The problem with Michael de la Maza’s Rapid Chess Improvement

   Michael de la Maza in his outstanding “400 points in 400 days” articles (Part 1 here: Part 2 here: laid out a plan he called “The Seven Circles”.

   Michael de la Maza is probably the biggest influence on my chess career, and one of the main reasons that I have created Tactics Time.

   I think that he was able to clearly see “The Elusive Obvious” that many chess players have missed.

   If you haven’t read his “400 points in 400 days” articles, they are highly recommended, and had a tremendous impact on me.

   While I think that his ideas are genius, I do a have a few “nits to pick” about the article.

   But one other point of praise before I do that, I also think that de la Maza is a brilliant marketer, whether he is trying to be or not.

   Just the title “400 points in 400 days” is brilliant – it is catchy, it has a clear outcome, and it speaks to watch A LOT of chess players want (whether they admit it or not) more rating points.  I think that he should have found a way to include this in his book title “Rapid Chess Improvement”, which is good, but more vague. 

   What does “Rapid” mean? A day?  A week?  A year? 

   What does “Improvement” mean?  Gaining 100 points?  Becoming a GM?

   400 points in 400 days is a super title!

   His “7 Circles” is also a very catchy idea.

   For those not familiar with the idea, he basically says to take 1000 tactics problems, and do them over and over, faster and faster.

   I think that this is a great idea.

Here is your life if you follow the 7 circles literally

   The main problem is that it just isn’t practical for most people.

   It is like saying – get killer abs, by doing 1000 crunches per day, and eating 1000 calories per day.  Yes it works, and you will get killer abs if you do this, but it is not practical for most of us.

   Having talked to a lot of people about de la Maza’s system, I think that most people read it, and think that it is too impractical, and then the baby gets thrown out with the bath water.

   For example here is a thread on,, where someone started talking about this method, and the first response was “This method would probably kill your love of the game forever”.

   While I certainly advocate lots of tactics study, I would never want to kill anyone’s love of the game.  If you read the above thread, the original poster was actually discouraged from entering a program of tactics study because of this, and writes, “Maybe it is not such a good idea.  I am a novice at studying chess, so I guess I will not do this program.”  I found this statement to be very sad.

   It should also be noted that de la Maza was unemployed during the time that he completed his “7 circles”.  I realize that many of us have jobs, families, other interests, etc, and that it just isn’t practical to do exactly what he teaches for many of us.

   In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) there is a saying “Progress, not Perfection”.

   I think that this idea can be used to modify de la Maza’s idea.

   People tend to think in black or white/ yes or no/ day or night.

   If they can’t do the de la Maza program as he lays it out, then they don’t do it at all.

   Instead they should focus on the main idea that de la Maza has – which is


   and not get wrapped up in the exact details of if there is 5 circles, or 4 triangles, or if you do 1000 problems, or 1500 problems, or if you use software, or books, etc.

   With de la Maza’s idea, the devil is not in the details.  There is no devil, and the details are not really necessary, other than to fill a book so people will buy it, and then debate the importance of each detail.

   It is a very simple, and profound idea – most games at the class player level are won or lost due to tactics.  Therefore study chess tactics, and become a master at them, if you want to do well.

   Personally I like doing tactics in various different ways.  Sometimes I want to pick up a book.  Other times I like looking at webpages, or even reading my own chess tactics columns, newsletter, and playing with the tactics database that I created.

   Just like with exercise, the main thing is to do it, and get in the habit of doing it. 


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13 thoughts on “The problem with Michael de la Maza’s Rapid Chess Improvement

  1. If you want a simpler way to improve your game, rather than doing 1000 tactical problems, try reading the book, TOTAL CHESS: Learn, Teach and Play the Easy 1-2-3 Way. It contains a whole new approach to learning tactics and strategies in chess.

  2. Tim,
    I was practicing with your sample database when I noted an apparent mistake in Game 20: Exigentsky vs Simplerastaman, uChess rated 08-07-2008. One of the recommended solutions following the very playable move: …6. dxNe5 is 7. Qh5+ Double attack. Unfortunately this double attack would adequately be met by Black’s Knight to g6. The real solution is bizarrely written following this inaccuracy (7. Bf7+ wins the Black Queen).

    Perhaps this can help you fix a little bug. If so, consider this my small contribution. By the way, I really enjoy working on my tactics thanks to you. Keep up the good work. All the best.

    Joel Lecorre
    Ottawa, ON. Canada

  3. Thanks Joel!

    It’s funny you mention this, because I noticed this exact same thing and wrote a blog post about it a few months ago called “Fritz 12 bug”

    For some reason when you run Fritz 12 “Full Analysis mode” – it recommends this bizarre Qh5 spite check, instead of winning the queen with the remove the defender technique Bf7+ that you mentioned. I will update this, and remove it. Thanks for pointing that out!

    I even wrote to chessbase about this, and never heard back anything.

    I like that problem you mention because it is kind of like a Legal’s Mate without the Bishop on g4, or the second knight on c3.

