Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <arves@skynet.be> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <www.arves.org>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.

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(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).

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Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.

An Encyclopedia for the 21st Century

Petronijevic, Zoran, and Branko Tadic, ed.  Encyclopedia of Chess Endings: Volume II – Rook Endings, 1st Part.  2nd ed.  Belgrade: Šahovski Informator, 2014.  HB 511pp.  ISBN 978-8672970692.  Approximately $45-50 on Amazon.  Also available at the publisher’s website.

You could, when I was a child, buy individual volumes of an encyclopedia – not World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica, but some sad impostor – at the grocery store.  A new volume would show up a few weeks later, and if you had the cash, you’d add the next volume to your burgeoning collection.  Eventually the sum total of collective knowledge would reside on your shelf, there to sit unread for years and years to come.  (Really – how many of you got past A or B?)

The age of the print encyclopedia has come and gone with the advent of the Internet and, in particular, Wikipedia.  Hard-earned expertise has been replaced with crowd-sourced wisdom, and given the breadth and speed of the web, there’s something almost quaint about the printing of a brief of what we know in book form.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are still some corners of human knowledge that lend themselves to summary.  Chess just might be one of those corners.  The publishers of the Šahovski Informator have revised and republished two volumes in the Encyclopedia of Chess Endings series, and the second of those, on pure rook endings, is under consideration in this review.  It is a book that every strong player, and every player looking to improve their understanding of rook endings, should consider for their library.

The first edition of ECE II (1985) was out of print for some time, as was ECE I (1982), which was devoted to pawn endings.  Both were hard to find; this was, presumably, because rook and pawn endings are among the most important for the practical player to master.  With this new edition of ECE II, over two hundred examples (1930 in v2 compared with 1727 in v1) have been added to the book and analysis has been updated / corrected.  Such updates are critical given the emergence of strong analytical engines and the contributions of tablebases to endgame knowledge.

One of my go-to tests for assessing any endgame materials is to compare them with the analysis being done in the Chesspub forums.  Did the writer / editor do their due diligence and scour the globe for new ideas and discoveries?  Immediately I checked the player index in ECE II and looked for Adrian Hollis, scholar of the classics, grandmaster of correspondence chess, and holder of the White pieces in the 1972 postal game Hollis v. Florian.   This is #1357 and 1358 in ECE II.

ChessPub forum members Micawber and Poghosyan have published numerous corrections to older analysis of this game along with other similar (a-pawn or b-pawn 4-3 rook endings) positions, many of which have found their way into the works of Dvoretsky and Muller.  Their analysis is properly cited in the appropriate positions (1357-1376), and I confirmed that IM Petronijevic had in fact monitored the ChessPub forum to keep tabs on discoveries there.  (There is unfortunately no bibliography of sources in ECE II.  After my e-mail inquiry, Petronijevic mentioned that he’d collected approximately 5000 positions for possible inclusion in the book, and that he’d used most of the major reference books and magazine articles in its writing.)

Before my recent and ill-fated entry in the 2014 Nebraska State Closed Championship, I spent quite a bit of time playing out rook endings against both human and silicon opponents.  I would choose a position from ECE II at semi-random, play it out, and then compare the results with the published analysis.  What I found was not explanations of the ideas – the analysis is wordless, as is standard for Informant publications – but compact, dense analysis of most of the major tries and key lines.  Some of my faulty moves in the training games were anticipated in the analysis, and it was interesting to see how long I (or the weaker engines I played) could hold out before making mistakes.

Because the book is without explanatory prose, this is not an ideal book for the beginner who wants to learn about rook endings.  I can recommend for such players Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings, Minev’s A Practical Guide to Rook Endings, or Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings.  The classics one volume guides by Dvoretsky and Muller are also very good, if perhaps for a slightly advanced player.

ECE II is not perfect.  No chess book is.  The aformentioned Vardan Poghosyan has found one oversight in #1736, where – despite a number of revisions to the the original example – John Nunn’s 2009 improvement on Portisch-Petrosian 1974 is not included.  (Here is the analysis for the endgame junkies among you.)  Still, having checked through a number of examples using comically powerful engines and tablebases via the Chessbase Engine Cloud, the errors are few and far between.  The analysis is both terse and fairly complete.  That’s not easy; my hat is off to the editor. The book is also physically sturdy, its binding typical (in my experience) for good Eastern European hardbacks.

