Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Shy Guest Blogger



During a chess lesson yesterday I asked my coach, a strong IM, whether he had ever sat around doing a book of tactical exercises early in his chess career. He replied that he hadn't, and seemed to suggest that such tactical study is not so helpful. This is of interest to me since I've been working through exercise books more or less regularly for the past few years. Does it really help?

World opinion is divided on this matter. At one extreme there are those who recommend doing some tactical puzzles every day. Susan Polgar recommends this, and in fact provides daily puzzles on her blog (http://susanpolgar.blogspot.com/). Michael De La Maza (Rapid Chess Improvement) lays out a more detailed and stringent plan, which he calls the "Seven Circles." Closer to the center of the spectrum, GM John Nunn (John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book) wrote that "Every young player should, at some stage, go through such a book [as Reinfeld's 1001 Ways to Checkmate] solving every position." He stops well short of advocating a lifelong habit, however. GM Larry Christiansen acknowledged a similar debt to Reinfeld in his book (Storming the Barricades), saying that Reinfeld's 1001 Sacrifices and Combinations "became a constant companion at home and school." NM Dan Heisman (in a ChessCafe article) recommends focusing easy tactical problems, and trying to do them quickly. Then we have the contrarians, such as my coach. GM Alex Yermolinsky expresses some doubt about doing puzzles (The Road to Chess Improvement): "...solving chess problems is a mind-boggling exercise, and I, for example, was never keen on that." He even blames a colleague's stalled progress on an over-reliance on tactics. Then we have Martin Weteschnik (Understanding Chess Tactics) saying that "asking them to solve a huge number of puzzles" did not help his otherwise strong students improve tactically.

How can we reconcile these views?


Anonymous said...

I'll say it flat-out, because there is no point in being polite here: There is simply nothing to "reconcile." The de la Maza crowd is a cult, nothing more. And his idea - that intense, prolonged drilling on tactical puzzles represents a reasonable route to chess improvement (let alone "rapid" chess improvement, the title of his best-seller) - is quite simply, a fraud.

I'm saying that not on my own authority, but on that of every chess teacher I've heard of who knows anything about chess (translation: who is a decent player).

Apart from de la Maza himself, none of the authorities you mentioned in your post (Yermolinsky, Christiansen, et al) advocates a chess lifestyle built around obsessive-compulsive puzzle-solving. I don't even think Susan Polgar advocates it on principle, although she does publish lots of puzzles on her site. There is an enormous difference - I mean not simply "difference", but something far stronger, more like "contrast, opposition" - between saying it can be useful to go through one puzzle book at some point in your development (which seems to be what Christiansen and the other GMs you cited said), and saying that solving thousands of puzzles per week on a rigid schedule (or even without a rigid schedule) is the holy grail of chess improvement.

Yes, I go beyond IM Jeremy Silman in denouncing de la Maza. Silman is probably the most thoughtful, accessible and widely respected of all chess writers/teachers whose audience is the mid-level adult player (i.e., the same audience that de la Maza aims for). Here is Silman's review of Rapid Chess Improvement: http://www.jeremysilman.com/book_

And make no mistake: De la Maza himself is NOT a strong player. He played in tournaments for just 2 years (1999-2001), went from an initial rating of 1163 to 2041, then retired from serious play after winning the U-2000 section of the 2001 World Open, to write his book and turn himself into a cult figure.

Your use of the word "contrarians" in reference to critics of de la Maza is poor usage. My understanding of the term - at least as it's used in finance - is akin to "dissident," that is, someone who takes a position against the mainstream.

In this case, though, de la Maza and his followers are clearly the dissidents, or "contrarians." No strong chess player or respected chess teacher follows them. Instead, the consensus about how one should study chess is closer to what Silman states in the above-cited book review, and closer to the point of view that came up in the preceding thread (about the reasons to study endgames - which is first and foremost the reason you failed to mention, Capa's famous dictum that that's how you learn properties of the pieces that are broadly applicable in other settings as well).

-Jon Jacobs

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't quite call the 7 circle method a fraud (MDLM seems honest and sincere), but I agree that this approach doesn't appear to have proved itself beyond one data point.

There is something to reconcile, Jon, if we interpret the question to be "does it help to do some tactical exercises daily" -- without going so far as to make it life-consuming, and without excluding the other things a chess student should do (play/analyze games, study the endgame, go over master games, etc.). The mainstream answer seems to be "yes". Indeed, there are over 75 titles in the USCF catalog under the unmistakable heading "Tactics-Tactics-Tactics!" with more titles being churned out daily. Clearly, somebody's buying all this. Even Silman advises tactical study as part of an individualized, balanced program. So if your instructor tells you the tactics bit doesn't help, then he's a contrarian, and there's something to reconcile.

Naisortep said...

I think your average Master might start do simple tactical puzzles early in their career but eventually they become too easy since they generally revolve around a check/capture/ threat. They then drift toward analyzing complicated positions - often from their own games, GM games or an opening. These positions could be tactical in nature. I know of a FM and a GM who have said their main form of study was to hang around post mortem areas and participate in the analysis. So reading a tactical book isnt a bad thing but once they become relatively obvious it is better to graduate to complicated analysis positions.

Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement with Naisortep's last comment.

To the anon that posted between my first one and Naisortep:
I agree that (as should be evident from my initial comment) some modest amount of tactics work can be useful, as part of a much broader program. So I'm not arguing there.

The problem is, I've seen too many people - and I suspect de la Maza followers uniformly fall into this category - make a leap from, "Chess is 99% tactics" (which is basically true), to "Studying tactics is the key to improving your chess."

If "studying" tactics reliably led to improved tactical acuity, then things would be easy. But it doesn't. Tactical ability stems from things like pattern recognition, overall alertness, and perhaps overall chess ability. Yes, to learn patterns, you must be exposed to them. But most authorities view puzzle-solving as a relatively inefficient method of "exposure" to the near-infinite variety of tactical patterns that go into a strong player's mental library. More efficient ways are playing serious chess on a regular basis, going over all your own games in depth, and going over master games in some depth, drawing on annotations and/or a coach's guidance. Some authorities even recommend a moderate amount of blitz chess as a way to sharpen the tactical "muscle."

I labeled MDLM a "fraud" based on Silman's description of his book (even though Silman himself held back from applying that word). According to Silman, the book repeatedly makes explicit, unqualified promises that if you follow the author's methods, you will not only improve rapidly (that in itself is probably enough to label MDLM a fraud, since no honest chess teacher can guarantee improvement), but will WIN ENOUGH MONEY PRIZES to pay for the computers, software and other chess stuff you'll have to buy. If Silman quoted him accurately, then I don't see how anyone could call such promises/guarantees anything other than fraud.

Finally, it's not quite correct to suggest, as you did, that MDLM's approach "proved itself (for) one data point." The author himself isn't even a particularly strong player; he's only a little above 2000. Yes, he went from 1100 to 2000 in two years. But those were his first two years of playing serious (i.e. tournament) chess. Don't you think that anyone who puts a lot of effort into anything over two years will improve? I too went from 1100 to 2000 within two years (quite a bit less, actually) from the time I entered my first tournament. Are you aware of the various peer-reviewed studies of psychotherapy outcomes, that found patients on the whole improve significantly, REGARDLESS OF THE METHOD OR "SCHOOL" (Freudian, behaviorist, feminist, etc.) to which the therapist adheres?

My point is, MDLM's own experience doesn't even constitute "one data point" of worthy evidence that his method works. While it's possible that he would have improved less if he'd devoted all that time to some study method other than constant puzzle-drilling, there's no way of knowing that. Based on my 40 years of chess experience, I'd estimate the probability at 10% to 20%, and my considered judgment is that most experienced chess teachers/authorities would back me up on that. That means it's four to nine times as likely that he would have improved as much or more if he'd followed the conventional program - much of which he actually WAS following, in parallel with his puzzle-drilling, since his MSA record shows he was extremely active in rated tournaments throughout that 2-year period. ("Playing serious chess" and examining your own games are central planks in the conventional self-improvement program, as I explained above.)

So even for MDLM himself, the case that his drills were central to his improvement is pretty poor.

Jon Jacobs

Anonymous said...

I think that doing tactics exercises does help your game, as long as you are challenging yourself, and you are showing progress (programs like CT Art can track your scores). Like others above have said, there should be a balance.

Anonymous said...

A word about MDLM...

He gives 41 books as reference in his own book; nearly all Pandolfini, Silman and Kotov books among others.
So if he claims he improved just by training tactics, he doesn't tell the truth. Maybe a big part in his improvement is due to his reading Silman and Kotov?

BTW, something is strange about MDLM...he started right at the time of year 1999 when the World Open was played (did he read about the prize fund?), he participated in the following two World Opens and stopped playing tournament chess right after his success in 2001.

IMO that stinks. His book is also just about making easy money...

The book gives you pictures of how to make your own flash-cards that show you the color of the squares on the chessboard?! Who can take that serious?

MDLM is a cheat IMO. Maybe one should have a closer look at his games in the World Open 2000 and 2001...

Anonymous said...

The real reason I've posted at length here isn't to attack de la Maza, but to caution average players against falling into the seductive trap of all-tactics-all-the-time.

