11 Weeks of Training
As I previously alluded to in my first chess.com blog post, in the summer of 2012 I decided to dedicated a large portion of my newly plentiful free time to achieving rapid chess improvement as an adult.
My current long-range goal is to earn an Expert title by 2018. That's 689 points I'll need to gain from when I began my training program on July 1st, 2013. 4 1/2 years.
I've broken my training program into a set of deliberate activities that each address a specific weakness or a gap in knowledge or experience. In developing my program, I've pulled generously from theory and experience I acquired while training apprentice software developers in my previous career. My theory is to focus on intense knowledge acquisition, followed by practice that forces the integration of newly gained knowledge, then actual real-life performance, and, finally, reflection and evolution of the knowledge-practice-performance cycle.
After taking an inventory of my current strengths and weaknesses, it was clear that I most needed to improve in the following areas:
- Board vision (not missing my opponent's bishop hiding in the corner)
- Visualizing positions correctly after 5-6 plys
- Tactical patterns (mates, forks, etc)
Of course, I also have lots of room to improve my endgames, openings, and positional understanding and these are addressed in my program, but with less intensity, as they are not the main reason I am currently losing games.
I then came up with a set of activities that specifically address the above areas, allocated so that the most time is spent on the most important activities. Each activity has a goal that represents the number of times I need to complete that activity each week. The more important the activity, the more often I need to do it. Of course the specific activities on the list will evolve as I do.
Here is my current weekly program:
Let's take a look at each line.
- Visualize 1-3 game miniatures. Using the miniatures section of Chess by Laszlo Polgar, I play through 1-3 games without setting up a board or referencing a diagram. This requires intense visualization! Each game in this section lasts about 12-20 moves. Once I get to the critical moment in the game--clearly indicated in each game--I analyze the position and try to find the winning move. As you can imagine, this is very challenging and exercises all my chess skills. Usually I fail and so then I set up the position based on my memory, correct any errors, and then solve the position while looking at the board. I do this activity for one hour and usually can only fit in one game in that time.
- Visualization exercise. This activity consists of common board visualization exercises such as forks and skewers, knight moves, knight forks, chess mazes, etc. Each one takes about 15 minutes.
- Solve tactics problems. This is about learning tactical patterns such as common mates, forks, skewers, clearance, etc. I'm currently doing these in Seven Circles style by going through 1200 problems from Manual of Chess Combinations 1A and 1B. I've entered all of these problems into my chess database, SCIDvsPC, and play through them on my computer each morning. I'm finishing the first 64 day "circle" next week and am spending about 1 hour each day on the problems. Then I start on the second circle, which will involve doing all the same problems in only 32 days. Then, 16 days, etc. until I get to the point where I do all 1200 problems in a single day. This will be in early December.
- Analyze 3 positions for 20 minutes each. In this activity I set up three different positions on my physical chess board. I use one hour to analyze and solve all three positions. If I take too long on one problem, it means I have less time to spend on the remaining problems--similar to real game conditions! I am using the problems from Chess Training Pocket Book where the problems are not always straightforward tactics. There are often positional moves, tactics that fail, and defensive moves.
- Conduct a Stoyko exercise. I haven't actually done this one yet but it involves spending up to one hour analyzing every possible variation in a complex middlegame position--and evaluating the resulting position after each variation. It is not so much about finding a tactic but about training your ability to calculate deeply and evaluate future positions accurately.
- Review a master game. Dan Heisman puts much credit on reviewing thousands of master games with his rapid progress to a master title. I recently finished Logical Chess and am now working through A First Book of Morphy.
- Read a chapter. On the guidance of my chess coach, I am currently rotating my reading among 5 books where each one addresses one of the following: endgames, strategy/positional play, my opening as white, my opening as black vs d4, and my opening as black vs e4. So, I read the next chapter in each book every 5 weeks, spreading out my knowledge acquisition and also forcing me every 5 weeks to review where I left off, increasing my retention. (I take notes and review them just like in school).
- View supporting video, article, ChessMentor lesson. This is a miscellaneous bucket for any extra effort I put in beyond the 5 books I am reading.
- Review one of my openings. By definition, this is accomplished when I am reading a chapter on one of my openings. But it can also involve playing through dozens of games from one of my openings, or studying a specific line that I played after a game, where I try to see where the game went out of book and what should have been played instead.
- Play a slow online game. These are 45 45 games or 90 30 games, generally played through the Dan Heisman Learning Center.
- Correspondence games in progress. This refers to the number of online (turn-based) games that I am currently playing. These are important for two reasons. First, they allow me to study an opening variation in-depth by referencing my opening books and chess database during the game. Second, they allow my to spend an hour or more analyzing a position and then evaluating the positions that arise from the different varations.
- Play a USCF game. Performance time!
- Review one of my games. This could be either spending 1-2 hours reviewing one of my games in-depth, looking for critical moves, alternative plans, etc. or it could be reviewing a game with with a computer, taking about 30 minutes.
- Take a lesson. This is classified as "Reflect" because a chess lesson is usually about reviewing your games and identifying your weaknesses and gaps. Then the instructor can recommend study material to address these findings.
- Write a blog post. Again classified as "Reflect," writing a blog post forces me to think about my training plan, my adherence to the plan, my performance in recent games, my motivation or lack thereof, my goals, and anything else related to my chess activities.
So far in the past 11 weeks of training my USCF rating has gone from 1311 to 1443 after playing about 30 rated games. And, I've beaten my strongest opponent to date (a 1600 USCF).
This is not groundbreaking improvement, but I feel good that I am definitely on the right track. I am better able to visualize positions after 5-6 ply and also spot common tactical motifs. And my thought process has become much more disciplined.
My next immediate goal is to reach USCF 1500 by the end of this year and then USCF 1600 by July, 2014.