Friday, October 17, 2014

About Stoyko Exercises

There are many articles on google about Stoyko exercises -- what it is, and how to do it.  Basically you find a complicated tactical position that is well-annotated.  Write down everything you can.  You can do it with or without a clock. You can do it by moving the pieces, or only by visualizing.  Compare your analysis against the author's.  

I first read about Stoyko in an article by Dan Heisman.  I was even more encouraged when I saw Kotov recommend it is a training tool, and then what really convinced me was a quote in Chess Visualization Course:
"I believe the most important course of training I undertook was selfmotivated (no one had advised me) and difficult: I tried to simulate tournament conditions with studies and problems from books and magazines. 
I set a clock to time myself, filled notebooks with variations, tried to visualize the final positions – Who was ahead materially? Could I work out the win? Find the checkmate? 
The questions I had asked myself – How can one learn to calculate? How can one see three (or more) moves ahead? – were answered by studying this way, and I became a stronger player." 
Paul Whitehead
FIDE Master and USCF Life Master
After doing de la Maza's Seven Circles more times than I care to admit, I knew I had to try something else so I finally decided to give these exercises a shot.  At first it was incredibly frustrating -- my notes were incredibly sloppy and, I realized, so was my thought process.  So I stopped doing Stoyko and spent a few weeks reading everything I could about the process of calculation.  I developed my ideal thought process which essentially is:  Step 1 - list all candidate moves; Step 2 - calculate each line completely; and Step 3 - evaluate the final position.  I then put it to the test with over a hundred Stoyko positions, and have shared some of my notes from those exercises here.

As noted in that same post I am about to undertake this again as I am currently rethinking my own calculation process.  So I have decided to compile my lessons learned in one place for myself and to share with anyone who might be thinking of doing these exercises for the first time.

The basics:

  • As you can see in the link above, I recommend using graph paper.  Tape the position on the paper for future reference.
  • Set a timer for more of a challenge.  Don't use one the first few times.  It takes a while to get used to writing down variations while you think.  It slows you down.
  • Set up the position on a board.  Allow yourself to move the pieces the first few times.  Visualize the moves for more of a challenge.
  • Use pencil for your variations.  When checking your written analysis against the answers, write corrections in blue ink.
What positions to use:
  • I strongly recommend you begin with lots of mate in 2 positions for a few reasons:
  • Mate in two positions always end in mate (an absolute evaluation), and you know exactly how deeply you need to calculate. 
  • Mate in 2's force you to find lots of candidate moves, which is the extremely important first step in calculation.  You completely skip the third and final evaluation step.  
  • Mate in 2's still allow you to practice all of the tricks for the second step -- individual line calculation (eg, looking for refutations first, reversing move order, stepping stone positions, pattern recognition, etc)
  • Once you have some experience writing variations and have a general idea of the thought process you want to use, you should be ready to move on to more challenging positions where the final position is not always mate.  This will teach you to evaluate (step 3) a variety of material and positional imbalances while also practice finding good candidate moves (step 1) and good line calculation technique (step 2).  Specific books/collections include:
  • Hertan's 'Forcing Chess Moves'; Afek’s ‘Invisible Moves’; Soszynski's ‘How to Think in Chess’; Eingorn's 'Decision Making at the Chessboard'; Smirnov's calculation course; and Aagaard's entire 'Excelling at...Series'.
  • Do NOT disclose the theme of the position to yourself.  If you know you are looking for a knight fork, you'll skip other candidate moves.  
  • Do NOT disclose the final evaluation to yourself.  If you know you are looking to force a draw, for example, you'll skip other candidate moves that don't lead to a draw.
What to do with your notes:
  • Compare your analysis against the author's, and write down any corrections in blue ink.  Make sure to review all of the lines you calculated.  If the author skips certain variations check it against a computer.  In two cases I found a better move than the author, and wrote to them with my analysis!  
  • Keep a running 'error log' to keep track of (1) what mistake you made, (2) at what ply the mistake occurred, and (3) the lesson learned.  Here's an excerpt from my log:

I would love to share ideas with anyone who has actually done these exercises, so please comment and share your experiences.

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