Time for a New Clock?

This essay has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Note that all prices listed in the review are from uscfsales.com as of mid July 2016. The in-text links do not go to USCF Sales but to Amazon (with the exception of the Vtek), and so prices may vary widely.


Each year the Delegates to the United States Chess Federation meet at the U.S. Open. Among their many duties are the consideration of various motions, some of which deal with changes to the Official Rules of Chess. Some of these changes are minor and of little practical consequence for the majority of players. Others, like the rewriting of Rules 5E and especially 5F – passed at the 2015 Delegates Meeting and enacted on January 1st of this year – warrant closer attention.

Rule 5F deals with the ‘Standard Timer,’ enumerating the criteria by which a chess clock can be considered tournament legal. You can find all of the details online at uschess.org, but the bottom line is this: analog clocks, while still legal, are on the way out. They don’t allow for delay time, now assumed standard, or increment (5E), and digital clocks are to be preferred to analog clocks in all cases (5F4).

Every active tournament player should own a digital clock, but which one? Two traditionally popular manufacturers – Excalibur (Gametime II) and Saitek (Chess Competition or ‘Blue Scholastic’ clocks, Competition Pro) – have ceased production. The venerable Chronos clocks are still generally available, although they have been hard to come by in recent years, and programming them remains a challenge even for seasoned users. [1]

The good news is that a slew of new clocks have come to market, with options and price points to appeal to every type of chess consumer. Which one is best, and for whom? There is no single answer to this kind of question, but readers should be well-equipped to make educated buying decisions by the end of this article.

Modes and Methodology

One of the difficulties in assessing the features of competing clocks is the terminology. What’s the difference between delay, Bronstein, and Fischer modes? What’s the difference for the practical player?

The U.S. Chess Federation rule book differentiates between delay (pause) and increment (added) time modes (Rules 5, 42), and it recognizes two types of delay. Most American players are familiar with simple delay, where a player’s clock does not begin to decrease for a specified amount of time (usually five seconds) after pressing the clock.

With Bronstein or ‘add-back’ delay, invented by former World Championship Challenger David Bronstein, clock time begins to decrease when it is a player’s turn to move, and the time used, up to the specified delay, is added back when the player hits the clock. US Chess rules consider these two forms of delay to be mathematically equivalent.

Fischer or ‘bonus’ mode, named after its inventor, the American World Champion Bobby Fischer, is usually described in America as an increment. Time is added to a player’s clock with each completed move, although some clocks (notably DGTs) also add the increment time when a player’s clock first starts. In both cases, and in contrast to delay, a player can accumulate more time than she started with via the increment.

Current US Chess rules do not specify which type of delay is preferred, although simple delay is the de facto standard. FIDE prefers Bronstein delay. The clocks under consideration in this article will vary as to how they implement both delay and increment, and I will note these differences accordingly.

My analysis is drawn from extensive hands-on investigations and over-the-board play. I have also lent some of them out to friends and students for their inspection and comments. In what follows I first offer descriptions of all the clocks ordered by manufacturer, and I conclude with a series of recommendations for different types of players. All clock prices are drawn from the USCF Sales website as this article went to press.


Digital Game Technology, or DGT, is perhaps the leading purveyor of chess technology in the world. Based in the Netherlands, DGT manufactures the e-boards and e-pieces used to transmit moves to the web at all the biggest events, and they also produce a full line of clocks.

Broadly speaking, we can divide DGT’s product line in two: a scholastic segment (1001, Easy, Easy Plus) and a tournament segment (2010, 3000, NA). The scholastic clocks are tournament-legal but lack certain features that more serious players would expect; this is reflected in their relative cost. The tournament clocks, while slightly more expensive, possess a full range of features and settings. Let’s have a closer look at each model.

The DGT 1001 ($29.95) is a small clock designed for the beginner. It lacks delay and increment, and it can only be set for one time control – for G/90, say, instead of 40/90, SD/30. The tradeoff is that it is incredibly easy to program. You just press the plus or minus buttons on the top of the clock to change the starting times, hit the play button, and you’re off. My youngest student, age 8, managed to correctly set it within a minute or two of opening the box.

