When we want to improve at chess, the first thing many of us do is buy a new book. Hey, I do it too. I have a book on the way from Amazon right now. But in studying the habits of quickly improving chess players, I’ve noticed a trend: they often spend little time on books. While books can be helpful if used in moderation, I’ve come to believe that they can also be a trap.
Bertrand Russell allegedly said that time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. I enjoy reading chess books, even knowing that my game will not improve as a result. Books with tactics exercises may help, but, as you imply, it depends on the depth of one’s engagement.
I was taught field theory by Pierre Binetruy at graduating level and he was of the strong opinion that Quantum Field Theory was a subject too difficult to learn from a book and one needs an actual teacher. I thought about this a lot. Even though there are nowadays much better books than back then he was probably right. RIP Pierre, such a kind and smart person.
I would agree. Some books have introduced me to interesting chess concepts and principles I hadn't considered before, but for the most part reading collections of games with strings of different variations doesn't really work for me. I would argue that chess tactics/mating exercise books can be kind of useful.
I think that this argument could use a bit more nuance - there are a variety of genres within the world of chess literature: the opening book, the games collection, the tactics manual, the endgame book. Each has a different purpose, and in some cases the purpose can be better accomplished elsewhere. Openings book vs. Chessable course - I'd imagine the Chessable course is better suited to the goal of memorizing opening lines, although I don't do much opening memorization these days, and I'm not sure how much this kind of work actually correlates to chess strength below the GM level. Tactics manual vs. hours spent on chesstempo - obvious chesstempo and related sites wins out, and this kind of work definitely improves one's chess strength. Endgame manuals might still work OK in book form; I certainly appreciate the coherence in Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual. Game collections and tournament books are obvious only partially about improving one's chess strength and equally about enjoying the history of chess, and are in many ways irreplaceable. But at the end of the day there's no way to get better at chess other than playing with total focus: playing in tournaments or approximating it in some other way.
It was also interesting to see that the Andy Matuschak post you referenced here talked a lot about metacognition as a powerful learning tool - I think that fits nicely with annotating one's games and looking for patterns and trends within those games, certainly another way to improve rapidly, at least in my experience.
I played in my first rated chess tournament in college, in 1969, before I owned a single chess book.
I played a computer in a tournament in 1970, and lost, before I ever owned a chess book. But I played a lot of speed chess in college and analyzed with better players all the time. I say play in as many chess tournaments as you can and look for the truth in positions for as long as it takes.
Speaking as a lover of chess books... I love this essay. A provacative take, well-argued. The sourdough example is [chef's kiss]. Keep 'em coming, Nate!
These arguments are deeply flawed. Reading is a hot medium that engages the mind. It is not the book itself but the interaction with the reader. The reader uses the pieces, analyses the situation, and works to make sense of it. There are better books than others but the reader and what he or her does with the book makes the difference.
With all due respect to Neal Bruce, his progress casts huge doubts on the validity and usefulness of both flashcards and chessable...
I find I must put the positions from my chess books on a board and take notes to get the information fully in my head. After 20 years in medicine I’m pretty quick on acquiring concepts and retaining. Applying them however is entirely in the realm of practice. I need to practice the material from chess books or they just become interesting topics to talk about
I don't really agree with the title. A better argument would be to say that low-engagement learning (LEL) doesn't work, compared to high-engagement learning (HEL).
If HEL is present, any medium of instuction will be beneficial. If it's not, then all media are rather ineffective.
I thought it was sort of common knowledge that you should have a chess board along with the book as you're reading. I know that books helped me quite a bit when I was a beginner, and I expect to keep using them as part of my study(although I have enough so I don't think I'll get any more).
Most chess books are food for chess books collectors. There are really very few books that will improve your chess. I would mention GK, Dvoretsky and Gelfand at the GM level. Aagaard is a great example for the intermmediate segment (intermmediate means from 2500-1800 fide). And Nunn the segment below. How I work with a book? I open a pgn with the name of the book and I annotate all the information I find interesting in the book, from positions diagrams, to problems to solve, variations and even complete games in they are insightful with the theme of the book.
Thank you for your reply. I discussed what you said with my wife who is much more knowledgeable concerning McLuhan than I am. He was a hot topic when we were in college. She agrees with you that he thinks movies are hot. She says he thinks that TV is cool. However, she and I both agree that he thinks books are hot. Thanks again for taking the time to read what I wrote and respond. Also, again I want say that I think you site is great. It does a great job of stirring up a lot of thinking.
All the best,
From the books are a hot medium person. The best thing that you have said is that books are a starting point. A point that I believe you are implying that I disagree with is that you have the brain as a passive receiver of information. Look at cognitive theory and see what happens in the brain as it looks at ideas and tries to make sense of them. With any content some of which is done well and across the spectrum to terrible, a book only does as well as the person who really wants to understand it and works on making this information help change them as a person. If a person does not actively engage in a book (or a video or Chessable which also have the capability of helping the individual learn) a book is a waste of time.
Nate, By the way I think your articles are really good.
Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and expert on media. He wrote a book call the "The Medium is the Message." I am not an expert in this field but before I retired I did work developing mathematical materials. While I am sure my explanation will not be the best here it is in brief (ha, ha) form. First Mc:Luhan says that the medium in which the message is communicated has a great deal to do with the what the message actually means. In other words the medium is itself part of the message and is a great influencer in the meaning of the message. In terms of why reading is a hot message I like to use an example that I personally experience. When I have a case of the flu or something that gives me a slight fever I need to alleviate my boredom. I first think of reading my current book. I discard that idea and instead look at a movie. The reason I put the book aside is that reading is a hot medium. When I read I am doing a lot if not all of the work. I have to set the stage, understand the characters, in essence I need to create in my mind what is happening in the book besides all the other questions and ideas that occur while I am reading it. Quite frankly this is a lot of work for the brain. Take a look at watching a film which is a much cooler medium. Much of the work has been done for me. This doesn't mean there is no thinking or anything for my mind to do but it is much less work than if I were reading a book. That is why when I am sick in bed the Ipad comes out so my feverish brain does not have to work so hard. I believe this is true of chess books. A chess book by itself does not really do anything. There is analysis in the book, sometimes good sometimes bad. When I read a chess book I need to take an active role in understanding the ideas. One's brain really has to work to go through the process of making sense of what the author is talking about. A book is a piece of content which you the reader must actively try to make perform its job. It is hot because you are doing a lot of work. I personally believe when you do this work you are increasing the odds of learning. I also believe that all the actions you take when studying chess from a book are crucial to a person learning their best. For example, I find that the e-books where you can move the chess pieces on a two-dimensional board while reading very convenient. But they rob you of part of the work your brain and hands do when you work with pieces on a real board or a little less so on Chess Base. I am not saying that other forms of media are not helpful in improving your chess or other things. Some of the visuals that can be done now are very helpful for understanding ideas. I just think that books are one of the best methods for learning since you as a person must do the thinking to really understand the author, agreeing often and occasionally not. A book is hot because of the amount of work your brain does to reap the benefits.