Category Archives: problems

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.

Resolved: Stick with it!

This review has been printed in the January 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Edouard, Romain. The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9789082256642. PB 152pp.

Yusupov, Artur. Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830212. PB 208pp.

The gym is full of people you’ve never seen, and won’t see again after February. All of the ‘healthy’ food is on sale. November’s onslaught of political ads have been replaced with commercials for weight loss services and plastic surgeons.

Happy New Year, everyone!

We chess players are not immune to the spirit of the season. We’d all like to see our results improve, and a new year marks a new chance to make some changes and get things right. But how?

For my part, I’m resolving to make solving a bigger part of my improvement strategy. Here I refer not simply to the solving of tactical problems, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improvement. A strict focus on tactics can make a player myopic, narrowing our thinking so that we treat every position we encounter like a tactical puzzle.

What I have in mind are books with a wide variety of positions for solving, each requiring (and training) different facets of chess knowledge, and with the aim of honing my intuition and practical skills. Those of you who read last month’s column might recognize the influence of Mark Dvoretsky’s philosophy in this, albeit on a much simpler level.

Here you might try your hand at this kind of work. Set a clock for 15-20 minutes and find the winning move for White in this position. Write down your analysis, and compare it to the answer that appears at the end of this article.

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Until recently there were relatively few books that provided this type of training material. Hort and Jansa’s The Best Move is the most famous book of this kind, but it is out of print and hard to find. (As always, avoid dodgy reprints.) Perfect Your Chess by Volokitin and Grabinsky is excellent but fiendishly difficult. And while both Dvoretsky and Jacob Aagaard have published books with training problems in the last few years, they too are perhaps too complex for most non-masters.

Two collections of exercises have crossed my desk in recent months, both of which are eminently suitable for the kind of work I’m hoping to undertake this year. Together, the two offer a broad swath of exercises for the improving player to grapple with, and I’d recommend both, if to players of slightly different strengths.

Artur Yusupov’s nine-volume training series from Quality Chess is, along with the Dutch Stappenmethode books, one of the best chess training systems in print. His newest title, Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals, is a collection of exercises designed to complement the first three books in that series, but it can equally well serve as a stand-alone set of problems for solving.

Revision & Exam 1 consists of 432 positions broken down into 72 chapters, each corresponding to a lesson in the first level of his training books. The problems are well chosen and tremendously varied, the answers are mini-lessons in themselves, and the production values are high. Players rated above 1600 would do well to make this book part of their training regimen.

The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! is Romain Edouard’s second book from Thinkers Publishing. His first book, which shares the same title, was a thought-provoking work marred by poor editing and translation. Test Yourself! manages to avoid both of these flaws, in part because it is largely languageless, and it provides readers 280 meaty positions for solving.

I have spent some time with Edouard’s book, from which our exercise above is drawn, and the more I work with it, the more I like it. The exercises appear in random order, and beyond the short stipulation given via chapter headings, readers must use their full range of chess knowledge to correctly solve the problems.

Test Yourself! is slightly more taxing than is Revision & Exam 1; as such, it’s best suited for A players and above. Resolute effort in solving will be rewarded in both cases… provided, of course, you stick with it!

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ANSWER to diagrammed problem:

(1) Radjabov,T (2726) – Karjakin,Sergey (2767) [C26]
Tashkent (analysis) (1.6), 21.10.2014
[Hartmann,John]

Problem #17 in Edouard. Your task is to “find the winning move.” 17.Kf2!

