The Power of Writing Things Down

At a fundemantal level, the reason chess has lasted so long as a major “intellectual sport” (if I may be so bold) is simply because the moves have been written down in all the games at all major matches and tournaments for the last 200 years or so. Without this record, all but the results would have faded into the mists long ago; surely, Morphy defeated Anderssen 7-2 with 2 games drawn, but what happened in the games? A sportwriter’s description of a chess game could hardly do it justice, and without game scores chess would be more like dominoes or poker.

Instead, we can play over every game from that match, and all of the greatest games in history, whenever we want, at our own pace with a hot cup of coffee at our side. We can pretend to be Alekhine in the last game of his 1927 match with Capablanca, on the verge of reaching the Pinnacle of Chess, and see if we could have found those last moves that forced Capa’s resignation.

I have come to the conclusion that writing other things down in chess may have concrete effects on our strength and results. The fact is, for much of my chess life I “read” a lot of chess books, enjoying the prose annotations and (usually) stopping at the diagrams to try and find the best move. While I’m sure this did have some positive influence, in no way could it be as effective per hour spent as Nigel’s exhortations to “move the pieces around” and explore the position and various possibilities–“Grandmasters do this. Amateurs don’t” says it all!

I recently began reading a very useful website named Barking Up the Wrong Tree whose proprietor, Eric Barker, “want[s] to understand why we do what we do and use the answers to be awesome at life.” In this post he talks about the power of writing things down, and while several of the ideas might have relevance to chess improvement, something new was set off in my mind. What if, beyond just “deliberate practice” or “active learning” or whatever, I was to play a game and not write down just the moves, but my move and the opponent’s expected reply, my anticipated response, his expected reply to that, and my “third” move. In other words, write down five ply after each move and see what happened. So I tried it for one game against a computer program, set to around 2000 elo strength (but still playing pretty quickly, as I had a feeling that this might be a tough exercise).

The results were well, staggering; I was staggering when I ended the exercise after almost two hours and 22 moves, with the computer a pawn up and no doubt on its way to victory, though that was not the important thing. I had four full pages of notes, I had predicted the computer’s next move correctly just eight of 15 times (not counting the first seven moves of the opening, a Sicilian) and not once predicted the exact sequence of five “ply” correctly. Yet, it was enormously useful and revealing. I felt like I learned a great deal about my thinking process, more than I could have spending two hours on chess any other way.

Writing it down was the key. Since I rarely get the kind of time it takes to do a whole game this way, I’m thinking I’ll try and apply it to positions, like those found in the “1001 Sacrifices and Combinations” type of book. I’ve usefully worked in these types of books before, but never wrote out the whole combination, usually being content to find the first move and move on. Actually, this type of exercise would be even better applied to “strategic” positions where there is no immediate shot.

This simple act of writing things down appears to be a powerful addition to just “looking” at chess positions. If anyone else dares to try it, leave a comment on Nigel’s Facebook post or contact me here.

Robert Pearson


An All-Round Role Model

Last week Nigel posted on Suitable Chess Role Models and recommended Herman Pilnik as a player with a “nice classical style plus the good sense of get out of Germany in 1930.” Indeed, these are both points in his favor!

I would add a another possibility in Max Euwe, who even wrested the World Championship from Alekhine in 1935 and was probably in the World Top 20 for around 25 years. He had a solid, logical style that many of us could benefit from emulating, and wrote a number of books that are very suitable for the amateur chess improver. In addition, he had perhaps the greatest all-around chess career of all time, given that he was a Grandmaster, World Champion, leading chess author and President of the FIDE–all while living a pretty normal home life with a wife, children and a job as a math teacher! True, he didn’t have the good sense to get out of Holland before the Germans invaded in 1940, but given his personal circumstances we can hardly hold that against him.

