Category Archives: Tactics

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.

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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.

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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.

image

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+–

Sac’ing the Exchange

This review has been printed in the May 2016 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.

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.

image

As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.

The Spice of (Chess) Life

This review has been printed in the November 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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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915957. PB 240pp. List $26.95.

Chess, unlike poker, is a game of complete information. All of the pieces are on the board, and none are hidden from sight. Each player has access to the same information when deciding on their moves, but what is done with that knowledge will naturally vary from person to person.

In poker, players lack knowledge of one or more cards belonging to other players or the community. This lack of complete knowledge allows players to bluff, to act as if they have hands that depart dramatically from what they actually possess. One of the reasons that televised poker became such a fad in the ‘aughts’ was the introduction of the hole cam, giving viewers more information than the players themselves and exposing the logic (or lack thereof) of betting actions.

On the face of it, it would seem impossible to bluff in a game of complete information like chess. Once a move is played, it is what it is, and a player cannot dissimulate its strength or weakness. And yet, as Vladimir Tukmakov shows us in Risk and Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks, carefully modulated risk and the well-timed bluff can be powerful tools when used judiciously.

Tukmakov, who moonlights as the personal second of Anish Giri, is the author of two previous books. In the first, Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Tukmakov tells the story of his chess career, rising from promising junior to member of the Soviet Olympic team and top-fifty player for nearly two decades. In the second, Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, he sketches the history of chess preparation and treats in fascinating detail the role of the computer in contemporary preparation.

This theme – the centrality of the ‘silicon friend’ (SF) in modern chess – recurs in Risk and Bluff in Chess. Risky moves are quickly debunked by even the casual fan armed with the latest engine. Brilliant bluffs are ridiculed. What is forgotten is that chess remains a game played between two humans, each of whom is fallible, subject to emotion and fatigue. Tukmakov’s book reminds us that it is still possible, and in some cases necessary, to risk and bluff our way to victory in the age of the machines.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is less a how-to manual than it is a series of inspirational vignettes. We meet the hero of the tale in its first chapter. While Tukmakov sees historical antecedents in Lasker and Alekhine, and contemporaries in Larsen, Spassky and Stein, it is in the games of Mikhail Tal that he identifies a mutation in how we assess risk in chess.

Tal possessed the unique ability to steer games towards unbalanced positions where his “remaining pieces acquired a completely different value, and operated with a harmony that only he could achieve.” (45) This is not to say that he played incorrectly. The computer, as Tukmakov notes, reveals that in many cases Tal’s sacrifices were entirely sound. He brought an “unrepeatable magic” (47) to the game, and that magic brought him to the world championship.

In the remainder of the book, we see how risk and bluff function in various situations, including the opening (chapter 2), defense (chapter 6), and must-win games (chapter 8). Of particular interest for the practical player is the fourth chapter, titled “The Logic of the Irrational.”

Granting, as Tukmakov does, that not everyone can play like Tal, what might a reader take from this chapter? In discussing positions where the board seems to have been constructed almost at random, Tukmakov offers two pointers. One must rely on one’s intuition as “one cannot calculate the incalculable.” (124) There is also a rule that Tukmakov finds useful: “non-standard positions require non-standard decisions.” Examples are drawn from the games of Larsen, Gelfand, Kortchnoi and Tukmakov himself (among others) to illustrate these ideas, and the chapter wraps up with a ‘Conclusion’ that reads like a coach’s pep talk.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is a fascinating study of two often misunderstood themes in chess. It is not an instructional work in the usual sense of the term, but it might inspire readers to add a bit of spice to their play. Tukmakov’s analysis tends towards the comprehensive, so some sophistication is required to take its full measure. All the same, I suspect that most players who have a taste for complication in chess would enjoy this book.

Teaching Tactical Awareness

This review has been printed in the August 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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Schlepütz, Volker, and John Emms. The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook. London: Everyman Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1781941188. 336pp. PB $27.95.

