Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Belles Lettres or Beautiful Hearts

St. Peters, Vast!

We all had the equivalent of our first love in 'real chess' and mine was named Ibrahim. He was the first giant I had met along the path of getting started back in real chess. And before he went back to Bahrain, eloping in secret with the very lovely sister of our mutual best friend Benjamin, but in the end leaving me out of their circle, when they coldly made sure not to invite me back with them for Thanksgiving dinner, before he left, he made many, many astute recommendations about how to study chess that I use to this day. I did much if not nearly not all that he said and his sporting a 2,000 FIDE elo seemed ample evidence enough. That is another story.

But like our first mentors or guides who have strong opinions, not all of them can be judiciously correct. For example, he had a very low opinion of Bruce Pandolfini. Now, lets be clear: after a life time of scholarship, I have found it most important to draw a distinction between the man and his work. Early on, I discovered in copious checking that mythographer Joseph Campbell never mentioned Romanian French expatriate Mircea Eliade, nor the latter the prior. I always preferred Campbell's views, but somehow, despite my inability to ever read Eliade with satisfaction or utility, nevertheless also always found the man fascinating [1]. Similarly, I loved Nietzsche's books in my younger days, but the man could be a real ass, not to mention Thoreau or Veblen assuredly as well. And so I found that this young man had really confused the work of Pandolphini with the man, and if not the work, then the production.

Years latter, after using 'Pandolphini's Endgame Course: Basic Endgame Concepts Explained' with great benefit, upon AJ Goldsy's glowing recommendation at Amazon [2], I had to agree that despite the well known innocuous typo's, that his book was even more useful than Chernev's already very, very useful Practical Chess Endings [3].

I have lived a lot of years by now. I have learned not to judge. Some of Pandolphini's books had well known production problems, but are we to blame him concretely? Were we there? Did we know the publishers or editors or printers? Did we know the circumstances? No. But mark my words, I have been reading his monthly column 'The Q & A Way', at chessCafe, for as long as I can remember, and always enjoy it, and never fail to read him.

He is both affably and warmly kind and unpretendingly eruditely sophisticated without grandstanding or pretense if not on occasion acerbic [4], in a way well beyond most chess scholars and teachers. He gives ample evidence bespeaking of wide awareness, well beyond the narrow specisim of the our beloved chess venues. His humanity [5] at times reminds me of Znosko-Borovsky, who not only managed to beat quite a few of the truly great world chess champions, but starving as he was between the two great wars, demonstrated a enormous familiarity with belles lettres in what must have been a beautiful heart.

Warmest, dk

Mr Pandolphini, who wrote me back promptly and without any complications, very kindly approved my copying the first part of his most recent column below. There have been many Q & A's over the years, but this one simply struck me as if not among his best then surely most representative. Without further ado:

Beware of Regimens


After five to ten years of practice, chess players usually reach a plateau. This supposes the chess player has over this long period of time: participated in a number of chess tournaments, played in over 100 classical games (40 moves in 2 hours, 20 moves per hour, etc); gone through classic books on openings, tactics, middlegames, and endings; analyzed his own games, as well as having gone through classic games (World Chess Champions, current top GM games, etc.); and played many blitz games in a chess club or on the Internet. Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that all this brings the player to a level of a seasoned club player, corresponding to a USCF 2150 player (FIDE 2100). How do you suggest improving your own level of play (obviously not as strong as the FM/IM level), without repeating the basic stuff? How do you separate what you already know (rook endings, typical tactics, such as pins, skewers, and double attacks) from what you should learn to make progress? What should you pay attention to when you replay grandmasters games? Frank Fortune (USA)

Josh Waitzkin and his first chess coach, Bruce Pandolfini


Chess players don’t have to wait five or ten years before reaching a plateau. It can happen much sooner than that, and typically does. Nor need there be just one plateau. Periods of stasis occur all the time. They can last a few weeks or go on for years. All along the way are potential obstacles halting improvement, putting our playing ability in a virtual freeze. Regressions are even possible, where our method of addressing troublesome stages can retard progress, if not detract from overall skill. Clearly, how we cope with such troubling circumstances plays a role in shortening those episodes. It also is a key determinant in how far we can ultimately go.

