Reviews | March 02, 2010 23:04

Review: Improve Your Chess at any Age

Improve Your Chess at any AgeMy first reaction when I learned about the book Improve Your Chess at any Age was one of sheer jealousy: some club player writing a book about chess improvement?! How unfair! There must be thousands of club players around the world who'd want the exact same thing - including me.

This is the last part of a 'triptych' on recent chess improvement books - you can find the other two reviews here. I've written before that in my view there are really too much 'improve your chess' books on the market; fortunately, some of them are very good and you may be surprised to hear that I like Andres Hortillosa's Improve Your Chess at any Age as well.

Actually, the book is every patzer's childhood dream: an entire book (170 pages, beautifully published by Everyman Chess) dedicated to your own games, where you get to write about your thoughts on chess in general and during the games; your favourite style and your ideas on chess development theory! Too good to be true, right? Well, as we say in Dutch, chess publishers may be good, but they're not crazy, and Hortillosa has a little more up his sleeve than just patzer analyses and ditto philosophies.

Yes, it's true: Andres D. Hortillosa is a 'mere' 2199 FIDE player who just wrote a book on how he improved over the years at a, shall we say, riper age than most of us start to play chess. And yes, most of the games and game fragments are from Hortillosa's own games. But why is that necessarily a bad thing? On the very first pages of the book, the author presents himself as a modest guy with good intentions, wisely anticipating some of his future critics but not bending over backwards to please them. He also says some pretty sensible, if not terribly spectacular, things about chess improvement targeting an audience of players with a rating below 2000. My first impression after reading the introduction was that perhaps this somewhat oddly-titled (and marketed) book deserved the benefit of the doubt.

This feeling was confirmed by some of the stuff in Chapter One, where Hortillosa paves the way for his theories on chess improvement and shows some of his past games. Again, note that his commentary, though not exactly grandmasterly, is certainly sensible, down-to-earth, and will definitely evoke a pang of recognition with most club players:

Denver 1994
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 h6 4.Bxf6 Qxf6 5.e4 Nc6 6.c3 g5
Diagram 1To my mind this move is a little committal, although a number of strong players have used this advance. Karpov played ...g6 in one of his games, although that was without ...Nc6.

Amateurs including myself tend to make inflexible moves. We tend to forget that pawns do not move backwards. And once they are fixed on a square, they are subject to attack and they tend to leave you with limited options.

This may not be a huge shocker to advanced chess players, but anyone who's ever trained weaker players knows what it feels like to constantly have to remind your pupils to 'keep your hands off these pawns already!' It's a very good point and one that shows Hortillosa may actually have something to offer club players that truly strong players often don't: to speak to them in their own languages and with examples from their own level of play. I myself have often been frustrated by how strong players often take stuff like this 'for granted'. Hortillosa, you can be sure, never does. Here's another example from the same game after Black has played 13...e5 (and before White played 14.d5):

Diagram 2

Amateurs, when confronted with situations like this one, tend to resolve tensions rather hastily. I guess amateur thinking dislikes complexity so there is a strong tendency to simplify at the first opportunity. So, it is either capture on e5 or advance to d5. I can opt to maintain the pawn on d4 with Ndb3, but it will invite Black to harass the knight on b3 with ...a6-a5-a4. (...) In general, however, one must learn to play comfortably with contact-tension on the board. Keep the tension as long as tolerable. See if you can force your opponent to waste a tempo in resolving the tension. For example, avoid capturing defenceless pawns right away. Often, a developing or centralizing move is the better choice.

Again, I was impressed by how well Hortillosa points to something weak players often struggle with. I could quote countless examples from my own games where I incorrectly resolved the tension in the game (as well as, fortunately, examples where I successfully put the pressure on by increasing pawn tension!). This is good, useful stuff.

