Beating Magnus after a month of training: the neuroscience of why learning chess is so much harder than learning a language

By David Kramaley / On / In Chess improvement, Chess science, Learning chess

By now, most of the chess world is familiar with the story of Max Deutsch, so I will keep it brief. Max is a 24-year-old chess amateur who wanted to beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a month’s worth of practice. No handicaps.

Max completed 11 other learning challenges, one each month. Perhaps the most impressive one was to learn Hebrew up to a conversational level in just a month. His success attracted large levels of attention, and his last challenge was upgraded from beating the top level of a chess app, to beating the man himself.

If one can learn a new language in a month, why is it that the game we love so much is so difficult to master? I spent over a year reading scientific journals about learning chess asking this very question. I also happen to speak five languages. I would love to share some valuable insights from cognitive neuroscience with you.

Learning chess and playing it well, is an infinitely more complex challenge than learning a new language.Click To Tweet

Learning a Language
Learning a new language is no easy feat. It requires hard work, motivation and daily practice. It is so tough that neuroscientists have shown that if you do not hear the sounds of some languages during your baby years, you may never acquire them up to a native’s standard. Could this be why many countries of the world remain primarily monolingual?

If you do however make the effort, learning a new language has pronounced effects on your brain. Neuroimaging has shown growth in the brain areas of the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus. Your brain changes as you learn a new language. Like a muscle, it gets bigger and better.

Once you have acquired a new language, you will have to use it. When you speak it, you will use the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area) for the motor act of speech. You might also tap into the hippocampus for vocabulary. Your superior temporal gyrus will mediate these functions and help you form sentences rich with meaning.

Learning a Language vs. Learning Chess
Okay, so learning a language is no easy feat, but doable. So why is chess so much harder? The answer is simpler than you might think. While speaking a new language taps into a few skills, chess requires a much wider variety of skills to come together in perfect sync. Like the difference between the sound of an instrument, and that of an orchestra. Chess needs the orchestra. Let’s look at some of the skills that you will need on your path to mastery:

Parts of your brain grow as you learn new skills. How does one’s brain change while learning chess? Let’s find out.

Learning Chess: Visualisation & Calculation
When we calculate a few moves ahead, we need to visualise chess positions. The visual cortex part of your brain is hard at work. Your mind’s eye recreates what your eyes would otherwise do for you. Have you tried playing a game of blindfold chess? It is tough, but it is a required skill. Most masters can do this.

The better you are at visualising, the easier it will be to do everything else. This is because the cognitive load caused by calculation will not be as high, freeing up valuable brain resources for other tasks such as evaluating positions, strategising, etc. This is why famous chess psychologist De Groot noted that strong players no longer see the pieces on the board, but rather the lines of force and pressure that the pieces are exerting on the squares.

Learning Chess: Decision Making
Once you have calculated a few lines, it is time to make a decision. Will you play a prophylactic move or an aggressive move? Will you open the position up and go for the tactical line or play the solid positional line? So many options, so little time! Neuroscientists stipulate that areas like the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, among others, have important roles during decision making. Not much overlap with the brain areas required for visualisation, right? This is a skill in its own right.

Learning Chess: Impulse Control
Grandmaster Alexander Kotov noted that one of the fundamental differences between amateurs and masters is their discipline in thought processes. Do you always look at all you candidate moves? Do you always perform a blunder check? Do you always maintain a disciplined thinking process? Chances are that you do not. This is because this is an entirely separate skill set relying on different parts of your brain.

It is well known by neuroscientists that development of the brain area responsible for impulse control is not normally completed until at least the mid-20s. This is why they have the metaphor, “teenagers are all gas and no brakes”. Their prefrontal cortex is simply not developed enough, and in chess like in life, they might impulsively go for an action (or a variation) without completing their calculations. Of course, it is not only about teenagers, and once fully developed, there may yet be training to do to ensure we are all operating at the best of our abilities.

