Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Silmanites vs. De La Maza "Knights": Don't Be Hatin'!


As I dip into the waters of Chess Blogs, I've been dismayed how so many people are divided between two camps: Silman "fanbois" and de la Maza "Knights".

For the uninitiated: Silman is a well-known chess author whose works on chess strategy (most notably How To Reassess Your Chess) have quite a following. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, this is one of two books that got me seriously interested in chess. Michael de la Maza is an amateur that dramatically increased his chess rating through an intense program of chess tactics. His method was first described in a series of articles and then in the book Rapid Chess Improvement. He also made Convekta a lot of money by touting its "CT-Art 3.0" program as being ideal for his system of tactics study. People that have put themselves through a rigorous de la Maza tactics regime refer to themselves as "Knights" or "Knights Errant".

First, a disclaimer. I am not trying to tar all the de la Maza fans with the same brush. I've seen lots of good, reasonable advice out there. However, I've been encountering snobbery and anti-Silman sneering in my travels, and I can't understand the polarization. Here are a few of the themes that I've been seeing, and my reactions:

-"Tactics are more important than positional understanding". Well, der. No one, including Silman, disagree that tactics should be the focus of study. However, I've seen people overstate their case and say that Silman's stuff is "garbage". The most important benefit of Silman's material is it aids you in finding good moves when tactics are not the sole factor. The concept of using the imbalances in a position to direct your strategic thinking is immensely useful. Even though tactical oversights will play a larger role in the outcome of your games, that does not mean that the strategy of accumulating small advantages is worthless. Other things being equal, the player with the worse position will tend to make the more serious errors.

Although, ultimately, chess is a game, and people should spend time doing what they find enjoyable, I'm taken aback by the cheeky conclusion to de la Maza's original articles:

I look forward to avoiding opening, middlegame, and endgame study for years to come.

This is akin to restricting your exercise to one-arm pushups in order to excel at fighting with one hand behind your back.

I don't think players have to read and re-read and re-re-read Silman's books as if they were the bible. Learn the basic concepts, then go on to study tactics and annotated games. That little bit of time taken to read a book or two on chess strategy is well worth it. I would strongly recommend any player interested in improving their game to also look at Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess. Oddball nomenclature aside, it's all very good stuff. It will help you arrive at middlegame plans by looking at the pawn structure.

-"If you give one of his positions to a computer, and try and play his plan, the computer will eventually play something Silman didn't mention and proceed to win." Computers now routinely beat the best players in the world, so this argument strikes me as silly. As Dan Heisman has said repeatedly, your goal in a game of chess is to find the best move possible given the time constraints. A thought process like Silman's helps guide you to finding good moves.

You want to talk tactics? Mikhail Tal, the great attacking player, was quoted as saying, "There are two kinds of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine.". The point being, maybe his tactics weren't perfectly sound, but it put his opponent on the ropes. Even if a Silmanesque thinking technique doesn't result in perfect strategy, it will help you find strong moves (provided you double check your moves for tactical flaws before you play them).

One final observation: it appears that de la Maza and many Knights have quit, or cut back on, chess after attaining their goal, be it completing the "Seven Circles" program or whatever. I've seen this phenomenon happen to myself and others, in many different areas of life. For example, someone quits their job and plays a MMORPG 140 hours a week in order to get the first top-level character in the game, or starts an intense diet or exercise program, or takes up golf or whatever. They put in an incredible amount of time, then burn out once they've reached their goal or gone as far as they feel they can. The "Seven Circles" method de la Maza proposes is not for the faint of heart. Towards the end, you're expected to do 1000 tactical problems, in one day, in under 9 hours. I'm not surprised after completing that ordeal that some people get a bit sick of chess.

In contrast, books like Silman's, or Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi, don't just instruct, or make you a stronger player. They open your eyes to the richness of chess, and add to your appreciation of chess. When you play through annotated games, and the annotator says "obviously such-and-such a move would be bad because of such-and-such a positional factor", you'll see the truth in that assessment. I think Silman put it best in his review of de la Maza's book:
I get hundreds of letters from students worldwide that gain hundreds of points in a few months from reading my “strategically oriented” books. Others don’t improve drastically in tournament play, but simply enjoy the game more because they can suddenly understand ideas utilized by the chess greats. This is a VERY important point (I’m not pushing my books, I’m trying to make a point!): they enjoy the game more because, instead of looking for tricks while not having a clue about what’s happening on a broader scale, they are taught that chess has many hidden depths that ARE accessible to them with proper training.

If we set aside the issue of whether or not Silman's books can make you a better player, there's no denying that they can make the games you play more enjoyable. I have enjoyed accruing small advantages to reach a winning position. I have had knights on outposts dominate bad bishops. I have won games because of an outside passed pawn. I have counterattacked in the center after being attacked on the wing, and I have opened up the position for my bishop pair. I have taken advantage of a lead in development to open the position and launch an attack.

