The Road that Leads to Improvement

I thought about titling this article “The Journey to Mastery” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not every chess player would be willing to commit to such a difficult endeavor, becoming a titled “master” of the game. On the other hand, anyone who enjoys the game would be more than happy with improving their chess skills. Thinking about it further, I realized that you cannot even consider the journey to mastery until you’ve spent some time walking along the road that leads to improvement. At some point, a mathematical statistician determined that anyone who put ten thousand hours into the study of a subject would become a master of that subject. Does that mean that all you have to do is read a stack of chess books and play chess for ten thousand hours to become a Grandmaster? Absolutely not! In fact, you could spend ten thousand hours studying and playing chess only to become a slightly better than average player. It’s quality of study that leads to real improvement, not quantity of time spent studying. The best students of any subject have highly effective study habits and techniques.

In my youth, back when chess games were recorded on stone tablets, we got better at chess by reading chess books and then testing out our new found knowledge on the board against a human opponent. Now, there are so many alternative methods of study that the beginner is left bewildered by the numerous choices. You can use Books, DVDs, training software or websites that are dedicated to specific aspects of the game. However, no matter which method you choose to employ, there is one specific concept that must be embraced in order to improve. I’m talking about good studying habits. If your studying habits are not good you’ll only retain a fraction of what you learn which slows down your improvement greatly. This can lead to frustration which can lead to simply giving up. How you study is just as important as what you study!

Slow and steady wins the race when if comes to improvement. Humans tend to be impatient so they try to complete a task as quickly as possible. This leads to setting unrealistic goals. If your goal requires three hundred hours to accomplish, you could spend an hour per day and meet your goal in three hundred days. You could also shorten that time frame by spending ten hours a day working toward you’ll goal, cutting the total number of days needed to thirty. This would be a grave mistake! Most people lead busy lives which means they can only dedicate a small amount of time each day to their studies. However, even if they had the time to study for ten hours a day, they would fall victim to mental fatigue, especially when studying chess which requires great concentration. The best route to take is to set a realistic time table, say thirty minutes a day to start. Most of us can take thirty minutes from our daily schedule without having our lives fall apart. Thirty minutes will not leave you mentally drained at the end of your study session. While you might say that thirty minutes day isn’t much, it adds up to 182 hours a year. Still, some of you are thinking that 182 hours isn’t a lot of time, especially when thinking about reaching that 10,000 hour mark. Forget about that 10,000 hour idea. Let’s worry about improving before mastery!

Our next consideration is where to study. I’ve talked about study techniques in previous articles but I feel the subject so important that I’m bringing it up again. My next point is crucial if you want to improve. Find a quiet place to study. I feel so strongly about this that I have taken to sitting in my car, parked in front of my house to study chess uninterrupted. I have a busy household and even my office can be a bit noisy. You need a place that is not only quiet but offers no distractions as well. I’ve taken to my car because of one incident. I was studying a variation of the Nimzo Indian opening because it I had trouble with it. Sitting in my office, I reached one of those “ah ha” moments when everything suddenly became clear. I had the Nimzo Indian within my grasp. Suddenly, our pit bull (Ruby Petrosian Patterson) burst through my office door, made a run towards my desk and started grabbing chess pieces off the board I use. Needless to say, my concentration was broken and the mysteries of the Nimzo Indian still remain a mystery to me. Find a quiet place to study!

If you’ve followed my advice so far, you’ve set up the conditions for productive studying. You have a realistic time table and a place to study. Now comes the question, what to study? Finding suitable chess material to study is similar to buying pants. Pants come in a vast range of sizes. However, you’re never going to purchase a pair that is an exact fit. The length might be perfect but the waist is a bit tight! Chess training material is the same way.

While many companies will list a rating range for their training material, such as “for players rated between 800 and 1200,” that 400 point range is a huge consideration for the beginner whose rating is closer to 800. How can the beginner determine whether the training material in question suitable for their skill set? If its a book, the beginner can either examine the book, if being purchased from a bookstore, or preview it, if being purchased online. In either case, look at the table of contents first. If you’re a beginner trying to improve your general opening play, you should see chapters dedicated to the opening principles such as control of the board’s center, minor piece development, castling, etc. The book should also contain games in which both sides win. Examine a chapter and ask yourself “does this make sense?” If you can’t understand the concepts as explained by the book’s author, you may want to consider another title! Avoid books that promise fast improvement results or promise a fast increase in your rating.

DVDs can be a bit trickier because you cannot play the DVD before purchasing it. However, many DVD producers, such as ChessBase, offer previews on their website which allow you to test drive them prior to purchase. Again, ask yourself “does this make sense.” With specific DVDs, such as those dealing with opening play, you have to be careful as a beginner. I teach and coach chess full time so I spend a great deal of time both teaching and learning. I will always be a student of the game. I mention this because I’ve fallen victim to the purchase of a DVD about specific openings that are beyond my skill set. Beginners should stick to DVDs that explore principles rather than specific openings at least until they have a strong grasp on the principles!

Lastly, invest in a software training program that has a good GUI (Graphical User Interface) and decent chess engine. This gives the beginner an instant opponent and many of these programs have add on training modules that can be purchased separately. There are some pitfalls with these programs. First off, when playing against the computer at its lowest levels, you’re going to get an unrealistic game of chess. The computer will make the worst moves and, while your victory against the silicon beast might feel good, you’ll pay for that joy when you sit down and play a human (even a novice player) and they make much better moves than your computer program (on a low setting), leaving you with a lost game. Only play the computer at a higher game setting. The moves are more realistic and you only get better at chess by playing stronger opponents. Play human opponents every chance you get!

Lastly, beware of website advice. While a decent percentage of these websites are an excellent resource for learning, you have to remember, anyone can create a chess website regardless of their chess skills. I spend a great deal of time correcting my student’s bad habits, bad habits they picked up online. Nigel’s Tiger Chess website is an exception and you should consider an online visit (http://tigerchess.com). Another good resource is IM Andrew Martin’s Youtube videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/YMChessMaster) You would definitely do well to read all the excellent articles by the folks here at The Chess Improver as well. Keep it simple, make your study time count and sit in your car if you need a quiet place to study. Your game will slowly but surely get better. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these guys had good studying habits!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).