Unlocking your Hidden Chess Potential

Book review Hidden Potential

I've recently read the excellent book Hidden Potential by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. It's all about unlocking the potential in people in order to achieve greater things. The book is split into three parts and as a self-taught chess improver, I was particularly interested in the first part.

The first part is called "Skills of Character" and it's about the skills one needs to maximise their growth. While reading this part, I kept thinking about the implications for chess training and how this advice can be implemented. And that's what I share in this post, I hope you'll enjoy it and that it will help your chess improvement.

Get comfortable with Discomfort

When trying to master anything, it is important to understand that learning and improvement happens at the edge of our comfort zone. Only by trying more difficult exercises can one really reach new heights.

Often people will stick to the same study methods, even if they're at a plateau since they feel comfortable with the way they're studying. The problem with that approach is, that it's unlikely to yield big improvement. Going to the edge of your comfort zone isn't easy (otherwise it wouldn't be on the edge of your comfort zone). However, it will lead to the biggest improvement since only studying things you already know and solving easy tactics won't improve your chess.

For chess, this means that you should actively seek out stronger opposition and you should try to implement new ideas into your game. Nobody likes to lose, but playing against strong opponents is a big learning opportunity since it will highlight your weaknesses and you will see how they exploit them.

Implementing new ideas is also often very difficult, since one is often afraid that it might be too risky to try something new in the game. But without implementing your knowledge, your skills at chess won't increase. So if you want to be a better attacking player, you have to play attacking chess, even if you are uncomfortable with the double-edged positions you will reach. Otherwise you will not develop the necessary skills for attacking chess.

Human Sponges

When thinking about sponges, people think about their absorptive capacity, but sea sponges are also really good at filtering out toxic substances and adapting to a changing environment. That are also important skills for chess improvement. Chess is such a complex and vast game, that immersing oneself into chess and absorbing as much as possible is an important skill. This can be done by following top tournaments, reading chess magazines or chess books.

But only passive consumption of chess material won't improve your play much, you need to filter out the relevant information. Since it's very unlikely, that you will reach exactly the position from a game you have studied, you should try to figure out the relevant themes and why they work. This can be done by analysing similar positions or solving puzzles around the same themes.

The final step in this process is to adapt your game. You can read as much as you like about sacrifices, but if you never adapt your game to apply that knowledge, your growth will stagnate.

One example of this process is studying a specific pawn structure. You might read about that structure in a book and see some example games. In order to make sure that you understand the important parts of the structure, you should analyse some positions and see where you make mistakes. Finally, you should adapt your opening choices to reach this structure and use your new knowledge and skills in games.

Become an Imperfectionist

Too often people think that they will start "when they are ready". In chess, you often hear people talking about playing in a tournament once they have perfected their opening repertoire and improved their technique. Guess what, nobody has a perfect opening repertoire or plays without making any mistakes.

Instead of being afraid of making mistakes we should acknowledge that playing perfect chess is practically impossible and we should only aim to play to the best of our abilities. Misplaying a specific position has also the advantage of showing us an area of the game where we can improve. So you shouldn't worry about making any errors, you should only worry about not learning from them.