Posts tagged chess learning
- Why we make bad moves on the chessboard (of life)?
- Why we come to poor decisions?
- Why we make mistakes?
The answer: because of poor visualization skills, or underdeveloped visual thinking.
Observation is a dying art. Yet it greatly impacts how we act in the world; how we approach solving problems; how we make judgments; how we learn…
The physical exam in medicine (=an examination to determine the condition of a person’s health, or physical fitness) is what examining the position on the board is in chess. It is an act of observation (observe = to be or become aware of, esp. through careful and directed attention, the American Heritage College dictionary; to watch carefully especially with attention to details or behavior for the purpose of arriving at a judgment, the Merriam-Webster).
But gone are the times when “doctors used the ‘old-fashioned’ touching, looking and listening, almost magical skills of the doctor who missed nothing and could swiftly diagnose most of symptoms using just keen eyes, practiced hands and a stethoscope” (see the full article from the New York Times here).
“Medical schools in the United States have let the physical slide. Dr. Verghese likes to joke that a person could show up at the hospital with a finger missing, and doctors would insist on an M.R.I., a CT scan and a orthpedic consult to confirm it.”
iPatients are handily discussed in the bunker, while the real patients keep the beds warm and ensure that the folders bearing their names stay alive on the computer. –Abraham Verghese, M.D.
When you visit your doctor nowadays, they look at their iPad more closely than at you, the patient. Isn’t it scary? (perhaps they should also try Fritz?)
iPad, or stethoscope are just tools. “What is the most important part of the stethoscope?” asks Dr. Veghese his students. “The part between the earpieces.”
This erosion of examination skills, the lack to look and see for themselves, the failure to notice, makes doctors overlook simple diagnoses and miss easy clues sometimes. They don’t get vital information to be able to figure out what the patient really needs. The same way as a chess patzer isn’t grasping the situation on the board and so playing poorly.
On the other hand, the best-performing experts in life, in medicine, sport, business, or on the battlefield, spot in no time the most relevant clues of a situation using vision for perception. A doctor looking at his patient, a chess master looking at the board, an art connoisseur before a painting, the great Messi on the soccer field. Once they have processed all relevant information quickly, they form their view and, if necessary, make a confident decision using vision for action.
The importance of vision for problem solving and making decisions cannot be stressed more. And even more importantly, for learning. Because learning makes the brain set up the mind framework and patterns of thought to be used when facing problems and every day decisions later on.
Poor chess vision is considered the main factor in failing to achieve higher levels in the game. Once our patterns of thought become rigid, it is almost impossible to keep improving as we reach a plateau. We get stuck, unable to move any farther.
That is why we need to include visual thinking early in the chess training process, actually right from the hour one. Chess thinking is geometric in nature and we should visualize everything in terms of lines and points. That is where the Contacts method comes in. With its elementary piece set-ups, it forms the foundation for all subsequent learning, for basic tactics and strategy, as well as more advanced topics.
The first period of learning is critical. There is no much time there. It is of utmost importance to reinforce patterns of visual thinking in the first few weeks of getting started. Else, poor vision sets in. With no visible signs of progress, interest toward previous motivation is lost, the student gets bored and gives up altogether.
Are math and chess learning really that problematic?
Math is also notorious for giving most people trouble. While in fact, “almost every kid — and I mean virtually every kid — can learn math at a very high level, to the point where they could do university level math courses,” explains John Mighton, the founder of Jump Math.
The same is true for chess. “If you ask why that’s not happening, it’s because teaching methods are not aligned with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and how learning happens.”
Maybe you should look more closely and attentively, and don’t think too much (I mean logically).
Try visually. Learn to observe. An old art.
© iPlayooChess 2012
How to Start in Chess
Traditionally, we start with moves. However, it seems that the method is inefficient and doesn’t contribute to a fast learning curve and development of an adequate board vision.
There’s already enough evidence to suggest that we rethink how we go about it. The evidence comes from:
(a) cognitive neuroscience and psychology which tell us how our own minds work, how we acquire new knowledge and behave in general (supported by empirical findings from neuroimaging MRI techniques – here are two studies on pattern recognition in chess   both stressing spatial and functional relationships between objects as the key factor differentiating chess experts from novices)
(b) theory of complex systems (and chess is one of them) which shows that a system is as much successful as its components interconnect and interact effectively in a purposeful fashion. 