You see, de la Maza seems to have a sizable grassroots following. There is an entire subculture of chess bloggers who set up their blogs for the primary purpose of chronicling their own quest for chess improvement. I know of at least a dozen of them, which probably just scratches the surface. They and their blogs carry colorful handles like Liquid Egg Product, blunderprone, Wahrheit, and even Man de la Maza.

Those bloggers regularly post on one another's blogs, and exhibit other characteristics of a coherent subculture. Less politely, they could be described as a "cult" - the word I used in my first post here. The clincher is, despite the painstaking effort they pour into both the MDLM puzzle "circles" and documenting their progress on their blogs .... few if any of them are actually showing any chess improvement! (Obviously, I, and you readers, and all other non-cult members, measure "improvement" by tournament results or rating, not puzzle-solving statistics.)

When I encountered these blogs for the first time, I was delighted. Here was a group of adults conscientiously working toward improving their own chess understanding - the holy grail (translation: MARKET) I had been looking for!

However, after reading more of what they had to say, I realized that most were following de la Maza's program in one form or another. Their hours spent on the "CTS" (chess tactics server, a puzzle-solving and tracking/self-rating tool) kept coming up again and again in their writings.

I now view these people as a mutual support group - but not in a positive sense of supporting one another in some truly constructive activity. Rather, I see them as mainly "supporting" one another's mutual delusion, fostered by de la Maza's book, that they are "progressing" (somehow getting better at chess) when they solve more puzzles this week than they did last week.

Jon Jacobs

Greg Shahade said...

Of course it's best to do these tactical puzzles at the outset of one's career. Once you've played for a few years they won't help you much at all, because it's much harder to learn patterns and etc.

Fortunately for me this was my main method of study the first 1-2 years when I was learning about chess. At this point I could study tactical puzzles all I wanted to now but they could only improve my skill at this area of chess a relatively small amount.

Anonymous said...


Blue Devil Knight said...

Perhaps Jacobs could say what premise he thinks is incorrect in the following argument, and actually be helpful by discussing an alternative method that will help someone with a severe problem with tactics:

1. Tactical pattern recognition is a necessary component of chess expertise.
2. One way to acquire tactical patterns is to 'overlearn' a set of common tactical motifs (studying them repeatedly until you have them down cold).
3. Therefore, one way to develop a necessary component of chess expertise is to overlearn a set of common tactical motifs.

This isn't a particularly new or mindblowing argument. It has been advanced by Dan Heisman, GM Rashid Ziatdinov (see article at Silman's web site here), and is the basis for the program Personal Chess Trainer (developed by GM Gilberto Milos).

His rants consist of trotting out the typical stuff that has been floating around the blogosphere about de la Maza for a few years (every six months or so this kind of opinion is expressed--see the FAQ linked below). He is obviously a newbie to the blogosphere who doesn't know what he is talking about. If he had just read the Knights Errant FAQ, that would disabuse him of most of his errors. Fifteen minutes looking around the amateur chess blogosphere would do the rest.

On the matter of cults, he really goes off the deep end when he conflates 'subculture' and 'cult' (see this post for a definition of cult: while we joke about the Knights Errant cult, to take it literally is just silly histrionics).

I am a crappy chess player. I did the tactical repitition exercises to help me with my worst facet of play, tactics, and it helped (500 points in my rating). It's really surprising the amount of animosity people often feel toward the method, given that it is based on a fairly mundane argument (see above), and clearly helps some people improve. Certainly not all people, it's not a panacea, but it helps some.

Perhaps some of the blame rests with de la Maza. He overstates things in his articles and books. People are also probably jealous of his success and popularity, chalking it up to the ignorance of the unwashed chess masses, their inability to critically evaluate his work, their tendency to swallow the latest chess fads. The truth of the matter is that much of what de la Maza said is true, much of it is bunk, but the core of his method (building pattern recognition via repetition) is very useful for many people.

Blue Devil Knight said...

See Blogotype #4

Ahh, the memories.

Robert Pearson said...

Dear Jon,

Since you chose to use my "handle" in one of your screeds let me respond to a few inaccuracies:

They and their blogs carry colorful handles like Liquid Egg Product, blunderprone, Wahrheit, and even Man de la Maza.


Less politely, they could be described as a "cult" - the word I used in my first post here. The clincher is, despite the painstaking effort they pour into both the MDLM puzzle "circles" and documenting their progress on their blogs .... few if any of them are actually showing any chess improvement!

Liquid Egg Product is a programmer who blogs about chess a small part of the time, and almost never about his improvement efforts. Blunderprone completed the circles awhile back and now posts things like analysis of games from London 1851. Man de la Maza was a joke name--he's a programmer too, and a founder of the "support group" who "retired" almost two years ago.

As for me, I've never been into the MDLM thing at all, preferring a balanced program of study, and yes, I've tried out the tactics sites and while they may help (some people a lot more than others) I've concluded that they aren't the best way to better moves in tournament play.

Blue Devil Knight answered you pretty well with a logical, balanced comment so I'll just add:

Read the fucking blogs if you're going to name names, because this whole series has made you look like a bitter little man, ripping into a bunch of people who are having fun with chess and chess blogging. What IS your problem, dude? I know your an FM, I take your opinions about chess seriously, but if you want to call me a "cultist" then I'll (symbolically) rip you a new asshole.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for this off-topic rant, but the next time I hear the over-used term "pattern recognition" in connection with chess skill I'm going to puke a kidney. Look, it's not a valid basis for understanding chess skill except in the most utterly superficial sense. (Sure! Playing the piano - that's pattern recognition, too!! So is neurosurgery! So is fiction writing!!!) Any time you try to nail down exactly what you mean by "pattern" and what you mean by "recognizing" it, you'll come up with a defective model of how a chess master's mind works. So to reach GM strength I just have to - what -learn to recognize 100,000 chess patterns? Sorry, the pattern recognition is only that tiny fragment of a larger process that a player has conscious access to - after the fact of selecting a move. This doesn't begin to explain the rest of the process, or how elite players acquire their ability in the first place. Try again.

Anonymous said...

...because this whole series has made you look like a bitter little man...

Hahaha so true. This Jon guy sounds more than bitter, and his poor "research" disqualifies his posts even further.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: substitute whatever terminology you don't find offensive to describe your rapid and effortless recognition of tactical motifs. I don't care what we call it, it is the skill that the words pick out that matters. So to avoid silly semantic quibbles, let's call it '@#$-|*'.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, I am not conceding the point that 'pattern recognition' is a vacuous term. Walking is not pattern recognition. Explicitly calculating that a position contains back-rank mate is not pattern recognition.

To recognize pattern X is to rapidly and effortlessly categorize the stimulus as containing X. E.g., when you recognize a person's face you do it rapidly without explicit conscious calculation (you don't consciously calculate the dimensions of his face, compare it to some internal template, and then infer 'Ah, it is Fred'). You can recognize his face in circumstances extremely different from those in which you acquired the original representation of his face (e.g., in different lighting, from different angles, at different distances, etc).

So, I stand by the use of the term, but to avoid a digression, those who don't like it can use the term I introduced above, @#$-|* as a tag for the skill I'm describing, a skill anyone that has played chess is familiar with.

I wrote quite a bit about this in the context of the repititions method of tactical training here.

I also wrote up an internal critique of the 'Circles' method here.

Incidentally, I think Greg's comment is very good. Whether this method will help someone depends on many factors, one of which is probably how long you have been playing.

Also, someone above mentioned that MDLM read a lot of other chess books (heresy!). This is probably an important datum, as he spent many years studying strategy but didn't improve until he studied tactics. de la Maza interpreted this as showing that only tactics matters, but more likely it shows that he was overdeveloped in strategy compared to tactics, and the repetitions method helped him to repair this blind spot.

Anonymous said...

Well, the Blogosphere Strikes Back!

The vehemence of the counter-attack exhibited in some of the preceding posts makes my point perfectly. These guys really do come across as I'd suggested: 1 part chess study-group mixed with 5 parts oddball religion.

Last December I got a similar lashing-out response in a personal email from another member of their little circle (one whose handle hasn't been mentioned here). That happened when, after a brief love-fest of mutual compliments between he and I that were posted on his blog (sample comment - Blog host: "Jon came here through the single best chess blogger comment (writen by Jon) i have ever read in 1.5 years here,.."), I committed the unpardonable sin of telling him in a private email that I felt the tactics servers were pushing an "addiction."

Since these individuals seem to read (and link to, and post on) one another's blogs with the same intensity that many of them devote to repetitive puzzle solving, it follows that Blue Devil Knight most likely knows he is stretching the truth (I'm phrasing it politely this time - VERY politely) when he labels me a "newbie" who hasn't spent so much as "fifteen minutes looking around the amateur chess blogosphere."

In fact, not only have I read many of these people's blogs at one time or another; I have even posted on a few of them (and then watched my comments migrate across the amateur blogosphere as one after another of this tight-knit group approvingly quoted and/or linked what I'd written on his buddy's blog). What's more, in the physical world I am acquainted (and on good terms) with two other bloggers who exist on the edge of the circle I'm referring to, and who interact regularly with the others. So I do know what I'm talking about.

