On Saturday I attended a Baguazhang class for the first time, prior to this my focus had been on Tai Chi. And something interesting happened in that some of the turns we practiced seem to have produced an increased awareness of my groin. This in turn seems to have had a very positive impact on my Tai Chi form, the groin is vital there too but it seems that it needed a different discipline to highlight it.
This outcome seems rather typical of the benefits of cross training, a concept that is well known in martial arts and many other disciplines. By stepping outside our comfort zone we provide a stimulus that increases our attention levels whilst simultaneously banishing any kind of mental or physical laziness.
Can chess players use a form of cross training? Indeed they can, but it requires doing things in a somewhat different way than is implied by much chess literature and its focus on ‘specialization’ and ‘knowledge’. You have to shake things up a bit, experiment and play around with new ideas.
I’m sure that all of us have seen chess books which offer an ‘opening repertoire’ that will hopefully help us win our games. To some extent these can be useful in teaching particular concepts and strategies, yet these repertoires tend to be both written and received as ‘permanent cures’ for our chess woes rather than a stimulus to learn. The difference between these two mindsets is very important.
When opening books are seen as ‘cures’ the reader will put him or herself in the hands of the author, accepting what they are told rather than engaging the mind. In such cases the book can actually be worse than useless because it helps close the mind down rather than opening it up. In many ways it would be better just to make it up as you go along, at least we are likely to be fully engaged.
There are better ways than pure improvisation which combine study with staying fresh. Bent Larsen, for example, used to change openings every couple of years in order to keep his chess brain stimulated, many other Grandmasters have their own version of this. For club players the problem of staleness is not quite as acute in that having fewer games and a lower level of understanding will mean that the positions obtained will stay interesting for longer. There again the opening choices club players often make may lead to boredom rather quicker, for example the London System and f4 Sicilians should not be played for too long.
So what’s the best approach for a club player to take? I would recommend making small but controlled changes on one line at a time, for example by trying out a different defence to the Spanish Opening rather than churn out the same thing over and over again.
This in fact is what Vasily Smyslov recommended as the way for Black to win against the Spanish, taking White by surprise in order to encourage a mistake or two. And in the following game it even worked against Mikhail Tal: