- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Name-checking Borges, Foucault, P.T. Barnum, Stephen Pinker and Mao Zedong along the way, Dutch IM Willy Hendriks has written a chess instruction manual quite unlike any other in the literature.

“Move First, Think Later: Sense and Nonsense in Improving Your Chess” is a polemical, often infuriating, but never dull attempt to apply the latest thinking in cognitive science and epistemology to the enduring mystery of how a chess player figures out how to play the best move in a given position.

“Move First” (New In Chess, 254 pages, $23.95) is not content to build up a new philosophy for playing chess. Hendriks appears just as avid to take down some of the game’s best-known instructors from the past, including Soviet GM Alexander Kotov (author of the classic “Think like a Grandmaster”) and American IM Jeremy Silman, whose “How to Reassess Your Chess” is my go-to recommendation for club players seeking to move from, say, Class C or below up to expert or master. Having profited personally from both authors on how to evaluate a position, formulate a plan and choose between equally plausible moves in complex positions, I found Hendriks’ snarky approach more than a little off-putting.

Still, when he does get down to laying out his own ideas, the book takes off. The heretical idea behind the heretical title is that we don’t in fact think in the systematic and deeply logical way Kotov and many others have described, either in chess or in life. Instead of studying a position and then considering moves, Hendriks argues we must make moves (or at least start analyzing them) and only then start evaluating whether they hurt or help our game.

Rules of thumb — on developing the pieces, the value of an open file or the weakness of a doubled pawn, conducting an attack or orchestrating a defense — are worse than useless in Hendriks’ world. We would be far better just firing off a few randomly considered moves and seeing what ideas then suggest themselves.

Shirov-Al-Sayed after 31...Ka5.
Shirov-Al-Sayed after 31…Ka5. more >

“The thing is,” he writes, “there is no order at all! We don’t first judge a position and then look at moves. It all happens at the same time. … You cannot have a meaningful characteristic of a position if it isn’t connected with a (more or less) effective move.”

Players who claim otherwise — that they first deeply evaluate the characteristics of a position before even considering a possible move, are either fooling themselves or applying a post-mortem logic to their games. Former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik comes in for some particularly harsh criticism on that score.

The focus on the concrete over the general is borne out in the book’s structure, which includes over 130 training exercises consisting of positions from actual games, in which the reader is asked to find the best continuation. For Class A players and above, a board is probably not necessary to try to work through the exercises.

“Move First, Think Later” does a good job of exposing some of the lazy thinking — what he calls the “magic words and wonder slogans” of too many chess improvement books — that has gone into too many traditional chess manuals, and he scores some real points even against such esteemed teachers as Silman and Soltis. (The great American theorist and author John Watson has a long and well-judged review of the book at theweekinchess.com website which is well worth reading in full.)

But a fair amount of baby gets thrown out with the bathwater here, and Hendriks’ extreme materialistic view of both knowledge and chess judgment is never entirely persuasive. Ironically, he gets his strongest support from a remark from the late, great Cuban world champ Jose Raul Capablanca, whose harmonious and marvelously judged style would appear light-years away from the concept of moving first and thinking afterward.

But Capablanca, as Hendriks approvingly notes, was described his guiding philosophy at the chessboard thus: “If you see a good move, play it.”

It’s not clear that Capablanca’s dictum ever guided the play of Spanish GM Alexei Shirov, who throughout his career has shown a clear preference for the interesting if risky move over the “right” move in a given position.

Shirov finished out of the money at the just-concluded 11th Gibraltar Masters, part of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival held each January on the English island at the mouth of the Mediterranean.

But Shirov, whose brilliant game collection is titled “Fire on Board,” left Gibraltar with a bang with a last-round win over Qatari GM Mohammed al-Sayed, a game in which both players appeared to indulge a bit too much in moving first and thinking later.

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