That said, the counterattackers above did make a couple of points worth answering.

Of the three propositions that began Blue Devil Knight's comment, I reject #2. Repeated tactical drilling ("overlearning") via puzzles might help a minority of individuals become less "blunder-prone" (no pun meant here, it's just the natural word for this context), but I doubt it will transform anyone into a sharper tactician, better able to recognize and exploit opportunities as they momentarily arise and disappear in the swamp of the chessboard's ever-changing possibilities. And as I said in one of my first posts, I think the number of GMs and other credible authorities who would place tactics drills/overlearning at the center of any improvement program, is very few indeed.

Blue Devil Knight's invoking Dan Heisman also should make readers suspicious. I'm no expert on Heisman, but from what I have read of him, he's pretty mainstream. Like Silman, his emphasis seems to fall heavily on conceptual learning and strategy - not putting a lot of time into drilling in order to "overlearn" tactical motifs.

Wahrheit, if I misstated your views and in effect tarred you by association, then I apologize. Given that the topic of this thread is a generalization (to wit: "is systematic study of tactics the best way to improve?"), I may well have over-generalized about the approaches to chess learning advocated or practiced by one or another of the bloggers I mentioned.

I recall early on in my exposure to the amateur chess bloggers, seeing uncritical references to de la Maza and the Chess Tactics Server crop up again and again on numerous blogs. But of course there could be exceptions; while others who might have started out uncritical followers could have modified their view and their personal practice.

Jon Jacobs

Temposchlucker said...

Doing the Circles has lead to "some ratingprogress" for most Knights. You can find how much here. If you have a method that works better then we would like to hear it.

ChargingKing said...

Lighten up Jon. If ever by chance you fall down from your ivory tower you might see that you have categorically mischaracterized and insulted a group of people,(of whom you don't know) quite fallaciously.

First of all you have a group of chess players that have found yet another way to have fun with chess: by writing about it, by comparing it to non-chess subjects, by meeting new people, by joking around and by sharing ideas.

Not all of us are tactical puzzle freaks. If someone is trying to overload on puzzles in an attempt to improve why is that worth insulting them over?

Personally I have improved almost 200 points in about a year. I haven't studied much tactics whatsoever but I can see why it would help.

Personally I find it more odd to spend 4-5 hours a day on chess which many of the top players claim to do...but I wont insult them on this overemphasis on chess.

I've only played chess for about 15months and have reached over 1600 rating. to you that may be nothing but I'm proud of it. I think most of these bloggers are a really fun bunch.

Now that i've had my rant please explain to me how it is "cultlike" to network with other casual players? Do big-time chess players not have interaction with others? Isn't this the same in any type of group?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Content first, then I'll waste a little more time responding to the ad hominem. Again, this is stuff that comes up every 6 months or so (i.e., content-free ad-hominem laced lashing out at de la Maza with no positive substitutes to suggest for a better way to specifically improve at tactics).

Jon is skeptical that Heisman would advocate such a non "mainstream" technique, but Heisman, says:
"The first and most important step to becoming proficient at tactics is understanding safety and counting,understanding safety and counting, followed by repetitious study of very simple problems, those involving counting and single motifs (pins, double attacks, removal of the guard, etc.). Acquisition of this skill usually requires the kind of drills suggested by Michael de la Maza in his two-part 400 Points in 400 Days article for Chess Café."

It doesn't get much clearer than that.

You said you disagree with premise two of the argument. Now we are getting somewhere. I think you are right that simply doing puzzles won't make you better at chess. Unless you integrate this work with heavy play (as de la Maza did), the knowledge gained doesn't seem to integrate itself into your practical abilities as well. This is an important point, but certainly doesn't support the kind of rhetoric that you used above.

In my case, it clearly helped, but there is a lot of variability. As I discussed extensively in the post I linked to above (which you obviously didn't read), the repetition-based method isn't for everyone, and people should think hard about whether it is for them.

More generally, there is nothing we like more than an intelligent discussion of chess improvement, including quite vigorous critiques of MDLM. Especially cool is when people with different perspectives that are better than us offer constructive and rational analyses of different ways to improve at chess.

That is not what you have presented. From you we got inaccurate accusations spewed at people who aren't even doing the method, no constructive alternatives suggested, posed in arrogant overstatements. What do you expect people to do, bend over for you? Pull that crap with any subculture and you will get a strong backlash.

For people reading this, just look at the blogs and see for yourself. I think you will see a healthy lack of dogmatism, a large dose of self criticisms, and generally good discussions of how people are trying to get better at this game. Nothing like the caricature painted by Jon.

You seem to have an attitude toward de la Maza, and projected it onto the entire amateur chess improvement blogosphere. It is laughable, really.

I agree with what Wahreit said. For god sake, he and Liquid egg product aren't even doing the repetition training, but are just people talking about chess who interact with one another.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Here is an example of some dogmatism from a recent post of mine (advice to beginners):
"Some people trying to improve at chess focus on everything but playing: they do puzzles, study openings, or read lots of books. Some of these things are important (see below), but if you are truly a novice you simply need to develop some intuitions about the mechanics of the game by playing as much as possible."

Frankly, I just don't understand how Jon made the mental leap from the reality of the fun and ever-evolving chess blogosphere to the dark cult of death that he described here.

It's a rainforest, not a cathedral.

Blue Devil Knight said...

From Heisman's recent book on tactics (just to show this wasn't an aberration).

On how to study his book (p 10):
"[T]he problems in this book , especially the easier basic ones, are meant to be done repeatedly until you can solve them almost by recognition" (italics his).

On de la Maza (p 5):
"In his book, Rapid Chess Improvement, Michael de la Maza suggests that a player might be able to reach expert level just from the intense study of tactics. I learned from the Russians that repetitive study of basic tactics is probably the single most important thing any beginner can do to improve at chess" (italics his).

More (p 112):
"The most important goal of studying tactics is to be able to spot the elementary motifs very quickly, so studying the most basic tactics over and over until you can recognize them almost instantly is likely the single best thing you can do when you begin studying chess!"

Last (p 191):
"It is not enough to recognize tactics. You must recognize them quickly--even without prior knowledge that they are there--during the short time you have to move in a normal game. So study the easy problems in this book over and over until you can recognize both the problem and the solution quickly."

OK, so Heisman is quite clear on this, and says he got it from the Russians. I also mentioned two GMs that explicitly advocate such an approach.

This doesn't mean it is the only way to do it. It doesn't mean it will work for anyone. It means that the repetitions-based tactical training can be part of a sane and sound chess training regimen.

Heisman disagrees with de la Maza in one respect, advocating such a technique only on the most basic of tactics, while de la Maza advocates it even for tough combinations. This is an interesting debate we've had, and I tend to side with Heisman, but I'm not sure who's right (and likely it depends on the person).

Anonymous said...

Why don't you enlighten us then Mr. JJ the FIDE Master, and tell us what we SHOULD do as a way of self-improvement. I don't like to be looked down upon simply because i'm an amateur. I take my chess too seriously for that. And maybe it is just idle hope (or whatever the expression is), but my life long goal is to become an FIDE Master myself. And even if i never become one, i am proud of having tried.

katar said...

Well, unlike Mr. Maza, Mr. Jacobs is a much stronger player, a much more experienced teacher, and one who plays for love of the game rather than money. Thus, I'm inclined to believe JJ rather than MM.

There is some irony when chess players lack objectivity (which is so crucial OTB) in assessing their improvement track, or in assessing the proper role of chess in broader life.

To me, the real tragedy is not that people waste time on tactics puzzles (Sudoku anyone? how about TV sitcoms?), but rather that there is clearly too much emotion invested in these comments. Just take the Master JJ's opinion in due consideration and move on. And roll your eyes if you perceive a lack of politeness or tact. This is not the place for a moral crusade. Feeling personally insulted shows a lack of perspective. It's not like this affects your professional reputation or status in the community. (unless you identify foremost with the online chess "community", which would be unfortunate for other reasons.)

Elizabeth Vicary said...

I tried MDMA in college and I definitely learned a lot from it.

Unknown said...

I did some checking into FM Jon Jacobs' rating and skill level. As far as I can tell, he hasn't really improved much himself over the years. And yet he can get down on others who haven't as well?

I'm sick and tired of people misrepresenting themselves. Jon Jacobs' rating history reveals that he "poked" his head above 2300 and then saw the sea was full of sea monsters, and then went down to his real skill level, the 2200's

What's that about? He hasn't improved much either.

If you have trouble keeping your head over 2300, don't get down on others' who haven't improved much at their respective levels.

I personally haven't had much time in the last 8 years. Quite frankly, I am amazed that I am a fairly decent A-player with the limited time for study that I have had over the years.

If Jon Jacobs enjoys the FM title, it's only because he has more time than the rest of us.

Talent begins at the IM level, not underneath it, where it can be "learned."

Poking your head above 2300 once or twice, but not moving beyond 2310 while doing so, does not make you any kind of "authority" that is creditable.

I myself would not listen to anyone at that level or anyone beheath it.

You're simply not good enough...

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff! A few random thoughts. First, we can infer that John Nunn doesn't expect a young chessplayer to go through a single book like Reinfeld once and be done with tactical study, since that quote comes from his own book of puzzles!