Here is one of his most famous games, played against one of the best players in the world in the 1953 Candidates tournament. While perhaps not the most instructive for us amateurs, it’s a game some of the readers may not have seen, and if you went through life not knowing of it, that would be a shame…

 Robert Pearson


Loving Chess Reality: An Example

Last week I dished out some highfalutin philosophical advice and some koans, but stated another way, one of my  chess weaknesses has been that I sometimes turn to negative thoughts after I made a mistake I “shouldn’t of,” leading to more weak moves. Strong players mentally wipe away previous events in the game and concentrate on the position in front of them; some truly great players like Fischer and Korchnoi seemed to have an uncanny ability to play great chess after making a bad mistake.

It struck me when I was rereading the article that this tendency was totally unlike my performances in basketball where, as a modestly talented player, relentless effort and shrugging off of reverses was my stock in trade. In basketball one is completely in the moment while the ball is in play; tournament chess allows ample time for negative thought to come to consciousness.

A concept I came across only a few years ago that is of great value is “loving reality,” a part of The Work of Byron Katie. Many humans, much of the time, feel that reality is a rather inferior version of their fantasy of The Way Things Ought To Be; such a feeling leads only to suffering. Loving reality means that one is loving the thing that, in any case, one is going to get.

Loving the reality of the position on the chess board before you, regardless of what has gone before, does wonders for the strength with which you will play that position.

So this all does have something to do with chess improvement.

The following game is one in which I was able to capture what I’m talking about. Indeed, this tournament was one of my best; in almost every game I had the patience and determination to sit at the board and fight, for as long as it might take. After winning my first round game, in Round 2 I was paired with a higher-rated teenager (who within a few years was a USCF Master). It’s not a great game, or a good game, or some kind of example of my brilliance and prowess. Despite all the reality-loving in the world, I could and probably should have lost. But as reality, it will do!

As you’ll see, after 12 moves as White I already had an awful position, but I still remember flashing on how Keres or Lasker or one of those guys would have handled it; Maximum Resistance! So I buckled down and after some inaccuracies by my opponent got back to pretty even, then blundered the Exchange. But on this occasion I chose not to berate myself and just played the position, with little or no thought about where we’d come from. And behold, he made some second-best moves, then apparently had a vision of a winning king-and-pawn ending that’s…lost for Black.

Robert Pearson


On Embracing the Suck

All generalizations are false, in some sense. Including this one.

I am very interested in the intersection of chess, philosophy and psychology. It would be wonderful if by improving our understanding of these we could at the same time “improve” our chess, A “Royal Road” to chess improvement: Become more intelligent and more enlightened in general and become a stronger chess player at the same time! How beautiful and elegant.

I was struck by a few statements in this piece by Charlie Martin, “Actually, Life Doesn’t Suck.” Here’s a little explanation of Buddhist concepts that thoroughly apply to playing chess:

The First Noble Truth, you may recall, is “Life sucks. Everything is frustrating and worrisome and there seems no cure.” The Sanskrit word is “duhkha,” which is often translated as “suffering.” The Second Noble Truth is that duhkha arises out of desire or craving; we want good things to happen and bad things not to happen and we want to not have to worry about bad things happening in the future. This is called samudhaya in Sanskrit, and after some thought I think the best translation for samudhaya is “addiction.” We’re addicted to our fantasy of a world in which nothing bad ever happens and we’re happy all the time.

One of my big barriers to playing better in serious chess games is right here: I had a dream and expectation that just this once I could play a “perfect” game, that my “real” ability and knowledge of chess would show itself. When (of course) that fantasy didn’t happen I would often have a negative reaction, leading to weaker play after realizing I had missed something I “should have” seen.

I am not being especially hard on myself or saying I am at all unusual  in this respect; I think it applies to all humans (though in varying degrees), in chess and other aspects of life. Also, it’s perhaps just a new fantasy, a different samudhaya, that this human tendency can ever be completely erased from the psyche. But we can, indeed, improve. That is not a fantasy, as there are as many inspiring examples in the world as you can find time to search for.

One of the activities that has helped me become a tiny bit more “enlightened” (heh) about chess is my blitz experiment. In blitz chess, there is no time for regret or recrimination. One must just get on with it after making a blunder.