The Easy ($34.95) and Easy Plus ($44.95) share a unique housing and profile: they are shaped rather like an index card folded longways. The Easy comes in three different colors and the Easy Plus in just one, and both clocks can only be programmed for one time control. What distinguishes the two is their ability to handle delay and increment. The Easy lacks these functions, while the Easy Plus can be set for simple delay and increment. These clocks seem the sturdiest of the DGT line, and I found them fairly easy to set.

While the 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus are all limited and perhaps best for beginning or scholastic players, the DGT 2010, 3000 and North American (NA) are robust clocks suitable for all playing conditions and time controls. Because of the similarities between the 2010 and NA, I will treat them in tandem before turning to the 3000.

The 2010 (unavailable through USCF Sales; $85.95 at Chess4Less) and North American or NA ($49.95), like the Easy and Easy Plus, share a common housing and are physically identical save their color. What separates them is their feature set. The NA was specifically designed for the North American market, with settings and timing modes commonly used in American tournaments. The 2010 features Bronstein delay and increment along with other time settings like byo-yomi and count-up that are used in Go and Scrabble. Both can be set for up to four time controls.

The 2010 and NA are programmed in the same manner. Users select from presets – thirty-six in the case of the 2010, twenty-three in the case of the NA – listed on the bottom of the clock, including a number of adjustable options. I found the setting of both clocks to be quick and intuitive, although I have to admit that I struggled until I actually read the LCD and configured seconds instead of delay time! Blitz fans, however, will lament the fact that you have to pick the clock up and turn it off/on to reset it for each game.

The 3000 ($109.95) is DGT’s top-of-the-line clock. It’s the one you see in use at major events like the U.S. Championship, the Sinquefield Cup, etc., because when connected to a DGT e-Board broadcasters can transmit both moves and move times to the Internet. The 3000 is the only DGT clock to allow for simple delay, Bronstein delay, and increment, and it’s the only clock I’ve seen that shows seconds on the display in all time controls and timing modes.

The 3000 comes with twenty-five presets along with five manual settings that can be saved for future use. It is set in much the same fashion as the 2010 and the NA – both of which it resembles, save the slightly larger LCD – but the 3000 also allows users to choose timing methods from a list on the display. This makes its programming very simple. You do have to pick up the clock to reset it, as with the 2010 and NA, so players primarily searching for a blitz clock might look elsewhere.


OmcorChess is a chess manufacturer from Mexico, and the GameTimer 960 ($44.95) is their first clock on the American market. It is so new, in fact, that my review model was the first of its kind that I’d seen.

The shape and size of the clock are similar to that of the higher-end DGT clocks, and like them, the GameTimer 960 uses a rocker arm. It is also set in a similar manner, with fifty-eight timing options (printed on the bottom of the clock) available, including simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment along with byo-yomi and Scrabble options.

One important feature of the GameTime 960 is its utility for Chess 960 players. [2] Users can press the 960 button and a random 960 starting position will appear on the display. Unfortunately the GameTimer manual is very poorly translated, so I was not able to fully grasp all the dimensions of this feature. The clock also comes in a USB equipped version, allowing users to display clock times on a computer screen.

On the whole the GameTime 960 seems feature-rich and fairly well-built, although the rocker arm feels less secure than do those on DGT clocks. I did find the location of the delay / increment countdown to be unfortunate, as it appears in a spot on the display that would be natural for a seconds counter.


The VTek 300 ($149.95 at chesshouse.com), produced by VisualTek Inc. in conjunction with Shelby Lohrman of American Chess Equipment, is an American-made clock that boasts a unique feature. It is fully menu driven, with a series of options and suboptions accessed through a dedicated line of text on the LCD display.

