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John Watson Book Review (36)

What Should the Average Player Study?

#36 What Should the Average Player Study?

What Should the Average Player Study?

The Reassess Your Chess Workbook; Jeremy Silman; 423 pages; Siles Press, 2001

The definitive answer to my title line would be welcomed by players the world around. Of course, that answer doesn’t exist in unambiguous form, and in any case must vary markedly from player to player. Jeremy Silman’s ‘The Reassess Your Chess Workbook’ (henceforth ‘the Workbook’) nevertheless makes a powerful effort to address the instructional needs of the maximum number of ‘average’ players in as efficient a way as possible. It is a unique and thought-provoking work which deserves close examination; thus the temporary return to my preferred single-review format.

Normally I don’t review instructional books in this column. When teaching I use my own lessons, notes, and methods, supplemented by specialized references, annotated games and the like. Like most chess instructors that I know, I find many of the leading instructional books superficial, poorly written, and thoughtlessly imitative. The books that best fit this description tend to be the most advertised ones; these are aimed primarily at the large beginners market (while making some silly ‘beginner to master’ claim), with the author(s)’ idea of productive communication apparently limited to the back cover hype. So you won’t be surprised that I generally forego discussion of works of this type. Of course, there are certainly worthwhile exceptions out there (many published by small presses). Unfortunately, I don’t read much in this area and would rather utilize my limited reading time elsewhere.

So why make an exception for Silman’s latest work? First, because the book occupies a strangely underpopulated slot among chess book types: that of instruction and advice specifically tailored for the intermediate to near-advanced player. For working purposes, I would define this audience as encompassing players from about 1300 to 2100. As one would imagine, the Workbook also contains material appropriate for lower players and even for experienced masters. Nevertheless, its main function is to address those who have achieved a certain level of play in the aforementioned range and are having difficulty improving. In many cases, they have been stuck at roughly the same rating level for many years. There are some very active tournament and club players in this group who work on their game regularly. But the majority doesn’t have a great deal of time for study and are hungry for an efficient way to utilize the time they do have. Interestingly, a substantial percentage of my TWIC-generated email (after you exclude the obnoxious ones!) comes from players in this situation.

Silman has been the most prolific author of quality chess books in this country. His output ranges from technical theoretical works to books for the beginner and average player. His ‘Reassess Your Chess’ [henceforth ‘Reassess’] and ‘The Amateur’s Mind’ are already classics of instruction, the sales figures of which always fill me with unseemly envy. For example, those two books remain near the very top of the current sales rankings for all chessbooks at, despite having been out for years. (‘The Amateur’s Mind’, by the way, I see as addressing a somewhat lower range of players than ‘Reassess’ and ‘The Workbook’—perhaps 900-1700).

I have recommended ‘Reassess’ to people over the years, but the Workbook actually appeals to me more. The word ‘workbook’ might seem to suggest that it is a supplementary text, to be used after or in conjunction with ‘Reassess’. But the book stands very well on its own and has a broader and more instructive set of positions than its predecessor. As for Silman’s teaching method, every key idea in ‘Reassess’ appears in the Workbook, explicitly spelled out. For those who need it, the first 35 pages offer an essay on thinking techniques as well as a thorough review of Silman’s theory of ‘imbalances’. The recommended thinking techniques involve showing the reader how to: (a) locate imbalances in a position; (b) find candidate moves in a position; and (c) think about and calculate with the candidate moves once chosen. Step ‘a’ uniquely characterizes Silman’s teaching method; and as Silman points out, the vitally important Step ‘b’ has been neglected in instructional books from Kotov onwards.

The core of the Workbook consists of 131 problems, 115 of them set in the opening, Middlegame, or ending. 16 problems involved ‘self-annotation’, in which the reader is asked to annotate part or all of a given game. This is similar to annotating one’s own games (the method of improvement most frequently cited by top players), with the addition that Silman then gives his own extensive annotations in the Solutions section. This self-annotation section is prefaced by an amusing list of ‘Profound Platitudes’ that the average student will run into when asking for advice from titled players. They are worth listing, with the deflating view in parentheses: (1) ‘Good things come to those who work hard!’ (for the average fellow with a regular job and typical responsibilities this is not of much use); (2) ‘Study endgames first. The Middlegame and opening can be contemplated later in your chess development’ (‘Another piece of hot air’, says Silman, himself an author of endgame books. As he points out, profound knowledge of the endgame doesn’t help much when you’re losing in 13 moves. I should add that this much-quoted advice was meant to apply to training of children); (3) ‘Send me a check and we’ll see what can be done’ (an all-too-frequent response to friendly requests for advice. Silman: ‘I’ve never seen this improve anyone’s game’); (4) ‘It’s not the openings themselves that are important, but the ideas behind them’ (Silman thinks that this is near-useless advice given the available literature, and that in the teaching context it reverts to saying ‘Send me a check’ again. I personally think that it’s an altogether misleading notion); (5) ‘It’s not the winning that counts. The joy of playing the game is its own reward’ (Silman: ‘Yeah, right. After absorbing this bit of swill from your chess guru, bide your time and watch closely when he actually loses...’).

