July 28, 2012 14:15

Review: Move First, Think Later

Move First, Think Later

The book Move first, think later, written by Dutch IM Willy Hendriks, seems to be the talk of the town at the moment. "In this book IM and experienced chess trainer Willy Hendriks presents a wealth of valuable, no-nonsense training material that will rock the chess instruction establishment," says publisher New in Chess. IM Arthur van de Oudeweetering reviews the book for you.

Willy Hendriks: anarchist in chess writing?


When I received Willy Hendriks’ book Move first, think later I had positive expectations. Hendriks is an international master and long-time trainer. I was already acquainted with his writings, as some four years ago he had published some articles in the Dutch magazine Schaaknieuws (no longer existing). At the time his articles made a very refreshing impression on me. He shed some reasonable doubt on the presumed line of thoughts of a chess player during the game or on the ways chess trainers try to lead their pupils. As I am a chess trainer myself I was keenly interested in his insights, which were written down in an entertaining style as well.

Some of these articles also feature in the book and I encountered the following lucid example, which earlier (and now again) had made a refreshing impression on me.

Balashov-Sunye Neto
Wijk aan Zee, 1982
PGN string

White to move

Hendriks writes:

Trainer: “You’ve had the chance to have a look at the position. What’s it about, what are the most important characteristics of this position? Paul do you have an idea? 

Paul: ”Uh yes, I would play Rc6 and if he takes I will have Nd5”

Trainer: “Yes, you come up with the moves right away (...)

The trainer then proceeds (in vain) to convince the pupil to look again at the characteristics of the position. This is very familiar to me; I know I’ve done the same as a trainer. Of course you can argue that if your pupil has found the right move, without being able to back it up with positional considerations, it is simply OK. Apparently he has already built up some unconscious knowledge. Throughout the entire book Hendriks argues that this is how it generally goes: hence also the title: Move first, think later.


The book is divided into 27 short chapters, which could easily be read as separate essays, although the last one is some sort of conclusion. They cover a wide range of subjects all more or less bordering on the main theme (or essentially on how to improve your chess): psychology, pattern recognition, statistics, small plans, critical moments, chance, general rules, tactics versus strategy, time-trouble, et cetera.

The text is often illustrated by chess fragments. When Hendriks deals with pattern recognition (Chapter 4 Recognizing the similar) the well-known blunder by Kramnik against Deep Fritz (Bonn 2006) comes to the fore:

DEEP FRITZ 10 - Kramnik
Bonn, 2006
PGN string

34….Qe3?? 35.Qh7#

The knight going backwards and the fact that the knight just went to f8 with another natural goal (capturing back a rook) are mentioned as a possible cause. Which immediately reminded me of an old game of mine:

Singelenberg,J - Van de Oudeweetering,A
Utrecht, 1983

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 b5 6.Bb3 Bb7 7.c3 Nxe4 8.Re1 Nc5 9.Bd5 Be7 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Bxb7 Ned3 12.Bxa8 Nxe1 13.d4 Qxa8 14.dxc5??

PGN string

The knight on e1 is caught, but unfortunately: 14...Qxg2#

Almost every chapter is preceded by one page with several exercises. You have to deal with them first, before starting to read the actual chapter. There the fragments are dealt with and everything becomes clear. A nice concept I must say. Hendriks even claims that the safest way to learn something from his book is not by reading it, but by doing the exercises. That's exactly in accordance with his general recommendation: no rule beats a good move. At the end of the chapters you can find some notes with comments or references.

The documentation is thorough and an extensive bibliography is given as well at the end of book. There was one minor problem with the diagrams which slightly bothered me. The names of the players are to the right of the diagram one above the other. As a result the name of the white player is next to the black pieces, which can sometimes be confusing.


