GM Moskalenko responds to ChessVibes review of Revolutionize Your Chess

PeterDoggers
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Revolutionize your chessOn January 28th we published a review of Viktor Moskalenko's latest book Revolutionize Your Chess, and it wasn't a positive one. Now we have received a reaction by Mr Moskalenko, which we're happy to publish as an open letter here at ChessVibes.

In his review of Revolutionize Your Chess our reviewer Arne Moll wrote that he didn't like the book. He used strong words, like 'amazingly silly', 'rather confusing', 'extremely simplistic' and 'hopelessly flawed'. Here's GM Moskalenko's reaction:


On January 28 ChessVibes posted a singularly negative review, written by Arne Moll, of my new book Revolutionize Your Chess. The way Mr Moll approached my book, the tone of his review, the many (in my view) unjustified points he makes, and the subsequent vitriolic reactions by quite a few ChessVibes readers (some of whom confessed they didn’t know my book at all) did shock me.

My initial reaction was quite emotional. I really could not understand what I did to deserve Mr Moll’s bashing. On a Spanish website I did question Mr Moll’s motives, an unjustified action for which I have apologized. Now, after I have had some time to reflect, I am very grateful that ChessVibes has allowed me to post this more considered reaction.

Mr Moll hits his review off by venting his irritation that there are appearing many “improve your chess” books on the market. He confesses that he is not really interested in those books, because improving is only of secondary interest to him. Could it be that this negative attitude towards this type of works has coloured what he writes on my book? Because the sole purpose of Revolutionize Your Chess is indeed this: to give to aspiring club players a set of tools with which they can improve their chess. I cannot help that Mr Moll dislikes the genre, and I cannot help that there are other books that make the same claim. But I think my book deserves to be judged for what it is. Mr Moll does not do this. In his incredibly fierce attack on my book he uses hyperbole, sarcasm and condescension in an apparent effort to humiliate me. He calls a part of my book ‘amazingly silly’, ‘extremely simplistic’ and ‘hopelessly flawed’. He says somewhere that when I write about the basic concepts of chess I ‘didn’t have a clue’, and he calls me ‘a show-off’. But, strangely, he fails to do one important thing: he does not contend that my system isn’t working! He has not tested, or even probed, if a chess player who does what I recommend in my book and who uses the tools I hand to him, becomes a better player or not. I will explain, later on, why I maintain that my system works. Mr Moll heavily focuses on the foreword and the first two chapters of my books, in which I describe the structure of my system. Indeed 70% of his review is on less than 10% of my book. Briefly: in this part I offer a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of the game: Chess Skills, Personal Skills, as well as my 5 so called “Touchstones”: tools to use for a dynamic understanding of all positions on the board. I also propose a test, which I jokingly call the Moskalenko Test, which my students use to rate their performance in a game. Obviously, Mr Moll does not like what he sees. One of Mr Moll’s big problems is that I say my system is ‘revolutionary’, while he recognizes various elements in my system that other writers have mentioned before me. He seems to think that finding elements in my book that also feature in other chess writers’ books somehow falsifies my claim that my system could lead to a revolution. I think that the comprehensiveness of my system (Personal Skills, Chess Skills, Touchstones and Test) is indeed new, and that most club players who follow my advice will truly revolutionize their chess, and become a better player. In the Foreword of my book I tried to find the reason why most chess players, once they have reached a certain level, fail to make real progress (of course a central problem in chess teaching). I made Mr Moll almost choke with anger by writing: “The answer is quite simple: the general rules of the game have not been discovered yet.” This is what Mr Moll calls ‘amazingly silly’. And why? Because there are, writes Mr Moll, ‘thousands of grandmasters and tens of thousands of IM’s’ (incidentally, Mr Moll is more than 500% wrong here about the actual numbers) who are pretty strong players. He suggests, no doubt sarcastically, that I think that strong players have still not grasped the right system.

