Thursday, February 9, 2017

Memory, the Brain, and My Chess Mastery Journey

I have been doing tactical training and going over a few opening lines in chessbase here and there recently. However, the topic that has been the most on my mind is neuroscience and how the brain works. I figure if I'm going to accomplish the goal of becoming a National Master in just one year I'm going to have to streamline the training process by "hacking" my brain for optimal function. What you'll read below is the results of that research and the ideas I've come up with for the future.

Years ago I developed this idea that chess masters are like machines constantly running. I now know for a certainty that this is not the case. While they calculate with mind-boggling speed and accuracy that is not the primary function of their brain in processing chess. In fact, according to a great study done by William Bart and Michael Atherton from the University of Minnesota called "THE NEUROSCIENTIFIC BASIS OF CHESS PLAYING:APPLICATIONS TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF TALENT AND EDUCATION" the amateur actually calculates far more. The reasons for this are obvious once you hear them. The amateur reinvents the wheel with each game. Thinking about each position without any frame of reference. The master through years of study has in essence "seen it all before" and uses his memory recall far more to remember how to handle a situation more often than calculating. With me so far?

I have noticed that the amateurs method has been my method so far. Every game from the first few moves that I have played since this adventure started has been brand new and interesting positions (with the exception of positions I have had against much lower rated opponents where thinking was not necessary, but the former is most often the case). There is no help for this, however, because until the memories are built I'm doing the mental heavy lifting so I don't have to do it later. It would be beneficial to do more opening study and memorization but we're getting to the crux of the issue.

The real difference between the brain of the master and the brain of the amateur is the ability to take in information and hold it. I'm not just talking about long term memory but that "something" in between, the memory between short-term (remembering something for thirty minutes) and truly long term (years, months, and days). I have noticed this in most amateurs and REALLY noticed it in myself. Most of the lowest rated players I have played are juniors under the age of sixteen or so. It never fails that within thirty minutes of the start of the round their attention wavers and when they return to the fire on board they have to recalculate everything. I do basically the same thing just on a much more subtle scale. After about a half hour to forty-five minutes I find myself leaving the calculation mode (which is fine and normal), holding the calculated line in my mind for later (the desired skill to foster), and then at some interval I want to eliminate losing my grip on the information and having to start over. This has led to several losses in tournaments as well as many more losses in online blitz (because of the distracted nature of my home environment from the start).

The ability that needs to be fostered in my brain (and yours if you want to really massively improve) is this holding of attention. You or I should be able to walk away from the board, get a drink, take a break, and then return to the board still holding in our mind's eye all that previous information.

A couple of areas I have been neglecting that have been potentially linked to brain health and skills are 1) sleep - I have not been sleeping well. Long hours of study and research are not conducive to sleep or at least not restful and rejuvenating sleep. The mind must be quieted. 2)Exercise - studies have shown that immediately after exercise the brain is more capable of retaining information. This leads me to the conclusion that if I want to get better at chess I need to hit the gym (or in my personal case the martial arts mats). You would be surprised how many chess Grandmasters know something about the martial arts or sports. 3)Meditation - meditation and the state of mind achieved in its practice has been linked to granting the same memory effects as good sleeping. A greater retention of information immediately surrounding its use. Now, taking out any eastern philosophy or mysticism let's just assume that meditation as an exercise gives you a greater internal understanding and awareness of your body. To me that has to translate to a control switch for holding information in my mind and memory.

So there you have it ... some things I'll be doing moving forward to help my memory and work toward this focused ability of memory that a master uses many times without conscious thought that he is using it. I'm not going to assume this idea is the correct one and I recommend you don't make that assumption either. However, for me it is a place to start and can give me measurable results in the form of rating points. If you make these alterations and my rating goes up then I'm right. If the rating doesn't go up or is marginally raised then perhaps it is not the whole truth. Time will tell.

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