Maximizing Learning per Unit Time

  • NM danheisman
  • | Nov 25, 2013

I sometimes get asked "When reading a book of annotated games, wouldn't you learn more if you studied a game slowly than read it quickly?" Of course that is true for each game, but it skirts the real issue. And it's clearly true in absurdum: you could study a game so quickly you would not get anything out of it, so slower would certainly be better.

However, in general, it's not the speed of studying the game that is critical to maximize improvement. What is critical is that you are trying to learn more per unit time than (say) per unit game. In many cases this means that reading most games at a moderate pace may be more efficient than intense dissection of each game, since you can read many more games in the same amount of time.

On the other hand, you would want to learn more per unit game if:

  • There were only a small availability of good annotated games to study (if it were so, getting the most of each game would be precious), or
  • You were immortal and time was not a consideration.

However, the supply of well-annotated games - and authors with differing but instructive views - is quite large, even if you restrict yourself to instructive anthologies to maximize learning. As for the second point, I can assume most of the readers are mortal (if not, I have some good investment suggestions for you as compounding is quite effective in the looong run...).

Economists have a principle called diminishing returns. That means in some endeavors you might reach a point where the amount of benefit you get out of doing something begin to lessen the more you do it.

For example, if McDonald's expands from 1 restaurant to 10,000 in the US, they make a lot more money (possibly 10,000 times as much or more, due to economy of scale), but they don't again make 10,000 times as much if they expand from 10,000 to 100,000,000 restaurants, since there would be a couple MacDonald's on every block and they would compete with each other.

In chess this is true, too: For example, you usually get really good returns from the first few minutes you spend analyzing a position but, due to several factors, analyzing those same additional number of minutes after you have already analyzed the position for an hour will usually not get you nearly as much; e.g. minutes 0-5 yield more information than minutes 60-65 studying the same position [Even going to 60 is not necessary; in The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, p.173, GM Rowson states "In my experience, it is very rare for a think of more than twenty minutes to lead to a good move. Normally if you think for this long, or longer, you just end up confusing yourself and forgetting which line is which." However, long thinks is not the subject of this article - it's just an example of one type of diminishing return in chess.]

Diminishing returns is easy to show with regards to how many times you study the same game; less easy to show with regard to how much time you spend on an individual game - but I'll try:

Suppose each time you go through a game, you elicit 50% of the information that you already did not know/understand previously from reading that game. Then going through a game once will receive 50% (1/2) of what the author is trying to communicate, twice 75% (3/4), three times 87.5% (7/8), and so on. So clearly each time you are learning more, but getting diminishing returns on each subsequent pass.

Using this metric, if you read 50 games three times each you get a total of 87.5%*50 = 43.75 "learning units" for your 150 games read, but if you just read 150 different games, you get 50%*150 = 75 of the same unit since there's no diminishing returns. With these assumptions (admittedly not scientifically derived), that's about 70% more learning in the same timeframe.

Similarly, suppose going over a game in 20 minutes gets you 30% of what the author is trying to teach you, but taking 40 minutes only gets you up to 45%, since studying the game in more and more detail usually - but not always - gets diminishing returns. Then reading 500 games for 40 minutes each (20,000 minutes) gets 500*0.45 = 225 learning units, while reading 1000 games at 20 minutes each (the same 20,000 minutes) gets 1000*0.3 = 300 learning units.

When I started, I used the ideas discussed in Reviewing Chess Games to read about 2,000 annotated master games in about 3 years (see Annotated Game Collections vs Instructive Anthologies). I skipped any part of the analysis that was not fun (see Chess, Learning, and Fun), concentrating on what the author wrote in the text about the game position, to maximize my learning per unit time. Recently I timed myself at about 8 minutes per game, but I am sure I was somewhat slower when I started. (In Reviewing Chess Games I note that it's occasionally quite helpful to vary from the norm and review some games either very quickly or very slowly, but that's getting away from the issue).

Reading many different authors helped me develop a "chess conscience." This worked rather well, as I went from unrated to USCF 1900 in two years (July 1966 to July 1968) and then to 2000 in three years (by Sep 1969).

