Keeping a Journal

I’m surprised that I don’t see more chess players carrying around journals to chronicle their progress and personal chess history. Keeping a chess journal is mandatory for my students once they reach a certain point in their studies. I was looking through one of my first chess journals the other day and was surprised at how much useful information it contained, information that helped me a great deal at the time. My old journal also reminded me of how far I’ve come as a chess player. It also chronicled a bit of personal history as well, reminding me of people and places I had long since forgotten about. I firmly believe that every chess player should keep a journal. Here are some guidelines to help you create your chess journal.

I use old fashion composition books for my journals because they’re inexpensive and easy to acquire. Their size, 8 ½ by 11 inches, gives me ample writing space. I opt for the college ruled composition books whose line spacing is narrower so you can get more information written down per page. You can use any type of notebook for your chess journal as long as it gives you ample room to write down your thoughts.

As stated earlier, the primary reason for keeping a chess journal is to chronicle your progress and personal history. Of course, many chess players will see personal progress in the form of an improvement in their rating but not everyone plays in rated tournaments. This is where the journal comes in handy. However, chess journal is more than just a measure of progress. It is also a small storehouse of useful information. Think of it as a training manual that has been customized to fit the needs of its owner. Your chess journal is a training manual that addresses the concepts and ideas you’re learning!

Each chess journal I’ve kept has addressed specific topics that I’ve had trouble fully understanding. Here’s an example: When I first started to learn about the opening principles, I came across numerous explanations and catch phrases such as “ a Knight on the rim is dim.” Rather than having to refer to the countless books I was reading on opening theory again and again, I simply wrote down key points from those books into my chess journal. After a few months of doing this, I had collected, within my journal, a small collection of critical information regarding opening principles. I have done the same for middle and endgame theory as well. The chess journal allows you to consolidate important information rather than have to search for it through countless books. While many players keep a separate book in which to record their games, I suggest recording specific games again within your journal that exemplify specific concepts and ideas your trying to master. This way you have a visual indicator as to where you stand regarding a concept. If you played a fantastic opening that adheres to all the opening principles, record that game in your journal!

The way to use your chess journal in conjunction with any chess books your reading is simple. As you read through a chess book, keep your journal handy. Write questions you want answers to in your journal. For example, I had written in my old chess journal, the question “why are pieces more powerful when they are centrally located?” Looking back on this question (asked around 1976), I see where I was at the time with my chess skills. In writing down questions you have into your journal you’ll be on the lookout for their answers when reading through your chess books. As you find your question’s answers, immediately write them down into your journal.

When you read through a section of a book, write down the basic key concepts into your journal. Doing this allows you to consolidate a chapters worth of information into a few journal pages. However, don’t just copy the book’s explanations word for word. Let’s say you’re studying middle game principles. You come across a succinct explanation of the relationship between attackers and defenders that makes sense to you. After you write down the book’s explanation, rewrite that explanation in your own words. This helps you to fully understand the concept. Because you have both the book’s explanation and your explanation written in your journal, you’ll always be able to access this valuable information quickly. Any concept you have trouble with should be detailed out in your journal.

The journal also serves as a wonderful way to preserve your personal chess history. Its too easy to forget many of the small details that made one tournament, for example, more interesting than another. Its these little details that we often forget. Because of this, I’ll keep notes on things I found interesting during a tournament in my journal. I recently played in a tournament in this wonderful old church. The lighting was absolutely amazing so I wrote about it in my journal. The reason I did this was because I want to improve the lighting at Academic Chess tournaments and the church had found a simple solution. I also wrote a little about the church’s architecture which was amazing.

While it might seem pointless to write about lighting and architecture in a chess journal, years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this part of my life with clarity because I recorded my own personal history. Our pasts have a way of becoming blurred over time. Maintaining a journal helps to keep things in absolute focus.

Imagine if your favorite chess player kept a journal from the very start of their chess careers. Imagine you could read those journals and travel along on their road to mastery. That would be fascinating reading! I tell my students that they might one day become a famous chess player and the world would delight in being able to read their journals.

You should keep a journal for a few reasons. First, it helps you measure your progress. Second, it allows you to keep a vast body of useful information in a small space and lastly, it preserves your personal history. As we get older, our minds get a bit fuzzy when it comes to details. We also tend to get a bit one sided when it comes to the facts. Fortunately, journals stay informatively sharp with the passing of time, existing as a written record of the times.

If your not keeping a journal start! In this age of Tablets and electronic Notebooks and all things technologically advanced (and prone to breaking), a paper notebook and pencil is a rather pleasant excursion into the past. Hey, a composition notebook doesn’t need batteries and will survive being dropped from great distances! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week, a game from one of my journals I might add!

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).