Snarky Silman Presents: Readers’ Questions

Snarky Silman Presents: Readers’ Questions

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The Conflict That Never Was

Jeffrey Baffo wrote (on Facebook):

Move First, Think Later. That book creates a major conflict between Jeremy Silman/traditional methods and what Hendriks is saying.”

Answer: I’m answering this question for all of those that are confused by Willy Hendriks’s book Move First, Think Later. I get a lot of mail about this book, mainly because the author goes out of his way to attack me. But people are also confused by the book’s apparent message that classic teaching methods are all wrong. What they don’t realize is that Hendriks and I are actually in agreement on his main point (there is no “major conflict”), which is all about the accumulation of zillions of chess patterns.

I’m going to give my full review (from my website, here, not only because of the Move First, Think Later questions, but also because of the Rapid Chess Improvement questions (they still pour in to this day!). If you want to see my whole, unkind Rapid Chess Improvement review, here’s the link.


Some years ago, I reviewed a book with the title Rapid Chess Improvement (by de la Maza). Amateurs rushed to buy it since it promised... well, rapid chess improvement. His “discovery” was (in a nutshell) that a mastery of tactics will make you a much better player. And, on top of that, he showed you how to master those tactics – by spending several hours a day, seven days a week for six months studying tactics (I’m not making this up). Doesn’t sound very rapid to me. But yes, he was right – if you study tactics for several hours a day, seven days a week for six months you will indeed find that your tactical ability has vastly improved.

The sad thing about Rapid Chess Improvement (other than horrible writing and very little content) is that his “big secret” isn’t a secret at all – every chess teacher (from the beginning of time) tells you to study tactics. What made the book so attractive to low rated players is the sweet promise of improvement with minimal work (well, it turned out that he demanded you do a lot of work, but readers of the book more or less ignored that fact). In effect, it’s like TV commercials that promise you huge weight losses if you take one magic pill a day. The public tends to crave success without effort, and such things are an easy sell.

Now we have Move First, Think Later. The author will tell you the secret (yes, another “secret”) of how to just toss out a move and bash-bam-boom, it’s the right move! How cool is that?

The selling of the “chess is easy” mentality works quite well, but we all know it can’t be true (can it?), and it isn’t. What sets Willy Hendriks apart from de la Maza and his Rapid Chess Improvement is that Hendriks is a strong player (de la Maza barely made a 2000 rating and then retired from chess shortly thereafter), Hendriks is a good writer, Hendriks is a funny guy with lots of personality, and Hendriks has some serious teaching credentials. However, in his desire to shock the public and make a profit from the masses of “chess is easy” hopefuls, he obfuscates truth when it serves his purpose.

Don’t get me wrong. What Mr. Hendriks says is both very true and not true at all. How can that be, you may ask? Well, what’s true for an IM or GM is often not true for a 1400 player. For me to explain this, we’ll have to go right to the core of his “move first, think later” philosophy: PATTERNS.


When people ask me how good players got good, I say, “They acquire tens of thousands of chess patterns.” The fact is, the more patterns you absorb the stronger you will be. That includes positional patterns, tactical patterns, structural patterns, piece placement patterns, timing patterns, and on and on it goes. And the way to get patterns? Play over countless grandmaster games quickly… Just rack up the numbers as you see pawn structures float by, combinations hit the board, weaknesses exploited, etc. Over time, your subconscious will absorb all the patterns zipping past and suddenly you’ll find that it all just computes. Keep in mind that the more games the better, and if you have aspirations to become an IM or GM, you need to look at 100,000 (preferably lots more than that) games.

So when Mr. Hendriks tells you that, armed with enough patterns, you can just reach out and play a move that at the very least makes some sense, he is completely correct. And that’s why so many good players have applauded the book, since he’s telling you a truth (note that it’s not THE truth, but just one truth based on playing strength… more on this in a bit). Hendriks lets his fingers use patterns to make his moves; other titled players do the same (including me), so (in the mind of Mr. Hendriks) why not everyone? And if this is indeed true (which it is), then aren’t all those tedious teaching methods that discuss strategies and plans nothing but garbage?

