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Your (Chess) Learning Style with Braden Laughlin

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I remember the first time I ever learnt about bishop vs knight.

I was excited to learn how to take advanced outpost squares away from the knights. I revelled in the information about how the number of pawns and their relative distribution affected positions in which a knight v bishop imbalance was prevalent. I was falling in love with chess as I learnt about these basic concepts. It was my honeymoon phase with the game.

I got this information from the book The Amateur's Mind by Jeremy Silman, and if you’ve heard my interview on The Chess Journey’s podcast, you’ll hear my overexcitement about it. I had just read the chapter on bishop vs knight a few weeks before I was interviewed and I remember it just blew my mind.

But the other thing I remember is just how long it took me to get through that chapter. I did one game a weekend and spent about an hour on each game. In total, it took me over a month to get through the information and what I had at the end of it was just that - information.

I had no skill. I had no experience in practically applying the things I had understood. Months of work and I was still at step one: information gathering.

Having the information about bishop vs knight imbalances is the very first step to playing these positions well. It's kind of like someone telling you that in order to get healthy, you can go swimming, stop eating junk food, and start meditating. That's just information. Learning how to swim, motivating yourself to cut out junk food from your diet, and learning exactly how it is that one meditates - all of that comes afterwards.

So it is all very well to know that having pawns on either side of the board favours the bishop, that a closed position favours the knight, and that knights need advanced outposts. But learning how to keep a position closed, create a stable outpost, and stop your opponent from liquidating the pawns on one side of the board are skills.

The knowledge guides us as to what we are meant to do, but it doesn’t teach us how we are supposed to actually do it.

So how do we improve both our knowledge and skills in a time-efficient, effective and enjoyable way?

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Case Study: Braden Laughlin

To help me answer this question, I had the opportunity to speak with Braden Laughlin.

Braden attributes most of his growth in chess to video learning - and that growth is fairly staggering.

So Braden was definitely the right man to talk to next in my never-ending quest for a deeper understanding of how to become a better chess player.

I first became aware of Braden and his chess improvement superpowers when he was interviewed as an Adult Improver guest on the Perpetual Chess Podcast in 2019. At the time of that interview, he had taken his Canadian rating from 0 to 1750 in his first 16 months of chess.

After that, Braden got back to OTB play and gained a staggering 151 points in his most recent tournament. You can check out his games from that showing on his YouTube channel. In fact, Braden is building a library of every game he has played.

I don’t think there are many people who have documented every OTB game from Beginner right up to where Braden is now - just shy of 2000.

For Braden, video learning is still a core part of his training despite the higher level he is now playing at.

Even during this most recent tournament, he points to videos as the perfect way for him to prepare.

"When I compete, I prefer to watch video content as a non-committal way to stay fresh and confident throughout my tournaments. For example, both mornings during the event I went to Denny’s, got an omelette, and watched the classical Sicilian repertoire by Shankland so I could relax but also feel prepared without mentally straining myself."

So there you have it. Video learning as a way to increase your rating while sitting back at your go-to café with your favourite breakfast - who doesn’t want that?

Video Learning: A Bad Reputation

Before we get into why and how you should approach video learning, I want to address the stigma surrounding it. It’s something that has bugged me for a while - the idea that video learning is somehow inferior to other types of chess study.

I am as culpable for the debasement of video learning as anyone else.

When I think of the me that learns from books, I see myself sitting at a mahogany desk thoughtfully holding a quill, whilst I look out the window over the grounds of my estate and ponder the leatherbound wisdom of the great Akiba Rubinstein in front of me.

When I think of the me who learns chess from videos, I see myself slumped on the couch in my underwear throwing bits of popcorn in the general direction of my face whilst IM Kostya Kauvitsky tells me about rook endgames.

I want to read chess books for the same reason I want to have a globe bar full of Scottish whiskey in the corner of my tower library:

Book learning just feels more intellectual.

