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.