Learning Chess: Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition is everywhere in chess, from tactical motifs and common combinations to typical plans and strategies. The more you play, the more your brain builds up its pattern recognition system. A fascinating finding from neuroscience is that your brain starts using the fusiform face area (FFA) to store chess positions! This is the part of the brain usually responsible for human face recognition. How can you tell your mom from a stranger? The FFA is hard at work. In expert chess players, this area doubles as a face recognition system for chess positions. Yet another skill to train up.

The fusiform face brain area helps you tell friend from foe. In chess players, it treats chess positions as faces!Click To Tweet

Conclusion

I hope that in this short(ish) article I have shown how learning chess and playing it well, is an infinitely more complex challenge than learning a new language. It is why some stipulate it may take up to 10 years of practice to attain master status. It is not by chance that many of us have fallen in love with this beautiful game, as what could be sweeter than to master one of the hardest human activities known to us? A game so infinite in possibilities that it is said there are more different chess positions than atoms in the universe.

In my work for Chessable, I am working hard to continue to develop tools that may help us tone down the training required to the tune of a few years instead of 10. This is why we are bringing print chess books to interactive life. Other than our work, technology has generally been improving learning for us anyway. This is perhaps why modern-day grandmasters are getting younger and younger.

I believe this trend of faster learning will definitely continue. It is also 100% possible to pick up the basics of chess and get playing within a few hours. It is also within the realms of achievable to increase your ELO by a very respectable level with a month of practice. However, beating the World Champion? I don’t think so. Unless we get the technology from The Matrix, it is unlikely this will happen in our lifetimes, if ever.

For those of us who practice chess daily though, and with technology constantly improving, the day of your Master status may be closer than you think. Good luck and I wish you success on your journey for improvement.

An Evening of Chess with John Bartholomew (and friends!)

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news

First things first, happy thanksgiving everyone!

With the occasion of Chessable’s second birthday, and IM John Bartholomew’s hunt for a GM norm in London, we are organising an awesome evening of chess at the Battersea Chess Club on Wednesday, the 29th of November from 17:00 to 21:30 PM.

This blog post is a reminder for you to RSVP, but also a special update. We now have some really awesome guests coming to take part, and we might just tell you who it is in the next couple of days 😉

The event is FREE to attend, but please RSVP early if you want to be guaranteed to play some chess and have a potential crack at John. And remember,  get your study sessions in and keep your streak up, as we might have a surprise or two in store for those with their activity calendars up to date and streaks on fire.

See you there.

Unlocking a premium feature: Advanced Line Study for all!

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news, Features

Have you ever tried to make or import your own custom Chessable book? If you have and you aren’t a PRO member, chances are you’ve run into our “Advanced Line Study” limitation. Guess what? Hurrah! It’s gone for good. Now everyone can enjoy making their own book.

Here is how one of our users described feeling before and after the change.

This limitation was for custom/private books only. Regular members were limited to the study of the first few moves and required an upgrade to study more. If you don’t know what I mean, don’t worry, you probably were never affected by it. Purchased, and freely published books have always been fully accessible. Nevertheless, this change is going to make many of our free members happy, so we thought we’d write this up to let you know. Just in case you were thinking of making your own book! 😉

As Chessable has grown and we have added more PRO features (move depth, soft fail for custom books, etc.), the PRO list has grown more impressive, and rightly so. In this manner, we show our appreciation for the many people who support us financially and save some server resources. However, it’s been a while since we’ve upgraded our regular members to something special, and since we love you guys just as much, today is the day.

So what are you waiting for? You can now enjoy using this part of the site without any limitations whatsoever. Why don’t you give making or importing your own Chessable repertoire a try? If you do, let us know what you think. We are always looking to improve.

Bringing chess books to life: introducing the new features that make it possible.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news, Features

Today is a special day that marks a massive milestone for Chessable. We have taken a remarkable print chess book on openings and made it available on Chessable as a fully interactive online course. This has been part of our vision since day one, and it is now a reality. Our first release is Vincent Moret’s “My First Chess Opening Repertoire for White“, and there will be more to come.

