Review: Improve Your Chess at any Age

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My first reaction when I learned about the book Improve Your Chess at any Age was one of sheer jealousy: some club player writing a book about chess improvement?! How unfair! There must be thousands of club players around the world who'd want the exact same thing - including me.

This is the last part of a 'triptych' on recent chess improvement books - you can find the other two reviews here. I've written before that in my view there are really too much 'improve your chess' books on the market; fortunately, some of them are very good and you may be surprised to hear that I like Andres Hortillosa's Improve Your Chess at any Age as well. Actually, the book is every patzer's childhood dream: an entire book (170 pages, beautifully published by Everyman Chess) dedicated to your own games, where you get to write about your thoughts on chess in general and during the games; your favourite style and your ideas on chess development theory! Too good to be true, right? Well, as we say in Dutch, chess publishers may be good, but they're not crazy, and Hortillosa has a little more up his sleeve than just patzer analyses and ditto philosophies. Yes, it's true: Andres D. Hortillosa is a 'mere' 2199 FIDE player who just wrote a book on how he improved over the years at a, shall we say, riper age than most of us start to play chess. And yes, most of the games and game fragments are from Hortillosa's own games. But why is that necessarily a bad thing? On the very first pages of the book, the author presents himself as a modest guy with good intentions, wisely anticipating some of his future critics but not bending over backwards to please them. He also says some pretty sensible, if not terribly spectacular, things about chess improvement targeting an audience of players with a rating below 2000. My first impression after reading the introduction was that perhaps this somewhat oddly-titled (and marketed) book deserved the benefit of the doubt.This feeling was confirmed by some of the stuff in Chapter One, where Hortillosa paves the way for his theories on chess improvement and shows some of his past games. Again, note that his commentary, though not exactly grandmasterly, is certainly sensible, down-to-earth, and will definitely evoke a pang of recognition with most club players:

Hortillosa-Hartsook Denver 1994 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 h6 4.Bxf6 Qxf6 5.e4 Nc6 6.c3 g5 To my mind this move is a little committal, although a number of strong players have used this advance. Karpov played ...g6 in one of his games, although that was without ...Nc6. Amateurs including myself tend to make inflexible moves. We tend to forget that pawns do not move backwards. And once they are fixed on a square, they are subject to attack and they tend to leave you with limited options.

This may not be a huge shocker to advanced chess players, but anyone who's ever trained weaker players knows what it feels like to constantly have to remind your pupils to 'keep your hands off these pawns already!' It's a very good point and one that shows Hortillosa may actually have something to offer club players that truly strong players often don't: to speak to them in their own languages and with examples from their own level of play. I myself have often been frustrated by how strong players often take stuff like this 'for granted'. Hortillosa, you can be sure, never does. Here's another example from the same game after Black has played 13...e5 (and before White played 14.d5):

Amateurs, when confronted with situations like this one, tend to resolve tensions rather hastily. I guess amateur thinking dislikes complexity so there is a strong tendency to simplify at the first opportunity. So, it is either capture on e5 or advance to d5. I can opt to maintain the pawn on d4 with Ndb3, but it will invite Black to harass the knight on b3 with ...a6-a5-a4. (...) In general, however, one must learn to play comfortably with contact-tension on the board. Keep the tension as long as tolerable. See if you can force your opponent to waste a tempo in resolving the tension. For example, avoid capturing defenceless pawns right away. Often, a developing or centralizing move is the better choice.

Again, I was impressed by how well Hortillosa points to something weak players often struggle with. I could quote countless examples from my own games where I incorrectly resolved the tension in the game (as well as, fortunately, examples where I successfully put the pressure on by increasing pawn tension!). This is good, useful stuff. In Chapter Two, Hortillosa elaborates on his ideas on chess improvement and thinking, the sum of which he calls, with a clear undertone of self-mocking (thank God!), 'The System'. His approach here is more theoretical, but fortunately, he never becomes too vague (or too pretentious) for comfort. Again, what Hortillosa writes won't sound too novel to people who've already read their Rowson, Watson and other chess philosophers, but one of the charms of Improve Your Chess at any Age is that there's a real sense of personal involvement of the author in much of what he claims:

After this reflection, I concluded that my chess was totally devoid of any semblance of a thinking process. (...) I am passionately drawn to fixing things including those that work to make them even better. It was not hard to see my chess requiring more than just cosmetic repair; it needed total replacement. Disgusted with the status quo, I formulated a chess thinking process inspired by the combined philosophies of Cleanroom Software Engineering and Six-Sigma, which are known for their strong emphasis on error prevention.

