Monthly Archives: December 2013

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.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part I

I’m beginning a new tradition at Chess Book Reviews this holiday season.  I know that it can be a real challenge for the non-initiate to determine what to buy for the chess player in their lives.  Well-meaning loved ones choose the wrong things with the best of intentions, and how can we blame them?  There’s so much chess swag out there, and if you’re not obsessed by the game, it’s easy to go wrong.  It’s my fervent hope that chess players the world over receive better-chosen gifts as a result of these three blog entries.  (Such hubris, John.  Such hubris!)

The first rule of buying for a chess player is this: unless they are a chess set collector, never buy them a themed chess set.  They look cute, and who doesn’t love Homer Simpson as the White King, or the Aztecs and Mayans battling it out over 64 squares?  The only problem is this: they can’t be used in tournament play.  Both USCF and FIDE rules have very specific regulations for boards, pieces and clocks.  In my experience – and again, if your loved one collects themed sets, ignore this – the novelty pieces and boards are set on a shelf in the closet, rarely to be visited again.

If, however, you want to give your friend chess equipment, consider giving them a digital chess clock, especially if they only have one of the old-fashioned mechanical ones.  (Older players are likely to still have and use these, in my experience.)    The advantage of a digital clock is that it allows for time controls that include either delays or increments, both of which are becoming standard in modern chess.  I can recommend two:

  • The Saitek Mephisto Competition Clock, which costs about $40 at Amazon.  This is the ubiquitous ‘blue clock’ that one sees at scholastic tournaments.  It’s extremely durable and fairly easy to program.  I coach a high school team, and this is the clock we use.
  • The DGT North American Chess Clock.  I have less experience with this clock, but others have recommended it to me, and I have used it successfully in rated play.

Most serious chess players will already have equipment, so chess books and software are the best choices for the real aficionados that you are buying for.  In this remainder of this first installment of the Buying Guide, I’m going to talk about chess GUIs.  In the second, I’ll talk about databases and engines, and in the third, I’ll recommend a number of books for different types of players and different age levels.

I think owning and using the right chess software is very important for the serious chess player.  There are a few main software publishers out there, but for anyone who isn’t Russian, I’d highly recommend using the ChessBase family of programs.  I’ve been using ChessBase programs and data – and here I’m dating myself – since the days of DOS.  I honestly believe that any serious player who is not using ChessBase to study and analyze is at a competitive disadvantage.

There are three components, as it were, to chess software.  First, there is the GUI.  This program allows users to reads and writes chess data.  Engines plug into the GUI, allowing users to get the computer’s opinion on various moves and positions.  You can play against some, but not all, GUIs.  Second, there is the database itself, which is indexed by player, opening, ending, or any of a host of other criteria.  The best databases are professionally curated and contains deep notes to some of the games contained in the data.  Some data also comes with audio or video training embedded within it.  Third, there is the engine.  An engine is the bit of software that allows the computer to analyze a position or game.  Most engines require a graphical interface (GUI) for ease of use.

ChessBase offers buyers all three components or elements of a complete chess software package.  I’ll talk about each in turn.

GUI: There are two choices for GUI within the Chessbase family.

ChessBase 12 is a complete database package, allowing users to read and write data in a nearly limitless fashion.  You can plug engines into the GUI to help with analysis, and there are various abilities to access online game data embedded in the GUI.  Users can export their games to text files, epubs, or to webpages hosted by Chessbase with one click.  It can read all of the training programs and DVDs produced by Chessbase, and the GUI also includes the Playchess.com software, which is Chessbase’s online chess playing site.

ChessBase 12 is the gold standard for chess software, and if you can afford it, it would be a fantastic gift for the chess player on your list.  There are three different packages out there, with the main difference being that the Starter package comes with a game database stripped of annotations, while the Mega includes them.  I don’t think the Premium package is worth the extra cost, but your mileage may vary.

