Secrets of a Grandpatzer: A Fine Chess Book, an Unusual Author

The book Secrets of a Grandpatzer (How to beat most people and computers at chess)  is a strange and wonderful bird of chess literature. First, it is literate, smoothly readable and consistently humorous, which we might agree is not universal in chess books. Second, it was written by Dr. Kenneth Mark Colby, a psychiatrist and computer scientist who also wrote such tomes as Computer Models in Thought and Language and Cognitive Science and Psychoanalysis. Third, it was one of the earliest considerations of how computer chess could be modeled by humans to improve their play, and coming from the man who had written a computer program that modeled human paranoia, this was significant. Fourth, it provided a philosophical background for why we play chess, or more precisely, why we play chess with such striving effort for victory, even perfection:

Why should a patzer seek to become a grandpatzer? Because of the aristos (Greek: Aristos = best). Life is more than ham sandwiches and beer. Humans strive, not just to survive, but to enhance the quality, the excellence, of survival. Striving for excellence in any endeavor, developing yourself to become your best at what you do, is rewarding and fulfilling to aspirations higher than happiness. Merely happy people, without artistic goals, vegetate in incomplete, hobbled and impoverished lives…A grandpatzer is a strong chessplayer, a threat to anyone (including himself) in a given game.

Published in 1979, this book was very difficult to find for many years–how I got my copy is a great story, which I will save for another time. I was delighted last year to see that it had been reprinted and is easily available (see link above) so I take this opportunity to introduce readers of The Chess Improver to this interesting book.

Colby’s stated aim is to raise the “duffer, fish, woodpusher or rabbit Class E, D, C or weak B” to the exalted status of “grandpatzer” (1700-2200). The “beating (most) computers” part of the subtitle needs some historical context; at the time there was, of course, no Fritz or Rybka and Dr. Colby is referring to the “Chess Challenger” and other machines which played in the 1200-1600 range on their higher settings. Interestingly, he believed one way to get better at chess was to emulate the computer (“the greatest grandpatzer of them all”).

The author, who was a professor at the University of California Los Angeles at the time, backs up his advice with the information that:

After floundering around as a 1600 patzer for 3-4 years, I decided to do something about it. In those doings, I developed, and utilized the herein described heuristics to raise my USCF rating to 1800+ in a year of weekly rating tournaments.

I will give here just a few highlights of this delightful book. Some of the insights the author was especially well-qualified to share were regarding the “ego game,” the psyche of you and your opponent and the assumptions and misconceptions that can hurt your play. He talks about playing women, old guys, masters and computers, but one of my favorite parts is regarding “young guys”:

Some booked-up teenagers are the best examples of contempt-in-action…The way to get an edge on them is to increase their conceit and disdain for you by acting as bumbling as possible.

He gives real practical tips like seeming slightly confused about the time control and clocks, then making the moves in an opening you know cold as if you were finding them all by effort and calculation, taking a couple of minutes over 5. …Be2 in the Closed Ruy, things like that. Young guys almost always lack the patience to wait to attack until the time is right, and tend to be weaker in endings. Of course sometimes they are also severely underrated and will beat you unmercifully. So it goes in the arena. As Colby says of “old guys,” they have won and lost so many games they aren’t going to get to excited when they get in some trouble. Whether you’re a young or old player, or somewhere in the middle, Colby has some excellent advice on how to approach a game.

There is one area where I disagree with Colby (and I know Nigel does, as well), but I think he was wrong for the right reasons:

The major area where an aspiring grandpatzer can profit from master practice is in the opening, regardless of what masters say about memorizing. Play only opening systems which current masters repeatedly use because they are constantly being improved for you through tournament play…By studying these systems and your pet critical variations of them, you simply memorize, as far as you can, what the best current continuations are.

Ah, “swotting up variations,” the thing that gave Botvinnik and all good chess teachers heartburn. Yet, Colby’s reason is interesting; by playing 6-10 memorized moves you get a middle game you are familiar with and, perhaps just as critical, preserve clock time and mental energy for playing it. That is an aspect of practical tournament chess which I am especially interested in myself. Apart  from a player’s skill and ability, how good is he or she at having mental energy in reserve if the game goes 50, 60 or more moves? How well does the player keep his or her “nerves” (physiology, brain chemicals) on an even keel so that important moments bring out the best, instead of a precipitous drop in strength?

This book, written by a brilliant psychiatrist and computer pioneer (and enthusiastic tournament player) has many insights on this, and other topics, presented in an enjoyable way. I am very happy that it is again available to the chess world.

(NOTE: For readers outside the USA, an approximate conversion formula from US Chess Federation ratings is:

USCF = ELO + 100

BCF = (ELO – 600)/8)