If you’re interested in rook endgames and looking for study material, it’s hard to think of a better buy than ECE II.  The book is just a brick of well-analyzed rook endings, and it provides great bang for your buck.  There’s no getting around the need to master rook endgames if you want to advance in chess.  For the player looking to improve, and for lovers of the endgame, ECE II is well worth the investment.

Note: ECE II is only currently available at Amazon via third-party sellers.  You may want to buy directly from the publisher – they ship worldwide from Belgrade via DHL, and I’ve found the process to be shockingly quick.

“Lack of Focus:” On Kopec’s Mastering Chess

My review of Danny Kopec’s Mastering Chess has been printed in the March 2013 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Kopec, Danny, Geoff Chandler, Ian Harris, Chris Morrison and Ian Mullen.  Mastering Chess: A Course in 25 Lessons.  2nd ed.  Merrick, NY: Kopec Chess Services, 2013 (1985).  ISBN 978-1491277478.  PB $21.95; currently $19.76 at Amazon.

Mastering Chess: A Course in 25 Lessons is a partial reprint and enlargement of a 1985 book of almost the same name.  The first edition had 21 lessons broken down into five chapters: ‘Tactics and Combinations’ (Chandler), ‘How to Analyze a Position’ (Kopec), ‘How to Formulate a Plan’ (Morrison), ‘Opening Principles and Ideas’ (Nigel Davies), and ‘Endings’ (Mullen).  In this second edition, the basic structure remains the same, but the chapter order is revised and the chapter written by Nigel Davies is replaced by one by Ian Harris.  Some additional material has been added to each of the remaining chapters, and new exercises have been included as well.

Kopec describes his target audience in the first edition as being players rated roughly 1450-1750. (ix)  The second edition casts a much wider net. “Mastering Chess is a unique book,” Kopec writes on his website, “in that it covers the essentials which every aspiring chess player must know well (from Novice to Expert) to reach the chess Master level.”[1] The assumption must be, then, that the revisions to the first edition aim to broaden its reach to both the more humbly and augustly rated.  In this, the book succeeds.  Whether the book benefits from these revisions, or whether this broadening is desirable in the least, remain a very different issue.

Most of the first edition of Mastering Chess, save the chapter by Davies, reappears in this second edition.  The pages from that first edition have been scanned and reprinted verbatim, and it’s here that some of the first difficulties with this book arise.  The scan job is, simply put, shoddy.  Characters are pixilated and multiple lines of text contain artifacts from the image processing.  If you pick up the book and compare the scanned pages with their counterparts in the Google Books[2] version of the first edition, the difference in quality is stark.  The text and diagrams are legible, but it seems quite odd to me that such little care would be taken with such an important task.

As noted above, the first edition of this book was written for players rated between 1450-1750.  This range seems accurate to me, if perhaps a little on the low end.  The first edition contained some fairly difficult material, and it tried perhaps to teach too much in too few pages, but the level of complexity never nudged too high or too low.  The same cannot be said for the added pages to the second edition, which appear to be nothing more than raw word processor output.  These new pages vary widely in aim and quality, with some being pitched at rank beginners and others far too complicated for most class players.  Some are also marred by serious problems, editorial and otherwise.

Take, for example, Geoff Chandler’s chapter on tactics and combinations.  The original four lessons are a decent, if rushed, primer on basic tactical play.  Key mating patterns are covered and stock tactical themes are explained with one or two examples.  Problems for solving are also provided.  So far, so good.

His addition to the second edition – ‘Tactics and Combinations Thirty Years Later’ (37f) – is riddled with grammatical errors.  Font sizes change without rhyme or reason.  The new exercises range from mate in twos to intricate endgame problems.  These pages seem to be devoid of editorial intervention.

Kopec’s new material is likewise flawed.  There are typos and more grammatical lapses (118, 120, 129, 131).  Some games are given with no notes (82, 176f), while others contain analysis whose depth astounds.  The ‘Point Count Method’ of positional analysis, introduced in Lesson 14, was not particularly practical when Horowitz & Smith first devised it, and Kopec’s rendering does little to burnish it.  For someone who wrote a lesson called ‘Don’t Always Believe the Computer,’ Kopec cites Fritz’s precise evaluation far too often.  And I found Kopec’s repeated – at least eight instances – shilling for his other products in the text galling.  If I bought this book, why am I being directed to other books or videos for explanation or analysis?

The additions are not all bad.  Ian Harris’ new chapter on the opening is fairly good and free from the typos endemic to other sections.  Even here, however, the analysis varies widely in intended audience and analytic depth.

Mastering Chess suffers from the additions and revisions made in this new edition.  It tries to be everything to everyone; in doing so, it becomes a book for no one in particular.  If you must have a copy, make sure it’s the first edition.

Focusing on Checkmate

Renaud, Georges, and Victor Kahn.  The Art of Checkmate, 21st Century Edition.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  160pp.  ISBN 978-1936490844.  Paper list $19.95.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (2004).   184pp.  ISBN 978-1936490943. Paper list $19.95, Kindle $9.99.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate Workbook.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  96pp.  ISBN 978-1888690163.  Paper list $9.95.

Russell Enterprises continues its streak of quality releases with these three new titles, each focusing on the most critical aspect of the game: checkmate.

Renaud and Kahn’s The Art of Checkmate is a classic of chess literature.  Originally published in 1953, the book takes readers through fundamental mating patterns and classic attacking games.  Renaud and Kahn sprinkle bits of chess wisdom and lore throughout the text, and attentive readers can’t help but be entertained while they learn.

This 21st Century Edition has been ‘translated’ from the old Descriptive Notation and into Algebraic, thus making it accessible to a generation of young players who have never had the ‘pleasure’ of mastering Descriptive.  (They really should, though.  So many wonderful books are only in DN!)  The book is, as is usual for Russell, well edited and laid out.

I recently read that IM Emory Tate, the attacking wizard beloved by so many in the chess world, attributes much of his prowess to an early encounter with The Art of Checkmate.  And indeed, a better attacking primer can hardly be found.  This is a book that can be read by players of most all ages and abilities; some will read for enjoyment, and some will read for tactical inspiration, but all will find this new edition of The Art of Checkmate a worthy addition to their library.

David MacEnulty’s work, in contrast, is sadly unknown by most chess players.  They might know his story, as it was made famous by Ted Danson in the 2005 movie “Knights of the South Bronx.”  His books, however, haven’t received nearly the attention they deserve.  With the publication of My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook, perhaps they will. 

My First Book of Checkmate is, as the title suggests, a book for the chess novice.  It works slowly and programmatically to lead the novice to an adequate knowledge of mating procedures and patterns.  MacEnulty leaves nothing to chance.  After explaining chess notation and defining his terms, MacEnulty begins his book by walking the reader through a series of lessons that each focus on a specific piece and characteristic mates.  Some mate in ones follow in Part II, and Part III offers readers examples of some standard mating patterns not unlike those in The Art of Checkmate.  The book concludes with a short section on mating attacks and a set of problems for the reader to solve.

MacEnulty was a teacher by profession, and his educational background shows in this book.  As I argued in my previous review, real tactical improvement involves two elements: (1) pattern recognition and (2) practice in calculation and imagination.  MacEnulty’s book is one of the better primers for learning basic tactical patterns currently in print.  It succeeds in no small part because of its programmed style of learning, where ideas are built upon and augmented as the text progresses.  The reader is led from the most elementary elements of mating attacks to fairly complex concepts, each step following from what came before it.

There are plenty of problems to solve in My First Book of Checkmate.  Still, there could be more; for the player hungering for more puzzles, MacEnulty has written a companion volume called My First Book of Checkmate Workbook. The structure of the book roughly mirrors that of My First Book of Checkmate, but it ends with some mate problems that would tax many a class player.  At $9.95 list price, this workbook is great value for the money.  I am, in fact, considering adopting it for use at a chess camp this summer.

Both My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook are well worth consideration for the novice player looking to improve.  Younger readers might require some help with My First Book of Checkmate, but the workbook could be read by even six and seven year olds.  I’d also suggest that adult readers in need of a book on basic mates check them out, as its progressive movement from the simple to the complex might provide the basic orientation needed to profitably solve more difficult mate problems.

