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.

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6 thoughts on “The Happy Meal of Tactics Books

  1. Jason Chamberlain

    I’m one of the people who have benefited from this work. It helped me tremendously as I was very weak before starting it. It has helped me to see tactics where I never did before and my rating is jumping as a result. To be fair, “jumping” means going from around 1000 to mid 1100s, but I’m also still provisional.

    However, I also understand what you mean. I appreciate your recommendation of other books to use as well. If the tactic comes up I am able to jump on it, but getting there is often the tricky part. It’s fine while I’m playing on the 5th or 4th board, but I know that I need positional improvement if I’m going to play with the over 1400 crowd, let alone higher-rated folks.

    I don’t think that you can go too far wrong with this book for $5 on Amazon though. Reading it daily has helped me to get to a basic level of competence and for that I am very happy.

    Reply
    1. fullcityplus Post author

      It’s cheap and it won’t hurt you, at least when ‘eaten’ in moderation. Like I said – and especially in light of the super-positive marketing and community that surrounds it – it’s a Happy Meal. It makes people happy and excited about chess, and that can’t be bad.

      I’m glad that you’ve had a good experience with it, but now the real work begins, and I think that you’re going to see some of the limits of your previous diet as you progress in chess. Good luck, and I hope that one of the other tactics books I mentioned helps you take that next step.

      Reply
      1. Jason Chamberlain

        Thank you for the response. This book is actually my second step. The first was a combination of learning about tactics in Chessmaster and reading Seirawan’s Winning Chess Tactics. I think where Brennan’s books shine is that he doesn’t categorize all the tactics. It’s easier to find the fork if you are in the section on knight forks, but it’s a little harder when they’re all mixed up. It’s not like someone comes to my board in a tournament and says, “White to move. Find the fork.”

        I would give Brennan his due in filling a niche. He helps folks begin to recognize a variety of patterns once they are already familiar with some of the concepts. This gets them ready for the next step. I’ve been using his material since late November and I can tell you that I am not pushing pieces like Fischer, as you might imagine. But I am playing significantly better.

        I would also propose that with low-level players tactics books are like gym memberships for people who are grossly out of shape. Even if you don’t have the best workout program it is better to do something rather than nothing. But as you begin to see some improvements you may need to modify your regimen. I’m prepared to do that and I am indebted to Tim Brennan again because he helped me to find your site, which should lead me to further resources.

        Thank you for the service you provide to the chess community.

  2. Chris Wainscott

    Full disclosure, I have not read this book…however, I have read many books that could be described as basic one-mover style books.

    This is one of those topics that has always fascinated me.

    I am something of a tactics devotee as I am the guy who has tons of tactics books. I think that your description of a Happy Meal makes a lot of sense.

    While I agree with you that simple puzzles such as these are not the heart of what tactical ability is all about I do think that books like these fill out a niche as Jason points out above.

    In fact, GM Jesse Kraai says on his blog that he thinks it’s important to do a mixture of tactics with some easy and some hard. No joke, I actually solve all 300+ of the one move mates in Lazlo Polgar’s book from time to time to get a portion of my easy tactical quota in. However, I also work through the Encyclopedia of Chess Combinations 4th Edition to work on the hard, serious-calculation-required side of developing my tactical prowess.

    In fact, when I did my review for My First Book of Checkmate and the accompanying workbook (I am also a REI reviewer) I worked through the vast majority of the problems to get in my “easy” quota for the time being.

    Which is to say that I see a real value in this Happy Meal style of tactical improvement, BUT…you are 100% correct in that if a player such as Jason focuses on just this style of book then the returns will be very limited.

    Jason, do yourself a favor and pick up Chess Tactics for Champions by Susan Polgar which John mentions above. It’s a great intermediate book which will bridge the gap between the Happy Meal and the steak dinner.

    Reply
  3. GeneM

    I too am surprised by the popularity of the simplistic chess book – “Tactics Time”. But our task is to understand why so many people like Tactics Time.

    My negative opinion of the Tactics Time book softened when I realized my gripe was with the book’s title, because its title is misleading. The exercises in the book are so extremely easy that they are not about anything that deserves to be called “tactics”. Its position diagrams could not be allowed in a book of chess shot puzzles.

    Instead a proper title would have been:
    “How Absolute Beginners can Punish Gross Obvious Blunders that Other Absolute Beginners Might Make”.

    If the title had been as accurate and honest as the title I suggest, there would be nothing to complain about when assessing or reviewing the book. Even the exaggerated claim made by the authors could be excused as white lies that provide beneficial motivation.

    If Lazlo Polgar’s big “5334” tactics book can include and recommend hundreds of mate-in-1 exercises, then Tactics Time is arguably no less legitimate.

    All that said, I remain surprised at the popularity of this book. Which is not to say that people who like the book are wrong.

    GeneM , 2014/Oct/22

    Reply

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