Maximizing Chunking and Reducing Misconceptions

by Renate Otterbach

Earlier we discussed chunking and how it helps us to store large amounts of information quickly and efficiently. We also examined the importance of maximizing the relevant information stored in each chunk and minimizing the useless material. This is important because it affects the quality of our recall. Information chucked together is recalled together; it is like taking a box out of storage; whatever is in the box is brought out together.

When playing chess, it is essential to know what part of recalled information is relevant to the position on the board and what is irrelevant. The ability to quickly and accurately identify information pertinent to the position on the board is one characteristic that differentiates a chess expert from a novice. The key is the quality of the chunk recalled. Well-organized chunks make it easier to identify and quickly recall the appropriate information. Thus, effective chunking, making the chunks the right size and logically connecting various chunks to each other is key to effective recall.

How does one develop this ability? That depends on several things. In chess, this is easily illustrated through the knowledge of opening theory. The advantage of knowing the opening theory is that you know what moves are likely to occur and how to respond to them; this reduces cognitive load and allows for effective chunking. I know this from personal experience.

When I first started playing chess, I was told that beginners should focus on tactics and other aspects of chess and not on opening theory. I faithfully followed these instructions. As the concept of development was relatively easy for me to understand, I generally came out well from the opening; however, I lost my games to blunders because I had spent too much of my mental energy figuring out various variations in the opening, reducing my ability to think clearly in the middle game.

Calculation requires a lot of mental energy; hence it is essential to know when to use calculation and when to rely on once general chess knowledge. One of the advantages titled players have over the novice is that they can quickly and accurately identify critical positions and invest their mental energy there. They also use calculation exercises to build their calculation skills, similar to athletes using weights to build muscles. I was like a novice trying to do the workout of a trained athlete, trying to figure out opening theory on my own instead of relying on the knowledge of professionals developed over centuries. Opening theory provides carefully organized chunks vetted over centuries of practice. As a body of knowledge, it provides the foundation for understanding the game.

Once I realized that, I started studying opening theory. My blundering decreased, and I won more games. Naturally, I also worked on my tactics and other areas of chess. So how do I know that my study of opening theory made a difference? To answer this question, I analyzed my win/loss rate by the various openings I played. I found a difference of a 10-20% win-loss rate difference between the openings I had studied deeply and those I had studied less thoroughly or not at all.

An important note, when I study openings, I do not memorize them. I try to understand the reason behind the moves and explore alternative options that seem natural but were not played. In other words, I spent some time ensuring that I maximized the quality of my opening chunks, reducing as much misinformation as possible. Ensuring that the information is learned accurately and effectively helps reduce misconceptions.

It is important to remember that I started my study of chess as an adult bringing to chess analytic skills developed in other disciplines, most likely reducing the cognitive load of learning opening theory. In teaching students, it is crucial to assess the timing of when to introduce a concept and the level of depth at which it should be introduced. In doing so, it is important to consider individual differences, as what is easy or difficult for any given person varies, as discussed in prior blogs of this series.

The problem of misconceptions

People who learn chess without studying it frequently develop bad habits, as pointed out in the book “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”[1] These bad habits are generally based on misconceptions. Misconceptions are a serious stumbling block to learning. To use an analogy, misconceptions are like driving in the opposite direction from your destination. To get back on the right track, you need to turn around, return to the starting point, and start in the right direction, losing time. Furthermore, unless something alerts you that you are going the wrong way, you will get further and further from your destination.

The same is true for misconceptions. The longer they are held, the more difficult they are to correct. Moreover, unless they are recognized, they undermine the learning process because the conceptual framework of a concept is built on a shaky foundation. Hence, the primary responsibility of an effective teacher is to help students to identify their misconceptions and to address these problems. This major teaching challenge is often neglected, resulting in sub-optimal learning, and most likely is also the cause of rating plateaus.

How to reduce the development of misconceptions

There are two ways to deal with misconceptions. The first is to reduce the probability that they are developed. There are three critical elements in accomplishing this. First, a well-designed curriculum systematically helps students connect important ideas accurately. Second, a flexible teaching approach allows teachers to adapt the curriculum to the students’ various skill levels, abilities, and encoding preferences. Third, a continual assessment process enables the teacher to identify possible misconceptions quickly and address them before they become solidified.

How to correct misconceptions

Once a misconception has occurred, it is essential to identify its source accurately. What is it that the student misunderstood, and why did this misunderstanding occur? Restating information in the same way as it has been stated before most likely will not help. For example, if students have difficulty with tactics, they are encouraged to do tactics, yet this general suggestion may be too broad to address an individual student’s need.

When I first started playing chess, I had a problem seeing tactics, and I was encouraged to study tactics, which I did. I spent hours and hours and hours studying tactics with this minimal benefit. Every time I asked for help, the answer was the same, study tactics. I enjoyed studying tactics but was discouraged by the lack of progress. Maybe chess was not for me, but I enjoyed the game, so I decided to persevere.

Not until I attended a chess camp and GM John Fedorowicz reviewed my games did I get a clue about my real problem. “You play well, but you don’t see long-range bishops.” He told me. At first, I was startled, “I don’t see long-range bishops? How could I miss them?” But he was right; I reviewed my games, and I did have a “long-range bishop blindness.” This was confirmed in a teaching session when my tutor reviewed my position and told me, “You had a good position until you lost your rook; why did you not move it when it was attacked?” “I did not see the fianchettoed bishop attacking the rock,” I replied. My tutor was puzzled by the answer. These two incidents gave me an important insight; I realized I see squares, concepts, and patterns first, then pieces.

