Mailbag May 2016

Mailbag May 2016


I get quite a number of messages and emails regularly about chess training, and I think this is because I started playing chess as an adult.  Mark that well: I’m not someone who played ever before the age of 25.  I learned how the pieces move on October of 2007, months before entering my first tournament.  I think my journey, particularly in the training methods I collate and develop, is interesting to other adult players for that reason.  After returning to the game since being on a hiatus of years, I experience some growth from a previous peak of 1608 to 1678, but I have been generally stagnant, so far as the USCF rating is concerned.  (Note: My hiatus was due to constant and spontaneous migraines induced by fluctuation in blood sugar, which were easily set off by the stress of playing chess.)  The real indicator that I’m on my way up is the succession of a half-dozen performance ratings in the 1800’s, a couple in the 1900’s, and my first 2000+ performance –and, of course, my recent jump to 1755, just as soon as the 13th Great Lakes Open is rated.  Since I get so many messages and emails asking me the same questions, I think it might be good for me to produce some open, written response to a few of them.  That’s what I’ll do here –a sort of mailbag for those interested in a serious adult chess learner, who is doing almost everything possible to improve.


Q: Hey David, my name is [deleted] and I see you have made a big leap from 1560 to 1730. Just out of curiosity, what are the 3 main reasons for your improvements?


A: I recently read a book recommended by a friend, ThisIsChesstiny.  The book is neither in a genre that typically interests me (i.e., business and management), nor is it centered on a topic that interests me (i.e., football, i.e., not soccer).  The book is The Score Takes Care of Itself by the Super-Bowl winning coach of the San Francisco 49er’s, Bill Walsh.  The book is amazingly applicable to chess, as my friend suggested.  Not only did this friend channel the book’s advice in my direction when I felt like I was stagnating, but I found out that Bill Walsh was repeatedly asked the above question, in a way, numerous times in his career, I later found.  My friend’s channeling of the book came as the following advice, paraphrased: you are putting in the hours, you are showing improvement by every standard you use to track your progress, so simply relax, and the score/USCF rating will take care of itself.  I later found out that Bill Walsh was asked after his third season and winning the Lombardi Trophy, “what did you do differently?”  He responded, something like “nothing; we believed in the organizational philosophy, which we had put in place on day one.”  Externally, it seemed like the team may have made changes, but, internally, minor technical details may have changed, but nothing that genuinely mattered, in terms of organization and training, had changed.


My answer is the same: nothing.  I did almost all the same things I did last July that I am doing now.  Minor advances in training techniques have come to pass, but virtually all of my training is the same.  As I often tell another friend, Kevin, the federation rating only reflects our playing strength to a certain extent.  Sometimes we are slightly overrated or underrated, due to a little variance caused by a whole host of things, e.g., matchups (favorable or not).  I think my strength had been increasing, despite my USCF rating’s insistence upon sitting between 1580 and 1640.  Ratings are a fickle thing, so I track numerous metrics to determine my progress, and all of them indicate tremendous gross over the last 9 months, though my USCF rating was being stubborn.


For honesty and completeness, I will mark major things that have changed in the past few months, despite the fact that none of my tracked metrics indicate a change induced by changes in training.


Bullet: I started playing the bullet control on, because my coaches think I lack experience, largely due to the fact that this is effectively my fourth year playing and studying chess.  Note that I analyze all of my games, including at the bullet control.

Master Games: I’ve memorized 66 Master games since the start of the year, the sources being My Great Predecessors volume I, Zurich 1953, and New York 1924.


That’s it.  Now, what I’ve been doing before that is actually quite top secret, unless you are one of my students.


Q: Do you still do de la Maza’s 7 Circles of Hell Program from the book, entitled Rapid Chess Improvement?


A: Yes, but I do a variations on it.  de la Maza certainly stumbled upon something that induced rapid improvement, but having the right answer without the right reason is useless.  Read Plato’s dialogue, Meno, if you don’t get this.  I did an accelerated 7 Circles program last summer and saw tremendous improvement in my tactics metrics, which didn’t really make sense to me.  Why would cutting out Circles produce similar or even identical results?  I won’t go into the deep reasoning behind what seems to be going on, but I will say that speed and repetition in recognition (and in revisiting problems) are key to absorbing patterns.  In reality, the last 4 circles of de la Maza’s program do something different from the first 3, namely, the earlier circles aid the development of calculation, whereas the last 4 develop your instant-access mental pattern bank.  I do much more complex training exercises for developing calculation skills, but I do smaller groupings of puzzles, as I a variation on de la Maza’s program.  This not only reduces the stress of the intense cycle he has in his program, but it also means that slowing down on one’s training will not lead to getting off any kind of schedule that then discourages you from completing the long process he’s created.  


Q: Do you study openings?  How much time do you spend on openings?


A: No.  I mean, that’s pretty much the answer, considering that I played 9. … d5 after 9. Bc4 as black against the Yugoslav attack a week ago at the Great Lakes Open.  (Don’t worry, I defeated my opponent, an 1815, despite the gambit without compensation.) 



My coaches are pretty adamant about me not wasting much time on openings until I am in the A-Class.  I do study some, but the reader has to keep things in perspective: I play some of the most theoretical openings there are, so, if my openings weren’t so theoretical and deep, one could probably say that I am doing a little actual study.  However, I basically never see the majority of the things I study, because I am slowly building my knowledge base in those openings, and I am looking deeply into particular lines when I do spend time on the openings.  Two weeks ago, in Indiana, I had an opponent say to me something like, “I thought you didn’t know what you were doing in the Dutch, because I’ve played the Dutch for years, but then you were all over me, and I was nearly lost inside of X moves.”  At any rate, I spent, for example, less than 12% of my study/practice time on openings study three weeks ago, which I take to be a good representation of how I spend my time.  During the last two weeks, I spent no time, at all, on openings; and I do not review openings on the day of or days before a tournament.  I’m emphasizing skills improvement, while accruing knowledge, particularly in the opening, slowly.  Once I crack 1800 or 1900, I’ll begin studying openings a bit more seriously.