Last week I received an autographed copy of Andres Hortillosa’s new book, Improve Your Chess At Any Age, which he generously mailed to me. Ever since then, I’ve been debating whether to post a review of it. I greatly admire what Andres has done and I also consider him a personal friend (and want to remain that way!). However, there are certain problems with his book that, in my opinion, keep it from living up to its full potential. I hope he will take this review as a candid, professional critique, and also perhaps use it as a guideline for avoiding some of these problems when he writes his next book.
For those of you who like quantitative evaluations, let me say that I would rate this book somewhere between three and four stars (out of five). At the end I will provide links to some more positive reviews that you can read for balance.
First, let me talk about the book’s strengths. I completely believe in the title. You can improve at any age. And I love the fact that Andres signs himself, “Improving Player,” in lieu of a title such as FIDE Master.
More importantly, I think that Andres outlines a good system for improving your play by eliminating gross blunders. The system is outlined on pages 53-54 of his book, and I would suggest to readers in a hurry that they should skip as quickly as possible to that part. In particular, I like his advice to do a “reconnaissance” of the position before formulating any candidate moves, and I also like his advice to prioritize the threats against you and identify what is the worst possible thing that could happen to you in the position. It’s amazing how frequently we chess players conspire in our own demises by allowing the worst possible thing to become a reality — often because we are not even conscious of it. I would also suggest doing the converse: look for the worst thing that you could do to your opponent, and see if there is a way to make it happen.
For Andres’ target audience, which is players under 2000, I think his emphasis is very well placed. I have long had the opinion that you can reach class A (1800+) simply by eliminating outright blunders. So, in my opinion, if you are an under-1800 player and you apply Andres’ system conscientiously, you should be able to reach your goal of 1800. I am not as sure whether it will suffice to get you to 2000. I believe that getting to expert requires a little more than just avoiding blunders. But obviously, opinions can differ on this, so it’s not really a criticism of Andres’ book.
Besides his system, the book also contains many little tips and ideas that are worthy of thought and discussion. Some of them I disagree with, but again that is not a criticism, merely an indication that Andres has raised an important and provocative issue. For example, he discusses the use of psychological “tells” — observing your opponent to see his reactions. Of course, this is a huge part of success in poker. However, it is my strong belief that actively looking for “tells” in chess is a waste of your time, and a bad shortcut. I agree with Jeremy Silman and many other chess teachers, who say that you should always assume that your opponent will make the best move. If you start getting into the game of trying to predict his move based on non-chess factors, you are courting trouble.
Sometimes you may get a passive “tell” without looking for it; the opponent’s response will be too obvious not to notice. For example, that happened in my game with Daniel Naroditsky in Reno last fall; he made a blunder and immediately reacted to it. Should you use that information? I would say, do so only with extreme caution. In the Naroditsky game, his body language gave me confidence that there was no hidden trap behind his move — but nevertheless, I did check to make sure.
Anyway, let’s now return to the book. I have three main complaints about Improve Your Chess At Any Age. First, the language is unnecessarily convoluted in many places. For example, Andres writes:
“My chess thinking process is making a bold claim that it will help any player improve regardless of age. By extension, it will capacitate the disciplined practitioner of the process secure [sic] lasting chess improvement.”
Andres needed an editor here. In the first sentence, it’s not the process that is making the claim, it’s Andres himself. In the second sentence, the word “capacitate” is a disaster. It sounds as if Andy originally wrote the word “help” (a nice, solid, one-syllable Anglo-Saxon word), thought it didn’t sound erudite enough, and did a thesaurus search for synonyms. This led to a grammatical mistake — it should be “to secure.” I’m sure this sounds like nitpicking, but the book is full of head-scratchers like this. On the very next page:
“With regards to the plurality of methods we employ in the acquisition and sharpening of tactical skills, the list abounds in proportion to differing philosophies found in literature to date.”
Well, this is why writers need editors. Unfortunately, I doubt that Everyman Press did any serious editing of Andy’s book.
Second, I have some problems with the organization. As I commented before, Andres does not clue us into his “system” until page 53. There are several references to it earlier, which I’m sure will be frustrating to readers who don’t know the system he is referring to. It needed to go much earlier in the book.
Also, the chapter lengths suggest another structural problem. Chapter 1: 17 pages. Chapter 2: 38 pages. (That’s a bit long, but okay, this is an important chapter — it is where he introduces his system.) Chapter 3: 60 pages. (Whoa!! SIXTY pages on what is basically a report on ONE tournament?) Chapter 4: 8 pages. (Too light!) Chapter 5: 7 pages. (Too light.) Chapter 6: 24 pages. (Okay.)
Now I don’t ordinarily go through a book and count the lengths of the chapters, but I did so in this case just because I felt something was seriously out of whack here. The problem is this. Andres has advertised his own performance as the central proof of his thesis, that you can improve at any age and that his system is the way to do it. First of all, on its merits this is a rather dubious methodology; it’s too much reminiscent of the mad scientist who experiments on himself because no one will believe him otherwise. Secondly, this puts him in a bind. He doesn’t have very many data points, only four tournaments, and the one that he really thinks will convince us is his result in the 2008 New England Masters. So this one tournament becomes the central episode of the whole book.
But how well does his result really stand up to scrutiny? Andy started out that tournament 3-2 against strong opponents but then went 0-4 the rest of the way. The games may be great games (I haven’t played them through yet), but as a potential user of Andres’ system I would be really worried about what happened in those last four games and what went wrong with the system.
