Rough and Ready Chess Training

Due to my recent job changes and the flexibility demanded by my military duties, I have found it impossible to follow a fixed chess training schedule. There is also the ongoing complication of raising teenagers, which means that any given evening may begin calmly and quietly enough with one’s feet up and a cup of hot tea in hand, but then spin out of control into a late-night drama involving the police, flashing lights, and heated remarks between parents and offspring. There is no need to go into detail; any parent of spirited teenage boys will understand me, and others can well imagine.

I suppose many would-be chess improvers face a similar if not identical slate of challenges to their time-planning. Many of us have families, inevitably a messy and emotionally wearing proposition; many of us go through job changes, inevitably with financial implications if not complications; many of us travel or have other schedule irregularities thrust upon us.

In the face of life’s demands, I have found it more than difficult to follow the ideal training schedules devised in the quiet of my study during the calms between storms. For example, if one has resolved (say) to study tactics for one hour per day, endgames for one hour per day, and openings for one hour per day—a total of three hours per day—what is one to do when the actual free time available for chess study during a given week looks like this?

Monday: 3 hours, but I was tired and took a nap part of this time

Tuesday: 1.5 hours

Wednesday: 2 hours

Thursday: 0 hours (chess club night: an ongoing commitment)

Friday: 0 hours (one-off social engagement; i.e., other Friday nights may be free)

Saturday and Sunday: large irregular chunks of time are available, but have multiple demands upon them (chess, family, more social obligations, yardwork, reading the mail and paying the bills, keeping up with newsmagazines, writing a chess blog post, et cetera)

For the record, I have never designed my chess training schedule to look quite like the example above (1 hour tactics, 1 hour endgames, 1 hour openings); but the principle and the problem remain the same: ideal schedules do not fare well in the real world.

What is the solution for the worn and harried chess amateur, who wants to create and sustain forward momentum in his chess training, but has to fit in chess around the edges of his life?

I believe the solution must start with the training plan itself. Here we must remember the wise maxim, obviously created by someone with long experience of the world: “The best is the enemy of the good.” Even if one could somehow determine through elaborate double-blind testing that a certain training plan was ideal, the world itself is not. The plan must be reality-proofed, made rough and ready. The plan must not be fragile like a Fabergé egg, but commercial-grade, even industrial-strength for rough handling. (I do not know if Fabergé eggs are actually fragile, but work with me here.) To put the matter bluntly: Do not make a plan that assumes conditions for your work will be good: make a plan that assumes conditions will be bad. Because they probably will be.

Next time I will offer for consideration a chess training schedule, based on the overlearning principle, that I have attempted to reality-proof. Is this training schedule perfect? No, nor could it be. As we have already discussed, perfect schedules tend to falter in an imperfect world. For another thing, individual chessplayers differ in what they need. But I believe it is a workable schedule even under bad conditions. It is a schedule that any player could reasonably hope to follow (tweaked to reflect individual preferences and needs) and make continuous forward progress. It is not an ideal schedule, but it is good enough for daily use.

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