Category Archives: Instructional

Game Changer?

This review has been printed in the April 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.

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Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918187. PB 416pp.

Sigmund Freud once described the “three severe blows” suffered by human narcissism in the course of Western history.[1] The cosmological blow, struck by Copernicus, expelled us from our supposed place at the center of the universe. Darwin’s biological blow denied us the comfort of our separation from, and superiority over, the animal kingdom. And Freud himself landed the final, psychological blow, exposing the irrational unconscious forces beneath even the greatest achievements of human rationality.

To these three psychic wounds chess players can add a fourth: Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue in 1997. Deep Blue’s victory was portrayed in the mass media as a referendum on human intelligence, a ‘canary in the coalmine’ moment in which the inevitable overtaking of human creativity by machine intelligence was made manifest.

Curious thing, though. What was imagined as an antagonistic relationship between man and machine has instead proven to be a constructive one. Sure, humans have given up trying to beat Stockfish or Komodo, even at odds, but our ‘metal friends’ (Tukmakov’s delightful turn of phrase) are now our trusted analytical partners and teachers.

Far from killing our game, chess in the e-sport era now depends on the presence of engines, which play the role of the hole-cam in the poker boom. They give the illusion of prescience, allowing amateurs the heady feeling that they know more than the players themselves.

So imagine the shock when a scientific pre-print appeared on the Internet in December 2017. Its title, “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm,” was anodyne enough, but the paper announced a seismic shift in artificial intelligence and chess. AlphaZero, a program created by a Google subsidiary known as DeepMind, trounced Stockfish in head-to-head play. In doing so it forced us to rethink everything we know about computer chess.

The principles governing Stockfish’s play are not fundamentally different than those guiding Deep Blue, although they have been profoundly refined in the intervening years. Stockfish uses human-tuned criteria to evaluate each position in its search tree, and through “alpha-beta” search methods it is able to focus on promising continuations while pruning away inferior moves. Each move and each decision are the result of precise mathematical calculations, and human users can extract exact numerical evaluations for any given position.

AlphaZero is different, as Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan lucidly explain in their new book, Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Pre-programmed with only the basic rules of chess, and using general (non-specific) self-training algorithm, AlphaZero trained itself to play chess over the course of nine hours and 44 million self-play games. Periodically the program would refine its neural network, promoting tunable weights and network ‘layers’ that led to favorable outcomes, and demoting those that didn’t.

AlphaZero functions by combining these self-taught evaluative values with a Monte Carlo style tree search, where possible future game positions are spun out, evaluated, and ranked probabilistically. We don’t know exactly how AlphaZero decides what to play. The algorithm is a ‘black box’ in the Latourian sense, where inputs and outputs are known but (in contrast to Stockfish) its internal mechanisms remain opaque, even to DeepMind. What we do know is that AlphaZero is immensely, improbably strong, exhibiting an attractive attacking style reminiscent of Kasparov.

Perhaps this is what makes AlphaZero so remarkable – its style. What we see in its victories over Stockfish should, given all we know about computer chess, be impossible. Stockfish is typically seen as a calculative god and defensive wizard, able to soak up pressure, induce errors, and grind down its opponents. AlphaZero defeated it by playing the kinds of attacking, sacrificial ideas that, played by humans, would inevitably be refuted by the machine.

Sadler and Regan spend two chapters of Game Changer describing the technical aspects of AlphaZero’s self-training regiment, the way it “thinks,” and what its evaluations and expected scores mean. Their extensive access to the DeepMind team and the algorithm allow them to craft accessible explanations of difficult subjects, and the mini-interviews with DeepMind team members are helpful.

The meat of the book, however, focuses squarely on AlphaZero’s style. What makes it so good? How can we reverse-engineer the logic of its moves and apply that knowledge to our own games? By studying the roughly 230 publicly available AlphaZero games, along with approxmiately 2100 additional games provided by DeepMind, Sadler and Regan distill a number of tantalizing traits in AlphaZero’s play.

An example is useful. Consider this game, which Sadler describes as “perhaps AlphaZero’s most beautiful game of all.”[2]

NIMZO-ENGLISH (A17)
AlphaZero
Stockfish 8
AlphaZero v. Stockfish Match, 2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 a5 7.b4 d6 8.e3 Ne4 9.Qc2 Ng5 10.b5 Nxf3+ 11.gxf3 Qf6 12.d4!?

Sadler and Regan expected 12.Bb2 Qxf3 13.Rg1 but AlphaZero instead plays for long-term compensation.

12. … Qxf3 13.Rg1 Nd7 14.Be2 Qf6 15.Bb2 Qh4 16.Rg4!?

Giving up the h-pawn to open the file. Stockfish sees this position as better for Black, while AlphaZero thought that White had a slight advantage.

16. … Qxh2 17.Rg3 f5 18.0–0–0

Offering pawn number three!

18. … Rf7

After 18. … Qxf2 19.Rdg1 Rf7 20.R1g2 Qe1+ 21.Bd1 White’s compensation is undeniable.

19.Bf3 Qh4 20.Rh1 Qf6

image

What does AlphaZero have for the two pawns? Two half-open files and massively superior mobility. This is a key idea for Sadler and Regan. As they explained in a conference call for chess journalists – the first such promotional call I’ve been on for a chess book! – the concept of mobility is fundamental for understanding how AlphaZero plays. It works to maximize the mobility of its pieces and minimize the mobility of its opponent’s. One of AlphaZero’s most striking tendencies, the pushing of its rook pawns to restrict the opponent’s king, is emblematic in this regard. Here, having opened lines for its rooks, AlphaZero now proceeds to open diagonals and further increase its mobility.

21.Kb1 g6 22.Rgg1!? a4 23.Ka1 Rg7 24.e4 f4 25.c5 Qe7 26.Rc1 Nf6 27.e5 dxe5 28.Rhe1 e4 29.Bxe4 Qf8

This is a key position in both the game and the book. Sadler and Regan use it to illustrate AlphaZero’s “thought processes” in Chapter 4.

30.d5!

AlphaZero sacrifices another pawn to open the a1–h8 diagonal!

30. … exd5 31.Bd3! Bg4 32.f3 Bd7

White’s initative grows after 32. … Bxf3? 33.Rf1 Be4 34.Rxf4.

33.Qc3 Nh5 34.Re5

AlphaZero rates its winning chances at 80.3% here. (It evaluates positions by win percentage in Monte Carlo game rollouts.) Stockfish 8 thinks White is significantly better, but newer versions of the engine more clearly understand the danger.

34. … c6 35.Rce1 Nf6 36.Qd4 cxb5 37.Bb1 Bc6 38.Re6 Rf7

Stockfish hopes to return some of its material advantage and weather the storm. AlphaZero does not oblige.

39.Rg1 Qg7 40.Qxf4 Re8 41.Rd6 Nd7 42.Qc1 Rf6 43.f4! Qe7 44.Rxf6 Nxf6 45.f5 Qe3 46.fxg6 Qxc1 47.gxh7+ Kf7 48.Rxc1 Nxh7 49.Bxh7 Re3 50.Rd1 Ke8 51.Ka2 Bd7 52.Bd4 Rh3 53.Bc2 Be6 54.Re1 Kd7 55.Kb2 Rf3 56.Re5 Rg3 57.Re3 Rg2 58.Kc3 Rg4 59.Rf3 Ke8 60.Rf2 Rg3+ 61.Kb4 Rg4 62.Rd2 Bd7 63.Ka5 Rf4 64.Be5 Rf3 65.Rd3 Rf2 66.Bd1 Bc6 67.Kb6 1–0

One can’t help but feel as if a superior, alien intelligence has taken the White pieces and opened a new vista on to our beloved game.

Part III of Game Changer brilliantly distills some of the key features of AlphaZero’s attacking prowess. We see, through detailed analysis and clear explanation, how AlphaZero values outposts, why it rams ‘Harry the h-pawn’ forward, how it plays on color complexes and sacrifices for what Kasparov called quality. Part IV, devoted to AlphaZero’s opening choices, is less successful. The authors laud AlphaZero’s novel handling of the White side of the Carlsbad structure, for instance, but the game they cite departs from theory on the sixth move, rendering much of the fine preparatory explanation useless.

Game Changer is an excellent book, fully deserving of the critical praise it has received. Sadler and Regan patiently explain the technical minutia for a non-technical audience, and their attempts to divine the essence of AlphaZero’s style are clear and convincing. Until DeepMind succeeds in “recovering back” AlphaZero’s implicit heuristics through some secondary algorithm, this treatment is as good it gets.

What remains less settled, at least in my mind, is the issue of the book’s title. Is AlphaZero really a game changer? Does its advent herald a revolution in chess?

DeepMind’s novel computational solution – AlphaZero’s self-learned strength and style – is as disruptive today as Deep Blue’s brute force approach was in 1997. Both reconfigured our understanding the possibilities of computer chess and, truth be told, of chess itself.

This, unfortunately, does not exhaust the two project’s similarities. AlphaZero seems doomed to a life behind corporate bars much like its august predecessor, hidden away from the public in the interest of protecting trade secrets. And as with Deep Blue, AlphaZero’s influence on chess will be as a consequence be limited.

I suspect that the real game changer will be Leela Chess, an open-source project that mimics AlphaZero’s self-learning algorithm. Because it is open-source, like the now ubiquitous Stockfish, Leela can be used by anyone without cost. Players can train with Leela, use it to analyze their games, and test their ideas against it. The democratization of chess information that began with Robert Hyatt’s Crafty, Mark Crowther’s The Week in Chess, and Stockfish continues with Leela, and the chess world will be much the richer for it.


[1] See Freud’s Compete Psychological Works (Standard edition, ed. Strachey), volume 17, p.139-141.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RuIHfNcPO0

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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.

In Your Faaaaaaaaaace!

This review has been printed in the October 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Stallings, Jay. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy. Series of six lesson books and six workbooks. Available at https://coachjayschessacademy.com/

There is a great democratization of access to chess teaching and wisdom afoot in today’s always-on, interconnected world. While there are economic barriers to grapple with – not everyone can afford a tablet, laptop, or smartphone, of course! – it remains the case that with the free streamers and lectures on YouTube and Twitch, alongside daily news on leading chess portals, today’s players have a world of chess knowledge available at their fingertips. The only problem is finding the time to consume it all.

For all of this free / freemium content, however, there are still precious few coherent teaching programs or courses available to the general public. It’s one thing to watch a few videos and feel as if one has learned something. It’s entirely another to work through a tried and tested, Elo-appropriate training system. To my knowledge there are only two or three such programs currently in print.

Chess Life Columnist and ‘teacher to the stars’ Lev Alburt was one of the first to offer this kind of series with his Comprehensive Chess Course. Volumes I and II were general works, offering to bring beginners to “tournament level,” while each of the remaining five volumes covered more specific areas of improvement. It’s hard to give an appropriate rating range for each of these titles, but early advertising[1] said that Volumes III (Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player) and IV (The King in Jeopardy) were “ideal for anyone rated 1400 to 2400+.”

The Stappenmethode, or Steps Method, is a more recent training system. Created by IM Cor van Wijgerden and Rob Brunia, the Steps are designed to bring a player from rank beginner to master-level strength over the course of seven levels or ‘steps,’ ideally under the tutelage of an experienced coach. While the Steps are widely used in Europe, they have (to my eye) only gained recognition here in the States in the past few years. I incorporate the Steps in my own teaching and training, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.[2]

One might also consider in this context Artur Yusupov’s nine-book series with Quality Chess. In this triple triptych – three three-volume series originally aimed at 1500+, 1800+, and 2100+ players – readers will certainly gain knowledge and skills to inch towards master, but the advertised target audiences are decidedly too low, and the books presuppose quite a bit of learning on the part of its readers.

Now there is a new series of training materials from Jay “Coach Jay” Stallings, a leading scholastic coach in California and a member of the US Chess Scholastic Council. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, as the set of fourteen books is collectively known, is immensely promising, and I can see it becoming popular both with those learning to play chess and (especially) those who teach it.

Coach Jay’s Chess Academy takes a page from the martial arts and is divided into seven levels or ‘Belts.’ Each of the Belts – White (for players rated roughly 0-300), Yellow ( 300-600), Orange (600-900), Green (900-1200), Purple (1200-1500), Blue (1500-1800) and Black (1700-2000) – includes a lesson book, a puzzle book, and a Chess Passport with stickers to celebrate accomplishments and milestones. The books are extremely well designed, full of color and fun drawings to draw in young minds, and the ‘gamification’ of progress via the Passport and stickers is a master stroke.

I recently had the chance to test-drive Stallings’ books at two weeklong, half-day chess camps here in Omaha. The morning group, consisting mainly of complete and near-beginners, was largely structured around the White Belt lessons and puzzle book. In the afternoon, with campers who were more advanced, we focused on attacking play, and I used pages from the Green and Purple books as part of those sessions.

The White Belt books do a very good job of imparting the basics, including all of the rules needed to play a complete game except en passant. Because I began with a standard lesson on the pieces and the “three weird moves” of chess – castling, promotion, and en passant – this wasn’t a serious problem, but it does seem slightly odd to not cover it at the outset.

Stallings follows his initial lesson on the pieces with a wonderful rendering of “Farmer and Pigs,” which I have always known (with slightly different rules) as the Anteater. White begins with eight pawns on the 2nd rank, while Black has only her queen on d8. White wins if a ‘pig’ gets to the 8th rank, while the ‘farmer’ (Black’s queen) wins by capturing all the pigs. The game seems simple, but it gets the kids moving the pieces very early in the learning process, and Stallings models basic strategy in the examples. Most importantly, it’s fun!

The discussion of mates is also worth mention. Stallings uses a number of neologism, including the ‘rook roller’ and the ‘in-your-face’ (helper mate), to teach basic mate patterns. The kids quickly grasped these basic mates, and had little trouble extending their knowledge – “that’s just like the rook roller!” – to similar positions. They also, in a plot twist no one could have foreseen, loved bellowing “in your faaaace!” when mating their opponents.

