Test Yourself

This review has been printed in the April 2020 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.

Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training for Kids and Club Players. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2020. ISBN 9789492510693. Figurine notation. 152 pages.

Kuzmin, Alexey. Together with Mamedyarov. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2020. ISBN 9789492510726. Figurine notation. 354 pages.

Song, Guannan; Lin, Dachey; Song, Edward. Practical Chess Puzzles: 600 Positions to Improve Your Calculation and Judgement. London: Everyman Chess, 2020. ISBN 9781781945612. PB 285pp.

Zlatanovic, Boroljub. Fundamental Chess Strategy in 100 Games. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 9789492510686. PB 507pp.

Thinkers Publishing has been churning out new books at a furious rate, and no less than ten titles recently appeared in a giant box on my doorstep. While Thinkers has tended to target a more advanced readership in the past, they seem to be expanding their enterprise, with new releases clearly aimed at improvers. This month we’ll check out three such titles, along with a “kindred spirit” just out from Everyman Chess.

Together with Mamedyarov is GM Alexey Kuzmin’s third book with Thinkers Publishing. His first, Together with Morozevich (2017), uses the games of the Russian genius to present readers with complex problems for solving. This was followed in 2018 by Together with the Candidates, a collection of puzzles drawn from Candidates matches and tournaments. For this effort Kuzmin was awarded the 2018 FIDE Book of the Year award.

Like his first two Together with… books, Together with Mamedyarov is consciously modeled after Hort and Jansa’s The Best Move, one of the classics of chess literature. The titles of Kuzmin’s books are themselves an homage to Hort and Jansa, echoing the original Czech – Zahrajte si šachy s velmistry, or “Playing together with Grandmasters.”

Kuzmin follows Hort and Jansa’s lead in asking readers to assess positions in general before choosing a move or deciding between posed alternatives. Points are awarded for both assessment and calculation, the accumulation of which is said to correspond to different levels of strength, although readers are free to ignore (as I did) this admittedly “subjective” (8) scale. As with Hort and Jansa, players are tested on the full range of their chess knowledge. This is not strictly a “tactics book.”

But while Together with Morozevich and Together with the Candidates are written for very strong players, with some positions explicity labeled as for players over 2500, Kuzmin dials the difficulty back a bit in Together with Mamedyarov. The first chapter, “Beginning to think like a Grandmaster,” contains 80 chronological positions for readers rated 1400-1900. The second chapter, “Passing the Grandmaster test,” offers another 90, this time for players between 1700 and 2100.

Here’s an example taken from Chapter 1 with White to move. First assess the position – is White minimally better, clearly better, or equal? – and then justify that assessment with a concrete variation. Try to solve it before checking your answer.

What I like about this position is that it requires both positional judgment and sound calculation to correctly solve, something typical of Kuzmin’s selections. It doesn’t seem out of the reach of a 1900 player, although it may stretch the abilities of players at the lower end of the target audience. While Kuzmin is used to working with the world’s best players, having trained Karpov and Morozevich among others, he is not unattuned to the needs of we chess mortals, choosing well-targeted problems for his imagined reader.

Thinkers Publishing Managing Editor GM Romain Edouard, whose work on Topalov and the French Defense was reviewed in these pages in August of last year, is the author of three fairly advanced problem books: Chess Calculation Training Volume 1: Middlegames, Volume 2: Endgames, and Volume 3: Legendary Games. In  Chess Calculation Training for Kids and Club Players, Level 1: Checkmating, he turns his attention to puzzles for the lower rated player.

Across seven chapters, moving from fairly simple mate-in-twos to mate-in-mores, removing the defender tactics, and “nasty double threats,” Edouard has selected 276 checkmate problems aimed at club players. Here’s one from Chapter 7, “An Unexpected Blow,” that (for reasons that will become clear in a forthcoming issue!) caught my attention. Again, try to solve before looking at the answer!

The chapter title is a bit of a hint to the solver here. Still, this is a difficult mate to calculate in terms of depth and branching. Mates in twos and even threes are one thing, but I’m not sure that the majority of “kids and club players” will be able to handle the more difficult problems in the book.

One nicety of Edouard’s presentation is Chapter 4, “Trap Your Opponent’s King.” While many mate problems, including no small number in Chess Calculation Training for Kids and Club Players, involve flashy sacrifices, it’s arguably more useful to solve those where you have to quietly encircle and lasso the king over a series of moves. That Edouard included a set of these type of positions shows good authorial (and editorial!) judgment.

Practical Chess Puzzles: 600 Positions to Improve Your Calculation and Judgment is not a Thinkers Publishing title, but this new Everyman Chess effort from FM Guannan Song, FM Dachey Lin, and IM Edward Song arrived at my door just as this column was going to press. And like the two books mentioned above, it aims to give club players a set of problems designed specifically for them.

As its title suggests, Practical Chess Puzzles is a collection of 600 positions divided into three topical chapters: Combinations, Evaluation, and “Tests.” The task of the first section (250 positions) is fairly self-explanatory. The second (100 positions) asks readers to use “intuition, positional understanding, and logic” (8) to crack the problems, and the third (250 positions) is a mix of combinative and evaluative positions.

Practical Chess Puzzles largely delivers what is promised. The authors say that they are writing for players from 1200-2200 – quite a range! – and the puzzles in each section track from less to more complex. My sense is that most of the positions are rather concrete, so that even the ‘evaluative’ tasks are rooted in calculation. Still, there is an overt effort to present lesser-known, diverse examples, featuring North American players and a full range of position types. All this serves to keep solvers on their toes.

In that vein, here’s position #55 (out of 250 for those tracking relative difficulty) from the Combinations chapter. You may be surprised by the conclusion!

A final note on Practical Chess Puzzles: all of the diagrams are presented from the position of the solver, so that Black is on the bottom if it’s Black to move. This is an industry trend that, frankly, I’m ambivalent about, but if publishers are going to go this route, they should provide notice that they’re doing so. That wasn’t the case here.

Of these three books, I think Kuzmin’s is clearly the best. His puzzles are varied and well-chosen, and his explanations are excellent. Edouard’s is a straightforward “puzzle book” that may overwhelm its intended audience, while Song, Lin, and Song presents a varied challenge to readers in a promising first effort.

Our final book this month is another example of Thinkers Publishing expanding its ideal audience. IM Boroljub Zlatanovic’s Fundamental Chess Strategy in 100 Games is a annotated games collection designed to illustrate key positional themes across eight chapters: the center, bishop vs. knight, the bishop pair, open files, pawn structures (the largest chapter at 172 pages), coordination and harmony, the initiative, and blockades and prophylaxis.

Zlatanovic uses a light touch in his notes, limiting the complexity of his analysis and working to clearly explain the logic of positional decisions and ideas. Using examples both well-known and less studied, class and club players are taught quite a bit about basic positional play. I certainly learned a thing or two.

There is no bibliography or works cited page in Zlatanovic’s book, despite his citing other authors fairly regularly. I would have liked to known what sources he was using, especially as there are a number of games, often involving Petrosian, where Zlatanovic reproduces analysis from MegaBase almost verbatim.

It turns out that ChessBase and MegaBase seem to have also borrowed analysis from Petrosian without attribution, making it hard to know precisely where Zlatanovic’s lines came from. Regardless of the provenance of the analysis in question, and acknowledging the pervasiveness of such practice, such “borrowing” is distasteful, removing a bit of the shine from an otherwise solid book.


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