It is the most common piece of advice given to the amateur player: “if you want to improve your chess, study tactics.” So, like the diligent students we are, that’s what we do.

We slog through pages and pages of bare diagrams, flipping to the back of the book to see what we missed. We try all the web-based tactics trainers, refusing to give in to frustration when our winning-but-not-winning-enough moves are marked wrong for reasons we can’t fathom. We head to our next tournament, chests puffed out and tactical Spidey-sense cranked to 11.

And then we miss a mate-in-two and lose to an eight-year old. And we wonder why on earth we waste our time with this stupid game.

There is little doubt that the study of tactics is indeed necessary, if not sufficient, for chess improvement. Still, those of us who have spent time with Blokh and Brennan and Reinfeld (not to mention chesstempo.com) know all-too-well the limitations of such study. It’s easy to find a killer shot when you know one exists in the position. It’s much harder when your clock is ticking away and there’s no teacher nudging you towards the correct move.

Not a few authors have made creative attempts to overcome this problem in their books. Some, like Emmanuel Neiman (Tune Your Chess Tactics Antenna) and Martin Weteschnik (Chess Tactics from Scratch), aim to teach you how to decipher typical positions and discover common tactical themes. Others, like Ray Chang (Practical Chess Exercises), broaden the range of exercises, forcing you to look beyond raw tactics in the search for the best move.

With The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook, Volker Schlepütz and John Emms also attempt to teach tactical awareness while avoiding the artificiality of bulk puzzle solving. Readers are presented with the raw scores of 120 games (or fragments of games) played by combatants rated from 1100-1700. They are instructed to play through the games, put on their “tactics detective hats,” and note the points where one or both players missed something. Points are given for each correct answer, and readers are encouraged to keep a running point total.

Here’s an example of a game (#75 in the book) contested between players rated somewhere between 1301 and 1500. What did one or both players miss? Answers at the end of the column.

Decrop,B – Hilven,G [C13]
Brasschaat, 2007

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bxf6 Nxf6 8.Bd3 b6 9.Bb5+ Nd7 10.Ne5 Bd6 11.Qg4 Bxe5 12.dxe5 [*]

I can see how readers would be attracted to this book and its method. Most of the game fragments are short enough to avoid taxing one’s attention, and the points system assists in keeping the reader involved and engaged in solving. There are, however, a few important limitations. Because most of the solving ends with the late opening or early middlegame (full games are given in the solutions), there is little engagement with endgame tactics or broader attacking themes. What’s more, the scent of artificiality is not fully expunged here, as all of the blunders are tactical in nature, and no credit is given for finding positional or strategic mistakes.

Part of me also wonders whether Schlepütz and Emms have really done something new here. Surely we can find precedent for this “unique framework” for tactical training in long-running solitaire chess columns by Danny King or Chess Life’s own Bruce Pandolfini. C.J.S. Purdy recommended covering and guessing the victor’s moves in annotated games back in 1947, something that ChessBase users can easily do by using the ‘training’ tab in the game window.

These caveats notwithstanding, I suspect that class players looking to improve tactically would find The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook useful, as would teachers looking for lesson ideas. Schlepütz and Emms may not have found a true novelty here, but the training method is fresh enough to warrant your consideration.

Answers:

For White: 11.Qg4? “White started correctly by playing 10.Ne5, but 11.Qg4? doesn’t follow it up accurately. 11.Nxd6+! (2 points) clears the diagonal and 11…cxd6 12.Nxf7! forks queen and rook. After 12…Kxf7 the king has been attracted to a fatal square. 13.Qf3+ forks the king and rook, winning an exchange and a pawn overall. (2 points)” 11.Qf3 and 11.Nxf7 (2 points) are deemed lesser variants of 11.Nxd6!

For Black: 9…Nd7? “allows White to gain material, as shown above (1 point). Instead, Black should play 9…Bd7 (1 point). Earlier, Black should probably avoid 8…b6 which invites tactics by weakening both the a4-e8 and h1-a8 diagonals.”

