Train Your Chess Skill Using Principles of Neuropsychology


I was on reading chess books recommendation and I can across this wonderful and insightful actical by David Small. To me, this answer my question " how to improve pattern recognition and what books and software to buy. I hope that you will enjoy the article as I had certainly did.


You know the problem. You have been studying chess for several years now. Yet somehow you don't seem to improve. You have bought Michael de la Maza's book and read it. You have read "Improve Your Chess Now" and "The Inner Game of Chess". You have read "Think Like A Grandmaster". These books inspired you. But they didn't make you stronger. Why not? Why do you still blunder in strong positions. Why did you miss that fork when you were playing a young and talented junior who knows absolutely no chess theory (ouch that hurts)????

Today, cognitive science has helped us to understand this. The reason strong players analyse better than weak players is because of a principle known as "chunking" - just another name for pattern recognition. To improve, you need to learn more patterns or chunks.

I will explain what chunks are in a minute. To become a master, it is estimated that you need to have about 50,000 chunks in your memory. However, herein lies the problem as well. To gain 400 rating points, you probably need to learn 10-times as many chunks or patterns as you know now. A player rated 1800 FIDE may easily recognize 5,000 chunks... 1400 FIDE would be 500 chunks and so forth.... So as you improve, the rate of progress decreases because you need to know much more. Does that sound familiar?

Strong players can visualize the board better than weak players because they can divide the board up into big chunks. A chunk is a pattern. A grouping of pieces that is seen as a single big chunk. Let me give you the very basic idea here. Suppose I asked you to remember the following string of numbers: 121643681. Could you do it easily? OK, now try chunking the information. Remember the numbers in groups. 121 64 36 81. Is that easier? OK, now suppose I tell you that each group is the square of some simple number (121 is the square of 11, 64 the square of 8, 36 of 6 and 81 of 9). Now it is much easier again, because you recognize the patterns. They are pre-existing patterns that you have already learnt.

A castled king position for example (Kg1, Rf1, Pf2, Pg2, Ph2, Nf3) might be a chunk. It is easy to remember isn't it? Despite the fact that there are 6 pieces on 6 out of the 64 squares on the chessboard, you could set the position up in a flash if asked to do so. Someone who has never seen a castled king configuration (with a trusty knight on f3) would have trouble remembering it, but for you, it is easy, right? Here is the key to visualization. All you need to do is be familiar with the chunk.

You store chunks in long-term memory but you process them through short-term (working) memory (involving brain structures such as the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus). It has been estimated that you can store up to about 7 chunks in working memory at any one time, but the most recent studies suggest that it is closer to 3 chunks, not 7. For that reason, to visualize the entire board and hold it in working memory, you need to see the entire position in only 3 chunks at most. Therefore, chunks need to be quite large. More realistically, you probably work with 3 chunks at any one time and process information rapidly between working memory and long term memory in order to visualize the entire board.

You need to see and be familiar with groupings of pieces. Knowing typical pawn structures helps in particular. For example, as a junior, I spent a lot of time studying the isolated queen pawn positions that arise out of the QGD and Caro-Kann openings. There are typical placements of both pawns and pieces. You get to know where they belong and can visualize their positions (and where they can move to with effect) fairly easily.

This then is the key to becoming a strong chess player. Learn chess positions, and learn lots of them. And of course, learn what moves work in these positions and what moves are poor. The learning of patterns or chunks is dependent on two basic principles: repetition and timing.

Studies show that frequent repetition of a training stimulus helps in learning the stimulus pattern. For this reason, I recommend the study of related structures, which helps to reinforce the concept better. Study games with similar pawn structures. Note that the key here is to learn patterns. Solving problems helps to learn a pattern, but my recommendation is to learn the pattern first and then reinforce this with problem solving. In other words, if you want to learn a tactical pattern, don't spend too much time solving it in the first instance. It is better to spend a minute or two on it, look up the solution and then come back to it later (in 5 minutes) and see if you remember it.

