Sunday, June 15, 2008

What's Up with the Watson-Hating?

I've been reading these two books, Attacking Manual 1 by Jacob Aagaard, and True Lies in Chess by Lluis Comas Fabrego, both from Quality Press (overall a great publisher). They are both interesting and rich with ideas, but I'm struck by the recurrant cheap shots both take at John Watson. I should say up front that I'm a HUGE fan of Watson-- I find his books instructive, philosophical, and extremely enjoyable to read. I think his Secrets of Chess Strategy is a very important book in the history of chess thought. However, even if I thought he was a hack, I would still be taken aback by the treatment he's getting here.

Let's take a look:
Attacking Manual 1, Preface, p. 21:

"I remember when I read John Watson's Secrets of Chess Strategy back in 2000 that I was unconvinced about his idea of "rule-independance" where he was claiming that the strongest players were relying less and less on rules and more and more on calculation. I had a problem with this notion for several reasons.

One is that Watson is American and that the strongest players in the US do not have the kind of chess culture players in Eastern Europe (and even some in Western Europe) have. If your training consists solely of opening analysis and tactical exercises and is not based on a chess education, it is an understandable point of view to have. However, the East Europeans who have thought a lot about rules (just go through Watson's hero Mark Dvoretsky's books on positional play) are much better. At one point there were no autodidact American's (sic) on the US National team."

Where to start? OK, I am absolutely the last person to express pro-American opinions, but you can't attack someone's thoughts because of their nationality. It's a well-known logical fallacy (ad hominem) to attack an argument because of the person making it rather than the ideas themselves, but attacking an argument because of the author's country of origin? It's incomprehensible to me that Aagaard seriously tries to do this.

Secondly, Aagaard uses Dvoretsky as an example of why Watson is wrong, yet calls Dvoretsky Watson's hero sarcastically. That doesn't make any sense, right?

Thirdly, (and this might seem bitchy of me, but I'm an English teacher) if you are going to be high-brow enough to casually use the word autodidact (meaning self-taught person), then I think you should know the difference between a plural and a possessive. It's also not clear to me which US National team Aagaard refers to-- certainly not one in recent memory. And again, let's say this was true in 1985. Let's say they were also all tobacco-chewing second cousins with three arms who had never seen a chess book in their lives. What does that have to do with Watson's ideas?

The second thing I am struck by is the comparative discussion in both books about inaccuracies in the annotations of classic games.

Aagaard (p 21):

"Later in his writings, Watson included strategic decisions in his definition of calculation and it seemed to limit rules to be something uttered by Tarrasch and Lasker a hundred years ago. Understood in this way, meaning that the top players think for themselves at all times and are not bound by dogmas, it is impossible to disagree with Watson, though I would question the assumption that would then be inherent in this interpretation: that Capablanca, Lasker, and Tarrasch were excessively dogmatic in their play. I choose to believe that they simply annotated their games with a weak audience in mind and therefore explained their thoughts in a simplistic way at times, bowing to the expectations of the public."

So, first of all, the assumption that Tarrasch, Capa etc were dogmatic is absolutely not inherent in "this interpretation" (which is arguably not even a completely fair summary of what Watson says). It would be like saying Watson and Crick (sorry, of course a different Watson: he and Crick discovered that DNA was structured as a double helix) were dogmatic for not mapping the human genome. It's not dogmatism or inflexible thinking not to be ahead of your time. It's just normal.
Secondly, you can't criticize Watson for "limiting the rules to be something uttered ...a hundred years ago" when his book is sub-titled "Advances Since Nimzowitsch."
But Aagaard's point about annotating for weak audiences is fair enough and I agree.

But then Comas Fabrego begins chapter one with the words:

"In the games that appear in the classic manuals the analysis is usually too one-sided. History is always written by the winners and often their research lacks objectivity. Later treatises blindly copy these 'exemplary games' thus reinforcing the transmission of the inaccurate, sometimes utterly false, knowledge they try to show." But he's pissed off about this-- in the introduction he claims his own chess education was slowed by the "lies and mistakes" of annotations, and he blames "authors' lack of chess strength, scant ability to pass on their knowledge, superficial analysis, etc." as well as their "lack of honesty." Is he really calling Watson (who he names repeatedly as one of these problematic authors) a liar? That seems quite ridiculous, especially since in the game that follows, Comas Fabrego agrees more often than not with Watson's annotations.

