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.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part II

In Part I of this buying guide, I discussed digital clocks and the central element in chess software, the GUI.  Here, in Part II, I will provide options for the purchase of chess databases and engines.  Finally, I will list in Part III a veritable cornucopia of chess books for that special chess player in your life.  Really, let’s be honest: isn’t your chess player worth it? Smile

As I wrote in Part I, there are three components or facets of chess software that every aspiring chess player should own.  First, there is the GUI, or the graphical interface.  I discussed both ChessBase 12, a full database solution for chess data, and the Fritz family of GUIs, which have limited database function but include playing engines and capabilities.  Second, there is the database itself, containing millions of games, and in some cases, audio and video instruction.  Finally, there is the engine, that dab of programming magic that analyzes the position and provides super-GM output.

Here, in Part II, I will discuss the two main databases available from ChessBase, as well as a number of options for chess engines.  Readers who are coming to this post without having read Part I are advised to read that piece at their leisure.

Database: ChessBase is the author of two reference databases, the Big and Mega Databases.  (The data in each database is identical, save the fact that there are no annotated games in the Big Database and approximately 68,000 of them in the Mega.)  New editions of each are published each November, and the 2014 edition of the Big and Mega Databases is now available.

The download and installation process for the Mega Database is fairly easy, but be warned: the main database is over a gigabyte of data compressed, so it will take some time to download.  The installer required a few clicks, and soon enough, the icon for Mega Database 2014 was sitting in my ChessBase window, ready for my use.

Mega Database contains approximately 5.8 million games, 68k or so of which are annotated.  The database has a number of indexes or ‘keys’ that users can search to pinpoint just what they are looking for: a specific player, an opening position, a tournament, or even a tactical motif.  ChessBase 12 users have many more search and key options than do users of the GUI; this, to me, is one of the reasons that (if finances allow) ChessBase 12 should be on your shopping list.

Long-time computer users will remember the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.  If your data is ‘dirty,’  your output will suffer.  One of the great things about the Big and Mega Databases is that they are absolutely pristine.  ChessBase employs full time data-wranglers – two GMs among them – to update the database, keep player names correct, etc.  They also offer free weekly updates to the Big and Mega Databases for download with purchase, allowing your chess player to keep her database completely up to date.

There are lots of other goodies included with these databases, including a player encyclopedia with pictures of thousands of players around the globe.  I don’t use this feature, to be frank, so I can’t speak to it.  Interested parties can check out Albert Silver’s review at chessbase.com.

If your player is serious about their chess software, they’ll need a reference database.  The Big and Mega Databases are the best around, and they’re well worth your purchase.  Either will be a valuable addition to your player’s setup.  The annotated games are nice, but feel free to save a little money here and go with the Big Database.  Access to the games is what’s important.

The Big Database is available at Amazon for just over $50, and the Mega Database sells there for about $150.  If you’re in a time crunch, of course, you can always directly purchase and download both the Big Database and Mega Database from ChessBase.  Note that if your favorite player has an older version of the Mega Database, you can also purchase an update to the 2014 edition for a reduced price at the ChessBase site.

(Note: ChessBase also publishes dozens upon dozens of training DVDs and downloads.  Any one would probably be a welcome gift for your player, but recommending any specific training module would require some knowledge of your player, what openings she plays, etc.  Peruse their wares at your leisure and see if maybe something strikes your fancy.)

Engines: All of the Fritz family of GUIs come with playing engines.  These engines can be plugged into ChessBase 12, or they can run on their own inside the Fritz GUIs.  (ChessBase 12 includes an older version of the Fritz engine and an open-source engine called Crafty.  Both are plenty strong, but neither is state of the art.)  There are three commercial engines to consider for your gift giving needs, but I’ll also clue you in on some free alternatives as well.