Both (a) and (b) explain why experts are superior over novices. They agree that novices focus on perceptually available static elements, whereas experts integrate structural, functional and behavioral components of the system.
Structural (or spatial) component in chess is represented by a network of contacts established between pieces, and pieces and squares on the board at any given time. Functional component comes from four basic roles pieces serve: attack, protection, restriction and blocking, evaluation and understanding of which determines how we act and make decisions on the board.
If this is a hard evidence that how pieces interconnect spatially and functionally is the most important aspect of understanding a complex system, then the question is: why we don’t start teaching with the contacts, not individual moves as with the traditional approach. Logically, it would ensure a faster learning curve.
To further back the contacts method (extensively advocated on this blog), here’s the first chess lesson by Aron Nimzovich from his article “How I became a grandmaster,” in Russian chess newsletter Shakhmatny Listok, 1929 , as published in November/December 2011 issue of Georgia Chess Magazine , part of my “Introduction to the contacts method” feature.
The First Chess Lesson by Aron Nimzovich
Let’s begin at the beginning, that is, by criticizing my very first lesson. I was “shown the moves”. Was that the right thing to do? “Well of course it was,” my esteemed reader will say. “You cannot do without that.” But my whole point is that, in this case, the reader is mistaken: this approach is fundamentally false. You cannot take a boy who is completely new to the game and immediately confound him by showing him that the rook moves like this and the bishop like that, and the pawn crawls forward at such a ridiculous snail’s pace, that the night leaps eccentrically all over the place, that the queen can go anywhere she pleases, that the rook moves and takes in straight lines, but the pawn moves straight forward and takes diagonally, etc.
Dreariness will be the only result from all these demonstrations. Information of this kind, which the beginner absorbs, is purely formal, without a trace of vitality and devoid of meaning, and by flooding him with all this mass of material, he may only sink into depression.
No, one should not teach first principles this wise, but quite otherwise. A bit less formal ballast and a bit more substance, that is the basic principle! But let us show concretely how we think that the first two or three lessons should be conducted.
First lesson: Familiarization with the board, understanding of the demarcation between White and Black, and the center of the board.
The Rook. Understanding about ranks and files, drills and exercises:
White rook on e1 (the student always has white pieces), black pawn on e6. In this position the rook is attacking the pawn.
Exercise: ask the student to attack the pawn. Then ask the student to attack it sideways, and, finally, from behind.
Next, form some obstacles on the board: white rook on h1, pawns on g2 and h4, king on f1, black pawn on d6. White attacks the d6-pawn by playing Rh1-h3-d3. Then a black rook is introduced to take the role of the defender of the d6-pawn.
This gives us a primitive basis to set up some basic combinations. For example: White has Ra1, Black has Rh8, Pc7, Pe5. Ask the student, “How many moves does it take for the rook to attack both pawns at the same time?” Let’s play: 1.Ra5 Re8 2.Rc5 Re7.
We move on by explaining the natural tendency for rook to reach the seventh rank. Set the white rook on g1, the enemy king on h8 and explain to the student that the king attacks one square diagonally. “Let’s go with the rook invade the seventh rank!” We play: 1.Rg7 Kxg7. The student is given a pawn on h5. “Let us defend the entry point on the seventh rank!” 1.h6 and then 2.Rg7.
In this way, the student will spend an hour or two without getting bored and will intuitively grasp the basic concepts, as well as the basics of combinatorial chess.
Notice how the entire first hour of chess actually uses a single rook as pawn while the king’s movements are mentioned just in passing. At the same time, a lively play drives out all formal approach. The rook is to attack the student’s pawn; if the student manages to save it, student wins.
The reader will, I hope, have got our basic idea: from the very start we are playing – fighting, battling – and have no intention of giving precedence to any formal approach. And we are inclined to ascribe a decisive significance to the initial impression formed by the student after the first lesson. One’s interest must be appealed to, one must feel from the onset that this is a game in which victory is both possible and gratifying.