What a strange thing to say! Maybe Mr Moll does not know that I am a strong player myself? Please allow me to explain: I am a Grandmaster and a former champion of Ukraine. I have won dozens of international tournaments, and I am still an active player. I have coached quite a few strong players, Vassily Ivanchuk is one of them. I think I am well qualified to judge what top-players know and how they think. I am not an idiot, of course I know that I don’t need to explain to them the basics of how they must think about chess. Obviously, my book is meant for club players. About elite players I explain that the reason they are almost invincible for any amateur is that they are so good in applying the Touchstones. Being aware of the process in their head is another matter; often top-players are thinking intuitively. This is also in the book.

My statement about the general rules that have not been discovered yet, is of course meant to provoke my readers. That is my style of writing, I always look for ways to keep them awake.

“I like to see myself as a philosopher” writes Arne Moll somewhere in his review. I think therein may lie one of the basic problems with his article. My concepts are not philosophical at all, they are very practical. Mr Moll looks for philosophical trouble behind many statements I make. He says concepts like ‘time’ and ‘material’ (which I use as ‘Touchstones’ to evaluate a position on the board) are ‘tricky philosophical ideas in the first place’. But in my book they are not tricky, and they are not philosophical. They are practical tools which every chess player can use to become better. And in my book I explain how they can do so.

I am not a philosopher. Apart from my own career as a player, I have been a chess trainer for many years. I have taught hundreds of club players. My classes have been recorded by the Catalan Chess Federation and are available online for thousands of players. I have written two successful books (which Mr Moll to my amazement says he liked) which sold thousands of copies all over the world. I get good feedback, literally daily, from my pupils, my viewers and my readers. I think I know quite well what beginning and more advanced chess players know and how they think. And what they should do to become better players.

I was amazed to see Mr Moll stating that “Moskalenko really didn’t have a clue when he wrote about these concepts”. This statement is, among other things, quite strange for someone who professes he liked my other books. How does Mr Moll think a Grandmaster who has written some good chess books (that’s me) reaches that level? By not having a clue? My friends have advised me not to use the word I will use now, but I strongly feel I have to do it: here I think Mr Moll is being disrespectful.

Somewhere at the end of his review Mr Moll calls me ‘a show-off’ because I use my own games or fragments of my games to illustrate specific chess instruction topics. I have thought about the merits of his reproach for quite a while. Let me just say that I think it is a strange thing to blame me for. An illustration of an instructional theme is either on or off the mark, at least that is my opinion. The show-off reproach, again, fits in the general condescending tone of his review. Strangely, Mr Moll says he likes my other books (The Fabulous Budapest Gambit, and The Flexible French) a lot; but in these books I use my own games as examples just as much as I did here! Does Mr Moll think that Nimzowitsch is a show-off because he uses his own games in his books? Besides, I use games from dozens of other players as well.

From my 340 pages book with hundreds of games, fragments, exercises and examples, Mr Moll cites just one practical example. In this position:

Revolutionize your chess

I discuss two possible moves for White: the good move Be3 and the dynamic move d5. I recommend d5. Mr Moll claims that I fail to give ‘any reasons’ why I think d5 is more dynamic. But he is simply wrong! I do explain that after Be3 Black plays ...e6, blocking the position and giving White some trouble to exploit his lead in development. On the move d5 I explain that I choose this advance ‘in order to fight for space, hindering the development of the black kingside at the same time’. I think the example is not a bad illustration of the theme: there is a good, solid positional move available. And yet I recommend another move, a dynamic move. Without the solid move my example would be less valuable, I think. After treating this one example wrongly, Mr Moll says that ALL the examples I give in the book (and there are many hundreds of them) are deficient. ALL examples suffer in that I ‘focus on the Touchstones for the sake of the Touchstones only’. Again, I find this a puzzling swipe. Mr Moll may not like the concept, but does he really think I employ the Touchstones just for their own sake? That I select my examples just to prove my system? Doesn’t he think my pupils would have left me many years ago if I would be doing just that?

I am not claiming originality in every point I make in the book. It is a strange thing to ask from an author, even from an author who claims to aim for a revolution. My book is a real revolution in that it brings everything together. Naming other books or authors who have written about some elements of my system does not mean my approach would somehow not be fresh.