[17.Be3 Qf6 18.Bd4 Qg6+ 19.Qxg6 fxg6 20.Nxd6 cxd6 21.Rbe1= 1/2–1/2 (45) Radjabov,T (2726)-Karjakin,S (2767) Tashkent 2014]

17…Bd7 [17…Bc5+ 18.d4!; 17…Qf6 18.Rg1 Bc5+ (18…Kh8 19.Be3!? (19.Rxg7 Rg8 20.Rxf7 Qg6 21.Qxg6 Rxg6±) 19…Qxc3? 20.Rbd1 Qxc2+ 21.Rd2 Qc3 22.Nxh6+–) 19.d4+–; 17…Kh8 18.Nxh6 g6 19.Nxf7+ Kg7 20.Nxd8 gxh5 21.Ne6++–] 18.Nxh6+ gxh6 19.Qxh6+–

The Soviet Chess Primer

This review has been printed in the June 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Maizelis, Ilya. The Soviet Chess Primer. trans. John Sugden. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982996. PB 400pp. List $24.95, currently $19ish on Amazon.

Until very recently it was hard to imagine Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov agreeing on much of anything. That changed when each man ran unsuccessfully to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as President of FIDE. Nevertheless, as someone who remembers the white-hot rivalry of their world championship matches, I was startled when I received the new translation of Ilya Maizelis’ The Soviet Chess Primer from Quality Chess. Both Karpov and Kasparov are quoted on the cover, and they both love this book.

And it’s not just the two K’s who are fans. In his Foreword to this edition, Mark Dvoretsky describes his youthful encounter with Maizelis’ book, calling it “dear to me” and recounting how his personal copies were often ‘lost’ after being lent out. Tigran Petrosian (as Andy Soltis tells it) preferred the book to breakfast, saving his meal money up and buying a copy instead.

Such high regard may be surprising for an American audience, for whom Ilya Maizelis is something of a mystery. If his name is recognized at all, it is as a co-author of the classic Pawn Endings with Yuri Averbakh, although in truth Maizelis was its primary author. The few references to Maizelis that exist in English describe him as a translator and endgame analyst, with special expertise in pawn endings and technical rook endings. Sixty-three of his endgame studies appear in Harold van der Heijden’s definitive study database.

The Soviet Chess Primer is a partial translation of the 1960 edition of Maizelis’ Shakhmaty osnovy teorii (Шахматы основы теории / Chess: Fundamental Theory). Approximately 60% of the Russian text appears in The Soviet Chess Primer; although I cannot read the Cyrillic lettering, it appears that some detailed opening analysis and sections on the history of chess were excised. The translation by John Sugden reads well, and – as one expects from Quality Chess – the production values are high.

A quick glance at the table of contents would suggest that the English title is apt. After Chapter One, “The Game Explained,” readers are taught the “Aim of the Game” (ch 2) and “Tactics and Strategy” (ch 3). More advanced topics, including further elucidations of combination and positional play, follow. Each chapter concludes with a whimsical set of “Entertainment Pages,” where miniatures and ‘fun exercises’ appear, and some of the original drawings are brought over from the Russian.

So far, so good. Closer scrutiny of The Soviet Chess Primer, however, leads me to question the title chosen by Quality Chess for this new translation. Maizelis’ book is fascinating, especially for the reader interested in chess culture and history, but it is not a primer by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that the knight’s tour is used (18) to help illustrate how the knight moves. Maizelis includes outrageously difficult mate problems in the ‘fun’ section of chapter one, and his account of the theory of corresponding squares (152) belongs in an endgame tome and not here. The breakneck pace of the book and the complex examples preclude me from thinking it appropriate for the beginner.

Take, for instance, this ‘ancient puzzle’ (72) used to illustrate the restriction of piece mobility. White mates in three moves.

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Solution: 1.Ne6! Bh6-any 2.Ne6xBishop Ba2 3.Nxc2#.

Yes, Black is in zugzwang, but surely there are much clearer and Elo-appropriate ways to illustrate the point than this?

Despite my reservations about the title, The Soviet Chess Primer is a fine book and its acclaim is deserved. I suspect, however, that the particular affection felt for it by former Soviets may have another source. Chess books were hard to come by in the Soviet Union as demand was high and paper was often scarce. It should not surprise us that youthful attachment to cherished books would persist, and in this case the attachment is justified. There are certainly better primers in print today, but few books are more interesting than is The Soviet Chess Primer.

