To begin, I have found the Youtube chess videos of Kerry Shirts (AKA the “Backyard Professor”) to be delightful entertainment and probably helpful to a number of raw beginners, maybe very helpful to many of them. He has studied a number of chess books, including at least two of them that were written by the master Jeremy Silman. Yet he seems to have neglected the critically important tactical aspects of the game of chess, diving into strategy before he adequately developed elementary skills in tactics. His rating with the United States Chess Federation (as of mid-November, 2015) is only 747, not in the top 1,000 players in the state of Idaho (Don’t confuse the number of players with the rating itself, for there is no direct relationship between the rating number and the number of rated players in a particular state).
Take that rating of 747 in perspective. Regardless of book learning, take a typical American chess beginner* and set him or her across the board from Mr. Shirts. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Backyard Professor will win that game. *(I mean a real novice who has played the royal game only on occasion and has not studied it from any chess book.)
Now set Mr. Shirts across the board from me and consider my rating of 1606, which is nothing to brag about among average adult tournament players (I’m #363 for currently-rated players in the state of Utah). The difference between our rating levels appears to resemble the difference between Mr. Shirts and that raw beginner. It would seem that my victory in a chess game against the Backyard Professor would also be a foregone conclusion . . . except for one thing: Both of our USCF ratings are provisional, meaning they are from a limited number of official games. In other words, our ratings may not be accurate.
In fact, a player rated about 1200 was once a regular opponent of Mr. Shirts, and that competitor said that Shirts was about equal to him in playing strength. It’s possible the rating of 747 comes from nervousness in official competition, with chess clocks. Also, my rating of 1606 comes from tournaments I played in two decades ago, and age is catching up with me. Yet from observing his analysis in his Youtube videos, I doubt that his playing level is above about 1100, at the most. If that’s his level and my own is now only 1500, the mathematics of the rating system predicts that I would win a match against the Backyard Professor (BP), scoring 90% of the points (one point per win and half a point per draw). Yet with any particular game, the underdog may win against a stronger opponent.
Let’s look at part of a game that Shirts played against an opponent who was rated 1390. You can see how he won the game with some book knowledge, in a video that he calls Chessercise and the underdog.
Diagram-1 Black is in trouble, behind in development
In Diagram-1, White (played by the Backyard Professor: Mr. Shirts) has the advantage in this Queen’s Gambit Declined. Black has taken three moves for his queen-knight to capture White’s light-colored-square bishop, so BP gained a tempo there. In addition, Black lost another tempo in fianchettoing his king-side bishop. With high tension in central pawns and the black king not yet castled, this has given Black a big problem: how to prevent the loss of an important pawn.
Black just moved his king from d8 to d6, protecting the c5 pawn. In the analysis, BP correctly recognized that this is an unfortunate way for Black to protect that pawn, meaning it’s unfortunate for Black. This looks like an opportunity for an upset in favor of BP and that’s what happened.
Mr. Shirts thought about this position for awhile, during the game, and realized that it would be to his advantage to “coagulate” the center, so that his two knights and one bishop might function better than his opponent’s two bishops and one knight. Theoretically, that sounds good, except that this particular pawn structure does not look like it will actually become fixed in one or more pawn chains. Shirts does win the game, but the central pawns actually evaporate, leaving no fixed pawns in the center. His book learning and his understanding of general strategy did not actually apply in this game, on that particular point. Nevertheless, he was able to take advantage of some of his opponents weak moves and apply correct principles to win.
He beat a higher rated opponent because the other player made some small mistakes in the opening and a bigger mistake as that opening was progressing into the middle game. With that said, if Mr. Shirts is still serious about attaining the rating of a master (2200+), he will need to revolutionize his approach to the game by concentrating on basic tactics.
The “Backyard Professor” has benefited from reading a number of chess books, apparently, but he and his opponent made some errors in this particular game, which began as a Winawer variation of the French Defense opening.
Reviews of three publications:
- Winning Chess Manoeuvres
- Beat That Kid in Chess
- Alekhine: Move by Move (not yet published)
- A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White (ditto)
Beat That Kid in Chess – for the early beginner to win, possibly the best chess book for beginners because of the systematic use of nearly-identical positions (NIP)
[About the new book Beat That Kid in Chess] Reading level for the text: teenagers and adults (Assumes the reader already knows the rules)