The Chess Steps

Brunia, Rob and Cor van Wijgerden. Stappenmethode (Chess-Steps). Series of 20+ student workbooks and six manuals for teachers. Price varies, but usually ~$10 per workbook and $17 per teacher’s manual.

Original informational site: http://www.stappenmethode.nl/en/
American informational site: http://www.chess-steps.com/index.php

Nothing is more foreign to American chess, and American chess education, than the Stappenmethode. And this explains quite a bit about the state of modern American chess.

I

My first chess book was Fred Reinfeld’s Chess in a Nutshell. It was a slim volume, providing the rules, basic strategy, and not much else. After that came Bruce Pandolfini’s Chessercizes, Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings, leading, after some twists and turns, towards the avalanche of chess books and magazines that pile up in my basement office.

I thought, after reading Reinfeld and struggling to solving a few puzzles from Pandolfini, that I was ready to take on the world. Hubris! If only it were so. Old Russian men beat me mercilessly at the Merrick Chess Club, and I was hopelessly outclassed in my first rated games.

But I, unlike so many juniors attracted to the game, stuck with it. This is in my experience rare – I don’t know whether I should be proud of this or horrified by my masochism – as most young players seem to disappear from competitive chess soon after their arrival. Why? Why do so few scholastic players continue through the junior ranks? Why do they drop out?

My example is perhaps the example to avoid, the proverbial jumping into the deep end without adequate preparation, but it is also entirely typical of how most Americans learn the game. Someone teaches them the rules, or perhaps they go to a multi-week class at their school or public library. They learn (most of) the rules, Scholar’s mate, pins and forks, and Morphy vs the Count and Duke. Then they are thrown into tournament play, with the result that their first games are nothing more than the semi-random shuffling of pieces.

Perhaps they are successful in these contests of who can hang the fewest pieces, but as our juniors ‘move up the ladder,’ they suffer defeat after defeat against competent players and they can’t seem to improve. Soon they slink off, not wanting to lose, and with Mom and Dad entirely willing to let them give up because it’s ‘too hard.’ After all, chess is just a way to boost brain-power and IQ. They got what they ‘needed’ from it, so why make Junior work to get better?

II

Things are very different in the Netherlands. There chess is organized around the local club with active and dedicated junior sections. Such arrangements are common in Western Europe, where large sporting clubs (think Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen) organize teams and training in multiple sporting arenas. Young players attend training sessions and play informally. Only after they prove their mettle do they advance to competition and league games.

Training in the Netherlands is generally based around the Stappenmethode (the Chess-Steps or Steps Method), a systematic program created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden beginning in 1987. Van Wijgerden, who became a trainer for the Dutch chess federation in 1981 and later took over education at the Max Euwe Academy, has trained most of the leading Dutch players of our time.

One way to think about the Steps Method is to look to the world of football, or soccer as we heathen Americans call it. The Dutch became famous for ‘Total Football,’ which provided all of the Netherlands a footballing philosophy from the U9s through their national team. Training and drills were standardized. Today Ajax, the leading Dutch club, continues this tradition.

The Netherlands is a country of approximately 17 million. There are over 300 million Americans. So why are the Dutch so much better at football than we are? The answer must be the training. American coaching at the grassroots is haphazard, and until very recently, there was no national training center. Our young footballers spend their time playing games weekend after weekend (when not playing other sports) and the quality of their coaching is a crapshoot. Meanwhile young Dutch players are honing their skills and learning the Dutch system. The proof is, as always, in the pudding.

The Steps Method plays an analogous role in the chess world. While American juniors succumb to the lust for competition and trophies nearly as soon as they learn the rules, the Dutch do things differently. Young players receive structured instruction before they are allowed to advance to competition. The Steps are, almost universally, the basis of that instruction. The same is true in multiple European countries and in academies across the globe.

