These Things Take Time : The Challenges Adults Face When Learning Chess

(first in a series of adult learning posts)

“These things take time.” the grand master explained to his young pupil. Ten years and nearly one thousand rating points later, the student now finally realized the truth in the words of his teacher. One must realize that there is no quick fix to becoming an expert in any field, you need to pay your dues and in time you will reach one of many “a-ha” moments as your skills improve.

Cognitive psychologists Chase & Simon in 1973 studied chess experts and found that they had often spent as many as 50,000 hours practicing chess. That means that a 35 year old master who has spent 50,000 hours playing chess must have spent 4-5 hours everyday for thirty years on the chessboard starting at the age of 5.

Good heuristics on the time it takes to improve and reach certain milestones in your chess development could go like this (Note that results may vary based on the amount of time you spend, and the intensity of your training sessions):

  • The average adult will need to invest approximately 5 years of practice to become a decent player (ELO 1600)
  • The average adult will need to invest approximately 10 years to become an expert (ELO 1900-2000).
  • Because time is against them, the average adult learner will have an extraordinarily difficulty time in surpassing the 2000 ELO rating.
  • Measureable progress comes in 6-12 month periods.


Experience a Double Edged Sword

While children absorb new knowledge and quickly become proficient in chess, the biggest difference between an adult and a child is experience. Children are a blank slate, while adults bring experience to the table this experience also includes bad habits, and less of an open mind when learning new ideas and concepts. While prior knowledge is necessary in order to learn something new (aids learning by building on top of this existing experience), this same experience can stand in the way of the adult learner because their existing knowledge might have internal inconsistencies and it might make the adult learner resistant to learning new things. Children are willing to start from the beginning, which allows them to build strong fundamentals with fewer knowledge gaps. Adults on the other hand want to immediately apply what they learn and their egos sometimes stands in the way, not allowing them to learn the fundamentals because they think that the fundamentals are for “children”. This reluctance to start with the basics creates knowledge gaps in the adult’s learning development which will eventually manifest itself as learning plateaus. Plateaus occur because the learner is missing the required knowledge which they need to build upon to attain the next level in knowledge.

Learning Like a Child

So how do we translate this information into improved performance and ultimately a higher rating? Based on the way adults learn, we need to take advantage of our experience but at the same time be aware of the negative side of having this experience.

Adult Learning Design

Besides using experience to aid their learning, according to Piaget, adults learn better when learning design follows the following four guidelines:

1. Adults need to know why they are learning something.
2. Adults learn through doing.
3. Adults are problem solvers.
4. Adults learn best when the subject is of immediate use.

Focus on the Fundamentals

This is the only way for the adult learner to eliminate their internal inconsistencies. This will initially set the average adult learner back, but it will payoff in the long run with limited and short-lived plateaus and a smoother learning curve on their way to expertise. The adult learner needs to accept that they might need to restructure existing conceptions when necessary.

Here are a couple of ways that you can focus on the fundamentals:

1. Focus on the endgame, starting with basic endgames such as King and Pawn, and then moving on to rook endgames.

2. Learn from the older masters and progressively move up to modern times. A sample timeline could be: Morphy, Nimzowich, Capablanca, Alekhine, Petrosian, Tal, Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik. Choose your own mix based on your personality, but the important thing to remember is that you should go over these master’s games chronologically.

3. Learn to manage plateaus.

Don’t learn too many topics at once

You need time to understand the information you are learning before you are able to put it into practice. Learning takes time and cannot be rushed. Remember that it requires considerable time along with plenty of practice to start building expertise in any area (usually an average of 10 years!).

Focus your training

1. Choose books relative to your playing strength.

2. Focus and don’t jump from book to book and from topic to topic.

3. Be consistent in your training, – it is better to train for 30 minutes per day 5 times per week than it is to practice 2 hours per day but only 1-2 times per week.

Mix learning with playing

1. Based on the way adults learn, you need to quickly put into practice what you learn.

2. This is the way to convert knowledge into skill.

3. Play against players who are no more than 100 ELO ratings below you and up to 200 ELO points above you.

4. Go over your games afterwards, in order to learn from your mistakes. This will allow you to identify any internal inconsistencies that you need to restructure in order to move forward.

Aim towards understanding not memorization

This is true especially when dealing with openings and endgames. It is better to understand the why, than to memorize 11 moves of the Sicilian Dragon.

Build a training program that caters to the way adults learn

1. Focus on problem solving.
2. Mix study with practice.
3. Engage in effortful study.
4. Learn to quickly identify and get over learning plateaus.

I’ll be away for a while, as I try to follow my own advice and prepare for the Miami Chess Open on September 3rd. I do plan on following this up with two additional posts at a later date, one will be on effortful study, and the other on identifying and surpassing learning plateaus in chess.

beginchess has written 144 articles

3 thoughts on “These Things Take Time : The Challenges Adults Face When Learning Chess

  1. demon_szybkosci says:

    In most cases that’s true, but the most important in my opinion is a fact that ADULTS like to “consider” (like philosophy lecturer) topics (subjects) like: how it will be better to read it, when shoud I train tactics on Friday or Sunday, why endings are so much important, etc. If you add to these work, commitments, family, friends, watching tv, playing computer games, going wit kids, spending time with computer, etc… you will see that ADULTS very rarely work systematically and play with maximum energy and motivation. Most players above 25 or 30 years old never study chess more than 30-50 hours a year (!). In that case you cannot be suprised that reaching expert level might take even 30 to 50 years of live… or it may never happen. WHY? Now you should know. No proper and hard work (no study plan) and mostly talking about chess not studying books, solving puzzles and playing games. Let’s look at youngsters: they play like madness: as their lives depends on the score! (they are very ambitious, hard working and keen on {sometimes even obsessed) at chess!

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