Monthly Archives: November 2014

Lucky Number 13?

ChessBase 13.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you are an ambitious chess player, no matter your age or rating, you should be using ChessBase.

ChessBase, created by the company of the same name, is a chess database manager and GUI used by nearly all the best players in the world. It allows users to access millions of games played across history and the globe, to make use of chess engines while studying those games, and to curate one’s own data with great ease. Opening books and endgame tablebases are available to assist with analysis, and links to the Playchess server and the Engine Cloud are built into the interface.

After ChessBase 10 was released in 2008, I was under the impression that most all necessary features were baked into the product, leaving little room for improvement and little need to upgrade. ChessBase 11, released in 2010, did little to change my mind. The shift to a GUI based on the Office ribbon wasn’t a game changer for me, and while I thought access to online game databases from within the GUI was nice, I didn’t see it as worth the money required to upgrade.

This changed with ChessBase 12. Released in 2012 – note the two year dev cycle? – ChessBase 12 introduced a slew of neat bells and whistles that made me take notice. The ‘deep analysis’ function, perhaps meant to rival Aquarium’s IDea feature, was handy (if still a work in progress). The ability to search for similar endgames and pawn structures was very useful, as was the expanded access to the online database. Direct publishing of games to the viewchess website was a real time saver. But what really impressed me about ChessBase 12 was the initial movement towards the cloud.

“Let’s Check,” which first appeared (if memory serves) in the Fritz 13 GUI, is something like a gigantic, decentralized database of analyzed positions. If you are connected to the “Let’s Check” server while you work, ChessBase 12 uploads your engine evaluations of positions studied to the cloud, and it gives you access to the evaluations of others. This can be very useful if, say, you are looking at games from important tournaments. In some cases you are able to ask the server to ‘annotate’ games played that same day, leaving you with suggestions and evaluations from users around the globe.

Even more interesting was the launch of the “Engine Cloud.” In simple terms, the “Engine Cloud” allows for remote access of analytical engines anywhere in the world. Those with powerful hardware can, in essence, rent time on their computers to other people, granting them access to their analytical engines for a small fee. (You can also configure your own hardware to be privately available to only you.) Those of us without ‘big iron’ at home can, for very reasonable prices, have blazing fast engines at our beck and call; you might even, if you investigate usernames, get to use a former World Champion’s hardware in the process. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Now – two years later – ChessBase has released version 13 of their flagship program. It is true, as we were promised in Jon Edwards’ eminently useful guide to ChessBase 12, that most of the features in 12 reappear in 13. What you know from 12 is still true for 13, so there is no real learning curve to be navigated.

So what is new in ChessBase 13?

C13Splash

“The ChessBase Cloud”

ChessBase has gotten into the cloud data storage business with ChessBase 13. You can now save data to the ChessBase Cloud, where it will (eventually) be available to credentialed users in the ChessBase GUI, in mobile apps, and in a web interface.

Let’s dive a bit more deeply into this, and what it might mean for users. Right now I keep some of my data in a Dropbox folder. This includes my opening analysis, which gets updated fairly often, a database of my games (OTB, ICC, etc.), a folder of data related to endings and a folder of games from local events. When I write a new game to my games database, it is immediately mirrored to the cloud, and that change is written to my other computers the next time they boot up.

The ChessBase Cloud duplicates this functionality, so that databases in the Cloud are mirrored to other computers linked to the same login, but it might also create some additional possibilities. Databases can be shared between users. You can make a database public on the web, or you can specify that only certain users can access the data. This might make joint preparation or joint analysis a real possibility – ‘the Hammer’ (Jon Ludwig Hammer) could update opening analysis overnight and save it to the cloud, where ‘the Dane’ (Peter Heine Nielsen) and ‘the Champ’ (Magnus Carlsen) would find it in the morning.

Screenshot 2014-11-21 19.31.47

(The game in the screenshot is from an article retweeted by Peter Svidler. Carlsen may well have had a win in Game 7 of the World Championship! There’s a pgn at the end of the article, so check it out!)

There is also something in the documentation about data being eventually accessible via a web GUI. I could make a file available to a friend who is travelling or who does not have a Windows computer, and they could study it in their browsers or on an app. It’s not fully implemented yet, but if and when it is, this could be a very useful addition to the ChessBase ecosystem.

“Analysis jobs”

With the new “analysis jobs” feature, you can now specify a list of positions to be subjected to automated analysis without your intervention. This is not the same thing as the automatic game analysis in the Fritz GUI; instead, this seems to be an iterative improvement on the ‘deep analysis’ feature introduced in CB12. The positions can be analyzed two ways: either you get n-lines of branchless variations, or you can use the ‘deep analysis’ feature. In both cases you can specify the engines to be used, the time allotted per position or per batch of positions, and how you want the results of the analysis to be recorded.

Let’s say that you’ve been studying the Grunfeld, and you want to check a few positions that came up in Peter Svidler’s masterful video series over at chess24.com. You can put those positions into ChessBase, add them to the list of positions to be analyzed, and then walk away while your engines do their magic. I can see how this might be useful for me at my level, and I can only imagine how it could be useful for a professional with dozens of positions to check before a big event.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 21.18.51

It should be noted that, as of RC #5 (or version 1 of the official release), I could not coax this feature into full operation. While both the ‘variations’ and ‘deep analysis’ settings lead to analysis on the screen, only the ‘variations’ option correctly writes to the .cbone file that would hold the finished analytical product. I am told, through e-mails with ChessBase, that this should be fixed in the immediate future.

Update 11/24: The above bug was fixed in Service Pack #2, out today.

Repertoire Function

The repertoire function is said to be improved in ChessBase 13, so that now White and Black repertoires are distinguished from one another. I have never used the repertoire functions before, not having really seen the need, so I can’t comment on how much of a difference this makes from previous versions. For the sake of this piece, however, I thought I’d give it a try.

I created, using around 1400 of my games from the Internet Chess Club, my own opening repertoire files by clicking on ‘Report’ -> ‘Generate Repertoire’ in the database window and following the prompts. This presented me with two repertoire databases, one for my games with White and one for my games with Black. ChessBase put all of my games with each color into the appropriate game files, giving each game an easily recognizable English-language name and saving the databases to the Cloud.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.14.17

I’d always wondered where one would proceed from here. Certainly it’s interesting to see my games rendered in an orderly fashion, to see what I’ve played at key junctures in my openings, etc., but I never understood what could be done with these repertoire databases after that. One thing you can do is to scan new databases – issues of The Week in Chess, Informants, or CBMs – to see what new games appear in lines that you play. I tested this with ChessBase Magazine 162 and my black repertoire.

ChessBase produced a report listing all the relevant games from CBM 162 for my repertoire.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.10.24

I could, for example, add the game Kelires-Lee (Tromso ol, 2014) to my repertoire database, or I could mark a specific move as a key position in my repertoire.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.21.58

Having used ChessBase for many years, and having built up some fairly heavy analytical files in that time, I doubt that I’ll switch management of my repertoire over to the Repertoire Function. Still, I can see why some might, and it’s interesting to see my openings ‘dissected,’ their innards on full ChessBase display!

Aesthetics and Ergonomics

The look of ChessBase 13 is basically that of ChessBase 12, but there are a few tweaks of note. ChessBase can now offer ‘extended information’ in the game window, which means that pictures, flags and rating information for players appears next to names in the game window. There is also a small toolbar at the bottom of the game window containing a palette of Informant symbols.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.28.48

This might make it easier to annotate games, although I’ve always just right-clicked and chosen the required symbol from the menu items. It is also easier to create variations in a game, as the variation dialog appears less often during input.

Odds and Ends

ChessBase 13 allows you to run multiple instances of the program as well as multiple instances of engines within it. This might be useful for the ‘analysis job’ function described above, or if you want to run multiple maintenance tasks at once. There are some new classification tabs available, including one that classifies games by final material count. A few recent additions to ChessBase 12 have also migrated to 13, including support for Syzygy tablebases and for creating and saving illegal positions to a database. This last feature is very useful for teaching, especially if one uses the Stappenmethode series of books. Finally (and anecdotally) startup of ChessBase 13 seems much snappier than 12.

Stability and quirks

I have been using beta versions (#2-#5) of ChessBase 13 for perhaps two weeks now, and for most purposes, it has been stable and without problems. Some oddities remain: for example, you can’t use the keyboard shortcut ‘T’ to take back the last move in a game and enter a variation beginning with that same move, and menu items remain grayed out even when they should be available. [Update 11/24: This second quirk was fixed as of Service Pack #2. All menu items are back to normal.] Players used to typing ‘T’ for ‘takeback’ should instead press the Ctrl key while entering a move to create a variation.

Database management – finding / killing doubles, checking / fixing integrity, etc. – is an under-appreciated feature in the ChessBase programs. My original thought for this review was to really put these functions to the test by creating a true Frankenstein of a database, filled with doubles / errors, for testing. I cobbled together a database of nearly 21 million games from dodgy sources and set ChessBase 13 to finding doubles. This was a bad idea. I killed the effort when, after an hour plus, the program had made it through approximately 19% of the database with a nearly one in three rate of double detection. It would have taken another four or five hours to finish the job!

Screenshot 2014-11-19 14.40.09

Instead, on the advice of a fellow ChessPub-ian, I asked around amongst some friends and was given access to an Opening Master database (Golem 01.13) containing approximately 8.7 million games. I compared how long it took ChessBase 12 and 13 to find and kill the doubles in that database. CB13 was faster, taking 2 minutes and 21 seconds to complete the job, while CB12 took 3 minutes and 55 seconds. 13 also used about three times the RAM to do the job, which may account for its increased speed. Both detected an identical number of doubles in the database (48,784).