Silman’s counter-platitude? ‘Look at lots and lots of annotated games!’ And of course he is right, and subsequently offers the reader several ways to get the most out of such study. For many students, going over games is more helpful and enjoyable (less energy-demanding) than technical study.

What makes this book valuable for me as a teacher is its main section of 115 problems (mostly positions) and their solutions. As TWIC readers may have gleaned, I believe in learning from realistic positions requiring concrete solutions. One covers just a vast amount of conceptual territory in our trek through these well-chosen examples, some of which are virtually impossible to solve completely, but all of which lead to fruitful discussion. Often Silman’s solution is a chess lecture of its own. One time, for example, he discusses opposite-coloured bishop positions for 6 full pages before returning to the solution of the problem at hand. Indeed, there are 281 pages of solutions for 63 pages of problems! At the end of each solution, Silman brings together his discussion of the problem in a useful section called ‘Summary of Imbalances and ideas’. I think it is in the solutions section that we see why Silman is such a popular author. He writes with great clarity and humour, and seems to understand precisely what would confuse the ‘average player’ about each example. He doesn’t assume too much about the student’s understanding of a position, and thus avoids talking down to the reader. Because his advice remains solidly in the context of an on-the-board situation, he avoids the common pedagogic error of speaking in the abstract while providing no handle for the student to hold on to. Finally, I should note that this book shows every sign of having required a gargantuan effort from the author. The positions are worked out in great detail and with evident thoughtfulness.

On a somewhat philosophic note, I have already been asked by someone familiar with both my ‘Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy’ and Silman’s previous work how I can find them compatible. Particularly with respect to his theory of imbalances, Silman lists a great number of rules regarding, e.g., bishops, knights, isolated pawns, doubled pawns, space, control of files and squares, development and the like. Since my book tends to question the validity and usefulness of rules in chess, it is fair to ask how I can recommend Silman’s work. It’s true that one of my few objections to ‘Reassess’ involves its occasional use of sweeping statements or even a bit of dogma. But that is more of a theoretical problem than a practical one. Silman himself has told me that for instruction of his target audience, he thinks a very clear and easily assimilable message is needed--this comes from his extensive teaching experience. Thus he is aware of the fact that his statements and assessments may not all be literally true; but has seen the effectiveness of his approach (and it is clear to me that his readers gain great confidence by following it). My ‘Secrets’ book is more theoretical; as I point out in the book, instruction isn't my goal or purpose. I emphasize ambiguities (not ‘exceptions’—an important distinction), which is not a good day-by-day teaching technique for less advanced players. Although players eventually need to understand something at least resembling what I’ve said in order to improve, it’s almost impossible to teach without using some general guidelines. What I would recommend is to say, for example: ‘You have two bishops in an open position, and his knights have no outposts nor a way to become effective--they will soon driven back’; or ‘You are better because he has doubled pawns which don’t strengthen his centre. Note how this gives you an outpost in front of them, and see how his open file is easily blocked—this means that he won’t get dynamic counterplay against your king’. I don’t think that sort of thing is too intimidating if the basic ideas expressed are repeated often enough. The Workbook, by the way, seems more concerned with letting the reader explore ambiguous and exceptional situations than did Silman’s earlier works.

Philosophic matters aside, I would conclude by emphasizing the author’s friendly and readable style, by which he imparts loads of advice without ever becoming ponderous or condescending. The book’s price is a selling point: $19.95 is an excellent price-per-page ratio, especially with the typically attractive Siles Press cover (great colour!). I am already using positions from this book to teach—I think that those of you looking for an improvement book can hardly go wrong with this one.

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