In Chapter Two, Hortillosa elaborates on his ideas on chess improvement and thinking, the sum of which he calls, with a clear undertone of self-mocking (thank God!), 'The System'. His approach here is more theoretical, but fortunately, he never becomes too vague (or too pretentious) for comfort. Again, what Hortillosa writes won't sound too novel to people who've already read their Rowson, Watson and other chess philosophers, but one of the charms of Improve Your Chess at any Age is that there's a real sense of personal involvement of the author in much of what he claims:

After this reflection, I concluded that my chess was totally devoid of any semblance of a thinking process. (...) I am passionately drawn to fixing things including those that work to make them even better. It was not hard to see my chess requiring more than just cosmetic repair; it needed total replacement. Disgusted with the status quo, I formulated a chess thinking process inspired by the combined philosophies of Cleanroom Software Engineering and Six-Sigma, which are known for their strong emphasis on error prevention.

To be honest, I didn't always find Hortillosa's opinions on thinking processes too convincing. For instance, one of the things he claims is that chess tactics puzzles often miss their mark because they focus on the finding of the solution instead of creating a practical game-situation where a (tactical) resolution can be created ('Anyone can solve a puzzle, but can anyone play the moves leading to the puzzle?'). I think this is only partly true: sure, it's important to know the 'context' of a tactic, but solving puzzles does sharpen the mind and it definitely creates a reservoir of 'chess tactics knowledge' in the brain which may be extremely useful in later games, as many chess prodigies have clearly demonstrated.

In a chapter called 'Are Openings Really Important?', Hortillosa makes some valid points on studying opening theory ('stronger players are better in confusing us with sidelines than we are at confusing them') and he gives a couple of great (and often quite hilarious) examples of why having your opponent fall for an opening trap doesn't always guarantee victory. The main part, however, is explained in 'The System', the author's answer to the question 'how we prevent these errors from cropping up?' Hortillosa gives a checklist of eight points you should always be aware of during play. These include things like '2. Search for specific threats' and '5. Search for candidate moves' - good advice, to be sure, but surely Hortillosa doesn't expect players to answer these eight questions at every move?

Indeed he doesn't, and here again is the book's charm: the author shows modesty and self-knowledge by condeding that, of course, 'the system has some implicit assumptions. One such assumption is knowing when to invoke the system.' He follows up naming the exceptions, and especially the moments in a game when it does make sense to invoke 'the system'. (He also gets kudos for questioning 'the viability of the system' altogether, 'since evidence is severely lacking'.) The points he makes are useful all the same, and I liked the two examples that illustrate them - but disappointingly, the rest of the book hardly mentions the eight points again explicity and instead focuses on thorough and at times engaging analysis Hortillosa's tournament games from 2008 and 2009.

The result of this is perhaps the book's only real problem: it's overlong; I'd say it's at least 50 pages too long. Like all chess enthusiasts, Hortillosa just loves to talk about his own games and to describe the thoughts that went through his head during them - and he knows he's pretty good at it - but it's just too much. Sometimes the explanation of ten perfectly normal opening moves is spread out over two and a half pages, and we get comments like this:

Pawtucket 2008
Diagram 3 Position after 7...Nf6

I normally do not continue with ...Nf6, especially when ... e6 has been played. Looking at this game one week later, I could not remember what I was afraid of that led me to post the knight on f6 instead of following generally established wisdom, which dictates playing it to e7. I was probably mixing systems here, a known defect in amateur play. When ... e6 is played, Black normally should follow through with ... Nge7. These two moves are a natural pair.

You'd think this was already more than enough explanation for a very common opening manoeuvre in a game that will last 60 moves in total, but Hortillosa has only just started:

Most strong players including the late world champion Botvinnik would prefer ...Ne7 even with the pawn on e5. The advantage of posting it on e7 is that the natural break f7-f5 is ready to go whereas in the position where the knight is on f6, Black has to waste a tempo before he can play ...f5. (...) One data point on the board that rules out ...Nf6 in favour of ...Ne7 is White's h2-h3...

And this isn't even the end of it. I'm not saying Hortillosa doesn't make some valuable observations along the way, but such lenghty commentary does appear a bit self-serving to me. More importantly, the games in this section, while entertaining, don't very well explain how Hortillosa's 'system' got him the results he achieved. My impression is Hortillosa simply had a lot of time on his hand, studied a lot of chess, received professional training (from IMs and GMs) and made very deep analysis of his games. And lo and behold, he made considerable progress. No 'system' needed at all!

With that in mind, the rest of Hortillosa's book does ultimately become 'just' any amateur's dream: a great way to show a lot of, at best, fairly interesting tournament games. They're all very well analysed, they do contain a lot of useful prose, interesting digressions good advice, but in the end they're still games played by a 2100 player with an interesting message. It's an interesting experiment in the sense that this (modest) game level may actually be helpful to players of that level (if only because their mistakes are so recognizable). Personally, though, I prefer playing over games by the big guys, but there you go.

That said, Improve Your Chess at any Age may well offer a glimpse at the future of chess publishing 2.0: everyone has a chess engine these days, so why not publish a book with your own chess games? Andres Hortillosa, at least, has written a very sympathetic version of this new concept, and I think lots of club players will enjoy his writings and recognize (and improve upon) many well-known issues in it.
In the end, Hortillosa's book should not make us jealous, but inspire us to analyse our own games even better and to formulate our thoughts and mental blockades more transparantly. Hortilossa has given us a pretty good example of how it can be done - at any age.


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Rini Luyks's picture

I'm not going to buy this book, but I agree it can be a stimulation for players to analyze there own games. As a matter of fact, being an amateur player of the same level I feel some empathy with Mr. Hortillosa's idea to write this book. Until my 30 years I was a 2000 player, between 30 and 50 I went up to 2200, nothing to boast about, but dropping from 2200 to 2000 would seem more logical :) . (Now I'm dropping again and I'm sure it will be no yo yo effect...)
Lately I´m analyzing my old games with the computer to see what was going on.
Maybe I should also write a book (for myself)!?

luzin's picture

dammit, speak all you want about "don't judge a book by its cover", i just cannot help it: I would never touch this book due to its cover alone!

Fré Hoogendoorn's picture

I always enjoy your excellent reviews. Could I just give you one tip as regards the English language (pet peeve, sorry)? You make a common error, which I have seen a number of times, and which is easy to fix: it's the difference between countable and uncountable items. You say "I’ve written before that in my view there are really too much ‘improve your chess’ books on the market;..." Here, 'much' should be replaced by 'many', as you can count the number of books. A simple example is: "How much water is in the swimming pool", as opposed to "How many litres of water are in the swimming pool", as you can count litres of water, but not water by itself.

Keep up the many (see how simple it is?) good and entertaining reviews; I agreed with your review of Revolutionize your Chess, by the way.

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks for your elaborate response, Howard. I can only add that your standard of good chess books is probably even higher than mine! Even though you're strictly right, perhaps you're being too harsh on Hortillosa here. After reading a lot of chess improvement books lately, I was already quite relieved the book didn't contain obvious nonsense, and I definitely enjoyed its interesting perspective and positive message.

jussu's picture

Just one thing: this book's title and even design stink like a cheap self-help blockbuster; I would never open such thing, regardless of any positive reviews. Surely there must be comparably good books in the market that do not make the reader feel like he has fallen into some "become a grandmaster in two years" trap.

Arne Moll's picture

I see your point, jussu, but I guess the old 'Don't judge a book by its cover' is still true - and presumably widely known to potential readers.

Howard Goldowsky's picture

I thought that the notes were the strongest part of the book, and I actually liked the lengthy, 'overwritten' explanations. Some of these 'self-serving' comments are actually subtle points about positions, which we amateurs need to learn. This said, I didn't like the book overall. I thought that the book's organization was weak, and it would have stood better as a game collection rather than as a "system." The poor cover didn't help. The editing was literally non-existent. The punctuation was horrible, and the organization was not much better. Considering your last review, Arne, you surprised me with this one. Regarding the last two 'improvement' books you reviewed, I blame the editors at both NIC and Everyman for allowing two books with great potential to come out poor. The authors seem, to me, to be victims of a "quick buck" publishing strategy. If you're interested in the specific details about why I didn't like this book, please see my Amazon review.

