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

image

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

image

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.

Instant Gratification

This review has been printed in the February 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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Keene, Raymond, and Byron Jacobs. Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018. London: Everyman, 2018. ISBN 978-1781945131. PB 208pp.

Konikowski, Jerzy, and Uwe Bekemann. World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2018. ISBN 978-3959209816. PB 184pp.

Gustafsson, Jan, Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet. Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. video series, available at chess24.com.

What will chess historians remember most about the 2018 World Championship match? The smart money would appear to be on “the draws.”

With so many drawn games in both the 2016 and 2018 matches, and with players facing such difficulties generating chances with the White pieces, many pundits are proposing fairly radical changes in match structure and time controls. To me this seems slightly overwrought – two matches are a small sample, after all – but it mirrors a definite trend towards faster chess at the highest levels.

But perhaps the real story of the 2018 match will, in retrospect, have been the full arrival of chess as an e-sport. Today an ever-increasing number of major tournaments are streamed on YouTube and Twitch, including the US Open and US Chess National Scholastics, and some competitions (like the Pro Chess League) are now contested entirely online.

At least four major chess media outlets – chess.com, chess24.com, the Saint Louis Chess Club, and Agon / Worldchess – offered real-time English language streaming commentary on the Carlsen-Caruana match. Others, including chessbase.com, chessclub.com, and uschess.org, offered post-game wrap-ups and analysis. It’s worth spending a bit of time discussing the four competing live video streams, both to understand the novelty of their coverage as well as their limitations.

Danny Rensch and fellow Chess Life columnist Robert Hess hosted the chess.com coverage. Multiple guests appeared on the livestream, including Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Hou Yifan. Shankland provided the majority of the post-game annotations for chess.com readers, and everyone’s favorite “Uncle Yermo” Alex Yermolinsky recorded the post-game video wrap-ups.

Chess fans were treated to a veritable Murderer’s Row of chess commentators at Chess24. Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk were joined by Sopiko Guramishvili (Games 1-8) and Anish Giri (Games 9-12 and tiebreaks) for the live analysis, and Svidler recorded the post-game summary videos.

The Saint Louis Chess Club’s “A-Team” of Maurice Ashley, Yasser Seirawan and US Chess Senior Digital Editor Jennifer Shahade returned to helm the Saint Louis coverage of the match. Here too guests added spice to the proceedings, including Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Frequent STLCC broadcaster and Caruana second Cristian Chirila checked in from London.

All three of these streaming platforms provided their video to viewers on YouTube or twitch.tv free of charge. None were permitted to use live footage from London. Another option – worldchess.com, the paid broadcast arm of match organizers Agon – offered exclusive video of the players along with commentary from Judit Polgar, Anna Rudolf, and on-site guests like Demis Hassabis, one of the creators of Alpha Zero. While the cost to view the Worldchess stream was a reasonable $20, early reports of website instability and login problems spooked me. So I ended up flipping between the chess.com, chess24 and Saint Louis streams on my Roku Player.

With competition comes choice, and I felt that the three free streams were aimed at somewhat different audiences. Chess.com pitched its coverage towards gamers and enthusiasts. Chess24 tried to capture more serious players and students of the game. Saint Louis was the natural destination for American fans and a broadly pro-Caruana audience.

Most of my time was spent with chess24, and in no small part because of their general no-engine policy. There is little I enjoy more than watching vastly strong players analyze, and getting to see how Giri, Grischuk and Svidler worked through difficult positions together was a most welcome treat.

If the various streams had a common weakness, it was a certain modicum of perspective due to the real-time nature of the medium. “Hot takes” are quick and easy, but perspective requires time and critical distance, as no less than Garry Kasparov learned when he tapped out this ill-fated Tweet after Game 12. Full disclosure: I may have enthusiastically retweeted this.

Kasparov tweet

It’s vitally important, today more than ever, to resist the equation of instant analysis with veritable truth. There’s a reason that good writing and commentary take time, particularly in chess. Engines provide the illusion of accuracy and understanding, but authors can only begin to peel back the surface of events by standing back from them.

Here is where match books have traditionally been important. The problem, as I noted in December 2017, is that such efforts are increasingly rare, and the titles that do appear are often slapped together to make a fast buck.[1] There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such books – authors and publishers have to eat too! – but the results are usually unsatisfying, the literary equivalent of a greasy fast food meal.

Everyman’s Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018, released two weeks after the match closing ceremonies, is the definition of an “instabook.” Everyman editor Byron Jacobs teamed up with Raymond Keene, well known for his proclivity for borrowing texts both from his previous works and from those of others, to produce a thoroughly forgettable work.

Game annotations make up the bulk of Carlsen v Caruana, and while there are some oddities – playing an unforced Bxc6 in the Rossolimo, for example, was Chebanenko’s idea and not a Fischer invention, and Woody Harrelson’s accidental ‘king tip’ before Game 1 was a prearranged joke – they are serviceable if hardly groundbreaking. The book’s front matter, however, is another story entirely.

Large chunks of text in Carlsen v Caruana are recycled from previous Keene writings. The Introduction, “World Chess Comes to London,” is a verbatim reprint of his preface to the Summer 2018 issue of Synapsia, the house magazine for Keene’s Brain Trust Charity, and one of the final paragraphs reappears in his September 15th newspaper column. The “History of the World Championship” section is similarly self-referential, with many multiple paragraphs taken directly or closely paraphrased from previous Keene books, with The Brain Games World Championship 2000 being just one example.

Reusing one’s own text is not illegal or immoral, but the fact that the reuse is so blatant, and that Keene has made such a career of it, leaves something of a bad taste here. Couple this with the editing and spelling problems – “Kieseritsky,” “Vesselin Topalov,” and World Championship “Finallist” Nigel Short are but a small sample – and Carlsen v Caruana must be seen as something of a disappointment, failing to add anything new to the literature.

World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen, written by Jerzy Konikowski and Uwe Bekemann for the German publisher Joachim Beyer Verlag, proves that a rapid-response title can be done competently. The translation is a bit wonky – for some reason “World Championship” becomes “World Cup,” “and” is occasionally “und,” etc. – but the authors generally succeed in creating an original, accessible account of the match.

Konikowski and Bekemann aim to offer readers a “complete picture” (8) of the players by sketching Carlsen and Caruana’s careers and analyzing a selection of their pre-match encounters. Artur Yusupov and Karsten Müller provide useful insight into the players, and Müller’s contribution of fifteen annotated games meets his usual standard of analytical excellence. Only the combination section, featuring 24 positions from Carlsen and Caruana’s practice, seems extraneous.

Notes to the match games make up more than half of World Chess Championship 2018. There is less ‘color’ here than in Carlsen v Caruana, and the notes (save the excessive opening citations) tend to be terser. Konikowski and Bekemann’s book is certainly preferable to Jacobs and Keene’s, although it too left me wanting more. So it is perhaps a sign of the times that, with no other match books on the horizon, the most insightful treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match is – you guessed it – an online video series.