In the afternoon sessions, I focused on typical attacking ideas and motifs, including opening lines to attack a king trapped in the center, breaching castled positions, and knowing key checkmate patterns. We spent quite a bit of time on ‘attacking ratio’ or preponderance of attacking force, and I used Stallings’ pages on the Greek Gift from the Green Belt book to illustrate the ‘three piece rule’ popularized by Jacob Aagaard.[3]

The idea behind this rule is simple. A successful king hunt generally needs three pieces to succeed: one to give itself up for access, and two to deliver mate. (More generally, you can’t just attack because you want to. Your position must allow it!) The Greek Gift pattern, as Aagaard notes, is the clearest exemplar of this rule, and Stallings does an excellent job of explaining the key mechanisms. He shows two versions of the pattern, one with bishop-knight-queen and one with bishop-rook-queen, and importantly, he offers positions where the sacrifice is unsuccessful.

One of the campers came to me the day after this lesson, proudly telling me that she’d pulled off the sacrifice in an online game. We retrieved the game from chesskid.com and looked at it as a group. True, she did win the game, and the final mate followed the typical pattern, but there were at least three junctures where her opponent could have diverged with easily winning positions.

A junior’s making a mistake is not surprising, even when they are as dedicated and talented as this young lady. But here it raises the issue of good pedagogy. What does a player rated 1000 need to know to advance in chess? What is too much, or too advanced? Stallings’ lesson continues with discussion of Alekhine’s Block (using Alekhine-Sterk, 1921 as an example), and it concludes with a brilliancy that combines the two motifs.

image

Here Miles played

13. …Bxh2+! The Greek Gift!

14.Kxh2 Qh4+ 15.Kg1 Bf3!! Alekhine’s Block!

16.Nd2 If 16.gxf3 Rf6 then Black must play 17.Rfe1 Qh3! before 18. …Rg6 or White’s king escapes.

16. …Bxg2! 17.f3 Rf6 18.Nc4 Bh3 0–1

Keep in mind that this is a lesson in the Green Belt book, aimed at players rated 900-1200. Does it help them to see these complex patterns, or do they apply them inappropriately, sacrificing when the position does not justify it? I certainly don’t have a clear answer here, but my impression, for what it’s worth, is that Stallings tends to introduce material early relative to rating, while the Steps Method tends to introduce it later.[4]

This is not the only difference between Coach Jay’s Chess Academy and the Steps Method, but it is illustrative. Further discussion of those differences seems appropriate here, if for no other reason than the Steps are the closest analogue to Stallings’ books currently on the market.

Stallings’ books are designed to get a player ready to play in a tournament quickly. Any player who can “complete a game without needing to be reminded of any rules” is, he says, ready for tournament play.[5] This is reflected in the initial Belts, which are paced fairly aggressively (per the included Lesson Plans). The Steps, in contrast, are designed to be traversed very slowly, with tournament play being postponed for as long as possible. I don’t have a definite idea as to which is preferable, but I will say that in my experience, holding off from tournament play is a tough sell with American parents.

Stallings’ books introduce material and concepts faster than in the Steps, as mentioned above, but with vastly fewer puzzles for practice and reinforcement. (Some Steps have over 2000 positions to complete over four or five workbooks.) This is, in part, due to the relative ages of both systems. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy has just been released after a successful Kickstarter campaign, while the Steps Method has been around for over thirty years. But it also may reflect a philosophical difference, again related to speed of progress.

There is a much more prominent stress on chess history and stories in Stallings’ books, and there are more nicknames given to typical motifs – the ‘in your ear’ and ‘in your cheek’ mates as variants of the helper mate, the ‘buddy system’ and ‘give and go’ in the endgame – compared to the Steps. I can see how this might be useful when talking with students about important ideas, providing an easy shorthand for quick discussion. But it is idiosyncratic, and the neologisms do not always translate outside of a “Coach Jay group.”

One key difference is the availability of support materials in each system. Each Step has a thick manual for trainers, containing model teaching materials, discussion of the psychology of learning, etc. The Coaches Guides for Coach Jay’s Chess Academy are slight by comparison. Again, this is something that I assume will be remedied over time, but for newer learners and teachers, having a fully-fleshed out ‘philosophy’ as in the Steps may be of no small benefit.

I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far in Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, and I have already begun to think about how I can incorporate his materials into both my teaching and my self-training. (Those Black Belt positions are hard, folks!) The books are well-designed and attractive, and the gamification features are a neat innovation. I’m especially pleased to see the emphasis on chess history and culture. While I’m not ready to abandon my beloved Steps just yet, I think that chess teachers and learners would benefit by earning some Belts with “Coach Jay.”

Nota bene: I was a Kickstarter supporter for this series of books. I have never met Jay Stallings, and I have no financial stake in the success or failure of these books.


[1] See Chess Life, April 1997, page 25.

[2] You can read my full review of the Steps at my blog, which also contains ‘off-prints’ of all of my columns for Chess Life: https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-chess-steps/

[3] See Aagaard, Jacob. Attacking Manual 2. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2010. 25.

[4] The Greek Gift first appears in Step 5, Lesson 14 (“Attacking the King”) of the Steps Method. Thanks to Rob Lazorchak for the reference.

[5] Stallings, Jay. “How to Teach Your Kid Chess.” Page 52. PDF available online at http://teachyourkidchess.com

Fascinating and Frustrating

This review has been printed in the September 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Kislik, Erik. Applying Logic in Chess. London: Gambit Publications, 2018. ISBN 978-1911465249. PB 320pp.

Looking back at recent month’s columns, I have noticed a rather evident bias towards ‘serious’ titles and topics, often devoted to calculation, solving, or improvement. Such an emphasis is not too surprising – after all, research is me-search, as the old saying goes – but it also completely neglects huge swaths of chess literature. Last month’s column was a first step in redressing this bias, and I hope to broaden my scope in the months to come.

So why, then, am I reviewing another serious tome here?

Let me put it simply. IM Erik Kislik’s Applying Logic in Chess is one of the most interesting titles to appear in recent years, but it is also one of the most maddening. Rarely have I been at once so fascinated and utterly frustrated by one and the same book. Surely something that can prompt such a visceral reaction deserves discussion.

Erik Kislik is an American International Master currently living in Hungary. He works as a trainer for IMs and GMs like Spanish Super-GM Paco Vallejo, and he bills himself as “an expert in computer chess and one of the most in-demand chess trainers on ICC [chessclub.com].” Applying Logic in Chess is his first book, and it is a vastly ambitious effort, offering readers a comprehensive, no-holds-barred rendering of his ideas about chess improvement and training.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing Kislik’s book is a direct result of this ambition. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the vast terrain he tries to cover over the course of the text, and it’s very hard to synthesize his ideas succinctly. One hand-hold, as it were, can be carved through a consideration of the meaning of the book’s title, and an exploration of what Kislik means by logic.

Consider this example, taken from Chapter 7 (“Is Chess a Logical Game?”) of Applying Logic in Chess. Kislik employs it to show how the employment of “simple logic in complex positions” can allow us to penetrate “right to the heart of a position.” (178) The text and notes are his.

image

Here is a study that was used during the world solving championship of 2015 and stumped some of the best solvers in the world. One might assume that the position is illogical and has an irrational solution because some elite chess solvers struggled with it. This position is actually not as random as you might imagine. The way I arrived at the correct solution was by realizing that Black has two unique threats: taking on g2 and playing …c2. There is actually only one move that stops both of those threats:

1.Be4!! White gives up a bishop, but uses the tempo effectively to trade off a bunch of pawns.