And judging from the many positive reactions I get from readers, I may very well have succeeded. Obviously, not with Mr Moll. Maybe he is too strong a player (and too much of a philosopher) to find my concepts good tools. It may be that Mr Moll dislikes my enthusiasm. But I am a passionate believer in my system, because I know, from experience, that it works. It works for players of 1600 ELO, as well as for players with 2200 ELO, and even higher.

Maybe next time a chess improvement book comes up for review at ChessVibes, it would a good idea to ask someone to review it who does not dislike the genre, who does not see himself primarily as a philosopher, and who is more interested in the effectiveness of the proposed method. Once more I would like to thank for the opportunity to publish this reaction.

Sincerely,

GM Viktor Moskalenko Barcelona, 12 February, 2010


Update 14:40 CET: meanwhile Arne Moll has responded in the comments - we'll give it here as well:

As it is a true honour for me to have such a respected Grandmaster and author respond to my reviews, let me just mention a few general points that Mr. Moskalenko seems to have misunderstood in my initial review, rather than addressing every single sentence of his letter point by point.

Mr. Moskalenko starts off his letter with the complaint that I am supposedly not interested in ‘Improve your chess’ books and am therefore biased against his book Revolutionize Your Chess (and hence unqualified to review it objectively). To me, this merely shows Moskalenko doesn’t read my reviews on a regular basis (and indeed I couldn’t possibly expect him to), for then he would have known that the very review before the one I wrote on Moskalenko’s book, is a highly positive and enthusiastic review of Lars Bo Hansen’s book called (ironically, if anything) Improve Your Chess.

In fact, I was also very positive about Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, the book that recently beat Revolutionize Your Chess in the ChessCafe Book of the Year competition, and numerous other books that intend to improve the reader’s chess skills. My remark ‘What’s with all these improve your chess books recently’ was just a ‘by the way’, trying to make the related (but admittedly not terribly relevant) general point that lately, a lot of books focus on chess improvement while surely trying to make the reader enjoy chess is at least as important as that.

In any case, as I had already written in the comments underneath my review, a reviewer’s personal taste is not relevant as long as he’s 'not prejudiced, focuses on the book and not his own taste, and he knows his literature.' I would think my liking Moskalenko’s previous book sort of proves I’m not prejudiced against him, and apart from this one ‘by the way’ paragraph, I focus my entire review on the contents of the book itself. As for ‘knowing my literature’, I think I’ve shown this already sufficiently in the review itself.

I could mention several other points in Mr. Moskalenko’s letter where he misinterprets my intentions and words. For instance, he makes much of my sarcasm and hyperbole, but then without blinking an eye declares that he himself means to ‘provoke his readers’ and that this is simply his ‘style of writing, I always look for ways to keep them awake’. Well, Mr. Moskalenko, it seems we agree on something after all! Perhaps we should just drop this point?

Another small thing to note is that Mr. Moskalenko altogether ignores the positive things I have mentioned about his book in my review, instead claiming it is ‘singularly negative’. This is also why it’s simply untrue that the one example I picked from the book to illustrate a point is used by me to imply that 'ALL the examples I give in the book (and there are many hundreds of them) are deficient.'

But here’s what I actually wrote in my review: 'To be sure, there are better examples in the book, but they all suffer from the same illness.' I also wrote, 'The book does contains good stuff, but I liked the Viktor Moskalenko of The Flexible French much, much better.' Forgive me for thinking this small nuance is probably worth pointing out.

I suppose I should also say I’m surprised by Mr. Moskalenko’s statement that his concepts ‘aren’t philosophical at all’ and that he himself, unlike me, ‘isn’t a philosopher’. Well, fair enough, but Moskalenko himself claims that while authors like Suba and Beim discuss many interesting aspects of dynamic chess, they offer ‘no theoretical framework’ - surely implying Revolutionize Your Chess is different in this respect! A few sentences later, he even explicitly states that ‘in the present book, we will make an attempt to systematize this dynamic approach to our game’.

