Maximizing Puzzle Value

Why puzzle improvement doesn't equal Chess improvement, and what to do about it.

On the homepage of (when you’re logged out), there’s a great little picture of Hikaru next to a quote of his.

The quote says: “Puzzles are the best way to improve pattern recognition.”

Sounds like a normal thing for a Grandmaster to say.

But for ages something about this bothered me.

I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Chess players spend hours and hours on Chess puzzles and see very little improvement in their Chess.

Their puzzle rating goes up, but it rarely seems to translate to improvement in actual games.

When I was starting out with Chess, this was definitely my experience.

I’d get cocky with the things I could find in puzzles, but then miss far more obvious tactics in actual games.

I talked to my stick-in-the-mud mate, Dave, about it.

He just said I wasn’t doing ENOUGH puzzles.

(Yep. Dave’s advice for when something isn’t working is to do MORE of it…)

Surprise, surprise- Dave’s wrong.

More puzzles isn’t the answer.

The problem is that a Chess puzzle is very different to a game.

A puzzle may as well have a big neon sign saying “THERE IS A TACTIC HERE.”

It’s flashing away in huge letters. You can’t miss it.

It’s clear there’s a tactic here – otherwise it wouldn’t be a puzzle.

We don’t get any clear indication IN A GAME when there’s a killer tactic lurking.

No neon signs.

We have to be able to identify the opportunity for ourselves.

And we do that by spotting patterns.

Then it occurred to me why Hikaru’s quote was bothering me.

It was one of those wake-up-at-3am epiphanies. (I wish I was kidding.)

It’s not that Hikaru is wrong, it’s that the CHESS WEBSITES ARE!

Hikaru is 100% totally correct – puzzles are AMAZING for pattern recognition.

But Chess websites are designed to give us puzzles for maximum FUN rather than maximum IMPROVEMENT.

To get maximum fun, we need lots of different and interesting puzzles with fascinating solutions.

Each one needs to be totally different from the last and challenge us in new ways.

That approach is HORRIBLE for building pattern recognition.

For our goals, we need to do things another way.

For maximum improvement, we need to complete lots of puzzles with the SAME solution.

Read that again.

It’s the exact opposite of how the websites structure their puzzle modes.

We need dozens of different puzzle positions with the same answer.

Each puzzle strengthens the pattern in our head.

We internalize it.

Then something magical happens-

Our brains give us that big neon sign during games.

We spot something in a position. It might not even be conscious.

But we get that itch.

Our brain screams, “THERE IS A TACTIC HERE.”

And sure enough, we find that pattern we’ve practiced.

A lot of people who have played Chess for a while get this feeling when there’s a knight fork or a back-rank mate opportunity.

Just from the amount of times they’ve seen those things in games.

Maybe you already get this with a couple patterns. You know what I mean.

But we can skip a lot of time if we use puzzles properly.

We can train our pattern recognition with intention.

We can experience what Hikaru says in his quote.

And it doesn’t take long.

There are 3 very simple things we can do.

They will completely change how you do puzzles.

Burn these ideas into your mind.

From here on, you will know when you’re doing puzzles for fun or for improvement.

First, be picky about which puzzles you do.

I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule.

In this context, it means that 80% of tactical opportunities you’ll run into in your games will come from only 20% of the tactical patterns in Chess.

We need to devote our puzzle time to learning to recognise the most important patterns.

Learning to spot mate-in-2 patterns is going to be much more useful than becoming world class at finding traps in openings you don’t play.

(I’m being a little flippant here, but you get my point!)

Use the Lichess theme browser for training puzzles.

Focus on the puzzles in the Mates section, then the Motifs section.

These are the patterns that will come up the most often in game and give the strongest advantages. (Hard to get a better advantage than checkmate!)

Second, don’t move until you see it.

It’s a little cheesy to use the name of my business here, but it sums up my point.

Do not move the pieces until you are certain you are correct.

Don’t even draw arrows.

Use all the visualization skills you’ve been practicing and calculate your way to victory.

When you think you’re correct, THEN move.

If you’re correct, great! If you’re wrong, don’t worry.

Look at the answer, understand it, and move on.

This is about training our visualization skills and pattern recognition.

The EFFORT is the important bit. Not the result.

Third, always calculate one more move than you think you need to.

This is a recent addition to my calculation strategy.

And I learned it the hard way.

It’s tempting to calculate ahead, see a great tactic, and stop there.

Often you’ll nail your tactic just to see your opponent has a vicious counter-attack on the very next move.

Puzzles prey on this instinct as well.

Always calculate one move more than you think you need to.

Just in case.

Let’s help puzzles reclaim their place as effective Chess training, and not just time-wasting.

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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