III

There is nothing mysterious about the Steps Method. Players are led through six courses of planned training, beginning with the most basic components of chess understanding. For each step there are student workbooks and manuals for teachers. The manuals contain scripted lessons, teaching examples, and information on good chess pedagogy, i.e., how children learn and think at different ages, and how to use that knowledge to structure your teaching methods. The idea is simple: if your club isn’t blessed with a strong player or experienced trainer, you can still teach your players the proper way to play the game using the Steps Method.

Step 1 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) is designed for players rated up to 800 or so and involves 15 distinct lessons. Because no previous knowledge is assumed, the first lessons involve things like how the different pieces move, what check is and how to get out of it, etc. Step One focuses heavily on material gain – how to attack, how to defend, how to use the ‘twofold attack’ – and only introduces checkmate halfway through the Step. It uses ‘mini-games’ to help make the instruction more palatable, and to help focus beginners on how specific pieces move and interact.

Anyone who watches junior chess and thinks for a moment will understand the justification for this way of doing things. Children’s games often devolve to who hangs the least pieces, so that mate and victory become (in a sense) a function of material advantage. If we’re being honest, this is true for players all the way up to expert.

The first Step is designed for player aged 8 and above, but the system can be modified for younger students. Two books – Stepping Stones 1, covering roughly Lessons 1-6, and Stepping Stones 2, covering Lessons 7-15 – are also available. The problems are slightly simpler and the diagrams are larger (six to a page instead of twelve) but the material is basically the same.

Step 2 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 3 (Workbook | Manual | Extra | Plus) offer lessons that begin to resemble ‘real chess.’ In Step 1, players become very good at finding and executing one ply (half-move) tactics, so that loose and underprotected pieces are captured, etc. Step 2 and Step 3 begin to require that players calculate up to three ply – I move, you move, I move and win – to achieve their aims.

In Step 2, designed for players up to 1300 or 1400, players are introduced to the building blocks of tactical play. Tactics, as Brunia and van Wijgerden constantly reiterate, are what win and lose games at this level. The focus here is on basic mates and the win of material through elementary motifs like double attacks and pins. There is little emphasis on positional themes beyond discussion of activity, and only in the middle of the Step is anything about the opening considered. All players need at this level is an understanding of the ‘three golden rules’ of the opening, and nothing more.

Step 3, for players rated up to 1600, is a continuation of Step 2. Here again only the slightest attention is paid to the opening, and most of the Step is centered on tactics. Trapping is introduced, as are the x-ray attack, discovered and double checks, and (most importantly) eliminating the defence. Positional instruction is limited to mobility and very basic static themes, and only the rudiments of pawn endings are studied.

Step 4 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) and Step 5 (Workbook|Manual|Extra|Plus) are more difficult. Here players are asked to increase their calculative abilities to five ply – I move, you move, I move, you move, I move and win – and more abstract (non-tactical) themes are considered.

Step 4, for players up to perhaps 1800, introduces the preparatory move. Tactics must be set up, so that a double attack might require a player to lure one of his opponent’s pieces to a useful square. More complex aspects of removing the defender and pins are tackled, the utility of the 7th rank is explained, and mating attacks are emphasized. More positional lessons are provided, including a lesson on weak pawns, and additional endgame instruction is given.

Step 5, for players under 2000, begins to pivot more towards strategy and away from tactics. Players are still asked to calculate five ply, but because the lessons begin to become positional in nature and thus less concrete, this Step is a step up from Step 4. Pawn play is emphasized, as are elements of rook endings and good rook handling (7th rank and open files). Tactics, of course, are not abandoned in this Step, and discussion of defense is included for the first time.

Step 6 (Workbook|Manual|Extra) is unique in that it is designed for the self-learner – there just aren’t that many trainers around who can teach players over 2000! Many of the themes covered in earlier Steps return here in more complicated form, and heavy attention is given to strategy and endgames. The Step 6 Extra workbook is also unique in that a Grandmaster, Erwin l’Ami, has been brought on as co-author. This is particularly interesting given that l’Ami was once a student of van Wijgerden, and presumably ascended the Steps in his own chess education.