So what is it that gives video learning this bad reputation?

One of the phrases that gets thrown about a lot when the two methods of book and video learning are compared, is that of active vs passive learning.

Book learning is active and video learning is passive.

I hear it all the time. But why do we accept that as true?

You don’t need a close examination of the topic to see that both book and video learning can be both active and passive and that attaching the label of passive learning to videos seems unfair.

"I think [book learning] forces you to move the pieces. You have to still manually input things, whereas with videos you don’t have to input anything. You can just sit there while the lesson plays, right?

It comes down to engagement.

How engaged are you in what you are learning? Are you actually trying to take things away from it or are you putting in the time and thinking that just the time is enough, when you are not really engaging with it?”

I think an assumption is made that if you are reading a chess book, you are doing it with a board out and the pieces set up in front of you. But that really is an assumption.

You can also read a chess book without a board, just glancing through the moves without thinking about them or skipping the variations in the hopes you might glean something from the text in between the given lines.

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I’m definitely guilty of having done that.

No Busy Work

Video learning eliminates the faff. You don’t need to spend the first twenty minutes of your study time looking under furniture for missing rooks that were last seen being gnawed on by your infant child, nor do you need to set up a board. You can’t lose your place in a video, and you can’t make a wrong move either.

All this surely means that video learning allows you to get through the material faster, given that all you need to do is open your laptop or pull out your phone - and hit play.

“I am a very slow reader and I have always had difficulty with it. Sometimes I’ll read and re-read the same line over and over again and I don’t even realise it. Luckily with videos that doesn’t happen, you can’t lose your place.

Whereas if you are looking at a book and playing an endgame out, and you have to look back and think: what move was it? And you have to find the move and go through all these sub-variations and things.

So I think there is a lot of busy work that gets eliminated from using online resources. For that reason, I prefer using online resources like videos instead."

I think we have all been there, turning pages back and forth, wondering where we left off and what move we last put on the board. And whilst we navigate the logistics of the book: our place, the pieces and the sub-variations - we are supposed to be learning something from it.

I often find it takes most of my own intellectual capacity just to correctly do the busy work itself.

And in amongst it all, I forget exactly what it is that I am meant to be learning from the process by getting caught up in the process itself.

Perhaps if I had grown up reading chess books this might not be the case. I am sure there must be a majority of people who don’t find the busy work distracts them from the contents and their ability to learn from them. But at least for me and Braden, it seems to be a struggle.

What this means for me, is that when I learn from videos, I can learn more in the same amount of time than I would with a book.

And so for me, I am considering switching most if not all of my learning materials from literary sources to videos.

I shared with Braden that I had experimented with this. In my hour of theoretical endgame study (the topic I was focused on for the first six months of this year), I was able to cover a single ending properly in a morning. When I covered the same ending with a video I could do two or three. It was at least twice as fast for me.

I guess if the process is quicker for me, only one question remains: is the quality of learning the same?

Because if it is, then for those of us who prefer video learning to book learning - there is no contest here.

Making Videos Active

With this in mind, I asked Braden if he had any advice about how to make video learning more active.

How could video learning become as effective as the reputation that book learning lends itself to?

“I have a reputation amongst friends that I am a very argumentative person and I am very stubborn - and I think there is an extent to which that is a good thing.

I think if you look at someone like Yasser Sierawan’s lectures or Sam Shankland’s lectures or any of these amazing players, obviously they are going to be right all of the time - especially if it is a lecture.

However, you have to actively criticise what they are doing, otherwise you’re not going to gain from it. You have to say: ‘okay, I don’t think this is right, because what if this happens instead?’ And either you look at it with the computer or you keep looking at different variations and try to work it out yourself.

But actively trying to question everything I think is the most important thing that one can do. And be stubborn. That’s it."

I 100% agree with Braden's point here. In fact, I believe questioning everything should be your approach to all things chess - which is why it's the main focus of my chess coaching. I work with my students on critically analysing the moves they made during their most recent games. This is the best way to discover your biases and fix your thought patterns so you can start to make better decisions in your games.

