Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Going Stale

I want to write today about something that I believe every non-professional chessplayer encounters occasionally, and that is "Going Stale." What does that mean?
Specifically, I'm talking about that time when you are approaching the end of a study cycle and you begin to pick up some games to try out your new-found skills in chess, whatever that may be: a new opening, endgame knowledge, middlegame strategy, etc. You soon discover, much to your horror, that you seem to be 'fighting' the board and the pieces at each step of your game. The openings you mis-play, you select offendingly bad plans in the middlegames, and you cannot even hold a Philidor's Position in a Rook Endgame. Simply Horrifying.

Why does this happen?

As you study (not 'play') chess - any aspect of it: openings, middlegame, tactics, strategy, endgames - your mind tends to 'change modes' where the importance of the 'game' slips from becoming something related to the final score to something related to execution of a specific tactic, strategy, or sequence of moves, as in an opening variation. It is as if a switch had been flipped in your mind where the focus of chess has gone from a results-oriented approach (i.e., the final score of the game) to a short-term, solve-this-position approach (i.e., specific positions). This can be illustrated with the simple idea that a position can be reached that, in 'solve' mode, you know you can achieve some short-term goal (win a pawn at the expense of position), but in 'game' mode, you may decide to take a less risky approach to the position and play a variation that offers not quite the same long-term chances, but present less risk to you short-term. I believe that the longer you 'study' without playing actual games that mean something to you (at least psychologically, rating points not withstanding), the more difficult and longer it takes to get your mind to flip the switch back to the results-oriented mode of play.

The Obvious Remedy

The obvious remedy to this avoidable situation is to play somewhat meaningful games every day, expecially study days. This way, you get the opportunity to apply anything you just studied and you keep your 'chess switch' from spending too much time in the 'wrong' position, i.e., study-mode. Time controls such as G5, G10 and G15 serve this purpose well and do not take up entire blocks of time you may have alloted to playing chess each day. It also serves the purpose of giving you immediate feedback so you can identify what areas of your game are still lacking.

To avoid "Going Stale", play frequently!

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