Hendriks generally has a witty style of writing. More than once he sort of puts the reader on an obvious wrong foot. Chapter 9 (p. 78) for instance starts off with: This book is mainly on chess, but I want to start this chapter with some advice on another important aspect of life: how to play the lotto. Hendriks then proceeds to give some (fake) advice making his point about meaningless advice by chess authors later on.

Sometimes the reader has to work a bit harder than normally in a regular chess book. Lots of other topics which aren't purely chess related are covered, in particular philosophy and psychology. Experts and literature are quoted. Having studied philosophy himself the author does not mind wandering in that direction a bit.

The history of philosophy is characterised by loss of ground. A philosopher like Aristotle wrote about nearly everything, politics, ethics, mathematics, physics, etc. (…), all that’s left are those fields that science has no use for.

Thus chapter 8 starts, which briefly discusses the (lack of) use of statistics in modern chess.

At the same time he introduces some light original concepts in the area of chess. Take his “random puzzling” from chapter 26 (just creating exercises by taking random fragments from a selected database) or this idea:

You let your chess program play instructive games at a set speed, without commentary, explanations or lines. Headphones with some nice background music are allowed. Capablanca’s finest endgames accompanied by Vivaldi. Tal’s selected attacking games on heavy metal. And Hendriks adds: The background music, of course, is a side issue, but the idea – watching without the necessity of ‘conscious ‘processing – can be fruitful.

All these ingredients make the book a pleasant and varied read.

As said, Hendriks main point seems to be that there are no strict rules by which you can learn or teach chess. There is no specific set of methods we can apply to get our brains working. A lot of chess authors are mentioned in the book as having made claims in this direction, and Hendriks criticises their recommendations severely. Often he has a point, and most of the time he takes a clear stand. As he stated in his foreword:

Although the author is no French philosopher, he does prefer claiming the opposite than putting forward small refinements.

Amongst others Hertan (Forcing Chess Moves) and Carsten Hansen (Improve your Positional Chess) are mentioned in the review, and Hendriks also isn't mild on Silman in chapter 9 (“Free Advice”):

The true master of free advice is Jeremy Silman. The Amateurs Mind is full of this kind of tips:

And then he quotes the book:

Though I repeat this in every chapter, I will take time to do so again: Don’t just react to the opponent’s plans. Find an active idea and follow it with as much energy as you can muster. On the other hand, don’t get carried away with your own ideas and forget that you have an opponent. Take his plans into account and make adjustments when necessary.

I must say Hendriks has a good point in this case. Still now and then I think it could have been fruitful if there had been more nuance in the judgements, rather than just claiming the opposite. But perhaps that would have turned the book into a more boring one, which certainly isn’t the case now.

Hendriks does not only criticize books, but also points out the valuable ones in his opinion. Right at the start he mentions Yermolinsky (The Road to Chess Improvement) and Watson (Secrets Of Modern Chess Strategy) as advocates of the concrete chess that Hendriks thinks is more important than a set of rules. Contrary to what Hendriks seems to assert though I think that most other writers (or trainers) are aware that every rule that’s made up will in a particular position depend on several other factors. But when explaining the guidelines (perhaps a better word?) you don’t start by giving all the exceptions. Neither will many writers think they have produced a blueprint for the exact train of thoughts during a chess game.

A pleasant asset of the book is that Hendriks uses many new examples to make his point. A lot of them are from his own (training) practice. Here is one typical example of how Hendriks lucidly fits these fragments in.

In Chess for Zebras, Rowson devotes some attention to a ‘Taoist’ attitude of not wanting to do so much. And indeed, this might be useful now and then, especially when there’s nothing left to do but wait. So now, from Kotov’s ‘planlessness punished’, we move to ‘planlessness encouraged’.

Had I been into Taoism at the time, I might have avoided the next embarrassing episode.

PGN string

I spent some time here, contemplating my active possibilities. King towards the a-pawn, king to g5 hoping for h5-h6, king to f8 with the idea of Ra7: all too slow or impossible. So I resigned.

