Saturday, February 21, 2009

Interesting criticisms of the Circles

The following is a response I emailed to a reader generous enough to send me some of his well-considered criticisms of the Circles method of tactical training (for those who don't know this method involves doing the same set of problems many times until you can do them really fast--the first time through you spend ~10 minutes/problem, and each cycle you solve them faster until you can do them really quickly without thinking).

I don't claim to have any final answers here. He brings up enough interesting, and complicated, issues that I am surely wrong on some of my points. I thought the points he made were interesting enough to merit putting them out here in the improvement blogosphere.

His concerns are in italics, my responses are in normal font.

Somewhere I read a paper that says it's better to see the same material presented in several different modalities, than to repeat the same modality. The latter helps retention, but the former results in stronger transfer. (But I cannot remember the title and authors. I should have read it aloud and traced it on my palms!) This suggests that it is better to do 7000 unique problems than Seven Circles of the same 1000.

It seems this is orthogonal to the Circles question. Different sensory modalities isn't the same as different problem sets. However, as a separate topic you probably want to see many examples of a particular tactical motif in the problem set. I discussed this a bit here in my most considered defense of the Circles against a common criticism (see the comments there too as I expand on the ideas in the main entry).

Separately, we know that there are hundreds of thousands or millions of meaningfully distinct chess patterns (after all, GMs are said to have a grasp of 100,000). This is another reason to prefer the 7000.

Yes, but 1000 is a good start, and I don't think you are narrowly memorizing just those 1000 problems as I argued in my post linked above. Also, if your goal is to learn the problems cold so you can do them effortlessly, then 7000 seems a big chunk to bite off all at once.

The spacing of repetitions should be close together at first, then further apart. Seven Circles has it backwards.

I have seen before that if your goal is to remember X, you should review it within 24 hours, so I think you have an excellent point. However, it depends on your goal. Many (such as MDLM) look at first few circles as primarily being for calculation training, not as something optimized for memory construction. However, to form memories, perhaps a modified circles program would have you do 50 a day, really quickly, and review them each day.

And besides all that, chess skill goes beyond mere memory retention, and includes a lot of uncharted higher level processes (doesn't it?). On that basis we shouldn't we be doing something else -- say, more of the Kotov/Dvoretsky/Stoyko type activity?

I think it is a combination of memory and active thinking, so both are likely necessary. And note MDLM used the first Circle or two to work on such things. The Circles don't claim to be a balanced approach to chess. They exclusively focus on tactics, to the exclusion of everything else. This is insane, and the Circles are not for everyone (I discuss who might consider doing the Circles, and how to avoid burnout, in this post).

Training beyond 4 or 5 hours in a day is counterproductive - by then the bucket is full until the training is consolidated during sleep. This argues against some of the later circles.

Is it counterproductive to practice a language more than 4 or 5 hours a day? It could likely have an "immersion" effect. Not sure what your claim is based upon. Also, if it is a concern it is easy to change the Circles so at most you only do a couple of hundred in a day.

Also, "attention" is a critical part of skill acquisition. If in the late cycles you take the approach of looking at a problem, and deciding "Yeah, I recognize the pattern...NEXT!" then I fear you may be rewiring your brain to be just as superficial. Properly done, each training position should be treated with the same level of rigor as a real game position: rough material count, tactical scan, candidate move selection, calculate, evaluate, lather, rinse, repeat, and blunder check. This point also argues against the later circles.

The goal is for a certain skill to be done automatically, without thinking. If you have ever trained at swimming or tennis you know the goal is not to eventually attend to your stroke, but to have such a good habit that you do it without thinking. At first you have to attend to how you are doing it, but eventually you do not. Indeed, once you are good enough when you attend to your stroke you do it worse.

There are certain chess skills that we should display without effort, things you should find even in the fourth game of the day in your tournament, when your mind is burnt and you can't calculate to save your life. Things you should see if you are giving a simul and have no time to think.

That previous paragraph is key, incidentally.

One such skill is you want to see basic tactics, you want them to pop out at you as vividly as your recognition machinery when you see a good friend's face in a crowd (of course in both cases you must double-check to make sure it is really him, or that the tactic is really playable).

There has to be "resistance." If you really can do Reinfeld's 1001 in a single day, perhaps it was well past time to pick up a more difficult exercise set. Now, one might contend that the speed requirement provides the resistance in this situation; well, if you go through a full thought process for each position, then perhaps one has a point. But even so, the speed requirement is artificial in this context: You develop proficiency by doing deliberate, conscientious, high-quality work, not by trying to do it fast. Speed then comes automatically.

See tennis/swimming analogy above. At first, attend, and once you are expert, you don't need to think. You just do.

Thus I would modify the approach as follows: Do a fixed number of exercises a day (or a fixed amount of time); repeat the set of exercises if they continue to be challenging, but move on otherwise. And forgoshsakes, study some strategy and endgames!

This seems perfectly reasonable. Ultimately it is an empirical question whether your technique would be better than the Circles. The chess improvement blogosphere needs a benefactor so we can do some experiments! (The most conclusive criticism, in my opinion, comes from Nunn, as I summarized here).


Blogger BlunderProne said...


I like this debate. I think some valid points are brought up. Having done the circles twice, my retention is horrible because I wasn’t challenged enough makes sense. Plus I simply suck at tactics.

I like GM-RAM’s approach where the same problem is presented in several different “angles”. You first are presented with the problem in it’s generic form to work through. Keep in mind, there are no answers in this book… just problems. Once you “solve” the problem, you look at the next one and it shifts the position over a file, adds a pawn or does some other variation that makes the solution a little different. Once you work through a theme, you have a better understanding of the nuances.