* * *
As you can see Nimzovich’s approach here is nothing but contacts . He starts with the attacking contact. Then he explains the restricting and protecting contacts when he talks about the rook’s penetration on the seventh rank. At the same time, he clearly and strongly opposes the traditional approach with moves first.
May the contacts method possibly catch on one day? Albert Einstein understood the difficulty of paradigmatic shifts: “It’s harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.”
* * *
1. It Takes Two–Skilled Recognition of Objects Engages Lateral Areas in Both Hemispheres, PLoS ONE scientific journal
2. The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts, Science, 21 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6015 pp. 341-346
3. More on complex systems in: What is the first thing to teach an absolute beginner in chess? Part II post
4. GM Ray Keene included “How I became a grandmaster” in his Aron Nimtzowitsch: Reappraisal, Batsford, 1999, without the first chess lesson which, however, can be found in many Russian sources (I translated it here from Moya sistema, Fiskultura i Sport, 1984). So this might turn out, to the best of my knowledge, to be its first appearance before the reading public in the West.
5. Georgia Chess Magazine has won the Chess Journalists of America “Best State Magazine” award 7 of the past 10 years, including the past two years consecutively.
The answer: A, P, R and B. If you are still a bit confused, read on…
* * *
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle
* * *
Last time we have discussed some attributes of chessmen which possess and use power in space and time, as parts of a complex system, to achieve a shared goal – to withstand and possibly to feed our hard-wired impulse to triumph.
However, properties of any given system (physical, chemical, biological, social, linguistic) cannot be determined or explained alone by its component parts and their attributes (for example, how they make movements.) Instead, the nature and behavior of the system as a whole emerges from interactions between the parts of which the system is made.
Interaction is a kind of action that occurs as two or more components have an effect upon one another. A closely related term is interconnectivity, which deals with interactions of interactions within a system: combinations of many simple interactions can lead to surprising phenomena at a new integrative level emerging on preexisting phenomena of lower level(s). Think chess.
Other examples may include interconnectivity of atoms and molecules emerging on the fundamental interaction of elementary particles, or consciousness emerging on nervous system.
Another example at the social level: the modern world with globalization and the IT revolution has gone to hyper-connected thanks to Internet, wireless connectivity, Google, Facebook, Twitter. This, in turn, brings new possibilities and determines how different groups and teams with their “collective intelligence” behave, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members.
Features of the group are more important than features of the individuals that make up the group for determining outcomes. It is like creating some beneficial collective energy that contributes to the success of the team.
The same goes in chess. What starts with a definite number of pieces and a small number of rules generate surprising complexity which escapes our rational analysis and full understanding. On dynamic interconnectivity and interplay of pieces, emerge some new collective properties at higher integrative levels.
These interactions between pieces range from four elementary ones we are going to cover here, to highly complex ones, urging a world chess champion to say that coordinated action of pieces is a main chess principle that runs throughout, Capablanca, My Chess Career.
* * *
Interrelationships between pieces are spatial and functional.
Surprisingly, all interactions are spacial in nature and based on geometry of the line segment. Four functional relationships are well suited for understanding and getting the meaning out of the system, but in fact they can still be traced back to the elementary geometric element of the line segment.
There are four basic relationships in chess: attacking, protecting, restricting and blocking contact. Any position in chess consists of these basic contacts. In the pursuit of understanding, we break things down into ever smaller bits. And this works, to some extent… However, putting things back together in order to understand chess as a whole is harder, not to say almost impossible.
1. Letter A (Attacking contact)
Attack is the generic contact in chess. Geometrically speaking, it is a line segment defined with two endpoints: that of attacking piece and either an empty square, or an enemy unit.
2. Letter P (Protecting contact)
Protecting contact does not actually protect the friendly piece from capturing by the opponent. It does allow the protecting piece to recapture and keep material balance.
3. Letter R (Restricting contact)
The restricting contact is also reducible to the generic attacking contact. In the example below, the black king is restricted to go to squares d6, d7 and d8, as they are under attack from the rook.