Now these are two completely different authors, but given that Aagaard runs, or co-runs Quality Press, it seems strange that the two books that appear almost simultaneously express such contradictory opinions. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised: Aagaard is writing a book about the rules of attacking play, while Comas Fabrego is writing about the dangers of overly general applications of rules and the importance of rigorously accurate analysis. But I'm quite sure it's strange that they use these seemingly opposed viewpoints to attack Watson.

While I'm complaining, let me quote one more bizarro piece of reasoning from Comas Fabrego on a Geller annotation:

"Regarding the assertion that after a2-a3 the c5-knight feels at home, it reminds me of the classic and somewhat naive saying 'When a piece is badly placed the whole position is bad' only I would feel like phrasing it 'When a piece is well-placed, the whole position is good.' Obviously this is a somewhat limited statement" (p 21).

Slow down there, Nelly: you can't do that. The inverse of a statement is not implicitly true. (In other words, if a--> b, you can assume the contrapositive, ~b-->~a, but you cannot assume either the inverse (as is being done here) ~a --> ~b, or the converse, b--> a.) So he's correct to say this statement is somewhat limited, but that's because its truth value is totally unrelated to that of the original rule. Furthermore, Geller never comes anywhere close to saying "The well-placed nature of this knight alone is enough to make black's position good."

I like both books and have learned things from each. True Lies is a little dense and difficult for my taste: I think I have an above-average work ethic when it comes to reading chess books, but this one kicked my ass. It's the kind of book I imagine Ray Robson reading. However, I really like his in-depth discussion of specific positions and his comparison of different authors' explanations of how to understand them. I also appreciate his summary of key points at the end of several games, although I found it more useful to read these before I began looking at the game.
Aagaard's book is much more enjoyable and reader-friendly. I love that he previews key positions at the beginning of each chapter and asks the reader to analyze them. I appreciate that he tries to limit the variations and explain ideas in words. I do notice that he sometimes cheats, explanation-wise-- giving absurdly computerish lines in a book that endeavors to explain how humans can use principles and intuition to guide us. (p. 29, top of the second column, for example)
It's a shame that I will remember both books primarily for their unprofessional and logically questionable attacks on John Watson.


Naisortep said...

Aagaard and Watson started this debate around 2000. Aagaard took issue with Watson's belief that Chess is rule independent in Excelling at Positional Chess and Watson replied here

Its funny that the two of them discuss this debate as if it is a new one. Its been around throughout chess history. One school of players games would demonstrate the power of 'rules' the others would demonstrate the power of 'exceptions to rules' Steinitz(rules) and Tchigorin(exceptions);Capablanca(Rules) and Alekhine(exceptions), Botvinnik (rules) and Tal (exceptions) and Karpov (rules) and Kasparov (exceptions). Of course, this is an over simplification and each of these great players could play in their rivals style when necessary.

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

Sorry, the Watson link above should be

Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out this discussion - ironically it can be argued that there is now only a world wide chess culture thanks to Informant, Chessbase and the Internet. Fischer was probably the greatest player who rose to prominence using books, self-study and self-analysis and he was American. Players of his generation started realizing that many "ugly" moves or positions which the classicists (Tarrasch, Capablanca) would deplore were actually playable once one crunched the variations. So backward pawns and tight cramped ugly positions could be played. Computers and databases have only accentuated this trend. Fritz, Shredder, and Hiarcs doesn't care if the position looks "ugly" so long as the assessment is OK.

I recall Smyslov (a very classical and classy player) once saying that he knew he had achieved mastery when he not only understood the major rules and concept but when to break them.

Anonymous said...

