Saturday, January 10, 2009

Who are the Knights Errant?

The Knights Errant is a group of chess enthusiasts inspired by De La Maza's Rapid Chess Improvement and 400 Points in 400 Days. We encourage one another on our personal quests for tactical and overall chess mastery. I serve as the Secretary of the Knights Errant.

Active and Victorious Knights
* Blue Devil Knight
* Blunderprone
* Caquetio Knight
* Celtic Death
* Chessaholic
* Chris Kilgore
* Fussy Lizard
* Haunted Knight
* Himalayan Knight
* J'adoube
* King of the Spill
* Likes Forests
* Man de la Maza

* Mousetrapper
* Nezhmetdinov
* Pale Morning Dun
* Princess Errant (Margriet)
* Rise and Shine
* Salcido
* Sancho Pawnza
* Sir Banatt
* Sir Rocky Rook
* Tacticus Maximus
* Temposchlucker
* Underpromoted Knight

The Keys to Tactical Ability:

        • Habits     • Knowledge     • Calculation

1. Habits

This includes always (a) thinking about why your opponent made his move, (b) examining checks, mate threats, captures, & other threats and (c) using mnemonics like Dilly Dally (discoveries, line tactics, & double attacks) to jog your memory.

De La Maza: "
[T]ransferring my tactical ability to OTB games was quite difficult... I would look at the board... decide that there was no tactical shot... again I would turn out to be wrong."

2. Knowledge

We repeat or 'circle through' tactics to memorize them. This suggests: (a) your circles should be small enough that you recall positions when you repeat them, and (b) simpler tactics will appear more often in your games and therefore are the best candidates to memorize.

De La Maza:
"The first step... involves exercises that pound very simple tactical notions into your brain."

3. Calculation

Of course, we are bound to encounter novel and complex positions. To excel tactically, we should be able to calculate a few ply without errors or doubts.

De La Maza: "The Seven Circles exercise will lead to a vast improvement in your calculation and pattern recognition ability."

  • De La Maza's articles, "400 Points in 400 Days" part I & part II.
  • How to join the Knights Errant and improve your tactics.


likesforests said...

I went 0 out of 2 in my USCF tournament today and then withdrew. In the first game I blew an advantage against a 1960 in time trouble. The second game... I don't want to talk about. It involved a polite 8-year-old girl. This was a shock after placing at the World Open and winning the U1600. Darn tactics!

Glenn Wilson said...

Reminds me of this. She was quite polite, 8-years old, and deadly. Instead of withdrawing I took it out on my next two opponents (but my overly agressive play could have back-fired).

Oh, and I've posted and sent you email about you-know-what...

likesforests said...

I feel a little better knowing I'm not the only one bushwhacked by an opponent not quite four feet tall. Her parents must be proud. :)

I withdrew because two losses would mean playing opponents where I could lose but not gain rating points. I full intend to return to that club soon, a little better prepared.

Blue Devil Knight said...

An excellent choice for the next in line of succession. Take good care of the Knights, Likesforests, they live in unstable times.

I like your summary of the MDLM basic argument.

And a tip of the sword to Glenn for a job well done.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I wonder if MDLM's vast improvement was partly because of the calculation skills he developed with the quite difficult exercises in the later stages of CT-Art. He tended to stress the pattern recognition/memory aspect, but now over a year later I frankly only explicitly remember the solution to about half of the problems in CTB.

On the other hand, much of the memory I formed is more implicit, a kind of big yellow 'caution' sign that goes off when a tactic (within my memory bank) might be present in the position.

I probably will do the Circles once again with CTB, but in a more relaxed way, to really smash them into my skull. Perhaps once a year or so I should review them.

Howeve, right now I'm doing Personal Chess Trainer, the lazy man's circles. It is quite good.

I like the mention of simple tactics. I define 'simple' as 'A problem set that starts out with tactics you would easily see in actual games, and by the end has you solving problems you would never see in real games.' Say,
15% problems you would easily see,
35% you would see given enough time (this may be the key, as it may lift you to seeing them easily), 35% you likely wouldn't see, but are easy to understand once you see the answer,
15% that takes you a few times though to really understand them.

The latter are almost like compositions, good for working on calculation, but not necessarily basic motifs you will remember in a year.

tanch said...


ouch. that is painful.

at my club, i've lost to 8-12 year olds before in blitz competitions. of course, while it's not nice to see those young kids with smirks on their faces after the games, i've taken it all in my stride. i just console myself that the better player won on that day.

if i were to constantly get hung up over every loss to a small kid, my rope would be very long by now. hehe.


Anonymous said...