Here’s the problem: what’s true for titled players isn’t true for the chess masses! When I tell people to look at tens of thousands of games, they go crazy and tell me I’m wrong, that I’m an idiot, that nobody has the time or inclination to do that, and that there must be better ways to improve. Sadly, without patterns, you won’t get far, and without looking at tons of games, you won’t absorb enough patterns.

So what to do? I faced this problem long before I wrote How to Reassess Your Chess. How to make my students (who refuse to look at tens of thousands of master games) stronger, and also give them enough chess understanding to look at master games and actually recognize many of the things the masters are doing? In other words, how could I not only make them better players, but also give them the ability to enjoy the game more on other non-playing levels as well?

And this is where Mr. Hendriks and his fawning cadre of IMs and GMs drop the ball. They just don’t seem to understand that most people aren’t able to turn their fingers into magical move-making machines.

Willy Hendriks

I must add that Mr. Hendriks picks me out as the high priest of idiotic teaching, and that my ideas have somehow influenced a whole group of other teachers (who should know better) to teach in the same false manner. Yet he (and every grandmaster that has ever annotated a game or explained a move in some analysis) uses the same terminology I do in explaining the moves he plays.

Mr. Hendriks goes out of his way to disprove my ideas by pointing out exceptions to my rules, though I have always made it abundantly clear that the beauty of chess is that all rules are limited and should just be basic guidelines, and that exceptions are everywhere.

If all rules (like “the best reaction to an attack on the wing is a counterattack in the center”) are limited, then why bother with them in the first place? The answer is simple: these rules give the beginner a base to build on. 

As for my idea of imbalances (which Mr. Hendriks evidently seems to think I created without any thought or reason), it was created as a shortcut to pattern recognition. Since most students were not willing to do it the old fashioned way, I decided that imbalances would give them a full diet of patterns. For example, when I harp on knights needing advanced support points, that idea/pattern sticks in a student’s head forever, ultimately allowing his hand to reach out and herd his horse to the promised land. The same goes for space, minor piece battles, etc. Thus imbalances are, in effect, a digestible way to have chess hopefuls drink the “medicine” (patterns) they usually shy away from.

Ultimately both Hendriks and myself are singing the same song, but while he preaches to the choir (i.e., people that know this and have already acquired many patterns), I preach to those that don’t have the knowledge he somehow feels everyone on earth has. In effect, Mr. Hendriks isn’t teaching players in the beginner to 2000 range anything at all. Like de la Maza before him, all Mr. Hendriks is doing is glorifying an age-old (and well known) truth while pretending that he’s come up with something new and wonderful.

Having said all this, I have to give Move First, Think Later a heartfelt recommendation. His love affair with De Groot is very sweet: he reminds me of a youngster who hears something interesting, gets really excited by it, decides that it’s the ultimate in wisdom, and quickly becomes its most ardent spokesman. And it IS interesting. However, that kind of chess psychology is also completely useless in the practical sense. But does a book have to be practical to be fun? Not at all! Mr. Hendriks keeps the reader’s attention at all times, often makes us laugh, entertains us with some really fine positions, and constantly makes us think. And perhaps where I’ve failed to convince the masses that patterns really are the soul of chess, Willy Hendriks will succeed. 


Is the old saying, ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ True?

Xeelfiar asked:

“I want to ask you an important question. I was wondering if just practice can make you a better player? I mean, if someone learns the moves, then just plays without studying chess at all, can he become a strong player? IMO he can’t, but some people don’t think this, and they say that by just playing you can become a better player. But they also say that they have a coach, so they can review their games with a stronger player and gain chess knowledge with the coach’s help. In my opinion, chess mastery in the modern days is a mixture between study, playing, and carefully analyzing your own games. What do you think about that?” 


