Category Archives: Tactics

Data-Driven Chess

This review has been printed in the August 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Erwich, Frank. 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players: The Tactics Workbook that Also Explains All Key Concepts. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918194. PB 160pp.

Luther, Thomas, et al. Chess Coaching for Kids: The U-10 Project. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-3944710358. HC 255pp.

Zaninotto, Franco. Learning from the Mistakes of Others. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019. ISBN 978-3959209823.

Zaninotto, Franco. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions! Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917746. PB 144pp.

Professional sport is becoming increasingly data-driven at the highest levels. Baseball teams obsess over exit velocity, spin rate, and advanced sabermetrics, while basketball analysts chart shot selection and work to quantify defensive abilities. All this is done in the interest of efficiency and improved results.

Chess players are no exception to this trend. Data-driven players use engines and immense databases to study their opponents and hone their intuition. Some rely on off-the-shelf databases like MegaBase or TWIC (The Week in Chess). Others “roll their own,” searching out correspondence games and engine matches to increase their data trove.

One interesting effect of this “data arms race” is the availability of amateur and junior games – not just players rated under 2000, but under 1400 or even 1000 – for analysis and study. This presents some intriguing possibilities for both players and coaches.

If we want to understand typical errors made by amateurs and juniors, it might make sense to undertake a study of their games. And while showing a 800 player a Morphy brilliancy might inspire them, it would arguably be more useful to feature mistakes from players of their level, and then help them to avoid them.

Italian FM Franco Zaninotto has published two books that aim to do just that. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions (New in Chess, 2018) and Learning from the Mistakes of Others (Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019) are twin titles that draw their content from games by lower-rated players.

Super Chess Kids focuses on “strategy” (Part I) and “tactics” (Part II), using games from youth championships from around the world as examples. Learning from the Mistakes of Others takes a broader view, with positions from amateur games employed as “teachable moments” in all three phases of the game. Because both books are structurally similar, we will treat them together.

The main sections of Zaninotto’s books consist of concise thematic chapters followed by a series of positions to solve with their solutions. The “Calculation” chapter (Super Chess Kids, 78-84) is typical, offering advice for improving one’s calculation along with illustrative examples. His advice (78-9) is based on Kotov, but it boils down to (a) finding sensible candidate moves, and (b) choosing the strongest one. All five examples in this chapter include this dual admonition, and each can be solved by doing as Zaninotto asks. Here’s an example where White played 13.Qe3 – what did he miss?

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There are a number of plausible candidate moves (13.Ng6, 13.Bf4, 13.Bb5), but by following Zaninotto’s model, and by focusing first on forcing moves, White might have found 13.Nxf7! Rxf7 14.Qxe6 (14.Bxe6? Nf8 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7) 14. … Qe8 15.Qxe7 Qxe7 16.Rxe7 with a tremendous advantage.

But White didn’t play the best move. Why? Because he took seven minutes to play 13.Qe3, Zaninotto speculates that White analyzed 13.Nxf7 but missed the pin on the rook on f7, which might suggest a problem of visualization. How to improve this? Zaninotto offers seven bits of advice or “exercises”, all of which can be reasonably enacted by chess mortals.

Super Chess Kids is focused on strategy and tactics writ large, covering weaknesses, piece play, positional evaluation, calculation, attack, and defense. Learning from the Mistakes of Others has sections on theoretical and “strategic” endings, broad middlegame themes like “chess culture” and developing a plan, and a short coda on the opening. The chapter on “Mistakes and Mindsets” is particularly good, and could be used effectively as a stand-alone lesson with a student.

Zaninotto describes his work (Learning, 6-7) as being aimed at players roughly 1400-1800 FIDE, with some wiggle room on both ends, and that seems accurate. There’s nothing earth-shattering in his prescriptions, but I suspect that’s the point – what Zaninotto has done here is collect solid, time-tested advice for improving players, and he imparts that advice through use of well-chosen practical examples. The numerous exercises and didactic elegance common to both titles make them suitable for coaches and ambitious juniors alike.

Moving on: it’s rare that a new book appear on my doorstep completely unexpectedly, but such was the case with Chess Coaching for Kids: The U10-Project (JugendSchachVerlag / Thinkers Publishing, 2018). It does not seem to be getting a real advertising push, and that’s a shame. This is a very interesting book.

