Category Archives: navel-gazing

CJA Awards 2018

In a very happy and humbling turn of events, I learned that I won the “Best Chess Column” award from the Chess Journalists of America for 2018 at this year’s US Open. This is one of their ‘Big Four’ Awards, and for me, it’s really a big deal.

To be considered in the same category as Al Lawrence, Daniel Naroditsky, Gregory Serper, Andy Soltis, and Jon Speelman is one thing, but to win it, well… that’s pretty darned amazing.

I was also fortunate, and very pleased, to win “Best Print Review” for my February 2018 roundup of endgame books.

Thanks to Dan Lucas and Melinda Matthews for nominating me, to the CJA and its members / voters, and of course, thanks to you for continuing to read my work and supporting longform criticism in chess.

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Get off my lawn!

This review has been printed in the March 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Timman, Jan. Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-9056916725.

Once a haven for the geeks and oddballs among us, chess has taken on a new and more positive valence in the modern social imaginary. Chess is marketed to parents as a propaedeutic to academic achievement for their children, and as a source of important non-cognitive skills like ‘grit.’ The current US Chess mission statement – “empowering people through chess one move at a time” – highlights the benefits of playing more than it does the game itself.

Today’s leading players also bear the signs of this shift. Top tournaments are broadcast live across the world via YouTube and Twitch, and the competitors explain their wins and losses with sage-like equanimity, their sponsorship deals prominently featured on their blazers. ‘Lesser’ Grandmasters and Masters are riding the e-sport wave towards exclusive streaming deals and video series. Scholastic chess has become a growth industry: coaches and camps proliferate, and it seems like half the players at big tournaments are juniors.

Surely this newfound respectability is beneficial for American chess. But is it an unalloyed good? Is nothing lost when the chess world is transformed into a wholesome, family-friendly environment?

I think back to my first steps in the chess world, back to evenings at the public library in Merrick, NY, where I was the only person in the room under 40, and where I lost game after game to old Russian men who regaled me with wonderful, unprintable jokes. It was a space where the teenaged me wasn’t quite supposed to be, but I was there anyway, and I was learning to fit in.

You might think about your experiences at large tournaments like the US Open. The reputable players play their games, go back to their rooms, and get ready for the next round on their computers. Gone are the days of all-night blitz benders in the skittles room. Gone are the days of the pub crawl and the hangovers destroying the next day’s play. Worst of all, the postmortem is a relic, an antiquity, offered only by the aged and accepted even less frequently. Those that do occur are haunted by a third party – the ubiquitous Stockfish app, lurking, correcting, standing as the ultimate authority.

(Is this the part where I tell the kids to get off my lawn?)

Jan Timman’s newest book, Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions, is many things at once: a set of sketches of ten world champions, a study of their styles and games, a catalogue of Timman’s own dreams and memories. At its heart, however, I think Timman’s Titans is an elegy for what has been lost, for better and for worse, in modern chess, and a deeply personal remembrance of a world that no longer exists. As with most elegies, and here I follow Coleridge, it reveals equally the greatness of its subjects and its author. This is Timman’s best book to date.

Timman’s Titans consists of (a) personal remembrances of each of the world champions from Alekhine through Kasparov, (b) a discussion of their games and careers, and (c) highlights of Timman’s own games against the champion in question. The analysis is insightful and extremely well done, but the real reason to buy this book is for Timman’s memories and memorials.

Timman knew all of the champions he discusses save Alekhine, and he played against six of them in serious competition. The chapter on Alekhine, despite the handicap of never meeting him, is a particular highlight. We journey with Timman to Lisbon, Portugal, where Alekhine spent his final years. We accompany him on his wanderings through the snowy town, and we are present as he stumbles upon one of Alekhine’s own chess sets in a tiny junk shop. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, we get a sense of Timman the flâneur, and the writing is evocative of no less than W.G. Sebald or Teju Cole.

Of the nine remaining champions, Karpov is the subject of the largest chapter, at just over 50 pages. This is not terribly unexpected, as Timman faced Karpov more than anyone else in his career – some 115 games, according to my database. The chapter on Smyslov reveals a shared love of studies and justifies Genna Sosonko’s claim of a stylistic affinity between the two men. For me, however, the most interesting sections are those on Euwe and Tal.

Max Euwe was a friend of Timman’s parents, having taught Timman’s mother mathematics in her youth. It was, however, through a book of Euwe’s games – “a plain-looking book with a hard dark-blue cover. … The paper was thick, the letters were large. Euwe was the hero.” (33) – that Timman first studied “real, serious chess.”

Books are a constant reference in Timman’s Titans. We learn that a book on Botvinnik (Botvinnik Teaches Chess by Müller) was an early influence, and Euwe’s Judgment and Planning in Chess was an introduction to “strategic planning.” Later books by Alekhine (My Best Chess Games 1924-1937) and Smyslov (Selected Games) were of great importance.

Euwe, whom Timman could never bring himself to address by his first name, is described as bearing a “colossal authority,” as indefatigably hard-working and (despite the odd over-the-board blunder) eminently logical. For his part, Euwe tried to help Timman where he could, setting up contacts for an early tour of the Soviet Union, and quietly contributing rather large sums of money to the “Timman Committee” that aimed to support an assault on the World Championship.

It is clear that that Timman greatly admired Euwe, despite some sharp differences in personality between the two men.Where Euwe was solid and respectability, the young Timman was a bon vivant, someone who “hung around in shabby cafes… surrounded by shady types” (55) and who used a threadbare fur coat as a makeshift sleeping bag. Discipline and sobriety were not in his nature. Indeed, as Timman tells us, his attempts to emulate Botvinnik’s “spartan” training methods before his first Grandmaster tournament failed horribly, and it was only after he returned to his “trusted, unhealthy” lifestyle that he began to win.

Perhaps Timman’s admiration for Mikhail Tal, “a type of romantic player that has disappeared,” (111) can be traced to their similar outlook on life. He seems to take delight in describing his first encounters with the Seventh World Champion, how he succumbed to the famed “hypnotizing power of Tal’s eye” (110) in their first game in 1971, and how he spent a drunken evening getting the better of Tal in a 1973 blitz match.

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening at one of today’s leading tournaments. Sure, the Chessbrahs like to have a little fun while streaming, and there are videos on YouTube of bughouse games after big events at the St. Louis Chess Club, but as Timman correctly notes, “[t]oday’s top player is a teetotaller… It is unthinkable that he would mingle in the social circles around the tournament the way Tal did. The top grandmasters of yesteryear sat at the bar like all the other visitors. Young players who invited them to play a blitz game would never be turned down.” (111)

For all of this, Timman was not blind to Tal’s very real flaws, and in particular, his alcoholism. He tells a story of one of the first times he saw Tal “knocked out by alcoholic excess:”

Ischa Meijer (a well-known TV journalist at the time in the Netherlands – translator’s note) had come to Hastings to interview me. … Meijer described how Tal interrupted our conversation, saying: ‘Jan, don’t tell them about our lives.’ The interviewer reported: ‘A while later, he has to be carried off.’ My father, who had great respect for top chess players, was upset by this short sentence. How did the interviewer dare to write something like that?

But however painful this short sentence may have been, it was the truth. To me it was more interesting what Tal said before that. I remember the look in his eyes – a touch of despair was visible when he testified to our solidarity. (114)

I have to admit that I find the pathos of this passage almost unbearable. It is testament to the strength of Tal’s demons and the challenges of living under the Soviet regime, but more than that, it is emblematic of broader societal changes in the intervening years. Our knowledge of public health (rightly) stigmatizes smoking, an activity that permeates Timman’s Titans, and the ‘romance’ of addiction is much withered. Luckily for Timman and for us, he seems to have learned to moderate his vices, allowing him to write this book, and us to enjoy it.

This review was originally meant to have included discussion of two other books, but Timman’s Titans is so rich, so packed with stories and insights, that twice my allotted page space would not have done it justice. I do not think it controversial to say that this is one of the best chess books published in recent years, and players of all strengths would find it of great interest.

What may be more controversial are my concerns – mild as they may be – over the direction of modern chess. I offer this olive branch to those who disagree with me: you can, barring the unforeseen, find me in the bar after the evening rounds at this year’s US Open in Madison. Come visit. I’ll buy you a drink, and we can shoot the breeze while we play some blitz or eavesdrop on someone’s postmortem.

Do me a favor, though – don’t come too late. I can’t stay out all night like I used to, and I’ll have meetings and another round to get ready for in the morning.

Big Friend of the Pod

Of all the unexpected benefits and opportunities that have come through book reviewing, surely the most humbling has been my appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast. Ben Johnson has interviewed giants of modern chess like Bartholomew, Nakamura, Polgar, Watson, Yermolinsky, and the Shahades. And now he’s gone and ruined it all by talking to me.

You should listen to the episode in its entirety to bask in the glory (haha) of my genius, but I did want to take the opportunity to make a few notes here about the experience and the things I forgot to say.

1. For new readers and visitors – welcome! Glad you liked what you heard enough to click the link and join us. These reviews appear in the outstanding Chess Life magazine, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you subscribe to the print edition of Chess Life, either as part of your membership with the US Chess Federation or as a stand-alone product.

2. Ben is located in Pittsburgh and I’m in Omaha, so we did the interview over Skype. The sound quality is excellent, my ‘ums’ notwithstanding, and very few edits to the conversation were made.

3. As soon as the EP was over, I was horrified that I’d not mentioned Boris Gelfand’s two books from Quality Chess, Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess. Both are among the finest chess books in print, mainly for advanced players but with ideas and lessons accessible to any serious student of the game. John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action also went unmentioned, and that omission is scandalous.

4. I was surprised to find that I didn’t include Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors or GK on GK series in my book list. I suspect that this is because I ultimately find them to be rather overrated. There’s entirely too much computer analysis for my taste, and the history is not earth shattering enough to make up for it. Revolution in the 70s is the only exception to this – it’s an excellent work, and the interviews are priceless.

5. The way I describe chess in Nebraska makes it sound as if there are no strong players in the state. That’s patently false, as we have a lot of talent here in Omaha and in Lincoln. The problem is that our pool of players is small, and so we’re always fighting each other for the same circulating rating points.

6. My wife is at least as powerful as Petrosian’s, if not quite so conniving.

There was a day a couple of years ago when my wife said that chess was becoming something of a career for me, or, perhaps better, a vocation. In saying this – and she’ll never admit it, but I think she knew exactly what she was doing – she was giving me license to view it as such. It gave me license to mourn my slow-motion exit from the academy, and also to look forward towards an identity that did not wrap itself up in my aborted PhD studies.

Most of us, if we’re honest, know deep down that we’ve ‘married up.’ I really married up. Thank you, Anna, for everything.

7. Last week’s guest Mark Crowther is a true hero of contemporary chess and you should donate to his efforts with The Week in Chess at his website.

8. It’s hilarious that I worked the phrase “big friend of the Pod” into the conversation. Thanks to the Gilmore Guys and Pod Save America for adding it to my vocabulary. (And yes, I do have a very interesting range of listening habits.)

My thanks to Ben for asking me to be on the Pod, and my very deep thanks to you for (a) listening and (b) reading.

Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

January update

I became a father last week – a first-time father! – so I expect that posting will be sporatic for a month or two. There are reviews in various stages of completion on my hard drive, but bringing them to ‘print’ depends a lot on how much sleep I get these next few weeks!

In the meantime, I did want to point my readers to an interesting piece by Jeremy Silman on “The Best Chess Books Ever.” The title is a bit misleading, as I understand that at least a few of his respondents were asked about their “favorite” books and not those books they thought objectively best. Still, it’s a very interesting read, and some of the comments are also worthwhile!

http://www.chess.com/article/view/the-best-chess-books-ever

The Chess Steps

Brunia, Rob and Cor van Wijgerden. Stappenmethode (Chess-Steps). Series of 20+ student workbooks and six manuals for teachers. Price varies, but usually ~$10 per workbook and $17 per teacher’s manual.

Original informational site: http://www.stappenmethode.nl/en/
American informational site: http://www.chess-steps.com/index.php

Nothing is more foreign to American chess, and American chess education, than the Stappenmethode. And this explains quite a bit about the state of modern American chess.

I

My first chess book was Fred Reinfeld’s Chess in a Nutshell. It was a slim volume, providing the rules, basic strategy, and not much else. After that came Bruce Pandolfini’s Chessercizes, Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings, leading, after some twists and turns, towards the avalanche of chess books and magazines that pile up in my basement office.

I thought, after reading Reinfeld and struggling to solving a few puzzles from Pandolfini, that I was ready to take on the world. Hubris! If only it were so. Old Russian men beat me mercilessly at the Merrick Chess Club, and I was hopelessly outclassed in my first rated games.

But I, unlike so many juniors attracted to the game, stuck with it. This is in my experience rare – I don’t know whether I should be proud of this or horrified by my masochism – as most young players seem to disappear from competitive chess soon after their arrival. Why? Why do so few scholastic players continue through the junior ranks? Why do they drop out?

My example is perhaps the example to avoid, the proverbial jumping into the deep end without adequate preparation, but it is also entirely typical of how most Americans learn the game. Someone teaches them the rules, or perhaps they go to a multi-week class at their school or public library. They learn (most of) the rules, Scholar’s mate, pins and forks, and Morphy vs the Count and Duke. Then they are thrown into tournament play, with the result that their first games are nothing more than the semi-random shuffling of pieces.

Perhaps they are successful in these contests of who can hang the fewest pieces, but as our juniors ‘move up the ladder,’ they suffer defeat after defeat against competent players and they can’t seem to improve. Soon they slink off, not wanting to lose, and with Mom and Dad entirely willing to let them give up because it’s ‘too hard.’ After all, chess is just a way to boost brain-power and IQ. They got what they ‘needed’ from it, so why make Junior work to get better?

II

Things are very different in the Netherlands. There chess is organized around the local club with active and dedicated junior sections. Such arrangements are common in Western Europe, where large sporting clubs (think Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen) organize teams and training in multiple sporting arenas. Young players attend training sessions and play informally. Only after they prove their mettle do they advance to competition and league games.

Training in the Netherlands is generally based around the Stappenmethode (the Chess-Steps or Steps Method), a systematic program created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden beginning in 1987. Van Wijgerden, who became a trainer for the Dutch chess federation in 1981 and later took over education at the Max Euwe Academy, has trained most of the leading Dutch players of our time.

One way to think about the Steps Method is to look to the world of football, or soccer as we heathen Americans call it. The Dutch became famous for ‘Total Football,’ which provided all of the Netherlands a footballing philosophy from the U9s through their national team. Training and drills were standardized. Today Ajax, the leading Dutch club, continues this tradition.

The Netherlands is a country of approximately 17 million. There are over 300 million Americans. So why are the Dutch so much better at football than we are? The answer must be the training. American coaching at the grassroots is haphazard, and until very recently, there was no national training center. Our young footballers spend their time playing games weekend after weekend (when not playing other sports) and the quality of their coaching is a crapshoot. Meanwhile young Dutch players are honing their skills and learning the Dutch system. The proof is, as always, in the pudding.

The Steps Method plays an analogous role in the chess world. While American juniors succumb to the lust for competition and trophies nearly as soon as they learn the rules, the Dutch do things differently. Young players receive structured instruction before they are allowed to advance to competition. The Steps are, almost universally, the basis of that instruction. The same is true in multiple European countries and in academies across the globe.

III

There is nothing mysterious about the Steps Method. Players are led through six courses of planned training, beginning with the most basic components of chess understanding. For each step there are student workbooks and manuals for teachers. The manuals contain scripted lessons, teaching examples, and information on good chess pedagogy, i.e., how children learn and think at different ages, and how to use that knowledge to structure your teaching methods. The idea is simple: if your club isn’t blessed with a strong player or experienced trainer, you can still teach your players the proper way to play the game using the Steps Method.

Step 1 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) is designed for players rated up to 800 or so and involves 15 distinct lessons. Because no previous knowledge is assumed, the first lessons involve things like how the different pieces move, what check is and how to get out of it, etc. Step One focuses heavily on material gain – how to attack, how to defend, how to use the ‘twofold attack’ – and only introduces checkmate halfway through the Step. It uses ‘mini-games’ to help make the instruction more palatable, and to help focus beginners on how specific pieces move and interact.

Anyone who watches junior chess and thinks for a moment will understand the justification for this way of doing things. Children’s games often devolve to who hangs the least pieces, so that mate and victory become (in a sense) a function of material advantage. If we’re being honest, this is true for players all the way up to expert.

The first Step is designed for player aged 8 and above, but the system can be modified for younger students. Two books – Stepping Stones 1, covering roughly Lessons 1-6, and Stepping Stones 2, covering Lessons 7-15 – are also available. The problems are slightly simpler and the diagrams are larger (six to a page instead of twelve) but the material is basically the same.

Step 2 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 3 (Workbook | Manual | Extra | Plus) offer lessons that begin to resemble ‘real chess.’ In Step 1, players become very good at finding and executing one ply (half-move) tactics, so that loose and underprotected pieces are captured, etc. Step 2 and Step 3 begin to require that players calculate up to three ply – I move, you move, I move and win – to achieve their aims.

In Step 2, designed for players up to 1300 or 1400, players are introduced to the building blocks of tactical play. Tactics, as Brunia and van Wijgerden constantly reiterate, are what win and lose games at this level. The focus here is on basic mates and the win of material through elementary motifs like double attacks and pins. There is little emphasis on positional themes beyond discussion of activity, and only in the middle of the Step is anything about the opening considered. All players need at this level is an understanding of the ‘three golden rules’ of the opening, and nothing more.

Step 3, for players rated up to 1600, is a continuation of Step 2. Here again only the slightest attention is paid to the opening, and most of the Step is centered on tactics. Trapping is introduced, as are the x-ray attack, discovered and double checks, and (most importantly) eliminating the defence. Positional instruction is limited to mobility and very basic static themes, and only the rudiments of pawn endings are studied.

Step 4 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 5 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) are more difficult. Here players are asked to increase their calculative abilities to five ply – I move, you move, I move, you move, I move and win – and more abstract (non-tactical) themes are considered.

Step 4, for players up to perhaps 1800, introduces the preparatory move. Tactics must be set up, so that a double attack might require a player to lure one of his opponent’s pieces to a useful square. More complex aspects of removing the defender and pins are tackled, the utility of the 7th rank is explained, and mating attacks are emphasized. More positional lessons are provided, including a lesson on weak pawns, and additional endgame instruction is given.

Step 5, for players under 2000, begins to pivot more towards strategy and away from tactics. Players are still asked to calculate five ply, but because the lessons begin to become positional in nature and thus less concrete, this Step is a step up from Step 4. Pawn play is emphasized, as are elements of rook endings and good rook handling (7th rank and open files). Tactics, of course, are not abandoned in this Step, and discussion of defense is included for the first time.

Step 6 (Workbook|Manual|Extra) is unique in that it is designed for the self-learner – there just aren’t that many trainers around who can teach players over 2000! Many of the themes covered in earlier Steps return here in more complicated form, and heavy attention is given to strategy and endgames. The Step 6 Extra workbook is also unique in that a Grandmaster, Erwin l’Ami, has been brought on as co-author. This is particularly interesting given that l’Ami was once a student of van Wijgerden, and presumably ascended the Steps in his own chess education.

Each Step should take about one calendar year to complete. It is also critical to understand, as van Wijgerden reminds anyone who will listen, that the Steps are not merely a series of workbooks with puzzles to be solved and ‘belts’ to be earned. Theory must be mixed with practice. Players need access to good trainers to help them go over their games, correct their mistakes, and guide them towards greater understanding.

IV

So what does the Steps Method look like in practice? Consider these two diagrams, both taken from van Wijgerden’s contribution to the very useful book The Chess Instructor 2009. (If you’re looking for a one-stop overview of the philosophy of the Steps, pick up a copy and read van Wijgerden’s chapter.)

#1: Black to move

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#2: White to move

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The key to the Steps Method is the inculcation of a solving strategy. Basically players are taught to search or ‘read’ the chessboard, pick out key elements or targets – unprotected or underprotected pieces, possibilities for various tactical motifs, etc – and then take advantage of what they discover. Trainers show their students scripted examples that clearly illustrate the nature of double attack, for instance, and then the students learn to find double attacks through solving.

In the first diagram, which comes from Step 2, we quickly see that White has two unprotected targets – the knight and the bishop. Black can play two moves (…Qf4+ and …Qh6+) that would attack those targets and also give check. Only one move works, however, since after …Qf4+ White can play Kg1 saving the bishop. The correct solution, then, is …Qh6+.

The second diagram, drawn from Step 4, is more difficult. Only after players decode the position, discovering the loose pieces on b8 and c2, does the idea of 1.Qa7! (followed by 2.Qa2+ winning a piece) become possible. When search strategies are internalized and become second nature, such tactical shots are not particularly hard to find.

Search strategies like those sketched above are the hallmark of the Steps Method. The same basic schema – read the position, find a solution, check it – appears in each Step. It is even reiterated in the chapter on Tactics in the Step 6 manual:

When you are solving the combination, finding the solution is all very well, but thinking in the correct way is equally important. Always start by asking the important question: what is going on in this position?

Sometimes you recognize the position and the solution comes to you straight away, but usually you won’t find the best move immediately You have to get used to not trying out every possible move. In such cases try using the following solving strategy:

  • In the position, what targets are there to attack?
  • What are the options to exploit this?
  • Which candidate moves come into question?
  • Check the move you want to make.

Try your hand at this position, given immediately after this passage above. Black is to move.

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Here’s the solution.

Trainers are given fully scripted lessons with illustrative examples, and students practice what they learn by solving dozens of correlative problems. Nothing is left to chance.

V

The Steps Method has been translated into 10 languages, and it is used in countries around the world. Its success speaks for itself. Still, it has its critics. Some, as mentioned above, think the Steps to be nothing more than programmed puzzle books. Others, like Willy Hendriks, have more subtle concerns.

Hendriks, an International Master, is the author of the acclaimed Move First, Think Later: Sense and Nonsense in Improving Your Chess. In Chapter 2 of Move First, Think Later, titled “Look and you will see versus trial and error,” he argues that the ‘search-and-solve strategy’ embodied in the Steps Method is fundamentally mistaken. Chess is entirely concrete for Hendriks, and what we think of as ‘rules’ are basically retroactive justifications for moves that, by mucking about, we determine to be best. He writes:

…van Wijgerden is an advocate of search-and-solve strategy. This kind of double attack is an ideal example of demonstrating these strategies. He explicitly condemns the trial and error method: ‘Through a keen instruction we teach the children not to do these exercises at random… A wrong ‘strategy’ is looking for moves using a trial-and-error method. Guessing and missing.’

But trial and error is not necessarily random. You start trying moves that (for some reason) you feel to be most promising. An essential condition for most combinations is having pieces that (can) do something. Starting to work with these pieces can quickly bring you to the true targets. (25)

Moves, not rules, are what’s important in this view. The idea that “you should not try out moves at random, but first take a look at the characteristics of the position, try to make a more general plan on that basis and then only search for a concrete ‘result’ at the level of an actual move… is nonsense.” (14) No one, says Hendriks, actually thinks like this, and we would do well to abandon the fiction. Key elements of positions only come to mind once we see a good move associated with them.

Perhaps this is true for grandmasters, but it is decidedly not true for beginners and for class players. Or, better, it might be the case that some players – Americans in particular – learn chess this way, and they are much the poorer for it.

I don’t know how much teaching Hendriks does, but in my experience, asking beginners to simply find good moves is little more than tilting at windmills. How can they find good moves if they don’t know what makes them good in the first place? They might discover, through induction, what forks are if they solve hundreds of tactical puzzles, but certainly they can begin to find them more quickly if they know what they’re looking for.

This, to my way of thinking, is the point of the Steps Method. It teach players how to read positions and how to find the good moves in them. Hendriks forgets that one must be taught to read before one can actually do so. Eventually one just reads without sounding out the words, but it takes a lot of work to get there. That work is nowhere to be found in Hendriks’ vision of things. I think that for beginners and less talented players – the vast majority of us – the structured approach found in the Steps is helpful and perhaps necessary. Only when it becomes fully internalized and intuitive should it be cast aside a la Hendriks.

Implicit here, of course, is my criticism of typical American chess education. It is wholly unsystematic and it throws young players into tournament play before they are ready for it. Such youth fail to progress beyond near-random shuffling of pieces because they never learn how to read positions. Losses pile up, and they drop out, having gotten nothing out of the whole affair save a trophy or ribbon.

At least two generations of Americans have tried to learn chess via mega-doses of tactical puzzles. They solve hundreds of diagrams and hope to pick something up along the way. It’s possible that this works; indeed, it must work in some cases, since lots of our masters grew up clutching tattered copies of Reinfeld. I would still humbly argue that a programmed approach such as the Steps is a much more efficient way to learn chess, such that success becomes quantifiably more probable.

VI

I think the Steps Method is the best chess training system publicly available. The workbooks and manuals are remarkably affordable, and even those whom Caissa has not blessed with great talent can succeed as trainers. Because each Step comes with scripted lessons, good teaching examples, etc., competent class players can serve as trainers through at least Step 3 and perhaps beyond.

Some lessons might ask the trainer to play out specific positions against pupils in simuls, and analytical strength becomes more important as trainers look at games of stronger students, but generally speaking enthusiasm (and a strong silicon assistant) can overcome some of these limitations. I also believe that adult players – especially those without access to a top-level coach – can use the Steps as a program for self-improvement.

I have been using the Steps both in teaching and in self-training. [Addendum: Last summer I used Step 1 as the basis for a week at the Omaha Chess Camp in the beginner’s section, with mixed success – some beginners thought they didn’t need to learn the basics!, and the customer usually ends up being right…] Let me conclude, briefly, by discussing my experience with both cases.

(1) A few months ago I was asked to begin teaching a young boy who had just turned seven. This puts him right at the cusp of what the Steps deem an appropriate age for effective chess education, so after an initial assessment, we began with the Stepping Stones 1 workbook. Over the past four or so months we worked through Stepping Stones 1 and 2, and now we are beginning Step 1 Plus.

Our weekly lessons are broken down into three parts. First, we look at some of his games played on chesskid.com. His ability to correctly notate his OTB games is still shaky, so the games on ChessKid are a very good way to try and gauge what’s going on in his competitive play. We then do a lesson, in part or in full, from the Steps, and we might play a mini-game or two. Homework is assigned. Finally we look at a game or two with an interesting tactical twist. Some games have come from the Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures, and more recently, we have been looking at games from The Art of Checkmate.

One of the difficulties in adapting the Steps to an American context is impatience. Ideally we would spend one full year in Step 1, and real tournament play would not begin for at least that long. Such luxuries are not possible in the States, so I tried to dissuade this boy’s parents from entering him into competition for as long as I could. I also moved from the Stepping Stone books into Step 1 Plus, which revisits the themes of Step 1 while introducing some new ideas.

It is far too early to know how things will turn out, but I notice that the terminology of the Steps is becoming part of his chess vocabulary. We speak of threats and two-fold attacks, of chasers and guards in the context of checkmates. He is beginning, ever so slightly, to see the chessboard in the way that the Steps prescribe. I think this is for the best.

(2) As for me, after some poor results and in light of my haphazard education, I started with Steps 2 and 3, including the Plus workbooks, and am now (still) in Step 4. For this step and the ones to come, the idea is to do the original workbook followed by the first half of the Extra book, which reinforces what has been learned. I then do the Plus book and lessons, and cap things off with the second half of the Extra book, which is worksheets filled with problems on mixed themes.

It is easy to treat the Steps as just another set of puzzle books, and without a trainer steeped in the Steps, I suspect that I’m not getting full benefit from them. (I play each week at a local club, and I go over my games with the computer and with my coach.) What I do notice is greater tactical acumen in my play. For example, I recently defeated a 1900 player because I was able to use ideas gleaned from the Steps and win material. In another game, I found a tactical shot that took me from lost to won against an 1850 player in only one move.

The Steps are not a panacea. I still blunder, like every class player in existence. I overvalue bishops and underestimate passed pawns. Sometimes I struggle to defeat inferior players. But my board vision is improving, I’m generally calculating better, I feel more confident and I’m winning more. After (flying spaghetti monster help me) almost 25 years of chess, I’ll take it.

Update

It may seem that things have gone quiet here at Chess Book Reviews, but this is not the case. I’ve reviewed four books for print publication (Chess Life and BCM), all of which will appear here in due time.

In bigger news, however, I’ve been asked to become the permanent book reviewer for Chess Life magazine. You will see reviews by yours truly each month in that august magazine, and I’m as pleased as can be for the opportunity. All reviews will naturally appear here as well upon publication.

In the coming days you will _finally_ see a review and discussion of the Stappenmethode. I’ve continued my traversing the Steps, and in a game at my local club, I’m pretty sure that the work bore at least one night’s fruit. Enjoy.