Is Age Relevant to Chess Improvement?

After closing September with three straight losses, I have played four more games and not lost any of them, so the rust is slowly coming off. One game ended with a cute combination.

White would like to play Bg5 trapping the black queen, but it is Black’s move, and the white king is fatally exposed: 19…Be5+ 20 Kg2 Ne3+! Forking king, queen, and rook, so the sacrifice must be accepted. 21 Bxe3 But now with the black knight gone, White’s knight is pinned. 21…Qg3+ 0-1 due to 22 Kh1 Qh2++.

In pursuit of my chess goals, I have developed a personal training program based on overlearning, which I will explain more fully in a future post. Overlearning addresses a player’s fundamental need to develop his pattern recognition, one of the magic keys to chess success. A related part of my training program discusses how to develop the ability to analyze and visualize, another key. Other parts of my training program address important practical issues especially relevant to the amateur, such as how to make the best use of study materials appropriate for his level, and how to allocate precious training time among the several discrete areas of chess work, including tactics, endgames, positional play, openings, game analysis, and tournament competition. That’s saying quite a lot! As I said in the beginning, I am trying out all my ideas on myself. I am laying it all out there, one post at a time, and you will be able to judge for yourself whether my ideas have any merit. A study sample of one may be unscientific, but it’s the best I can do without a major grant from the National Science Foundation. I have tried to make the overlearning concept and related ideas simple to apply, and flexible based on each player’s individual needs, so other people besides me can apply its principles. Overlearning is not a one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway training program.

Many people imagine that age has something to do with chess improvement. You hear all sorts of anecdotal evidence that older players can’t improve. I think that’s rubbish, and I will say more in detail about “the age factor” in another post. Nothing in my training program is designed to deal specifically with the age issue, which I don’t feel is directly relevant. Certainly I feel greater urgency than I did in my twenties, when I vaguely assumed I would eventually become a chess master someday, somehow. But the training program I have devised for myself at age 54 is the same program I would recommend to my younger self. In 1994 Rolf Wetzell published a book called Chess Master … at Any Age which has or had a certain following; you can read the mixed reviews on amazon.com. (As usual with anonymous online book reviews, you can’t always tell whether they are genuine and heartfelt, or manufactured promotional fluff.) Wetzell, an MIT-trained engineer, became a chess master after age 50; he credits the program he devised for himself. I read all fourteen amazon.com reviews (real or otherwise) but don’t have the book, so I probably shouldn’t say much beyond mentioning that it exists, and targets the over-50 player. I salute the author for accomplishing his personal goal of becoming a chess master (though he doesn’t seem to have hung on to the rating for very long), but I think he erred in believing that he had to train in an unorthodox way because of his age. He found an idiosyncratic method that worked for him—good. Personally I am instinctively suspicious of idiosyncratic methods. There is a great deal of good mainstream information, including solid scientific research, about how to get better at chess. Yet I have not seen anyone assemble the pieces of this puzzle convincingly, in such a way that everyone can readily see the picture. Perhaps there is too much good information available—there are simply too many pieces of the puzzle. In a way, this is like the problem of chess itself: the chessplayer looks at the board and all the information he needs is there, but there is simply too much.

Is overlearning a substitute for working with a good chess teacher and spending as much time as possible with strong players at the local chess club? No! If you have those options, use them! A good chess teacher will probably know what you need better than you do. It is also well known on an anecdotal level that “spending time in the chess culture,” in other words hanging out with strong players, is one of the very best ways you can improve at chess. I remember a conversation with the late International Master Victor Frias from Chile, in which he was reminiscing about growing up with a group of other strong young players. I have met (and lost to) Victor, but here I must confess I can’t remember whether I had this conversation with Victor myself or read it in a published interview. Anyway: when the young Frias and his friends started playing internationally, all they thought about were the IM and GM titles, because “they give you the FIDE Master title for showing up,” as Victor said dismissively. I guess it’s all a matter of how you look at it! In my part of the world, New England, the FIDE Master title is a big deal. For decades, New England chess was dominated by John Curdo, who never rose above FM, though he was probably IM strength at his peak and defeated many GMs over the years. Due to the accident of geography—in other words, our location outside Europe—New England players don’t get as many opportunities to pursue international chess titles when they are young and have the time and energy. But if you are lucky enough to be young and footloose, and to run with a crowd that expects to get the FM title “just for showing up,” by all means make the most of your advantages! Stay out late with your chess friends, sleep on sofas, travel to strong tournaments, and live the bohemian chess lifestyle while you are young and still can, before the strong current of adult obligations drags you away from all that. My training plan based on overlearning is designed for earthbound plodding fellow amateurs like me, not for soaring birds like you.

I will stop here. Next week I will tell a story about the time Rustam Kamsky invited me to live and train with him and Gata in Europe—one of many missed opportunities in my chess life!

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