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Friday, October 3, 2014

GM Alex Yermolinsky on the Classics

Most all GM’s have studied the games of past champions and read their books. For example, Bobby Fischer spent an enormous amount of time studying games by Steinitz. These days players tend to study everything with a computer but give little thought to how masters, both past and present, became so successful.

     In his excellent book, which should be a classic, GM Alex Yermolinsky had some interesting things to say about classic chess literature. He admits that players like Tarrasch, Capablanca and Alekhine were ‘giants of the game’ but also warns that their books can be misleading. Actually, the same can be said of a lot of today’s opening books, but that’s beside the point.
     Yermolinsky compares chess to language skills and how the ability to speak well does not always translate in the ability to teach. Capablanca and Nimzovich were not only excellent players, but excellent ‘orators' to use Yermolinsky’s term. In their day average chess players were starved for knowledge so their books were popular. The problem is that even if one knows how to find good moves based on experience, calculating ability and pattern recognition, the question is, “How do you explain it?” One example of a player who never even tried was Samuel Reshevsky. When asked how, as a child, he was able to play strong moves he replied that he didn’t know. Also, as I have mentioned before, I was watching GM Tony Miles conducting a post mortem with an IM and the IM was suggesting moves which Miles rejected saying they weren’t any good. When asked why, he couldn't say; he kept saying they just weren’t.
     So, what players of old did was, they formulated a ‘scientific’ approach where they tried to break chess down into elements. For example, one of my early chess books was on the middle game by Znosko-Borovsky where he tried to explain everything in terms of space, time and force. I think Larry Evans wrote a similar book. Yermolinsky believes that when one wants to progress, those positional theories become a burden because players do everything ‘right’ but things still go wrong. His advice is that after you’ve studied those books, set them aside and begin study on your own. By the way, he didn’t say so, but that’s exactly what he does in his book; he tries to show you how to study on your own. Another author who did the same thing was US Senior Master Mark Buckley in Practical Chess Analysis. Advice…don’t buy this new; it’s too pricey for the value. If you buy it, buy it used.

     When it comes to the classic books, Yermolinsky points out that sometimes the old masters has ulterior motives for publishing their books. Of course they hoped to make money, nothing wrong with that, but another reason was Alekhine, for example, wrote My Best Games 1908-1923 when he needed a sponsor for a match with Capablanca. In the book he demonstrated what a genius he was and that’s why some games were fabricated and many of his annotations would lead you to believe that a little Pawn move he made early in the opening resulted in a win fifty moves later and of course he saw it all. It also helps explains why Alekhine gave all those simuls, consultation and blindfold games. He was making a name for himself. The ultimate goal of Nimzovich’s My System was to get a world championship match; it didn’t work for him though. He wasn’t as good as Alekhine, but his writings were superb.


    In the forward to the Russian edition of My System, Tahl wrote that he didn’t read it until he was 19 years old or ‘things would have been different.’ Thankfully, he didn’t and they weren’t!!
    Unfortunately, most books written after WW2 just keep repeating the same old stuff: positional elements and tactics and carefully selected games to illustrate the point. When some of the great players say they never studied chess or didn’t own a chess set, don’t believe it! After Capablanca lost to Alekhine in 1927, he changed his openings. Even Reshevsky, who said he never studied openings or prepared for opponents wasn’t telling the whole truth. Perhaps Reshevsky was never up to date on the latest opening theory, but that was laziness on his part. I know he at least studied openings for his match with Kashdan in 1942 and probably others and I know for a fact, he DID own a chess set.
     Years ago there was the 'Soviet School' and everybody thought they had  ‘secret’ methods of producing masters. They didn’t. What they did have was a vast number of players; many more than the USA, for example. Fewer than 2 percent of the around 77,000 members of the USCF are masters. Back when I began playing chess the USCF had about 5-6000 members. That translates to about 100 masters. Compare that to the Soviet Union who had a million chess players. They had thousands of masters. Yermolinsky makes the point that if one was a bad player in the US, one would have been a bad player in the Soviet Union. He gave some examples of chess trainers in the old Soviet Union and their crude ‘training’ methods which never really worked all that well. Also, I remember reading somewhere where a well-known chess teacher (Pandolfini, maybe?) went to the Soviet Union with the intention of learning how they teach chess. To his dismay, they didn’t have any secrets. John W. Collins, an early mentor of Fischer, wrote a book on the seven prodigies he mentored. I bought the book expecting to see what his method of teaching was. Disappointing! They went to his apartment where he fed them cookies and soda, analyzed openings and played blitz tournaments. It’s likely they all would have become strong players without Collins.
    I once read that it was a good idea to master one position at a time then move on to another one. Isolated Queen Pawn positions were mentioned so when I saw Alex Baburin’s tome, Winning Pawn Structures, I sprung for the $25 (now it’s twice that used, and over six times that new!), took it home and looked at its 256 pages of jammed-packed analysis and decided I wasn’t interested in putting in that much effort. Of course that kind of attitude won’t get you very far.


  1. Alex Yermolinsky on the Classics. What book? The Road to Chess Improvement?

  2. He was speaking of book by Alekhine, Nimzovich, Tarrasch and others. See here for a list of some books that can be considered "Classic.” When I learned chess about the only choice of books on the middlegame, by Fine and Euwe for example, concerned themselves with strategy. There were few books on tactics (Euwe and Pachman wrote some good ones though) and endings.