Second, I am mystified by Weteschnick's observation that doing puzzles did not help his students. Can someone (who is fasmiliar with him or his book) tell us what that's about? A cynic might suspect it's a ploy to sell more books, but I'm inclined give his ideas a hearing.

Finally, this: I'm not one of the Knights De laMaza, but I've been a lurker for a number of years. In my view they are anything but slavish devotees to some central dogma. They have posted plenty of criticisms of MDLM's book and methods, there is intelligent debate about the things they've tried to improve their chess, and most notably they don't take themselves too seriously. Once in a while they come up with a real nugget of wisdom, and most of the time they're the funniest people I know. In a good way.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Katar: I think most of the responses above have been quite rational and to the point. This dick comes and just hurls insults at all these people, obviously not knowing what he is talking about, and then gets all sensitive when he gets a strong response? The internet doesn't work that way.

I'm surprised Katar as your comment is basically ad hominem rather than ad rem.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Elizabeth said:
"I tried MDMA in college and I definitely learned a lot from it."

Me too. It definitely made me more sensitive to little things like how the pieces felt in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

I just ran across this quote Jon Speelman, which seems relevant to our discussion:

"I grew up solving hundreds of small tactical puzzles from books and magazines and have always felt that the best way to progress is not by hurling yourself at some massive brick wall but rather by picking daintily through a series of slight but satisfying obstacles, overcoming each of which gives you a small but pleasant buzz of success."

Blue Devil Knight said...

The problem isn't JJ's claim that the repetitions method won't work for everyone (nothing new there), but his strange insinuations about the death cult that is the chess blogosphere, the histrionics.

We could go all day cherry picking quotes from great instructor-players that show they like, or don't like, the repetitions method. They are both right. Chess isn't a one-size-fits-all enterprise.

Beware of confirmation bias. It is the lifeblood of the chess improvement literature. Until we have more than anecdotes, that will probably remain the case.

Unknown said...

you all realize this is just a game, right? a fun way to pass time, meet people, and get together to party (at tournaments)...

even after wahrheit's AWESOME reply, i still find it hilarious that Liquid Egg Product is considered one of the "de la maza cultists" when he blogs more about the adventures of the mascot than chess, and wahrheit was mentioned when he has nothing to do with the knights errant...jacobs lost some creditability right there... color me entertained...

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth said:
"I tried MDMA in college and I definitely learned a lot from it."

This went right over my head until I noticed that she had punningly written "MDMA" (rather than MDLM), which is short for MethyleneDioxyMethAmphetamine, more commonly known as (the drug) "Ecstasy." LOL

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your words of support, Katar.

However, I must say a mea culpa. On reflection, I see merit in the following observation that Blue Devil Knight made about my posts: "You seem to have an attitude toward de la Maza, and projected it onto the entire amateur chess improvement blogosphere."

To be sure, I certainly never meant to chastise the "entire amateur chess blogosphere"; obviously there are bloggers out there (this one, for one) that have nothing to do with de la Maza or his methods. But I see how my words could have easily given that impression. And it was wrong of me to mention those names/blog handles, and lump them all together into the de la Maza fan club I painted, without regard for individual differences.

If the debate continues, I'll have more to say about the substance. But for now, I needed to say this to clear the air.

(By the way, I'm not a more experienced chess teacher than de la Maza; in fact I've never taught a single chess student, either face-to-face or online. Moreover, it could be said that I play chess for money, since I played in high-stakes class sections of the HB Global and two World Opens in recent years, rather than opting for Open sections. And I certainly get paid to write about chess.)

Jon Jacobs

Blue Devil Knight said...

Wow. That may be a first in the history of the internet. Impressive.

In tht spirit, I believe I over-reacted a bit, especially when I used derogatory terms toward JJ such as in my last message to Katar.

I know what it is like to give an impressionistic "review" of something (like a book) and have it piss people off, so I should cut JJ some slack for doing the same.

Robert Pearson said...

Heh, as BDK says...in the spirit of reconciliation, I'll just say I overreacted a bit, as well. I still think you got it wrong, Jon, but saying you "came off a bitter little man" was just inflammatory rhetoric.I love the whole spirited debate, however, it's actually been a lot of fun...

Chessaholic said...

And now everybody sing Kumbaya please :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. I have little to add after all that. Except to note Mr. Jacobs was partly accurate on my blog's account. While I do not do the circles, the Mascot has been involved with the cult for some time...

Anonymous said...

Wow, this whole blog thing can get nasty sometimes.

I am new to chess (November) and very new to blogging, so I hope I am not overstepping my bounds here!

I am a professional musician and music educator and have found some very intriguing parallels between music and chess.

Tactics are the building blocks or fundamentals of chess, much like scales are the building blocks of musical performance. By and of themselves they don't make one a better musician or chess player, BUT at the same time one cannot really improve at chess or music without somehow coming to grips with and internalizing these building blocks.

It seems so simple to me! Tactics are important!! Very important!! I have noticed this in my own games!! However, I also know that to truly progress and create beauty at the chess board I will need to INTERNALIZE those tactics and hopefully one day TRANSCEND them, much like a great musician TRANSCENDS scales to really create MUSIC.

As a teacher, I am distinctly aware of the fact that people learn and assimilate information in VERY different ways. There is more than one way to learn a musical scale, and there is more than one way to learn tactics. If some people choose puzzle books (which I like), and some other people prefer to learn tactics from going over games (which I also like), it doesn't matter. All that matters is that the person (and his or her teacher) finds the most efficient way to learn tactics for themselves.


Tom G

Blue Devil Knight said...

Tom G: how dare you inject sanity and temperance into what could have been a perfectly good batshit crazy flame war?


Blue Devil Knight said...

Reading back over things with perspective, I think Jon has a positive story here, when he says:
"If "studying" tactics reliably led to improved tactical acuity, then things would be easy. But it doesn't. Tactical ability stems from things like pattern recognition, overall alertness, and perhaps overall chess ability. Yes, to learn patterns, you must be exposed to them. But most authorities view puzzle-solving as a relatively inefficient method of "exposure" to the near-infinite variety of tactical patterns that go into a strong player's mental library. More efficient ways are playing serious chess on a regular basis, going over all your own games in depth, and going over master games in some depth, drawing on annotations and/or a coach's guidance. Some authorities even recommend a moderate amount of blitz chess as a way to sharpen the tactical "muscle.""

This all seems very reasonable. I think adding in repetition training is also helpful for some.

My coach (an IM) told me to play tons of blitz to get better at tactics, that I simply needed more experience with the game. I told him about the Circles and, while he hadn't heard of it before, he thought it was a good idea (as a complement to playing, going over games).

Also, saying someone rated 2000 isn't good is crazy. It is certainly very unusual for someone to go from 1100 to 2000 in two years. Pick any random person at USCF ratings list.

They don't call it 'expert' level because it is a trivial accomplishment. Especially for adults just learning the game, 2000 would be a major accomplishment.

BlunderProne said...

Wow! Does this mean I'm a CULT HERO? I never set out for that. Just looking to improve my craptacular game.

Incidently, I do remember Jon, you posted here: http://blunderprone.blogspot.com/2007/12/my-icc-is-in-toilet.html

and suggested I fire my coach and hire a shrink. Let's just say for argument, I did that. Have you seen my blog lately? It's been 2 years since I finsihed the circles, I didn't burn out like some have. I have moved to studying entire games like you suggested. Most recently, I've been focusing on the historical aspects of the London 1851 event where Anderssen blew everyone away.

Anyway, thanks for the bad press. But as they say in "the biz" there's no such thing as bad press.

Tactics is only one aspect of our training. Unlike a cult, we don't force MDLM's seven circles of hell. We also offer alternative ideas, thought processes, opening analysis.

It's not so bad. We promise not to force feed anyone cool aid. You're welcome to come along... sooner or later we'll only ask you to sign all your proceeds over to Blunderprone in the name of Caissa.

Thanks for your insight. I tend to form my own opinions.

Anonymous said...

"People are also probably jealous of his success and popularity, chalking it up to the ignorance of the unwashed chess masses, their inability to critically evaluate his work, their tendency to swallow the latest chess fads."

After he says its not a cult he says stuff like 'why are they all so jealous of our super previous leader's awesomeness and his beautiful face'. it sounds like scientology. very sad.

Blue Devil Knight said...

anon: awww, how cute, trying to fuel the flames.

Yer a bit late for that.

Thanks for highlighting the nice turn of phrase that I constructed. I was also pretty fond of it.

wang said...

Wow, am I late to the party or what?

Anyway my $.02

JJ one of the reason that MDLM is such a "cult" hero is that he was once one of us. By us I mean a regular Joe who likes to play chess and he found a way of improving. We all like to play, we all find the game more enjoyable when we win.

Now as we started out (I'm speaking for a lot of people here) there is an endless sea of books, and now software geared to help you improve. What to buy, where to start? Dude it's daunting.

So this guy comes along and he has a plan and it worked for him. Keep in mind time is limited, I have 10-12 hours to devote to chess a week. If I play a couple of G60's on ICC that's 4 hours gone, give myself another two to annotate and that leaves me between 4-6 hours for actual no shit chess improvement. How should I spend those precious moments?