1. …Rxe4+ 2.Kd3 White hits the black rook with tempo and attempts to capture the two remaining pawns as quickly as possible.

2. …Ra4! After 2. …Rc4, 3.dxc3 draws.

3.Rxa4 Bxb5+ 4.Rc4+! This distracts the bishop. 4.Kxc3?? Bxa4 leaves the white king cut off because it cannot come to c2 to get in front of the a-pawn.

4. …Bxc4+ If 4. …Kb7 5.Kxc3 Bxc4 6.Kc2.

5.Kxc3 Kd7 After 5. …a2 6.Kb2 White draws by giving up the d-pawn.

6.Kc2 Kc6 6. …Ba2 7.Kc3 , intending Kb4, is an important point.

7.Kb1 White gives up the d-pawn to achieve a simple theoretically drawn position in which Black can never make progress if White just keeps the king in the corner behind the a-pawn.

The logic behind the solution to this study is clear: by discerning Black’s threats, White was able to figure out the only ways to stop them that would allow favourable simplification. (178)

What is the nature of this ‘logic behind the solution?’ Clearly, and despite Kislik’s talk of ‘first principles’ (15) and informal fallacies (11, 78, 103), we are not dealing with any sort of formal logical system that might undergird all of our thinking. Here we must also note how misleading the book’s cover is. There is nothing in the text that resembles a flowchart for thought.

Instead, Kislik has a more modest, if equivocal, understanding of logic and reason in chess. In an important passage that appears just before the above example, he writes:

…sometimes the logic of a position is very simple and allows us to play 20 perfect moves in a row if we simply grasp the main point of the position. This is one of many reasons to hone your chess logic and your logical skills in chess. … The fact that there is always a clear explanation for every single error you have ever made in a game is powerful evidence that chess is a rational game. When a position does not make sense to you, it is simply because you have no experience or knowledge in that type of position. Building experience and knowledge in different types of positions is one of the most valuable skills to work on improving as a result. (177)

I’m reminded here of a Boris Pasternak poem, where the great Russian bard writes of his desire to reach “[t]o the essence of the passing days / To their cause / To the bases, to the roots, / To the very core.”[1] We can say that chess is logical and rational because it is a game of perfect information, subject to comprehensive study with databases and engines. More than that, however, we need to undertake structured, intensive study of the game to build our skill in discerning the key features of different positions and uncovering their ‘logic.’

[An aside: it occurs to me that playing for counterplay / mate with 1.Bd5!? is no less logical than Kislik and Minski’s solution, if we understand ‘logical’ to mean responsive to the key features of the position. After 1. …c2! 2.b6 (with the idea of Ra8#) 2. …Kd8 3.Rc5 appears to save the bishop and stop the c-pawn. Only intensive analysis exposes the flaw in this plan. The key points (drawn from Minski’s solution) also appear in the downloadable pgn file at uschess.org.]

Here is where Kislik’s book absolutely shines. Applying Logic in Chess is filled to the brim with advice for improvement, and I cannot begin to hope to discuss it all here. What follows is a paltry, partial list of some of the highlights.

  • Following Larry Kaufman’s work, Kislik argues (14-26) that we need to more precisely value the pieces. The familiar 1-3-3-5-10 scale is replaced with 1 (pawn), 3.45 (knight), 3.55 (bishop), 5.25 (rook) and 10 (queen). The bishop pair is worth half a pawn, while a tempo is equivalent to about a quarter of a pawn.
  • Kislik’s ideal playing style, especially in light of modern time controls, is to play simple, healthy, ‘logical’ moves, and reserve complexity and calculation for critical moments. (38-9) Here he follows Carlsen and eschews the dreaded ‘Tal Syndrome.’
  • Playing is most important for improvement, followed by game analysis, and only then training. (Chapter 3)
  • Kislik uses an extended version of Jacob Aagaard’s ‘three questions’ (45) to orient thought during games. He adds two to the list: Dorfman’s “Who benefits from the exchange of queens?,” and “what are the pawn-breaks?”
  • Training should be divided into temporary and permanent tasks. It should be ‘task-oriented’ instead of ‘result- or ego-oriented.’ This could be read alongside Aagaard’s discussion of growth mindsets.
  • Kislik differentiates between six facets of chess strength (chapter 4): concrete knowledge, pattern recognition, calculation, candidate moves, positional understanding, and logic. He offers specific training advice for each element.
  • He favors CT-ART over online tactical trainers for achieving basic tactical competence. (106) Once a week he runs through an already-solved tactics book to reinforce key patterns. (86)
  • One of the most important elements in Kislik’s vision for improvement is the accumulation of ‘chess culture’ through the study of master games. This can be broken down into three parts. (a) Players should study every game from World Championship matches after 1930. (b) They should scan through relevant games each week in TWIC. (c) They should especially study annotated games collections by the players themselves.
  • There is an extensive discussion of, and heavy emphasis on, the proper use of engines and chess databases in analysis and opening study. (Chapters 8-10) Kislik’s expertise is evident in these pages, and for me, this is perhaps the best part of the book.
  • Chapter 10, devoted to ‘metagame strategy,’ is immensely thoughtful. Here he treats questions related to opening choice, how to prepare and maintain a repertoire, and his methods for building opening files.

This list barely scratches the surface of what appears in Applying Logic in Chess. Hardly a page is turned without readers encountering something thought-provoking. Still, we might sum it up as follows: work very, very hard; use computers to study; and use our cultivated chess ‘logic’ to play quick, solid moves.

There is a lot that is new, or new to me, in this book, including discussion of conditional equality (154-160), the ‘burden of proof’ (239) and the ‘most obvious move’ principle (128). But Kislik also overstates the originality of much of what he proposes, and fails to engage / recognize key literature. De la Maza and Tikkanen have independently argued for a form of spaced repetition in tactical study. (86) Shereshevsky and Silman both prescribed extensive study of historical games (117-8). And Jacob Aagaard offers an influential account of critical moments, which Kislik would have done well to engage. (285)

Worse, when he is not crowing about the novelty of his ideas, Kislik tends to set up straw men to demolish. The first pages of the chapter on logic (ch 7) are a prime example of this tendency. He presents ‘common arguments’ and ‘common beliefs’ in order to punch them down, but the ‘arguments’ (note – they are not arguments but bald assertions) are so asinine that they barely merit attention. Phrases like “I’ve never seen anyone write about X” and “I’ve never met anyone who did Y” appear throughout the text. It’s pure bluster, and the ideas in the book are more than strong enough to stand without such puffery.

In the end I think Applying Logic in Chess is an excellent book, but one that should have gone through (at least) another round of developmental editing. I love the fact that there are multi-page stretches unsullied by diagrams or analysis – there is plenty of analysis too, of course – and I cannot think of another book with so many pearls of wisdom strewn, if somewhat randomly, through its pages. It is frustrating that that you have to do a lot of sifting to find them, but rest assured that the process is entirely worthwhile.

Nota Bene: In the interest of full disclosure, I took a one-time lesson with Erik Kislik in 2015, mainly focused on his understanding of best practices for ChessBase and engine use. I have had no other substantial contact with him since then.


