Your Questions Answered: Getting Past Plateaus

Your Questions Answered: Getting Past Plateaus

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Emanuel asked:

How much time do you spend daily studying chess? Also were you naturally gifted or did you just keep working hard at it? What did you study to rise from 1000 to IM? Anything specifically or just anything chess related that you could lay your hands on?

Dear Emanuel:

I’ve been retired from tournament play for a long time, so I don’t study chess at all in the normal sense. However, I still leaf through the Informants and NIC annuals so I can get a feel for the changes in opening theory. I also continue to read books on chess history, go over the many books I review, keep up with chess news, and look through endless databases and game collections for good material that I can use in future books I’ll write.

When I started out (at 12 in San Diego) I was clueless, and didn’t seem to have any talent for the game at all. Good players in my area that saw me play unanimously shared that opinion! Nevertheless, I became enthralled with chess and, by the time I was 14, was spending more than 8 hours a day (7 days a week) studying the game. It was my whole life! Naturally I skipped school, only going once or twice a week. What did I study? Well, aside from reading everything I could get my hands on about chess history, I spent the vast majority of my study time going over master games – on some days doing as many as 500 (I looked over them quickly but it’s still an amazing number since we didn’t have databases then). Though I would literally be drooling by day’s end, the hundreds of positions, structures, and patterns were drilled into my subconscious and began percolating quietly, until the time that everything would suddenly make sense!

I leapt from 1050 (age 12) to 1600 in about a year, and then made my way to class “A.” However, I got stuck until I was 16 and considered giving it up since I was obviously going nowhere fast. I decided to give it one more shot, went to the San Diego Open and, amazingly, I suddenly could calculate deeply and accurately – I’d made an overnight jump from around 1900 to 2200 strength! Here’s an example from that breakthrough event (the point of the combination is seen after black's 9th move!):


I went undefeated in that tournament, came in second, and never looked back.

The moral of this story is that pattern recognition is everything in chess (thus going over enormous amounts of master games is critical for anyone that wishes to improve), and that every person advances at his/her own pace. Some instantly take off and become monsters, while others get caught on various plateaus and fight to move to the next level. However, each time you get by a plateau, you’ll see a huge increase in your playing strength – it’s like a computer that works on a problem for ages and then one day lights up and everything, somehow, computes!

I personally never had any great chess talent, but hard work and dedication (obsession?) allowed me to enjoy chess as a career.

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