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The Michael de la Maza Story

  • NM danheisman
  • | Jan 7, 2013
  • | 23078 views
  • | 62 comments

It's not the entire story - it's just what I know from talking to Michael on the phone, a series of email exchanges over a year+ period, and following the saga on the internet. As you will discover near the end, I only met Michael in person once...

Back around the turn of the century (that sounds funny!), Michael wrote a very popular article for Chess Horizons, the long-time Massachusetts State Federation chess magazine. Around the same time, I had my first few articles published by the new online chess magazine, Chess Cafe; the popularity of these articles would soon lead to my ongoing column Novice Nook, but that's a different story.

My online articles caught Michael's eye and he contacted me. He let me know about his article and asked if I could put him in touch with Chess Cafe, since he thought a wider readership might benefit from his article. I did, and the benefits turned out to be mutual; Michael's article 400 Points in 400 Days (parts 1 and 2) went viral. It was by far the most downloaded article that Chess Cafe had published up to that point.

Here's a quick summary of what had happened to Michael that led him to write his article: Michael was an MIT graduate who was starting to take up chess seriously as an adult, but was stuck at about the 1400 level. Like many adults, he assumed that he needed to augment his natural skills and intelligence by compiling chess knowledge: he studied openings, endgames, and other "chess knowledge" information. Despite all that accumulation of knowledge, he was getting nowhere. At one point a stronger class player told Michael he had the answer: pick up the fantastic chess book How to Reassess Your Chess by IM Jeremy Silman and that will break the ice.

So Michael purchased HTRYC and read it - it was a revelation: it contained a wealth of information that Michael did not know. This must be the gold mine! Michael studied the book intently and went to his next tournament eager to put his newfound powers to the test. In his recollection he got a position where he thought for half an hour about how to get a good knight against a bad bishop and then - promptly lost his knight! (This is a good illustration that advanced chess knowledge might be new and perfectly understandable to intelligent adults, but that doesn't mean following it is what you need to become a better player! See my articles Chess Books and Prerequisites and When Adults Learn Basic Material).

So it turned out HTRYC was not the panacea that Michael had hoped. But what was? So, in desperation, Michael turned to some other fundamental (and common sense) advice about learning tactics really well, and augmenting other analytical skills. For example, he developed and performed a series of very intense "board vision" puzzles to improve his ability to quickly and accurately determine what was happening on a chess board. While not giving up tournament play, Michael did, for a short time, essentially "lock himself in a closet" and intensely work on some specialized basics.

This time it worked! By increasing his board vision and tactical vision, and incorporating some other common sense issues like using his time wisely and not making the same mistakes twice in the opening, notable progress was finally achieved. Unlike his original attempt of just increasing his chess "knowledge", which had failed badly, Michael now gained 400 points in 400 days, and wrote the article about his experience.

Once the article became popular, the question arose about expanding it into book form. If I remember correctly, I believe I had advised Michael to approach the big chess publishers, like Everyman and Gambit. In any case, eventually Michael received a contract with Everyman and created Rapid Chess Improvement.

I often get asked if I agree with everything in Rapid Chess Improvement and the answer is clearly "No". However, I do agree with most of it - see my article An Improvement Plan or, better, the much newer version of that article updated for my book A Guide to Chess Improvement.

One of the areas where I don't agree is Michael's use of The Seven Circles with the entire CT-ART 3.0. Once I read the literature on how the Soviets trained for tactics, I realized the correlation that training had with learning multiplication tables: you drill 6x7 = 42 extensively to recognize it, but you don't drill 473 x 57,642 =?; you learn how to do it. Similarly (but not perfectly analogous), in chess I believe you should drill the ~2,000 basic tactics for recognition but only "solve" more advanced problems once. For more on this important topic, check out my articles Tactical Sets and Goals and The Most Common and Important Use of Tactics.

Back to Michael...with the publication of his book, Michael became a well-known but controversial figure. Some viewed him like a pioneer but many, including some strong players who reviewed his book, took a decidedly negative stance.

