What you know versus what you do, or, The Old Man’s Dilemma

David K recently commented about tasks that are “known by hand” – things you understand so well and so intuitively that you don’t have to think about them. You simply do them. For him, as a former stock broker and longtime investor, the stock market is “known by hand”. Given a certain set of market indicators, he invests in a certain way. It doesn’t take him weeks to puzzle over the clues and read the tea leaves and make a decision.

Similarly: There’s a loose affiliation of chess player/bloggers called the Knights Errant (long story) who seek improvement based on what you might call pattern inculcation. By studying a set of tactical patterns with great depth and frequency, these folks hope to learn chess “by hand”, such that when tactics arise in their own games, the patterns are instantly clear. Here’s a very simple illustration of what I’m talking about: A chessplayer marking off the potential moves of a knight in order to better inculcate its movement pattern into his brain.

Ferdinand de Saussure might have usefully described these phenomena in terms of Langue and Parole.

Saussure is widely considered to be the father of modern linguistics; his work in structuralism influenced both Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss in adjacent fields such as sociology. Langue was Saussure’s word for universal knowledge or truth. Parole was his word for individual performance or expression of those universals. You might know very well how the knight moves or how the stock market works (this is Langue), but occasionally make “errors of performance” when it comes to acting on your knowledge (errors of Parole).

This is a very interesting way to explore the concept of improvement in any competitive field. The efforts of the errant Knights – particularly at the beginning when the patterns are very simple – look like attempts to improve performance rather than knowledge. They know a how the knight moves, but in the heat of competition they overlook its possibilities. By repetition they hope to stamp out that kind of oversight.

Langue and Parole are also a nice paradigm for understanding the process of aging. In nearly every discipline, kids are all Parole (tactics) and no Langue (strategy). As you get older your understanding of the game improves, but you begin to make more and more silly errors in implementing your ideas.

This is why old people give up competition and become critics.

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12 thoughts on “What you know versus what you do, or, The Old Man’s Dilemma

  1. Thus your recent focus on Langue. Even at my not-old-yet age, I’m somewhat nervous matching my Parole “skill” against kids.

    Parole and Langue are great words, and will be a permanent part of my vocabulary. Too bad few others know the terms.

    This was a great article, and the timing’s interesting as well. I’d also been planning a post discussing the Knights Errant method, except yours is deeper, more informative, and better written.

  2. You’ve touched a very deep topic, Derek. Part of my improvement plan is to understand langua and parole in more contemporary terms. There’s lots of room to dig into this topic. For instance, it touches on the typical job (generally speaking) of the ‘left brain,’ which is to recognize old patterns, and the ‘right brain,’ which is to deal with novel situation (and I stress generally speaking). Many authors talk about these topics in a peripheral manner: Jonothan Rowson touches it when he talks about the difference between chess knowledge and chess skill. (Skill wins games.) Recently I’ve discovered the writer Steven Pinker. His latest book, titled THE STUFF OF THOUGHT, is the fifth and final volume in a set of books focusing on the brain and language. Two of the books (THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT and WORDS AND RULES) cover language and how we learn it, and two books (HOW THE MIND WORKS and THE BLANK SLATE) cover the brain in general. His latest work sort of culminates the two parallel series. I’m currently reading the first book in each series, and I’m always getting these “aha” moments that remind me how close chess thinking is related to thinking in general. For instance, at the beginning of HOW THE MIND WORKS Pinker explains how difficult it is to program a robot, and he goes into all the subtle and necessary steps the brain takes (and which we take for granted) in order to get the simplest of tasks completed. Each step of the way, in each simple task, the ‘left brain’ must talk to the ‘right brain.’ This also must happen throughout a chess game.

    It’s complicated; I don’t have any answers, but I like to compile notes and theories of others.

  3. Donnie – I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the KEs. [Shh – I’ve been planning to take them down a peg for a LONG time but haven’t gotten around to it. Don’t tell BDK. :)] Ahem. Anyway, I am 40 and allegedly at the Point of No Improvement, but with such gaping holes in my Langue (endgames, positional concepts), I keep dreaming. Sorry if my recent chess posts have taken on a Bruce Springsteen Glory Days tone; I’m on hiatus at the club for a couple more weeks.

    Howard – Pinker sounds right up my alley, tho with Harvey suggesting The Disorder of Things etc I may have some hard decisions ahead on prioritizing my reading.

    BDK – Would you consider the circles to be primarily after improvement of performance or knowledge?

  4. Derek — I enjoy your trips down memory lane, especially when they involve such nice games. FWIW, it seems to me that you are not done improving — far from it. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you were a better player now than during your “peak”. You may not be winning as many tournaments as in the glory days, but you are still having very good results against what I suspect is much stronger competition (especially in the internet/fritz era) than you faced back then.

  5. derek, did my comment go through? it had links in it, and hit ‘submit’ carefully, but affraid that it went to your spam box?

    if you dont have it, let me know, and i can rewrite from memory. dk

  6. Greg – thanks. I clearly “know more” now, but I don’t underrate tactical ability as a form of understanding. People used to knock Tal as if he were pulling a parlor trick; I figured he just understood concrete operations better than his opponents, much like Nakamura (in top form). So my tactical understanding is clearly lower now.

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