I think there's a simpler way to explain MDLM's improvement: he had plenty of time, and he happened to create a study plan that worked for him. The title "Rapid Chess Improvement" was misleading - his plan was anything but rapid. Having spent 2100 hours studying chess over nearly two years, it would've been unfortunate if he hadn't become an expert by the end.

Meanwhile, others trying MDLM's methods have failed to replicate his results, suggesting that his method is not so much a universal guide to chess success, but one that just happened to work for himself. No chess player will dispute that studying tactics will improve your game, but the kind of repetitive drilling MDLM suggests is unlikely to work for everyone, and his insinuation that tactical mastery suffices for overall chess mastery is even more questionable. He probably picked up a lot about positional play in his 2100 hours of study, even if he wasn't consciously aware of it - a sign of talent, perhaps. He was at least familiar with Silman's Reassess Your Chess, so he probably got something out of reading that whether he cares to admit it or not!
Bottom line is: are you sure you want to do the Circles for a second time? While tactics may be an apparent weakness in your game, it may not be the most serious one and you might be better served studying something else.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Aziridine: all good points. I don't plan on really doing the circles again, I should have said I plan on reviewing the problems on which I did the circles just to refresh my memory.

As you seem to know, there is lots online about what is good or not in the Circles.

Just to name a few:
*Who should do the Circles?
*Nunn's critique of MDLM (this in my opinion is the best critique)
*Shahade's Fracas

Of course, many coaches and such recommend something like the Circles, but with much simpler problems than you find in CT-Art.

In general, tactical possibilities are more likely in good positions (though of course even in horrible games positionally speaking you can pull a swindle). I think MDLM likely was more positionally saavy than he thought.

Now, more than a year after the Circles, I still work on safety and tactics 5-15 minutes a day (Fritz attack training, and puzzles in PCT).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Oops, first link broken above. Who should do the Circles?.

It's my most considered opinion on the matter, and one of my main suggestions is to use simple problems. There are lots of good comments there.

From the patzer said...

Congrats on being the new knight secretary.

Secondly i find it a shame that you quit the tournament after two rounds. Now all the free practise is gone and spots you kinda as a sore loser or is it rating whore?

The above choice of words may sound harsh but thats because i am belgian and dont know other words to express what i want to say.

Anonymous said...

IMO the one thing MDLM did do that is worthy of emulation is that he played a lot. I think the only sure way to improve your chess is to play more often and analyze your games afterwards, preferably with someone stronger than you to help identify your mistakes. I'll have to take my own advice sometime :)

likesforests said...

chesstiger -- I can honestly say how others would interpret my withdrawal never crossed my mind. I did miss out on more practice games. I was bummed about that when endurance is likely one of my strong points.

likesforests said...

tanc, hehe. She was polite about the victory. "Good game", shaking hands, pieces set back up. :)

BDK, I agree there's more to his success than patterns. I'm aiming for balance between the different aspects of tactical skill.

Aziridine -

"No chess player will dispute that studying tactics will improve your game"

Of course. Teichman said chess is 99% tactics. Modern GMs say that's only gone down a few percent.

"...the kind of repetitive drilling MDLM suggests is unlikely to work for everyone."

Repetition is essential to storing knowledge where it can be quickly accessed for the vast majority of people. Whether you schedule the repetitions using Circles, Leitner, Supermemo, or Chessimo is less important to success.

"play more often"

"with someone stronger than you to help identify your mistakes."

Check & check. I'm not a one-trick pony. I'm playing weekly and an IM is looking over my losses. :)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes withdrawal can be understood. I never withdrew myself, but I know one FM, who after getting 0.5 in 3 rounds (I think they were rounds 2-4 or 3-5) of one big tournament withdrew. I followed his games on monroi and he really didn't play well, missed a simple win, then missed a pawn fork, and a quite simple combination in the 3rd game. So, it was visible that he is not in a good shape, why continue? In the next tournament he got 2nd place and $500 prize.
In your case, G/45 format I think played it's role. It's not that easy to play G/90 (for me) and here 2 times less, maybe you weren't ready. You should play online more games with such format and remember Botvinnik's rule - 20% of time for the first 15 moves.

Chessaholic said...

Congrats man, I think you're the ideal choice for Secretary. Nice summary too! Glen - hope we will still see you blogging plenty, you always write good stuff.

Sorry about the tournament result, but it happens to all of us. Consistency is a bitch :) I left chess club disgustedly last week after losing three games in a row. I played horribly, couldn't recognize myself. But you have to just dust yourself off and keep chugging along. I have no doubt that you're going to do great this year; you must be one of the most focused guys out there - at least that's the impression I get seeing all of the things you do to improve your game :)

BlunderProne said...