Upon finishing the task, the Clipboard opens in both 12 and 13. Here, ChessBase 13 froze. This also happened when I stopped the program in the midst of killing Frankenstein’s doubles. In the case of the Frankenstein database, I chalked it up to the enormity of the project, but if the same problem was replicated with the smaller database, there might have been a bug involved. This problem was fixed as of Release Candidate #5.

I would have also tested the ‘pack database’ and ‘integrity check’ functions of both ChessBase 12 and 13, but (1) the integrity check is the same in both cases (version 6.04 dated 9.25.13) and (2) the OM Golem database had critical errors that could not be repaired, even with the slow integrity check option.

Summary

ChessBase 13 represents an iterative improvement over ChessBase 12, but not a paradigm-shifting one. It will become so when the ChessBase Cloud features are fully functional, but for now, I’m not convinced that it’s a mandatory upgrade for ChessBase 12 users. (It’d be nice, though!) Serious analysts, professionals and correspondence players might be the exception here, as the automated position analysis could prove very valuable.

Those still using ChessBase 10 / 11 (or, worse, not using ChessBase at all!) should absolutely consider getting a copy of ChessBase 13. The old advertising for ChessBase 3 still holds true: ChessBase is something of a time multiplier, allowing you to do more chess work in much less time. This is truer today than it was then. We have massive, immaculate databases like Big 2015 or Mega 2015 to search for ideas, and we have inordinately strong engines like Houdini, Komodo and Stockfish to assist us. There is a reason that the strongest players in the world use ChessBase: it is indispensable for the modern chess player!

ChessBase 13 comes in four ‘flavors.’

  • Download: the download version is available directly from the ChessBase shop. You only get the program itself; no data is included except for the Player Encyclopedia, and you do not get any extension of membership on Playchess.com.
  • Starter: Includes ChessBase 13, the Big Database 2015 (unannotated) with weekly updates, and three issues of the ChessBase Magazine. No Playchess membership is included.
  • Mega: Includes ChessBase 13, the Mega Database 2015 (68k annotated games) with weekly updates, and six issues of the ChessBase Magazine. No Playchess membership is included.
  • Premium: The Mega package plus the Correspondence Database 2013, the 4 DVD set of Syzygy tablebases (Endgame Turbo 4), and a one-year Premium subscription to Playchess.com.

The Starter package runs €179.90 ($190-ish without VAT), the Mega costs €269.90 ($285-ish without VAT), and the Premium package is €369.90 ($390-ish without VAT) when purchased directly from the ChessBase shop. The Download version, available only from the ChessBase shop, is priced at €99.90 ($105-ish without VAT). You can also upgrade from 12 to 13 (program only) for €99.90 ($105-ish without VAT). All these prices will normally be discounted when buying from Amazon sellers.

In terms of choosing between these various packages, my only advice is this: the annotated games in the Mega Database are nice to have, but you can do without them if cost is a factor. Beyond that, it’s entirely up to you.

The Chess Steps

Brunia, Rob and Cor van Wijgerden. Stappenmethode (Chess-Steps). Series of 20+ student workbooks and six manuals for teachers. Price varies, but usually ~$10 per workbook and $17 per teacher’s manual.

Original informational site: http://www.stappenmethode.nl/en/
American informational site: http://www.chess-steps.com/index.php

Nothing is more foreign to American chess, and American chess education, than the Stappenmethode. And this explains quite a bit about the state of modern American chess.

I

My first chess book was Fred Reinfeld’s Chess in a Nutshell. It was a slim volume, providing the rules, basic strategy, and not much else. After that came Bruce Pandolfini’s Chessercizes, Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings, leading, after some twists and turns, towards the avalanche of chess books and magazines that pile up in my basement office.

I thought, after reading Reinfeld and struggling to solving a few puzzles from Pandolfini, that I was ready to take on the world. Hubris! If only it were so. Old Russian men beat me mercilessly at the Merrick Chess Club, and I was hopelessly outclassed in my first rated games.

But I, unlike so many juniors attracted to the game, stuck with it. This is in my experience rare – I don’t know whether I should be proud of this or horrified by my masochism – as most young players seem to disappear from competitive chess soon after their arrival. Why? Why do so few scholastic players continue through the junior ranks? Why do they drop out?

My example is perhaps the example to avoid, the proverbial jumping into the deep end without adequate preparation, but it is also entirely typical of how most Americans learn the game. Someone teaches them the rules, or perhaps they go to a multi-week class at their school or public library. They learn (most of) the rules, Scholar’s mate, pins and forks, and Morphy vs the Count and Duke. Then they are thrown into tournament play, with the result that their first games are nothing more than the semi-random shuffling of pieces.

Perhaps they are successful in these contests of who can hang the fewest pieces, but as our juniors ‘move up the ladder,’ they suffer defeat after defeat against competent players and they can’t seem to improve. Soon they slink off, not wanting to lose, and with Mom and Dad entirely willing to let them give up because it’s ‘too hard.’ After all, chess is just a way to boost brain-power and IQ. They got what they ‘needed’ from it, so why make Junior work to get better?

II

Things are very different in the Netherlands. There chess is organized around the local club with active and dedicated junior sections. Such arrangements are common in Western Europe, where large sporting clubs (think Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen) organize teams and training in multiple sporting arenas. Young players attend training sessions and play informally. Only after they prove their mettle do they advance to competition and league games.

Training in the Netherlands is generally based around the Stappenmethode (the Chess-Steps or Steps Method), a systematic program created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden beginning in 1987. Van Wijgerden, who became a trainer for the Dutch chess federation in 1981 and later took over education at the Max Euwe Academy, has trained most of the leading Dutch players of our time.

One way to think about the Steps Method is to look to the world of football, or soccer as we heathen Americans call it. The Dutch became famous for ‘Total Football,’ which provided all of the Netherlands a footballing philosophy from the U9s through their national team. Training and drills were standardized. Today Ajax, the leading Dutch club, continues this tradition.

The Netherlands is a country of approximately 17 million. There are over 300 million Americans. So why are the Dutch so much better at football than we are? The answer must be the training. American coaching at the grassroots is haphazard, and until very recently, there was no national training center. Our young footballers spend their time playing games weekend after weekend (when not playing other sports) and the quality of their coaching is a crapshoot. Meanwhile young Dutch players are honing their skills and learning the Dutch system. The proof is, as always, in the pudding.

The Steps Method plays an analogous role in the chess world. While American juniors succumb to the lust for competition and trophies nearly as soon as they learn the rules, the Dutch do things differently. Young players receive structured instruction before they are allowed to advance to competition. The Steps are, almost universally, the basis of that instruction. The same is true in multiple European countries and in academies across the globe.

III

There is nothing mysterious about the Steps Method. Players are led through six courses of planned training, beginning with the most basic components of chess understanding. For each step there are student workbooks and manuals for teachers. The manuals contain scripted lessons, teaching examples, and information on good chess pedagogy, i.e., how children learn and think at different ages, and how to use that knowledge to structure your teaching methods. The idea is simple: if your club isn’t blessed with a strong player or experienced trainer, you can still teach your players the proper way to play the game using the Steps Method.

Step 1 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) is designed for players rated up to 800 or so and involves 15 distinct lessons. Because no previous knowledge is assumed, the first lessons involve things like how the different pieces move, what check is and how to get out of it, etc. Step One focuses heavily on material gain – how to attack, how to defend, how to use the ‘twofold attack’ – and only introduces checkmate halfway through the Step. It uses ‘mini-games’ to help make the instruction more palatable, and to help focus beginners on how specific pieces move and interact.

Anyone who watches junior chess and thinks for a moment will understand the justification for this way of doing things. Children’s games often devolve to who hangs the least pieces, so that mate and victory become (in a sense) a function of material advantage. If we’re being honest, this is true for players all the way up to expert.

The first Step is designed for player aged 8 and above, but the system can be modified for younger students. Two books – Stepping Stones 1, covering roughly Lessons 1-6, and Stepping Stones 2, covering Lessons 7-15 – are also available. The problems are slightly simpler and the diagrams are larger (six to a page instead of twelve) but the material is basically the same.

Step 2 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 3 (Workbook | Manual | Extra | Plus) offer lessons that begin to resemble ‘real chess.’ In Step 1, players become very good at finding and executing one ply (half-move) tactics, so that loose and underprotected pieces are captured, etc. Step 2 and Step 3 begin to require that players calculate up to three ply – I move, you move, I move and win – to achieve their aims.

In Step 2, designed for players up to 1300 or 1400, players are introduced to the building blocks of tactical play. Tactics, as Brunia and van Wijgerden constantly reiterate, are what win and lose games at this level. The focus here is on basic mates and the win of material through elementary motifs like double attacks and pins. There is little emphasis on positional themes beyond discussion of activity, and only in the middle of the Step is anything about the opening considered. All players need at this level is an understanding of the ‘three golden rules’ of the opening, and nothing more.

Step 3, for players rated up to 1600, is a continuation of Step 2. Here again only the slightest attention is paid to the opening, and most of the Step is centered on tactics. Trapping is introduced, as are the x-ray attack, discovered and double checks, and (most importantly) eliminating the defence. Positional instruction is limited to mobility and very basic static themes, and only the rudiments of pawn endings are studied.

Step 4 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 5 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) are more difficult. Here players are asked to increase their calculative abilities to five ply – I move, you move, I move, you move, I move and win – and more abstract (non-tactical) themes are considered.

Step 4, for players up to perhaps 1800, introduces the preparatory move. Tactics must be set up, so that a double attack might require a player to lure one of his opponent’s pieces to a useful square. More complex aspects of removing the defender and pins are tackled, the utility of the 7th rank is explained, and mating attacks are emphasized. More positional lessons are provided, including a lesson on weak pawns, and additional endgame instruction is given.

Step 5, for players under 2000, begins to pivot more towards strategy and away from tactics. Players are still asked to calculate five ply, but because the lessons begin to become positional in nature and thus less concrete, this Step is a step up from Step 4. Pawn play is emphasized, as are elements of rook endings and good rook handling (7th rank and open files). Tactics, of course, are not abandoned in this Step, and discussion of defense is included for the first time.

Step 6 (Workbook|Manual|Extra) is unique in that it is designed for the self-learner – there just aren’t that many trainers around who can teach players over 2000! Many of the themes covered in earlier Steps return here in more complicated form, and heavy attention is given to strategy and endgames. The Step 6 Extra workbook is also unique in that a Grandmaster, Erwin l’Ami, has been brought on as co-author. This is particularly interesting given that l’Ami was once a student of van Wijgerden, and presumably ascended the Steps in his own chess education.

Each Step should take about one calendar year to complete. It is also critical to understand, as van Wijgerden reminds anyone who will listen, that the Steps are not merely a series of workbooks with puzzles to be solved and ‘belts’ to be earned. Theory must be mixed with practice. Players need access to good trainers to help them go over their games, correct their mistakes, and guide them towards greater understanding.

IV

So what does the Steps Method look like in practice? Consider these two diagrams, both taken from van Wijgerden’s contribution to the very useful book The Chess Instructor 2009. (If you’re looking for a one-stop overview of the philosophy of the Steps, pick up a copy and read van Wijgerden’s chapter.)

#1: Black to move

image

#2: White to move

image

The key to the Steps Method is the inculcation of a solving strategy. Basically players are taught to search or ‘read’ the chessboard, pick out key elements or targets – unprotected or underprotected pieces, possibilities for various tactical motifs, etc – and then take advantage of what they discover. Trainers show their students scripted examples that clearly illustrate the nature of double attack, for instance, and then the students learn to find double attacks through solving.

In the first diagram, which comes from Step 2, we quickly see that White has two unprotected targets – the knight and the bishop. Black can play two moves (…Qf4+ and …Qh6+) that would attack those targets and also give check. Only one move works, however, since after …Qf4+ White can play Kg1 saving the bishop. The correct solution, then, is …Qh6+.

The second diagram, drawn from Step 4, is more difficult. Only after players decode the position, discovering the loose pieces on b8 and c2, does the idea of 1.Qa7! (followed by 2.Qa2+ winning a piece) become possible. When search strategies are internalized and become second nature, such tactical shots are not particularly hard to find.

Search strategies like those sketched above are the hallmark of the Steps Method. The same basic schema – read the position, find a solution, check it – appears in each Step. It is even reiterated in the chapter on Tactics in the Step 6 manual:

When you are solving the combination, finding the solution is all very well, but thinking in the correct way is equally important. Always start by asking the important question: what is going on in this position?

Sometimes you recognize the position and the solution comes to you straight away, but usually you won’t find the best move immediately You have to get used to not trying out every possible move. In such cases try using the following solving strategy:

  • In the position, what targets are there to attack?
  • What are the options to exploit this?
  • Which candidate moves come into question?
  • Check the move you want to make.

Try your hand at this position, given immediately after this passage above. Black is to move.

image

Here’s the solution.

Trainers are given fully scripted lessons with illustrative examples, and students practice what they learn by solving dozens of correlative problems. Nothing is left to chance.

V

The Steps Method has been translated into 10 languages, and it is used in countries around the world. Its success speaks for itself. Still, it has its critics. Some, as mentioned above, think the Steps to be nothing more than programmed puzzle books. Others, like Willy Hendriks, have more subtle concerns.

Hendriks, an International Master, is the author of the acclaimed Move First, Think Later: Sense and Nonsense in Improving Your Chess. In Chapter 2 of Move First, Think Later, titled “Look and you will see versus trial and error,” he argues that the ‘search-and-solve strategy’ embodied in the Steps Method is fundamentally mistaken. Chess is entirely concrete for Hendriks, and what we think of as ‘rules’ are basically retroactive justifications for moves that, by mucking about, we determine to be best. He writes:

…van Wijgerden is an advocate of search-and-solve strategy. This kind of double attack is an ideal example of demonstrating these strategies. He explicitly condemns the trial and error method: ‘Through a keen instruction we teach the children not to do these exercises at random… A wrong ‘strategy’ is looking for moves using a trial-and-error method. Guessing and missing.’

But trial and error is not necessarily random. You start trying moves that (for some reason) you feel to be most promising. An essential condition for most combinations is having pieces that (can) do something. Starting to work with these pieces can quickly bring you to the true targets. (25)

Moves, not rules, are what’s important in this view. The idea that “you should not try out moves at random, but first take a look at the characteristics of the position, try to make a more general plan on that basis and then only search for a concrete ‘result’ at the level of an actual move… is nonsense.” (14) No one, says Hendriks, actually thinks like this, and we would do well to abandon the fiction. Key elements of positions only come to mind once we see a good move associated with them.

Perhaps this is true for grandmasters, but it is decidedly not true for beginners and for class players. Or, better, it might be the case that some players – Americans in particular – learn chess this way, and they are much the poorer for it.

I don’t know how much teaching Hendriks does, but in my experience, asking beginners to simply find good moves is little more than tilting at windmills. How can they find good moves if they don’t know what makes them good in the first place? They might discover, through induction, what forks are if they solve hundreds of tactical puzzles, but certainly they can begin to find them more quickly if they know what they’re looking for.

This, to my way of thinking, is the point of the Steps Method. It teach players how to read positions and how to find the good moves in them. Hendriks forgets that one must be taught to read before one can actually do so. Eventually one just reads without sounding out the words, but it takes a lot of work to get there. That work is nowhere to be found in Hendriks’ vision of things. I think that for beginners and less talented players – the vast majority of us – the structured approach found in the Steps is helpful and perhaps necessary. Only when it becomes fully internalized and intuitive should it be cast aside a la Hendriks.

Implicit here, of course, is my criticism of typical American chess education. It is wholly unsystematic and it throws young players into tournament play before they are ready for it. Such youth fail to progress beyond near-random shuffling of pieces because they never learn how to read positions. Losses pile up, and they drop out, having gotten nothing out of the whole affair save a trophy or ribbon.

At least two generations of Americans have tried to learn chess via mega-doses of tactical puzzles. They solve hundreds of diagrams and hope to pick something up along the way. It’s possible that this works; indeed, it must work in some cases, since lots of our masters grew up clutching tattered copies of Reinfeld. I would still humbly argue that a programmed approach such as the Steps is a much more efficient way to learn chess, such that success becomes quantifiably more probable.

VI

I think the Steps Method is the best chess training system publicly available. The workbooks and manuals are remarkably affordable, and even those whom Caissa has not blessed with great talent can succeed as trainers. Because each Step comes with scripted lessons, good teaching examples, etc., competent class players can serve as trainers through at least Step 3 and perhaps beyond.

Some lessons might ask the trainer to play out specific positions against pupils in simuls, and analytical strength becomes more important as trainers look at games of stronger students, but generally speaking enthusiasm (and a strong silicon assistant) can overcome some of these limitations. I also believe that adult players – especially those without access to a top-level coach – can use the Steps as a program for self-improvement.

I have been using the Steps both in teaching and in self-training. [Addendum: Last summer I used Step 1 as the basis for a week at the Omaha Chess Camp in the beginner’s section, with mixed success – some beginners thought they didn’t need to learn the basics!, and the customer usually ends up being right…] Let me conclude, briefly, by discussing my experience with both cases.

(1) A few months ago I was asked to begin teaching a young boy who had just turned seven. This puts him right at the cusp of what the Steps deem an appropriate age for effective chess education, so after an initial assessment, we began with the Stepping Stones 1 workbook. Over the past four or so months we worked through Stepping Stones 1 and 2, and now we are beginning Step 1 Plus.

Our weekly lessons are broken down into three parts. First, we look at some of his games played on chesskid.com. His ability to correctly notate his OTB games is still shaky, so the games on ChessKid are a very good way to try and gauge what’s going on in his competitive play. We then do a lesson, in part or in full, from the Steps, and we might play a mini-game or two. Homework is assigned. Finally we look at a game or two with an interesting tactical twist. Some games have come from the Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures, and more recently, we have been looking at games from The Art of Checkmate.

One of the difficulties in adapting the Steps to an American context is impatience. Ideally we would spend one full year in Step 1, and real tournament play would not begin for at least that long. Such luxuries are not possible in the States, so I tried to dissuade this boy’s parents from entering him into competition for as long as I could. I also moved from the Stepping Stone books into Step 1 Plus, which revisits the themes of Step 1 while introducing some new ideas.

It is far too early to know how things will turn out, but I notice that the terminology of the Steps is becoming part of his chess vocabulary. We speak of threats and two-fold attacks, of chasers and guards in the context of checkmates. He is beginning, ever so slightly, to see the chessboard in the way that the Steps prescribe. I think this is for the best.

(2) As for me, after some poor results and in light of my haphazard education, I started with Steps 2 and 3, including the Plus workbooks, and am now (still) in Step 4. For this step and the ones to come, the idea is to do the original workbook followed by the first half of the Extra book, which reinforces what has been learned. I then do the Plus book and lessons, and cap things off with the second half of the Extra book, which is worksheets filled with problems on mixed themes.

It is easy to treat the Steps as just another set of puzzle books, and without a trainer steeped in the Steps, I suspect that I’m not getting full benefit from them. (I play each week at a local club, and I go over my games with the computer and with my coach.) What I do notice is greater tactical acumen in my play. For example, I recently defeated a 1900 player because I was able to use ideas gleaned from the Steps and win material. In another game, I found a tactical shot that took me from lost to won against an 1850 player in only one move.

The Steps are not a panacea. I still blunder, like every class player in existence. I overvalue bishops and underestimate passed pawns. Sometimes I struggle to defeat inferior players. But my board vision is improving, I’m generally calculating better, I feel more confident and I’m winning more. After (flying spaghetti monster help me) almost 25 years of chess, I’ll take it.

Tossing Pieces…

This review has been printed in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Nunn, John. John Nunn’s Chess Course: A Complete Chess Education based on the games of World Champion Lasker. London: Gambit, 2014. ISBN 978-1906454821. 320pp. PB $24.95, currently (11/1) 18.27 on Amazon.

Srokovski, Yaroslav. Chess Training for Post-Beginners: A Basic Course in Positional Understanding. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056914721. 256pp. PB $21.99, currently (11/1) 16.73 on Amazon.

Asked to define the difference between the master and the grandmaster, the American master Olav Ulvestad famously quipped:

A master studies the board, analyzes the position, calculates, deliberates and at last makes the correct move. A grandmaster tosses a piece in the air and it lands on the proper square.[1]

There is no small kernel of truth in this bon-mot. The best players are blessed with a talent for knowing which pieces belong where. The rest of us must overcome our limitations by dint of hard work.

Positional understanding – knowing which pieces belong where and why – is, to my mind, the most difficult of chess skills to develop. There are no shortage of tactics books to sharpen our tactical eye, no lack of opening tomes to help us with the first fifteen moves. How can we hone our positional sense? Two new titles aim to assist us with that task. In this review, I’ll argue that neither truly succeeds in that regard, but for very different reasons.

Ukranian International Master Yaroslav Srokovski is nothing if not bold. He claims in the Preface to his new book, titled Chess Training for Post-Beginners, that “any player who studies this book intensively will improve his or her Elo rating by at least 100 Elo points.” (8) What chutzpah! I’ve heard that some Russian trainers felt that intensive study of Rubinstein’s games would yield a comparable rating boost, but this boast seems just a bit rich.

Srokovski’s book, aimed at players rated 1400-2200(!), orients itself along a broadly Steinitzian understanding (9) of positional play. Good players accumulate long-term or static advantages until the conditions for attack and victory are in hand. In each of the book’s twelve chapters, Srokovski sums up the chapter’s theme in a few paragraphs, and then uses concrete positions to illustrate the nature and use of a static advantage like the bishop pair or the exploitation of weak squares. 129 positions are analyzed in the book, and there are 54 exercises for the reader to solve.

I must admit some frustration with this book. Most of the examples, on first blush, clearly illustrate the positional theme in question. The explanatory prose is adequate if sometimes scant. But I get the sense that Srokovski has engaged in a form of after-the-fact reasoning here. Careful analysis shows that more than one alleged positional brilliancy is refuted by precise tactical play. Consider, for example, the position that arises in Kosashvili-Kortchnoi from Curacao 2002 (#10 in the book).

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Kosashvili has just played 29.c4. Kortchnoi, burdened with the dead bishop on g6, replied 29…Qb7, but what if he had played 29…bxc4? Srokovski says in a note that play might follow (after 29…bxc4) 30.dxc4 Bc7 31.Qa4 Bb6 32.Rb1 Kh7 33.b5 “with advantage to White.” (19) This ignores at least three improvements for Black, including 30…d5! which overturns the evaluation of the line. The computer, for what it’s worth, suggests that White has only a slight advantage after the game continuation.

Or take the very first moves from the next example in Chess Training for Post-Beginners:

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Here, in Areschenko-Johannessen from the Bundesliga in 2006/7, White played 17.a4 – a move awarded an exclamation point by Srokovski. Because White has a space advantage and because Black has a bad bishop on a7, White should try to limit Black’s pawn breaks. 17.a4 prevents Black from playing …b7-b5 and …c5-c4, giving White (on Srokovski’s account) a “stable advantage.” (20)

Johannessen played 17…f5, and after 18.Bc2 he could have played 18…c4!, liberating the dark-squared bishop. After 18…c4, Srokovski analyzes 19.Qd2 Bxe3 20.fxe3 Nh5 21.exf5 Ng3+ 22.Kg1 Nxf5 and “Black is no worse.” (20) How is it that White’s “stable advantage” can evaporate over the course of two moves? Perhaps White was no better in the first place, and perhaps 17.a4 was not an exclam-move after all.

Such analytical oversights or omissions are far too common in Chess Training for Post-Beginners. I began to wonder, in fact, whether Srokovski had checked analysis with a modern engine. One of the lessons taught by the computer is that concrete play trumps all. Positional weaknesses are only weak if they can be exploited, and anti-positional moves, repugnant to our human sensibilities, are often dynamically sufficient to warrant consideration.

There is some evidence to suggest that Srokovski might not have done his due diligence. The website is no longer active, but I discovered via the ‘Wayback Machine’ – a service from archive.org that saves websites for posterity – that a slew of the examples in Chess Training for Post-Beginners were originally given as web lessons in the early 00s.

Some of these examples reappear in the book, and nearly (if my German can be trusted) verbatim. Some of the analysis has been updated, but some has not. I have no problem with a trainer using his trusted material in writing a book, but care should be taken with older analysis in the age of the silicon beasts. Some editorial care, too, should have been applied. I noted three typos just in the first chapter.

It might seem that I am down on Srokovski’s book, and in truth I think it needlessly sloppy. That’s not to say that it’s simply a bad book. Most of the examples shed light the positional themes in question, and the exercises after each chapter are useful. But the analytical flaws, combined with the editorial lapses, undercut the pedagogical value of the work.

I have no such worries about John Nunn’s Chess Course. Nunn is an author who is well-versed in the world of chess engines, and his works are among the most analytically precise in print. The book is fantastic, but fantastic for whom remains a real question. Let me try to explain what I mean.

The full title of Nunn’s book reads John Nunn’s Chess Course: A complete chess education based on the games of World Champion Lasker. This is a fair representation of the book’s content. Nunn aims to “cover the most important chess themes, but although the book deals with many purely technical issues, there is a strong emphasis on thought-processes and decision-making.” (6) The games of Emanuel Lasker, the Second World Champion, are the lens through which this proceeds.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Lasker’s games in recent years, with authors like Dvoretsky and Soltis subjecting his games to deep analysis, and with a particular focus on their psychological features. Such interest is in no small part due to the play of Magnus Carlsen, our current (at the time of writing!) World Champion. Carlsen, like Lasker, seems to conjure wins from drawn positions and salvage draws from lost ones, and like Lasker, he has an uncanny ability to play the moves his opponent will find most unpleasant.

It thus seems eminently reasonable that Nunn would turn to Lasker’s games in a book devoted to explaining “thought-processes and decision-making.” But there are some tradeoffs involved in this decision, not the least of which is the fact that there exist less than 1200 of Lasker’s games, only half of which were played in matches or tournaments. Nunn has given himself a very small garden from which to harvest instructive examples, and I think it shows in the text.

The isolated queen’s pawn, or IQP, is as difficult a positional scheme to master as it is important. Nunn devotes 11 pages of his book to this theme, analyzing 4 games (Burn-Lasker, Hastings 1895; Lasker-Janowski, Hastings 1895; Lasker-Maroczy, Paris 1900; and Janowski-Lasker, St. Petersburg prelim 1914) in the process. While each game involves the IQP, perhaps one (Lasker-Maroczy) can be said to be a typical IQP position. The self-imposed restriction of games forces Nunn, in my opinion, to sometimes work with imperfect exemplars.

Nunn, like many contemporary chess authors, can sometimes throw too much analysis at his readers. This book is no exception. Some analysis is necessary, but too much – especially in a book that is ostensibly instructive in nature – can present a real barrier to the reader. In the Lasker-Maroczy game, for example, Nunn includes a note to move 15 (100) that runs for 54 lines of text. Some of the note is prose, but the majority is simply raw analysis, lines and lines of moves with few landmarks beyond terminal evaluations. This is not an isolated case – see move 28 of Chekhover-Lasker (146), move 19 of Tartakower-Lasker (262), and the whole of Lasker-Lasker (203-207), where Nunn’s analysis of a 33 move endgame runs for five pages.

Let me be clear. I believe, especially in the age of the computer, that good chess writing must be concrete and analytically driven. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. While he does try to leaven his book with explanatory prose, Nunn’s analytic verbosity only serves to intimidate the improving player. And by restricting himself to just Lasker’s games, Nunn is severely hamstrung in his choice of appropriate examples.

As an instructional work, I think John Nunn’s Chess Course overshoots its mark. As a collection of Lasker’s games, however, I think it truly outstanding. Lasker’s games are fun and instructive, and Nunn is a sure guide. Players rated over 2000 will get the most out of the book, while Lasker fans and readers unfazed by reams of analysis will also enjoy it.


[1] This according to Arthur Bisguier in his lovely The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003. (Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2008.) The quote is given on p.196.