Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chess memorization as seed planting:
Relax and let the roots grow


Over a year ago, when I posted my new method for learning a bunch of tactical problems, Haunted Knight made the following excellent comment, a sentiment that has been expressed by many bloggers in response to the Circles program of study:
But something that worries me about repeating the same set of exercises over and over is that I'll just be learning that set of exercises, rather than tactics in general.
I waited all this time to reply to Dean, wanting to finish the Circles and better judge their effectiveness. I think now I have a slightly better perspective, being done with the Circles for quite a few months.

My quick and dirty response is an analogy. Memorizing a set of tactical problem or master games is like planting a bunch of seeds in a garden. Initially these seeds are isolated, unconnected. After a while, these seeds have become a garden with a beatiful complicated and interconnected root system. The difference is, for chess the roots are neurons and they can talk to each other. This is very good for us.

I said at Phaedrus' blog (when he made a similar point to Dean's):
I'm not convinced simply "memorizing" 1000 positions is all that bad. It all depends on how our brain treats those memories once they are implanted. The brain may (with no conscious effort on our part) integrate these different memories into more general categories, form cross-links among categories, striving to build an ever-more coherent picture of the chess world, even while we sleep our brain probably does this. If this speculation is right, the individual problems are like nodes in our brain that are initially implanted, but connections are formed among these nodes so ultimately it becomes a more general and useful integrated tactical skill set.
From my experience with the Circles, I think we can eliminate the worst-case scenario, in which case you memorize the exact position, and that's all you've learned so you only recognize it when it appears exactly the same as during training. This would be fairly useless. Luckily, this isn't how my memories of the solutions work. Back-rank mate, for instance, pops out at me regardless of the exact location of the King (e.g., queenside, kingside) and whether there are two or three pawns hemming him in.

In general, it seems the way our neuronal pattern recognition machinery works is to store not just the exact template, but a more general category into which it will place similar but not identical instances. For instance, once I've acquired the memory/pattern of a person's face, it then generalizes so that I can recognize him laughing, frowning, talking, at sunset, in artificial lighting, or even if his face is upside down (though in the latter instructive case it will take me longer, and I'll have to double-check just to make sure it is really him, just as when my recognition machinery kicks in for chess it is imperative to check to see that the tactic will really work given the particulars of the situation).

We don't know how this works, but we certainly don't consciously force our brain to do this. But we can probably help our brain do it by taking a single position and studying little variations on it from multiple perspectives. Like looking at an elephant from the front, you might not recognize one you see from the tail-end, so you want to walk around the elephant, see it moving around and interacting with things, to really build up a more perspective-independent ability to recognize it. This should help with basic chess tactics. E.g., study the back rank mate twenty different ways and it should stick better.

So, in contrast to Tempo's focus on the importance of conscious feedback and narratives, I give our brain more credit. I say, be more Zen. The vast majority of information processing going on in our brains is not consciously accessible, the brain does amazing and wonderful things with "isolated" individual things we've learned. It seems to strive to build models of the world, models that will generalize so we can use them in novel but similar situations. There is a tendency to want to force oneself to improve at chess via conscious exertion of will, but my hunch is that most of the learning goes on beneath consciousness, when we are sleeping, when the brain is consolidating into long-term memory the bits we have most recently learned.

Of course, we still need to work, and all the narratives and such are very helpful (in practice, I learned a bunch of tactics much faster when I started using narratives to explain each problem to myself). The two approaches are not in contradiction. Like with a seed, you can create good conditions for it to grow (lots of feedback, narratives, conscious effort), but then you have to step back and let it grow. If you fuss with it too much, try to force yourself to improve faster than is humanly possible, you will just get frustrated and may even kill the plant.

24 Comments:

Blogger Dean said...

Yes what you're saying makes a lot of sense, you find with experienced players that they recognize these seeds very easily. I remember when starting out it was very hard to spot knight forks, but now they leap out at me. This then enables me to look more deeply into variations, and hopefully over time the 2-3 move tactics will leap out more.

4/27/2008 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Dean said...

One last thing, do people think it's proved that doing the same set of problems multiple times is more effective than doing a bunch of random problem, e.g. on CTS?

