Wednesday, September 5, 2007

8 Steps to Guarantee You Finish the Seven Circles

In the book Rapid Chess Improvement, Michael de la Maza presents a method of intensive chess tactical study that allowed him to improve 400 points in 400 days.

But a lot of people have difficulty in accomplishing such a grueling schedule of problem solving. I certainly did. It took me eight attempts before I completed it. Now I've done it twice and I'm currently doing my third.

This advice is geared to those who have tried and failed, or just need to know the best way to complete a seven circles exercise.

1. Choose the right problem set
Especially if this is your first seven circles, just pick a small set of easy problems. The CT-ART 3.0 set has 1209 exercises which end up in very difficult "mate in nine" problems towards the end. Unless you're already rated 1800, I would suggest just focussing on simpler problems that win material or checkmate in three or four moves maximum.

Some problem sets I like:
Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain with some personal modifications
Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors by Lou Hays
1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate by Fred Reinfeld
1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations by Fred Reinfeld

2. Be conservative with your time
The number of problems per day doubles for each circle, so it's very easy to get yourself into a situation where you overcommit your time. Yes - eventually you get faster at solving the problems, but not for the first three circles. If you think you can dedicate 90 minutes a day doing tactics, start your first circle doing 20 minutes a day.

That way, the second circle will take 40 minutes per day and by the third circle you will be working 70 to 90 minutes per day.

3. Schedule by working backwards
It's ridiculous to say you're going to do 700 problems in 45 days unless you know how long it takes to solve them. Do a few days of the circle one first. By that stage you will know how many problems you can do in 20 minutes per day (see previous point about being conservative with your time), and then let that determine how long the first circle will take.

Once you know how many days the first circle will take, you can schedule the second, third and fourth and so on until you're doing all of the problem set in one single day.

4. Get into a habit
By now you're saying: "20 minutes of easy two-move mates? That doesn't sound like it will help at all!" Even if you don't take my word that starting short and easy is the best way to guarantee you actually finish a seven circles, think of it another way.

Just treat the first circle as getting into the habit of doing tactics every day. The fact that the commitment seems so small makes it easier to do until you're well established in the habit of doing tactics every single day.

5. Do it in one sitting
While this is easier for the early circles, it's definitely an advantage to do all the tactics in one sitting. It usually takes me a few problems to warm up and get into a groove. Once I'm there - it's better to keep on going than to stop and try to find time to start again later in the day.

6. No dates - just days
Whatever method you're using to track your progress, leave the date blank beside each row. I only fill in the day/date column after I complete the problems for the day. If you pre-print the dates and you miss a day, the dreaded guilt sets in and you feel the need to catch up and do twice as much the next day. Which is fine. But I guarantee if you miss more than one day, you'll worry about being so far behind that you'll just quit altogether.

Skip a day every so often if you have to, but don't feel under pressure to catch up. Just continue from where you left off.

7. Tell people about it
Telling people that you're embarking on a serious (and difficult) course of chess study that requires a lot of time commitment does two things. Not only does it make you more likely to finish the series but it's also important to let the people you live with know that when you're sitting on the couch with your head in "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate" you're not just avoiding housework.

While I certainly endorse studying tactics as a great way to get out of doing the vacuuming, if your partner, flatmate or kids know this is an important program that does have an end date, they are likely to be more understanding.

8. Make up a fantasy to keep you going
Find a way of motivating yourself to keep going when it gets tough.

For me, I equated the seven circles with the different chess ratings classes of E, D, C, B, A, Expert and Master. In my mind I thought: "If I quit in circle two, I will never get a rating higher than class D." Circle four = class B and so on up to Master. By the time I was doing the last circle I was thinking: "Wow, this will really help me become a Master." And believe me, there is nothing that makes you feel more like a master than buzzing through an entire tactics book in a single session with 99% accuracy.

Follow those eight guidelines and you will have an excellent chance of completing one of Michael de la Maza's famed seven circle exercises.

Good luck!


Blue Devil Knight said...

Congrats on your steady progress through the circle of Circles. These are very helpful tips.

Phil Willis said...

Yeah - the big tip is "start small".

I know people get all enthusiastic and full of confidence after reading MDLM, but apparently he didn't have a "day job" to sap his energy while he did his seven circles.

For the rest of us mere mortals, it's better to finish something small than to fail at something big. ;)

Chess Relearner said...

This is a very good article about doing "smaller" circles.

A year or so back I wrote a piece of (rather geeky) software that calculates 7 circles problem loadings. You can vary just about any parameter you wish: number of days you want to take, number of problems per circle, and how you want the circles to relate to each other in terms of problem load.

The program is written in Perl so you have to know a few things.

Is there any interest in this? I can do a couple of things if so: simply put it on my website for download (suitable for people comfortable with running Perl scripts), or else come up with a web version with a web form (which would take longer but would be easy to use).

You can reach me at if interested.

Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

I would add to your list a final tip: play chess. That was my biggest downfall in doing the circles. I did them the old school way, all the way through and it took up so much time, I didn't play an actual long game of chess for close to two and half months. You need to play so that you can incorporate your tactical vision into your game. Plus, you'll find after awhile, that just doing problems gets....well....really boring. ;)

David Milliern said...

Thank you for the tips. The one about not putting firm days to paper beforehand is helpful.

I am about to make my first go of the Circles. My chess rating has gone up 200 points per years as an (active, tourn-playing) adult, and I hoping this keeps me on that pace.

What I am wondering is why the number of problems is so chosen. Why? It seems as though the number of problems should be consistent with what one can get through in the first Circle. If X problems were done in the Y days of the first Circle, why choose a number other than X, which is unrealistic? I am trying to figure out how what logistical adjustments I may have to make on this first go.