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Osmosis—Chess Mastery Made Easy

There are almost as many ways of learning to play chess as there are players. Some people study assiduously; some learn just enough to get by; others take pride in never having studied the game at all; still more just enjoy pushing around those intriguing little pieces, rather like a hit-and-giggle tennis match. We all do it differently.

A few years ago I was dancing with a friend and the music changed. I said, “I don't know this dance.”

“Do you want to sit down?” she asked.

“No. It's OK. I'll pick it up by osmosis.”

“What's osmosis?”

“He's the guy who led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Old Testament.”

“Oh!” she said, “I haven't read the Bible.”

I guess I've used the same osmotic approach to chess as to dancing. Like every other enthusiast I started by learning as much as I could in a short time, then spent the rest of my life coasting along, picking up a little here and there. Like a small child at the dinner table I ate all the tasty bits and relished the dessert, but avoided those unpalatable, time-consuming exercises that would have helped me to grow up to be “big and strong, like Daddy”.

I'm not alone.

Of course, there are different ways of learning by osmosis and some are more effective than others.

IM C. J. S. Purdy, five times Australian Champion and the first Correspondence Chess World Champion was a fierce tournament player and a highly respected teacher.

Although he wouldn't have thought of his method as osmosis (and wouldn't thank me for suggesting that it is) he recommended something that sounds very similar. In his Guide to Good Chess, a beginners' primer, he wrote:

Practise, as the term is generally understood—meaning playing games against living opponents—is of some help, but not very important, and not even necessary, up to a point.

But real practice—playing over published games, and covering one side's moves with a card to give you a chance to think of a move yourself before looking—is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wants to become good quickly. It's only commonsense that if you continue playing rabbits you remain a rabbit, whereas if you are constantly comparing your moves with the moves played by experts in the same positions, you must gradually draw nearer to the expert's level”

He went on to say:

In 1946, the British championship was won by an almost unknown Scot, R. F. Combe, who had hardly played a game of chess in six years. But his hobby was playing over published games by a cosy fire somewhere in the Highlands, and this had made him good enough to win the title at his only attempted, though the field included some famous players. The method is infallible...

So there you have it. A great chess teacher's magic lozenge for improving your game.

I've been playing on chess.com for less than eighteen months and in that time I've seen some of my friends and regular opponents improve their rating, and their play, enormously. One guy, against whom I had a plus score  less than a year ago, has improved his play—and his positional understanding—to a level which would command respect in any company. If he reads this he might be willing to share his wisdom with us.

It can be done, and Purdy's method feels like one of the best.

What do you think?

[Footnote:  Fifty-nine years after its first publication in 1950 Purdy's "Guide to Good Chess" is still in print.

Purdy himself died at the board while playing in a tournament.  Despite extensive analysis it has proved impossible to determine who would have won the game.]

Comments


  • 6 years ago

    Keyif

    Thanks for introducing me to Purdy. I will be looking into their games more.

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    davejitsu:  Reading your articles is great fun!  I will try to catch on purdy   Thank you

    Thanks, Dave.  Did you know that "The Sharks" group on chess.com gives away two free e-books to all new members?  I went through their list the other day and one of those books (which I will be getting myself soon) is by CJS Purdy.  You might enjoy it.

    (You'd certainly enjoy The Sharks ... they're a very get-up-and-go group.)

  • 6 years ago

    davejitsu

    Reading your articles is great fun!  I will try to catch on purdy   Thank you

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    unklecyril:  In my mind I can picture CJS. His slight figure, his stoop, his bending over some article he was reading...all in his little shop full of chessobillia.

    Unkle c, you've still got it.  In just twenty-one words you've painted the man in colours that anybody who knew him would immediately recognise.  That takes ability and a rare gift.  When are you going to activate your blog and give us all a treat?

  • 6 years ago

    unklecyril

    D0zy my boy, you certainly can get people going. I had so many laughs reading this. The danger is that people might take you seriously.

    Seriously, I support all you say about CJS Purdy. I loved the man and used to go to his shop each week to buy more of his back numbers of Chess World. It is to my credit that I have under the bed all the issues of Chess World from 1946 to 1967. Many years ago I read each one.  I should go back and read them all again. They have all the games and lessons to keep any chessophile busy for years.

    In my mind I can picture CJS. His slight figure, his stoop, his bending over some article he was reading...all in his little shop full of chessobillia.

    cheers

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    spoiler:  The best advices I could give to one who is new to chess:

    1. Don't try to be world champ until you become grand master. 2....

    When my kids were growing up I spent about eight years helping to organise junior soccer in the district and, for one of those years, I was president of the local footy club.  (It's ok, you don't have to bow.)

    Toward the end of my term I asked the guy who had preceded me whether he would stand again but he wanted me to continue with the job.   During the discussion I said he would make a better president because of his "stature and presence" -- which was perfectly true.  He was a bit surprised at the description because we didn't like each other very much, and said, "What are you, a clown or something?"

    And in a nutshell, that was me.  I'm a clown.  I like telling yarns and making people laugh.  I like to entertain when I can (which has been my intention since I started this  blog) ... but I'm not normally a very serious person.  Unklecyril  once quipped that my being serious is about as natural as a dog standing on its hind legs.

    So I'm going to step aside from getting into a debate about this one and say, as I said of El Presidente, that "spoiler's is the voice of wisdom".

    • My contribution to this thread was the introduction of that fearless Israeli general, Osmosis. 
    • Purdy, respected teacher that he was, contributed the study of master games. 
    • Spoiler has brought it all down to earth a bit and there is indeed a lot of wisdom in what he says. I particularly liked his comments on love, attitude, and losing.