I’d like to argue that CT-ART 3.0 does offer to some degree similar themes in tactics across the levels. Level 10/20 problems you get the “basics”. In levels 30/40 the basic problems are complicated require a further level of manipulation or a compilation of themes ( removal of defender first then the knight fork for instance). So, in reality the 1349 problems all a fundamental set of “themes” that vary in level of complexities.

Also, if you start out as a novice, you are likely to not know a damned thing about tactics. Exposing yourself to a high volume of patterns is good exposure, but don’t expect it all to sink in. You will build a foundation to start from. This is what I experienced.

As a recovering tactically challenged novice, I learned that there are certain patterns I am more comfortable with recognizing over others. Breaking out of the comfort zone means finding those problems that I have the hardest time seeing and understanding what the mental roadblock is that’s keeping me from seeing this.

It’s all a part of the untraining process of the bad habits I picked up when I was kid learning this game. Rote responses that affect my game negatively have to be unlearned. But first I have to recognize these rote responses. I go back to the high volume exposure. It’s probably the best way to find out where the weaknesses are. You don’t know what you don’t know.


2/21/2009 07:26:00 PM  
Blogger From the patzer said...

After reading this all i am still thinking that the circles methode all has to do with being busy with chess, in this case tactics, and not so much with patern recognision.

Just being busy makes it all worthwhile, how many times you solve the same puzzles or if they are all original puzzles doesn't matter.

2/22/2009 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

in my opinion the matter was summarized by Nigel Davies with respect to what club players should study:

“the how is more important than the what.”
--Nigel Davies.

Lasker's Manual and Kevin Spraggett's website promote the same sort of practical & non-academic approach. FWIW, i tend to agree. this abstract discussion of "circles" may be enjoyable for the academic types, but i personally don't think it will get you anywhere improvement-wise. there is no magic bullet.

2/22/2009 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

All interesting comments, especially from Blunderprone who has lived through this Circles shit.

Katar: yes, I cited that article as Rowson is very much gaga over it. Not sure what is academic about a discussion about the best way, in practice, to get better at tactics. Especially since the discussion is about a technique being used by lots of people.

It is interesting that Rowson, who is very pragmatic, is a fan of the Circles, as I quoted in the same article I mentioned above. The Circles are very much about doing rather than thinking, gaining skills rather than knowledge. That's all Rowson cult talk.

Of course he advances Rowsonalysis as the best technique to improve in practice overall.

There of course is a balance to be had between thinking about how you should improve, and just fucking doing something to improve.

My site regularly evokes hostility from people that get impatient with discussions of improvement methods, but typically they usually have some method they think eggheads like me should be using.

Unfortunately, it is not transparent (at all) what it means to be 'pragmatic' or 'practical' (versus academic) when it comes to deciding how to improve at chess.

2/22/2009 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I think we can all agree that merely reading books is a bad way to improve at chess. Also, talking about ways to improve at chess is not a good way to improve. What is required is to do chess, not meta-chess. That is the hallmark of the practical approach, versus the danger of becoming the chess scholar (when you know opening X fifty moves deep, but have a rating of 700).

The problem is, the "practical" approach is a very broad umbrella. I like the email's questions as it gets into the nuts and bolts of the best way to practice tactics. It is not a set of ethereal academic questions but concerns with a practical improvement technique. The concerns are partly based on results from psychology, but that hardly makes them impractical. If we don't go based on data and scientific studies, we are going to go based on anecdotes, which are not reliable guides for the masses.

2/23/2009 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, you can't get much more anecdotal than MDLM's book.

2/23/2009 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

Didn't mean to come off as hostile! :)

I was trying to say that i think you are getting sorta far removed from what it takes to win rated OTB games. (if that is the goal?) I think it's much harder to learn chess outside the context of OTB tournaments (this is "not pragmatic" by definition, no?). If you REALLY want to improve quickly, pour your whole concentration into slow rated games and then dissect and publish each one. The mental acknowledgment of mistakes and public "shaming" will get in your head and guarantee that you fix the problems. The harsh exposure of light will kill any lurking germs and mildew.

Universal vs. subjective is another distinction in this discussion too. Good players come from so many diverse backgrounds and training methods that it's hard to speak of a single "way" to improve. I would say that analysis of one's own games is the constant, though.

2/23/2009 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Katar: I think you are probably right, and even in my advice to beginners said exactly that--just play, and go over your games.

Right now I'm taking Portuguese so no time for chess for a few weeks.

2/24/2009 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

This post had me thinking about Jr. High School math. Did we do the same 1000 problems 7 times over 2 years? No we did 7000 unique problems. I seem to have picked up the knack for quadratic expressions and the foil method quite well.

2/26/2009 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Jeff: when preparing for a math test in college, I would do the same homework problems over and over. Slowly, deliberately at first, and then eventually I would just do them really fast.

Then on the test I would recognize the general pattern of the question and be able to solve it really quickly.

Clearly variety is important, as is repetition. What is the optimal mixture?

2/26/2009 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger bulldoggy said...

MDLM's book has been provocative in the chess community. I think, as the author of this article properly stated, that it highlights the need for organized directed studies/experiments in chess learning. Relying on neuroscience and neuro-psychology is good as far as it goes, but I, for one, would love to see actual studies that could state authoritatively that one way of studying up to a certain point is the best way to do it.

The idea of "effortful study" rooted in DeGroot's work on chess seems to be a good one. The problem there is that it is difficult to know exactly where one's sweet spot is for the study. Tactical puzzles that have been numerically rated for difficulty, a la or are probably a good place to start if you like the effortful study idea.

3/02/2009 09:55:00 AM  

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