The Woodpecker Method

Published on 17 Aug 2020

In this blog post, I’ll cover my experience with the woodpecker method. The whole process took a few months and I tried my best to report all the crucial aspects.

Why the woodpecker method?

As soon as I started working on improving my Chess, I understood I had to put quite some work into basic tactics: analyzing my games showed me I missed the most simple tactics. So I did what I always do when I want to get better at something, I researched the topic and reached the following (obviously personal) conclusions:

  • It’s better to train tactics if the problems presented are of different kind. I know there’s some science confirming this but, to be honest, my reason is completely personal. I don’t like knowing upfront the kind of tactic I have to find. That’s not what happens when you play an actual game and I feel more comfortable training in an environment that kind of resembles an actual game.
  • Connected to the previous point, I knew I wanted an actual book with diagrams. I didn’t want to use a computer (say by training with puzzle rush which, I must admit, is funny and addictive) because I wanted to calculate the whole tactic before committing to a move. Like, you know, in a real game.
  • I wanted a puzzle book with good explanations. This is very relevant to me, I can get really frustrated with condescending, patronizing explanations (think “and this is left as an exercise to the reader”).

With these conclusions in mind, I started looking into books. I run into a lot of interesting material and The Woodpecker Method really got me interested. It seemed to check all the boxes from my research. I also liked the idea of following a structured training that helped me collecting data. Which leads me to answering the question: what’s the woodpecker method exactly?

What’s the woodpecker method anyway?

The woodpecker method is both a training method and a book. Doing the woodpecker method consists of doing the same set of exercises up to seven times in a row. The goal of each cycle is to roughly halve the time it took to finish the previous cycle. Say, for example, you have a set of 200 exercises and that doing the first cycle took you a month. The idea is that you should go over the same set again in two weeks time the second cycle, a week the third, and so on. You’re done with the woodpecker method if you can do a whole cycle in one day or you have done at least 7 cycles. It makes sense to have a scoring system so you can collect data that help you understand your performances. I used the scoring system recommended by the book: 1 point for the correct first move, 1 point for a specific move marked in the correct variation. The marked move is the “core” of the tactic. I also took note how long I spent on each section so I could calculate speed rate (measured in num of minutes per exercise).

The book “The Woodpecker Method” is a tactics puzzles book as you’d expect. The books is organized in an interesting way: there are three chapters (easy, intermediate, and advanced exercises); each chapters contains a few hundred puzzles which are presented chronologically. The puzzles are taken from games in which one player has been a world champion. The book has a corresponding solution chapter for each of the puzzles chapter at the end of the book. As I plan to add the book to the reading list, I will not be spending time reviewing it in full here. 5-star book for sure though.

The authors recommend you to go over as many puzzles as you can in a month and then use that as your set for the remaining cycles. I thought it was too ambitious for me so I settled for using the “easy exercises” as my set for training with this method.

How did it go?

The first cycle was incredibly discouraging: my accuracy rate was really low (65.14%) and it took me 14 days to complete 222 exercises. As they’re called “easy” exercises, I felt very bad for a couple of days. But in the end, this brutal first cycle was doing nothing else than confirming I was really bad at even the most basic tactics. This was exactly what I needed: a training system with measurable outcomes. It was time to work harder! After the first cycle, I decided to “cheat” on the method a little: instead of trying to halve the time at each cycle, I focused entirely on accuracy with the idea I’d go back at focusing on speed once I had a reasonable accuracy rate for the “easy” exercises. I told to myself: “there’s no point in getting the wrong answer fast. First get it right, then make it fast”. I also set a goal: right would mean any accuracy rate above 90%.

With this premise, I went straight for the second cycle and the third cycle and I would love to tell you that as soon as I started focusing on accuracy, I had immediate results. Unfortunately, cycle 2 and 3 saw good improvements but I missed the > 90% goal both times. Not everything was too bad as something really unexpected happened: cycle 3 saw a 2x

Accuracy went up but it felt like a real effort. Two aspects surprised me:

  • I recalled some positions from memory. I thought remembering positions was for experts but, apparently, if you spend some time (less than 10 minutes seems to do it), you will indeed remember some positions.
  • Speed went up without me even trying to be faster. Part of it was obvious: as I could recall some positions, I did not need to solve those positions. But, for the most part, it felt more subconscious. I could see the pattern now and I couldn’t see it before.

Because of those points, I was very motivated to go on. I felt like it was working. Especially after reading, Move First, Think Later. In this books, I read something along the lines of “you can’t see what you don’t know” and that resonated very strongly with what I was experiencing with the woodpecker method. I could just see more tactics because of this training. Now I had two more questions to answer: can I actually reach > 90% accuracy rate? Will I be able to do all the exercises of my set in one day before within seven cycles?

The answer to both question, to my own surprise, was a clear yes. I did cycles 4, 5, and 6 with a very good accuracy rate while also improving significantly the speed of the iteration. I managed to finish the woodpecker method on cycle 6. Going from 30 minutes per day over 15 days to just a little than two hours while also significantly increasing accuracy rate felt very good!

Conclusions & next steps

The woodpecker method as a training method felt very good. It’s nicely structured, it provides you with data you can use to understand how you’re doing. It also seems to “actually work” as my peak ratings all came after the end of a cycle. I have the tendency to lose rating points right after a peak and I’m not sure it’s connected in any way to this training system. It seems more psychological (as in: I tend to underestimate my opponents as soon as I “feel” stronger). I did no other training this year so I find hard to imagine getting reaching peaks has nothing to do with the training I did. I also genuinely see more tactics during games, I may not convert them all because I’m a pretty weak endgame player but that has nothing to do with the woodpecker method.

I can say my experience with the method has been so positive that:

  • I will soon enough start over using the “intermediate” exercises. I’m probably going to do as poorly in the first cycles but hopefully I’ll improve around the third or fourth. I’ll report back when I find out.
  • I want to use the method to train basic endgames. As I said, I’m bad at it and I think I can improve significantly by “woodpecking” 100 endgames you must know.

I published the data I collected here. If you want to try the method out, the spreadsheet may come handy!