For about a year, I was a cheater. No, not that kind of cheating, this dog is faithful. I’m talking about cheating on the tactical trainer. Perhaps worse than the actual cheating, was that I was really not that aware of it. It’s my own fault, Chess.com already admonishes in the Study Plan Directory, “…please don't rush the puzzles! It is vital that you take the time to fully understand each puzzle you got wrong.” Because I ignored that advice, I found a good way to get it right and yet be absolutely wrong. I was cheating, and in the process, reinforcing bad habits.
This all seems contradictory, but this is how I did it. Take this problem:
So I got it right, right? I got it wrong. I got it wrong because that wasn’t the whole answer. Look at what I didn’t notice, and notice what I told myself in response:
Now as each move came up I easily adjusted to it, saw the solution, moved, got it right, and ended up winning the points. So I counted it right--back then. Now I see what I was doing was wrong.
What made me see the light?
A couple things that came together. One night I was watching NM Dan Heisman, and he described a way to use the tactical trainer that I hadn’t considered before. He suggested studying tactics in order to quickly recognize tactical situations. By this time, I had given up on the tactical trainer. It didn't seem to be helping my game, and I had become more obsessed with the rating points than the actual training it offered anyway. His suggestion made me go back to it. I turned off the clock, and limited the problems to 1100-1300 strength, and tried it his way. Of course I began to get a lot more of them right—but I was still getting some wrong, so that told me I wasn’t recognizing the situations as I should. I figured I’d just keep practicing this way, and over time I’d recognize the situations almost automatically. Not sure whether or not it was coincidence, but my play over the electronic board did appear to noticeably improve shortly after I started using it this way.
However, I was still cheating. I needed someone else to bring this to light. That came from NM Bill Richards. He suggests a program to become a National Master, based upon playing slow chess, ensuring you come up with a list of candidate moves, take your time, play the best move you can, and then analyze your game for mistakes afterwards. Focus on your own games so that you can build on your understanding from where you’re at. Over time, you’ll improve, keep doing it and it may lead to Master someday. So I began to do this.
At some point while practicing with the tactical trainer a light bulb finally went off in my dim wit—why don’t I try mixing analysis with the TT? Really study how and why I’m getting them wrong. Analyze them like I do my own games? Identify and catalog my thinking deficiencies?
And that's when it occurred to me that I had actually been cheating. I often found myself surprised by the defensive moves of my electronic opponent. That meant I was not considering all of the important replies, which meant I was still doing impulse moves, which also meant I was actually practicing playing that way!
So now I play the TT differently. It is set lower, although I have recently increased it to 1200-1400 strength to make it more challenging. No clock. I take my time. I try and notice all the resources of my opponent. If I’m surprised by the defense—then that means I really got it wrong. Then I categorize what I’m getting wrong, or notice how many times the same kind of mistakes are being made. I’m uncovering my thinking deficiencies. Besides impulse moves, I will often fixate on an idea, and discount moves (often quite subconsciously). I used to suffer from Queen Infatuation. I was too fond of the old girl. The TT has reversed that tendency. I now delight in making the King a widower if it means he wins. Let him get a fresh, young queen.
So no more cheating yourself. When you stop cheating yourself, that’s when you really start winning.