Sharpen Your Chess with Kaizen

Years ago, I was introduced to the concept of kaizen – Japanese for improvement. Simply put, kaizen is continuous refinement and improvement. This concept was introduced to business partly by the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming – famous for his work after World War II in Japan.

Essentially, Dr. Deming seeked to improve business by looking at all aspects of the business and making improvements – sometimes seemingly insignificant ones – in the various processes present throughout the business. This might include processes for manufacturing, service, sales, marketing, and management. The small improvements in the various processes lead to better products, elimination of wasted resources, and better service which would culminate in more profits.

What does this have to do with chess? Well, in chess our “products” are the moves we make on the chess board. To improve our chess, of course there are many things we can do – studying tactics, studying master games, playing strong competition, analyzing your games, etc.

Applying kaizen to these activities means breaking down the processes that go into playing chess and finding ways to improve them in all the chess activities we do.

How do we do this? Well, Dr. Deming provides a method we can apply to all of our chess training. It is the PDSA Cycle – Plan, Do, Study, and Act. For those in education, this is very similar to using metacognitive strategies.

By applying PDSA to our training, study, and games, we will gradually improve our thinking and the way we learn, ultimately culminating in improving our chess results.

Here is the PDSA Cycle explained with some chess examples.

Plan

This is where you identify objectives that you want to accomplish during your training. These objectives should be measurable to some extent. They provide a guidepost for your thinking as you do your training. These objectives are not simply to complete the task at hand. I want you to think like an engineer and break down what you really trying to do.

Here are some examples that I have used:

  • Complete the training session without checking e-mail or Facebook (if doing chess work on the computer).
  • For each problem, I will come up with more than one candidate move (and write these down in my notebook).
  • During Solitaire Chess: List my principle variation (PV) for every move I make.
  • During online games: Every time I feel negative, I will try to look for the postive aspects of my chess position/situation.

Your own self-awareness of your needs (or those suggested by a coach) will help you choose objectives that are appropriate for you. Notice that each of the objectives I listed were process goals – not outcome goals. (Nigel Davies wrote about the difference in a recent post and I discuss it in my article about measurement as well).

Do

The next step is to go through your training, keeping the objectives in mind. The key here is to be self-aware of your thinking during this session. Actually, setting the objectives in itself will help you focus on your thinking.

During this phase, if I’m doing training such as tactics or Solitaire Chess, I’ll make objectives that I can record in my notebook. For example, my example of writing down my principle variation during my Solitiare Chess training sessions forces me to write down a variation (of at least 3 ply) for every move. Similarly, sometimes my objective is to look more broadly at positions, so I will write down all of the candidate moves I suggested. This simply makes things simple for the next step in the PDSA cycle.

Study

After you have finished your activity, the next step is to study the results. There are two aspects to look at.

  • First, did you accomplish your objectives that you set.
  • Second, how did that affect the task.

For example, using the Solitaire Chess example, I will first note the percentage of moves that I wrote down the principle variation for. Surprisingly, it’s usually not 100% – which in itself is an important discovery.

Next, I will notice how successful I was in selecting the proper moves compared to how I usually do. One thing to note is that if you are new to setting these objectives (and metacognitive learning strategies in general) is that you may see a drop in performance at first while you are getting used to thinking differently. This is normal and the benefits should start to appear after a few sessions.

For example, with the example we’ve been using, I noticed that I didn’t get through as many moves in my time period (usually an hour or 90 minutes) than I did before. This is easy to explain, as I had to think about what my principle variation (PV) was and then write it down, whereas before I was just writing down the final move I selected. However, I noticed that my percentage of correct moves increased. I’m confident that my efficiency of doing this – either on paper during training or in my mind during my tournament games – will improve.

Act

In this final step, we have to choose how we will act on the information gained in the first three steps. Using our example, if my move selection performance improves drastically by writing down my PV, then perhaps it is something I need to focus on doing more (and of course the act of practicing it will improve its occurrence). However, if over several sessions there is not signicant improvement, it is possible that another issue (and thus another objective) is hindering performance and should be explored.

Recommendations

Here are a few ways you can start to incorporate Kaizen and the PDSA Cycle to your training.

  • Talk to your coach about what objectives you should pursue during your training.
  • During every chess activity, identify at least one – and one is often enough – objective to pursue during that session.
  • Track and monitor your progress and the objectives you are trying to accomplish. A simple spreadsheet works quite well.
  • Experiment with different types of objectives. For example, try objectives involving your mindset, your thinking process, and your environment (e.g. distractions).
  • Learn more about PDSA and metacognitive learning strategies.

Conclusion

Kaizen is not just a specific process, it’s a way of thinking and living. Many people study and train their chess in a haphazard fashion. By applying the PDSA Cycle, you can learn to control more aspects of your learning process.

Another benefit of applying these concepts is that you realize that there are things you can control and things you can’t. You may not be able to control that your opponent played a great game and thus defeated you. However, you can control your attitude and your own thinking before, during, and after the game.

By measuring and studying your objectives, you may realize that you are improving even though the result of the game doesn’t appear to support that conclusion.

By improving the way you think and your mindset, as well as controlling environmental factors that affect your performance by applying Kaizen as well as increasing your chess knowledge through dedicated study and training, the result cannot be anything other than improvement.

To close, I want to share one of my favorite quotes:

He who stops being better stops being good.

-Oliver Cromwell

Be better – little by little, day by day. Good luck and better chess!

Bryan Castro

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About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).