Filling a Gap

This review has been printed in the March 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Also note that an interview with Benjamin, conducted by this reviewer, appears at uschess.org.

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Benjamin, Joel. Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918071. PB 224pp.

Joel Benjamin’s biography at uschess.org says that he has “seen the board from many angles.” This is quite the understatement. Few players have has left as wide and varied a mark on American chess.

Most readers will, I suspect, know Benjamin as a chess player. Once the youngest master in American history, he won the Triple Crown of national scholastic events in his youth along with the US Junior, US Open, and World Open titles. Benjamin competed in 25 US Championships, taking the title thrice (1987, 1997, 2000), and he played for the United States in international competitions across four decades. Most recently he helped win the gold medal for the US in the 2018 World Senior Championship. (See the October 2018 issue of Chess Life for his report on the event.)

But there is much more to Benjamin’s career than his stellar competitive record. He famously served as Deep Blue’s trainer in the mid 1990s, and he has long featured as an event commentator and “banter blitzer” for chessclub.com. Now Benjamin appears to be increasingly turning (or returning?) his attention to the written word. His newest title – Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves – is an early candidate for Book of the Year.

Benjamin’s writing talent has been evident for many years. He published his first book in 1987, sharing authorial duties for Unorthodox Openings with the late FM Eric Schiller. In the early 1990s he was co-editor of the cult classic Chess Chow, certainly the funniest chess periodical in American history.

American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures appeared in 2007, and Liquidation on the Chess Board: Mastering the Transition into the Pawn Endgame was released in 2015 with a second, improved edition arriving soon. Benjamin has also been a frequent contributor and columnist for Chess Life and New in Chess for more than three decades.

Why is all of this worth mentioning? One of the difficult truths of chess publishing is that chess skill and writing prowess are not one and the same thing. Some authors may be outstanding over-the-board, but lacking that certain panache when seated at their laptops.

Benjamin is an outstanding writer. Better Thinking, Better Chess is clear and accessible without sacrificing complexity, and – this will be of no surprise to Chess Chow readers – it’s funny. It’s rare that I laugh in pleasure when reading chess literature, but there were multiple such moments here, along with (it must be said) a few Dad-joke groans. The end result is excellent, and readers will find themselves both educated and entertained by this book.

Better Thinking, Better Chess might best be understood as a variant on the old “give a man a fish / teach a man to fish” proverb. It is indisputably useful to have a teacher explain specific errors in your play, but explanation of flawed thought processes and modeling of proper in-game thinking goes much further. Instead of correcting past problems, it aims to prevent future oversights.

So Benjamin’s book is less about chess knowledge per se than it is about practical chess skills. Put differently, it’s about “the work during games” instead of “the work between them.” (7) Readers will certainly learn useful bits of openings, tactics, and endings if they work through the 118 games and 76 “Challenges” in Better Thinking, Better Chess, but more to the point, they will begin to reorder their thinking and hopefully better it.

Some of Benjamin’s examples and advice center on the need for ‘chess culture.’ Chapter 1-3 highlight the immense utility of theoretical knowledge in successful over-the-board problem solving. Game 3 is a clear illustration of this value.

QUEEN’S GAMBIT [D60]
Jay Bonin (2382)
Benjamin Medina (1968)
New York, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Qb3 e6 5.Bg5 Be7 6.Nc3 0–0 7.e3 Nbd7 8.Rd1

image

Black has a number of options in this position. He could follow known plans: 8. … dxc4 9.Bxc4 Nd5 is “Capablanca’s freeing maneuver,” and 8. … Ne4 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Bd3 Nxc3 11.Qxc3 dxc4 12.Bxc4 (if 12.Qxc4 e5) 12. … b6 followed by an eventual … c6–c5 would emulate Lasker.

Benjamin offers two other ideas, both aimed at freeing the c8-Bishop. Black could try the “unsophisticated but acceptable” 8. … b6 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.0–0 c5 when he may have equalized, and the “more sophisticated” 8. … a6, which aims to gain a tempo after 9.Bd3 dxc4 (9. … b5 10.cxd5 cxd5 is Benjamin-Kogan, US-ch 1986) 10.Bxc4 (10.Qxc4 b5! 11.Qxc6 Ra7 is in Black’s favor) 10. … b5 and Black can “break out if White is not careful.” (18-19)

Instead Black lost the thread and the game: 8. … Qb6?! 9.Qc2 dxc4?! 10.Bxc4 Re8 11.0–0 c5 12.d5! exd5 13.Bxd5 Qc7? 14.Bf4 Qa5? 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7 16.Ng5+ Kg8 17.Qb3+ 1–0.

