Monday, August 06, 2007

Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

I've developed a new method for learning tactical problems in which attention is focused most on solutions to problems rather than the original position.

After spending about a year on the circles I have come to believe that, for learning tactical problems, spending a lot of time staring at the original position is a mistake. While staring at a position for 10 minutes without moving is a good way to practice calculation (looking ahead in one's mind), I now believe it is not the best way to quickly learn the problems. For one, this technique has a certain awful side-effect: I sometimes learn the original board position, recognize it the next time through, but do not remember the solution. Even worse, when I spend a large amount of time thinking about the incorrect first move on my first pass, in the future I often incorrectly remember that as the correct move in the position! Takchess was the first to point out this humbling phenomenon of pattern recognition without answer recognition, in this classic post from last October, a post well worth reading.

This suggests there is something quite inefficient about the de la Maza stare-for-ten-minutes method for learning new problems. If all I remember is the position, but not the solution, then I am learning, but not what I want to learn! My new technique, which I've been using for a few days now, is to spend the majority of my time and mental energy focusing on the solution to the problem.

I'll look at a position for a minute or two, try to find the answer, and make what seems the right move. If I am wrong, the program will show me the solution. Then, the real work begins. Before moving on to the next problem, I actively engage with the solution by following these steps (acronym FOVEA):
1. Fast repetitions
Quickly mouse through the answer many times, especially focusing on the correct first move. This gives me an overall sense of the flow of the answer.
2. Once through
Work once more through the solution, slowly, being sure to visualize each move before I make it.
3. Visualize entire solution
Go to the start of the problem and visualize the entire solution from start to finish, without making any moves on the board. And then make them.
4. Explain solution
Explain the solution to myself. This step is inspired by the study that showed explaining moves to oneself improves memory of the solution. My explanations involve a description of the major tactical and strategic elements involved in the combination, particularly focusing on plans that the position demands. For instance, "A mating net initialized by decoying his rook to h5, which cleared the g-file for my rook battery." I also identify the general features of the position that made the tactic possible (e.g., he only has a knight on his kingside, while I have four pieces in that area and an open file).
5. Alternative moves
Look over defensive resources that I might have missed in Steps 1-4, any alternative resources that the opponent could have used. That is, are there in-between moves, interpositions, and the like that CTB didn't include in the variations? If so, how would I deal with them? Also, determine why other potential moves are not as good in the position. This is where I sometimes need to do some heavy calculation.

My experience using FOVEA is that it is extremely taxing mentally, especially Step 4 where I try to self-explain the position. There is no way to apply this method passively. I simply can't do it well when tired. Note that it isn't important that I do all the steps in order, only that I do them all before moving on to the next problem.

What do I hope to gain from this? Simple: I am hoping I learn the solutions faster. I am not using the Circles to get better at calculation, but to learn a bunch of tactics cold. By hand. Recognize the solutions like a friend's face. BAM! Calculation is a skill I work on implicitly in my slow games, and which I can worry about after the Circles. I am ready to be done with these bloody Circles and start with a more balanced form of chess study (including just playing a lot)!

If you want to work on calculation, don't use this technique. If you want to learn a finite set of tactical problems quickly, you might give this solution-oriented method a try. Focus your FOVEA on the solution, baby!


Blogger Dean said...

Hi, I've enjoyed reading your recent posts and all the comments on them. I've considered following the De La Maza method, and may well do so in the future. 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.

For example if I have 70 minutes available and spend a minute on each exercise then with the Knights method I'd do 10 exercises (7 times each). However if I just do 70 different exercises then I'm experiencing tactics in general.

I agree that the goal is pattern recognition of the basic motifs, and am curious over which method is the best for helping practical play.

Would welcome all comments. Dean

8/06/2007 08:41:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i really like the idea of explaining the solution to yourself. it goes along with the whole "when you teach, you learn twice" saying. and it makes sense, it's a kind of re-enforcement of ideas. if you don't already work for the government, and you are thinking of getting a new job, you definately have a future with your awesome acronym skills....

8/06/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Dean: a great general question about the Circles!

It was discussed just a little bit, albeit inconclusively, here by J'adoube. I think the topic may have been brought up in other posts, perhaps other Knights can post links as that's the only one I remember. I will have to think about it and research it some, and perhaps do a separate post on it.

chessloser: lol. Acronyms are a bit lame and cutesy, but they help me remember stuff.

8/06/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger The retired pawn said...

I have been doing this method (in my own way, of course) since I started the circles. I believe David Bronstein or Lev Alburt made me aware that I should explain the motif and explaining to myself why the solution is this and that. Sooo, when I do a problem I have this chatter going on in my head: "This looks familiar...hmm...I am looking for mate...that is possible using Morphy's mate, except the Queen is defending...can I deflect her?...oh, the bishop will move her if I place it on b4...hmmm...yeah!"

I do go over the problem three times when I miss them...the first time quick just to look at the solution. The next time I spend 5 minutes explaining to myself the motif and concepts of the position. The last time even slower looking for alternate moves that lead to the same place. This really fixes the position and solution in your mind...definitely a form of study.

8/06/2007 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

Thanks for the link, some interesting discussion. I think the crucial thing is the difference between memorizing the problems and 'imprinting' the patterns. I think for learning an opening, the spaced repitition technique would be ideal for me, because I'm wanting to learn the exact variations.