4. Letter B (Blocking contact)
All three contacts so far involved two pieces, or one piece and a square. Interposition, or pin, features three pieces: attacker (Rd1), blocker (Pd5), and actual target (Kd6). Pin is actually a double contact. It consists of a direct attack (Rd1->Pd5) and a threat of attack (Rd1->Kd6) which in reality is an indirect, or concealed attack, just one move away from becoming an actual attack (you can find out more on all levels of chess hierarchy here)
And that is all!
All chess revolves around these four letters of the chess alphabet. The meaning of any chess position is coded with some combination of the letters A, P, R and B in the same way that the meaning of words and sentences lies in the sequence of alphabet letters.
* * *
It becomes perfectly clear now that we should start teaching and learning the game by introducing the chess alphabet first. Not individual moves. The good thing is that pieces make movements along lines of fire, or contact, anyway (with the pawn exception, of course).
In the same way that you never think of alphabet letters consciously when you read or write, the chess alphabet should become your second nature too. Your brain’s mind’s eye should see all board contacts effortlessly. This is what we call good chess vision.
Nimzovich was right…
It is becoming necessary for the attention of chess teachers, instructors and educators to be drawn to one circumstance which seems to be so slight that they do not even consider it their duty to notice it. That thing is the following: they are responsible for the unchecked spread of a virus infecting an entire population. Where? In the mind of the chess beginner, causing a severe condition, called poor chess vision.
And chess educators, do they see it? No, they do not. Is this intentional? No, it is professional.
This what the human race in the 21-st century knows, cognitive neuroscience, brain-behavior relationships, educational psychology, learning theory, pedagogy, chess educators ignore.
How is the infection caught? We are being infected during the very first hour of learning. Our teachers unwittingly infect us when using the traditional way which is slow-pace, ineffective and “fundamentally false” (Nimzovich). If then, one day, we ourselves teach someone chess, we are spreading the virus to them the same way.
This virus infects our mind, it takes over parts of our brain, programming us with habits and directions that point us away from where we should go. The virus direct us from what would otherwise give us a good chess vision and ultimately a life-time enjoyment in the game.
The infection and the resulting disease slow down our early progress in chess. Since this happens unconsciously, all we’re aware of is that as we go, chess becomes less fun, more of a drag, and less meaningful. We all love success with our hard wired impulse to triumph. Without it, we may feel our motivation slipping away. We may get less excited about things than we used to. Finally, we may totally lose our confidence and interest in the game and consequently give up altogether.
The moment has come for us to raise our voices. There are moments when even the human conscience can take the stand and order chess educators to listen.
We can certainly begin to disinfect ourselves. What we need is a paradigm shift. This happens when one of the basic, underlying assumptions we’ve been living changes. Every paradigm shift takes some time and a bit of effort to penetrate the community to teach itself the new paradigm and even longer to become accepted by the general public.
The time has come for this old way of teaching to be replaced by a new one. No matter how dark the night may be, the horizon at the end must bathe in daylight.
It is there that the entire future lies.
And the future will, what is being done, come to pass.
This is the aim, this is the harbor. Until yesterday, it was only the truth, today it is a reality.
The manifest is structured after Victor Hugo’s manifest Pour la Serbie, 1876
“Il devient nécessaire d’appeler l’attention des gouvernements européens sur un fait tellement petit, à ce qu’il paraît, que les gouvernements semblent ne point l’apercevoir. Ce fait, le voici : on assassine un peuple. Où ? En Europe. Ce fait a-t-il des témoins ? Un témoin, le monde entier. Les gouvernements le voient-ils ? Non…”
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.
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.
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…
The main principle of strategy has been known (at least in written records) since VI century BC: Forestall the enemy’s plans, fight their own strategy, Sun Tzu, our venerable consultant on matters of strategy.
Then in the year 1645, a Japanese samurai warrior, Miyamoto Musashi, expressed the very same idea this way:
Whatever the enemy tries to bring about in the fight, you will see in advance and suppress it. When the opponent attempts to execute his (sword) move, frustrate it from the onset, make whatever the opponent is trying to accomplish of no use, and achieve the freedom with which to lead the opponent about.
He might have played Shogi, but all the chess strategists should now stand up and bow down to this man:
Hey, those guys did know a thing or two about strategy, huh?
This principle has never ever failed in any conflict: war, business, sports, chess, you name it.