Moreover, there’s no single path that guarantees advance. Some players achieve success naturally, absorbing ideas in the context of regular play, with aptitude developing over time, without specific effort. Others do it by dint of hard work, studying this and that, until all major areas are reviewed systematically and everything seems to fall into place. Still others, taking definite steps or not, never get beyond a point. Either they accept who they are or give up altogether.

I’m going to take slight issue with another one of your implications, which is that it’s wasteful to study things you’ve already gone over. Indeed, constant review of the same or similar techniques and concepts, viewed for a variety of situations, reinforces what you know. And it gives you a range of conditions under which you can adapt that knowledge to efficient use. This modus operandi is a chief weapon in the chess player’s arsenal. That is, players are always looking for analogies. You can’t employ analogous reasoning so effectively, however, if you haven’t a proficient grasp of what you’ve already experienced. The way you acquire such facility is by constant reconsideration and repeated immersion. To that end, the argument that learning some things well, rather than lots of things on the surface, may have greater impact here. I’m not suggesting that tangential treatment of many different notions doesn’t have value, too. But if you don’t constantly review your past experiences, you’re bound to make the same mistakes, fall into the same snares, miss the same shots, and form the wrong plans, again and again.

Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart

So, even though you’ve laid out your question hypothetically, I’m going to take exception with the nature of your basic premise anyway. It implies that one has to do certain things in order to succeed (play at least one hundred serious tournament and match games, study particular tactics and strategies, examine the games of great players, and so on). Yet, there’s no accepted evidence whatsoever that one has to follow a definite regimen of any kind before attaining specific playing levels. To be sure, such an approach is antithetical to the idea that each of us is an individual. Put simply, an activity is more rewarding if we’re able to pursue it along a unique pathway, to the Thoreau inspired beat of our own drummer.

Here’s my advice for those who are decent players but seem to have been stymied in their recent attempts at progress. Begin by playing a bunch of serious games at respectable time controls. Take those games and have them assessed by a competent observer. Have the analyst spell out what he or she thinks you need to work on in order to move ahead. It probably won’t be right on the money – it almost never is – but it’s a place to start.

Acquire, borrow, or tap into the recommended materials. Start using them on a regular basis, and in accordance with the laid out program. Play lots of serious games, all of which should then be analyzed by you first, then by a strong player who cares that you exist. The strong player could be named Fritz, even though Fritz is likely to be indifferent. Modify your original program as it reflects your recent experience. Over time this constant testing of challenging opposition, intense review, from within and without, should direct you to relevant areas worthy of attention. It’s typically the best way to break the stalemate in your progress and move you along. It’s tough to say what may be the best thing to study to push improvement along. But probably it should be pertinent to your needs, rather than satisfying some abstract ideal. If you want to get more out of you, study you

[1] Such as his systematically reducing his sleep, so that he could study study Sanskrit for twelve hours a day, ultimately settling for only four hours sleep in the end. See his wonderful Autobiography: Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations With Claude-Henri Rocquet.

[2] As well as his
colorful and wonderful, if not idiosyncratic website. His site reads like the Arabian Knights on Acid for chess denizens. Enjoy!

[3] At the same time, to be clear, I cannot praise Chernev's book too highly: READ and STUDY both, might I suggest: first PEC/BECE, then move onto PCE. In this order, the latter will mean more.

[4] Bertrand Russell, AKA Lord Russell, who if anyone ever could write the English language, was said to be acerbic. He relates in his wonderful
Autobiography that he had learned to write the English language with precision by taking the advise of his brother in law, to take the already very, very clear a and concise writings of John Stewart Mill, and TRY to summarize each of his paragraphs with one sentence. Can you imagine?

[5] My definition of humanist, quoted from my 1989 letter of application to teach architecture, at UNC Charlotte: "As a humanist, I believe in the betterment of man through self knowledge".

[6] His original ChessCafe article in full, directly here.


Anonymous Rolling Pawns said...

This post adresses some of my concerns, as I actually hit a plateau for the last half year.
"Play lots of serious games, all of which should then be analyzed by you first, then by a strong player who cares that you exist. The strong player could be named Fritz ...". By the way playing online /analysis of online games gives essentually less, since the openings there are mostly not the openings people play OTB, tactics is often very simple, same with the strategy, etc.

