Tuesday, June 21, 2005
A report on my experience on undergoing the seven circles proram

Recorded here are my experiences, the results, and the struggles I encountered undergoing the rapid chess development program as based on Michael De La Maza's article "400 points in 400 days" - aka - The seven cicles program

The Reason
Before we delve in my experiences regarding the seven-circles, I think it would be better to explain why I did it in the first place. The reason is easy enough to understand:

- I did it out of desperation. -

For a period of at least three years, I was buying books and studying the mess out of them. Titles like chess fundamentals, judgement and planning, and some other tomes of chess knowledge. I greatly enjoyed those books, and even now, reviews them from time to time - but the thing is even though I learned a lot - I still can't win games. I get beaten by people who drinks beer all day and only casually picks up the pieces. This is very, very frustrating. Worse of all - I knew their moves are bad. But I couldnt find any way of punishing them. Except for the openings traps I memorized - and this only works so many times. I simply can't take advantage of my opponent's blunders.

This led me to believe that what I had been doing is wrong. So I did some research on the how and why I suck like I do. Then couple this with a desire to play like my chess hero's Tal, Nezhmetdinov and Shirov - I came to the conclusion that if in nothing else - I should have great tactical ability in chess. I mean seeing their games, and seeing them weave mating nets and tactical shots against opponents filled me with a desire to do the same. To become a "combinational talent" so to speak.

Positional play gets all the press, and I think tactics have this negative connotation, what with all the smack down laid on it. "Chess is more than tactics", and some such stuff is always heard when you tell other players you are studying tactics. Its really a pity, and I can't really understand why the abhorrence to tactical study. Yes, chess is more than tactics, but why the horrified faces? You know, if one of those old combinational masters were alive today. The masters to whom positional play is supposedly unknown Zuckertort, Blackburne, Anderssen I think they would be masters today too. Maybe not grandmasters(?), but Masters, and for me - that is enough.

The Method
My research brought me to the 400 points rapid improvement plan of MDLM. It was a controversial article, and some people trash the plan, saying it is too imbalanced. That tactics is not everything, etc.. etc.. Some even claim that the 7x repetition is unecessary and a total waste of time, but I was really desparate. And to someone who have attempted to master another language, like I have I did (japanese) - the repetition really makes sense. Because this was how I learned japanese, by repeating to read and write common words "ad nauseaum".

I slightly modified the plan, according to my taste. I used a book "Art of combination" by maxim block instead of CT-ART. And instead of going thru the book in one big cirle, I at first did three circles per chapter. After going thru the book in that manner - I did circles 4-7 on the whole book.

The Goal
The only way to prove if the plan was a success was to establish a goal and see if I meet it. I did not attach the goal to a rating increase - like the 400 points of DLM, because for one thing, I play only occasionally. So I set my goal into more practical matters. The first goal was after doing the program, I will come back and try to obliterate those beer drinking mother lovers. The second goal is to recognize with "blinding speed" all the two-three move threats. Not if I think about it, or if I analyze, but recognize instantly if a two-three move tactical shot is present in a position. I will consider the program a success if I meet this two "lofty" goals

The experience
Before I give what happened to my chess strenght, I will discuss first what happened to me psychologically when I did the circles. This is a very important thing to know for those who will attempt a similar endeavor.

For starters, I grew to hate it. Of course at first I was enjoying it, and was really motivated. But this is a natural thing. Motivation is at its peak at the start of anything. But overtime - I really, really came detesting it. Why? Well, have you tried eating chicken everyday? I bet if you ate only chicken and nothing else everyday for six months, you'll go crazy. This was what I felt then. Even now I shiver when I remember those times. Certain days, certain months I wanted nothing else but to quit and burn that darn exercise book. No wonder MDLM walked away from chess. The seven circles came to be such a burden.

Part of the frustration came from me not being able to solve certain problems. These are problems usually involving 10-20 move sequences with multiple sidelines. On hindsight, maybe I should not have attempted solving them, as I was yet too weak - but my pride prevented me from admitting it beforehand. I am the invincible "nezha", am I not? but I was just fooling myself. Those problems were way over my head.

