Unrealistic Expectations

Over the last 13 months, I’ve had the opportunity to interview people who stopped playing chess after a serious attempt on their part to study the game. The point of my interviews was to find out why they gave up on the game they once loved so much and, to see if there was anything I could do to help my students avoid such a fate. While there were a wide range of reasons sited, the overwhelming single answer was frustration because they weren’t progressing.

Of course, whenever you attempt to learn any skill, there will be bumps along the road to mastery. To succeed, you have to be able to ride over those bumps in order to arrive at your destination, in this case, playing good chess! However, the height and difficulty of those bumps in the road are more often than not, determined by the person traveling that road. We create these seemingly impassible obstacles by creating unrealistic expectations regarding our overall goal and it all boils down to becoming frustrated because we cannot meet our goal due to our approach.

One problem that creates an air of frustration is the need to learn how to do something as quickly as possible. Western society places a high premium on learning to do things quickly. Of course, I can’t fault someone for wanting to master a skill quickly. After all, if given the choice between being able to learn a skill in one month or one year, we’d all opt for the one month time line! However, chess, like music, requires a slow but steady course. You can’t buy a piano and expect to be playing like Mozart a week later. The same holds true for chess. Chess, like music, requires a careful balance of theory and practice. Like music, you can study all the theory in the world but unless you spend hours and hours actually playing, theoretical knowledge won’t get take you very far. Chess also requires practice, in the form of playing other people to hone your skills.

However, before you can find that balance between theory and practice, you need to have a long hard look at your expectations and reality. By this, I mean that our expectations are often greater than the reality they’re based in. So often, I hear beginning students say “I’m going to get my rating up to 1200 in six months time, then 1800 within the next eight months.” In their minds, they’ve created a very reasonable plan. However, reality can be a cruel mistress. With the mastery of any skill, those first steps go along quite smoothly. With chess, the beginner can make great strides very quickly. This comes about because the beginner has no knowledge at the start of their chess career so each basic concept learned can be quickly applied to their game, garnering them seemingly instant results.

In my daily classes, my beginners learn the basic opening principles. When I start with these beginners. They thrust flank pawns out onto the board, put their Knights on the rim and leave their King’s exposed. After learning the three primary opening principles, they are now opening with a central pawn move, developing their minor pieces towards the board’s center and castling their Kings. This happens quickly and they are rewarded for their efforts. They start winning a few games or at least don’t lose as quickly. They pick up a few tactical ideas and endgame principles and things are moving along quickly. Then they hit their first bump in the road. They play opponents with a bit more experience and they stop winning any games at all.

This is where frustration rears its ugly head. At the start of their studies, they gained knowledge that allowed them to see their game improve quickly. I tell my students from the start that they will make that initial rating jump quickly but it slows down after that. As they develop their skills and their rating goes up, they’re facing stronger opponents who have more playing experience. What my beginners see is that their newly acquired knowledge is no longer pushing them forward. While I now teach them further piece activation and how to transition into the middle game, they are still frustrated that progress is not coming at a faster pace.

This happens because they base their expectations on their experience, which in the case of chess, is limited because their still beginners. As you develop your skills, the knowledge you must embrace and understand becomes more complex, which means that improvement will be slower. The best approach to take is that of taking things slowly and not expecting too much. Measure progress in small increments not giant leaps and bounds. Take your time for Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a Grandmaster.

One of the root cause of chess frustration for the serious beginner is setting impossible studying schedules. The overenthusiastic beginner will think “I’ll study chess for four hours a day, seven days a week to improve quickly.” Chess requires enormous concentration and concentrating for too long can drain you, causing you to simply waste that time because you’re struggling to think. While a player with years and years of experience can study for many consecutive hours, they can do so because their brain is conditioned for it. They’ve built up their mental muscles! The beginner’s mind simply cannot concentrate for longs periods of time. Start slowly, maybe thirty minutes, four days per week. Yes, employing a lighter study schedule seems like it would take forever to raise one’s skill level. However, a beginner who attempts to study for three hours straight will find that their mind will start to wander after thirty minutes. This means they would spend two and a half hours trying to keep their concentration up. Start with short periods of concentrated study and you won’t waste time!

The beginner should also consider when and where they study. Study some place quiet and study when you’re least tired. Studying while sitting in busy train station after being up all night will get you nowhere! Quality must always come over quantity. Better to spend a week of thirty minute study sessions learning a single opening principle than trying to learn them all in one long study session. Remember the fable of the Hare (rabbit) and the Tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

The trick here is to not have unrealistic expectations regarding your progress. Be happy with slow but steady advancement and you’ll avoid frustration. Learn one idea thoroughly and then move onto the next idea. Don’t be too critical of the speed at which you learn because we all learn at different speeds. Record all your games from the start because when you get frustrated at your lack of progress, you can play through your early games and see that you really have improved. Relax, take your time and remember, slow and steady really does win the race. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).