Half-Baked Hesse

Hesse, Christian.  The Joys of Chess: Heroes, Battles & Brilliancies.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2011.  ISBN 978-9056913557.  PB $24.95; currently (8/23/13) $22.46 on Amazon.

I have struggled with this review, because – at least in principle – I should really like this book.  Have a look at the advertising slug from the New in Chess website, which is bolstered with laudatory quotes from the likes of Soltis and Anand:

The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.
The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

This is just the kind of thing that should entice someone like me.  I’m a well-educated person.  I enjoy the aesthetic dimension of chess and its history.  Although I am terrible at solving, I am slowly learning to appreciate chess problems and studies, of which there are many in Hesse’s book.  An “unforgettable intellectual expedition” is right up my alley.  And still, for all of that, the book leaves me cold.  Why?

It’s not for lack of effort on Hesse’s part.  The Joys of Chess is chock-full of interesting positions and problems.  Hesse consulted a vast swath of chess literature in the construction of his book, and it’s obvious that the work is a labor of love for him.  There are 597 diagrams in The Joys of Chess, and were a reader to simply choose one at random for study or replay, she could feel quite confident that she would land on something entirely worth her time.

The prose, however, is another matter entirely.  The quality varies greatly by chapter.  Some, like “The Value of the Pieces” and “Smothered Mate,” are unobjectionable and actually quite interesting.  Others, like “Miscellaneous, worth mentioning” and “The theory of relative beauty” contain small factual errors.  In the first case, as Edward Winter notes, Rubinstein did not play 1700 rook endgames.  In the second, Hesse quotes Kant on aesthetics but completely misunderstands him.  (Hesse’s philosophic musings are generally sophomoric.  See the chapter entitled “Determinism” which, sad to say, begins rather like a sophomore’s philosophy exam.)

Hesse begins most every chapter with at least one quotation or aphorism.  The link between the quotation and the chapter is sometimes tenuous.  Take, for example, “Zen and the art of confronting superior forces.”  Hesse quotes a well-known koan, presumably to shed some light on the positions that follow.  No such link is apparent.  He namechecks the Daoist notion of wu-wei, but there’s nothing about Zen until the final paragraph, where Hesse makes a half-hearted attempt to tie the koan to a position where White is in a sort of zugzwang despite being up an unseemly amount of material.  On my count, he discusses Zen in at least two other places, neither of which succeed in illustrating anything about the positions at hand.

Then there are chapters like “The geometry of the chessboard.”  It begins well enough but soon swerves into esoteric talk of ‘CP-invariance’ and antiparticles, all of which is supposed to light on Reti’s famous study from 1921.  I just don’t get it.  The chapter is loaded with fascinating positions for study, and Hesse’s analysis seems quite informative.  Why muddy things up with the pseudo-intellectual chatter?

This pattern repeats itself in more than a few places.  Hesse tries to tease out some obscure connection between high theory and chess theory, and then completely fails to draw the connection out for the reader.  This is not uncommon in contemporary discourse, where our pundits and politicians offer us slogans instead of solutions.  They string together smart-sounding words in the hopes of tricking us into believing their pap.  While Hesse’s prose is certainly smarter than most, it fails to come together at the most critical points.

The Joys of Chess is not the first of its genre.  Most notable are Fred Reinfeld’s The Fireside Book of Chess and Tim Krabbé’s Open Chess Diary.  Krabbé’s website, in particular, can be recommended.  It’s free, and it’s free of the faux-intellectualism that stunts Hesse’s book; when compared to Krabbé, Hesse’s work certainly suffers.

This is a decent, if not essential book.  Readers will find many games and problems they have likely not seen, and all are curious or entertaining.  It is, however, marred by its prose.  It is at once too much and too little.  It can be too verbose, too wordy, too smart for its own good, and yet it feels half-baked, premature.  A little tying in of loose ends would have done this work a world of good.

6/10.  +1 or +2 if you’re not as troubled by loose prose as I am.