Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Today I discovered a book online that I absolutely love. It's called (I think) Ward Farnsworth's Predator at the Chessboard (linked to from Volokh).

There's two things I take from this. The first is that this is probably the best book on Chess that I've ever read for beginners (I am obviously not qualified to comment on more advanced books, being a beginner). I've long known all the rules of the game, but I've never had any idea what I was doing at all. I made a few attempts to figure things out when I was in middle school, but the literature I could find flew over my head and was practically useless (much talk of openings and so forth). So it was a good sign that when I read the beginning of the book, explaining its rationale, I found this paragraph:

What was said about strategy can be said as well about openings. You can spend enormous time mastering the details of an opening―say, the Italian Game or the French Defense. The yield of those efforts, in victories and in fun, probably will be small. You frequently will find that your opponent’s play drags you away from the opening you studied; and even if not, the payoff of a successful opening usually is a minor advantage in position. By itself the advantage will not win you anything or bring you much pleasure. What will bring you immense pleasure, whether or not you know much about openings, is taking your opponent’s pieces. And to do that you need to learn how to use tactics―the weaponry of the chessboard.

This book talks about chess like a human being, explaining the elements of tactics, and how you should be looking at the board, then provides many examples of the same ideas over and over. I'll obviously still get my ass kicked the next time I try to play, and Chess doesn't really fascinate me enough to warrant my investing much time improving my game, but for the first time I felt like I was able to read the board positions provided and figure out a decent picture of what was going on. Well-written, and highly recommended.

The other thing I'll say about this book is that "My God, this is a fantastic way to present a book." If you dig in, you'll find that the book is done in small chunks, with a frame on the left for the board illustration. This is such a fantastic way to present the materials in a book, because when you need to scroll down, you can keep the relevant illustration in sight. I often read math books or economics papers, and find myself having to stick most of the fingers on one hand between different pages to keep an easy reference to the equations or diagrams referenced throughout the text. Imagine if people adopted this sort of organization for math books, easily presenting everything that each chunk of the text refers to while you read. Brilliant.
From what I can tell, the book is laid out very well for an intro chess book (n.b.: I'm probably about the same skill level you were before reading it). I'm wondering what sort of math books you're thinking could be rewritten in this style. In my experience the subject is simply too intricately self-referential to "[present] everything that each chunk of the text refers to while you read."

I don't mean to attack your position, but just to ask for some further explanation. If you've got a viable point I may well take it to heart when I start publishing texts.
John, thanks for the comment. I am not sure that what I'm talking about could be done in a physical book. I'm also not talking about making everything that is referred to self-contained on the graphics panel, I just mean things that are directly a part of the ideas being discussed within the text.

In other words, you wouldn't necessarily put a well-known theorem on there, but if you're referring to equations 1.18, 2.5, and 8.4 while comparing figures 2 and 3, I think it'd be nice if you could put all those on the graphics panel like Ward Farnsworth does it. In my experience, these sorts of texts do refer to many, many things, but only a few within the span of a few pages, perhaps repeatedly. Economics papers can be especially annoying, as they often put all of their charts and graphs at the back of the paper in a big clump.
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