A Modern Guide to Checkmating Patterns : Vladimir Barsky
From the book’s rear cover :
“Giving mate is the ultimate goal of every chess player. Finding that all-decisive combination is immensely satisfying. But how are you supposed to spot a checkmate when you are sitting at the board with the clock ticking?
In this guide International Master Vladimir Barsky teaches the method created by his mentor Viktor Khenkin (1923-2010). It’s based on an ingenious classification of the most frequently occurring mating schemes. A wide range of chess players will find it an extremely useful tool to recognize mating patterns and calculate the often narrow path to the kill.
All the 1,000 examples (850 of them in exercise format) that Barsky presents are from games played in 21st century. He has carefully selected the most instructive combinations and lucidly explains the typical techniques to corner your opponent’s king. More often than you would expect, positions that look innocent at first sight, turn out to contain a mating pattern. This is not just another book full of chess puzzles.
It’s a brilliantly organized course that has proven to be effective. Finding mate isn’t rocket science, but you need to know what to look for. Vladimir Barsky teaches you exactly that.”
“Vladimir Barsky (1969) is an International Master, an experienced chess coach and a well-known journalist and author. He lives in Moscow.”
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between instructing novices and experts.
You might find this chart (source) helpful. It’s from an education blog but there’s some chess there as well!
Let’s assume that a novice has a rating below 1000 and an expert has a rating of 2000 or over. There’s also a rather large area in between the two, which would include most competitive players, for whom you’d use a combination of the two approaches.
A novice, then, learns best through explicit instruction and worked examples. Just as you probably learnt maths at school. You learn something specific, hold your teacher’s hand while she demonstrates how to do it, then go away and try it out for yourself. You will then receive feedback on how well you have done and transfer your new found knowledge and skills from short-term to long-term memory.
Learning skills such as playing a new opening or winning a rook ending with an extra pawn, will require personalised feedback, but tactics can be taught through books or apps: you solve a puzzle on a specific theme and find out whether or not you have the correct answer.
Tactics books and, these days, apps, are rightly popular. You might, in general, think of books where each chapter concerns a specific subject to be ‘novice’ books while books with random examples where you don’t know what you’re going to get next (just as in a game) to be ‘expert’ books. But within each of these categories there are easier and harder books. Players rated between 1000 and 2000 will probably benefit most from a mixture of harder ‘novice’ books and easier ‘expert’ books.
A basic knowledge of checkmate patterns is essential for every serious player, and all chess libraries should contain at least one book on the subject. Even though most games at higher levels end in resignation, and, at lower levels, in very simple checkmates, a knowledge of these patterns plays a part in every kingside attack. You might not force mate, but your opponent may have to give up material to avoid it.
Let’s see what the author has to say in his foreword.
“The remarkable trainer and Soviet Master of Sport, Viktor Lvovich Khenkin (1923-2010), proposed systematizing mating schemes or ‘pictures’ by reference to the piece or pawn which brought the mate to its conclusion. It turned out that there were not so many of these schemes – about a hundred basic ones – and about 20 or 30 which occur in the great majority of mating combinations. These can be remembered even by an inexperienced player: ‘it’s not rocket science’, as the popular saying runs.
Khenkin was a mentor and colleague of the author and a number of other celebrated chess writers and journalists.
“This book A Modern Guide to Checkmating Patterns is divided into ten chapters: first, we present schemes and examples with explanations, and then positions for independent solving. These number 851.”
Excellent pedagogic principles. We have a total of 1000 positions, all taken from 21st century games, most of which will probably be new to you, so you won’t see the same tired old examples repeated by many authors. The chapters, in turn, feature, the rook, the queen, the minor pieces and pawns, two rooks, rook and bishop, rook and knight, queen and bishop, queen and knight, queen and rook, and, finally, three pieces. In each chapter you work through some examples with the author holding your hand before being let loose to solve some puzzles on your own. As you know what you’re looking for, most of these will not be too difficult for experienced players. Most of the positions are not forced mates, but positions in which mate threats will lead to material gain.
Here, from the game Barsky – Logunov (Moscow 2004) in Chapter 1, is the author himself in action:
White’s position looks critical since the bishop cannot retreat because of mate on d1, whilst exchanging on f4 leads to the loss of the c4-pawn. But there is an unexpected tactical blow…
37. R5xb6! a5
Mate results from 37… axb6 38. Ra8+.
Black’s misfortunes continue – again he cannot take the rook because of 39. Ra8+.
38… Ka3 39. Rb3+
He could also win with 39. R4b5+ Ka4 40. Ra8 with mate in a few moves.
39… Ka4 40. Rxf3 Rxd6 41. Rxf4 1-0
My next example is from Chapter 7 (queen and bishop mates). It’s Black’s move in Kamsky – Svidler (Khanty-Mansiysk 2011).
White has an extra rook but it is Black to play. He could take either of the two attacked white pieces, but in that case, White gets a valuable tempo to beat off the attack, e.g. 26… Rxb8 27. Be3 or 26… Qxh6 27. Nc6,and the knight cannot be driven away, because the square e6 is attacked by the white bishop.
A very beautiful idea by the St Petersburg GM. Now after 27. Qxe2 Qg3 mate is inevitable. But why not the immediate 26… Qg3? In this case the knight retreat (27. Nc6) allows the key diagonal to be blocked.
27. Qc3 Rxf2 28. Nc6 Rxf1+
White resigned (29. Kxf1 Qf2#)
Finally, a beautiful finish from West London Chess Club’s Mark Lyell (Lyell – Bradac Zdar nad Sazavou 2010)
With three successive sacrifices, White underlines the vulnerability of the enemy king, trapped in the centre:
17. Rxe5! dxe5 18. Bxa5! Qxa5
Otherwise he is mated on d8.
The final blow. Black resigned: after any reasonable reply, he is mated by 20. Nc7.
All serious chess players should have at least one book concerning checkmating patterns in their library. This book is an excellent example of the genre. The author knows exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it: something that can’t be said for the majority of instructional chess books. Furthermore, most of the examples will be unfamiliar to most readers.
My impression was that the puzzles were, by and large, easier than the worked examples: perhaps this was deliberate.
This is ‘novice’ rather than ‘expert’ tuition in that it trains specific skills and provides hints to help you solve the puzzles, but at the same time it’s not a book for beginners: there’s an assumption that you are already reasonably proficient at calculating and spotting checkmates. If you’re rated anywhere between about 1250 and 2000 and want to improve your attacking skills you’ll find this book invaluable. In addition, it provides useful coaching materials for anyone teaching students at this level. Stronger players might also want to use it as a refresher course.
You can also, if you choose, just sit back and enjoy 1000 21st century examples of brilliant and beautiful sacrificial chess.
Highly recommended, then, for all chess players who enjoy attacking the enemy king.
According to the author : “I am a 21-year-old FIDE Master from Ukraine with two IM norms and a peak rating of 2382 currently residing in Saint Louis, USA. During my youth chess career, I won more than ten medals in Ukrainian Youth Championships, having become Ukrainian champion – both individually, in rapid U-20 in 2018 and as a team member during the Ukrainian Team Championship in 2016. I represented the Ukrainian National Team at the U-18 European Team Championship in 2016 where Ukraine earned a bronze medal; I also won an individual board bronze medal.
I have participated in European and World Junior Championships, representing Ukraine. Presently, my focus is teaching, and I have already acquired great experience working to improve my student’s chess skills. I currently share my knowledge and understanding of the game by writing books, articles for the Yearbook and other sources while creating opening and video courses. I have a bachelor’s degree in Translation, and I am currently pursuing my master’s in Finance at Webster University where I am attending on a chess scholarship. Webster is also acknowledged for having the one of best collegiate chess teams in the United States.”
From the book’s rear cover we have :
“One of the important issues players face – both relatively inexperienced ones at the beginning of their career as well as seasoned ones as they realize their chess craves change – is choosing an opening repertoire. As a player and a coach, I have seen many approaches to this question, both remarkable and mistaken. Some players believe that the opening is something to ignore, that everything is decided in the middlegame. Others think that studying opening traps is what wins games. Some tend to follow their favourite world-class player’s recommendations, while others like to sidestep well-known opening theory early on, preferring unpopular side-lines. To me, opening choice is about all those decisions. I think that many openings are good; there are some dubious ones, but they can also yield formidable results overall or in specific situations if chosen and handled carefully.