So many great chess books written are often only found in print form. Sometimes they have an electronic copy, PDF or PGN. However, nothing quite compares to having them on Chessable. Here they are imported and curated into an interactive lesson that allows you to dig in and start studying at your maximum potential straight away.

On Chessable, beyond reading, not only do you get to drill the recommendations of highly regarded trainers such as Moret, but you also get to quiz yourself on the material. With the help of spaced review, you maximise the chances you will retain what you have learned. Confused? You can also ask the in-house chess master, or the community, questions about any position in the book. You are not alone.

We aim for this to be the start of a series of exciting Chessable releases, where we take classic and acclaimed print books and release them here to help you maximise your learning potential. What’s your favourite opening book? What would it mean if you could have a second copy here on Chessable so that you could drill the things that matter most? Let us know!

Tell us what chess book you'd like brought to life next.Click To Tweet

We are so excited about the possibilities, and of course, to make it happen, we have had to address some challenges and come up with a few new things.

Here are some new things you will notice around the site that will benefit every book on the platform:

Soft error/alternative moves calculated by an engine.
Even though 4. Nc3 is the text move, you are now free to try other engine approved moves.

Previously, we had this working for endgame books. For endgames, we checked the tablebases and allowed you to play any of the winning continuations. Now, every book can tap into one of the world’s strongest chess engines and check every single opening and middle game position for equivalent moves (eval difference up to 0.20). Therefore, if you play something other than the text move, you will not be penalised with a mistake. Instead, you get to try again. In this manner, you will not only learn the main line recommended by the book, but easily start to recognise and remember viable alternatives. We are testing this out with a few books on the site, before rolling it out to every single book.

Interactive tactics/puzzles can now be included in Chessable books
An example of some puzzles in Vincent Moret’s “My First Chess Opening Repertoire”

For instance, the Moret book offers 64 puzzles that test the knowledge you have acquired. These mini quizzes fit in perfectly with the Chessable format. Moreover, now you do not have to turn a book’s page to find out if you have answered correctly, you can simply get solving! We will soon port this new addition to the 100 Endgames You Must Know book, which has some problems suited to this new format.

Fully explore a position by clicking on the sub-variations where necessary
An example of how the new in-chapter navigation looks

This not-so-new, but now refined feature, allows you to click on a move and change the board position during learning, review and view modes. This has been a long overdue feature that became essential when converting variation heavy print books into Chessable format.

Informational lines (read-only) learning flow changed

Most of us like to learn a book on Chessable simply by clicking the Learn Next button. Previously this would skip all the informational lines, which sometimes are very important. With this new change, the informational lines will be presented to you as part of your normal learning flow. If you do not feel like going through them, you can click Skip and move on.

Remember to tell us what chess book you'd like brought to life next.Click To Tweet

As always, there have been many other changes around the site, big and small. We have fixed bugs, written new features, simplified parts of the site and more. We’d bore you if we wrote about it all. So to summarise, taking a book from print to fully interactive online course has been a great challenge! It has helped us shape Chessable for the better. As we continue to bring you more of these books, we are sure Chessable will keep getting better and better. We cannot wait for the next one. Stay tuned 🙂

Making all of our interactive chess books better than awesome.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news, Start-up life

In his best-selling book Zero to One, billionaire entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel said that:

It’s easier to copy a model than to make something new: doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. Every new creation goes from 0 to 1.

Boy is he right! Many of the things we have done at Chessable have been taking us from 0 to 1. When we started, we had some idea of what we wanted to make, but we could not foresee everything. The more we listened to our community and used the product ourselves, the closer we got from 0 to 1.

These inherent difficulties of creating a new product, combined with bootstrapping and a lean approach, meant that some of our first chess books were lacking just a tad of love. Some features were developed months after the release of these books. While many of these features get automatically rolled out when we write them, some require a bit more human touch.

