Quality Over Quantity (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 4)

How to make the most of your time studying Chess as an adult.

So far in this series we’ve focused on the positives of adult learning. But, sadly, it’s not all positives. There are some things we have to deal with that kids don’t.

The most obvious one being: We got stuff to do!

Lives, families, jobs, looking after ourselves. And only so much time in each day.

When we were kids, our school work, homework, assignments, after-school activities felt like they took up so much time. Then we finished high school or university and realized that we had it on easy mode.

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.

We have a lot going on. This obviously presents a challenge to our Chess improvement.

Chess is complex, and we ain’t got all that much time. We need to accept this reality and adapt to it.

We’ll never have the time to learn everything Chess has to offer, so we shouldn’t even try.

The key to improvement as an adult is not quantity of training, but quality.

The Third Law of Adult Improvement: Quality Over Quantity.

(Those who have been paying attention may notice I called this law “Go Deep” in Part 1. It’s now called this. There are downsides to writing each part as I go… Oh well.)

To make the shift towards quality in our training, we’re going to ask three questions. These are questions that will apply to anything you’re learning, far beyond the scope of Chess.

The first question is “what do I actually need to learn?”.

Many adult improvers throw away a lot of training time on things that don’t matter.

No, that’s not quite correct…

Everything in Chess matters to some extent. For every piece of Chess study we could do, there is someone out there for whom it is the most important thing to do right now. Everything matters. That’s the problem!

Presented with the huge range of things we could study in Chess, we need to work out what we should study. We don’t have unlimited time, so we need to be ruthless about what we do and don’t spend it on.

Let’s say you’re 1000-rated and would like to reach 2000. To reach that goal, there’s a LOT you’ll need to learn and improve on. And, if we’re being honest, you’re not ready for most of it.

That book of endgames meant for 1800s would be wasted on you right now. Those 30 moves of Najdorf theory you’re trying to memorize? You won’t see that on the board for a loooong time.

Those things will help you get to 2000, sure. But they won’t get you to 1200. And you need to do that first.

Don’t focus on all the things you need for 2000. Instead ask: What specifically are 1200-rated players doing that I’m not?

What do 1200s know that I don’t? What mistakes have they stopped making that I still make? What skills have they developed that I don’t yet have?

The difference in skills and knowledge between a 1000 and a 1200 is not all that much. Your task is to work out what that difference is. What do you actually need to know to reach that next milestone?

There is a discrete set of things you need to improve to reach your next milestone, whatever that milestone is. Any time spent on something that isn’t one of those is less effective than it could be.

(Unless improvement isn’t your main goal, which it doesn’t have to be. More on that when we get to my final mystery law in a couple weeks. 😉)

Here are three ways you can identify what the players at your next milestone are doing that you’re not:

  1. Work with a good coach. This kind of thinking is already core to what a good coach does. They’ll look at where you’re at in your game, and show you what you need to know to reach your next milestone.
  2. Watch Chess speedruns on YouTube and take copious notes. Notice what sorts of mistakes and ideas occur at your level and at the levels immediately above yours. Look for the differences.
  3. Use the Lichess opening explorer, and set the database (using the settings cog) to only use games from players in the next rating bracket above yours. Play out your openings and notice what the players in that rating range do differently to you and your opponents. Take lots of notes.

Once you’ve identified some things, focus on learning those.

The second question is “why does this matter?”.

As adults, we struggle with rote learning. We’re going to remember things a lot better if we understand why they matter.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that we can’t make as many connections to the new knowledge if we don’t understand why it matters. (See Part 3 for more on that.)

In every area of Chess study, you’ll get far more improvement from knowing the why behind the idea than you will from knowing the idea itself.

In your openings, don’t just memorize the move; know why that move is the move. The same holds for endgames. The same holds for tactics. The same holds for your conceptualization work with me – it’s why I like to give you the science behind the things I say.

Knowing why is critical to learning as an adult.

You don’t really know anything in Chess until you know why it matters. When you can explain it so well that you could teach someone else, then you understand.

Don’t be satisfied with the surface level understanding. Go deep.

The final question is “how can I best learn this?”

Think back to the insights you learned about yourself in Part 2. What approach can you take to learn in a way that is most compatible with your brain?

Whichever approach you find works for you, be sure you approach it with full focus.

Studies have shown that neuroplasticity, that brain-as-a-sponge-for-information thing that kids have, is reactivated in us adults when we give our full focus to something.

Full focus means without distractions. No phones. No notifications. No quick email checking.

When we give full focus, our brains assume the thing we’re learning must be important and puts more effort into learning it. The moment we allow distractions, our brains stop trying as hard. Learning takes energy, and our brains are lazy.

We need focus.

Here’s an excellent guide from GM Noël Studer on how to achieve full focus in your training.

Let these questions guide your training as an adult.

Ask them regularly. When you’ve improved, you’ll need to ask them again. If you’re bored, ask them again. If you’re stagnating, definitely ask them again.

Chess is hard, and plateaus are normal. Total stagnation, however, should not be the norm.

If you’re putting in the work and you’re not seeing the results, the problem is not with you. It’s with your approach.

Your brain is fine. Your age is fine. It’s just about approach.

And you can change your approach at any moment.

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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