The VTek has the largest footprint among the clocks reviewed here, and it is also the heaviest of the bunch. Available in multiple colors, the VTek has a metal housing with mechanical push buttons and LED move indicators. The manual suggests that there are 36 preset time controls available, along with a dedicated ‘create new’ option. Simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment modes are available, but oddly enough, controls for Bronstein time are found under an increment settings menu.

There is no question that having a full text menu is helpful in correctly setting the VTek, and the fact that user preferences are set globally (FIDE style, USCF style, etc.) is an interesting innovation. It did take this long-time Chronos user some time to learn the button combinations needed to navigate the menus, and for some reason, you can’t specifically turn the move counter on or off. This last quirk might be corrected with updated firmware, something that VisualTek intends to make available to its users through a mail-in service.


ZmartFun, a Miami-based company, offers two clocks that are perhaps the most direct challengers to Chronos’ market share. The ZMF-II ($59.95) has a plastic case and a bright LED display, while the ZMF-Pro ($99.95) is housed in metal and has two large LCD displays. Both are equipped with touch-sensitive buttons, and both share an identical set of menu options and settings.

There is a bit of a learning curve to setting ZMF clocks, and I had to refer much more closely to the manual than I did with the other clocks under review. Still, setting the clock is not onerous, and I found it simpler to learn (if memory serves) than was the Chronos. Users have three preset option slots available to them, and stock time controls and preferences can be edited and saved as new presets for future use. Both clocks feature simple delay and increment settings along with byo-yomi and Scrabble modes, and blitz fans will love the fact that the clock can be reset with three clicks of the central button.

There is a touch of iconoclasm about these clocks. The ZMF-II is the only clock on the market to use colorful LEDs for display panels, and the ZMF-Pro shows clock times with large numbers that fill the display. Both depart from the usual norms of chess clock design. I’ve found that players are divided on the ZMF-II, with some loving the bright LEDs and others (including me) finding them distracting. I’d not seen the ZMF-Pro before receiving my review clock; when I used it in a blitz tournament, I found the oversized numbers jarring and put it aside after the first game.


After all of this, the question remains: which of these new clocks should you buy? The answer is… it depends.

Let’s say you run a scholastic program or after-school chess club, and you’re not running US Chess tournaments regularly. In this case it would make sense to buy multiple inexpensive clocks, even if they lack features like delay, increment, or multiple time controls. The DGT 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus would all be logical choices, with the Easy being the best compromise between price and build quality.

At $49.95, the DGT North American is an outstanding choice for the majority of US Chess players, and I think it the best value on the market today. The NA is sturdy and reliable, and it has every feature that an American tournament player could need. The Omcor GameTimer 960 would also serve most players well, although I’d like to see it used more widely before recommending it, and blitz fans might turn to the ZMF-II for their blitz and tournament needs.

If you are looking for the best clock available, and money is no object, there are only two choices. The DGT 3000 and the VTek 300 are both fantastic. They are well built, easy to set, and feature-rich. If pressed, I would pick the 3000 because of the lower cost and the expansive display, but I’d resent being forced to choose!

I have used all of the clocks mentioned in this article over the past few months, but I keep coming back to three for over-the-board play: the DGT NA, the DGT 3000, and the VTek 300. Each of these clocks would serve you well for many years, and each one receives my full recommendation.

[1] It should be noted that the author tried to contact the manufacturers of the Chronos clock as part of this review on multiple occasions, as did industry intermediaries on behalf of the author. No response was ever received.

[2] Note that DGT also produces a 960 capable clock, the DGT 960 ($39.95), but its small size and design make it less than ideal for serious tournament play. As a portable game timer, however, the DGT 960 might make sense for many players, especially those interested in 960 chess.

“The Reader’s Road to Chess”

This review has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Chess Life began its life in 1946 as a four page newspaper, focused primarily on promoting USCF activities and reporting the news in American chess. The Nebraskan in me was thrilled to discover the coverage of Nebraskan chess and chess personalities in those early years, including the profiles of Rev. Howard Ohman and Delmar Saxton in issue I.7. The bibliophile, however, was initially left cold.

The first mentions of chess books in Chess Life appear in advertisements in issue I.5. The tournament book for the 1946 US Open was offered by the USCF on page 3, while famed New York bookseller Albrecht Buschke advertised works by Nimzovich and Reti alongside new titles by Chernev and Reinfeld on page 4. The announcement of a new “service department” appeared in issue I.10, marking the USCF’s entry into selling books and equipment to its members.

The inaugural installment of “The Reader’s Road To Chess,” the first review column in Chess Life, was published in issue I.15. Chess Life editor Montgomery Major read Learn Chess Fast by Reshevsky and Reinfeld and found it “so adequate” that “this reviewer has no critical comments to make.” Among the other books to be favorably reviewed in those early issues were Chess by Yourself (I.17), Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess (II.9), Nimzovich the Hypermodern (II.13), and Botvinnik, the Invincible (II.18), all of which were written by Fred Reinfeld.

Some readers may be wondering if I’ve lost the plot. Fred Reinfeld? Wasn’t he the guy who wrote all those antiquated beginners books, the ones that every chess snob makes fun of? What gives?

While modern prejudice has swung against him, the truth is that Fred Reinfeld was a fine author, an important Chess Life columnist, and one of the strongest American players of his day. The winner of the New York State Championship (twice) and champion of both the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs, Reinfeld was ranked sixth on the first USCF rating list. An example of his playing ability can be found in this 1932 victory over Reshevsky:

Reinfeld,Fred – Reshevsky,Samuel [E16]

Western Championship Minneapolis, 08.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 c5 6.d5 exd5 7.Nh4 g6 8.Nc3 h6 9.0–0 a6 10.cxd5 d6 11.e4 Bg7 12.f4 Nfd7 13.a4 0–0 14.Be3 Kh7 15.Qc2 Nf6 16.h3 Nbd7 17.Rae1 Re8 18.Bf2 Ng8 19.e5 dxe5 20.f5 Nf8 21.fxg6+ fxg6 22.Be4 Qd6 23.Be3 Ne7 24.Rf7 Kg8 25.Ref1 Nxd5 26.Rxb7 Nxe3 27.Qf2 Nf5 28.Nxf5 gxf5 29.Qxf5 Kh8 30.Rf7 Ng6


A honest assessment of Reinfeld’s authorial career is made difficult by his conscious choice to write for a popular audience. This decision, like that to retire from active tournament play in 1942, was driven by economic circumstance. Reinfeld had a family to support, and Walter Korn quotes him as saying that “…I played and wrote seriously – and got nothing for it. When I pour out mass-produced trash, the royalties come rolling in.”

In this light it is possible to forgive the numerous ‘potboilers’ that appear under Reinfeld’s name and that re-appear under different titles. It should not, however, blind us to the many quality works that span his œuvre. We generally find the more serious analytical efforts early in Reinfeld’s career, while later titles are mainly popular in nature. Let me conclude this month’s column by mentioning the best of both types.

Almost all of Reinfeld’s serious games collections remain worthwhile for the majority of readers. Besides the three mentioned above, I can recommend his books on Capablanca (The Immortal Games of Capablanca), Keres (Keres’ Best Games of Chess 1931-1948), and Lasker (Lasker’s Greatest Chess Games; written with Fine). Stick with the original editions and avoid the dodgy reprints.

Some will harp on the errors in Reinfeld’s analysis. Of course they exist, but Reinfeld’s notes are generally trustworthy upon inspection, and he writes with a brevity that today’s silicon-enhanced authors often lack. I compared his analysis of Rauzer-Botvinnik (ch-USSR, 1933) in Botvinnik, the Invincible with that of Kasparov in My Great Predecessors II; if I am honest, I found Reinfeld’s version more digestible and edifying.

For the best of his later works, have a look at the “Fred Reinfeld Chess Classics” from Russell Enterprises. Reinfeld’s books are translated into algebraic notation in this series, making classics like 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate and 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations available to those who never bothered to learned descriptive. Generations of American players cut their teeth on these two books, and they remain useful for players looking to improve their tactics.

