Friday, May 02, 2008

Who should do the Circles, and how?

My post on pattern recognition as seed planting was the first of two major topics I've ruminated on since finishing the Circles. The second topic is this--the one serious problem with the Circles isn't that they don't help (they do, to varying degrees), but that they tend to lead to burnout or boredom.

[For those who don't know what the Circles are, see the description here.]

Clearly the way Michael de la Maza (MDLM) did them, with 1200 very tough problems in CT-Art, doing all of the problems with no repetitions until that Circle was finished, is one of the best ways to burn out (for those who don't know, first Circle 10 minutes spent on each problem, second Circle 5 minutes, and eventually Circle seven when you do all 1200 in one day, 30 seconds each in a marathon session).

So we have two questions. Who should do the Circles, and what is the best way to modify them to avoid burnout? I don't claim to have the answers, but look at this as a brainstorming session to which others can contribute.

Who should do the Circles?
The idea behind the Circles is that gaining tactical acumen is largely a matter of learning patterns. Tactics are often hard to 'figure out' over the board. Such calculation is time and energy consuming, so we want to learn to recognize simple tactics quickly, effortlessly, as easily as we would recognize a friend's face. Most people agree that a key to gaining such skills (as opposed to book knowledge--in which case you would be a chess scholar not a great player) is repetition. It's like training for tennis, you practice the overhand over and over again, doing it with a coach and on your own until you just get it right without trying

So, who should do the Circles? If you are a tactical car wreck, overlooking simple tactics (where 'simple' depends on your skill level), and that is clearly the weakest part of your game, and if you already read and understood one or two of the text-heavy tactical books out there, then the Circles may help you get better at tactics.

That, anyway, is a necessary condition for doing the Circles. What else should you consider? First and most important, do the Circles sound fun to you, or like a hellish chore? To me, the Circles sounded quite fun, and I was just so horrible at tactics that something extreme seemed necessary, so I was quite excited to do the Circles. If they don't sound fun before you do them, then perhaps you should try to find a different approach to remedy your tactical flat tire.

Also, do you have the time to devote to them? They require at least a half-hour a day devoted to studying tactics. Do you have this time? Will you have enough time to actually play games?

Finally, the Circles are anything but a balanced approach to chess. Will it bother you if your tactical muscles grow at the expense of some of your other chess skills?

Frankly, I would hesitate to recommend the circles to a true beginner. A beginner should probably spend a year or so working on more general issues, of course spending a great deal of time on tactics, but also taking the time to study the endgame, and especially the majority of time actually playing and analyzing games. Perhaps once you hit 1000-1100 at ICC, then you might consider doing the Circles, as it will pretty handily take you to 1400 or higher levels at ICC (if my experience is any indicator).

How should the Circles be modified to prevent burnout?
This has been discussed by many Knights, as I catalogued a couple of years ago here.

MDLM, who was helped tremendously by the Circles, focused exclusively on chess for over a year. He wasn't working at the time. Doing the full-blown MDLM style circles is very very hard to do, so modifications are almost mandated if you want to maintain sanity and balance (though don't let me discourage you if you want to be like the Knights Errant of old and be a total bad ass).

So, how to modify them to prevent burnout? Again, I don't have the answer, but here are three suggestions:
1. Mini-circles.
Do circles on small sets of problems. E.g., one hundred at a time, learning them extremely well over a course of a few weeks rather than months. I did minicircles, and I did get a little burnt out but because I probably went a bit overboard near the end and I didn't take any breaks (see suggestion 3).

2. Use simple problems.
CT-Art has some very hard problems, many of which have mistakes in the solutions. For those reasons, I used Chess Tactics for Beginners. This was great for me, as it hammered home the basic mates, but by the end had 3-5 move combinations which helped me appreciate how basic tactics interact over the board. Personal Chess Trainer also seems to have many simple problems (for a comparison of CT-Art and PCT, see this post).