Because we want every single book to feel like the best chess learning experience you have ever had, today we are announcing our plans to revamp many of Chessable’s oldies. We have begun by completing a new quality assurance of John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian, the classic #teamscandi book.

With John’s book, we have checked all comments for accuracy, added missing comments in some locations, got John to clarify certain positions, improved annotations, re-ordered variations for better study order and more. We have added informational and alternative lines where appropriate, and all in all made sure that the learning experience is up to today’s higher standards.

We plan to work on Chessexplained’s books and GM Alex Colovic’s books next, to allow for the same awesome experience in all of these excellent books. This is not to say they are not great as they are, as the many 5-star reviews will attest. These books are already awesome, but we want to go beyond that!

If you have already bought the book, as always, you will receive all the updates for FREE. However, to reflect the extra work that goes into making exceptional interactive eBooks, some of them may have to have a slight price increase. John Bartholomew’s book was a steal at $9.99 and from today on it will cost $14.99.

However, to give you a chance to jump on board #teamscandi we’ll run a 5-day sale at $7.49. Half price. How’s that? Enjoy (and don’t miss out!).

You can grab John’s book here: https://www.chessable.com/opening-book/im-john-bartholomews-scandinavian/79/

What’s new in Chessable this summer ’17?

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news

Chessable is always improving and evolving. Building it has always been a product of passion and love for chess and chess education. Moreover, listening to our users is one of our top priorities, and as a result, we have a product that might change all the time!

Therefore if we were to release an update every time there was something new, you might just get tired of hearing from us! However, this summer many awesome things have happened so I thought I’d write a quick post showcasing the latest features. Let’s start with the newest.

Opening Explorer
https://www.chessable.com/explore/

opening explorer

The new opening explorer will show you winning and drawing percentages based on a database of millions of quality chess games (thanks to TWIC for building up such a collection of valuable PGNs). You can see this information for the first five moves, beyond that its fully unlocked if you are a PRO member. The opening explorer is in v1, and we already have planned improvements for v2 which will allow you to sort by variations in Chessable or Games in Database, whichever you want. As a bonus, the performance and speed of the explorer have been improved for everyone, and you will notice it is now much faster and better than before.

E-mail notifications

We have improved our e-mail notification system so that now you will also receive an e-mail if you people respond to a comment of yours (including book authors). To make it even better, we allow authors to opt-in to notifications on comments on variations or books they have published, so that it is easier for them to respond to your comments or queries. Of course, you can disable these notifications any time via the subscription settings page here.

Analysis board
https://www.chessable.com/analysis/

After the release of 100 Endgames You Must Know we had multiple requests for an analysis board where you could check out various moves and analyse them. We listened to your feedback and released a first version of our analysis board a couple of weeks ago.  As a slightly technical note, this allowed us to start using Vue.js as a technology on Chessable. Vue allows for a better user experience and we hope to soon implement it in other key areas of the site.

Import a PGN Revamp
https://www.chessable.com/import/

We’ve also had a chance to improve the import a PGN page which desperately needed a face lift, together with some functionality improvements. You can now copy and paste your PGN text, or drag and drop a file to the field selector.

We try and keep a list of updates in our FAQ, you can find it here, however, not everything we do makes it on to it. One thing is for sure though, you can expect more and more updates and Chessable should get better and better as time goes by. Stay tuned and thanks for using Chessable!

This map shows your favourite chess playing servers in a game of Risk!

By David Kramaley / On / In Features

I was doing market research when some data jumped out at me, and an awesome idea was born. What if the biggest chess sites were part of an epic game of Risk? Oh, what a mighty battle that would be. I went down the rabbit hole.

This map shows that the chess playing market is dominated by two behemoths, Chess.com and Lichess.org. Chess24 has bravely held some territories but looks set to lose out should some key contested areas not go their way.

Like in a true game of Risk, both Chess.com and Lichess.org hold strongholds in their capital countries. The game of Risk is said to have been originally invented by a French filmmaker in 1957. Similarly, Lichess.org was too born in the country of love, started by a passionate French developer. Therefore, France remains the stronghold of Lichess.org with a commanding presence, outranking Chess.com by over 25%.