“Year” books

This review has been printed in the August 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Gormally, Danny. Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-934656-9-9. PB 248pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $31ish at Amazon.

Zhdanov, Peter. Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-937009-7-4. PB 376pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $23ish at Amazon.

What would you give to become a grandmaster? Years of travel and heartbreak? The lack of a proper social life? Perhaps your pinky toe?

Whatever your answer, you may rethink it after reading Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World, one of a number of new books from the Polish publishing house Chess Evolution.

Gormally is an English Grandmaster rated 2494 FIDE as of June 2016. He’s not a guy who gets invites to the top events, and at age 40, there’s little hope of his suddenly ascending the Elo list. Gormally is a working-class GM, one who has to scramble to find teaching and writing gigs to supplement his tournament winnings and support himself.

The problem, as Gormally describes it, is that he is too lazy for teaching, writing is hard work, and age, lack of study and increasingly solid competition make tournaments a risky source of income.

Still want to be a Grandmaster?

A Year Inside the Chess World is, on first blush, an awfully bleak book, and Gormally pulls no punches in its telling. He berates himself for his inability to beat untitled players, for his lack of luck with women, for his being overweight. We eavesdrop on many nights spent drinking with floundering colleagues. There is more than a whiff of a sexism that is all too typical in the chess world. And there are pages where Gormally veers dangerously close to TMI territory with references to thwarted onanism and dodgy Hamburg strip clubs.

In its brutal honesty, however, there is something admirable and perhaps even triumphant about A Year Inside the Chess World. As the book progresses, we see Gormally start to reckon with his limitations. He considers leaving chess and taking up a straight job, but at the same time, we see him begin to take steps to make chess a viable profession once more.

So what changes? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was authoring a DVD on the English Attack for ChessBase that gave him confidence. Perhaps it was working seriously with modern engines or analyzing with strong GMs that stoked his analytical fire. Ultimately I suspect that the writing of the book itself, and the self-examination it required, played a therapeutic role.

There is much more to A Year Inside the Chess World than suggested above. Gormally includes excellent analysis of his games and those of others, and there are many asides and essays on chess personalities and the current state of the game. Still, this is largely a book about Gormally himself, and in pulling back the curtain on his life, warts and all, he has given us something truly fascinating.

Some of the inspiration for Gormally’s book came from blog posts he wrote for pogonina.com, the online home of WGM Natalia Pogonina and her husband / manager Peter Zhdanov. Zhdanov has also recently published a book with Chess Evolution called Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Unfortunately for Zhdanov and for his publisher, it is not a particularly good one.

The conceit underlying Yearbook of Chess Wisdom is fairly clear. There are 366 short essays on various themes, one for each day of the calendar year. The topics covered follow no discernible pattern or order. In truth it is nothing more than a compendium of Zhdanov’s meandering thoughts on the chess world.

It’s not that there’s anything objectionable in the essays per se – well, actually, there is, and I’ll get to that shortly. The problem is that most of Zhdanov’s book is banal or uninteresting, and the few interesting ideas are usually borrowed from others. So the useful essay on studying the opening (9/7) is basically cribbed from GM Roman Ovechkin, while the numerous listicles, the musings on Zodiac signs (1/11), and the gross elitism (9/30) are all Zhdanov.

There is also the issue of Zhdanov’s sexism. There are multiple essays (7/11, 7/16, 7/26, 8/25, 12/15) that are laughably sexist. There is an essay devoted to “pick-up lines for Caissa” (9/8) wherein the goddess is said to prefer guys who – surprise! – seem very similar to Zhdanov. He even offers bizarre advice about sex at tournaments based on “extensive research” (3/23) – his “Chess Kama Sutra” book from a few years back.

I have no doubt that untitled players like Zhdanov can write important chess books. This is not one of them. Zhdanov is long on platitudes, short on insight, and drops far too many names. His Yearbook of Chess Wisdom hardly lives up to its title, and you’d be wise to pass on it.