The whole point of the Circles is to help you improve at chess. So pick a set of problems that start out a bit too easy for you, but progress to problems that you would tend to miss in over the board situations. I believe it is a mistake to start out with problems more complex than you are missing in real games. Start simple, and build up to the more complex problems that are presently a bit out of your reach in real games.

3. Take regular breaks
MDLM was hard core. He says that you have to do the circles every day to improve. My guess is this is just wrong. Taking one day a week off is probably a good idea. Even better, between sets of mini-circles, take a break from the circles for a few days. Play some chess. Relax.

After the break, you can come back to previous problem sets to refresh your memory, to make sure you are still sharp.

Those are my main ideas. Again, I don't claim to have any final answers, and consider this a brainstorming session.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this circles thing is interesting, i never heard of it before.
I started playing chess in august, then took about 4 months off chess, and now I have around 1600-1700 rating on 15min games on FICS.
I guess I never stopped to think about my learning process.
But repeating the same problems over and over sure would not have made me understand what chess is about :P

5/02/2008 07:41:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

On who should do circles:

Depends really on where you are on the curve. True, all who are non-masters could benefit from tactical training to some degree, but who benefits most from circles?

PLayers rated below 1600 seem to get the most benefit as seen in tempos' rating update of Knights errant
This makes sense since, simple 1 and 2 move tactical shots are missed at this level. Going over only the first 4 levels of CT-Art 7 times would yield the msot bang for your buck in that sub 1600 range.

Beyond that, it's time to map the static training to what you actual do in your game. Study master games of the openings you play. USe a data base to catalog short games won by the opposition and identify which tactics/traps to watch out for. Likewise, look for short games where the side you are on wins short games and learn the tactics or traps bestowed on them.

Studying whole games is the next logical progression if you want more bang for the buck. It teaches you openings, middlegame ideas, endgames and tactics.

But you have to have a basis of patterns burned into your brain before you can start to investigate it in a game holistic approach. Otherwise the moves don't make much "chunking" has taken place and the positions have to be evaluated "from scratch". Not sure I make sense... but in my head...well... you know.

As for HOW to do them. I did concentric circles. I started with teh lowest level. I completed that seven times before moving on. I thought that was the best way to crack into my thick skull. I did all 9 levels CT-ART that way.

As for burn out... that's a matter of oppinion and perspective. If all you cut out to do is model MDLM, then yes you will burn out. IF, on the otherhand, you look beyond that and appraoch training as journey and on that journey one seeks happiness and fullfillment in the game of chess. The training becomes a part of that journey and not a "task" that needs/MUST get done.

For instance, I always want to improve at chess. When I started my latest journey, I was at 1350 something. I wanted to be better than dropping a piece because I played too quickly or missing a 1-2 move tactic. I heard about MDLM and embraced it as a means to get beyond this step in my journey. It was fun, I ground through it, and I still enjoy chess. My games are more intense and now I am on a new journey... and the circles are still a part of my training. But like the sports analogy used earlier, I do the "free throws" to keep the technigue sharp or as a warm up before an event. But now I embark on more advanced training ( game analysis) until that becomes a second nature way to train. Then I will Move to other methods.

I know... I rambled.. I'll let others speak up.

5/02/2008 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

perhaps I should note that I am at 1678 today

5/02/2008 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

anon: you are truly a savant if you are that high in blitz after only five months actively playing.

BP: Great, great stuff. Thanks for providing your experience and thoughts here, as you have more than most. I think your suggestions are great (though perhaps I would break things up: for those below 1200, do CTB, and then above that use CT-ART or its equivalent).

5/02/2008 10:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what up BDK? Are you leaving or staying? It's hard to stay off blogging, no? I want to blog but i just don't find the time :)

Btw, concerning anon, Internet ratings really don't say that much as every other chess server handles it their own way. Like for instance you start out with a rating of 1000 on one server while on the other server you start out with a rating of 1500. So when one says he/she has a rating of 1600/1700 you should really know what he/she started out with.

5/02/2008 10:50:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Edwin: I'm almost done. There were a bunch of things I had piled up that I always wanted to do. N down, one to go.

