Monthly Archives: January 2013

Watson on Hendriks; me on Bo Hansen (soon!)

Hello intrepid readers.  Hopefully I didn’t scare you away with my first review.

Two things you should know.

First, if you haven’t read John Watson’s review of Willy Hendriks’ “Move First, Think Later,” you absolutely should do so.  Do it right now.  I’ll wait.

Second, watch this space for a review of Lars Bo Hansen’s new book entitled “What Would a GM Do.”  It should be up in the next couple of days.

Amateur to IM (Part II)

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.

image

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.

Amateur to IM (Part I)

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

There is a story about Mark Dvoretsky’s first book, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back when in 1991.  The legend of Dvoretsky was only just beginning at that time, but even then his work carried with it a certain cache, an aura of legitimacy and guaranteed chess improvement.  I clearly remember how the 15-yr old me found the book in a local bookstore, breathed in the scent of cheap pulp, and knew that the master title could not be far away.

Seems I wasn’t alone when it came to my presuppositions or illusions.  Dvoretsky’s book (like all of his books) was brilliant, to be sure, and were I a stronger player, I might have gotten something out of it.  Part of the problem was that the title of the book was rather misleading.  Instead of getting a book about training, readers found themselves faced with hardcore endgame analysis and aneurysm-inducing problems to solve.  Legend has it that the USCF bookstore, which was run in-house in the time, had to stop selling Secrets of Chess Training because so many people bought it, discovered how much it required of them, and angrily returned it.  The USCF could only lose so much money on any one item.

I was reminded of this story when I first received my copy of Jonathan Hawkins’ new book, and again when I read Vijay Raghavan’s review at Chesscafe.  The title of Hawkins book – Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods – might seem to suffer from the same problem as did Dvoretsky’s, and this is one of the main complaints Raghavan lays at Hawkins’ feet.  While one could argue that Dvoretsky’s book was perhaps mislabeled and wrongly advertised, a closer reading of Hawkins’ work should make us more sympathetic to its purported claims, and grateful to its author for sharing his work with the chess public.

The underlying narrative or rationale for the book runs as follows.  Hawkins understands himself to be no great chess talent, having only attained a rating of 1700 by age 18.  Today he is a 2500 IM with at least two GM norms.  How did he make the jump?  On his account, it was his study of the endgame that did it.  (9)  Or, better, as the very next paragraphs (which Raghavan seems not to have read) admit, it was more a matter of balance and focus in his studies that did the trick. (10)

Think about it, and think about how most chess players – not you, of course! – tend to study the game.  They worry incessantly about their openings, their bookshelves filled with opening tomes and encyclopedias.  Perhaps they solve a few tactical puzzles in a Reinfeld or Nunn book, and maybe they watch chess videos from Chessbase, chess.com, chesslecture.com, etc.  With some blitz on ICC or Playchess, their improvement plans are complete.  Sound familiar, dear reader?

Hawkins, like most good teachers, has a different prescription.  In a January 2013 interview with Howard Goldowsky published in Chess Life, he outlines his plan for improvement.

In terms of memorizing variations, especially [for players rated] below about 2000, I would tone [opening study] way down, maybe 10% of your study time or less.
Tactical puzzles/analytical training is quite important. I would give 20% of time to this. The remaining 70% is the part players find difficult. You need to study a combination of master games, your own games, and be a student of the endgame. (11)

What we find in Amateur to IM is a glimpse at what that ‘remaining 70%’ might look like.

(Part II to follow)

About this blog, and this reviewer

I admit it.  I have a lot of chess books, and I keep buying more of them.  When I’m trying to decide which books to pick up and which to skip, I often find myself scouring the interwebs for reviews.  Unfortunately – as seems to be the case in many fields of inquiry – it seems quite difficult to find thoughtful, high quality reviews, and for a few reasons.  I can think, off the top of my head, of at least three typical abuses of the review medium.

There are, in the first place, reviewers who just love every last book sent their way.  (We don’t need to name names, of course, but a quick google of “chessbook reviews” will reveal one particularly habitual sinner.)  Such reviews are rarely enlightening or informative, and indeed, it would seem to be part of the reviewer’s critical duty to tell truths about substandard books.

Second, we might consider those reviewers who are more concerned with brandishing their own bona fides instead of actually reviewing the books in question.  Two recent reviews at Chesscafe by Vijay Raghavan are good examples of this hubris in action.  In both these reviews Raghavan tries to score cheap points about marketing or nitpicky nonsense; in doing so, he obscures the valid points his reviews are trying to make.

Finally, the old truism ‘you get what you pay for’ is just as true in book reviewing as any other field.  Because there is no money (or very little!) in chess reviewing, and because just about anyone can create a blog and start slogging away, there’s very little quality control involved.  Sometimes earnest enthusiasts with little chess knowledge, and with even less writing ability, will tackle books they can’t begin to understand.  Or they will lambast certain authors for writing books that are ‘too hard,’ not realizing that said difficulty lies with them.  Have a quick look at reviews on Amazon or in the chess.com forums, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

I hope to avoid all these problems on this blog.

I write these reviews from the perspective of a decent (1785 USCF on the 1/13 list) club player, and as a reasonably well-educated person.  In general, I prefer books that are accessible to club players and written with we ‘chess mortals’ in mind.  I understand that some books are written for masters and grandmasters; however, given that most of the book buying public are neither, I believe that good chess writing should be understandable by the competent amateur.  I will judge books by their content, accuracy, and style both authorial and editorial.  As of this moment, most of the books I review will be those that I have purchased, although I will welcome review copies from publishers.

I take as my model in this enterprise the work of John Watson, who, not coincidentally, is also my friend and teacher.  John’s reviews represent, to my mind, the gold standard of chess reviewing.  Obviously there is a vast difference in understanding and playing strength between John and me, and that difference will surely tell in any comparison of my reviews and his.  Still, I hope that these reviews find an audience, and that this audience deems them worthy of their time and attention.