Recent published electrophysiology experiments from Mu-ming Poo's group shows that maximum reinforcement is achieved when the stimulus is repeated within 3-5 minute intervals. My recommendation for study then is to examine a large number of master games, all with similar or related structures, reading through them 2-3 times at 5 minute intervals. Read through the game quickly and then read through slowly studying the notes. The third time, see if you can recall the moves of the game and remember the main strategic and tactical themes in your mind's eye.

Of course it is also possible to train working memory, but only in a limited way. Recent studies suggest that working memory can be improved by exercises, but it is fairly pattern specific. That means that the training task must be similar to the memory task. One way to do this is to try blindfold chess. Set up a chess board in front of you and read through the first 10-15 moves of the game. Now stop moving the pieces and keep reading the game. Can you visualise the next 10-20 moves? With practice you should be able to do this. Bear in mind that this exercise is like flexing your muscles. It gets you in shape but ultimate progress in chess study depends upon your ability to learn new patterns.

There are basically 6 types of patterns you need to learn: 1) Opening patterns, 2) early middlegame patterns (where planning is tightly controlled by the specific pawn structure), 3) positional patterns (learning to place pieces and pawns on their optimal squares), 4) tactical patterns, 5) Strategic endgame patterns and 6) technical endgame patterns. So which should you study first? A chess trainer can help you there, by showing you where you are weakest. If you don't have a trainer, then a close analysis of your own games may help you to decide what you are weakest at.

A few years ago, I bumped into a strong IM who was watching a much more lowly rated player (let us call him Mr. P) who was playing against an even weaker player. The IM commented that Mr. P was going to lose, even though, at times, in other games, he could play at master strength. The IM expressed his amazement at how patchy the play of Mr P. was. He couldn't fathom it.... But to me it was quite clear. Mr P. had spend a large amount of time studying openings, tactics and attacking positions, but had never learnt the elements of positional play (i.e. read this as positional patterns). As a result, Mr. P. played at master level when attacking, but at amateur level when in quiet positions. He had spent an excessive amount of time studying tactical and attacking patterns.

It is important to get the balance right. Many players spend too much time on the opening and on tactics (firmly convinced that chess is 99% tactics - which it isn't). The chess of these players is often very brittle. They frequently look for forcing continuations in relatively quiet positions that call for patience and gradual improvement of the position.

The main idea is to absorb chess theory and patterns by reading through games.

But is it really that simple? What about learning chess strategy? What about learning the principles of positional play? Surely you need to learn these?

Yes, absolutely! But the reason for learning chess principles (e.g. play in the centre, develop rapidly, exchange off a bad bishop etc.) is that the principles provide a context with which to learn the patterns. Learning isolated patterns is boring and difficult. However, learning patterns that illustrate particular principles helps you to memorise those patterns more easily. For example, seeing a white knight manoeuvre and dominate the board on d6 is easier to remember if you understand the concept of outposts and space. So, before you learn the patterns, you must understand the basic principles. But principles do not always apply and patterns are the most important. This is what John Watson is getting at in his book "Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy" Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy

Learning patterns also comes with repetition of those patterns. It is probably easier to learn patterns if you study related groups of patterns together. This is how strategy books can help you. 1) Study, related positions, 2) try to group these positions under some guiding principle of strategy etc. and 3) reinforce the learning by repetition every 5 minutes.

Finally, it should be recognised that pattern recognition training is only part of a successful chess training program. Here are some key principles for a successful training program:

1. Learn the basics. You must know the key principles that are the foundations of chess strategy. I have some recommendations here.
2. Chess pattern training (most of the time should be spent on this). Read through games.
3. Tactics training (really just another version of pattern training). Read through tactics puzzle books. Don't spend too much time solving, remember the key is to learn the pattern, that is all.
4. Blindfold chess. Try to read through games without pieces or without a board in front of you. This is help keep you fit, but won't help you improve very much.
5. Study your own games. Work out where you made the mistakes in your games and adjust accordingly. Remember, the mistake is often to be found well before you blundered that knight. Check your moves against opening theory. Use a computer to search for tactical errors or better moves.
6. Play as much as possible. Both blitz and in tournaments.

