Op Ed -- The best way to learn

Mar 22, 2015, 5:30 PM |

"Any fool can know.  The point is to understand."  Albert Eintstein.


I recently came across a post in the notes of the DHLC (Dan Heisman Learning Center) where a member questioned the usefulness of a particular form of training.  Some members answered and many, not surprisingly, highly recommended books and reading for improvement in the game of chess. 

I made mention that I believe that the choice of learning tools is a matter of individual preference and I stated that I prefer going over things with a stronger player [rather than using books].   

Another poster, let's call him JIM (jaundiced inflexible member??),  posted that my saying that it is "individual preference" is "HORRIBLY WRONG" and  "that implies that there is no wrong way to learn".   Of course, I do not my believe my statement implies anything of the sort! Furthermore, I suspect that he looked at my profile, saw my absolutely pathetic rating of 1200+ and added that if a 1200 player thinks that their way is okay, "it should tell you that their way is a great way to get to... 1200".   I'll discuss ratings in a moment.   While I found this a tad insulting, this poster, of course, is entitled to his opnion, just as I am to mine.    That said, I figured I would explain myself a little bit here.

At the time of this writing, I am 47 years old.  I started trying to seriously learn about three to four years ago after finishing my PhD.   I wanted to keep my mind active and I do enjoy learning so why not.  

If I was tested today, I highly suspect I would be considered at least partially "learning disabled".   Learning disabled does not mean that someone is stupid, retarded or unteachable.  It means that they learn differently.    The reason that I highly suspect I would be considered "learning disabled" is because I have the attention span that is quite remarkably short.   I lose focus extremely easily and it doesn't take much to distract me. That said, let's discuss a bit how on earth I was able to earn a PhD.

One of the classes that I had to take for my PhD was Advanced Statistics.  UGH.  I shudder even now thinking about it.  I was a health science student, however, and not a math student so this class didn't have much to do with actual calculations.  Rather, we dealt with statistical software and learned not only how to use the software but how to determine the correct statistical analyses needed for certain studies, why they are used, and how to interpret the results of said tests that were run.   I must own at least seven books on statistics including an excellent one regarding the use of SPSS statistical software written by Andy Field.   He often used humor in his explanations.  Despite the humor, I could not follow it.   I found it extremely difficult, and I got lost.   It simply couldn't hold my attention. Once I get to that point, it was useless to try to read any more.  The whole thing got frustrating.   

What I needed was individual instruction.  With every assignment I had, I worked with my professors.  I took copious notes during the lectures and consulted them multiple times in the midst of my conducting tests.  With their explanations, I was able to use the Field book as a reference.  With the live teaching that I received, I could then utilize the book to my advantage, as a reference and not the primary learning tool. 

It's the same with chess.  I cannot just look at a chess book and understand.  I need explanations and visuals.  I need to be able to ask questions for clairifcation.  And books lose my attention, usually very quickly.   I own several chess books and checked out countless books in the library.   With most of them, I couldn't get past two pages before my attention was gone.  It is EXTREMELY difficult to hold my attention and that goes for any form of writing, even fiction.  (I detested literature in high school, even by authors considered to be classics.  Complete snorification.)

However, consider guidance by a stronger player.  When going over something with me, a stronger player can watch my body language and hear in my voice when they're losing me and my attention is fading, and they can usually bring me back to focusing on the task at hand.  A book can't do that.  A book can't see that my attention is lacking and say, "HEY!  WAKE UP!"  A stronger player can. 

Take, for example, a few lessions I have been fortunate enough to receive from renowned chess coach, Dan Heisman.  He's known for being an excellent coach and even though our lessons are often conducted through skype, Dan can tell when I'm fading.  Dan uses the socratic method of teaching, meaning he asks me questions.  He can tell by my answers if something isn't sticking.   He is known for being able to adjust his teaching to the individual student.  He's animated and uses analogies that he'll know I understand.  For example, he knows I love football and he was able to explain a concept in chess by liking to a football game.  Guess what?  I got it.  I remembered it. 

I have a mentor who helps me quite a bit.  He's not a master player.  However, he's around expert level.  And I have some truly eye openings to say regarding the help I'm receiving.   First, though, let's dicuss my rating. 

1200+ live standard.  Pretty pathetic, right?

It's relative.  Two years ago, I was in the 800 range.  A year ago, I was in the 900s.   I've managed to leap up to 1200 in a few years.  That's improvement.  

While we're on the subject of ratings, let's talk about something else.  Out of the active players in the DHLC, I'm no doubt towards the bottom of the list.  In the last team swiss event, out of 70+ entrants, I was in the bottom 5.  In my current Swiss event, there is only one poor soul rated lower than me (and to be honest, our ratings are pretty close.  We're probably equal).  What's this mean?  It means that in pretty much every game where I'm paired in these events, I'm paired with somebody not only stronger, but FAR stronger.  Statistically speaking, I'm expected to lose.  I usually do.  That said, are these worthless?  Many of these stronger players are kind enough to go over the games with me aftwards and/or I annotate the games and stronger players comment and help out.  They're not master players. Does this mean it's worthless?   My number is going down, but does this mean I'm not getting stronger?  


I have played players who have live standard ratings 500 points or more above me.  And guess what, I've given them battles.  They had to fight for their win.  I played one player over 500 points higher than me. I had him sweating bullets before I ultimately lost on a poor calculation.  Afterwards he said, "I can't believe you're rated under 1,000!"   That tells me I'm getting stronger. 

See the game here:  http://www.chess.com/blog/Dr_Cris_Angel/swiss-11----round-1----thats-italian-and-im-loving-it

I had a game last week with an opponent who was over 400 points higher than me.  I lost.  Stasticially speaking, I was expected to lose; however, I kept up and lost mainly due to inexperience.  I annotated said game and a stronger player told me that they saw that up until move 17, my position was actually in the master database.   In other words, I played the opening like a master player.

Does that sound like a 1200 strength player to you?  

Of course, I have miles and miles and MILES to go.   But there is improvement.  I've made progress. Obviously, I'm doing SOMETHING right, even if I'm not utilizing books.  I'm using the learning methods that seem to fit best with my learning style. It's paying off. 

Do I expect to become a master?  Heck no.  Do I want to become one?   It would be nice but I think that goal may just be a bit too far out of reach at my age given my life situation. 

Would I like to be able to play a strong player (strong is relative) and give a good game?  Yes.  And I think I can reach that goal.  

It's a journey that never ends.   If I get to a point where I don't want to learn any more, then I don't think I want to be here anymore and I'd just quit.   However, I'm enjoying the processs and that's what it is all about. 

Let's talk about the mentoring I've been getting from some stronger players.  One of them is about expert strength.  Again, I'm around 1200+.  Huge difference between us.  But guess what?  He has told me that he learns from me. 

Yes, my expert strength mentor has learned form me.  

????  You're kidding, Cris Angel...


Sometimes, when discussing a position, I'll mention a particular move.  My mentor will think about it a moment. Come to find out, my move may have been brilliant and even something he didn't see.  Want an example?    See this blog:


So in summary, while there certainly is a right and wrong way to learn, I do strongly believe that the right and wrong way varies greatly between individuals and there are are multiple variables in this equation.  

I love this community.  I can never EVER express my gratitude to some of the lovliest, most unselfish people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.   Their enjoyment of this game is contagious and they motivate me to continue in my own journey to improvement.