Edited by GM Thomas Luther and written by a team including Heinz Brunthaler and Martin Weteschnik, Chess Coaching for Kids takes a more directly data-driven approach to coaching and improvement. The theoretical heart of Chess Coaching for Kids is a statistical analysis of over 1400 games taken from national and international under-8 and under-10 tournaments.

Part I, “Analysis of Mistakes in u8 and u10 Tournaments,” articulates a “points system” (8) to quantify mistakes. “Soft moves,” or “small inaccuracies which… deteriorate the position long term,” are not accounted for in this schema, as Brunthaler (the author of Part I) argues that most players are incapable of taking advantage of such nuances at this level.

What did they learn? The older players, not surprisingly, made fewer and less severe mistakes than did the younger ones, and tournament medalists make fewer “hard” and “soft” mistakes than do tail-enders, playing “purposeful” chess (26) that induced errors by their opponents. Gender also plays a role: girls tend to make more mistakes than boys in this age range, and they do not advance as quickly. (They do not speculate on why this is the case.)

From this, Brunthaler concludes that coaching should focus on remedying both “clear mistakes,” like those described above, and the “soft moves” that rot a position. (26) “[T]he strategic principles should be shown to kids as early as possible, even in the first months of training. Highlighting these principles (especially the violation of them)… should enable the kids to fully grasp their importance.” (35) He also argues that girls should avoid all-girl events as they “stagnate” (34) their chess, and instead play in mixed events.

Part II of Chess Coaching for Kids, written by the authorial collective, presents “practical examples” drawn from the u8 and u10 games. Topics include “openings and opening deficits,” the pin in junior games, positional themes like weak squares and the 7th rank, and “fighting spirit.” Here’s a typical example, drawn from a game played between a D and an E player in a German girls event:

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“Sometimes, tactical chances are missed for fear of running into the opponent’s trap (which, by the way, mostly was not the case). Here, Black presumably thought that her opponent would win back the piece and, therefore, abstained from the pawn fork. However, she should have calculated a little longer:

19. … e4 20.Qe3 exf3 21.Qxe7

Probably White had only seen 21. … Qxe7 22.Rxe7 but even then Black is clearly better, for instance 22. … fxg2 23.Rxb7 and Black is much better.

Still better is 21 … Qc6 e.g. 22.Bb2 (otherwise the devastating 22. … Rfe8 will follow, skewering the queen and the mating square e1) 22. … Rfe8 23.Qg5 f6 24.Qg4 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 fxg2+ 26.Qxg2 Qxg2+ 27.Kxg2–+.

And the best move is 21. … Ne2+! 22.Rxe2 fxe2 23.Qxe2 Rac8 with good winning chances for Black.” (81)

Here we can see the utility of the work done in Chess Coaching for Kids. The example clearly illustrates a common mistake at this age and rating, and the authors use it to move into a discussion of the importance of visualization and how to train it. The advice is perhaps not as dense as in Zaninotto, but this makes sense if we consider audience. Chess Coaching for Kids is written entirely for coaches.

The bulk of the remainder of the book comes in Part III, which features five lengthy “tests” of increasing difficulty that can be given to students whole-cloth or mined for teaching material. Three short sections (Parts IV, V, and VI) wrap things up, with discussion of the nature of talent, best coaching practices, and a study of u12 games and training needs.

Chess Coaching for Kids is one of the first serious attempts to quantify success in high level junior chess. As such, I think it offers readers a useful lens to re-examine their ideas about coaching and improvement, both for their students and for themselves. It will be interesting to see if Luther et al continue their work with studies of more advanced / older players.

By way of conclusion, let me briefly mention a new tactics book that, while not directly “data-driven” in orientation, is rooted in a well-tested teaching philosophy. Frank Erwich’s excellent 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players (New in Chess, 2019) takes its vocabulary and structure from the “Steps Method” or Stappenmethode.

Created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden, the Steps Method is a structured instructional program wheres students are taught to discern key features of positions using ‘search strategies’ and by solving exercises. Each of the six ‘Steps’ builds upon previous ones, with the result being that learners get level-appropriate instruction, taking them from beginner (Step 1) through expert or low master (Step 6).

Erwich’s book is a collection of tactical problems taxonomically organized as in the Steps. This is a boon for Steps teachers and users, of course, but Erwich does a good job of explaining the key motifs through illustrative examples for non-initiates. The problems themselves are relatively advanced – usually at least five ply, requiring one or more ‘preparatory moves’ – but not impossible, and many diagrams have hints underneath them.

