Inspired by Willy Hendriks’ book Move First, Think Later, I want to write about a subject I have been thinking about for some time.
Before I get to that topic, I will say a few words about the book. Hendriks swings between clever insights, self-professed modesty and falling for the Dunning-Kruger effect 🙂 which he even portrays in the book. One of the big highlights for me is his estimate that a tournament of nine rounds with a score of roughly either +1 or -1 on expected score is just as much about chance as anything else. There is no reason to over-interpret, Hendriks explains.
Something similar happened in Wijk aan Zee this year. My student GM Sabino Brunello scored 11/13 and qualified for the B-group. It was quite an overscore, though he was one of the pre-tournament favourites. When asked by journalists after the tournament why he had scored so many points, he correctly said that he had no idea and that he had actually played rather badly for a while and only regained the recently lost rating points with this result. Sure, he played well, but chance was also a factor, as well as something called the winner effect, which I will probably write about another time.
I have been a chess trainer since the late 1980s, when I was still a relatively weak junior player. Obviously I was a poor trainer for the first 10-15 years, but since then I have learned a lot and now feel that I can consistently help people get better at chess. I still prefer to see myself as an expert on chess literature rather than as a trainer, but I have taken on a few more training jobs in the last few years than I previously did. Also, I now feel confident enough to charge a rate that makes it worth my while to engage intellectually and emotionally with the work of improving someone’s chess. However, there are definitely trainers out there who offer better value for your money than working with me; especially as many chess professionals are struggling to make ends meet and therefore need all the work they can get.
At times I am approached by people who think that my supervision to their improvement is essential. And at times I say yes.
But there is one phenomenon which I have faced a few times that I want to write about, as it might be interesting for a lot of people. It is desperation.
In general I am difficult to hire, as I am busy and I really do not need any extra responsibilities or stresses. A big turn-off is young players who for some reason are desperate. They feel that they need to improve NOW. And usually it is not their abilities they want to improve; they want to improve their results.
The responsibility put on the poor trainer easily becomes too much. After a training session below average (and they have to happen by definition) or a tournament that did not lead to a great leap forward, the disappointment of the student becomes too much.
Put on top of this the nerves the student has during play! And the amount of thinking about the result and making too big conclusions about it, rather than solving the problems on the board.
Who in their right mind would want such a job?
As said before, chess is really difficult and progress comes slowly and often only after hard work. Recently GM Sune Berg Hansen compared improvement in chess to paying the ferryman Charon a silver coin (an Obol for those who care) to be allowed passage over the river Styx. Those who know their mythology will know that those who did not pay were doomed to walk the shores of Styx for a hundred years.
Sune clearly intended the gloom of this metaphor, associating with the grim determination necessary to improve in areas that do not come naturally to you.
He said nothing about the travel time across the river. As we are talking Ancient Greece, it might not be as fast as you expect. In my life I always found that things never happened when I thought I deserved them, but when I was ready for them. I guess you have a similar experience?
Sune’s metaphor dies a bit when you compare becoming a GM to entering the underworld. 🙂
For those who are desperate out there, I would like you to consider if your unhappiness with your current chess results is linked to a belief that you will be happier when you achieve your goals? If so, I want you to be ready for disappointment: the bliss quickly wanes. However, if you love chess and are interested in the journey, then don’t despair. Improvement in chess is possible, even if it is laborious and uneven.