I think watsons books are OK, but I have one problem with them. when I compare watson's book to my favorites such as shirovs Fire on Board or Anand's My Best Games I note the difference between a chess writer and a chess player/writer. While watson is an IM and a great player he is not a very active player. I would much rather read personal accounts from those who are actual playing at the top level then read theoretical analysis by someone who is strictly a writer.
u just get more insight from the autobiographical texts. on the other hand I am a huge fan of the My Great Predecessors series, but Kasparov often knew personally many of the players and had incredible analysis.
anyway my point is that watson is certainly making a contribution but as a reader I think most people will find that writing from top players tend to serve 2 functions: entertaing with great chess insight/ as well as personal insight.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

I want to add that, having thought about it, I think you might be able to make a general argument about nationality being a casual factor (rather than a "good indication" or a "definite sign") in certain characteristics of chess style/ philosophy. However, even granted this, I don't think you can make this argument about the US because a large number of our top players are from the former Soviet Union and therefore steeped in chess culture.

Glenn Wilson said...


Great post. But I must disagree a bit with your last comment. I think you are bending over too far in an attempt to be fair.

Consider if he had said: "One is that Vicary is female and that the strongest female players do not have the kind of chess culture male players have."

Love your blog!

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Thanks Glenn! But it's possible, I'm not sure I believe it, but I think the original post might be too dismissive of the possibility that nationality has an influence. It doesn't determine anything, certainly, but there might be something to be said for the relevance of continued exposure to certain types of chess. It's not *quite* the logical fallacy I paint it as. Although I don't think it works in the sense Aagaard uses it.

I wasn't aware of the past issues between Watson and Aagaard, although of course I find them hilarious. It does seem to me that Aagaard has picked a weird weird fight-- surely it's just obvious that chess is less rule-dependant simply because of the influence of computers. To say otherwise is to imply computers haven't affected top players' understanding and practice. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

Oh, but this is not a debate of "Rules" versus "Exceptions." It's not a debate at all. Watson's book examines the historical trend from Rules toward Exceptions (I'm oversimplifying, obviously). Aaagaard clearly didn't read it carefully enough. He devotes an entire chapter of "Excelling at Chess" flicking boogers at Watson, but he is attacking a series of strawmen. The chapter title, "No Rules?" is a dead giveaway: Watson never said "no rules". The Watson-bashing flares up throughout Aagaard's books like a hemorrhoid, and frankly I think it is tacky, unprofessional and totally wrong-headed.

Anonymous said...

You write, "I am absolutely the last person to express pro-American opinions..."


You're one of them, huh? Too bad. I enjoy your writing. I guess this is just another case of having to distinguish between the dancer and the dance.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Sorry to disappoint.
It's not even clear to me that I believe in the concept of "nation-state."
Also, I'm bad at dancing.

Anonymous said...

"Also, I'm bad at dancing.".


Yeah, so am I. At least we have that in common.

Glenn Wilson said...

Now I'm nit-picking, but if Kasparov changed his nationality to American would the statement apply to him? It may be valid to generalize about groups of people (Americans, or American ChessPlayers) but it is always dangerous to apply that generalization back to an individual.

Which is interesting, in that it relates to the issue of rules ("Americans") versus rule-independence (any individual American). If I believe that "Americans are lazy" (meaning lazier on average than non-Americans) I can not use that "information" (even if accurate) to determine if an individual American is lazy.

All of which, of course, is irrelevant to the "argument."

I also happen to think that Aagaard is obviously wrong. Your point about computers is excellent.

Anonymous said...

1. In the current issue of Scientific American Mind, there is an article about when the use of an ad homonym attack is OK. One could argue that this is a borderline case.

2. Ever since Aagaard started his own company and stopped getting edited, his poor punctuation and grammar have spilled into his published work. Sample pages to the Attacking Manual I are published online, and they are riddled with typos and English errors. I'm not buying the book, based on this alone. I generally give chess books some slack, but these mistakes made the sample pages an unpleasant reading experience.

3. I like the "published debate" between Watson and Aagaard. What's wrong with a little debate? None of the attacks are personal.

Howard Goldowsky

Anonymous said...

The new edition of My System from Quality Chess is an abomination. The translation is awkward, and missing much of the zest and wit from (for example) the old McKay version. What a missed opportunity.

