(This article was originally published in 2011, and then again in 2014, but given the tímeless nature of the subject, I felt it time to dust it off and publish it one more time.)
It is ironic today that while many are trying to sell chess to school boards as a relatively inexpensive and fun way to make kids smarter, the chess community itself is rapidly being swamped by hundreds, if not thousands, of dumbed-down chess books , dvds and other chess products, all purporting to help raise the reader’s level of play with minimum effort on his part.
”DUMBING DOWN is a pejorative term for a perceived trend to lower the intellectual content of literature, education, news, and other aspects of culture. According to John Algeo, former editor of American Speech, the neologism dumb down meaning “revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence” was first recorded in 1933 as movie slang.
Dumbing down can point to a variety of different situations, but the concept always involves a claim about the simplification of culture, education and thought; a decline in creativity and innovation; a degradation of artistic, cultural and intellectual standards, or the undermining of the very idea of a standard; and the trivialization of cultural, artistic and academic creations.”
(wiki pedia, 2011)
And I am not just referring to the usual crap such as ”Winning with this opening” , or ”Winning against this same opening”. I needn’t remind the reader of this vast and soul-less body of chess literature, as whenever he investigates what is for sale over at Amazon’s (or the London Chess Center, as just one well known example) he can not avoid it occupying his face on the computer screen! And would I be exaggerating things if I were to say that whenever you walk into a specialty book shop you could bump into it immediately and even risk injuring yourself…?
BUT worse still, many reputable authors have produced best-selling products that are deliberately dumbed-down with absolutely useless and often redundant computer-generated analysis of variations. Computer analysis trivializes the basic skills that are needed to become a master level player. Nigel Davies over at his well-known site The Chess Improver wrote today on this exact same problem and labelled the practice ”computer analysis dumping”
This is probably one of the reasons why I rarely buy more than a half-dozen new chess books per year these days. Most chess books on the market today are opening-speciality items and at age 57 I can guarantee you that I get by perfectly well with the reliable sources of information that a life-time of experience as a GM has taught me about.
Not that I don’t follow what is happening : on the contrary–I find myself faced with so much more information via the internet (live games, great chess blogs, free videos and commentary) than I ever did in the past. The only difference is that I REFUSE on principle to fall for the commercialized or chess-engine processed information put out by those who want me to later buy their products…
I limit myself in my chess work to a good data-base program and a free chess engine
I might be able to understand an up-and-coming player buying a product that promises to tell every secret about such and such an opening (and then back it up with endless pages of computer generated analysis) IF he might be able to win one or two games with it, BUT for the life of me I see no sense in buying this product if he thinks that this will make him a better player!
HE WOULD JUST BE DELUDING HIMSELF… in the same way as if he thought that by memorizing all the answers to a final exam would make him more qualified to graduate to the next class. It doesn’t! Memorizing why a chess move is good (or not so good) is not evidence of chess skill. It never was, and it never will be.
The great Emanuel Lasker would certainly be horrified by the average quality of today’s chess literature. Several years ago I wrote an instructive article entitled ”Reflections on the data-base generation” where I discussed some of Lasker’s thoughts on the subject of the rapid expansion of opening analysis in modern chess.
Lasker raised (cerca 1925) several insightful and interesting points that are very relevant today:
1) the Opening has increasingly become the centre of our attention and work in chess almost to the exclusion of everything else
2) industrious and intelligent learners can and do successfully compete with stronger and more talented players because they ‘know’ the Openings better
3) chessplayers are becoming ”compilers of variations”
Lasker wrote in his famous Manual :
”I want to train pupils to think for themselves and exercise just criticism. I will not teach them mere formulae, mere generalities, but will instil into them lasting principles that will grow and blossom; which are alive, and vital.
They must be ready and willing to put their conceptions , laws and valuations to the proof , again and again, diligently and cheerfully, from a sheer joy of the law and from veneration of the fact.”
You might want to argue that Lasker was ‘old school’ and that the chess world has changed so much today–especially with the advent of computers– and in some ways you would be right. But while the chess world has certainly changed, the game itself has not changed very much! Good moves and basic principles are the backbone of any chess position and every chess player. Lasker argued for less information–but better information; not simply increasing information exponentially. For the good of the players themselves…
You might want to get a competitive edge by using computer analysis or by keeping up to date with the latest games played in Moscow or Gibraltar, but if your opponents do the same then you are just wasting your time. In the period 1950 to 2000 information in chess was not distributed democratically or equally: you could win many games simply because you had access to some printed analysis that your opponents did not have. The internet changed all that. The internet became the great equalizer in chess information: today EVERONE has access to EXACTLY the same openings data.
Today, more than ever, the need for creativity and imagination are the most reliable ways to make progress as chess players and to get a competitive edge in tournament play. And we should all work together to avoid the trivialization of the game by NOT becoming mere clones or copies of each other.
WHAT CHESS ANALYSIS SHOULD BE
WHILE I am on this subject, let me tell you what I don’t want in a chess book: I don’t want to be treated as an idiot who can not figure things out for himself. This means that I don’t want 20 pages of analysis proving why such and such a move is best when a word to the wise is sufficient.
My model book is the 1909 tournament book of the St.Petersburg Chess Congress
”THIS is a book in which analysis is accurate.
The games in this book show the working of the mind of the master, and the commentary has been intended to guide the thought of him who plays over these games so that he may perceive weakness and merit. Notes have been made solely for that purpose. The glossary was meant to be both necessary and sufficient. Nowhere will it be found lacking in supplying explanation needed, but it has no superfluities.
The work has been translated from German, all but the early part, by Mr. R. Teichmann, and some valuable advice has been given to me by Mr. Teichmann, for which I beg to thank him here.”
New York, May 10, 1910.
I am not sure when this model for chess books was replaced by the present dumbed-down model that we find in the chess world, but in 1953 Lasker’s model was still respected and admired. I quote from the introduction of the classic ‘Zurich 1953’ (Bronstein)
”The author has tried to avoid weighing down his book with variations. Variations can be interesting, if they show the beauty of chess: they become useless when they exceed the limits of what a man can calculate; and they are a real poison when they substitute the study and clarification of positions in which the outcome can only be decided by intuition , fantasy and talent.”