Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Chess Book Review – ‘Improve Your Chess at Any Age’ – Is there a fountain of youth?

There are a few proven and well-known subjects that will convince people to buy a chess book:
  1) The book to help your child to become a chess champion so all the other parents will be jealous of you.
  2) The opening book that you can study and immediately win games without having to play to play the middlegame or endgame.
  3) The book that shows you how to get better at chess even though your chess rating hasn’t shown any noticeable change in 20+ years and you are closer to being dead than being born.

  I’ve always been wary of books #1 and #2. Most of the really good young players I’ve met could beat me without ever having read a book. Opening books can help get easy wins against players I would have beaten anyway, but players that are better than me always seem to make some move that is not covered in the book and left to my own devices, I just get outplayed. I call it the talent factor. The best kind of opening book is one that explains the ideas behind the openings, but they are few and far between and still rely on your level of chess ability

  On the other hand, I’m a sucker for book type #3. The classic book in this genre is ‘Rapid Chess Improvement' by Michael de la Mazza, who advocated doing some of 1200+ chess tactic puzzles every day, building up slowly but surely, increasing the number of puzzles until after 127 days you do all 1200 puzzles at one sitting. It helped him win a large cash prize at the 2001 World Open, and then he immediately retired from chess. The idea has a lot of merit, but I didn’t have the time to devote to the regimen.

  There are also the 'system' books that tell you how to think and what to think about. The excellent CJ Purdy books by Thinker’s Press fall into this category. I find the Purdy system is very useful, but knowing what tactics to look for and recognizing and finding them over the board runs into the talent factor again. Looking for tactics is a great idea, but it doesn’t help if you can’t find them in the limited time over the board. The Purdy method has helped in my correspondence chess games where you have a couple of days to go over the moves.

  Last March, I found myself with a few extra dollars in my pocket and bought the book ‘Improve Your Chess at Any Age’ by Andres D. Hortillosa from The book advertises that Hortilossa’s method of chess improvement helped him to go from an unrated player to an international rating of 2199 and “that a player can improve at any age as long as he or she is inspired with the right attitude and enabled with the right thinking process“. The thinking is mostly a rehash of the Purdy system (look over the whole board, find threats, rank the threats, focus your response against the worst threats, make a mental list of moves to consider, make each move in your head, evaluate the threats after each proposed move, repeat until you think you have the best move) without a listing of the specific tactical ideas to consider. One idea I found interesting was instead of solving tactical puzzles from actual games, one should play the entire game to see how the tactic was set up.

  I looked up
Hortillosa’s chess record in the USCF database and was disappointed to see that while he was unrated on the international rating system, his national rating was 2101 in 1994, fell to 1900 by 1997 and stayed close to that rating until August 2008 and then lifted his national rating to 2000 in the next year, wrote his book, and has stayed around the 2000 rating since. A rating of 2000 is considered expert, 2200 is a national master level. (My son Matt's rating is 2080 and my rating is 1690). Hortillosa's international rating started at 2199 after his very successful first internationally rated tournament in Rhode Island in 2008, and has steadily fallen since to his current international rating of 2027. Apparently Hortilossa cannot improve his chess at his current age (although there may be some other reasons for the lack of improvement).

I think I can recap the method as such:
  1) Build your chess rating up to a high level
  2) Lose 200 rating points
  3) Hire a grandmaster coach
  4) Gain 100 rating points back
  5) Write a book on how to gain 100 points

  Luckily, there was much more to the book than helping players improve as it also covers many of the author’s games during the period of his rating improvement. I liked the games a lot. As a 1600+ rated player, I don’t think I get a lot out of going over grandmaster(2500+) games and it helped to look at the thought processes of a player rated at a level I could compete with. Hortillosa goes over the games with a lot of humility even in his wins and the back and forth nature of the games was very entertaining. There are enough diagrams that I could follow the games without having to have a board in front of me. The author has an old world style of wordplay that I found very attractive to read in a ‘Yoda’-like way. Here is a sample of some of his offerings.

On reviewing your games
  “Do not romanticize your wins because the only information these wins will give you are the errors of your opponents but not yours. You cannot gain from correcting their errors but you will by correcting yours”

On recovering from mistakes
  “One way of forgetting bad memories is to pretend that the current board position is the game starting position.”

On playing stronger players
  “Play like you are their equal and the brain may even surprise you”

On searching for moves
  “Finding pseudo-impossibilities over the board will secure easy escapes from lost positions and reward the determined player with unexpected points.”

  “Take the time to search for one move available to your opponent that has the force to effectively nullify the idea behind your plan.”

Practical chess advice
  “Positivism fuels energetic play and aptly reflects your move choices as they tend to be active rather than passive.”

  “Begin your search with the assumption that even in dire situations resources do exist.”

  “The possessor of the time advantage should strive to keep heavy pieces in play, especially the queen which has the most potent capability of exacting double attacks.”

On thinking like your opponent
  “What does he want? I didn’t know because I didn’t ask. If you do not ask, you will never look. And if you do not look, you will not find as well.”

  As a book to help the aging player improve, my money would have been better spent on buying directions to the Fountain of Youth from a traveling gypsy. But since I never would have bought the book unless I was searching for a quick fix, I consider myself lucky to have at least found an entertaining games collection and some useful advice and can recommend this book for entertainment if not a magic wand to improve your chess.