Saturday, December 19, 2020

Memory versus  skills

Where did I put my glasses?


I found in preparation for the virtual WO, though I was eagerly trying to engrain and develop skills at a deeper level, I found myself simply falling back to relying on my inadequate and deteriorating short term memory skills. I front loaded with “database training” on opening variations which ended up being a futile effort as after move 4 or 5 the divergent paths of variations played by my opponents, no matter how hard I “trained” ( read: attempted to memorize too many variations) ended up mixing up move orders or just fell short of really understanding the position.

I know. Don’t memorize. Try to understand the opening and its fundamental premise rather than memorization.  I had every good intention of doing just that. Really, I mean it. I even got the very verbose Everyman series of openings I was developing.  The problem I have is that as long as my opponent played along with the lines I was training for; I was OK for maybe up to move 10.  I was happy with that as I could switch to more long-term memory skills and use positional judgement as flawed as they may be for me.  But that’s not how it goes. Most of my games NEVER went down the lines I was “trained” for and preparing for the deviations was strained.

All the prep I did for the world open was not for loss. As I am warming up for the Boston Chess Congress in a couple weekends, I am playing online “cold” without any going over variations or practice. I want to see what’s working and what’s not.

Litmus testing:

 I am playing some Blitz ( G5), Rapid (G10) and Fast/Standard (G30). I evaluate each game immediately following taking note of thought process, decisions, and where memory versus skill was taking over.

Blitz for Breadth of opening understanding:

 I am using G5 to test breadth of opening “confidence” and looking for the biggest holes.  In the post-game analysis, I look for the divergence beyond what I “know” and whether I was on fuzzy memory or trying to use positional skills ( time consuming). Here I am looking what I need to understand at a more fundamental level from moves 4-8 as middle game set ups are taking form.

Rapid for Breadth of positional understanding:

I use the rapid time controls to test more of my ability to “think on my feet” so to speak and see what’s still working and if I did indeed pick up some concepts when I “deliberately trained” on positional evaluations earlier in the year.  I am seeing some fruits of that labor take place as I seem to have a quicker positional evaluation meter to pick ..semi decent moves…not necessarily the best but playable positions I understand. This is better than where I was at the beginning of the year.

Fast/Standard for depth:

Here, I am looking for focusing on thought process and  training my mind to be in “tournament mode”. I  evaluate if I even use a thought process. I am still in the process of developing one that works for me and when to use it in which part of the game. Transitions are always difficult and when to stray from opening mode, to positional and analysis. What about safety checks? I am still not regular with that and thus my avatar.  

Skills lay in long term memory

Yes, my memory sucks. I blame having too much fun in the 70’s and 80’s. Add to that the fact that I am getting older.  I need to rely less on short term memory in preparation.  I’ve blogged about deliberate training  here and on memory here.  Old dogs can learn new tricks. I know this. I am constantly learning new skills for my profession though, it’s slower than when I was in my 20s. 

What I find, when I am developing skills, is that the following items seem  to be needed.

  •  Focus
  • One at a time 
  • Right time of day
  • Periodic breaks
  • Repetition

To touch on these briefly:

Focus:  This is always tough for me as I am wired for distractions. I do know I have it in me to hyperfocus and I see it especially when I am fully engaged in an activity I that I really commit to (Playing in a tournament, guitar or something in a creative spirit especially). To learn something new, I need to be engaged completely otherwise the information gets sliced and only tidbits are retained if any.

One at a time: On a similar note, I know I am better at learning one thing at a time. I make this mistake a lot.  Meaning, I can’t set down to learn the fundamentals of all my responses to 1.d4  in one session. Rather, I need to say to myself, “This is the time to wrap my head around the basics of move 4 variations of  the black side of the advanced Caro-Kann.”  The idea here is to set a goal for my self and a way to evaluate it. This is the essence of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Right time of day: I know there are some times of day when I am ripe for retention of facts and other times when I am too fatigued to go any further. I might as well have read gibberish when I am at that level of input because I will not retain a damned thing.

Periodic Breaks: The other thing I realized is that learning is supposed to push you out of your comfort level. If I want to get better at playing my instrument, playing the same stuff will not enable me to learn new things. I have to get comfortable not being comfortable.  It’s the practice of staying in practice as I heard once before. Because of this comfort zone pushing, you need to do this in intervals not much more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time or you reach a point of diminishing returns.  PLUS, taking a break and thinking of something else gives your mind to process the information which helps file it in the long-term memory cabinet.

Repetition (and evaluation) : Finally, like learning a language, constant repetitive exposure to test the new skill is needed to help reinforce and rebuild the neural paths struggling to retrieve the information. This is in essence what I am doing above with the G5/G10/G30 playing. I use this to evaluate the skills being called upon and reinforce that training if needed.