Developing new Skills and Habits using Root Cause Analysis

Developing new Skills and Habits using Root Cause Analysis

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Let's assume you are doing the right thing: you play slow games and after every game, you take a moment to look at the critical moments of the game and how you could have improved your opening play. Are you becoming better? Are you no longer repeating the same mistakes?

I have recently developed a more fundamental approach to chess improvement. After every game I look with my student at the critical moments and use the 5 Why's technique to get to the root cause of why the student went wrong. I will give detailed examples later in this blog. The next step is to identify which skill is missing or which habit the student has to change for the issue not to reoccur. With the student, we develop a remediation plan to build the missing skill or change his habit.  We actively monitor (Plan-Do-Check-Act) whether the skills have been acquired or the habit changed and look for moments in future games for positive changes or regression.  


Position after 15. e5. Black is a piece up for a pawn. White is better developed, has active bishops and an annoying pin on Nc5-Qb6.  Black played 15... dxe5 16. fxe5 Ng4 and suddenly was in a lost position.  I asked my student if he had look at 15... Nfd7, improving the coordination of the pieces. My student answered that he did not like 16. e6 and rejected it. I asked the students which line he calculated after 16. e6. My student was honest and replied, 'None, it was just my gut feel.' Often he plays brilliantly, like a young Tal, and his gut feel is right but in this instant, concrete analysis was required. We defined the root cause as 'lack of concrete calculation in defensive positions' and selected specific exercises to build this skill.

Position after 22. Qc3. My teammate continued 22... Rc2 23. Qb4 Rxc5 24. Qxc5 and the initiative and advantage have switched from Black to White. I told him that I would never have considered trading but would have added energy to my army by playing 22... Rfb8 with ideas of a king's attack with Be4 followed by Qg4.  This was not the first time my teammate preferred trading / a defensive move over an active / attacking move. We went through the 5 Why's to find the root cause: My teammate verbalized it very well: 'I don't trust my calculation. I got burnt too many times overseeing something, so nowadays I choose safe moves.' Quite a statement, very honest, and one that goes far beyond, 'The engine says that I could have played move X here instead of move Y. Good to know. Next game.' The remediation plan is to build calculation skills and hone those skills in online slow games. 

Position after 6. Be3. The game continued 6... Nc6 7. dxc5 Qa5 8. c3 Bxc5 9. b4 and Black could resign. I discussed with my student the root cause. Was it tactical skills, opening knowledge, or something else? My student went straight to the root cause: 'I play too fast, without thinking. It is a bad habit that came from my college days when I was playing a lot of blitz during breaks.'

In this example, it is a habit we need to change and not a skill that needs to be built.  To break the habit we look at the Cue (Trigger) - Routine - Reward loop and how we can redesign this loop. Changing the environment can be an important element. In the case of my student, it meant creating a tournament environment (using a physical board, writing down moves, eliminating social media distractions).

Position after 11... Bc5. White played 12. Ne2 and could resign after 12. Qh4. My student knows the blunder check: Captures - Checks - Threats (CCT) and to include later in the game Pawn Breakthroughs. (You do this check two times: when selecting your move and to check your move before playing it.) We concluded that the blunder check was not an ingrained habit. To change the habit the student will note down the CCT using the full increment at each move.

This new approach stems from a comment from PixelatedParcel who stated that adult improvement is hard because a lot of the training we do does not translate to skills over the board. So I decided to turn the pyramid upside down. Instead of focussing on acquiring knowledge, the focus is on what you do: your skills and habits. I realize the process of knowledge transfer is knowledge --> understanding ---> applying. The difference is the focus on the target state (applying - skills) instead of the development stages (knowledge - understanding).

Some of the top root causes identified in the lessons with my students are:

- I do not calculate variations, I play moves based on the characteristics of the position and my gut feeling;

- I do not know the plan behind the opening that I play, I feel lost after the opening;

- I do not have a complete board vision: I focus on a small part of the board and overlook what is going on on another side of the board;

- I have difficulty maintaining focus during the complete game and especially when I am winning.

- I reduce tension by trading instead of building the activity of my pieces into an attack;

- I do not do a blunder check (capture, checks, threats) at every move;

- I am overlooking the possibilities of my opponent;

- My resilience is lower when I play a much higher opponent because I do not believe I have a real chance to win or draw.

- Endgame: lack of calculation skills and knowledge of general endgames principles including rook activity, king activity, and pawn breakthroughs;

- Get into time trouble and blunder (this can have different root causes).

- I blunder because I was too tired to think clearly.

If you want to use this approach for your own chess development, start by asking yourself a broad question: 'Which chess skills do I have now, that I did not have a year ago?' Be specific. Then go through your last 10 slow games and look at the critical moments and ask yourself, "What was the root cause of my mistakes and which skills do I need to prevent this from happening going forward" (or which habit do I need to change). Look for common themes across your 10 games and develop a remediation plan. Monitor whether you have developed the new skill (the focus is not on what you did during your study, but what you do when you play).

I did not explain a lot about the 5 Why's technique. Five Whys' is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question "Why?".