4/27/2008 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

Chess improvement leads to a garden that is governed by entropy and dandelions.

So, in contrast to Tempo's focus on the importance of conscious feedback and narratives, I give our brain more credit.

I don't think we disagree on this. It's a matter of formulation. 99% of the learning is unconscious. So there is no need to bother about that. But (according to my interpretation of Baars) there is a conscious theatre that represent the other 1%. If that 1% is used suboptimal then that will reflect in the other 99%. If we are that 1% unconscious too, we end up as scholars.

4/27/2008 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Dean: good question, perhaps Tempo has a more informed view.

Tempo: yes, you are right I was being sort of provocative, but in the last paragraph I tried to make clear that they are actually two sides of the same coin. What I was pushing against, if anything, from your recent posts, is putting a finite number (15) or time frame on the learning. Like a plant, the roots will branch out in their own time.

4/27/2008 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

My 15 was only a provocation for people who think it needs 2500 times:)

4/27/2008 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article . one of your best.
I agree from my experiences.

4/28/2008 01:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well first of all, I am a chess novice and late starter. I started chess at the age of 28. And two years beating here and there and playing some club level games, friendly games I somehow got serious. What frustrated me was making same type of mistakes again and again, not really being sure just after 6/7 moves. It was then I started to read and follow games, started playing online and reading almost anything and everything that came infront of me.

From starting zero, I devised for myself the followings which really helped:
1. offcourse I practised again and again simple tactics and endgames. It really helped at least to make myself ready for any such instances, and also very important feeling that I got ... I was more aware of the sense of chances.
2. I chose carefully couple of openings. First one was sicilian and king's indian with black. whith white just d4. I found club level players are not that aware of d4 plans and as they like to attack both sicilian and king's indian provides enough provocation to go wrong by themselves.
3. Now I am builidng my own database with the help of chessbase. I am adding the comments move by move - painstakenly and elaborately, stopping at each instant to the possible moves and one move blunders. This is where I again feeling lots of frustrations because there are so many lines.
4. Also reading more books on chess history and development rather than these variations which still is not that much of use because club level fellas just play with their intutions and some feelings not through study so, to feel for the positions and for overall chess development I am studying articles in general and books. I have even tried some very complicated books like My great pred of Garry kasparov, just went through it without bothering detailed comments and exclamatory analysis. Rather tried to open any diagram from the book which I gone through and tried to remember which was the response of the players - thats it.
So perhaps I agree with you, that doing practices with basic patterns and positions really helps. It helped me - sure there would be many more chess enthusiasts who would share the same.

After all good players practice a particular position until they can't get it wrong...I got it from somewhere in the net and really became motivated by this.

I wish to be a better player and I am in no hurry for that - if it like bit by bit - let it be in that way.

4/29/2008 05:01:00 AM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

Nice post. This is a good summary of all the ideas floating in hte blogosphere.

For me, post circles, I find studying classic games of master a worthwhile venture. Now, instead of static tactical positions, I am starting to recognize "how the elephant moves" by seeing common positional themes. With each game I review and struggle through before looking for the answers, I put a summary of the key points. When I scan through my data base, I look at teh key points and I can immediately recall these positional nuances.

One last note, In studying the Immortal game with Anderssen's Bishop, two rook and Queen sac, the positional theme was so vivid for me that while doing ct-art ( because I still think tactical training is important to avoid any evaporation of thought) I discovered problem 230, though not exactly like the Anderssen vs Kieseritzky's casual game at teh Divan, had the same piece placement for the exact same tactic that anderssen used.

4/29/2008 08:14:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anonymous:--it sounds like you are on a good track. Good luck.

Blunderprone: I am starting to come around, which is one reason I included tactics and master games here. If I'm an advocate of memorizing a bunch of tactics problems, how the fuck could I not think it a good idea to memorize a beautiful game from Kasparov?

4/29/2008 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger J'adoube said...

Hi Guy!

I tried to post on my blog but somehow my language preference with Google got hijacked - everything is in Spanish!

As soon as I get that figured out, I'll update shortly.

4/29/2008 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger J'adoube said...

