The Michael de la Maza Story

  • NM danheisman
  • | 07.01.2013
  • | 44469 Aufrufe
  • | 62 Kommentare

It's not the entire story - it's just what I know from talking to Michael on the phone, a series of email exchanges over a year+ period, and following the saga on the internet. As you will discover near the end, I only met Michael in person once...

Back around the turn of the century (that sounds funny!), Michael wrote a very popular article for Chess Horizons, the long-time Massachusetts State Federation chess magazine. Around the same time, I had my first few articles published by the new online chess magazine, Chess Cafe; the popularity of these articles would soon lead to my ongoing column Novice Nook, but that's a different story.

My online articles caught Michael's eye and he contacted me. He let me know about his article and asked if I could put him in touch with Chess Cafe, since he thought a wider readership might benefit from his article. I did, and the benefits turned out to be mutual; Michael's article 400 Points in 400 Days (parts 1 and 2) went viral. It was by far the most downloaded article that Chess Cafe had published up to that point.

Here's a quick summary of what had happened to Michael that led him to write his article: Michael was an MIT graduate who was starting to take up chess seriously as an adult, but was stuck at about the 1400 level. Like many adults, he assumed that he needed to augment his natural skills and intelligence by compiling chess knowledge: he studied openings, endgames, and other "chess knowledge" information. Despite all that accumulation of knowledge, he was getting nowhere. At one point a stronger class player told Michael he had the answer: pick up the fantastic chess book How to Reassess Your Chess by IM Jeremy Silman and that will break the ice.

So Michael purchased HTRYC and read it - it was a revelation: it contained a wealth of information that Michael did not know. This must be the gold mine! Michael studied the book intently and went to his next tournament eager to put his newfound powers to the test. In his recollection he got a position where he thought for half an hour about how to get a good knight against a bad bishop and then - promptly lost his knight! (This is a good illustration that advanced chess knowledge might be new and perfectly understandable to intelligent adults, but that doesn't mean following it is what you need to become a better player! See my articles Chess Books and Prerequisites and When Adults Learn Basic Material).

So it turned out HTRYC was not the panacea that Michael had hoped. But what was? So, in desperation, Michael turned to some other fundamental (and common sense) advice about learning tactics really well, and augmenting other analytical skills. For example, he developed and performed a series of very intense "board vision" puzzles to improve his ability to quickly and accurately determine what was happening on a chess board. While not giving up tournament play, Michael did, for a short time, essentially "lock himself in a closet" and intensely work on some specialized basics.

This time it worked! By increasing his board vision and tactical vision, and incorporating some other common sense issues like using his time wisely and not making the same mistakes twice in the opening, notable progress was finally achieved. Unlike his original attempt of just increasing his chess "knowledge", which had failed badly, Michael now gained 400 points in 400 days, and wrote the article about his experience.

Once the article became popular, the question arose about expanding it into book form. If I remember correctly, I believe I had advised Michael to approach the big chess publishers, like Everyman and Gambit. In any case, eventually Michael received a contract with Everyman and created Rapid Chess Improvement.

I often get asked if I agree with everything in Rapid Chess Improvement and the answer is clearly "No". However, I do agree with most of it - see my article An Improvement Plan or, better, the much newer version of that article updated for my book A Guide to Chess Improvement.

One of the areas where I don't agree is Michael's use of The Seven Circles with the entire CT-ART 3.0. Once I read the literature on how the Soviets trained for tactics, I realized the correlation that training had with learning multiplication tables: you drill 6x7 = 42 extensively to recognize it, but you don't drill 473 x 57,642 =?; you learn how to do it. Similarly (but not perfectly analogous), in chess I believe you should drill the ~2,000 basic tactics for recognition but only "solve" more advanced problems once. For more on this important topic, check out my articles Tactical Sets and Goals and The Most Common and Important Use of Tactics.

Back to Michael...with the publication of his book, Michael became a well-known but controversial figure. Some viewed him like a pioneer but many, including some strong players who reviewed his book, took a decidedly negative stance.

At the 2001 World Open here in Philadelphia, I was checking out how members of the Main Line Chess Club and my students were doing going into the 8th and penultimate round. While perusing the pairings, I stumbled across the fact that Michael was not just in attendance, but in contention for first in the U2000 section. Never having met him in person, I quickly searched out his table to get in a "hi" before the round started. Michael was at the board, but his opponent had not arrived yet. I introduced myself (Michael knew me fairly well by then, but not personally - that happens in the internet age) but Michael quickly said,

"Hi Dan! I'd like to chat but I am getting ready to play a game for $10,000. So, if you don't mind, I'd prefer not to talk just now!" I respectfully honored his wishes and quickly retreated.

Michael won the section with an 8-1 score and, in doing so, his rating passed the USCF Expert barrier by rising from 1962 to 2041.

After the event I contacted Michael to congratulate him and ask what he was planning to do for an encore. His answer surprised me:

"Dan, I think I have shown that what I wrote can work. I have become a fairly strong player by following the methods explained in my book. But I think that's as far as those basic things can take me. To get to the next level, I would have to really learn how to play chess - advanced strategy and the like - that's something that would take some real work, and I don't think I want to do it. So I'm going to retire from chess!"