Chess24 series promo

Chess24 viewers were surprised when Jan Gustafsson, the public face of the website, was absent from the Game 1 coverage. While Svidler gamely tried to maintain operational security, we learned only after the match concluded that Gustafsson was holed up in Thailand, working remotely for Team Carlsen.

Over the course of nearly eleven hours of video, Gustafsson and fellow Carlsen seconds Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet walk viewers through the highs and lows of the match in Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. The result is an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which I can only begin to describe here, and the series stands as one of the most intimate accounts of a World Championship Match ever produced. Only From London to Elista by Evegny Bareev and Ilya Levitov can compare to it.

Impatient viewers – count me among them – might want to start with the final “Wrap-up” video, where Team Carlsen discusses the opening battles, Nakamura’s claim that Caruana dominated the Classical games, the question of whether Carlsen’s title was diminished by winning in tiebreaks, and how different team members worked during the match. Still, fascinating as the reflections on the match metagame were, the individual game analyses were better.

Chess24 Game Window

Take the coverage of Game 10. Gustafsson, Fressinet and Nielsen describe quite frankly how they missed 12.b4 in their preparation, discussing typical plans for both sides and citing Alpha Zero analysis. They speculate on the psychology of the moves leading up to the critical position after move 23, and Nielsen borrows a line from an Anand video to help us understand Caruana’s all-too-human 24.g3. The positions after 24.Bxb5, he says, are the sort where if the computer told you either White or Black were +1.5, you’d believe it. This is an important insight, and the emphasis on the human factor in the match is a key theme in the series.

Comparing books and videos is a bit of an apples and oranges endeavour. Books take longer to write – in most cases, anyway! – and there are production and distribution costs for print materials that do not exist for video platforms. Those considerations aside, it’s clear that Inside the 2018 World Championship Match is the best treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match, and by some distance. At $14.99 it’s also cheaper than the Keene / Jacobs and Konikowski / Bekemann books. The series is a real coup for Chess24, and I recommend wholeheartedly.


[1] It’s worth noting once more, as I did in my December 2017 review, what a welcome departure from this practice Alburt and Crumiller’s outstanding book was.

Books and Beyond

This review has been printed in the January 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.

Readers interested in seeing a video review of the new features in ChessBase 15 may be interested in this:

https://youtu.be/MBGz4ol_0-g

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There are precious few pleasures left for the modern American air passenger. The lines are long. The seats are small. The snacks are very, very sad.

One consolation, at least for this weary, wordy traveler, is the in-terminal magazine stand. With so many magazines in print, and with limits to what one can responsibly subscribe, it is a great consolation to be able to pick an interesting looking issue of something off the shelf and distract myself with it while airborne.

I will admit that I picked up the October 2018 issue of Harpers because I mistook the cover author, Will Self, for NPR’s “enigmatologist” Will Shortz. Opening to the cover story, “The Printed Word in Peril: Reading, Writing, and the Tyranny of the Virtual,” I was quickly disabused of my misconception.

Self’s concern is debatable but simple. The literary novel is, on his account, becoming a “conservatory form” like easel painting or symphonic music, with BDDM – bidirectional digital media, or the apps and screens that link our devices to the cloud – being chiefly responsible for its demise. There does seem to be something to this phenomenon. After all, who has the sitzlfleish to read Middlemarch when there is another game of Fortnite to play?

Whatever one may think of Self’s points, it’s easy to see how they might be relevant for chess players and publishers. Chess streamers boast thousands of viewers on Twitch and YouTube. The publishing landscape is tilting towards digital media and products – just have a look at the latest catalogue from USCF Sales, where there are nearly as many pages devoted to software and videos as books!

This month we are renaming this column from “Looks at Books” to “Books and Beyond.” Our focus will remain on printed chess literature, which remains the center of theoretical discussion and output, and which generally continues to grow in quality with innovative publishers and the aid of our silicon friends.

We will also, from time to time, expand our focus a bit and investigate new digital products and programs. In this month’s column, we’ll look at two of the most interesting non-book releases in recent months: the granddaddy of all chess software, ChessBase, and Chessable, the new kid on the block.

ChessBase is the leading chess software manufacturer in the world, and its market share among the chess elite reaches monopoly status. Almost every leading player uses its products, and none more so than its flagship program, the eponymous database manager ChessBase, newly released in its 15th edition.

C15SplashL

The core functions of ChessBase all revolve around data management. Users can collect, maintain, and search vast collections of games to study openings, middlegame structures, and typical endings with plug-in engines like Fritz, Komodo, or Stockfish. Many of these core functions have been fairly mature since, say, ChessBase 7. So why would anyone need a newer version?

ChessBase had for some time answered this question with two words: the Cloud. Beginning with ChessBase 11, users could access online game databases from within the GUI. In ChessBase 12 the ‘Let’s Check’ feature from Fritz 13 was ported over, remote access to engines via the ‘Engine Cloud’ was introduced, and new analysis and search functions appeared. With ChessBase 13 the ‘ChessBase Cloud’ was born, allowing users to store and share data on ChessBase’s servers, and taking initial steps towards integrating ChessBase web account features into the program.

ChessBase’s authors returned their focus to in-program innovation with ChessBase 14. ‘Tactical analysis’ – automated engine analysis of specific games, previously available only in the Fritz interface – was introduced, as was assisted analysis, which provided tactical tips via the color-coding of possible moves. The way that games were saved changed, so that what was two functions – save and replace – became one unified process.

ChessBase 15 continues in this vein, with an impressive list of new features and tweaks that refresh the venerable program. Among the most important of these is ‘replay training,’ revamping training features to make them more interactive.

Replay Training

When the Training tab is activated, ChessBase keeps track of user accuracy in predicting moves, and an internal engine – a modified version of Ginkgo – assesses their relative strength. That same internal engine operates in “Instant Analysis,” a feature where games are very quickly analyzed upon loading, with each move’s evaluation appearing in a bar graph below the notation window.

CB15 game window

Search functions are also improved in ChessBase 15. There is a simplified, ‘one-line’ search for quick queries, and a number of new and upgraded search types are possible, including resulting endgame probabilities and plan explorers for specific positions.

My favorite new feature, however, is introduction of a tactical search mask. Users can now search databases for specific tactical themes, ranging from double attacks to overworked pieces to back-rank weaknesses.

Tactics Search Mask

The results are not perfect – every double attack is found through this search, even banal ones – but mining data for interesting tactics has never been easier.

One of ChessBase’s strengths is its ability to continue to innovate so far into its lifespan. Some changes, like the move towards the Cloud, are fairly organic, arising from broader technological advances. Others appear to be direct responses to competitor’s products.