Your question mixed up “stronger player” with “chess mastery.” Playing lots of games and trying to learn from the mistakes you make will certainly help you improve (become a “stronger player”) to some degree. However, looking at your games on your own won’t help you see things that you didn’t know in the first place. A computer will point out tactics, but won’t explain strategic niceties. A good coach can be very useful, but not everyone has the money to hire one.

Becoming a “stronger player” might be leaping from 1000 to 1300 in a year, which isn’t bad. However, in some cases incredible jumps are made by simply matching yourself, over and over, against superior players (each time you lose to a good player, you are “stealing” his knowledge).

When I was 14 years old, I knew a player who learned very late in life (I think he was over 70), and never had a lesson. But he played in lots of club tournaments and, just by experience (and obvious talent!) quickly got in the 1900-2000 range!

So yes, you can (and probably will) improve to some degree by just playing games and becoming more experienced. Of course, becoming a chess master is a whole different kettle of fish.

John Grefe is a great example of a self-taught player. His first rating was 2131 (when he was 15 years old), and he never had a chess teacher. After that, his results evened out for a while as his experience grew. In August of 1965 he suddenly jumped to 2174, hovered close to master for a few years, and then made another leap to master in July 1970.


John moved up the rating ladder due to hard work, talent, and playing as many strong players as possible (if you just play guys you can beat, you’ll never get anywhere, other than being a legend in your own mind). Here’s what he had to say in an interview:

“I came to Berkeley, and there happened to be a number of chess masters living there. We organized some tournaments among ourselves and occasionally played against each other in the various random local Swiss system events. I improved gradually as opposition improved.”

So you don’t need a coach to become a chess master, but you do need a serious work ethic and the understanding that losing sucks, but it’s often the best thing that can happen to you. Thus, look at tons of master games, study the notes of the chess greats, and finally play as many superior players as you can and then analyze those games to bits!



Lost in Translation

GonFe asked:

“I really want to buy your books (How to Reassess Your Chess and the Endgame Course mainly) but I can’t find them anywhere in my country. What I wanted to know is, do you have any idea if they have been translated to Spanish?”


No, they haven’t been translated into Spanish. For some reason, the Spanish market is hard to get into, and I’ve discussed this with various chess publishers who also don’t know how to enter that market.

At the moment my books have been translated into German, Italian, and French. I think a Chinese translation of How to Reassess Your Chess is also in the works. I would love a Spanish translation, so if a Spanish publisher reads this, contact me and let’s get it done!

BTW: translations occur after a foreign publisher makes contact with the writer’s publisher. They buy the rights for that particular language, they hire a skilled translator, and then they publish it in the appropriate language.



Changing the Format

A Few Dozen People have asked:

If it’s possible to do my articles (especially very detailed ones) in game form (I guess with notes) so they can turn them into a PGN file or who knows what else.


I use the format I do because I care about teaching, and the visibility of key points is extremely important to me. In my last article on the King’s Indian (a wild, long, extremely complex battle) I gave the whole game (sans notes) at the end, and gave full boards for earlier theoretical battles. But overall, I gave notes (often with analysis boards so you don’t need to reach for a set) and prose in book form since I feel reading this stuff is very important, and cramming all that information into PGN (or a board with notes) would result in people missing the things I want them to concentrate on.

Doing what I do actually takes far more time then stuffing the whole thing in one board. I put the extra time in because I think it helps readers that actually want to learn. However, I have a simple fix for those that want to get all that material into PGN: put it in yourself! It’s not hard to do. Or, if you want me to do it for you (on an individual basis), send me a huge check (new cars, first class round trip tickets to Japan, yachts, etc. are also good) and I’ll consider it.


Silman Short Circuits!

Hippojo, who took offense at the following paragraph from my Grefe article:

When he appeared, fresh from his U.S. Championship triumph, we shook hands and, in true “ignorant youth” fashion, I asked, “Can I show you one of my games?” (That’s the same as meeting a plumber at a party and asking, “Could you fix my sewage line for free?”). His answer, the first words he ever spoke to me, taught me a quick lesson about chess etiquette: “Where’s your money?”

Hippojo wrote:

“Is it just me or does this sound totally wrong to anyone else? For one thing, being a chess professional is first and foremost a passion. Being a plumber, I would imagine, is usually not the case. Also taking a few minutes to discuss a game cannot be compared to “fixing someone’s sewage.” While I’m not a chess professional, I’m quite decent in a number of games and I cannot remember myself refusing to give advice to beginners who asked me in the past. The champion’s reply, if not in jest, was just a d*ck move, especially in that particular situation (sharing an apartment, etc.).”


Hippojo’s comment creates the same rage I feel when people say, “All ebooks should be $4 max” or “That app cost 99 cents and I want my money back!”

In both these cases, the consumer fails to take into account the endless hours of work that went into creating a book or app (the writer needs to be paid, the typesetter needs to be paid, the people creating the ebook or app need to be paid, and in the case of Apple or Amazon, they get 30% off the top), and the consumer doesn’t seem to care if the writer gets next to nothing. All that matters is that the consumer gets things for free, or for as little as possible. Pure selfishness and a “me, me, me” mentality has become the new enlightenment.

However, Hippojo’s comment enrages me for a couple of reasons.

First off, Grefe was living on a floor! He had few possessions, no money, and often didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Moreover, he spent years of hard work acquiring the skills that allowed him to win the U.S. Championship. According to Hippojo, Grefe was supposed to give free lessons to anyone that asked. Would most of the people who demanded free advice pay Grefe’s rent if he was about to be tossed onto the street? From my experience, the answer is no. Thus, the mentality is: “Give me free services and please don’t bore me with your tales of poverty.”

Next up on my hate parade is Hippojo’s, “Being a chess professional is first and foremost a passion.”

WHAT? Ideally everyone should be passionate about his profession. Scientists are – but they get paid. Doctors are – to the best of my knowledge, they also get paid. Teachers should be passionate – they also get paid (though not as much as they should be). And I’m sure good old Hippojo also has a job (be it a passion or pure miserable drudge) – am I wrong is saying he is also getting paid?

Having an IM or GM title is like having a Masters or Doctorate. They all put many years of deep study and effort into earning their degree, and they all should be given respect and a good income for doing so.

Alas, in chess, music, or the arts it’s not uncommon for the skilled artist to, like Grefe, have nothing. May I suggest that Hippojo go to his employer right away and tell him that, from this moment forth, he no longer wants to get paid – that he will happily do the job for free?

Yes, Hippojo, you are right. Something does “sound totally wrong.” It’s not Grefe’s proper retort to my innocent but ignorant question (Grefe taught me an important lesson), it’s your own epic ignorance.



A Master Painter Shares His Work

Aledsinchina wrote:

“I thought I’d take the liberty of making you the new image you were after. While I know this isn’t what you meant, I also know it’s what you really meant. As you can see from the image, I’m a master artist and I wanted to donate this piece to you as a way of saying thank you for writing such brilliant articles. In all seriousness, though, it’s Wolverine on a lounger smoking a pipe.” 


This concerns question 11 in my article, Hannibal Lecter Presents: Readers’ Questions. Some people asked why I use Crowley as my avatar, and at the end of my response, I said:

“Since I’m into Buddhism and Shinto, perhaps my next avatar will be a Shinto priest, or the Buddha, or I may return to less serious images – perhaps a wolverine sitting in a lounge chair smoking a pipe?”

Mr. Aledsinchina, I will keep this incredible work of art next to my paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh. I admit that I’ve already offered the image on Ebay for $20,000.00. Nobody has bought it yet. Anyone that’s interested can do the Ebay route or contact me and we’ll arrange payment. 


Of course, I actually meant the animal and not the super hero, but your work is so exquisite that I’ll share it with members. Thanks for helping me end this article with a smile.


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