Category Archives: Studies

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.

———–

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.

Advertisements

Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 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.

————————

Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

Soltis, Andy. 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take One a Day to be a Better Chess Player. London: Batsford, 2017. ISBN 9781849944342. PB 384 pp.

Sosonko, Genna. Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2018. ISBN 978-5950043383. PB 314pp.

Sosonko, Genna. The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2017. ISBN 978-5950043314. PB 272pp.

Tkachenko, Sergei. One (Bishop, King, Knight, Pawn, Rook, Queen) Saves the Day: A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (series)

I had a real E.F. Hutton moment a few weeks ago.

E.F Hutton, you may recall, was the eponymous founder of a New York brokerage of whom it was said, “when E.F Hutton talks, people listen.” Or so the commercial went, anyway.

Such was my reaction when I read a post-Candidates Tournament interview with Fabiano Caruana at chess.com. Peter Doggers asked Caruana about his pre-event preparation, which, as one might expect, involved a lot of opening study. How that preparation looked in practice, however, might seem rather surprising. Here’s what Caruana had to say:

The other guys [Chirila, Dominguez, Ramirez, and Kasimdzhanov – jh] worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don’t like doing, because it’s hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it’s fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work.

It makes sense that Caruana would brush up on his endgame theory via Dvoretsky, and that he’d play training games against his seconds in openings he expected to encounter. But… studies? I have to admit that my ears perked up, proverbially speaking, when I read this.

Part of my attention to Caruana’s comment came from a long-standing interest in endgame studies, the solving of which I find perversely pleasurable. (Turns out I’m terrible at it.) Perhaps more relevant were the confluence of strong Grandmaster endorsements for this training strategy. I’d seen GM Peter Leko and GM Melikset Khachiyan independently recommend studies for calculation training in a span of just a few weeks. It makes sense: because studies, by definition, try to create new and interesting twists on known tactical motifs, players can’t just ‘recall’ the right answer. They have to do the work to find it.

There is no shortage of good sources for studies. Harald van der Heijden’s HHdBV database is the gold standard, containing over 85,000 studies that span the full history of the genre. Journals like EG bring new studies to your mailbox quarterly. And there are of course books, including the canonical Domination in 2,545 Endgame Studies by Kasparian, The Art of the Endgame by Timman, and Studies for Practical Players by Dvoretsky and Pervakov.

A key difficulty faced by many new solvers, and common to most of the titles listed above, is that most studies are not suitable for the novice. The solutions are too long to calculate, and the positions are too cluttered and artificial. Here is where an innovative series of pocket-sized titles from Elk and Ruby, a new Russian/English publisher, might be of interest.

In these six books, one devoted to each of the six different chessmen, the Ukranian composer Sergei Tkachenko offers 100 studies with solutions no longer than six moves deep. Consider a typical example (49-50) from One Knight Saves the Day – A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (Note that each of the six books bears the same title, with the only change being the thematic piece featured therein.) It’s White to play and draw in this study by Rusinek, and the notes are Tkachenko’s unless otherwise noted.

image

White has an unenviable position – his king is dancing with checkmate… For example: 1.Qf6+? Qxf6+ 2.Nxf6 Nf7#

1.Rh6+!! Kxh6 2.Qf8+!

2.Qh2+? Kg6 3.Qc2+ Nf5–+; if 2.Qh4+? Kg6 3.Qh5+ Kxh5 4.Ng7+ Kg6 5.Nxe6 Nf7# (not given in the book)

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

3. …Kh5 4.Nf6+ Kh4 5.Qh6+ and Black loses a knight.

At first glance it looks like white has used up all of his defensive resources… And yet:

4.Qf6+!! Qxf6+ 5.Ng7+!

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

A few points are worth mentioning here. The position above appears only after Black’s seventh move in Rusinek’s original. By truncating the study, Tkachenko removes some interesting tactics, but he also makes it much more reasonable a task for mortal solvers.