  • Deep Fritz 14: Fritz is the granddaddy of commercial engines, but with this year’s release of version 14, a few things have changed.  The old Fritz engine has been retired, and the ‘new’ Fritz is actually the 2013 medal-winning Pandix engine by Gyula Horváth.  In contrast to older Fritzes, Deep Fritz 14 is a multi-processor engine, meaning that it can run on up to eight cores at once.  This dramatically speeds up the search and strength of the engine.  Deep Fritz 14 comes with a 1.5 million game database.
  • Houdini 4: Houdini 4 is a UCI engine sold by ChessBase in the Fritz interface.  Basically you get the same GUI as with Deep Fritz, but instead of the Deep Fritz engine, it comes with Houdini 4.  Robert Houdart is the author of Houdini, and the engine is generally considered to be the strongest engine publicly available.  Houdini is also the engine of choice for many grandmasters in their published analysis.  It, like all of the Fritz GUIs, comes with a 1.5 million game database.
  • Komodo: Komodo, unlike Fritz or Houdini, is not sold by ChessBase.  It is also a UCI engine, and it is currently developed by IM Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler.  The late Don Dailey was the original author of the engine, and Kaufman and Lefler are continuing its development after Dailey’s recent untimely death.  The current version – Komodo TCEC – just won a major tournament, staking its claim to being one of the top engines in the world.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon for about $80, and you can also purchase a downloadable version of the GUI / engine combo at ChessBase for about the same price.  Both versions include a six month premier membership at Playchess.com, allowing your gift-recipient to watch videos and live tournament broadcasts online for free.

Houdini 4 comes in two flavors: the Standard, which runs on up to six cores, and the Professional, which will run on up to thirty-two.  Houdini 4 Standard sells on Amazon for about $100, and the Pro version will run you $116.  As always, you can order a downloadable version of the Standard and the Pro from ChessBase for about the same price.  The ChessBase Houdini also comes with a six month premier Playchess membership.

Readers should note that Houdini is also available as a stand-alone purchase directly from Houdart.  Buying Houdini 4 directly from the author is slightly cheaper (Standard is about $55, Pro is just over $80) and will also allow your player to access discounted updates to the engine in the future.  This purchase does not include a GUI, but it might make sense if your player has an older version of the Fritz or Houdini interface and just needs the latest and greatest engine.

Komodo is only available from the developers.  It is currently the cheapest option at $49.95, and it also requires some kind of GUI for its proper use.

From my perspective, Houdini and Komodo are the two strongest engines available for purchase.  (There is a third engine – Stockfish – that might be about as strong as Houdini and Komodo, but I leave that to your research.)  I’ve used Houdini extensively in my own chess study, and its analysis is both fast and frighteningly accurate.  Komodo is slightly slower in terms of its search, but it makes up for that relative slowness with a highly precise positional sense.  Deep Fritz is, of course, strong as well – most any modern engine will destroy even top GMs in over-the-board play – but it’s not in the same league as Houdini or Komodo.

Were I to choose one, I’d go with Houdini.  It gets to the depths of the position quickly, making it indispensible for analytical work and chess study.  Komodo is nearly as good a choice, and Deep Fritz – while coming in third in this race – will also serve your gift recipient well.

Summary of buying chess software: Chess software, as I have said, involves three elements – the GUI, the database, and the engine.  The GUI is the most basic of these, and that without which the other two are inaccessible.

For that reason, my number one recommendation for a gift for your player is the Houdini 4 Standard engine and GUI from ChessBase. [ Amazon link | ChessBase downloadable link ]  You can play against Houdini and have it analyze your games, and both the included database and database functions are sufficient for most players.  If your gift is your player’s first step into the world of chess software, Houdini 4 will be a real pleaser.

More advanced players – in terms of rating or ambition – would be thrilled to own the full ChessBase 12 package.  The standard package [ Amazon link | ChessBase link ] includes the Big Database and will serve your player well for years to come.   If you’re hoping to save a little money, consider the downloadable version of ChessBase 12 from ChessBase, and tell your gift-ee to download free games updated weekly at Mark Crowther’s wonderful website The Week in Chess.