How Traditional Teaching Killed Your Chess Visual Acuity
LS, or Basic Unit of Visual Acuity for Pattern Recognition in Chess
Last time we saw that the basics of chess are actually a mindset, a thought process (something that goes true for any domain of human activity). And the basics of the basics, the first and most important subprocess of this mindset, is the clarification process, or board visualization in chess. Learning to see the board, and get clear about issues and problems to solve there, uses visual perception, an automatic process, one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts. The beauty of it? There is no thinking involved!
So how should we start to train the brain to build strong vision muscles early in the chess learning process? What are board visualization ABCs supposed to be? What are its basic building blocks?
Every chess position is a structure, a complex network of interrelated chess pieces. Its fundamental geometric element is a straight line segment, from point A to point B (that is LS, our mysterious basic unit of visual acuity from the header!). All chess is based on this simple geometry. For example, the b1-rook is attacking the b7-pawn, there is the b1-b7 line segment to recognize; or another example, with its last move Rf1-e1, the rook gets control of the key e8 square threatening a back rank checkmate to the king on g8, here there are two line segments both players are mentally constructing, the e1-e8 and e8-g8. All chess mental patterns are built from line segments.
The four functional elements of pattern recognition are basic functions that chess pieces carry out on the chessboard: to (A)ttack, (B)lock, (P)rotect, and (R)estrict. They are much more important to reinforce in the critical early period of learning than mere geometrical connections between pieces.
How to activate beginner’s visual pattern recognition
The beginner should start off with simple patterns as they play sort of mini chess games from the very beginning. Starting to teach chess with a fully set-up board is a BIIIIIG NO-NO. It’s like a crime against the young developing chess brain and its visual perception and acuity.
“Keep it simple; complexities are the worst enemies of man’s development”
― Constance Chuks Friday
As chess is all about constructing a reliable and durable dynamic piece structure, it then makes perfect sense to get started with the fundamental structural elements, that is spatial and functional piece relationships (A, B, P, R). Can you think of anything more sensible to start teaching and learning with?
Another HUUUUGE NO-NO in teaching chess is showing how pieces make moves, instead of how pieces use firing power and interact by exchanging it (A. Nimtzowitsch, 1929).
Teaching and learning chess in form of brain puzzles
I’ve been thinking for some time about how you could get a visual sense of this concept, sort of design work with spatial and functional linear piece relationships as the basic structural elements of a chess position.
Then one day it came to me, the world’s oldest known puzzle might help. Ostomachion! the bone-fight.
It is a kind of ancient matchstick puzzle. As you know, matchstick puzzles use one-dimensional sticks (=straight-line figures) to show a relationship among given figures; sometimes they involve rearranging the sticks into different new figures by moving them around.[ ]
This is a great paradigm for chess where we are building up a structure of interconnected pieces, each performing its function in it, all woven into the unity (=piece harmony, piece coordination) around the common goal. And we are constantly rearranging the placement of pieces to improve the strength of the structure our pieces make (typically by using positional play) and undermine the strength of the opponent’s position (normally by using combinative/tactical means).
The best way to get started in chess is, in my view, to introduce simple mini games. Think of them as brain puzzles, or teasers with just few pieces involved. Over time, mini-games are gradually made more complex with the involvement of more pieces.
The first chess lesson
In one of the upcoming posts I am going to show you how I teach the chess basics with a simple mini game that is using only four pieces. It is so simple, but it is still teaching all of the following:
- three out of four elementary piece functions,
- basic tactical weapons, double attack, geometric motif, and pin/skewer hybrid,
- two ways of defense,
- two elements of the core mind-set
a. “pay attention to what the opponent is up to,” the embryo of Sun Tzu’s “The best strategy is to fight the opponent’s strategy” – you cannot fight it if you don’t read it through;
b. when under attack in this mini game, a piece needs to flee; but at the same time, it must look for a target to attack (as Dr. Euwe put it in Judgment and Planning in Chess, “employing pieces in a purely defensive manner, is a procedure seldom to be recommended,” or we can put it this way, passive defense is losing defense).
Is there more to expect from a teaching method that enables the beginner to start to play purposefully after just 10 minutes from chess Ground Zero?
“People always say, ‘It’s not that simple.’ But maybe it is.”
― Marty Rubin
1. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, defines two brain systems in his 2011 best-selling Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 is fast, automatic, instinctive and intuitive brain. Only when System 1 isn’t able to come up with a fast answer to the issue at hand, System 2, a slower, more deliberative, analytical and logical part of the brain gets involved.
This is the key to all teaching, to transfer the (chess) basics to System 1 as soon as possible, so they become second nature, part of the subconscious brain (“thinking without thinking“). Once the basics are in the right place, the brain is freed to take on more complex tasks and run them effectively and efficiently. This is where the traditional chess teaching method is not successful; it doesn’t let chess board vision to take off – it sets severe limitations to further progress as the basics never get fully developed. Here I have to remind you of the game I have mentioned numerous times on this blog, 1.e4 d5 2.Bd3 Bg4 3.exd5 Bxd1 to point out how broken the traditional way of teaching is (the game was played between two boys, both for about a year(!?!) in chess at the time).
2. For an established chess player, all this may seem too trivial. But this is exactly where the traditional teaching is failing to deliver, as long as it doesn’t get down to the level of the beginner and as far as pros continue to create chess lessons that are not adequately suited for the needs of the absolute beginner. And what does the beginner need? The basics, something pros breathe in and breath out, something pros possess as second nature of which they are generally unaware of and therefore unable to successfully transfer to the beginner.
3. We should not start teaching chess with a fully set-up board. Instead, it should be the basic contacts (A, B, P, and R) reinforced via mini games first. Three of four basic relationships are two-piece connections (block, or pin is three-piece). Now think how you got started in football, or baseball? It was you and your Dad, or brother, or a good friend, playing one-on-one, by passing the ball back and forth! Only when you joined your high school team, you would play 11 on 11.
4. Ostomachion, or Archimedes Square is an ancient stick game played with pieces made of bone (thus name, “bone-fight”); it is actually the world’s oldest known puzzle; the goal of play was the creation of different objects, animals, plants etc. by rearranging the pieces: an elephant, a tree, a ship, a tower etc.