    I have actually since switched twice the engines I am using – first to Fritz 13, and then to Rybka 4.1 x64, using the Fritz 13 interface (which I really like a lot).

    Rybka actually likes Ng5 better than Nxe5 in the original position. So now I am not sure what is going on :)

    All the positions I use are from real games, so they sometimes get a little more “messy” than composed problems that are built to have only one correct answer.

    Great job thinking for yourself, and not just trusting the notes or analysis, even when they come from the computer!!!

    Glad you are enjoying working on tactics! I love them myself, and I think they can really help you game a lot!


    • I don’t know for a fact that he was unemployed or not. Just because he has a PhD in Computer Science doesn’t mean that he wasn’t working. People take time off all the time. Especially if they are able to collect a severance or unemployment. I have a masters degree in computer science, and got laid off last September after being with the same company for 15 years. I took some time off, and didn’t start working again until Feb 2012. So are you saying that all people with advanced computer science degrees always have jobs and are never unemployed? PhDs often have a hard time finding work, because they are over qualified, especially if they are not interested in teaching.

      I think the main point with MDLM is that he tried X,Y, and Z with chess. With X and Y he made no progress, and actually got worse. Then he figured out Z, and made massive progress! That is a great story in my opinion.

  4. His thesis at the MIT ( 97 ) was about chessprogramming too…1

    In the years Dr. DLM had his sucess ( ) he founded AnswerFriend with Deniz Yuret

    The story with his unemployment is just part of the myth to try to explain his unbelievable improvement.

    I think he had something like this
    ( a silcon friend ) under his coat ( look at all other player at this picture ) he was wearing in the heat of the summer. ( read about his coat here: and about his “training” here )

    Does anyone think that someone with such a success in chess simply stop playing chess after earning 10000 Dollar at his last tournament? Someone who did try that hard to improve would not stop. To many people where wondering why he is playing so “strange”

  5. Thanks for the interesting comments, and links and pictures! I appreciate you taking the time to do all that!

    Certainly an interesting theory, no doubt.

    If a person had a plan to cheat at the World Open why bother to do it in the “A section”? The prizes are just as big in the lower sections.

    He may have just got burned out with chess. I know lots of people who play constantly, then they give it up, and never play again.

    Given that he is a PhD in computer science from MIT, he was probably incredibly smart to begin with, and if you add in an obsessive compulsive type nature to study chess hours per day, I think it is possible to explain such gains without cheating.

    If you were going to use a computer to cheat, why not use it in all phases of the game? The one post I read the guy said his openings were very primitive, and pretty much all areas of his game were primitive, except his tactics.

    I took my own rating from the “D range” 1200-1300s to “B range” 1600-1700s after reading his story but doing a study of only chess tactics in about a year. This was working full time, and being married at the time as well, so I do think “rapid improvement” is possible, even for busy adults.

    I doubt we will ever know all the details, but it is certainly a very interesting idea that you have! Thanks for taking the time to post.

  6. As you can see here
    De la maza did play (and win rating prices) one tournament after the other. His last win was the U2000 rating price at the World Open and then he was rated 2041. No rating prices to earn anymore.

    He was playing much stronger than 2000 or he would not have gained that high rating that quick ( he was starting with 11xx ). This rating gain is not to explain without cheating see
    and read the comments at this post.

    And his coat is very strange, i did see a picture at this times ( sorry cant find the link ) where he was at a chess-playing-place not playing and there he had no coat on. Today he is dressed normal you may find pictures of him using google. This cant be explained as a spleen. Please just this picture thats a gigantic joke, especially what DLM did write under the picture…

    No, sorry, anyone who does think that can be real is a dreamer.

  7. Forgot: The chessprogram at this time ( 1999 ) did not have these big openingbooks like todays computer. No one would have belive his story if he did start knowing openingtheory like a gm after just one year of playing. I think he was testing his own program and that was without big openingbook.

  8. You make some really interesting points, and I am enjoying this discussion a lot!

    If he was cheating, why would he bother to write an article for, and later a book, about his success? Just for additional fame and money?

    Sounds like there certainly is a lot of “circumstantial evidence” to support your theory. The coats, strong computer background, MIT history of cheating at games (blackjack), winning large prizes (motivation), lack of playing afterwards, etc.

    Maybe someday the truth will come out, like it did with the blackjack cheaters.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment on my blog!

  9. “If he was cheating, why would he bother to write an article for”

    For that i have not any hints/evidents. I just think many people did start wondering 2001 and he was in need for an explanation for his strange way of playing and his rating and winning success. His “tactics tactics tactics” seemed to explain everything. And the unexpected sucess of his explanation was good for some extra money and a gigantic joke. I can understand his big lough about the remarks about his coat. I think he is a big joker.

    He was working as a coach , i think his success as chessplayer coaching himself might have been used as “a proof” of his deep understanding of thoughttechnic, learning, teaching, success and so on. maybe it did help him at (to get ..) this job:
    But this is realy speculation.

  10. Pingback: The Happy Meal of Tactics Books | Chess Book Reviews

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