During my recent tournament play, a couple of casual events at a 10 0 time control, I found that I had achieved quite a more relaxed attitude and quiet mind during the games. It showed in the results (9.5/10) and in how little stress was involved.

When I eventually play in a “real” tournament at a longer time control with cash money on the line in a last-round game, will I be as relaxed? Perhaps not. but it seems that at least after more than 50 years on earth I have gotten to the point where I don’t worry about whether I am going to worry. Also I don’t strive not to strive. And that’s something good and real.

Quit smoking, quit drinking, quit worrying.

Or just quit quitting.

Robert Pearson


Endgame! A Practical Approach

How to study endgames, and what proportion of our available chess study time to expend on them, is an interesting question. There is no doubt in my mind that higher-rated players harvest good portions of their grading points by defeating the lower-rated from simplified positions that are objectively drawn (or even lost for the eventual winner!).

My experience is that Improving your endgame play is first of all a matter of…experience. I don’t believe that there is any substitute for playing a lot of chess (even including blitz) and winning and losing (early on mostly losing) a good number of endings. Using rook endings as an example, eventually things like the need to activate the rook, even at the cost of pawn, place rooks behind passed pawns and get the rooks(s) to the 7th rank become second nature. Some of this can be substituted by studying master games that go into the ending, rather than just the “1001 Most Brilliant Games of All Time” type.

But in this column I touch on just what positions to study, and how many. I recall Grandmasters like Capablanca who supposedly worked their way through books like 9,999 Rook and Pawn Endings but on the other hand a number of strong players, including a GM or two, have told me over the years something like, “I resolved to study every position in Fine’s Basic Chess Endings but I only made it to page 43…” So for most of us it needs to be experience plus selective study.

One modern replacement for Fine’s book, and a very good one, is Muller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings. Right at the beginning of this book there is a fascinating table of how often different configurations of pieces appear in a large database of master games (p. 11), and by using this we can take a practical approach and narrow down our studies to about a dozen key positions. Knowing this very limited number perfectly allows us to know much earlier in the game that golden piece of wisdom, what pieces and pawns to trade off and what to keep on. Thus we march forward with assurance that we are heading for a position we know is winning, and that we know how to win it. Or alternatively (and almost as nice), positions where we keep our disadvantage manageable and draw.

There is a lot of interesting information in the table and I encourage you to look at it for yourself, but refining it to a useful series of maxims, here goes:

Bishop and Knight v. King occurs about once every 5,000 games. Learning how to do the mate is probably a useful exercise in piece coordination, but you will see it only a few times in your life in practice.

Pure pawn endings are the bread and butter of chess. While they only occur in about 3% of master games, amateurs will see them quite a bit because they will be played out instead of someone resigning. For king and pawn v. king, one must memorize just a few things–what the opposition means and its relation to the key squares of the king’s position, the square of the passed pawn, drawing v. the rook pawn, and winning with the outside passed pawn. While that’s quite a lot, it gets easier from here, actually…

Rook endings, as we know, are most frequent. Understand thoroughly the Lucena and Philidor positions, and the active rook, and as an amateur player you’re on your way!

Endings without pawns: rook and bishop v. rook, rook and knight v. rook, queen v. rook, rook v. minor piece, etc. Skip them; skip them all. In total you see them in perhaps one in 500 games. Knowing the principles might be nice, but do it in your “spare time.”

For some reason, I love playing queen v. queen endings. They’re not all that common and they can’t be memorized really, but one must know something about queen v. pawn, for many an amateur game with a pawn ending gets played out to one of these positions. If the  pawn isn’t on the seventh rank it should be trivial, but one really ought to memorize the winning and drawing king positions for the various queen v. pawn scenarios. The whole thing takes only about three pages of the book, after all. Queen and pawn v. queen, however, takes many pages and many complicated diagrams full of stars for winning and drawing king positions…and these positions only occur about once on 1,000 games. Just do the best you can, but don’t spend a lot of study time on them!

Endings with minor pieces and a single pawn are subject to exact calculation and I suggest you don’t try to memorize much here. Activate the king and push your passed pawn(s)!