Yes, I agree about internet ratings.

5/02/2008 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

I'd bet Maza was also single and childless. I can't imagine a wife's reaction to a jobless husband who takes a year off work to practice chess problems. First step should be setting priorities. Why play at all? For me it is a social outlet and a TV replacement.

An alternative tactics program, which i used and recommend, is simply 10-15 minutes of tactics puzzles per day, every single day. Just make it a habit like brushing your teeth. If you appreciate the artistry of the game, supplementing tactics with replaying master games should not require much motivation. This modest regimen is manageable in a fairly balanced and full life. However, if you sacrifice social or other aspects of life for chess, you may find that chess gives "not enough compensation"......

5/03/2008 04:40:00 AM  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

amen to what katar said.

5/03/2008 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Some people marry chess. :)

5/04/2008 12:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

De la Maza was married at the time???

There may be another class of people who should take up the circles: those who need to make a public commitment to work at chess, else they won't do it. I've been considering doing it. Although, if Blunderprone's observation is correct, won't net me much chess skill.

5/04/2008 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

LEP--yes, good point, but that doesn't really require the Circles. Just say 'I'm gonna do X' at your blog and the pressure will begin.

OTOH, the Knights were very helpful for motivation and on the same crazy road as me so that was nice.

The Circles aren't for everyone (so I am perfectly fine with Katar's anti-Circle ditty), but for those that want to, it can be modified. You don't have to be quite as monomaniacal as MDLM. I did something like what Katar suggestion--10-15 minutes a day just wasn't enough. My skills didn't really ramp up until I started doing about an hour.

However, that said, I think that now that I have a higher tactical baseline, 10-15 minutes would be plenty to maintain it or even help it improve slowly.

The circles were helpful because they raised my baseline quickly (and relative to most people my tactical baseline is relatively low, but now I'm not motivated at all to do the Circles, so can do more sane things: MDLM did them twice, which is crazy, sort of like Blunderprone).

5/04/2008 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...


You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic your looking for ;)

( obscure musical references play in my head... better than the voices)

5/04/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger Sir Nemo said...

Very interesting post. I like your view on who should and shouldn't be doing the circles. I thought I was pretty well versed with my tactics before I started the circles but I was in for a very rude awakening. Circle 1 was a train wreck for me, as was Circle 2. However, I have just finished Circle 4 and I can see things much more clearly now. I don't feel that I'm getting burnt out one bit. I really feel like I'm improving. I tried some of the other programs that you've mentioned but the problems are honestly much too simple to learn from. I solved Chess Tactics for Beginners with 92% accuracy my first time through all the problems =/

5/04/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Nemo: good to hear you are enjoying it, and congrats on finishing Circle 4! I think if I were to do the Circles now, I'd be ready for CT-ART. One weakness of MDLMs book is that he doesn't discuss the topic of the level of difficulty of problems you should use for the Circles. CTB won't be good for everyone, nor will CT-Art or PCT. Luckily there is tons of stuff out there so people can find the right level for themselves.

5/04/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to edwin:
yes u are right,
an internet rating doesnt say much. In one website i have rating 1700, on another one 1900+, but playing on FICS sometimes i lose against a 1300.
not a very solid player... i guess the lack of experience, but thats also something u cant learn with the circles...

5/04/2008 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

I posted a home brewed chess video on my blog. I thought you might enjoy.

5/04/2008 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

Nice post on a interesting topic.

As to "CT-Art has some very hard problems, many of which have mistakes in the solutions". I think there are a few mistake here and but not as many as the precomputer books like Reinfields 1001. For those considering Ct-art, I believe the amount of mistakes and the type are somewhat trivial.

I think there is an advantage to doing circles in a compressed period of time and like you feel 15minutes a day although helpful may not bring you the big improvement you are looking for.

I like you found the simpler problems to be of great help, the Bain book tactic for students and the How to beat your dad at chess to be of great help. Ct-art was somewhat advanced for me when starting out so it was helpful to have these other works to build a base. I am currently doing a miniseries of Level 30 first 100 problems.