Of course, I did many other things than just read annotated games: play in every tournament I could, join a strong chess club and review my games with strong players, look up even my speed games afterwards in MCO-10 to make sure I wasn't making the same mistake over and over, etc. These are all important steps. But clearly reading that many annotated master games was a key part in my development. And, in discussing my experience with other strong players, many of them also got a significant portion of their development from playing out many annotated games, at one speed or another. It may not be as important as "hanging out with strong players and talking chess with them" or even repetitious study of easy tactics, but it's one of the most important things you can do.


  • 3 years ago


    The most important thing about learning: No learning without repetition. We forget. Things learned without repetition are forgotten after a few days:

    And as less attention we give the subject we want to learn as quicker we forget. Learning without repetition diminish the return to zero.

  • 3 years ago


    Very interesting take.

    But does it apply to players of all levels? i doubt strong players  or players who want to be strong and are ready to invest good amount of time (say 3-5 years)might benefit more doing the opposite. 

    Yes author would most likely be giving material that can be learnt in lesser time, but what about understanding a position? that would only come about when one spends huge amout of time analysing each variation really deep.

    disclaimer: i do not study games a lot/in a structured manner.

  • 3 years ago


    It isnt easy to qualify learning speed and proper speed of study.  Study speed can also vary according to the conditions that you study in specifically noise levels in addition to the session length.  Chess seems to be more of a "left" hemisphere type of game, which has various possible implications:  1)Overload of analysis is likely to happen quickly.  And 2), after overload occurs perhaps the subconscious is being trained to recognize patterns.  I strongly believe #2 is the key.  Going through games teaches subconscious evaluation patterning which later influences values placed on moves regarding position and piece value related to positions.  So it could be argued that medium speed of study is to be valued most for quantity of material if #2 is true above.  What is quite difficult is the sheer volume of games for chess that dont have actual explanations for every subtle nuance, the player is supposed to do this.  So much of what is so interesting is that the view of each player for each move may differ enormously, even for the same move.  Perhaps this is why most chess books just list the moves and let the moves explain themselves rather than trying to justify language in describing how moves are relevant.

  • 3 years ago


    @DH, thank you for the article!

    I agree with WIM energia's comment about exposure to a wide variety of ideas, with deep thinks thrown in seems to make sense. Also, everyone is different both in and of themselves, as well as circumstances, so we have to figure out what makes sense for each of us. 

  • 3 years ago


    "We can do that do.  Picking one good horse, one move, over another is something I think Heisman failed to realize.  If it is a draw, then he is right, but if you are looking to win with only 1 move of the two working then you ought to spend the time and see which one it is.  To me, that's the gold at the end of the rainbow."

    Does it payoff in analyzing games? Thats an another question . Probably so, if you are a granmaster and all easy ways of development have been exhausted. But for average club player quite often spending tome on something else would gove more elo points/hour

    In a game also sometimes an issue. What about finding the perfect answer which takes so much time that you will lose on time?

  • 3 years ago


    Ok, where is my glasses?! ;>

  • 3 years ago


    lately I've tried a synthsis of what Soltis described in "Studying Chess Made Easy" - in it he describes a process where a person goes thru a game 3 times

    1. - Just the moves - try to figure out what the next move will be and why the other one was played - (often I pull the game up in Chessbase and just use the training option to play thru it without seeing the next move)
    2. - Replay the game - this time with the book and just read the notes - ignore side variations
    3. - Replay one more time - this time skipping ahead to the variations you are interested in reviewing - (probably not all of them but maybe ones that match what you thought was a viable move)

    lately I've been combining 2 and 3 into one step on Modern Chess move by move, just because esp. in the opening there can be a lot of side game annotation I don't care about but good descriptive text in with it - instead of going thru it a 3rd time I take more time on the first run thru trying to better figure out the proper move

  • 3 years ago

    WIM energia

    Very intersting article. Thanks! I agree that exposing yourself to as many idea as possible per given time unit will help your chess. Ideally reading chess magazines without board will do it, or going through the database games at a fast pace will do too. Although, I also value time spent solving hard positions.

  • 3 years ago


    I study whenever time permits, during car ride, on a train, while waiting, lunch break, etc. without too much regard for time.

    When perusing a game if the GM deviates from what I would have played I try to figure out why (without use of a board).  May require Houdini later on but it's better if I figure it out myself (so I don't have to memorize the GM's moves).

    People have different styles of play so I may use an idea from a GM game but continue with my style of play.  (Only GM games are studied.)