Any expectation, any intention by the opponent, any sign of activity that may develop into something harmful is to be disrupted at the root by all available tactical means (tactics are just building blocks of strategy).
Quite naturally, we should just follow this golden rule in chess, the game of strategy, right?
Yes, but not many of the rest of us do.
Why is it? Why we don’t start teaching this simple cardinal principle from the onset, so it becomes part of our chess instinct? The concept has already been known to the powerful subconscious brain (they also call it “primitive”, o sancta simplicitas! it’s much, much smarter than you ever thought it could be). Buried deeply inside your subconsciousness, acquired through past experiences from sports, war movies we watched without a blink – at least boys – it’s been just waiting there for you to activate it. For you to become a winner.
(I’m afraid, I must keep repeating this over and over again as this is the single most important thing that you will ever need in chess, business, or sports, and, for that matter, any other competition for a life time!!)
Okay, we know what’s the main principle. But what’s the “chess pendulum” anyway?
Actually, it’s one of many “small” strategies. We need to learn them too. FM Anatoly Terekhin has collected more than 120 (in Strategic Methods in Chess, Samara, 2005, ISBN 5-9900489-1-2, he presented nine of them).
In my latest post on grand scheme of hierarchy in chess few major strategies were mentioned in the strategic level (E).
One of them was weakening of the enemy position (E6). It’s a potent weapon with different flavors and today we’re going to demonstrate a method called “chess pendulum”. Chess what?
I’ve asked IM Ashot Nadanian, the second of the #3 in the world, GM Levon Aronian, to best translate Russian “маяатник” in this context for us. In my mother tongue (Serbo-Croatian, an old relative of Russian) there’s a similar verb with a meaning “to annoy someone”. But pendulum fits in perfectly.
At the same time we’ll take a quick look at another strategy: trading your “bad” pieces for the enemy “good” ones (E4). Also very, very important, another biggie (there’s hardly ever an equal trade in chess. One side or another almost always gains some advantage. If only we could learn how and when to do it, we all would be much better players. So train your subconscious brain engine to watch closely whenever an exchange happens in a GM game you may go over. Try to figure out why they went for it and what kind of advantage they may have gained. That way you will learn a lot).
* * *
Back to the pendulum. It’s a close relative of the “vanishing move” strategy, with the same goal – to weaken the opponent’s position. In a different form though:
The piece returns to the original square, giving over the right of move to the other side, but the position has changed favorably (in contrast with the vanishing move, all pieces may do the pendulum, not just Bishop).
To demonstrate, here’s a position two chess legends played almost hundred years ago (just en-passant, study primitive classics!):
“Forcing the Black to play g7-g6, which will weaken his K-side and make holes for the White’s dark-squared Bishop”, Capablanca, My Chess Career.
12. …g6 13. Ngf3
The pendulum operation carried out. Weaknesses inflicted. At the same time “this move is making room for the Queen’s Bishop. White could have also played 13.Qe2 and if 13…Qxd4 14.Ngf3 followed by Bh6 and Ng5 with a violent attack”, Capablanca.
13. …Kg7 14. Bg5 Nbd5 15. Rac1 Bd7 16. Qd2 Ng8 17. Bxe7 Qxe7
“This move I considered a very long time. It looks very simple and inoffensive, yet it is the foundation of the whole attack against Black’s position. The fact is that the Bishop is doing very little, while the black Nd5 is the key to Black’s defense, hence the necessity of exchanging the almost useless Bishop for a most valuable Knight”, Capablanca.
18. …Bb5 19. Rfe1 Qd6 20. Bxd5 exd5 21. Qa5 a6 22. Qc7 Qxc7 23. Rxc7 h6 24. Rxb7 Rac8 25. b3 Rc2 26. a4 Be2 27. Nh4 h5 28. Nhxg6 Re8 29. Rxf7+ Kh6 30. f4 a5 31. Nh4 Rxe5 32. fxe5 Kg5 33. g3 Kg4 34. Rg7+ Kh3 35. Ng2 1-0
Let me be perfectly clear. There are two things that should become your first instinct in chess, an indispensable part of everybody’s subconscious, strong chess vision engine, so you never ever again even have a slightest thought about it:
1. Strategy #1
2. Basic chess contacts