“My humanity is one of incessant self-overcoming.”
The Seven Circles of Chess Hell is a chess training regimen developed by Michael de la Maza, an MIT alumnus, laid out in his book Rapid Chess Improvement. I’ll briefly describe the program and then talk about my experience with it and future intentions.
While taking classes with the notable Pittsburgh chess coach, IM Jerry Meyers, I was instilled with one very important idea that Jerry made stick: Class play (i.e., games at club-level competition, USCF ratings of 300-1999) is decided by tactics, whether it is one of the players not seeing a tactic that ends his or her game, or a tactic that sits in the texture of the board that is not capitalized on. On this last point, when I first started playing, I was often chagrinned at the game-winning tactics I had missed that 1400-level players pointed out after the fact; so it’s not just about your opponent seeing a tactic that you didn’t, but also the not seeing of tactics. Picking up de la Maza’s book struck a chord with me, as soon as I read his introduction talking about precisely what Meyers had said. I think Meyers says it way better, putting in stronger terms of: why do x, y, and z when a tactic is going to bring it all down, or missing a tactic will induce not converting?! I agree, so does de la Maza. I often see a great deal of delusion among A-class and B-class players, saying things like: you need to study strategy, openings, endings, etc., otherwise you can’t set up those tactics. Not true. Once you are 1000-1200 USCF rated, you are able to keep your head above water long enough to smash through when the tactic presents self or, worse yet for your opponent, mate on cue, when the matting patter presents itself. Additionally, seeing the mating patterns and combinations visualized in the mind can often mean one or two moves that set up the combination or mate. The lacking tactical ability of class players means that a three-move Anastasia’s mate turns into a five-move, completely unforeseen tactical bludgeoning, especially if the two setup maneuvers are forcing moves. What does the regimen entail?
de la Maza proposes a couple of things, but the centerpiece of his system is the Seven Circles. You choose 1,000 problems, which you will go through seven complete times, each time progressing faster and faster on each sweep through the set. Deciding what problems to do, I have found, is the difficult part. There just isn’t much research on what rating level should do what kinds of problems —and maybe there is no real prescription to be had, since players of varying ability will know vastly different tactical motifs; I don’t know. de la Maza recommends using CT Art, which I do attest is a fantastic piece of software, and I have been using it tons. (Anything by Convekta, to this point, I have found to be amazing.) On each pass through the problems, you have half as many days to run through the circle. On the first pass, you have 64 days to do 1,000 problems. From what I have seen that allows you a few minutes to try and calculate the solution. I have seen some players’ Seven Cirles charts, and this seems to amount to one to two hours per day. On the next pass, you should be able to do all of the problems over 32 days within about the same amount of time per day, because you’ve already seen them, and the motifs might even be fresh in your mind. The next pass through the 1,000 problems will take 16 days, then 8 on the fourth circle, 4 on the fifth, 2 on the sixth, and then you’ll be expect to do all of the problems in a 24 hour period. With no fooling around, it seems like the general consensus is that the last day takes 12 hours. You might want to take a vacation from work when it comes to the last week of the program, because it sounds like that week amounts to spending 5, 5, 5, 5, 7, 7, and 12 hours days of tactics study, respectively for each of the days of the last 3 circles that occurs in the span of seven days. That’s why it’s hell, by the way. It’s not just a catchy name. de la Maza promises 400 USCF points of increase in 400 days. The consensus is that this is almost true, but I expect that it is contingent upon general intelligence, specialized intelligence for abstracting thinking (e.g., engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, philosophers, and I think de la Maza was at MIT for computer science), and how much of a natural mind one has for the game (I have known some people in the sciences who have not done particularly well with chess; they just don’t think that way…). When I say “almost true,” I mean that the results I have seen, which criticize de la Maza’ program, say suggest that a 65 point increase is typical on average (arithmetical mean), the mode being something like 100 points. These people I have read are obviously exhibiting some sort of confirmation bias or dysrationalia in trying to “expose” de la Maza. If one does one seven-circle sweep —uh-hem…yes, those results are for a single set of seven circles—, and gains 65 points, that equates to a little less than 200 points on the 400 days. Not bad. If the mean is 100, that means the de la Maza’s number of “400” is only inflated a little. Given that adults I know have a hard time gaining, in some cases, 50 points a year, 200 points is not bad at all. 300 points, better. The key thing is that there were a number of people who reported much higher than average gains, on the order of 200 points per pass. That’s nuts. I dispute some of the lower numbers, because they admitted that it was not their USCF ratings that they were using as the metric, but chess.com and other blitz chess servers. I imagine that there would be a slightly lower payout on blitz, just because calculation is important to finding all of the tactics that one knows, at least in class play.