Did MDLM burn out or just accomplished what he wanted to do and moved on? It would be interesting to ask him. I think he most likely found activity that was more profitable to do.

As for personal burnout, the killer is the time when I did the exercises and saw little improvement from circle to circle.
I did far too many L20.

more on this later....

5/05/2008 06:32:00 AM  
Blogger Schereschevsky said...

Thank you for your posts. They always help to think about chess improving.

5/05/2008 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tak: good points. I love those really simple problems too. I need the Bain book.

Has anyone compiled a list of alternative solutions for CT-Art? I did for CTB but never posted it. Oops, there's another thing I need to post.

BP: Cool I'll check it out at work today.

Schereschevsky: Thanks, man.

5/05/2008 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger wang said...

Perhaps doing smaller circles.

I have the books that your tactics software was based on. Manual of chess Combinations vol 1a and 1b. combined they total 1299 problems.

Vol 1a is 1 - 719
Vol 1b is 720 - 1299.

Last year I worked through Vol 1a twice. After that I felt confident to move onto Vol 1b. I am working my way through it a second time now. I will probably go over it one more two more times before moving on to vol 2.

Perhaps the circles are for everyone. Just in a modified form. You start at the appropriate level. Do the problems several times and move one. Just a thought.

5/05/2008 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Wang: yes, I agree minicircles is probably one of the best ways to avoid insanity.

5/05/2008 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

You might want to take a look at the Bain book before you buy it given my hit rate on book recommendations to you. 8) It really is simalar to a fourth grade workbook.

As for game study vs tactical study, I think one there are advantages to each. Game Study gives context of how the game progressed to reach the tactical position, helps with calculation skills if you work through the variations, and some finer point of openings,planning and strategy.

What tactic exercizes has is alot of bang for the buck. An introduction to a large number of positions in a a short time period as well as some positions that would not occur at the master level but would at our level.

5/07/2008 06:24:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tak: I think you recommended Euwe to me, and How to beat your dad, and Bain sounds great (my new policy, though, is browse a book before buying--never buy just on a recommendation or Amazon reviews).

5/07/2008 12:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jon Jacobs makes some (shall we say...) provocative statements about MDLM and his followers at Liz Vicary's blog. Shall anyone step up to defend the honor of the Knights Errant?

5/07/2008 08:02:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: I'm not impressed with Jacobs' arguments, to the extent that what he writes can be called arguments.

I replied in detail here.

5/07/2008 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger DC said...

I have been playing for almost a year now and have a rating in the mid 1200's. After reading about the circles I really don't see why the idea generates such controversy. Tactical training for chess has been around for centuries and the circles idea just seems to add structured repetition to this.

Anyway, I definitely need some tactical training and I have had Renko's Intensive Chess Tactics course for a while but found the sheer number of problems overwhelming. Mini circles to the rescue. Currently I am taking 200 problem batches (in order of difficulty) and working through them in a 4-2-1 pattern (50 a day for 4 days, then 100 a day etc). This fits 200 problems neatly into a week. I don't know if that is enough repetition or not since I am still on the first cycle. If I don't feel solid after the final day I will repeat the whole cycle on the same problem set before moving to the next. Assuming 2 trips through each set of 200 I should complete the entire course in around 300 days, with 6 repetitions of all 4139 problems.

Should be interesting.

PS: I can't consider myself a Knight Errant though since I don't have a blog.

5/08/2008 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

DC: that sounds like a very ambitious plan--good luck! Let us know if you start a blog.

5/09/2008 02:44:00 AM  
Blogger DC said...

Yeah, it may be too ambitious. I am prepared to adjust things (cycle length, problem count per cycle etc) as I go in order to find what works for the time I have and for the problem complexity. I am quite happy to go down to 100 problems per 1 week cycle if I need to. I would rather do that than get overwhelmed and quit.

I will see how I am faring in a month.

5/09/2008 03:11:00 AM  

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