Why Chess Books Don't Work
When we want to improve at chess, the first thing many of us do is buy a new book. Hey, I do it too. I have a book on the way from Amazon right now. But in studying the habits of quickly improving chess players, I’ve noticed a trend: they often spend little time on books. While books can be helpful if used in moderation, I’ve come to believe that they can also be a trap.
Why Books Don’t Work
I stole the title for this post from a provocative essay by learning researcher Andy Matuschak: “Why books don’t work.” Boiled down, Andy’s argument goes something like this:
- Books lack an explicit theory of learning.
- To the extent that books have an implied theory of learning, it’s that people absorb knowledge simply by reading it transcribed on a page.
- As a learning strategy, this doesn’t work.
I find this argument convincing and think it goes a long way towards explaining why chess players can read piles of books without seeing their rating go up.
Books for Basketball
There is an old debate about whether chess is more like an art, a science, or a sport. To be honest I find this kind of semantic debate pretty boring, but when it comes to competitive chess – trying to win more tournaments and rating points – there’s a clear answer. You should think about chess like a sport.
Imagine I tell you that I’m trying to get better at basketball by reading a book about how to play. Well, okay. The culture of basketball doesn’t generally focus on transmitting information through books, but it seems plausible that someone could put down some helpful tips in a book format.
But now imagine that I tell you I’m actually reading not one, but many books on basketball. And when you ask if I’m supplementing all this reading with lots of practice, I say no, I’m waiting until I finish my stack of books before setting foot on the court. By this point you already know that my strategy for getting better at basketball is totally insane and has virtually no chance of working.
Almost no one would even attempt such a silly strategy for basketball, but some people do for chess. When it comes to chess, somehow the problems with this strategy are less obvious, but no less damning. One book can be helpful. Many books – especially if they’re getting in the way of time spent playing or practicing – are counterproductive.
Books vs. YouTube
There’s a common perception that books are a serious medium, whereas video – especially YouTube – is an unserious medium. But I think there’s a very real chance that, on the whole, watching YouTube videos is a better way to improve at chess than reading books.
I know a lot of people are going to have a strong negative reaction to this suggestion, so let me give an example that you probably don’t have strong feelings about: bread baking. A lot of baking comes down to tactile knowledge: knowing the right way to manipulate the dough, knowing how it’s supposed to feel at each stage of the process, etc.
Books are terrible for conveying this kind of information. No matter how good of a writer you are, it’s almost impossible to get across in words the exact degree of tackiness a sourdough is supposed to have. Videos are much better, because you can see how the baker is manipulating the dough and get a pretty good sense of its texture. Better still, of course, would be to learn in person from a master baker, but that’s much more difficult to arrange.
So it’s at least possible that for some disciplines, video would make for a better learning medium than books. As for chess, each medium has some clear advantages:
- More compressed. You can read the same words faster than you can listen to them.
- Easier to go back and reread or review points you’re unsure on.
- Requires more active engagement (debatably – more on this below)
- Dynamic: the pieces move, as in a chess game.
- You can see the presenter’s thoughts evolve in real time.
Both mediums have their pros and cons. It’s at least not obvious that the pros of books win out.
As far as active engagement, I do believe books require a higher baseline of engagement simply to keep reading the words. However, to actually get better at chess, this level of engagement is not nearly enough. For that, you’ll need to do things like asking questions, recalling the material without prompts, or devising your own practice exercises. In other words, whether you’re starting with books or videos, you’ll need to force yourself to engage at a much higher level than the baseline to achieve real improvement.
There is also the objection that most YouTube chess channels don’t have content that is really helpful for getting better. This may be true, but then again, there are also a lot of bad chess books out there. And there’s a very simple fix: only watch the good stuff. There are many YouTube channels that have very high quality content. To name just three of my favorites, John Bartholomew, Danny King, and Andras Toth.
What About Chessable?
In contrast to books, Chessable has an explicit theory of learning: namely, spaced repetition. This is based on the observation that every time you review a piece of information, your memory of it becomes stronger. This is used to construct a review schedule where you conduct reviews at increasing intervals, building durable knowledge over time.
Spaced repetition has its weaknesses. It’s better for declarative knowledge, like a specific opening line, than for procedural knowledge, like developing a good thought process for calculation. But at least it has a theory of learning that provides a plausible pathway for how you will retain the information. Moreover, Chessable manages the review schedule so you don’t have to worry about it. With books, you are largely left to create and manage a review process on your own.
Workbook-style books mitigate this problem somewhat, in that the practice is contained in the book. But they still leave a lot up to the reader when it comes to details like how to engage with the material, schedule the training, and how often to review.
If I had to guess, I’d say the optimal number of chess books to be working on at any given time is one (not zero). There are a lot of great chess books with valuable information in them. But you should keep in mind that reading books comes with an opportunity cost: time spent reading is time not spent playing or doing exercises. If books eat into the time you’d use for those core chess activities, they can easily become a net negative. And keep in mind that the time it takes to internalize an idea to the point where you can use it effectively in a game is much greater than the time it takes to read it once.
In this sense, books are similar to engines and speed chess: a valuable tool in your improvement arsenal when used properly, but also a potential trap that can torpedo your process if abused. The most important thing to remember is that if you really want to improve, just reading a book is not enough. As Andy Matuschak says:
“You’ve probably discovered that certain strategies help you absorb new ideas: solving interesting problems, writing chapter summaries, doing creative projects, etc. Whatever strategies you prefer, they’re not magic. There’s a reason they work (when they do): they’re leveraging some underlying truth about your cognition—about the way you think and learn. In many cases, the truth is not just about your cognition but about human cognition in general.”
What would these strategies look like for chess? You could take a page out of Neal Bruce’s book and cut out diagrams from your books to be repeated as exercises. Or go the digital flashcard route like Dan Bock. But processes don’t have to be heavily formalized to work. One of the best ways to cement something you’ve just learned is to teach it to someone else. Just know that when it comes to improving your chess, a book is a starting point, not the end product.
If you liked this check out my newsletter where I write weekly posts about chess, learning, and data: https://zwischenzug.substack.com/
If you're interested in 1:1 coaching, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.