To be honest, I didn't always find Hortillosa's opinions on thinking processes too convincing. For instance, one of the things he claims is that chess tactics puzzles often miss their mark because they focus on the finding of the solution instead of creating a practical game-situation where a (tactical) resolution can be created ('Anyone can solve a puzzle, but can anyone play the moves leading to the puzzle?'). I think this is only partly true: sure, it's important to know the 'context' of a tactic, but solving puzzles does sharpen the mind and it definitely creates a reservoir of 'chess tactics knowledge' in the brain which may be extremely useful in later games, as many chess prodigies have clearly demonstrated. In a chapter called 'Are Openings Really Important?', Hortillosa makes some valid points on studying opening theory ('stronger players are better in confusing us with sidelines than we are at confusing them') and he gives a couple of great (and often quite hilarious) examples of why having your opponent fall for an opening trap doesn't always guarantee victory. The main part, however, is explained in 'The System', the author's answer to the question 'how we prevent these errors from cropping up?' Hortillosa gives a checklist of eight points you should always be aware of during play. These include things like '2. Search for specific threats' and '5. Search for candidate moves' - good advice, to be sure, but surely Hortillosa doesn't expect players to answer these eight questions at every move?Indeed he doesn't, and here again is the book's charm: the author shows modesty and self-knowledge by condeding that, of course, 'the system has some implicit assumptions. One such assumption is knowing when to invoke the system.' He follows up naming the exceptions, and especially the moments in a game when it does make sense to invoke 'the system'. (He also gets kudos for questioning 'the viability of the system' altogether, 'since evidence is severely lacking'.) The points he makes are useful all the same, and I liked the two examples that illustrate them - but disappointingly, the rest of the book hardly mentions the eight points again explicity and instead focuses on thorough and at times engaging analysis Hortillosa's tournament games from 2008 and 2009. The result of this is perhaps the book's only real problem: it's overlong; I'd say it's at least 50 pages too long. Like all chess enthusiasts, Hortillosa just loves to talk about his own games and to describe the thoughts that went through his head during them - and he knows he's pretty good at it - but it's just too much. Sometimes the explanation of ten perfectly normal opening moves is spread out over two and a half pages, and we get comments like this:

MacIntyyre-Hortillosa Pawtucket 2008 Position after 7...Nf6

I normally do not continue with ...Nf6, especially when ... e6 has been played. Looking at this game one week later, I could not remember what I was afraid of that led me to post the knight on f6 instead of following generally established wisdom, which dictates playing it to e7. I was probably mixing systems here, a known defect in amateur play. When ... e6 is played, Black normally should follow through with ... Nge7. These two moves are a natural pair.

You'd think this was already more than enough explanation for a very common opening manoeuvre in a game that will last 60 moves in total, but Hortillosa has only just started:

Most strong players including the late world champion Botvinnik would prefer ...Ne7 even with the pawn on e5. The advantage of posting it on e7 is that the natural break f7-f5 is ready to go whereas in the position where the knight is on f6, Black has to waste a tempo before he can play ...f5. (...) One data point on the board that rules out ...Nf6 in favour of ...Ne7 is White's h2-h3...

And this isn't even the end of it. I'm not saying Hortillosa doesn't make some valuable observations along the way, but such lenghty commentary does appear a bit self-serving to me. More importantly, the games in this section, while entertaining, don't very well explain how Hortillosa's 'system' got him the results he achieved. My impression is Hortillosa simply had a lot of time on his hand, studied a lot of chess, received professional training (from IMs and GMs) and made very deep analysis of his games. And lo and behold, he made considerable progress. No 'system' needed at all!With that in mind, the rest of Hortillosa's book does ultimately become 'just' any amateur's dream: a great way to show a lot of, at best, fairly interesting tournament games. They're all very well analysed, they do contain a lot of useful prose, interesting digressions good advice, but in the end they're still games played by a 2100 player with an interesting message. It's an interesting experiment in the sense that this (modest) game level may actually be helpful to players of that level (if only because their mistakes are so recognizable). Personally, though, I prefer playing over games by the big guys, but there you go. That said, Improve Your Chess at any Age may well offer a glimpse at the future of chess publishing 2.0: everyone has a chess engine these days, so why not publish a book with your own chess games? Andres Hortillosa, at least, has written a very sympathetic version of this new concept, and I think lots of club players will enjoy his writings and recognize (and improve upon) many well-known issues in it. In the end, Hortillosa's book should not make us jealous, but inspire us to analyse our own games even better and to formulate our thoughts and mental blockades more transparantly. Hortilossa has given us a pretty good example of how it can be done - at any age.


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