Dennis M's Chess Site

This is a blog for chess fans by a chess fan. I enjoy winning as much as anyone else, and I've had a reasonable amount of success as a competitor, but what keeps me coming back to the game is its beauty. And that, primarily, is what this site will be about! All material copyrighted.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Lesson from Cycle World Magazine


That's for those who don't really know me. For those who do know me, let me revise that statement.


I had finished teaching my philosophy classes on Tuesday - yesterday - and was visiting my favorite local dive for Chinese food. I like to read while I eat, but lest I accidentally glop won ton soup on my reading materials, I decided to read a magazine that had been left behind by some earlier patron.

Cycle World.

Now, I do have some fond memories of riding motorcycles - solely as a passenger - when I was a kid, and I did drive a friend's new moped about 15 years ago, but that pretty much exhausts the Monokroussos-motorcycle connection. Nevertheless, I'm a curious fellow, and decided that at least this once in my life, I could get a glimpse into a culture (presumably) far different than my own.

So I started reading the October 2004 issue of the magazine, and was immediately - and positively - surprised! The first story was a touching one-page essay on the value of a motorcycle, in which the author reminisced about his late brother's favorite bike and the pleasure it gave him before his final illness and the freedom it gave him during the illness as well. The amount of money one can expect for a motorcycle is one thing, but its value is something else altogether.

The next mini-article was also of interest, but the third one, a one-page piece by Kevin Cameron entitled "Fixing Things," really caught my attention. He began with a little story about how many fix-it types get started: a kid is given an old mechanical watch that doesn't work. What does he do? He opens it, of course! Shaking the watch, it starts working for a few moments, and the kid sees how the springs and gears work. Then it stops again, and the youngster realizes that something's probably getting stuck somewhere. So he looks for a spot that's susceptible to such a fate, and comes up with the bright idea that it involves the ball bearings - one requires oil! But not too much, and how to get a little oil in such a small space? Ah, use a needle! Dabbing a little bit of oil on the end of the needle into the right area, the necessary lubrication is provided, the gears get unstuck, the watch starts to work and an avocation is born.

It's a wonderful story, and one that has been told many times in biographies and autobiographies of famous scientists. (The physicist Richard Feynman raised this sort of story-telling into an art form - see his Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Others Think? for plenty of examples.) Less so, I think, for chess biographies, but perhaps wrongly.

There's certainly competition among scientists, but there's also a fundamental communality: even if scientist A beats scientist B to the punch, both benefit by their increased understanding of the way the world is and of how it works. Scientific hagiographies tell of their heroes' curiosity and insight, just as we saw in the watch repair example above, and rightly so - we too, unless we have become jaded or intellectually lazy, retain our curiosity and love of knowledge as well, so the stories speak to us.

The paragon of chess excellence, however, is the successful competitor. We want to WIN, dag nab it, and we admire the winners and those who dare to win. The chess hagiographer, therefore, tells tales of junior watching dad play, laughing at dad's moves, and then finally beating pop to a pulp as gaping admirers behold the sight in slack-jawed amazement. From this point on it's up, up, and away as our prodigy wins event after event (cue the montage of the kid at the board, making a move, hitting the clock and receiving a trophy in event after event) until growing into a mature chess grandmaster.

It's a wonderful story, even after numerous repetitions (I have or have seen books on Morphy, Capablanca, Reshevsky, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, Anand, Adams, Kramnik, the Polgars, Kosteniuk and Carlsen, all of which essentially follow this model), but I'm not sure that it's very helpful. Of course we'd all like to win, and to identify with a winner, but the story as told in this way doesn't really get us on board with the hero as a chess player. This would be like a scientific (auto-)biography that told us that first the hero won his school's science fair, then one at the city-wide level, then at states, the Intel talent search, etc., culminating in the Nobel Prize. We might be impressed, but we wouldn't catch his love of what he's doing.

A chess biography along the lines of a science biography, then, would convey the subject's love of the game, both as it manifested itself in his or her formative years, and then subsequently in the mature player. I'd ask questions like these:

What sorts of openings did you play, and why? If you gave them up, why did you do that?
What games made an impact on you? What did you learn from them?
How did you study?
Who or what drew you to the game, and changed it from not just a game but something like an art, an avocation?
What were some of the gaps in your chess understanding, and how did you overcome them? How do you solve problems in your analysis and over the board?
If you had to persuade God or some other authority with the power to ban chess that the game was worthwhile, what would you say?

When I read the essay in Cycle World, and before that Feynman's autobiographical works, I was interested in the authors, sure, but even more than that I was captured by their vision. They were part of something bigger than themselves, or at least bigger than their contributions, and they both shared that vision with the reader in a winsome way. The "vision thing" is generally absent from chess biographies, as I've said, and it's to our game's detriment, I think.

In fact, ironically, the focus on the player as competitor undermines the likelihood of the reader's following suit in gaining competitive success for him or herself. A book that provokes hero-worship makes the player the focus, but a book that focuses on the beauty of the game draws the reader to the game, and that's where improvement is going to take place!

