Dad playing chess, cooking and parenting two kids at the same time

The Random Skills of Adult Improvers

Someone recently asked me if I had seen the Greek Gift and I thought it was a sandwich.

In the same postmortem, I used the word ‘opposition’ and my opponent thought I was talking about politics.

That got me thinking.

One of the weirdest things I have noticed about Adult Improvers, especially those of us who took up chess in the pandemic/Queen’s Gambit aftermath, is that we have a bizarre skill distribution in chess.

The problem with chess is that achieving even a reasonable proficiency in one part of the game takes a long time.

Take pawn endgames for example. This is something I have a reasonable level of proficiency in, I think. It took me about a month to understand and commit to memory all the basic pawn endgame theory.

I’m talking about concrete positions, won or drawn. Opposition. The key squares of blocked pawns. The Trebuchet. I then spent two more months learning all the principles of practical endgame play. I used the book: Pawn Endings by Karsten Muller and Frank Lampracht. I then added some pawn endgame tactics into my existing tactics routine. That represents at least another few weeks of study.

In total, it probably took me four months to get semi-decent at pawn endings. And I’m still not 100% confident in them.

I mean, I feel like if a practical pawn endgame is even, I have a better chance of winning than an opponent of the same level. But I’m nowhere near where I’d want to be. I would say I have developed a basic foundation in pawn endgames.

With the exception of a moderate increase in my ability to calculate, this block of pawn endgame study didn’t really affect many other parts of my chess.

Months of hard work and study, and what I achieved was a higher probability of winning only those of my chess games that reached a pawn endgame.

And how many games of mine end in pawn endgames? Not a lot.

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The Mini-Games of Chess

Chess is not one game. It is a series of different mini-games that are combined.

And to complicate matters even more, from the starting position you are never sure which combination of games you are about to play.

Chess is much less like running a marathon, and much more like a decathlon - or to make up a word, it’s like a milliathlon.

The problem is that unlike in a decathlon where your overall score is decided by playing each event once, in a game of chess, you might only get to play three of the many possible mini-games. And they might all be the ones you are shite at.

Good. So I have been playing chess for exactly two years and probably four months total of that time was spent on pawn endgames.

I imagine reaching the same level of basic proficiency in any chess subskill would take a similar amount of time. So after two years of dedicating myself to studying and playing chess, I could conceivably be a little bit good at half a dozen things... But with all the messing about I do (also known as ‘adulting’), it’s probably more like four.

That sounds about right. I think I could name four chess skills that I feel like I’m relatively better at compared to my peers - pawn endgames, rook endgames, Carlsbad structure middlegames and IQP middlegames. That’s not very many.

Chances are that maybe just one or two of these sub-skills will be relevant in the next game I play. But it’s also very much possible that none of them will come up.

Chess Mini-Game Ratings

We all have a chess rating for different time controls and a chess puzzle rating, the latter of which maybe does in some way measure our ability to calculate and spot patterns.

However, there is no such thing as a rook endgame rating. I consider this a real shame, because it could definitely boost my ego to be rated at something I feel like I am actually good at.

I’m pretty sure mini-game ratings would exist if there was a way to accurately measure every one of them.

Because when you play a game it’s never just Steve (1540) against Martha (1972). First, it’s Steve (1100 in the Caro-Kann opening) vs Martha (2250 in the Caro-Kann opening). Then it might be Steve (1400 in the Carlsbad structure) vs Martha (1300 in the Carlsbad structure). And finally, it might be Steve (1100 in opposite coloured bishop endings) vs Martha (800 in opposite coloured bishop endings).

The point is: when we sit down to play, we don’t often know what our opponents have studied.

We don’t know the chess sub-skills they are above-average or even excellent in, or what they have yet to get around to studying. Because of the nature of chess, with its many complex mini-games, it’s impossible to immediately be proficient in all of them for those of us who learnt chess as an adult and have only played for a few years.

All this is not to say we don’t have a basic understanding of many of these mini-games.

It’s not that because we haven’t spent months studying the Greek Gift Sacrifice in depth, that we won’t be able to spot it and execute it in our games. Nor does it mean that just because we haven’t spent a few months examining one of our openings in fine detail that we can’t navigate said opening - using our understanding of opening principles, basic strategy and a general idea of the structures and plans.

But when it comes to really mastering a mini-game, we’ve only had time to dedicate ourselves to a select few that we are now very good at relative to our rating group.

What I am trying to do here is to caveat that just because we haven’t done a deep dive into one specific topic, this doesn’t mean we are totally ignorant of its existence, think it might be a sandwich, and are simply doomed if it comes up on the board.

The way I view it, each mini-game isn’t a check box with a tick in it - it’s more like a progress bar from 0 to 100%.

And this is how we end up with unique sets of random skills as Adult Improvers.

We do of course need a structured, long-term plan designed to cover all elements of our game equally in the end - which is why I work with my students to create a personalized study plan.

Know Thyself

Every chess player is very passionate about some parts of the game, and passionately dislikes others.

I’m sure I can’t have been the only one to experience a sense of total superiority in certain positions where it is clear that you have entered a chess mini-game that you have studied and your opponent has not.

For example, I’ve seen bizarre king retreats in pawn endgames. A rook going totally passive in a rook endgame. I’ve seen people trade off all their minor pieces voluntarily when they have the IQP.

To flip it around, I am certain the same has been true for my opponents looking at me.