First, Glenn, thanks for keeping the order. I couldn’t think of a better successor than Likesforests. As BDK points out these are unstable times for the knights but I still believe there is a worthwhile pursuit.

As improvement seekers, we tend to be lured to quick fixes. We are moths and MDLM is our flame. For those of us who have gone through and skated insanity, madness and burnout of another Man’s methods, one thing can be said. Improvement was our reward and remains so in one form or another. Some have climbed through a rating class or two. Others have gotten the courage to venture forth into the courtyard of the tourney. But all of have surely gained a better appreciation of this game we all love. Huzzah to all knights and those future!

May your journey not stop at the circles. Ride on brave knights to future quests! Ride on to the Order of the (GM) Ram! Ride on, I say to your own enlightment and self discovery. Ride on, faire knight, ride on!

--Blunderprone “the Troubled Knight”

Anonymous said...

I dunno about solving the same tactical puzzles over and over again. First, it's not so much about memorizing the puzzle as it is recognizing the motif. So for every time you solve the same puzzle you could be doing another one where the motif is the same but the setting is different. I personally find that more useful - it's easier for me to learn to "smell" a tactic that way.
Besides, it's boring to solve the same tactics over and over again (and extremely frustrating if you keep getting them wrong - you have no excuse!), and chess is meant to be fun.
But hey, if it works for you... good luck!

X said...

Getting killed by kids is such a unique part of chess.

I wrote about my experiences getting crushed by a kid on You can find it here.

Nice blog...keep up the good work.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Aziridine said:
So for every time you solve the same puzzle you could be doing another one where the motif is the same but the setting is different. I personally find that more useful - it's easier for me to learn to "smell" a tactic that way.

There is something to this. A good set of Circles problems will have the same motif from many different angles so you are more likely to remember the general tactic.

likesforests said...

Rolling Pawns - My next event will be a G/60, maybe that helps.

Chessaholic - Thanks, I hope so! I want to be able to post a 'success story' in a year. Maybe my own 400 points in 400 days.

Blunderprone - Thanks. :)

likesforests said...

Aziridine -

But is our brain better at storing motifs or patterns? A simple example: "mate-in-one" is a motif, but the Q+B mate is stored separately from the R+N mate. I'm sure you've seen in games a player who could spot one mate but not another. That's why we study the many common mating patterns.

Using a tactics server that serves up random tactics is easier from a planning perspective, but you do not review patterns at scheduled intervals so you forget some and review others more often than is necessary. It can work, it just doesn't seem as effective from the perspective of learning patterns.

If a tool were made that served up the same pattern with slight variations at good intervals that would be mad cool. :)

Anonymous said...

OK, I think what you mean by "pattern" is exactly what I mean by "motif" (for example I don't think "mate in one" is a motif) so we're not really disagreeing over much here.
I just think that if you solve, say, 5 problems that all make use of one tactical pattern (to use your terminology), that would be more effective than repeatedly solving one problem with the same pattern 5 times. At least that's how it seems to work for me.

likesforests said...

"I just think that if you solve, say, 5 problems that all make use of one tactical pattern (to use your terminology), that would be more effective than repeatedly solving one problem with the same pattern 5 times. At least that's how it seems to work for me."

I agree. To continue with this example, a program that serves up a R+N mate today, then in a week, then in two weeks, then in four weeks, etc. is what Chessimo or Circles or Supermemo or Leitner provide for the Knights Errant.

If there were a tool that changed the position slightly each time, while keeping the pattern (R+N mate) the same, that would probably lead to richer encoding and slightly more effective learning.

Have you found such a tool? I would be keen to check it out. :)

Many well-designed books cover the same pattern from different angles. Eg, Polgar's Brick covers the Arabian mate (R+N) three times, ChessCafe Puzzle Book covers the double B sac five times, etc. But they do so successively. You still have to "circle" (aka review) the book to internalize the patterns.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't know of anything that does exactly what you said (and I'm sure you know more about what's out there on tactics than I do).
If by "successively" you mean the problems are grouped together by theme in a book, then I'd pick problems at random the second time around. Use a random number generator if you have to.
But I still think that each time you solve a problem again you're getting less value out of it. I see it as a no-win situation: if you solve it the second time around, then you had already learned it; and if you don't, you kick yourself for forgetting :)
So instead of doing that, I'd just get a different tactics book. And once you've done a certain amount of tactics, I think you reach a point where your study time's better spent on other things anyway - it's the law of diminishing returns again.

likesforests said...

