Disagreeing with Silman: The argument against studying master games

NM linlaoda
May 27, 2015, 5:21 AM |

Before I say anything, I want to start by saying that I deeply respect IM Jeremy Silman as he was instrumental to my chess development very early. His works How to Reassess your Chess and Reassess your Chess workbook helped to make me think critically about chess in a strategic manner.


That said, it's not all roses as there is something that he has been recommending that I do not quite approve of. In his recent article

Tactics Or Positional Play? The Ladies Return!

He writes: "I’ve long insisted that the best way to improve (aside from playing stronger players) is to look at reams of master games. (Silman)"


In fact, he's made this suggestion many times in his articles at Chess.com and even in his books. As I said before, reading his books helped me to improve dramatically early on, but this comment of his also served to dampen my development.

My claim: Studying master games is NOT the best way to study.

I do agree that studying master games here and there is great - if not to pick up a few ideas, it also helps to reinforce your chess culture, but the claim that it is the BEST way to study is just not true. Here's my arguments formatted in the most uninteresting way possible:


1) Going through master games is PASSIVE learning, which, in other subjects besides chess as well, has shown to be significantly worse than ACTIVE learning. Active learning in chess means SOLVING puzzles (as opposed to reading).

2) The main argument for studying master games is that one can learn "strategic" or "positional" themes. This is in fact true: studying GM games especially those from positional players (Kramnik, Adams for example) definitely will help one positionally - but is this really the BEST way to improve positionally/strategically?

If you want to learn math you don't read a book about math, you read a math textbook. Thus, if you want to learn about positional chess, you read a book about positional chess (you directly study positional chess). The same can be said about endgames (Silman has a very nice endgame book as well!!!) and tactics.

3) As his articles are mostly geared towards <1800 players, many starting players might begin to shape their chess training around only studying master games. When I did it before, it involved looking at games from Chessbase/ chess.com or chessgames.com (basically any chess database). My rating reached a plateau, fast - and did not go up until I started solving problems (if you're interested, tactical puzzles that is!)


Silman has done a great job in giving one the tools to improve, but unfortunately his insistence that studying master games is the best way to improve is something that I can't endorse, especially for players <2200

If you were too lazy to read the whole thing and just skimmed to the bottom for the bottomline: Chess is divided into themes like tactics, positional/strategic, endgame, opening, etc. If you want to improve in each of these areas, the best way is to tackle each one individually, rather than trying to "tackle them all at once" by studying complete master games. It is appealing, but unfortunately it just doesn't work (at least for me...)