun and useful, but they’re not critical. Being a “grind” always was worth less as an amateur. And honestly, blunder prevention is more important than great creativity.

4. Chess is an area where educational reform has been extremely rapid and extremely successful. Chess education today revolves around learning how to learn from the computer, and this change has come within the last ten to fifteen years. No intermediaries were able to prevent it or slow it down. Humans now teach themselves how to team with computers, and the leading human players have to be very good at this. The computers which most successfully team with humans are those which replicate most rapidly.

Not much applicable to me or my corner of the chess world. Certainly, we can learn from computers, but (thankfully) we can still play over Alekhine or Tarrasch games out of a book and derive a lot of value from “slow food” chess! In fact, for amateurs this is likely a far more effective method.

5. There are many more chess prodigies than ever before, and they mature at a more rapid pace.

Unless you meet ‘em at an Open where they’re a nine-year-old rated 2157, this is N/A.

6. We used to think that computers would play chess like we did, only “without the mistakes.” We now know that playing without the mistakes involves a very different style from what we had imagined. A lot of human positional intuitions are garbage, and the computer can make sense out of ugly-looking moves. A lot of the human progress since then has involved unlearning previous positional rules and realizing how contingent they are. Younger players, who grew up playing chess with computers, are especially good at this. For older players, it is a good way to learn how unreliable your intuitions can be.

There is some value to this for amateurs, but not in trying to play “without the mistakes,” which the world top 10 only occasionally achieve. But being open to “ugly-looking moves” as a way to expand your vision does have something to recommend it. When analyzing one of your games with a computer, note especially the moves it finds that you never thought of because they didn’t look “right” positionally and open your mind to these possibilities.

7. Highly exact and concrete analysis, and calculation of variations, is now the centerpiece of grandmaster chess at top levels. We have learned how to become more like the computers. The computers have taught us well.

On this one, I think that Cowen may be off on his time line. This has always been true of grandmaster chess, at least from Lasker onward. Computers didn’t invent exacting, accurate calculation (though obviously they do it very well). Going back to the previous point (6), I think that “positional rules” were more something grandmasters wrote about for the masses, as a way to help guide the beginner, than something they took seriously themselves as some kind of doctrine. The whole “Soviet School” was about concrete calculation rather than generalization, in my understanding.

Which is not to say that calculating well isn’t important to amateurs. It is, but you’re not going to be facing someone who can calculate “like a computer,” so just do your best and have fun!

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Memory, Cell Phones and Chess

The other day my IPhone stopped functioning, causing a wait of several days for a new one. I became aware of a troubling phenomenon; I could not remember the phone numbers of several people whom I talk to regularly, since for the last two years I have simply pressed the screen for “Fred” and “John (work)” and so forth. I simply could not remember the numbers.

This is disturbing, not for the inconvenience but for the fact that I have always had a very good memory, and I wonder if the digitization of modern life is starting to erode it. It’s a certainty that computers can have both good an bad effects on the brains of the people who use them. Video games can improve reaction times and visual acuity–while wasting time that could be used for serious study. Closer to today’s particular subject, search engines put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips–while reducing the incentive to learn and retain that knowledge in our own minds.

In his fascinating book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer warns that if our individual memories atrophy due to technology we risk losing something important. Our ability to think properly and clearly is involved with working memory; Googling is not allowed during job interviews! I have been interested in the subject of improving memory since I was a child, have read several books on the subject and have used their techniques to good effect at school and work. Yet, when it came to phone numbers I had allowed my memory to atrophy due to the convenience of the technological crutch built into the phone.

Hard thinking, concentration and memorization are more than just virtues. They literally change the brain, building new connections and networks of neurons in ways that passively watching video or copying and pasting text does not. I was struck by an article on Einstein’s brain:

[T]he study raises “very important questions for which we don’t have an answer.” Among them are whether Einstein started off with a special brain that predisposed him to be a great physicist, or whether doing great physics caused certain parts of his brain to expand…“Einstein programmed his own brain,” Falk says, adding that when physics was ripe for new insights, “he had the right brain in the right place at the right time.”

When it comes to chess, I am certain that the digital tools available can help or hurt our efforts at improvement, depending how they are used. Nigel put it so well, lo, those many years ago, and it applies now more than ever:

It really doesn’t matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate a mind-numbing amount of information. In these days of a zillion different chess products this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do.

“Playing with the position” is indubitably the way to forge new neural connections in the brain relating to chess. I believe that Nigel also wrote somewhere that moving real pieces on a real “3-D” chess board is probably best for this kind brain stimulation, since it engages the tactile sense and a whole different spatial component as opposed to a computer screen.