I firmly believe that your opening repertoire should mostly be based on your playing style and other personal traits, such as memory and work ethic. It is important to evaluate yourself as well as your strengths and weaknesses properly in order to be able to build the right repertoire that would not only suit you well, but also improve your overall chess. The little detail, though, is in the word “mostly”. Namely, I firmly believe that there are a few classical, rock-solid openings with an impeccable reputation, such as 1.e4 e5 as a response to 1.e4 or the Queen’s Gambit and Nimzo as an answer to 1.d4 that players of all styles and standards should try, no matter what their style is. This will enable players to learn, appreciate and practice some of the key chess values, such as the importance of space, lack of weaknesses, bad pieces, and comfortable development and so on – you name it. I, myself, started out as a keen Sicilian player.
Just like all youngsters, I cheerfully enjoyed complications, tactical massacres and everything else that the Sicilian is all about. However, as I was developing as a player, my style was changing also. Eventually, I realized I was much more successful with positional play, so it was time to change the outfit – and 1.e4 e5 suited me well. I have used this move as a response to 1.e4 nearly exclusively in recent years, both versus weaker and stronger opposition, with fantastic results. If only other openings would grant me such results as well! I have not only studied these variations myself but have also shown them to numerous private students. To be frank, we have almost always concentrated on White’s most dangerous possibilities, such as the Ruy Lopez, Italian and Scotch. Occasionally, we have also analysed the side-lines – either as a part of preparation for specific opponents or to make sure my students become more universal players and gain more all-round knowledge.
Eventually, I realized that the knowledge I gained from 1.e4 e5 can and should be shared with more players, and this is how my book came to life. Of course, the readers will differ, so there is a no “one-size-fits-all” solution. But, I have carefully and diligently tried to achieve the same goal I used when working with my students: to keep my recommendations both theoretically sound as well as practical and accessible.
I expect not only titled players but club players and the less experienced readers to equally benefit from this book. So, sometimes you will find razor-sharp novelties, but in many cases, we will rely on positional understanding, typical structures and standard ideas. I believe the opening is not all about memorization, so I have taken a different approach from many authors by keeping the balance between recommending objectively good variations as well as making sure an adequate amount of work will suffice to get you started.
You won’t need to spend years studying the material, fearing there is still much more to learn. 1.e4 e5! is not just an opening. It is repertoire that represents our game as a whole. It is something players of all styles will enjoy due to the countless possibilities 1…e5 provides. Hopefully, learning 1…e5 will also make you a better player. And, finally, I hope the book you are now holding in your hands will not only give you joy but illustrate a passion for chess with the variations presented in this work.”
Having spent almost all of my chess life (both OTB and postally) playing 1…e5 I was very much looking to examining the author’s detailed recommendations.
For many years during the eras of both Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov the Sicilian Defence was easily the most popular reply to 1.e4 but now with players like Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian often adopting open (1…e5) defences preference have greatly changed.
The author starts by looking at odd openings such as Nakamura’s “Whimsy” 2.Qh5 (perhaps this should be called the school chess club opening?): Not surprisingly he gives a line that shows Black can readily get the upper hand.
He then goes on to look at the Centre Game 2 d4 ed4 3 Qd4 !? this is an odd opening that will catch many Black players by surprise.
I always feel uncomfortable when I face this on the Internet . Yuriy gives some good analysis showing that Black can quickly turn the tables on White.
The following chapters examine the Scotch Game and the King’s Gambit. These openings appear straightforward for Black to equalise against. I was surprised to find that in the King’s Gambit after 2.f4 ef4 3.Nf3 Ne7 was recommended!
It turns out that this idea has been played by the French GM Etienne Bacrot, the idea being to play a quick d5.
The author often offers some unusual lines which seem designed to surprise the opponent . He provides analysis of a game up to move 18 concluding that Black is better and shows how to continue the middle game plan from there.
The Vienna Game is also looked at in some depth . After 2 Nc3 Nf6 both 3.Bc4 and 3.f4 are seen . Against the former he recommends 3…Ne4!?
and against the latter 3…d5 4.fe5 Ne4 5.Nf3 Be7 a solid choice which I have played myself.
After recommending 3…d5 versus the Ponziani Opening
the author looks at the Scotch Game (which is very popular at club level) and recommends 4…Bc5 :
Peter Leko selected this line against Magnus Carlsen a few years ago and despite losing the game it was not because of this opening choice which was quite sound. From here 5.Nc6: and 5.Nb3 are both analysed along with the “traditional move” 5.Be3 .
The author now suggests two alternatives for Black: 5…Bd4 which is an unusual line that could well be a good choice against a higher graded player as after 6.Bd4 Nd4 7.Qd4 Qf6 White will have to work hard to win.
Yuriy then looks at the main line with 5…Qf6 but after 6.c3 he suggests the unusual 6…Qg6 :
Once again this suggestion is move which will set White players thinking early in the game whilst remaining a sound choice.
In The Four Knights Game after 4.Bb5 (the Spanish Four Knights) Yuriy gives Rubinstein’s aggressive 4…Nd4 which Kramnik used successfully to defeat Nigel Short.
A small, but not terrible omission, is the lack of coverage of the dangerous Halloween Gambit: something for the second edition!
We now move on to the Evans Gambit, and side-lines of the Guioco Piano are examined before giving detailed analysis of the quiet Italian . This opening 4 c3 Nf6 5 d3 is very popular at world class level and, currently Jan-Krzysztof Duda being the latest high profile player to adopt it .
The plan (which I adopt) of d6 and a6 is recommended when Black again achieves equal play .
Finally (and most fittingly) we come to the Ruy Lopez usually regarded as the ultimate test for 1…e5 players .
In the Exchange Lopez, Barendregt Variation after 5.00 Qf6 a line advocated by Michael Adams is suggested and you’ll need to buy the book to find out what it is!
In the main line Lopez the Open is the weapon of choice with the somewhat unusual 5…Ne4 6 d4 Be7 !? recommended.
This, perhaps is the one recommendation I might not agree with 100%.
Yuriy then goes onto examine some rather unusual lines in the Lopez giving comprehensive coverage.
In summary this book gives a lot of interesting and thought provoking lines that may surprise the player of the White pieces and push them into waters that they are not familiar with.
Black players may do well to try these ideas on-line first and if they work for them then use them in more “serious” games .
The author claims to have checked all of his ideas with an engine and therefore (hopefully) none are unsound !
Colin Lyne, Farnborough, Hampshire, 19th February, 2021
“Are you struggling with your chess development? While dedicating hours and hours on improving your craft, your rating simply does not want to move upwards? Spending loads of money on chess books and DVDs, but feeling no real improvement at all? No worries – the book that you are holding in your hands might represent a game changer! Years of coaching experience as well as independent research has allowed the author to identify the key skills that will enhance the progress of just about any player rated between 1600 and 2500. Becoming a strong chess thinker is namely not only reserved exclusively for elite players, but actually constitutes the cornerstone of chess training, being no less important than memorizing opening theory, acquiring middlegame knowledge or practicing endgames. By studying this book, you will:- learn how to universally deal with any position you might encounter in your games, even if you happen to see it for the first time in your life, – have the opportunity to solve 90 unique, hand-picked puzzles, extensively annotated and peculiarly organised for the Readers’ optimal learning effect, – gain access to more than 300 pages of original grandmaster thoughts and advice, leaving you awestruck and hungry for more afterwards!”
“Wojciech Moranda (1988), Grandmaster since 2009, rated FIDE >2600 in standard/rapid/blitz. Poland’s TOP 7 player (February 2020) and FIDE TOP 100 in Rapid (2018). Member of top teams from the German (Schachfreunde Berlin), Belgian (Cercle d’Échecs Fontainois) and Swedish (Visby Schackklubb) league. Captain of the third best Polish team (Wieża Pęgów) as well as the PRO Chess League team, The New York Marshalls. Professional chess coach, running his own chess school ‘Grandmaster Academy’ seated in Wroclaw (Poland), while training students worldwide, from California to Sydney. His other notable coaching experiences include i.a. working with the National Youth Chess Academy of the Polish Chess Federation (since 2012) and the Polish National Female Chess Team (2013). In his work as a trainer, Wojciech puts special emphasis on improving his students’ thought-process and flawless opening preparation.”
Time was when you knew what to expect from a puzzle book. With a few notable exceptions they tended to be ‘sac sac mate’ type of position.
21st century puzzle books are very different, and, at least for stronger players, quite rightly so as well. These days you can run a blundercheck on a bunch of games to identify the turning point, and then, with a careful selection of positions, produce a puzzle book in which anything might happen. A book of positions in which very strong players, even leading grandmasters, failed to find the correct plan. A book which exemplifies the wonderful complexity of contemporary chess, covering all aspects of the game: strategy as well as tactics.
