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After reading Micheal de Maza's article 400 Points in 400 Days and the paper Training in Chess: A Scientific Approach by Gobet and Jansen, I have come to the conclusion that effective gains in chess skill for players below the A-class rating (<1900) must come from an equal gain in tactical ability. This is pretty well known in the chess community, and most people, when asked how to improve, will point to tactics.

Once we accept this idea of tactics being the foundation of amateur (<1900) improvement, it becomes a simple matter of methods, results and efficiency. In this regard, most chess players will look to books and websites which offer "chess puzzles". Some of the more popular websites, CTS (Chess Tactics Server) and ChessTempo, offer random puzzles, ordered by difficulty. Having used these websites for the better part of two years, one of the main problems I've found is the loss of "sharpness" or "board vision" when the regularity of puzzle reviews are interrupted. Often, even a gap of 1 week can severely cripple any progress made in tactical ability, so that constant daily practice is needed to maintain any growth.

Then I read about Micheal de Maza (from an article by Dan Heisman) and his method to increase 400+ rating points in a little more than a year. The crux of his method is what he calls "the seven circles" where he does 7 passes through a chess puzzle book, at which point he can solve the puzzles near instantly. In other words, he has memorized the puzzles and their solutions by sight.

Now it is my opinion that the book he chose to "memorize" (Chess Manual of Combinations) had a greater contribution than his actual method (the method is very inefficient, as I will discuss later) but I also believe that the memorization component was essential to sustained (i.e permanent) chess growth. Looking through the Chess Manual of Combinations, I can see that it follows many of the principles laid out in the second paper (especially regarding the building up of positions from the simple to the complex to create an internal hierarchy); it is also ordered by theme and difficulty.

But the question remains, what is the most efficient way to memorize this material? Certainly, doing seven passes through the book seems to be the most inefficient way (brute force usually is).

I am a big fan of spaced repetition software such as Anki, and I think that this software can be combined with the memorization method to yield some significant results, but before I begin such an undertaking I wanted to ask if anyone has already tried a similar approach (if not spaced repetition, at least the memorization of puzzles) and what results they obtained (particularly if it was quantitative, i.e changes in ratings).

Also, I have "Anki-ed" the Manual of Chess Combinations (Volume 1a only, 2a is in the works) and am wondering if anyone else is willing to experiment with this method along with me.

  • If the "invitation" is still open, I would be interested in subjecting myself to this type of experiment. (So far, I have used Anki mainly to learn Chinese.) – user800 Jul 28 '16 at 15:48
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    @ChristopheStrobbe After subjecting myself to this experiment for about 1 year of consistent anki review of 30 min - 1 hour a day and going through around 3000 anki cards/puzzles, my USCF rating jumped from 1200 to 1698, with a similar jump in online play. If you are still interested in the deck and this experiment (whose results are still inconclusive given the short time and lone data point) please PM me. – Dider Jul 28 '16 at 17:42
  • Thanks. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to contact you directly. – user800 Jul 28 '16 at 18:55
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Some experiences:

  • I did some chess training with Anki and it is certainly a viable way to do it. Though I think I prefer to actually play out the solution on a (virtual) board.

  • After three passes I am usually able to solve the puzzles instantly, so 7 passes seems to be quite excessive.

  • I'm not so sure you really have to memorise concrete positions. After all, the motifs turn up again and again anyway, and solving exactly the same positions again and again might condition you to no search for the exceptions anymore. (I noticed that a lot with youngsters who already have a good tactical eye.) This plays into the difference between tactical vision and calculation: If you do too much of these drills your tactical vision improves, but your calculation gets worse. (Like playing too much blitz.)

  • To me personally right now, it seems to be more beneficial to sit down for half an hour and solve some deep and difficult exercise to the end instead of "remembering" 200 easy tactical positions. But you specified <1900 and in that area of chess strength tactical drills certainly work.

  • I read some rather dubious stuff about de Maza, which I won't repeat here. But suffice to say, his book is not to be taken as a scientific study ...

