Unpacking a controversial chess improvement strategy
Thank you for this, Nate! I’ve been considering the Woodpecker method for my 2023 plan and will not now for two reasons: the strong argument your article makes coupled with the fact that, simply working through new and different books throughout the year will simply be more fun. So if not Woodpeckering is even just possibly more effective, AND more fun? Decision made.
I experienced this method with an excellent tactical book called "Tactics, tactics, tactics" thoughtful edition by GM Csaba Balogh. I solved cover to cover and I tried for a 2nd. time. The result wasn't that I went faster but just that I score higher (I guess that in the 1st. attemp I internalized some positions in my subconscious) But in both cases it took me about a week to solve them all.
Would be interesting to hear some pedagogy or didactics experts opinion...most of chess training material (videos/books...) are created by strong chess players with scarce knowledge of educational techniques...maybe even neourolinguistic experts have something to say!
Learning tactics does not teach you how to play chess. You must learn tactics to cash in on a strategically superior position, but emphasizing tactics over learning what you should be trying to do on the board during a game is a mistake. Old Russian chess maxim: There are no good moves in bad positions.
Before Michael De La Maza published his book "Rapid Chess Improvement", he wrote an article by the same name. Before he published this article, he sent it to me to get my suggestions, because I had a website since around 1996 that advocated the same idea. I believed in doing a large number of tactical problems repeatedly to build pattern recognition. When I did this myself, I saw my rating go from 1800 to 2000.
I can't guarantee that this is the best way to improve one's chess tactics. For myself, my goal was to be able to see the vast majority of 1, 2, and even 3-move combinations instantly. However, doing new puzzles might also be good.
My website hasn't changed much since I first published it. It is dated. At that time, the Internet (World Wide Web) was relatively new, and most people didn't have access to it. Chess Life gave me an "award" for the website, but there weren't many chess websites at the time.
I think the point of woodpecker method is to hardwire in the brain patterns for complex tactics. Solving a tactic thinking 10 minutes is not the same as solving instantly. Ideally what we want is a training program that starts with tactics that we don't know how to solve (or that we take way too much time to solve) and reach the point to solve the same level of tactics instantly. On this point woodpecker method works very well: first time solving tactics builds the patterns and they get strengthened by repetition, until they become automatic. Of course there is the overfitting problem, but one could argue that it is worth risking it for a faster pattern creation. Indeed solving always different tactics may make it harder/slower to isolate specific patterns and takes more time to make them automatic.
http://empiricalrabbit.blogspot.com/2011/03/bain-experiment.html seems relevant.
"In this experiment, I not only greatly improved at solving the problems that I was practicing, but also at solving problems that I had never seen before."
Thanks for saving me 31 bucks. I am using "chess tempo" online free tactics every day.
I think for adults especially, repetition is key. A kid has to only see a pattern once, to internalize it. But adults have to see it 2-3-10 times before it sticks. Thats why I think the Woodpecker method has been successful for adults.
One person's "memorization" is another person's "unconscious competence." To quote Bruce Lee: I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
I've been curious about the woodpecker method, and may eventually try it. I think some kind of repetition is necessary though. I used to work on chess.com puzzles and got from a beginner level to over 2500 and didn't really notice much improvement in OTB. Contrast to working through a tactics book, organized by theme, with a coach, and I saw drastic improvement. An overfit example since there are many other factors at play, but I feel it had to do with the puzzles being grouped by theme. It narrowed down what to look for while still forcing me to identify the nuances of each.
Good to know.
I had not realize that.
Imagination in Chess by Paata Gaprindashvili? There's an older one with the same title, by C. D. Locock.
I think cyclical training helps with certain sets of problems a lot better than others. After doing it with the a set of mating problems my ability to "see" those kinds of patterns increased a lot. But with other sets of problems I did notice that I was memorizing the problems instead which is useless in a real game.
De La Maza made good progress,
but I think one result of his program
(I heard )
was that he lost interest in chess.
I’m actually using a variation on the woodpecker method currently for my own chess study (using a different book of tactics and not measuring time in terms of days but in raw timed hours of calculation). This mostly affirms my feelings on the method thus far. It’s better than not studying but its “unique” elements are not as important as simply having a structured learning process to rely on.
The friend group recommendation is intriguing though I’d have to find a group first. Still, I think these are good suggestions and I’ll see if I can try and shuffle the order of puzzles on my next cycle.