There is also a typo in the text. (You thought Chess Life was asleep at the wheel, didn’t you?) 6. …Ke5 is erroneous, and 5. …Ke5 (or Rusinek’s …Ke4) are the correct final moves. It may seem nit-picky to mention this – it’s rare that any book, chess or otherwise, is completely typo-free – but it’s worth mentioning in light of Elk and Ruby’s innovative publishing model.

Elk and Ruby makes use of print-on-demand (POD) technology across its list. There are serious advantages to this approach, as argued by its owner, managing editor, translator, and general ‘hype man’ Ilan Rubin in his manifesto “Who Needs Chess Book Publishers?” If you don’t need to worry about inventory or delivery – the POD provider handles it for you – you can keep staffing very lean, leading to greater profitability for both author and publisher.

There are, as Rubin admits, also downsides to this hybrid model. We see one in the example above.[1] Because Rubin wears so many hats, and because he does most of the work himself, errors can creep in. Three of Tkachenko’s six study books had problems with their diagrams in their first ‘printings;’ because the titles were POD, however, the errors were quickly corrected.

Tkachenko’s study collections are wonderful for those looking to train their calculation, and also for those who just want to enjoy the beauty of endgame studies in a digestible format. They are also perfectly sized at 4” by 6” for travel or beach reading. And who among us doesn’t like to solve studies at the beach?

Elk and Ruby is home to a growing list of Russian and Soviet themed historical works as well, including two new books from Genna Sosonko, one of chess’ leading writers and memoirists. With The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein and Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi, Sosonko offers his readers intimate pictures of two of the chess world’s most complicated men, and with equally complicated results.

Sosonko’s portrait of Bronstein is very hard to read. Not because it’s poorly written, but because Bronstein was a deeply unpleasant man, and Sosonko pulls no punches here. Bronstein saw his failure in the 1951 World Championship match as the defining moment of his life, and he never got past his hatred for Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet ‘favored son.’ Whether he was forced to throw the match remains unclear, and Sosonko catalogues the different explanations given by Bronstein across the years.

Why would Sosonko, Bronstein’s friend of fifty years, write such an ugly book? Why puncture the myth of the happy-go-lucky defender of human creativity against computer onslaught – his battles in the Ageon tournaments are the stuff of legend! – and show the world how narcissistic and petty Bronstein could be? It’s not as if Sosonko was unaware of what he was doing with his ‘warts and all’ approach to the matter. (269)

Bronstein is quoted from a conversation towards the very end of his life, talking about books written ‘in his name’ – one of the highlights of Sosonko’s book is the story of Boris Vainshtein (126-140), powerful apparatchik and the true author of Bronstein’s famous book on Zurich 1953 – where he says “what [do they] understand about our life? I’m sorry about my life. About my entire life.” (251)

It occurs to me that part of Sosonko’s goal, in these books and elsewhere, is to try and explain “our life,” or the stark realities of daily life in the Soviet Union. He says as much in the book’s first chapter:

[h]ow can I enliven the dead letters of a text with the winds of those times, with meaning to the contemporary reader without detailed explanations? How can I convey a whole set of prejudices and beliefs without relying on the words everyone once understood? You see, many aspects of the distinct atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s in the USSR are now gone. (17)

Born a Jew to a father banished to the gulag, and coming of age during the horrors of the Second World War, Sosonko’s Bronstein in The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein was deeply stunted by the banal violence of Soviet bureaucracy and unofficial state racism. He does not excuse Bronstein’s behavior, not exactly, but he does seem to offer reasons that might mitigate our passing judgment on him. It’s hard to read, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. Still, I think (?!) I’m glad I did.

Sosonko’s portrayal of Viktor Korchnoi in Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi is more positive, and more much palatable. His book covers the whole of Korchnoi’s life and career, focusing on his 1976 defection from the Soviet Union, the Karpov matches, parapsychology, and his life in Switzerland with Petra Leeuwerik. What shines through the text, however, is Korchnoi’s absolute love for chess, his indefatigable energy and drive to explore every element of the game. Sosonko does not shy away from Korchnoi’s character flaws, but the treatment is even-handed and enjoyable.