What we have here is very much a 21st century book written for strong and ambitious players. Indeed it seems in many ways very similar to this book from the same publisher: aimed at a similarly wide range of players and divided into three sections of increasing difficulty. One wonders if the authors of both books received a similar brief from Thinkers Publishing.
Let’s see what Moranda has to say for himself.
He identifies that his students have strategic problems in five areas:
Anticipation & prophylaxis
Attack & defense
Statics & dynamics
Together, he considers these to be the basis of ‘Universal Chess Training’, “because knowing them will most certainly help you play a good move whether the position seems familiar or not”.
His book offers:
Original content (he’s dismissive of books which repeat examples from the past, and also of books which haven’t been computer checked)
Three levels of difficulty (the first part is for players of 1600-1900 strengh, the second part for 1900-2200 strength and the third part, presumably for 2200+ strength, where the questions demand ‘the highest level of abstract thinking’)
Mixed exercises with no hints (so you have no idea what’s going to come next)
Focus on what remained behind the scenes (so, instead of analysing the rest of the game he provides a possible conclusion given best play, which, he believes, provides more solid training material than the flawed continuation in the game)
There are 90 questions in total, 30 in each section. As a 1900 strength player the first two sections should be appropriate for me.
The first position in the book comes from Winterberg – Lubbe (Magdeburg 2019). You have to choose a continuation for White here.
Here’s how Moranda assesses the position:
“A brief review of the position reveals that a major backlash is coming in White’s direction. Black just needs to remove the queen from e6 and make way for the e7-pawn to go all the way to e5. As a result, White will not only be forced to concede space, but also have to spend time re-routing his minor pieces from their overly exposed outposts on d4 and h4. But this would by no means be the end of the story for White. With Black expanding his pieces would improve in quality, and it would only be a matter of time before they would shift their attention towards possible weaknesses present in White’s camp. Such a weakness is represented by the c5-pawn, which would be rather difficult to defend should the white bishop be compelled to step aside. At the same time, if White becomes too absorbed with maintaining control over the queenside, Black could very effectively switch to an attack against the white king due to his space advantage by means of …Nf7-g5. That is a grim prospect for sure but maybe there is an antidote to this looming chaos?”
I won’t tell you the answer: you’ll have to buy the book to find out.
Now look at the first question in Chapter 2:
It’s again White’s move in L van Foreest – Navara (Skopje 2018).
What do you think?
Moranda’s explanation again:
“At first sight it is hard to believe that this crazy position arose out of a Giuoco Piano which is a rather timid, manoeuvring opening. White has just embarked on a risky venture sending a knight deep into the heart of the opponent’s position. Black has responded with an offer to exchange queens, a perfectly viable solution from the perspective of limiting White’s chances of playing for an attack afterwards. The decision White should take is far from obvious as there are, at this point in time, five different discovered checks at his disposal. All of them look dangerous, but simultaneously none of them looks lethal enough. White would also love to include the remaining pieces into play, but he does not seem to have the time to do this. Notably, the proximity of the black queen to his own monarch constitutes an element White cannot easily ignore before furthering his attack. Thus I ask you dear reader, what should White do?”
A lot of words, a lot of explanations. The style is informal, often colloquial and sometimes amusing. “Do you ever have chess nightmares? You know, dreams of yourself taking part in a tournament and losing every single game or, even worse, finding yourself playing a game with the London System as White?” “At first glance this move is uglier than a Fiat Multipla.” You might like this sort of thing, or you might consider it out of place in a serious instructional book. Your choice. In general, though, I found the explanations excellent.
From a personal point of view, the 30 questions in the first chapter were pitched at just the right level for me: instructive and helpful. The second chapter, as well as the third, though, were much too deep. While I enjoyed reading the solutions and explanations I thought they were too hard for me to learn from. There’s a lot more than simply understanding the strategic ideas: you also have to calculate accurately to justify them: it was the calculation as much as the strategy that was too much for me. The book demonstrates clearly that tactics and strategy are inextricably entwined, and that, in today’s chess, positional sacrifices are an increasingly important weapon which ambitious players need to understand.
I’d have liked to have seen the openings of the games in question, and could have done with shorter explanations rather than the three or four pages of partly computer-generated analysis provided for each position, but, if you’re more serious about studying chess books than I am you may well disagree.
I read chess books mainly for enjoyment, and it’s 40 years or more since I had any real ambitions about improving my chess, so, although I’m the right strength, I’m not really part of the target market for this book.
Moranda is clearly an outstanding teacher at this level, and seems to come highly recommended online. The positions are well chosen and the ideas clearly explained: it’s obvious a lot of work and passion has gone into creating this book. The author is also an openings expert, seemingly favouring lines leading to positions which are both tactically and strategically rich: you’ve seen that he’s pretty scathing about the Giuoco Piano and the London System. If you prefer simpler methods of starting the game you will be less likely to reach the sort of positions featured here. While I consider the claim that it’s for anyone 1600+ to be a trifle optimistic, if you’re a strong and ambitious player (say 2000+, although anyone 1800+ will benefit from at least the first chapter) and you’re prepared to work hard, this book will undoubtedly improve your understanding of grandmaster chess strategy.
“International Grandmaster Andrew Soltis is chess correspondent for the New York Post and a very popular chess writer. He is the author of many books including What it Takes to Become a Chess Master, Studying Chess Made Easy and David vs Goliath Chess.”
From the Batsford web site :
“A book by (a) stalwart chess writer on an aspect of chess that is quite common, but little is written about, swindling in chess. In chess, a swindle is a ruse by which a player in a losing position tricks his opponent, and thereby achieves a win or draw instead of the expected loss. Renown(ed) chess writers Horowitz and Reinfeld observe that swindles, “though ignored in virtually all chess books”, “play an enormously important role in over-the-board chess, and decide the fate of countless games”. Andrew Soltis, American chess journalist, says swindles are not accidental or a matter of luck. Swindling is a skill. But there has been almost nothing written about how to do it, how to make yourself lucky in chess. Swindling means setting traps that exploit an opponent’s over-confidence. It means choosing the move that has the greatest chance of winning, rather than the move that has the least chance of losing. Soltis’ new proposal will explain to players of all levels how to do just that with plenty of examples to explain along the way.”
“… there has been almost nothing written about… ” swindles. True until recently (although books by Shamkovich/Schiller and LeMoir come to mind), but perhaps it’s unfortunate that this book was published at about the same time as David Smerdon’s outstanding book on the same subject.
Soltis’ view of what constitutes a swindle seems rather narrower than Smerdon’s. Most of the examples here are longer extracts from games where the player with an advantage in a complex position failed to win.
The first three chapters define swindles and explain the difference between swindles and traps.
Chapter Four tells you how to Make Yourself Lucky.
According to Soltis you should:
(a) Identify your best tactical resources,
(b) Give your opponent choices, and,
(c) Confuse him.
There’s quite a lot of British interest in this book, and here is Rowson – Emms (Gibraltar 2004).
If you’re clearly winning, but the position is chaotic and you perhaps don’t have too much time left to calculate it’s natural to make safe, sensible moves rather than looking for the quickest win.
This policy doesn’t always work, though.
This looks grim for Rowson: he’s two pawns down and all his opponent’s forces are in ideal attacking positions, with the immediate threat of Rxb2+.
“In mutual time pressure, White found an inspired bid to confuse, 34. Nb5~.
“It is confusing because all of Black’s main options seem to win. In fact, they all do. ‘But visually there is a lot to process’, White said after the game.”
Soltis then analyses the four captures on b5 and continues:
“No human can analyze all that in time pressure. Black made the common-sense decision 34… Rxb2+ 35. Rxb2 axb5.”
The game continued 36. Qf4~ Nc3+ 37. Ka1 when we rejoin Soltis:
“Again 37… Rf8 would have won. So would 37… Qa7. But common sense says Black should not be making his pieces passive when the tactics are reaching a peak.
“They are actually pretty active after 37… Qa7 38. Rh2 Ra8! because he mates first after 39. Qh6 Nb3+! 40. Rxb3 Qxa2+!
“Black made the intuitive decision to keep his pieces more flexible with 37… Rb7.
“White still needed a miracle. He might have tried 38. Qg5, with the idea of Qd8+. But 38… Rd7 is more than adequate.
“He changed the subject of the conversation with 38. Qe3~. That gave Black something new to think about, the threat to his knight.
“(It set a delicious trap 38…. Nc6 39. Rfc2! b4 40. Rxc3! and wins.)”
Now Soltis points out that 38… Qc5 would have won (as, according to Stockfish 12 would Rc8). Instead, Emms played 38… e5??, when Soltis mentions 39. Bc4! as leading to a position with equal chances, and Stockfish 12 adds 39. Rh2 as also being equal. After 39. Qg5!, Qa5 would have won, but 39… Ra7 turned out to be a blunder. White won after 40. Qd8+ Kg7 41. Qf6+ Kd8 42. Bc4! d5 43. Rh2! and Black resigned.
