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?


Eric Strickland said...

Nice to see another post from you, BP.

Besides the ability to remember vast amounts of arcane knowledge pertaining to openings, tactics, and endgames, I think there are a number of other important factors.

First of all, let me as an aside, mention the meaning of a 200 point rating differential.
200 points means that the higher rated player is 'expected' to win 75% of the time. This can be verified using the 'rating estimator' at

In professional sports leagues a team that beats another 75% of the time is considered dominant. But if you matched a major league team against a minor league team or a college team, the results would be far worse for the underdog team than 25%.

One of the most important factors besides 'knowledge' is the will to win. In my own games, when I'm playing very casually against weak players, I can play like an 800. I've noticed other good players seem to play fairly hard, even if it's a casual game. Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, was known to be absolutely manic about winning. His resolve was probably worth a hundred rating points vis a vis another player with the hypothetically same knowledge base.

I've found that in order to play my best, I have to limit the number of tournament games I play, --kind of like putting a baseball pitcher on a 'pitch count' to make sure he doesn't wear out his arm. I've concluded that playing more than 40 rated games a year will result in me playing without the necessary desire to win, due to having drained my reserves of mental energy. There just isn't much in the tank if I've played too many games in too short a span of time.

Then, of course, there are the 'style match up' issues. Player A may consistently lose to Player B, even though their ratings are very close, simply because Player B has a style that's difficult for Player A to play against. But Player A may do fine against Player C, while Player B struggles agaist Player C. And so on and so on . . .
Sometimes even a much lower rated player seems to do consistently well against a much higher rated player due to style issues. I see this quite a bit at the club I play at, where many of the members have played each other multiple times . . .

AoxomoxoA wondering said...

I think that knowledge and memory is not the main factor for the performance in chess, i think that the most important factor is skill.

To perform a job good you need KSA
(,_Skills,_and_Abilities ) Knowledge, Skills and Abilitys

As you can read at wikipedia : Skill - Is an observable competence to perform a learned psychomotor act. ( the meaning of skill is a little different here than the way the word skill used in common )

( Motor-) Skills are things you can do ( virtually ) without much thinking and without ( many ) errors.
The benefit of skills are that you can perform them parralell ( You may ride a bike and play jojo at the same time ). So the effect of skills multiply. Examples for Chess skills are : to be aware where the pieces are, what they are doing to be able to play blindfold ( visualistation / memorising a game ) maneuvering with a knight, spotting a mate in 1,..., and so forth. So you can see chess skills at a bullet game. A good player can see a good move ( most of the times ) without ( much ) thinking. Magnus will beat us both, if we have an hour at the clock and he has 30 sec ( or so ). He drops no piece because he is instantly aware of all pieces and their contacts, he is atomatically aware of weak pawns........... and because these are skills all that happens "in the same moment"

The traditional learning and knowing has seemingly a smaller ( of couse still quite some ) effect.
I try to explain lower rated chess-friends to use the principles of an opening, they all know them, but they simply get driven away and start attacking before the development is finished. You can show them over and over again: see you lost that game and you did not finished your opening.. they are suprised but they have problems to APPLY the ( theoretical- )knowledge

I am shure we both could sitt with all available chessbocks and unlimited time to read them during a game and still we dont beat a GM. Knowledge, which can be written in a book is not decisiv.

To generate skills (psycomotor acts= automated (subconcious) behavior ) from knolwdge that seems to be important.

And Skills are "for ever" you dont forget skills ( psycomotor act's). Once you learned to swim, ride byke... you keep this skill for the whole life

BlunderProne said...

I have a hard time understanding the "chess can be learned like a Motor skill" concept. Riding a bike is a motor skill because it requires my limbs and balance. Chess is all in the head. I may move my arm true.

In doing over 10,000 tactics in trying to develop "motor skills" for tactics, I am still at odds. True I can recognize more basic patterns, but why do I still miss a lot? I think it has to do with linking the learned pattern to long term memory where it can become a motor skill. Lately, I make myslef more aware of the tactical puzzles I can solve quickly versus those that I don't see right off. Those I can perform quicker are most likely because I have a solid memory marker of that theme or pattern. I use labels. Those that I can't I try and create labels and memory markers.

ChessAdmin said...

BP - nice to see you active again and entertaining as always.

I thought Eric's comment above gives an excellent perspective.

Re: the skills issue AoxmoxoA raised, the learning process involves obtaining knowledge, then successfully applying that knowledge however many repetitions it takes for it to become internalized. People's repetition thresholds are different and if your practice is shallow, the internalization process is weak. In other words, you can do the mechanics but you don't understand why they work.

I've commented elsewhere that I think tactics problems are good and necessary for improving players, including building pattern recognition for when tactics may be present in a position, but it's more a player's ability to integrate that (and other individual skills/techniques) into their complete game that will matter to the bottom line. I would suggest that the amount of of integration of knowledge is what gives each person their individual "floor" for performance after a hiatus.

AoxomoxoA wondering said...

Tactics are a skill where you usually dont improve, you can solve as many tactical puzzles as you want, you dont improve anymore after something like 4000 puzzles
Even simple puzzles as "Mate in 1" are seemingly not improvable ( up to GM-level ) .
You can improve to GM-level with tasks like Attack, defend, find all checks, Knight vision ( Troyis ) and others.

Tomasz said...

I tested on myself that easy tactics like mate in 1 (easy version) may NOT be that simple too improve. In other words - I have solved about 50K puzzles so far and I have gained about progress in a range of 20% (against first average score).

Probably other excercises are needed, but I have not tested it yet (if it works) even if I suppose it may be true.