The Bad Beliefs of Chess Improvement

One of the things that often surprises and saddens me is how chess players can spend years working on their chess game and never improve.

Some just give up, and accept the fact that they have a low rating, and figure there is nothing that they can do about it.

This is basically a form of what psychologists call “learned helplessness”. There are lots of examples of how this works.

For example, when elephants are babies in a circus, the animal trainer will tie a large chain around the elephant’s leg. Since the elephant is just a baby, he is not able to move with this huge chain around his leg.

Eventually the elephant will stop even trying to escape from the chain, because it has learned that it is “impossible”.

By the time the elephant is an adult, the people from the circus can just tie a small rope around the elephant’s leg, and it will not even try to escape, even though it could, because it “learned” that it cannot break free no matter what it does.

These are also known as “limiting beliefs” in the self help world, and we all have them.

One bad limiting belief is that adults cannot improve at chess.

A similar limiting belief is that even if the can improve, they cannot do it quickly, or without a ton of painful effort.

Another bad belief is that getting better at chess has to be really difficult. This belief is reinforced by chess teachers, such as Dan Heisman who wrote in his Novice Nook column,

“No one gets good at chess quickly and without a lot of work; if that was possible I could not be a full-time chess instructor.”

On the surface this makes sense, but if you think about it deeper, it is really just a bad belief wrapped in faulty logic.

I respect Dan a lot, and he has a lot of great ideas, but I beg to differ on this point.

You could apply this type of logic to anything where there is a person teaching or helping another person who doesn’t know that subject yet.  Here are some examples with various degrees of absurdity.

“No one learns the alphabet quickly and without a lot of work; if that were possible I could not be a full time kindergarten teacher”.

“No one gets good at finding books at the library quickly and without a lot of work; if that were possible I could not be a full time librarian”.

“No one gets good at putting on shoes quickly and without a lot of work; if that were possible I could not be a full time shoe salesman”.

Just because someone makes a living at a subject does not make that subject inherently difficult.  It just means that the person knows more than the people they are teaching or helping, and/or people are willing to pay that person to teach or help them.

The fact that many people get good at chess without taking lessons, or working with a coach also disproves Dan’s point.  Many top players today, such as Grandmaster Nakamura mostly work alone with a computer.  Bobby Fischer mostly worked alone, because he didn’t feel like “giving lessons”.

Why do I want to give chess lessons? ~ Bobby Fischer on why he didn’t have a trainer

I don’t have a problem with people taking lessons, or working with a coach.  I’ve worked with coaches and teachers in many areas of life that I wanted to improve at, and if the teacher is good, it can rapidly accelerate the learning process.  I am just saying that the fact that there are chess coaches, doesn’t prove that chess is a difficult subject to improve at.

Part of the problem is that teachers, coaches, and authors often have a conflict of interest. They want to help people, but if they help them too much, then they are not needed.  Additionally if people feel the subject is easy to master by themselves, then they will not feel the need to hire a coach or teacher.

For example, if I am a dating coach, and I can give you a simple tip to help you get a girlfriend, and you follow my advice, and get a girlfriend, then I am not needed anymore.

You see this dilemma a lot in the personal training industry.  The trainer wants to help the person to get into better shape, but not teach them so much that the trainer is no longer needed.  The client needs to see results, but not gain independence from the trainer, or the trainer loses money.  So you will see personal trainers putting their clients through all of these crazy overly complicated workouts, holding back useful information, or doing exercises that involve two people, so that the client feels that the trainer is needed.

If I am trying to make money with weight loss, I can’t just write a one page book that says “eat less, and exercise more”. Nobody would purchase such a book. They would say “that is too simple”.

So instead, if I wanted to make money in weight loss, I would need to come up with some crazy diet plan, or some special fat burning formula, or create some ab crunching gadget that will work with just 3 minutes a day.  (Interestingly, as I am writing this I just got a spam e-mail for some diet thing called “Pure Raspberry Ketone”, which was on the Doctor Oz show.  This is exactly the kind of junk I am talking about).

So the point is that “Keep it Simple, Stupid” can be a disaster from a marketing point of view!  People don’t want simple, and people selling simple won’t make any money!  Additionally, if the people selling solutions solve your problem too quickly, they won’t make any money!

In my previous post, I talked about Timothy who wrote me that he was struggling with chess, and hadn’t gained a rating point in years.  He had an overly complicated study plan, and had been taking private chess lessons from a well known, and well respected National Master.  I told him, don’t do any of that crap, just study tactics, and that’s it.

3 weeks later he writes me back that he did what I said to do, and gained 173 rating points in that short period of time..

My solution wasn’t complicated, and it didn’t take him a long time to improve. 

Now, if I was trying to make a living at chess, this would have been a disaster for me, because instead of sending him an e-mail with a simple solution, that took me 5 minutes to write, I should have been encouraging him to take lessons from me, where I am charging him by the hour!  You can see the conflict of interest.

I think a lot of full time chess instructors have the idea that chess is really complex, and complicated.  They like thinking of themselves as part of the intellectual elite.  They like to think of themselves as part of the bourgeoisie, giving enlightened chess pearls of wisdom from on high to the unwashed chess masses.

My philosophy is that many people are making chess more complicated than it needs to be.  It can feed their ego to know they have mastered a complicated game. 

It could be possible that some teachers know chess isn’t that complicated, but they have to reenforce this idea, so that they can make a living at it.

I think that adults can improve, and I think they can do it rapidly.  I think that beliefs are really important, and if you believe that chess is hard and complicated, it will be.  If you belief that it is impossible to improve, it will be.

So watch your beliefs, keep it simple, and have fun!

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4 thoughts on “The Bad Beliefs of Chess Improvement

  1. You’re right Tim! What a person believes, whether accurate or not, usually limits him or her to that belief. Such behavior is often called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost all of us limit our capabilities by creating these false beliefs (prophecies). A few of us create self-fulfilling prophecies to set ourselves free. What I mean here is, instead of saying to yourself you are too old to improve at chess, tell yourself, “I am not too old to improve! I will prove it to myself, and then to others.” Set up a positive belief, a belief that will allow you growth. Your actions follow the beliefs of your mind. Change your beliefs and you will change your behavior. It is just that simple… :)

  2. I must have been pretty bad a chess in the beginning because I actually bought a book on it and I have to admit it did teach me some tactics but it’s also one of the few books I’ve never read to the end. Perhaps I found the author to be boring.

    I don’t really know abut my rating points as it’s never bothered me to find out. I just enjoy the game for what it is. Even when I lose, which is a lot :D, unless I’ve done something stupid I admire the tactics the opposition used to beat me.

    In life you learn from your mistakes and I think with chess it’s the same.

  3. Another excellent article. You never cease to impress me, not so much with vast knowledge, but with a simple, clear vision. Thanks. :)

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