Oh and another thing, Chessloser would be estatic to be rated 1600, so a 2000 rating is probably looking pretty sweet to him. I know it sure does to me.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the reason MDLM is a cult exists is the hope that it gives adult players as they try to develop their game several decades after most other serious chess players have.

Without hope that I can improve why would I spent 2 hours a day playing and studying chess?

Maybe I will never reach 2000 but having seen that it is possible to make NM over 50, since Rolf Wetzell and Oscar Shapiro made master over this age, I am going to try.

Without some hope of improving I wouldn't bother thinking about it and play just for fun with my son.

Anonymous said...

My experience, fwiw. I was stuck around 1300 for over 20 years, worked both Reinfeld books (once thru, no time for circles) got to 1600 in about 18 months. This may be unimpressive to a master, but it sure meant a lot to my enjoyment of chess. Now if anyone can get me to 1800 I'd be ecstatic.

Anonymous said...

JJ here. A few key points, to illustrate where I was coming from when I wrote the earlier, over-the-top stuff (over-the-top because I grossly oversimplified and stereotyped the interests and philosophies of the mass of amateur chess bloggers) ... the kernels of truth, if you will, that got obscured by my failure to respect the individuals (mainly the bloggers I named):

1. I've always thought it's great that there are adults out there who make systematic efforts to improve their chess. This is the mission I am groping toward for my own late-in-life chess involvement - to find an audience of adults who aren't satisfied to be mere "fans" of chess, but want to actually compete. And most of all, to counter the media hype that chess is just a fun game for schoolkids (a stereotype promulgated not only by mainstream media, but even the chess media, including the soon-to-be-defunct Chess Life). So I'm thrilled to see all you guys working at it.

2. Therefore, I was saddened to learn that many people seemed to be getting hung up in what looked to me like an addiction that was taking precious time away from their serious chess improvement work, rather than contributing to it. We all know that online blitz chess can be addictive, don't we? From the look of what I saw on a number of blogs (such as people publishing detailed charts of their CTS solving statistics, or guiltily writing that they'd solved only 10,000 CTS problems last month, instead of the promised 15,000, or something along those lines), I got the same feeling about the puzzle circles. But I guess I grossly overstated and over-generalized the degree to which people in my target group (and amateur bloggers in particular) are getting carried away with their puzzle work or devotion to the MDLM circles.

3. Regarding de la Maza himself: Wang wrote, "JJ one of the reason that MDLM is such a "cult" hero is that he was once one of us. By us I mean a regular Joe who likes to play chess and he found a way of improving. ...So this guy comes along and he has a plan and it worked for him."

Here's what's wrong with that picture:

De La Maza's own USCF MSA record doesn't really fit that description. "One of us," would be an adult who'd already played in tournaments for years, perhaps scattered over a few decades, and had tried various standard methods of improvement, such as studying openings, endgames, working with a coach, etc. - all without success. In other words, a guy who might have risen from 1100 when he first started to whatever his eventual strength baseline was (say, 1500 or 1600 or 1800), then hit a wall and stayed there for years. Then he finds a new method he hadn't tried before, practices it, and Eureka!, he gains 500 more points.

That's not de la Maza. His first rated tournament was in 1999, and his last was in 2001. Now, you wouldn't say it's unusual for a kid to be rated 1100 after his first few events and rated 2000 two years later. Sure, it's unusual for adults, BUT - and this is critical - how many adults

a) Enter their first tournament while already adult?, and

b) Pursue a serious improvement program - ANY TYPE OF PROGRAM - from the time they enter their first tournament, and stick with it over two years?

I think the answer must be, "few to none."

So, the appropriate comparison for de la Maza's achievement isn't all you guys out there who had already established your baseline strength, your most representative rating level, over a period of time, that proved resistant to your previous attempts to improve it by other means.

Rather, the appropriate comparison is someone - at least 99% likely to be a kid - whose only previous experience consisted of playing against his dad (who is maybe 800 strength) and his classmate (ditto). He enters his first rated tournament, starts studying with or without a coach, devotes 10 or 20 or more hours each week to it, and two years later he's 2000. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.

That's what I meant when I said de la Maza's achievement wasn't evidence that his method can work. Common sense (in my opinion) says that any decent method could achieve similar results, if a newcomer to the game pursued it with the same energy that de la Maza evidently devoted to his own studies.

Jon Jacobs

Loomis said...

I hate to jump in to the middle of a good fight, but isn't this as simple as one size not fitting all?

I have seen various incarnations of "I am a GM/IM/FM and I never did such a study program, therefore it's not necessary" or "My GM/IM/FM friends/coach never did ..." or "The Russians never did (or didn't advocate) ..."

These are real observations and real results for these players. It's true, many of the best players have an ability to see, understand, recognize, recall, grasp, etc. the tactical relationships between the chess pieces with very little exposure to the tactical elements. I would call this "chess talent".

It's people with chess talent that tend to ridicule the DLM type study programs. These people are lucky enough to view chess as a beautiful strategic game essentially played on top of a natural and obvious tactical background. They deem hours and days and weeks of tactical drilling as a lowly form of the game.

But what do people who love the game but don't have the talent do? They have to find some way to approximate chess talent. Don't get me wrong, I don't think you are necessarily born with our without chess talent, but if you don't have it by the time you are an "adult", then unless you're some kind of savant, you can forget about it.

The DLM-like repetition of tactical puzzles is one of the non-talented players ways of trying to fake chess talent. It's a necessary evil for those of us that lack a talent for the game. Without out it, our games are reduced to drivel. With it, we can on rare occasions play sequences of chess beauty.

In short, when I hear a talented chess player essentially say "hey, patzers, quit the tactical training and just be talented like me" I want to flip them the bird and tell them to "buzz" off.

Temposchlucker said...

The things JJ brings up in his last comment are quite to the point.

I could have said it myself. I said it myself, as a matter of fact, if you read my blog over the past few years.

I, as a Knight Errant, plea quilty of spilling my time with unfruitfull methods. Doing 100k+ exercises of which 70.000 at CTS. Most of the time I was well aware that my efforts would lead to nothing, ratingwise. My main goal was to put all popular methods to the test and to prune away those that did not work. Thus erecting a monument for posterity which will help them to save their time.

I enjoyed the process of elimination, the problemsolving and the blogging. I learned a lot about the human mind and the way to (not) improve to mastership in any area.

And who knows, when every dead branch is pruned away, maybe a viable method to improve remains. I still have hopes.

Once a method is found, the prelimanary work is over and the study can start:)

Blue Devil Knight said...

I think Loomis has hit it on the head, painful as it is to admit I am trying to get some fake talent. When I started, I absolutely sucked at tactics. Now I still suck, but not absolutely.

Thanks to Tempo for experimenting on himself and sharing the results. I've learned a lot from his tribulations.

As to Jon's proposal I noted above, to simply play and analyze a ton of games. There has surely got to be something to this. But what about those of us that simply suck, suck suck at tactics? Playing and analyzing games is good, but what is the best way to analyze games specifically to help oneself with tactics?

If only there were a program to find all my tactical blunders in real games (surely there are at least a thousand), turn them into puzzles. Solving those would be much more useful than solving the problems in the available software, which of course must include the 'classic' combinations that were brilliant but are very unlikely to come up in practice.

Anonymous said...

JJ here again. A couple of posters asked what I think would work better than tactics drills.

Well, I can offer two methods that should achieve results for adults. The first is entirely conventional, therefore will strike many as boring and disappointing (not to mention it can be laborious and expensive).

The second is my own creation, which represents largely uncharted ground. I plan to plow and plant that ground with several books and other projects over time - if, that is, I ever manage to break free of my responsibilities to earn a living (which looks doubtful).

1. Add to your chess knowledge, in one or more major areas of your choice. Endgames, middlegames, openings, you name it.

"Knowledge" means principles and strategy in action - as opposed to drilling on narrow motifs and themes (but see exception later within this point, regarding technical endgames). Study can take any number of forms: analyze your own games thoroughly, with a coach if possible (NOT AN ENGINE - with very limited exceptions, you won't ever add to your knowledge by "analyzing" with an engine); read classic books and authors, from Capablanca to Watson; go over contemporary master games accompanied by good notes (probably a good rule of thumb is if you can understand more than half the notes, then the annotation isn't over your head); learn the ideas behind one or two openings thoroughly; study and drill on technical endgames (rook and pawn endings are by far the most common); etc.

As I said in several prior posts on this thread, the vast majority of recognized chess authorities / teachers / authors (who tend to be "talented," i.e., GMs or IMs) favor such a "knowledge-based" approach. One particularly rigorous advocate with a strong teaching track record both within and beyond chess is Brooklyn College computer professor, IM Dr. Danny Kopec - a personal friend who I just got off the phone with. His 1997 book, "Test, Evaluate and Improve Your Chess," actually has the phrase, "A Knowledge-Based Approach," as the second part of its title.

As I said at the outset, these methods not only don't constitute a shortcut to "rapid" improvement, they also have little or no novelty value at this stage. So most Internet fanciers and anyone else on a quest to find something-for-nothing, will probably just pass it by in favor whatever fad comes down the pike tomorrow.