Michael was a man of his word and, so far, he's never played competitively again. Nor have I been in contact with him. But his small legacy in the chess world, no matter what you may think of it, has been established. In my opinion, many players in the same predicament as Michael could do a lot worse than following most, if not all, of his suggestions. Some have tried, with varying results; you can Google them using key phrases like "Rapid Chess Improvement" or "The Seven Circles" and read about their experiences.

(Further reading: My Top Tips for Chess Improvement and Improving Requires Extensive Practice Looking for Better Moves.)


  • vor 3 Jahre


    My criticisms of De La Maza are several and I am a skeptic, but the main point that I want to talk about is that he never hit a rating plateau. His first tournament with his 1344 official rating was on 8-31-99 just 20+ months and 39 tournaments later on 7-8-01 he achieved his final rating of 2041. That is a lot of tournament chess and if he truly was a new chess player then I think what we see is the learning curve of someone finding their natural ability level. If he had plateaued at say 1700 for a couple years and then came up with this system and then started improving again that at least would give me reason to pause. I think that almost anyone, especially someone who is "new" to the game would make good progress if they played that much chess in two years and studied and analysed hard as well.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    This story was awesome, i was reeled in from the beginning. Great Story Dan! I like to read what you have experienced through lifes journey.


  • vor 4 Jahre


    Correct; Life Master requires you hold it for a number of games.

  • vor 4 Jahre


  • vor 4 Jahre


    I dont buy this "De la Maza" Storry, i think Empirical rabbit is right with his doubts

  • vor 4 Jahre



    "In the end, Michael knew his threshold and knew what he wanted to do in life."        

    This is true. He realized the amount of work that went into achieving what he did. But it was also an evolutionary deadend. He became a dinosaur too tactical to survive in a strategical swamp.

    "Life is too short to waste on a game that doesn't give you the necessary livelihood to enjoy it in the first place."  

    This is debatable. You do not have to be a pro to enjoy or improve even at a high level. Just ask Luke McShane.

    from Dan's article:

    "Hi Dan! I'd like to chat but I am getting ready to play a game for $10,000. So, if you don't mind, I'd prefer not to talk just now!"

    He did not say "Hi Dan! I am about to win the U2000 championship..."

  • vor 4 Jahre


    In the end, Michael knew his threshold and knew what he wanted to do in life. He showed no signs of delusion of grandeur and in fact was wise enough to let go of the game after accomplishing the things he achieved. He had time, he had the intelligence and he chose to follow the path the he loves most and it wasn't chess.

    Chess is such a great game that if you are not in touch with reality, can be an all-consuming, hobby/sports/endeavor. Life is too short to waste on a game that doesn't give you the necessary livelihood to enjoy it in the first place. 

    Choose your path wisely. Peace to all mankind!

  • vor 4 Jahre


    Ok. I stand corrected. :)

  • vor 4 Jahre


    well, it's the other way around; 2 percent are above.

  • vor 4 Jahre

    NM GargleBlaster

    Actually, I agree with waves that it's silly to pretend that most people traverse 2000 with ease, but it's also true that it is hardly uncommon for those that are above 2000 to manage it fairly rapidly from their initial rating (often many hundreds of points lower).  Also, I think the reason that point was made in the first place was to refute the many currently rather groundless accusations of Mr. La Maza cheating somehow.

  • vor 4 Jahre


    I read that 2% of players are on the far side of the 2000 rating cutoff.  I'm struggling to make sense of that statistic in the light of the discussion here on the insignificance of the 1400-2000 blip, and the ease of vaulting over 2000.

    Clearly, as many commenters have suggested, anyone who puts in a little bit of work can join the 98% of players who are rated 2000+.  It's no big deal.

    But I think de la Maza's book was targeted at the poor sluggards in the 2% who are still rated below 2000 and have worked hard without improving much over the years.  It was kind of him to put so much work into helping such a tiny demographic.  

  • vor 4 Jahre



    This is the key: you have to find the style of play that allows your natural ability to shine. (Just look at athletics: we have sprinters and marathoners, your body type pretty much determines which sport you may succeed) You also have to focus on your natural ability to practice your skills, choose your openings, etc. De la Maza practiced tactics 24/7 so he liked "open board and free piece play". Capablanca was never a great opener, but he strangled everyone with his endgame. If you are an endgame artiste, you just exchange all the pieces to a simplified board. IM Jonathan Hawkins in  his book, "Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods" focuses most of his improvement on studying endgames. We patzers are fascinated with studying openings and rarely limp into the endgames, while not missing an opportunity to drop a bishop or knight here and there (never mind the pawns) due to elementary tactical errors.

    What is fascinating about de la Maza is 1, He recognized what his most significant weakness was, 2, He designed a program himself to address it, 3, He was succesful, proving that his program was the right way  to improve (for HIM).

    It is also interesting to mention, that Josh Waitzkin (a la "Searching for Bobby Fischer"), abandoned chess to focus on "The Art of Learning".

