Category Archives: problems

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.