A couple months ago a young man in his 20s with a 940 rating contacted me for lessons. He had only been playing for a short time, was a very intelligent guy, and already had solid tactical skills (probably 1500+ tactics). Why then was he only rated 940? I was interested in answering this question so I accepted "Stu” as a student, and our quest for his improvement began. During one tournament, Stu was playing a 1200 player. He was winning the game easily but, in the thick of battle, made some blunder and lost. Afterwards Mr. 1200 said, "I heard you are taking lessons from Silman. Don’t bother! Instead, just read Rapid Chess Improvement by Michael de la Maza and you’ll get good, just like I have!”
A few weeks later Stu was playing another 900 player. Stu achieved a Lucena (I had taught him that it’s easily winning), forgot how to win it (sigh…) and drew. Afterwards his opponent said, "Yeah, that position’s just a draw. By the way, you know how I got so good? I read Rapid Chess Improvement.”
Aside from the absurdity of a 900 and 1200 player claiming vast improvement due to this book (and both players showed no tactical or positional skills whatsoever in the games mentioned), I admit to being intrigued by the repeated mention of a book I knew nothing about. Thus, I bought it, read it, and now completely understand where these two (deluded) gentlemen were coming from.
Mr. de la Maza is a player who (at around 1321) suffered badly from elementary tactical oversights and, rather than lie back and accept eternal misery, decided to do something about it. Creating his own tactical study plan, he followed it with incredible verve and leapt up "…400 USCF rating points in my first year of tournament play and almost 300 rating points in my second year of play.” This, and a little luck (you always need some luck to win a tournament!), helped him win the U2000 section of the 2001 World Open, which netted him a $10,000.00 prize. He then retired from active play with a 2041 rating. That’s a nice success story, and it certainly makes the average tournament player salivate in lustful desire. Any student that looks at the de la Maza book will ask, "Can I improve as fast as he did? Can I win $10,000?”
Mr. de la Maza starts out by doing something I can’t stand: 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. This technique is popular in many self-help and how-to books. It serves as page filler, it revs the reader into a frenzy, and it obscures the fact that the author actually has very little of worth to say. In short, Rapid Chess Improvement is less instructive than motivational. It incites emotion, promises far more than could or should be promised, and ultimately is nothing more than pie in the sky in view of the true lesson he’s imparting: Study Tactics and Work Your Ass Off!
Mr. de la Maza’s well-intentioned manipulation is based on a sincere desire to help those who suffered as he did. I respect that. And I can’t help but agree with his true (sometimes "coded”) message: Tactical skill acquired by hard work will make you much stronger.
How much work did de la Maza do? Let’s have him tell us: "It took me about twenty months to achieve a rating of 1900 and during that time I studied two to three hours a day for a total of approximately 1500 hours of study. In addition, I played approximately 200 chess games, each of which took approximately three hours for a total of 2100 hours of study time.”
I hate to break this to the many chess hopefuls out there, but every chess writer/teacher begs the student to master basic tactics. And it doesn’t take a genius to agree that hard work will always inspire some sort of improvement (sometimes small, sometimes enormous). The problem is that very few people are able to offer up this much time, effort, and dedication to chess due to the constraints of job, family, children, and life in general.
I’m reminded of the ever-renewing slew of young starlets who arrive in Los Angeles from farms, towns, and cities all over the U.S. Each has a dream, and every one of them knows that they will be that one in 20,000 that will succeed. Once they hit the streets of Hollywood, a variety of manipulative, shady characters meet them, tell them that he’ll turn them into the star that they know they’re preordained to be, and… well, it’s not pretty. Preying on people’s hopes and dreams is one of the oldest scams in the world, and this desire to be "a great chessplayer” makes such dreamers swoon at de la Maza’s inspirational words.
Some years ago I received a serious flier that recommended you quit your job and enter the "lucrative field of chess.” Upon reading this, my heart stopped and I had to push a finger into the wall socket to regain a beat. Imagine the déjà vu when I read these de la Maza words on page 47 of his book: "If you do not have access to a computer you should make every effort to get one. New computers can be purchased with a monitor for under $400 and used computers can be purchased with a monitor for under $200. The money you spend will be immediately returned to you when you start winning prizes at tournaments.”
Note how he constantly pushes "hope” – hope that you’ll get good, hope that it will be easy, hope that you’ll win lots of money. His non-stop blither about "chess vision” makes one squint into a mirror and imagine that a super hero is looking back, while 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.