Chess.com, which was started by two high-energy American entrepreneurs, has made the most of their capital country. They out-rank Lichess.org in the United States by almost 65%! This advantage has led to their domination of the entire North American continent. They must be getting a seriously awesome army bonus for controlling a whole continent!

Finally, Chess24’s capital is Germany, and despite a strong presence, it is just not enough to tip the scales. They are the first player in this awesome game of Risk (or Risiko) to lose their capital.

If this were a true game of Risk, which side would you pick? Where would you send more troops? What key territories would you be aiming for? Let us know via Twitter @chessable and join in the fun!

 

Methodology

  • The top three most popular chess sites according to Alexa.com were picked.
  • Countries were awarded to players if their Alexa.com rank in that country was at least 10% better than the others.
  • Alexa ranks were accessed on June 7th, 2017
  • Some countries had no data available, even with our premium albeit still rubbish access to Alexa.

 

Disclaimer

This is just for fun. We endorse no one and love all these sites equally as much; we think they are all awesome in their own way. If you haven’t yet, claim your free Chessable account today!


Endgame training with 100 Endgames You Must Know

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news, Features

At the end of last year, I admitted that to improve my own game I needed to learn things beyond the opening. I promised all of you that Chessable would release something to make this possible. However, chess is such a complex game that there will always be many things to learn. We had to narrow it down. We wanted something not yet out there and that would be really useful to chess players of all ratings.

In one of my favourite books, Think Like a Grandmaster, Alexander Kotov writes that “playing the ending well is a mark of the good player, and it is no accident that all the world champions have been noted for this ability”. While this classic book is now perhaps a bit dated, things haven’t changed all that much. The current world champion Magnus Carlsen is well known to outclass most of his opponents during the endgame. Despite this, as De la Villa noted in 2008, there is a tendency for players to neglect this important part of chess. I’ve been guilty of that and lost many half and full-points both online and over the board. Therefore, it seemed logical that we needed to change how improving chess players go about their endgame training. Enter Jesus de la Villa, New in Chess, and their wonderful book 100 Endgames You Must Know.

Playing the ending well is a mark of the good player, and it is no accident that all the world champions have been noted for this ability.Click To Tweet

So what’s new? Why is learning endgames with Chessable better than with a print book and a chess board? Well, De la Villa listed many excuses on why players neglect endgames. It seems appropriate to start with these concerns, and how Chessable changes the picture:

Excuse #1: ‘Studying the endgame is boring.’
No longer does this have to be the case. Endgames are perfectly suited to the Chessable learning method. You can compete in the leaderboards, gain awesome badges, and build up your streak. By making learning fun, we hope to help you gain the motivation necessary to “pay your dues to the endgame as all the greats have done” (De la Villa).

Excuse #2: ‘Half (if not 90%) of the endings I look at are quickly forgotten.’
Chessable’s spaced repetition algorithm will make sure you review at optimal points backed by learning science. Once you’ve started to retain the material, our system will quiz you less and less. Once you know them, you won’t have to review more than once every few months, if at all. Quickly forgotten? More like forever remembered!

Excuse #3: ‘I can’t find a book with good explanations’
De la Villa’s book is one of the most recognised endgame books out there. It’s extremely well written and organised content resonates with many. The author just has a knack for explaining endgames. All the original explanations have been imported with the Chessable digital format. Of course, you can also use our new version alongside the print book. If you choose to do so, for the first time be able to keep track of your progress other than via bookmarks!

You can compete in the leaderboards, gain awesome badges, and build up your streak.Click To Tweet

Other than addressing these typical excuses, we’ve also made sure to go above and beyond that. Now, there really should be no reasons why someone doesn’t study the endgame:

The Book is Supported by 6-men Endgame Tablebases
This allows Chessable to know all possible solutions to the endgames presented by De la Villa. We’ve taken certain alternative variations and common blunders and added them as their own endgames. In this manner, you can commit everything that’s important to memory.

