Stephen Covey’s Teachings Applied to Chess

   Self help author Dr. Stephen Covey passed away this morning.  I have been a fan of his teachings for a long time, and have found them very valuable.  They can be applied to many areas of life, including chess.

  Today I want to share two ideas from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Idea #1 Sharpen the Saw

   Covey discovered over years of reading and studying success that certain underlying themes seemed to recur.  These weren’t superficial behavioral “how to’s”, but went deeper, relating more to one’s ethics or way of life.

   His seventh habit is “Sharpening the Saw”.  This powerful idea can really only be described by Covey’s word-picture:

    Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

   “What are you doing?” you ask.

   “Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

   “You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

   “Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

    “Well why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire.  “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

    “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

You need to Sharpen the Saw

   To me in regards to chess, “Sharpening the saw” is shorthand for anything you do that isn’t playing chess, necessarily, but (theoretically) makes you a better chess player.

    Often times I see chess players who spend years at the same rating level, and spend hundreds of hours playing games, but never take any time to “sharpen their saw”. 

   I’ve actually know a few players with the opposite problem as well – they spend most of their time studying chess (sharpening the saw), but never actually playing chess (using the saw). 

   This is a very valuable principle that can be applied to chess improvement, and all areas of life.

Idea #2 Big Rocks First

   Here is a video of Covey demonstrating this principle:

   In the video Covey takes a bucket filled with gravel (small rocks), and asks a woman to insert several large rocks, which represent certain important areas of life.

   The woman is unable to squeeze in the big rocks, because the small rocks are taking up so much space.

   He then suggests a paradigm shift, of putting the large rocks in first.  Then pouring the smaller rocks in around them.

   Only by putting the large rocks in first, does everything work together.

   To me, in chess, the “Big Rocks” are tactics.  You must first put these “Big Rocks” (learning tactics) in your “Bucket” (Brain), before adding in all the small rocks.

   The Big Rocks would be things like avoiding and eliminating blunders, 1-3 move tactical combinations that win material, checkmating patterns, etc.

   The smaller rocks would be things like understanding pawn structures, positional play, strategic considerations, opening improvements, endgame techniques, etc.

   Tactics Time is focused on the “Big Rocks”.

   You want to have as many rocks in your bucket as possible as you climb the chess improvement ladder, but it is important to put the big rocks in first.

  Rest in Peace Stephen.






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4 thoughts on “Stephen Covey’s Teachings Applied to Chess

  1. The idea of filling the bucket is amazing. I have heard it a few times, but its application is amazing if you think about it deeper.

    It is VERY hard to believe, but you are right Timmy. I sum up once more (I believe it is very important to understand it and accept it).

    1. “Big Rocks” are tactics. You must first put these “Big Rocks” (learning tactics) in your “Bucket” (Brain), before adding in all the small rocks.
    2. The Big Rocks would be things like avoiding and eliminating blunders, 1-3 move tactical combinations that win material, checkmating patterns, etc.
    3. The smaller rocks would be things like understanding pawn structures, positional play, strategic considerations, opening improvements, endgame techniques, etc.

    Last week I have made an experiment – I played many (80) blitz games (3mins plus 3seconds per move) against my colleague to see what will be the most important reasons (elements) of losing games. Guess what was that. Yes, you are right: most of my losses (or wins) were caused by simple tactics and blunders – not knowing many patterns, overlooking simple (1-2 shots) tactics and mate in 1. When I do not hang (drop) up pieces I was playing really nice games.

    Now I am trying to understand how it is possible to play blitz games at such a high level as GMs are playing (I mean players 2600 or stronger). It is quite easy – they know many positions by heart – it does not matter if they are mating patterns or tactics or strategy and endings. Some studies reveal that most strong players (2400 and stronger) possesed about 50 to 80 thousand (!) patterns (positions). They just know them by heart and after a glimpse of looking – they can play them without thinking (I mean consious effort!).

    As the above great experiment with Stephen showed – if you do not put the most important rocks – they are tactics indeed – your other rocks (elements like understanding pawn structures, positional play, strategic considerations, opening improvements, endgame techniques, etc,) will not be working properly and with full speed and efficiency.

    Most people do not see the simple correlation between being very strong at tactics and using it as a base (fundamental basics) for building with other elements. When you are playing opponents who are not so good at tactics – you should win most of the time – just having overall plan and if you do not lose material and take EVERY opportunity to win your opponent’s pieces. Although if you are playing against stronger opponents (I mean some players like 2200+) you should be outplayed by their stronger tactics togethet with positional squeeze.

    To summarize: GREAT ideas provided by Stephen and spread by Timmy! Thanks you very much for such a beautifully and very inspirational tools!

    Very sad news. Rest in Peace Stephen: you are inside the mind and heart of many people! You can be sure your ideas are living and helping others to live better life!

    • Thanks Tomasz, Glad that you liked it :-)

      He has another version of the rocks, where he then adds sand, and then adds water as well. To me these would be the things that you are adding to the bucket (brain) once you get to the 2200+ level. At that level you are adding things like theoretical novelties on move 22.

      The 7 Habits was the one of the first self improvement books that I read. I have listened to all of his followups on audio book, which are all excellent, and full of great ideas. Covey was the “real deal”, and his teachings influenced a lot of people.

      Thanks again for the great comments!

  2. I especially like that one excerpt of your article:

    I’ve actually know a few players with the opposite problem as well – they spend most of their time studying chess (sharpening the saw), but never actually playing chess (using the saw).

    That idea is quite interesting because there are many players who do not balance the optimal solution for them. In different stages (rating floors) of your chess (like for example: 800-1100, 1100-1400 or 1400-1700, 1700-2000), you should choose how many hours (a day or a week) you are going to studying chess and how many playing chess.

    If you are sharpening the saw too long your ability and skills in using might quite fast deteriorate. And in reverse: If you using the saw too long (without constant sharpening) it will not be so sharp and your results are going not to improve (as much as they could).

    It is great Timmy that you are so creative as spreading many amazing ideas into the world of chess. I am very glad and thankful for these entertaining and inspiring ideas! I love to see such great stuff! They help me a lot at comprehesion and creativity process (for my articles and posts to my chess blog)

    • Thanks again Tomasz :-) Someone on reddit.com pointed out that a lot of Covey’s other principles could also be applied to the chess world. He wrote:

      “To follow with your translation into chess, I think the first three principles apply quite well to playing a game.

      Be Proactive: Take initiative by realizing that your decisions are the primary determining factor on the game. Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

      Begin with the End in Mind: Discover and clarify your goals. Envision the ideal characteristics for what you want to achieve with the position.

      Put First Things First: Prioritize, plan, and execute your moves based on importance rather than urgency. That is, how well they align with the goals you set.”

      which I thought was an excellent comment.

      I think fear plays a part in the people who are sharpening the saw too much. They always feel they need to know more before they start playing. Since there is always more to learn, they get stuck trying to learn as much as possible before playing. But the only real way to learn is to get out there, play, be willing to lose, apply what you learned, and then make corrections based on the mistakes going forward.

      Glad that you like my writings on chess :-) I try to take ideas from outside the chess world, and bring them into the chess world to get some new perspectives on things, and share things I have found useful or interesting.

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