Monday, December 29, 2014

How I take chess notes using a modified Cornell Notes method

It does feel like I got the band back together after a long dormant period in the chess world. I’ve previously posted about waking up, rallying an online community for support,  establishing a baseline and improving study techniques. Consider this my online psyching up to play in my first OTB tournament in a little under a couple weeks after taking a bit of a long hiatus.
I thought I’d share where I’ve taken my approach to an  active studying regimen.  I want to maximize the “generation effect”  and apply the Cornell Notes to chess notes.  Since chess diagrams are necessary in a lot of note taking to  help create patterns for the long term memory recall,  I needed to create a note pad for this that allowed the left hand stimulus , right hand response and bottom summary.  So I created a model sheet, went to staples and had them printed and cut for cheap to put in a mini binder.

Here is a sample of the page:

For the freehand drawings of the diagrams, I am getting into using Rolf Wetzell’s method for his “flashcards”.  I taped a “key” on the inside cover of my notebook.

I am currently reviewing openings and whole games associated with them and recording key positions using a stimulus like “Whites plan?”  and the response below the diagram.   I am not only including opening positions but middle game plans as well from the games I am studying. I plan to add key tactics that I have a hard time seeing ( those I miss during drills become fodder for the chess notebook in a section for tactics).  I plan on a similar technique for endgame patterns that I am weak on.

This is an experiment.  I will see how this works in short order come the Boston Chess Congress on January 10-11th

Friday, December 26, 2014

On Old Dogs Learning New Tricks:

What does chess improvement , neuroscience, Rolf Wetzell, and Cornell Note taking methods having in common?  For some reason I’ve been putting these concepts in my blender-brain ( or should  that be “blunderprone blender brain”) and trying to make sense of it all as I prepare for training. I hope to tie these all together in this post.

On Chess Improvement:

The discussions stemming from recent posts and connected improvement seeking blogs all have the same goal in mind. They are all after the same holy grail of figuring out how one improves their game at a later age in life and get off the plateau.  Some have argued that we should just accept the fact that we are on a plateau and just enjoy the game. Others, indicate you can’t get there without a coach, I believe that is important as well. I am a bit of a rebel at heart only mellowed by life experiences and lessons learned over the years. First, I believe that there is ALWAYS opportunity to improve even as an adult. I don’t believe that neuro-plasticity is just for kids.   Secondly, I am a self starter, DIY person. I want to first understand more my current limitations. Under self discovery, I’d rather explore this personally so I can better understand the type of teacher I seek before I  spend money.  I believe I am putting together a good base plan with some input from supporters like you and elsewhere.  

Before I describe what’s in my “buckets” and how I plan to fill them ,  I wanted to share with you some of the things I’ve been reading  about the learning process itself and how I plan to enrich my chess training with some of these concepts. Among the many irons I have in the fire, being a part time adjunct professor is one of them. I am also looking at ways to improve the learning process especially to non-traditional students ( adults) seeking  a career change.  One thing that stands out is PASSIVE LEARNING doesn’t work. The more engaged the student is in the material, the greater the benefit. Project based learning is a much better model and I usually structure my lectures as such. In chess, passively reading books, listening to lectures without enough interaction, or mindlessly doing tactics without engaging myself are “habits” I am recognizing that have contributed to my plateau.  I plan to remedy this.

Deliberate Training and neuroscience:

I am not a neuroscientist nor do I claim to be an expert. Let me just get that out of the way. I do not have the capability to provide an in depth analysis on the subject.   When I read about this topic, I tend to put the content through a chess sieve.  What I tend to focus on are topics around working memory ( WM) and Motor Memory (MM).  WM is what I relate to as the short term static memory that we need to process more complex information. MM are the “chunks”, patterns, or stumps we create as we develop skills towards an expertise in a subject. This is the area I will focus  more on this post.

I was really inspired by  Empirical Rabbit’s blog  about his approach to increasing pattern retention through use of deliberate training and metered repetition ( see this post for example: ) He had several posts on applying this technique. Unclear about how this impacted his OTB performance as he seems to have stopped blogging which may be because of some understandable life events.