You’ll notice the symbol ~, which Soltis uses to annotate a move which, although not objectively best, is the most practical.
Chapter Five looks at swindles from the perspective of the victim (swindlee) and asks why players fall for swindles. For instance ‘The swindlee believes only two results are possible’ and ‘The swindlee wants to win quickly’. You might think differently: ‘The swindlee is in time trouble’, ‘The swindlee miscalculates’ or ‘The swindlee loses concentration’.
Further chapters again take other approaches, although there seems to be some overlap between them: ‘False Narrative and Bluffing’, ‘Panic Worthy’, ‘The Swindling Process’, ‘Swindler Versus Swindlee’. ‘Royal Swindles’ looks at swindles involving kings: perpetual check, stalemate and king marches. Finally, ‘The Very Lucky’ features three great swindlers, Judit Polgar, Lasker and Carlsen.
Here’s another all British example: Norwood – Plaskett from the 1990 British Championship held in Eastbourne.
Black’s a pawn up at the moment but, as Soltis explains:
“Black can give up the Exchange, 25… Rc7 26. Be5 Qc8 27. Bxc7 Qxc7. But even with his extra pawn he would be significantly worse.
“An experienced defender – not just a swindler – would try to distract White by offering a choice. After 25… e5 Black would be alive after 26. Bxe5 Qe6.
“But if White makes the right decision, 26. Bb7! Qe6 27. Bxc8 Rxc8, he again has good winning chances. (Remember this position.)
“After 28. Qe2 a6 29. Ra5, for example, it would be harder for Black to draw than for White to win.
“Black felt his situation was dire and went for 25… Nd5~. It was partially based on 26. cxd5?? Qxb5 and 26. Bxd5? exd5 27. Rxd5 Be7 with near-equality.
“He was mainly betting that he would find counterchances if White replied 26. Rxc5! Rxc5 27. cxd5.”
Soltis then spends some time analysing that position and concluding that White would have been winning.
Returning to his narrative:
“But there was one other option for White and it occurred on the board: 26. Ra1? overlooked Black’s threat, 26… Qxb5! 27. cxb5 Nxc3 (28. Qxc3?? Bxf2+).
“The position is slightly better for White. Black can anchor his bishop on d4 with …e5. He may also be able to use tactics to liquidate the queenside pawns, bringing the position closer to a draw, e.g. 28. Bc6 Bd4 29. Ra5 a6!? 30. Rxa6 Nxb5.
“But the jarring effect of a swindle took effect and play went 28. Ra6? Bb6 29. Qb3 Ne2+ 30. Kh2? Bxf2 31. Qf3? Bxg3+ 32. Kh1 Rc1+ and Black eventually won.
“So was Black’s decision to choose 25… Nd5 over 25… e5 correct?
“The experienced swindler would say ‘Yes’ because White had three ways to go wrong (26. cxd5??, 26. Bxd5? and 26. Ra1?)
“The experienced defender would say ‘No!’ because 26. Rxc5! would have given White better winning chances than after 25… e5.”
This extract exemplifies some of the slight problems I have with the annotations. Some of it, inevitably I suppose, doesn’t quite stand up to Stockfish 12, which thinks that 25… Rc7 was a better drawing chance than either Nd5 or e5, and in that variation, Qc3 was better than Bxc7. It also considers the position in the 28. Bc6 line in the game to be completely level. Perhaps, from a GM perspective, White is slightly better, but I’m not a GM so I really have no idea.
Soltis also writes as if it’s plausible that a strong player will fall for an obvious trap. Is it really likely that a strong tactician like Norwood would have considered 26. cxd5??, or would have played 26. Bxe5 rather than 26. Bb7 after 25… e5?
At the same time I felt that he sometimes reads too much into what the players might have been thinking about and how far ahead they saw. Were Norwood’s subsequent mistakes caused by ‘the jarring effect of a swindle’, by time trouble, perhaps by a combination of the two, maybe by something else entirely? You’d have to ask him to find out.
As is to be expected from Soltis, this is a workmanlike book with, as you will have seen from these examples a lot of exciting chess, as well as some helpful advice on how to play – and how to avoid -swindles. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but I’m not convinced I learnt anything new. The general appearance of the book is rather old-fashioned, and there are a few – admittedly insignificant – notation errors.
If you’re looking for a book on swindles I’d strongly advise you go for Smerdon first: it really is an excellent – and highly entertaining – read. If that book whets your appetite for more swindles, you won’t be disappointed with Soltis. Recommended for players of all levels, but not a first choice.
Richard James, Twickenham 26th January 2021
Book Details :
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Batsford Ltd; 1st edition (5th March 2020)
“The book before you is a product of what happens when two chess players start a relationship (which started over six years ago) and enter a dialogue about how to get ready for the next tournament. The content of this book is a training program for players who plan to play an over-the-board tournament a few weeks from the time they start training with this book. This book, unlike other similar books in the field of improvement, does not have a central theme. In other words, we are not focused solely on openings, middlegames or endgames. Moreover, the book does not only concentrate on specific themes (calculation, positional decisions, or other strategic aspects), though many of these concepts are addressed throughout the book. Instead, this book offers a holistic view on how to approach every single position in it, regardless of the phase of the game or the nature of the position. We try to teach players how to identify types of decisions in various positions, while pointing at the trade-off between a hardcore calculation and a heuristics judgment.”
“GM Elshan Moradiabadi was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. He learned to play chess at age 7 by watching his dad play against a friend. His passion and will to get better grew fast and in 2001, at the age of 15, he won Iran’s Chess Championship with a 2712 rating performance. He became a GM in 2005 and represented Iran in five Chess Olympiads. He won the Bronze Medal at the Asian Games in 2006 with the Iranian team. Elshan received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Sharif University of Technology and moved to the United States in 2012. Since then, he has been active in the US chess scene. In his first years, he pursued two master’s degrees from Texas Tech University (TTU). With the TTU chess team he won the Final Four in 2012 and the Pan Ams in 2015. Elshan has also essayed numerous articles and reports for different chess websites and publications. Elshan coached the US team in the World Team Championship in 2019 in Astana, Kazakhstan.”
“WGM Sabina Foisor was born in 1989 in Romania to a chess family and learned to play chess at age 4. With two International Masters and her mother being one of the strongest female chess players in the country and world, Sabina soon followed in her footsteps. She won multiple National and European titles in her age category (from Girls under 8-20) in different styles of chess (Normal, Blitz, Rapid and Solving Problems). Sabina was awarded the title of WGM in 2007 and a year later, she received a full scholarship to attend college in the United States. She pursued her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Linguistics and Intercultural Communication. She has represented the United States since 2009, being an important part of the US team in five Chess Olympiads and four Women’s World Team Championships. Her biggest achievement was winning the US Women’s Chess Championship in 2017 after unexpectedly losing her mother two months previously.”
I have two theories.
One is that most players would be much better off reading books aimed at a lower level than books aimed at a higher level.
(Here, for example, is a friend of mine, possibly a slightly stronger player than me, discussing Michael Stean’s excellent book Simple Chess, a short pre-computer book aimed at average club players. Just the sort of book that many of today’s coaches would advise you not to read, partly because some of the analysis no longer stands up and partly because it’s over-simplistic.)
My second theory follows on from this: most chess books are really suitable for much higher rated players than the publishers claim. Consider, for example, books marketed as being ‘for kids’ which are essentially books written for adult club players with a few added cartoons.
Here’s what the authors have to say in their introduction:
“This book is composed of three parts, each broken down into two subsections. The parts are as follows: simple positions, endgames, and complex decisions. There are 150 positions in the first part, 120 in the second part, and 42 in the third part. The targeted readers for the book are players rated between 1700 and 2300. The range may seem rather wide, but the variety of concepts addressed makes it possible for the players in the aforementioned range to enjoy and learn from the book’s content.”
They recommend you spend up to 15 minutes per exercise in Parts I and II, and 25 minutes per exercise in part III.
You should write down your thoughts, read the solutions, and, in a week’s time, repeat the process to see how your thinking process has changed.
The USP of this book is that the authors, who are fans of detective fiction, introduce each part with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which you might, I suppose, either like or find a trifle annoying. The idea is that, just as Holmes used specific thinking processes to solve crimes, the reader has to use specific thinking processes to solve the exercises.
As a player of about 1900 strength, I should, at least in terms of rating, be part of the target audience for the first two parts of the book. Let’s look at a few examples and find out.