Most horrifying, perhaps (how to pick one horrific moment over another?), is his sample game (one of his own in which he plays White), where he shows how one should think move by move:
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats.
Decide move: 1.e4 of course!
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats, but watch out for …Qa5.
Decide move: No tactics. 2.Nf3 or 2.Nc3 are both reasonable.
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats.
Decide move: No tactics. 3.e5 is most shocking. Continue development with 3.Nc3.
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats.
Decide move: No tactics. Continue to develop with 4.Bb5+.
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats but light-squared Bishop is attacked.
Decide move: No tactics.
Opponent’s threat: No significant threats.
Decide move: No tactics. 6.e5 continues to be quite interesting, at least in part because it creates a crazy position that Black will not know: 6…dxe5 7.Nxe5 Qe6 8.f4. Stay safe with 6.0-0.
Opponent’s threat: …Nd4 is unpleasant.
Decide move: No tactics. Exchange pawns and open up center with 7.d4. Is this guy kidding? Is he trying to turn us into soulless chess machines made of flesh? I half expected him to write (once a threat finally appeared): "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”
My final spasm associated with Rapid Chess Improvement (or should I rename it: Rapid Chess Impoverishment) is the 16 pages he devotes to reader’s praise. The title of this chapter is "Success With Rapid Chess Improvement.” I read the letters with interest but soon that interest turned to incredulity. Of the more than 16 letters he lists, only two people (perhaps I missed one?) claim any rating gain! Instead, we get "success” stories like this:
NM Spencer Lower
"I would like to thank you for creating your systematic chess… I am totally stunned and surprised about this whole new idea – and I will of course try it myself!”
"I read your [Rapid Chess Improvement program] and really enjoyed it. I think that it will be a great help to me.”
Perhaps I should write a book called, Grandmaster in Two Weeks, where I will recommend buying a Fischer signature (don’t worry, you’ll regain the spent money in chess prizes), sitting on it for two weeks straight (no getting up allowed!), and then heading for the nearest international event where you can take your rightful place as a world beater. Letters would pour in like: "I’m still sitting, but I can’t wait for the two weeks to be up so I can be World Champion!” or "When I find time to sit like that I know it will make me a great player!”
Everyone clearly loves the idea of easy and rapid improvement (who wouldn’t?), and they all can’t wait for those rating points to pour in (kind of reminds me of those late-night infomercials about instant wealth). Yet, hope alone won’t get the job done.
The simple truth is, everyone has his own individual needs, weaknesses, and strengths. When I get a new student, I look at his games in an effort to see what HIS individual problem is. Then I try to cure that particular problem, while not forgetting to give him healthy doses of information in other areas of chess thought. Many players have tactical abilities far beyond their rating, but are positionally pathetic. Others are, indeed, helpless in the face of tactics. And others have problems such as lack of patience or the feeling that all games need to be decided by a kingside attack or a trick.
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.
A study regimen must be created for the individual in question. And due to this truth, 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.
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.
Let’s take a look at a letter I received:
"The reason for his letter is to thank you. I began playing chess some years ago when I was already about 50 years of age. I have read a plethora of chess books in the meantime but none of them with real benefit. They were either too sophisticated or too simple with too few explanations. I found CT-Art on CD ROM very useful, but in spite of improving my tactical skills I lost too many games without knowing what actually was going on. Then I found your book The Amateur’s Mind. Indeed, that was the book that I was waiting and looking for. After having read it, my playing strength dramatically increased and since then I have more fun when I play chess because I do understand what I am doing and what I have to do in a given position.”
I get a huge amount of letters from students worldwide that gain hundreds of points in a few months from reading my "strategically oriented” books. Others don’t improve drastically in tournament play, but simply enjoy the game more because they can suddenly understand ideas utilized by the chess greats. This is a very important point (I’m not pushing my books, I’m trying to make a point!): they enjoy the game more because, instead of looking for tricks while not having a clue about what’s happening on a broader scale, they are taught that chess has many hidden depths that are accessible to them with proper training.
When all is said and done, I can’t recommend Rapid Chess Improvement (a book that, in my view, offers a philosophically bankrupt vision of what chess is). It smacks of "the blind leading the blind.” But, as I said earlier, his book might prove useful for some.