The Happy Meal of Tactics Books

Brennan, Tim, and Anthea Carson.  Tactics Time: 1001 Chess Tactics from the Real Games of Everyday Chess Players.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014.  ISBN 978-9056914387.  List $16.95. Also available as self-published Kindle version; list price will vary dramatically.

I’ve heard a lot of chatter about Brennan and Carson’s Tactics Time.  The Amazon reviews are stellar.  GM Fishbein and NM Wall give it nice plugs.  After a glance at the Amazon preview, I was skeptical.  Now, with the paperback sitting in front of me and the ebook on my Kindle, I’m vastly more skeptical.

Tim Brennan’s website reads like a giant infomercial, full of amazing promises and self-help buzzwords.  (HIs stated interest in self-improvement and Tony Robbins is not surprising given his prose.  Read the Introduction to Tactics Time, with its ‘you don’t have to be the 98lb weakling getting sand kicked in your face’ vibe, for a sense of what I mean.) The basic premise – that tactical study is the royal road to chess improvement, perhaps all the way to master – is sound.  What’s unsound is the way in which this premise is worked out.

From what I can tell, Brennan and Carson have done the following: they got a whole bunch of amateur games, ran them through the computer (Full Analysis in the Fritz GUI) at very fast speeds, and located all the gross blunders or missed wins.  They then collected those positions, slapped them together, and bundled them into a book.  There’s little structure or order to the puzzles, and most of them are very, very easy.

Consider Problem #672, with White to move.  In most tactics books, there is some progression of difficulty, so that, for example, Problem 100 is more difficult than Problem 1.  Not here.

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Readers of the Kindle version are provided links to the root games for every problem in the book.  What we see is that Brennan and Carson found a game where someone fell into Scholar’s Mate and used it as a problem for solving.  They used Rybka 4.1 – they talk about Fritz, but all the analysis seems to be from Rybka – at one second a move to analyze the game, and of course, the computer noted Black’s ‘questionable’ play.  Into the book it went.

Or how about Problem #429 (Black to move after 14.c3???), chosen for this review at random?

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This is actually fairly difficult when compared to a lot of other problems in the book.  Many of them are one move forks or mates, or similarly basic tactical tasks.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with one move forks or mates.  The problem comes in when Brennan wants you to believe that solving these problems will suddenly make you play like Bobby Fischer.  That’s not hyperbole – that’s his slogan on his website.  “Give Me Just 15 minutes a Day and I’ll Have You Moving Like Bobby Fischer in 1 Month!”  Brennan promises that solving his problems for 15 minutes a day will have you playing like his friend Francisco, who beat Walter Browne in a simul.  Who wouldn’t want that?  (Never you mind that Francisco is currently rated 1638, which is certainly a decent enough rating, but isn’t that of a world-beater.)

Brennan’s pitch is just like those of any of hundreds of other similarly slippery self-improvement programs:  they promise you the moon.  Eat anything you want and lose weight!  Take this pill and quit smoking!  Imagine what you want and it will be yours!  (Brennan has talked about ‘The Secret’ in an interview on his website.)  Solve these puzzles and watch your rating soar!  It’s so easy!

None of it is true.

Let me begin by admitting the obvious: every chess player needs to see one move tactics.  I don’t think going through Tactics Time will hurt your chess.  I just don’t think it will really help it.

Brennan is a De La Maza acolyte.  He believes that by solving hundreds upon hundreds of tactical puzzles, and by repeating them again and again until the patterns are automatic, players can’t help but improve.  The difference between Brennan and De La Maza is that he (Brennan) uses problems culled from local amateur games, so that your study more resembles the kinds of positions that amateurs see in their games.

This is correct, in part.  Players need to learn the basic tactical themes and mating patterns, and they need to know them by heart.  There’s nothing wrong with solving the kind of ultra-basic problems Brennan has by the thousands in his books.  It just won’t get you very far when you start playing against players who have some idea as to what they’re doing.

There are two components to tactical study: learning the patterns, and learning to calculate.  Chess players need to do both to truly improve.  To learn patterns, players should read tactics books where the problems are sorted by topic or theme.  Here the books of Maxim Blokh are good, but out of print.  Susan Polgar’s Chess Tactics for Champions is a decent alternative, as is Neishtadt’s Improve Your Chess Tactics and (especially) Weteschnik’s Chess Tactics from Scratch.