Structures, Plans and Ideas

This review has been printed in the July 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Hickl, Jörg. The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916312. PB 192pp. List $19.95, currently ~$14.00 at Amazon.

Originally published in 2008 to positive reviews, Jörg Hickl’s Die Macht der Bauern: Strukturen, Pläne und Ideen für Vereinsspieler is out in translation from New in Chess as The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Why now, after eight years and when other books have been published on similar themes?

The short answer is that Hickl’s book is rather good and deserves to be exposed to the English speaking chess world. There are multiple titles available that deal with typical pawn structures and how to play them, but The Power of Pawns is among the best for club players (a better translation for Vereinsspieler) looking to boost their general chess sense.

Hickl describes the impetus for his book in its Introduction.

In the middle of the 90s, when in addition to top-level sport I focussed more of my chess activity on the organisation of chess holidays and chess training, the needs of the majority of club players were foreign to me. … In more than ten years of intensive work and communication with the participants in my holidays, the same questions about structures and evaluation of positions kept coming up. I became aware that club players have to struggle with a similar approach and similar problems.

These reflections led among others to the following questions: ‘Can I do some­thing to improve this situation? Where can my experience help to make learning easier for chess players? And how can they make progress?’ (7)

What Hickl discovered was that club players, generally speaking, were not linking their in-game planning to the pawn structures on their boards. Certain structures – hanging pawns, the isolani, doubled pawns, etc. – required working knowledge of typical plans and ideas (Pläne und Ideen as in the German sub-title) if they were to be successfully navigated. An examination of those structures, plans and ideas is the project of The Power of Pawns.

Hickl’s book proceeds in two parts. The first and slighter section deals with the pieces most affected by pawn structure: knights, bishops and rooks. In three successive chapters he explains why some ‘bad’ bishops can be good, where knights are better than bishops (and vice versa), and why rooks love open files.

The majority of the book treats seven ‘basic’ pawn structures or features of pawn structures, one per chapter: hanging pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, passed pawns, doubled pawns, weak squares and pawn chains. There is some disconnect between the generic chapter titles and their contents. The chapter on isolated pawns, for instance, deals solely with the isolated queen’s pawn, and it is primarily structures coming from the Nimzo-Indian (pawns on c3/c4/d4) and Sicilian (f7/f6/e6/d6) under scrutiny in the chapter on doubled pawns.

Chapters share a common format. Hickl begins with a pawn skeleton and sketches the key plans and ideas that arise from it. Model games are presented thematically and with wordy analysis. Instructive supplemental games are recommended. Along the way Hickl asks questions of his readers and inserts helpful hints for the improving player. The result is a compact, eminently useful guide to key positional themes and structures.

Many chess players now study chess books on tablets or computers, and in a wise marketing move, Hickl provides the raw scores of all the games for his readers to download. Curiously, however, the link given in the book – www.joerg-hickl.de – has not been operational since 2011. The URL redirects to another site where the games are available, but it does lead one to wonder why the editors kept the reference to an outdated link, and why an English language reader has to navigate a German page to find the promised downloads.

Other quirks point to an inconsistent editorial touch. The title is given as “The power of the pawns” on the first page of the Introduction. Analytical updates to the 2008 edition are haphazard. Old (and incorrect) engine analysis is left to stand on one page (99) and reference is made to the newest Komodo two pages later (101). The translation is clunky in places; see the block quote above for a typical example. And why have the German co-authors (Erik Zude and Uwe Schupp) been demoted to mere acknowledgees?

The German book website suggests that The Power of Pawns is suitable for players rated from 1300-2200. This range seems a little wide to me on both ends. All the same, Hickl has a knack for clearly explaining complex matters, and the club player looking to improve her knowledge of typical structures would find this book quite instructive.

Rage, rage…

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Chess for Life. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093832. PB 224pp. List $24.95, currently $18.63 at Amazon.

When a non-chess player sees a 10 year old playing an adult they feel sympathy for the child. When a chess player sees the same thing he feels sympathy for the adult.