This is Q8. It’s in Chapter 1 so it’s a Simple Position. It’s Black to play his 24th move in Handke – Naiditsch (Bundesliga 2017). Here’s the authors’ analysis of this position.
This would have been the correct continuation.
Instead 24… Bxb4?? was chosen by Black. OK, the ideas are easy, but not too easy! This is an example of considering the opponent’s counterplay before committing to a non-forcing tactical sequence. Black picks up a pawn, but White is not forced to take back immediately, and in fact obtains a winning position with a critical in-between move. After 25. Ng5! g6 26. cxb4 Rxd4 27. Qc3! the queen’s path is paved for her to be transferred to the kingside where Black is rather helpless due to the numerous weaknesses and the lack of presence of his pieces to defend his king. After 27… Rd5 28. Qh3 h5 29. Bxh5! +- White is completely winning, but somehow ended up losing this winning position after not committing to 29… Kg7 30. Bxg6! Rh8 31. Bh5!.
25. cxd4 Bxb4 (slight advantage to Black)
Now White can continue with his attacking plan on the kingside. However after:
26. f5 exf5 27. Rxf5 g6 28. Rf2 Bxa5!
White’s idea with Nd6 is not so consequential as f7 is well-protected.
29. Nd6 Qc7 30. Rcf1 Bd5 31. Bf3 Be6
and White’s initiative is gone, while Black’s queenside will start to roll soon.
(Well, Stockfish 12 is much less convinced than Stockfish 11 that Black is a lot better here, but we’ll let it pass.)
Would you consider this a Simple Position? I didn’t try to solve it myself, and am not sure how much, if anything, I would have seen in 15 minutes. If the position was too hard for a 2684 rated GM it would certainly be too hard for me.
In fact many of the examples in the book are positions which top GMs (Carlsen, Anand and many others) failed to get right.
I found this position, where Anand played the correct move, instructive.
In the game Anand – Grischuk (WCh Rapid 2017) White’s bishop on b2 looks strong, but Vishy chose to trade it off with 16. Bxf6!.
The authors explain:
“Great judgment and a simple decision.
“The pawn on e4 was under fire from Black’s pieces while Black was planning to exert more pressure by playing … Ba5. With this move and the next one, Vishy completely outplays Black’s bishop on b6.”
After 16… Qxf6 17. Nc4! they add:
“White gradually builds up his play on the kingside as the bishop on b6 does not take part in the game!”
Here’s an everyday pawn ending. With seconds remaining on the clock, Quang Liem Le had what looked like a 50-50 shot in his game against Mamedov.
He chose 52. Kd3?, which soon lost, but could have saved a half point by going the other way:
52. Kf3! Kd4 53. Kf2! taking the diagonal opposition, when both players queen.
Very instructive again, but what you really want to know is whether I enjoyed the book.
To be perfectly honest, not very much.
I read chess books primarily for enjoyment. If I happen to learn something as well, that’s a bonus. I found the more positional questions helpful, while the tactical exercises, with a lot of computer generated analysis, made my brain hurt. But that’s just me.
If, however, you’re really serious about improving your chess and you’re prepared to follow the instructions, working hard on each position, then this could be just the book for you.
The positions are well chosen to cover a wide range of themes, and the solutions are fully explained. You might think some of the explanations might have been clearer, and the English, although it doesn’t really matter, might have been more idiomatic. You might also notice that, in positions where margins are very thin, different engines will choose different moves and give different assessments. You might wish for some recognition of human factors such as ‘playability’ rather than just computer analysis. But strong and ambitious players who have the time and motivation to put in the required effort will undoubtedly benefit a lot.
Where I’d disagree with Moradiabadi and Foisor is that I’d consider it most suitable for players of at least 2000 strength. I think the 1700-1999 folk would probably learn more from either simpler or more specifically targeted positions.
As a final word, I should add that, as always with Thinkers Publishing, the production values are excellent.
“International Grandmaster Andrew Soltis is chess correspondent for the New York Post and a very popular chess writer. He is the author of many books including What it Takes to Become a Chess Master, Studying Chess Made Easy and David vs Goliath Chess.”
From the Batsford web site :
“Following on from the long success of one of the most important chess books ever written, Bobby Fischer: My 60 Memorable Games, renowned chess writer Andrew Soltis delivers a book on today’s blockbuster chess player Magnus Carlsen.
Magnus Carlsen has been the world’s number one player for more than a decade, has won more super-tournaments than anyone ever and is still in his prime. He is the only player to repeatedly win the world championships in classical, speed and blitz chess formats. This book details his remarkable rise and how he acquired the crucial skills of 21st-century grandmaster chess
He will defend his world championship title this autumn and if he wins, it will set a record of five championship match victories. This book take you through how he wins by analysing 60 of the games that made him who he is, describing the intricacies behind his and his opponent’s strategies, the tactical justification of moves and the psychological battle in each one.
This book is essential for chess enthusiasts, competitors and professionals of all skill sets.”
Andrew Soltis has been a prolific author of chess books over the course of several decades. I first encountered him when I read – and thoroughly enjoyed The Younger School of Soviet Chess, published by Bell, the predecessors of Batsford, back in 1976. I particularly relished his unique, story-telling style of annotation, which has been a feature of many of his books.
His titles have ranged widely, from opening monographs to serious historical works, often concerning chess in the old Soviet Union. Yet he’s never received the publicity accorded to other, more colourful and controversial, writers, nor, perhaps, the respect he deserves.
Perhaps this is because he’s never been published by today’s leading chess book publishers. His historical works are published by McFarland, while he’s written a steady stream of books for average club player under the Batsford imprint.
Ah yes, Batsford. Back in the day they were the most celebrated publisher of chess books on the planet. They can trace their chess ancestry back to Staunton’s friend and publisher Henry Bohn, whose business was later taken over by George Bell & Sons, who were in turn taken over by Batsford. But that’s a story for another time. Batsford are still publishing chess books, although, compared to their glitzier rivals, they have a rather old-fashioned appearance. Soltis is the author of many of their more recent books, but they also have the rights to a number of classic titles, most notably Fischer’s My Sixty Memorable Games.
The first thing you’ll notice about Soltis’s new collection of Magnus Carlsen’s games is the title: Magnus Carlsen: 60 Memorable Games. Cheeky, or what? It wasn’t difficult to get the publishers’ approval, and the original author was sadly not around to object, although I suspect his ghost is ranting and raging even now.
A misjudgement, I think: a different number of games and a different adjective would have been fine. But they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, so let’s look inside.
The format is very similar to Bobby’s book. Sixty chapters with one game to a chapter, each having a catchy title and a brief introduction putting it in context. One difference is that all the games are wins for our hero. You wouldn’t say they were necessarily his greatest games, though. They include blitz and blindfold games, and, for example, the game where he famously hung a piece in the opening against Gawain Jones. In fact you get more than 60 games for your money: there are several others in Soltis’s introduction, and more buried within the annotations.
At the start of the book Soltis asks “What made Magnus?”. The first answer is revealing: playability. The ability to judge how easy positions are to play. This is a point which is hammered home throughout the book. Carlsen excels at assessing positions, but his assessments are based on which player will find it easier to play good moves, which is often very different from computer assessment. Then there’s his versatility: he can play any type of position equally well and might play almost any opening against you. As we all know, he has an exceptional memory. He also has a very strong mindset: he is able to recover quickly from defeats and fight back from mistakes in his games. Readers of Chess Improvement: It’s all in the Mindset will know how important this is. He has exceptional stamina, which is why he will play on and on waiting for a mistake in positions which most of us would give up as drawn. He is also highly intuitive.
This is not the only anthology of Carlsen’s games on the market. Whether or not it’s the one for you will depend on how you react to Soltis’s style of annotation, which is very much based on verbal explanations. Variations are given where necessary, but what you don’t get, and many potential readers will be relieved by this, is pages of long computer-generated analysis.
This is a position from one of the earlier games in the book, Brynell – Carlsen (Gausdal 2005), with White to play his 32nd move.
If I were Black here I’d look at the equal material and bishops of opposite colours and consider offering a draw followed by heading off to the bar for a pint.
“Why doesn’t White have the superior winning chances? After all, he has the famous ‘queenside pawn majority’.
“Yes, but there are two factors that matter much more. One is the difference in bishops.
“White’s bishop has no offensive power. While queens are on the board it can only defend.
“Black’s bishop, on the other hand, ties White’s queen to the defense of f2.
“That’s not enough to give Black an edge. But it’s enough to keep the game going.”
32. Qf3 f5!
“This is the second factor that favors Black. Carlsen has a kingside pawn majority.
“They cannot create a useful passed pawn, as a queenside majority might.