The Deep Analysis feature introduced in ChessBase 12 and 13 is a take on Interactive Deep Analysis, or IDeA, in Convekta’s Aquarium program. The new training tab in ChessBase 15 has clear antecedents in openings trainers like Chess Position Trainer, ChessBase’s own Cloud Opening Trainer, and, most recently, Chessable.

chessable_logo_square_large

Chessable is a new website / “webservice” gaining quite a bit of mindshare with tech-savvy players. Part of this has to do with its association with IM John Bartholomew, one of chess’ leading streaming personalities, who also serves as Chessable’s Chief Communications Officer and co-founder. Bartholomew is a big draw in the streaming / e-sport landscape, and his involvement with the platform has undoubtedly aided in its rise to prominence.

The real selling point for Chessable, however, comes in its claims about the scientific basis of its product. Chessable combines the concept of spaced repetition – the repeating of learned material across increasingly wide intervals of time – with gamification features to create an effective and ‘sticky’ form of chess learning. Instead of using low-tech flashcards, users train their knowledge of opening lines, tactics, and endgames on the website, receiving nudges and rewards for returning each day.

The Chessable interface (“MoveTrainer”) is simple and attractive. From the main menu, users can choose to ‘review’ or ‘learn’ material in courses they own. ‘Learn’ takes users to the next new position in the course, where you can replay read-only lines or solve new problems. ‘Review’ runs uses through material they have already studied, using spaced repetition to emphasize moves and positions incorrectly solved.

chessable problem

Chessable was originally designed as an openings trainer, and it’s easy to see how a spaced repetition model of learning might be attractive in that context. Users can study an opening variation through a Chessable-produced course, with both free and paid content available, and they can also create their own courses by manually inputting variations or uploading .pgn files. The platform also allows for the study of tactics and endgames, both of which also lend themselves to a spaced-repetition approach.

Chessable is free to use, albeit with two important caveats. Some features of the MoveTrainer interface are only available for paid or Pro users. Among these features are the auto-tagging of moves or positions that you solve incorrectly, allowing for the study of “difficult moves,” access to advanced study and replay settings, and use of a full-depth opening explorer. Some courses, as mentioned above, are also paywalled.

Which of these tools should you consider buying? For me, ChessBase is the rare product that lives up to its advertising. When Garry Kasparov says that ChessBase is the most important innovation in chess since the printing press, he is not exaggerating. If you are a real student of the game, and you are not using ChessBase, you are shortchanging yourself.

The real question comes for those who are already using ChessBase. Is it worth upgrading to 15? For those using ChessBase 12, my sense was that updating to versions 13 or 14 was not entirely necessary unless specific features were of great personal value.

The weight of the cumulative improvements in ChessBase 15 may alter this recommendation. The auto-analysis features in 14 and 15 are useful, the integration of Cloud and web features is ever-tightening, and search enhancements are truly impressive. 15 introduces a new, backward compatible database booster that speeds all manners of searches, and the tactical search is a show-stopper. ChessBase is a mature, best-of-class product, and I cannot imagine seriously studying chess without it.

I have to admit my skepticism about Chessable when I first started using the site, and there are still some UI quirks that I could do without. As time passed, however, I began to see why its users are so rabidly attached to it.

The gamification features help to inculcate a strong study habit in users, and while spaced repetition may not be the panacea that Chessable claims it to be, it is indisputably useful to review material in a structured way. Newcomers may want to try a free course – the ‘Short and Sweet: The London Opening’ and ‘Olympiad Tactics 2018’ titles come to mind – to see if the platform speaks to their needs.

‘Tis the Season

This review has been printed in the December 2018 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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Abrahamyan, Tatev, et al. The Sinquefield Cup: Celebrating Five Years 2013-2017. Privately printed. Available at qboutique.com

Alekhine, Alexander. Chess Duels 1893-1920: 260 Games Annotated by Alexander Alekhine. Prague: Moravian Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-8071890126. HB 452pp.

Donaldson, John, and Nikolay Minev. The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 1: The Uncrowned King. 2nd edition. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2018 (2006). ISBN 978-1941270882. PB 402pp.

Dvoretsky, Mark. Chess Lessons: Solving Problems & Avoiding Mistakes. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2018. ISBN 978-1941270707. PB 274pp.

Llada, David. The Thinkers. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830335. HB 208pp.

Ris, Robert. Crucial Chess Skills for the Club Player, Volume 1. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-9492510228. PB 239pp.

Chess players are an ecumenical lot. While we all worship at the altar of Caïssa, the goddess of chess first described by the Renaissance poet Hieronymous Vida in 1527, many of us also prostrate before other deities. With the holidays fast approaching, let me be the first to wish you a joyous season, however you may choose to celebrate it.

It’s a good thing that we chess players are so open minded, since the only thing better than getting chess-related gifts this time of year is giving them! This month I want to look back at the year in books, picking out a few worthy titles that didn’t make their way into my column. (My favorites among those reviewed in the past year, for what it’s worth, are Timman’s Titans by Timman and Applying Logic in Chess by Kislik.) Perhaps you’ll find a gift idea for a chess friend here, or you can circle a title and leave this issue open somewhere for a loved one to find.

We’ll begin with a rare beast in the world of chess publishing, the coffee-table book. And not just one, but two!

David Llada’s The Thinkers is a sumptuous collection of more than 170 photographs of players from around the world. His subjects range from World Champions to street hustlers, but the real focus of the work is the game itself, the struggle and the agon. Anyone who loves our game will see themselves in this book, and non-initiates will come away with something of what it means to play it.

Llada includes a few mandatory shots: an intense, glaring Kasparov, a gaunt and haunted Grischuk, an Ivanchuk fully absorbed in the position in front of him. For me, however, it’s the photos of the lesser known personalities, many taken at Olympiads and the ill-fated Millionaire Chess, that are most evocative. We encounter in Llada’s portraits a chess world that is far more globalized and diverse than we might expect, and through his lens, perhaps we chess players might better understand our community and ourselves. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

The Thinkers is a quintessential coffee-table book. Despite its heft and lavish production, I would argue that The Sinquefield Cup: Celebrating Five Years: 2013-2017 is not a coffee-table book, not precisely. It is that, of course, with its dozens of documentary photographs and stunning layout. But more to the point, The Sinquefield Cup is a fitting documentary tribute to a tournament and a patron that together have fundamentally reshaped American chess.

This eponymous book tells the story of the origins of the Sinquefield Cup. Rex Sinquefield explains how he had to be talked into lending his name to the tournament, and Sunil Weeramantry describes his early diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Saint Louis Chess Club. STLCC broadcasters Yasser Seirawan (2013), Jennifer Shahade (2014), Alejandro Ramirez (2015), Tatev Abrahamyan (2016), and Maurice Ashley (2017) report on each of the tournament’s first five years, including in-depth analysis and notes on key positions. An appendix contains player bios, crosstables and complete sets of games for each tournament.