Hi Dude!

My language preference got hijacked on Google - to Spanish!

As soon as I figure that out, expect an update soon!

4/29/2008 07:25:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

¡Muy bueno, J'adoube!

4/29/2008 10:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blue Devil I did not have google account so had to post annonymously. I think I shall be sticking to your blog for some time at least. You doing intresting stuffs with your time. Good luck with that.
Alimuzzaman
from Bangladesh.

4/30/2008 03:50:00 AM  
Blogger takchess said...

I agree. When I study a King March tactic, I am reinforcing knowledge regarding taking away escape squares, proper positioning of pieces and move order. This knowledge is also used in attacks on cramped positions. It is enforcing a way of thinking helpful in a wide range of chess positions.

4/30/2008 06:47:00 AM  
Blogger katar said...

seed planting and whatnot sounds like some tripped out hippie B.S. to me.

full circle indeed. lol

4/30/2008 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

i am like jason kidd who when he was drafted said he would turn the Mavericks around 360 degrees.

instead of a systematic procedure following the scientific method and peer review, BDK relies on a seed-planting metaphor. "full circle" is clearly a misapplication, but the irony is still there.

4/30/2008 05:16:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anonymous: Hey, thanks. I am almost done updating this blog, but see 'blog highlites' for the best bits.

Tak: Thanks for the note--indeed, we learn more than we bargained for when we solve problems (though I think solving them in the context of actual games may be even more helpful, as we discussed at Tempo's blog recently, and as the hippy Katar would probably agree).

4/30/2008 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Katar: hippy?! Them's fighting words! The metaphor was the starting point. There is a lot more to back up my view, including a lot of research that I didn't include here (see below).

For instance, the fact that it isn't worst-case as I described, and the way the better-understood the case of facial recognition works, is (at worst) suggestive.

Thinking more generally, if the brain just passively recorded exact copies of things, our brains would not be all that helpful. How often do you see your friend's face in the exact same position/configuration/lighting?

The point is, memories don't light up simply when the exact same stimulus is presented, but is useful partly because it generalizes, extends, reaches for the most general but still reliable case. That is, our brains seek to construct perspective-invariant representations of the stimulus (in the world) that triggered memory formation in the first place.

Also, our mental representations are not simple symbols like letters but have a rich internal structure. Consider how you classify colors (e.g., red, green, blue). There are shades of red, canonical instances, borderline cases. This is the way all our categories seem to be structured. This is old psychology from Rosch.

Incidentally, someone should write a post on Rosch's research and its implications for chess learning. I'm about done with this blog, and don't have the energy to do it. It is born out by research in the study of the neural basis of pattern recognition and perception (e.g., this paper, which is technical).

At any rate, the burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that for some reason chess pattterns are different from all other known instances of pattern recognition in humans.

Patterns are not individual instances, but gravitational wells into which similar events are pulled.

4/30/2008 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

I miss a possibility to search your blog for some time. Is it possible to reinstate it or does that conflict with esthetics?

5/01/2008 03:22:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tempo--it was for aesthetics, but I think you are right. Even I have missed it, so it's back now.

(for those who want to remove it,
put 'noembed' tags around the 'body' tag in your template).

5/01/2008 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

The main problem with the Circles isn't that they don't work, but that they often lead to burnout or boredom.

5/01/2008 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger Kaan KARA said...

Memory works a little bit different than you thought. When you are collecting data (solving problems etc.) , you are encoding it to written memory of your brain. Different things in different persons is the encoding... Let me try to explain... If you're thinking like i mated because there wasn't any pawn shelter in front of opening's king. Then when you see there is no pawn in your opp.'s king you start to search for mating options. Solving 1 times or 1000000 times don't differs but usually all the times you are trying to solve but not remember in flash you are probably creating more links which is usually good but rarely harmfull. So practising usually improves the person.

But when you are doing exercises without forcing your brain..
i) you might not be creating new links
ii) creating new link but they are too similar to the old ones which makes you more probably to think same and slower.

