How did we all get started in chess? Traditionally, we were shown “the moves first”.

Yet, by a curious paradox, it appears to be fundamentally false (Nimzovich, Shakhmatny Listok, 1929). We call it a paradox, but it may just be that there is something we really don’t understand about it – once uncovered, it’s no more a paradox.

The Meaning. Willi Baumeister, Schach/Chess, 1955

Actually, the way how we teach chess (and not only chess!) doesn’t align with how learning occurs and how neuropsychology, educational psychology, and learning theory explain it. We simply ignore how human brain works and how it acquires new knowledge efficiently.

The traditional way of teaching is rotten. The first, or primitive brain that is mostly responsible for learning is typically excluded from the process. Next, initial activities (in chess it is “showing the moves”) are not meaningful and the learner understands neither why they are doing them, nor what their purpose and usefulness is. The latest scientific research shows that meaning-based instruction is critical to development of any skill. As a result, what we teach doesn’t get the learner on the fast track. They don’t see any progress. They lose confidence. Ultimately, too often they give up chess altogether.

If we really want to speed up learning curve in chess we definitely need to change something. We need to replace “showing the moves first” as it is apparently ineffective and inefficient.

This post and two upcoming ones are intended to demonstrate why the traditional method of teaching chess seems to be entirely flawed. First, here we will take a short look at what neuroscience tells us about the basics of learning. Then, later on, we are going to: a) apply what we say today to chess learning, b) present an article by GM Aaron Nimzovich, written 82 years ago in the Russian “Little Chess Paper” that shows an entirely different approach to chess teaching and learning.

How humans behave. Stimulus-Response mechanism

First we need to know how humans (and other species) act and behave. Behavior is an organism’s activity in response to external or internal stimuli. For example, plants turn toward the Sun. The purpose – to survive by making their food using sunlight (photosynthesis). The mechanism is basically this: stimulus -> some nervous system activity -> response.

In chess, the stimulus, or change, is the move your opponent just made. Follows a mental thought process which produces your next move, or response.

With a repeated exposure to a stimulus, we create a habit, or routine behavior that we replay regularly and which tends to occur subconsciously. There must be some evolutionary advantage here. By having habits:

a) we don’t have to engage the brain all the time (which takes time and energy),
b) we can avoid risks and dangers by sticking to the safe, proven path.

It is very important to stress that there is a strong link between the habit formed and the survival. All our behavior is goal-directed and purpose-driven. This is hard wired in all species.

Searching for Meaning. Andy Warhol, Chessplayer, 1954

Importance of vision

The main role of our senses is to allow us to monitor the environment and to react to it in ways conducive to survival. Our brain activity is largely influenced by vision. Through the process of perception we become aware of objects, relationships and events which enables us to organize and interpret the stimuli received into meaningful knowledge.

Exposed to a stimulus via visual faculty, the brain, which works by analogy and metaphor, begins to look for similarities, differences, or relationships between new information and stored patterns. When it matches the same or similar pattern, a response is executed based on the previously learned, expected behavior.

Why and how learning happens

But what happens when the brain is not familiar with a new stimulus? The process of learning initiates. We use past memories and prior experiences, things we already know (already wired connections between neurons), in order to build or project a new concept. By Law of Association we use what we know to understand what we don’t know. We use existing brain circuits to make new brain circuits.

Now say we want to learn how to play chess. And as we may expect, the first thing they show us is how pieces make movements over the board: Rook goes like this, Bishop goes like that…

Can you connect this to anything you’ve known previously? No way. What is the purpose of making moves? No one understands.

This explains why most of us stay woodpushers, or end our chess careers prematurely by giving up completely as we don’t see the meaning early in the process. Only few get out of the vicious circle and become successful.

Ironically, thinkers from Wittgenstein to Saussure used chess as a key metaphor to illustrate how meaning is produced…

To be continued…

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