The Sinquefield Cup is a well-crafted homage to the elite chess on display in the Sinquefield Cup, and a worthy testament to the great work done by Sinquefield and the Saint Louis Chess Club. This is a book that deserves to be read by all fans of American chess. Perhaps its only drawback is its size – you need a very big coffee-table to lay this book flat alongside a set and board!

Games collections always make good gifts for chess players, and more than a few notable titles have made their way to me in the past year. One of the most interesting is Chess Duels 1893-1920: 260 Games Annotated by Alexander Alekhine, out last year from the Czech publisher Moravian Chess. The book is, as one would expect from its title, a collection of games annotated by the 4th World Champion.

Chess Duels uses multiple sources for Alekhine’s annotations, including newspapers and chess journals in Russian and French. Many are from his own praxis, while more than a few are by other, lesser known players. And that’s where the exceptional value of this book lies. A good number of the games in Chess Duels can be found elsewhere, most notably in Alekhine’s own My Best Games 1908-1920. There are also dozens of gems played by half-forgotten masters of the past, many of which do not appear in MegaBase or other standard sources.

Here is one such game from the ill-fated Mannheim 1914 tournament, contested right as the first shots of World War I rang out. It features the noted Russian player and theoretician Peter Romanovsky in a wonderful tactical display.

Scotch Game (C45)
Hallgarten,A
Romanovsky,Peter
Mannheim B, 1914

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.Bd3 d5 7.exd5 cxd5 8.0–0 Be7 9.Nc3 0–0 10.b3 Bb7 11.Bb2 d4 12.Ne2 c5 13.Ng3 Qd5 14.f3 Bd6 15.Nf5 Rfe8 16.Nxd6 Qxd6 17.Qd2

image

17. …Nd5!

“The start of a combination, amazing for its depth and length of calculation, in which already Black had to work out the consequences of his 24th move.” (Alekhine)

18.Be4 Nf4! 19.Bxb7

19.Rae1 Bxe4 20.Rxe4 Rxe4 21.fxe4 Ne6 with “good winning chances.”

19. …Re2 20.Qxf4

20.Qd1? Rxg2+ 21.Kh1 Qh6 and Black is winning.

20. …Qxf4 21.Bxa8 d3! 22.Bc3

Romanovsky recommended 22.Kh1 but Alekhine writes that after 22. …d2 White will have trouble defending against …Qe3 and …Re1. Modern engines show us that Romanovsky was probably right, with the amazing line (per Fiala) 23.Be4 Qe3 24.Bd3 Re1 25.Bc3 Rc1 and neither side can make any progress! Better is 22. …Rxc2.

22. …Qe3+ 23.Kh1 d2! 24.Ba5 c4!! 25.bxc4

If 25.Bxd2 Rxd2 (25. …Qxd2 26.Rad1 c3? 27.f4!) 26.bxc4 Rxc2 27.Bd5 (27.Rae1 Re2) 27. …Qd2 28.f4 Rxa2 and Black is better.

25. …Qg5 26.g3? Qxa5

26. …Qh5 is mate in eight.

27.f4 Re1 28.Bf3 Qc3 0–1

This year also saw the second printing of a games collection that had become very hard to find. The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 1: Uncrowned King is the definitive treatment of the most important years (1882-1920) of Rubinstein’s legendary career, but due to scarcity or the vagaries of unseen algorithms, it was only available on the Internet at exorbitant prices.

Now, with this re-release, readers can once again enjoy the 492 Rubinstein games included in the book, many with notes collected by the editors John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev. Rubinstein is often cited as a player whose study will improve one’s chess, and Boris Gelfand has repeatedly discussed the value of playing through his games. This new printing is great news for all chess fans, save those collectors who had hoped to fund their retirements through the sale of the first edition!

Improvement books are always welcome gifts, at least in the Hartmann house, and Robert Ris’ Crucial Chess Skills for the Club Player: Volume 1 was one of the year’s best. Ris does an excellent job of focusing on three areas where most sub-2200 players might improve: endgames (chapters 1-4), tactics (chapters 5-6), and middlegame strategy (chapters 7-9). The three chapters on rook endgames are especially good.

Readers are not burdened with extensive analysis in Crucial Chess Skills. Instead they are treated to an appropriate and instructive mix of words and moves. Readers should also be aware, however, that much of the material in Crucial Chess Skills is recycled from his columns for the defunct ChessVibes Magazine – all the endgame examples, save one, are found there – and from his various video products. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, but if you have other Ris titles on your shelf, you might want to ask Santa for something different.

Our final title this month, Mark Dvoretsky’s Chess Lessons: Solving Problems & Avoiding Mistakes, is a sequel of sorts to Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual, sharing much of its DNA. The analysis is intense, and Dvoretsky holds nothing back in his presentation, turning the firehose on full blast. But the real goal of Chess Lessons, as was the case with Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual, is education. All of the analysis works to illustrate how the best players think about chess and also about their thought processes.

Take the discussion of the game Oll-Hodgson (Groningen, 1993). The notes stretch on for ten pages (68-78), but there is method to Dvoretsky’s apparent madness, with helpful asides on candidate moves, opening analysis after Carlsen, and the principle of the worst piece working as signposts to lead us through the analytical thickets. Dvoretsky’s study of Fine-Shainswit (US Championship, 1944) is excellent in its discussion (112-118) of the psychology of sacrifice, and his use of the position after Black’s 28th move in training games with his students helps us understand how different players can approach the same problem to be solved.

Chess Lessons is not for the faint of heart, and it’s probably best suited for experts and above who don’t mind a little hard work. I’m an A player, and while I struggled to stay afloat in the depths of Dvoretsky’s analysis, I do feel as if I learned something in the process. (Whether this is real or epiphenomenal, only time will tell.) My only complaint about the book is its size. There is so much text crammed into its 6×9 inch pages that it can be hard to read, and I suspect that making it oversized like Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual would have made the layout much clearer.

World Championship Fever

This review has been printed in the November 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Butler, Brin-Jonathan. The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501172601. HC 224pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918132. PB 208pp.

Karolyi, Tibor. Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen: His Extraordinary Skills Uncovered and Explained. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917760. PB 249pp.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Caruana: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1781944790. PB 368pp.

It’s almost here.

By the time you read these words, and barring some unforeseen event, the 2018 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will just about be upon us. If you’re anything like me, the coming days will be long ones indeed. I can hardly wait for the match to get started, and I’d ask all of you to avoid making any demands of me while the contest is ongoing. My attention will be squarely on London.

