In sports, there are often times methodical ways to practice. In tennis, for example, you don't just play matches or just practice forehands, you practice hitting forehands cross-court deep into the corner target, then to the angled target, etc.

I'm wondering, what is the equivalent method of practicing tactics methodically in chess? Would it be to practice one motif repeatedly? Or is it to practice blitz+standard?


I'm wondering, what is the equivalent method of practicing tactics methodically in chess? Would it be to practice one motif repeatedly? Or is it to practice blitz+standard?


In the chess world it seems to be to use some variation of "spaced repetition". There is a great answer by BlindKungFuMaster to a different question which says:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that repeats content after increasing time spans according to learning success, i.e. faster for stuff you haven't grasped yet, longer if you do well.

In chess this is either used to learn a certain set of (easy) tactical exercises basically by heart ("woodpecker method" according to Axel Smith, Michael de la Maza, …), which is supposed to improve your tactical pattern recognition.

Since BlindKungFuMaster's excellent post Axel Smith and Hans Tikkanen have published a book expanding on the "woodpecker method" called "The Woodpecker Method" which includes some interesting history and background together with instructions and explanations of the method plus over 1100 graded exercise.

The main difference between spaced repetition and the woodpecker method is that Smith and Tikkanen emphasize increasing speed rather than time gap. Here are their instructions:

Step 1
Cycle 1: Solve as many exercises as you can manage in four weeks. These exercises are your set; and solving them brings you to the end of your first cycle. (The exact time period can be adjusted according to your lifestyle and circumstances, but try not to spend much more than four weeks. If you find yourself taking much longer than four weeks, you have probably either not been putting in sufficient time, or have included too many exercises in your set.)

Step 2
Take a break from chess for at least a clear day, and up to a week if you need it.

Step 3
Cycle 2: Solve the same set of exercises but faster: within two weeks is the target.

Step 4
Repeat steps 2 and 3, and repeat again. Aim to complete each cycle in half the number of days as the previous cycle (rounded up, when dealing with an odd number of days).

Step 5
The Woodpecker Method has been completed when the full set of exercises has been solved entirely in one day – or after the 7th cycle, if you are unable to solve the full set in a day. In the final two cycles, you should focus more on spotting ideas, patterns and motifs at speed, and less on the finer details of calculation.

Interesting to note that Axel Smith credits the woodpecker method (named after the translation of Tikkanen's name into English) with his achievement of the GM title. This is what he says early in the book:

As mentioned above, I trained with the Woodpecker Method in the spring of 2010. That summer, I achieved three GM norms and surpassed the 2500 barrier, all within a seven-week period. The positive effects did not stop there: the following year, my live rating briefly peaked at 2601.

Such quick results from any type of chess training are rare in my experience, but for me the Woodpecker Method seemed to be just what the doctor ordered! The increased tactical acuity and consistency that came from working so hard with the method significantly decreased my blunders and made me more confident at the board.

Would I have made the same improvement with some other type of training? It’s not impossible – but my playing strength had not taken any significant leap in years, so I had been at a loss as to what to do differently to succeed. Although the Woodpecker Method probably wasn’t the only way for me to raise my play, it certainly proved to be a way. The intersection of my interest in the human mind and my motivation to stop blundering surely helped me to devote more time and effort than I would have put into my usual training.

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