Wood Shedding

There once was a time when an individual wanting to pursue a particular skill would take on the task knowing that the path to mastery was a long, hard and often difficult journey. However, the person embarking on this journey simply accepted the idea of long, hard work as the cost one paid when striving to be the best at something. For centuries, young apprentices worked under their masters, slowly and carefully learning their craft. Today, thanks in large part to technology, humans have to come to expect things to be done quickly, including things that were once done slowly in an effort to produce the highest quality outcome. Whether it’s learning a language, learning music or learning chess, the novice now finds themselves temped by the idea of rapid of accelerated learning.

The idea behind rapid or accelerated learning is that the process of learning itself is streamlined so you only study what is deemed (by the instructor) to be absolutely necessary. While some streamlined learning does work, garnering fairly decent results, I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of the countless hours of work, much of it repetitive in nature, required even by an accelerated learning program. Case in point, guitar mastery.

I receive at least three emails a week from guitar websites stating that they have created a learning program that will knock years off of the time required to play
“great” guitar. If I was a novice guitarist, I’d probably sign up for one of them. However, being someone that still earns part of my income from playing, I know that these emails fail to mention one critical aspect to improvement, hard work and longs hours on the fret board.

You can cut down on the time spent learning how to play an instrument by eliminating some unnecessary or redundant exercises, such as certain scales. However, the scales you do have to learn take time to master. This means you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into practicing them over and over again. In other words, you’re going to be working extremely hard no matter how streamlined the process. This holds true for chess as well.

I’m in the process of writing a chess book for beginning and intermediate players. In writing this book, I closely examined other books to see how those authors approached the same topics I’m going over. I noticed that some books had titles that used the words “rapid improvement” or “improve your chess in “x” amount of days.” While these certainly help to sell books, I believe the titles might lull the potential buyer into a false sense of just how long improvement is going to take. Chess mastery (something I’m nowhere close to) takes a great deal of time. Also consider the fact that we all learn at different speeds. Some people have a harder time learning than others, who quickly pick things up. However, I’ve found that my students who struggle and have to work twice as hard, often come out with a firmer grasp of the subject than those who pick things up quickly.

Chess, like playing a musical instrument, requires both theory and practice, theory being the study of the game and practice meaning actually playing the game. You have to do both. Reading every book ever published on how to play the guitar does you no good unless you pick up a guitar and play it. The same holds true with chess. The point here is this: Studying and practicing what you’ve learned through your studies takes a great deal of time. Therefore, there is no quick road to true mastery! As the Mathematician Euclid said to a King trying to find an easier way learn geometry, “there is no royal road to geometry.” Mastery comes at a cost and that cost is good old fashion hard work.

Too often, in music, you hear about legendary musicians who spend 12 to 15 hours a day playing their instruments, following the hard road to mastery. What you don’t hear about is how it took them a long time to be able to concentrate for such lengthy periods. They slowly built up their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Yet, musicians new to playing will attempt the same feat, failing completely. You have to develop the mental muscles that allow you to concentrate for long periods of time slowly. You don’t walk into a gym and immediately start your beginner’s weight lifting class by bench pressing 300 lbs. You build up to it, the slower the better. We must learn favoring quality over quantity. More importantly, we must learn how to take on the mastery of something, in this case chess, in proper increments that allow us to learn and move forward without frustration.

My advice is this: Don’t look for an easy way out. This means you’re going to have to put in hard work over a lengthy period of time. Of course, if you find a teaching system that cuts some of that time down, by all means try it. However, always remember that no matter what the system, hard work on your part will be required. Let’s say you decide that hard work is worth the price of mastery or just improvement. Now you have to create a schedule that allows you to study and practice (playing chess) for greater periods of time over the long run. Musicians call studying and then practicing what you’ve just learned “wood shedding,” and while all musicians strive to be able to practice for extremely long periods of time, they have to build their mental and physical muscles to do so. This takes time. Notice how the word time keeps coming up?

Building up one’s level of mental and physical concentration requires patience. This means setting smaller goals. Therefore, you should, in the case of chess which requires a great deal of mental stamina, start with small blocks of study time, such as thirty minutes a day. Of course, some new students of the game will think that thirty minutes a day over seven days will equal only three and a half hours of work a week, a rather small number compared to the ten thousand hours required to reach a master level of comprehension. Fear not, that small amount of study time per week will grow. The beginner could try studying for two hours a day instead but if they can only fully focus (concentrate) for thirty minutes at a time, an hour and a half of their studies will be wasted. It’s a matter of quality over quantity. The biggest problem with setting unrealistic goals is the feeling of failure when we don’t reach those goals. Better to set and reach smaller goals and have a sense of accomplishment than to overreach and be disappointed.

Thus, if you want to get better at chess, or anything for that matter, start with small goals and take your time. Sure, you’ll hear stories of players who spent all their waking hours studying and playing chess, but these players are few and far between. Some of what you hear is simply myth. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you slowly build up your wood shedding skills, you’ll eventually be able to study and practice for hours on end. Remember, it really is a matter of quality over quantity. That’s the key to solid learning retention. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).