Bill Brock said...

1) An ur-text in this debate, cited by Aagaard in Excelling at Chess (I think), is Kasparov's article on his Najdorf vs. Nisipeanu at Sarajevo? in NiC (circa 2000-2001?), with the famous line, "It's a matter of chess culture."

2) This is productive booger-flicking, IMHO. Synthesis comes from the dialectical battle. (I've elsewhere said that the original English translation of My System--a great one, I agree--reads like Marx's screed in The German Ideology.)

3) I also suspect that Watson is more right than Aagaard from the perpective of Adams's Deep Thought, but that most humans will generally get better practical results from studying Aagaard. (This observation is weakie-specific.)

4) Quality Chess has published some incredbly great books! I agree that My System was not a very good edition--I haven't examined it closely enough to know whether it descends to the abomination level.

5) There are nations (e.g., Kurdistan). There are states (e.g., Iraq pre-invasion). There are even some nation-states (e.g., Japan).

6) Two best ice cream flavors in USA: teaberry & bittersweet at Maurer's Dairy, 34 S. Market St., Shamokin PA.

Anonymous said...

A good debate or fight over ideas in chess is so much superior to the accusation and counter accusation of cheating or the old tired fight of who was ducking whom (see Capablanca Alekhine, Kasparov-Kramnik).

Quality has put out some good stuff - Understanding Chess Tactics by Martin Weteschnik for example is very nice.

So let them go forth and argue away but let's move away from this talk about "chess culture" - With the top players of the old East Bloc now relocated all over the world, can anyone really speak of a homegrown native chess culture?

katar said...

I haven't seen Fabrego's book, but Aagaard's book seems very respectful of Watson. Disagreement is not "hating". The act of singling out one author to disagree is to acknowledge the import or impact of the quoted book.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the link provided above by Naisortep, here are rebuttals to Aagaard:

Watson responded to Aagaard's criticism of SOMCS from _Excelling at Chess_ here:

And Silman defended Watson against Aagaard's _Excelling at Positional Chess_ here"

...and against _Attacking Manual_ here:

I am familiar with all of the books named here, and in my judgment Watson is way ahead on this "debate".

Anonymous said...

Disagrements and debate must be a part of scholarly life and extend into print. If every word written were taken verbatim and applied without criticism there would be no new ideas and development in chess, science or any field. Without questioning there is no rigour.

Being a chemist I have seen two Nobel laureates going at it hammer and tongs in the journals attempting to disprove the other. At the end of this extensive process once concedes the other is, in fact, correct and the evidence is clear.

In this case it is the duty of the authors to challenge the reader to think critically about what they are saying. This allows your own conclusions to be drawn and speeds up the learning process.

Regarding the American chess comments, one criticism levelled against chess in the UK is the weekend congresses are hacktastic events which impede the development of players. This is part of the chess culture and enviroment, obviously these shape the thoughts are ideas of chess players much as a child has the similar accent to it's parents even in foreign countries.

My interpretation, for what its worth, is the point he is making is that the chess enviroment in America is shaped by a different philosphy than in Eastern Europe. I don't see this as an attack rather a qualifying statement to his argument.

Anonymous said...

I’m John Shaw, the non-Jacob Aagaard half of Quality Chess. Naturally, I am biased, but I think Elizabeth completely misreads the tone and content of both books. Disagreeing with someone’s views about chess is not attacking them or anything to do with hatred.

Jacob disagrees with one point in John Watson’s book. He even mentioned it in the first sentence of the Preface so that no-one could miss it:
“…I was thinking about why I disagreed with one, and I stress one, of the ideas in John Watson’s monumental work Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy - Advances since Nimzowitsch.”

Jacob’s tone in the Attacking Manual 1 towards John Watson seems respectful at all times. You said:
“Aagaard uses Dvoretsky as an example of why Watson is wrong, yet calls Dvoretsky Watson's hero sarcastically. That doesn't make any sense, right?”

You’re right. It makes no sense at all, so why believe it? What you claim is sarcasm is nothing of the kind. Dvoretsky is also one of Jacob’s heroes, as well as his friend and mentor.

