It's a small world (but I wouldn't want to paint it)
A Conversation With Michael de la Maza
"For any player who has yet to reach the expert level, tactics should remain the principal area of study. You will probably notice in your own games that tactical situations provide the majority of decisive moments." -
Chesswire, Newsletter for KasparovChess.com
" Dwell not too long upon sports; for as they refresh a man that is weary, so they weary a man that is refreshed." –Thomas Fuller
Over the last two years, Michael de la Maza has drunk deep from the rewards of chess, but it is now time to put the cup down. Within the last 730 days, he has raised his chess rating 720 points, pocketed $10,000 for winning outright the Under 2000 section of the World Open, and has authored an inspirational piece titled "400 Points In 400 Days".
Most class players don’t even accomplish one of these feats in their entire chess playing career, where de la Maza has done all of them in only two years. At thirty-one years old, with a current rating of 2041 that shows no signs of going down, one would think this man would continue on with his original aspiration of making master. Instead, he has seriously thought about retiring from competitive chess forever.
I sat down with Michael de la Maza in late October amongst the tourists and street music at the Au Bon Pain café in Harvard square to talk about this decision, and how it came about.
Unfortunately, he will likely disappear from the competitive chess world as abruptly as he arrived. If he does decide to retire, what will remain is his inspiration on what and how to study; a recipe for the class player on how to create the same chess potion that has provided him with his own magic. Whether we drink or not, is up to us.
It is of note that during his two year run de la Maza had no job. He was fired from his previous one, and decided to take some time off. Currently he works as a technical manager for a small startup, and lives in Harvard square.
"400 Points In 400 Days", The Article
Most of Michael’s philosophy and approach to chess can be found in his 400 Points articles. If you read them, you’ll see that he recommends focusing study on nothing but tactics. I asked him how he came to this conclusion.
"I wrote the articles because I saw things that basically broke my heart. I saw a 1000 level player reading Kotov’s middle game book. That’s like someone who’s just learned how to add reading a calculus book.
"That’s one of the fundamental fallacies of chess, that there’s just no structure to the learning process. If you go anywhere else, if you want to learn about mathematics, you first learn how to count, then you learn how to add, then you learn how to multiply, then you learn how to do long division.
"In chess, you learn how to play, and then someone says, ‘Well, after you learn how to play, you can read Silman, or you can read Kotov, or you could read a tactics book, or you could read NCO…’ One hundred thousand books, any one is good, you’re expected to learn them all, and how can that possibly be?
"In every other subject, there is a very clean progression. You go to first grade, then you go to second grade, then you go to third grade, etc. How could learning Kotov at 1000 be good for you at 1500, and good for you at 2000, and good for you at 2500? There’s nothing else like that. In chess, there’s no order, and that’s why I wrote the article. [The order is], it’s basically all tactics until you’re a 2000 plus player."
None of the literature de la Maza read helped. He looked through many articles and books, but still didn’t improve. I asked him about what his first steps in chess were like, and he was quite animated about this initial stage of his career. What I heard was contradictory to common perceptions.
"The first book I actually read from front to back cover was Silman [How to Reassess Your Chess], and I actually got worse. I would spend half an hour thinking about where to put my knight, and then I would drop a piece…[Silman] has ten or fifteen move variations…if you’re a class player, you’re going to drop a piece while you make those ten to fifteen moves... I don’t mean to dis Silman. I think that he’s a great chess author. But first, class players should stop dropping pieces, and then they should read Silman."
In his article, he challenges any class player to take any winning position in Silman, and set it up against their computer. If you take the winning side, and set your computer to a relatively high level, say 400 points higher than your rating, before you can tell what’s happening, de la Maza guarantees that 99% of the time you’ll be lost within fifteen moves.
According to him, if you’re going to attach your hard earned entry fees to the false bottom of an unrealizable strategic advantage, they’ll both vanish, right into the hands of the guy sitting across from you studying tactics.
"What are the logical reasons why you need to do tactics before anything else? One of them is, a material change when you lose a tactical combination is far greater than the evaluation change when you lose a ‘positional combination’," de la Maza says.
He refers to this reading of the wrong material and meaningless study of strategy as "class player hell". As much as we would all like to stay out of there, there is no doubt that the habitual study of strategy (and openings) keeps pulling us back in.
We actually started to talk about openings, and de la Maza explained how he used to play the Caro Kann and the Colle system, two positional openings, and how as soon as he realized the importance of tactics he switched to e4 and the Scandinavian.
Where Bobby Fischer loved the feeling of crushing his opponent’s ego, de la Maza doesn’t believe that the ego should be involved at the class level. "It’s just not about the ego. At the class level you’re losing games because you’re missing three move combinations, it’s not some guy strategically out thinking you, or crushing your brain down, or anything like that.
If you’re losing to a three move combination, you’re losing to a three move combination. I don’t feel sorry for you. If you beat me, you beat me because you see a three move combination that I don’t see."
When de la Maza is not at the board, he’s laid back and all smiles. At one point in our conversation, I brought up the first of two times we played. This was a time in his life when he was going through a self described "weird phase".
I recalled that the first time we played was a Tuesday evening at the Metrowest Chess Club, and that he had come to play dressed in a hooded black cloak. It was mysterious. The hood stayed up during our game, and to add to the mystique, his left arm never moved from under its cover.
It seemed as though I was playing the Headless Horseman, using his hidden arm to hold on to his horse under the table. As I recalled this, de la Maza leaned back in his chair, and laughed out loud like a little boy. It took him a few moments to settle down. When he did, he explained.
"Basically, I busted my arm at one point. At chess tournaments people are constantly bumping into you, walking behind you or what not, so I decided to put on a protective vest…but it was a bit extreme, I must say."
The explanation ended with a grin. Without pause, and with a direction of purpose refined by two serious years over the chessboard, we moved on.
During his run, de la Maza estimates that he has played about two hundred and fifty games. At one point, he played fifty games in a row without a loss against players rated below him. I asked de la Maza if he had a memorable win from his career, and the answer he gave me uncovered something else about his character: His most memorable game was a loss.
de la Maza -- Barry 1. e4 c5 2. c3 e5 3. Bb5 a6 4. Qa4 Nf6 5. Nf3 Qc7 6. Bc4 Be7 7. Ng5 O-O 8. O-O h6 9. Nxf7 Rxf7 10. Bxf7+ Kxf7 11. d3 d6 12. Be3 Be6 13. Na3 Nbd7 14. c4 Kg8 15. Rac1 Rf8 16. Nc2 Ng4 17. Bd2 Nb8 18. Qa3 Qd7 19. Qc3 Nc6 20. b3 Nd4 21. Nxd4 cxd4 22. Qa5 Bd8 23. Qb4 Qe7 24. Rcd1 Qh4 25. h3 Nxf2 26. Qxd6 Bxh3 27. Be1 Qg4 28. Qd5+ Kh8 29. Rxf2 Rxf2 30. Qxd8+ Kh7 0-1
Without a hint of sarcasm, he described his demise as beautiful. "Barry used every single piece on the board except his king."
Most people improve their game over a chess career, and many even improve hundreds of rating points. It’s only a few who jump multiple rating classes to beat the averages. Jobs, family, social obligations, friends, and other interests, all provide the gravity to keep us down, ultimately keeping us playing for fun instead of for blood. Because Michael de la Maza didn’t have a job, playing chess for him was never just for fun. It wasn’t just that he wanted to improve, he needed to improve. If he wasn’t going to improve, he wasn’t going to play at all. This is the core of why he wants to retire. He feels that the potential for improvement isn’t there anymore.
Now with a job, he doesn’t get the chance to study as much as he used to. Playing is also more difficult. "I can’t understand how people play at the Metrowest [club] if they have a job. They get out from work at 5:30, drive for an hour, the game starts at 7:30, and they eat dinner in-between. I could never do that. I’m very impressed with people who can do that. The other thing is the next day. I don’t understand how people can wake up for work the next day."
Since he was never burdened with life getting in the way with an 8am Wednesday morning meeting, or with a family needing attention, he was able to focus one-hundred percent on chess improvement. "[Now with a job] it would basically be impossible" he said. For de la Maza, if improvement is impossible, there is no point in playing.
Improvement opportunities aren’t there like they used to be. "At the Metrowest, with the exception of Foygel and Curdo, I think that I’d be one of the highest rated players there. So in a four round tournament, it’s like kill, kill, kill, get killed [by Foygel or Curdo]. Then nothing happens.
When you’re killing people you’re not learning a whole lot, and in fact, you might even develop bad habits…you know, attack too early before developing or something like that. And then you might get killed by Curdo, and you don’t learn anything there [either], because you’re outplayed in every single facet of the game."
At one point in the interview, I asked Michael de la Maza if he would ever make a comeback like his namesake Michael Jordan, and try to make master.
"Maybe. If I have some ideas and if I have some time, maybe…it’s very different, it’s very different the higher you go." Later in the interview, de la Maza added, "That’s one of the reasons I’ve quit: I don’t know how to improve. Generally, it just gets harder as you get higher up."
But to the casual observer, he shows no sign of slowing down, and he could actually well be at master strength already. He confirmed this.
"At the World Open, there were at least three or four wins that were under thirty moves. Surprisingly or not, they were all blowouts." Even after saying this, and after acknowledging that you pretty much need to be as strong as 200 points above a class section to win it, de la Maza still didn’t seem enthusiastic to play his hand at master.
There seemed to be more to it than time and lack of ideas. When speaking of the World Open, he admitted to being under huge psychological pressure.
"Especially the last four games. I would have been happy if the other guy across the table had just croaked right there on the spot. I didn’t care about the other guy at all. So I was in a very nasty mood." It’s this pressure, not just in big money games, but in the constant need, the constant addiction to gain rating points, that he doesn’t like.
If he did decide to make a comeback, he hinted to me some ways he might consider improving to master. Very sporadic study of openings could help obtain middle game positions that are tactical in nature. Endgame study could also be helpful.
When asked if he would consider using tactics to steer the game to a point where you know you’ll have a good endgame, he responded:
"That’s an idea, but I certainly don’t believe in this below 2000. Below 2000, if you get to an endgame, that’s because you missed a tactical opportunity before then. Rook and pawn endgames are actually highly tactical. You penetrate into your opponent’s position with your rook, he penetrates your position with his rook, and the question is who’s going to gobble up the pawns first, and which pawns are going to be passed pawns? That’s not a positional question. It’s purely a tactical question."
"People shouldn’t be scared about improving. [There’s a myth that] the normal player sits and thinks where the knight should be, and after half an hour figures it out, while the grandmaster just throws up the knight in the air and it magically lands on the right square.
"I don’t believe that. Chess is like any other thing, like becoming a chemist, becoming an archeologist, or becoming a zoologist, you have to work hard, and you have to study. There isn’t some magic piece of your brain that’s devoted to chess that some people have and some people don’t. Anyone who can ride a bicycle and who can speak a language, can become a very good player."
And that takes care of just about everybody.
© 2001 Howard Goldowsky. All rights reserved.
74 days down, 81 to go
1039 probs down, 170 to go in Circle One