Practice Makes Perfect?

I recently read a social media post stating that kids were studying chess up to four hours a day. It went on to question the validity of such an effort. I thought about this and realized that just because you study something for hours on end each and every day doesn’t mean you’re going to master that subject or even improve much. Quantity doesn’t guarantee any kind of mastery or improvement unless there is a high degree of quality to one’s studies. I know about this all too well.

We’ve all heard the old adage that states “to master an art you must put in at least ten thousand hours of study.” That’s a great deal of time to dedicate to any endeavor, especially in a world that becomes impatient after three minutes. Think about it. Your internet is running a bit slow, a matter of milliseconds, and you thrown a fit because you can’t download a pop tune in under sixty seconds. There was a time when getting online took a lot longer than sixty seconds. I mention this because those individuals who actually attempt to master something via the ten thousand hour method have a lot of natural patience. However, there’s a crucial missing statement that should be firmly attached to the ten thousand hour party line and that’s, “it only works if you have an excellent training structure or program.” In other words, you can waste ten thousand hours trying to master something and get nowhere because you didn’t employ a sound method of training (quality). To demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about here, I’ll give you my typical training day as a musician.

I play guitar for up to four hours a day (sometimes more). In the right hands, this amount practice each day will have any musician greatly improving within a short period. In the wrong hands, bad playing and the bad habits thus developed will lead to no improvement and a lot of frustration. With music and chess, it all comes down to the structure of your training program more so than the time spent training. I play for such a long period of time each day because I’m studying some extremely complex and difficult to learn jazz guitarist leads (what they call a “professional’s advanced class). This is akin to preparing an opening for a high level chess tournament. Too many improving guitarists and chess players have dreadful training methods that aren’t structured to optimize their studies. This is why they don’t get the results they’re after.

Here’s the way my typical guitar training sessions go. I start with a good thirty minutes of jazz scales. Why scales when I can work on playing actual songs? Because my fingers need to warm up before trying to play extremely complicated guitar leads. If I try to play a lead with no warn up, my fingers don’t work as well and I get frustrated. If I become frustrated, I might not feel like playing. Therefore, I warm up with scales. I then play a series of ten bebop (jazz) leads on my guitar, with each lead becoming more complex as I move through them. I play each lead a minimum of ten times. I should mention that if I hit one off note, I add another five times to the total workout of each lead. Bad habits form when you hit a bad note and continue anyway. You need to stop and start again, correctly. These lead guitar riffs are specifically designed to prepare my fingers for the more complex work I’ll be doing towards the end of my session. Next I move on to twenty Wes Montgomery leads. He was an amazing guitarist and learning to play his music is extremely difficult. Each of the twenty leads is done ten times with the same off or bad note penalty. Sometimes, I’ll play a leads perfectly and then my fingers get stupid (more likely it’s my brain but I hate to admit that) and I can’t play the lead through a second time. I stop and immediately take a break. Trying to continue when you’re frustrated will only make matters worse. It’s time to walk away and play a quick game of chess. I keep a board set up in my studio. In fact, when my bands rehearse there is always a game being played during those rehearsals, with some moves being made while the musicians are playing! The point here is to stop when frustration sets in because you’ll waste more time by not taking a break. Notice that there’s a structure to my studies? This is the only way you can improve.

After my jazz workout, I do some old school country guitar, called “chicken picking.” This is a string bending work out in which I’m using my fingers to “pick” the strings so I’m playing multiple notes at once. Only now do I actually run through both my band’s sets (roughly 18 songs each). Yes, I know the songs because I wrote almost all of them but I like to refine them ever so slightly.

In short, I have a very structured training work out. I’ve also done well over ten thousand hours of playing and am considered (by my peers, not by myself) to have mastered my instrument. However, there is no last stop on the road to improvement. It’s a road than only ends when you die. This is why you have to keep at it. A chess training workout doesn’t have to be as long as my guitar workout to be beneficial. The workout I described above is as long as it is because of solo and song lengths. With chess, you’re workout can be much shorter. Remember, just because someone else is studying chess for four hours doesn’t mean they’re going to play better than someone putting an hour or two into their studies. It’s about quality not quantity.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you should set realistic goals regarding how long you study. I can play guitar for four hours because I’ve developed the concentration and stamina to do so over the last thirty five plus years of playing. If you’re new to chess, you need to study for shorter periods of time until you build up your mental stamina. Otherwise you’ll burn out quickly. Try thirty minutes daily to start and forty five minutes daily, three months later. Trying to study chess for four hours will give the beginner a solid thirty minutes of good studying followed by three and a half hours of glazed eyes and nothing accomplished. Take it slow. You have to be patient to improve. Getting good at sometime takes time and you cannot rush the process if you want to gain the most from your studies. Don’t be impatient. Take it nice and easy.

As for what to study? Make a list of everything you think is wrong with your chess playing and be honest (after all, you’re the only one seeing the list). Categorize the issues into opening, Middle and endgame problems. If you don’t have access to chess books or training software, go online and search for your particular problem. If you have trouble with your opponent hitting you with tactical plays that seem to come from nowhere, type “how to spot tactics in chess” into your search engine. Do this with each of the problems on your list. Do note that the internet allows everyone to be an expert so you have to watch out for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Look for know chess player’s online writings to avoid this. Look for web pages and sites that have positive reviews.

You’ll also want to go online and look up chess training programs. However, I suggest you try working through your list first and using that to start your training because if you’re brand new to chess, you won’t know a good training program from a bad one. Trust books written by Bruce Pandolfini. His writings on chess improvement form the foundation of my own chess teaching and coaching program. He writes in a clear and concise manner and is beginner friendly (many books are too advanced for beginners even though they’re supposed to be for the novice player) Go onto chess forums and see what people recommend in the way of training. You have to do the research.

In closing always remember that when it comes to improvement, quality always trumps quantity and patience wins the war. It comes down to a well thought out training program. That is how you improve. 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).