– Brian Karen

Aging is, if we’re lucky, an inevitable element of human existence. On the whole we trade rapidity of thought for wisdom, but the hard fact of aging for chess players is that the trade is never equal. While we can play chess until we the day we die, the competitive nature of the game means that after a certain age, our results and ratings will begin to slip.

This is particularly true in the age of the machines. The concrete nature of modern chess practice tilts the playing field towards youth and their silicon-sharpened calculative abilities. Adult players could work harder to keep up, try to hone our dwindling skills as well as we can, but with jobs and children and all those responsibilities, this is an arms race that we cannot hope to win.

What’s a rapidly-approaching-middle-age guy to do? (Remember – research is me-search, folks.)

The subtitle of Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s Chess for Life is “understanding how chess skills develop and change with the passage of time.” It is also fairly illustrative of the book as a whole. In a series of interviews with, and case studies of, ‘older’ chess players, Sadler and Regan have written a thought-provoking and useful book for players of all ages. ‘Mature’ players will find it particularly helpful, however, as much of the material focuses on specific challenges faced by aging competitors.

Sadler and Regan are listed as co-authors of Chess for Life, but the preface makes clear that the division of labor was not equal. Sadler is responsible for the chess content and analytical work, while Regan crunched some of the data and worked over the prose. Both co-authors were involved in the ten interviews published in the book. You can see a table of contents, and therefore a list of interviewees, in this sample provided by Gambit.

The interviews are generally well done, and I can recommend most of them, excepting those with Judit Polgar, Ingrid Lauterbach and Sergei Tiviakov. These interviews are too cursory to do anything but scratch the surface of questions raised, although Tiviakov’s is partially redeemed by the case study that follows it.

Indeed, it is in the case studies, and in the manner in certain case studies augment the interviews, that this book shines. Sadler is a superlative chess writer – his book on the Queen’s Gambit is still among the finest available on the opening – and his analytical powers are on full display in Chess for Life. The study of Pia Cramling’s openings, for example, is a clear, concise dissection of how one builds a 1.d4 repertoire and how one tweaks it over time. The analysis of Tiviakov’s 3…Qd6 Scandinavian is painstakingly thorough. The discussion of Capablanca’s games – sadly the third World Champion could not be conjured for an interview – is as inspirational for us as Capablanca’s games were for Sadler.

The real star of Chess for Life is Keith Arkell; or, better put, Arkell as seen through the lens of Matthew Sadler. The interview is admittedly slight, but the two case studies that follow are outstanding. Sadler sifts through hundreds of Arkell’s games and teases out two key themes: his mastery of the Carlsbad Structure and his love of rook and pawn endings. In both cases Sadler does a superlative job of distilling the fundamentals of Arkell’s play and rendering them comprehensible for his non-GM readers.

If Chess for Life lacks anything, it is a concrete program for training or improvement by mature players. Most of the interviews are inspirational in nature, and while some of the case studies illustrate the building of opening repertoires, there are only two places in the book that we get anything resembling training tips or a list of best practices.

The first of these is in the interview with Terry Chapman, an amateur who took up chess with vigor in his retirement. Chapman is candid about the difficulties he faces as an older player – the errors in calculation, the blunders, etc. – and forthcoming with the training techniques he has developed to blunt them. Sadler and Regan compare Chapman’s account of his thought processes with that of Speelman, and I wish this aside had been a bit longer.

The second of these is the five page Conclusion that summarizes the author’s findings. The recapitulation of training strategies and tips on opening is useful, if brief. Sadler’s advice to play against engines on a mobile phone, however, left me cold. It might be good practice for a GM, but it would do nothing but demoralize an amateur player.

There are few books written specifically for the mature chess player, and even fewer that focus on the competitive challenges we face as we age. Chess for Life is a wonderful read for those of us who rage against the dying of our chess lights. Anyone who finds themselves dreading yet another game against ‘that hotshot kid’ would do well to check it out.

Understanding Rook Endings?