My main recommendation is to play through games of very strong players. Learn the classics especially as here the basic principles are clearly delineated because the weak play of the opposition is ruthelessly crushed. Read the game through one and try to understand the reason for all the moves and the errors that were made. Then read it through again more quickly, trying to recall all the moves. Finally, read through again and again until you can recall all the moves. On average, you will have learnt about 40 patterns, just from that game alone.

OK. Enough said. You now need to go and learn 50,000 chess positions to become a master. Are you ready for it? Here is a group of books that will help to train you in chess positions.

Learn the basics of chess strategy (general principles).

Tactical patterns
1001 brilliant chess sacrifices and combinations
CT-ART 3.0
The Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book

Middlegame patterns
Learn basic principles:
Pawn Power in Chess
Pawn Structure Chess
The Middlegame, Book 2: Dynamic & Subjective Features (Algebraic Edition) (Bk. 2)
The Middlegame - Book I : Static Features (Algebraic Edition) (Bk. 1)
My System
Chess Praxis
Chess Strategy in Action
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy

Next, study master games:
Three Hundred Chess Games - 'Dreihundert Schachpartien' - English Language Edition
500 Master Games of Chess (3 Books in 1 Volume)
100 Master Games of Modern Chess
Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953
Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games
The following 2 books I consider to be the best chess books currently available today. They are as much about the middlegame and about typical positions that arise out of the openings than they are about the opening itself. Congratulations to John Watson for this great opus.
Mastering the Chess Openings: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Modern Chess Openings, Volume 1
Mastering the Chess Openings: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Modern Chess Openings, Volume 2
Positional Chess Handbook: 495 Instructive Positions from Grandmaster Games
Encyclopedia of the Middlegame: Volumes 1-4

After you have finished all that, you can pick your favourite champion and study his games intensely. Tarrasch, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Nimzovitch, Alekhine, Botwinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Fischer, Karpov and Kramnik are my favourites.

Endgame patterns
First, do you know the basics? Read
Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner To Master
Winning Chess Endgames: Just the Facts!, Second Edition
Comprehensive Chess Endings

OK, now let's get serious.
Grandmaster Secrets Endings
Endgame Strategy
Secrets of Chess Endgame Strategy
How to Play Chess Endgames
Mastering the Endgame: Open and Semi-Open Games (Pergamon Russian Chess Series)
Mastering the Endgame, Volume 2

OK, now study games based around your opening repertoire. You have to have:
Chessbase 9.0 Starter Package

Finally, one last piece of advice... and perhaps this is the most important thing I can tell you. Many players stop studying chess because they feel that they are not improving fast enough.

There are essentially 2 reasons for improving more slowly.

First, as you move into later adulthood (let us say 30 years old and beyond) the rate at which you can absorb new material decreases. You will know, for example, how difficult it is for an adult to learn a new foreign language as compared tp a child. This age-dependent slowdown is caused by the stabilisation of myelination in the brain (but enough of the technical stuff). The answer to this age-dependent slowdown is repetition. Repeat the pattern regularly so that you learn them. Go through games again and again until you can recall each move.

Second, remember, I said that the amount of material you need to learn increases exponentially as you increase in strength. This is particularly true of the endgame. The amount of material that you may think you need to learn about the opening may seem huge, but it is nothing in comparison to what you have to learn of the endgame. Endgame theory is incredibly complex and varied and your ability to master this phase of the game will define whether you move beyond the level of a strong club player.

Often players improve but do not realise it. You will probably never feel like you are becoming a stronger player. Instead, as you progress in your chess career, you may find that your opponents seem to become weaker! That is the sign to look for. Do not worry about your chess strength. Forget about your opponents. Instead, make the mastery of chess your aim. I assure you that that is more than enough work for several lifetimes. Enjoy the complexity and diversity of this incredible game.