Too much links always causes to slow you down but this effect can be eliminated by enough rest (appr. 8 hours a day)

If a problem can be approached by 8 ways a b c d e f g h
And you exercised 20 times a 5 times b
your repertoire is aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabbbbbn where n is the random possibility.
so your chances are aproach that problem as method a = (20/26)+(1/26*8(208))random possibility as a, b= (5/26)+(1/208), c=(1/208), d = (1/208)... etc
when you approached a problem as method a 999 times when there is 3 approaches then your possibilities will be a = (999/1000)+(1/3000) b=(1/3000) c=(1/3000)

What if a is losing, b is drawing and c is winning approach on that situation.

Practising is not always best. as much as you practise you might be slowing down your progress. (always there will be a progress for the glory of n)
Active thinking is a method you might get rid of most the problems. It will be harder to think creatively on a subject as much as you practised before but it is possible.
If there would be one criteria = practising then there wouldn't be prodigies. And i don't think iq is something like a level of your brain. it is more like your thinking habits and learning habits in addition to your approaches to the situations.

There is a little bit easier but limiting program also exist which is commonly used in every profession by 99.99999999% of the successfull people except genuities. Think an improvement plan, stick on it, be perfect on it. Then consider your weaknesses, create new plan of study, unlearn your old knowledge (unlearn doesn't mean to forget, it is more like neglect, behave like it doesn't exist while still benefiting from it) Study that plan. After you are perfect on it repeat it countless times. Most gm's trained themselves with this method.
If you selecting the easier and more secure method you have the possiblity of being a weak GM, not saying IM.
But you should first all the distractions off.
Do not plan as to be 1900 then to be 2400 bla bla.
Plan as i won't miss any mates in 2 move range. Be perfect on it. Then say I will see all the 3 move material gains, queen traps while checking that you don't get check mated by doing this. Forget about openings. Forget about win or lose your matches! Forget about rating. Be goal oriented. Play perfectly as you can. Calculate for your opponent. When it opponent's move try to beat yourself. Improve your endgame by randomly creating a position on the board, analysing for 5-10 minutes not too short. then play against the machine. But first decide who is winning or is it draw. Always try to make winning side to win or in situation of draw pick the weaker side and try to make the draw. But try to create challenging position not 3queens versus a knight.)
You can't create all the openings from zero but don't study opening from theory. You could miss too much. Get a database if you don't have money get a warez or very old. lets say database of 1993. get it. pick a game. if it seems balanced try hard to find the tactic possibilities on it which is missed by the players. It is not important to remember it finding is enough. If you can find some tactics then your combinatory view gets better if you can't then your strategic understanding becames better. If nobody did any mistake then winner's strategy is better. As much as you tried hard you obtain proportionally. But don't try to get beyond yourself just do your maximum. And ─▒mprove your maximum by critisizing yourself that the only way.

5/14/2008 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Kaan Kara--thanks for the suggestions and sharing your ideas about memory in chess.

5/15/2008 01:26:00 PM  
Anonymous O.C. said...

This sums up exactly what I've been thinking regarding Chess improvement. I've always sought to train my brain to become an efficient Chess processor by exposing it to as many patterns as possible. I've found myself recognizing so many more mating threats and chances since I started doing puzzles, etc.

I've been studying, playing and doing puzzles almost daily for the past 4 months and the difference shows. At first it felt like a waste of time because I never seemed to see much of the tactics I had studied OTB. But recently, I've seen a jump in my playing strength. It seems like my brain has been doing lots of work without my conscious effort.

One night I dreamed of a Chess combination. One day, while in the shower, I found myself working out variations in one of my online (3days/move) games . . .while I was in the shower with no board!

Obviously, my brain is beginning to assimilate the information subconsciously. What I realize is that you can't rush this process. All you can do is continue to work at it without too much emphasis on immediate gains.

To me, Chess improvement is more about improving your general recognition of patterns. The brain takes what patterns it can from the puzzles we do. It's up to us to feed our brains with as many of these patterns as possible and let or brains do the rest on it's own. Repetition will help to solidify each pattern and makes it easier to recognize the relevant parts of them in OTB play.

I really like this article. It makes me feel like I have the right ideas. Keep up the good work.

1/26/2010 09:52:00 AM  

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