Improving Pattern Recognition, Part 1

My self-directed chess studies continue. I confess, the early practical results have been miserable and do not bear close examination. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I find close examination of the results unbearable. And yet, I feel I have been seeing a lot of ideas and playing a lot of good moves. Just too many bad ones also. I don’t blame my study program, though I have certainly been examining it closely and tinkering with it day to day. I guess I may be going through an obscure process of psychological adjustment to my new stay-at-home lifestyle, and perhaps also I need more time to absorb the lessons from my ongoing intense chess work. Certainly I have never worked so hard at chess with so little payoff in the short run. Chess can be a hard and unforgiving game: it has been a sobering month.

A brief summary of the carnage: my local club holds a monthly swiss-system tournament at the rate of one round per week. After winning easily in the first round against a low-rated opponent, I have lost for three weeks in a row. In the first loss, against a player rated above me, I declined a draw offer in a dead-even ending, sacrificed a pawn to try to activate my king and make something out of nothing, and lost. In the next loss, against a player of my own level, I was ahead in material, position, and clock time in the late middlegame, and could have captured another pawn, but thought I had a queen sacrifice for mate. I was wrong. In last week’s loss I was up material and attacking in the endgame, and despite having more time than my significantly lower-rated opponent, blundered. One could argue I had no good reason to lose any of those games; yet the fact remains, in each case I found a way. I believe it was Tartakower who said, “The mistakes are all there on the chessboard, waiting to be made.” Perhaps having a “beginner’s mind” is overrated? I would gladly trade it for a grandmaster’s mind!

The grim picture is slightly relieved, but only slightly, by my +4 clean score in a minor unrated one-day tournament in upstate New York. The entry fee was $18, first prize was $36, and my travel expenses were about $120. I attended because a friend was the organizer.

But enough whining. I have begun a chess experiment, with myself as the subject, and I will see it through. Experiments do not succeed or fail: they merely have results.

After decades spent in various workplaces, laying waste my powers by getting and spending, it is refreshing to sit alone in a quiet room studying chess all day, even with a negative income stream. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” But even knowing how to sit quietly in a room is no guarantee of peace if there are other people in the room, as any workplace veteran could tell you. Perhaps another French philosopher put it best: Jean-Paul Sartre in his existential play Huis-clos, which featured incompatible people locked in a room together, had a character exclaim “L’enfer—c’est les autres!” (“Hell is other people”).

Let’s discuss how you can improve your pattern recognition. I won’t lie to you: it helps to have a lot of time on your hands. It turns out that time on task is key to improvement in chess, just as in most other highly skilled activities. There are no shortcuts: you can’t avoid putting in the time, and you can’t avoid putting in the hard work. By the way, even if you put in the time and the effort, achieving mastery in chess (or any other field) is not guaranteed: you have to go about it the right way. “Mastery research” as I will call it, is a hot topic these days. In a later post—perhaps more than one post—I will discuss mastery research and how mastery research applies to chess improvement. But that’s a big topic for another day.

One key to developing pattern recognition is spending a lot of time on “deliberate practice,” a term which comes up a lot in mastery research. It is a rather vague phrase which essentially means, as far as I can tell, practicing your craft with keen attention and a persistent desire to improve your skills. In chess, this means looking at chess positions in a focused way and working hard to understand and solve the specific problems they present. The more you do this, both at home and in competitive game situations, the larger becomes your functional storehouse of chess patterns: typical configurations of pieces that you understand deeply and intuitively, that represent chunks of meaning to you.

A single chess position may be comprised of several chunks. The word “chunk” is a term of art with a specific definition in psychological research, but as a layman I can see that a complex middlegame position in, say, the Sicilian Dragon, might be made up of many chunks, such as the potential scope of the fianchettoed bishop, the forces working on the half-open c-file and especially the square c3, the battle for the d5 square, the levering abilities of the white kingside pawns, et cetera. I may not have defined a chunk quite the way a psychological researcher would, but in principle each of these chunks—however you define them—has individual meaning, and collectively they have a more complex meaning based on their interrelationship. Think of chess as a kind of nonverbal language, composed not of verbal phrases but of forces acting on squares, lines, and diagonals (not forgetting the knight’s unique L-shaped jump, which starts at point A and arrives at point C without passing through point B). The more patterns you can recognize, the more fluent you will be in the language of chess.

All this discussion may sound rather abstract, like chess itself. So far I’ve been saying much the same thing in different ways—that you need to increase your functional storehouse of patterns—and by now you may have bought into the concept, which after all is based on solid mainstream research. How do we translate the concept into actual chess work that we can do to get better as practical players?

The short answer is: there’s not just one way to do this! In a perfect world, every aspiring chessplayer would have a wise, kindly, and ever-present chess teacher who understands his strengths and weaknesses as a player and a person, and prescribes exactly what the student needs (“Today we will look at typical rook endings … tomorrow we will start to shore up your defenses to d4 … then let’s discuss your tournament schedule for the next year … and don’t forget to get your rest, omit sweets and fried foods, and go to the gym three times a week”). Our aspiring player would have frequent access to a nearby chess club populated by strong players who are eager to share their knowledge with him. He would also have all the chess books, magazines, DVDs, and software he needs, a fast connection to the Internet Chess Club, and all the time in the world to spend studying and playing chess to his heart’s content. Does this sound like your situation? I didn’t think so!

In fact, if you’re like me during most of my life, you have no chess teacher, few if any nearby friends who are as passionate about chess as you are and willing to work hard with you to get better, a limited financial budget for chess materials and tournaments, and an extremely limited amount of discretionary time to play or study chess due to heavy obligations in other areas of your life such as work/commuting/school/family/sports/you-name-it. (And I haven’t even mentioned health issues which unfortunately are a major limiting factor in the lives of many people.)

This post is becoming rather long—in fact it continues for another three doublespaced pages on my laptop—so I will break off here, and continue from this point next week.