I subscribed to the chess website Tiger Chess by GM Nigel Davies. My thoughts were two-fold: I wanted to improve in my chess and looked for a course that was constructed on a long-term basis. A solid training plan. Second, I wanted to see what similar areas offered concerning teaching material and educational offers.
With similar, I mean that learning chess has a lot in common with learning magic. Chess players have to learn moves (lines), concepts and theory, practice OTB games (over the board games) and they have to practise as much as possible to stay fresh. The same holds true with magic. It is amazing how many similarities there are.
The study of how good chess trainers work with their students can be of great help for us magicians and bring fantastic results. A good and thorough training plan in chess, aimed to develop the playing strength of the student and the mastery of the game is perfect for the magic student trying to master the art of magic.
The chess players have extensive literature and a huge range of digital teaching materials: DVDs, ebooks and downloads. The same in magic. There are dealers with all the supplies (hardware) you’ll need: chess pieces, boards, sets, carrying bags, chess clocks, books, DVDs and more. This is almost the same as with the dealers in our industry. They have groups, Facebook pages and internet forums. There is an exhaustive lecture circuit and business. Not to forget the chess clubs, magazines, and chess federations. Chess has evolved into a huge business, with tournaments, championships with high stakes and all. It is in between sports, art and science and it reaches millions of people. A mass market.
Subscribing to one hundred chess websites means you get newsletters, praising the newest training DVDs on certain techniques, openings or whatever. Many of them promise to raise the playing level in no time. Think Like a Grandmaster and Grandmasters’ Secret Weapon are titles often used, luring the aspiring chess master into the illusion that by just getting this course (which is most of the time only an endless display of lines and variations) that he will be a better player when having this.
In chess, the success (in playing tournaments at real boards with human opponents) depends on the player’s understanding and honing core skills: tactics, positional understanding, endgame and playing practice. To master a tournament, many more aspects have to be considered: fitness, psychological weapons, mental preparation, creativity, clock handling, etc.
GM Nigel Davies observes that most of the club players lack these essential things. In the past decades, the so-called opening theory has exploded. Because of the ever evolving computer databases and chess software, the amount of information is vast. No one can keep up to date with the newest innovations and discoveries Grandmasters publish daily in magazines and books. It is an information overload, or over-fill for most of us normal chess players.
Browsing through the databases of millions of games and analysing them by clicking through the moves, lines and variations doesn’t make you a better chess player. Nor does having hundreds of chess DVDs in digital form on the external hard drive. No question, the computer is a fantastic tool which can be used to good effect in a prepared chess training. Most of the people use it to store more and more information on chess.
The ratings in chess seem to be something that most of the younger players are interested in. Whenever club players meet, one of the first things to find out and talk about are the rating points. Many players set goals like “I want 300 points more in 6 months” or something like this. ELO rating is important, shows where you stand in chess and what a beast of a player you are. At least, chess is a competitive thing and therefore stuff like that seems to be important for them.
The dominance of the computer in chess is natural and a development. Chess can be calculated to a certain extent. But playing chess with a real human OTB is a different thing. Magic can be practised, but it has to be performed live and for real people. But then, also in magic the computer became more and more important: the amount of digital media in magic speaks for itself.
Many beginners in chess put a lot of time, energy and money into learning opening theory, trying to memorise endless lines, variations and concepts. They develop the habit then in tournaments to play their rote learned moves like robots. And it throws them out of their concepts, if the opponent does not do what their theory suggests and does another, unknown move. Because they didn’t prepare for the core skills, they usually lose the game. The over-emphasis on opening theory is pushed by the chess book publishers, who saw that opening books are in demand and started to publish more and more books on this topic. Books on opening theory sell, because everybody wants to be up-to-date with the newest little things in this area.
The problem with this is that for the average club player with an average rating under 1700 this is not important. All those fine variations and subtleties, aiming to get an advantage within the opening phase of the game, are useless for most of us, because the games in tournaments on these levels aren’t played in the way Grandmasters do it. All this opening theory gets important when you reach a level of 2300+. The rest of us better study, learn and practise endgames, tactics and positional understanding. Doing practical games and not blitzing on internet servers for rating points.
Same in magic (and here may be with card magic, which seems to be dominant). Too many people prepare by studying endless moves, routines and finesses unnecessary in the real world. They lack the ability to conduct a live performance (core skill) and be entertaining to the public. They don’t know how it feels to do something under fire and haven’t prepared to battle the nervousness in a performance. They lack the stage craft and skills needed. But then, these people flood the forums in magic and boast out their thoughts and opinions on strange moves, concepts, tricks and name it.
