A Break and Restart

Sep 25, 2014, 6:47 AM |

I've taken a break from over-the-board (OTB) games for the past three weeks. I have one more week of rest and recuperation before heading back to the chess board next week at my local club. 

When I started serious chess study in July 2013 I was under the impression that the more intensely one focused on his chess studies and the more slow OTB games one played, the more progress one would make.

I even read inspirational stories of certain strong players who became much stronger by following this approach.

It seemed it was working well for me. I played over 176 slow games of chess in the 12 month period ending July 1st, 2104. Among other things, I invested over 1200 hours in chess study and games during that period. I hit a high water mark of 1583.

But, it seems that was (at least a temporary) peak. Since that time, though I'd continued my intense training and playing schedule, I was making negative ratings progress both online and USCF. This ratings decline was exacerbated by my recent poor performances in the US Open (9 games) and the Illinois State Championships (5 games), which drove my USCF rating down to 1472.

Really, though, who cares? Ratings are not the most important thing in my life. I cannot eat ratings points. I cannot spend then at the store. I cannot love them or have them love me back. They are just an arbitrarily-designed rolling statistic of past performance. They don't even predict future performance well!

But, a rating is one of the few objective values that I can use to determine if my chess strength is changing. I do also track several other statistics, such as my Tactics Trainer rating and my performance on tactics sets from various books. But the all encompassing value, as we all know, is one's standard rating.

Let's get back to taking a break. I finally came to the conclusion I needed a break because I had just completed my second pass through Woolum's Chess Tactics Workbook. My improvement over the first pass was marginal and I had to figure out why. In fact, it was obvious. There were days when my heart wasn't in it. I just didn't try as hard as I could have. NM Dan Heisman describes this a bit and says something about chess masters having only two "gears" either playing with all their ability or resigning, whereas amateurs often play but without giving the game all their effort (IE, they play stuck in first or second gear). This is exactly what I felt I was doing. In other words, on certain days or maybe just on certain problems or positions, I just went through the motions.

Why do this if one is spending dozens of hours a week on chess? I do have other things in my life that I can spend time on.

I realized that I needed to pare down the hours I was dedicating to chess so that the time I did spend on it was fully-focused, where I gave my all in each chess activity, whether it was playing a game or studying. This four week break was the first step of that process of restructuring my time so that what I do spend on chess is only quality time. 

A four week break from OTB play may not seem like much, but I've been averaging eight OTB games a month, so this is substantial for me. With that said, it hasn't been an all-encompassing, cold-turkey break from chess. I've gone from averaging 25 hours a week of chess activity to about 10 hours. That has consisted of just a few key activities, to keep me warm,

  • 30 minutes or so of daily tactics problems,
  • 1 to 2 slow chess games via the DHLC,
  • How to Reassess Your Chess reading for my study group
  • A weekly chess lesson and homework.

After this week, I will begin to slowly reintegrate other activities back into my routine. But, I plan to monitor how I am feeling during my training and playing time to make sure that I am not overwhelming myself again; I want to make sure I never play in first or second gear.

My hope is that starting my new routine next week with fewer, but higher quality, chess hours will give me a fresh try at breaking the 1600 USCF level and continuing down this long road.