Thursday, January 28, 2010

Katar on the social dimension of chess improvement

In response to my previous post, which has lots of good comments, the following from Katar triggered a bunch of thoughts:
Environment is a big factor. If one has chess-playing friends it will speed up one's progress...

Somehow internet friends do not seem to have this effect, as far as i can tell. But i'll tell you this: I met a few cool guys at the club, they happened to be mostly around 1600 or 1700s. We played blitz and analyzed games after the club meetings. Within a year I was also rated in the 1700s, where i stayed for 2 years. Then my buddy jumped to 1870. Somehow I almost instantly jumped up to about 2000. The hard part is finding decent players (geographically close) who are interesting and diverse people away from chess. Then you can develop real friendships and what starts mainly based on chess can later exist independent of chess. Which is just a board game for gods sake.

There is something magical about going over games with humans, moving pieces around, throwing out ideas, making fun of each other, getting stumped on problems, doing postmortems with others watching. Humans are social creatures.

Imagine learning a language without interacting with other humans. We often stress the analogies between chess skill and language acquisition, but seem to forget the important social dimension of language acquisition. My hunch is the social dimension is radically under appreciated in the chess improvement blogosphere and chess improvement literature (for obvious reasons in the blogosphere, but also because books tend to focus on what they can directly provide the reader).

Coaching=Sex, Computer=Masturbation
Perhaps it is no coincidence that all the best players in any sport, including chess, have had extensive individualized coaching from real coaches. This is something that is stressed, to greater or lesser degrees, in the books. However, the books don't stand to gain all that much by telling you to get a coach rather than follow their generic chess path. And what can they do besides recommend that you get a coach, briefly explain why, and leave it at that?

It is usually stressed that it is the individual treatment is what is important in the coach relationship, but my hunch is that one-on-one social interactions with real people may be equally important. Our brains are wired to learn in a social way. Imagine an infant that hasn't learned to walk. Or speak. Learning such skills is an almost ineliminably social affair.

At the International chess school forum, I had a very vigorous debate with a guy who didn't do postmortems with his opponents because "Fritz is better" so what could he learn from them? I found this to be one of the most insane self-immolating sentiments I had ever heard about chess improvement. You can find the thread here, and it relates to this topic in ways I frankly hadn't even thought about yet.

At that post I said:
Key is to talk to chess peers after the game, go over it, hash over ideas, see what they were thinking, play around with pieces, refute each other. The more exposure to real people (including yourself), interaction, conversation about positions, with nobody involved allowed access to the computer nipple, the better. Then the computer later, if you must, will reveal some weaknesses of what everyone said, and that is a nice final evaluation of the position, but not necessarily superseding what you found in the conversation.

I have usually thought about this topic in terms of the importance of interacting with real people because it is so important to think like a real person, and be exposed to what other people think (because you will face real people in tournaments). This is in contrast to trying to emulate a computer that uses algorithms that do not resemble in the least the type of cognition humans use. I remember J'adoube tried to argue that computer emulation was the ideal, which I still think is just silly.

There are levels of possibilities here that go well beyond the need to have a human, rather than computer, approach to the game, and Katar's got me thinking about them.

Just putting my thumb on the scale

I don't want to suggest that everyone can get better if they take the social dimension of improvement into account. Some autistic folks probably would learn much worse if forced to communicate and interact socially with people to learn chess.

I'm just suggesting that the picture of the lone chess improver studying tactics on his computer, emerging like a butterfly from the cocoon of CT-Art problem sets to demolish the competition at the World Open, is pretty much bullshit. And it's bullshit in ways we in the chess improvement blogoshere, and especially Circles advocates, might not appreciate (not because it is bad to do a lot of tactics, but doing them with other people and talking about them and moving pieces around might be better).

I also am not suggesting that it is a mistake to work on chess by oneself, such as solitary opening study or whatever. I'm suggesting a counterbalance to the picture of solitary chess improvement, but not eliminating the quiet enjoyment of chess by oneself. I am, however, suggesting that improvement solely by solitary means is not the norm, but an aberration that most of us should not strive for as a realistic improvement technique. I'm basically putting my thumb on the scales, which are usually biased toward the solitary picture of improvement.

This all reminds me of something Davies once wrote that I cited here:
It really doesn’t matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate a mind-numbing amount of information. In these days of a zillion different chess products this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do.

Perhaps even better than moving pieces around in isolation (solitary chess) is the moving of pieces in an ongoing conversation about a position with another person. And what is a game of chess in a real-life tournament, if not a conversation over the board that involves moving the pieces?

What if you live in East Bumslap South Dakota?
To those that literally cannot find real people to play chess with, the computer and internet especially is a godsend. To what degree can we reproduce the benefits of chess facetime with others? I welcome your thoughts in the comments. E.g., is online coaching as good as face-to-face coaching? Is there some way to have a "chess club" atmosphere online?

Frankly I think just as a gymnast in East Bumslap would move to where the best gymnastic coaches are, that might be necessary for people that have high aspirations in chess improvement. You need to travel to play with real people, and perhaps even get coached by real people.