Rook and minor piece v. rook and minor piece comes up a lot, up to 15% of all endgames. I don’t know of any way to memorize something that will help here; just activate your pieces, attack the opponents weak pawns and in general, just “play chess.” If you’ve memorized and/or understood the few positions and principles outlined above, at least you’ll probably know when and what to trade off!

There is a whole world of fascinating chess in the several hundred pages of Fundamental Chess Endings but in the real world of competitive chess I think that if you can really understand and memorize about 10-12 of these pages you will be ready to take on more than 95% of the endings that may arise in your own games.

Robert Pearson


Prophylaxis and All That

In the Facebook discussion of Hugh Patterson’s excellent post The Chess Detective fellow contributor Tim Hanke had this to say:

When I choose a move, I’m usually looking for a way to make a threat or develop a threat, or at least to gain time for future threats. So I’m focused on weak points in my opponent’s position, and determining how I might exploit them now or later. In quieter positions, I’m trying to find better positions for my pieces.

I replied:

Tim–it sounds like “prophylaxis” has not been dreamt of in your philosophy! Do you have “My System” in your collection?

Tim does have My System and may post about it in the future, he says. Just in case you are not familiar with it, My System was published in 1925-27 by Grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch and contains some fascinating material in response to the “oversimplifications” Nimzowitsch perceived in the teachings of Dr. Tarrasch. While I don’t want to go into it now, the two had quite a feud and you can read much more about it through a bit of searching. One of Nimzowitsch’s watchwords was “prophylaxis” which we can take to mean “prevention,” at base stopping the opponent’s ideas in their tracks before he can execute them. Chess players had been doing this all along of course, but Nimzowitsch laid a special emphasis on it.

I myself totally understand and empathize with Tim’s approach because it has mainly been my own, as well, through most of 30 years of competitive chess. From my point of view, an ideal game with either color was always play the e- and d-pawns forward two spaces, develop all the pieces in one move to aggressive squares, focus them on the other player’s king, check, check and MATE. Of course this is harder with black, but still, it’s the program.

In more recent times, I finally began to “get” what Nimzo was about when he wrote that every move doesn’t have to do something; there are moves to consolidate our own positions, moves to protect pieces and squares, moves to take away the opponent’s good moves and plans. As great a player as World Champion Petrosian often played this way and his success is obvious.

An example form my own practice: After 1. d4 b6 2. e4 Bb7 3. Bd3 e6 I would never have played 4. a3 in the old days because it “wastes” a move and doesn’t develop a piece. Of course it prevents black’s obviously intended pin on the knight soon to come to c3 but isn’t that “giving in” to the opponent already at move 4!?!?!

After I saw this move somewhere I played it several times and had tremendous results; black is going to be quite cramped while white smoothly develops everything and dominates in the center. Black is not “lost” of course but he’s already behind, especially psychologically because his whole strategy is based on Bb4.

I have a number of other examples which I will share in a “Part II” in the future. As a player who thought every move had to “do something” for so long I am a little late to the party, but I am now convinced that taking The Opponent into good account is a very important part of chess improvement, and that preventing him from doing what he wants to do to us is almost as important as knowing what to do to him!

Robert Pearson


The Indispensable Opponent

Most of the time, we consider ourselves in relation to “chess improvement”; me, myself and I, what opening am I going to play, what should I study, am I an “attacking player” or a “positional player,” should I be doing more tactics? Etc., etc., ad infinitum.

This is quite natural, but it does a player a real service to, from time to time, consider the opponent.

First, without “The Opponent” there is no game, only theoretical analysis or problem solving. For me, “Mate in 3” has never faintly held the excitement of that handshake and the punching of a clock button for White’s first move. Without the opponent, there is no test, no excitement, no kampf. Some of the greatest players in chess history, like Korchnoi and Botvinnik, were said to have a need to “hate” the opponent, at least for as long as the game lasted, in order to play at their best. Certainly, without some drive to strike, to inflict damage, even to “kill” the King, one cannot play competitive chess at all, but in a balanced person this is on so abstract and intellectual a plane that one doesn’t believe that they’re hurting a person, but a position.