The publishing world appears to have taken note of this match as well, with four books about Carlsen or Caruana being released right around the start of the match. This month we’ll take a look at all of them, but much of our focus will be on a real novelty – a trade book from a Big Five publisher about our beloved game.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer known mainly for his work on boxing and Cuba. His 2015 The Domino Diaries is a critically lauded memoir of his time studying the sweet science in Havana, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is memorably described in a 2012 article for salon.com. Here, in The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again, he investigates a more subtle, if no less violent, form of combat.

This was not a book that Butler, on his own admission, was looking to write. He received a cold-call from a Simon & Schuster editor one week before the opening ceremonies in New York, and the editor asked if he’d be willing to write about about Magnus Carlsen. There were three questions to be answered in the process:

One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history – higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer – not Carlsen – were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everyone was still taking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on tip affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown? (7)

I include this long passage from The Grandmaster for two reasons. First, it gives a sense of Butler’s prose, which is taut and provocative. This is a book that will, I suspect, sell relatively well, and from the outside, it appears that Simon and Schuster is going to put some muscle behind its publicity.

It also shows that Butler wrote the book that his editor wanted. It presupposes the validity of the third question; in point of fact, I’d go further and say that the assumed link between genius and madness in chess defines The Grandmaster. What’s worse, I don’t think that Butler begins to answer the second question, and he makes very little effort to even attempt the first.

Writing a serious book about chess or genius requires research. Optimally the author would talk to recognized experts, both in the chess world and beyond it. There is very little evidence in The Grandmaster that Butler did any pre-match research on Carlsen beyond reading the D.T. Max New Yorker piece from 2011 and watching the 2012 60 Minutes segment. He seems to have spent most of his time at the match talking to random people in the VIP area, and much of the book involves him chasing down whatever leads they gave him.

This might not have been a problem were the leads useful. Interviews with the the likes of Harry Benson, Frank Brady, Dick Cavett, and friends of the late Peter Winston might help us understand Fischer and his aftermath, but they they shed precious little light on Carlsen or the 2016 World Championship in broader context. Nor does the recounting of tales of mental illness among chess masters (131-5) help us to understand Carlsen’s psyche during the match. Carlsen is not Fischer, and the comparisons are, frankly, insulting.

The result is that The Grandmaster is salacious and ‘sexy,’ but terribly uninformed. It trades in tired cliches about players and fans. The general admission audience in New York is said to be old, crumpled, and hygienically challenged. (52-3) The Grandmasters in attendance are largely grifters. (58-60) While Butler gets the highly moneyed, oily, Russified feel of New York right, there’s little else in his recollections of the match that match up to my own.

George Plimpton strapped on a pair of shoulder pads while writing Paper Lion, and David Foster Wallace played a lifetime of tennis before coming to worship at the altar of Roger Federer. It’s clear, despite his description of a youthful dalliance with chess, one soaked with machismo and street hustling, that Butler is not a student of our game. The Grandmaster suffers for that lack of intimate knowledge. What could have been a bridge to a public looking to understand the world of chess is, alas, an opportunity missed.

Those looking for a more successful book about Carlsen would do well to check out IM Tibor Karoyli’s Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen. Karolyi is one of the most serious writers and analysts in chess today, with dense titles on Karpov and Tal to his credit. Here he turns his attention to Carlsen’s legendary endgame prowess, analyzing 91 positions that span his full career. The following example, “the first game in the book that Carlsen played at the level of an all-time great player,” (88) is both typical and delightful, and the uncited analysis is based on Karolyi’s.

image

SIMPLY A PLEASURE
GM Magnus Carlsen (FIDE 2698)
GM Zbynek Hracek (FIDE 2614)
Bundesliga 0607 (14.4), 31.03.2007

33.Ra6! Bb7 Heading for a pawn down endgame with an active rook. 34.Rxa7 Rxd6 35.Rxb7 Rd1+ 36.Kf2 Rd2+ 37.Kf1 Kg6 38.g4! Kf6

38. …f5! should be enough to draw.

39.b4 Rb2 40.b5 Rb1+ 41.Kf2 Rb2+ 42.Kg3 e5 43.b6 g6 44.Rb8 Kg7 45.Kh2 Kf6

If 45. …Rb1 46.b7 Kh7 47.g3 Kg7 48.Kg2 and White wins, but the computer suggests that Black might be able to draw after 47. …Rb2+.

46.Kg1 Ke6

Here 46. …Rb1+ (C.D. Meyer) may draw as well.

47.b7! Kf6 48.g3 g5 49.Kf1 Rb1+

49. …Ke7 50.f4! and “White clears the seventh rank in a few moves.” But what about 49. …Kg7?

50.Ke2

“The King continues its journey towards Black’s position. To spot its final destination and see the threat it will create requires imagination and the touch of a specially talented player.” (87)

50…Rb2+ 51.Kd3 Rb3+ 52.Kc4 Rb1 53.Kc5 Rc1+ 54.Kd6 Rd1+ 55.Kc6 Rc1+ 56.Kd7 Rb1 57.Ke8 Kg7

After 57…Rb2 58.Kf8 Rb3 59.Rc8!! threatens mate!

58.Ke7 Rb2 59.Kd6 Kf6 60.f4!! exf4 61.gxf4 gxf4 62.Rg8!!

“It is hard to find words to describe this! It would be a great thing if Magnus had found this tremendous idea somewhere around here, but I think he likely spotted it at move 47 (if not earlier at move 38). It would have been fabulous for him to find this in an adjourned game, but he did it over the board. It is simply a pleasure for the author to show you ideas like this.” (88)

62. …Rb6+

62. …Rxb7?? 63.e5#

63.Kc7 Rxb7+ 64.Kxb7 f3 65.Kc6 Ke5 66.Re8+ Kf4 67.Kd5 f6 68.Rf8 1–0

There is some attention to biography in Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen, and Karolyi makes an particular effort to describe Carlsen’s early style and opening choices. Still, this is a book about endgames, so if they’re not your cup of tea, it might not be the book for you. That, however, would be a shame. Endgame Virtuoso is another excellent effort from Tibor Karolyi, and I enjoyed it immensely.

There are other titles around devoted to Carlsen, of course, including Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein and Carlsen: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala. (The latter was reviewed here in February 2015.) Until very recently, there were none that featured Carlsen’s challenger. Now there are two: Caruana: Move by Move, also by Cyrus Lakdawala, and Alexander Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. The books are similar, as I’ll explain, but there are reasons one might choose between them for pre-match reading.

Caruana: Move by Move is a typical offering from Lakdawala, and I mean this in two respects. First, the book follows his usual schema for a player-focused Move by Move title, with six broad sections – the Attack, Defense and Counterattack, the Dynamic Element, Exploiting Imbalances, Accumulating Advantages, and the Endgame – dividing his 60 analyzed games.