Fortunately something happened when I was already at the middle of the sixth circle. I suddenly got it. The 10 move problems suddenly didnt seem to be too daunting (some of them anyway). I dont know what happened to my brain, but I can visualize them clearly. And only then at the sixth circle. So the repetition really does work, and finally left me some concrete results. It was very encouraging. I also started winning games. I was rated 1659 at FICS, and was able to defeat 1800++ players. The enjoyment came back then, and it helped me finish the circles.

So its goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Completing this plan is hard. There is a lot of frustration associated with it. My practical playing strenght has improved, but it came at a price. It gave me chess powers I never dreamed I would have had, but it took all what I had to attain it. Clearly, the plan gives, and the plan takes away.

Speaking of those chess powers -

The plans practical effects

I present now a summary of the plans efects in my practical playing chess ability. Here is the breakdown across what I think are the affected abilities:

1. Tactical Pattern Recognition
No surprise here. You do 1000 exercises seven times, you are bound to remember something. The book I did also seems to focused on certain combinational motiffs. It has a high concentration of knight forks. I mean, the chapter might be on "clearing the line" or something, but the end result has a knight fork in it. My "forking" powers has increased formidably after the program.

But note: I havent been able to conceive very deep combinations myself in OTB play. Sometimes I see long tactics, but they are few and far between. What I was able to do consistently however, was to see the simple blunders of my opponent. Simple forks, simple pins, backrank tactics - the basics. Nothing complicated, but these simple things have actually won many many games for me. I would even dare say, all my games are decided by simple things like this. (And if the opponent manages to not fall for them, I usually lose.)

2. Calculating Ability
Solving tactical exercises give you many things for free. One of this very important things is calculating ability.In the past, I would try to calculate as far as possible during games, but never got anywhere past the second move. Why? because its just too hard for me. My calculating muscles is underdeveloped. If the muscles are weak, you cant lift very hard. No matter how much you try. And I did try, but since my brain is not used to such strain, it refused to cooperate. But when you solve problems for six months. Rain or shine. Day-after-day. The calculation of variations becomes easier and easier. Until one day, you suddenly notice "hey I can calculate vey far now". Of course, I wont claim I can now calculate 10-movers very fast, I would just be lying. but what I can see very easily, is about two-three moves ahead. No effort, I look at the board and see two moves ahead without strain.

Now, two-three moves ahead maybe aint so hot, but for someone who previously sees exacly one move ahead - this is a very big personnal achievement already.

3. Board Vision
"Novices see pieces, Masters see squares" - is an old chess adage. Particularly when weaving mating nets, this ability is really necessary. The circles have really helped me see the squares influenced by my pieces. Before, if my opponent has a bishop tucked away on say a2 or h6, I was not always concious of its influence. Now, I've become more aware of vital diagonals, key squares and the like.

I remember a game when, I suddenly realized that my opponents king is trapped in the middle of the board. I went "Hey, wait a minute - if I just give a check, its already mate!". Very surprising. Previously, I dont think I would have spotted a thing like that.
So there you have it - The effects of the program on my playing ability. Which is a very focused improvement on certain simple things. But as I've said, those simple things have won for me a lot of games. I really heartily recommend the program to anybody who wants the same and who wants to increase these abilities.

Hold on now, Increase Abilities? How about increasing chess knowledge. How about that? Or do I propose to stay ignorant about the higher realms of chess knowledge?

Chess Knowledge vs. Chess Ability

It was Michael Dela Maza's contention that most chess players tries to increase their chess knowledge, but not their chess ability. At first, I thought this to be false. I mean, if you know so much about chess, wouldnt your ability rise also? Werent they were directly proportional. But going through the program, I could say they are not. That is is possible to have maximum chess knowledge with minimum chess ability. Or vice-cersa. Why this is so?

I used to study the classical guitar, and can read and write musical notations. It isnt really very hard, and so I can understand compositions somewhat. I know what notes to hit, the overall progression, Its all there in the music book. But even though I understand them, I still cant play most of it. Why? Because they require great finger strength and dexterity - things which I didnt have. And the only way to get these things, is to do painfull finger exercises - exercise which has nothing to do with understanding music, but has everything to do with being able to play music.