We rely on the opponent to make the game worthwhile by playing well. All of us have experienced that sense of disappointment that comes when the other player makes a terrible blunder in the first dozen moves or so and we’re deprived of the opportunity to play some good chess, ourselves. The quality of a great game of chess, the kind that appear in the “Best of” collections, depends a great deal on the play of the loser. The better he or she fights in a losing cause, the greater the merit of the win, and the winner.

I’ll admit that in my earlier, younger days of tournament play I became quite angry at losing a “money” game to a player rated 200 points below me, who refused to crack under pressure and play like he was “supposed to.” instead, he played better than I and deservedly won. It was a lesson I should have appreciated, rather than rushing away from the board with the briefest of mumbled thanks before retreating to a private spot to pound a wall.

Respect for the opponent makes us better as players. When we expect the opponent to see our threats, to calculate reasonably well, to play good opening moves, we play “real chess” rather than relying on opening traps or one-move cheapos to earn our points.

We should fight hard in difficult positions, strive always to play to the best of our ability, not just for the satisfaction of victory, prize money and rating points, but because we owe it to our opponents. After all, we’re their opponents too,

Robert Pearson


Four Classics

One of my favorite pastimes is to hunt for the best of chess literature, especially in used bookstores. Generally the bigger the city and the bigger the store the better the chance of finding a gem, but occasionally the most obscure hole-in-the-wall has yielded a wonderful surprise. I have spent plenty of money on shiny, new, expensive chess books as well, but I have had the most fun, and often the most improvement value, from the used, the reprinted, and the classic hardback found at the bottom of someone’s trunk and thrown on a table at a garage sale for 50 cents.

If you find yourself at a used book stall in Britain or a library book exchange in America, a swap meet (I don’t know what they call it in Canada) or anywhere chess books might be hiding, here are four to keep your eye out for. Some are still in print, some are very hard to find. Most cost a good deal of money, new. All, aside from their tremendous improvement value, are wonderful books. Those listed are also quite old. When you get your FIDE Master title you’ll be ready to study the grandmasters of the computer age…

1) Dreihundert Schachpartien – Siegbert Tarrasch. A wonderful exposition of how the Good Doctor became the strongest player in the world for several years (yes, I know he never had the title “World Champion”, and I don’t care). Three hundred annotated games and a lot more, including insights on tournament strategy and chess psychology. Get the original in German. There is an English translation, and of course it has all the games and notes but I am not a fan of the translator’s efforts.

2) Grandmaster of Chess – Paul Keres. This is actually three volumes in one. I got it for $2.00 at a used book store and it is simply the best written, most beautiful collection of great games ever put together. Golombek did a superb job of translating and editing. If you find one of the separate volumes, buy it too. In fact, buy anything written by Keres!

3) 500 Master Games of Chess – du Mont and Tartakover. Thankfully you can still get this one new–if you don’t have it, right now it’s on supersale online. However, this is a classic used chess book. The games stop around 1950, but that is utterly irrelevant. Basically, the very best of the first 120 years of major chess competition, the introductions alone are worth the price of the book!

4) Lasker’s Greatest Chess Games, 1889-1914 – Reinfeld and Fine. The tremendous amount of work the young Fred Reinfeld and Rueben Fine put into this book really shows in the outstanding annotations. Lasker beat Bruce Lee by about 70 years in revealing the deadly brilliance of “The Style of No Style.”

There are, of course, many other great old books, treasures to be found in the most unexpected places. Keep your eyes, and mind, open.

Robert Pearson


Fischer and Me

Last week in “Fischer and You” I touched on Bobby Fischer and Endgame, a biography by Frank Brady. Brady writes that Fischer played “12,000 games a year, most of them speed games” from age 11 to 13, and as is well known, within two more years Fischer qualified as a World Championship Candidate at the Portoroz Interzonal 1958 with a +4 score (not +3 as I wrote last week).