    Obviously different methods work for different people.  (And having played some of Purdy's students I can say that while they didn't all grow up to be top players, some of them did.)

  • 6 years ago

    spoiler1

    The best advices I could give to one who is new to chess:

    1. Don't try to be world champ until you become grand master.

    2. Don't try to be a grand master, until you become a master.

    3. Don't try to be a master until you become expert.

    4. Don't try to be expert until you become a high class player.

    See where I am going with this?

    So I respectfully disagree with you on the aspect of young players trying to understand master or grand master level games.

    Everyone can reach greatness if they understand, they need the following:

    LOVE, and ATITUDE

    Love will inspire and motivate you to do the work necessary.

    Attitude comes down to ( amongst other things):  If losing ticks you in a negative way you should not bother with games.  Losing is part of growing here...

    I think what a young player needs, is to understand chess concepts and it's exceptions by playing their own games ( slow games) and make notes of their own thinking process on each moves.  To correct  mistakes in their own game.

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    Phil_from_Blayney:  I have always thought that Purdy ranks as one of the finest chess teacher's any one could have.

    I think that's a view shared by many leading chess teachers.  He had a unique way of simplifying difficult concepts.  (I've just dragged out my copy of the guide and, glancing through it, wish I'd spent more time with it instead of progressing to more "advanced" books.  I'll read it again over the next day or two.)

    I only met Purdy a couple of times and his demeanour was old world and gentlemanly.  I'm not sure if he'd have been comfortable with some of our modern attitudes and manners, but he was, above all, adaptable.

    There's a good yarn about Moses and his boss that I'll PM you (to avoid offending anybody here).

  • 6 years ago

    Phil_from_Blayney

    I have always thought that Purdy ranks as one of the finest chess teacher's any one could have. Even now so many years after he published his teachings, they are still invaluable.

    Some that I still rely heavily on are simple development in the opening, improving your worst piece in ambiguous positions, and adopting simple realisable plans wherever possible.

    I am also inclined to think that the great man was right at the death too, he is rumoured to have said to his son, John, who was also playing in the tournament, "I have a win here, though it will take time." Alas, Caissa and Moses' boss had decided that Cecil's time was up.

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    bigmiggy:  Purdy's Osmosis Method --that's exactly what the book "The Chess Workout" is all about: www.thechessworkout.com

    Spot on, bigmiggy.  It's very similar.  (But don't blame CJS for the "osmosis" tag.  That's just my twisted mind at work.)

    uritbon:  so you say the Moses used Osmosis in order to get the israelites from one bank of the nile to the other?!! that's a very unconventional theory... i find it hard to imagine how he transported himself using Osmosis... :P

    Well, I almost said that, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, er uritbon, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    For instance, did you know that the first motor cycle in history was recorded in the Bible?  It says, "The sound of Moses' Triumph was heard all over the land." 

    And the longest slide in history? "A man went all the way from Jerusalem to Jericho on his ass."

    But my favourite story about the Exodus comes from Isaac Asimov in his collection of jokes and anecdotes:  Asimov Laughs Again.

    A little girl, home from Sunday school, told her mother about "an Israeli general named Moses who was retreating from Egypt.  The Egyptians were in hot pursuit and had the weight of tanks on their side.  Moses, taking casualties, was forced back upon the Red Sea where he faced annihilation.  Calling for air cover, he proceeded to throw a pontoon bridge hastily across..."

    By this time, Mrs Jones had finally managed to catch her breath and said, "Nancy!  Surely that is not what they taught you about Moses."

    "Well, not exactly," said Nancy, "but if I told it to you the way the teacher told it to me, you'd never believe it."

    (And, uritubon, good luck to you through the present difficulties...)

  • 6 years ago

    uritbon

    so you say the Moses used Osmosis in order to get the israelites from one bank of the nile to the other?!! that's a very unconventional theory... i find it hard to imagine how he transported himslef using Osmosis... :P

    anyway, very nice tipps, i personaly think it is very good to study chess more than you play, but it can also be very frustrating not to play a compare yourself to opponents, the fact that i don't have experience in tourrnament games makes me very unconfident in my play.

  • 6 years ago

    bigmiggy

    Purdy's Osmosis Method --that's exactly what the book "The Chess Workout" is all about: www.thechessworkout.com

  • 6 years ago

    Dozy

    emiab:  Going back to my tactics trainer session today - tactics trainer hasn't met anyone like me before !!!!!!!!!! He's up for a surprise.

    Give him hell, emi! 

  • 6 years ago

    emiab

    Heya David, gotta tell you your blog post comes right in time....I have just finished a tactics trainer session. The problems decided they should be either very easy - so that I miss this fact  and not find the sollution all the time - or very difficult - thus questioning my ability of ever getting to solve them without taking a look at the sollution.Surprised   When one begins to overlook the obvious , time passes by and the feeling is that it is wasted. Purdy's sollution is so obvious that it can be easily disregarded. Simple things are genious because of their simplicity. Their simplicity  gives everybody the same chance , it says : "whoever you are, you CAN DO IT ". I might add that if one should choose to apply Purdy's method , they should be aware of one simple thing that might happen in the process : their moves may not be correct in the first place. THAT IS OK. Accept that, approve that  and be willing to get better. Criticism has no positive value, it can only bring one down.   Going back to my tactics trainer session today - tactics trainer hasn't met anyone like me before !!!!!!!!!! He's up for a surprise. Tongue out

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