Play Chess 50% of the Time

In a recent Q&A with Coach Heisman webcast (if I remember correctly), NM Heisman recommended that you spend about half of your allotted chess time to study and the other half to actually playing the game. This is something I've always struggled with and I feel confident it is the primary reason I spent 19 years struggling as a sub-class "C" player. I just didn't play enough long games relative to the amount of time I studied.

This is not a concept unique to chess. Most skill-based activities require a delicate balancing of knowledge acquisition and practice using that knowledge. In software development, learning to effectively use a new programming language and its source code libraries is not just an exercise in memorizing syntax. One also needs to spend time writing code, running the code, and ultimately, gaining experience of what works and what doesn't. The book that opened my eyes to this was Mastery: Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. Leonard uses the discipline of Aikido to demonstrate through anecdotes and personal experience the typical journey from novice to master in a skills-based discipline and how one must employ frequently the knowledge they are gaining during their study.

Now that I have been on my new training schedule for exactly three months, I thought it was a good point at which to assess how much of my chess time was spent actually playing the game. It turns out I am playing chess 29% of the time, either on or in rated USCF events. My current goal is 32%. Looking at my training log, the shortfall was caused mainly by opponents that "no-showed" for our pre-scheduled live games via the DHLC slow chess tournaments. I try to schedule two games per week but if one of the opponents no-shows, it is very difficult to find another high quality slow game to play during the remaining week.

Why is my current goal only 32% instead of 50%? There is a significant knowledge gap between where I am now and where I need to be to reach class "B" and beyond. I need to fill in the holes of basic chess knowledge in order to progress significantly. Mastery of basic endgames, strong tactical pattern recognition and accurate calculation of at least 5-8 plys are required fundamental skills in order to continue moving up the rating ladder. Without these basics it won't matter how much I play--I won't be successful. It would be like trying to cook gourmet meals without the basic knowledge of how to chop, saute, measure accurately, broil, and baste. Without gaining those fundamental skills, a cook could spend years trying to produce gourmet masterpieces but would fail every time until they have acquired those basics through study and practice.

Appropriately, the most study time in my training program has been spent on basic tactical pattern recognition (using the Seven Circles training method). I am averaging 26.8 hours a week total of chess time. Of that total, on average, I am spending 7.86 hours playing chess and 6.7 hours studying tactics problems. This is addressing my most pressing weakness--quick and accurate pattern recognition.

Has my pattern recognition improved after the over 80 hours I've spent on tactics problems during the past twelve weeks? My rating has improved, so by implication, I believe my pattern recognition has also improved at some level. Maybe more telling evidence, though, is this. I've had at least one memorably chess dream in the past two weeks. I woke up one morning with a vivid chess position in my head--a position that I could see as clearly as if I were looking directly at the board. But, it was also a position that I had been analyzing in my dream. This has never happened to me in 19 years of competitive chess. Because of this, I know something significant has changed.

You can view my complete training log here. Here is a summary:


  • 3 years ago


    Aside from the occasional "one day" fast OTB, I like weekend tournaments which are a good way to "mix things up". The strategy that I think will work this year is to play both of the two Sturbridge CCA tournaments, not big money, but it's on "the circuit" of big money and top players use it to practice for the big money. Then I will go to a big one (haven't in a while) and I'll try Foxwood (also CCA), since that is the last big money one I went to and I liked it. Foxwoods was discontinued for a few years, and now it's back.

    Good luck in your OTB :-)

  • 3 years ago


    It sounds like you are getting a good amount of playing time also. It is always tough to commit time to the big tournaments--I have that challenge too. This coming year I plan to attend 1 or 2 of the big money national events to get that immersive experience.

  • 3 years ago


    You are an inspiration!

    Not withstanding heavy workload, my goal (relative to playing):

    1. One DHLC slow chess "Swiss" team game per week. Success.
    2. Additional DHLC slow chess, intermittent, however next week I start the "1-2" pairing tournament. That will bring me up to two games over the next five weeks. Mixed success, I'll probably do this only a few times during the year because it puts a lot of stress on my already tight calendar.
    3. One day of G/60 OTB (4-6 rounds) once per month. Success.
    4. 2-3 times per year play a weekend OTB. Success. Right now I play CCA weekend tournaments in Sturbridge MA in spring and August. In 2014 I will play in Foxwoods (7 round tournament) with big money and tough competition. I played there twice before, including their last year in 2009 I think. I won 10th place (shared) in my section, and pulled in a whopping $33 and change... However the goal here is not money, rather it is immersion in chess. I have clearance from the "boss", now I need to see if my work schedule can cooperate...
    Regarding other chess activities, I do try to review most games, and examine openings a bit. Some tactics, not every day. Lately I've been doing tactics, at least to get back to my former 1500 level strength before workload dragged me down...
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