I think in chess it is somewhat the same. I think most experienced chessplayers have very good understanding of positions. But to understand something, and to actually make it happen are two separate things. In the book "simple chess" - I found this nice little entry - "These positional features will allow you to win, subject to the strengthened proviso that you do not fall into a mating attack beforehand." Nice to see positional chess has its rewards, but the things is - I have always found it hard to "not fall into a mating attack beforehand". If I did, I'd literary have hundreds of points added to my rating.

This right here is basically the essense of the matter. There is an opponent actually trying to oppose us, and to make a plan work despite this violent strain, to properly "play" the position, requires "finger" strength. Substitute "finger" here with tactics and calculation, finger exercises with tactical exercises and I think my meaning makes itself clear.

If you have great fingers and a good ear, you can play a mean guitar music without knowing so much about theory.
If you have great tactics and good calculating ability, you can play a mean game of chess without knowing so much about theory.

Future plans

So, after all that - did I meet my goals? Sadly I would have to say "No".

True, I have already defeated all my previous opponents who used to wipe the floor with me, but I feel I havent achieved the "flabergasting speed of tactical comprehension" I was hoping for. Then, some problems was way over my head so I was only able to do 700 problems instead of 1000 (in six months). And lastly, most of my games are still decided by tactics.

All these things are telling me something -

I need to do another circle.

Yes, yes, I know. I barely finished it the last time. What made me think I can do it again? I dont know - but I think taking lots of breaks will help. A few days here, a few days there, just so it doesnt become a burden. I also think that I will take smaller chunks, like a seven circles for a set of 300. And this time, I will work on the pattern recognition more by solving very easy 2-3 move problems. Not like the 10-20 move problems I did the last time.

Of course I would also like to study positional play, chess strategy, and the like. But right now, at my current state of development, to concentrate on that would be a waste of time. First things first. If I can manage to consistently avoid those "mating attacks beforehand", then and only then will I de-emphasize tactical training.

That's the plan anyway.

-- "When will the circles end?
That's an odd question. Its called a circle for a reason afterall" --
posted by Nezha at 12:22 AM | Permalink |


  • At 3:30 AM, Blogger bahus

    Excellent article!

    You made very good points about the MDLM program and summarized many feelings I had before/during/after the CT-Art training.

    I especially liked your comments on Chess Knowledge vs. Chess Ability. I guess superior chess ability makes also learning additional knowledge much easier (or possible).

    - bahus

  • At 6:43 AM, Blogger CelticDeath

    I convinced that periodic follow ups of the material are necessary to further cement the patterns into the brain and not lose the tactical edge. I'm going to do just that in a month or two. It'll take the form of re-doing Circle 7 (or my final Uber Circle in my case).

  • At 8:36 AM, Blogger Temposchlucker

    To quote DLM:

    "When I first developed this study program there was no third step. I thought that
    the first two steps would be enough. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that
    transferring my tactical ability to OTB games was quite difficult."

    Before you decide to torture yourself again with another circle, maybe you should have a look at this point. Besides I think it is a good idea to look for a more joyful way to study. Since I achieve more when I like the work, joy is always my first concern.

  • At 9:21 AM, Blogger Blue Devil Knight

    Excellent summary: thanks! I am glad I didn't try to work through CT-Art, that's for sure. Your post reinforces that there is no shame in working at 1-3 move tactical puzzles. Indeed, most of my losses are because I miss such simple tactical or endgame puzzles.

  • At 11:51 PM, Blogger JavaManIssa

    Very informative post. I think you are correct to say that the 10-20 movers are very unlikely in games and that the 2-3 movers are more commonly seen. The 10-20 movers can be used to help calculation though :)

    Doing circle 8 is a great thing, and i think one should re-do CT-Art every 6-12 months. If you haven't already TCT i recommend you get it. To burn in the simple stuff going through TCT all the time will leave you with patterns where you will see instantly! Like in a blitz game for example :)

  • At 11:52 PM, Blogger JavaManIssa

    Oh, and congratulations ! welcome to the hall of fame sir knight errant :))

  • At 1:34 AM, Blogger Mousetrapper

    Wow, quite a post! Good luck with your 8th circle, Nezha. Seems that you are addicted. I came to the same conclusion as Temposchlucker. The real point of improvement is to transfer what you learned in the circles to your OTB play (or online play). What you need is (1) board vision and (2) thought process and, not to forget (3) joy or love for Caissa.

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