Andy himself acknowledges that he didn’t do very well in his next two tournaments, and I think that’s why those two chapters are so short, at 8 and 7 pages. But I don’t think the reader should or will cut him any slack. Our ratings are, unfortunately, a record of both our good and our bad performances. We can’t take a mulligan and say, “Oh, I don’t want this tournament to count because I wasn’t prepared” or “This game doesn’t count because I didn’t follow the system.” By setting up his own performance as the proof his system works, Andy has left himself on very shaky ground. He needed more positive and consistent results to make his case solid — and there should be no excuses.
What I think the book needed was a little bit more time and patience. Instead of rushing into print with only four tournaments of examples (including two tournaments that were disappointing), I think that Andy would have done better to give it another couple years, play more games, collect more examples, maybe refine his system as he learns about its pluses and minuses, and maybe also reach beyond his own personal experience. He promises at the end that he will write another book when he reaches the FIDE Master title. When that happens, I think that his second book will live up to what this book promises but doesn’t quite deliver.
P.S. By the way, there is a completely different way of reading Andres’s book, and that is simply to read it as a chronicle of the ups and downs of a player very much like us. In other words, just forget about reading this book to get your rating over 2000. (I think that ratings are overrated anyway.) Just read it for the sake of the journey. If you do that, I think you will find it very entertaining.
I think that is the spirit with which Brian Wall read the book, and he posted a much more positive review of it on his mailing list. In order to balance out my somewhat negative review, let me copy here what Brian wrote:
Review of “Improve Your Chess at any age” by Andres D. Hortillosa
What I hated about this book -
I didn’t write it
What I loved about this book -
What I liked -
I know Andy, we were Denver Open co-Champions in 2000 with Senior Master James McCarty.
Most the games are very recent, 30 played during 2008-2009 with 7 games before that. Fresh games allow for fresh emotions in the retelling.
Andy uses his education to invent a system to play better Chess and he shares it with you. He call his readers “improvers”.
The best part is the honesty, even though he is touting a system, he doesn’t shy away from painful blunders on both sides.
I tried to delude myself reading the book that I wouldn’t make the errors he did but I remember he showed me the second to last game in the book at the 2009 World Open and I did not find the key moves in C.Boor-A Hortillosa.
I studied or played or befriended or talked to many of his opponents -
Studied – Aronian, Svidler, Ivanchuk, Radjabov, Gelfand, Van Wely
Talked to – D Hartsook, Van Wely
played at least one blitz game – Radjabov, C. Boor, Macintyre, Lugo
played slow Chess – Ginat, Karklins, Nakamura, Shulman
Andy also mentions two books by my friend David Vigorito, The Nimzo and the Slav.
Knowing a lot of the characters in the book gave it a friendly feel to me. I have also met two of Andy’s coaches, IM Mark Ginsburg and GM Dmirty Gurevich.
Andy is not afraid to speak the truth, with his first hand Phillipine background he mentions that solving a Chess puzzle by starting at the end with the desired checkmate is a pervasive solving method in the Oriental culture.
Andy mentions many common methods of improving, ICC, Chessbase, coaching, studying your game with Chess engines.
I belong to Dana Mackenzie’s Chess blog and he mentioned yesterday the book title was his idea.
The book basically goes like this – Andy mentions his frustration at his Chess rust due to his time in the army. After retiring, he has more time for Chess and wants to make FIDE 2300 for the FM title. He invents a system for Chess improvement and annotates 37 games, describing how his method worked. Sometimes the method failed, sometimes Andy failed his own system and sometimes he didn’t have enough time to apply the system. In general it worked very well, most of the outright blunders belonged to his opponents, most of Andy’s errors were due to the position being too deep. He basically found a method to get the most out of himself.
The book made me laugh too due to our different styles. I play every opening and will sac just about anything, unclear or not. Andy is one of those guys that spends lots of money on Chess books and lets many of them collect dust. Others I’ve met come to mind here. Andy tends to play very solid Chess and constantly offers draws to his higher rated opponents in the book. Sometimes they refuse and force Andy to play out winning positions. Andy has never played the King’s Indian, Benko or Grunfeld, not to mention the insane stuff I play. He admits an aversion to unclear play. I like to gamble, Andy likes to play the percentages. Think of us as the Colts versus the Saints.
I read the book pretty much nonstop upon arrival, it reads like an exciting novel. You will squirm when you see how hard Andy is trying and how he twists in the wind with each painful oversight. You will rejoice as he takes down or draws a multitude of higher rated players. You will wonder what you would have done in the same circumstances.
The book is chock full of original insight on every page, for example, the reason we can see our mistake right AFTER we move is the mind has a clear delineation between reality and fantasy, before we move, it’s a fantasy, we have to make our next move in our mind to trick ourselves into believing it’s REAL, then the mind will do the necessary work.
Andy doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, facing 2200-2500 players in every chapter. The chapters are divided mostly by recent strong tournaments he played in. He also gives a few games from 10 years ago so you can see how his Chess was when he left off.
Andy thinks out loud as he climbs the Olympian heights in a way that GMs can’t or won’t somehow. I think you will recognize a friend as he struggles to go higher. I like how he berates himself for missing any move a Chess master would see instantly, even if it looks like it loses a piece. It’s a fun book, very re-readable and a serious book for those trying to improve. His wisdom seeps into you on every page.
Also, let me note that another positive review of Andy’s book by Frank K. Berry can be found here on the North American Chess Association website.