Learning From Your Journal

I was digging through some boxes this week in an effort to make some room in my office and discovered a chess journal I had written in 2000. I have always kept educational journals to chronicle my progress through various classes, projects and hobbies. I took my old chess journal out to the backyard, sat down and opened it up to see what I had written. What I found was appalling! It was my own explanations of various chess principles I had learned and what was dreadful about what I was reading was the fact that my explanations weren’t that great! The explanations sort of explained the ideas I was studying at the time but they weren’t clear and concise. Of course, as a chess teacher I shouldn’t admit this publicly but read further because there’s a lesson to be learned here.

After dragging myself through the first fifteen or so pages of that old journal, I went and got my current lecture notes and copies of chess articles I’ve written and was greatly relieved when I discovered my current work is much better. The chess journals I keep now are clear and concise. Ideas are explained in simple terms. This experience really got me thinking about the learning process and documenting it as a way to view one’s progress and understanding of the subject matter.

Too often, we pick up a chess book, read about a principle and think we truly understand the idea we’ve just encountered. What many people tend to do is simply memorize the idea without putting it into their own terms. I’m fortunate in that being a chess teacher forces me into really having to take a principle apart a number of times to understand how it works so I can explain it to others. I create analogies that my students can understand and by doing so, I completely understand the idea. Having taught chess in a large number of schools over the last five years and having to go through this process of closely examining various chess principles is why my current chess journal (and writing) outshines my past work. Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to do this much work but there are ways you can make your chess journal shine the first time around (and not have to horrify yourself reading it years later).

Rule One: You have to keep a journal. If you want to document your progress in an honest way, keep a journal. When I say “honest,” I’m not saying you’re dishonest about measuring your progress, but often it’s hard to remember just when you made that small advance or big leap in your playing and what helped you achieve that! The journal will provide you with an accurate record of your advancement. There’s nothing better than comparing old journal entries to newer ones and seeing that you’ve made good progress!

Rule Two: Before creating your own explanation of a principle, write down the author’s explanation first. This gives you a basis for the creation of your own explanation and a point of comparison for determining whether or not your thoughts on the concept make sense. You don’t have to write down the entire chapter you’re reading into your journal, just the key points.

Rule Three: Come up with multiple explanations of the idea you’re trying to master. In chess, you should always try to come up with at least three candidate moves before committing to one. Two of the moves might be good but only great moves win games. That third move idea might be the great one but you’ll never know unless you put some effort into it. The same holds true for creating your own explanations. Approach your explanation in a few different ways. Doing this will help you really understand the idea! Hastily jotting down the first thing that comes to mind and leaving it at that could leave you confused later if it’s not spot on.

Rule Four: Use analogies that you understand. You wouldn’t try to explain an opening principle in terms of a surgical procedure unless you were a surgeon. It wouldn’t make any sense. If you like football, think of a football analogy. Work with what you know when creating an explanation.

Rule Five: Don’t write a 400 page book on a single idea. Less is more! Good explanations are simple and concise. Too often, a person who has a propensity for long winded writing (I’m sure some of you are thinking of me right about now) will take a perfectly reasonable explanation and write so much about it that the explanation gets lost in a sea of words. Try writing a Haiku to explain a concept (I’m serious. Even if you can’t do it, you’ll become intimately connected to the idea in question by trying). Again, less is more!

Rule Six: Date your journal entries with not only the date but your chess rating as well. You’ll find that as your own explanations get better, your rating generally improves as well. Dating entries is important because it lets you chart your progress.

Rule Seven: Use the back pages of the journal to create an index. The main problem with chess journals is that they often are filled with non-sequential information; a bit on opening ideas, then endgames ideas, more opening ideas, etc. When you write in your chess journal, note the topic and page number in the index. Don’t worry about sequencing the index.

Rule Eight: Go back and read your journal entries on a regular basis. Often, you’ll reread an entry and discover that your explanation doesn’t make sense. This forces you to rethink it, come up with a better explanation and thus learn a bit more about the idea!

Rule Nine: Do not doodle in your chess journal. Non chess related scribbles take your focus away. If you’re a doodler, keep a note pad handy and doodle on that, not your chess journal. I had a bad habit, according to my 2000 journal, of drawing a cartoon of Richard Nixon. This might explain why my explanations were so bad back then.

Rule Ten: Hang onto your journals. Don’t throw them out! They are a history of your life and what you’ve done. Sometimes, when I feel as if I haven’t done enough in life, I can look at my journals and see that I did indeed do something!

I purposely didn’t suggest recording games and game diagrams in your journal because you’ll most likely be recording your games in a separate book or electronic device. I also didn’t suggest this because the chess journal is best when the explanations are in your own words rather than diagrams. Of course you can employ partial diagrams for certain ideas but drawing diagrams can be time consuming and take away from the thoughts flowing through your head. If you try employing some of my suggestions, you won’t end up looking back in horror as I did when looking at your early efforts. 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).