This relates to chess books: how they can help us improve and how their use can sometimes mislead us into thinking we must have greatly improved when we’ve not, in preparing to win a game of chess.
Chess Videos of the Backyard Professor
To begin, I have been delighted with much that I have seen in a few of the Youtube chess videos of the “Backyard Professor.” (I have seen only a few of them.) Kerry Shirts lives in Idaho, where he plays in a chess club and makes his own videos . . . many videos. He has learned much from a series of chess books that were written by a master.
Yet it now appears that most of those videos were created when his actual skill level, in over-the-board competition, was much less than what many viewers may have concluded from his fascinating lectures. As of mid-November of 2015, his official rating with the United States Chess Federation was 747, which is a long way from his goal of becoming a master, even though his rating is “provisional,” meaning it’s not necessarily very accurate.
Before going further, please be aware that I believe that the videos of Mr. Shirts may be truly helpful to early beginners in a number of ways. With that said, his limitations in tactics and basic material principles need addressing. If he would like free chess lessons from me, I would be happy to be of any help that I can. I am not a master, but my ratings from tournament play have put me closer to the master level than to Mr. Shirts’ level. In my young-adult years, my rating reached over 1800, although it slipped after a couple of decades of idleness from official competitions: In my middle-aged years, it was 1606.
Rating System of the United States Chess Federation
Consider the top six rating categories in the USCF and the number of players:
- Senior Master: 2400+ — # of persons: 300
- Master: 2200-2399 — # of persons: 922
- Expert: 2000-2199 — # of persons: 2299
- Class-A: 1800-1999 — # of persons: 4589
- Class-B: 1600-1799 — # of persons: 6463
- Class-C: 1400-1599 – – # of persons: 6968
Masters (and Senior Masters) are in the top 1% of all rated players in the U.S., with the average rating being 1068, which is for all ages, including children. The international organization of chess, FIDE, has its own rating system, which is similar to the USCF one in rating points but differs in the names of the categories.
Below Class-C, the number of players dips and climbs, as the rating levels go down towards the lowest level: Class-J. The numbers shown above are for all chess players that presently have an official rating with the United States Chess Federation, so countless other players, living in other countries around the world, are not included.
Over-the-Board Chess Abilities of the Backyard Professor
It appears that Mr. Shirts has done well in winning games in his chess club, at least with the informal games. But it seems that after playing nine official USCF-rated games, his provisional rating (which can have limited accuracy) was only 747. That does not mean that most of the principles he has taught in his lectures are flawed, not at all. It just means his over-the-board abilities in formal competition are very limited, or at least they were a few years ago. That does relate to what we can learn from chess books.
Can we Become Strong Chess Players by Reading Books?
Who would expect to win a game of tennis just by reading a book about it or by watching a tennis game? Yet how many chess beginners assume books can make a big difference in their game performance! Hundreds of thousands of books have been written about chess, according to one grandmaster-author, so that can bolster our confidence in the book. But how critically important is practice!
Tennis is a physical sport, unlike chess competition, which is intellectual; practicing a sport is physical, unlike reading a book, which is intellectual. So why should we not have great confidence that reading a chess book will greatly increase our abilities in playing a game of chess? It’s in the way we use the books.
For beginners especially, the best use of them is in alternating between playing chess games and concentrating on what we learn from the books, including doing the exercises and really working on those puzzles. As we record our own games (using chess notation) and go over them later, we can find our mistakes and use books to learn what we need to learn to correct those mistakes.
Chess books can be great allies in our quest for winning games, yet we need to remember that personal experience over-the-board is the best way to improve. Think of those books as being stacked in a pile, so we can step up onto that pile from where we can jump higher, passing over the bar to reach the goal. Just remember, when we get to the top of that pile of books, we still need to jump as high as we can.
Maybe Mr. Shirts [AKA the Backyard Professor] has improved over the past two or three years, but I need to point out that there were tactical points that he was unaware of when he produced his first videos.
Like the other two books reviewed here, [Beat That Kid in Chess] is not especially for any particular age group or for learning to win games against any particular age of opponent.