At the 2001 World Open here in Philadelphia, I was checking out how members of the Main Line Chess Club and my students were doing going into the 8th and penultimate round. While perusing the pairings, I stumbled across the fact that Michael was not just in attendance, but in contention for first in the U2000 section. Never having met him in person, I quickly searched out his table to get in a "hi" before the round started. Michael was at the board, but his opponent had not arrived yet. I introduced myself (Michael knew me fairly well by then, but not personally - that happens in the internet age) but Michael quickly said,

"Hi Dan! I'd like to chat but I am getting ready to play a game for $10,000. So, if you don't mind, I'd prefer not to talk just now!" I respectfully honored his wishes and quickly retreated.

Michael won the section with an 8-1 score and, in doing so, his rating passed the USCF Expert barrier by rising from 1962 to 2041.

After the event I contacted Michael to congratulate him and ask what he was planning to do for an encore. His answer surprised me:

"Dan, I think I have shown that what I wrote can work. I have become a fairly strong player by following the methods explained in my book. But I think that's as far as those basic things can take me. To get to the next level, I would have to really learn how to play chess - advanced strategy and the like - that's something that would take some real work, and I don't think I want to do it. So I'm going to retire from chess!"

Michael was a man of his word and, so far, he's never played competitively again. Nor have I been in contact with him. But his small legacy in the chess world, no matter what you may think of it, has been established. In my opinion, many players in the same predicament as Michael could do a lot worse than following most, if not all, of his suggestions. Some have tried, with varying results; you can Google them using key phrases like "Rapid Chess Improvement" or "The Seven Circles" and read about their experiences.

(Further reading: My Top Tips for Chess Improvement and Improving Requires Extensive Practice Looking for Better Moves.)

Comments


  • 23 months ago

    Kolob68

    I have read Rapid Chess Improvement and I can tell you it helped me a lot.

    Cheers.

  • 23 months ago

    NM danheisman

    According to USCF (I checked twice with two administrations), "NM" is a lifetime title you achieve once your official rating (and established, over 24 games lifetime) gets to at least 2200. They said if you keep playing and your rating goes below 2200, you can still use the honorarium "NM", just as an old GM who is no longer GM strength still retains his title. There is an older (age 70+) player in our club who was 2300 in his prime and drew all three games he played with six-time US Champion GM Walter Browne, but now is considerably weaker. But I still give him the NM honorarium, as he clearly earned it even though age has taken much of his strength.

  • 23 months ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    NM in the US is simply crossing 2200, nothing more, nothing less.

  • 23 months ago

    THawk

    MichaelGosselin, doesn't NM require you to hold 2200 for X number of games? I don't think it's as simple as hitting 2200 for one period...

  • 23 months ago

    wavesofdebris

    I think there's a gap between theory and practice showing up in the comments here.  

    Here's the gap: There's never been any shortage of people who think about the De La Maza program for a moment or two and say it sounds reasonable! That's normal.

    What's in short supply is documented examples of adult players--out of the many who have put the program into practice--who gained more than 50-100 rating points per year that way.

  • 23 months ago

    Twobit

    There appears to be a glass ceiling/red line at the master level. I do not think there were many players reaching master level as adults (meaning ones that started playing chess as adults). And if so, it would be nice to hear a little more specific advice than simply "hard work" or "practice, practice, practice" (a la Carnegie Hall).

    I am also curious what Howard Stern's rating could be now.

  • 23 months ago

    NajdorfDefense

    I don't think jumping two classes in a year with constant study is all that amazing below expert level. People don't want to do the work. Virtually every tournament game I've played at the US, World, Phila or Chicago Opens has been decided by one party failing to see a two-mover [or less!]

  • 23 months ago

    wavesofdebris

    It's interesting, we have two groups of people I think.  There are those who feel that it's fairly common for adults rated in the 1300s to abruptly advance to 1900-2000 in a year or two.  And there are those in who feel that it's virtually unheard-of.  

  • 23 months ago

    MichaelGosselin

    One further point: it's a lot easier to move from 1400 to 1800 (USCF) than it is to move from 2400 to 2800.

     

    Hey, my first rating ever was 810; my second was 1240, and I did that in the space of 60 days.  Wink

  • 23 months ago

    FM wlrs

    Good article Dan, yours and Hendriks' "no nonsense" views on chess coaching are amongst the best there are.

    To those suggesting foul play: Given one trains hard, ~400 points in ~400 days is nothing spectacular or unusual at beginner level, I've seen it many times. To cry wolf about him cheating is pretty ridiculous.