Each Step should take about one calendar year to complete. It is also critical to understand, as van Wijgerden reminds anyone who will listen, that the Steps are not merely a series of workbooks with puzzles to be solved and ‘belts’ to be earned. Theory must be mixed with practice. Players need access to good trainers to help them go over their games, correct their mistakes, and guide them towards greater understanding.

IV

So what does the Steps Method look like in practice? Consider these two diagrams, both taken from van Wijgerden’s contribution to the very useful book The Chess Instructor 2009. (If you’re looking for a one-stop overview of the philosophy of the Steps, pick up a copy and read van Wijgerden’s chapter.)

#1: Black to move

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#2: White to move

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The key to the Steps Method is the inculcation of a solving strategy. Basically players are taught to search or ‘read’ the chessboard, pick out key elements or targets – unprotected or underprotected pieces, possibilities for various tactical motifs, etc – and then take advantage of what they discover. Trainers show their students scripted examples that clearly illustrate the nature of double attack, for instance, and then the students learn to find double attacks through solving.

In the first diagram, which comes from Step 2, we quickly see that White has two unprotected targets – the knight and the bishop. Black can play two moves (…Qf4+ and …Qh6+) that would attack those targets and also give check. Only one move works, however, since after …Qf4+ White can play Kg1 saving the bishop. The correct solution, then, is …Qh6+.

The second diagram, drawn from Step 4, is more difficult. Only after players decode the position, discovering the loose pieces on b8 and c2, does the idea of 1.Qa7! (followed by 2.Qa2+ winning a piece) become possible. When search strategies are internalized and become second nature, such tactical shots are not particularly hard to find.

Search strategies like those sketched above are the hallmark of the Steps Method. The same basic schema – read the position, find a solution, check it – appears in each Step. It is even reiterated in the chapter on Tactics in the Step 6 manual:

When you are solving the combination, finding the solution is all very well, but thinking in the correct way is equally important. Always start by asking the important question: what is going on in this position?

Sometimes you recognize the position and the solution comes to you straight away, but usually you won’t find the best move immediately You have to get used to not trying out every possible move. In such cases try using the following solving strategy:

  • In the position, what targets are there to attack?
  • What are the options to exploit this?
  • Which candidate moves come into question?
  • Check the move you want to make.

Try your hand at this position, given immediately after this passage above. Black is to move.

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Here’s the solution.

Trainers are given fully scripted lessons with illustrative examples, and students practice what they learn by solving dozens of correlative problems. Nothing is left to chance.

V

The Steps Method has been translated into 10 languages, and it is used in countries around the world. Its success speaks for itself. Still, it has its critics. Some, as mentioned above, think the Steps to be nothing more than programmed puzzle books. Others, like Willy Hendriks, have more subtle concerns.

Hendriks, an International Master, is the author of the acclaimed Move First, Think Later: Sense and Nonsense in Improving Your Chess. In Chapter 2 of Move First, Think Later, titled “Look and you will see versus trial and error,” he argues that the ‘search-and-solve strategy’ embodied in the Steps Method is fundamentally mistaken. Chess is entirely concrete for Hendriks, and what we think of as ‘rules’ are basically retroactive justifications for moves that, by mucking about, we determine to be best. He writes:

…van Wijgerden is an advocate of search-and-solve strategy. This kind of double attack is an ideal example of demonstrating these strategies. He explicitly condemns the trial and error method: ‘Through a keen instruction we teach the children not to do these exercises at random… A wrong ‘strategy’ is looking for moves using a trial-and-error method. Guessing and missing.’