The Training Plan
The most important thing in chess to become a decent player is to develop a proper training plan and stick to it. This plan must be tailored to the playing strength and the level the player is. They can only do this with the help of an experienced person, a coach who has years of experience at the board and with pupils. Only he knows what is important for a beginner and what has to be omitted in the beginning. Developing core skills is the most important thing: tactics, positional understanding, pawn structures, endgames, board visualisation, calculation, avoiding blunders, developing plans and stuff like this is what a beginner should aim for. Not endless opening theory, which he cannot appreciate, because he doesn’t know the fine positional advantages a certain opening might give an experienced player.
In magic we have the same thing! It is not important to know the 1009th variation on a Marlo AFTUS move from the HIEROPHANT published in the seventies. Nor does one need 13 variations of a click pass. More important is to master the basic moves, techniques and strategies and being able to perform them in front of an audience: double lifts, holding a break, controls, false shuffles and cuts, forces, some changes. Basics like rolling and producing a silk, a decent cups and balls (or Chop Cup) routine, a proper C&R rope routine, colour changing silk and so on. The basic things in magic like forcing, switching, ditching and producing seem to be neglected.
To achieve progress, it is important that you know what is important and what not. Most amateur magicians practice the wrong stuff. They lack the needed core skills of a magician. And, like in chess: master the classics. The classics teach you the core skills. In chess many consider a Queen-Pawn opening to be old-fashioned and boring. Most GMs consider it to be solid and that it teaches the novice a lot about positional thinking, pawn structures and how to operate in the middle game. Many of the hip opening variations can only be played by experienced players, but these have mastered the classics and the boring stuff.
Same in magic: instead of learning a rock solid repertoire of time-tested and proven techniques/tricks (and learn how to perform these), the amateur dives into the ocean of silly moves and useless concepts and gets lost. And that’s the way most of the performances look like.
A proper training plan has all these things incorporated. It will teach you the basics and develop the core skills needed to be a successful magician. It will prepare you for the battle in front of a live audience. You will learn how to work to progress. You will be prepared to learn and put new things into practice. You will grow in magic.
1. Don’t over-complicate things. Use as simple techniques as possible. Keep the effects uncluttered, so the audience can understand them. Keep it simple so that your nervousness whilst performing is reduced to a minimum and you can concentrate on the communication with the audience.
2. Don’t overload your mind with too much theory. Be picky and select what is important and what not.
3. Be selective with the material you choose. Select techniques and routines you can do. Don’t do stuff which is way too difficult for you or out of your reach. Stick to what you can do and perfect that.
4. Don’t imitate the Grandmasters (in magic). Don’t copy their routines, moves, patter and presentations. Find your own personal way of doing things. Be yourself. Personalise your magic and techniques.
5. Don’t go for the shortcuts. There are none. Gimmicks for one specific effect are most of the time one trick ponies. Better to have a selection of universal utility techniques at hand, sleight-of-hand or subtlety, which can be used in other tricks.
6. Stay away from the forums, where lots of unqualified people give their advice, which is none. Most of them has no practical experience, no plan and doesn’t know what is important in magic. Don’t listen to this and waste your time.
7. Learn the classics first and understand why they are classics. Learn the reasoning behind, the routine construction, the choice of techniques. Learn to do these classics well. Understand what you learn and perform. See the reaction of the audience and think about why this is so.
8. Get a proper teacher. Go for an experienced magician who can prove in person he can do the stuff. Nothing beats the personal instruction, the hands-on experience.
9. Limit your material. Select only solid things you will use. Throw out the rest. Life is too short to learn everything and time is too precious to waste it with useless, superficial crap.
10. Build a training plan and stick to it. Focus on developing and honing core skills in magic.
11. Set realistic goals. See these goals as an ongoing process in your development in magic. Be realistic in setting these goals. Lower and therefore reachable goals will motivate you. Goals set too high will frustrate you.
12. Build your own personal archive of knowledge and abilities. Foster your personal archive and your skills.
14. Stay away from the internet forums and the newest hypes. Concentrate on the important stuff for you as a performer.
15. Adopt the training plans/concepts from successful chess trainers. Transform these to your magic needs. Stick to these plans. Do them daily.