  • 23 months ago

    IM pfren

    I can't provide any evidence, but having a casual sight at his games, I don't believe he was cheating. After all, there are numerous examples of players who achieved his rating without being terribly good at chess.

    The only thing I know for sure is that his improving "method" (which isn't methodical at all) is sheer junk.

  • 23 months ago

    Verthandi

    msiipola, I am amused that you find the article worthy of mention.

  • 23 months ago

    -_KNiGHt_-

    All knowledge is power.  Read everything.  

  • 23 months ago

    THawk

    I don't think he was cheating. But what friends and other players were telling me was that he quit his job, lived at home and did nothing but study chess for 400 days.

    He does say that no matter what, whether sick, on vacation, etc, the student should do his tactical drills; something impossible if you have a job, school, and/or kids...

    Now, I don't know whether any of this is true -- i can't verify this. But I think that if someone did nothing but study chess for 400 days, his rating BETTER improve...

    Dan, in the previous edition of Silman's HTRYC, there *is* mention of such a case. The player (Everyman, I believe is his name) managed, through a similar method of study (tips, advice, etc), gets to an expert rating but never gets past it because "Everyman" never really considered chess as a homogenous whole. I guess we *can* say that Michael *DID* read HTRYC cover to cover... Laughing

    And incidentally, when I lived in Boston, Michael played in a tournament I ran, one of the South Station Opens. He was wearing the cloak and hood then... We actually took to calling him "Darth Vader"... :)

  • 23 months ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    I can only speak from personal experience on this, but it would not surprise me in the least to see someone make 2000, 2100, or even 2200 these days by dint of tactical alertness, especially since it's naive to think that Mr. La Maza was somehow totally ignorant of basic positional chess concepts and/or opening/endgame theory.

    In my own case, I can remember that, before going to college, I went from basically 1600 to 2150 without really any real grasp of anything other than coffeehouse cheapos, a smattering of very basic endgame/opening theory and a rather rough sense of various fundamental positional concepts (Bishops vs. Knights, pawn structure, etc.), all of which, to be frank, probably could be taught to pretty much anyone in under an hour.

  • 23 months ago

    NM gbidari

    The story is puzzling how de la Maza worked intensely, got great results and then announces his retirement. That's not human nature is it? But, I guess that's his business. The puzzling part to me is how he was willing to put in the hard work previously and as soon as his efforts skyrocketed him, instead of being stoked he calls it quits because he doesn't want to put in the work to get to the next level. I don't get it.

  • 23 months ago

    CapAnson

    Has it occured to de la Maza.. or anyone that maybe the reason for his improvement could be due to HAVING studied HTRYC and soaking it in.. then using the tactical drills to "fill in" the missing analytical bits he didn't learn from that book? In other words maybe he was subconciously  still using Silman's lessons.. only now with some actual tactical ability..  

  • 23 months ago

    msiipola

    On one of tactics training sites, I have done 20000+ puzzles during last 3-4 years. Have this help my game? Probably. Have I gained hundreds of rating points due to this training? NO!

    Exlusive doing lot of tactical puzzles will have little impact on your game. To be a good chess player you have learn many others things. Especial to have a good thought process, as Dan often says.

  • 23 months ago

    wavesofdebris

    Twobit, I'm afraid I'm holding out for success stories that can be documented  from sources other than the book itself.

  • 23 months ago

    Twobit

    Chapter Five, pg 89, "Success with Rapid Chess Improvement" lists the following success stories from MDLM's book:

     

    Cuzear Ford improved 122 points in 2 months (currently USCF 1659)

    "David", adult player: improved from USCF 1475 to 1876.5 in 1 month (?)

    Aaron Schlepler improved 250 points in a year (not listed)

    I could not look it up whether any of these players had improved any more, especially "David" Undecided. This chapter had the feel of an infomercial anyway.

     

    Before we could call MDLM a reincarnation of the Turk, I am really curious how could he just disappear like this? (To be frank, the designer of the Turk, Wolfgang von Kempelen also shied away from the exposure when the attention became too much) Here you are, discovering the Holy Grail of all patzers, your rating is proudly soaring like a North Korean missile, yet you abandon everything without camping out on a plateau at least to take a little breather...It sounds a little like having a one night stand with Caissa, then quickly moving on.

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