Elk and Ruby are not the only chess writers / publishers using POD technology. I wrote about GM Lars Bo Hansen’s pioneering efforts in this area back in 2013. His seven Master Chess pamphlets are available on Amazon and worth your attention. More recently, FM Carsten Hansen has made extensive use of POD with some of his recent titles.

Hansen has three series currently in print: Chess Miniatures, published by Russell Enterprises; Winning Quickly at Chess, which is self-published; and Specialized Chess Tactics, also self-published. Here I’ll discuss books from the first two series. I have not seen titles from the third.

All of Hansen’s books are essentially collections of miniatures organized by opening. In Chess Miniatures, the games are no longer than 25 moves long, while in Winning Quickly at Chess, games are limited to 15 moves. All combatants are rated at least 2350 in both cases. So readers can expect master-level games in specific openings where one side wins quickly, and the idea is that some knowledge of typical traps and tactics can be discerned by playing through them.

In principle, this sounds wonderful. In practice, however, I have my doubts. Many of the defining errors in Hansen’s games occur when a player leaves opening theory, and because Hansen includes a LOT of game references in his notes, there’s often very little room for original analysis. Consider Game #78 in Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening Volume 3: Flank Openings, a title in the Winning Quickly series.

English Opening [A21]
Alexander Belezky (2381)
Vladimir Moskvin (2691)
Ilyumzhinov Cup Internet, 06.05.2006

1.Nf3 g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 d6 4.d3 e5 5.c4 f5 6.Nc3 c6 7.0–0 Nf6 8.Bg5

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

This is a new move, and a mistake. Hansen gives 13 lines of game citations in the notes, including some verbal discussion of key alternatives.

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

12.dxe4 Qxc3 13.exf5 Bxf5 14.Rb3 Qf6 0–1

Most of the action (and spilt ink) takes place in the citation of opening alternatives, and not in the analysis of the actual games under discussion. This is especially true in the self-published volumes, which may be partially attributable to the games being shorter, and the errors occurring with divergences from theory. I can see the value in Hansen’s publishing concept in these series, but for me, the execution is lacking.

Those looking for a miniatures collection will be happier with Andy Soltis’ latest book, 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take one a day to be a better chess player. Readers are advised in the preface to take the book as a series of 365 lessons, one per day, where a miniature of 20 moves or less is analyzed, one or more questions are asked, and a supplementary game wraps things up. The unspoken conceit is that this will lead to real improvement after a year’s time.

For me, this last bit is rather artificial, but the book stands on its own as an outstanding games collection. Soltis is as reliable an author as it gets, and his analysis here is concise and to the point. Many of the games are uncommon or unknown, and more than a few are missing from my nearly 10 million game database.

This is one of those missing games, starring former US Chess President Leroy Dubeck in a pretty win from 1958. The notes are Soltis’, and the theme of the ‘chapter’ (Day 181) is “[b]acktracking. To get from a bad opening to a playable middlegame may require some backtracking.”

Smith Morra Gambit [B21]
Leroy Dubeck
Raymond Weinstein
New Jersey Open, 1958

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 Na5? 7.Qd4! f6?!

Black now sees 7. …Nf6 8.e5. But 8. …Nh5 9.e6 f6 and …Nc6 looks worse than it is.

8.0–0 Nh6

White allowed 8. …Nxc4 9.Qxc4 because he would threaten 10.Nb5 or 10.Nd5 followed by Nc7+.

9.e5! Nf5?

Black would have to admit his sixth and seventh moves were bad if he continued 9. …Nc6! 10.Qf4 f5 . But then would get to play a middlegame.

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

Better than 12.Qxf6 because 12. …Nxd4 13.Nxf6+ Kf8 14.Bh6#

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

No, 14. …Kg8 15.Nxf6#, and 14. …Nxh6 15.Nxe7 is hopeless.