Of course, this is a (very) elementary drawn position. If White does nothing and keeps shuffling his king between h2 and g2, he cannot lose. Amusingly, Langeweg wasn’t at all surprised by my resignation. His team mate Marcel Peek had to explain to us that this was a well-known drawn position. But it is typical: doing nothing is so unnatural that you can forget that it is an option at all.

You can argue whether this example is really elementary to everyone – most exercises in the book are easier I think – but it gives you a good picture how Hendriks goes about his subjects.

One more example of how Hendriks critically considers terminology. Chapter 14 (Watch out it is a critical moment) begins as follows:

In chess literature the term 'critical moment’ is used in two different ways. In a strong and in weak sense, you might say. Most often (mainly in game commentaries) this term’s used in a rather harmless way to point at the decisive mistake or some other turning point.

Hendriks goes on to explain that a critical moment is much more easily identified in retrospect than beforehand, and that in fact many moves during a game could be considered critical ones (his advice: be on high alert all the time!). I could not agree more. Remarkably enough Hendriks does not consider Dorfman’s book The critical moment, an entire book devoted to the phenomenon. In short, Dorfman devised an evaluation system based on static and dynamic features in order to determine the critical position and come to the correct decision. When the book had just appeared I asked Artur Jussupow his opinion. Jussupow – to say the least – was not convinced of the concept as a whole, and concluded that the book was a nice set of exercises. I suspect that Hendriks is of the same opinion

You may argue with some of Hendriks' statements. (He even seems to contradict himself now and then. For instance, his comments on the rook endgame above do not entirely concur with statements about endgame knowledge later in the book.) But the fact is that he clearly states that he did not want to release a thoroughly scientific work. And part of the entertainment is also the exaggeration – the provocative opposite stance he takes.

I found it a little hard to read the book in one go, so you might take the book as a series of consistent columns. In any case, as mentioned above, it constitutes a very entertaining and provocative read. I’m sure readers will improve their chess, not only by solving the exercises, but also by digesting all the various thoughts Hendriks offers on our train of thought and the diverse aspects of our game.

Update: Here's a presentation by Willy Hendriks of his book which he gave in December 2012 during the London Chess Classic:




noyb's picture

This article should have been reviewed/edited by someone with a better understanding of English. It's fairly good, but the occasional lapses in grammar and syntax are distracting.

Peter Doggers's picture

Thanks, and you were right. We have polished up the article here and there.

noyb's picture

Much better! Thanks for the excellent follow-up.

Arne Moll's picture

Sounds like a refreshing and funny book. I can think of at least a dozen authors and trainers who will disagee with most of what Hendriks seems to be arguing, which of course is an excellent recommendation!

Tom's picture

I don't understand why everyone thinks it is so revolutionary to realize that the rules are meant to be broken. In fact they often NEED to be broken! Chernev said just that in his very "rule heavy" book "Logical Chess: Move by Move".

But guidelines just help us get started.

Csaba's picture

The point is that analysing a position abstractly without thinking about concrete moves is largely a waste of time. Another concept that is given a rough treatment is following some pre-determined protocol when looking for moves (such as "always look at forcing moves" or a mandatory blunder check or some such).

Pedro's picture

I read this one on the train in a few days. Nice stuff! I think every experienced club player will confirm that you NEVER really think in terms of rules but always in terms of MOVES and I do believe that even the 'old' masters of the 19th and 20th century did anything else.

Pedro's picture

ERRATUM: ...did nothing else.

Anonymous's picture

This book is just a terrific read. Hendriks might have been slightly less repetitive here and there, but his unpretentious wit and the final "deconstruction" of Kotov et alia are more than worth the money. The book will make more sense to those who have read a lot about chess though. This is not your best third or fourth chess book, but I doubt there is a better fifteen-ish one on the market right now.

Zagreb 1959's picture

Move First, Think Later by Willy Hendriks is a great read and is now running for Chesscafe Book of the year from 9 January to 21.

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