Amateur to IM (Part I)

Hawkins, Jonathan.  Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods.  Newton Highlands, MA: Mongoose Press, 2012.  ISBN 978-1-036-40-7 (pb).  $29.95

Excerpt available here

There is a story about Mark Dvoretsky’s first book, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back when in 1991.  The legend of Dvoretsky was only just beginning at that time, but even then his work carried with it a certain cache, an aura of legitimacy and guaranteed chess improvement.  I clearly remember how the 15-yr old me found the book in a local bookstore, breathed in the scent of cheap pulp, and knew that the master title could not be far away.

Seems I wasn’t alone when it came to my presuppositions or illusions.  Dvoretsky’s book (like all of his books) was brilliant, to be sure, and were I a stronger player, I might have gotten something out of it.  Part of the problem was that the title of the book was rather misleading.  Instead of getting a book about training, readers found themselves faced with hardcore endgame analysis and aneurysm-inducing problems to solve.  Legend has it that the USCF bookstore, which was run in-house in the time, had to stop selling Secrets of Chess Training because so many people bought it, discovered how much it required of them, and angrily returned it.  The USCF could only lose so much money on any one item.

I was reminded of this story when I first received my copy of Jonathan Hawkins’ new book, and again when I read Vijay Raghavan’s review at Chesscafe.  The title of Hawkins book – Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods – might seem to suffer from the same problem as did Dvoretsky’s, and this is one of the main complaints Raghavan lays at Hawkins’ feet.  While one could argue that Dvoretsky’s book was perhaps mislabeled and wrongly advertised, a closer reading of Hawkins’ work should make us more sympathetic to its purported claims, and grateful to its author for sharing his work with the chess public.

The underlying narrative or rationale for the book runs as follows.  Hawkins understands himself to be no great chess talent, having only attained a rating of 1700 by age 18.  Today he is a 2500 IM with at least two GM norms.  How did he make the jump?  On his account, it was his study of the endgame that did it.  (9)  Or, better, as the very next paragraphs (which Raghavan seems not to have read) admit, it was more a matter of balance and focus in his studies that did the trick. (10)

Think about it, and think about how most chess players – not you, of course! – tend to study the game.  They worry incessantly about their openings, their bookshelves filled with opening tomes and encyclopedias.  Perhaps they solve a few tactical puzzles in a Reinfeld or Nunn book, and maybe they watch chess videos from Chessbase,,, etc.  With some blitz on ICC or Playchess, their improvement plans are complete.  Sound familiar, dear reader?

Hawkins, like most good teachers, has a different prescription.  In a January 2013 interview with Howard Goldowsky published in Chess Life, he outlines his plan for improvement.

In terms of memorizing variations, especially [for players rated] below about 2000, I would tone [opening study] way down, maybe 10% of your study time or less.
Tactical puzzles/analytical training is quite important. I would give 20% of time to this. The remaining 70% is the part players find difficult. You need to study a combination of master games, your own games, and be a student of the endgame. (11)

What we find in Amateur to IM is a glimpse at what that ‘remaining 70%’ might look like.

(Part II to follow)

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