This review has been printed in the June 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  Note that there are slight differences between the printed text and this version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Müller, Karsten, and Yakov Konoval. Understanding Rook Endgames. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093818. PB 288pp. List $26.95, currently ~$19.60 at Amazon.

There is something of a consensus among top authors and teachers about how to study the endgame. First, there are key technical positions that must be memorized. The precise number of these positions varies – for Dvoretsky, it is about 220, while for de la Villa and Smith it is 100 – but the idea is that players should know certain terminal positions and aim for them in their analysis. This is to be coupled with a study of endgame strategy or typical endgame themes, with Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy typically recommended for this purpose.

What comes of such a plan for improvement? Ask Jeffery Xiong, who – as I was writing this review – used his knowledge of rook endings both typical and theoretical in this round one draw with Alexander Onischuk from the 2016 US Chess Championship.


30…b3+! 31.Kc1 Ra6 32.Rd8+ Kh7 33.Kd2 Rxa4 34.Kc3 Ra1 35.Rd2 a5!? 36.Kxb3 a4+ 37.Kc4 a3!

Heading for a theoretically drawn rook endgame with 3 pawns versus 2 on the kingside.

38.bxa3 Rxa3 39.Kxc5 h5! 40.Kd4 Ra5 41.Ke4 g6 42.f4 Kg7 43.h3 Kf7 44.Rd6 Ra2 45.g4 hxg4 46.hxg4=

This position is drawn according to the Lomosonov tablebases.

46…Ra7 47.g5 Rb7 48.Ke5 Ra7 49.Rf6+ Kg7 50.Rc6 Re7+ 51.Kd6 Re4 52.Rc7+ Kg8 53.Rc8+ ½–½

With Understanding Rook Endgames, just out from Gambit, Karsten Müller and co-author Yakov Konoval aim to offer readers both elements of a proper education in rook endings. The first four chapters (p.11-222) are an encyclopedic study of positions with up to 7 men: R&P vs R (ch 1), R&2P vs R (ch 2), R&P vs R&P (ch 3), and R&2P vs R&P (ch 4). The final four chapters (p.223-244) treat broader themes, including basic principles of rook endings and theoretical positions with more than 7 men.

The stark differential in page count between the two ‘halves’ of the book is not incidental. On the whole, this is a book devoted to 5-, 6- and 7-man rook endings. More than half of its pages focus on R&2P vs R&P, with each and every position fully checked with new 7-man tablebases. The analysis in the first four chapters is thus entirely correct, and this features prominently in the book’s advertising.

Is analytical certainty important for the average reader? Perhaps. It is nice to know that what appears on the page can be trusted completely, but an excessive authorial fascination with the machines is not without certain risks.

Müller and Konoval present immense amounts of computer-driven analysis throughout the book. There are long strings of analysis derived from the tablebases that lack sufficient explanation. Some positions are given with raw output from the tablebases – see §4.15, “Longest Wins” – and no effort is made to unpack the logic of the moves for the human player.

Chapters 5-8 might leaven the narrow focus of the first four chapters were they not so brief. There are a total of 33 positions analyzed in these chapters, while there are 271 (and 58 section headings!) just in chapter 4. There are also precious few principles and guidelines to be found here. Instead of another abbreviated account of the famous Kantorovich / Steckner position (6.04), why not include a more typical example of the 4 vs 3 with a-pawn ending and use it to explain key plans or ideas?

Müller and Konoval write in the introduction to Understanding Rook Endgames that they adhere to the “dual philosophy” (p.6) sketched at the beginning of this review. I don’t believe that they succeed in this task, as they lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. Chapters 1-4 – 73% of the book – contain too many theoretical positions and too much analysis to remember. Chapters 5-8 – a mere 8% of the book! – feel bolted on, added solely to justify the book’s title.

There is plenty of fascinating material to be found in Understanding Rook Endgames, but it is an encyclopedia of theoretical positions and not an instructional work. Non-masters hoping to understand rook endings should instead look to Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings or Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings.

Sac’ing the Exchange

This review has been printed in the May 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.


As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.