Train Your Brain (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 5)

If we don't train the adult brain to handle Chess better, it will continue to let us down.

I met a World Champion a few weeks ago.

It wasn’t Magnus, or Ding Liren, or Ju Wenjun. He wasn’t even a Chess world champion. But he taught me something I’ve thought about every day since.

I met Henry Brand, the 2019 World Champion for the Pokemon Trading Card Game.

The Pokemon TCG, like Chess, exploded in popularity over the lockdowns. It’s moved from strength to strength since, with a flood of kids and adults obsessed with it.

Pokemon is surprisingly similar to Chess. At least on a mental level.

Pokemon is a game of probabilities. It requires long calculations and the processing of vast amounts of information. Forgetting a detail, missing an opportunity, or doing something in the wrong order all spell trouble. Like Chess, one mistake can turn a totally winning game into a devastating loss.

Henry is based here in Melbourne and we caught up for coffee. I wanted to learn as much as I could from him and his experience. I wanted to see what a Pokemon World Champion could teach me about Chess.

Henry is one of the most in-demand Pokemon TCG coaches in the world. He travels the globe coaching people of all ages. I was curious, so I asked him:

“What’s the main difference between coaching children and coaching adults in Pokemon?”

He thought for a moment, wanting to be precise. Then he said something that has never left my mind.

He said:

There are lots of tricky concepts in Pokemon, and huge amounts of information to keep in your head when you make decisions.
Kids struggle to learn the concepts, but have no problem keeping all the information they need in their head.
Adults are the opposite.
They pick up the concepts quickly. But they struggle with holding everything they need in their head. They forget details when making decisions, get confused, and mix things up. Which leads to mistakes.

I was amazed, and probably had the goofiest smile on my face at the time. It was a cool moment for me, to have a World Champion from a different field say that.

He basically summed up my work, my research, my whole approach to Chess and adult learning in a few short sentences.

Us adults pick up the concepts quickly, but have trouble holding everything we need in our heads at once.

This is true for Pokemon. It’s true for Chess.

We get the concepts pretty quickly. But our brains will struggle under the weight of all the stuff we need to juggle in the moment. Our working memory will let us down.

We need to fix that.

The Fourth Law of Adult Improvement: Train Your Brain

As adults, our working memories are our biggest weakness. Like Henry said, we struggle to hold everything we need in our head at once. And that causes mistakes.

This is the main reason so many adults stagnate in their Chess improvement despite hours of work. An inefficient working memory is like an anchor for your Chess rating. You ain’t moving as long as it’s holding you down.

I’d be a very rich man if I had a dollar for every time I received an email said something like, “my coach thinks I should be 200 ELO higher than I am but I just can’t stop blundering away my games.”

We’re in luck, though. There’s hope. Because brains are awesome.

Our brains are incredibly adaptable. They can do amazing things. But they’re also kinda lazy, and need to be forced to work hard sometimes.

The same way we focus on openings to strengthen our openings, or focus on tactics to strengthen our tactics, we must focus on our working memory to strengthen it.

The key is pressure. When we put enough pressure on our working memory, our brains will react by building systems to handle all that pressure. Our working memory strengthens and becomes more efficient with Chess information.

Without that pressure, our lazy brains will coast on by.

Here are three ways you can apply that pressure in your Chess training.

Use audio to train.

Record yourself reading the moves from games or from opening theory you are studying. Leave a few seconds between each move, and be sure to include the turn numbers (so you know who is who as you’re hearing the moves.)

Once you’ve done that, listen back to it while not looking at a Chessboard.

Your goal is to 100% understand what is happening in the game/variation you are hearing. What each move does. What vectors open or close. What the threats are.

Don’t focus on creating a mental image. If you don’t naturally create mental pictures, you don’t need to. Focus on understanding and let your brain do whatever it wants to do to achieve that.

Pause and repeat as often as you need to. This is difficult, but you will feel the difference in your games after a while. It’s in the struggle that the improvement will come.

Read Chess books one move at a time.

There are some fantastic Chess visualization and calculation books out there, but they all fall down on one point.

Namely, when you can see all the moves written in front of you, you don’t get near the workout for your working memory.

If you forget where the knight moved, you can just flick your eyes back a few moves for a quick reminder. That defeats the purpose.

Get an index card or some other small bit of paper or cardboard, and cut a small hole in the middle of it.

Then use that to ensure you only see one move at a time when reading Chess books. Make sure you understand that move, then go to the next. Restart whenever you need.

This turns any Chess book into a fantastic training tool for the adult brain.

Become a Don’t Move Member.

I believe I have made the best resource available for training your adult Chess brain. And I continue to improve it every day. This is my passion. If you’re serious about building your mental muscles, I have built the gym for you to do it.

I invite you to join us on the other side.

If you’re not ready to sign up for the full membership yet, I still love you. I still have your back. We’re in this together.

I have made a bunch of my isolated, intensified, brain-training exercises available for free on the “Chess Visualization with Don’t Move” podcast (Spotify / Apple Podcasts).

I release 5 podcast episodes each week. If you love it, please consider sharing it with your Chess friends.

An adult brain can be a superpower for learning when approached correctly. But like any good superpower, it has its kryptonite.

Our working memory limit is our kryptonite. But we can lesson its effects, drastically reduce its power, with the right kind of training.

If we adapt to what our adult brains need, we can be amazing learners. If we don’t, we will struggle.

Be proud of your adult brain. Align with what it needs.

I promise it will amaze you with what it can do.

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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