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.    


Anonymous said...


A very thoughtful blog. I'm a long time OTB warrior, who has been playing since my teens and 3 times come back to the game after long (6-10 years) absences. I'm a 1750-1900 USCF player who's made it to low-Expert a few times, only to be beat back to Class A in very short order.

A few observations:

1. There is no one set of training exercises that fits all. Rolf Wetzell was an engineer, and his training regimen fit well with profession. De La Maza was used to being one of the smartest guys in the room and worked on mastery of one aspect of chess in order to get a handle on OTB chess. Someone that is more of a "poet" or a writer or an artist, would, in all probability, not be able to engage actively in either of the programs developed by Wetzell or MDLM. They might, however, be able to be actively engaged in a "Silman-esque" type of regimen, whereby they follow the "story" of a game. However, your observation that a player must be actively engaged in his/her training is 100% correct. In fact, I would go further and maintain that "passive" training is worse than no training at all. By just observing, and not being involved, you can develop a mental laziness that shows up at the board.

2. You have to play, and play a lot to determine how well/poorly your training program is working. You can't be afraid of not being ready or losing and "letting yourself down." You have to play and then go over your game to find out what you're doing right and what you're screwing up. I play in the Vortex CC G/30 events, once a month. Not because I'm a great G/30 player, but because it gives me 6 games to examine each month. The cost is nil, and it only takes one day a month.

3. What is just as important in chess as skill/knowledge/training, is your personal comfort level in competition. You can tactically train for years, but still miss things on the board. During an OTB game there are no signs proclaiming, "White to move and win in 4 moves." The thing about most 3 or 4 move combinations is that the tactics often continue after the 3rd or 4th moves. You have to keep on finding good moves, even if your tactical assessment was sound.

When I am "in the zone" I play well, I make fewer (and less costly) blunders, my plans are sounder and better executed. when I am not "in the zone," I play a rating class lower.

All the coaches and training regimens in the won't help if we suffer from "stage fright" at the board. Considering the larger investment we've made in the game, it's possible to carry the burden that we'll now be letting ourselves down if we play poorly.

How do we get "in the zone," more often? My guru is Jonathan Rowson ("Chess for Zebras," "The 7 Deadly Chess Sins," "Understanding the Grunfeld.") But that's another story for another day.

Good luck


BlunderProne said...

Thanks for the feedback Jack. I've played on a few Vortex events by Mark. Lucky when the window of opportunity is there, but I usually teach on Saturdays.

I will be attending the Boston Chess Congress.

I like your analogies of Engineer's versus poet's approach to training. I tend to fall into the engineer category though I am also a bit of an artist and like "big picture" before drilling down to details.

I also like the evaluation of tournament comfort level. I try to mitigate my nerves before competition by meditation.

Munich said...

I read all those scientific papers - and many others. I got them from Aox.

I did a tactical training which helped me at chesstempo. Here how it looks like:

a) CT Blitz rating range 1250-1400
b) total attempts mininum: 100 (for a stable rating)
c) "check mate in 2" puzzles only
d) Spaced repetition set (= that is your "metered repetition) with the Target: 5 seconds per puzzle

Such a training will give you lots of check mate patterns. It is also deliberate practice, because you will get more puzzles served which you did slow, and you will get less often puzzles served which you did pretty fast. Those puzzles you even failed will be repeated most often:
That is deliberate practice.

After some time you will solve most of these puzzles within 5 seconds.
You will notice these patterns in your real games, too, because you know them so fast (inside out), that you see them imediatly. The patterns become active.
I believe that to make patterns knowledge an active knowledge, that you need to know these patterns fast.

I also tagged many of my puzzles.
This training does not need to be limited to "check mate in 2" puzzles. You could also do "forks".
I recommend to start with check mate puzzles.

I am 42 years old, I started with 38.

Here a chart that (hopefully) shows some improvement. Maybe not overwhelming, but not bad either.
First I was better than 70-80% of all players, and now I am rather better than 90% of all players. In real OTB chess I was between B- and A-class. Now I am an expert, currently rated with 187 ecf (~ 2100 fide elo, or 2200 USCF):;msg47155#msg47155