There is also the issue of Lakdawala’s style, which is on full display in Caruana: Move by Move. If you have read any of his dozens of other titles, you know just what I’m talking about: the lack of authorial self-control, the metaphors that stretch on and reveal little, the strange nicknames. (Caruana becomes “Caru” here. No one calls him Caru.) Some readers absolutely love Lakdawala for this, while others – including me – are less enamoured.

Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games is a more traditional games collection, and it is organized in two parts. Part I, “The Rise of an American chess star,” sketches the trajectory of Caruana’s career with 25 games, archival interview material, etc. Part II, “Learn from Fabiano’s best games,” contains 37 games largely focused on the middlegame.

The analysis in both books is of a good standard, and both are surprisingly current in their coverage, including games through May of this year. I took a serious look at Lakdawala and Kalinin’s coverage of Carlsen-Caruana from the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in 2014 – an exciting Caruana victory ably covered by Ian Rogers in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life – and found both treatments entirely serviceable.

The choice between these two titles might come down to a decision between Lakdawala’s polarizing prose and Kalinin’s restraint and sobriety. If you like Lakdawala in general, you’ll like Caruana: Move by Move too. If not, Kalinin’s book would be a fine choice. For the record, I preferred the latter, but found the former pleasant as well.

In Your Faaaaaaaaaace!

This review has been printed in the October 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Stallings, Jay. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy. Series of six lesson books and six workbooks. Available at https://coachjayschessacademy.com/

There is a great democratization of access to chess teaching and wisdom afoot in today’s always-on, interconnected world. While there are economic barriers to grapple with – not everyone can afford a tablet, laptop, or smartphone, of course! – it remains the case that with the free streamers and lectures on YouTube and Twitch, alongside daily news on leading chess portals, today’s players have a world of chess knowledge available at their fingertips. The only problem is finding the time to consume it all.

For all of this free / freemium content, however, there are still precious few coherent teaching programs or courses available to the general public. It’s one thing to watch a few videos and feel as if one has learned something. It’s entirely another to work through a tried and tested, Elo-appropriate training system. To my knowledge there are only two or three such programs currently in print.

Chess Life Columnist and ‘teacher to the stars’ Lev Alburt was one of the first to offer this kind of series with his Comprehensive Chess Course. Volumes I and II were general works, offering to bring beginners to “tournament level,” while each of the remaining five volumes covered more specific areas of improvement. It’s hard to give an appropriate rating range for each of these titles, but early advertising[1] said that Volumes III (Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player) and IV (The King in Jeopardy) were “ideal for anyone rated 1400 to 2400+.”

The Stappenmethode, or Steps Method, is a more recent training system. Created by IM Cor van Wijgerden and Rob Brunia, the Steps are designed to bring a player from rank beginner to master-level strength over the course of seven levels or ‘steps,’ ideally under the tutelage of an experienced coach. While the Steps are widely used in Europe, they have (to my eye) only gained recognition here in the States in the past few years. I incorporate the Steps in my own teaching and training, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.[2]

One might also consider in this context Artur Yusupov’s nine-book series with Quality Chess. In this triple triptych – three three-volume series originally aimed at 1500+, 1800+, and 2100+ players – readers will certainly gain knowledge and skills to inch towards master, but the advertised target audiences are decidedly too low, and the books presuppose quite a bit of learning on the part of its readers.

Now there is a new series of training materials from Jay “Coach Jay” Stallings, a leading scholastic coach in California and a member of the US Chess Scholastic Council. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, as the set of fourteen books is collectively known, is immensely promising, and I can see it becoming popular both with those learning to play chess and (especially) those who teach it.

Coach Jay’s Chess Academy takes a page from the martial arts and is divided into seven levels or ‘Belts.’ Each of the Belts – White (for players rated roughly 0-300), Yellow ( 300-600), Orange (600-900), Green (900-1200), Purple (1200-1500), Blue (1500-1800) and Black (1700-2000) – includes a lesson book, a puzzle book, and a Chess Passport with stickers to celebrate accomplishments and milestones. The books are extremely well designed, full of color and fun drawings to draw in young minds, and the ‘gamification’ of progress via the Passport and stickers is a master stroke.

I recently had the chance to test-drive Stallings’ books at two weeklong, half-day chess camps here in Omaha. The morning group, consisting mainly of complete and near-beginners, was largely structured around the White Belt lessons and puzzle book. In the afternoon, with campers who were more advanced, we focused on attacking play, and I used pages from the Green and Purple books as part of those sessions.

The White Belt books do a very good job of imparting the basics, including all of the rules needed to play a complete game except en passant. Because I began with a standard lesson on the pieces and the “three weird moves” of chess – castling, promotion, and en passant – this wasn’t a serious problem, but it does seem slightly odd to not cover it at the outset.

Stallings follows his initial lesson on the pieces with a wonderful rendering of “Farmer and Pigs,” which I have always known (with slightly different rules) as the Anteater. White begins with eight pawns on the 2nd rank, while Black has only her queen on d8. White wins if a ‘pig’ gets to the 8th rank, while the ‘farmer’ (Black’s queen) wins by capturing all the pigs. The game seems simple, but it gets the kids moving the pieces very early in the learning process, and Stallings models basic strategy in the examples. Most importantly, it’s fun!

The discussion of mates is also worth mention. Stallings uses a number of neologism, including the ‘rook roller’ and the ‘in-your-face’ (helper mate), to teach basic mate patterns. The kids quickly grasped these basic mates, and had little trouble extending their knowledge – “that’s just like the rook roller!” – to similar positions. They also, in a plot twist no one could have foreseen, loved bellowing “in your faaaace!” when mating their opponents.

In the afternoon sessions, I focused on typical attacking ideas and motifs, including opening lines to attack a king trapped in the center, breaching castled positions, and knowing key checkmate patterns. We spent quite a bit of time on ‘attacking ratio’ or preponderance of attacking force, and I used Stallings’ pages on the Greek Gift from the Green Belt book to illustrate the ‘three piece rule’ popularized by Jacob Aagaard.[3]

The idea behind this rule is simple. A successful king hunt generally needs three pieces to succeed: one to give itself up for access, and two to deliver mate. (More generally, you can’t just attack because you want to. Your position must allow it!) The Greek Gift pattern, as Aagaard notes, is the clearest exemplar of this rule, and Stallings does an excellent job of explaining the key mechanisms. He shows two versions of the pattern, one with bishop-knight-queen and one with bishop-rook-queen, and importantly, he offers positions where the sacrifice is unsuccessful.

One of the campers came to me the day after this lesson, proudly telling me that she’d pulled off the sacrifice in an online game. We retrieved the game from chesskid.com and looked at it as a group. True, she did win the game, and the final mate followed the typical pattern, but there were at least three junctures where her opponent could have diverged with easily winning positions.

