Saturday, October 22, 2016

Chess books: when more isn't

My old chess teacher used to say that of all that has been written throughout history the most belongs to human health. The runner-up is chess. I'm not quite sure about the authenticity of this, but the fact is that chess literature is huge, and if one adds the software that has been published over the last couple decades, the amount of learning material is staggering.

It appears to me that there is a very strong, yet subtle, temptation to assume that drawing more from this fountain of material translates to actual improvement. If you're anything like me your eyes go wide open when you browse that chess section in your local library or online, or looking through a catalog (USCF has one). One wants to just grab a basket, make a list and pile on. Ask around and you're bound to find without too much trouble a person that can have well over a hundred books solely devoted chess. There are even some pretty impressive private chess libraries out there. The biggest in my hometown that I know of had 5000 volumes belonging to a local master. An uncorroborated story I heard is that the Polgar sisters toured it with glee when they  happened by once. (for the record my chess library currently has about two dozen volumes + 7-8 software titles)

Now the problem, as you already know, is that one cannot digest all the material. One has the pure honest intention to read each book right away or 'some day' when one is handing the cash, but somehow one never gets around to it. Sure, some titles do get completed, but the chess library grows even faster. And not to mention non-chess responsibilities have first dibs on one's time. One of the RPPR podcast hosts not long ago said something to the effect that when one buys books, one kinda thinks that one is also acquiring the time to read them. Put another way, there's a famous quote that says that life is too short for chess.

Still, even if we know or suspect that the book won't be read soon, there's an urge to own. A fuzzy feeling wells on oneself by just knowing that we have the title at hand and that their contents can be had at command. A closely related aspect is that of collecting. There's no chance in the completion of this set, but just building the library like a deck of (trading) cards gives a perhaps no small amount of pleasure.

Notable titles are also morale boosters. After playing some player on a tourney he bragged just to see my reaction that he had Dvoretsky's manual. He may have had it, but I doubt that he had actually gone through it and it certainly didn't help him on that game. Remember how in one of the Calvin & Hobbes strips Calvin tells Hobbes he wears branded shirts because it gives him the psychological advantage of believing he is sponsored? I find that likewise having chess books gives you the psychological advantage of believing you've read them (same idea with owing the Great Books).

Of course it doesn't really work that way. My high school physics teacher once told us of certain student that had the most basic of calculators and how he routinely got better grades than those who had space-age ones with all the bells and whistles.

In closing I'd like to take the opportunity and call on the Chessbase/Fritz people to aim future efforts to the enhancement of their Fritz Gui Full analysis function. The engine arms race can be considered over and now some of the only distinguishing features and value of chess guis is their natural language analysis. At their time, Fritz 4 and Fritz 5.32 came up with pretty interesting nested output. Nowadays it seems to me that Fritz 13 (the latest I own or fiddled with) just spits out single liners and has become stingy with variations, exclams and useful commentary. What's the use of having a personal GM, when he doesn't express himself as we would wish? Maybe it is my settings or my hardware, but this looks downhill. If they could bring back the old magic to just this feature, that would be pretty revolutionary once again. I'd overpay for that.


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