Peter Grønborg's picture

@ JUssu: Page 13: "The book disavows any claim that it will make you reach master level chess. It's only modest goal is to equip you with the right tools guided by a sensible improvement plan to help you scale the 2000 Elo wall".
I plainly liked reading this book in a good old fashined way. I liked reading his thoughts on chess including whether the steed be placed on e7 or f6.
He distinguished between philosophical knowledge and playing skill; an enormously important point that goes hand in hand with his practical engaging in the struggle between two persons and armies.
I would recommend this book to any intermediate player; while doing this I acknowledge the truth of the review, that have you read your Rowson and Watson there isn't much new to be found here, however I am not against repeting things with new examples and different context.

jussu's picture


Yes, yes, I am not really claiming that the book is rubbish; judging by Arne's review it is not (and I must also add that both the author and the reviewer are stronger chessplayers than I am). I just decided to write down the first, rather overwhelming thought which came to me when I saw the cover. When I walk in a bookstore then there are numerous possibly good books that I never open, because the package is alarming. This would be one of those books.

noyb's picture

A tip of my cap to anyone brave enough to try and enrich the already voluminous library of chess knowledge. There are more books written on chess than on all other games combined; a sobering thought indeed.

Truly, "Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink or an elephant may bathe."

Paul's picture

I didn't read Rowson or Watson but was impressed by this book i'm a mediocra player rated betweed 2000 and 2100 for the last 3 age counts and i love the book, the examples and the text,,just might bring me back to 2100!

Rini Luyks's picture

Maybe the author wants to take advantage of a slight resemblance with Nakamura's face, that is.... about 40 years from now :)

Peter Grønborg's picture

I have completely given up on judging the book on the cover. Another cover that put me off before I bought the book, was Forcing Chess Moves by Hertan. A brilliant book on tactics but with bad pixel picture of a strong biceps muscled arm.
When in doubt I read the reviews before I spend the money. However I enjoyed Hortilosas lessons on tactics at (you can stille find them) and since the topic here being improvement which interest me enormously - I simply had to get a copy.
As said above, I enjoyed the book, al though it is not revolutionizing or even ground breaking. It is simply a plain good book making subtle points!

@Jussu, it's funny he talks about this in the preface too, page 9, how players ranked lower than himself were the most "hostile" to his project when the word came out of his work. Titled players however encouraged him.
IMO it goes to show that any GM is not per se a better chess auther (i.e. teacher) than an improving player.

Pozzi's picture

Thank you for this nice webpage about chess and about this good book review. I have nearly the same Elo as Andres D. Hortillosa and I am really thinking about buying this book, because I love middlegame and endgame books and I am also one of the mentioned club players who thought about writing a chess book (but this is like thinking about improving your chess - nothing really done).

Although you did not like it, I enjoyed very much his thoughts about Ngf6 or Nge7, because I remember a lot of my games, in which I have the same thoughts about similar positions, which are completely senseless, but they are reality.

I also read most of the other mentioned books on this page. Do you know any book or web page, where you can find a summary of middle game and opening rules of thumb?
For the endgame such a summary is in my point of view the Endgame book from Dvoretsky (in German the translation means Endgame University), but I do not know any similar book about the middle game and the opening. All the mentioned books only show some rules of thumb, but they are not a real summary in a structured format. In most of these books you have tons of analysis of a specific position, which you could never do yourself during a game. Moreover the conclusion of all these books is, that nothing is clear and it depends on the specific position. This is correct, but not helpful.

Arne Moll's picture

@Howard G: I hadn't noticed any punctuation problems, perhaps we have different prints? I also don't see what's wrong with the book's 'organization', which seems pretty clear to me. At least there's a bibliography, an index of openings and games and even a conclusion - something that sadly cannot be said of all chess books I've recently looked at.
I also don't really understand your thoughts about any 'quick buck' publishing strategy, because it seems to me that the publishers actually took a considerable risk with a book by an amateur full of amateur games, wouldn't you agree?

@Peter G: totally agree (about both the cover and contents!) of Forcing Chess Moves.

unknown's picture

Any link to download for free?