Addendum: With "exceptions" I mean cases, where the obvious tactical motif doesn't work for some deeper reason or maybe just because of a random tactical detail. The "concrete evidence" that memorising position might have some negative side effects, is mostly based on the experience that many players, who do a lot of tactics, get fast but superficial at recognising tactical opportunities.(Many players are afraid of up and coming youngsters and their tactical acumen, but for me, if I myself am in decent tactical shape, those are usually the easy games.) I fear I didn't use Anki long enough to tell you about longterm "sharpness". But this is a very fuzzy thing to address in any case. Some rust always accumulates.

  • First, thanks for your answer. A couple of questions: 1. Can you elaborate on "searching for exceptions?", do you mean the process of checking if your move is safe (i.e blunder checking a tactic which looks good at first sight, but actually loses?) 2. When you say you are not sure you have to memorize concrete positions, is this your arbitrary opinion (i.e gut-feeling) as a >1900 player or based on some concrete evidence (not trying to be rude, just trying to figure out where you're coming from) 3. Most important question: did Anki help you retain "sharpness" in the long term at all? – Dider Dec 15 '14 at 19:21
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It is just anecdotal, and correlation is not the same as causation, but a few years ago I started using the Mnemosyne spaced repetition program to memorize

  • Opening lines (a few thousand cards here alone)
  • Positions from
    • Yusupov, Build Up Your Chess et al
    • Hellsten, Mastering Chess Strategy
    • Ivashchenko, Manual of Chess Combinations
    • Rosen, Chess Endgame Training
    • My own games where I had made a bad decision

During this time, my USCF rating, which had never moved much as an adult, went from under 1800 to over 2000.

  • Can I ask you to elaborate how you made you cards? (Did you take screenshots of the book? Manually create the position on a chess engine? What was the composition of your card, what did you put on the front and back, etc.?) – Dider Jan 16 '15 at 18:25
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    I create diagrams by copying FENs from ChessBase or other programs into a chess diagram generator (I made my own local one to speed up the process). The front of a card has the position (and the moves leading up to it, if an opening) and the back has the correct move, sometimes an explanation, and sometimes a few variations if they're necessary for the answer. Here is a simple example. – dfan Jan 16 '15 at 18:33
  • @Hbhs Could you tell us how many tactics / cards you worked through per day and how much time you spent on them per day? – user800 Jul 28 '16 at 15:45
  • @ChristopheStrobbe On average, I'll estimate 50 cards, 20 minutes. – dfan Jul 28 '16 at 19:39
  • For people who use Anki instead of Mnemosyne: someone wrote a FEN plugin for Anki. After installling the plugin, you can simply paste the FEN code into the flashcards. See chess fen plugin for anki. Note: this plugin dates from 2011; I have not checked whether it is compatible with current versions of Anki. – user800 Jul 29 '16 at 14:29
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Chess Position Trainer is a software package that uses a spaced repetition method to help you learn moves for both openings and just a selected set of positions. It stores the information to be trained as positions, so move order becomes moot.

This is actually a more useful approach to learning the opening, because move (re)ordering is often used to try to steer the game into a position but avoid disadvantageous variations that can arise if the normal order is chosen. So, the players who are best at both spotting opportunities for transpositions and recognizing when one has occurred will be best equipped to play the best theoretical move from that position.

Unfortunately, CPT's schedule for repetition is not adjustable. So, if you think there may be some advantage to that, Anki is a good option, as mentioned by Christophe in a comment to another answer.

You will need to load data into both. CPT has the advantage that it will accept a PGN game (or file of games) and produce the required training for the whole suite automatically. For Anki, you would need to setup/import each position that you want to be tested on individually. So, at least in the short- to medium-term, CPT is less labor for about the same benefit.

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In this video IM David Pruess explained the way chess player should learn tactic. I can summarize it in one sentence: " The way you learn basic patterns is memorizing it not solving them." And If you can share your deck with me, I will really appreciate that. I don't know how to PM you here

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