Practice Practice Practice

There’s an old joke in which one gentleman asks another gentleman, who just so happens to be carrying a violin case, how to get to Carnegie Hall (a famous New York City concert hall where only the best musicians in the world are invited to play). The gentlemen asking the question is running late and simply wants to get to the venue in time to see the show. The man with the violin case is a musician which explains his response, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, practice, practice, practice of course!” While this joke received it’s last dying gasp of laughter in the Catskill Mountain’s Borscht Belt sometime in the late 1950s, it serves as the basis for this week’s article.

If you want to be a serious magician, you have to become an apprentice to a master magician. When the apprenticeship starts, the first thing you’ll ask for is the secret to the one trick performed by the master that inspired you to enter into an apprenticeship with him in the first place. The master might, at some point, tell you the “secret” to the trick you love so much. You’ll then know how the seemingly impossible illusion or trick was executed. Does this mean you’ll be able to instantly perform such an amazing feat of illusion? Absolutely not. Not even close. Why? Because knowing the mechanics behind the illusion doesn’t mean you can successfully perform that illusion. The successful execution of a magician’s illusion requires not only knowing the underlying mechanics of the “trick” but something equally, if not more, important, the ability to execute the illusion in seamless manner. A seamless and perfectly timed illusion takes years of practice to master. So simply knowing how a magic trick is performed isn’t the same as being able to actually perform the trick itself. What separates knowing how to do a trick from performing the trick perfectly? Practice, and a lot of it to the point of near overkill. Right before I became a full time rock and roller I did street magic for tourists here in San Francisco (my skills were certainly passable enough to fill up my hat with tip money but Houdini I wasn’t), so I know a bit about practicing tricks to get them right.

This same idea applies to music as well. I started my musical career training as a classical pianist. You might ask, how I ended up becoming a guitar player in a rock and roll band, worse yet, a punk band? The answer is girls, girls and girls. Guitar players get more girls than piano players (no offense to you pianists out there). My classical training made playing guitar possible because I developed an ear for music, the ability to isolate individual notes when hearing them, meaning I could listen to a song and be able to play it note for note in a short period of time. I would put a record on the turntable, listen to it and pick out each note played by the band’s guitarist and know how to play the song in very short order. Brilliant right? After all, while I can read sheet music, I could bypass that step completely and listen to a recording six or seven times and play it note for note. Brilliant right? Wrong! Sure I could play the individual notes correctly but my playing was still sloppy and didn’t have the same feel as the guitarist playing on the recording. This occurred because I wasn’t skilled enough to make the notes blend into one another seamlessly. Of course, thirty years later, I can listen to a recording and do the same the same thing but with a huge difference. Because I have over thirty years of guitar playing under my belt, I’ve developed advanced skills that allow me to play those notes fluidly. How did this happen? Practice, practice and more practice. All the theory in the world will only take you so far. You can possess a huge body of music theory but unless you put that theory into practice, or playing, you’ll never be any good. Theory and reality are two completely different things. Theory is what you learn from books, reality is that moment when you realize that your books didn’t prepare you for the situation you often find yourself in. What holds true for magic and music also holds true for chess. You can only go so far with theory of any kind.

Of course, we have to study chess theory in order to improve. We have to read and play through chess books, watch instructional DVDs, playing through all the games presented in those DVDs, but none of this does us any good if we’re not applying this new found knowledge to the real world, playing chess against an opponent be it human being or obnoxious computer program that verbally quips at you with in a thick accent. I know plenty of players who are walking encyclopedias of chess theory but when pressed to apply their vast knowledge to an actual game of chess, what they know (memorized) greatly outweighs their ability to successfully apply it to the game! They can give you the moves of a specific chess opening and its numerous variations, but when they face a position in which an out of book move (one not covered in the book they read on that particular opening) is made, they tend to hit a brick wall regarding what to do. They’ve memorized a particular chess opening and its variations but haven’t spent enough time playing that opening against an opponent where non book moves are sometimes made.

Of course, most of us learn an opening by reading a book or by watching a DVD, but you have to physically play that opening for it to be any use to you. This is where “practice, practice, practice” come into play. What I mean by this is simple. Let’s say you learn the mainline of the Ruy Lopez by reading a book on this opening. You play through every example and every game in the book not five but six times. After all this, you have a pretty good idea of the opening’s basics. Prior to reading this book on the Ruy Lopez, you read a book on opening principles and understand the underlying mechanics of sound opening play. Now it’s time to get down to the hard part, applying your new found knowledge to real life play. It’s time for theory to meet reality. Here’s what I suggest as your next step; working out with the computer:

Set your computer’s chess program to a rating level that’s between 1400 and 1700 (for improving players, those who are just above beginners in experience). You don’t want to set the computer’s playing level too low because you’ll be facing opposition moves that are farcical at best. You want the computer to play like a human opponent which they don’t when their skill level is set too low. With the Ruy Lopez, a computer program set at a skill level or rating around 1500 will provide the corresponding moves needed to play this opening. You want to play practice games against your computer to prepare for over the board (OTB) games against real life humans! I suggest playing against the computer, employing the opening of your choice for at least a few months. Just make sure your program is playing at a high enough level to mimic realistic human play (if your computer responds to your 1. e4 with 1…a6, you need to set the program’s skill level a lot higher). Many chess software programs allow you to adjust the program’s playing style through the GUI (see the user manual, that 400 page book collecting dust somewhere in your house) so you can further refine your silicon opponent. Once you’ve played the computer for a few months (you can play for just a week but the longer you play the better), play a few practice games with a human opponent either with the same skill set or a slightly higher skill set. Play with the opening principles to guide you rather than making moves that only correspond to the opening you’re using. This helps deal with those out of book moves you’ll encounter.

Record all your games during this process and review them to check your progress. After you’re comfortable with your opening during these practice games, take your show on the road and play rated games. Practice!

This system (practice) can be used for every phase of the game, from middle game tactics to endgame positions. The point here is simple. You have to take what you learn (theory) and apply it to the real world (playing a game of chess) and to be successful, you have to practice, practice, practice. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these gentlemen practiced a great deal early in their chess careers!

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).