How not to study chess – The story so far

On the home page I set out my goal of becoming the best chess player I can possibly be and hinted that I have developed a clear study plan toward achieving that goal. Before talking about the plan, I thought I would share what I’ve done in the time between taking up chess in mid-2013 and about a month ago. It is not a pretty story, but I suspect it is one that many people who want to play better chess are familiar with.

When I decided to take up chess again, it was to play over the board. I had been exploring the role habits play in our lives and wanted a hobby that would facilitate a new good habit. Partly inspired by this post by Brett and Kate McKay, and partly by the hypothesis that it plays a positive role in cognitive health, I chose chess.

Since I had not played chess for years and was not sure about some rules, I looked online for help. I dipped into and out of various sites and read all I could find. I bought books, but with no idea of what level of player they were aimed at. This led to starting and stopping very soon in frustration. I bought Chessmaster 10, played against the AI opponents (more frustration) and worked through some of the lessons, mostly those narrated by Josh Waitzkin. (More on Josh in later posts). I joined chess.com and the Internet Chess Club and watched videos, did tactics training and read more material above my station. I played online and chose the default time offered by most sites – 10 minutes. However, I found the only way I could get any wins was to play against players much lower rated than me. I was getting wins, but those were pyrrhic victories. I read articles and lessons by authors and teachers such as Dan Heisman and Igor Smirnov. And I kept on playing tons of 10 minute games.

There was a lot of activity, but very little of it was productive. I reached a plateau fairly quickly and did not develop above it. The overwhelming emotion was frustration at not being able to progress.

In late 2013 I joined a local chess club. Not surprisingly, my play in standard time control (the standard here is 75 minutes for the first 35 moves, plus 15 minutes for all remaining moves) was much better than in online 10 minute games. That opened the world of online 45-45 games (45 minutes per game plus 45 seconds increment per move). I played a few tournament games and joined groups, but found it a real struggle to organise games at convenient times. And online games just did not present the same feel of over the board games. This was not why I started to play chess and games at peculiar times did not create the good habits that I wanted. Sitting in front of the computer also meant I soon reverted to the terrible habit of playing 10 minute games against low rated players.

I set up, started and stopped more study plans than I care to remember. They were based on the wrong material, on inappropriate aspects of the game, too focused, not focused enough, or bad in some other way. The upshot is that I did not stick to any of them and my playing strength was not improving. I did not get better at chess.

Something had to change.

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