Improving One's Capacity To Improve - Part 2
The second topic I wanted to cover in this series is the importance of self-study. Of course, this term by itself is quite broad - what exactly is "studying" chess? Some may try to play as many games as possible, while others may choose to build a 20-move deep opening repertoire. I can't necessarily say what the correct interpretation of "studying" is, but I can share my practices during the years of my greatest improvement.
Between the years of 2004 and 2008, my rating went from around 1300 to over 2200. Of course, this was due in large part to my excellent coach at the time who helped me develop all aspects of my playing style, from diversifying my openings to sharpening my tactical vision and positional sense. However, I plan to cover the importance of coaching and guidance in a later post, and for now I'll focus on the personal habits that still played a significant role in my progression. My approach focused on the use of a physical chess set and books that contained annotated Grandmaster games.
Although I grew up in the technological era of chess, I embarrassingly didn't have much to do with chess engines and databases during this period. I loved reading books as a young child, and this disposition certainly affected my chess study habits. I found that when I went online to attempt to access the latest TWIC (This Week In Chess) release, I would inevitably be drawn to some gaming website or similar time-wasting activity (this unfortunate condition appears to have gotten worse with time). I found that sitting down in front of a board with nothing but a book in hand yielded the highest productivity levels.
Allow me to elaborate on exactly what I did with these materials - I simply would play through the games slowly and think about each and every move. During some critical points I would mark the page, close the book, and look at the position for several minutes. This time was spent breaking down the imbalances, determining plans for both sides, and then coming up with several possible variations of moves. With these thoughts clear in my head (sometimes I wrote them down on a piece of paper), I would re-open the book and compare my analysis with that of the author's. By repeating this process with many books, I gradually familiarized myself with a multitude of positions and obtained a better understanding of the thought processes of strong grandmasters.
Although I didn't know it at the time, the reasoning behind this procedure is rooted in the results of several chess-related studies in the field of cognitive science - (see Gobet, F. (2004). Role of pattern recognition and search in expert decision making. along with its referenced publications for a more technical explanation). Essentially, strong chess players can zero in on the key aspects of a position by rapidly accessing points in long-term memory (called "chunks") and searching for similarly evaluated positions in the past, hence the term "pattern recognition." In this form of studying, I was building up my reservoir of positions I could call upon in the future and the accompanying plans. Indeed, as I went through more and more books, I noticed improved accuracy when comparing my analysis with the author's. The books that I went through included the entire "My Great Predecessors" series by Garry Kasparov and my personal favorite "The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games" by Burgess, Nunn, and Emms.
In a world where most players probably rely on Chessbase and Houdini for studying, this practice may be outdated. Nevertheless, this classical approach certainly has its merits, and I encourage you to try it out for yourself!