AoxomoxoA pointed me in the direction of an article by Gobet and Campitelli on, The Role of Domain-Specific Practice, Handedness, and Starting age in Chess ( ) . Which seemed to indicate that given the population of chess players, there are more left handed players than the general population  in a  statistical significance sort of way. However, there are arguments out there that say it doesn’t matter what handedness you are to develop expert skills in chess.  The “talent versus practice” debate still seems to support practice can still achieve expertise in chess.  A little further down this rabbit hole and another article by this same team, lead me to The Role of Practice in Chess: A Longitudinal Study (file:///C:/Users/George/Downloads/Campitelli-Gobet_LID08_TheRoleOfPracticeInChess-ALongitudinalStudy.pdf ). It is worth further exploration.

But here’s the thing,  I find that a lot of these scholarly articles are  derivative of Thought and Choice in Chess, by Adriaan De Groot ( I have this book) written 50 years ago.  All of these ideas seem to support deliberate repetitive training of   what is being learned are  meant to be made into chunks, patterns, stumps or what ever you want to call them in your MM.  Neuroscience seems to underscore the key to getting this into your long term memory for skills.

I like using the term “Deliberate Practice” . Duvivier et al. (  reconstructed the concept of deliberate practice into practical principles to describe the process as it relates to clinical skill acquisition. They defined deliberate practice as:

  • repetitive performance of intended cognitive or psychomotor skills.
  • rigorous skills assessment
  • specific information feedback
  • better skills performance

They further described the personal skills learners need to exhibit at various stages of skill development in order to be successful in developing their clinical skills. This includes:

  • planning (organize work in a structured way).
  • concentration/dedication (higher attention span)
  • repetition/revision (strong tendency to practice)
  • study style/self reflection (tendency to self-regulate learning)

I realize this may be a lot to absorb in one post and this is just scratching the surface.  I probably lost a few readers by now. So let me congratulate those hoard core enough to soldier on. Let me now introduce the other related item in my blender:

Rolf Wetzell is a role model for an Adult Improver.

Rolf  Wetzell wrote a book,  Chess Master…at any age, back in the 1990’s which described how he, after the age of 50, went from a being stuck on a plateau between Class B and Class A to becoming a USCF  titled master. He’s proof to me that old dogs can learn new tricks and a true inspiration. I’ve picked his brain before because he used to frequent our local chess club. He has a formulated approach to increasing chess skill and talks about the “evaporation of memory” and how to minimize this. The heart of his method is about increasing “images” which is basically an application on deliberate practice.  He describes a method to develop flash cards that he used to quiz himself and even went as far as ripping up dollar bills when he fell short of a goal or repeated a mistake. I joked with him on how Spartan he was to do that. “ I’ve stopped ripping dollars since I wrote that book.” There’s a lot of nuggets in this book about applying the scientific method to improvement. I’m giving this a second read on an upcoming long flight.

You probably read through this last paragraph and said to yourself, “Wait, did he say FLASHCARDS?” I had the same reaction and thought that creating a PGN database was MUCH better and proceeded to do as such with various tools like COW ( Chess opening wizard) and simply ChessBase. In my quest to create as many “images” as possible from what he prescribes in the book (because I was always in a hurry), I was taking many shortcuts, downloading other peoples work and importing to the database only occasionally adding to the comments and annotating specific positions. In other words, I was passively learning, which leads to my next topic in an already lengthy post:

The Cornell Note (CN)  taking method:

No, I am not an Alumni of Cornell. I ran into this topic as I was searching for learning techniques. I wish I knew this back in my college days as it makes good sense.  The basic premise is that you make your own system of chunking the knowledge you are learning by creating a stimulus (left side o the paper)  and response (right side of the page) set of notes that you can later use to DRILL YOURSELF. 

Whether CN is the best method or not, there are a lot of articles that debate one versus the other shows more effectiveness. The Jury is still out. All studies conclude that the act of good note taking improves the learning and retention.  I was then lead to this article  on Cognitive effort during Note taking: ( ).  So you don’t have to trudge through this document, the key takeaway for me was that “the generation effect” of note taking, that is, when you deliberate synthesize, paraphrase and rewrite what you just read, sat through or listened to, is most effective in retention of skills.  I simply liked the CN method as it sets up any chess studying I plan on doing to be ready for “drills”.

Conclusion of this long post:

Tying all this together, I am in the process of outlining a training regimen which I will share on my next post. This will include deliberate practice methods that I can do experimental repetitive, metered and measured exercises tailored for specific “buckets” I need the most help with.   I will reread Mr. Wetzell’s book  but I want to explore using his note taking methods to create hand written drills. I may later look and transposing those “flashcards” to PGN viewer…but only after I have maximized “the generation effect”.  This will be a fundamental shift of my previous training where I will focus mainly on creating my own training material with deliberate cognitive effort …this time.