I'm sure these games abounded with tactical errors. But I feel I played more strongly for having been exposed to these positional ideas, and by thinking about the imbalances in the position.

Plus, I've been playing chess seriously for 13 years and I'm sure I'll be enjoying it for decades to come.


Joe Erjavec said...

I love Silman's books, and I think that understanding imbalances and positional play are necessary to get beyond a class C or D level, although I knew someone who got up to 1700-1800 on tactical understanding alone when he started.

I use Hays and Halls "Combination Challenge" to help me with my tactical thinking. It does generally help me to find opportunities that exist--when they exist--in a game.

Grandpatzer said...

Actually, I disagree that such an understanding is necessary to get to even expert level. However, I do think a modest investment in this area pays big dividends, plus it greatly increases your appreciation and enjoyment of chess. After you learn the basic principles, I think you may get more from studying master games and seeing new examples than you would from re-re-re-reading your Silman books. Studying master games also makes you work on multiple facets of the game at the same time. I'm reading "Zurich 1953" by Bronstein right now, and it has a good combination of explanatory prose and analysis of sidelines. For most of the latter you can practice visualizing the variations without moving the pieces, to help work your tactical muscles.

I've been struggling with trying to prioritize how I should spend my chess time, and I'm reaching the conlusion that the big three are: more OTB standard games; tactics; and master game study. I think Heisman recommended in one of his columns to fairly quickly play through 2000 annotated games, so I may combine that with tactics drills. One possibility I'm entertaining is getting 2000 games and 2000 positions from the Encyclopedia of Chess Middlegames or similar resources. After I finish my reading of "Zurich 1953" by Bronstein I think I'm going to go through my game collections and polish them off in chronological order.

Blue Devil Knight said...

An excellent post and very informative blog. de la Maza is unusual in many ways: he did not work while doing the Circles, he had a strong foundation in Silman and other positional thinkers but tactics was a glaring weakness, and his book is strangely antagonistic toward anything nontactical (his thinking process is just anemic, for instance).

Silman is hit or miss for me. His endgame book is simply amazing, the best I own by far, and I have quite a few. As for Reassess, I'm waiting for his major 2007 revision (computer checked).

I think most Knights appreciate the importance of positional ideas, and not just for aesthetic reasons. Most of us in the Circles cult have strongly revised his original plan so we don't end up doing 1000 problems in a day. The Knights that have done the full-fledged Circles as presented in his book have indeed seemed to burn out on chess.

I'm gonna go and write up your blog on my blog, and sidebar you.

Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

A very nice post. About ten years ago I first read Silman's "Reassess Your Chess" and still think it is one of the most instructive chess books I've ever read. I was just returning to the game from childhood, and it was the first time I had encountered the concepts of improving your knights position or opening diagonals for your bishops etc. I felt I had a new and strong grasp of the game.

When I went to put this knowledge to use I became disappointed as I fell to tactical blows left and right. I could never manage to get a plan together because I hadn't reached the middlegame without losing a piece.

Grad school and residency kicked in and chess was put on a major back burner for 10 years. I returned to the game almost three years ago. I stumbled on De La Maza's book and thought it might be a good idea. The logic was sound enough: most club level games are decided by tactics.

I did the circles almost as described by De La Maza and it was grueling. I found that I played very little chess during this period. Afterwards I experienced a big drop in my rating. What I found, as did many others that have done this training program, ist that it takes time to incorporate this new knowledge.

I didn't get burned out though. Instead, I became more fascinated with the game. I developed a basic opening repertoire, started reviewing master games, and have now found myself going through endgame studies.

Reading blogs of others that have done heavy tactical training, it is evident that most people come to a realization that tactics are very important, but conversely tactics flow from good positions and a greater understanding of positional concepts is needed in quiet positions.

I recently bought Silman's Endgame book, and interestingly enough his advice to the Class D and C players is to go over the endgame concepts for their level of play and then....go back to studying tactics!

In the end, tactics and positional concepts are married to each other. It's just that a tactical blunder is such an overtly disabling event compared to a positional misunderstanding at the club level, it makes sense to get a good grasp on the tricks.

Again, a great post, and I look forward to checking back here from time to time.

Grandpatzer said...

PMD: if you haven't already, check out Heisman's articles on Something I may be posting about soon recover some of his articles on how to think at the board.

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and for a lot of people, including me, that link is playing what Heisman calls "real chess" on EVERY move. If you play just one move without considering what your opponent's likely responses are, that can be enough to lose the game.

Part of the goal of tactics training is to easily spot threats as well as opportunities. Think how many times you've lost a game where your opponent makes their move, and you immediately realize you're sunk. Or, where shortly after you make your move, you realize you just blundered horribly. That's not an error in strategy, or tactics's an oversight error and a sign that you're probably not playing "real chess" on each and every move you make.

Of course in Blitz you don't really have time to play "real chess" unless you're freakishly talented.

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