And in Chapter 2, just to take one example, Moskalenko writes that the factor Time ‘has thus far been neglected in theoretical works. This dynamic factor should be included in any chess system if we want to call it conclusive’. To me all this sounds distinctly philosophical. In fact, capitalizing the t in Time is, if anything else, the generally acknowledged way of indicating a ‘Platonization’ of the object at hand. But perhaps I’m again being too, well, philosophical here.

There is, however, one point in Mr. Moskalenko’s reply that I would like to elaborate upon a bit in more detail. This is when he writes that I do not contend that the system described in Revolutionize Your Chess ‘isn’t working’: ‘He has not tested, or even probed, if a chess player who does what I recommend in my book and who uses the tools I hand to him, becomes a better player or not.’

Indeed I must confess that I haven’t fully tested the system (although Mr. Moskalenko couldn’t possibly know this himself), for the inexcusable reason that I am, apart from being a father and a full-time employee, just a reviewer whose task it is to read the book and write his conclusions down as accurately and conscientiously as possible. (I imagine Mr. Moskalenko also doesn’t accept positive reviews when the reviewer hasn’t fully tested the system?)

But suppose I would like to test Mr. Moskalenko’s system before writing anything at all about it. How would I do it? Surely applying the ‘Touchstone Tools’ in my own games is not nearly enough: a sample of just 1 player can’t possible say anything meaningful about a method, can it? I’d have to ask perhaps my entire chess team to study the book and apply it in their own games to the best of their ability.

But then there would still be the (in my view very likely) possibility that our game improved not because of the Touchstone Tools, but by us being suddenly occupied with chess for much more than we currently are. You see, this is what statisticians call the correlation is not causation maxim: the fact that we’re reading Moskalenko’s book and actively trying to apply the Touchstones doesn’t prove Moskalenko’s method works – not at all.

For all we know the very fact that we’re in an experiment might make us more conscious of our play during games, and we might improve our game even without studying anything at all. This is a variation of the well-known placebo effect. To avoid such confusion, we’d at least need some sort of control group with a bunch of players of the same average level who would also engage in active chess study, but specifically without using Moskalenko’s Touchstones – say, by studying Mark Dvoretsky’s books.

After some time – say, a year - we’d probably be able to say something about whether Moskalenko’s method works or not (calibrating for random rating fluctuations and such, of course), and whether it works any better than other current chess-improvement methods.

Now, this would be an extremely interesting experiment, and I would be more than willing to try it myself if given enough time and money, but what I’m really wondering is whether Mr. Moskalenko himself has ever done such an experiment.

After all, he accuses me of not having tested his method and very firmly claims that his method does work. My question is very simple: has Mr. Moskalenko systematically tested his method, and can we see the results? And perhaps I should mention another statisticians’ maxim, which is that the plural of anecdote is not data. It’s great to have many testimonies from players who are happy their money was well spent and they improved their chess by receiving chess training, but this doesn’t, of course, prove the training method itself works: it just proves they improved their game.

And this may have happened for numerous reasons – the most important one being what I also wrote in my initial review, which is that 'improving one’s chess can be achieved by studying any chess book seriously.' (Mr. Moskalenko seems to have overlooked this remark.)

Let me finish by what strikes me as an extremely important point, made by one of the commenters to this post. It’s this: 'Maybe [Moskalenko] is right in saying so, but he fails to address how his students got better using his advice.'

This is precisely my whole problem with the book. It’s not the Touchstone tools, it’s not the provocative language, not the lack of philosophical depth, not even the annoying -T1 and -T4 notation: it’s the lack of specificity; the lack of explaining how the touchstones work (and why), how students improve their game and how dynamic chess works; and how revolutionary Moskalenko’s book is, precisely.

Perhaps these questions are typical philosophical questions, but so be it. I’m just a an ordinary chess player trying to improve and be inspired by chess. Mr. Moskalenko claims he knows 'quite well what beginning and more advanced chess players know and how they think.' In other words, he knows exactly how I think. I can only hope he will some day understand my point of view in this matter after all.


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