Culture Wars (11-07-21)

Nigel posted an interesting thought on social media the other day.

“I sense that a chess ‘kulturkampf’ is brewing with digital Bongcloudistas vs cantankerous traditionalists. Battle lines are currently being drawn with just an occasional skirmish at present…”

In my new career as a chess book reviewer in another place, it’s very noticeable that there’s a very big difference between books written, in the main, by established older authors and those written, again in the main, by trendy young grandmasters.

We might label them, as they do in the world of education, although there the division is more on political than age lines, ‘trads’ and ‘progs’.

The ‘trads’ prefer to annotate games using words, with occasional variations where necessary to explain tactical points. The ‘progs’, however, want to discover the objective truth of any position, offering reams of computer generated analysis as justification.

The ‘trads’ advise you to study the classics, whereas the ‘progs’ tell you to study games played by today’s top grandmasters. Some progs, to be fair, also advise you to study the classics, but they usually mean Kasparov, Karpov and possibly Fischer. The ‘trads’, on the other hand, mean Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine, and perhaps even Morphy and Steinitz.

Given my age it’s natural that I’m broadly more sympathetic to the ‘trads’ than the ‘progs’ here, but the world has moved on and perhaps the ‘progs’ also have a point. I’ve written before about false dichotomies.

It seems that the ‘trads’ are writing for hobby players who, like me, read chess books partly for enjoyment, and, if they happen to gain something from it as well, so much the better. The ‘progs’, though, seem to be writing for ambitious players who are studying the game seriously, perhaps for several hours a day.

For most players under 2000, or even under, say, 2200, a verbal explanation will usually, except in very complicated tactical positions, be preferable, but it can also be instructive to delve deeply into all sorts of positions.

Studying the classics, is, the ‘trads’ will tell you, an integral part of chess culture, which should be developed by all players. Furthermore, the games are easier to understand than those played by Magnus and his chums. I agree that, for the most part, these games are more suitable, again, for most players under 2000 or so. But it’s also good for everyone to follow the latest top grandmaster games. Even if you don’t understand all that much about them, they can still act as an inspiration.

In many culture wars, both sides take extreme positions, use ‘straw man’ arguments, try to shout louder than the other side and often only succeed in driving the undecided they should be trying to convert into the other camp. Everyone would be much better off if they communicated and tried to understand each other’s position. The chess ‘culture war’ hasn’t reached that point yet. Nigel seems to think it will: what do you think?

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy ( or and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through View all posts by Richard James

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