The Expert Mind

Anyone who wishes to improve their chess should take a look at the this article from the Scientific American. Once we know that chess skill is largely a question of pattern recognition, we just need to know how this skill can be acquired.

Actually it’s rather easier said then done as even the most talented players have to devote themselves chess for thousands of hours before developing mastery. It certainly helps to be young because of the relative ease with which news skills can be acquired. But where most players fall down is in studying the wrong thing, and this is usually caused by looking for short cuts.

What’s the most tempting short cut? Openings! Starting with the very young, players want to be shown a series of repeatable moves that will bring them success. It starts with ‘scholar’s mate’ (1.e2-e4, 2.Qd1-f3, 3.Bf1-c4 and 4.Qf3xf7 mate!) which will have to be replaced once the level of opposition rises to a sufficiently high level for them to stop the threat! But the same tendency can be seen as players move up the rating scale, the never ending search for that ‘magic bullet’ that will bring success.

To some extent it can still lead to a player developing their patttern recognition skill because the search for these ‘magic bullets’ will help immerse a player in chess. On the negative side it’s not a very efficient way of going about things because the patterns acquired can be highly idiosyncratic. It’s also not a great way to think about chess because it takes the focus away from the difficult job of outplaying one’s adversaries.

I went through this myself because of my years of playing the Modern Defence and nothing else. The irregular positions it leads to can help bamboozle opponents but at the same time they provide little in the way of education in normal positions. Whilst I was playing this way exclusively (from around 1980 through to 1991) I found it difficult to improve beyond decent International Master level. Only when I broadened my palate did I become strong enough to get the Grandmaster title.

So what’s the best way to acquire this pattern recognition skill? Basically the old fashioned advice to play good quality games (not too much blitz) and study the games of the masters is pretty good. Plus endgames and combination of course. But what sells are books on openings, as can be seen at any chess book stall.