My first martial arts teacher has the following words at the top of his lineage page:
When learning anything, it is very important to consider from whom you will be learning.
This is an especially big thing with the internal martial arts as learning to move with relaxed internal power is very difficult to achieve. In fact finding people that are really able to teach it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. So the tradition is that you should look for students of acknowledged masters in the hope of finding someone who is in possession of knowledge that has been handed down. And what they know is often surrounded by a veil of secrecy.
Chess is traditionally a far more open learning environment where people pick up bits of information wherever they can find it. Lineage is considered less important than strength and the latter is easy to gauge via somebody’s rating or peak rating (adjusting for inflation of course). Ideas are generally shared rather freely, especially with chess having a tradition that players publish their thoughts on various matters.
Yet this has brought with it certain perils for the chess improver which has become especially acute in the internet age. There is so much information out there that it has become difficult to separate the wood from the trees. And there’s also no shortage of people willing to give you their very well meaning advice.
Unfortunately, for those trying to improve, this can lead to a very inefficient use of study time and massive frustration with the entire process. Some (including people who work in the ‘chess industry’) believe that adults are unable to improve and that their chess activities are just for entertainment purposes. I say that they simply don’t know how chess improvement works, but rather than face this they say it’s their students fault. This echoes the little known but shocking Alessi study which showed that psychologists would blame place the blame on children and their parents rather than face professional awkwardness for criticizing the school system in any way.
So where should someone look for an authentic source? Well with teachers I think there are a few things to look for:
1) They should devote themselves to chess having achieved a good level of practical strength and probably being professionally or semi-professionally involved in teaching the game.
2) Their students should do well, and not just because a few do well out of the thousands who have been through their school.
3) They should focus on core skills, which will be mainly tactics and endgames for players around 1500 or lower.
And these are the warning signs that should send you heading for the hills:
1) Someone who teaches chess without having really devoted themselves to the game. Unfortunately many school teachers who are seconded into running the school chess class will fit this bill.
2) The focus is on opening sequences, writing moves down and lectures about ‘being careful’ or similar.
3) They lecture and criticize students for losing by focusing on mistaken individual moves rather than putting everything in the context of the learning/improvement process. Sometimes we miss stuff and as we get better we miss it less often.
What about the written word? Well there are some very good sources out there by the likes of Capablanca, Lasker, Alekhine, Botvinnik and Keres. For inexperienced players authors such as Silman, Soltis, Chernev, Reinfeld and Purdy are worth looking at whilst for young beginners there is Chess Improver contributor Richard James. Are their views necessarily worse than Bob’s on the bulletin board? Well I think it’s safe to assume they are not, especially in light of the fact that people went to a lot of trouble to publish their books.