In the days before computers many players (at least according to their own accounts) reached master strength mainly through concentrated play night after late night in smoky chess clubs, with little book study. Most Chess Improver readers outside of New York and London don’t have this opportunity these days, but now there is the Internet which provides a similar opportunity (though without the stimulating cigarette/cigar/pipe smoke, and the stimulating presence of a live human across the board).

Since I did have some spare time recently I decided to experiment, if only for a week. with some concentrated blitz play. I have a rather convoluted history with fast chess; 30-odd years ago when I first started playing serious chess at the Reno, Nevada club one of my mentors was Ray Wheeler, a retired railroad engineer who rather specialized in speed chess. Ray was tournament-rated around 1700 USCF but at his preferred 5-minute time control he was more like 1900-2000. I played quite a few games with him and would usually lose on time but did learn something about chess in the process. When I came to Alaska there were some serious tournament players but I only played occasional blitz for many years, until Internet chess came along.

In early 2012 as Nigel posted here I decided to swear off of online blitz and engine-assisted analysis for awhile. I’ll admit the interregnum didn’t last the entire year but at least online blitz was out for many months. And I did stay away from computer analysis for most all of 2012, so there’s that. At any rate,this latetst experiment, prompted by the Fisher biography, proved quite interesting and even instructive. You, the reader, have probably played blitz chess sometimes and I would be interested in hearing feedback comparing your experiences on Nigel’s Facebook page.

I set out to play 300 blitz games in seven days, on the Free Internet Chess Server where I’ve had an account for a number of years and had an all-time high blitz rating of 1464 (probably comparable to 1764 at “standard” time controls of 15 0 or more). I played most of the games at the very rapid 3 0 time control instead of 5 0 (which I suspect Fischer played most of the time). “3 0” allows only three seconds per move to get through a 60-move game and places a real premium on playing by feel and subconscious knowledge rather than “If i go there, he goes there, then I go there…” calculation. I made it a point to play higher-rated players whenever possible.


  • After about 100 games I passed my previous high blitz rating and got into the mid-1500s for about 20 games, and though there was a “reversion to the mean” and normal statistical noise up and down, I ended the experiment a few points above my previous all-time best.
  • One of the good things about fast chess is indeed the fact that there is little “thinking” required most of the time. Just make “good moves” (ones that don’t hang pieces or allow mate!) quickly and go with the flow. One of my own weaknesses in tournament play has always been taking each move so “seriously” and trying to keep everything “under control.” As a result I’ve often exhausted my reserves of mental energy before the game was over–many, many times I’ve played 15, 20 or 30 moves at a very high level and then started to make simple mistakes. Losing a tournament game has always been a big deal to me, but losing a 3 0 game to an pseudonymous non-entity is not. Something Nigel and I have touched on in private correspondence is that really strong players don’t have to put a great deal of effort into most moves–they see they correct move right off. This allows them to save that mental energy and will for the few critical moments of the game, and may partly explain why stronger players so often prevail in the end, even from equal or dubious positions; the weaker player has expended so much of his strength in getting to the position at hand that he is even weaker, relatively, that at the start of the game.
  • At the 3 0 time control moving quickly is of such essence that it often takes precedence over the quality of the move, which is a real downside to this form of chess. If I have one minute and you have one second on the clock, I am going to win as long as I have mating material on the board. This leads to distortions like moving instantly or trying to capture all of the opponents pawns instead of going for mate, none of which are really useful if this form of chess is to be used for improvement.
  • Since playing the same opening 100 or more times in a row would be rather boring, I began experimenting more, especially by playing 1. Nc3 as white. I was surprised at how often opponents responded 1. ..Nf6 when I would steer toward a Four Knights Game (an opening I enjoy with both colors) or 1. ..d5, 2. ..e6 and a French Defense (if I wanted). A ration of blitz is probably a good way to learn an opening, especially if one concentrates on the patterns and looks things up later to see where the improvements might lie. On the other hand, there are some strong blitz players out there who specialize in “The Hippo” and other weird stuff and count on getting ahead on the clock, then outplaying the opponent from a cramped position. It often works but doesn’t provide much instructional value!
  • A short while after completing my “blitz week” I got together with some “real people” for the first time in months and played a little tournament at a 10 0 time control, scoring 5/5. While the field wasn’t too intimidating (the next strongest player was rated about 200 points lower) I found myself just having fun, relaxed and not worried to much about making the “best” move. It’s the feeling I want to carry forward into more serious future competitions.