These insights changed my approach to studying chess. First, I identify specific weaknesses and then find target training to address those weaknesses. As mentioned above, one of my weaknesses was seeing pieces. I used targeted “piece-awareness” tactics training to address this issue. To address the problem of lack of “piece awareness,” I used a tactics program that provided systematic training for different pieces and matting patterns, using two-piece checkmates after working through a large problem set (about 20,000). Before pinpointing this specific problem area, I had engaged in hrs and hrs of tactics training with slight improvement even with consistent training over extended periods. In the original computer training program, I reached a plateau around 1400 which I could not break.

After my intensive “piece-awareness” tactics training,  I returned to the original computer program and again tried to improve my score. Although the problem presented was based on random tactical themes (i.e., not just two-move checkmates with predefined pieces), my tactics score rose 800 points within two to three weeks.

Still, it was not sustainable because of the limited scope of my exercises. So, I supplemented my “piece-focused training” with more complex tactics that are theme-based, such as pins. I had developed a training system that worked for me and now knew what to do. I started systematically to study each theme pins, taking the defender, piece sacrifice, creating passed pawns, etc., first by itself and then tested myself with tactics program that randomly tested these themes. My tactics score improved from 1400 to around 2000-2200 sustainable score. [2]I still use both tactic studies, two-piece checkmate with predefined pieces for automating mating patterns and piece visualization/awareness, and theme-based patterns. I discovered some themes were more difficult for me, so I customized my practice accordingly.

There is a difference between knowing that the piece in an absolute pin cannot move, seeing the pin on board, and finally knowing how to take advantage of the fact that the piece is pinned.[3] Tactics training helps us translate concepts such as pins, skewers, etc., from conceptual to practical knowledge.[4] I primarily use tactics programs with a tactics ELO based on the number of tactics solved and the perceived difficulty level.[5] Doing so enables me to track my progress. I keep an Excel sheet that tracks my progress by different tactical themes; this allows me to identify tactical concepts that are difficult for me, helping me to develop my deliberate practice.

Naturally, chess is more than tactics, so I started focusing on other aspects of the game. Over the past two years, my primary focus has been opening theory. One of the discoveries I made in studying opening theory is that my understanding and enjoyment of the game has drastically increased; I also started to remember to move order, which was impossible; any attempt trying to do so was very frustrating. Changes are occurring, which is encouraging, even if my overall ELO rating has not changed much.

My current focus of study is the middle game. An analysis of my games indicates that whereas I generally come out of the opening with an advantageous position, I tend to lose my advantage somewhere in the late middle or early endgame. I enjoy working my way through the different phases of the game and trying to master each phase.

Although, in my case, the origin of the problem was not a misconception per se but rather a lack of spatial perception, the solution path is the same. A clear, specific, and accurate problem identification is the prerequisite for improvement. Once the area of difficulty has been identified, it should be followed by a clarifying explanation (if needed) and deliberate practice. If this process is engaged in persistently, I believe it will also help avoid plateaus or break them, but that is another blog.

To provide an example that is a common misconception frequently learned by beginners, I want to conclude this blog with castling as an example. The goal of castling is to bring the king to safety. Often, beginning players pay little attention to their king’s safety as they focus on attacking the opponent’s king. Often these games are aggressive, open games where bringing the king to safety is of primary importance; hence beginners are advised to castle early in the game. Good advice – yet the student may focus on the concept of castling early rather than on the concept of bringing the king to safety. This slight misconception may have undesirable consequences; the student may dutifully castle early, right into an attack. Misconceptions based on differences in interpretation are common, no matter how hard we try to communicate accurately. Furthermore, what is challenging for one person may be self-evident for another; hence, there as differences in the challenges that beginning students face in the same educational setting.

So far, in this series of blogs, we have focused on cognitive processing skills, which are the foundation of understanding individual strengths and weaknesses and individual differences. In this blog, we touched lightly on the idea of the plateau, a concept that I plan to discuss in subsequent blogs. Yet, for the beginning learner, one of the main struggles often is transfer what they are taught to position on the board during the game.

It is like learning a foreign language; just because you know the words does not mean that you can speak the language. Often, context changes the meaning, there are idioms, and frequently in the actual spoken language, the meaning of the words used is different from their dictionary definition. For example, In the US, something can be hot (exciting) or cool (also exciting); in this context, knowing the definition of hot and cold will not help you to understand what is meant. In chess, there is theory, rules, and guidelines, but in the end, it comes down to this “In this position…”[6] what needs to be played. Chess, like life, is a balancing act between the ideal and the real, the principles taught, and the position on the board. This feature is want makes chess such a fascinating game and a lifelong challenge.

Renate Otterbach
This post is the fourth part of her Develop learning to learn strategies through chess series.


[1] Waitzkin, Fred.(1984). New York, Penguin Books

[2] This is true for all three computer programs that I use (one which has a time factor as part of score and peer-based comparison for scoring, one that has scoring system that based on problem difficulty and the computer’s interpretation of your ability to understand the core concept, and one that uses an absolute scoring system where the score is based on a combination of difficulty level, and your expected performance level based on your tactics score. The latter mirrors the ELO system used for chess ratings).

[3] Knowing these differences enables us to target our training and making it more time effective. For me, the most difficult part is seeing the pin on the board.

[4] The types of tactics best suited to student depends on their natural abilities and differences and cognitive processing preferences. Different tactics programs tend to cater to different types of strengths.

[5] Different computer programs very in the computation of the tactics ELO score, some use the time it takes you to solve the tactics problem into consideration while other do not.

[6] This phrase, which was often used by IM John Donaldson in his Tuesday night lectures, has become increasingly significant as I progressed in my learning of chess.


Upcoming Events

%d bloggers like this: