Friday, July 29, 2005

Silman's Review of de la Maza's book

I finally got around to reading Silman's review of Rapid Chess Improvement (links to both the book and review are permanently on my sidebar). Man, he is vicious, saying the book is manipulative (like a hustler manipulating an actress wannabe in Los Angeles), foolishly instilling false hope in people ("his promises to the gullible chess student of hundreds of rating points in one year and a nice income from chess prizes is, in my opinion, almost criminal and is most certainly ignorant"), promotes his system more like a content-free infomercial than a teacher("he tells you, over and over and over (page after page after page), what he’s going to do for you without teaching you anything"), he says DLM is "trying to turn us into soulless chess machines" with no appreciation for the real strategic concepts underlying chess, and even if it does help you, you still suck because:
Winning by trickery without understanding the game at all is nothing less than pathetic. Yes, we all need tricks now and then to save us from certain doom, but to play for a cheap tactic from move one on is NOT chess. By all means, study tactics as often as possible, but don’t allow yourself to look at a grandmaster game and understand nothing whatsoever about what’s going on. To avoid this state of “chess existence without beauty,” one must seek balance. Understand a couple openings (don’t memorize, understand the ideas of your opening), understand basic strategic concepts, learn endgame basics, and master key tactical motifs. All this can be done at your own pace, and you CAN improve without the use of snake oil.

In the following, Silman echoes the sentiments of Caissa's Confabulations' recent invective:
Another thing that de la Maza didn’t mention (he was most likely unaware of it) is that many tactical errors occur after a strategically poor position has been reached. Confusion and/or panic sets in, the player has no idea what he’s supposed to do, and a blunder follows. In fact, this same thing happens at high levels, where a grandmaster gets himself into positional trouble, despairs in the face of helplessness, and misses an obvious tactic. This very common problem isn’t about tactics at all.
Though, as Nezha pointed out:
And if you dont learn tactics - and you get to the position he stated above - what do you do?

Its like saying chess is more than mate, or chess is more than the ending, or the opening, or the middlegame. Its like this, no matter what level you are - you have to learn how to mate. Because if you dont know how to mate a king with say, a rook, then whats the point of learning rook-related positional concepts like "exchange sacrifice" or something. Bringing the argument forward - you have to learn tactics. Because otherwise, whats the point of building a good position if you cant take advantage of it?

I think the guy's just confused. Maybe he just needs a few sessions with you and your bokken.

The only (halfway) good thing Silman has to say is in this paragraph:
I can (VERY reservedly!) recommend de la Maza’s book to those that are falling apart tactically AND who are willing to work like dogs to eradicate the problem (and those hard working individuals will quite likely experience chess improvement of some kind). For those that need a cheerleader/drill sergeant/motivational speaker to get them started, de la Maza is there to lead you to the Promised Land of robotic tactical acumen. But if your main problem lies elsewhere, or if you have limited time to devote to chess study (translation: if you have a life), then other books, (real) teachers, ideas, etc. need to be made use of.

My question is, who pissed in Silman's porridge? The book does suffer from some major limitations, but come on, this review is a personal attack (maybe because DLM criticizes Silman's training program in the book). The review also reminds me of some academic snobs at my school who look down their noses at Harry Potter books because they are (arguably) not high literature. Regardless, it gets millions of kids excited to read and exercise their minds. I wonder if there is some jealousy involved on Silman's part because MDLM has sparked so much interest and motivation.

Personally, the MDLM plan was the first approach to chess improvement that made sense from a psychological perspective, that advocated building up gradually, and then burning patterns into your head via repetition. Sure, tactics ain't enough, but you could apply the same MDLM-style principles to end-game, openings patterns, and perhaps even strategic patterns (though I have seen less of the latter). Also, maybe other chess authors could learn a little something from de la Maza's motivational-speaker style. Sure, he may have gone a bit over the top with it, but perhaps practically oriented chess books could use a little spiced-up encouragement!


Blogger Jim said...

Good grief, Charlie Brown!

Silman calling de la Maza's book names is the kettle calling the pot black.

I own two books by Silman and I have to say they were the biggest waste of money I ever spent on two chess books.

I was reading the first book and about 2/3 through the book, I tossed it aside.

Silman tells you in one chater "Do x,y,z" and then in the very next chapter says "Don't do x,y,z". He even admits to doing this in the book and then offers some lame explanation about "you have to know when to do x,y,z and when not to do x,y,z."

Huh? What in the Sands of Tattoine is that all about? I might as well go ask Cleo the Psychic which move to make.

I wasted a good two weeks reading and studying his book. And what's the deal with his obsession about balance? Sheesh. He sounds like some New-agey guru. Eveyone I know on ICC thinks Silman is a joke. . .

The fact is I learned more about chess in the past 6 months studying tactics than I could have if I followed Silman's plan for a year.

Nuff said!

7/30/2005 01:21:00 AM  
Blogger King of the Spill said...

Been there before...

Let's face it. When somebody has another opinion, it drives Silman crazy.

I would say I got alot more out of TAM than Jim up there, but not without alot of frustration. Like most people using that book, I hit a rating ceiling, and just couldn't get better without a major tactics program. Before standard games, I usually look at a few quotes I got from TAM as reminders of things to look for in a position. (Those quotes are just from his bold-typeface sentences).

It's a handy book in that sense.

Silman is a big proponent of detailed, positionally based planning. He thinks everyone should play his way at an amateur level, but it's not possible if a player can't spot tactical threats in a position.

DLM never got to Silman's rating, so you can bet that there really is something to deep planning at higher levels of chess. Chessmaster has plenty of multi-media lectures that illustrate this at a GM level. But how often do you see amateurs blunder? Tactics screw up a majority of amateur games. DLM addresses this by using simpler plans and focusing on NOT making tactical mistakes as much as anything. I don't think that DLM is suggesting players rely exclusively on traps to get +400 rating points.


I think if a beginner is tactically strong, he will tend pick up positional wisdom naturally over time; if a beginner is positionally strong, he will probably hit a ceiling and not pick up tactical wisdom steadily without study.


I ignore anyone who is ranting against DLM. Let them produce 100 people who have gotten nowhere by following DLM's approach for 400 days, 7 circles@ 2 1/2 hr. per day + lots of standard games and post-mortems. This approach isn't for everyone, but, unlike Silman's books, it directly addresses the reality of improving in a tactically inaccurate environment.

If your looking for what other people suggest to improve chess, I have heard of advice to simply play 3 standard games a week against 1800 + player/computer for a year. This is with at least 90 minutes on each clock and post-mortems afterwards. It was said that if it's against a computer, the difficulty ought to be set to at least 4-ply deep or higher, though you can give it much less time on it's clock than you would a human opponent.

7/30/2005 04:28:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

One of the things I failed to mention was that Silman completely failed to acknowledge the novelty in de la Maza's approach. Namely, the Seven Circles. It is a very creative plan, with less time per problem on each successive circle. When, in my comments, I noted that the approach seems quite sound from a psychology of learning standpoint, this is what I meant. It is an effective way to learn lots of tactical patterns.

While other authors may tell you to repeat their tactical puzzles until you get them all right, de la Maza is different. He says, repeat them until you can do them so fast you don't even have to think. It is in the rough-and-tumble of real games, where time matters, that the power of this technique really shows. The same goes for the chess vision exercises: instead of having to calculate how to get the Knight from point A to point B, the knight sight exercise drastically reduces the effort.

Silman's post is largely a petty ad hominem attack, and fails to address the meat of the method. This may partly be de la Maza's fault, because (in Silman's defense) there is too much fluff in that book!

7/30/2005 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I believe de la Maza was critical of Silman's "method" in his own book (saying Silman missed tactical shots that rendered his "strategy" useless), and this might be one reason behind Silman's negative review (not to mention that Silman loves to rant at times). Also, Silman teaches chess, and de la Maza does present his "method" as a "cure-all" for class players, and his book does read like a late-night infomercial. Pursuing tactics to the exclusion of strategy, endgame, opening principles, etc. is definitely a bad approach, and I can see how it's easy to get that message from de la Maza's book and want to warn players against it.

I think Silman's Reassess Your Chess books are great. It's not because I follow his thinking process, but rather because he got me thinking about imbalances like I never had before.

Similarly, de la Maza's study plan really helped my OTB play because it sharpened by "tactical muscle". Chess isn't all tactics, but it's an area most of us neglect that makes the biggest difference at the class level.

I'm lucky if I get a paragraph out of a chess book that really teaches me something useful, and while I may have a higher respect for Silman's work overall, both authors have helped my chess.

7/31/2005 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

Reading Silman's "How to Reassess Your Chess" was the first time I'd ever had a chess book explain ideas to me. Up until that time, I'd only dabbled in chess books that often went into ten move variations and ended things like "and white is clearly better" and left me feeling confused. Silman taught me some important points about how to evaluate a position in chess.

After I read his book I thought I was just going to dominate, or at least play pretty well. To my surprise, I found myself getting crushed with tactics in the opening. Silman only became useful when I escaped the opening unscathed, and in these cases I found him valuable.

I only say these things as a preface to the fact that I think Silman's review misses the mark on MDLM's program. To be sure, it's hard to give an objective review to a book that openly criticizes your own work as MDLM does to Silman. In fact, I think just based on this fact, any kind of review by Silman should just be rejected out of hand because he has a conflicting interest.

I find it amusing that Silman opens his review with a story of one of his student's losing to a tactical blunder, and then goes on to bash the idea that intensive tactics training is ridiculous.

In the end I have to agree with Chris in that both Silman and De La Maza have their place in making us better chess players. And as a rule, they should just leave each other alone.

8/02/2005 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

I do agree that there is a little infomercialism in the De la Maza book. Rapid Chess Improvement has a section where he states the tournament prize money will pay for your computer is a little extreme. Time spent mowing lawns would most likely give you a much quicker return. However I do buy in that MDLM method works and it worked for him. It most likely will work for us as well. At least it will help us not drop pieces to
cheapo tactics....

8/03/2005 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Dinomike100 said...

I haven't read either Silman's books nor de la Maza's book, but I have read de la Maza's article and Silman's review. If you go to Silman's website, there are 2 other book reviewers who have balanced reviews of de la Maza's book. I think that de la Maza concentrates a bit too much on tactics, but overall I think the advice is on the right track (in fact, it is great for any beginner who doesn't know that tactics are more important than openings). I remember Bruce Pandolfini giving advice in his column once:

If you were to study only one thing for chess, it should be tactics. If you were to study only two things for chess, they should be tactics and endgames. If you were to study only three things for chess, they should be tactics, endgames, and a general study of openings.

I pretty much agree with the above opinion. I think that more often than not, blunders are actually made for PSYCHOLOGICAL reasons. If you have a bad position, but know that you are defending or have a bad position, you can be extra careful and avoid blunders. Silman claims that blunders are made after strategically poor positions are reached, which is correct, but I sometimes get into such positions myself, am aware of it, and manage to get back in the game when my opponent mishandles their attack.

Anyway, after reading that review I think Silman is mostly incorrect. I don't think a 900-1000 player can have 1500+ tactics, I think Silman is probably overestimating his student's tactical ability. The first example he gives talks about his student losing due to a tactical blunder. The second example he gives he talks about teaching his student a Lucena position. Why the heck would he be teaching a 900-1000 player complicated stuff like Lucena positions? I didn't know that until I was like 1600 and I was just fine.

Overall, I think that de la Maza's method does have some limitations (I like Pandolfini's advice the most), but I think that pure strategic chess with only a little bit of tactics won't get an adult player looking to improve very far.

7/30/2006 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I like the Pandolfini philosophy, Dinomike.

7/30/2006 04:38:00 PM  

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