2. Instead of laboring to grow your store of chess knowledge, turn inward and seek ways to better utilize the knowledge you already have. This method represents my unique contribution, which as I said, I hope to fully develop some day if my personal situation permits.

If you're a club-level player (say, 1400 to 2000 USCF), what is the common reason you've identified for your poor performances? Did your opponent overwhelm you with brilliant play? Did you reach a position you simply had no idea how to handle?

Or, do you often find yourself saying in post-mortem things like this:

"I knew I should have activated my rook. Why didn't I do it?"

Or: "I just couldn't resist advancing my g-pawn to try and drum up a k-side attack, even though I know it would weaken my own king position."

Or: "I know the key to winning this kind of pawn ending is to divert his king using my outside passed pawn. So I don't know why I pushed my pawns on the other side instead."

As you've probably guessed, I think these latter sorts of reasons account for most club players' mishaps, much of the time. And it's clear that what they lack isn't chess knowledge, but the proper mental and emotional focus, or attitude, while concentrating at the board, that is needed to fully access the knowledge they already possess.

So, the approach I'm recommending would target that factor - do things aimed at maximizing one's focus on the game and positions at hand, so that your present chess knowledge won't desert you when you most need it.

My above diagnosis (and hence the approach I recommend) is only valid above a certain "floor" of strength. The exact strength level is uncertain, I'd estimate it's somewhere around 1600.

In other words, a 1000, 1200 or maybe even a 1400 player, probably has enough gaps in their chess knowledge base that they'd get the most bang for the buck if they focused on acquiring more knowledge (presumably, in whichever aspect of the game they feel they're weakest)….in other words, followed the conventional approach …or maybe even followed the de la Maza puzzle-drilling approach.

Above 1600, though, I've noticed that most players already have a pretty good grasp of the principles and skills they need to perform at a higher level. Above 1800, that's even more true. So I'd say anywhere from 1600 to 2300 or thereabouts, most players would get more "mileage" from striving to understand and control their own state of mind (and emotions – especially emotions) while engaged in competitive play – rather than pursuing any kind of chess study program per se.

This is the long version of what I meant when I coined my soon-to-be-famous slogan: "Fire your coach…Hire a shrink!" I believe that slogan formed the nub of the post I made some months ago on Blunderprone's blog … the same one that another amateur blogger called the best post he'd ever seen.

Just to be clear: I'm not saying coaching is useless, nor do I advise everyone to literally fire their coach. The ideal would be to study with BOTH a coach (to drive your on-the-board understanding to new heights) AND a shrink or equivalent - which could be yourself acting as your own shrink (to raise your awareness and comprehension of off-the-board factors that I believe exert a decisive influence on the quality of most amateur's play over the course of each game).

However, given the limited time and resources available to most adult players (and to many youth players as well), most of us have to make a choice how we will allocate our chess time and energy. And I'm saying, for people within that 1600-2300 "sweet spot" I mentioned, it would be more efficient to concentrate on improving the subjective factors (personal psychology at the board) than the objective ones (chess knowledge level).

Jon Jacobs

Blue Devil Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue Devil Knight said...

Interesting suggestions Jon.

I certainly have come to realize, contrary to what I thought when I was a beginner and picked up de la Maza's book at the bookstore, that there is no quick fix in chess improvement, except perhaps for beginners who can easily win with tactics, so it is relatively easy to go from zero to 1400 by focusing on nothing else (at least at ICC, which probably means about 1200 USCF).

Jon suggests:
"Study can take any number of forms: analyze your own games thoroughly, with a coach if possible (NOT AN ENGINE - with very limited exceptions, you won't ever add to your knowledge by "analyzing" with an engine); read classic books and authors, from Capablanca to Watson"

I am surprised by the strong view against an engine. Certainly a human advisor/coach is ideal, but engines play as well as GMs, so at the very least they'll show you mistakes, suggest a set of good moves, and then it is up to you to figure out why they are evaluated as they are. If it isn't obvious to me, I try not to spend a lot of time trying to figure out why Fritz said what he did. But it seems better than nothing, and better than auto-analysis alone.

Of course, a coach is best, and I have pissed off more than a few people in the blogosphere by stressing this perhaps a bit too strongly (example here of me being annoying). But I stand by it nonetheless.

Jon, what books would you recommend that stand out as the 'cream of the crop' for the type of thing you're talking about? (Please don't say Chernev's 'Logical Chess', I just am not a big fan of that book :)).

My problem with a lot of these books is that they are so focused on strategy. They are typically games between strong GMs, so you never get a chance to see tactics in action, other than perhaps some sidelines which are used to justify why the player didn't play what he did. The games between strong GMs are just not representative of the messy, strategically and tactically uneven games that the patzer is bound to play and see his opponent play. I'm just not sure that studying positional grinds between GMs is the best thing for a patzer. I guess one exception might be Euwe's 'Master vs Amateur'. Are there any others that come to anyone's mind?

My present plan is to work through annotated game collections, one collection for each World Champion (well, starting with Morphy, using Frisco del Rosario's book). Do you think that is a good idea, or will there be too much noise in the signal and perhaps I should pick just a couple of annotated collections that sample from all of history?

On Jon's second point, I am below the 1600 floor, but have definitely seen what he is talking about. Indeed, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about thinking in chess, as I think it is crucial. My take is a little less psychological, more geared toward the vanilla topic of 'thought process' in chess, but it sounds quite familiar.

For example, here's an excerpt from my monster manuscript on thought process in chess, which draws from tons of sources:
"Like all chess thought processes, it aims to increase the likelihood that the knowledge you already have will be put to use in games. Every beginner, for instance, knows that they shouldn't leave their queen en prise, but we have all left her hanging, appalled at our sloppiness. Diligent application of a thought process will drastically reduce, if not eliminate, such blunders."

Perhaps once someone is settled in at that rough floor (and I have indeed noticed a strong resistance in players above 1600 to even discuss thought process in chess, to dismiss it as unhelpful for them), perhaps they need to shift their psychological emphasis away from standard thought process issues, toward the kind of things Jon highlights. Frankly, I'm a bit skeptical of this psychotherapeutic approach, but I am not at that level and don't know what you guys go through.

However, thinking better, with the goal to do it on every move, has certainly helped my game score, in addition to simply helping me appreciate chess more at an aesthetic and even a philosophical level.

Anonymous said...

BDK, for now I'll limit myself to answering your query about the best books at your stage.

Since I've never taught chess to students, I'm not well-read.

I notice you mentioned Euwe & Meiden's Chess Master vs Chess Amateur. I found the sequel, The Road to Chess Mastery, hugely useful. (I re-read it a couple of years ago, and am thinking about approaching publishers about re-issuing an updated version that would correct the many analysis errors I found in it when checking with an engine. But most of those errors matter little, because they don't undermine the basic points. Previously undiscovered errors are cropping up in everything from the pre-computer era, including World Championship games and their published post-mortems.)

So give The Road to Chess Mastery a try, although it might be a little above your strength level (or not). (Actually it's probably best to work with books that are A LITTLE above one's strength level.) There is also another sequel, called Chess Master vs Chess Master.

Among the other old-timers, Reinfeld had some good stuff, and probably some not-so-good stuff within his vast trove of writings.

You might be interested to know that the first two chess books I ever read were Chess Strategy & Tactics, by Reinfeld and Chernev, and The Art of the Checkmate, by Renaud and Kahn. I strongly recommend both books.

That last title, The Art of the Checkmate, should make all you puzzle buffs salivate, because it's devoted to a limited number of recurring (checkmate) patterns and how to recognize them. In fact after re-reading it about 25 years ago - some 15 years after I'd read it the first time - I became convinced I'd missed dozens of mating opportunities in my recent play that I would have seen if I'd remembered the patterns in that book.

Among present-day writers, Alburt's recent work is probably very useful for average players. I got great value from Pirc Alert by Alburt & Chernin. It's an opening book, but one focused primarily on ideas, rather than variations and analysis. Even though I'm around 2300, Pirc Alert definitely is written to be accessible to average club-level players too. Since it was published in 2004 or so, Alburt and various co-authors have come out with 2 or 3 or 4 other similarly inspired books. Yes their subject is openings. I know that studying openings is disparaged for weaker players, but look at it this way - the opening is the only stage of the game you can NEVER avoid (i.e. my games and Liz's rarely reach the endgame, and one can lose - or hopefully win - before even getting to the middlegame...but you always have to play an opening, SOME opening). And as I said, these books focus heavily on ideas, which unlike long-winded theoretical variations, ARE highly useful for weaker players.

Finally, my favorite writer for the amateur by far is Jeremy Silman. I think you're already familiar with him. I don't have any of his books, but am familiar mainly from reading several Chess Life columns he wrote in the '80s and '90s. One series of columns became The Amateur's Mind. I can't say enough good things about Silman. He really teaches how to think - and offers lots of practical, intelligent advice about managing emotions, too.

Jon Jacobs

Anonymous said...

JJ, how do you feel about Polgar's 450 mating problems from his CHESS: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games as a substitute for the checkmate book you mention?

Anonymous said...

Forget what i asked. I should have checked out the difference first. Polgar's problems are just problems without any explanations, right?