Of course, computers can be very useful for certain things, just as smart phones can. I wouldn’t dream of giving them up or putting them down, so to speak. But I would suggest to you that reading “real” books, studying with real chess boards and, especially, training the memory and avoiding its loss due to the overuse of digital tools is going to be increasingly important in the future. Especially for those of us of a certain age.

As for me, I’m getting a couple of these books, and I am going to memorize a nice long list of phone numbers.

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Homer Nods

Sometimes it’s good for our chess psychology to be reminded that even our heroes are human beings, and make some pretty awful chess mistakes. I have collected some of these under the title “Homer Nods” (“And yet I also become annoyed whenever the great Homer nods off” Horace, Ars Poetica).

Here is a good one.

White has just played Kc7-d8, threatening mate, and Black, a recent World Championship Candidate, resigned.

I’ll bet it will only take you a minute to see what he should have done instead. If you do, you can say that at least this once you were sharper than the Grandmaster!

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Testing My Theories on Myself

In The Genius of the Kibitzer I and II, and in previous posts like Attention!, I have explored some techniques and methods that I believe can improve one’s chess results independent of studying or practicing chess.

Being oriented toward doing rather than just pontificating, I now undertake an experiment to test some of these ideas. For the next three months I am going to studiously avoid any chess study whatsoever. I will play 24 “standard” games (15 minutes per side or more) on the Free Internet Chess Server, trying to play two games per week but allowing for variations due to moving into a new home next week, travel etc. These variations would, no doubt, disqualify this experiment from academic peer-reviewed publishing, but no matter.

My current rating on the site is 1700. The point of the experiment is to see what might happen to that rating using nothing but my current chess knowledge and skill plus dedicated application of the contents of the above posts.

I will probably play a few games with the people at the informal local club over the next three months; however, none are really close to me in rating and I don’t really want to cut myself off from all the social aspects chess in the name of science. Since I usually only get to play two hours once a month anyway, I am hardly worried about serious contamination of the experimental design.

Some of the ‘experimental’ games will be annotated here to illustrate particular points. That is probably a form of study as well, but so be it. I will be staying away from books, openings and even playing over others’ games on this fine site.

This should be quite interesting. Whatever happens to my rating, the hope is to pay attention to the process and learn something useful.

 

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The Genius of the Kibitzer, Part II

In Part I, we wondered why a person observing a game (The Kibitzer) often sees things the players miss, which is really just an example of the general case: Why are we, in most serious games, unable to apply our full chess strength to all the moves?

It seems to me that this is the heart of the half of chess improvement that doesn’t involve chess, as such. To be a decent player of serious chess, it is vital to spend the time “moving the pieces around” as Nigel has emphasized, to gain a storehouse of typical positions and patterns that can help you find a good move quickly and efficiently. It is important and useful to have a decent knowledge of some opening sequences and basic endings. Given all of that, we know how some players are simply better at putting this skill and knowledge into practice. Certainly no one is “perfect” and no one wins them all, but just as in other forms of competition, from poker to football to politics and war, some people perform better at chess “in the arena” than others.

The fundamental question is: What are the differences?

I will not address those things all of us already know: Decent sleep and food, and moderate regular exercise will all help to maintain attention and alertness during the stresses of a serious game of chess.

But wait! Why is chess “stressful” at all?

We often take for granted that it should be so, but by now almost everyone knows that “stress” is a generic term for something we do to ourselves. There are “stressors,” say a bear appearing suddenly out of the bushes (it’s happened to me) but the “stress” is caused by our own physiological reactions. Parts of the brain we share in common with reptiles explode with activity, various hormones and other chemicals are rushed into the blood and we prepare for “fight or flight.” When I was a beginning tournament player and spotted the possibility of a “winning” combination my heart often beat as fast as if I has just run 100 metres; you can imagine that if the game wasn’t over quickly my play fell off steeply later in the session. Eventually I learned to control this overreaction, but it was not simple or easy.

I am a very competitive person who wants badly to win at every competition I do, and I don’t think this served so well at chess, during the game itself, early in my career. Strong competitive spirit can mentally prepare us to do our best before a game, but constantly ruminating about winning during a game, rather than concentrating on making good moves, only hurts our ability to apply our skill.

That’s an attitude adjustment, but what else can be done to better our results?

An excellent television program, “How Smart Can We Get?” has some key information at Segment 5, about 41:00 in (but the whole program is of great interest). A neuroscientist who had her own sporting experience of “choking” explores the mechanisms that prevent top performance. During mental tests, the activity of the amygdala and other emotional centers of the brain can produce actual, physical interference with the neurons of the pre-frontal cortex that we need in order to (among other things) play good chess. What top performers do is a sort of “cutting off” of the connection between the emotional centers and the rational mind.