You're welcome to try it out for yourself as I'm currently offering a free trial lesson for Adult Improvers <1000 FIDE or online equivalent. So you literally have nothing to lose if you book a free trial lesson now.

Now let's see if we have anything to lose when it comes to video learning.

Wrong Way To Watch Videos

Alright, so now that we’ve learnt the right approach to video learning, one must ask:

Is there also a way you can utterly mess up video learning?

The video learning equivalent to sleeping on your book, or just glancing through it without a board - so to speak.

"I don’t think there is a wrong approach as long as you're just engaging with the stuff you’re watching.

Just like if you are listening to a coach talk. That’s kind of how I use videos - as a one-sided coaching session where I would pause the video sometimes and ask questions.

And if I was really curious about a position and I think something is wrong, then I would check something with the computer or just analyse myself.

And just watch a ton of videos and just enjoy the process.

But it wasn’t always like that either. So sure, engaging with it is important, but sometimes I’d just watch it for fun. And if I feel like: ‘oh there is something interesting here’, maybe I’ll want to rewatch it. There is always that option too.”

So now that you know you can’t mess it up, the only challenge is finding the right videos for your chosen chess topic on the World Wide Web. They need to give quality information, be suitable for your level and preferably follow an order and structure that will make your video learning experience both enjoyable and effective.

Personally, I recommend online video courses for easy access to all of the above. As an affiliate of ChessMood, I’m happy to be able to give you a 20% discount on all ChessMood memberships if you’re interested in trying high-quality video learning.

Lazy Learning Benefits

Braden raised another interesting point during our interview.

Sometimes we are just not feeling it.

We are tired. Maybe it’s been a long day and the thought of cracking open your calculation book is just too much. It’s not going to happen. In those moments when we are too tired to be actively engaged in chess study, videos can fill a sort of gap.

Whilst it is important to be fully active if you plan to use videos as a major part of your study, you can use them additionally as a passive tool.

If the alternative is Netflix, then not engaging with a chess video is still going to be better for your chess than the latest season of Desperate Housewives (which obviously I don’t watch. I don’t. What?).

“What I used to do, especially when I started out, sometimes I would play videos and I would barely pay attention, I would just listen to the vocabulary. Because chess players have a very distinct vocabulary of how they talk.

Especially when you look at master players compared to either intermediate or club players, there is still a big difference in vocabulary. The stronger you get, you talk about positions differently.

So just try to listen. I listened so much that I tried to develop the same type of way that they would think and talk about in their lectures - people like Yasser Sierwan and Ben Finegold.

And when I started trying to think in my head, like they spoke out loud, that helped me a lot to grasp a ton of ideas.

Especially with positional thinking or long-term planning, because usually, that is the thing that improves when you are trying to talk about positions in depth.”

In this way, you can grab knowledge to take into your games even without fully understanding it yet through practice.

Information like: put your pawns on the opposite colour to your remaining bishop is just information - you might not understand why that is a good strategy at first. But if you know it, and you follow it as a guiding rule, it will help you play better chess. And over time the ‘why’ behind the information will become clear.

The same can be said for other soundbites: doubled pawns are bad, an active rook is worth a pawn, open the position with the bishop pair, trade pawns not pieces when you are losing, trade pieces not pawns when you are winning, two rooks are better than a queen in endgames where there are many pawn targets. This is just stuff that is good to know.

Yes, there are exceptions, but you can be guided by these enlightening facts to help you make decisions in a game. It’s not something you need to practise - you just need to be told once.

Of course, there is still a huge difference between knowing and doing. But if you don’t know then you can never try, and if you don’t try then you can never learn.

Just knowing can be the first step to making better decisions in the game.

Now if you’re bursting with excitement like I was the first time I learnt about bishop vs knights, then by all means use that energy productively and strengthen those chess muscles by practising your skills right away.

