Move First Think Later

Sense and Nonsense in Improving Your Chess

Willy Hendriks

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
New In Chess
254 pages

Some years ago, I reviewed a book with the title Rapid Chess Improvement (by de la Maza). Amateurs rushed to buy it since it promised… well, rapid chess improvement. His “discovery” was (in a nutshell) that a mastery of tactics will make you a much better player. And, on top of that, he showed you how to master those tactics – by spending several hours a day, seven days a week for six months studying tactics (I’m not making this up). Doesn’t sound very rapid to me. But yes, he was right – if you study tactics for several hours a day, seven days a week for six months you will indeed find that your tactical ability has vastly improved.

The sad thing about Rapid Chess Improvement (other than horrible writing and very little content) is that his “big secret” isn’t a secret at all – every chess teacher (from the beginning of time) tells you to study tactics. What made the book so attractive to low rated players is the sweet promise of improvement with minimal work (well, it turned out that he demanded you do a lot of work, but readers of the book more or less ignored that fact). In effect, it’s like TV commercials that promise you huge weight losses if you take one magic pill a day. The public tends to crave success without effort, and such things are an easy sell.

Now we have Move First, Think Later. The author will tell you the secret (yes, another “secret”) of how to just toss out a move and bash-bam-boom, it’s the right move! How cool is that?

The selling of the “chess is easy” mentality works quite well, but we all know it can’t be true (can it?), and it isn’t. What sets Willy Hendriks apart from de la Maza and his Rapid Chess Improvement is that Hendriks is a strong player (de la Maza barely made a 2000 rating and then retired from chess shortly thereafter), Hendriks is a good writer, Hendriks is a funny guy with lots of personality, and Hendriks has some serious teaching credentials. However, in his desire to shock the public and make a profit from the masses of “chess is easy” hopefuls, he obfuscates truth when it serves his purpose.

Don’t get me wrong. What Mr. Hendriks says is both very true and not true at all. How can that be, you may ask? Well, what’s true for an IM or GM is often not true for a 1400 player. For me to explain this, we’ll have to go right to the core of his “move first, think later” philosophy: PATTERNS.

When people ask me how good players got good, I say, “They acquire tens of thousands of chess patterns.” The fact is, the more patterns you absorb the stronger you will be. That includes positional patterns, tactical patterns, structural patterns, piece placement patterns, timing patterns, and on and on it goes. And the way to get patterns? Play over countless grandmaster games quickly… just rack up the numbers as you see pawn structures float by, combinations hit the board, weaknesses exploited, etc. Over time, your subconscious will absorb all the patterns zipping past and suddenly you’ll find that it all just computes. Keep in mind that the more games the better, and if you have aspirations to become an IM or GM, you need to look at 100,000 (preferably lots more than that) games.

So when Mr. Hendriks tells you that, armed with enough patterns, you can just reach out and play a move that at the very least makes some sense, he is completely correct. And that’s why so many good players have applauded the book, since he’s telling you a truth (note that it’s not THE truth, but just one truth based on playing strength… more on this in a bit). Hendriks lets his fingers use patterns to make his moves, other titled players do the same (including me), so (in the mind of Mr. Hendriks) why not everyone? And if this is indeed true (which it is), then aren’t all those tedious teaching methods that discuss strategies and plans nothing but garbage?

Here’s the problem: what’s true for titled players isn’t true for the chess masses! When I tell people to look at tens of thousands of games, they go crazy and tell me I’m wrong, that I’m an idiot, that nobody has the time or inclination to do that, and that there must be better ways to improve. Sadly, without patterns, you won’t get far, and without looking at tons of games, you won’t absorb enough patterns.

So what to do? I faced this problem long before I wrote How to Reassess Your Chess. How to make my students (who refuse to look at tens of thousands of master games) stronger, and also give them enough chess understanding to look at master games and actually recognize many of the things the masters are doing? In other words, how could I not only make them better players, but also give them the ability to enjoy the game more on other non-playing levels as well?

And this is where Mr. Hendriks and his fawning cadre of IMs and GMs drop the ball. They just don’t seem to understand that most people aren’t able to turn their fingers into magical move-making machines.

I must add that Mr. Hendriks picks me out as the high priest of idiotic teaching, and that my ideas have somehow influenced a whole group of other teachers (who should know better) to teach in the same false manner. Yet he (and every grandmaster that has ever annotated a game or explained a move in some analysis) uses the same terminology I do in explaining the moves he plays.

Mr. Hendriks goes out of his way to disprove my ideas by pointing out exceptions to my rules, though I have always made it abundantly clear that the beauty of chess is that all rules are limited and should just be basic guidelines, and that exceptions are everywhere.

If all rules (like “the best reaction to an attack on the wing is a counterattack in the center”) are limited, then why bother with them in the first place? The answer is simple: these rules give the beginner a base to build on.

As for my idea of imbalances (which Mr. Hendriks evidently seems to think I created without any thought or reason), it was created as a shortcut to pattern recognition. Since most students were not willing to do it the old fashioned way, I decided that imbalances would give them a full diet of patterns. For example, when I harp on Knights needing advanced support points, that idea/pattern sticks in a student’s head forever, ultimately allowing his hand to reach out and herd his horse to the promised land. The same goes for space, minor piece battles, etc. Thus imbalances are, in effect, a digestible way to have chess hopefuls drink the “medicine” (patterns) they usually shy away from.

Ultimately both Hendriks and myself are singing the same song, but while he preaches to the choir (i.e., people that know this and have already acquired many patterns), I preach to those that don’t have the knowledge he somehow feels everyone on Earth has. In effect, Mr. Hendriks isn’t teaching players in the beginner to 2000 range anything at all. Like de la Maza before him, all Mr. Hendriks is doing is glorifying an age-old (and well known) truth while pretending that he’s come up with something new and wonderful.

Having said all this, I have to give Move First, Think Later a heartfelt recommendation. His love affair with De Groot is very sweet: he reminds me of a youngster who hears something interesting, gets really excited by it, decides that it’s the ultimate in wisdom, and quickly becomes its most ardent spokesman. And it IS interesting. However, that kind of chess psychology is also completely useless in the practical sense. But does a book have to be practical to be fun? Not at all! Mr. Hendriks keeps the reader’s attention at all times, often makes us laugh, entertains us with some really fine positions, and constantly makes us think. And perhaps where I’ve failed to convince the masses that patterns really are the soul of chess, Willy Hendriks will succeed.