Non-Master Assessments

Non-Master Assessments

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member Jemptymethod said:

Here’s the thing Silman. This is the second week in a row where you’ve denigrated masters. But OMG when I dispute an IM’s opinion about an opening variation, I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, I need to learn to be humble, etcetera. You ever consider, as your article seems to suggest, that I might just be a class-A player, who, when it comes to openings, or at least certain specific openings, has knowledge 300 - 500 points higher?

Dear Jemptymethod:

First, I'm not denigrating anyone. I'm merely pointing out that masters have a multitude of weaknesses which, I hope, convinces the erstwhile student to have more confidence when he faces them. By destroying the myth of master invulnerability, I'm also giving chess hopefuls the assurance that if they work very hard for several years, then the master rank is doable. I admit that I go even further and show everyone (IMs and lower tiered GMs too) is more or less a fish compared to the super-elite. However, while making master is possible for anyone who is willing to make the necessary sacrifices (and few are willing to make those very significant sacrifices!), getting an IM or GM title is a completely different animal -- those titles will, in general (there are always exceptions), only be achieved if you start at a very young age.

Okay, now let's discuss your opening acumen.

I think it’s VERY possible that you might know more than I (or quite a few other IMs) do about some specific opening(s) (especially if it’s a tactics/attack/gambit-based opening -- your chance of knowing more than I do about a subtle positional opening is less plausible since engines won’t help there and deep chess knowledge would be called for). First off, I’m not an expert on many systems, so if you dedicate yourself to one, learn all known theory, and use monster engines (day in and day out) to seek new moves, then you most certainly know more about that line than I do.

The one big problem with non-titled players writing opening books (an extension of a non-titled player knowing a specific opening really well) has always been with assessments. They often do a great job of accumulating material and putting it into a very nice form. And they also can come up with lots of interesting new ideas. In fact, they often love an opening and that passion shines through. I’ve given highly positive reviews to quite a few 2200 - 2300 players who have put such books together. But over and over again, the assessments are off-kilter.

So, do you know more about Latvian Gambit theory than me? I’m sure you do! I fully accept that. Can you assess quiet Latvian positions as well I can? No, you can’t. 

To push this point home, I’ll give a (partial) review I wrote (back in 2004) about a book titled: THE BELGRADE GAMBIT by Bruce Monson:

 With opening books being cranked out at warp speed, it’s becoming more and more difficult to  find a product that is produced with love, passion and a sincere desire to be as thorough and  accurate as possible. Mr. Monson has achieved this in a book that offers an emotionally  appealing introduction, a fine historical preface and, of course, an amazing amount of analysis  mixed with lots of enlightening commentary (thank God! I hate wordless opening books).

 Going far beyond any other book I have ever seen on this kind of sideline, Monson offers dozens  of new games and a seemingly endless supply of new moves and ideas in his efforts to make  this opening appear worthwhile and interesting. Having said all that, I must quote a well- known IM and consider his message: “Non-titled players can often come up with new moves,  but they aren’t able to correctly evaluate the positional results.”

 I have found this to be true in the vast majority of cases and, sadly enough, Mr. Monson often  falls victim to this problem.

 A strength and a weakness is the author’s love for this line, which makes us want to cheer at  times and also makes us shake our head in despair when he praises lines and analysis that  should be tossed in the gutter or, at the very least, be viewed with a skeptical eye. An example  of these failings can be seen in the following main line: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4  5.Nd5 Nxe4 6.Qe2 f5 7.Ng5 d3 8.cxd3 Nd4 9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qh4 c6 11.Nc3 (a move that Monson  feels is playable. Of course, he also gives everything anyone could ever dream of on the main line with 11.dxe4) 11...Nxc3 12.bxc3 Ne6 (He also gives some beautiful lines against 12…Nc2+) 13.f4! (his exclamation). At this point I must admit that I don’t know anything about this opening (I will never come close to Mr. Monson’s knowledge of this system), but who in the world would want to play White’s position after the simple 13...Bg7 14.d4 h6 15.Nf3 Qxh4+ 16.Nxh4 Kf7 17.Bd3 (Monson gives this move in an analogous position. The threat is 18.g4) 17...Bf6 18.Nf3 d6? [NEW COMMENT: I left out any tactical alternatives for Black to show that quiet positional moves are often more than adequate to refute unsound flights of fancy]

Isn’t Black a solid pawn up with a safe position? One must be careful not to allow the desire for compensation to interfere with the reality of the position (many other examples could easily be given, but I hope that this will suffice).