Daniel Kelner's picture

The problem with the book is that the writer does not make a convincing case that his methods work. Hortillosa's results are not improving. His rating has steadily gone down since his first FIDE rated tournament (from 2199 to 2068), and his USCF rating did the same, albeit in a slighter degree. So if even N=1 doesn't give us proof that his methods work, one can wonder what the value is of the advice he gives. The fact that he has had a personal trainer who was IM and still has a trainer who is GM, has not helped to improve his results after this the first tournament.

But lack of (at least sustainable) results is not the only problem. In chapter two the writer elaborates on his system of thinking. And I expected him to follow up on this system in the next chapters to tell us how he has used it in his own games. Even though he keeps telling us he did use it, he never makes clear how he did. This is really a crucial ommission.

It is a matter of taste whether or not one enjoys the book. But let it be clear that there is very little that one can learn from it.

Howard Goldowsky's picture

I'm not talking about the lack of a biblio and index. I'm talking about the lack of narrative flow and the unnecessary addition of 1994 games. The games from 1994 seem out of place. They don't add anything to the book. They did not use the thinking technique.

Here's more indication of lack of organization: Daniel Kelner points out that "The System" is not elaborated during the games. It actually is, somewhat, but not a lot. The notes seem written for more advanced players than for whom the thinking technique is written. There is some other interesting stuff thrown into the notes, like discussion of bias. But where's the context for this topic? In Chapter 2, Hortillosa starts getting excited about "tactics theory" and how it relates to his system, but this relationship is never shown in the rest of the book. All of these disjointed parts contribute to the lack of organization. All this could have been cleared up with a decent editor.

I think that EC took very little risk with this book. It was cheap, because the author was non-titled and probably did not demand a large advance, and there was zero editing. If the book got bad reviews, the publisher could just blame the author. But I think the blame goes to the publisher, because I think that this MS had promise, and was not handled correctly by the publisher. Instead of taking their time organizing the book properly, adding or omitting content as necessary, and copy editing for clarity, EC seems to have published the MS "as is." EC has a good enough reputation that they can put out duds and still be okay with the next book. These duds don't make a lot of money, but they're not expensive to whip out, either, if no effort goes into the production. It's really not fair to the author.

Every 2100-level player has something to write about and offer to the below-1600 crowd, otherwise they would not be 2100. I really like the idea of sub-master writers, but they must make up for their low rating with excellent prose and content. This book showed promise in content, but the prose was wanting. I admire EC for giving 2100-level players a chance. But EC is stopping short of the finish line.

Arne, I don't know if English is your first language, but you sure write in English well enough for it to be your first language, and I'm surprised that you did not notice how many commas were absent from Hortillosa's prose. Problems are everywhere in the book. Copied here is the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Intro (taken from the EC Web site): "Some unwilling to give ground to the possibility that what I am proposing deserves their impartial investigation reluctantly characterized my offered proof as luck." First off, this sentence is confusing and overwritten! Better would have been, "Some skeptics considered me lucky." I will not even begin to explain where commas might have made Hortillosa's prose better. Every page had opaque writing like this. The ideas are not bad, but the book needed an editor -- badly. Anyone reading just the publicly available excerpts would probably agree.


Howard Goldowsky's picture

Yea, Arne, I think that I focus more on the "literary" quality of chess books than most people. I think that we both review based on content and literary criteria, but you may care more about one and I the other. Chess book publishers should be held to the same high standards as "regular" publishers. My philosophy is if they can't put out quality material, then slow down the pace and publish fewer books. A chess book is a piece of literature, as well as a learning tool. When I see a new non-fiction book by a great writer like, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Atul Gawande, I am confident -- almost certain -- that I can recommend this book to beginning students of writing, because these books will exemplify how writing is done -- excellent style, punctuation, content, organization, etc. There is not a single chess textbook in print that I would recommend to a student of writing.

Arne Moll's picture

Perhaps we should make an exception for My Sixty Memorable Games?

Frank van T's picture

Well I guess the author is not smiling because of his high quaulity games.
But what the hack: if someone smiles like that I'm buying.

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