[1] Pasternak, Boris. “Во всем мне хочется дойти…” translator unknown. Taken from Dvoretsky, Mark. Secrets of Chess Training. London: Batsford, 2001. iv.

One Small Step

This review has been printed in the July 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Shankland, Sam. Small Steps to GIant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830519 (HB) and 978-1784830502 (PB). 336pp.

Pawns may well be the soul of chess, as Philidor famously remarked, but they have received relatively little attention from authors. A few major works (and types of works) stand out among those in print.

Hans Kmoch’s Pawn Power in Chess was perhaps the first book to attempt a comprehensive analysis of proper pawn play. It is a difficult read for the contemporary student, with its clunky terminology and strange neologisms. Still, Kmoch deserves no small credit for his pioneering, systematic treatment of all kinds of pawn-piece relations and structures.

More useful is Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess, originally published in 1976 and revised in 2013. In contrast to Kmoch, Soltis wisely chose to limit his study to 12 structural ‘families’ covering a broad swath of opening theory. In each chapter Soltis describes the basic positional features that emerge from a pawn skeleton, using illustrative games to flesh things out. The outstanding (and more advanced) Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide by Mauricio Flores Rios is written in this vein.

There are also specialized works on specific elements of pawn play. The Isolated Queen’s Pawn is one of the most important structures in chess, and the long out-of-print Winning Pawn Structures by Alexander Baburin is by far the single best book on the topic. (If you have a chance to pick up a copy, do so immediately without regard to price.) The IQP is also treated, alongside other pawncentric topics, in Jörg Hickl’s The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners, reviewed in these pages in July 2016.

Notably lacking in the literature is a broad, high-level discussion of “best pawn practices.” Sam Shankland’s new book, Small Steps to Giant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess, fills that niche admirably. With Shankland’s impressive victory in the 2018 US Championship, coupled with his win in the Capablanca Memorial in Cuba as this article was going to press, I suspect that this will be the rare chess book that receives the attention it deserves.

The basic premise of Shankland’s book is simple. Pawns are the only pieces that cannot retreat; we must, therefore, take care when we push them, lest they become weak when too far advanced. A recent example from the 2018 Candidates shows how easily this can happen, even to the world’s elite:

image

7.h3?

7.Nbd2 is standard, but the pin after 7. …Bg4 can be annoying. What if the cure is worse than the disease?

7. …Rg8!

Kramnik’s intent is clear – he wants to tear open the kingside with g7–g5–g4, using the h3 pawn as a ‘hook.’ [A hook is “an advanced pawn which can be exploited by the opponent to open lines.” (Small Steps, 87)] The concrete tactical threat is 8. …g5 and if 9.Bxg5 (worse is 9.Nxg5 h6 10.Nf3 Bxh3) 9. …Bxh3 10.gxh3 h6 and Black is winning.

8.Kh1

If only Aronian could play h3–h2! In lieu of such a retreat, vacating the g-file seems logical, as it avoids the aforementioned tactical ideas. 8.Nbd2 is another option, also met by 8. …g5.

8. …Nh5 9.c3?! g5 10.Nxe5 g4 11.d4 Bd6 12.g3 Bxe5 13.dxe5 Qxe5 14.Qd4 Qe7 15.h4 c5 16.Qc4 Be6 17.Qb5+ c6 18.Qa4 f5! 19.Bg5 Rxg5 20.hxg5 f4 21.Qd1 Rd8 22.Qc1 fxg3 23.Na3 Rd3 24.Rd1 Bd5 25.f3 gxf3 26.exd5 Qe2 27.Re1 g2+ 0–1

Perhaps we are being unfair to Aronian here, as Kramnik’s idea was very hard to foresee, but the point remains. Pawns can rapidly become problematic when they advance, and in Small Steps to Giant Improvement, Shankland discusses five typical pitfalls (14) to avoid.

1. Pawns can become vulnerable as they advance.

2. As they advance, they can lose control over key squares.

3. Advancing pawns may block lines or squares needed by other pieces.

4. Pawn advances can weaken the king’s cover.

5. Advancing pawns can become a hook.

Part I (Chapters 1-5) offers elucidations of each of these insights, a chapter at a time. In Part II (Chapters 6-10), Shankland turns the tables and discusses reasons we might induce our opponents to advance their pawns. In doing so, he argues, we could take advantage of one of the five potential weaknesses described above.

Together the first ten chapters constitute approximately two-thirds of the book. Part III (Chapters 11-13) and Part IV (Chapters 11-16) constitute the remainder, and focus on doubled pawns. Shankland follows the same template here as in Parts I and II. In Part III he sketches three general problems (209) with doubled pawns, and how to avoid them:

1. They can be slow when trying to create a passed pawn.

2. They can easily fall prey to attack.

3. They may have trouble closing lines or controlling important squares.

Part IV, like Part II, reverses our perspective. It describes situations in which we might want to double our opponent’s pawns, thereby inflicting positional weaknesses on their positions.

Seems simple enough, right? Take care with your pawn advances, lure your opponent into inopportune pushes, and win? A more granular look at Shankland’s book, and more specifically, the way in which each chapter is structured, reveals that matters are vastly more complex than they first appear.

Each of the 16 chapters in Small Steps to Giant Improvement share a common makeup. Shankland uses concrete examples to illustrate the main point of the chapter, and then derives a guideline – a key word in the book – for practical play from them. Almost immediately, however, he uses another example to expose the limitations of that principle, offering a second, contradictory guideline for readers to consider. The movement is almost dialectical, although it is not clear that there is a grand synthesis or resolution at the end of it.

Chapter 13 (‘Avoid Redundant Workers’) is a case in point. Shankland begins by describing situations in which doubling your opponents pawns can weaken key squares or lines, and he uses two games (Dreev-Jakovenko, Togliatti, 2003, and Djukic-Mogliarov, Plovdiv 2012) to illustrate his claims. The Dreev position is of particular interest.

image

Shankland writes: “The position is extremely double edged, but I prefer Black. He is more prepared to open lines on the queenside with …b5–b4 (a little throwback to the section on hooks!) than White is to make anything happen on the kingside, plus White’s d5–pawn could be a target. But Jakovenko clearly underestimated the danger to his position, and let White show just how troublesome doubled pawns can be.” (245–6)

20. …b4? 21.Bxg6! hxg6

21. …fxg6? 22.Qe6+ is crushing.

22.Qh4!

“The deficiency of Black’s doubled pawns is on display. If he had a healthier structure with his pawn back on h7, he could simply advance …h7–h6. By doing so, he would expel the knight and clog up the h-file. As is, Black’s lack of an h-pawn means he will promptly be mated on h7. Dreev finished the game in style.” (246)

22…bxc3 23.Rhe1! Be5 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Qh8+ Ke7 26.Qxg7 Kd7 27.Qxf7+ Kc8 28.Qe6+ Rd7 29.Qe8+ Rd8 30.Qxe5 Qxe5 31.Rxe5 cxb2 32.Kxb2 Kd7 33.Ne4 Rf8 34.Kc3 Rac8 35.Rb1 Ba8 36.Rb6 1–0

The lesson seems clear, and here Shankland provides his first guideline of the chapter. “Always be cautious about allowing your pawns to be doubled if the square directly in front of the newly doubled pawn can be put to good use by your opponent, or if the pawn no longer blocks a key line.” (249)

But wait! Just two pages later, Shankland returns to the position, arguing that Jakovenko missed a key defensive idea. He could have played 20. …Bf4! where “[t]he point is that the knight on g5 cannot be tolerated, if White wants to take on g6 and place his queen on h4. By removing one of the key attacking pieces, the doubled pawns will be much less of a big deal. Black is better in all lines.” (249) After 21.Bxg6 hxg6 22.Qh4?! (22.d6! Rxd6 23.Rxd6 Qxd6 24.Rd1 is only slightly better for Black) 22. …Bxg5! Black is better.

