In Chess, the Truth is Overrated

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I’m currently writing a chess book about the top 25 games from Bobby Fischer. In my research for this book I have referred to quite a few other books, and it helped to remind me of the reasons why I want to write this series. I see quite a few problems with modern chess books, and they mostly fall under the same categories:

  1. There is too much reliance of computer analysis
  2. There are too many variations that are completely irrelevant to the point of the game and that provide no instructional content or learning moments
  3. The authors are unable to accurately judge whether a human being is capable of finding a move that the engine’s suggest
  4. They are too long.

Let’s talk about these points one at a time:

First, the reliance on computer analysis is mostly a bad thing, and this is closely related to point #3. When an IM or GM writes some computer analysis variation and starts giving the moves “!” and “?” based on this analysis, the weaker player is often going to be unable to discern whether or not the lines are realistic or not. While looking through a lot of recent analysis of Fischer games, I see moves getting all kinds of random annotations due to computer analysis. In many cases my first instinct is: “No human being in the world would ever find that move and it’s completely impractical”. However I am an International Master, while most readers aren’t. Instead they will come away from the book with a misguided feeling that this is important information. My belief is that when you write an instructional book, you should try to explain the key moments of the games as succinctly as possible. If you need to point out a line because it involves human patterns or human calculations, you should go ahead. But if it’s just a 15 move line of computer analysis, including it detracts from the book (unless it’s an opening book of course).

Secondly, I mention that there are too many irrelevant variations. My favorite series of books are Mark Dvoretsky’s School of Future Champions series. Why is that? These books are transcribed from actual chess camps held in Russia, for some of the top young players in the country (and world). What you notice about these transcripts is the very fact that there are not endless streams of pointless variations, because this is not an effective way to teach. If I’m going to hold a class and demonstrate a game to talented young players, and not include these endless variations and computer lines, why should they then be included in a book? Just because I have more space I need to use it, even if the information I add to the book distracts readers from the real lessons to be gained? Dvoretsky and Yusupov feel no need to do this in an actual class or in any of their wonderful video lessons that can be found online. What you need to do is nail home the most important lessons and concepts of the book, and not muddy the issue with the objective “truth” of a position. What matters more, in the large majority of cases, is the “practical truth” of a position. What I mean by that, is that if you play a certain way in a game, it will be likely to lead to success, and whether it is a pattern or concept that can be repeated and understood.

That doesn’t mean that there are no such thing as good long variations, there are certainly many moments where they should be mentioned, but I find that most authors overdo it. If you want to include a variation it must be logical and practical, and if it isn’t, it should be pointed out that it’s not.

Thirdly, it is extremely important for an author to understand what a human being is actually able to understand instead of just spitting out computer lines. If a computer tells you that one move is correct for some insanely complex reason, yet 10/10 top Grandmasters would choose a different move, it’s probably more instructive to understand why the Grandmasters chose that move, then to pretend that we can analyze like an engine. Gregory Kaidanov has a very wise method of dealing with “computer” moves. Sometimes while analyzing a game, a computer would suggest some move. He wouldn’t even pay any attention to it and would instead say “That move doesn’t exist”. His point is that the move is so impractical and illogical, that even though it may objectively be the best move or best defense, in a practical sense you can behave as though the move doesn’t exist, because there is no realistic possibility of playing or noticing this move under game conditions.

In many cases in my book I will reference these lines, and specifically point out why I believe that they are impractical and that there is nothing concrete to be gained from exploring them.

My last point is that many books are too long because people have this feeling of “getting your money’s worth”. The point of a book is not to make it really long. If you are reading this, I can almost guarantee you that you’ve started to read more chess books than you’ve ever finished. At my U.S. Chess Schools, a lot of kids are an expert on the first chapter or two of the latest books. However if you throw in a few chapters from the middle or the end, they suddenly “didn’t get that far into the book”. I too have finished very few chess books in my life, but I have read the first quarter or half of many of them.

My goal is that the reader reads the entire book, and in order for that to be true, it should aim to be condensed with only the most critical and interesting information. Every time I add a line just to demonstrate some objective truth about a mostly irrelevant sideline, I sidetrack the reader and lower the chance they will finish the book. I don’t want any lines to be skipped and I don’t want any words to feel irrelevant.

As Grandmaster Arthur Yusupov said in a recent video on Chess24, which was taken from a famous Albert Einstein quote: “It’s best to explain something as simply as possible, but not simpler”. That will be my goal with this book and therefore I don’t care whether the book is 150 pages or 300 pages.

I’m in the middle of annotating the final game of the book right now, but while referencing other annotators, the above points struck me so many times that I felt it was important to address it. These books will be written in a similar format that I would use if I was demonstrating the game to a group of the most talented young chess players in the United States.

6 thoughts on “In Chess, the Truth is Overrated

  1. This post accurately summarizes everything wrong with John Nunn’s books. I don’t know how many hundreds of aspiring players have been traumatized by Understanding Chess Move By Move. Give me the annotations of Botvinnik and Smyslov any day.

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    • I enjoy his books but to be honest I mainly just look at the puzzles because they are good training for me. However he always has a collection of good puzzles, especially in the more positional play related books. Mark’s work is totally different in nature, especially the ones that detail his training sessions at the schools he ran.

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  2. Pingback: Five Chess Tech Tips for the New Year: Part 2

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