Sunday, June 21, 2020

Old wine in new skins part 3

In 2013 I wrote on this blog a positive review about the book Move First Think Later see the article I knew it. 8 years after his first book the Dutch IM Willy Hendriks released his 2nd: On the Origin of Good Moves.
Some writers try to publish each year one or even more new books/ dvds. However if you want to achieve a high standard then you need a lot of time to do the necessary research. So when a second book is only released 8 years after a first masterpiece then you can be confident that also this new book will be something special. Anyway I didn't doubt about buying it as I ordered it even before the book was properly announced at my favorite chess-shop: de denksportkampioen.

And indeed I again loved it. Probably also due to the current corona-crisis I absorbed the pages in no time. I guess that I even went a bit too fast as I started to wonder what the book exactly was about after I finished it. The book consists of 36 chapters discussing sometimes very varying subjects of which the past seems to be a bit the only common thread between them at first sight. Besides just like the first book of Willy, the title of the book puts the reader rather on the wrong track.

For sure I was not the only one being deceived as in different reviews of this book which are currently already available see: review 1, review 2, review 3 (I guess there has been a lot of more reading lately due to the lock-down in many countries so this book was more than welcome) I read each time that this is some sort of history-book. Therefore the first thought I had when I finished the book was why we don't continue after 1894? In the next decades the level of the play went up dramatically with superb players like Lasker, Capablanca and Aljechin fighting and winning world-championships. It is also very strange that in a history-book there are practically nowhere any score or tables of tournament-results shown.

Nonetheless the reader also did get some hints like the monkey on the cover and the subtitle: "a skeptic's guide to getting better at chess" so more or less telling us that this is not an ordinary history-book. So to find out what exactly we are dealing with (or more precisely to confirm my suspicions) I decided to read the book a second time. However this time I didn't let me carry away anymore by the often very funny stories but rather tried to focus on the conclusions of each chapter and to figure out the concept of the book. With this new mindset I made very quickly progress.

If I need to summarize it in a couple of words then I consider this book as a follow up of his first book but this time the author explains us what we can learn from the (very) old masters (games played before the year 1900) to improve ourselves. So it is again a training-book and also again mainly written for the trainer although this time I think a lot of the given examples can be also useful for the trainees (I estimate between 1500 - 2000 elo).

However just like his first book, also this book is again very different from what a standard textbook about chess looks like. At the beginning of each chapter Willy asks the readers to solve a number of positions but some of those have multiple solutions or don't even have a clear-cut answer. I don't know many textbooks which use such approach. Contrary most authors will try to only use exercises of which there is one clear best move. Besides Willy even puts oil on the fire by claiming in his own book that those (very) old masters played some weak chess. At page 318 he writes that in the beginning of the 19th century (year 1800) the level of the best players was likely around 2000 elo while at the end of the 19th century (year 1900) the level had risen to the mediocre level of about 2400 elo. Wouldn't it a be much easier to sell a lot more books by referring to e.g. this site which tells us that Willhelm Steinitz achieved a fantastic rating of 2784 in 1876. However Willy does exactly the opposite by demonstrating in many examples that the top-players in that era were blundering sometimes horribly and were still lacking some fundamental basics.

Everything is upside down in the book but not without very good reasons which makes it again a masterpiece and mostly likely a reference for the next generations. Indeed despite that I agree that the old masters played very weakly if we compare to our super-grandmasters of today (a very interesting analysis not mentioned in the book is Intrinsic Ratings Compedium with ratings calculated also for the old masters based solely on the quality of the played moves and which confirm the roughly estimated ratings by Willy).

Therefore the big question is of course "Why does it make sense to study those very old games still today? Wouldn't it be better just to forget them and look to better games played later? Maybe the old games (19th century and older) should be only stored by historians. That is the essence of this new book. Why shouldn't we forget our past? Which lessons of the past are still relevant today?

Well I believe the book consists of the 2 big messages:
-  Games or more broadly taken any publication of that time contains countless examples of (basic) ideas/ motives/ concepts in a very pure format and are therefore excellent to present them to a student (that is why I think the student can most likely profit from it in the range of 1500 - 2000 elo). Below 1500 elo I think some parts will be still difficult to understand. Above 2000 elo most players should already be familiar with most of the content. The author also refers to a funny quote about Plato at the beginning of the book. After Plato some people consider all new ideas just as a variation or mix of old ideas. Indirectly this is to some extent also for chess valid. Of course there exists no point in time when this era of "modelgames" ends but I like the choice of the author for the year 1894 as then the first edition was launched of Tarrasch Dreihundert Schachpartien.
- The second big thread of the book is about the evolution-theory and more broadly which old theories about the past can still be approved today. The author states not much as many old theories are nonsense and were copied blindly in later books. I already wrote in 2018 on my blog see fake news that also chessplayers don't mind to adapt the truth so it fits their view (everybody myself included prefers to look only at the data which confirms our theories ). Especially the established theory that players develop via specific stages, is countered by Willy. When I reviewed MFTL in 2013, I had little experience at teaching chess. However in the last 5 years I encountered many times students struggling to improve as they were almost exclusively doing tactics by the method of steps. I agree with Willy that we should also teach from the start positional themes and (basic) openings. My own children had the luxury to get this extra information from me and therefore improved much quicker than others. So I fully agree that a development of a player should happen gradually and simultaneously at many domains and not follow some arbitrary stages. This was also confirmed by a recent interview of the young Russian top-grandmaster Daniil Dubov in which he stated that it often harms the development of a player when a coach insists on implementing a specific style. I am no expert at teaching but my personal impression is that a teacher should let his students get acquainted with a large set of tools and pieces of knowledge. Let the student select from it whatever he/she likes or works for him/her in practice. Of course a good coach should be able to adapt the content of the classes to the specific demands of a student.

In the book we follow more or less the chronology of the events in history so the books becomes easier digestible but again I want to emphasize this is not a history book. Often the author jumps back and forth in time to discuss a subject. Also the author just admits that he doesn't know for sure if the example shown in the book is the very first of its kind. So it could be that historically there exists still an older one of it but this doesn't matter. Students don't care when or who exactly was first. They only want to learn the idea and know if this can still occur in games played today. That is also why I like very much the link to the recent top-games or even games played by the author (this is something I do also in my classes and which my students appreciate a lot or even in articles on my own blog see e.g. old win in new skins part 1 and  en part 2.)

By the way while preparing this article I discovered the recent book of the Romanian grandmaster Mihail Marinold wine in new bottles which uses the same concept. I am a bit disappointed not to find any reviews about that book as Mihail has a strong reputation as author. Anyway Mihail confirms what Willy writes in his book. The past contains plenty of valuable lessons. Nevertheless I think it is not so easy for a student to learn independently something by checking those old games. On the other hand coaches have no excuse not to look at them and extract interesting pieces for their their classes.
A magic cover so I don't understand why this book got so few reactions from the chess-community.
By not looking at games later than the 19th century we see that the themes are in most cases very accessible to a moderate advanced student. It is also not surprising that 90% of the content used in Willy's book is limited to the 19th century as there exists very little older material. I still want to make a little note to the references summarized at page 427. I miss the monumental book of Hans Renette about Henry Bird which gives an excellent overview about how chess was played (mainly in the second half) of the 19th century. This a rather modern book of exceptionally high standard and I am sure it could've been used as input for On the Origin of Good Moves.

Besides the theory of evolution presented by Willy is much more than the accumulation of small bits of knowledge. The subject of chapter 15 is also discussed very well in the book of Henry Bird. Many details are presented in that book about how the playing-conditions slowly improved in the second half of the 19th century moving chess from cafes to our current much higher tournament-standards (although this is not always guaranteed even today see chess-comfort part 2). In that book we also see the rise of organized competitions (first only matches and later larger and larger tournaments) which forces the best players to check their ideas more seriously. End of 2019 I already wrote on my blog that competition is of the uttermost importance for becoming a better player see How many games should I play? and which Willy treats in chapter 5.

Also a big increase of magazines and books allows a much better distribution of the new acquired knowledge so much more players are getting stronger from which also later generations profit. At the end of the book the author makes the balance. Who or what generated the largest progress for chess? Were it the few big champions so did the progress happen via jumps or was it rather something very slowly at many different domains simultaneously. I read a reaction at schaaksite of somebody thinking Steinitz generated a Copernican revolution in chess by being the first person to establish a systematic approach to chess and put his theories on paper but also that is countered in the book (see page 189). In 1865 Gustav Neumann published already the book" The newest theories and practice of chess". Many players even before Steinitz wrote anything, were already busy with analyzing their games, searching the truth of a position by paying attention to attack and defense, classifying openings, summarizing their conclusions and writing theories on paper,... That is something which we still do even today. Besides many theories of Steinitz but also of his successor Lasker were later considered as incorrect.

Maybe the most important piece of advice in the book is that there are no shortcuts in becoming better at chess. There exists no set of rules or a theory which allows you to play at the level of a grandmaster. Most rules are nothing more than the proverbial good grandmother-advice. That is also the end of the book. If we want to improve then we should be willing to allocate countless hours to do an enormous amount of hard work at chess.


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