The misinterpretation of “True Lies in Chess” is hilarious.

“Is he really calling Watson (who he names repeatedly as one of these problematic authors) a liar? That seems quite ridiculous, especially since in the game that follows, Comas Fabrego agrees more often than not with Watson's annotations.”

Let’s see the relevant “lies” quote from the book:
“It turns out that from that entire array of books that captivated us in our childhood, only a few were really worthwhile, and even those were full of lies and mistakes.”

Note “in our childhood”: Comas Fabrego did not read Watson’s 1998 book in his childhood. He read the likes of Nimzowitsch. This explains the point you found ridiculous: the next section is about modern views of Nimzowitsch. As you noticed, Comas Fabrego often agrees with Watson’s refinements of Nimzowitsch. If anything, Comas Fabrego is saying Nimzowitsch’s books had “lies”.

Your quote: “Watson (who he names repeatedly as one of these problematic authors)”

Oh really? Where does he do that? Quotes, please. Certainly he sometimes disagrees with Watson’s analysis (he also sometimes disagrees with the analysis of Botvinnik, Keres, Nimzowitsch, and many other famous authors) but I don’t remember him saying anything like what you claim. Perhaps I’ve forgotten, and if so I’m here to be corrected. His point is that one should not implicitly trust any author’s analysis.

“I'm quite sure it's strange that they use these seemingly opposed viewpoints to attack Watson.”
Once again, occasionally disagree with, not “attack”. There is no Jacob-led conspiracy to disagree with Watson in our books. In fact, when our company decided to publish a translation of True Lies, Jacob and I had no idea of the content. Neither of us speaks Spanish, so Ari Ziegler chose the book, and the translator Manuel Perez Carballo also recommended it.

In conclusion:
The “unprofessional and logically questionable attacks on John Watson” are all in your head, not on the pages of our books.

I enjoy a friendly debate, which I hope this is, so I might comment further if anyone replies.

John Shaw

Elizabeth Vicary said...

John-- Thanks for responding! I think you made a lot of good points and I'm glad to hear my impressions are not correct, as they do seem to indicate a really weird point of view.

In regard to True Lies, I think Comas Fabrego does often give Watson a lot of credit. He calls SOMCS "excellent" and full of "new and interesting concepts" (83), as well as "pleasant and useful" ((28). However, he also disagrees with some endgame analysis and says "I think both authors were strong enough to understand this and either they analysed the position superficially or, what is worse, they chose the example knowing that the suggested conclusions were false" (52). That's a weird thing to accuse someone of, don't you think? It seems like it's no longer a friendly disagreement when you accuse someone of intentional intellectual dishonesty.

I definitely accept your excellent point about "books from childhood," but I also think that Comas Fabrego's sense of timing is unfortunate. By this I mean that he complains about innaccurate authors, then immmediately makes a generalization about middlegame strategy books ["This is, more or less, the impression gathered from current middlegame strategy manuals (John Watson's SOMCS or his predecessor, Nimzowitsch's My System)..."], and then seems to use Watson's analysis as an example of what he was talking about immediately before-- the lies. Maybe it's just unfortunate timing, but the placement seems to imply Watson is one of the liars. Basically, I feel like Comas Fabergo needs to stop throwing the word "liar" around so casually.

more in the next comment...

Elizabeth Vicary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Vicary said...


With regard to Aagaard, I have to say that I find it hard to see beyond the American culture comment. That just seems like a small-minded and (much worse) illogical thing to say. Perhaps it colored my reading of the rest of the book, although it does seem to me that Aagaard takes other minor pot shots at Watson. An example: "1935 was the year Nimzowitsch died. It is also the arbitrary year set by Watson as the year when chess started to become what we know today, rule independant." He goes on to admit this is not "entirely stupid" (7). Certainly, I could think of a more polite way to express this thought.