  • 3 years ago


    I see and understand the logic of this and when I play through annotated master games I do so moderately quickly. For example about 30-40 minutes and I try to take in one or two new ideas or I stop the board in a few interesting places and think. I try to get the general feel and flow of the game, which means only looking at a few of the main side-lines more or less sticking to the game - whatever I fancy. I can see how it would be more beneficial, perhaps, going through games this way than taking much longer. So I can get 3-4 games in in a 2 hour slot.

    However, I am concerned about memory and trying to absorb those ideas from the games. It feels a little haphazard to go through lots and lots of games in the hope that the ideas somehow stick. I'm sure some of them will, but I expect there will be a lot forgotten as well. For this reason I am looking again at memorising short games.

    If I remember correctly Dan is not keen on this idea but it is recommended by some good players too. (Memorising games seems to split people into two camps.) My thinking is that if I can memorise and retain 25 or 50 games this has to be more beneficial than playing through lots of games but only retaining a small part of it. Plus it only takes me the same time to memorise a game then it does playing through the game with annotations and then forgetting it.

    It does not mean that you must do one or the other of course, I am still doing both as well as anything else, tactics, slow games + analysis etc, but I think there is great potential in memoring key games. Also it is something I enjoy and see as a fun challenge, so while ever this is the case it can only be a good thing.

  • 3 years ago

    NM danheisman

    Thanks for the comments. If I had to summarize the article in one sentence it might be: "It's not always most efficient to read all annotated games really slowly"

  • 3 years ago


    You know the article is going to be good when part of it reads:

    '...if you were immortal and time was not a consideration'!

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks Dan!

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks Dan! Your articles are very informative and helpful!

  • 3 years ago


    @tigerprowl:  Actually, it rarely makes sense for weaker players to spend *extended* periods of time looking over a move.  The weaker player is worse at visualizing the positions, analysis, and evaluation.  

    Compare it to this:  you can give me a book written in Sanskrit and it doesn't matter how much time I spend studying it, I'm not going to get much out of it (since I have no familiarity with that language).  However, I am (fairly) fluent in French.  If you give me a book in French, with a quick read I'll grasp the principle ideas but I'll miss some things and not catch the meaning of certain parts.  If I read it slowly and work, I'll be able to figure out more of what the book is saying.  But the additional time spent will not add greatly to my understanding.

    It's a question of balance as Dan Heisman says --- if it is absolutely crucial that I understand what one book says, then I'll spend all the time I can to glean everything from that book.  HOWEVER, if I want to catch the idea of what current French ideas are on a subject, say international politics, then I'll gain a whole lot more by quickly perusing several magazines/books. It depends entirely on what your needs are. In chess, for general more rapid improvement does it make more sense to quickly digest information from several sources, or do you think that picking one source and pouring over it for hours will give you quicker results? 

    It's pretty much obvious that in the latter you risk knowing everything about one tiny, eensy-weensy topic and knowing virtually nothing about all other facets of chess.

  • 3 years ago


    These learning metrics are subjective and therefore not necessarily consistent between individuals. It's like economists assigning "utils" to measure the pleasure derived from a specific activity.

    Still I think the point is that, like an immune system strengthened by exposure to multiple bacterias, pattern recognition on the chessboard is improved, and corresponding play strengthened, by seeing more of them.

  • 3 years ago


    Thank you very much.....very insightful

  • 3 years ago


    This economic view of learning seems incomplete in that if followed to the letter, one would be inclined to spread one's time thin for fear of diminishing returns.  If one were not careful, this level of exposure is attuned to "chasing two rabbits and winding up with none."  I understand what's being said, although I just wanted to add that narrow focus is as much counterproductive as absent focus. 

    Everyone here knows what it's like to "cram for an exam", and what it takes to remember everything in a short amount of time.   Certain foundational lessons weigh more, when it comes to revving up the brain's ability to expand upon acquired ideas.  Some things you just have to understand in order for the rest to make sense, which essentially speeds up absorption of subsequent material until you hit the next foundational roadblock.  I'd rather be economical with ideas that expand upon foundational ideas, than the foundational ideas themselves. 

  • 3 years ago


  • 3 years ago


    i agree to what you say lol but for now i concentrate on 960 chess to sharpen my game and it seems to work too . i love to check gm games too to learn from that too. 

Back to Top

Post your reply: