Who Can You Trust?

Who Can You Trust?

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member Dannyhume asked:

Why should I bother reading anything written by someone other than a top-10 or candidate super-GM from the last 5 years? If there is a reason, then why can’t that reasoning apply to reading the works of a lower master/expert if the reader is class A or below?

Dear Dannyhume:

I’ve seen comments like this on Amazon (usually by very low-rated players), though instead of asking a question (like you wisely did), most just say, with total certainty, that one should only read things by top grandmasters. These people loudly trumpet a view (on any subject) and insist that their view is fact. This method of ramming home a lie is very popular on a certain news station and is also a favorite technique of quite a few politicians. Incredibly, when people hear a statement made in this fashion, they tend to believe it! Thus, a politician can rave that a scientific viewpoint is completely invalid, and people begin to believe him instead of actual scientists!

It’s more than unfortunate that people react in this way (blind belief) to a stranger’s bluster, and it would be nice if people understood that “opinions” without vast experience and knowledge are usually well meaning pie-in-the-sky. Thus, I seek the top people in every field if I want answers that I can trust – if I’m worried that I might have a brain tumor, I would find a doctor that specializes in this (yes, I know that it’s cheaper if you go to the vet). If I needed someone to fix my car, I would find a skilled mechanic. If I had questions about Zen Buddhism, I wouldn’t ask a Fundamentalist Christian or a random guy off the street or Bill Gates, or believe what a radio DJ has to say about it. No, I would find a renowned expert on the subject – ideally a Zen Master, and pose my questions to him. Yet, it constantly astounds me to see a 1200 player make some sweeping proclamation and readers screaming, “Yes, he’s right! From now on I’ll follow his study program!”

However, in chess, is rating the thing that determines a player’s right to declare himself an authority on anything and everything about the game? No, I don’t believe that’s the case. I feel that certain people excel in certain areas. Thus, no grandmaster would claim to know as much about chess history as Edward Winter (generally viewed as the world’s leading chess historian). Many grandmasters can’t relate to non-masters, others might not be good with children, and others might know everything about quite a few openings, but have no interest (or knowledge) whatsoever about some strange system they view as nonsense.

Thus, there ARE cases where a chess professional can be supplanted by someone who’s an authority in one specific chess arena. But, in general, the words of a chess IM or GM should be respected, while the opinions of non-pros should be carefully dissected before you act on them.

In a perfect world, if I wanted to study the Caro-Kann I would buy the epic 1500 page “ANAND EXPLAINS EVERYTHING ABOUT THE CARO-KANN!” He offers cutting-edge analysis, his assessments are spot on, his detailed explanations about the plans for both sides are brilliantly written and full of passion, and everything is computer checked and also checked/edited by Nakamura and Topalov (both are Caro-Kann aficionados). This book is completely AWESOME! But, there are two problems:

1) It doesn’t exist!

2) Anand, Nakamura, and Topalov have better things to do with their time than write an opening book that gives away their secrets.

Okay, fair enough, but how about the classic KRAMNIK TEACHES CHESS, a book that explains all the rules and basic moves and then even takes a look at basic tactical concepts. Has to be great, right?

Once again, we face some problems (aside from the fact that this book doesn’t exist):

1) Why would Kramnik write such a book? Odds are that if such a book did come out, it would be written by a ghostwriter or the guy on the cover listed as, “With …so & so”.

2) Can Kramnik teach?

And here we run into a huge problem with chess books: top ten players rarely write opening books while they are trying to dominate their sport (they occasionally do write once they retire). So if you intend to wait for Anand, Kramnik, Carlsen, or Aronian to write an opening book, don’t hold your breath.

Moreover, even if they do write an opening book on your favorite opening, it will most likely be far too advanced for your level. Yes, the variations will be deep and complex, and yes, you won’t have any idea what they mean. Not very useful, is it?

But let’s go even further with this train of thought: Can all top 10 players write well? I don’t know, some can and (most likely) some can’t. Writing is a completely different talent than chess, and the two don’t always go together.

What about instructive chess manuals? Do top 10 players write many of these? No, they don’t. But even if a few of them did, we are left with two basic questions: can they write and can they TEACH? The ability to teach is a completely different skill-set, and a great player might be a terrible teacher.

So, in response to the “People should only read books by top 10 players” lie, you are faced with the following problems:

1) A person can possess enormous knowledge but he might not have the teaching gene – he might not be able to explain his ideas to low masters (2200), let alone players far below that!

2) Even if he can teach/write, his presentation/personality might not be conducive to your particular needs.

3) Concerning opening books, even top 10 players might have little interest and little knowledge of openings that interest you. Other players, International Masters and/or lower-tier Grandmasters, might specialize in those systems and thus offer far better books on that specific subject.

You also asked: “If there is a reason, then why can’t that reasoning apply to reading the works of a lower master/expert if the reader is class A or below?”

In a past article, I mentioned a man that was only rated 1500 who taught a chess class in a community college. He loved chess, and infected everyone around him with that love. He was a magnificent teacher, and was able to explain things to players 1300 and below in words that meant something to his audience. For those students, this 1500 teacher was a far better choice than any top 10 player.

So yes, yes, yes – sublime teaching skills often trump world-class chess understanding (depends on the needs and level of the student).

On the other hand, an ignorant know-it-all with a 2000 rating who teaches and never misses a chance to stare at his own image in a mirror is a money pit that, at best, is working as hard as he can to make you better (but failing due to inferior teaching skills or lack of knowledge), or at worst, is doing nothing but coating you in the sludge of his epic (but unearned) ego.


member Mybadid (rated 2012) said:

I think that these IM books have a lot of mistakes. We can only trust GM books (only some of them). I have even found many mistakes in some classics like How to Reassess Your Chess, Euwe middlegame books, Pachman books, Lasker strategy book.  By mistake I do not mean some typo but wrong move mistake. I have stopped believing in small authors (silman) after reading TRUE LIES IN CHESS. To silman – if u think this is criticism, accept it because truth cannot be mended.

Regarding Mybadid’s letter:

Note the technique? He made comprehensive judgments, he blustered, he bragged, he pounded his chest, and he ended by categorically stating that his view was TRUTH. Period. He’s telling you, “There’s no room for argument – just accept my truth as truth and don’t dare challenge me!”

Highly effective, in that he literally browbeats the reader into accepting his ranting as fact. But is it true? I think Mr. Mybadid believes it is, but it’s actually ignorance based on not understanding all the factors involved, and on an overreaction to his love of TRUE LIES IN CHESS by Lluis Comas Fabrego.

First, I must thank Mr. Mybad for placing me in such esteemed company as Euwe, Pachman, and Lasker. That’s two World Champions! And, he’s right – we all did make analytical mistakes. So did Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Keres, and virtually everyone else who ever wrote a chess book. How can this be?

The truth of the matter is that ALL books written before computer checking are filled with analytical errors. This doesn’t mean that these chess legends were weak or lazy, but rather that chess truth is often almost impossible to find (a salute to the amazing complexity of the game we all love). So do these errors make Alekhine’s notes in his best game books or in New York 1924 any less awesome? No, they don’t. If Botvinnik messes up an assessment due to faulty analysis, should we toss the book on his best games in the trash? No, his games and notes are magnificent!

But how about more modern tomes? Yes, even computer-checked books have errors. Why? For two reasons: 1) If a writer had a computer look over every position in a book for days on end, the book would never be finished. At some point you have to put a mix of the machine and your judgment on paper, calm with the knowledge that much of what you say will be proven true in the long term, and some won’t; 2) The “truth” of yesterday’s computer will often prove to be the “faulty analysis” discovered by tomorrow’s (far more powerful) computer.

In Kasparov’s epic GARRY KASPAROV ON MODERN CHESS PART THREE: KASPAROV VS. KARPOV 1986-1987, he explained his decision to reanalyze his 2nd and 3rd matches with Karpov: “Whereas this is the first time I have commented on the fourth match (apart from a few games which I annotated for Informator), the second and third matches have already been covered in detail in my old book, DVA MATCHA (1987). By the standards of the time this was quite a high-quality work, but by no means all the comments have stood the test of time – and of the computer! Many chess evaluations have undergone changes, and this has forced me to make substantial corrections to a seemingly harmonious ‘exemplary text’.”

As you can see, Kasparov himself admits that errors are unavoidable before the modern crop of monster engines were invented. Does this mean that his five book series, MY GREAT PREDECESSORS (the first came out in 2003), are free of errors since they were heavily checked by computers? No, critics quickly chimed in and pointed out many analytical mistakes. Did those mistakes ruin my appreciation of Kasparov’s prose and analysis? Not at all, I love all those books!

Clearly, errors are part of analysis (unless you’re Lluis Comas Fabrego, who happily points out the errors of others in his TRUE LIES IN CHESS, while proudly presenting his own ‘pristine’ ideas).

Analytical errors can be viewed as more embarrassing (well, I never view analytical errors as embarrassing, but that’s just me) if a book is all about analysis, but in most cases other factors make up the backbone of a chess book: If it’s about chess history, then insight, writing ability, and historical acumen rule. If it’s a book of instruction, the author’s ability to communicate his ideas and teach makes or breaks it.

When it came to my HOW TO REASSESS YOUR CHESS, I always viewed it as a book of concepts, with a solid theme of learning to read most positions via the acquisition of certain positional skills (based on imbalances). The only version that was computer checked is the present one (4th edition), and (not counting typos) some errors will unavoidably be found there too, in spite of help from both Rybka and Fritz. While any error is annoying (only because people using engines will be distracted from what I’m trying to teach), my ideas and prose and clear examples make the book, and I’m proud that it’s dripping with instructive content, and practical easy-to-understand ideas that can be used by just about anyone.

As for Mybad’s glee in finding errors in Euwe’s middlegame books, or Pachman’s, or in Lasker’s strategy book, his “discovery” was already known to everyone in the loop, and nobody cares. Euwe’s two-book set, THE MIDDLEGAME, Pachman’s wonderful COMPLETE CHESS STRATEGY series, and Lasker’s book, are ageless classics that never grow old. All are fun to read, charming, and full of instructive material. Next time you are reading any of the books I’ve mentioned, by any of the authors, if your engine begins to scream that a position which the author says is equal isn’t equal at all, but is closer to 0.38 (for reasons that it’s unable to explain, except by more steams of unintelligible moves), turn the thing off (or kick it across the room), concentrate on what the author is trying to share with you, and you might find that you actually learn something.

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