I must have played terrible openings where my opponents were left shaking their heads thinking: how can he not know that? Well, I’ll tell you - I haven’t studied it. At all! But I will. And for now, I suck at it, and that's okay.

We can’t learn everything at once, and as annoying as it might be, we simply have to accept that there are parts of chess we simply haven’t covered yet.

Some of my openings suck, but due to the unfortunate nature of time, I have to choose between all the things I don’t know yet. I can pick only one when I sit down to do my study. I need to accept that, because if I spend the next few weeks getting good at an opening, then there is an opportunity cost. Something else won’t get studied.

Time is, frustratingly and unfortunately, a singular continuum. Something I find difficult to accept as an Adult Improver, and only partly because I can’t retroactively become a Child Improver.

Anyway, I think it is worth knowing what you don’t know. I just prefer to think about the things I don’t know as the things I don’t know YET.

Improving Your Mini-Games

Maybe this idea of different mini-games in chess is most evident when you change your opening.

Nate Solon discussed this idea in an episode of the ChessFeels podcast:

“To me, chess feels less like one game, and more like these connected sub-games. They all kind of have their own strategic rules. When you get experienced with an opening it’s almost like you're playing a different game (...) and that's why you often get crushed when you get into a very unfamiliar position [out of the opening].”

As adults who recently took up the game, we are going to have big gaping holes in our game. We are going to have a random skill tree that will slowly get filled in. And that’s okay.

Remember: we cannot say that we or our opponents are bad at something if we haven’t studied it.

In the same way, you wouldn’t say your German is terrible if you had never tried to learn how to speak German. You just don’t speak it. You’re not bad at it, you just don’t know it yet.

It’s frustrating but you need to just let that go. Otherwise, there is a danger of running around trying to get good at everything all at once - and only achieving the opposite: of learning about everything and getting good at nothing.

When I was studying geology, we had this self-deprecating joke about ourselves that simultaneously managed to degrade the geography department. We said that geologists learn more and more about less and less until we know almost everything about almost nothing. And geographers learn less and less about more and more until they know almost nothing about almost everything.

In chess, I think there is a danger of falling into one of these two extremes in the way that we approach our study.

I love pawn endgames. I love rook endgames. I studied them because I like them. More than that, I became obsessed with them. But studying them more is not going to win me more games. It would be overkill. I would see seriously diminishing returns for my efforts.

But at the same time, if we get overwhelmed by the vastness of all the chess sub-skills, we can dart about doing a bit of this and a bit of that - not really getting to grips with any of it. I think this is what Neal Bruce was talking about with his candle metaphor when I interviewed him at the start of the year.

Directing The Game Towards Your Strengths

So what do we do then? Do we just accept that sometimes we are going to find ourselves in positions we haven’t studied? Can we reduce that risk at all?

Sure. You can try to push the game into areas you have studied, although more often than not (especially at the lower levels), you’ll find that:

Games are not pushed into any type of position, games fall into one position or another.

The process is less deliberate and more like random chance, because decisions aren’t dictating the nature of the position, mistakes are.

Whilst that is true up to a level, we do of course have some control over the nature of the position. If like me, you have sunk a good bit of time into studying the Carlsbad structure, it would make sense to play openings that lead to those positions. In fact, not doing so would make that study completely redundant.

And although we often fall into random structures and positions due to mistakes, we can of course aim for positions that we feel familiar with.

Fixing One Leak At A Time

There can be a danger of making sub-optimal moves to reach positions we feel comfortable in.

Of course, we must always try to play the best move in any given position. Even if this leads us into unchartered territory.

In unknown positions, we must simply accept that chess is this huge monster of learning and that for a while at least, we are going to come up against gaps in our knowledge and fall flat on our faces.

We can try to run around plugging all these leaks at once, but for me and my students, I have found that the best approach is to fix each leak one at a time. This way, it isn’t going to start leaking again whilst you're off plugging all the other holes. For this reason, I am an advocate for studying in blocks like Neal Bruce, although my approach now more closely resembles Zach Cramer’s method.

As frustrating as it can be, we must accept that sometimes we find ourselves in positions we have not studied. As I stated, I prefer to think of these as the positions I haven’t studied yet, rather than those I am weaker in.

Something To Learn From Everyone

To end on a positive note, I do believe there is something valuable to be learnt from the random sub-skills we’ve gathered so far.

We will find that the things we have covered in our short chess lives will often be the very things that we enjoy most about this beautiful game.

So we can take that knowledge and use it to find our style, pick our openings, and decide what we might enjoy most in our next study block.

Finally, I’ve yet to meet another Adult Improver who hasn’t also gathered a random collection of chess mini-games that they have gotten good at. Whenever I meet someone new in chess - regardless of whether they are higher or lower rated than me, I always ask them this one question:

What elements of chess do you love the most?

I always seek to find the parts of chess that move them, because the chances are that those elements are also the areas they will have studied and practised the most. By finding their passion, I also find a teacher in them.

From everyone, there is something to learn. Even if some or all of the content is already familiar to us, perhaps that person can instil a passion in us for their favourite parts of the game.

Because it is passion that allows us to study it with joy, find new beauty in it, and let it become another tool added to the slowly but surely growing skill set of the Adult Improver.

If you'd like some guidance to grow your personal skill set as an Adult Improver,

You're welcome to book a free 60-minute trial chess lesson with me.

Thanks for reading!

Tell me in the comments what parts of chess you have covered, and what you're looking forward to getting to.

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