The problem with overzealous evaluations is that they lead the weaker reader on a path that promises wealth and riches, only to bestow a fever dream that bursts when the proper medication is applied. This doesn’t bother professionals, who want to make their own decisions about a line’s worth (and who appreciate new and original ideas), but other players should use caution.

Another example can be seen in a review I did (also in 2004) about a book titled: THE DYNAMIC PHILIDOR COUNTER-GAMBIT by James R. West. Though I praise the detailed analysis and his obvious love for the variation in question, I point out that he recommends bad positions due to an overzealous attitude and an eye for tactics that misses the obvious warning signals that would be made obvious if he was able to look at the chaos with a trained positional eye:

In his zeal for the variation, Mr. West has tried to rehabilitate lines that older theory has frowned on. Most authors don’t go to this kind of trouble (and Mr. West deserves a lot of credit for putting out this kind of effort), but this very positive feature is also a major pitfall. Original analysis is only useful to the weaker player if it is done by a player of sufficient strength; if it is given with detailed explanation of tactical motifs and plans; if it is done by someone who isn’t blinded by his desire to see the variation live (this leads to faulty evaluations). Sadly, Mr. West recommends lines that are virtually losing. For example, one critical line goes as follows: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5 4.dxe5 fxe4 5.Ng5 d5 6.e6 Nh6 7.Nc3 c6 8.Ngxe4 dxe4 9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qe5 Rg8 11.Bg5 Bg7 12.e7 Qd2+ 13.Kxd2 Bxe5 14.Bxh6 g5. Now Mr. West says: “After 14...g5!, White has several tries for advantage, but Black seems to get a satisfactory position in each case.”

Really? Black’s development isn’t anything special, White has the two Bishops, and White’s extra pawn on e7 can easily turn out to be very threatening. As I.M. Jack Peters said, “Even if Black regains his pawn, he will still be worse.” Nevertheless, a first glance assessment by Silman and Peters isn’t sufficient reason to throw the line out with the dishwater. We have to prove ourselves with analysis. White has several possibilities here, but I like the one recommended by I.M. Watson: 15.h4 gxh4 16.Rxh4 and, in the actual review, Watson gives lots of lines that prove Black’s massive inferiority.

The idea that non-masters (or, for that matter, even 2200 and 2300 players) will have serious trouble with strategic/positional assessments has been voiced by many chess professionals. Here’s one final example from a book review by grandmaster Glenn Flear (published in NIC Yearbook 90): “However, with the greatest of respect, the book is missing the presence of a higher-ranking analyst who could have checked through and tidied up some of the more fanciful analysis.”

Non-masters, aided by their chess engines, DO come up with important pieces of analysis (the New In Chess Yearbooks give many examples of this in their Forum section). And a non-master that memorizes reams of Elephant Gambit opening analysis will know (in the vast majority of cases) more theory about that line than most grandmasters do. Unfortunately, in a serious over-the-board game, once theory runs out, playing ability kicks in. In that case, even if the lower-rated player finds himself with a comfortable position, he’ll almost certainly get outplayed and lose.

Nevertheless, there IS something to be said for the non-master opening aficionado who spends far more time looking at the first few moves than polishing up his overall chess understanding. The study of openings can easily become a life calling – a happy addiction that gives the lover of openings decades of ceaseless joy. I fully understand the euphoric state that I used to get when I would go “underground” and spend several straight days working through some variation that caught my interest. The intensity of purpose, the ecstasy I felt when I discovered something new, and the continuing intensity that wrapped me in its arms when I spent days more proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the new idea/move/plan was pure gold. And when you actually play and win a game with it – wow – it’s hard to fully share the rush this gives you. Yes, when you finally come out of that opening cave your wife might well be gone, never to be seen again, or your pet might be laying on its back, tongue hanging lifelessly out, legs akimbo, starved to death by your forgetfulness. But the act of creation is worth any price, and these losses of wife and pet are mere sacrifices to the goddess of chess for the gift she’s given you.

So Jemptymethod, I’m sure you are far more versed in certain lines than I am – all the more power to you! But don’t mistake a high level understanding of chess with memorized lines and a computer’s sparking tactical discoveries (with you at the helm, of course). Be honest about what you can and cannot do, and relish the deep satisfaction that opening study clearly offers you, and the overwhelming joy you feel when you use these lines to rip opponents limb from limb.

I should add that there are many fans of chess that aren’t great players, but find their calling in the mastery of endgames, or in a deep study of chess history, or simply the rush of competition (whether they win or lose isn’t of great importance, it’s the battle that counts). Just one of the many aspects of chess can, by itself, make one’s life far richer and far more satisfying. As Tarrasch said (often quoted, but why not say it again?): “Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.”

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