“But they can become a powerful offensive weapon if …e5-e4 and …f4-f3+ drives the white queen from the defense of f2.
“A secondary plan is … g5-g4 and … h5-h4-h3+.
“Note that if White offers a trade of queens, even by 33. Qf4 Qxf4 34. gxf4, Black could refuse, 33… Qb2!, for example.”
What do you think? I, as a 1900 strength player, found the explanation very instructive, but I’d imagine someone of, say, 2200 strength would find it obvious and over-simplistic.
Here’s another example, this time an opening. Carlsen – Wojtaszek (Gashimov Memorial 2018).
Carlsen’s just played his 9th move in an unusual variation of the Sicilian.
“Here’s an admittedly over-simplified way of evaluating the position:
“First, just look at the top half of the diagram.
“The Black pieces and pawns are on the same squares they could be on in other balanced Sicilian positions, such as in the Richter-Rauzer or Scheveningen variations.
“Now look at the bottom half of the diagram. White’s pieces and pawns are uncommon but coordinated. The worst thing you could say is that he has no obvious plan except a kingside attack, begun by pushing his g-pawn.
“Now let’s consider specifics. After 9… Be7 White must avoid 10. g4? because 10… Nxg4! 11. fxg4? Bg5! loses his queen.
“Instead, 10. Kb1 0-0 11. g4 and then 11… Nd7, perhaps followed by … Nc5 and … b4 would have the double-edged nature of a typical Sicilian.”
Instead, Wojtaszek played 9… h5, when, because Carlsen’s knight was on g1 rather than d4, he was able to meet by Nh3 followed by Ng5, winning in short order when Black chose to keep his king in the centre.
“Over-simplified”? That word again. But top level games these days are so complicated that it’s hard to annotate them for club standard players.
I found the annotations of more tactical positions slightly confusing on occasion, but, given the nature of the games, that’s entirely understandable. By and large, Soltis does a good job in attempting to explain his selected games in terms that are readily understandable and instructive to club standard players. He’s a highly experienced journalist who really knows how to write: something that can’t be said of all chess authors.
You might have noticed that, although published in England, US spellings are favored (sic). I spotted a few notation and diagram errors: slightly annoying but there will always be one or two that slip through the net.
Games collections are rightly popular, and every chess library needs at least one volume of Carlsen’s best games. This isn’t the last word, not least because Magnus has many more years ahead of him, and there are other books on the market which I don’t have to hand for direct comparisons. It’s always a good idea to consider alternatives before making your move.
I enjoyed it: the games were well chosen and all full of interest. I found the annotations were pitched at the right level for me. While higher rated players find prefer more detailed notes, if you’re between about 1500 and 2000 strength I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too.
Here, in full, but without annotations, are the games referred to above.
Cyrus Lakdawala is an IM and former US Open Champion who teaches chess and has written over 25 books on chess openings.
The ever prolific Cyrus Lakdawala’s latest book offers a collection of endgame studies and problems aimed primarily at players who are not all that familiar with the world of chess compositions.
Much of the material is taken from the Facebook group Chess Endgame Studies and Compositions which Lakdawala runs with Australian GM Max Illingworth. I should declare an interest here as I’m a member of, and a very occasional contributor to, this group.
The first half of the book introduces the reader to the world of endgame studies. After a brief preliminary chapter taking us on a journey of almost a thousand years up to 1750 (though I’m not sure how Al Adli was composing in both 800 and 900), we move onto a collection of studies with the stipulation ‘White to play and draw’. Like this one (the solutions are at the end of the review).
Frédéric Lazard L’Échiquier de Paris 1949
(Lazard’s first name is anglicized to Frederick in the book. He died in 1948: perhaps this was first published in a posthumous tribute.)
The next, and longest, chapter is, you won’t be surprised to hear, devoted to ‘White to play and win’ studies.
Another short example:
Mikhail Platov Shakhmaty 1925
Then we move on from studies to problems. After a brief excursion to Mates in 1 in Chapter 4, Chapter 5 deals with mates in 2, like this one from the ever popular Fritz Giegold.
Fritz Emil Giegold Kölnische Rundschau 1967
(The first word of the newspaper is given as Kolner, without an umlaut: Wikipedia tells me the correct name.)
Another composer to feature heavily in this book is the great Puzzle King himself: Sam Loyd. Here’s an example from Chapter 6: Mates in Three Moves.
Sam Loyd Cleveland Voice 1879
Chapter 7 brings us some mates in four or more moves. Chapter 8 looks at some eccentric problems, Chapter 9 looks at study like themes in real games (yes, Topalov-Shirov, as you probably guessed, is there), and finally Chapter 10 presents us with some studies composed by young American IM Christopher Yoo.
On a personal level, I’d have liked some helpmates, which are often very attractive to practical players, and perhaps also problems with other stipulations: serieshelpmates or selfmates, for example. A short introduction to fairy pieces and conditions would also have been interesting. Something for a sequel, perhaps?
Cyrus Lakdawala has a large and devoted following, and his fans will certainly want this book. Those who don’t like his style will stay well clear. As for me, I find Everyman Cyrus a far more congenial companion than NiC Cyrus: do I detect a firmer editorial hand in removing some of the author’s more fanciful analogies? Given the nature of the book I think it works quite well: entertaining positions can take ‘entertaining’ writing but more serious material demands more serious writing.
The studies and problems are well chosen to be attractive to the keen over the board player who is not very familiar with the world of chess compositions. If you don’t know a lot about this aspect of chess and, perhaps enjoying the examples in this review, would like to investigate further, this book would be a good place to start.
The current Zeitgeist seems to demand that chess books are marketed as being good for you rather than just enjoyable and entertaining, and here it’s claimed that solving the puzzles in this book will ‘without question, undoubtedly improve the ‘real world’ tactical ability of anyone attempting to do so. Well, possibly. Solving endgame studies has been considered by many, Dvoretsky for one, to be beneficial for stronger players, and I quite understand why. I’m less convinced, though, that solving problems is the most effective way to improve your tactical skills, but it may well give you an increased appreciation of the beauty that is possible over 64 squares, and inspire you to find beautiful moves yourself.
My issue with the book concerns lack of accuracy, particularly in the problem sources. Puzzle 190 was composed by (the fairly well known) Henry D’Oyly Bernard, not by (the totally unknown) Bernard D’Oily. Frustratingly for me, I seem to remember pointing this out to the author on Facebook. Puzzle 242, a much anthologised #3 by Kipping, is given as ‘Unknown source 1911’. It took me 30 seconds (I know where to look) to ascertain that it was first published in the Manchester City News. As Fritz Giegold was born in 1903, it seems unlikely that he was precocious enough to compose Puzzle 237 in 1880. Again, a quick check tells me it was actually published in 1961. And so it goes on.
It’s not just the sources: the final position of puzzle 203 has three, not four pins. Someone with more knowledge of chess problems might have pointed out that in Puzzle 164 Sam Loyd displays an early example of the Organ Pipes Theme.
Even the back cover, which you can see below, is remiss, in claiming that ‘In a chess puzzle, White has to force mate in a stipulated number of moves’. No – you mean ‘chess problem’, not ‘chess puzzle’.
Chess problem and study enthusiasts are, by their nature, very much concerned with accuracy. It’s unfortunate that this book doesn’t meet the high standards they’d expect.
To summarise, then: this is a highly entertaining book which will appeal to many players of all levels, especially those who’d like to find out more about studies and problems. It’s somewhat marred by the unacceptable number of mistakes, which might have been avoided with a bit of fact checking and a thorough run through by an expert in the field of chess composition.
(Apologies for the repeated diagrams in the solutions: it’s a function of the plug-in used by British Chess News.)
Chess Improvement: It’s all in the mindset : Barry Hymer and Peter Wells
From the publisher :
“Written by Barry Hymer and Peter Wells, Chess Improvement: It’s all in the mindset is an engaging and instructive guide that sets out how the application of growth mindset principles can accelerate chess improvement.
With Tim Kett and insights from Michael Adams, David Howell, Harriet Hunt, Gawain Jones, Luke McShane, Matthew Sadler and Nigel Short.
Foreword by Henrik Carlsen, father of world champion Magnus Carlsen.
Twenty-first-century knowledge about skills development and expertise requires us to keep such mystical notions as fixed ‘talent’ in perspective, and to emphasise instead the dynamic and malleable nature of these concepts.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in chess, where many gifted players fall prey to plausible but self-defeating beliefs and practices – and thereby fail to achieve the levels their ‘natural’ abilities predicted. Happily, however, the reverse can be true too; through learned dispositions such as grit, risk-taking, strategic thinking and a capacity for sheer hard work, players of apparently modest abilities can achieve impressive results.
Blending theory, practice and the distinct but complementary skills of two authors – one an academic (and amateur chess player) and the other a highly regarded England Chess Olympiad coach (and grandmaster) – Chess Improvement is an invaluable resource for any aspirational chess player or coach/parent of a chess player.
Barry and Peter draw on interviews conducted with members of England’s medal-winning elite squad of players and provide a template for chess improvement rooted in the practical wisdom of experienced chess players and coaches.
They also include practical illustrative descriptions from the games and chess careers of both developing and leading players, and pull together themes and suggestions in a way which encourages readers to create their own trajectories for chess improvement.”
If you visit the Chess Palace at the end of my garden you’ll find quite a few chess books and magazines. But if you visit my office and look at the shelves above my desk you’ll find a lot of books on education, child development, psychology, parenting, conditions such as autism and ADHD. There are not many books which would fit equally well in both my office and the Chess Palace, but this is one. Perhaps I need a second copy.
The authors are a well matched team. Barry Hymer is a distinguished academic specialising in educational psychology, and also a strong amateur chess player. Peter Wells is an experienced grandmaster and élite level coach with an interest in psychology. Tim Kett, another strong player and experienced chess coach, also made a significant contribution to the book.
England’s six strongest players, Mickey Adams, Nigel Short, Gawain Jones, David Howell, Luke McShane and Matthew Sadler, along with one of our top woman players, Harriet Hunt, were interviewed for the book. I wonder if Jovanka Houska was also invited. Henrik Carlsen, Magnus’s father, agreed to provide the preface.
The main message of the book, which draws heavily on the work of Carol Dweck and other researchers, is that having a growth rather than a fixed mindset is a major factor in chess improvement. If you see yourself as someone who can grow as a player you will do so, but defining yourself by your current rating will leave you stuck.
Chapter 1 introduces the concept of mindset theory and how it applies to chess. The authors then provide us with their chess mindset biographies: Hymer tells of his unfulfilled early promise while Wells is brutally honest about what he sees as underachievement and psychological failings.
The remaining chapters start with Hymer giving the theoretical and research background, followed by Wells looking at the same subject from a practical point of view. Finally, there are some very helpful guidelines for parents and coaches, for which Kett was partly responsible.
Chapter 2 concerns Motivation. Hymer explains the difference between extrinsic (prizes, rewards) and intrinsic (from the game itself) motivation, explaining that intrinsic motivation is, by and large, more likely to lead to improvement. I’d add here that many competitions for young children are very big on extrinsic motivation, from fluffy mascots to outsize trophies.
Wells then provides us with the views of his interviewees, all of whom, as you would expect, just enjoy playing chess. Several of them related that they really enjoyed reading chess books when they were younger, and some also enjoyed the beauty of endgame studies. His points are illustrated by examples from play.
I was particularly interested to see a game with which I was very familiar: played by Luke McShane in the 1992 World U10 Championship. I knew his opponent as Aronov: I hadn’t realised until now that this was Aronian, who was at that time using the Russian version of his surname.
Wells was impressed by the sophistication of McShane’s play after a poor opening and suggested that he had already studied Nimzowitsch. After White’s 7th move he speculated that ‘Luke was just making it up’.
I have a story about this game which can now be told for the first time. Before the tournament Luke’s father sent me copies of his recent scoresheets and I provided some feedback. Luke had played this poor variation before and, as I was playing the Schliemann myself at the time and had won several games on the black side of this line, I was able to identify the problem. I suggested to his father that he needed something different against the Schliemann in case it came up in the tournament, but my advice was ignored.
It was all the more amusing, then, to turn to Chapter 7 and read: “Sometimes, as with Richard James, the very thoughtful and experienced influence behind Richmond Junior Chess Club’s involvement in Luke’s early career, the advice was directed to his father, reinforcing Rod McShane’s already impressively sound instincts as to how to help his son.”
Chapter 3 is about Challenge and Feedback. Should you challenge yourself by playing in stronger tournaments where you might not score many points but you’ll learn from playing stronger opponents? Or should you play in weaker tournaments where you hope to win most of your games and perhaps receive a reward, financial or otherwise, for doing so? What is the best way for chess teachers to give feedback to their students?
In general, mindset theory suggests you should play up, but it doesn’t always work out. Nigel Short recalls playing in the Phillips & Drew Tournament in 1982 where he was rather out of his depth, scoring 3½/13. “Even at the time, concerns were widely expressed that Nigel had been launched into a level for which he was just not ready, but he is now adamant that there were simply no adults around to see the danger in advance. Nigel himself is in no doubt that this did tangible damage to his confidence and appetite to the game and thereby impeded his development for some time after – that was ‘not a learning experience, that was trauma’. ” Of course different players will respond differently. Luke, for example, has no such memories. But the general message here is to mix challenging and confidence boosting events.
On the subject of feedback, specific praise and constructive criticism are valued, but general praise can be less than useful. Harriet Hunt is interesting here on girls in chess. “She felt subjected to much gender-grounded feedback, some of it critical for sure, but also large amounts of condescension in the form of ‘praise and patting on the head’. … More generally, she shares my conviction that girls in chess tend to be held back by excessive adulation for relatively modest achievements in a way that can damage their motivation.”
I particularly liked two of the pieces of advice for parents and coaches at the end of this chapter: “Discourage children from counting their trophies.” and “When they finish a tournament game, don’t ask the result!”. You might have to think about both of them.
Chapter 4 looks at “the right kind of effort: making practice purposeful”. Most of us are familiar with Ericsson’s ‘10,000 hour rule’, but what do we mean by ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it apply to chess? In fact the interviewees, by and large, approached chess in a rather less structured way than might be expected. Wells then talks at length about various aspects of studying openings before moving onto tactics and endings.
The important subject of Failure is tackled in Chapter 5. All chess players lose games from time to time. All tournament players will experience bad tournaments. Different players will deal with this in different ways.
Hymer reached this position with black in Round 4 of the 2018 Blackpool Open. It’s an easy win: all he has to do is play fxg5 (or f5) to fix the king-side pawns, march his king round to the queen side and create a passed pawn. But instead he played the immediate and catastrophic Ke8, and after the reply f5 had to resign. “I withdrew from the tournament”, he admitted, “and headed home, seriously contemplating another three-decade separation from chess”.
Wells then addresses the issues of how to cope when something goes wrong in your game, how to respond to a loss in your next game, and how to reflect on your defeats before the next tournament.
Chapter 6 brings us on to Metacognition – thinking about thinking. Being aware of your thought processes, and, beyond that, being able to regulate them, is not only important in terms of chess improvement but is a vital life skill. After Barry Hymer’s theoretical background, Peter Wells considers the effect of metacognition on chess style, and whether it’s preferable to develop a ‘universal’ style or to focus on your specific strengths and preferences. Of particular interest here is a section devoted to the role of style in Matthew Sadler’s professional chess career.
Finally, Chapter 7 is about Cooperation. Hymer explains the latest research into the advantages of working together within small groups. Then Wells looks at the practical side of cooperation, emphasising the importance of parents, mentors and coaches for younger players, and then writing about the camaraderie and sportsmanship which exists at all levels of chess.
This is from the game Wells – Priehoda (Cappelle-la-Grande Open 1992) where White played the winning combination 25. Nb5+ Kc8 26. Rxc6+ Rxc6 27. Nxa7+ Kc7 28. Rxd7+ Kxd7 29. Nxc6 Ra8 30. a6 Kc7 31. Nb4 1-0
The loser responded not only with generous words but by submitting the combination to Chess Informant: a sporting gesture indeed.
By now we’ve reached the epilogue and, having learnt a lot of interesting and helpful information about mindset theory, it’s rather perturbing to read in a footnote: “(John) Hattie attributes having a growth rather than a fixed mindset to a modest effect size of 0.19 in recent presentations, and the Education Endowment Foundation has failed in their research to find a compelling reason to do mindset interventions in schools and classrooms.”.
So, have we all been wasting our time? Not at all, claims Hymer: schools tend to have ‘superficial or muddled understandings’. Yes, I can understand that. My impression is that some schools tend to jump on the latest education bandwagon without a lot of thought. A decade or so ago it was VAK (look it up!), then it was Mindsets: for some it’s Chess on the Curriculum.
I was already familiar with the concept and had read Carol Dweck’s book on the subject. I was also aware that the whole idea had been criticised in some quarters: here, for instance (with my apologies for a rather rude word), is respected education author and blogger David Didau’s take on mindset theory. There’s a lot more on both sides of the argument online if you care to look. You pay your money and you take your choice.