"But I still think that each time you solve a problem again you're getting less value out of it. I see it as a no-win situation: if you solve it the second time around, then you had already learned it; and if you don't, you kick yourself for forgetting :)"

That's a really interesting aspect of learning... how often to review your study materials. If you don't review, you will of course forget knowledge sooner or later.

Sometimes the answer is easy--the day before an exam or a big tournament! But sometimes it's not so easy. Theoretically, the optimal time to review an item is just before you would have forgotten it. If you could predict that moment with 100% certainty there would be zero redundancy during review.

In the real world, we must rely on imperfect systems. At the moment I'm experimenting with Supermemo, which makes really good guesses as far as review intervals, but alas requires overhead inputting chess data since it wasn't aimed at the chess problem domain.

Chessimo is maybe the easiest tool for review--it's programmed with lots of tactics and guides you through review automatically.

CT-ART is a great problem set but it's up to you to schedule your own circles. I think a good rule of thumb is not to go more than two months without repeating.

"I'd just get a different tactics book. And once you've done a certain amount of tactics, I think you reach a point where your study time's better spent on other things anyway - it's the law of diminishing returns again."

Thanks for the interesting comments. May both our approaches bare fruit. :)

Valerio Tirri said...

first of all, congratulations for your interesting blog.
The feed of your blog was inserted successfully in the directory of YourChess portal and it will remain in home page for several days too.

We are very pleased to have (if it's possible) a crosslink inserted in your blog site.

Best regards
Valerio Tirri
Staff of

Blue Devil Knight said...

When learning basic multiplication we repeat the same exercises over and over, don't do a bunch of different long division problems. This is the usual analogy. I'm not sure if it is apt with chess.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the analogy between basic arithmetic and chess tactics holds. In chess you can memorize a tactical pattern but that doesn't mean you'll necessarily see it in a game. In other words, tactical training isn't just about memorizing patterns, it's about being able to recognize them in any given situation or being able to visualize them several moves in advance.
In math you don't need to do any of that. When you get the equation 9x + 4 = 58, it doesn't matter whether you've seen in advance that 54/9=6; your first step is still going to be 9x = 58 - 4, and your second will still be 9x = 54. We only memorize multiplication tables so that we don't need to do the third step with the calculator.

trallala said...

After some pondering I decided to join Knights Errant for the quest of rating points.... (I've been losing too many of those precious little points lately).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Aziridine: I'm not convinced. I think the analogy might be as important as the disanalogies. Combinations are made up of elementary tactics which we can drill on until we see them in games. Just as tough multiplication uses simple multiplication. The question is what is the best way to learn the multiplication tables for tactics. The Circles can be part of someone's approach, as long as you pick a good problem set.

As for the worry that you just memorize those specific problems and there is no generalization past those, so unless you see exactly those problems you are screwed, that seems to not happen in practice (I discussed that a lot here in great detail, and also see my response to katar's comment: it's just not how human memory works).

So, I like the mult tables analogy with chess tactics. I'm more open to question the best way to learn your tables. As long as you are doing simple problems that is good, whether the same or different it probably doesn't matter all that much.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I haven't made my point clear. Let me try again: when you're doing basic arithmetic, all you have to do is follow a set procedure. As soon as you're armed with multiplication tables, you can do *any* multiplication problem in the world, no matter how difficult. But there is no set procedure for chess.
A better mathematical analogy to chess tactics might be finding antiderivatives. There are various tactics you can study and drill ( integration by parts, by substitution, by partial fractions, using Taylor series, etc.), but there is no established procedure for integration like there is for multiplication. So it's a lot more like solving a chess problem (in fact I think it's quite similar).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Azir: I really like the analogy with integration. The Circles are like doing drills on integration by parts, the trig integrals, and all that.

Anonymous said...

So just as in chess tactics, I would suggest that the more varied the integration problems you practice, the more you'll gain from the training. Repetitive drilling is also beneficial but to a lesser degree, I think.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Azir: I think it depends on the problem set. At any rate, it would probably be a really good idea to do a bunch of integration problems. Whether you repeat them or not, to really be sure you remember the stuff you studied, seems to be the only issue.

Blue Devil Knight said...

When I studied calculus in college, I would do the same problems over and over until I could kick their ass. Then when a similar problem came up on a test (as it always did) I would destroy it. Pattern recognition kicked in, I'd be like oh wait this is just like that other problem I know how to do.

Sometimes, of course, there would be slight differences, so I'd have to actually think. Just like in chess positions we often see similar positions to ones we drilled ourselves on, so we have to think it through to make sure we aren't misguided.