The Power of Writing Things Down

At a fundemantal level, the reason chess has lasted so long as a major “intellectual sport” (if I may be so bold) is simply because the moves have been written down in all the games at all major matches and tournaments for the last 200 years or so. Without this record, all but the results would have faded into the mists long ago; surely, Morphy defeated Anderssen 7-2 with 2 games drawn, but what happened in the games? A sportwriter’s description of a chess game could hardly do it justice, and without game scores chess would be more like dominoes or poker.

Instead, we can play over every game from that match, and all of the greatest games in history, whenever we want, at our own pace with a hot cup of coffee at our side. We can pretend to be Alekhine in the last game of his 1927 match with Capablanca, on the verge of reaching the Pinnacle of Chess, and see if we could have found those last moves that forced Capa’s resignation.

I have come to the conclusion that writing other things down in chess may have concrete effects on our strength and results. The fact is, for much of my chess life I “read” a lot of chess books, enjoying the prose annotations and (usually) stopping at the diagrams to try and find the best move. While I’m sure this did have some positive influence, in no way could it be as effective per hour spent as Nigel’s exhortations to “move the pieces around” and explore the position and various possibilities–“Grandmasters do this. Amateurs don’t” says it all!

I recently began reading a very useful website named Barking Up the Wrong Tree whose proprietor, Eric Barker, “want[s] to understand why we do what we do and use the answers to be awesome at life.” In this post he talks about the power of writing things down, and while several of the ideas might have relevance to chess improvement, something new was set off in my mind. What if, beyond just “deliberate practice” or “active learning” or whatever, I was to play a game and not write down just the moves, but my move and the opponent’s expected reply, my anticipated response, his expected reply to that, and my “third” move. In other words, write down five ply after each move and see what happened. So I tried it for one game against a computer program, set to around 2000 elo strength (but still playing pretty quickly, as I had a feeling that this might be a tough exercise).

The results were well, staggering; I was staggering when I ended the exercise after almost two hours and 22 moves, with the computer a pawn up and no doubt on its way to victory, though that was not the important thing. I had four full pages of notes, I had predicted the computer’s next move correctly just eight of 15 times (not counting the first seven moves of the opening, a Sicilian) and not once predicted the exact sequence of five “ply” correctly. Yet, it was enormously useful and revealing. I felt like I learned a great deal about my thinking process, more than I could have spending two hours on chess any other way.

Writing it down was the key. Since I rarely get the kind of time it takes to do a whole game this way, I’m thinking I’ll try and apply it to positions, like those found in the “1001 Sacrifices and Combinations” type of book. I’ve usefully worked in these types of books before, but never wrote out the whole combination, usually being content to find the first move and move on. Actually, this type of exercise would be even better applied to “strategic” positions where there is no immediate shot.

This simple act of writing things down appears to be a powerful addition to just “looking” at chess positions. If anyone else dares to try it, leave a comment on Nigel’s Facebook post or contact me here.

Robert Pearson