It was brought to my attention that I needed to talk about a chess skill that gets little mention, yet is crucial to mastery. This is a skill you can use in every aspect of your life. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, which is ironic considering the skill I’m talking about is patience! Yes patience. I want to stray away from the usual subject matter we’ve been looking at, and talk about developing patience. It’s that important, if you wish to improve your playing.
Prior to becoming a chess teacher, I had a career as a professional guitarist. Like most adolescent boys, I had a fantasy of becoming a rock star. My friends and I would spend countless summer days playing air guitar to Kiss records, each fantasizing about being a member of the band. Most kids grow out of this youthful phase. My friends did. I did not.
Since this is not an article on how to succeed in the music industry, I’ll skip over everything but the role patience played. So I decided I wanted to play guitar well enough to join or start a band. I listened to an assortment of guitar players from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. They made me want to not play my guitar! In fact I put it away for a few years. Why? Because I was comparing my beginner’s skill set (or lack of) with their skill sets. Rather than think “one day if I practice a lot, I’ll be able to play their music,” I thought, “I sound terrible and there’s no way I’ll ever come close to playing like that!”
When chess beginners study the games of the masters, they often feel as if they’re the worst players in the world because they are comparing themselves as beginners with players who have spent decades honing their skills. It is discouraging at best. Beginners need to remind themselves that every Grandmaster started out as beginner, making the same mistakes that any novice player makes. The road to mastery starts with the acquisition of one piece of knowledge and then another piece and another piece and so on, until one’s skill set is fully developed. However, this takes time. This is where patience comes in.
It would be great if we could all becomes masters in the blink of an eye. Imagine if you could mastery anything in 24 hours! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Mastery takes years of hard work. When I started my journey playing guitar, after I got over what an initially terrible guitarist I was compared to the greats, I was told by a great guitar player to win the war by winning one small battle at a time. He also told me to be in it for the long run. What he meant was for me to not try and do everything at once but slowly improve by learning one simple technique at a time. Rather than think about becoming really good in the short term, I threw away any schedule regarding how good I would be at a certain point in time. That guitar player also said something to me that didn’t make since until two decades later, “the guitar gods, with the exception of Hendrix, are not as great as you think.” What he meant by this was, as my technique and skill set grew, I’d see that what appeared to be impossible to play was really quite simple. Last night, I needed to learn a complicated Led Zeppelin song whose lead was actually simple. It was the same lead that made me hang up my guitar temporarily as a kid. I can now play the lead note for note. Where I am going with all this is that it takes time and you can’t do everything at once.
Face it, we live in a world where everything needs to be done quickly. The measure of a job well done is now the speed at which that job is accomplished. Mastering chess (or guitar) runs counter to this thinking. Like music, chess mastery requires a balance of theory and practice or studying technique and playing games to apply your newfound knowledge. You cannot speed up the process. You have to be patient!
It is difficult to live in a world in which every component of life takes place at a breakneck speed and then force yourself to slow down. However, this is exactly what you have to do when learning chess. By observing my students, I’ve been able to make some observations regarding the development of patience. The biggest problem students face is wanted it all at once! They want to learn everything now! This approach leads to a poor foundation of knowledge and chess is a foundational game. What I mean by this is that concepts build upon one another. If your opening game is weak, you’ll have a dreadful middle-game position which will make for an even worse endgame. You have to completely understand the opening principles if you hope to have a successful middle-game!
The secret to patience is simple: Take your time. Learn chess in small chunks. For example, when learning the opening principles, really master the first principle before moving to the second principle. Do a deep dive into the subject matter and don’t set a rigid end date for your studies. If you plan on going over a chess concept for the first time, don’t set a completion date. How do you know when to move on? When you suddenly say to yourself, “I get it, I understand this!” Only then should you move to the next concept. Repeat the same process for the next concept. When you have an “ah ha” moment for the second concept, go back and review the first concept. The point is to take your time. You’ll become a much better player by doing so.
Patience isn’t easy. I am generally impatient except when it comes to music and chess. Try as I may, I still get impatient about certain things. That’s alright because I am patient where it counts. However, it took a lot of time to reach this point. Learning patience is like weight training at the gym (something else I do). You don’t go in and start by lifting heavy weights. You start with lighter weights and build up from their. Developing muscles takes time. As the kids used to say around here, slow your roll. We’ll get back to things next week. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!