Still, all of these books, which are much more challenging than Brennan’s, are not enough.  Real tactical improvement comes with the ability to create tactical chances on the board and to calculate accurately.  You get nothing of that in Tactics Time, and nothing of it on his website.  The books of Paata Gaprindashvili are the best resources for honing this aspect of tactical skill, and Jacob Aagaard’s books on attack and calculation are excellent as well.

Brennan’s tactical program does nothing to help your calculative skills or your creativity.  You might, after reading Tactics Time, see a one move checkmate if your opponent happens to blunder into it.  What if he doesn’t?  What if he doesn’t just present you with a chance to checkmate him?  I don’t think Brennan gives you the tools to win in that situation.

Let me turn to the construction of the book.  How difficult must it have been for Brennan (and Carson?) to write this book?  Could anyone do it?  Could I?

Yesterday, as an experiment, I decided to try and put together a Brennan-style set of problems for use with local players.  I took a small database from the 2013 Nassau Chess Club Championship and ran all the games through computer analysis at one second a move.  After about three hours, I had a fully anno-Fritzed (or Houdini’d) collection of games.  I scanned through them in about fifteen minutes time, looking for ‘??’ or ‘!!’ moves.

Here are twenty problems for you to solve, varying in difficulty from the very easy to the “something slightly more demanding” than can be found in Tactics Time.

Here are the full solutions.  (Don’t look until you’ve solved them first!)  Feel free to use the puzzle sheets and the solutions however you’d like.

The plural of anecdote is not data.  I can’t extrapolate my finding useable puzzles in approximately one out of seven games to prove anything.  That I was able to come up with twenty puzzles with very little effort – remember, the computer did most of the work! – does, however, suggest to me that anyone could have written Tactics Time if they’d had the idea first.

In trying to figure out how best to describe Tactics Time to potential readers, the best analogy I could devise was to a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  It is cheap at $16.95 list for the paperback or much less for the Kindle version.  It is shiny and well-marketed.  It is vaguely nutritious.

Ultimately, however, Tactics Time is an unsatisfying work that will leave readers hungry soon after they finish it.  Real chess improvement is not nearly as easy as Brennan would have you believe, and it certainly requires more than the ability to trip over mate in ones when they are thrust upon you.  Tactics Time, like the Happy Meal, fills a niche in the marketplace, and Brennan deserves all the credit in the world for finding and filling that niche.  It’s just that his product, much like the Happy Meal, will rapidly be outgrown by a developing player.

A Fitting Tribute

Kotronias, Vassilios, and Logothetis, Sotiris.  Carlsen’s Assault on the Throne.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1906552220.  HB $34.95; currently $26ish at Amazon.

One of the casualties of our living in the age of ChessBase is the death of the tournament and match book.  Because games are available – at least for the biggest events – in real time, and because those same games are often annotated in near real-time for Chessbase.com, Chess.com or TWIC, there seems to be little appetite or market for the expert reporting and semi-conclusive annotation that a book might provide.  The chess world is poorer for it.  Some of the best reads in the history of chess literature – Tal’s book on his first match with Botvinnik, Bronstein’s book on Zurich 1953 – would almost certainly never see the light of day under current conditions.

With Carlsen’s Assault, their nearly instant book on the just finished Carlsen-Anand match, Quality Chess continues in their laudable effort to publish books that will stand the test of time.  Kotronias and Logothetis have put together a beautiful work that will stand as the definitive book on Carlsen’s becoming World Champion, unless Magnus himself takes up the pen.

There is an efficient division of labor at work in this book.  Logothetis, an arbiter and FIDE master, has been active in the European chess scene for years, and he helped run the London Candidates tournament in the Spring of 2013 won by Carlsen.  He provides the ‘color commentary’ for both the London tournament and the World Championship match in Chennai.  As Logothetis was involved with the London event, his prose on the Candidates tournament is more ‘insidery’ and illuminating, but the account of the Chennai match is more than serviceable.  You get a fairly good feel for the atmosphere of both events as they unfolded, more along the lines of a real-time telling than a retrospective looking-back.  The great advantage of this mode of presentation, at least to me, is that something of the drama is retained when the final outcome is not retroactively baked into the text.

