NB: Individual e-book versions of each ‘lesson’ are also available at Amazon.com: Lesson 1 (Attack), Lesson 2 (Dynamics), Lesson 3 (on ‘common sense’), and Lesson 4 (Defense). Each retails for $4.49, but is free to lend for Prime members.
I think that I have seen the future of chess publishing. And I believe that Lars Bo Hansen has seen it as well.
Hansen (Bo Hansen? GM Hansen? We’ll go with the text!) is, of course, a well-known Grandmaster and author who now resides in Florida. Among his published works are Foundations of Chess Strategy (2005), Secrets of Chess Endgame Strategy (2006), How Chess Games are Won and Lost (2008), and Improve Your Chess – by Learning from the Champions (2009). All four are published with Gambit and are generally well-reviewed. I personally have read How Chess Games are Won and Lost and found it both well-written and informative.
Now Hansen has struck out on his own and embraced the e-book revolution. Because he has an MBA and teaches business at institutions of higher learning, I assume that this leap – from publishing with Gambit to going it alone – took place after some heavy cost-benefit analysis. For the moment, however, we’ll leave the self-publishing discussion to the side and consider the book itself.
I am reviewing the print version of the four e-books listed above, which Hansen has helpfully packaged together in a slim volume and made available at the very attractive price of $9.99. Hansen tells us in the Preface to the book that each ‘lesson’ is roughly equivalent to what might be discussed in a lesson with a student. In each lesson he outlines some general themes and then illustrates those themes through the presentation of analyzed games. He departs slightly from the numbering system of the e-books in the print version, and takes up the themes of Attack, Defense, Dynamic Play and Common Sense in that order.
Readers who are familiar with Hansen’s previous work will not be surprised by what they find here. The prose is, as always, intelligent and well-done, and some of the same jargon (dividing players into pragmatists, activists, reflectors and theorists, for instance) reappears. It is evident that Hansen has put some thought into how he presents his material. There are bulleted lists of key principles in lessons one and three, and Hansen offers summaries of the more disparate themes in lessons two and four. The illustrative games are recent, and they contain a good mix of variation and explanatory prose. You get the sense that Hansen has field-tested these ideas and games in private lessons.
Take, for example, Lesson One (on the Attack). Hansen gives us four key ideas to guide our attacking efforts:
1) Find the right target to attack!
2) Activate all your pieces and bring them into the attack!
3) Generate direct threats, forcing your opponent onto the defensive.
4) Look for forcing moves, combinations and strikes!
After some introductory discussion, we are walked through two games that illustrate these principles. Since I have used one of them (Hou-Sebag, Hangzhou 2011) in my own teaching, here is the first of those games including notes from Hansen and other annotators. (If Viewchess is down, check out the .pgn until it returns!) You can be the judge of its illuminative quality, but generally speaking, I found the game to function well as an example of the process of attack that Hansen would have us follow. While there was (as you’ll see) a slight analytical problem in this specific game, my sense was that Hansen could usually be trusted as an analyst. The pedagogic skill exhibited in the notes more than made up for the rare imprecision.
Lessons Two (Defense) and Three (Dynamic Chess) follow similar patterns. We are given some prose explanation to hang our hats on, and then we see the principles in action in real games. Lesson Four, however, is something of a departure, and feels more – dare I say it? -philosophical than the rest of the book. His theme in this Lesson is ‘common sense,’ and we find Hansen promoting a balance between the general (principles, concepts) and the specific (hardcore calculation) to his readers in the opening, middlegame, and endings. The discussion is interesting in light of the eternal debate in modern chess between concrete analysis and universal principles, most famously argued ad infinitum (or is it ad indigestum?) between John Watson and Jacob Aagaard. I have made the case elsewhere that, in fact, there is less light between the two positions than… well, let’s just say it: Aagaard is wrong about Watson, because Watson the chess pragmatist doesn’t ever deny the utility of guiding ideas or principles. (It’s not only in his books – Watson is always talking about ideas in his private lessons!) Modern chess on the GM level is, simply, about the exceptions that prove the rule. That’s what Watson was saying in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, and insofar as Secrets… (and Chess Strategy in Action) are about GM chess, it’s true. They’re not instructional manuals!
As an aside, let me here again recommend Watson’s new review of Hendriks’ lauded Move First, Think Later. It revisits some of these themes while also standing on its own as an interesting read.
Hansen’s book, however, is decidedly not about GM level chess. Or, better put, it’s not written for GMs. They already know this stuff. Lists of principles aren’t useful to them, but they surely are to improving players. We’re not at the point yet where we need to worry about the exceptions! When Hansen talks about Tal’s idea of attacking ratio, I can immediately take that concept and use in in my games. The Lessons on Attack, Defense and Dynamics each contain memorable principle ‘slugs’ and form-fitting examples. Lesson Four is less useful to the student in an instrumental sense, but might be more valuable as a broad orientation for understanding how to analyze. All in all, and especially given the fabulous price, I can recommend this book without reservation for players up to 2000. Experts and above will probably find enough to justify purchase as well.
But before I let you go… let me return to the title of this post, and to the future of chess publishing. Hansen has, fairly obviously, taken something of a risk in publishing this material on his own. Without a traditional publisher to back him up, all of the normal publisher tasks – editing and proofreading, of course, but especially publicity! – fall to the author alone. Now, because Hansen is a known commodity in the chess world, and because he has a track record, savvy chess buyers will not feel any fear in purchasing this work. Hansen has his own Twitter feed and a Facebook group where, until fairly recently, he was offering daily nuggets of wisdom to followers. Is that enough to sell a book? Is this where chess publishing is headed?
Without access to hard data, I just can’t say. From a conceptual standpoint, however, it seems like Hansen’s experiment should be repeated. The explosion of interest in e-readers and e-books shows no signs of abatement. There are more than a few apps for the Ipad and Android that purport to join the best of paper and electronic formats. And the importance of price – here, $4.49 per e-lesson, or free(ish) to Prime members – can’t be overlooked.
The e-book environment is not without its problems. A quick search of Kindle books turns up all kinds of dreck. Only an established author like Hansen could cut through the sea of mediocrity and gain some kind of market share. Were What Would a GM Do? written by a no-name author, or even by a random Eastern European IM-bot, I would certainly never have taken a chance on it. Perhaps the traditional publishing system, with its editorial and quality control functions, still has some use as a gatekeeper after all?