Yes, I was that kid in school who asked for more homework. Sorry.    

Monday, December 22, 2014

Establishing a baseline on retention of skills Post hiatus

Update on the New Imps:

Before I get into the main topic, I want to mention how the New Imps is meant to be a support community for those adult chess players seeking improvement where we can share encouragement, ideas and stories as we journey together on chess improvement. Paladin64 ( and others on messaged me about limited time to attend OTB tournaments. I believe  there are a lot of us are in the same boat. So maximizing that time is what this is all about. Linuxguy mentions that despite having a decent memory he struggles with other OTB experiences around clock and focus.  He also believes increasing visualization is valuable in chess improvement.  The message I am getting from the rest of the blog like AoxomoxoA and The GrandPatzer is something I concluded a while back: a practice diet consisting purely of  Tactics may lead to some gain but in my experience, nothing long lasting.  Continue on with the discussion.

Creating a baseline skills
I ran across this article  written by Dr. David H. Small:
He talks about using neuroscience techniques for training and developing patterns in six specific categories:
  1.      Opening patterns
  2.         Early middlegame patterns ( specific pawn structures)
  3.       Positional Patterns ( Learning to place pieces and pawns on optimal sqaures)
  4.      Tactical patterns
  5.        Strategic Endgames
  6.     Technical Endgames

I was curious about the distinction between 5 and 6 so I managed to contact him and this is how he differentiated the two:
“A technical endgame would be one that is a position that is well known or is similar to a position that is well known.  These endgames are theoretical and it would be clear that it was won, lost or drawn.  These are normally most of the endgames found in elementary endgame books.  Examples are K+P vs K.  K + 2P vs K+P.  Strategic endgames are more complex and the outcome is often unclear.  By definition, they are endgames because the K is safe to come out and be used as an attacking piece.  But they are not middlegames because some of the key strategic elements different from middlegames.  Understanding how to play strategic endgames is one of the key steps to move from the level of strong club player to titled player.” --Dr. D.H. Small
I wanted to get a baseline of what I retained in terms of these six buckets ( sort of).  I also didn't want to spend an enormous amount of time getting OCD about classifications so what I did was a “rough estimate”.  Nothing worthy of big data probability or regression curves.  I used excel, I made a workbook for each “bucket”. 

Under opening patters, I found a comprehensive list of openings on line that I cut and pasted into the spreadsheet.  Across the top, I listed Move 1, Move 2 and so forth up to move 10. For each of the openings I counted a “1” where I knew it and how deep I could recall with out a book. So as not to duplicate, variations I omitted “1”s on earlier moves.  Then I tallied up the 1’s.

For pawn structures, I did a similar thing where I found a list of pawn structures. I included the major pawn structures  like Caro-slav formations, d5 pawn chain etc. I included minor pawn formations  like pawn islands,  3 versus 2, backward pawns. I added my own “early middle game transition” ideas on openings I was able to go more than 5 ply deep.  Across the top, I made columns for  “skeletal” (meaning I know the pattern but that’s it), knowing White and back piece placement, White and Black strengths and weakness, and plans for both sides.  Emphasis is on the “knowing these visually” .

I went on to do things for Positional play with similar columns like the pawn structures. For  Tactics, I listed the common mating patterns and various labels I could find with a quick google search.  The columns were associated with level of difficulty and I only went 4 deep ( thinking CT-ART).  Then came the endgames. I’ll be honest, I was overwhelmed and decided to not complete the spreadsheet. MY ADD overcame my OCD J as I wanted to start spending time practicing.

How much have I retained after a hiatus:
The unofficial results of by 6 buckets of patterns:
  •         Opening Patterns: 489
  •         Pawn Structures : 813
  •         Positional Patterns: 1026
  •         Tactics : 460
  •         Strategical Endgames :?
  •         Technical Endgames : ?

I think I am really weak in Strategic Endgames and could use work on the technical ones as well.  Looking back on my last evaluation in 2013 using Chess Exam with the caveat that this is not an entirely accurate assessment due to the fact that this book was written by an experienced coach’s bias and not based on empirical data collected for a large enough sample size to limit the margin of error to under 5%.  