But trial and error is not necessarily random. You start trying moves that (for some reason) you feel to be most promising. An essential condition for most combinations is having pieces that (can) do something. Starting to work with these pieces can quickly bring you to the true targets. (25)

Moves, not rules, are what’s important in this view. The idea that “you should not try out moves at random, but first take a look at the characteristics of the position, try to make a more general plan on that basis and then only search for a concrete ‘result’ at the level of an actual move… is nonsense.” (14) No one, says Hendriks, actually thinks like this, and we would do well to abandon the fiction. Key elements of positions only come to mind once we see a good move associated with them.

Perhaps this is true for grandmasters, but it is decidedly not true for beginners and for class players. Or, better, it might be the case that some players – Americans in particular – learn chess this way, and they are much the poorer for it.

I don’t know how much teaching Hendriks does, but in my experience, asking beginners to simply find good moves is little more than tilting at windmills. How can they find good moves if they don’t know what makes them good in the first place? They might discover, through induction, what forks are if they solve hundreds of tactical puzzles, but certainly they can begin to find them more quickly if they know what they’re looking for.

This, to my way of thinking, is the point of the Steps Method. It teach players how to read positions and how to find the good moves in them. Hendriks forgets that one must be taught to read before one can actually do so. Eventually one just reads without sounding out the words, but it takes a lot of work to get there. That work is nowhere to be found in Hendriks’ vision of things. I think that for beginners and less talented players – the vast majority of us – the structured approach found in the Steps is helpful and perhaps necessary. Only when it becomes fully internalized and intuitive should it be cast aside a la Hendriks.

Implicit here, of course, is my criticism of typical American chess education. It is wholly unsystematic and it throws young players into tournament play before they are ready for it. Such youth fail to progress beyond near-random shuffling of pieces because they never learn how to read positions. Losses pile up, and they drop out, having gotten nothing out of the whole affair save a trophy or ribbon.

At least two generations of Americans have tried to learn chess via mega-doses of tactical puzzles. They solve hundreds of diagrams and hope to pick something up along the way. It’s possible that this works; indeed, it must work in some cases, since lots of our masters grew up clutching tattered copies of Reinfeld. I would still humbly argue that a programmed approach such as the Steps is a much more efficient way to learn chess, such that success becomes quantifiably more probable.

VI

I think the Steps Method is the best chess training system publicly available. The workbooks and manuals are remarkably affordable, and even those whom Caissa has not blessed with great talent can succeed as trainers. Because each Step comes with scripted lessons, good teaching examples, etc., competent class players can serve as trainers through at least Step 3 and perhaps beyond.

Some lessons might ask the trainer to play out specific positions against pupils in simuls, and analytical strength becomes more important as trainers look at games of stronger students, but generally speaking enthusiasm (and a strong silicon assistant) can overcome some of these limitations. I also believe that adult players – especially those without access to a top-level coach – can use the Steps as a program for self-improvement.

I have been using the Steps both in teaching and in self-training. [Addendum: Last summer I used Step 1 as the basis for a week at the Omaha Chess Camp in the beginner’s section, with mixed success – some beginners thought they didn’t need to learn the basics!, and the customer usually ends up being right…] Let me conclude, briefly, by discussing my experience with both cases.

(1) A few months ago I was asked to begin teaching a young boy who had just turned seven. This puts him right at the cusp of what the Steps deem an appropriate age for effective chess education, so after an initial assessment, we began with the Stepping Stones 1 workbook. Over the past four or so months we worked through Stepping Stones 1 and 2, and now we are beginning Step 1 Plus.

Our weekly lessons are broken down into three parts. First, we look at some of his games played on chesskid.com. His ability to correctly notate his OTB games is still shaky, so the games on ChessKid are a very good way to try and gauge what’s going on in his competitive play. We then do a lesson, in part or in full, from the Steps, and we might play a mini-game or two. Homework is assigned. Finally we look at a game or two with an interesting tactical twist. Some games have come from the Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures, and more recently, we have been looking at games from The Art of Checkmate.

