A few tips from other disciplines

I am no longer studying chess to learn the basics in the way I did once, but I am going through that process with improving my technique on the guitar. As with many chess players, I have picked up this and that over the years from others, but not really been through a systematic programme to learn the chops. Tiger Hillarp Persson is learning to play Go, among others because learning a new game from the beginning (he is no longer a beginner though), has made him a better teacher. I work hard on improving as a musician and as a tennis player, because doing something I really like well is a pleasurable experience for me and because I really like to improve my skills. Learning is simply fun.

There are a few tips I have picked up from the highly skilled teachers I have been working with, which I might as well share with your guys.

Train every day. Working a bit every day is better than working twice as much on the weekend. We need our subconscious to keep working in the background or something. I will not claim any type of scientific insight, but I am experiencing a great leap in my technique.

Take a small break to consider what you have just learned. We are all too keen to move on from a potential transformational insight to the next thing, the next exercise. Stopping up to look at what we have just worked on and give our brains a chance to catch up on the various sensations before we demand it to confront a new challenge is paramount. Also, our energy and our attention span increases. You can only sprint for a minute or two, no matter what type of athlete you are, but there are people running 100 km races. And yes, sometimes they walk…

Play with confidence. Actually, this is a chess insight, just happy to see it replicated elsewhere. You cannot second guess yourself all the time. You have to accept that you are limited in ability and should try to execute the stroke, chord, positional decision, whatever it is, in the correct way. When you fail (learning is failing and reflecting, mainly), you will be able to look at what you did wrong and how you can do it right. Second guessing yourself does not work. It may win the point, the song may not sound entirely stupid and you may not blunder something. But not attempting to do things right, means that you will do them wrong for longer. This is a main reason why practice is so glorious; it gives us a chance to fail on purpose, so we can reflect.

The best way to learn to do something right is by doing it right. This is known especially from music, but I find it useful in tennis too. And other things. In chess, when you are learning to apply a proper candidate search to each move, you should allow it to take minutes. By doing the technique (“of just looking for options and ideas” – very simple, but any technique you really want to use should be simple) slowly means that you stay in control and can fend off impulses to just guess or just do something and similar. I know of World Class players that have not implemented the techniques they need to compete at the level they could. And the main problem seems always to be impulse control. So, slow down.



27 thoughts on “A few tips from other disciplines”

  1. Javier Castellote

    Hello, Jacob Aagaard. I am reading your book Strategic play because in the past I read Positional play and I have 2250 Elo, for this reason I think I am prepared to understand the complex book.

    My question is that in simple positiones I always ask the three questions, and I can recognize de critical positiones, when the calculation is absolutely necessary, but… ¿what can I ask myself when I am in a complex position? Because… at the moment, I only know that those positions are not only three questions or calculation.

    Thanks for all.

  2. Frank van Tellingen

    Hi Jacob, first of all, good advice as usual. Made me realize that doing a lot in a totakky chaotic way does not really add up. By the way:

    I don’t know your level of play, but maybe this may be interesting, in case you don’t already know it. It is a series from Danny Gatton, filled with lots of little techniques.


  3. Hello Jacob,

    basically I agree with your suggestions. I play chess and run marathons. No amateur marathon runner trains seven days a week. Training four to five days a week is better as the body needs time to recover. In chess we train our mind, therefore I believe it should have its rest days as well both to recover and to give our subconscious to digest the new information.

  4. @Hesse_Bub
    The reason you have rest days in physical sports is because it takes about 24-48 hours for the muscles to deal with the tear that are inflicted on them. As I understand it, muscles are damaged by the excess demand put on them and in the repair process, they are pub together as stronger.

    I am not deeply into the science of creation of neural networks in the brain (maybe someone can help us). But as far as I have understood it in the past, the latter part of our sleep (5-8 hours) is where information from the day are organised and emotions are worked through.

    I have a feeling the 1:1 is not total and although I do like the idea of looking at the brain as a muscle, we should never forget that this is ultimately a metaphor.