Or is that total bull? Can getting phone lessons be just as good?

(Aside: I wonder how many posts in a row can be seeded by comments from previous posts.)


Blogger Tommyg said...

I have nothing much to add other than I think Katar is right on the money as are you.

The most important moments have been with my coach!! Not only because as you say we generally learn better in social situation but also because when he was younger I was HIS drum set teacher and now the tables have turned and he is my chess coach and I can not begin to tell you what a truly fun dynamic that has been!

I gave him the cold hard truth as his drum teacher and he does the same for me in chess. There is a trust element there that just makes the lessons fun AND productive. Due to geographical restraints we can only get together very infrequently but it just makes the game that much more fun every time we do meet for a lesson.

1/28/2010 01:28:00 PM  
Anonymous LEP said...

Emotion causes weakness.

Flesh is inadequate.

Buy the latest Fritz and prepare to be assimilated.

1/28/2010 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

This post focuses on coaches, but a Coach-Student relationship is business not social. A Coach will charge you by the hour (with obvious implications to the Coach=Sex analogy). That would make Rybka like internet porn. Log on, click click-- there's nothing subtle about that.

Anyway, in my comment i had in mind regular "friends", roughly the same level, who just happen to play chess. Real people promote objectivity by calling you on bad postmortem analysis. At my club certain players have a reputation for being self-serving and biased in post-mortem. I've also found that a group analysis among 4 A-class players is fairly Rybka-accurate in my experience. I used to play a 2 or 3-hour club game, spend another 2 hours at group analysis with friends afterwards, then checking Rybka last of all.

1/29/2010 07:38:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Katar: yes, I was using coaches as one example of the social dimension. My point in focusing on coaches was that it may be a special case of this more general phenomenon, that coaches help because they are people, not just because they are giving you individualized attention.

1/29/2010 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Loomis said...

I have literally had moments where I am analyzing a move at the board and the voice of a chess friend enters my head and actually talks me out of the move. Call it Voodoo if you want, but I bet there's something to drawing inspiration from real people.

Going to the Cobras matches has been one of the best experiences for me in chess. There's so much to absorb from analyzing the games.

1/29/2010 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

My social chesslife often causes me headache. The next morning, that is:)

1/29/2010 03:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that post mortem with others, e.g. at a club, can be helpful. From my own experience I can also state that it can be stressful as well, depending on how you get along with the observers and commenters. If you add more of a social dimension to the study of the game of yourse you're going to inherit the usual social potential for problems. That's life. But this also raises another set of questions: Should you do your own analysis previously or afterwards? At which point do you introduce the computer analysis? How much time is reasonable to invest in analysis? Should you focus more on concrete variations or on strategic ideas? More on what happened objectively or your thought process? If you go over the game with others, should you introduce what you thought during the game or just stick to the game itself? Should you present your analysis and put it to discussion or be more in a receptive mode?

I'm sure there are several possibilities how to go about this, but it would be nice to read texts by people who have dealt with these issues before. Any recommendations?

In general, I think going to a club adds a lot to the chess experience. If you could, but don't, then you're missing out on a lot.

1/30/2010 07:27:00 AM  
Blogger transformation said...

fantastic; got that right, sir! thx, dk

1/31/2010 01:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Chunky Rook said...

I'm rather fond of the social dimension of chess myself, both on a purely social level and on the level of training and improvement. I love it when players articulate their plans and say things like: "maybe put a bishop on f4, a knight on b5 and go for the fork"... because sequences like that I can retain. But usually you get lost in half-assed calculation of sidelines and obscure variations and I hardly ever remember any of that.

1/31/2010 07:19:00 AM  
Blogger chesstiger said...

A human is a social being. We are not made for being alone. We need others to confirm or disagree with us.

2/04/2010 03:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I've been significantly weakened in my career because early on I did not get a job with a large firm where I would have been in competition with many other people my age while also being exposed to a lot of senior managers. I didn't really realize how handicapped I was till I started working with people who had gone that rout.

If you study a lot of the material on how to meet women you learn the social imperative is critical and not in the way you may think. If you don't have the social dimension to your life you develop weird tics, which you may not even be aware of, but which women pick up on right away. It's only if you've got a friend who tells you, “dude WTF are you doing?”, that you evolve. Otherwise, it’s pretty much impossible to see these things in yourself.

I imagine it's the same way in chess, competing against other humans rather than a computer is more meaningful. Similarly being edified by another human is a much more raw and intense experience than being edified by a computer. Seriously, how many people do any of us like to be edified by? When it happens we either take note or we tell them to fuck off.

I recall from reading Word Freak, that the one glaring difference Stephen Fatsis noted between the novice to average players and the strong players in Scrabble was that the strong players after a game would go back and replay the game, always performing a post mortem. The novice to average players rarely or never replayed and analyzed their games, nor did they intermingle much with the stronger players.

2/07/2010 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger transformation said...

this is probably among or the single best chess blogger comments i have ever read.
i am all too painfully familiar with much of what you say. brilliant!
applause standing for thirteen minutes. thank you! dk

2/09/2010 08:47:00 PM  

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