My view, as an interested and reasonably well informed layman, is that Mindset Theory has its uses in certain situations, but needs to be treated with discretion. Hymer seems to think that almost anyone could become a strong player given sufficient time and the right mindset. I don’t think I agree. Estimates for the heritability of IQ range from something like 50% to 80% so it seems reasonable to assume that chess ability (which is in itself a macro-skill comprising a lot of micro-skills) is also in part heritable. His views – and this may explain his promotion of Mindset Theory – are a lot closer to the nurture end of the nature-nurture spectrum than mine.
This leads into my other problem with the book. We hear a lot of grandmaster voices, all of whom have interesting and sometimes contradictory things to say. I found the contributions of Matthew Sadler and Luke McShane particularly valuable: it may not be a coincidence that they are perhaps the two strongest amateur chess players in the world. But I also wanted to hear the voices of lower rated players who are interested in chess improvement. Ben Johnson’s popular Perpetual Chess Podcast, for example, often features adult improvers. Hearing from ambitious teenagers might also have been valuable, and it would have been good to hear more than one female voice. I’m not sure how helpful this fixation with top grandmasters really is: one issue for me is that many of the games and positions Wells uses to make his points were rather too difficult to be personally useful to this 1900 strength player.
In spite of my reservations I’d still offer a strong recommendation for this book, which takes a fresh, even if sometimes controversial, approach to chess improvement. It’s well written, well structured and often very funny. On almost every page you’ll find nuggets of wisdom which will, at the very least, make you stop and think.
There are, of course, very many books on the market which will show you how to play good moves, but there are very few that consider what’s happening in both your mind and your brain when you play. An understanding of these issues will improve both your rating and your enjoyment of chess. The book will also be especially valuable – perhaps essential reading – for chess teachers and parents.
The publishers, Crown House, may be a new name to you. They specialise in books on education and self help, and, as their logo is a chess queen, it seems only right that they should branch out into our favourite game. This book is already high up in the Amazon best seller list for chess books, so perhaps it’s reaching an audience away from the usual chess community. There’s certainly scope for more books in the field of chess psychology and education: we at British Chess News hope this will be the first of many books from this publisher.
“The fifth volume of the Grandmaster Repertoire – 1.e4 series provides a top-class repertoire against the Alekhine, Scandinavian, Pirc and Modern Defenses, plus various offbeat alternatives Black may try. Negi’s latest work continues the winning formula of his previous books: the 1.e4 repertoire is founded on established main lines and turbo-charged with the innovative ideas of a world-class theoretician, making this an essential addition to the library of every ambitious chess player.”
I suspect that some of the keen proponents of these openings would strongly disagree that their pet opening is a minor defence to e4. Indeed, the popularity of some of these defences, in particular, the Scandinavian, would suggest that these openings are not easy for white to meet and the first player has to work hard to gain an advantage out of the opening. The sheer size of this volume shows that these so called lesser defences are pretty resilient.
This is where this book comes in, the quality of the analysis is impressive and there are plenty of original suggestions backed up by concrete lines and analysis which will arm the white player with much material. There is plenty of explanatory text that elucidates the main positional ideas in each chapter. The author pays particular attention to move order considerations which are particularly pertinent in the Pirc/Modern complex of openings.
As the title suggests, this is a book written from a 1.e4 white player’s point of view but there are many instances where Negi gives alternative variations for the first player to try. The suggested repertoire is generally dynamic and attacking but there are plenty of lines where white nurses a space advantage and positional pressure.
The book is divided into four sections:
Each section in then partitioned into logical chapters covering the major variations. The author skillfully manages transpositions with good cross references.
The first section on the Alekhine recommends the solid, Modern Variation with 4.Nf3 which is usually played at GM level. One particular line that has fascinated me for years is the variation 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4.Nf3 dxe5 5.Nf3 Nd7 where black goads white into the tempting 6.Nf7. Bent Larsen tried this against Bobby Fischer in a blitz game in 1966 and was duly crushed. This line has been in the repertoire of some decent players and white, even when handled by an IM, has gone wrong and not pressed home the attack. The following game demonstrates this, but in the notes gives the refutation to this provocative fifth move. The author acknowledges that some of the analysis is taken from a book by John Shaw.
Eric Prie – Igor Alexandre Nataf Andorra op 15th 1997
1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. Nf3 dxe5 5. Nxe5 Nd7? A provocative move, Bent Larsen famously played this in a blitz game v Bobby Fischer in 1966 and was crushed. 6. Nxf7
An engine discovery, winning stylishly 16… Bh6 17. Rb7! Bd7 (17… Bxf4 18. Qxf6+ exf6 19. Ne4# Is the pretty point!
or17… Bxb7 18. Qe6+ Kc7 19. Bxe5+ Wins trivially) 18. Bg3 Rb8 19. Rxb8 Qxb8 20. O-O Qf8 21. Re1 Nfg4 22. Qf3!! Qxf3 23. gxf3 Rf8 24. Ne4+ Kc7 25. fxg4 Bf4 26. Be2 White has a winning endgame but some technique is still required to convert the extra pawn.)
14. Rc1 g6 15. Be2 Qc7
16. Na4? This is poor (16. bxc5+! Winning but care is still required. Qxc5 17. Bxe5+! Kxe5 18. O-O White a winning attack: Intending a combination of Rfe1, Na4, Bf3 and c4-c5, an example variation is given: Bh6 19. Na4 Qa3 20. Rc3 Qxa4 21. Qxe7+ Kd4 22. Rd3+ wins) 16… Bh6 ! 17. bxc5+? The final mistake (17. Bxe5+ Kxe5 18. f4+ Bxf4 19. Rd1 Bf5 20. g3 Raf8 21. gxf4+ Kd6 22. Qg7 b6 Black is probably better, but white can still fight) 17… Kd7
Now white is dead, the queens’s come off and he is left a piece down.} 18. Qe6+ Ke8 19. Qxe5 Bxf4 20. Qxc7 Bxc7 21. Nb6 Rb8 22. Bf3 Nd7 23. Nxd7 Ba5+ 24. Ke2 Bxd7 25. Kd3 Bb4 26. c6 bxc6 27. dxc6 Bf5+ 28. Ke2 Bc5 0-1
The second section deals with the Scandinavian. The Pytel variation 3…Qd6 is very trendy and this is one of the first chapters that I turned to. Here is an entertaining win by white in the 5…Bg4 line.
c6 ( 7… Nc6 8. Bf4 is good for white) 8. Bf4 Qd8 (8… Qxd4 9. Nb5! Is more or less winning)
9. d5! A crushing blow opening up the position for the better developed side
Nxd5 (9… cxd5 10. Bxb8 Followed by Bb5+
leads to major problems for black) 10. O-O-O e6 11. Nxd5 cxd5 (11… exd5 12.Qg3! Black finds it impossible to develop)
12. Bxb8 Qxb8 13. Bb5+ Ke7 14. Rhe1
a6 (14… g6 Is too slow 15. Rxd5 Bh6+ 16. Kb1 Rd8 17. Rxd8 Qxd8 18. Rd1 winning) 15. Qxd5! The play is now totally forcing. White has a forced mate or win of queen. axb5 16. Qg5+ Ke8 17. Qxb5+ Ke7 18. Qg5+ Ke8 19. Qb5+ Ke7 20. Rd7+ Kf6 21. Rxf7+!
Kxf7 22. Qd7+ Be7 23. Qxe6+ Kf8 24. Qxe7+ Kg8 25. Qe6+ Kf8 26. Qf5+ Kg8 27. Qd5+ Kf8 28. Qf5+ Kg8 29. Re7 Qe8 30. Qd5+ Kf8 31. Rxe8+ Rxe8 32. Qxb7 Black should have resigned here
The third sections deals with the Pirc/Modern complex. The repertoire suggested is the 150 Attack but is far more subtle than that, as white varies his setup according to the myriad black setups available. Below, is an instructive, thematic win by the editor, Andrew Greet.
7…a6 (7… Qd6 8. Bf4 Is horrid for black) 8. Ba4 b5? (8…
Rb8 9. Bg5!Qd6 10. f4! b5 11. Bb3 Nc8?! (11… h6 Black can stay
in the game albeit with a lousy position) 12. Bxe7 Nxe7 13. O-O
Simple development leaves white with a big plus, or 13.g4) 9. Nxb5 axb5 10. Bxb5 Qd6 11. c3 Ra6 12. Bf4! Rb613. Qa4
13…Bc2 14. b3 g5 15. Bxg5 Rg8 16. Bxe7 Bxe7 17. Bxc6+ Kf8 18. O-O Black struggled on until move 37 but could have resigned here
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