1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players is best suited for players over 1700 USCF, or those who have finished Step 3 of the Steps Method. It’s a very good intermediate tactics book, and with its availability on Chessable, I think it might work very well for a Woodpecker-style study using spaced repetition.

Filling a Gap

This review has been printed in the March 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Also note that an interview with Benjamin, conducted by this reviewer, appears at uschess.org.

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Benjamin, Joel. Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918071. PB 224pp.

Joel Benjamin’s biography at uschess.org says that he has “seen the board from many angles.” This is quite the understatement. Few players have has left as wide and varied a mark on American chess.

Most readers will, I suspect, know Benjamin as a chess player. Once the youngest master in American history, he won the Triple Crown of national scholastic events in his youth along with the US Junior, US Open, and World Open titles. Benjamin competed in 25 US Championships, taking the title thrice (1987, 1997, 2000), and he played for the United States in international competitions across four decades. Most recently he helped win the gold medal for the US in the 2018 World Senior Championship. (See the October 2018 issue of Chess Life for his report on the event.)

But there is much more to Benjamin’s career than his stellar competitive record. He famously served as Deep Blue’s trainer in the mid 1990s, and he has long featured as an event commentator and “banter blitzer” for chessclub.com. Now Benjamin appears to be increasingly turning (or returning?) his attention to the written word. His newest title – Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves – is an early candidate for Book of the Year.

Benjamin’s writing talent has been evident for many years. He published his first book in 1987, sharing authorial duties for Unorthodox Openings with the late FM Eric Schiller. In the early 1990s he was co-editor of the cult classic Chess Chow, certainly the funniest chess periodical in American history.

American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures appeared in 2007, and Liquidation on the Chess Board: Mastering the Transition into the Pawn Endgame was released in 2015 with a second, improved edition arriving soon. Benjamin has also been a frequent contributor and columnist for Chess Life and New in Chess for more than three decades.

Why is all of this worth mentioning? One of the difficult truths of chess publishing is that chess skill and writing prowess are not one and the same thing. Some authors may be outstanding over-the-board, but lacking that certain panache when seated at their laptops.

Benjamin is an outstanding writer. Better Thinking, Better Chess is clear and accessible without sacrificing complexity, and – this will be of no surprise to Chess Chow readers – it’s funny. It’s rare that I laugh in pleasure when reading chess literature, but there were multiple such moments here, along with (it must be said) a few Dad-joke groans. The end result is excellent, and readers will find themselves both educated and entertained by this book.

Better Thinking, Better Chess might best be understood as a variant on the old “give a man a fish / teach a man to fish” proverb. It is indisputably useful to have a teacher explain specific errors in your play, but explanation of flawed thought processes and modeling of proper in-game thinking goes much further. Instead of correcting past problems, it aims to prevent future oversights.

So Benjamin’s book is less about chess knowledge per se than it is about practical chess skills. Put differently, it’s about “the work during games” instead of “the work between them.” (7) Readers will certainly learn useful bits of openings, tactics, and endings if they work through the 118 games and 76 “Challenges” in Better Thinking, Better Chess, but more to the point, they will begin to reorder their thinking and hopefully better it.

Some of Benjamin’s examples and advice center on the need for ‘chess culture.’ Chapter 1-3 highlight the immense utility of theoretical knowledge in successful over-the-board problem solving. Game 3 is a clear illustration of this value.

QUEEN’S GAMBIT [D60]
Jay Bonin (2382)
Benjamin Medina (1968)
New York, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Qb3 e6 5.Bg5 Be7 6.Nc3 0–0 7.e3 Nbd7 8.Rd1

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Black has a number of options in this position. He could follow known plans: 8. … dxc4 9.Bxc4 Nd5 is “Capablanca’s freeing maneuver,” and 8. … Ne4 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Bd3 Nxc3 11.Qxc3 dxc4 12.Bxc4 (if 12.Qxc4 e5) 12. … b6 followed by an eventual … c6–c5 would emulate Lasker.

Benjamin offers two other ideas, both aimed at freeing the c8-Bishop. Black could try the “unsophisticated but acceptable” 8. … b6 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.0–0 c5 when he may have equalized, and the “more sophisticated” 8. … a6, which aims to gain a tempo after 9.Bd3 dxc4 (9. … b5 10.cxd5 cxd5 is Benjamin-Kogan, US-ch 1986) 10.Bxc4 (10.Qxc4 b5! 11.Qxc6 Ra7 is in Black’s favor) 10. … b5 and Black can “break out if White is not careful.” (18-19)

Instead Black lost the thread and the game: 8. … Qb6?! 9.Qc2 dxc4?! 10.Bxc4 Re8 11.0–0 c5 12.d5! exd5 13.Bxd5 Qc7? 14.Bf4 Qa5? 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7 16.Ng5+ Kg8 17.Qb3+ 1–0.