It is certainly possible that Black, faced with this non-standard QGD / Slav hybrid, might independently stumble upon one of these four plans. But it’s more likely, especially given the quick time control, that Black would have better navigated this position by applying knowledge drawn from analogous games. Benjamin’s point is well taken: while understanding trumps rote memorization (13, 44, 46), specific knowledge of key openings, endings (41, 55), and tactical patterns (66-7, 74) is of great assistance in concrete decision making.

Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of the book, dealing with proper calculation and roadblocks endemic to it. These pages are full of useful advice on structuring calculation and locating hidden resources. Benjamin admonishes his readers to work hard at the board, to focus on high-reward forcing moves (86) and prioritize the search for candidate moves (108f). Players should “aim high” (118, also 24) before scaling down expectations, and they should extend their analysis “one move beyond the last capture” (105) to sniff out hidden chances.

What I particularly like about Better Thinking, Better Chess are the examples. The vast majority are digestible for non-masters, and the explanations are exemplary. Some positions are admittedly difficult – Gruchacz-Benjamin (Game 72) and Abramovic-Benjamin (Game 93) come to mind – but even here, Benjamin takes great pains to break things down in an edifying manner. I never felt overwhelmed by his analysis, although it required no small effort for me to follow.

Challenge 47 is typical in this regard, and it’s worth looking at in some detail.

CATALAN [E17]
Tan Nguyen (2216)
Shawn Rodriguez-Lemieux (2057)
Morristown jr, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0–0 6.0–0 Nbd7 7.Nbd2 b6 8.b3 Bb7 9.Bb2 c5 10.cxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Rc8 12.Nh4

Here White should probably not get too ambitious. 12.e3 with the idea of Qd1–d2 and Rf1–d1 looks like a sensible continuation.” (112)

12…Re8 13.Nf5 Bf8 14.Nc4 Ba6

image

Where should White move his knight?

Nguyen played 15.Nce3 g6 16.Nh4 Bg7 (16. … Bh6!) 17.Re1? Bh6 and Black won quickly. If White was focusing on forcing moves, the …Bh6 idea should have been forseen “at least before move fourteen, and ideally before 12.Nh4. The moves in this sequence are somewhat forcing and predictable, so it’s not unreasonable for a strong, hard-working player to do so. But at minimum, White should stop at move fifteen and seriously consider the ramifications of different knight moves.” (113) Neither 15.Ncd6 nor 15.Ne5 are totally satisfactory, but both improve on the game.

Chess improvement, as Jonathan Rowson famously remarked, takes place at the edge of our comfort zones. We’re approaching one of my edges here. I can easily see myself missing the … Bh6 idea were I not rigorous in my thinking, but it’s also not inconceivable that I could discover it with disciplined calculation. Better Thinking, Better Chess is stuffed with well-chosen Challenges like these, walking the fine line between ‘too easy’ and ‘way too hard.’

Space prevents me from discussing the full panoply of important insights found in this book – you can check Chapter 9, “Words of Wisdom,” for a summary list of key ideas – but I do want to highlight just one more, one that I marked “!!” in the margin of the page.

“I have noticed,” Benjamin writes, “that players below 2300 tend to be hesitant to sacrifice the exchange. Yes, they will do it to mate, or win material, or earn something tangible like dangerous passed pawns. But if they can’t calculate an immediate return they get put off it.” (144) This seems entirely correct. Material is but one factor in the calculus of positional assessment, and the ability to play sacrifices that lack ‘immediate gratification’ appears to be a sign of chess improvement.

Books like Better Thinking, Better Chess don’t come along every day. It’s insightful, well-structured, and it fulfills the promise of its title. It also fills a gap in the marketplace – the only comparable work I can think of is Jacob Aagaard’s excellent, but demanding, Thinking Inside the Box. I suspect Benjamin’s book is suitable for a slightly lower rated audience, say 1500-2200, but don’t mistake its sunny disposition for a lack of rigor. This is a first rate effort.

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