A Simple Defence Against Aimless Chess Training
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
-- Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Self-directed students of chess face two common problems: The first is finding enough "spare" time to set aside for training at all. The second, which probably afflicts newer players to a greater degree, is about direction - in other words, how invest that hard-won time.
From time to time, I've experienced dejection from burning up that time without clarity of intent - and consequently going in circles. This aimlessness has several symptoms, including (for me, anyway) the recurring delusion that buying yet-another chess text, or messing around with yet-another new piece of training software will suddenly cause the clouds to open, illuminating the golden road to self-improvement. Often, these are just (expensive) distractions from the real business of practice - which first requires a conscious alignment of action and purpose.
So nowadays, about every couple of months, I do some consciousness-raising - first focusing on what I'm trying to achieve and only then on the question of how. It's an extremely simple exercise (in fact, for many it's probably in the "goes-without-saying" category), but even so, it's made me feel a lot better about how I spend my training-time:
- Prioritize focus-areas
- List candidate training activities
- Determine which activities serve which focus-areas
- Allot time to activities using priorities
(The first two steps are probably interchangeable in terms of order.)
Case Study: "Bob" the self-taught chess improver
Let's say Bob is a 1500-ish player who is able to devote four hours a week to bettering himself - one hour on Saturday and three on Sunday. Additionally, he plays weekly OTB games with some friends and always has a handful of games going online. He has a modest chess library and some helpful software available on his computer or online.
1. Prioritize focus-areas:
Instead of just cycling through his activity-options, Bob needs to consider the question posed by that old Microsoft slogan - "where do you want to go today?" In other words, Bob has to think a bit about the current focus of his study. To get the ball rolling, he considers the "Four Pillars of Chess Smartitude" (patent pending): Openings, Tactics, Strategy and Endgames. (Broadly speaking, these four areas cover at least 95% of relevant skills and knowledge Bob can develop. However, you could certainly include others - like 'time management' or 'calculation'; whatever works for you.)
At the moment, Bob feels like he's got a decent handle on opening principles and usually makes it into the middle-game at equal or better against his opponents. He knows he needs to develop a better repertoire some day, but he reckons it can wait. His real problem, he feels, is with planning, so perhaps strategy deserves the lion's share of his time... But what about endgames? Bob has always hated endgames and although most of his games are still still won and lost on middle-game tactics, he knows he needs work in this area. Tactically, he feels pretty good, but he doesn't want to get rusty either... So.
All Bob has done so far is to articulate what he wants, at present, from his training - an act of "Know Thyself" that is both simple and essential.
2. List candidate training activities:
Bob has done his due diligence by assessing his focus and now moves along to the smorgasbord of activities on the chess-improvement menu. He has a number of resources at his disposal, so he decides to list his options out in a brain-storming map:
One thing to note here is that Bob is as specific and granular as he can be at this stage. Options like "reading books" or "computer time" are too general and would cause confusion in Step 3.
3. Determine which activities serve which focus-areas:
Bob has done a good job of setting out his objectives and listing his activity-options, and now he needs to connect the dots. Based on his own experience, he can make an educated - if somewhat subjective - guess about how each of his candidate activities serves the areas of focus represented above, represented graphically here:
Again, this is no exact science, to be sure. It is not so easy to draw clear lines between openings and tactics, strategy and endgames, etc. However, with a little experience, we can make informed judgments about which kinds of activity are most relevant to which focus-areas.
Of course, the chart above is just for illustration. Practically speaking, it's probably more useful to note that most training activities (apart from sparring/playing) do tend to focus on one "pillar" each. With that in mind, Bob can steer clear of spreadsheets and simply combine steps 2-3 in his notebook, intuitively grouping activities by focus areas.
4. Allot time to activities using priorities:
So with reference to the silly charts, all Bob has to do now is make a pie similar to the chart in Step 1 by applying time values to a mixture of the bars (activities) in Step 4. We know he wants to spend about half his time on strategy, almost no time on openings and to split the remainder more or less evenly between tactics and endgames, so perhaps...
That's one possibility anyway. For variety, Bob could move things around, play a sparring game on his computer, or pick alternative activities from his notes that serve the same ends (i.e. the same focus-areas). The point here is not to create a straight-jacket; the point is that Bob has liberated himself from the guilt and distraction that might otherwise flow from his brand-new book on the English Opening, still sitting unopened on the shelf. Modest though it may be, Bob has a plan.
Even in an extreme case (many activity options & multiple focus-areas), this is far from rocket surgery. (The trickiest bit is getting the time allotments balanced.) Indeed, the whole thing (minus silly charts) could probably be done in ten minutes.
Simple though it may be, it's all too easy for some people (i.e. me) to let the planning slip and lose sight of the larger context of training activity - with disheartening results. So try to keep your level of consciousness high where your intended focus manifests as an action plan, and have fun getting better.
Here are a couple of other suggestions that might help keep your training morale up:
- Re-prioritize & re-schedule! Can't stand My System anymore? Finished it for the second time? Bored? Burnt out on puzzles? Suddenly curious about learning the Pirc? Well, move along then. Re-tool your system to keep your level of interest high. As long as you stick with a given 'program' long enough to derive some value (I'd say at least a month or two, but it depends on how much time you invest per week), there's no reason not to mix it up and stay fresh.
- Keep a log! It could be as simple as a Day-timer scheduler in which you note your focus areas and training schedules, log your activities or even keep a more detailed journal which records some of the things you learned. (Blog it, for that matter.) Some sort of log can make past efforts more concrete and help maintain your forward momentum.
- Set some milestone-goals and celebrate your achievements! Focus-areas discussed above aren't really 'goals' because you never really 'achieve' them. But that doesn't mean you can't set some concrete goals along the way (e.g. beating a computer opponent on a certain setting in a certain time, getting a certain rating or accuracy percentage in online tactics training, etc.) and then log your victories before setting even loftier goals.