Shankland therefore offers a second and seemingly contradictory guideline. “You can allow your pawns to be doubled in a way that allows your opponent access to a newly weakened square or a newly opened line, as long as your pieces can pick up the slack and prevent your opponent from making good use of it.” (251) What gives?

The answer comes with “the final guideline, which is seen in some form in almost every chapter. You can allow your pawns to be doubled in a way that allows your opponent access to a newly weakened square or a newly opened line if it does something that is good for your position that you deem to be of higher priority.” (251, italics mine) Each guideline should – indeed, must! – be bent or broken if concrete conditions demand it, and it is only through calculation that we can determine whether any specific case warrants such lawlessness.

This is the irony of Shankland’s work. It contains dozens of positional precepts for players to consider, and yet, the examples and analysis they are derived from only underscore the fragility of such heuristics. I suspect this is why Shankland is so consistent his terminology. Guidelines have the sense of being flexible, in contrast to “rules,” and they lack the sanctity of “principles.” His guidelines are valid insofar as they work in a given position; if they don’t, we are free to discard them.

Small Steps for Giant Improvement is, nominally, a book about pawn play, and readers will certainly think differently about their pawns after reading it. Nevertheless, I would argue that the real subject and value of the book lies elsewhere. What we get in Small Steps is an intimate, unvarnished interrogation of a strong Grandmaster’s mind at work, and a clear articulation of the pragmatism at the heart of contemporary chess praxis. It is a fascinating first effort from the new US Champion, and I sincerely hope that the promised second volume (14) soon sees the light of day.

Decisions, Decisions

This review has been printed in the June 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Ramesh, R.B. Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making. Los Angeles: Metropolitan Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-0985628161. PB 288pp.

Since winning the World Junior Championship in 1987 and becoming the first Indian Grandmaster in 1988, Viswanathan Anand has almost single-handedly defined chess in India. His rise to the World Championship was eagerly followed by his countrymen, chess fans and lay-people alike, and his 2013 match in Chennai was, despite Anand’s loss to Magnus Carlsen, a huge boon to Indian chess.

Anand’s example served as an inspiration for an entire generation of Indian chess players, including Grandmaster Ramachandran Ramesh – “R.B. Ramesh” as he is widely known – who served as a commentator for the 2013 match. He was the first Indian to win the British Open Championship in 2002, earning his Grandmaster title a year later. In 2014 Ramesh captained an Indian Olympiad team that won its first medal (bronze, open section) in that nation’s history, and he currently coaches the Indian U16 and Olympiad teams.

Having retired from active competition in 2008, today Ramesh is one of India’s leading chess trainers. Among his students are R. Praggnanandha, the youngest International Master in history at 12 years old, and the 18 year old Grandmaster Aravindh Chithambaram. He has also launched an online chess academy at chessgurukul.com and at nurtr.com, with the ultimate aim of offering chess training to all comers, regardless of ability to pay. If Anand is responsible for the current popularity of chess in India, it will be trainers like Ramesh who will shape its future.

Now Ramesh has written a fine new book, Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making, published by Metropolitan Chess Publishing out of Los Angeles. As its title suggests, the book offers readers a thoughtful, didactic account of over-the-board decision making. I enjoyed it immensely.

At its root, chess is all about decisions. We use various tools – principles, logic, calculation – to make the best choices we can in the time we have available to us. If we make better decisions than our opponent, we win. If not, well…

Chess training, on Ramesh’s telling, is designed to teach us to use all of the tools available to us in the decision making process. His emphasis is practical – after all, as he notes, “knowing is NOT doing!” (25) – and in this, he echoes the philosophy of Mark Dvoretsky, whom he mentions in the Introduction (6-7) as an important influence on his teaching and playing.

Ramesh cites a rather famous game between Carlsen and Aronian from the Bilbao Grand Prix in 2008 to begin to unpack his point.

image

Here Carlsen played the amazing 15.d5!!, and Ramesh writes:

I remember checking this position with an engine and 15.d5 was its 31st choice! Does this make d5 good or bad? … Carlsen came up with the surreal move 15.d5!! to open up the dark-squared bishop and to create attacking chances against the Black king, temporarily stuck in the center of the board. It is not unusual for strong players to give up a pawn for the initiative. But would the mere knowledge of this principle convince us to play this move in an actual game? I think not. (11)

[For the record, the game continued: 15. …Nxd5 (if (a) 15…cxd5? 16.Bb5+ Nd7 17.Ne5 Bc8 18.Qh5 g6 19.Qf3 and White should win; (b) 15. …exd5 is met with 16.Nd4 where White has ideas of Qa4 and Nf5 with full compensation; and (c) 15. …Qxd5 is answered by 16.Ne5 Bb4 (16. …Bd6 17.e4 Qc5 18.Rc1 with initiative) 17.Qa4 0–0 18.Rfd1 and White has the initiative)

16.Ne5 Nf6 (after 16. …Be7 17.Qh5 g6 18.Qh6 Bf6 19.e4 Nb6 20.Rab1 and White has the initiative) 17.Qa4 Bb4 18.Nxc6 Bxc6 19.Qxc6+ Ke7 20.Rfd1 and White has good compensation for the pawn. Aronian resigned after the 36th move.]

How did Carlsen decide to play such a move? There are, I think, some terminological difficulties in Ramesh’s account, but he seems to argue something along these lines. Neither brute calculation nor intuition – defined as “the output of our knowledge, experience, and confidence at that point in time” (16) – alone could have guided Carlsen’s choice. Both are required to accurate assess a nebulous concept like compensation, and particularly in such a complex position.

Ramesh contends that “young players” will often depend heavily on either calculation or intuition when they should harmoniously consult both. In the course of his discussion, however, he appears to argue that there is a tendency today towards the calculative pole of this dialectic, especially among the young, and that the training of “logical, intuitive thinking” is a necessary counterbalance. Such training is achieved through “accumulating more knowledge and experience in various types of positions.” (16)

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is clearly constructed with this goal in mind. In Part I (“Logical Reasoning”) Ramesh tries to unpack the nature of our thought processes, and Chapter Two, entitled “The Problem of Choices,” is perhaps the core of the book. We are faced with the necessity of choosing between multiple reasonable moves in most non-critical positions, and most of us, I suspect, would admit that this can be the source of no small angst over the board!

Ramesh offers general advice for such situations: we use a ‘scanning technique’ to make a broad list of possible moves, which we prune by process of elimination. We analyze forcing continuations to see if any tactics exist, and we try to remain practical in our decision-making. Ultimately, as he puts it, “[c]ontradictory principles occur all over the board… We need to choose the principle appropriate to the position at hand in order to find the best move or a decent plan.” (68) To me this sounds like an argument for training intuition in a more traditional sense.