Something similar and sadly mistaken arises in the "utilitarian" approach to study that many players have - again, I think, a symptom of the competition model. There will always be books (many of which are crimes against trees) of the Win with Opening X or 5 Million Tricky Traps varieties, but if that's our primary means of "improvement," we're short-changing ourselves.

Almost all of the strong players I know and have met enjoy analysis and are very good at it. Sometimes the analysis sessions are a bit competitive, too, but it's often of a different sort, more akin to musicians trying to one-up each other than engaging in psychic warfare. They lose themselves in the position, fascinated by its possibilities, willing to spend hours exploring, figuring out what's going on.

Take my old endgame study, for example. (See here and here.) I was playing a speed game against myself to test out some opening variation or other (remember, no internet back then!), and I came to the starting position of that ending. I don't recall what happened in the speed game, but I do remember being amazed at how difficult the position was to solve - for a while I vacillated between thinking it was drawn and thinking Black was winning. It took me a couple of hours, easily, before I was convinced that I understood everything in the position. Likewise, I've spent several hours on the NN-Blackburne game (see here and here), trying to persuade myself, against my instincts, that Black is unable to win the position after 10.Qd8. These are only two examples of many; indeed, I regret not having spent more of my chess time engaged in analysis.

And here's the thing: little if anything will improve one's chess more than doing serious analytical work! It is, after all, the chess player's fundamental skill; additionally, the content - what's analyzed - is far more likely to be mastered when one devotes his or her own elbow grease, rather than casually reading a book like a menu.

A last point, having to do with analysis and computers. After playing a game, many of us are tempted to know the TRUTH of the matter. So we get home, fire up the oracle, sit back and learn.

"Learn"? Horse feathers! What we're doing is just the opposite. Not only are we not learning anything, we're going in the opposite direction - we're abdicating ourselves of our responsibility to figure things out for ourselves. The computer doesn't tell us why we went wrong and doesn't explain the position to us. That's not to say that we shouldn't use chess engines. We just shouldn't use them until we've done our best first.

So let's take a page from Cycle World: let's not throw out the broken watch, let's not take it to the mechanic (at least not right away). Let's figure it out for ourselves! It might not be easy at first, and we might not be very good at figuring things out right away, but we'll come to enjoy chess like never before - and we'll improve like never before.


  • At 1:25 PM, Blogger Robert Pearson said…

    Fantastic post, Dennis. It moves me to admit that I've always been more interested in starting another game than in analysis--which is probably why my playing strength has stagnated at its current level. But perhaps it's not too late to change my approach!

  • At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great article Dennis! I was moved to comment on this which is something that does not happen to me often. I tend to keep my thoughts to myself. But I can agree with you 100% there is nothing like working your way through a fascinating chess position. Nothing really matters when you search for the 'truth' of a position. I learn a lot when analyzing with others precisely because they challenge my thoughts and ideas. I only wish I could find more people willing to get lost in a position for a while. Some of the most enjoyable games I participated in were Kasparov vs The World and Uzbek TV audience vs Saidali Yuldashev Where I could take my time and analyze a position and then compare my opinion (right/wrong) to others. Those are definitely games I will always treasure not only because they were great games, but for the journey (analysis time) it took to get there.

  • At 7:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Super article, Dennis. Your article reminded me of the fantastic book, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE; no single point seemed analogous to any single point in the book, but the way you advocate critical thinking reminded me of the way Pirsig invokes critical thinking to get at the heart of a matter; and of course, there are the motorcycles.

    My ad-hoc theory as to why there might not be as many Feynman-type chess biographies out there, is that perhaps most of these super-strong players "got good" at too young of an age to recall exactly how they did it. Can anybody remember how they learned how to speak? We were too young.

    There is one chess book that comes to mind in this genre, and it is CHESS MASTER AT ANY AGE..., by Wetzell. It's not really a biography, but he tries to break down how he progressed to 2200. Michael de la Maza also describes his improvement in his book, RAPID CHESS IMPROVEMENT, but his story is pretty much one-dimensional: just tactics

    In the last few years I've improved a bit, and have been keeping a journal of my thoughts and training process during this time. If I ever make it to master I hope to have a nice log of the process..

  • At 12:59 AM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    I've received quite a few complimentary comments on this post (not all of which are here in the comments), and I appreciate them.

    Howard offers some interesting thoughts; I'd like to address two.

    First, a point of clarification: while I'd certainly advocate analysis as the royal road to improvement, improvement was the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. I'll analyze a position because it's perplexing, fascinating, beautiful, bursting with possibilities. Improvement is great and I'll for it, but even if my days of improving are behind me, my love of the game will continue undiminished.

    Second, while it seems that even fetuses are becoming IMs and GMs these days, I think the vast majority of titled players are capable are remembering at least a great deal of their up and coming years. After all, even I can, and my chess memory is probably inferior to most of theirs!

  • At 9:23 AM, Blogger Ken Smith said…

    I've taken a cue from this posting by Dennis to write a wandering sort of piece about the ethical problem of expertise at my own blog:


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