A junior’s making a mistake is not surprising, even when they are as dedicated and talented as this young lady. But here it raises the issue of good pedagogy. What does a player rated 1000 need to know to advance in chess? What is too much, or too advanced? Stallings’ lesson continues with discussion of Alekhine’s Block (using Alekhine-Sterk, 1921 as an example), and it concludes with a brilliancy that combines the two motifs.

image

Here Miles played

13. …Bxh2+! The Greek Gift!

14.Kxh2 Qh4+ 15.Kg1 Bf3!! Alekhine’s Block!

16.Nd2 If 16.gxf3 Rf6 then Black must play 17.Rfe1 Qh3! before 18. …Rg6 or White’s king escapes.

16. …Bxg2! 17.f3 Rf6 18.Nc4 Bh3 0–1

Keep in mind that this is a lesson in the Green Belt book, aimed at players rated 900-1200. Does it help them to see these complex patterns, or do they apply them inappropriately, sacrificing when the position does not justify it? I certainly don’t have a clear answer here, but my impression, for what it’s worth, is that Stallings tends to introduce material early relative to rating, while the Steps Method tends to introduce it later.[4]

This is not the only difference between Coach Jay’s Chess Academy and the Steps Method, but it is illustrative. Further discussion of those differences seems appropriate here, if for no other reason than the Steps are the closest analogue to Stallings’ books currently on the market.

Stallings’ books are designed to get a player ready to play in a tournament quickly. Any player who can “complete a game without needing to be reminded of any rules” is, he says, ready for tournament play.[5] This is reflected in the initial Belts, which are paced fairly aggressively (per the included Lesson Plans). The Steps, in contrast, are designed to be traversed very slowly, with tournament play being postponed for as long as possible. I don’t have a definite idea as to which is preferable, but I will say that in my experience, holding off from tournament play is a tough sell with American parents.

Stallings’ books introduce material and concepts faster than in the Steps, as mentioned above, but with vastly fewer puzzles for practice and reinforcement. (Some Steps have over 2000 positions to complete over four or five workbooks.) This is, in part, due to the relative ages of both systems. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy has just been released after a successful Kickstarter campaign, while the Steps Method has been around for over thirty years. But it also may reflect a philosophical difference, again related to speed of progress.

There is a much more prominent stress on chess history and stories in Stallings’ books, and there are more nicknames given to typical motifs – the ‘in your ear’ and ‘in your cheek’ mates as variants of the helper mate, the ‘buddy system’ and ‘give and go’ in the endgame – compared to the Steps. I can see how this might be useful when talking with students about important ideas, providing an easy shorthand for quick discussion. But it is idiosyncratic, and the neologisms do not always translate outside of a “Coach Jay group.”

One key difference is the availability of support materials in each system. Each Step has a thick manual for trainers, containing model teaching materials, discussion of the psychology of learning, etc. The Coaches Guides for Coach Jay’s Chess Academy are slight by comparison. Again, this is something that I assume will be remedied over time, but for newer learners and teachers, having a fully-fleshed out ‘philosophy’ as in the Steps may be of no small benefit.

I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far in Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, and I have already begun to think about how I can incorporate his materials into both my teaching and my self-training. (Those Black Belt positions are hard, folks!) The books are well-designed and attractive, and the gamification features are a neat innovation. I’m especially pleased to see the emphasis on chess history and culture. While I’m not ready to abandon my beloved Steps just yet, I think that chess teachers and learners would benefit by earning some Belts with “Coach Jay.”

Nota bene: I was a Kickstarter supporter for this series of books. I have never met Jay Stallings, and I have no financial stake in the success or failure of these books.


[1] See Chess Life, April 1997, page 25.

[2] You can read my full review of the Steps at my blog, which also contains ‘off-prints’ of all of my columns for Chess Life: https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-chess-steps/

[3] See Aagaard, Jacob. Attacking Manual 2. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2010. 25.

[4] The Greek Gift first appears in Step 5, Lesson 14 (“Attacking the King”) of the Steps Method. Thanks to Rob Lazorchak for the reference.

[5] Stallings, Jay. “How to Teach Your Kid Chess.” Page 52. PDF available online at http://teachyourkidchess.com

Fascinating and Frustrating

This review has been printed in the September 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Kislik, Erik. Applying Logic in Chess. London: Gambit Publications, 2018. ISBN 978-1911465249. PB 320pp.

Looking back at recent month’s columns, I have noticed a rather evident bias towards ‘serious’ titles and topics, often devoted to calculation, solving, or improvement. Such an emphasis is not too surprising – after all, research is me-search, as the old saying goes – but it also completely neglects huge swaths of chess literature. Last month’s column was a first step in redressing this bias, and I hope to broaden my scope in the months to come.

So why, then, am I reviewing another serious tome here?

Let me put it simply. IM Erik Kislik’s Applying Logic in Chess is one of the most interesting titles to appear in recent years, but it is also one of the most maddening. Rarely have I been at once so fascinated and utterly frustrated by one and the same book. Surely something that can prompt such a visceral reaction deserves discussion.

Erik Kislik is an American International Master currently living in Hungary. He works as a trainer for IMs and GMs like Spanish Super-GM Paco Vallejo, and he bills himself as “an expert in computer chess and one of the most in-demand chess trainers on ICC [chessclub.com].” Applying Logic in Chess is his first book, and it is a vastly ambitious effort, offering readers a comprehensive, no-holds-barred rendering of his ideas about chess improvement and training.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing Kislik’s book is a direct result of this ambition. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the vast terrain he tries to cover over the course of the text, and it’s very hard to synthesize his ideas succinctly. One hand-hold, as it were, can be carved through a consideration of the meaning of the book’s title, and an exploration of what Kislik means by logic.

Consider this example, taken from Chapter 7 (“Is Chess a Logical Game?”) of Applying Logic in Chess. Kislik employs it to show how the employment of “simple logic in complex positions” can allow us to penetrate “right to the heart of a position.” (178) The text and notes are his.

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Here is a study that was used during the world solving championship of 2015 and stumped some of the best solvers in the world. One might assume that the position is illogical and has an irrational solution because some elite chess solvers struggled with it. This position is actually not as random as you might imagine. The way I arrived at the correct solution was by realizing that Black has two unique threats: taking on g2 and playing …c2. There is actually only one move that stops both of those threats:

1.Be4!! White gives up a bishop, but uses the tempo effectively to trade off a bunch of pawns.

1. …Rxe4+ 2.Kd3 White hits the black rook with tempo and attempts to capture the two remaining pawns as quickly as possible.

2. …Ra4! After 2. …Rc4, 3.dxc3 draws.

3.Rxa4 Bxb5+ 4.Rc4+! This distracts the bishop. 4.Kxc3?? Bxa4 leaves the white king cut off because it cannot come to c2 to get in front of the a-pawn.

4. …Bxc4+ If 4. …Kb7 5.Kxc3 Bxc4 6.Kc2.