  • vor 4 Jahre

    NM GargleBlaster

    I haven't read the book in question but, to be honest, I don't really get why this guy is interesting or why his book is significant in any way outside of yet another set of tactical exercises.  His rise in rating isn't particularly remarkable as far I can tell (except for his somewhat obnoxious conceit that it is).

    My best guess as to why the book and individual in question has attracted attention is because it creates an artificial controversy by not so subtly spelling out what computers have uncomfortably suggesting for some time now: that chess is merely a game of calculation, nothing more or less, and that all the notions of strategy in it are simply puff. 

    This, however, is insultingly untrue for humans, just as it would to be to claim that a good musician merely plays right notes or a good painter just renders three dimensional images accurately onto a 2D plane.  That we, as humans, are flawed, and that we will likely blunder against an extremely accurate opponent is a given, but fortunately most of our opponents are not computers or people trying emulate them via absurdly rigorous methods.  Furthermore, that it is possible, especially at higher levels, to compensate to some degree against that by dint of imagination, creativity, intuition, and low cunning - in other words, that mysterious thing we call "strategy" - is very much part of why the game is still interesting.

  • vor 4 Jahre



    Rolf Wetzel made master as an older adult.  He also wrote a book: ``Chess Master: at any age."  The advice is practical, and will surely greatly improve anyone who follows it.  Also, it coveres a different range of rating growth, which is useful.

    I have looked carefully at De La Maza's games.  I believe it is very clear he is not cheating; many of his moves are just very poor!  On the other hand, his `style' encourages an open board and free piece play, where his tactical strength can shine.

    Really folk, if you didn't/(are not) seeing De La Maza's improvement, (or Wetzell's, for that matter), can you really claim you did/(are doing) what he did, and as diligently?  Surely for some people it will not work as wel, and for others, perhaps even better, but I think for most, if they honestly did the same thing, they would get similar results.  

    De La Maza and Wetzell were both VERY diligent in pursuing their programs of improvement.  You may not agree with everything they do, but in any case, it is hard to argue with the results, and most people tearing them down cannot really claim they followed their lead precisely.

  • vor 4 Jahre


    THawk, I believe you might be getting NM confused with life master.
    In USA NM is achieved by breaking the 2200 barrier.
    Life Master is achieved by having 200 consecutive rated games without falling below 2200.

  • vor 4 Jahre


    I certainly don't think he was cheating. I can easily show you rating increases of three players I know personally that had equal/better improvement within roughly the same time frame.

    All of those players (plus if you include De La Maza) all share the same common denominator. They all played a whole bunch of games on a regular basis.

    De La Maza played 85 games during his "400 Days" and scored 76% with a 5.05 rating ppg increase. Plus DLM also played at the MetroWest Chess Club. How many of us would benefit just through sheer osmosis by having a bunch of GMs, IMs and various Masters hanging around talking about chess.

  • vor 4 Jahre

    IM Silman

    I hated De La Maza's book (and wrote a scathing review about it, which you can find on my site), though I do agree that working really hard on one's tactics is a great, and necessary, idea (an idea that virtually every chess teacher has pushed since the days of Eden). As for his cheating, I don't find a jump from 1400 to 2000 to be that outrageous (he was weak tactically, fixed that problem, and made a big leap). More importantly, I will never accuse anyone of cheating (be it chess engines or steroids) without slam-dunk proof. Such things can ruin lives and/or careers. It's not fair if you can't prove it without a shadow of a doubt. The player shouldn't have to prove his innocence (which is usually impossible), but the accuser should have to prove guilt. I've seen the arguments, but don't buy into the paranoia. So I will defend Mr. De La Maza against such allegations until someone shows me irrefutable proof to the contrary.

  • vor 4 Jahre


    pfren, Mischa, MichaelGosselin, et al. have a good point.

    Maybe someone should sell a two-part "rapid chess improvement" program based on that idea:

    (a) First get your chess strength to 2000, which of course is not difficult or unusual. 

    (b) Then start visiting tournaments and improve your USCF or FIDE rating from 1400 to 2000 in 18 months.  Also not difficult.

    If you get published, please give me an acknowledgement for the idea!  

  • vor 4 Jahre

    IM pfren

    I know a guy who has never participated in any tournament, and he is not registered in any Federation- so, he has no ELO rating. He is a fairly strong player, but he only likes playing blitz games in the coffehouse. There he does remarkably well, with very little knowledge of theory and such.

    If that guy, for some reason, decided to register in some club, it would very easily climb from "unrated" to 2000 within 8 months or so (depending on how many games he would like to play, while I also think FIDE has a limit of 400 points of rise for one 6-month period- not too sure about that though).

  • vor 4 Jahre


    From 1400 - 2000 might seem like a lot, but it ain't, just like dropping from 20st - 14st ain't unusual.  First stages are always impressive looking.  I believe anyone will naturally reach 1800+ simply by playing enough games.  The problem is most players actually play very few games.  You do not need a coach or special training.  The sort of things which would help is-

    A. Your not working or have an easy flexible job.

    B. You have plenty of oppotunities to play.  At least one full game a week.

    C. Your willing to give your best effort.

    Thats it.

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