A Theoretical Framework for Adult Improvement
I’m constantly thinking about how to improve at chess, how to analyze metrics to determine improvement, and trying to understand how improving works. One of the world-shifting understandings I’ve come to has been the disjunction between logical thought process and a second concept, which I will carefully name, before discussing the disjunction further. Many call this second thing “intuition,” which is a poor word to use. I’ll steal an analogy and use it here instead: “road map.” The phraseology of road map is particularly good, when used with respect to the chess player’s mind, because it refers to all of the contents that are already in the mind. It can be suggested that chess knowledge, such as openings, can be included in this, but my interest is more on tactical, strategic, and “automated information” that one possesses in one’s mind, and which can be virtually instantly pulled out and applied. Therefore, I think the sum of one’s ability to perform at the chess board is this mental road map and a logical decision-making thought process. The logical thought process is basically the conscious protocol that one uses to determine which move to play, whereas the road map provides all sorts of geometric information, patterns, and so forth. On the face of it, this may not seem like all that world-shifting, and many others have presented something similar, but it’s clear to me that whoever has thought of something similar, they have not used it properly for adult chess improvement; and that is really my interest. It’s worth noting that I could best explicate my thinking on the mental road map in Kantian terms, in which experience conforms to “knowledge,” but the problem is that most people would not be comfortable with this, so I won’t even attempt to do this.
Among adult chess improvers, I hear and see all sorts of interesting things. Whether it is comments of complete confusion on how to improve or hubris that ends in disaster, every day holds something equally new and equally silly. Such is the case when philosophy and science is not at the heart, guiding one’s journey. I’ve recently had two friends, both adult improvers, who quit chess permanently because of huge USCF rating tumbles. I get it: if one can’t improve one’s placement in the statistical population while working one’s tail off, then how much improvement will come as a result of simply enjoying chess through classic games and less demanding training plans. I doubt much of any, even in the long run. I think the mistake that both of these people made was in not entertaining my thoughts on this topic of the road map-logical thought process dichotomy. Toward the end of the following, I’ll explain why I think pretty much no one has taken seriously my thinking and prescription. However, it goes back to Middle English, that ‘Jt is ywrite that euery thing Hymself sheweth in the tastyng.’ Both players constantly worked on deep analysis and developing a highly sophisticated thought process, which is the logical decision-making process that represents one half of my dichotomy of chess performance. They generally neglected the other aspect, which is the road map. Adults have a horrific time developing a road map, because it requires more neuroplasticity than we generally have after the 18-25 year age range. Thus, it requires some quite absurd training, and varieties of training that are not fun to do; it’s work, plain and simple, and sometimes demoralizing work, at that. I’ll return to these two retired players in a second.
My contention is that the development of one’s road map creates a baseline playing ability, and then one’s ability to perform a rigorous and logical decision-making thought process augments that baseline to one’s slow-time control ability to perform. Therefore, one’s road map is particularly present in situations where one needs to automatically present a move option, whether it is in speed chess or in generating candidate moves in a slow game or in instantly seeing geometric possibilities on a chess board that feed into a slow calculation process. At the top level, you’ve probably heard super strong players talk about how they know what they are going to play, as soon as it is their move, and all they are doing most of the time is verifying the correctness of their road map –my terminology, of course. Consider for a moment how many players you know who are more than 400 points weaker in OTB speed chess compared to slow OTB chess. I have only come across a few cases, and all of them are not very active in one or the other. Likewise, how many absurdly strong speed players do you know with very high OTB blitz ratings, yet possess ratings more than 400 points below that in slow OTB play? Naturally, the ratings don’t correspond to the same population; that is, 1500 in standard doesn’t mean you are equally strong with respect to blitz, just because you are 1500 in blitz. These numbers represent one’s relative population placement, not objective knowledge or objective quality of moves. Nonetheless, in those relative population placements, I’m going to assert that it is very rare for players to be more than 400 points of placement different in one control than the other, and I think this reflects a deeper truth about the hypothesized road map-logical decision-making thought process dichotomy. I think what it reflects is that it is not possible to objectively be a certain amount better or worse in one control than the other. Unfortunately, I am not sure how to quantify the comparison, and I’d very likely have to be much more knowledgeable about information quantification to even project a model for the comparison. At any rate, I think it is reasonable to suggest that the limited difference points us toward a model of chess improvement where there is a limitation as to how much one or the other form of training will improve the player. In other words, if you a bonkers bad at blitz, bullet, fast pattern recognition, and have a poor ability when generating candidate moves in slow games, then no amount of augmentation and training of your logical decision-making thought process will improve your ceiling performance in slow OTB play.
