Learn Chess like a Musician

I love chess. Some of my colleagues would even say that I love the game too much. In fact I love playing, watching, talking about and learning how to play good chess.

I learned chess with my father and unlike most the beautiful stories you can read about chess players learning great basic mechanisms in their family, my father sucks at chess and as a matter of fact I suck even more.

I also happen to play guitar and drums and just like for chess I’ve spent a lot of time studying jazz and rock. I also teached guitar to kids on my spare time and learned a couple of things about teaching music.

In a way I am fascinated with the process of learning and teaching. But just like learning jazz music, learning to be a decent chess player is frustrating. I can literally spend hours practicing on a chess board, reading chess books or watching Saint Louis Chess Club videos https://saintlouischessclub.org/blog/video (which are great by the way) without seeing any concrete improvement in my game. The key factor here is probably the lack of experience in using tools available to chess players. One of them is the chess notation : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_notation

Understanding and speaking chess notation allows the player to create a mental image of what he reads or hears on a live analysis. Mastering chess notation and visualizing right away a sentence like “if h7, then g4 and a3 becomes a threat, and after take take take g3 is a double attack” on a board, provides the player with great improvement opportunities.

I decided to tackle this chess notation issue just like I teached chord changes to my young students. The key factor is the rythm. Yes the tempo, the beat. Not so much the memorization of the chord itself but the ability to put your fingers down on the guitar at the right time and mostly in the right area. This is the hardest part, everything else comes more easily after that. Playing with a metronome and sticking to the beat no matter what, makes your whole body anticipate the chord change and transmit this anticipation to your fingers. With enough time the muscle memory allows you to change chords without even thinking about it.

Likewise in chess I want my brain to make my eyes look in the right direction when I hear h7 without having to concentrate and think about it. I want my brain to make my body visualize the moves internally. In other words I want to develop my instinct, which is IMHO one of the most important aspects of any learning journey. So I decided to use a metronome.

The chess.com app has a great quizz feature called Vision, helping the player practice chess notation.

The chess.com app on iOS

I extended this concept by adding the notion of beats into the quiz. While knowing the exact location of a certain square is important, instantly knowing the right direction of a given square is even more important in order to discuss chess with other players. Of course I could learn this by practicing, and reading but I don’t have enough time. As a reminder, I suck at chess and my four year old boy will soon challenge me. I mean I don’t want to get my ass kicked. I had to find a way to learn (at least chess notation) faster and shine in society.

I developed a tiny mac OS app. The game concept is very similar to the one in the chess.com app. The only difference is that you have to respond to the quizz in rythm, one beat is the question (for example g5) and one empty beat is your opportunity to respond by cliquing on a square. You have to set your tempo and start the game just like when a musician practices chord changes. Again the key is to force yourself to respond in sync with the beat even if you think you don’t know where the right square is. With time your brain will hopefully do its magic (I am not a brain expert and this whole stuff is based on my own experience).

The project is open-sourced and there is room for improvement:

  • The beat mechanism is naive and should be improved
  • The app is ugly
  • The app needs to be on android and iOS because tapping is much more natural than clicking (iPad?)
  • The app should show some kind of charts to prove that the user is learning
  • The app includes no explicit welcome slides or any kind of explanation on itself but is way too far from being self explanatory

You can find source code here : https://github.com/OMTS/ChessCoordTrainer

Any pull request or comment is welcome.