Amazon has the Starter package for approximately $160, while the Mega package is about $260.  You can also download the program directly from ChessBase for about $140, but be aware that (1) you won’t get the game database in the download, and (2) the download version does not come with a membership at Playchess.

Deep Fritz 14 and Houdini 4 are another type of GUI from Chessbase.  They can read and write ChessBase databases with some limitations; as compensation, you can play games against the engine and GUI, which you can’t do in ChessBase 12, and the GUI will automatically analyze your games if you wish.  (For me, playing against the engine is far too masochistic an enterprise, but It can be useful to play out special positions against the computer for practice.)  These GUI comes with a smaller game database, but one that is entirely sufficient for most players.  Most importantly, Deep Fritz 14 and the stronger Houdini 4 include the engines for which the GUIs are named.

It’s harder to manipulate data in Deep Fritz or Houdini than it is ChessBase 12, and there are far fewer data indices or ‘keys’ available to the user.  Still, unless you’re doing heavy duty database work, you can do everything you need to do within Deep Fritz or Houdini.  I have both and use both.  If pressed, I’d probably choose ChessBase, even with the extra cost.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon, and costs approximately $80.  Houdini 4 Standard, which runs on up to six cores, is $99.95, and Houdini 4 Pro is  $115.95 and runs on up to 32 cores. Naturally you can also download these programs directly from Chessbase itself:  Deep Fritz 14 is about $80, Houdini 4 Standard is $90 or so, and Houdini 4 Pro is $115.

Note that the author of Houdini also sells the Houdini engine (without a GUI) on his website.  I’ll talk more about the pros and cons of each engine in Part II of this Buying Guide.

The Book of the Year?

Smith, Axel.  Pump Up Your Rating: Unlock Your Chess Potential.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1907982736.  PB $29.95.

In a year where chess fans have been blessed with a multitude of great books – Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess immediately comes to mind, as does Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Chess and the Aagaard Grandmaster Preparation Series   – International Master Axel Smith might well have written the best among them.

Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating is, in truth, two books in one.  The first half of the book is an advanced course in chess strategy and thinking.  The second is a tested and thoughtful guide to chess training and improvement.  Were either half sold on their own, they would be worth your purchase.  As things stand, this book is a must-buy for the improving chess player and – especially – for the player who isn’t improving, but would like to.

The first two chapters of Part I (“Positional Chess”) discuss two very difficult elements of chess mastery.  Chapter One, entitled “No Pawn Lever – No Plan,” introduces readers to the role played by pawn levers or breaks in positional play.  Smith argues, through examples from Agrest’s play, that in the absence of chronic weaknesses, it is pawn levers that help to determine plans and direction of play.  “If there is neither a weakness, nor an achievable pawn lever to play for,” Smith writes, “[…] it’s difficult to find a good plan.  That’s why pawn levers are the first think to look for when creating a plan.” (42)

Smith takes Ulf Andersson’s games as his model in Chapter Two (“Fair Exchange is No Robbery”).  Here we are lead through the different types of exchanges and material imbalances, and we are given thematic examples of how to play such imbalances properly.  It has recently dawned on me – particularly after watching one of John Watson’s games at this year’s US Open – that one of the marks of chess excellence is the ability to unbalance positions to one’s advantage.  This chapter is one of the finest explanations of this topic that I’ve seen.

Chapters Three “(“Auxiliary Questions”) and Four (“Calculation”) deal with chess thinking and proper calculation.  In Chapter Three Smith offers a list of questions that players might ask themselves as they analyze positions.  Among the most important of these is whether or not the position is critical, meaning that “a decision is difficult and can’t be taken back.” (118)  While I’m not convinced that a checklist of questions is really practical during over-the-board play, Smith’s questions show us how to suss out the essentials of any given position.

Chapter Four follows in the tradition of earlier works by Kotov, Buckley, Tisdall, Nunn and Aagaard, outlining a theory of how best to approach calculation.  Smith is generally skeptical of Kotov’s famed ‘tree of analysis,’ but argues that some structure of calculation is necessary.  He takes the best from multiple authors and sources, and in the end I think he offers a very well considered method of structuring our calculative efforts.  The chapter, in my opinion, stands up to the best efforts in the genre.

