Developing Focus

The best chess players in the world have a great ability to focus on a position, using this well honed skill (their ability to focus) to concentrate on finding the winning move. Seasoned players can maintain focus for extended periods of time. The beginner, on the other hand, has trouble staying focused for any length of time. The ability to maintain focus eludes even the most enthusiastic and obsessive chess novice. The ability to focus must be learned like anything else, making it a skill. Can the ability to focus really be considered a skill? Absolutely! Like any skill, it requires training and practice. Here are some ideas to help develop your ability to focus, most of which take place away from the chessboard.

First off, don’t confuse memory with focus. Many beginners think that having a well stocked chess memory will give them an advantage, which it does to some extent. However, unless you can focus on the position at hand, a head full of memorized chess positions does you little good. It’s as if you have the pieces of the puzzle in your hand but you can’t put them together because you mind cannot clearly see them as individual components of the puzzle. Lack of focus equates to fuzzy thinking.

We’ll start our exploration of focus with a loose definition. I’m not going to site the Oxford Dictionary for the definition of focus but instead, give you an example of the level of focus you want to achieve. When I was seventeen, I was sitting in my bedroom reading a book. Suddenly, I found myself in the story. Instead of sitting on my bed reading, I was in the scene described in the book. I could see the most minute details described by the author. In short, I was part of the story. This is an example of a momentary high degree of focus. I’ve had the same experience watching certain movies. While this moment is often fleeting, it serves as an example of the type of focus I want you to strive for. Don’t simply play the game externally, be part of the game internally. Be one with the game. Absolute focus allows you to do this.

A wise chess teacher said that when you sit down to play chess, you should leave your day to day thoughts off of the board and concentrate only on the game. While this is true, it is difficult to do, especially when you haven’t developed a strong ability to focus. While we can run away from external situations that distract us we cannot run away from the internal distractions, namely our own thoughts. So how can we develop our focusing skills?

Start by reducing your sugar and caffeine intake. Sugar and Caffeine, friend to many a chess player, may artificially raise your energy level, making you feel as if your brain is functioning at a higher level (greater focus), but what goes up must come down. Once the sugar or caffeine effects start to wear off, you crash, which means your ability to concentrate becomes weaker (less focus). Stick to healthy foods prior to playing chess. Get plenty of rest because a brain deprived of sleep is not conducive to good chess.

The environment in which you play is also important. Quiet environments are the best places to develop you focusing skills. Environments with the least amount of external distractions, such as computers, televisions, etc, give your thought process fewer avenues of escape. Ideally, an empty room with only a table, chairs and chess set would be the best choice. However, it is unrealistic to ask you to empty out an entire room in your home for such a purpose. Libraries are nice and quiet. So are churches! I have sat in the back of a well known church here in San Francisco to work on my game just for this reason. Even the Vicar approved of the idea once I explained my reasoning!

Of course, environmental controls are a small part of this equation. No matter how well suited the environment, you still have to deal with all those noisy thoughts rattling around in your brain. Consider the ability to focus as a circle whose diameter is constantly changing. The greater the circle’s diameter, the broader and less concentrated the focus. The smaller the diameter, the more concentrated the focus. Our goal, as chess players, is to narrow the circle of focus down to a circle so small it appears as a dot! The smaller the circle, the greater the focus.

If you walked in the door after a long day of work or school and immediately started playing chess, it would be somewhat difficult to instantly narrow your focus to only the events on the chessboard. Instead of immediately sitting down to play, try some simple exercises before playing. Start by employing some breathing exercises. Take twenty or so long deep breaths. Take your time. You’ll find that to do this correctly, you have to concentrate on your breathing. Guess what? Because you’re concentrating on your breathing above all else, you’re focusing and unclogging your thoughts a bit.

Next, play solitaire on your computer or better yet, with a real deck of cards for ten minutes. Seriously? This does two things. First, it allows your brain to wind down a bit and concentrate only on the card game, developing your focus and second, it helps you with your pattern recognition skills. I use simple card games with my students to foster these two skills and it has helped immensely.

The next suggestion I have is to sit at the chessboard, position your head so that only board takes up your complete field of vision, and look at each pawn and piece, silently naming the squares each of those pawns and pieces is on. The idea here is to get your focus aimed at the board!

For overall, general improvement of your focus, take up a physical activity if you’re not already involved in one. It can be any physical activity, such as golf, Tai Chi or even bird watching. Why such an activity? I like to bird watch. To get to many of the locations where the birds are at requires some walking. Walking is excellent exercise and exercise helps your brain function at a higher level. While exercise will not make you the next Einstein, it will help you increase your brain’s ability to function optimally. What does bird watching have to do with concentration? To identify a bird in the wild, you have to focus in on the bird’s size, shape, feather coloring, etc. These are all variations of pattern recognition. Because you generally have a very small time frame in which to identify the bird before it flies away, you have to focus your attention very quickly and maintain a high level of focus and concentration while identifying the bird. Learning to focus in small increments makes maintaining focus over a longer period a bit easier.

The point to all of this is simple: The better your focus, the more apt you are to find that winning move. Focus development techniques can be found in many of the things you do away from the chessboard. The more you do in the way of honing your ability to focus, the better your playing will be. Make a list of five things you do each day that help you with your focus. You should be able to come up with at least five. If not, find five things you can do to increase your focus. They can range from card playing to riding a bicycle. Get focused. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).