Is there an optimal method of chess training?

A decade ago, as an amateur competitive cyclist I became interested in the topic of optimal training methods. Through research and personal experience, I learned that while nearly everyone followed the same general approach to training, specific methodologies within that general approach could have profound impact on results. Today, I’m interested in learning whether parallels might exist in the area of chess training.

Sensations—the old way of training

When I got into competitive cycling, the basic elements of training and the general approach to employing those elements were widely known—i.e. long endurance rides in the winter, transitioning to higher-intensity training during the spring and into the racing season. And if possible, intensity levels should be targeted and monitored with tools such as bike-mounted power meters or heart-rate monitors.

You would find this approach described in nearly all the available literature. The problem I found, however, was that the recommendations were insufficiently specific and left most of the day-to-day decisions to guess work. Say it’s March 15, what should I specifically do today? How long should an endurance ride be? Should it change over time? What should the transition from endurance to intensity training look like? How many intervals should I do? How long should those intervals be? Are those competitive Saturday club rides OK? How do things change if I miss a week of training?

Due to the lack of process and specificity in the general recommendations, the decision of what to do on a daily basis for most people came down to “sensations”; if you felt good, you went hard. If you didn’t, you went easy. And when you did train hard, you most certainly wanted to end the session exhausted, to get the feeling that you achieved maximum benefit from the training.

A modern method and process made all the difference

At some point, I stumbled across a book called, [[[The Cyclist’s Training Bible, by Joe Friel]]], which changed everything.

Joe did something no other author and trainer (that I knew of at the time) did: He not only developed a general training methodology based on the latest sports science research, but also proposed a process by which any individual could tailor that method specifically for themselves.

  • As for the approach, the latest research suggested that training should be structured to achieve peaks in performance at specific times during the year, and that trying to maintain a competitive level throughout the entire year is sub-optimal. The consequence is that during parts of the year, you’ll actually feel you’re not training enough. In addition, it had come to be known that training by “sensations” is particularly bad, since the body actually goes into overtraining nearly two weeks before you start to feel overtrained—at which point it’s too late.

  • As for the process of tailoring the approach to each individual, it began with three inputs: The amount of time per week you have available to train, your anaerobic threshold (or maximum heart rate if you couldn’t have a doctor determine the former), and the calendar dates of your most important events.

The result was a personalized year-long schedule, in which you could look at any day of the year and know exactly how you’d be training—i.e. the type of training, the duration and the intensity level.

No more guess work!

Lesson learned—the method and process can be critical

I followed Joe’s methodology, and was astounded at the results. In my very first season, I achieved a level of performance that was previously unimaginable for myself. It almost seemed like magic.

The lesson learned was profound—that given the same elements of training shared by everybody (endurance rides, intervals, hills, flats, etc.) the specific method and process of training could produce dramatically different results.

A current interest in chess

Fast forward ten years…

Having learned the game only two years ago, my 11 year-old son Lance recently became the Spanish National Champion of rapid chess and placed 4th overall in classical chess at the 2014 Spanish National Championship.

During the months leading up to the national championship in July, he also won both the county (Malaga) and regional (Andalucia) championships, along with taking 3rd place in the largest open (adult) tournament in Malaga.

Reflecting together on his training so far, we recognized a lot of similarities with my own cycling training before reading Joe Friel’s book—i.e. it has been relatively unstructured and apart from an hour of private instruction per week most of his training has been ad-hoc and driven by “sensations”. If he felt like reading up on some openings, he did. If he felt like watching a Magnus Carlsen game on YouTube, he did that. And if he felt like playing some chess online, he did that.

His results during the past year have made it clear to us that he’s got a lot of natural talent in this sport. He now recognizes this and has decided that, going forward, he wants to take training more seriously, in order to make the most of his abilities.

And that leads to the same questions I pondered a decade ago: Is there an optimal way to train for chess? Given a limited amount of time to train, how should that time best be spent? As in cycling, could there be specific methodologies and processes that, when tailored and applied to the individual, could dramatically improve results?

Unfortunately, my research so far has only uncovered general training elements—the study of openings, working through tactical and strategic problems, following along commentated games. I‘ve also found lots of recommendations on how to structure training, but these are mostly opinions—and often conflicting ones at that!—based on observations of what worked for one historical figure or another.

I’ve found nothing along the lines of what Joe Friel brought to cycling—i.e. a specific process that, given some input parameters such as your current level and the amount of time you have available, produces as an output a specific plan that is optimal according to a modern understanding of how to progress in the game.

I’ve also spoken with the person who has been giving Lance weekly private lessons. He’s a chess International Master and, based on his experience, he’s not optimistic that a specific training method would likely be broadly optimal in an intellectual sport like chess. Although hearts, lungs and muscles generally work the same among all of us, the way each person’s mind works, particularly as applied to a game like chess, is, in his opinion, likely to vary significantly from person to person.

So his recommendation, which we’ll follow for now, is that together we begin to spend more effort in expanding and structuring Lance‘s training according to his current level, and his strengths and weaknesses assessed through continual review of his tournament games.

And, as we do that, I’ll continue to research the topic!

I’d love to hear your thoughts

I decided to publish this article for a couple of reasons.

First, as I intend to approach a number of experts in the field, being able to point them to this article will allow me to avoid having to repeat the story over and over.

Second, I’m hoping that someone with experience or knowledge in this area might stumble across it (perhaps through a Google search) and be able to provide some feedback or point me to relevant research or information.

So if you have some thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear them!

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?

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