The semi-serious title of this post refers to a phenomenon that I find chess players don't necessarily discuss much, and which remains hard to understand-that not only is chess a difficult game, but there is no agreed consensus on how best to learn to play it, and what one's main focus should be. In this post I want to discuss both some of the reasons for that, and some of the approaches that have existed over time.
The first factor I want to acknowledge and then put to one side is that of fashion and style. I'll discuss this here in relation to one isolated example-when to sacrifice pieces. First of all, in chess, certain moves, openings and techniques are subject to fashion. This is usually related to the practices of the world champions, but it can also be influenced by top players in general. Suddenly everyone want to explore the Trompowsky attack or the Rossolimo variation in the Sicilian, because Caruana or Magnus Carlsen played it. So as a chess player, after learning the basics, the first question you have to be honest about is how much attention you wish to pay to fashion and style. For club players this is not necessarily a consideration, but it might be. Fashion interacts with style-you are supposed to gravitate after a certain stage towards a certain style of play, which in practice is often related to your own favourite players. Terms like 'positional' or 'attacking' play tend to get bandied around, but do you know what they actually mean? Some use the particularly terrifying term 'universal style' as the final destination, implying you should aspire towards being comfortable at playing anything. But beyond wanting to learn from your favourite players, you then also have to do some honest examination about your own style, which is related to psychology and to knowing yourself better. So let's say you like Mikhail Tal, in terms of style. The way he sacrifices pieces is highly romantic and attractive, and he sees great combinations. That doesn't mean you can play like Tal yourself. How do you feel about sacrificing pieces? Do you find it easy to calculate the resulting combinations? Does the process itself make you more nervous when playing? Can you surmount that anxiety? For thinking about this, it's probably worthwhile also trying to study what a 'sacrifice' actually means in terms of chess. Rudolf Spielmann's 1935 book The Art of Sacrifice in Chess discusses 'positional sacrifices', 'real sacrifices' and 'vacating sacrifices'.
The point here is, sometimes a sacrifice is an actual sacrifice, but where the ends justifies the means, and sometimes it is just a blunder. Spielmann's book is a useful antidote to falling into the habit of sacrificing as a matter of style-I am sacrificing because Tal also bravely sacrificed pieces. But it also predates what is now called 'dynamic chess', a fashion that came in in the 1980s, and which Mihai Suba amongst others promoted. So just in considering the one isolated issue of sacrifice in chess, the learner is left back in a conundrum-what is simply style and fashion, and what is essential knowledge? What should I read to gain essential skills and understanding, as opposed to following fashionable trends?
The second challenge is therefore raised here. Putting aside style and fashion, chess itself has evolved immensely since the end of the nineteenth century. This is reflected in the literature on chess itself. Let's consider some of the earliest set texts on chess strategy-Eugene Znosko-Borovsky and G.M.Lisitsyn, both (not coincidentally) Russian.
It's a notable fact by the way that the majority of world chess champions themselves are notoriously non-communicative about how they learnt to play and how they developed their own style to such a successful level. Znosko-Borovsky wrote in the 1920s and was a contemporary of Alekhine and Capablanca. His books were extremely useful in distinguishing strategy from tactics, and I believe he was amongst the first to really start to focus on middlegames and endgames, as opposed to simply openings. His books remain really useful in thinking about the bridge between middlegame and endgame, and what is probably the biggest hump for the player still learning-how to 'convert' an advantage, once you can recognize that you have one. But in other ways his books are of course outdated, because you won't find the most modern games or latest variations within them. So you really have to decide what is the most productive use of your time.
Lisitsyn's book 'The Strategy and Tactics of Chess' came out originally in 1952, and presents the same challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, it contains a wealth of instructive material, not least on tactics-the critical importance of recognizing key squares on the board for example, and the role of forks, skewers, and double attacks. On the other hand, you have to accept that it's pedagogical method is different from Znosko-Borovsky's-rather than use terms like 'middlegame' or 'endgame', it focuses entirely on 'strategy' and 'tactics'. So what conceptualization and related learning style works best for you?
This brings me on to my penultimate, very famous, but also perhaps most terrifying example. Alexander Kotov's Thinking like a Grandmaster. An invaluable, but also a terrifying text, which I have struggled with many times, by a well respected Soviet grandmaster. Kotov more than anyone else introduced the notion of the mental calculating 'tree' with many branching variations. So if I-do-this, my opponent has 3 options, a b or c, if he does 'a' then I do 'b', if he does 'b' I do 'c', if he does 'c' I do 'd', and if I do 'd' he can then do 'e', 'f', or 'g'. Kotov is great for considering what constitutes productive and unproductive calculation and evaluation over the board, and each branch can be 10 or 15 moves deep. But there is always left open the question of how deep you should necessarily go. It's undoubtedly an indispensable classic, but again has a different pedagogical approach, and demands a lot of time both to absorb, really learn, and also then practice.
I haven't even touched here on the more specialised chess literature-the books that concentrate only on middlegames, or only on endgames, or only on rook endgames, or only on one particular opening. The point is that chess literature can become a forest of confusing options very quickly. That isn't particularly surprising, given that chess is not only a complex game, but one that is constantly evolving according to fashion, style, taste, and the increasing role of chess engines at the top level. But it means that the individual agency of the learner themselves is also surprisingly important-something again that chess players don't actually discuss very much (but which educationalists by contrast do all the time). The only people who I can see who developed a conscious and deliberate 'program' for improving at chess were people like Mark Dvoretsky and Alexander Panchenko (again both Russians).
Dvoretsky's books are also absolute classics, but to use them best also requires a pre-existing understanding of the learning and training assumptions behind what he's giving you, and his own particular intellectual contributions. Dvoretsky himself doesn't openly state what these are-it's assumed, so again you're left with learning-by-reading as to whether this suits you or not. Dvoretsky is an expert on endgames, piece play, and the art of prophylaxis (seeing and negating the opponent's plans). If you're a beginner, he is definitely not the place to start. If you are an instinctively sacrificing player, as I mentioned at the beginning, that again is not something that he is going to necessarily talk about or focus on in depth. But both he and Panchenko also have probably the best pedagogical method-to have pages and pages of actual middlegame and endgame positions, with solutions at the end of their books. They both give agency back to the reader themselves-here are the positions, now calculate yourself and measure against the solutions. It is also quite revealing how much time they think you should take over this. Panchenko recommends taking an hour or more to work through and write down the variations of some of the positions he gives. This raises another matter, not again very often discussed openly amongst chess players-how much time do you actually have in your daily life to devote to chess improvement?
Hopefully this has been an informative overview of issues that I think chess players themselves don't actually discuss very much-that the pedagogy of teaching and learning about chess is both complex, and a bit of a theoretical mess. This is not to criticize any of the authors I've mentioned, particularly across such a long time period when educational style itself was evolving, but rather to flag issues that those who are themselves trying to learn won't necessarily be aware of at the very beginning. It can take easily 2-3 years to learn what 'positional' play actually means (as opposed to what other players will tell you they think it means), and an equal amount of time to appreciate the nuances of piece play and sacrifice, or the linkages between middlegames and endgames, or how to play endgames. You will end up having to read a lot of books, and some of those books will be a dead end for you because of your own individual learning style-something most chess writers or trainers also don't mention, discuss, or even warn you about. In the end of course, this is optimally a course towards self-discovery-learning your own learning style, recognizing and critiquing your own psychology in the game itself, and developing your own playing style. But it can be a long and perhaps unnecessarily knotty path to getting there.