5.Kxc3 Kd7 After 5. …a2 6.Kb2 White draws by giving up the d-pawn.

6.Kc2 Kc6 6. …Ba2 7.Kc3 , intending Kb4, is an important point.

7.Kb1 White gives up the d-pawn to achieve a simple theoretically drawn position in which Black can never make progress if White just keeps the king in the corner behind the a-pawn.

The logic behind the solution to this study is clear: by discerning Black’s threats, White was able to figure out the only ways to stop them that would allow favourable simplification. (178)

What is the nature of this ‘logic behind the solution?’ Clearly, and despite Kislik’s talk of ‘first principles’ (15) and informal fallacies (11, 78, 103), we are not dealing with any sort of formal logical system that might undergird all of our thinking. Here we must also note how misleading the book’s cover is. There is nothing in the text that resembles a flowchart for thought.

Instead, Kislik has a more modest, if equivocal, understanding of logic and reason in chess. In an important passage that appears just before the above example, he writes:

…sometimes the logic of a position is very simple and allows us to play 20 perfect moves in a row if we simply grasp the main point of the position. This is one of many reasons to hone your chess logic and your logical skills in chess. … The fact that there is always a clear explanation for every single error you have ever made in a game is powerful evidence that chess is a rational game. When a position does not make sense to you, it is simply because you have no experience or knowledge in that type of position. Building experience and knowledge in different types of positions is one of the most valuable skills to work on improving as a result. (177)

I’m reminded here of a Boris Pasternak poem, where the great Russian bard writes of his desire to reach “[t]o the essence of the passing days / To their cause / To the bases, to the roots, / To the very core.”[1] We can say that chess is logical and rational because it is a game of perfect information, subject to comprehensive study with databases and engines. More than that, however, we need to undertake structured, intensive study of the game to build our skill in discerning the key features of different positions and uncovering their ‘logic.’

[An aside: it occurs to me that playing for counterplay / mate with 1.Bd5!? is no less logical than Kislik and Minski’s solution, if we understand ‘logical’ to mean responsive to the key features of the position. After 1. …c2! 2.b6 (with the idea of Ra8#) 2. …Kd8 3.Rc5 appears to save the bishop and stop the c-pawn. Only intensive analysis exposes the flaw in this plan. The key points (drawn from Minski’s solution) also appear in the downloadable pgn file at uschess.org.]

Here is where Kislik’s book absolutely shines. Applying Logic in Chess is filled to the brim with advice for improvement, and I cannot begin to hope to discuss it all here. What follows is a paltry, partial list of some of the highlights.

  • Following Larry Kaufman’s work, Kislik argues (14-26) that we need to more precisely value the pieces. The familiar 1-3-3-5-10 scale is replaced with 1 (pawn), 3.45 (knight), 3.55 (bishop), 5.25 (rook) and 10 (queen). The bishop pair is worth half a pawn, while a tempo is equivalent to about a quarter of a pawn.
  • Kislik’s ideal playing style, especially in light of modern time controls, is to play simple, healthy, ‘logical’ moves, and reserve complexity and calculation for critical moments. (38-9) Here he follows Carlsen and eschews the dreaded ‘Tal Syndrome.’
  • Playing is most important for improvement, followed by game analysis, and only then training. (Chapter 3)
  • Kislik uses an extended version of Jacob Aagaard’s ‘three questions’ (45) to orient thought during games. He adds two to the list: Dorfman’s “Who benefits from the exchange of queens?,” and “what are the pawn-breaks?”
  • Training should be divided into temporary and permanent tasks. It should be ‘task-oriented’ instead of ‘result- or ego-oriented.’ This could be read alongside Aagaard’s discussion of growth mindsets.
  • Kislik differentiates between six facets of chess strength (chapter 4): concrete knowledge, pattern recognition, calculation, candidate moves, positional understanding, and logic. He offers specific training advice for each element.
  • He favors CT-ART over online tactical trainers for achieving basic tactical competence. (106) Once a week he runs through an already-solved tactics book to reinforce key patterns. (86)
  • One of the most important elements in Kislik’s vision for improvement is the accumulation of ‘chess culture’ through the study of master games. This can be broken down into three parts. (a) Players should study every game from World Championship matches after 1930. (b) They should scan through relevant games each week in TWIC. (c) They should especially study annotated games collections by the players themselves.
  • There is an extensive discussion of, and heavy emphasis on, the proper use of engines and chess databases in analysis and opening study. (Chapters 8-10) Kislik’s expertise is evident in these pages, and for me, this is perhaps the best part of the book.
  • Chapter 10, devoted to ‘metagame strategy,’ is immensely thoughtful. Here he treats questions related to opening choice, how to prepare and maintain a repertoire, and his methods for building opening files.

This list barely scratches the surface of what appears in Applying Logic in Chess. Hardly a page is turned without readers encountering something thought-provoking. Still, we might sum it up as follows: work very, very hard; use computers to study; and use our cultivated chess ‘logic’ to play quick, solid moves.

There is a lot that is new, or new to me, in this book, including discussion of conditional equality (154-160), the ‘burden of proof’ (239) and the ‘most obvious move’ principle (128). But Kislik also overstates the originality of much of what he proposes, and fails to engage / recognize key literature. De la Maza and Tikkanen have independently argued for a form of spaced repetition in tactical study. (86) Shereshevsky and Silman both prescribed extensive study of historical games (117-8). And Jacob Aagaard offers an influential account of critical moments, which Kislik would have done well to engage. (285)

Worse, when he is not crowing about the novelty of his ideas, Kislik tends to set up straw men to demolish. The first pages of the chapter on logic (ch 7) are a prime example of this tendency. He presents ‘common arguments’ and ‘common beliefs’ in order to punch them down, but the ‘arguments’ (note – they are not arguments but bald assertions) are so asinine that they barely merit attention. Phrases like “I’ve never seen anyone write about X” and “I’ve never met anyone who did Y” appear throughout the text. It’s pure bluster, and the ideas in the book are more than strong enough to stand without such puffery.

In the end I think Applying Logic in Chess is an excellent book, but one that should have gone through (at least) another round of developmental editing. I love the fact that there are multi-page stretches unsullied by diagrams or analysis – there is plenty of analysis too, of course – and I cannot think of another book with so many pearls of wisdom strewn, if somewhat randomly, through its pages. It is frustrating that that you have to do a lot of sifting to find them, but rest assured that the process is entirely worthwhile.

Nota Bene: In the interest of full disclosure, I took a one-time lesson with Erik Kislik in 2015, mainly focused on his understanding of best practices for ChessBase and engine use. I have had no other substantial contact with him since then.


[1] Pasternak, Boris. “Во всем мне хочется дойти…” translator unknown. Taken from Dvoretsky, Mark. Secrets of Chess Training. London: Batsford, 2001. iv.