Chess Master at Any Age? A Reply to Tim Hanke

So far the new slate of writers here at The Chess Improver have merrily done their ‘own thing’ and provided interesting, insightful pieces about chess and improvement. There hasn’t been much point/counterpoint among us, but today I provide some.

Tim Hanke’s excellent Is Age Relevant to Chess Improvement? from last Tuesday touched on something I happen to know a good bit about, Rolf Wetzell’s book Chess Master…at Any Age. Tim notes that he doesn’t actually have the book, and relies on the Amazon reviews, which are mixed. I’d like to add something of my personal experience and explain why the book’s methods are really not ‘unorthodox’ at all, but in fact conform to the latest ‘scientific’ findings on chess improvement for all ages.

Wetzell is a trained engineer, and developed or refined his study methods in a period much like Tim’s now; past age 50 and with a lot more time for chess than during his full-time professional career, he sought what worked for him to improve his tournament chess results. What he found was actually right in line with Tim’s ‘overlearning’ and with this famous quotation from Grandmaster Nigel Davies (Prop.):

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.

The essence of the ‘Wetzell Method’ is really quite simple: 1) Study ones ‘own games’ (your own serious encounters plus playing “guess the move” in master games); 2) Identify key errors; 3) Make ‘flash cards’ (nowadays, computer generated graphics or whatnot) of these positions with the right move and a memorable phrase (mnemonic) that anchors the position and right move in your memory; 4) Keep regularly adding ‘flash cards’ and periodically run through the whole set of cards fairly rapidly, refreshing these right moves mentally; 5) Avoid time pressure, avoid time pressure, avoid time pressure.

Wetzell’s flash cards are not only missed tactics but also positional and prophylactic moves that he didn’t see during a tournament game or when playing one side of master games (especially Capablanca’s) with clocks, which if done right is nearly the equivalent of tournament play. The idea is that by concentrating on these positions, rather than just playing both sides of random master games or solving “White to play and win” diagrams, one builds a custom mental ‘database’ of the vaunted ‘patterns’ that have proven most problematic for the individual, one spends most study time on the vaunted ‘deliberate practice’ and by reviewing the cards regularly one does Tim’s ‘overlearning’. A trifecta!

Wetzell is the biggest opponent of time pressure I’ve ever encountered–he would much rather have you make all the moves according to a schedule, knowing some will be not be ‘best’, than allow yourself to run short of time. It’s a results-oriented approach, disregarding the desire to find the mythical best move at every turn in favor of finding decent non-blunders at times and staying on schedule to avoid true blunders later. Many of us who have the desire to play beautiful chess and have lost games due to time pressure need to give this aspect of practical play more serious thought than it usually receives.