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.

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