Alternative Moves Feature Released
We made and released a special feature. Alternative moves allow you to play a different move to the text move without penalising you. This means that if Re2 and Re8 achieve the same thing, and you play the alternative, the system will recognise this and refresh your timer so that you have enough time to recall the text move.

Aside from everything we have already done, as always, we will be listening to your feedback and improving things to make it all even better. Enjoy!

PS.- To celebrate International Chess Day, tomorrow, New in Chess have been very kind to run a one-week sale for $14.99 instead of the retail price of $19.99. Don’t miss out. Check out this awesome book now.

Updates to the terms of use, privacy policy and payment gateway.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news

While this may not be the most exciting of updates we have had, we are nonetheless quite happy to announce it! We have new and shiny: terms of service, privacy policy and a checkout/payment gateway. Now that they are finally here, they will facilitate the growth of Chessable to achieve our next set of milestones. Spoiler alert: we want to treat you with great chess content made easy to learn by using the Chessable learning system!

For the terms and privacy, we kept our users in mind at every step of the way. We also followed the best practices listed at https://tosdr.org/ to make sure we were doing the best we can for you. Our lawyers understood our concerns, and we think our new terms reflect that we care about our users first and foremost. What’s more, we’ve provided a running summary in plain English! We know some of us may feel a tad overwhelmed by the language of the law. Please do review these documents as they apply every time you access the site. If you have any questions or concerns, please e-mail us at hello@chessable.com

Today we’ve also released a new payment gateway. We partnered up with Stripe as our new primary payment partner. This allows us to give you the best customer service possible, even better than with our previous partners. For some of you, it may be that some payment methods you have gotten used to (e.g. bank transfer) may temporarily be unavailable. We are sorry about that, and we do plan to increase our payments accepted in the future. Initially, we are launching with Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Paypal. Another big plus of this update is that we can now accept payments in British Pound Sterling (GBP) and Euros (EUR). Shortly, we may support more local currencies. In the shopping cart, simply use the currency converter at the top right of the page. US dollars remain our primary currency. For all other currencies, there may be a slight mark up due to exchange fees. You are free to switch back to USD if it works out cheaper/better. Our system will remember your preferences. We wanted to give you more choice, more flexibility.

Now that these important updates are out of the way, we are going to crack on working on something more exciting. We promise you’ll love some of the stuff we’ve got coming up!

 

The One and Only: The Very First Chessable Legend!

By David Kramaley / On / In Chessable news

Congratulations are in order for user Bumblebee! Over the weekend, he became the very first Chessable member to get the awesome “Legend” badge. The badge is awarded to members who reach 10,000,000 points (whew!).

This is quite the achievement. To put it in perspective, I am the very first Chessable member and had a couple of years head start. I am still about 5,000,000 points behind Bumblebee! Incredible.

To celebrate the occasion, we made a very special one of a kind badge. We called it “The One and Only” and Bumblebee is the proud owner of it. Since we truly love all of our members, there might be another badge or two, but they won’t be quite what this one is.

First Legend Badge

I briefly caught up with Bumblebee, and I can share with you that he is a casual chess player who purely plays unrated games. He loves studying chess openings on Chessable as he enjoys outplaying his opponents from the get-go. It was a bit surprising to me that he doesn’t play chess competitively. Instead he just enjoys learning what Chessable’s masters have to teach in their books. Presumably, he then plays an unrated game or two like a PRO! Therefore, while we don’t have a rating to share with you, this is what Bumblebee had to say about his progress:

“My inaccuracies, mistakes, blunders, and centipoint loss have fallen. I do think I have improved my feel of the game with a better understanding of undermining, pawn breaks, and weak squares.”

Bumblebee is indeed thinking of joining a chess club soon and getting a rating. We look forward to that day (please do write to us with an update Bumblebee!). We think you’ll absolutely rock your local chess club. Keep going!