Deliberate Practice

There is now a general understanding that to achieve mastery in any worthwhile field you require deliberate practice. Sadly most parents and schools either fail to understand that this is true of chess or fail to understand exactly what deliberate chess practice might involve.

I asked a class of children aged 8-10 at a local primary school chess club if they practised chess. A lot of them told me they did, so I asked them how they practised. Some told me they played their mum or dad. Others said that they played their computer or on a website. No one mentioned anything other than playing games. I them asked how many of them had piano lessons. Many hands went up. They all told me they practised their scales as well as the pieces they were learning. Again, I asked how many played tennis. Again, a lot of hands were raised. They told me they practised different shots: backhand, forehand, topspin. So they, or their teachers, have a good idea of what deliberate practice looks like in music and tennis, but not in chess. Playing games is only useful practice if you’re getting constructive feedback. Playing every day against a parent who doesn’t know the correct names for the pieces or play by the correct rules isn’t much good. Nor is playing against a computer program that beats you every time without telling you why.

One thing you need to do in many disciplines is develop fluency – speed and accuracy – in simple skills. If you’re learning maths you need to be fast and accurate with basic arithmetic. If you’re not, you’ll find anything else difficult. At the age of 6 or 7 we all sat in rows chanting our times tables until we learnt them off by heart. These days the primary school maths curriculum is much broader, less boring and more ‘fun’, but has this come at the expense of the rigour of learning your tables off by heart? If you’re learning the piano you’ll be expected to practice your scales and arpeggios over and over again even though you may well find it boring. If you’re learning golf you’re going to practice simple short putts over and over again until you’re confident you can hole them every time. In chess you develop fluency by solving puzzles. At one level this means solving simple (to you) puzzles quickly and getting them right every time. It also means challenging yourself to solve harder puzzles. By solving puzzles you’re doing lots of things. Yes, you’re developing speed and accuracy. More specifically, you’re improving your chessboard vision: the ability to glance at a position and take in where every piece is, what it can do both now and in the future, to identify all the attacks and defences, to see every possible check. You’re also learning pattern recognition. You’ll see the same ideas over and over again, learning to recognise them and use them in your own games. Once you move onto two-move puzzles you’re learning to think ahead, to visualise the next moves without moving the pieces: one of the most vital chess skills to acquire. As you graduate to harder puzzles you’re learning to look further and further ahead. You’re learning concentration and impulse control – many children fail to make progress because they lack these vital skills. Puzzles are also use to develop non-cognitive skills such as persistence: not giving up if you find a puzzle difficult to solve.

We’ve known for the past 30 years about the importance of puzzle solving. It’s how Laszlo Polgar taught his daughters. It’s the basic idea of the Dutch Steps Method. It’s what children at chess academies in Baghdad and Baku have to do for homework. If you compare learning chess with learning an instrument or a sport it becomes obvious.

Many non-players or non-competitive players, though, don’t understand the point of solving puzzles. I remember many years ago standing at the back of the room watching my colleague Ray Cannon demonstrate a tactical puzzle on the demo board. A parent who was watching with me asked me “Why is he doing this? They’re not likely to reach that position in their games.”. But of course that’s not the point. Parents are often reluctant to make their children do chess homework solving puzzles. They often don’t understand the purpose of solving puzzles, think it might not be ‘fun’, it might be ‘boring’. But most children enjoy solving puzzles so doing this sort of work can be presented in a positive light.

Deliberate practice at chess will also involving learning and honing new skills. At lower levels this might be learning specific endings: practising the king and queen checkmate, for example. At higher levels this will involve learning more complex endings, learning and practising new openings, possibly by playing games online, learning and practising how to play typical middle-game structures such as IQP positions. It also involves, at higher levels, targeting specific weaknesses: concentrating on skills which you’re not so good at in order to improve them. If you’re tactically weak you might work on improving this by playing blitz games online using sharp openings. Or if you’re positionally weak, playing games using positional openings to improve this side of your play.

The point of Chess for Heroes is that it provides opportunities for deliberate practice. The first volume gives children a lot of very simple puzzles to solve. I’m currently working on an endgame book which, as well as puzzles, will include positions to play out to develop your skill at winning simple endings. Further books on tactics and other aspects of chess are also planned so that children will have a complete programme of practice materials taking them from learning the moves up to the point where they can compete in low level adult competitions.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.