Monthly Archives: February 2014

Focusing on Checkmate

Renaud, Georges, and Victor Kahn.  The Art of Checkmate, 21st Century Edition.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  160pp.  ISBN 978-1936490844.  Paper list $19.95.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (2004).   184pp.  ISBN 978-1936490943. Paper list $19.95, Kindle $9.99.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate Workbook.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  96pp.  ISBN 978-1888690163.  Paper list $9.95.

Russell Enterprises continues its streak of quality releases with these three new titles, each focusing on the most critical aspect of the game: checkmate.

Renaud and Kahn’s The Art of Checkmate is a classic of chess literature.  Originally published in 1953, the book takes readers through fundamental mating patterns and classic attacking games.  Renaud and Kahn sprinkle bits of chess wisdom and lore throughout the text, and attentive readers can’t help but be entertained while they learn.

This 21st Century Edition has been ‘translated’ from the old Descriptive Notation and into Algebraic, thus making it accessible to a generation of young players who have never had the ‘pleasure’ of mastering Descriptive.  (They really should, though.  So many wonderful books are only in DN!)  The book is, as is usual for Russell, well edited and laid out.

I recently read that IM Emory Tate, the attacking wizard beloved by so many in the chess world, attributes much of his prowess to an early encounter with The Art of Checkmate.  And indeed, a better attacking primer can hardly be found.  This is a book that can be read by players of most all ages and abilities; some will read for enjoyment, and some will read for tactical inspiration, but all will find this new edition of The Art of Checkmate a worthy addition to their library.

David MacEnulty’s work, in contrast, is sadly unknown by most chess players.  They might know his story, as it was made famous by Ted Danson in the 2005 movie “Knights of the South Bronx.”  His books, however, haven’t received nearly the attention they deserve.  With the publication of My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook, perhaps they will. 

My First Book of Checkmate is, as the title suggests, a book for the chess novice.  It works slowly and programmatically to lead the novice to an adequate knowledge of mating procedures and patterns.  MacEnulty leaves nothing to chance.  After explaining chess notation and defining his terms, MacEnulty begins his book by walking the reader through a series of lessons that each focus on a specific piece and characteristic mates.  Some mate in ones follow in Part II, and Part III offers readers examples of some standard mating patterns not unlike those in The Art of Checkmate.  The book concludes with a short section on mating attacks and a set of problems for the reader to solve.

MacEnulty was a teacher by profession, and his educational background shows in this book.  As I argued in my previous review, real tactical improvement involves two elements: (1) pattern recognition and (2) practice in calculation and imagination.  MacEnulty’s book is one of the better primers for learning basic tactical patterns currently in print.  It succeeds in no small part because of its programmed style of learning, where ideas are built upon and augmented as the text progresses.  The reader is led from the most elementary elements of mating attacks to fairly complex concepts, each step following from what came before it.

There are plenty of problems to solve in My First Book of Checkmate.  Still, there could be more; for the player hungering for more puzzles, MacEnulty has written a companion volume called My First Book of Checkmate Workbook. The structure of the book roughly mirrors that of My First Book of Checkmate, but it ends with some mate problems that would tax many a class player.  At $9.95 list price, this workbook is great value for the money.  I am, in fact, considering adopting it for use at a chess camp this summer.

Both My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook are well worth consideration for the novice player looking to improve.  Younger readers might require some help with My First Book of Checkmate, but the workbook could be read by even six and seven year olds.  I’d also suggest that adult readers in need of a book on basic mates check them out, as its progressive movement from the simple to the complex might provide the basic orientation needed to profitably solve more difficult mate problems.

The Happy Meal of Tactics Books

Brennan, Tim, and Anthea Carson.  Tactics Time: 1001 Chess Tactics from the Real Games of Everyday Chess Players.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014.  ISBN 978-9056914387.  List $16.95. Also available as self-published Kindle version; list price will vary dramatically.

I’ve heard a lot of chatter about Brennan and Carson’s Tactics Time.  The Amazon reviews are stellar.  GM Fishbein and NM Wall give it nice plugs.  After a glance at the Amazon preview, I was skeptical.  Now, with the paperback sitting in front of me and the ebook on my Kindle, I’m vastly more skeptical.

Tim Brennan’s website reads like a giant infomercial, full of amazing promises and self-help buzzwords.  (HIs stated interest in self-improvement and Tony Robbins is not surprising given his prose.  Read the Introduction to Tactics Time, with its ‘you don’t have to be the 98lb weakling getting sand kicked in your face’ vibe, for a sense of what I mean.) The basic premise – that tactical study is the royal road to chess improvement, perhaps all the way to master – is sound.  What’s unsound is the way in which this premise is worked out.

From what I can tell, Brennan and Carson have done the following: they got a whole bunch of amateur games, ran them through the computer (Full Analysis in the Fritz GUI) at very fast speeds, and located all the gross blunders or missed wins.  They then collected those positions, slapped them together, and bundled them into a book.  There’s little structure or order to the puzzles, and most of them are very, very easy.

Consider Problem #672, with White to move.  In most tactics books, there is some progression of difficulty, so that, for example, Problem 100 is more difficult than Problem 1.  Not here.