One of the difficulties in adapting the Steps to an American context is impatience. Ideally we would spend one full year in Step 1, and real tournament play would not begin for at least that long. Such luxuries are not possible in the States, so I tried to dissuade this boy’s parents from entering him into competition for as long as I could. I also moved from the Stepping Stone books into Step 1 Plus, which revisits the themes of Step 1 while introducing some new ideas.

It is far too early to know how things will turn out, but I notice that the terminology of the Steps is becoming part of his chess vocabulary. We speak of threats and two-fold attacks, of chasers and guards in the context of checkmates. He is beginning, ever so slightly, to see the chessboard in the way that the Steps prescribe. I think this is for the best.

(2) As for me, after some poor results and in light of my haphazard education, I started with Steps 2 and 3, including the Plus workbooks, and am now (still) in Step 4. For this step and the ones to come, the idea is to do the original workbook followed by the first half of the Extra book, which reinforces what has been learned. I then do the Plus book and lessons, and cap things off with the second half of the Extra book, which is worksheets filled with problems on mixed themes.

It is easy to treat the Steps as just another set of puzzle books, and without a trainer steeped in the Steps, I suspect that I’m not getting full benefit from them. (I play each week at a local club, and I go over my games with the computer and with my coach.) What I do notice is greater tactical acumen in my play. For example, I recently defeated a 1900 player because I was able to use ideas gleaned from the Steps and win material. In another game, I found a tactical shot that took me from lost to won against an 1850 player in only one move.

The Steps are not a panacea. I still blunder, like every class player in existence. I overvalue bishops and underestimate passed pawns. Sometimes I struggle to defeat inferior players. But my board vision is improving, I’m generally calculating better, I feel more confident and I’m winning more. After (flying spaghetti monster help me) almost 25 years of chess, I’ll take it.

Reinfeld Reissued!

This review has been printed in the August 2014 issue of the British Chess Magazine.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at BCM for allowing me to do so.

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Reinfeld, Fred. 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate: 21st Century Edition. Translated into algebraic notation by Bruce Alberston. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (1955). PB, 224pp. ISBN 978-1936490820. List $19.95, currently $16ish at Amazon.

Reinfeld, Fred. 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations: 21st Century Edition. Translated into algebraic notation by Bruce Alberston. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (1955). PB, 240pp. ISBN 978-1936490875. List $19.95, currently $16ish at Amazon.

Fred Reinfeld (1910-1964) was also one of the most prolific authors in history, having written hundreds of books on topics ranging from numismatics to philately to science. He was best known, however, for his many books on chess. Reinfeld wrote fine biographical works on many of the major players of his day alongside dozens of elementary texts and primers. His two most famous books are the two currently under review, with new algebraic editions of these classics just out from Russell Enterprises.

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate and 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations are, as their titles suggest, collections of tactical problems for solving. These books were fantastically popular with American players of a certain age, and both titles went through dozens of printings over the years. Now Bruce Alberston has converted both books from descriptive notation to algebraic, making them available once more for a new generation who never learned to read descriptive.

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate consists of eight chapters of problems, beginning with queen sacrifices, moving through some typical mating attacks, and ending with a selection of mate-in-n compositions. 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations is (literally) the prototypical tactics workbook, with puzzles broken down by tactical motif into twenty chapters. Both books tend to put easier problems towards the beginning of a section, but the difficulty can range dramatically from problem to problem.

Unlike other authors in the Russell Enterprises stable, Alberston has resisted the temptation to ‘correct’ Reinfeld’s analysis with the help of the modern computer. This decision has both pros and cons attached to it. On the one hand, the books are rather faithful renderings of classic works; on the other, some of Reinfeld’s solutions are less than accurate. The design of these new editions resembles the originals, but all the text and diagrams have been reset in modern fonts, improving the books immensely.

If pressed, I would say that 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations is the better book of the two. The sorting of problems by motif is useful for the player learning the basic grammar of chess tactics. Both, however, can be recommended to players rated from 1200-2000, with 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate skewing slightly to the lower end of that range.

The author was an American master.