I sometimes get enquiries from people with quite unrealistic expectations of what they want to achieve. This is understandable in a way, why should someone spend countless hours on a game without ever achieving something tangible? A title might look good on one’s CV or confer certain bragging rights. Or perhaps it might be possible to win some prize money.
Chess, however, offers very little in such external rewards. The main point in playing and trying to improve is that the game provides a fascinating avenue for self discovery and personal development. As someone irons out the wrinkles in their chess they also address imbalances in their thought processes in general.
What sort of progress should someone expect to make in chess? Well much depends on ability and the quality of one’s studies, but a rough idea can be gained from looking at players’ rating progress. If, for example, you look at Luke McShane’s grading on the ECF web site we see that most of his progress came very early on in fact his first recorded grade is 180 at age 10. At the age of 13, in 1997, he was already one of the best players in the UK and it might be argued that the extra 30 or so points he gained since then was scarcely an improvement at all! The reality is that it becomes harder to improve both as we become older (skill acquisition is more difficult because of diminishing myelin) and as we reach high levels of mastery.
What about those who only study chess seriously later on in life? This is more complex for several reasons. First of all adults produce less myelin than children and secondly it can be difficult to find the time for the sort of high level practice that is needed. Daniel Coyle gives a good explanation in this trailer for his book, The Talent Code.
Accordingly one might hypothesize that it’s much easier for adults to improve if they played when they were kids rather than starting from zero, assuming of course that they didn’t acquire too many bad habits that need overlaying. And it’s also very important to adjust expectations of progress downwards, a lot more effort has to be put into the game in order to achieve a fraction of the progress of a talented child.
What happens when people don’t do this and insist on shooting for the moon? Invariably they will be disappointed and find it difficult to stay the course.
Who are those most likely to make large scale improvements? Unsurprisingly it is those who love the game and are willing to put the time in. And those least likely to succeed are often those who have been very successful in another field, believing that this chess can’t possibly be that hard for them.
A sobering bit of history is to consider the famous people who, despite great efforts, failed to improve their chess. And I’ll be identifying at a couple of them in my article on Monday.