A Chess Story

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A friend of mine once asked me how I got so good at chess. The simple answer is that I really don’t have one easy answer.

So I thought I might try to answer it here.

My taught me chess during the Fischer boom era (1972-1975). I had some talent but really nothing worth noting here.

Except I knew I liked it.

So I taught myself notation. At that time the complicated Descriptive Notation was the norm. You know, like 1.P-K4 P-K4 2.N-KB3 N-QB3 3.B-B4 N-KB3 4.N-N5, which describes a popular line in the Two Knights Defence. Don’t worry about if you can’t follow it. Almost no one can now.

But it opened the door for me. I could actually play over the games in a chess book. It was wonderful feeling, like I could speak another language.

By then I was hooked. Eventually I would play over all the games of Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess and read a lot of Reinfeld. I tried playing over the games in my head, without a chess board. I found I could memorize and play over many short games in my head and longer games with varying degrees of success.

Learning this game was fun. But I also struggled – there were mysteries about the game I didn’t understand. Not every game went according to Reinfeld. I wanted not just to play, but to actually become better at the game.

So I began collecting openings, endgames, problems, whole games and stored them in 3-ringed binders (remember, this was pre-PC and pre-Internet). I taught myself a new notation called Algebraic (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5) and enough German and Russian to play some games from magazine and books in those languages. I finally got a chess tutor.

But the biggest improvement came not from books  or magazines, but from studying the games by myself. It started easy, asking myself some very simple questions about the game. Like why did Black resign in this game? How well do I know Queen endgames?

I didn’t know this at the time. But many psychologists, and people who study such things, tell us we need to spend approximately 10,000 hours to master a subject. Not playing, not enjoying the subject, but actually putting in some work into teaching yourself. I don’t know how many hours I spent learning this game, but I did peak at 2352 at chess.com and earned a Candidate Master’s (CM) title from the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and had about the same rating from the Correspondence Chess League of America (CCLA).

Some people might call spending 10,000 hours studying something. They may be right (see Dilbert cartoon at bottom). But someone once told me that learning to walk takes about the same amount of time to master. And I do see these people walking.

R.

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