Finally, a good question is whether the 30 hours spent on blitz would have produced more or less improvement if spent studying, say, Bobby Fischer’s best games and thoughtfully analyzing critical positions with pieces and a board, on one’s own or, even better, with a stronger player. I would say the analysis sessions would probably produce more improvement; but there are some valuable lessons and techniques that can be found in a modicum of blitz. You might want to try it out, with some specific intentions and goals in mind.

During my experiment I found that around the world there are people playing nothing but blitz chess day after day, whiling away the hours of their life on the chess equivalent of “reality” television. That, I think, can only lead to the opposite of improvement. Beware…

Robert Pearson


Fischer and You

First, I’d like to say how happy I am to be back contributing to The Chess Improver, and thank Nigel for having me. In January I took a job that was estimated to take 80 hours per week for about three months, and asked Nigel for a hiatus, which he graciously granted. Unfortunately the job turned out to involve large “philosophical differences” with the principal and with a great sigh of relief I made a speedy departure.

As a result, I recently had more time for thought, reading and even playing some chess. One of the books I read was Frank Brady’s Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall–from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. I think we can all agree not to use the subtitle again; however, Endgame is a well-written biography of Fischer that will be fascinating to many chess players, despite the fact that there is no chess, as such (no game scores or cross tables), in the book. Brady, who knew Fischer personally and spent considerable time with him in the 1950s and 60s, previously published a biography of Fischer (revised 1973) titled Profile of a Prodigy that does contain more than 80 annotated games and might be worth your time. In the newer book (2011) Brady does a commendable job exploring the events and psychology of Fischer’s unusual path through life.

I consider Robert J. Fischer to be the “greatest” chess player in history, based on his overall results, his unprecedented domination of the chess world for a period of years (20 straight wins over Grandmasters, the 6-0 match defeats of Larsen and Taimanov, the domination of Spassky at Reykjavik), the 11-0 U.S. Championship score, and not least his bringing chess to the notice of the entire world in a way never seen before, or since.

“This is all very well,” you might be asking by now, “but what does it have to do with chess improvement?

Well, in addition to the above accomplishments Fischer also made what I see as the greatest leap forward in chess strength in the shortest time in history, One of the most illuminating moments of reading the book for me was this (p. 140):

A fair estimate is that Bobby played one thousand games a year between the ages of nine and eleven, and twelve thousand a year between the ages of eleven and thirteen, most of them speed games.

Twelve thousand games a year, for three years! Fischer’s mother allowed him from age eleven to play chess into the night at the home of his mentor Jack Collins, or in New York’s master-filled clubs, six or seven nights a week. Consolidating this vast experience, he went from a -2 score in the FM/IM strength Rosenwald Tournament in 1956 at age 13, to a +3 and qualification as a World Champion Candidate just over two years later at the Portoroz Interzonal, certainly one of the greatest leaps forward in chess history.

Of course, there was also intense study of openings, endgames and master games old and new during this period, but I must believe that the sheer volume of play, mostly against strong opposition, during these years when the brain so quickly absorbs information had a great deal to do with Fischer’s extraordinary progress.

Tim Hanke recently posted here on How Much should You Play? and as Tim wrote, “Are you playing enough games?”. Having had very little opportunity to play for several months, I decided to experiment with my own version of the “Fischer Method” and played over 300 online blitz games in a period of a week. I’ll share my results, observations and conclusions about this attempt at chess improvement next week; in the meantime, here is a game of Bobby Fischer’s to enjoy, from the cusp of his stunning transition from strong amateur to Grandmaster:

Robert Pearson