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The Michael de la Maza Story

  • NM danheisman
  • | Jan 7, 2013
  • | 18648 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


  • 18 months ago

    Consul89

    Lots of Tactics will get you to expert, the fact that you are pickingoves that dont loose material increases your chances of playing something that is playeble and at the very worst postionally lost, but a lot of players below expert will not know how to mantain a small edge like an expert or master would.

     

    Once you break expert is a different animal, because on average most players are as good as you tactically so you have to rely on chess knowledge also, and that is the "weed out" factor.

  • 18 months ago

    bykr

    I agree with msiipola after reading that empiricalrabbit blog it seems like there could be some doubt there.Any comments on this Dan?

  • 18 months ago

    wavesofdebris

    Magicmunky said: "The reality is that if any of us spent all of our time on chess for 400 days then I do not doubt that we could all improve by a similar amount.

    Munky of course you're the expert on what seems doubtful to you.  But many adult players, myself included, have done far more tactics training -- 5 to 10 times the 7,000 problems suggested by MDLM -- and seen boring old advances of 50 to 100 rating points a year, not 400.  I've spent a lot of time both trying and searching the web, but I'm still eager to hear a solid report of anyone (except MDLM himself) using his method to gain more than about 100 points a year.  

    IF MDLM had promised "400 points in 4 to 8 years," I'm not sure his book would have sold quite so well, or attracted so many celebrity comments.



  • 18 months ago

    hicetnunc

    MDLM's achievements are really impressive. While I have never tested his full method, I believe that repeating simple tactical patterns has a lot of value as a training regimen.

    However, what I'm curious about is how the very 'unbalanced' training of MDLM was affecting his style of play ?! (I§ mean he only trained his tactics !). Were his games tactical slugfests, or was he simply avoiding tactical mistakes and calculating better than his opponents ? Does anybody have some games from him to show ?

  • 18 months ago

    Magicmunky

    It's far too easy to say he was cheating, he spent alot of time on his chess and improved. The reality is that if any of us spent all of our time on chess for 400 days then I do not doubt that we could all improve by a similar amount.

  • 18 months ago

    dadam

    I want to look at his games but i can't find something..

    Somebody know where to find them?

  • 18 months ago

    MichaelGosselin

    Interesting article Dan.  I don't think I ever met de la Maza.  However, lots of people do jump two classes in a year.  Tactics are important, because you have to know how to analyze variations. After that, you need some positional knowledge, and a way to know what to do, and to counter what your opponent is trying to do. 

     

    My "magic" book was My System by Aron Nimzowich. The other thing that caused my jump was four years at college with little or no rated chess. Odd that when I got back into it, I was more mature and able to focus on games better.  College can do that to you. Smile

     

    I especially loved the line, "To get to the next level, I would have to really learn how to play chess..."  Which is about the way I feel as a class A-B player.  It reminds me of the Horowitz joke...

  • 18 months ago

    sra66

    Very strange to see this as I login and I have to laugh. I have his book and use it for ideas and have made attempts to follow it. The strange part is I picked it up off my shelf early yesterday and wanted to refresh myself on the chess vision drills section yesterday and last night and brought it to the office this morning to scan through.

    I am starting to thing that Dan works in mysterious ways...........

  • 18 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Thanks for the clarification. Regards suggestions that Michael was cheating: I don't think he was - his improvement curve would have been much sharper unless he was purposely losing, too, to make it look "good" (always possible). When a 1400 player used a computer in the year 2001 its strength was 2700 or so (unlike the 3200 today) so at the point he started doing that he would not have a smooth improvement curve - he would jump. If you examine Michael's history at http://main.uschess.org/assets/msa_joomla/MbrDtlTnmtHst.php?12775875 that looks rather human, not like someone who just started using a computer at some point. Of course it is basically impossible to prove something like that either way at this point but, based on what he wrote (which seems intelligent and reasonable to me and fairly consistent with what I know about improvement), his few interactions with me, and his rating improvement curve, I would guess not. I was a member of the International Computer Chess Association (ICCA) from the 1970's til a couple years ago (it is now the ICGA); that does not make me more qualified to spot computer cheating. It does at least make me as qualified as most.

    I guess I should add two other circumstantial things in Michael's favor: 