I want to be clear about my investment in this discussion: while I have enormous respect for Watson as a writer, I have no personal stake in this. I don't especially identify as American. I'm not friends with Watson(although we are acquainted-- I would say we have spoken 50 words to each other total; certainly I have had longer and more interesting conversations with Jacob), and I was unaware of the past disagreements when I wrote the post. I simply ordered True Lies and the Attacking Manual at the same time and was struck/surprised by what seemed to be to be an Anti-Watson aspect of both.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Finally, I have trouble understanding how Aagaard reconciles his assertion that chess is not played in a less-rule-dependant style these days with the hard-to-avoid idea that computers have had an enormous impact on modern chess. But I'm terribly curious, if you have some ideas?

Many thanks for your response, John. Like earlier commentators, I find this kind of debate fascinating.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Sorry, commentors, not commentators. EV

Anonymous said...


Is you comment about ad homonym attacks an intentional witticism or just a fortunate typo? I couldn't decide, since homonym is nearly a homonym of hominem.

How might an ad homonym attack work? Might one "gopher the juggler"? or demand an "eye for an I?"

Collective groans.

Jason Rihel

Anonymous said...


Those are homophones, not homonyms. Oh well.


Anonymous said...


The True Lies quote:
"I think both authors were strong enough to understand this and either they analysed the position superficially or, what is worse, they chose the example knowing that the suggested conclusions were false"

That does read strangely, but I think it probably my fault, as the editor. The suggestion, I believe, is that an author might use a position as a teaching example (“the power of the two bishops”) and ignore possibilities that are not part of that theme. If the example is in fact wrong, then I suspect the first possible explanation, superficial analysis, is more likely.

You said:
“Basically, I feel like Comas Fabrego needs to stop throwing the word "liar" around so casually.”

He doesn’t say “liar” I think, he says “lies”. I know that sounds like a distinction without a difference, but I have a point. The title “True Lies in Chess” is a little joke. The Arnold Schwarzenegger film “True Lies” was renamed “Mentiras Arriesgadas” in Spanish (Dangerous Lies). Comas Fabrego named his book “Mentiras Arriesgadas en Ajedrez” (Dangerous Lies in Chess). When we translated it we returned to the English version. Okay, not the funniest joke ever, but it is more a tribute to Arnie than a deadly insult to every chess author. His general point is that we should read everything “in a critical, deep and creative way, to think and research for oneself”.

“With regard to Aagaard, I have to say that I find it hard to see beyond the American culture comment. That just seems like a small-minded and (much worse) illogical thing to say.”

I think the issue may be that “culture” is an emotive word. I am not sure of the perfect word, but I think I know what Jacob means: some countries have systematic chess training for juniors; chess is a natural part of life, which is covered on the sports pages of the newspapers, and so on. Russia and Iceland have a chess culture; Britain and America do not. This shows up in the number of strong players per capita. Jacob’s theory seems to be that an author’s training and experience is influenced by his homeland, and this has an impact on his depth of understanding. It is not so illogical.

“He goes on to admit this is not "entirely stupid" (7). Certainly, I could think of a more polite way to express this thought.”

I think that one is a result of Jacob not being a native speaker. Controlling tone in a foreign language seems difficult.

“Finally, I have trouble understanding how Aagaard reconciles his assertion that chess is not played in a less-rule-dependant style these days with the hard-to-avoid idea that computers have had an enormous impact on modern chess. But I'm terribly curious, if you have some ideas?”

Sorry, but I have not followed that debate at all. With my British chess culture, I am a follower of the Tony Miles school: “I just move the little wooden things.”


Anonymous said...

Everyone knows British men are all closeted homosexuals.

This is because they attend all-male boarding schools. It's cultural.

Therefore, John Shaw is gay.

Anonymous said...

John Shaw wrote: "[Comas Fabrego] doesn’t say “liar” I think, he says “lies”. I know that sounds like a distinction without a difference, but...."

But nothing - on page 3, for example, Comas Fabrego explicitly defines "lies" as arising from "LACK OF HONESTY" (emphasis mine). That sounds pretty insulting to me, Mr. Editor.

Shaw: "Jacob’s theory seems to be that an author’s training and experience is influenced by his homeland, and this has an impact on his depth of understanding. It is not so illogical."