  5. Dear Jacob, do you believe that the best chess players use the candidates moves technique ?
    I don’t know but I doubt it -as for Carlsen, to take an example, he looks the intuitive type and probably lacks the discipline that you describe, it seems to me.

  6. @neiman
    Some of them apply it really well. Some of them do not. Anish Giri is a perfect example of someone who is unable to see something he does not immediately see (meaning, he has not trained it for years, probably because it is frustrating and he likes to look at openings). Obviously it can be cultivated and results will improve. But results also improve when you do other things, of course. But calculation should be a part of the equation for the best end results.

  7. Frank van Tellingen

    A quick chess related question, not sure if I might include a diagram to calculate illustrate the point. In practical play in closed positions where there is not really something concrete to calculate (just minor things), I have difficulty deciding what piece to place where, try to apply profylactic thinking, see favorable options for my opponent everywhere, and…get into heavy time trouble. Afterwards it often turns out that I was not guessing or planning idiotic things only, but during and after! the game it goes with a lot of agony. And with slowing down to an extreme way. In quiet, closed positions, what would be a good way to be more practical, without ignoring the opponents ideas and without wanting to „control“ everything? (Am I making myself clear?) (of course I try to ask the three questions etc.).

    PS thanks to TTIB it now only takes me 5 minutes to be angry with myself.

  8. Javier Castellote

    Jacob, sorry if I did the incorrect questions here…

    I only wanted to know how how to proceed, more or less, in complex positions.


  9. @Javier Castellote
    Beyond the three questions, I am not sure I would recommend any fixed propositions. There are many useful ideas: what is good about my positions, what is bad about my position, how would I ever lose this game, how would I win this game. What am I trying to achieve. Where are my pieces best placed. A lot of it is experience. The issue with Strategy is that it is complex and requires guessing. A tough combination. My book hopefully gives some practice in making such decisions, but obviously it is the most difficult thing in chess.

  10. I know I’m a bit off topic, but I wanted to ask how far away we were from the 2018 pdf for upcoming books please?

    Thank you!


  11. Javier Castellote

    Thanks for the response, Aagaard.

    It’s helping me a lot to read Strategic play. Above all, it helps me a lot in my games to know the differences between the four types of decisions that you develop, so I can know where to go (calculate in critical positions, positional play, strategic decisions, etc). It’s a breakthrough.

    You say in one of your books that those four kinds of decisions help us see our mistakes, but they also help us make better decisions, right? To know at what moment of the game we are.

  12. Hello Jacob, I’ve a question to you.

    I remember you telling the story of a game which is important for your GM title – I guess it was in “Excelling in Chess”-, you were anxious before the game but you had a motivation coach there and you had a talk. How did you mentally prepare yourself for that crucial battle, or how do you prepare yourself in general? I get stuck everytime when a game is important to me, I simply lose it without a fight. Of course I’m trying to avoid it (just play the game, I’m playing against Black pieces today, etc) but haven’t succeed yet.

  13. @Jakob Aagaard
    This is one of your articles showing that you are an experienced trainer well observing. That’s why I read every blog post. Keep on doing this excellent work (which by the way makes me buy a lot of Quality Chess books).

  14. For those of you into martial arts there is an interesting book by a former chess prodigy and world push-hands (tai chi) champion, Joshua Waitzkin, called The Art of Learning.

  15. I am reading Jacob’s “Thinking Inside the Box”. I think Chapter 7 and 8 are especially outstanding. It is the best clear and practical advice I have ever read on improving. It is that simple and that hard at the same time (concentration, take a look, slow down etc). I also really valued how it all fits with Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as is pointed out on pg 139. Very insightful. That connection really pulled together a lot of threads. I used to try to solve a lot of problems when training (“in the gym”). I got caught up in trying to cover a lot of ground but the desire for speed in my self training just led to frustration since I missed so many solutions using just System 1. Now I see the error in my ways.

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