Part I is largely a series of annotated examples that unpack elements of our decision making and thought processes. Part II (“Practical Chess Play”) turns to more practical applications of logical reasoning, again through the use of illustrative examples. Chapters are devoted to topics like the initiative, conversion of advantages, and prophylaxis, but I was most interested in Chapter 9, “Playing on Colors.”

Talk of color complexes and weaknesses has always been somewhat opaque to me, and good explanations of what is meant by a “dark-square weakness” are lacking in books on chess strategy. Here we get a ‘teacherly’ exposition of how to approach the topic, focusing mostly on the bishops, and I want to quote Ramesh’s summary at some length before turning to one of his examples. (Thanks to Metropolitan Chess for granting permission to use these passages in this review.)

Here is a general guide for knowing which color to play on, depending on the situation:

1. Same colored bishops for both sides: Only the bishops should focus on their colors. All the other pieces should play on opposite colors. For example: if both sides have dark colored bishops, we should put all our other pieces on light squares.

2. Two bishops versus bishop and knight: The side with the two bishops should play on the colors where the opponent does not have a bishop. The side with the bishop and knight should play on the color of the bishop.

3. Opposite colored bishops: Both sides should play on the colors of their bishops.

4. One bishop versus one knight: The side with the knight should play on the opposite color of the opponent’s bishop. The side with the bishop should utilize his other pieces on the opposite color of the bishop.

5. Both sides have both bishops: When the central pawns are fixed on a particular color, we should play on the opposite color of our opponent’s centralized pawns, and try to exchange the opponent’s bishop of that same color. For example: if the opponent’s center pawns are fixed on light squares, then we should exchange the dark colored bishops and fight for the dark colors with other pieces. (208-209)

Ramesh follows this with eight examples, each demonstrating some element of this general framework. The discussion of the first position, taken from Polzin-Motylev (Bundesliga, 2008), is typical of both Ramesh’s style and analysis:

image

14. …Nc4 Both sides have dark-squared bishops, so they should try to put their other pieces on light squares.

15.Qe2 b5 White at some point could kick the c4-knight with b2-b3, so Black aims to put his pawn on a4 to stabilize the c4-square for his knight. Moreover, if Black castles on the kingside, where he does not have as many defenders, it is possible that White could launch a direct attack with f2-f4, g2-g4 and f4-f5. Hence Black wants to secure adequate counterplay on the queenside before he makes the decision to castle short. If things get too hot on the kingside, then he could consider keeping his king in the center or even sending it to the queenside if necessary.

16.axb5 cxb5 17.f4 Qb6 18.Nd2 If White tried to launch an attack immediately with 18.g4 then Black would have adequate resources: 18. …a4 19.Nd2 Qc6 20.f5 gxf5 21.gxf5 exf5 and Black is much better … [note that] 22.Rxf5 is impossible in view of 22…Qg6+.

18. …Qc6 19.Nf3 a4 With a small advantage, Black went on to win from here. In this example, Black not only used his pieces but also his pawns to gain control over the light squares on the queenside.

Part III (“Fundamentals of Chess Training”) is devoted to general training advice – how to study the opening, how to prepare for tournaments, how to understand the endgame, etc. – and what I would call Ramesh’s ‘philosophy of improvement.’ Many teachers warn their students not to worry about their ratings. Borrowing from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and classical Indian philosophy, Ramesh persuasively argues that such worry has deleterious effects on our results and, more importantly, our enjoyment of the game.

Parts I and II are very concrete in nature, offering readers dozens of examples to illustrate key teaching points. Part III is, in contrast, almost all text. There is a lot of interesting and inspirational material here, to be sure, and Ramesh’s trademark optimism is especially apparent in these pages. Still, the book feels somewhat disjointed, and Part III feels in some ways like an afterthought or appendix to the main part of the book.

This is particularly true in Chapters 11 and 17, where Ramesh discusses the proper use of the computer in opening study. ChessBase is not an intuitive piece of software to use, and instruction should involve specific how-to’s and illustrative screenshots. Instead we get text-only renderings of database screens and opening trees. It’s an opportunity missed, and one that would have been very easy for the editors to fix.

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is a vastly ambitious book, covering wide swaths of chess philosophy and practice. Such enthusiasm makes its small flaws rather forgivable. Its target audience – “younger players,” or, in Ramesh’s system, those rated 1500-2400 (!?) – is very wide, and one could argue that the book tries to cover too much ground. But I would much rather read an enterprising work than a limited, modest one, and at the end of the day, the author has given us a book that will reward multiple rereadings. Well done, “Ramesh sir.”

A Russian Revival?

This review has been printed in the May 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Opening and Middlegame. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916824. PB 368pp.

Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Middlegame Structures and Dynamics. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917425. PB 368pp.

Shereshevsky, Mikhail. The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess: From Club Player to Master. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917647. PB 352pp.

One of the many virtues of Andy Soltis’ Soviet Chess 1917-1991 is the concise manner in which it describes how Soviet chess suffered as the country fell. Leading players and promising talents left the USSR, spreading across the globe in search of opportunity. Many nations, including ours, were great beneficiaries of a sudden Soviet diaspora. From Kamsky to Kaidanov to the beloved “Uncle Yermo,” American chess was much enriched with this influx of talent.

It seems to me, however, that it was the dispersion of the machinery of Soviet chess – the coaches, trainers, and infrastructure – that was of greatest consequence. Soltis quotes Evgeny Vasiukov as saying in 1997 that “…the structure is destroyed and I fear that we will have to give up our position” (Soviet Chess, 419), and we see some evidence of this if we look at the history of the Chess Olympiad.

From 1952 through 2002, the Soviet Union / Russia failed to win gold at the Olympiad only twice: in 1976, when they boycotted the event’s being held in Israel, and in 1978, where Hungary shocked the world by taking the gold, leaving the Soviets with the indignity of the silver. In the years since 2002, four countries – Ukraine, Armenia, China, and the United States – have won gold, and Russia has had to reckon with its fall from Caïssa’s grace.

The Russian Chess Federation (RCF) has taken concrete steps in this decade to restoring Russian chess to its former glory, increasing funding for chess schools and renovating the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The 2014 election of Russian billionaire Andrey Filatov to the RCF Presidency dramatically accelerated this process.

Filatov, much like our own Rex Sinquefield, has contributed vast sums from his personal fortune to chess. Current RCF Director Mark Glukhovsky recently stated that more than half of the RCF budget comes directly from Filatov. With this funding the RCF has extended support to numerous constituencies, but none so important (on Glukhovsky’s telling) as children’s chess and the opening of the Chess Department at Sirius.

The brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who remains chairman of its Board of Trustees, Sirius is a Sochi-based school for gifted children in academics, arts, and sports. The Chess Department is nominally headed by Vladimir Kramnik, but the day to day operations are led by a staff that includes GM Konstantin Sakaev and, more recently, IM Mikhail Shereshevsky. Russia’s most promising juniors attend training camps at Sirius throughout the year.

One corollary to this educational initiative is the addition of a publishing arm to RCF activities, with Russian language books by Sakaev and Shereshevsky among the most prominent new titles in the “RCF Library.” New in Chess has translated three of these books into English, and this month we’ll take a look at them.