However, if you’re having a lazy Sunday evening and staring at a screen is all you’ve got in you right now - don’t worry. The skill will come later through practice in your games.

Is One Learning Style Enough?

I mentioned to Braden during our interview that for me videos were best for learning ideas.

I just understand intellectual ideas better when someone tells me about them than I do if I read about them.

I first noticed this learning preference about myself when I was at university. I’d remember things much better if I just sat on my arse and listened.

As soon as I started to take notes, I would find it hard to concentrate on what my lecturer was saying and my notes would be incomprehensible trash.

So, by my final year, I would happily sit and sometimes even record the lectures to listen to later. I found I learnt much more effectively this way.

I will say that my degree was in some ways similar to chess. At times it was conceptual, like the ideas and plans in an opening. For this, sitting and listening (or watching a video recording) is the best way to learn and remember for me.

But at times, I was in the lab doing practical stuff. You can try to learn how to do lab work in a video if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t be enough when you needed to actually do it yourself.

I see a similarly clear distinction with chess openings. For learning opening theory, watching a video over and over again might help you with the ideas, themes and plans in the opening - but it won't help with the practical application of opening theory in your games.

A video is just not going to help you remember the book moves as effectively as a tool like Chessable.

Or other practical learning techniques for that matter, like playing many Blitz games with the same openings (my current chosen method), or a book plus chess board if that’s what you prefer.

So for me, videos are better for concepts and less useful for grasping concrete things like opening theory or counterintuitive endgame theory.

That is, I prefer practising where moves must simply be memorised and the understanding is not as relevant.

The Video-Game Combination

It’s worth remembering that Braden didn’t just watch his way to chess improvement.

He played a lot of games, too.

This is the second pillar of his training plan.

"Playing will be better for your chess than any other learning outside of that.

You are being faced with problems that you have to actively solve. When you are reading a book or watching videos or anything, you are having the problem solved for you to an extent no matter what. That can be useful.

However, if you are not playing your own games and having problems given to you and you are not trying to engage with them and trying to solve these problems - then you are not really experiencing the most difficult part of chess.”

So regardless of the way you learn, whether you prefer to gather your information mostly from books or videos, the caveat is that it must be integrated with play.

In chess, knowledge must always be balanced with skill.

If you want to train the Braden Laughlin way, actively engaged video learning must be accompanied by playing (many!) games to apply and practise the concepts you glean from them.

Your Favourite (Chess) Learning Style

I am a video learner. I always have been. It just took me a little time to realise that my love of literature did not translate to chess.

I love books. But I do not love chess books.

I can retain my focus in videos. I pause them and I ask questions. I am a bit stubborn when presented with other people's ideas - just like Braden. And for me personally, the process of learning is faster this way too. I know that some people will passionately prefer chess books. But I am this way.

By learning how we learn, we can all be a little more efficient with our time as busy Adult Improvers.

Although everyone might have one preferred learning style, I believe in the end you’ll need to use a little bit of all three chess learning styles to become a well-rounded chess player.

I am very curious to hear which chess learning style is your favourite: book learning, video learning, or playing & analysing games? Let me know in the comments below or vote on Twitter:

vote on Twitter

When you design your study and training plan, I recommend basing it not only on your chess goals, strengths, weaknesses, and time availability, but also on your preferred learning style. Because I believe enjoyment will help you keep up the hard work that is necessary for chess improvement.

Study habits that you can stick to are the shortcut to efficient and effective learning in every department, including chess.

You need to know your preferred learning style if you want to achieve a minimum input of time and energy, for a maximum output of chess knowledge and skills.

This personalised approach is one of the main things my Adult Improver students like about my chess coaching.

When you work with me as your coach, we’ll update your unique study plan constantly to reach your chess improvement goals. Even your homework will be adjusted to your personal learning style as much as possible.

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Reconnecting