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Readers of the Kindle version are provided links to the root games for every problem in the book.  What we see is that Brennan and Carson found a game where someone fell into Scholar’s Mate and used it as a problem for solving.  They used Rybka 4.1 – they talk about Fritz, but all the analysis seems to be from Rybka – at one second a move to analyze the game, and of course, the computer noted Black’s ‘questionable’ play.  Into the book it went.

Or how about Problem #429 (Black to move after 14.c3???), chosen for this review at random?

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This is actually fairly difficult when compared to a lot of other problems in the book.  Many of them are one move forks or mates, or similarly basic tactical tasks.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with one move forks or mates.  The problem comes in when Brennan wants you to believe that solving these problems will suddenly make you play like Bobby Fischer.  That’s not hyperbole – that’s his slogan on his website.  “Give Me Just 15 minutes a Day and I’ll Have You Moving Like Bobby Fischer in 1 Month!”  Brennan promises that solving his problems for 15 minutes a day will have you playing like his friend Francisco, who beat Walter Browne in a simul.  Who wouldn’t want that?  (Never you mind that Francisco is currently rated 1638, which is certainly a decent enough rating, but isn’t that of a world-beater.)

Brennan’s pitch is just like those of any of hundreds of other similarly slippery self-improvement programs:  they promise you the moon.  Eat anything you want and lose weight!  Take this pill and quit smoking!  Imagine what you want and it will be yours!  (Brennan has talked about ‘The Secret’ in an interview on his website.)  Solve these puzzles and watch your rating soar!  It’s so easy!

None of it is true.

Let me begin by admitting the obvious: every chess player needs to see one move tactics.  I don’t think going through Tactics Time will hurt your chess.  I just don’t think it will really help it.

Brennan is a De La Maza acolyte.  He believes that by solving hundreds upon hundreds of tactical puzzles, and by repeating them again and again until the patterns are automatic, players can’t help but improve.  The difference between Brennan and De La Maza is that he (Brennan) uses problems culled from local amateur games, so that your study more resembles the kinds of positions that amateurs see in their games.

This is correct, in part.  Players need to learn the basic tactical themes and mating patterns, and they need to know them by heart.  There’s nothing wrong with solving the kind of ultra-basic problems Brennan has by the thousands in his books.  It just won’t get you very far when you start playing against players who have some idea as to what they’re doing.

There are two components to tactical study: learning the patterns, and learning to calculate.  Chess players need to do both to truly improve.  To learn patterns, players should read tactics books where the problems are sorted by topic or theme.  Here the books of Maxim Blokh are good, but out of print.  Susan Polgar’s Chess Tactics for Champions is a decent alternative, as is Neishtadt’s Improve Your Chess Tactics and (especially) Weteschnik’s Chess Tactics from Scratch.

Still, all of these books, which are much more challenging than Brennan’s, are not enough.  Real tactical improvement comes with the ability to create tactical chances on the board and to calculate accurately.  You get nothing of that in Tactics Time, and nothing of it on his website.  The books of Paata Gaprindashvili are the best resources for honing this aspect of tactical skill, and Jacob Aagaard’s books on attack and calculation are excellent as well.

Brennan’s tactical program does nothing to help your calculative skills or your creativity.  You might, after reading Tactics Time, see a one move checkmate if your opponent happens to blunder into it.  What if he doesn’t?  What if he doesn’t just present you with a chance to checkmate him?  I don’t think Brennan gives you the tools to win in that situation.

Let me turn to the construction of the book.  How difficult must it have been for Brennan (and Carson?) to write this book?  Could anyone do it?  Could I?

Yesterday, as an experiment, I decided to try and put together a Brennan-style set of problems for use with local players.  I took a small database from the 2013 Nassau Chess Club Championship and ran all the games through computer analysis at one second a move.  After about three hours, I had a fully anno-Fritzed (or Houdini’d) collection of games.  I scanned through them in about fifteen minutes time, looking for ‘??’ or ‘!!’ moves.

Here are twenty problems for you to solve, varying in difficulty from the very easy to the “something slightly more demanding” than can be found in Tactics Time.

Here are the full solutions.  (Don’t look until you’ve solved them first!)  Feel free to use the puzzle sheets and the solutions however you’d like.

The plural of anecdote is not data.  I can’t extrapolate my finding useable puzzles in approximately one out of seven games to prove anything.  That I was able to come up with twenty puzzles with very little effort – remember, the computer did most of the work! – does, however, suggest to me that anyone could have written Tactics Time if they’d had the idea first.

In trying to figure out how best to describe Tactics Time to potential readers, the best analogy I could devise was to a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  It is cheap at $16.95 list for the paperback or much less for the Kindle version.  It is shiny and well-marketed.  It is vaguely nutritious.

Ultimately, however, Tactics Time is an unsatisfying work that will leave readers hungry soon after they finish it.  Real chess improvement is not nearly as easy as Brennan would have you believe, and it certainly requires more than the ability to trip over mate in ones when they are thrust upon you.  Tactics Time, like the Happy Meal, fills a niche in the marketplace, and Brennan deserves all the credit in the world for finding and filling that niche.  It’s just that his product, much like the Happy Meal, will rapidly be outgrown by a developing player.