Hawkins, Jonathan. Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods. Newton Highlands, MA: Mongoose Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-036-40-7 (pb). $29.95.
Excerpt available here
(continued from Part I)
Raghavan is right to say that Amateur to IM is not an endgame textbook or encyclopedia. It’s not meant to be. As Hawkins notes in the Introduction, the book consists of two halves. Part I (“Thinking Techniques”) and Part II (“Principles and Essential Theory”) are ‘elementary,’ if by ‘elementary’ we mean that is composed of positions and ideas that function as the basic elements of endgame knowledge. In Part I we learn how strong players break down analysis into key positions and linked tasks. Take, for instance, what Hawkins calls ‘Capablanca’s Pawn Ending.’ (The position is taken from Capa’s Last Chess Lectures.) White is to move.
Faced with this position over the board, I would probably start calculating in a flurry of moves and confusion. Hawkins, however, encourages us to try to look for ’building blocks’ and key positions that would anchor our analysis. In other examples from recent games, he encourages us to see how strong players use ‘little plans’ to incrementally improve their positions and win.
Part II shows us how the thinking techniques described in Part I function in very basic positions. Here he tackles R&P vs R, R&P vs B&P, and various bishop endings. The analysis is not encyclopedic, but it is very well done, following logically upon what was described in Part I. Lesson 5 (“Essential Rook Endgames”) is particularly good, and can be recommended to anyone who struggles with understanding why Philidor and Lucena work (or don’t!) they way they do.
The real meat of the book comes in its second half, or Part III. Here we follow Hawkins as he does the analytical work that brought him his well-deserved improvement. What we learn is that Hawkins is happy to eat his own dog food; that is to say, he practices what he preaches. In each chapter or ‘exploration’ we see him analyze difficult positions as he did in Parts I and II. His topics range much more widely than Raghavan would have us believe, with chapters devoted to middlegame themes (the QGD minority attack), Ulf Andersson, and a single ending won (unjustly?) by Levon Aronian.
Endgame Explorations 4 and 5 deal with the infamous 4 vs 3 rook and pawn endgame. I was particularly interested in these chapters, since Hawkins spends a lot of time on positions that were independently discussed in the Endgames forum at chesspub.com. (As an aside, you really should join this forum and read Pogohysian’s posts. Amazing stuff.) Hawkins does a very thorough job of running us through the key ideas, and while I would have liked to see some treatment of the improvements offered by forum dwellers at chesspub, it’s entirely possible that Hawkins simply was unaware of their existence.
So what’s the upshot of all this? Is thinking in terms of building blocks and little plans impractical? Can solving the Stecker position bring me elo points? When does the improvement kick in?
The secret of Hawkins’ book is that it’s not really about endgames at all. Neither, that matter, was Dvoretsky’s! What we learn from Hawkins is how to do the work that leads to improvement. Chess improvement comes from the incremental growth of basic chess knowledge coupled with a honing of analytic skill. If we sit down and put in the time with Hawkins’ book, we not only sharpen our knowledge and board vision, but we also begin to learn how to learn on our own. That’s where real improvement becomes possible, and that’s where we’re left after reading Amateur to IM.
It must be admitted that an enthusiastic reader can probably gain from any competent book she devours. Still, some ‘chess meals’ are more nutritious than others, and I think Hawkins’ book is chock full of goodness. Think of it like a bowl of oatmeal in the morning: it’s not sexy, but it’s healthy and filling, keeping you in good stead for the rest of the day.
The book binding is sturdy and, a slightly higher than normal number of typos aside, it is attractive and well produced. Highly recommended for motivated readers over 1600.