We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.
Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.
These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.
I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.
A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.
So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.
We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”
I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.
There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.
You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.
So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.