Chess Exams results back in 2013:
  •         Endame:  1726
  •         Middle : 1200
  •         Opening: 1226
  •         Calculation: 1550
  •         Standard Position: 1828
  •         Strategy: 1375
  •         Tactics: 1169
  •         Threats : 1210
  •         Attack: 1450
  •         Counter attack: 1858
  •         Defense: 1281
  •         Sacrifice: 1500

These results I took about a year ago seem to correlate with the “quick evaluation of pattern retention” I did. Positional patterns , because I tend to play positional games, is a strong plus and retention for me! My next post, I will  attempt to formulate a plan that is focused for biggest retention on the largest gaps. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Here we go again

I want to thank Jason Oliphant ( at for helping to chisel me out of some sticky amber with his question on whether there is still anyone out there keeping tabs on Adult chess improvement seekers (ACIS) or like the now defunct Knights errant.  His email, blog post and the other pertinent bloggers that posted in response to this hot topic prompted me to write about what I feel is still a HOT issue for the adult chess community trying to break the chains of the “class” struggle.

When I asked my readers about the curiosity I have towards what contributes towards retention of skill, I was pleased with the debate that was generated both here and on  I liked the NM’s response of “just play don’t memorize” as it attempts to be Zen like but comes off more like a “field of dreams” approach to improving.

Let me talk about tactics after doing over 10,000.

The bottom line is that being a “successful” knight errant back in a day and completing the 7 circles of hell over and over and over again… is that I still score mediocre to just above abysmally. I can’t do speed solutions.  AomoxomoA also seemed to hit a “wall” after over 4000 problems.  Another NM over at prompted this response:

“I'm puzzled when you say that you are missing tactics even going through 10,000 puzzles. I think it's time to revamp your tactical training...”  NM Linlaoda (

Buzzing through the MDLM CT-ART puzzles testing per level had me blindly hitting or missing patterns that would stick in my long term memory. The repetition was good to build the elemental and more obvious one or two movers. But the complex combinations were becoming best guesses. I found myself spending considerable amount of time doing more positional evaluation and not looking for “the seeds” as Heisman would say.  In retrospect, I can see that part of the problem was what I did with the failed puzzle.  I merely moved on… get to the next one.. VOLUMES …MUST  DO VOLUMES... hoping it would come eventually. What I needed to do was STOP, understand what I just missed. Figure out why I didn’t see it. Create a memory marker ( more on this later…but basically it’s a label I understand), move on but retry at an interval later. That last part is critical as it’s part of a deliberate training.

I still like CT-ART despite it’s limitations and seeming a bit dated. As I am  taking off rust, I am going through the “test” but using the setting that parses them according to motif. So I know I am solving “removal of defender” tactics of various levels.  This is a subtle but deliberate shift.  I think doing these according to motifs and stopping when I fail to understand what I missed and label it, might be the right tweak suggested my online friend.

A rally cry: Looking for Improvement Seekers

I am in the process of preparing  a separate post on how I plan to revise my approach to chess improvement  which is shaping up to  include some research in Neuroscience, more memory mapping  from working memory to motor memory and some new  deliberate practice technique for this busy adult chess improvement seeker ( ACIS… I used to lead this topic in various circles post Knight’s Errant).  I want to make a more efficient learning and retention process tailored specifically for my skill level, goals, ability and commitment. But don’t we all?

In that light, I want to open my blog as a rally point for those brave enough to put it out on the table and declare they, too,  are willing to blog about the methods they are trying to employ in the search for chess skill improvement.  Some are already on the path.  I started to link them on at my blogspot home under “Improvement seekers” ( I need to cull the list a little). If you want to be part of the New Improvement Seekers  ( NIS? New ImpS? We’ll decide later) send me a request in the comments and a link to your blog.  Creating an online support community  is how one breaks out of just “dabbling” to making a commitment. Once you have others supporting your efforts, contributing to a symposium of ideas on how adults CAN, HAVE and WILL improve in chess skills, a synergy will take place.

This is not a revival of the fool’s errand of the knights E which primarily focused on tactical improvement.  I believe this is only a part of the equation.  I want to have discussions and consensus on multiple areas we all seek to improve our game. 

If you sign up, the only requirements are:
  •           You are over 21 with some road weariness about life
  •           You are actively looking into ways to improve at chess
  •           You can commit to a post at least once a month on your efforts
  •           You create a cross link on your blog as well
  •           Optional: if you have a plan that is really working, be willing to share it.