As useful as I found Part One of Pump Up Your Chess, Part Two was, frankly, even more impressive.  Here Smith offers a full-blown training program for chess improvement, a program that helped Smith jump from expert to IM in just over two years.  Now, data is not the plural of anecdote, and we should not judge Smith’s prescription solely from its success in his own practice or that of his talented students.  How does it look to the class player?

The training program involves four key components: (1) analyzing your games and making a ‘list of mistakes;’ (2) using a De la Maza-esque program to study tactics; (3) doing serious opening work via the creation of ‘opening files’ in ChessBase; and (4) mastering approximately 100 key theoretical endgames.  Clear goals are to be set and chased, and Smith repeatedly argues that improvement is most likely when players have training partners.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Smith’s book is that it contains, so far as I know, the first system for chess training that integrates chess software and engines.  Authorities since Botvinnik have held that self-analysis of games is a necessary condition for real improvement.  Smith’s program for self-analysis in Chapter Five adds two key conditions to this task.

First, he explains why players should not (initially) analyze their games with the help of our silicon friends.  We don’t have access to Houdini during the game – unless our name is Ivanov, of course! – so we should get used to analyzing with the engine switched off.  After we check our analysis with our training partners and finally the computer, we are instructed to make a ‘list of mistakes’ derived from our analyses.  The list is to be updated after each tournament, with the goal of eradicating as many of the typical mistakes as possible.

The discussion of opening study in Chapter Seven is more enlightening yet.  Here Smith describes his method for creating opening files, an example of which is available from the Quality Chess website.  We are admonished to approach opening study as human players, to moderate our use of the engines, to analyze human-looking moves, and to annotate key positions with our own words and not just with Informant signs.  A slew of tips and tricks for ChessBase use are scattered both here and in an appendix, many of which will be new to even the power user.  (I’ve been using ChessBase since its DOS days, and I learned a lot here.)  The discussion of preparation also warrants repeated reading.

To study tactics, Smith borrows from his friend Hans Tikkanen and prescribes a two-tiered approach.  Players should first go through basic motifs and themes.  After that, they should select a set of mixed theme problems and solve them repeatedly until they can run through the set quickly and without mistakes.  This second part, which resembles the infamous De La Maza program for improvement, is not uncontroversial.  Still, Smith makes a case for his recommendation, and even those unconvinced by the need for repetition will find much here to study.

I’m also less convinced by his method for endgame improvement.  Here, Smith says that you learn endgames by playing them and then analyzing them afterwards.  There are also approximately 100 theoretical endgames to memorize, all of which Smith provides in pgn format at the Quality Chess website, and four of which – Q&P vs Q, QvR, ‘short-side’ R&P, and R&P where the king is cut off – are analyzed in Chapter Eight.  It suffices, Smith argues, to study these theoretical endings only once, after which they need only be looked at once a year.  From my perspective, this approach seems impractical, especially for the class player.  Some Shereshevsky or Muller & Pajeken is useful insofar as they teaches a feel for endings and for strategic chess more generally.  The feel is the hardest thing; Philidor can be memorized, but becoming a good endgame player is more than just getting to theoretical positions that we’ve seen before.

These are, of course, minor concerns when set against the overwhelming value of Smith’s book.  Pump Up Your Rating is among the best books of its kind, offering its readers a training program that takes advantage of chess software and engines while not being stultified by them.  It leads its readers through some elements of chess strategy that aren’t often treated in the literature, and it does so with skill and aplomb.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Or, to put it differently: recently I learned that I qualified for the Nebraska State Closed Championship.  I will be the lowest rated player in the field, and I have a lot of work to do on my game.  Pump Up Your Rating is the blueprint I’m using for that work.  That’s how highly I think of this book.