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Sunday, March 25, 2012

On chess, recognition, and memorization

I’m not a scientist, but I don’t have to be to know that children “absorb” things faster and more thoroughly than adults do. By now, that’s common knowledge. It is also the reason why kids who pick up the game of chess at seven years old are masters by the time they are ten or twelve, especially now days. Things “sink in” far deeper during our formative years, and at an unbelievable rate.

Do I have anything in my own personal life that correlates? Sure. We all do.

I’m a drummer, and have been one since 1994. I picked the basics up pretty fast, and then once I knew how to play, the improvement came painfully slowly, much like my chess game. Over years, I get better at each, but at a snail’s pace. I may not be able to tell that I have improved in twelve months’ time, but in twenty-four months, the change is obvious and positive. Had I learned to play the drums at four years old, I’d probably be playing with a jazz band on a cruise ship or something. I just learn more slowly, now.

If I am introduced to a song today and have to learn it for a band project, I have to listen to that darn thing over and over and pause it in places and go back and then listen fifty more times before I get it right. I suppose that’s par for the course, but riddle me this: I can play songs that I knew and liked when I was younger, before I became a drummer, with almost eerie accuracy.


Because those songs are ingrained much deeper than the stuff I attempt learning today. I didn’t even know I knew the drums to these songs, but I do. I was listening to everything, apparently, not just the parts I liked.

The same exact thing goes with chess. I sign onto the ICC and watch the GMs play bullet at an extremely fast rate and with unbelievable accuracy. Sure, a lot of it is “memorization”, but more precisely, I think, is that they “know” the game inside and out and so they literally see things much quicker than the average player.

They’ve been staring at millions of chess positions since they were young children. There is no way that someone who picked up the game at twenty-six years of age, as I did, can ever hope to outplay them, especially when speed is involved. The difference between my chess vision and that of a GM is astronomical in size. Not worlds apart, but galaxies. Anyone who doesn’t believe that isn’t titled. Period.

On certain days, my chess playing is “off”. You know the days: You can play your pet opening and although everything stays in book, you can’t for the life of you formulate a decent plan and instead, you produce a blunder. That’s probably playing at the 1600 level (Internet, not USCF), give or take, for me.

GM’s have “off” days, too, but when they drop their abilities 300 points, they are “only” playing at the 2200 or 2300 level, as opposed to their usual 2500 or 2600 strength. For that reason, an observer may not notice when these GMs are having their bad days, because even at their worst, they are playing above master level. It’s much more evident when a 1900 loses a game to a 1600 that things aren’t going well for that guy on that particular day. See what I mean?

Us normal folk who weren’t titled by the age of fourteen need much, much more board time to recognize patterns, to find tactics, to spot when our opponents have made a slight positional blunder, and to memorize and understand opening lines. If I have a really, really good day, I’m probably playing at the mid-expert level, which is 2,100-ish OTB. My average (at least on the ‘net) is probably 1900 in slow chess. That means that on an off day, I might actually play at the 1600-1700 level instead, which is about right.

Apply that formula to a GM, and your average 2500 player could be whipping everyone and realistically playing at the 2700-2800 level when he’s firing on all cylinders and “seeing” everything. Doesn’t that sound reasonable? That’s why the world-championship is played in a match over several days or weeks instead of a few games over a weekend.

When a GM is “off”, he may lose a game to a talented FM, and it wouldn’t be fair to him in a championship situation if his game is totally off its hinges. Now, let’s say the FM and that same GM play a match, and the first to six wins is the victor; well, I hate to say it, but that FM doesn’t have a chance. Just because you can play like a bandit one or two games in a row doesn’t mean you are actually stronger than your opponent, even though you managed to eek a win or two. As they say, you can win a few battles, but the war itself is another ballgame.

Go to your favorite site and pick a player, any player at all. Bring up their profile, and look at their “best” ratings in each category (blitz, bullet, standard, variants, etcetera). Now, look to see if their current rating is within thirty points of their “best” rating. I’d bet dollars to donuts it isn’t.

That is the result of this player’s “best” streak of playing, and it shows the level he or she *can* play at when all the puzzle pieces come together so that the picture is clear. Their average strength, however, is probably much lower. Most of the GMs on ICC have a “best” rating that is several hundred above their current rating. That’s just the way it goes.

Anyhow, I think you’d be doing yourself a favor if you did the following, and often: Play both sides of your favorite opening to about ten moves or so, when the opening is technically turning into a middle game. Now, just stare at the position for as long as you can possibly stand. Think about what you see: Try to spot nuances, try to see what each player’s plan should be, and what it usually is, and try to get a good grasp of what’s going on. Because most of us weren’t GMs before the age of twenty, it’s my opinion that we need to work four times harder to achieve desirable results in our chess games.


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