I have come across some pretty good examples of players who seemed to be operating with basically no logical decision-making process, yet play some amazing slow chess. A close friend of mine (Chessmo) and I have a common opponent from Indiana, who played accurately and quickly. I’ve actually played two games against this Hoosier, who was rated about 1800 USCF, and chessmo played one. The remarkable thing about the games I played against him was that he played amazingly similar games against me, one in something like a G/12 control, and the other in G/30 or so, and he didn’t seem to gain any strength in the longer control. He didn’t use any more time in the longer game than the shorter one. He sort of played like a robot, probably using 4 minutes in both. I drew the longer one, losing the shorter one. When I saw that chessmo was playing him at Chicago Open, I thought to myself, ‘it would be hilarious if this guy just belted out moves.’ He did. In fact, I don’t recall the control, but chessmo used something like 2+ hours to the Hoosier’s 15 minutes. It was a heck of a sight, and one of the more extreme things I’ve seen in Class play. I really wouldn’t be surprised if this guy could make NM if he developed his logical decision-making thought process. It’s clear that he did very little thinking at the board. He just moved, in accordance with his road map. If the quality of one’s moves don’t improve and can’t improve when allotted more time, then that person becomes more and more disadvantaged to players who have a more sophisticated logical decision-making thought process. It’s a little strange to look at this fellow’s graph, because it just jiggles about 1800. You see this among many older players, too. Almost everyone has a few players like this at their club: players who hardly do anything like real training or intentional practice; they just love the game, and play it regularly in USCF tournament play. Their ratings, aside from variance, live within a rating band, never really going too far upward or downward.
Return to my recently retired friends. I think their issue with their rating tumbles was primarily avoiding road-map developing training that I suggested. It’s clear to me from seeing young players return to the game in adulthood that the road map doesn’t disappear, and many are able to return at near their strength as a youth, and some actually are stronger, possibly due to a delayed integration of skill and knowledge into their road map. What can cause rating tumbles is getting away from one’s mental thought process training. Lose some of those habits of mind by not keeping up on meticulously analyzing and practicing one’s mental protocol, I’d expect to see a 100-point decrease, possible 200 points’ worth.
For me, I’ve been in a pinch since August, where I don’t have the time I normally have to study chess. It’s resulted in my having to do more intermittent training, spending fragments of time on speed tactics that employ different modes of training. I have these notebooks full of notes one every move that I analyzed in a game, and it is clear to me that two things have happened to my ability to play recently: 1) I’m not seeing some of the ideas I used to in games, due to the fact that I’m not as thoroughly training my logical decision-making thought process; 2) I’m seeing way more candidate moves, geometry, and instantly seeing more general ideas than I did before. Since I’ve been doing so many more times of speed training to fill very small time fragments in a chaotic schedule, it has created a much stronger baseline in playing ability –or at least I think so, based on looking at these old notes and my recent USCF standard rating increase.
There are a few reasons why players avoid taking the road map training seriously. I recall my coaches cautioning against playing bullet and blitz, because they said it leads to bad habits. Well, contexts matter. I’m sure it does absolutely nothing for players 2300+, who have pretty much every basic pattern in their road map. I also believe that their typical students, children, do develop very bad habits from speed chess, but that the long-term benefits are not acknowledged. In analyzing my data, my coaches became convinced that it was doing something positive for me, though they are still against playing and analyzing bullet games to gain experience, in general. One of the anecdotes I get hit with regularly is that, “Botvinnik never played blitz, and spoke vehemently against it.” Okay, whatever. Botvinnik, like the abovementioned 2300+ players, was a player who had assimilated virtual the basic patterns by the time he was a teen, so there would be nothing for a player in that position to gain from blitz, save for some opening training or something. I also hear that playing in short standard controls “just aren’t my thing.” Okay, whatever. It’s your life. Until recently, I was so horrific at rapid, such as G/30, that there was nearly a 400-point disparity between my rapid and standard USCF ratings. From every vantage point of the value of playing shorter controls for improvement to develop your mental road map, as well as the standpoint of added intentional practice, faster controls provide many positions to an individual while that person is in an emotionally primed mental state, which makes for excellent road map development –because of the role of the hippocampus. (BTW, rated games are much better for intentional practice compared to online games, since the competitive environment maximizes emotional involvement, so long as one cares sufficiently for either winning or their rating result.) I also hear from many that the kind of tactics training I do “sounds like that charlatan, MDLM.” Okay, whatever. Recruiting new patterns is essential. I don’t do exactly what MDLM did, but he laid the groundwork for what I have come to know does work, and it does much to build one’s mental road map.
At any rate, I think this distinction of road map and logical decision-making thought process is a huge part of what most adult improvers are missing, and the primary reason why adults trying very hard to improve do not. I think this distinction has to be at the heart of one’s improvement plan for adults U2300 and over-25 years old, and guiding the plan’s structuring.