Peter Zhdanov
19 October 2022

Carrot & Stick Motivation In Chess

Ideally, you should be so hyped about chess that you won't need any external motivation to study. However, this is not always the case, so you might need some help to convince yourself to keep going.

Nowadays, there are plenty of apps that allow you to gamify your life, setting up daily tasks for yourself and getting virtual rewards for completing them and punishments for slacking or not following the desired daily routines.

I also like the old-school approach. You can write down all the non-urgent tasks on sticky notes, specifying a reward for completing each of them. Then in the morning, you randomly grab, let's say, three of the notes from the bag. There are your dailies! This method can be especially effective for passionate games who are used to diligently working on anything the game throws at them.

Are you using any kind of motivation tools to boost your chess studies? It could be a good idea, but you should exercise it with caution. For instance, when it comes to positive ("carrot") motivation, a common example is rewarding oneself with some delicious sweets after a workout. However, once you count the calories, you may realize that the cake you have just eaten has killed all your gains and even done additional damage! Rewarding oneself with tasty food is generally a poor idea.

What are good examples of "carrot" motivation in chess? Well, it depends on your financial situation. If you are well off, it becomes harder to come up with something that makes your eyes shine since you probably have it already. However, if you are on a tight budget, you can consider chess-related prizes that will benefit your chess rise. For instance, you can tell yourself that if you do X, you will purchase a lifetime subscription to your favorite chess app, a magnificent digital chess clock, travel to some distant tournament you have always wanted to compete in, hire a great coach, and so on.

Looking for a way to reward yourself or someone else for remaining a loyal fan of chess? Check out the Play Magnus Plus Membership! It features four innovative apps devised under the guidance of 5-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. Together, they provide you with all the tools you need to become a better chess player and have fun while improving.

Speaking of the Soviet chess school, the "stick" motivation was probably even more prevalent there. Fedor Dostoevsky wrote "Crime and Punishment" for a good reason. If you do something wrong in Russia, you normally get punished! And if you perform well, there is no guarantee whatsoever that anyone is going to notice. Most likely, they will take it for granted.

IM Mark Dvoretsky, who was widely believed to be one of, if not THE best, chess coaches in the world, is among my favorite chess authors.

The maestro passed away, but his legacy lives on in his famous books and series.

Nevertheless, I can't abstain from commenting on a quote from his ChessCafe article “Polemic Thinking. Part One”:

Towards the same end, sometimes it makes sense to set up “fines” for “losses” – mostly in those cases where the student makes serious errors that he should certainly have known how to avoid. With young players, fines can be various forms of physical exercise; for example, pushups, sit-ups, running, etc.'s frontman IM Danny Rensch had a training session with Dvoretsky many years ago. Here is an excerpt from his article describing the experience:

One more thing: If you want to increase the level of intensity in your own studies, find a way to "put something on the line". Before tournaments I would often put 50 push ups "on the line" for a failed 15-Minute Drill (and yes, I can do 50 push ups... come on people) in order to get my blood flowing. I've heard that Shirov did something similar. If you are someone who doesn't get enough exercise, try that.

Now what is the problem with this training method, you might wonder?

First of all, it is a case of Pavlovian (classic) conditioning. The student begins associating the “crime” (failing an exercise) with a “punishment” – having to perform physical exercises, possibly while other students are mocking him for it. As a result, he starts to consider physical activity to be something negative and worth avoiding. Unsurprisingly, when you read Dvoretsky’s books, he often mentions that good physical preparation has never been one of his strongest virtues. In fact, this is the case with most of his students. Moreover, Mark emphasizes the importance of staying fit in his writings, always mentioning running, bodily exercise, etc. Still, when you read it, you get the impression of self-torturing instead of enjoying the activity. Now that you know the psychological foundation of this issue, it shouldn’t be of any surprise to you.

Mark Dvoretsky with his students - Maxim Boguslawsky, GMVladimir Baklan, and GM Vadim Zvyagintsev. Image courtesy of

Secondly, regular physical exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and chess training. One shouldn’t punish oneself by adding or removing physical exercises from one’s routine. It is just about as silly as skipping lunch or making oneself eat two lunches for a certain failure in chess. Why would anyone mix the physical and the chess components of the training program like that?

Thirdly, I recall our sports coach at one of the universities attended. During the very first class, he told everyone to run 5 miles (or maybe kilometers?). Since it was a physical therapy group, some students questioned this idea and told him that they had a weak heart or something similar which could prevent them from running 5 miles in a competitive group setting without any prior training whatsoever. He dismissed those sentiments by saying that they were all men and should be able to endure marathons, fistfights, and other challenges. Now the lessons were actually quite fun, even when the sensei attempted to show everyone how to strangle a guard by jumping at me (the tallest guy in the group, 6’4" ft.) and twisting my neck from behind. Amusingly enough, how he ended up clutching my neck and waving his feet in the air, not being able to bring me down. Anyway, I believe Mark gives reckless advice here: who knows what will happen to the young kids after additional physical exercises. What if they have certain undiagnosed medical conditions and a certain overzealous coach overreacts and starts applying this method too often?

Summarizing, I would be careful about mingling physical and chess training into one session, even though some modern research shows that it might be beneficial if you combine the activities in moderation. And I would definitely not turn to physical exercises as a means of punishing myself. Or, if you feel like adopting Mark’s approach and using Pavlovian methods on yourself, you might as well reward yourself for solving puzzles correctly instead of punishing yourself for the ones you did wrong.

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