    1. If you were cheating would you want to write an article and then an entire book about some phony method you supposedly used (especially one that makes sense)? That would draw attention to yourself, and help people notice you might be cheating instead. Does not seem likely but nothing is impossible.
    2. I know two ICC adults, at least one older than Michael, who also made dramatic, but hardly "computer-cheating meteoric" improvements in a fairly short, but possible time frame. If you are a very experienced player you probably know of one or two also. I wrote about one in The Curious Case of MrBoeJangles. In none of these three cases did the player make OTB master (yet), a feat they could achieve almost overnight if they used computer cheating. Two (including Michael) got to USCF expert strength, a very good accomplishment but hardly one that requires illegal help. I went from unrated to 1900 in two years and 2000 in three at the ages of 16-19. I had one breakout tournament (the Keystone State Open in July 1968) where I was rated #52 out of 102 players with a rating in the low 1700's and I won my first five games, including a win over the top ranked player, to lead the tournament 5-0 after five rounds. Thanks to bonus points I gained 200 rating points in that eventSmile. Luckily that was held before anyone could have accused me of getting computer help! In those days (1966-68) if I were using computer aid I would have to call the government or some large corporation between my moves because computers took up an entire room and cost millions (back when millions was a lot of money, ala Dr. Evil in Austin Powers!) Smile
  • 18 months ago

    dartking

    i've got a different experience. after playing in the 1966 new york city junior champ i got a provisinal rating of 1560. i played for a few years and never broke 1600. i stopped playing otb but kept playing postal. at one time, and this is '74-75, i had  75 games going in 15 countries. remember post cards! i didn't play and obt tournament till the mid 80's. it was the montclair club champ. i won my section and played in the finals and finished 3rd 0r 4th.i gained over 150 pts in that tourrament and in 6 months was 1850 . topped out at 2100. i think solving tactical exercises, playing over top players games and pickung a few openings that you feel comfortable with can help anyone improve. the improvement will vary according to ones talent and dedication.

  • 18 months ago

    temp_ddg

    Just because the guy is a computer scientist people accuse him of cheating. This is absurd.

  • 18 months ago

    VryIntllgNUT

    I hadn't considered the possiblity that Micheal was cheating untill reading msiipola's link. Dan, did you ever suspect that Micheal was using any outside assistance?

  • 18 months ago

    msiipola

    After reading following article I have my doubts about him:

    http://empiricalrabbit.blogspot.se/2012/06/michael-de-la-maza-verdict.html

  • 18 months ago

    mychessapps

    I think everybody needs a hero.. once in a while.

    Controversy or not, solving tactics does help improve your Chess. And if his methods make sure you spend time working on Tactics, what more can one ask for!?

    Sometimes, its something tangible and sometimes its just a belief that improves your confidence and improves your results.

    Sorry for the philosophy, now go back to the Chess board and solve some tactics!

  • 18 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Squarology - Thanks. Not sure what you are implying by "...a lot more to this story than what Dan lets on"?! I related most that I recall. I saw Michael "live" for the only time in 2001 and it is now 2013, so I don't remember very well what he was wearing! (Guys have trouble remembering what they were wearing yesterday...) I vaguely recall he was dressed rather nicely (usually tournaments players dress casually), possibly with a sweater or even a suit jacket, but that's really a guess. Also, as I wrote in the article, our very brief "live" meeting was before the 8th round, not the 9th (The crosstable says he was 6.5-0.5 at that point; he won that game and then took a draw in the final round to clinch first). Why did you ask what he was wearing?

    Abhishek2 - Thanks. You are correct; absolutely people have different methods of getting to 2000.

  • 18 months ago

    Abhishek2

    I'm 1998 USCF (you can consider that 2000 if you want), so I'm not doing this. I strongly disagree with his views. All I did was 50 tactics a day, got Fritz's analysis, looked at several games, played garbage openings, and memorize 20 of my favorite player's games. Now I'm still working on something.

    I guess people have different methods of getting to 2000.

  • 18 months ago

    IM Squarology

    Nice read as always but something tells me there's a lot more to this story than Dan lets on... Wink

    Dan, do you remember what De La Maza was wearing when you went to say hello to him right at the start of the 9th round?

  • 18 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Twobit: Thanks, much appreciated. Silman is indeed a "GM" author - one of the best - but "only" an IM FIDE titleholder. Michael's plan fairly rapidly took him to the top 2% of USCF players - not bad! If he had continued he would have improved more - how much we will never know.

    I have Wetzell's book but I am not as familiar with it as Rapid Chess Improvement since I have not read it cover to cover. Wetzell seems to have a lot of good practical advice, similar to what de la Maza has, or what I give in my improvement column. As you properly note, you get a lot more done if all that work is fun, as in Chess, Learning, and Fun.

  • 18 months ago

    Crosshaven

    Thank you for the article

  • 18 months ago

    Twobit

    Excellent article. I was fascinated with de la Maza myself, but I could only find a youtube video of him (it is him I guess) teaching some corporate folks the power of touch (?).

    I also read that he had about a year of doing his "closet work", when he did not work and had plenty of time to do his seven circles. Most adults can not do this and one of the most common criticism of his plan is the time requirement. (But again, as GM Norwood wrote, sitting down and studying a chess book  constitute... WORK)

    I saw that he never played any more rated games, while in his book (it appears now that this was just for the audience) he outlined his plan to advance to master. He also got into a battle with GM Silman. Silman made some very valid points that was hard to defend against...

    At the end he proved himself that his plan can only take you so far. I am curious, Mr. Heisman, on your take on "Chess Master ...at any age", by Rolf Wetzell.

    Again, thanks for this great article!

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