Purposeful Practice in Chess

Purposeful Practice in Chess


Today, I'm going to be taking a break from analyzing one of my games and discuss something I've been studying for the last few years - how to practice and get better at chess. I think we all have a few opinions on what the best way to go about it and instead of offering you specific suggestions on what you should be doing, I'll be offering a few suggestions on making sure how you are practicing or training can be effective for helping you improve. We can do this by making sure our practice is purposeful.

Purposeful Practice

This term comes from cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson who is an expert in the subject or expertise. In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise Ericsson proposes several elements of purposeful practice that I'd like to share with you and how you can apply them to your chess training.

Purposeful Practice has a Goal

When you practice, what is the goal of your training? What is it you are trying to improve? You may think, "Hey, I'm doing tactics training to improve my tactics." However, are you...

  • working to improve your ability to visualize board positions several ply away?
  • trying to increase your ability to recognize fundamental tactical patterns?
  • trying to improve the organization of your calculation ability?
  • practicing spotting tactics in time pressure?
  • practicing your concentration?

Depending on your answers to these questions, the type of practice you do will be different. For example, if you are a beginner, you may want to focus on improving your storehouse of tactical patterns, so you might want to focus on more elementary books on tactics as opposed to say composed endgame studies. Contrarily, if you are a stronger player trying to improve your calculation of complex positions, you might want to work with a book like Aagaard's Grandmaster Preparation: CalculationSo knowing what the intention of your training is important.

I recommend having just 1-3 training goals for any particular activity. Otherwise, it is hard to focus...

Purposeful Practice requires Focus

The second element of purposeful practice is focus. Focus is the ability to attend to the action revolving around the goal of your training. Let's say you are studying the middlegame by analyzing master games. Well, if your goal is to study the middlegame you will need to focus your attention on aspects such as:

  • How does the pawn structure contribute to the plan in this specific position.
  • What pawn breaks/levers should I be looking to play in these types of position?
  • What pieces are good in this position? Which ones do I want to trade off?
  • What is the strategic goal for each side?

Just "playing through the game" without giving thought to these aspects will be suboptimal in your training. Similarly, doing your training while having Netflix on in the background is similarly suboptimal. 

How can you include the concept of focus into your practice?

Purposeful Practice involves Feedback

In the first step, you identify what you want to improve - goals. In the second step, you focus on activities that help you reach that goal. In the third step, you see how you did via feedback. Then you compare what you did to what you could have done and try to bridge the gap through analysis and more practice.

Getting feedback from problem solving tasks like tactics problems are pretty straight forward, but the key is to try to understand what you made a mistake. For example,

  • Were you careless? Be careful if this happens often, because it might mean that you either don't have the energy to focus or the bad habit of not focusing.
  • Was it a pattern that you didn't know before (but now you did since you saw the answer)?
  • Did you miscalculate something due to a visualization problem - e.g. you thought a piece was on a different square?

Analyzing why you made a mistake is where most of the benefit from feedback comes from. Good feedback also suggests how you can improve. Besides look up the answers to tactics problems, here are other methods of incorporating feedback into your training.

  • After reading about a positional concept, try to apply them in your games and create examples of the concept.
  • Working with a chess coach to analyze your games or observe you analyzing a position.
  • Annotating a master game from a chess book and then comparing your comments to that of the author (e.g. for positional concepts and planning).

Purposeful Practice Get Out of the Comfort Zone

In order to improve at anything in life, we need to get past our comfort zone. For example, if you are rated 1200 and you want to improve, you need to play others who are rated 1300 or 1400. 

We need to do things that are challenging and forces us to grow. If the activity we are doing is too hard, we won't learn anything because we'll be too frustrated or the concepts will be too difficult for us to understand to even know what we're trying to learn. If it's too easy - the comfort zone - we will become complacent and our progress will stagnate. Somewhere in between is where we will grow. 

How do you know if something's too hard? Feedback is the answer here. Let's say you study a game of Kasparov. Find a friend of yours and try to explain the key points of the game. If you can't, then either you need to spend more time studying the game or the book you are reading is too hard for you. 

This is where we need to keep our egos in check. Sometimes, we want to study something that is harder because of our egos. Years ago, I started studying John Nunn's excellent Understanding Chess: Move by Move when I was rated around 1400 USCF. I was talking about this with NM Dan Heisman who was giving me lessons at the time, and he said, "That book is too hard for you!" He was right then. Now, rated about 450 points higher, and now I'm enjoying the book quite a bit (although perhaps I could have started a little sooner for that particular book). Have to know your limits!

Make Your Practice Purposeful

In closing, studying about purposeful practice has motivated me to make each of my training sessions more effective and in turn have given me more of a sense of accomplishment. It's not necessarily that the training is harder than it was before, but I'm finding that I know what I'm looking to do.

For example, one day I had a tough day at work and was stressed out in general. I started analyzing an endgame study and found that I was getting nowhere. Since one of the purposes of doing endgame studies is to practice my calculation and focus, I realized that this was not the time to engage in this. I put the book down and came back to it the next day after a good night's sleep and after resolving the issues at work. The result - I saw and calculated the solution within 5 minutes!

Without the mindset of purposeful practice, I would have slogged away at the problem, gotten frustrated and just looked up the answer and then kicked myself for looking up the answer when I realized I could have solved it!

I hope this will help give you a new perspective when it comes to studying and training your chess. 

If you enjoyed this article, I often share reflections on chess improvement in my weekly e-newsletter