Wed Oct 08, 08:44:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Great piece by Pandolfini. Just nails it.

Wed Oct 08, 09:11:00 AM PDT  
Blogger transformation said...

I had two of Pandolfini's books. Please forgive me that I cannot give you the titles anymore, but the endgame course was not one of them.

They were new books at the time, and I allready had an extensive chess library. It struck me that the material and presentation in these books were not very original.

He may be a great chess teacher, and I trust you and BDK if you say he is a first class writer. But I have yet to see a real good book by him that is not largely based on older classics.

Wed Oct 08, 01:29:00 PM PDT  
Blogger transformation said...

READERS, AFTER CAREFUL DELIBERATION, I PUBLISH THIS PRECEEDING COMMENT. AS A CLICK ON THIS NAME INDICATES, THIS IS alas, not me, but another person but as the tone sounds civil and polite enough, i publish it. hard to understand his motive in choosing my exact handle, but i have read other comments by him in other places, some of them seemedly acting as me and not always positive.

@trans: i am not trying to say Pandolphini is a great writer but, rather, something very good in his character shines through. as for his Q&A, yes, they are always well edited and free of typo's. chessCafe is very well run.

i only have his one book, and got a great benefit from it. i do not mention any other of his books, nor own or look at any.


Wed Oct 08, 01:50:00 PM PDT  
OpenID chesstiger said...

"If you want to get more out of you, study you"

So very true. It also means their isn't one chess study for all. We all have our special needs, our own mistakes to fix. I am I and you are you and we are very different, not equal.

Wed Oct 08, 02:14:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

transform-imposter: I was talking about the specific article that is included in the post, and have no opinion of his other work.

Wed Oct 08, 05:34:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Polly said...

Wow in USCF politics there's the Fake Sam Sloan, in the blogosphere now we have the Fake Transformation. I must say I was confused by the comment until I read your follow up.

That's an excellent response that Pandolfini wrote. There's a lot of good stuff to chew on.

Wed Oct 08, 08:16:00 PM PDT  
Blogger transformation said...

@polly: I have to revise what i said. this transformation dates from september 2008. whether it results from the same other transformation, 'imposter' is unclear, but there was another 'transformation' a year or so ago, all dutifully recorded by googles complaint and fraud department, so this makes at least two of them now.

needless to say, my profile has by now 3,700 views, compared the the four this ID showed just this morning!

glad to see you.

stay posted, i have a lot more on the burners, soon! dk

Wed Oct 08, 08:28:00 PM PDT  
Blogger tanc(happyhippo) said...

dk: excellent post as always and this is one post that i'm definitely saving up to be reread again.

unfortunately, this is my first year of competition and i've not hit any plateau since i'm still struggling to find my "place" in the chess world but i'm sure i will hit this stage at some point in my chess playing days.

this is invaluable advice given by Bruce Pandolfini (sp?).

thank you very much for sharing it with us.

cheers and take care.

Wed Oct 08, 09:19:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Stephen said...

Actually, in reference to the comment that Joseph Campbell never mentions Mircea Eliade, that's not quite accurate. Eliade is footnoted in several of Campbell's works, and on pages 252 - 254 of "Primitive Mythology," the first volume of Campbell's massive "Masks of God" tetralogy, Joe draws on Eliade's "cross-cultural study of shamanism."

Campbell and Eliade attended a religious conference in Japan together in the fifties, and in at least one interview Joseph Campbell notes that he thinks of he and Eliade colleagues as standing back to back, with Eliade addressing the academic community and Campbell the popular culture.

Stephen Gerringer
The Joseph Campbell Foundation

Tue Nov 04, 11:29:00 AM PST  
Blogger transformation said...

thank you!

are you are chess player, who reads in our circles or a more peripatetic visitor?

granted, i did recall one place this occurs, in addition to what you say (*thank you!*) but that gain said, we have to admit all the same that it is a rare event,

saying something about the men and the negative inferance of a large heavenly body between the two mean, whatever you care to call it or however rarely it occured in an exact sense.

thanks for comming by. warmest, dk

Tue Nov 04, 12:51:00 PM PST  

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