So who’s in? 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Peering through the amber....

I recently saw a post by The Great Patzer ( who was looking for what happened to :

“A Great deal of people who have enthusiastically blogged in pursuit of higher ratings seem to have left their efforts; while there games, there thoughts and strivings remained preserved; like ancient creatures in amber....”
There are times I feel like I am stuck in amber. The thing is, I was happily on my way obsessing over rating and improving as an adult player going for that ever so close yet WAY too far lofty goal of reach 2000 ( USCF/ ELO/FIDE…insert your favorite yard stick here) that the rest of my life got way out of balance.  Things came to a head for me back in the fall of 2011 when I found myself isolated from family and friends and wondering what the hell happened. It wasn’t all about the chess, but I realized rather quickly I had to back burner the effort.

So my blog suffered. Who knew people were going to look back on my stuff and wonder “what happened”. I’ve seen it happen to my favorites in my hey day and vowed it would not happen to THIS chess enthusiast, but alas it did.

I made a couple of weak attempts to come back always trying to promise another one of my series partly to keep me motivated and hope to spark some flames of kindred spirit. But what I found happening is that my rating was rapidly approaching a floor and my ego didn’t want to disappoint my followers who were looking for the next nugget and proof that an old dog can learn new tricks albeit gradual and slow. HA!

Reaching  new lows!!!!

The good news is that my training efforts chronicled on this blog from 2006-2011 got me my first USCF floor of 1500 ( and then when I BRIEFLY peaked 1800 ( , I got another floor at 1600.  Below 1400, there are no floors so reaching that first threshold when I started at a rating of 1353 was quite something.  Let’s hear it for floors in the USCF rating system!  I recall how satisfied I felt knowing I never had to fall below 1600 again…. I mean I could play tournament after tournament in the U1700 section ( as long as I was 1600) and play as reckless as a swashbuckling gambiteer and not ever care about my rating…EVER!

It may sound like a case of reaching new lows but today I hold on to that as 3 years after reaching 1800, when I couldn’t maintain the pace I once held with the daily studies to include tactics, opening variations and scrimmages; the weekly chess club ( or two as I am lucky to be in an area where there are many) , and hitting tournaments on a monthly basis.  When I dialed this back to once or twice a year now… maybe doing 10 tactics puzzles a day and playing for fun a couple times a month at work, my rating quickly deflated from 1800 to 1630.  So I am grateful that I have a floor that puts my peak still within a 200 point reach.

50 Shades of Grey Matter 

What The Great Patzer reminded me of was a burning curiosity I keep around retention of skills. Take myself and someone who may have once peaked into 2000. Let’s say the two of us both started a hiatus in 2011 and we decided to approach the board again in 2015 “cold”. The game between the two of us, I would still have my butt handed to me.  Why?  What makes someone rated 200 points higher than me more skillful?  What nuances of positional evaluation has he been able to retain that I missed?

Here I can only offer my observations of what I think I retained as a “once peaked into 1800 but now performing at my floor of 1600  ( on a good day)”:
  •         Openings are OK though instead of 8-12 moves deep with variations fresh in my short term memory, I can do alright with the first 4 to 6 moves and figure out the rest.
  •         Tactics, despite practicing over 10,000 puzzles repetitively, I still miss them,  and hang pieces.
  •         Middle games are weak. I once knew all the subtleties of Q-pawn games for a variety of pawn formations but all that is muddy and has become more of a blur. This requires me to use more time on my clock during OTB practice.
  •         Endgames, Really basic stuff like K+P and  R+P YEAH! All the other stuff forgot it. Can I even play the Lucena anymore? I know I have to build a bridge.

There's no kryptonite when you realize you're not a superhero: 

The fact of the matter, is that as a mere mortal ( none master) I don’t have an eidetic memory ( I did a post a while back on this: . I believe that the really good masters got there because they can retain more because of their photographic memory. To summarize a volume of work by Aadrian DeGroot ( , the main difference between a Master and an amature is the master has a capability to recognize an order of magnitude or more patterns in chess over the amateur.  Which also aids to the ability of positional evaluation required when calculating candidate moves.

I’m curious to hear from readers on:

1.    What do you feel you can retain at your level of play given any hiatus?
2.   If you are a master ( or not) do you have an eidetic memory and if so, how does it contribute  to your chess skill?
3. How do you approach “learning” versus memorizations?