Why seven times —I hope you’ve asked! The idea is twofold. The first is that the program is designed to aid in calculating ability, which is mostly what is done in the first two circles, when you are first seeing the positions and figuring out what to look for. Circles three through seven are about pattern recognition. There is a whole area within cognitive science dedicated to chunking and templates in the brain, if you are interested in the science behind this idea. Passing on the science discussion for now, just think about how blitz chess works. How often do you calculate? Once in a game, if you have the time. You see options, you use intuition, and you move without much of a definite consciously worked out solution, yet you play very well (maybe you don’t, but others do…). Being able to do this is the result of pattern recognition. You’ve seen the starting position hundreds and thousands of times, and you just initiate when you see it; there is nothing to calculate. (See embodied cognition and Dewey’s work on the reflex arc or Henri Bergson’s discussion of muscle memory in Matter and Memory.) I see no reason why one should think this sort of program should not work, based on what I have said.
There are a few other details of de la Maza’s program that are important, but I will leave it to you to read the book. I will note that he (and the classically trained Russians, for that matter) place a lot of emphasis on chess vision, or board vision. de la Maza recommends doing chess mazes for this exercise. Look into it; there are books with those words in their title.
For my involvement with the Seven Circle regimen, I am making it particularly hellish, and I am doing it for a reason. I am using László Polgár’s 5,334 Problems, Combinations, and Games, particularly, the lass 1,000 problems in the book, including the combination from the Polgár sisters’ games, all of the mates in three, and the last bunch of mates in two. I thought and thought about this choice. The natural reason for not using this text, and the reason it is such a hellish text to use, is that the positions are extremely unnatural: they are puzzles, not typical tactical problems. Many of them include all of the pieces pretty much still on the board and the king precariously placed in the middle. You’d never see the vast, vast majority of these positions in a real game. I opted to use the book for a couple of reasons. Part of the reason is chess vision. by that, I mean that I want to be able to see, at a glance, what squares are controlled and what sorts of options I am looking at. I am not sure that these puzzles will lend themselves to pattern recognition later on, so this might be a big mistake on my part. I am hopeful, though. In a simultaneous exhibition against GM Alexander Shabalov, I prepared a crazy, definitely losing, position, which had a veiled tactic in it. The natural move, which was extremely juicy, lost immediately. Even with incompetent play, I probably could have won, but the game would have been drawn at the worst. At the critical moment, GM Shabalov was hardly looking at my board, talking to someone as he passed, which I thought all the better of. Shabalov did not make the move I wanted him to, instead making the precise prophylactic move. My game crumbled from there. I asked him about the critical moment after the simul, and he said he saw my intention at a glance, despite the fact that position was pretty odd and convoluted. Being able to discern deep tactical concepts and pattern recognize them is what I’d like to get out of using Polgár. I have made an important alteration to de la Maza’s Seven Circle, which I have to mention.
I am an extremely good calculator. With enough concentration, I can usually make it a move beyond the best players I have played against, that is, if I am looking and I have been alerted to calculate in a position. (Time trouble was an issue early on in my career, because I would try to brute-force every position, because I had no intuition.) Since I am particularly good in this forum, and because time is limited, as I approach the 2015 World Open, I would like to get two circles in and focus more on pattern recognition. For those reasons, I have chopped the outermost circle off of the Seven Circles regimen, as de la Maza conceived of it. Effectively, I am doing a Six Circles program, while being a little less Dante-esque, it will likely serve as much more hellish.
I am still faced with the issue of deciding upon books and other problems sets for the second of my Seven Circles programs. Feel free to posit suggestions, e.g., books that have problems you think are rated between 1600 and 2100. These could include particular problems from books, mixing and matching, and it can include general tactics, combinations, and mates. The more essential the problems are for 1600-2100, the better. I could be boring and probably yield less efficacy by signing up to go through Reinfeld’s 1,001 combination, but I really do want to maximize the program; and I think some of the problems in that book are easier, 1400-1600 level. Feel free to make suggestions.
I will report on my progress (I am four days into the first Seven Circles) after I complete it, even if I use chess.com blitz as the metric. The ultimate conclusion from the two circles will come in July.