Trial and Error

Technology has been a great aid in learning how to play chess. It allows students in remote regions, where chess teachers are hard to find, the ability to learn the game via software programs, DVDs and online videos. It’s a win win situation, right? Well, there’s positive and negative aspects to learning chess by employing modern technology. Prior to today’s technology, chess students learned the game by reading books and applying the trial and error method of learning. You picked up a book, played through the examples provided within the text and tested your newly acquired knowledge out against human opponents. Now, chess students have access to databases and chess engines that provide the best possible moves in a given position. This is where things go wrong!

What could possibly be wrong with having a computer program that is stronger than the best Grandmasters aid you in deciding on the best response to an opposition move in the early phase of the game? Let’s say our chess student is studying opening theory and uses their computer program to build up their opening skills (not while actually playing another person of course). They employ a database to see how top players respond to specific opening moves. They also use a chess engine to see how the computer would respond. So far, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with this scenario. However, the student is learning concepts far above their skill set which means they’ll never be able to safely and successfully employ these ideas into their own games (at their current skill level). First off, the beginning student isn’t going to be playing a Grandmaster in their next game, more likely another beginner, so their opponent won’t be making the responses our beginner is expecting. This will leave them lost. Secondly, what good is a stellar move if you don’t understand the principles behind it?

The real problem for the players that learn with the electronic method is that they bypass the trial and error method of learning which actually teaches you something as opposed to simply mimicking database or chess engine moves. Trial and error is just that. You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else and repeat the process until you find something that does work! While this might seem like a waste of time to some, especially those younger players who grew up with chess engines and databases, there is something to be said about simply trying things out, experimentation! Tinkering with things has had the greatest positive impact on civilization’s advancement.

There was a time in the not so distant past when we all had to employ this method to acquire a skill. Learning what didn’t work, through trial and error, taught us a great deal and often led to great discoveries (the history of chemistry is littered with great discoveries made through trial and error methodology). When you try something, such as a non “book” move in the opening, and it fails, you have to examine why it fails which helps to reinforce the correct move. With each failure, your knowledge base increases and you learn more.

Human beings tend to try things their way first. We as a species are stubborn, prone to think that we’re going figure things out on our own. However, as technology makes it easier to streamline our ability to learn something, we tend to use that technology to guide us in our efforts. Let’s say you want to fix a leaky faucet. You can no go online and find a video that walks you through changing the worn rubber washer that caused the leak. You don’t have to give a second thought as to how the water system in your home works. Sounds again, like a win win situation. You save money and time.

Let’s say you’re a budding artist and you want to learn how to paint a landscape. Here’s where things bet a bit dodgy. You can go online and find step by step videos that will have your creating great landscapes with a minimal effort. There’s only one problem. There’s no real art in your work. You’ve mimicked the work of the person presenting the video and nothing more. What would happen if you employed the trial and error method, trying to figure it out on your own? It would certainly take a lot longer to create a landscape. However, you’d not only create an original piece of art but you’d probably make some interesting artistic discoveries along the way. You might become a highly original artist! The same holds true for music (I know this from learning by trial an error, which left me with a playing style that has some originality to it – not that it’s brilliant).

How does this apply to chess? Well, younger players spend far too much time basing their play on the suggestions given by software programs than they do going into uncharted waters on their own. While this may help in tournament play, it turns chess into a dry exercise in mechanical play. Think about the games played during the romantic era of chess, when gambits and sacrifices were king! Sure, those players wouldn’t hold up against today’s super Grandmasters, but there might be less draws and more exciting games! A game of chess should be like a movie, full of action, drama and tension. Yes, there are such games to be found today but they might soon become rare due to an over-reliance on technology.

I actually encourage my students to use the trial and error method. Of course, I try to teach them the correct way to play from the start but I know, especially with children (and adult beginners), that they’re going to try things their way first. They should try things their way because eventually they’ll see that the principles I’ve shown them really work. They learn the hard way and in doing so, learn a lot during the journey.

Then there’s the nagging thought that with the astronomical number of potential positions within a single game of chess, there must be uncharted waters ripe with rich potential discoveries. There could be some awesome game changing idea floating on those uncharted waters, but no one’s going to find that great idea because their computer is calling the shots. I’m sure your copy of the latest, greatest chess playing software will tell you that there is nothing out there (otherwise your program would have found it), but I don’t fully trust machines (neither does Stephen Hawking and he’s no intellectual lightweight). Great discoveries are still the domain of human explorers. As I say to my students, “go out into the sea of potential chess positions and find something new. Be an explorer, don’t be a minion of the silicon monster.” As for you, go out and explore. The next time you have a problem on the chessboard, see if you can figure it out before asking your computer for it’s opinion. You might not completely come up with a solution on your own but you’ll learn more than enough from the process of trial and error to make up for it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. No Deep Houdini Smoodini 10.4 being used here!

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).