15.Qc3 Qd6 16.Re1+ Kd8 17.Bf4 Qc6 18.Qxf6+! 1–0

Black resigned before 18.Qxf6+ Qxf6 19.Bc7#.

365 Chess Master Lessons is excellent, and players of almost any rating and ability would find something of value in it. Some might find it old-fashioned, coming from a traditional press like Batsford, but I’ve long believed that old-fashioned never really goes out of style.


[1] Publicity is also difficult for POD publishers. Without dedicated marketing teams, advertising falls to Twitter, Facebook groups, and “earned media” like reviews. Such efforts can feel artificial and astro-turfed.

Trend Hopping

This review has been printed in the August 2017 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: Volume 1, Middlegames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9789492510037. PB 250pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917159. PB 208pp.

Moskalenko, Viktor. Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises – Tactics, Strategy, Endgames. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916763. PB 336pp.

Every year it’s the same.

Someone stumbles upon an unlikely hit – think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Whatever – and others, desperate to get in on the riches, commission analogous titles. Similar books and movies appear in waves, and publishers try to surf those waves until they peter out, leaving their riders high and dry.

The chess world is not immune from such trend-hopping. Opening books are always in style and in print, but recently (and much to my liking) a spate of titles devoted to training have come to press. We looked at a few earlier this year, and we’ll check out three more in this month’s column.

Both the title and subtitle of Alexander Kalinin’s book – Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself – are evocative of the book as a whole. Kalinin implores his readers to think for themselves and resist the colonization of their thought by the engines. True mastery, he argues, can be achieved if four training principles are followed.

Players must form “a relationship with chess as an art,” strive for analytical mastery and precision, study the classics, and cultivate interpersonal relationships with teachers and exemplars. This last point is particularly important, as Kalinin’s book is filled with bon mots and other insights from Soviet trainers both famous and forgotten. My favorite comes from IM Oleg Averkin: “Tactics have a greater significance in the endgame than in the middlegame!” (65)

Kalinin is a persuasive writer, and the book is chock full of interesting and little-known illustrative examples. Most players would do well to heed his admonitions and turn off Stockfish most of the time. Still, I do wonder if there’s not a slight luddism in play here.

It is true that there is no small danger in our overreliance on the computer and its inhuman evaluations. But it is false that “we have stopped thinking and analyzing for ourselves.” (11) There are far too many computer-trained GMs and young phenoms for this to be true. If anything, the computer has, when handled judiciously, expanded our thinking about what is possible with 32 pieces on 64 squares.

I’m always happy to receive a new book by Viktor Moskalenko. His work is enthusiastic, inspirational and consistently worth reading. In his newest effort, Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises: Tactics, Strategy, Endgames, Moskalenko offers readers a wide range of positions for solving and training purposes. Each of the three main sections described in the subtitle contain multiple subsections with instructional elements and problems to solve.

Training with Moska lacks a substantive table of contents, making the book rather difficult to use. There’s no way to know what’s in each section without looking at each page, the book has no thematic index, and scanning the text for specific topics is difficult due to the cramped layout. This makes focused training very difficult.

It’s also not clear to me that the positions on offer here are practical, as the subtitle claims. Many of them are engrossing, even spectacular, but practical training might require more sedate, everyday moves and problems. I suspect that ultimately Training with Moska is best suited for pleasure reading and not for hardcore training workouts.

Our last book this month, Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames, is a much more austere training manual than Moskalenko’s. It is Romain Edouard’s second effort in this vein, with the first (Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2: Test Yourself!) being reviewed here this past January.

Chess Calculation Training consists of 496 positions from recent games separated into ten broad sections. Some of the tasks are typical of the genre, where readers must find winning tactical or positional moves. Others, like “Find the missed move!” (chapter 8) or “Evaluate the opportunity!” (chapter 9), are less common.

This is a rather Spartan book, especially when compared with Moskalenko’s. Edouard’s book is a set of difficult problems and sparse solutions, and that’s pretty much it. True, occasional hints are provided, but they are completely optional and appear on pages separate from the problems. You’ll need to work hard to find the answers in Chess Calculation Training, and that seems to be exactly Edouard’s point in writing it.