It is certainly possible that Black, faced with this non-standard QGD / Slav hybrid, might independently stumble upon one of these four plans. But it’s more likely, especially given the quick time control, that Black would have better navigated this position by applying knowledge drawn from analogous games. Benjamin’s point is well taken: while understanding trumps rote memorization (13, 44, 46), specific knowledge of key openings, endings (41, 55), and tactical patterns (66-7, 74) is of great assistance in concrete decision making.

Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of the book, dealing with proper calculation and roadblocks endemic to it. These pages are full of useful advice on structuring calculation and locating hidden resources. Benjamin admonishes his readers to work hard at the board, to focus on high-reward forcing moves (86) and prioritize the search for candidate moves (108f). Players should “aim high” (118, also 24) before scaling down expectations, and they should extend their analysis “one move beyond the last capture” (105) to sniff out hidden chances.

What I particularly like about Better Thinking, Better Chess are the examples. The vast majority are digestible for non-masters, and the explanations are exemplary. Some positions are admittedly difficult – Gruchacz-Benjamin (Game 72) and Abramovic-Benjamin (Game 93) come to mind – but even here, Benjamin takes great pains to break things down in an edifying manner. I never felt overwhelmed by his analysis, although it required no small effort for me to follow.

Challenge 47 is typical in this regard, and it’s worth looking at in some detail.

CATALAN [E17]
Tan Nguyen (2216)
Shawn Rodriguez-Lemieux (2057)
Morristown jr, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0–0 6.0–0 Nbd7 7.Nbd2 b6 8.b3 Bb7 9.Bb2 c5 10.cxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Rc8 12.Nh4

Here White should probably not get too ambitious. 12.e3 with the idea of Qd1–d2 and Rf1–d1 looks like a sensible continuation.” (112)

12…Re8 13.Nf5 Bf8 14.Nc4 Ba6

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Where should White move his knight?

Nguyen played 15.Nce3 g6 16.Nh4 Bg7 (16. … Bh6!) 17.Re1? Bh6 and Black won quickly. If White was focusing on forcing moves, the …Bh6 idea should have been forseen “at least before move fourteen, and ideally before 12.Nh4. The moves in this sequence are somewhat forcing and predictable, so it’s not unreasonable for a strong, hard-working player to do so. But at minimum, White should stop at move fifteen and seriously consider the ramifications of different knight moves.” (113) Neither 15.Ncd6 nor 15.Ne5 are totally satisfactory, but both improve on the game.

Chess improvement, as Jonathan Rowson famously remarked, takes place at the edge of our comfort zones. We’re approaching one of my edges here. I can easily see myself missing the … Bh6 idea were I not rigorous in my thinking, but it’s also not inconceivable that I could discover it with disciplined calculation. Better Thinking, Better Chess is stuffed with well-chosen Challenges like these, walking the fine line between ‘too easy’ and ‘way too hard.’

Space prevents me from discussing the full panoply of important insights found in this book – you can check Chapter 9, “Words of Wisdom,” for a summary list of key ideas – but I do want to highlight just one more, one that I marked “!!” in the margin of the page.

“I have noticed,” Benjamin writes, “that players below 2300 tend to be hesitant to sacrifice the exchange. Yes, they will do it to mate, or win material, or earn something tangible like dangerous passed pawns. But if they can’t calculate an immediate return they get put off it.” (144) This seems entirely correct. Material is but one factor in the calculus of positional assessment, and the ability to play sacrifices that lack ‘immediate gratification’ appears to be a sign of chess improvement.

Books like Better Thinking, Better Chess don’t come along every day. It’s insightful, well-structured, and it fulfills the promise of its title. It also fills a gap in the marketplace – the only comparable work I can think of is Jacob Aagaard’s excellent, but demanding, Thinking Inside the Box. I suspect Benjamin’s book is suitable for a slightly lower rated audience, say 1500-2200, but don’t mistake its sunny disposition for a lack of rigor. This is a first rate effort.

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.

Resolved: Stick with it!

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ANSWER to diagrammed problem:

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.”