Grandmaster Vassilos Kotronias handled the analysis and annotation duties.  Here the book shines.  Kotronias obviously incorporated the best insights from other annotators in his work on the London games, citing analysis from CBM 154, etc.  He did not have the benefit of anything other than the instant annotations for his work on the Chennai match, but having inspected the annotations of multiple Grandmasters, Kotronias’ notes are absolutely top notch.  Only Robert Hubner’s notes to Game 3 in Schach 12/2013 are more extensive; for anyone who knows Hubner’s work, this should not surprise.

The book itself is of very high quality, a hardcover with dozens of color pictures strewn through its pages.  The paper seems to be slightly different than is usual for Quality Chess, but this is probably due to the color printing.

Carlsen’s Assault is a fitting tribute to Magnus Carlsen’s historic victory in Chennai.  It is a book that every lover of chess history should consider purchasing.  Until we get the truly inside story from Carlsen, Nielsen, Hammer or Agdestein, Kotronias and Logothetis have given us the next best thing: a thoughtful, precise account of Carlsen’s march into chess immortality.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part III (Books!)

Now we get to the books.  (Yay!)  Because you may be buying for a few different types of person, I’m going to break my recommendations into four main groups.  Note that each recommendation is accompanied by a very brief synopsis or note, and not with a full review.  I’d never get anything else done today if I were to strive for more than that!

Also: as a general rule, avoid buying any self-published Kindle books by authors you’ve never heard of.  They might be cheap, but you get what you pay for.

For the young beginning player

  • Chess For Children: How to Play the World’s Most Popular Board Game ($12.20ish at Amazon) is a lovely introduction to the game, replete with fun illustrations and solid instruction.  The authors are a Kiwi Grandmaster and his wife.
  • That same Grandmaster, Murray Chandler, also wrote How to Beat Your Dad at Chess ($12.71ish at Amazon).  This book focuses on checkmating patterns, and every player – including adults of all ratings – would do well to memorize the 50 patterns here.  True beginners might not be best served by this book, but it’s great for those who have played a bit and really want to beat Dad (or Mom, or Grandma).  Chandler is also the author of Chess Tactics for Kids ($15ish at Amazon) which outlines 50 key tactical patterns.
  • Susan Polgar’s dvd Learn Chess the Easy Way – Chess for Absolute Beginners ($19.95ish at Amazon) is a whimsical entry into the world of chess.  She uses computer animation and some silly characters to bring the rudiments of chess to life on the screen.  I’ve the first couple of chapters when leading workshops on chess for the Boy Scouts and at a chess camp, and the kids alternately enjoy the animation and groan when it gets a little much.
  • An older child – or an adult – will find Fred Wilson’s Simple Attacking Plans ($12ish at Amazon) to be of great value.  Wilson analyzes 37 games from players of a range of abilities, showing standard attacking themes and thrilling tactical thunderbolts.  I’ve played through the games in this book and found them very instructive, even at my relatively advanced level.
  • If you’re looking for a book to use to teach your child chess, Chess is Child’s Play: Teaching Techniques that Work ($16ish at Amazon) is a tested, systematic approach.
  • If your child was born with a mouse in her hand, there is the Fritz & Chesster trilogy ($20ish at Amazon) of learning programs from Chessbase.
  • Finally, having seen how obsessed children can be with tablets, the Dinosaur Chess app in the Apple Store is absolutely amazing.  I know anecdotally about two children who have used the app and adore it.

