Katar on the social dimension of chess improvement
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).
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.)