Skwim, aikido, and improving at chess
For about a year and a half I've been playing Skwim a couple of times a month. It's a team sport similar to Ultimate, but played in a swimming pool with a soft rubber disk that skims along the water. My local pool holds games every Friday with a random assortment of 6-30 players of all ages.
With so much practice I've definitely improved. My specialty is deep-water defense, one of the few positions in sports where being somewhat overweight is an asset--young athletic guys with not an ounce of fat on them are great on offense, but they can't tread water for half an hour! I've learned how to head the offense off as they try to circle the goal, I can make fairly accurate passes, and I've even scored some long shots. (A few weeks ago an opposing goalie taunted me to try to get me to make a cross-court shot, and then when I scored said "Darn, you weren't supposed to actually be able to do that!")
However, I notice that there are two aspects of my game that never improve. I learned to swim as a teen and always disliked putting my face in the water (not improved by the fact that I swim in glasses--otherwise I can't tell friend from foe). I still don't do it, so I swim very slowly. And I've never learned to make long shots with the disk held vertically, which my teammates use to get extra distance. It's hard to be accurate with this shot and mine are all over the place, so I shoot horizontally instead. But this means I can't reach the far end of the pool.
Why don't these things improve? Because I want my team to win, and what I'm doing now (face out of water, horizontal shots) is more immediately successful than what I should learn to do (face in water, vertical shots). So I don't try, and nothing changes. The things that improve (long horizontal shots, passing and positioning) are the things I can improve incrementally without risk.
(Trust me, this will be about chess eventually.)
I practice the martial art of aikido and earned my first-degree black belt last year. One of the students in my dojo is currently studying for his third-degree black belt. While older than me and hampered by a bad foot, he is generally competent and graceful. However, there is one excercise (and related techniques) that give him consistent trouble.
The exercise is happo waza, the eight-directions drill, in which you need to face eight different directions in rapid succession and swing out your arms to block an incoming attack. It's related to the eight-directions sword form, and also appears in other martial arts--I first learned it in my brief flirtation with kung fu about 14 years ago.
My friend P can do happo waza very quickly. But he looks like a hula dancer--before his hands have finished moving in one direction his hips have started to move in another. Sensei has called him on this innumerable times but it never really improves. We sometimes practice by having a person at each of the eight directions, judging whether any energy is being projected in that direction. If I stand in front of Sensei I want to jump back. If I stand in front of P I feel nothing.
The problem is that if P gets his arms and hips moving together, as they should be, the combination of age and bad foot means that he'll be slow. He doesn't want to be slow--he's proud of how quickly and fluidly he can do the exercise. Maybe if he practiced doing it right for a long time he'd speed up, but it's not clear, and it hurts his pride to lag behind the group. So he continues to hula-dance, and his technique suffers as a result. All of our throws are built on exercises, so if the exercise is bad, associated throws generally are too.
(I don't mean to pick on P. I'm sure my own aikido has similar stuck points. But his are easier for me to see.)
I am becoming more and more certain that the same thing happens in chess--that there are things I do as a tournament player because I'm rating-proud and don't want to lose, and these things work well enough to keep me at 1900--but they are keeping me at 1900.
One thing that immediately jumps out at me is that Online Chess is a chance to try out new modes of play and get beyond polishing what I already do--but instead I've just copied the ratings obsession and focus on wins that characterize my tournament play. Not very helpful. I do try new openings when my various teams talk me into thematic matches--I played some Benko Gambits recently, yikes!--but I don't think it's getting at the more fundamental stuck-points.
As a teen I graphed my rating (now USCF helpfully does it for me) and I noticed that the usual result of studying very hard and trying new things was...a sharp ratings dip. Eventually things would get better, but the initial result was always negative. So I've known this for three decades, but it is still hard to act on. I can't help feeling that losing binges were all very well when I was a 1200 (1400, 1600) player, but so hard to accept one now!
I wish this posting would end with a confident forward-going plan for improving my chess, whatever the short-term cost. But I haven't figured that part out yet. When I try to make a general assessment of my chess--the obvious starting point--there are so many problems that I feel quite overwhelmed. In any case, I hope the general observation is helpful, because I'm sure P and I aren't the only ones diligently polishing a fundamentally flawed process.