But so far for tactics, I've just been using a random technique of just solving problems from books, websites, software etc. I've improved using my random technique, but maybe not as much as I could with a proper plan.

Something that puts me off though is that if I've got a couple of hours to spare, I'd much rather play chess than practice tactics. Partly because playing is much more enjoyable, and also because I want to try to make the pattern recognition applicable to the games. So I tend to just do a few problems when I don't have time for a long game of chess.

The other thing I'm wary of is that some people who do the circles tend to get sick of chess by the time they've finished, and even though I've been playing for just a year I'm hoping to stick with it long term. I'm amazed how sharp minded some of the older chess players (80+) still are at our local chess club, and I mean quick witted on and away from the chess board. I don't think there's any coincidence that they play chess and keep so mentally well. So hopefully that will be me in 50 years :)

8/06/2007 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Dean: burnout is a big danger. That's why I modified the program so I don't usually spend more than an hour a day on tactics. Typically I spend quite a bit less. Burnout among other things was discussed here, and I discussed that article soon thereafter in a post here. Even with my long, relatively easy program, I am starting to get sick of the circles, and will be glad to finish.

Have you considered starting a non-circles based chess improvement blog?

8/06/2007 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kind of use this method when I do Chess Tactics Server problems (of course, the rating system is designed to compel you to solve the problems fast). I don't go into the detail that you do, but when I miss a problem, I study the solution until I at least superficially understand it. Being more thorough would probably equate to steadier improvement! I'll give your method a shot next time I'm on CTS.

Dean, I am of the opinion that a proper mix of play and study is vital. I've improved my tactics rating on CTS over 150 points in about 6 weeks with just some random (though intense) work there, but I had reduced the number of games I was playing. I think it actually hurt my chess (that, and worrying way too much about my thinking method, but I digress). So, I'm mixing in some daily 15 min games with my study and with my slow games. Balance is the key, I think. And I'm having more fun now that I'm allowing myself some fast (but not too fast) games again.

8/06/2007 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Dean said...

Thanks all, I do have a blog here. But it's probably not very useful for anyone but me :). It's more a way of me keeping track of progress and analysing my games.

Hopefully the html link works, otherwise just click on my name.

8/07/2007 01:54:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

I always thought there had to be some relation between chess and people who mumble in themselves. Now you have revealed it.

8/07/2007 05:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nice articles and nice blog. One way to do something about the problem of learning the problem (instead of the slution) may be to "keep keeping optional" until one finds out if the solution is right. So, firmly trying to associate ones idea for the solution with the problem (so when one sees it later, the same idea comes up) and then, when seeing the solution, "adding a flavor", a feeling of right or wrong. This might be done by looking at the solution with the same intensity than at the original problem. If it is the same, it will only strengthen the memory, if not it will be confusion and this is better than keeping a wrong idea in mind. Not that I personally ever used this idea, its just a thought :)

Thx for allowing anonymus comments.


"So, I'm mixing in some daily 15 min games with my study and with my slow games. Balance is the key, I think. And I'm having more fun now that I'm allowing myself some fast (but not too fast) games again."

I experience the same and could not agree more. When doing 15 minute games, one experiences flow, but also thought, so it is also in this regard a mixture between blitz and slow games. That's an interesting question by the way: Is flow good (maybe even necessary) or bad for ones chess? It probably has already been answered/discussed in some knights' posting, but I only remember one by the Nezhmetdinov-fan.

kind regards,

8/07/2007 06:26:00 AM  
Blogger wang said...

Very insightful post.

Years ago when I was training to be an instructor in the military this was described as the "Law of Primacy". In other words people remember what they see and hear most. A mistake new instructors will often make is to tell the students why something isn't the answer. That is ok, but it shouldn't be the first thing out of you mouth. When explaining something first tell someone what it IS, then explain why such and such wouldn't work.

Dean to your point I think that burnout is a real issue with MDLM methods. I do remember him saying that he wasn't quite complete after the circles. He developed his own method of thinking during a game, and that's when he saw real improvement. This is why we are all here (if I can be so bold to speak for others) to improve and find the best methods of getting it done. While I don't believe the circles are the be all and end all of chess training, I do believe it offers the best shot at rapid improvement. However, I don't believe that it will get you all the way to master by itself.

8/07/2007 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger takchess said...

Interesting post. When I get some downtime I will post on this as well.


8/07/2007 05:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This FOVEA idea is interesting, but I also have a unique technique for studying tactics that I like to use.

It doesn't have an acronym but what I like to do is take the final position (without memorizing the initial one) and writing down the number of moves for each player.

Then once I have a bunch of these, I take the problems and work through each problem backwards. I go from the solution to the answer. This is kind of like Jeopardy.

I find that when I work through problems this way, I can instantly recall the tactics in game after going through the problems about 2 to 3 times.

Also, whenever I see a tactic, the final position always flashes before me and I know the move instantly. There is no need for calculating here.

Tell me what you think of my method. I'll tell you one thing: I have gone up about 600 rating points since I started using it. Right now I'm at 1350 USCF.

8/08/2007 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anonymous: LOL.

8/08/2007 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger takchess said...

Funny as it may seem Seirawan (sp) recomended the same thing. Start from Mate and then add pieces on to the board.

8/08/2007 02:16:00 PM  

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