Masters vs Us (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 1)

Why adult improvers feel something missing in the advice of Masters.

I once received an email from a reader of this newsletter that I’ve never forgotten. For privacy reasons, I won’t share his name.

He wrote:

As a 40+ year old that learned how the pieces move 9 months ago I really appreciate that you are working to change a lot of these long held narratives around chess education. I’ve found it pretty easy in the chess world to feel like teachers and content creators are gaslighting me. (emphasis mine)

I laugh when another video comes up on my YouTube feed about a titled player sharing their thought process as they play so we can all think like a GM, IM, FM, etc. How much is actually happening subconsciously!?! How much is completely dependent on having an exceptionally robust library of patterns readily available?! Ohhh, right, I just needed another reminder to stop making 1 move blunders!!

He summed up an experience that most adult improvers have had. There’s a disconnect between the advice we hear from the masters and our own experience of the game. Something feels missing, or like it’s getting lost in translation.

There’s a gap between what the masters are telling us and how our brains work.

When I first came to Chess, at the ripe old age of 27, I found it captivating, and beautiful, but also… odd. And not odd in a good way.

I found it alarming how many adults were spending hours and hours on their game but getting nowhere. Huge effort for no results. In Chess, it’s so normal to never improve that those adults who do improve are often greeted with suspicion and accusations.

In my twenties, I learned software development, bouldering, business, marketing, and copywriting. In each of those domains, a decent speed of improvement is the norm. If you put the work in, you will likely see improvement. There are faster and slower ways to go about it, you might not break records, but the improvement will come.

This does not seem to hold true for adults in Chess.

Over the years, I’ve tried to work out why this is. My research finally led me to an answer.

Masters have never experienced what it’s like to approach the game for the first time as an adult.

They learned the game when they were children and had a child’s brain. By the time they hit adulthood, they were already strong enough that many of the challenges didn’t matter anymore.

Our adult brains don’t work like a child’s brain. Our adult brains:

  • have spent decades building ways they like to handle complex information
  • have a weaker working memory and struggle to track everything needed for good decisions at once
  • cannot learn by rote; we must know exactly why something matters to have any hope of remembering it
  • have a rich back-catalogue of skills and experiences that we can (and should) apply to our Chess training
  • have so much pulling at our attention and struggle to prioritize what to merge into long-term memory and skill

Rarely is any of this discussed in Chess training content.

None of this is the masters’ fault, of course. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to recognize and understand the different ways our brains can work. And it’s a new challenge for the Chess world.

Until 2020, Chess was a game taught mostly to children by people who learned as children. Adult improvement was only a side-consideration.

Business skills and software development skills, on the other hand, have been approached by, mastered by, and taught by adults for decades with great success. (Funnily enough, their challenge now is in adapting their methods to better teach children!)

What works for children won’t work for adults. What works for adults won’t work for children. The adult brain is a different beast. It comes to Chess with its own baggage, its own priorities, and its own way of doing things.

Whereas masters had their brains shaped by the study of Chess, we need to shape the study of Chess to our brains.

In this 7-part series, I will equip you with a set of principles to navigate Chess improvement this side of puberty.

I call them the Laws of Adult Improvement. They are:

  1. Start where you are
  2. Embrace your experience
  3. Go deep
  4. Train your brain

(Number 5 might be the most important but it needs the context of the other 4 to make sense. I’ll tell you when we get there.)

Masters know the game of Chess, but they don’t know your brain.

We can’t expect them to. Our brains are our responsibility.

We live in a golden age of masters sharing their knowledge and expertise. We’re lucky. No generation of Chess players have had this kind of access to such incredible teachers.

Now it’s time for us adults to meet them half way.

We need to improve at the “adult” part of “adult improver”.


Sometimes when I say things like “adults can learn as well as kids can”, I get backlash.

There *is* compelling evidence to suggest that our raw ability to encode new knowledge and skills declines as we age. None of us are particularly surprised by that.

But I want to stress something very important. You should treat that evidence as background, not prophecy.

“Harder to learn” does NOT mean “impossible to learn”. And much of the added difficulty can be overcome by changing our approach.

The fastest way to ensure you never improve or learn anything new is to believe you can’t.

Resist that narrative with everything you have.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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