Konstantin Sakaev is largely known in the West as an opening theorist, having seconded Kramnik and penned titles on the Grünfeld and Slav. Here, in the two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0, we discover Sakaev’s estimable chess knowledge and erudition. Mikhail Shereshevsky, to whom we will turn shortly, likens him to the famed Soviet player and coach Isaac Boleslavsky, only “armed with a modern computer.” This is high praise indeed, but on the basis of these books, it might be warranted.

Co-written with GM Konstantin Landa, The Complete Manual of Positional Chess (hereafter CMPC) is an advanced training manual centered on the middlegame. In the first volume, subtitled Opening and Middlegame, Sakaev and Landa offers a short section on typical opening problems and then take up topics related to thought processes and static features of positional play. Chapters on “[c]alculation of variations and methods of taking decisions” (#7) and “Prophylaxis, strengthening one’s own position” (#14) are of particular interest.

The book consists of a series of positions for study and solving. Here’s a quick example from chapter 17, titled “[t]he problem of exchanges. Simplifying positions.” Note that on a scale of one to three stars, with one star denoting an “easily understood, simple example” and three stars denoting “especially complicated” cases, this problem is rated at two stars. It’s White to play. How should you proceed?

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Sakaev and Landa write: “White has more space, a strong pawn on e5 and the two bishops. He has the advantage. However, Black has organised a blockade in the centre, and it is not easy to open lines on the queenside. Therefore, White voluntarily surrenders his two bishops, obtaining in return new objects of attack:

19.Bxd5! Rxd5 20.Qxd5 cxd5 21.Rac1 Black has to deal not only with a possible entry down the c-file, but also with the defense of the pawn a5 – this is impossible.

21. …b6 22.Rxc7+ Kxc7 23.Rc1+ Kd7 24.e6+! Kxe6 25.Rc6+ Kd7 26.Rxb6 The a5–pawn is lost, and White is close to winning.” (CPMC 1, 184)

The second volume, subtitled Middlegame Structures and Dynamics, reads more like a traditional middlegame text. Its first part, roughly a third of the book, focuses on pawns and pawn structures, including typical pawn play in attacking play. The remainder deals with tactical themes and attacking ideas, with particular emphasis on attacking the king. Here again, a short example is illustrative. This is a one-star problem from chapter 43, “The king in a mating net.” It’s Black to move:

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“It is obvious that Black has a fine concentration of pieces around the white king. But where is the mate? Players with a sharp tactical vision will have no trouble spotting the finish.”

1. …Bg2+ 2.Rxg2 Qf1+ 3.Rg1 Ng3+! “The key idea.” 4.hxg3 Qh3# (CPMC 2, 245)

The two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess are not easy reads by any stretch of the imagination. Sakaev and Landa say in their Introduction – common to both volumes, a terrific read for players of all strengths, and available as part of the pdf sample at the New in Chess website – that the target audience is the “first-category” or 2000+ player, and this seems accurate to me. But for those hardy self-learners who work through these excellent and demanding books, I can’t help but believe that their efforts will be richly rewarded.

I had high hopes for the translation of Mikhail Shereshevsky’s The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess. Shereshevsky is widely known as the author of Endgame Strategy, one of the finest books on the endgame in print, and his 1994 The Soviet Chess Conveyor is a cult classic among chess bibliophiles. Shereshevsky was largely forced out of chess in 1992 by the economic turmoil of the post-Communist era, and I was anxious to see his long-awaited return.

This book, put simply, is not what I was hoping for. The Shereshevsky Method is deeply problematic from both structural and editorial perspectives, and as I will explain, I cannot recommend it to Chess Life readers.

The Shereshevsky Method is a work in three parts. Part I is a selection of texts related to The Soviet Chess Conveyor. Part II is a condensed and updated version of Endgame Strategy. Part III, solicited explicitly by the RCF for use at the Sirius School, discusses chess books, calculation, chess intuition, and best training practices.

Parts I and II are largely, but not wholly, unobjectionable. The second chapter, “Studying the Chess Classics,” is itself a classic of chess literature. Shereshevsky’s concern is to argue that improving players must study the great masters of the past to learn planning and train intuition.

This is of particular relevance in the age of the computer – a recurring concern in the book – insofar knowledge of the classics helps mitigate the dangers of overreliance on the engine. Humans think in principles and concepts, not brute-force analysis, and knowledge gained from of the games of Alekhine, Capablanca, and Rubinstein shapes and guides what we calculate.

The text of “Studying the Chess Classics” is based on a lecture given at Mark Dvoretsky’s school and published in Secrets of Chess Training: School of Future Champions 1. The updates to that lecture consist largely of quotations inserted into the text, some of which are shockingly long. Two and four page passages from Isaac Lipnitsky appear without warning, and while the practice is largely absent from Part II, it becomes endemic in Part III.

Let me preface what I am about to say by making clear that I am not a lawyer. I have not seen the relevant publishing contracts, and I am not making any authoritative legal arguments. That said: having spent years in the academy, where I had to constantly worry about fair use and copyright law, I was astounded by what I found in The Shereshevsky Method.

Russia, like the Netherlands and the United States, is a signatory to international copyright laws. Authors cannot take the work of other authors and use it for commercial purposes without the express permission of the copyright holders. Exemptions are carved out for educational or review purposes – what we call ‘fair use’ and what Russians call ‘free use’ – but this is limited to short passages, perhaps four to six lines of text.

I can see no possible manner in which Shereshevsky’s extensive copying of other author’s works can be said to fall under fair use, and at least one publisher has confirmed to me that no such permission was granted for English language use of their intellectual property. (I have no knowledge about Russian language permissions.)

The borrowing of huge chunks of text – multiple pages at a time! – from other authors is brazen in The Shereshevsky Method, with Chapter 13 being a particularly egregious example. Shereshevsky begins the chapter with three lines that introduce a 300 word quote from John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess. He then inserts about 150 of his own words before reprinting (244-250) six pages, well over two thousand words, of Nunn’s copyrighted text, and then wraps things up with a 100 word conclusion.

The title of the chapter? “Laziness.” You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Nunn is not Shereshevsky’s only victim. Large passages are repeatedly taken from Beim, Dvoretsky, and Gelfand, among others, and to make matters worse, Shereshevsky fails to adequately cite the passages he takes. He even congratulates the RCF for their publication (337) of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision-Making in Chess, ignoring the fact that the book was written in English for Quality Chess and only appeared in the “RCF Library” by contractual agreement.

There is more. Instead of referring to the original English language texts in these extensive quotations, and against standard practice, the translator re-translated the (already once-translated) Russian back into English. Nunn’s words are no longer Nunn’s words, but the product of a two-fold translatory transmogrification. I cannot for the life of me understand how this passed editorial muster.

The Shereshevsky Method, particularly in its third and final Part, reads like a freshman’s plagiarized term paper. Most of the interesting material in Part III is taken from other authors, while Shereshevsky’s original contributions tend to devolve to banalities or gossip. I have never seen anything like it from a major publishing house, chess or otherwise, and I’m at a loss to understand how a publisher with a deservedly sterling reptuation like New in Chess let it come to print.