A method that has worked to assist in this (as applied to academic tests) is writing down emotions and thoughts for 10 minutes before testing begins. Students who did so got an average of a half-grade higher (B+ vs. B-) as against a control group who just sat doing nothing for the 10 minutes before the test. Examination of the student writings shows that as the writings progress there is an evident change of attitude and more positive feeling about the test. The scientist compares it to “off loading” unnecessary programs from your computer, freeing resources and allowing for clearer thinking and memory–and presumably, better chess!

Another way to do this is through mental training via meditation or a martial art. There are many studies going back decades about the various physical and mental benefits of meditation, but for our purposes I would point to the ability through practice of achieving certain mental “states.” Many hours of experimentation and practice gradually make it easier and quicker to focus and integrate the various parts of the brain. When not integrated, they simply interfere with each other.

There is an expression in the martial arts that in various forms simply says: “Mind like water.” This is a state of no expectations, no hopes, no fears. Like a pond on a still day, there is no apparent motion, but the mind of the artist sees, hears and feels the opponent and his intentions and reacts without conscious thought, without anger, doing the right thing at the right time, as he has done a thousand times in training. This is not a way to “play chess” but a way to a higher level than writing of “off loading unnecessary programs” from the mind. Seeking it will increase your chess, and life’s, performance and results.

I don’t attempt here to analyze or compare various forms of meditation and martial arts that might serve the purpose. A classic old book that I recommend for the basics of meditation is The Relaxation Response. Regarding the martial arts, Nigel’s Tai Chi might be a good thing to try, as opposed to the forms that break boards and such. But everyone who tries will find their own right way.

So this post has not been about “chess” much, has it? Yet I believe strongly, from my own experience, that the “Genius of the Kibitzer” is based on two important points:

POINT THE FIRST: The Kibitzer is not trying to win a game, just looking at a chess position and finding a good move. The Kibitzer is not invested, emotionally, physically and spiritually, in the game.

If you play good chess the winning will take care of itself.

POINT THE SECOND: The Kibitzer’s brain is not resonating with conflicting waves interfering with his clear thinking about the position. The Kibitzer’s neurons are often firing more freely and efficiently than the players’ because his mind is more like water.

If you free your mind you can play chess freely.

(Coming next time: I offer myself up as a test subject for these scientific theories!)

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The Genius of the Kibitzer, Part I

Kiitz (kib·itzed, kib·itz·ing, kib·itz·es Informal)

1. To look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others.
2. To chat; converse.

 

Michael Koblentz’s Saturday post Chess Blindness led to some interesting discussion on Nigel’s Facebook page; my own thoughts on true “chess blindness” were:

I think chess blindness is due to a narrowing of visual attention similar to the “tunneling” reported by people in combat. For a vital moment we see only part of the board, or only some of the pieces. Visually imaging ALL of the opponents pieces before moving catches many of the superblunders.

Michael’s move Rxf3??, as opposed to a common- or garden-variety “error”, really was chess blindness; as he states, “I never even saw White’s capture with the King!” A truly spectacular blunder of my own can be found in the post Chess Humour where I have a crushing position at move 9 and after almost 15 minutes contemplation allow mate in one because I stopped looking at the opponent’s queen and only looked at what material my own queen moves could gain.

However, these are exceptional blunders, and while we all have made them, they’re rare enough. I am more interested in something else, only tenuously related to real chess blindness. As I also wrote on Facebook:

If we answer the question of why kibitzers so often see what the players miss we will be on the way to improving ourselves.

Most of us have had the experience of casually observing a tournament game, and in just a few seconds spotting some “obvious” two-move combination that would win material, or some “obvious” threat by the opponent that needs to be immediately attended to. If the players we’re watching are below expert level, most of us have also often seen the person overlook the killer shot, or the opponent’s threat, generally accompanied by suppressed groans from the observers. Some of these moves are of a type that, if the same player were to be shown a diagram while sitting on a couch at home, they would find the move within 2 minutes 98 times out of 100.

These kinds of mistakes are not the result of lack of knowledge, lack of ability or failure to do thousands of tactics problems.

The difficulties of substantially improving your chess results, especially as an adult whose grading has plateaued, are an interesting conundrum. Not overlooking the “obvious” is a step in the right direction. I have a several methods to share, from a range of coaches, psychologists, neuroscientists and even actual chess players that might help if assiduously applied, but I will reserve the details for my next post.

I would rather hear from readers this week. Have you experienced the “genius of the kibitzer,” and do you have any ideas for how we might see these things in our own games, rather than uselessly finding them while observing the games of others?

Use my contact page or leave a comment on Nigel’s Facebook. I would be happiest sharing a variety of ideas rather than just pontificating on my own!

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