Book Reveiw: The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions Into Chess Mastery, by Jeremy Silman

Book Reveiw: The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions Into Chess Mastery, by Jeremy Silman

| 10 | For Beginners

Hello fellow beginners!

Have you ever opened a chess book written by an illustrious GM, and found your head swimming within the first three pages? I know I have. It just goes to show you that just because you can play chess at a master level, doesn't necessarily mean you can teach it or write about it at a high level.

I had heard that IM Jeremy Silman had a reputation for being a world class chess teacher, and that his books were very good for beginners. After beginning working through The Amateur's Mind, I fully concur with this judgment.

The concept of the book is simple, yet refreshing. The author studied the games of his beginning students, asking them at each turn "Why did you just make that move?" He then synthysises this information into a concise, easy to use method of examining a given position. This method is great if you, like me, often find yourself playing too fast, and often playing moves that have little or nothing to do with an overall strategic plan.

Silman's system focuses on teaching the student to recognize and exploit imbalances in a position. Silman lays out seven types of imbalances, and includes a chapter explaining, through the use of student games, how to exploit each. The seven types of imbalances Silman presents are:


  • Minor Pieces - The interplay between Bishops and Knights. For example, if you have two bishops, and your opponent has two knights, you should be trying to open the position. Furthermore, you want to place pawns in such a way as to take away the knights forward positions.
  • Pawn Structure - This chapter deals with passed pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, etc.
  • Space - We all know the rule: control the center. But how? And if the center becomes closed, which wing should we play on?
  • Files and Squares - Files, ranks, and diagonals serve as pathways of invasion to our pieces (as well as our opponent's) and weak squares in our opponent's camp can serve as homes to our pieces. This chapter explains how (and when) to open a file, how to spot and exploit weak spaces, etc.
  • Development - A lead in development gives you more force in a certain sector of the board. But, this is a temporary imbalance, so use it, or lose it.
  • Initiative - You should always seek to dictate the tempo of a game. This to, is a temporary imbalance.
I think too often, we neophytes fall into several common mental traps. First off, we approach the board looking for "a good move" or even "the best move" without asking ourselves "the best move to what end?" Often, particularly against stronger players, we eventually find ourselves merely passively responding to our opponents threats, while occasionally making harmless threats of our own. I have heard beginners say things like "Always check, it could be mate" and exhult in "chasing the Queen around." These traps are a sure way to find yourself at the losing end of the game.

Silman's method is simple. Look at the board. What are the imbalances? Do you control more or less space? What is the distribution of minor pieces? Are there any weak squares in your opponents position? Can you, or should you, open a file for your rook?

Applying this method does several things. First, it forces you to slow down and examine the board, from both your own and your opponent's position. Secondly, it allows you to find the weak points in both positions, thereby shoring yours up, and exploiting your opponent's.

But most importantly, it provides you with a plan. For example "I have bishops, my opponent has knights. Therefore I am going to blast open the center, making my bishops more powerful than his knights." It also enables you to see what your opponent's plan should be, making it that much easier to counter.

I understand that Silman deals with these topics, and others, in greater detail in Reasses Your Chess and the workbook of the same name. Those of you more advanced may want to start there. But if you are a beginner, if you often find yourself staring at a position wondering what you should do next, then I highly recommend this book.
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