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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Studying to Improve or Just Studying?

      Writing in the introduction to How to Reassess Your Chess Jeremy Silman comments how most instructional books really offer no instruction at all; most of them are a lot of positions that cater to a theme but never explain how to implement the examples into you own games. In writing about the classics, Alex Yermnolinsky admits that Tarrasch, Capablanca and Nimzovich were giants of chess but opines that he’s not sure any of them would do better against the Najdorf Sicilian than he did in some of his games.
      Yermo comments that just like with language, the ability to speak doesn’t have much to do with teaching others and that Capa and Nimzovich were chess ‘orators’ in a day when chess players were starving for knowledge.  Those guys had the ability (like all GM’s) to select and reject moves, as Yermo puts it, “nearly subconsciously on some higher level of understanding, which may very well be defined by…calculating ability multiplied by the pattern recognition power developed by years of training.”  The question is, how do you teach what you know to others? 
      In Yermo’s opinion they had no choice but to try a “scientific” approach by breaking things down into the elements of the positions. The problem starts, he says, when an average player wants to progress to the Expert or Master level.  Classical positional theory no longer helps and his advice is that when that happens, the time has come to “set those books aside and start working on your own.”
      Yermo points out that Alekhine wrote his My Best Games 1908-1923 when he was seeking backers for a match with Capablanca and so wrote a book extolling his genius and selected games (or in some cases, made them up) that would present himself in a favorable light.  Reading some of his notes you would think he had it all figured out right out of the opening up to the point his opponent resigned or that he played a long combination and saw everything.   A few years later Nimzovich was in the same situation of trying to get a match for the world championship so he penned My System. Many of the books written after WW2 just repeated each other. Then we got to today where the pendulum has swung from strategy to tactics and a plethora of How to Play the (insert opening) books.  Games by today’s top GM’s usually don’t have the clean cut positional themes like you see in the games of the old masters because today’s modern players are much more flexible in what they consider a playable position. This makes it even more difficult to explain what’s going on in a position because elementary rules are often broken.  Explaining those situations to his students was a problem Yermolinsky found difficult. 
      In HTRYT Silman says most average players don’t understand the true purpose of the opening, have no knowledge of planning and the thinking process, no understanding of elementary endings and how all three phases of the game are connected.  In fact, the first thing he did in the book was look at basic endings.  Only then does he take up his teaching on the middlegame.
      Silman also gives the hypothetical case of a player he called “John Everyman” and described how he memorized various mating patterns, forced himself to study a few boring endings and studied basic tactics.  After reaching a certain level Everyman’s play was described as, “He would try to attack, but his cowardly opponents would take a Pawn, trade off all the pieces, and eventually win the resultant endgame.”
      Silman’s hypothetical description sounds like Yermolinsky’s real student about whom he wrote that he had an “attacking style” and ended up with “the weirdest opening repertoire I have ever seen.  He would open 1.e4 with one idea in mind: to sac a P as soon as possible…as a result nearly every game of his saw the same scenario:  he would drop a P in the opening, then invest more material into sustaining his non-existent initiative, get a couple of fireworks out of it and soon resign.  It was painful to watch him struggle with positions I would find difficult to play.”  The poor guy was getting into positions where he had to find the only moves that would justify his sacrificial strategy. Space does not permit writing what Yermo and some other brutally honest GM’s have to say about modern opening books that recommend all kinds of offbeat openings and gambits.
      So when these guys who know something about chess and are brutally honest in presenting the hard facts about what it takes to improve speak, why do we insist on buying all the crappy books being offered that promise to make playing chess easy?  Maybe it’s the same reason we vote for the politician who’s going to fix the bridges & highways, strengthen our military, increase social security and make sure we all have good insurance, stamp out drugs flowing into the country, etc, etc and lower our taxes.  We know he’s lying, but something deep down inside of us causes us to hope that maybe, just maybe, he can pull it off. That’s all for today…I’m going to go study my book on the Grob Attack now.

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