WOW! This must be the most commented on post ever.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I know of the Polgar book, but have never looked at it.

As I said, I'm not well-read in chess, so for book recommendations, you'd all do better to ask a regular teacher or coach. Like Dan Heisman...or (duh!) Liz Vicary.

Amusing side note: A few years ago, while filing decades-old handwritten records I'd kept of every tournament I'd played as a teenager, I came across a line that said I had played a rated game against one R. Wetzell. At the time, he was rated in the 1600s.

Jon Jacobs

Anonymous said...

Excellent, post #59.

I deleted my own comment before posting, just fanning the flames for no reason.

BDK is the man among bloggers and I'm sorry to see him go.


Temposchlucker said...

Well JJ, if you are going to write a book you can learn something from MDLM:
Don't extrapolate what works fine for you to other people and if you think that something is logical put it to the test first. Otherwise you will produce the same kind of crappy book as he did.

Anonymous said...

So I am a little confused as to why J.J. stirred up this little fracas to begin with. By his own words he is neither "well read" in chess, nor has he taught.

It seems to me he just wanted to get a little mudslinging going....

I still stick by my earlier post that there is no real "correct" way to improve one's self. There is only the best way for that person. We all still need to learn some tactics, deal with strategy, eventually obtain an opening repertoire, and study some endgames (which I LOVE!!). We are all in different situations and different levels so it seems like arguing about methods is counter productive. We should be sharing method....

Right now I am not so into analyzing my games with an engine but that is only because I am so new to it. The various variations (HA), make my head spin a little at this point. But when the time is right I will do some analysis with my current chess engine.


Anonymous said...

Oh yeah! I forgot to answer one of BDK's questions about books. Dan Heisman wrote to me in an email that he thinks people should study chess players in a somewhat chronological order, since the games of yesteryear were more tactical and clearer. He also says this same thing in one of his Chesscafe articles.

He suggested studying the games of Morphy and Marshall first before getting into some of the more positional players. I went through a book on Morphy and I have to admit it helped me see some and understand some of the tactics I have been practicing.


BlunderProne said...

And now for some much needed brevity:


( about the "cult" of the knights errant)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Funny that J.J. mentions Silman. It seems that there's no figure in the chess world more polarizing, and that's saying a lot about a world that seems to love nothing more than polarizing itself. Some folks consider him the mid-level chess player's Moses; others, a hopeless, self-aggrandizing hack dispensing bad advice by the kilo. Myself, I've tried to get through How to Reassess Your Chess about seven times now and always hit a wall shortly after the chapter on bishops and knights, but I don't know whether that says more about him or about me.

Anonymous said...

This is pathetic. You guys are all nerds.

likesforests said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue Devil Knight said...

Thanks Tommyg for the advice.

As far as good players who are not well read, that is very common. My coach (IM) offered nothing useful in the way of suggestions for books to read. Some dinosaur Reinfeld stuff that he read when he was coming up, but it was simply obvious he wasn't a big chess book reader. Yet, he's an IM. There's a lesson there, perhaps, one being that he learned and grasped the game when he was quite young.

Sort of like first versus second language. I don't need books on English to speak it well, much better than my Japanese friend who probably has more book knowledge than I do about English, but I'm still way higher rated than him in the language.

likesforests said...

We're a group of people who study chess because we love the game and want to become better players. There's no "Great Leader" and we're not encouraged to cut ourselves off from family and friends. I will continue to solve 50 tactics/week between studying games in NIC and endgames. Perhaps it's the fastest path to success... perhaps not, bu it's my path. Have a nice day!

Anonymous said...

I am in full agreement with Tommyg’s remark (from his 3:37 post), “there is no real ‘correct’ way to improve one's self. There is only the best way for that person. We all still need to learn some tactics, deal with strategy, eventually obtain an opening repertoire, and study some endgames…”

As is plainly evident throughout every comment I’ve posted here, I believe in a wide variety of approaches to improvement, and that was the root of my complaint against de la Maza (I felt he was touting a “one-size-fits-all” mode of study). What I called the “conventional” approach actually comprises a multitude of approaches and subject matter, as I made explicit earlier.

A few other thoughts, in response to some of the latest posts:

Since neither chess nor teaching nor learning is a hard science, I don’t feel it’s necessary to perform tests and collect concrete data before publishing a new idea about how to teach or learn chess. Unless of course you’re going to make extravagant claims about the benefits that will flow to everyone who follows your recommended method. That hype, more than the content of his method, is what makes de la Maza’s book “crappy,” as Temposchlucker put it.

It also should be clear from my earlier description of the improvement method I’m developing, that I don’t plan on making a simple extrapolation from what works for me to what will work for other people. In fact, when I went from 1100 to 2000 in 18 months (from age 14 through 16), my primary mode of study was memorizing fashionable opening lines in depth. Since teaching authorities today agree that is probably the false road that both club players and coaches go down more often than any other, I’ve never been tempted to generalize from my early experience to push that approach on others. (However, I do feel that I derived benefit from my early opening studies for years afterward: I continued to gain strength during college and beyond, even after I’d stopped studying. And, the opening is strongest part of my game even today, although I haven’t kept up with theory and now always avoid fashionable lines.)

For better or worse, people consult strong players for advice about how to get better at chess – including what to read and how to study. In contrast, when a school or business wants to hire someone to teach chess as an employee or contractor, the nod generally goes to previous teaching experience (even non-chess teaching) over chess strength. But with one-to-one interaction, whether virtual or face-to-face, people often ask strong players for advice. Someone here asked me to recommend some chess reading, and I responded and gave what I thought was a useful caveat; that’s all.

On other forums (principally Mig Greengard’s Daily Dirt), I’ve seen people decry the fact that, when it comes to paychecks, good teachers (and good self-marketers) get more respect than good players, from those who control the purse-strings. I don’t doubt that’s what happens, but I feel like it’s just the natural state of things: we live in a market-oriented society, so if you want to get paid, you must be prepared to compete for the job. Which of course means if you want to get paid to teach chess, you’ve got to convince prospective customers you can teach well (not just that you have some chess knowledge). About two years ago I engaged in a hilarious flame-war on Daily Dirt with a welfare-recipient-minded grandmaster who stated flat-out that anyone not a GM who takes any money for anything chess-related – whether writing, teaching, or (of course!) prize money – is literally stealing money from both the GM community and their own customers. (If anyone’s interested a few good yuks at a GM’s expense – not to mention a bit of rather convincing anecdotal evidence that chess strength doesn’t correlate with IQ -- I’ll track down the link.)

Jon Jacobs

Anonymous said...

Thanks E, for inspiring the discussion its been both very entertaining and informative (especially if you include many of links found in the bloggs. when first me read your post I never would have guessed that there would be so much to say about such an obvious topic as tactics...or that I'd read them all.

davy do

Anonymous said...

I am a weak player (sub 1800 how sub I'm hiding out of shame) so I have no clue what it takes to be a strong player. But I do have a little insight into this discussion about tactics heavy training versus a more rounded training (e.g. endgames, middlegame planning, etc.) I would suggest that like many debates there are kernels of truth at both extremes. Consider these points:
1. Among low rated and beginning players, the games are usually lost by a blunder or tactical oversight and not won by a superior opposing strategic plan.
2. Just by being a bit more tactically alert the typical patzer (me) will win more games among his/her contemporaries (other patzers)
So if you have a beginning player who is sub sub 1800 and who just "wants to play better" the quickest and easiest thing to do is to study tactical traps and motifs - especially common things like unguarded back rack, removing the guard, mis-counting, basic forks and basic pins.
But at some point if that person wants to continue to improve she or he will end up playing players who don't make obvious blunders and who don't succumb easily to these simple tactics. This is the time where an all round level of training will become important. Then, understanding pawn structure, outpost, good and bad bishops, endgames etc. start to become really important.

To use an analogy, I once played junior tennis. At the lower levels, some of the parents and kids were obsessed with winning and developed styles of play which helped them win a lot of matches against other juniors - kept the ball in play, play for errors by their opponent, usually emphasized a topspin based ground game. But as they advance they start meeting better players and to win points one needed to have a more all round game - net play, chips and slices, changes in pace, etc.

So I would suggest that for beginners and patzers (like me) studying tactics helps but when they start playing people who are not blunder/error/tactical oversight prone having a more rounded knowledge of chess will become important.

Great blog by the way!

patzer from midwest

katar said...

I have always thought that the process of identifying and fixing a weakness is the key to "rapid improvement" in any discipline. Early in his career, Michael Jordan had an unreliable jumpshot. Opponents guarded him loose to stop his drive. So, the legend goes, he spent hours daily developing a jumpshot. Suddenly, he was unguardable. Guard him close and he drives; guard him loose and he drains the j. Seems to me that the demigod Maza did the same thing. Being tactically weak, but otherwise sound after studying the non-tactical elements of chess for years, he focused on tactics and nothing else for a year.

The key is not the particular solution-- which is not necessarily universalizable. The key is the PROCESS of arriving at a particular solution-- which IS universalizable.

Anonymous said...