For the adult beginning player

  • John Nunn’s Learn Chess ($10ish at Amazon) is a no-nonsense primer.  Grandmaster Nunn is a reliable author, and most anything he writes will be a worthwhile purchase.
  • Chess for the Gifted and Busy ($16ish at Amazon) won’t quite get you all the way to expert, as the title suggests, but GM Lev Alburt and Al Lawrence have put together a book chock-full of instruction.  It’s dense, and it might move a little too quickly for some, but the work is overflowing with chess wisdom.
  • I’ve always thought that Chess Openings for Kids ($14ish at Amazon) by IM John Watson and FM Graham Burgess was sadly misnamed, since it’s not just for kids!  This is a well-constructed book that provides the key ideas for fifty opening systems and tabiyas.  Any player looking to expand his understanding of the most opening would find this book helpful.
  • Chess for Rookies ($20ish at Amazon) is another sturdy introduction to the game.  Craig Pritchett covers most all the bases here, and in a reader-friendly way.
  • Tactics are the most important thing for the beginning player to master if they are to improve.  Chandler’s How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and Chess Tactics for Kids, discussed above, are good.  I like John Bain’s Chess Tactics for Students, and I use this book when I teach at chess camps.  John Nunn’s Learn Chess Tactics ($16ish at Amazon) is comprehensive and clear.  Chess Tactics for Champions by Polgar and Truong ($17ish at Amazon) is a cost-effective collection of puzzles for solving.  Finally, Jeff Coakley’s Winning Chess Exercises for Kids  ($24ish at Amazon) is, for me, the best single collection of problems for beginning players of all ages to solve.  I’ve used pages from Coakley’s book with my chess team, and I’ve found the problems to be instructive and the answer key highly educational.

For the player ascending the rating latter

  • I believe that improving players – and particularly young players – should know their chess history.  Most good teachers will tell their pupils that intensive study of the great players of the past is a great way to improve their understanding and chess culture.  It’s for that reason that I think Max Euwe’s The Development of Chess Style (OOP, but lots of copies are available at Amazon) is a really important book for improving players to read.  Euwe shows the historical progression of chess strategy and theory through a few dozen annotated games.  He’s a great writer, and games are a lot of fun to play through.  Learning the theory of chess shouldn’t feel this easy.
  • I also really liked the new edition of Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937 ($24ish at Amazon) released by Russell Enterprises this year.  Alekhine was a great annotator and his games are always entertaining.  You can read my review of this book if you are so inclined.
  • You can never do enough tactics.  Martin Weteschnik’s Chess Tactics from Scratch ($25ish at Amazon) will show your player how tactics work, while The Complete Chess Workout 2 by Palliser ($24ish at Amazon) will give them plenty of tactical practice.
  • Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess ($21ish at Amazon) is an advanced treatise on attack.  It’s amazing, and it’s full of tidbits of attacking wisdom that would take years to acquire on one’s own.  If the person you’re buying for is a serious chess player, this is a fantastic book.
  • Finally, I just reviewed Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating ($20ish at Amazon) and dubbed it the book of the year.  This book provides a full-blown training program for the improving player.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

For the older tournament player

  • As we age, we have to face facts: we’re not going to (necessarily) be able to keep up with the 12 year old tactical dynamos.  Sometimes adjustments are required.  Two recent books by John Watson – for me, the best chess writer around – can help with that, at least with the openings.  Watson’s Play the French 4 ($23ish at Amazon) and A Strategic Opening Repertoire for White ($19ish at Amazon) are both opening works of the highest standard.  Both books offer fully vetted repertoires with excellent verbal explanation of key ideas.  Watson’s four volume series Mastering the Chess Openings [ volume 1 | volume 2 | volume 3 | volume 4 ] remains the single best resource on opening play in general, and all four volumes are now available in Kindle format.
  • Older players can also outstrip their young opponents through positional play and the endgame.  Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Play ($21ish at Amazon) is a brilliant look at some of strategic tricks of the trade.  John Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endgames ($19ish at Amazon) is a handy overview of numerous endgame theoretical positions and themes.  Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual ($26ish) is, of course, a real classic, and Mikhail Shereshevsky’s classic Endgame Strategy ($16ish at Amazon) is the best single introduction to endgame strategy in print.
  • Andy Soltis’ 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames ($19ish at Amazon for paperback) is available in Kindle format, and will be out in paper in January.  This looks like another of Soltis’ better books, offering 100 ‘priyomes’ or nuggets of chess knowledge in very palatable format.
  • Fans of chess culture will love Hans Ree’s My Chess ($19ish at Amazon) and the new translation of Euwe’s tournament book on the 1948 Hague / Moscow Match Tournament ($19ish at Amazon).  You can read my review of the Ree book hereRussell Enterprises, as an aside, is really doing the chess world a great service by translating and algebratizing some of the treasures of chess literature.  Kudos to them!

I can’t possibly hope to cover all the books out there, but if readers have questions about specific titles, I’d be glad to try and answer them in the comments.