Oh, it's perfectly logical. It's also perfectly irrelevant. An author's ideas should be evaluated on their merits, not on vague prejudices concerning the author's cultural background.

Shaw: "I think that one is a result of Jacob not being a native speaker. Controlling tone in a foreign language seems difficult."

This is a feeble excuse. And I don't buy it, either. Is it respectful in Denmark to call someone
"not entirely stupid"? Is Aagaard incapable of grasping the shades of meaning once this notion is expressed in English?

Shaw: "Sorry, but I have not followed that debate at all."

There's no debate, in any proper sense. For one thing, Aagaard repeatedly misrepresents Watson's views (and those of others, too), suggesting for example, that he had called "Tarrasch and others dogmatic people who did not think." Really? Show me where. And for all the times Aagaard chirps "Watson is wrong," or "Watson is mistaken," and "Watson draws the incorrect conclusion," he never actually manages to disprove anything. If you want a more detailed accounting of Aagaard's red herrings, straw men, and total non sequiturs, see the above links Jeremy Silman's site.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Just to be clear, I would normally delete an anonymous comment that called someone gay, but in this case I'm going to assume the poster is facetiously paralleling the "Watson is uncultured" argument.

Anonymous said...

I have decided that I want to explain my point of view this once. And this place is as good as any.

"not entirely stupid" relates to the fact that the line is drawn arbitrarily. I have a blind spot there as I don't see that it is a question of tone. I can see that the insult is only there if you know that this is meant to be an insulting text, which it certainly is not from the author's hand.

Someone wrote: "Is it respectful in Denmark to call someone
"not entirely stupid"?" - Yes, it is a compliment actually :-)

About American chess culture. It is quite clear that my point drowned in the ill adviced choice of one word. My point is this - Watson and other strong American players learned chess by playing and working on their own, especially on openings. This is one way of doing so, but not a chess culture in the way I was thinking about it - which was not meant to be negative - only to say that this is the enviroment that shaped his thinking. John made me aware of "tradition" as being a much better word than "culture" to bring my point across.
My point is, when you come from that place of learning on your own, it is easy to recognise certain traits everywhere around you, especially if this is the atmosphere you have grown up in (I am here talking about rule-independence), we are talking basic neurology.
In the same way is easy to find insults in my book, now it has been established that they are there :-) The introduction was read others to make sure that there was nothing controversial in there, as I want to discuss chess, not personalities. It seems we failed :-(

I still find it relevant in th discussion, though I can see that it proves nothing. To understand our perspectives and especially their biases is a good place to start when we want to expand our understanding of a subject.

I don't understand why people take such an offense to a public debate about an aspect of chess theory. I am not wanting to measure my achievements to John's at all, as I would probably come out short.
I don't see, and do not believe that Watson identifies so deeply with the idea of rule independance, that disagreement with it is a personal attack. I think he does take pride in his great body of work, as he should, and those looking for praise of it, can find it in my writings too.

Btw. I have to admit that I don't understand Silman's review at all. In March he told me that he had talked to Watson and that I could write whatever I wanted and that there was no problem. They decline an invitation to read and veto any mentioning of Watson in the book. Now he complains and says that it would be much better to make contact. My impressions of Jeremy has always been that he is very genuine, so I think he has simply forgotten about our exchange of e-mails?

About the 2000 debate. I had some points about Watson's book, and I have not changed my opinion, but I never expressed an opinion on Watson. His "defence" was very much an attack and you can find a very harsh tone in many of his writings about others, at times justified, and at times maybe less so. The same goes for Jeremy Silman.
This is not meant as criticism, only I am trying to open up for a more nuanced view in this debate. I like to read their writings profoundly, when I agree as well as when I do not. There is true passion in there, and we need as much of that as we can in the chess world.

I will never return to this debate or to any discussion about rule independance again.

Sorry for misspellings, lack of complete cohenrency and other language mistakes. My baby is waking up and I have no time to edit it. Besides, that would be unfair on a blog, right?

I shall remember to ask John's girlfriends if he is gay.

Anonymous said...

