The big failure of most opening books

27 Jan

eindspel_300Since I was young I had the dream of writing a book. I did not have a clue what this book should be about, but for some kind of weird reason I thought life would be completely different if I ever would succeed in my endeavour.

In my twenties I was a fanatic chess player. So I had vague ideas about writing a chess book.

Finally almost thirty years later my first book rolled from the presses. It was off a, maybe in the eyes of most people, little less glamorous nature than a novel or a chess book. It was about selling. Anyhow, it became a big success.

What I can remember from my first contacts with publishers was the question:

  • ‘For whom are you writing this book?’

Their second question was:

  • ‘After they have read your book, what value would this book have given to them?’ or ‘What’s in it for them?’

By the way: they asked lots of other unpleasant questions. But these two questions stuck out like a sore thumb. Publishers are an annoying bunch of people. It was of course obvious what my book was about?! Please don’t start to nag about trivia such as my intended target group. Why didn’t they understand?

My intentions were obvious, didn’t they get it? No, they didn’t ‘get ‘it’. Or it is better to say: ‘I didn’t get it!’ Only after these issues were resolved, one publisher agreed to go ahead. And right he was!

When I turn my attention to chess books, and more specifically books about chess openings, I have my doubts if these questions were ever asked and I am afraid they were never really answered in a proper way. Who is buying opening books? Is it the aspiring professional, with a rating of 2300 and rising? Likely. But if only these prima donnas’ would buy opening books, not many are sold.

The majority of people who buy opening books are average chess players. He or she is probably a member of a chess club. These patzers want to learn something and hopefully in doing so get better results. I am talking about players with ratings from let’s say 1500 till 2200.

And I would not be astonished if relative beginners would also buy these books. If the majority of these opening books end up in the library of very average chess players (guys like me), why do they contain so many variations and so little explanations?

How teaching works
If someone has the goal to teach others he should be aware of how people learn. When I first entered a ‘train the trainer program’ our trainer Bob Boverman (long distance running and former national coach of The Netherlands) taught us:

  • praatje (tell/explain),
  • plaatje (show/paint a picture),
  • daadje (do it yourself).

Just showing people lots of variations doesn’t make much sense if the pupil has no idea about the overall picture. The how and why is missing. Please tell us something about the ideas and plans of a certain opening and ensuing middle game. And then show how these variations fit into these plans.

Authors can do this by presenting relevant games. Only after this, things start to make sense. The pieces of the puzzle are falling into the right places. When this is done the reader can start to try it by himself. But without these ideas, plans and examples? Most of us are clueless.

Probably the majority of these authors are too good to understand how the minds of the Caïssa’s lesser mortals are working. I once had the chance to sit in on a post mortem between Anatoli Karpov and Jan Timman. These to giants were discussing several variations. At some moment I asked in a timid tone:

‘Mister Karpov what would have happened if you would have played…?’ (I mentioned a certain move)

He was very friendly and explained briefly why he did not play this move (by the way: he never ever thought about this move). He showed me some variations and said ‘You see, in the end of these lines I don’t have a plan, no activity, there is no way to develop my game any further. I don’t like that!’ Needless to say that it took me later at home a couple of hours to fully understand what he had explained to me.

But I think it is clear what I want to say with this anecdote: the difference between average players and really strong players is huge. Strong players simply can’t understand what we are struggling with and just don’t pay enough attention to it. They don’t get it and will go on writing opening books on their level and hardly anybody will learn something from it. What a pity and waste of money.

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