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.
“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.
In a classic Sicilian Scheveningen battle, neither player backs down from the very first move: 11. Qg4 N8d7 12. 0-0-0 g6?! (creating a target that White can exploit) 13. h4! Ne5 15. Qh3 Rxc3! 16. bxc3 Bxe4 — the thematic Black exchange sacrifice that looks very promising here.What Hendriks (or Kotov or Silman) might have to say about the ensuing play is hard to judge, though both players appear to be living on the edge with every move: 17. hxg6! Bxg6!? (not 17 … Bxh1? 18. gxf7+ Nxf7 [Kxf7 19. Qxe6+ Kg7 20. Nf5 mate] 19. Nxe6 Qb8 20. Qxh1 and wins; but Black might have tried 17 … Nxg6 18. Nxe6 fxe6 19. Bxb6 [Qxe6+ Qe7 29. Rxd6 Bxh1 21. Rxb6 Qxe6 22. Rxe6+ Be7 23. Rxa6 is unclear] Qxg5+ 20. Kb2 Nf4) 18. f4! Nd5 (one cool line is 18 … Ned7 19. Re1 Be7 20. f5 Bxf5 [exf5 21. Nc6 Qc7 22. Nxe7 Kxe7 23. Bxb6+] 21. Nxf5 exf5 22. Qxf5 Ne5 23. Bd4 Bxg5+ 24. Kb1 f6 25. Qg6+!! hxg6 26. Rxh8+ Kd7 27. Rxd8+ Kxd8 28. Bxb6+ and wins) 19. Nxe6, and White has the attacking game he wants.
Still, Black fights back on 23. Qxf5!? (Ne6+ Kc8 24. Qxf5 Qxe3+ 25. Kb1 fxe6 26. Qxe6+ Kc7 27. Bd3 was worth a look) Qce3+ 24. Kd1 Kxc7 25. Rh3 Qg1 26. Rc3+ Kb6, when White nearly gives it all away with 27. Rc8? (Ke1! Be7 28. Rxe5! dxe5 29. Qxe5 Re8 30. Qc7 mate) Nc4 28. Kc1, when al-Sayed could have turned the tables with 28 … Qe3+ 29. Kb1 (Kd1 Nb2 mate) Bg7 (with the threat of 30 … Qe1+ 31. Ka2 Qa1+ 32. Kb3 Qxa3 mate) 30. Qd3 Qe1+ 31. Qd1 Qc3, and mate on b2 or a1 is unstoppable.
Instead, Shirov scores a reversal and executes a nice finish on 28 … Bg7? 29. Rxc4! (White is winning again) Qe3+ 30. Kd1 Re8 (bxc4 31. Rxd6+ Kc7 32. Qd5 Kb8 33. Rd8+ Rxd8 34. Qxd8+ Ka7 35. Qc7+ Ka8 36. Bg2+, winning) 31. Rxd6+ Ka5 (see diagram; no better was 31 … Kb7 32. Qd7+ Kb8 33. Qc7+ Ka8 34. Rxa6+) 32. Ra4+!, and Black resigned facing 32 … Kxa4 33. Rxa6 mate.
Shirov-Al-Sayed, 11th Gibraltar Masters, January 2013
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. h3 e6 7. g4 Nfd7 8. Be3 b5 9. a3 Bb7 10. g5 Nb6 11. Qg4 N8d7 12. O-O-O g6 13. h4 Rc8 14. h5 Ne5 15. Qh3 Rxc3 16. bxc3 Bxe4 17. hxg6 Bxg6 18. f4 Nd5 19. Nxe6 Qa5 20. Rxd5 Qxc3 21. Nc7+ Kd8 22. f5 Bxf5 23. Qxf5 Qxe3+ 24. Kd1 Kxc7 25. Rh3 Qg1 26. Rc3+ Kb6 27. Rc8 Nc4 28. Kc1 Bg7 29. Rxc4 Qe3+ 30. Kd1 Re8 31. Rxd6+ Ka5 32. Ra4+ Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.