Jacob responded to a few of the points above, so I’ll just answer one point of Anonymous at 1.12 am:

“Comas Fabrego explicitly defines "lies" as arising from "LACK OF HONESTY" (emphasis mine). That sounds pretty insulting to me, Mr. Editor.”

Mr. Editor? No need to be so formal, call me John. Whether it is “pretty insulting” is a value judgement, but I think his statement about classic books is true, and it repeats what many modern authors have said before about greats such as Alekhine, Nimzowitsch and Capablanca. Take, for example, Yermolinsky in his excellent “The Road to Chess Improvement”, p171. He states his respect for the greats and then says:
“The thing is, their books can be misleading. And there are some good reasons for this”
Later the same page, about Alekhine:
“…he was desperately searching for a sponsor for his match with Capablanca. Alekhine had to write a book that would tell the world he was a genius, and the last thing he wanted to do was to cast a shadow of a doubt on his exclusive position in the chess world. The games were selected and annotated in the most presentable way to reach the ‘strategic goal’ of winning universal recognition as a great player.”

Is Yermolinsky saying Alekhine’s annotations on occasion showed a “lack of honesty”? Absolutely, and I agree and so do many other writers and players.

Probably the most respected chess reference book is “The Oxford Companion to Chess”. Page 8:
“Having spent 13 years before the match praising Capablanca and courting his friendship, Alekhine spent the next 13 years derogating his rival in annotations, articles, and books. His purpose in doing so may have been to avoid a return match.”

I have picked on Alekhine, but there are many similar doubts about the total honesty of the annotations of Nimzowitsch, Capablanca and so on. Even the greats were human, so we should read their books, and every book, with a critical eye.


Anonymous said...


That was an unfortunate (but entertaining) typo! So I apologize. I actually noticed it a few minutes after I posted, but I didn't think it was important enough to report. Sorry! I'm enjoying this discussion very much.


Anonymous said...

It's not easy to write instructional books. In every one I've seen, the author(s) make various missteps, to smaller or larger degrees, when discussing an original position or re-hashing a well-known game. That is part of the chess, it has veils of complexity and the best meaning of instructional authors can go astray by incorrect deductions, failures to understand structures, as well as single missed moves.

The Aagaard/Watson debate would be better if we consider concrete examples (i.e. specific chess positions) and why one person or the other may have made a fallacious statement (and if so, why fallacious). Some mistakes are worse (more damaging to an overall 'theory') than others. So let's go to the squares on the didactic debates.

Anonymous said...


It's been done. Have a look at

My sympathies lie entirely with Watson on all this.

Antonio Mendoza

Anonymous said...

Even though I am still relatively new to chess this whole rule dependence/independence debate has had me baffled for awhile.

The human history of achievement in any field is one of setting rules, breaking those rules with "new rules" , and then breaking those new rules with even newer rules...etc. etc.

As a musician the whole point is to LEARN the rules so that one can eventualy BREAK the rules and play the music that is most important to that individual person.

That is the history of music in a nutshell (yes I am oversimplifying but not by much). In my short time as a chess addict, I can see the same pattern in the history of chess. Even Lasker said you had to break rules...

I am learning the rules so that EVENTUALLY I can break them and be the chess player that I am meant to be.

In my other life as a music educator I teach my students the rules, but I also don't necessarily believe that I have to teach them in a straight chronological line. If something more "modern" catches their ears I will let them deal with that first. The trick is to show them how what they are digging on is a direct descendant from an earlier musical form or era. Once I do that they are almost always HOOKED on the idea of studying the history and evolution of the instrument. (drums in this case)

Again, I am new to chess but it seems to me it would be the same sort of process. The students must learn rules and principles so that they can CHOOSE when to use them or ignore them. But if that same student is really digging on the games of someone modern like Anand, I would say let them go with it. They would just need to be shown the connection and evolution that has lead to Anand's playing style(or whatever player the student might be gravitating to).

Tom G

Anonymous said...

Replace the word Chess by French (i.e. the people of France) and Watson by any frenchman and you would have an idea what a whole country as suffered for years from the U.S.