Review of the On the Origin of Good Moves by Willy Hendriks

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On The Origin of Good Moves by Willy Hendriks, New in Chess 2020 432 pp

Eight years ago IM Willy Hendriks released his semi-controversial book Move First, Think Later which won the ECF 2012 Book of the Year Award.  Now the long awaited follow up has arrived!

In his new work, On The Origin of Good Moves the author is once again challenging some long-held conventional wisdom.

The premise of the book is that the evolution of an individual chess player follows the evolution of the game itself. To this end we are taken on a journey through chess history, starting with Greco and ending more or less with Steinitz.

Of course there are snippets of more modern games sprinkled in here and there, including many of the author’s own, but the focus of the book is to get us from the start of recorded chess history (Greco) to the start of modern chess history (Steinitz.)

The book records the evolution of the game, from it’s earliest recorded roots, to the rise of coffeehouse chess, then on to serious matches, and finally to the origin of true chess professionals.

Each chapter is precluded by a set of exercises consisting of positions found within the chapter. With so much research showing active learning being far superior to passive learning I always find this to be a useful feature and enjoy how prevalent it is becoming in modern chess literature.

In terms of usefulness for immediate chess improvement, I think that the exercises are most of what this book offers, but I don’t see that as a negative mark. Mainly this is due to the fact that there is an acknowledged mission to familiarize the reader with chess history with the end goal of them becoming stronger through the use of these building blocks.

To put it another way, this book doesn’t set out to make you a better player by exposing you to a carefully cultivated set of exercises designed to hone a particular skill, but rather the goal seems to be to expose the reader to particular ways of thinking that evolved over the course of chess history. Essentially it’s a different approach to the proverb about teaching someone to fish versus giving them a fish.

Along this journey there are some quite interesting challenges to widely held viewpoints. For example, in Chapter 5: The Start of Serious Competition the matches between La Bourdonnais and McDonnell are discussed. The author starts out by acknowledging that there are some spectacular fragments from some of the games which are quite well known, but then quotes Harry Golombek talking about how he had analyzed all of the games with the intent of writing about them, only to be “appalled by the low quality of the play in general.”

This position is the well-known final position from the 16th game of the fourth match is the conclusion of a spectacular sacrificial idea by Black:

This position, however, is not covered in the book. Instead, Hendrik’s chooses positions such as this one:

If asked to describe White’s position here, modern players of even extremely weak strength would likely say that it looks like White has suffered a disaster in the opening and is in extreme trouble due to the lack of king safety.

Yet the standards of play were such back in that day that McDonnell repeated this opening in his next White game!

Another maxim which Hendriks challenges is the notion that Steinitz is the person who worked out the concepts of positional chess. In Chapter 19 he discusses Cecil Purdy’s theory called “The Great Steinitz Hoax.” The concept is that the theories of positional play which are generally attributed to Steinitz were in fact worked out by Lasker. That chapter, while short, is interestingly compelling.

Probably my favorite chapter of this book is Chapter 32: Study Openings. In this chapter the author states that he knows of no better way to improve at chess than to study openings. He points out that what are thought of as classic books, from Greco to Philidor to Staunton to Steinitz are essentially opening works.

Here Hendriks simply challenges the classic wisdom that openings should be studied rarely, if at all, by improving players. In fact, he calls the study of openings “one of the main motors of improvement” and backs his claim up with compelling examples.

All in all I recommend this book. Not as a textbook, but as a historical tome. The subject matter is fascinating, and IM Hendrik’s continued insistence on turning standard logic on it’s ear makes for compelling reading.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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