I said it once and I say it again, as so many here are obviously ignorant to the fact that MDLM didn't get good just with studying tactics.
He has read all books by Pandolfini, Silman, Kotov and a lot more ; 41 books are listed in his own book; books on opening and endgame are not included, but one can definitely assume that MDLM consumed opening books as well.

So forget about this "tactics only" approach.
At least MDLM didn't do that.

Anonymous said...

Don't think a single person here has or is advocating a "tactics only approach." Might want to get another gander. Just a suggestion.

Davy Do

Bill Brock said...

Slightly OT.

An NM who'd studied with Kaidanov shared one of K's methods with me.

Identify the critical position(s) in your last ten losses.

Look for the similarities in your fatal errors (they will be there!).

Now you know what to study....

In my experience, you'll often find not just that you've been making stupid moves, but *very specific types* of stupid moves. (E.g., I was castling Queenside in Sicilians far too often; more recently, I've been sacking the Exchange far too freely.)

Anonymous said...

Without even making a serious study, I'll venture that two of mine are:

1) Choking in the clutch, especially in time pressure - even if my opponent's time pressure is worse than mine. (This most often occurs when I have a superior, or even winning, position. It seems to explain more than half of all my losses. However, the particular moves by which I blow it seem to run the entire spectrum of strategic and tactical error types... So, this particular "common" thread among my losses doesn't satisfy Bill's criterion of defining very specific types of stupid moves.)

2) Failing to take simple prophyllactic measures in endgames (such as, neglecting to advance a pawn to insure it won't become backward).

Jon Jacobs

Polly said...

I think Jon is on to something regarding the mental aspect of the one's game. Many of my losses come down to losing focus at a critical point of the game. Some of the focus loss can be from time pressure, but other times it's due to some random thought that crosses my mind that takes me away from what I'm studying on the board. I too can't always pin my losses down to some tactical or strategical oversight.

Anonymous said...

My last ten losses:

(1) Overlooked a simple tactic.
(2) Forgot about en passant.
(3) Didn't press my clock, lost on time.
(4) Something called Fool's Mate.
(5) Offered a draw by tipping over king.
(6) Tried to play the Ruy, but bishop went to a6.
(7) Sacrificed my queen to get the bishop pair.
(8) Castled into two open files.
(9) Bartender watered down my drink.
(10) Distracted by voices in my head.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: LOL!

Other anon, who says MDLM did other things than tactics: yes we've all agreed things other than tactics are important, and that MLDM overstates the importance of tactics as a universal acid. Though I know one blogger who disagrees, he's the exception (Tacticus Maximus). I think he defines tactics so broadly as to include what most people would call strategic elements.

Blue Devil Knight said...

From a recent book review at chesscafe:
"It has been some years now since Michael de la Maza made a splash with his book Rapid Chess Improvement wherein he articulated the generally-accepted method for mastering – or at least improving – chess tactics."

The author then goes on to discuss how this is the traditional method, and then reviews a book that is a little different from the mainstream.

This is just beating a dead horse, showing that people repeating tactical problems to improve at tactics aren't outside the mainstream of what expert chess instructors recommend (to the extent that there is a mainstream).
At the very least, it isn't a particularly new or controversial idea. Daddy Polgar drilled his kids daily on puzzles, and look what happened to them :)

Note I'm not claiming the author of that review is an expert. He's just a 1600-ish player that talks to people about chess improvement.

Anonymous said...

Even though I am the new kid on the block...I have to say that my losses (and as of right now they are piling up like crazy-I am 0-5 on the I.C.C.), have all been because of tactical errors! Now the interesting thing is that these tactical errors seem to be caused by three things:

1) Just pure tactical weaknesses: For me it is still those pesky long bishops!!

2) Positional weakness that led to me being tactically impotent

3) A faulty or hasty thought process that just didn't look at the board closely enough.

What does this all mean? I must admit I have no idea. But it has been incredibly instructive to go over my games and realize all this.

Now I am off to listen to the Beach Boys "Pet Sounds"...I am not studying or playing chess tonite!


Anonymous said...

Here's a quick list of things that can make you blunder and lose. FYI, I plan to make these the titles for the first five chapters in my book.

I'm not kidding. Each "rule" below stems from an actual, tournament game I was personally involved in - and I have publishable scores to prove each incident actually happened!

5 Things to Never Do During a Chess Game:

1. Make a date
2. Run TOWARD the sound of gunfire
3. Fight with a psychopath
4. Fight with a bodybuilder
5. Send your girlfriend down an alley in a bad neighborhood

-Jon Jacobs

Blue Devil Knight said...

Jon: 2-5 sound particularly inauspicious! :)

Anonymous said...

Well, BDK, I actually won the games referred to by #3 and #4, from utterly hopeless positions, even though I was the one who got into the fights. That's because the hubbub distracted my respective opponents more than me. (The first opponent was an A-player. The second opponent - 35 years later! - was very strong: Robert Hess.)

Still, as a general principle, I'd say that getting into a public confrontation with someone capable of breaking you in half is more likely to hurt than help your chess game. (If only because it will be hard to move pieces if both your arms get broken.)

Anonymous said...

Not to resurrect this thread .. but
- The vehemence exhibited towards MDLM by the chess teaching establishment tells me that he is on to something important!
- His book was directed at ADULT players who had stagnated, and his methods were directed at helping that audience.
- His analysis of the difference between GM tactical awareness and that of class players was the best insight in the book.
- His only promise is that an adult class player can get to expert, by developing a laser focused tactical eye. And that is true.
- His exact method may work for some, and not for others. But with enough introspection, some intent on improving can customize their own exercises to get the same result.

Ed Scimia said...

"The vehemence exhibited towards MDLM by the chess teaching establishment tells me that he is on to something important!"

How long until we get a book titled "Kevin Trudeau's Chess Secrets THEY Don't Want You to Know About?"

Robinson said...

I've got to say that it is obvious that a lot of the criticism of MDLM's book has come from people who have never really read it. It's been a long time since I read the book, but I don't think I'm going to far off in saying that DLM's points are something like this: 1) DLM himself notes that he had read a lot of chess books before he ever came up with his study plan, so the basic ideas of good positional chess were not totally a mystery to him, but his chess skill/results were stagnant and he lost most of his games due to tactical shots.2) Tactical competency is necessary to play 'good' chess. 3) Tactical competency is the biggest thing missing in games between players rated under (let's say about) 1800, so the greatest improvement can come by becoming more tactically proficient. 4) Tactical competency can come or be improved by doing tactical exercises. I'm not sure which of those points people are arguing against.

Also, it is important to note that DLM gives a move decision routine to use during play. This is probably, besides tactical competency, one of the biggest helps that an average/mediocre club player needs.

I know people have become obsessed with the DLM plan, and the whole idea has gained quite an obsessive following, but I think, to dismiss the points that DLM tries to make based on that or on some misreading of the book, is a mistake. Dismissing the plan as "a fraud" is unfair. Anyone that is tactically incompetent, that then follows the plan in the book, is probably going see their rating jump a couple of classes. It's been a while since I've read the book, but I'm pretty sure the appendix includes examples of other players following the plan and seeing ratings jumps. So, to say that DLM is "just one data point" only goes to show that the critic hasn't read the book, at least not closely, or is flat out saying that the content is fabricated, which if that is the accusation, should be simply stated.

If someone has read a number of chess books, played quite a bit or serious chess, and still not seen their rating improve above, let's say, 1500, then I don't think suggesting a determined, organized study of tactics constitutes "a fraud" or even bad advice.

Having said that, I think the book is lacking. The plan would have made a nice chapter or two in a good book on chess improvement. Basically, the majority of the book just sets forth this plan for studying tactics -- and that's all well and good -- or gives evidence to support the idea of the plan. But I think most people in the 1200-1800s would get a lot further reading and studying practically any book on tactics, such as Pafnutieff's "How to Create Combinations" or Hertan's "Forcing Chess Moves" and working through the exercises in them and trying to understand the function(s) of the pieces in the position or the geometry that makes a combination possible.

The person who makes the comment above, critical about the vague use of the term "pattern recognition" makes a good point. How is it that there are chess prodigies, who were inexperienced, and probably didn't have much exposure to a library of chess combinations, were able to create combinations? I believe that stronger players recognize and understand the functions of the pieces within a given position -- overworked, unprotected, distractable pieces -- and are able to create combinations "from scratch." Some make this jump in thinking very early, some after studying thousands of positions. The pieces are like cogs in a machine and strong tacticians are able to see how they all mesh, or don't. I think this is what Pafneutieff was trying to get at in his book, and I wish more masters would make an attempt to address this idea.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Excellent points, Robinson.

Anonymous said...

I will be nominating this for the "Best posts EVAH on other blogs" category in the January 2012 Chess Carnival.


Robert Pearson said...

Yes, this had come to mind for me as well. :)

Anonymous said...

I did tons of tactical training as a kid and was probably the main reason for my abilities as a young player. If you cannot solve those tactics really quickly, then you can't be good.....and you need to figure out how to be able to do it ASAP. It's more important than anything else there is IMO.

The reason these good players don't recommend that stuff is because these tactics are all second nature and obvious to them, so they fail to realize that the people who can't do them very quickly, have absolutely no chance to become great until they learn how to.

Greg Shahade