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Learning to Play Chess, Part III: Breaking Through Walls

I look back at Parts I & II of this series and I can't help but scoff, chuckle, and guffaw at how little I actually knew about chess back in December and January, and the absolute rudimentary nature of the information I was imparting to my two readers. Ha! From the mouths of babes, as they say. But that's the point of this series, after all: to chronicle the process of learning a new hobby or skill. And so, Part III: Breaking Through Walls.

When learning any new skill or hobby, there are going to be acceleration phases and plateau phases. During the acceleration phase, you are learning and integrating your new lessons, you are making progress, you are excited. Something about the game (or skill or whatever) seems to finally "make sense." You have had a few "Aha!" moments and believe that you will romp into the sunset with full competency in no time. And then...the progress stops. You hit another snag, some problem you can't figure out. You thought you were going to be the next Gary Kasparov and then...someone takes you to the cleaners. Then someone else does. Then someone else. Then, just like that, the euphoria has worn off and you are left frustrated and angry again. You keep playing, undaunted, but something has changed. You have lost the confidence that your previous revelations brought with them. You play languidly and without intention. You have hit a wall, or a plateau.

Breaking through those walls or plateaus, how ever long it takes, is the crucial difference between someone who, let's say can speak Mandarin fluently, vs. someone who spent $300 on the Rosetta Stone Mandarin course and used it for three months. It's the difference between someone who can "pick out a few tunes" on the piano, vs. someone who can actually play the piano. It's the difference between those who are accomplished people, and those who are dabblers. In almost every hobby or endeavor in my life, I confess I fall into the latter category, as I would wager do a vast majority of people.

So instead of imparting to you any chess tips, which I will surely regret and cringe at later in the year when I've far surpassed this phase in my progress, I would like to give you some tips on how to Break Through Walls, and get to the next level of chess play, whatever that means for you:

1.) Play a lot of games. I'll say it again: PLAY A LOT OF GAMES. In the age of the smart phone, you are one app away from a universe of hundreds of thousands of chess opponents. So play the game. A lot. You don't learn by study alone, and you certainly don't learn by playing one game per week, guarding your precious ego and allowing yourself time to repair your self-confidence after every loss. You learn something in every game. And certainly you learn something in every loss. And if you want to accelerate your learning especially during times when you are feeling frustrated, you need to be playing enough so that you can remember and incorporate those lessons into the next game, i.e. just about every day. A breakthrough can come to you in many ways, but it's not going to come while you're reading a book about chess; it's going to come while you're playing a game.

2.) Study. Do not let what I wrote above make you think I am opposed to studying the game or that you should not study the game. Absolutely, you need to study. Read books. Watch YouTube videos. Talk to others about the game. Watch some better players. Get your chess board and play out some great chess games from transcripts. Do all of those, actually. Just like you can't learn enough about chess solely from studying it, you can't learn enough about chess solely from playing it. Some of the concepts might seem too advanced for you, some of the chess books or teachers might bore you to tears, but if you put almost any amount of time into studying chess, you will find some kernels of information, some new techniques or ideas, that will click with you and that will help you in your next games. Even if you try the techniques and get crushed a few times, you have broken out of your rut and are attempting something new. The very act of doing that is exciting, win or lose.

3.) Play better opponents. When you're starting out, it seems like everyone is better than you, so this isn't too difficult. But, once you start learning and getting some confidence, the temptation is to keep playing people who are at your skill level or slightly below, so that you can keep using whatever new opening or finishing ploy it is that you've just mastered and are slaying everyone with. But...you need to keep playing better players, or you'll backslide. You'll all of a sudden be playing someone lower rated than you, and your "special new system" will fail you, and you'll backslide. But when you play better and better competition, you continue to learn, even when and especially when you lose. Better opponents force you to think on your toes, to stretch your mind, to solve bigger problems. Soon you're learning again and incorporating even newer lessons onto the ones you just mastered, instead of becoming lazy and reliant on one type of game.

4.) Play "live" games whenever possible. This means, play games on a physical, "real-life" chess board, with real pieces, made of wood or stone or some kind of synthetic material. Something about playing "virtual" chess online is very slightly different than real chess. You are often given guidelines about what moves you're allowed to make, or not make. Your app might have "analysis" functions, which allow you to play out a series of moves without actually making those moves. Not so with actual chessboard chess. It's difficult to explain why this one is so important in helping you learn, but it is. If you don't believe me, play 100 games on your phone and then play someone (your skill level or better) in a "live" game. By the time your eyes adjust and you gather your senses, your King will be running for his life. It's important not to lose touch with the physical game.

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