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Monday, August 04, 2008

Don't Read Chess Books!

Well, not exactly.

But if your goal is to improve your ability to win more chess games, you have to jump in and play some games. This is certainly nothing new, but a couple simple events drove this point home to me recently.

Event #1: For a variety of reasons, I haven't played in an OTB tournament in many years, much as I enjoy chess. But I'd like to get back into it to whatever degree my schedule permits, so I've been studying some basic openings so I'm not already lost by move eight. I chose a line to follow, read the relevant portion of an opening book covering this line, and then reviewed a number of games from my database that followed this line. I then went online to try it out, and in my very first game, my opponent chose moves different enough that I felt completely out of my element.

Event #2: I attended a lecture recently, given by a very bright individual, not related to chess at all. He was talking about life experiences, and he noted that in a number of areas, he has found that had he not failed in his initial attempts at understanding a concept or taking a desired action, he would never have grown to become competent in later understanding the concept, or successfully completing the given action. In other words, studying something is important (and necessary if one hopes to gain competence in the subject matter), but you've got to put things into action in some manner to really gauge your understanding.

I couldn't help but put these two events together and I came to the realization that, despite so much I've heard from top chess coaches that playing improvement doesn't necessarily come from increased knowledge, I was guilty of relying excessively on trying to read my way to opening success.

A more correct way would be to study, then practice, then study some more (including analyzing what went right and what went wrong in this practice), then practice some more. In this manner, the information sinks in much more effectively. To paraphrase the speaker I heard a few days ago, I needed to fail at my attempt at opening competence before (hopefully) later succeeding.

Josh Waitzkin discusses this in his remarkable book The Art of Learning, but I guess I had to experience a taste of it firsthand in order to begin understanding this idea.

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