I’d suggest that readers consider their goals in chess before deciding to buy one of these books. Kalinin is fantastic for someone looking for a broad overview of training techniques, and Edouard is an advanced workbook for the ambitious improver. Moskalenko, I’d argue, is more appropriate for someone looking for interesting examples that might also impart some wisdom. Chess is supposed to be pleasurable, even when we’re trying to improve, and despite the warts, Training with Moska is a pretty enjoyable read.

You little stinkers…

This review has been printed in the July 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.

—–

Roycroft, John. Stinking Bishops. self-published. ISBN 978-1-869874-20-9. PB, 84 + xiv pp. Available from USCF Sales ($19.95) and Chess4Less ($10.00).

No one writes chess books to get rich. Sales figures for even the most famous of chess writers pale in comparison to the Franzens and Grishams of the publishing world. Still, most authors expect to make at least a little money on their books. Chess publishing remains a for-profit enterprise, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Cash, as the Wu-Tang Clan said, rules everything around me, and this is why there are always new opening and improvement books being published. They might sell!

Imagine my delight, then, when I read John Roycroft’s Stinking Bishops, an eminently uncommercial work if ever there were one! Stinking Bishops – named after a fetid English cheese that, when cut, resembles a Bishop’s mitre – is an 84 page self-published book devoted to just two endgame positions. Both are presented here, and White is to move in both cases.

image
‘Unlike bishops’

image
‘Like bishops’

[Notice anything strange about the second diagram? The double check appears to be impossible, right? Not if (Black was to move) there was a black pawn on e2 that captured a White piece on d1 and promoted to a rook! Odd indeed… but not impossible.]

What’s so interesting about these two positions that they merit such attention? Each one represents the maximum length win for rook, bishop and pawn vs. rook and bishop according to 7-man tablebases (exhaustive databases of endgame positions). It’s White to move and win in 184 moves in the ‘like bishops’ diagram, and a ‘mere’ 159 moves to victory in the ‘unlike bishops’ position.

I know what you’re thinking: “watching paint dry would be more fun than reading this book.” Were this book written by just anyone, you might be right. But John Roycroft is not just anyone, and this is not just any book. Roycroft is the former editor of EG, the world’s definitive endgame and study magazine, and an International Judge of Chess Compositions. He is also familiar with the world of computing, having worked for IBM for many years.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of the ‘oracle’ – Roycroft’s honorific for the tablebase – from a practical perspective. What good is winning in 159 (or 184) moves when over-the-board endgames can be drawn in 50? (USCF Rule 14F, ‘The Fifty-Move Rule’) What’s the point of studying such endgames when no human can possibly remember the exact sequence of moves needed to win?

Roycroft pulls off a very neat trick in Stinking Bishops. He takes the arcane moves given by the tablebase and goes some distance in discerning the hidden logic beneath them. Each position is first presented with a raw list of moves that lead to the forced win, and then Roycroft investigates dozens of the key moves and positions. His notes are witty and wordy, often addressed to an imagined interlocutor, and they effectively assist the reader in grasping the necessity of certain moves as White marches to victory.

In his foreword to the book, Chess Life’s own Daniel Naroditsky congratulates Roycroft for his ability to explain the esoteric moves of the computer in very human ways, saying that he “was unable to put the book down” until he’d finished it! Not all of us are endgame columnists, of course, but Stinking Bishops really is a delightful romp through two (sometimes mind-numbingly complex) endings.

I can’t imagine that this book will sell well, given its topic and that there is no publisher to promote it. Still, I don’t think Roycroft will mind. This was a book written for love of the game, and it will – perhaps with the help of this review – find its way into the hands of those who will appreciate its many, many charms.

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.

—–

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.

image

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.

Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <arves@skynet.be> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <www.arves.org>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.

image

(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).

image

Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.

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.