The Improvement Paradox

May only apply to old people.

Goes like this:

  • You’ve been busy so you take a break from tournament chess.
  • When you return, you figure you’ll just work some tactics exercises and wing it for a bit. You expect some rusty results while you study back into form.
  • But in fact you score very well, and immediately your rating starts going up. So you think, man, this is my chance, and you study study study study and start really grinding away at improvement.
  • Then your results start going down.
  • So then you get frustrated and busy, and you take a break.

What’s going on here?

Maybe the “studying” has two effects. One is that you’re assimilating new information, but the other is that you’re grinding away a certain spontenaity, creativity, joy in your play. So it looks like the studying is in vain, because your immediate results decline. But the place you actually see the benefit is when you return from the break. New information still available, now paired with necessary creativity.

The improvement paradox: To get better, you have to stop playing.

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3 thoughts on “The Improvement Paradox

  1. I find that when I return to Go after a long break, I often quickly achieve a new higher level of performance once I shake off the rust. I attribute this to forgetting my old mistakes, which can be hard to do when you play regularly.

    I think that my chess performance is correlated positively rather than negatively with my studying, but I have noticed that when I pick up a new opening and just start winging it, my online blitz results are generally surprisingly good, and then they start going down as I learn the lines.

    1. Interesting!

      “when I pick up a new opening and just start winging it, my online blitz results are generally surprisingly good, and then they start going down as I learn the lines.”

      There’s one particular sentence in Play the King’s Indian, ala “You cannot play these positions passively” and when I started playing it that was my mantra. Worked pretty well. Now I struggle to play correctly instead of just looking for a pawn break, any pawn break, any activity.

  2. Perhaps it could be explained via statistics. I’d hypothesize that most chess players’ skills level after, say, a year’s break, has not deviated all that much. (At professional levels, this wouldn’t apply.)

    The loss of rating after the initial bump would be a “regression to the mean”. As more games are played, the rating is more likely to fall to the player’s true strength.

    This is, of course, why I’m dreading playing more rated chess after gaining 170 points in 10 games after a long layoff! I’m certain the rating drop is coming…

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