Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review: Back To Basics: Tactics

I've been a fan of Dan Heisman 's Novice Nook column for quite some time now, so it should be no surprise that I wanted to check out his books. First on my Heisman reading list was Back To Basics: Tactics.

This book is largely what it sounds like: a study guide to the basic tactical motifs in chess. It includes all the usual friends of the chess player, such as pins, skewers, forks, and so on. It also speaks to some things that aren't often covered in tactics books, namely removal of the guard, defensive tactics and seeds of tactical destruction.

Removal-of-the-guard goes buy various names in the chess universe, such as "deflection" and "overworked pieces," and I've never before seen a decent coverage of this important tactic. Removal of the guard is one of Heisman's favorite axes to grind and he works it over at length and in depth in Back to Basics: Tactics.

Defensive tactics are another motif that most books about tactics ignore, which is unfortunate considering how useful they can be in the practical life of the aspiring chess player. Heisman, always in the realm of the practical, dishes up a good helping of defensive play.

"Seeds of tactical destruction" is an interesting addition to this book and it highlights Heisman's emphasis on practical play. This topic covers solutions to a time management problem. How do you recognize when there is a tactical solution to the current position? If you can quickly see that there is no chance for the use of tactics, you can eliminate a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in searching for a tactic to play. On the other hand, you don't want to lose the opportunity to play a tactic just because you couldn't recognize its existence!

If you are an avid Novice Nook reader, a quick look at this book's table of contents will be very familiar. In fact, every topic in Back To Basics: Tactics is covered over at Novice Nook, so what extra does this book bring to the party? Chess problems, and lots of them! Each tactics topic comes along with many problems to work through, with heavy emphasis on removal of the guard problems - that set of problems is easily the largest set of problems on a specific tactic in the book.

There is a chapter in the book entitled "78 Problems On 64 Squares," which is a set of problems covering all the tactics discussed in earlier chapters. The problems are in no particular order, which is intended to simulate a real playing environment. After all, in a real game, there's nobody looking over your shoulder saying, "White to mate in three," or "Black to play and win a pawn!"

I found most of the problems in Back To Basics: Tactics fairly easy. Considering how much emphasis I place on tactics in my chess studies, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. However, there certainly were some problems that gave me a bit of a hard time, and I had the most trouble with problems sets about tactics I have not much seen in other books, specifically removal of the guard, defense and seeds. I will no doubt be coming back to those chapters repeatedly and often until I get the hang of them.

Even working through the problems which seemed a bit simple at my stage of development was useful, though, because often the solutions given by Heisman were enlightening. Fairly often I might solve the problem correctly, but not exactly for the same reasons that the author gives in his explanations of the solutions, and sometimes he gives contunuations for the answers that hadn't occured to me.

At the beginning of the book, there is a sections on counting, a topic to which Heisman gives high priority. This is another topic about which the author explains in a way that other books I have read do not, and it certainly has changed my game since reading Heisman's explanation.

I think that all newcomers to chess should read this book, and read it carefully, but so should most intermediate players. Rank beginners obviously need to learn about all these tactics, and this book is a great place to start. More advanced players may know all or most of these tactical motifs, but to them the big payoff from this book is faster, clearer thinking about tactics.

All is not peaches and creams, unfortunately. Back To Basics: Tactics has a rather long errata list, which you can't just download, you have to email Heisman and ask him to email back the errata sheet. Admittedly, when I requested the errata list from the author I received a reply inside an hour or two, so this is more of an annoyance than a major hassle. If what I have read is correct, there will be a second printing of this book and it will contain all the corrections, so anyone that is interested in buying a copy might consider waiting until the sophomore printing hits the bookstores. Unfortunately, I don't know how long that wait will be, so the choice to wait is a bit of a judgement call on the potential reader.

I'll sum up by saying that, at least for the time being, practicing the problems in Back To Basics: Tactics has replaced my daily ritual of fighting the Tactics Trainer for an hour or so.

As always, I'm Stick, your resident wordslinger, and I'll see y'all out there on the gridiron!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: My System

For every discipline worth studying, there is a set of iconic books.  Chess is no exception to the rule, and Aron Nimzowitsch's My System  is one of it's icon texts.  Despite being Latvian, Nimzowitsch wrote the original version of My System in German, probably due to publishing preferences.  It has since been translated in to English several times, and the text I have just finished reading is fully titled "My System: New Translation," published by Quality Chess.

I have only one major gripe about this book, and I'll get it of my chest right now.  Some of the translation from the original German is awful.  It appears to me that the book has been translated in parts.  Chapters 9 and onward seem to have been translated  by a competent human, while the earlier chapters read like they were translated by a cranky old computer program such as babelfish.  The concepts in these early chapters is understandable, but they are a chore to read.  I was tempted to quit reading somewhere around the sixth chapter, but I perservered.  If you happen to read this version of My System, and you, too, take issue with the writing, I suggest that you grit your teeth and push through the first nine chapters.  In the end, it will be worth the hassle!

Incidentally, if any of my readers have read other English translations of this book and can comment on the quality of the translations, I hope you'll post below.

My System, is divided into two main sections: "The Elements," and "Positional Play".  This distinction is a bit odd to me as it would seem to indicate that "The Elements" would describe tactical play, whereas it really talks about the building blocks of strategic play with a few bits of tactical issues thrown in for good measure.  To me, at least, there is no clear line of demarcation between tactics and strategy with this book, so the best bet is to just ignore the whole thing and get down to business.  It all makes sense in it's own mashed-up way and labels be damned!

Right from the first few pages of My System, I learned things that I could immediately put to good use.  The subject of tempo is just one of those things about which I've never read a satisfactory description, but finally, thanks to Nimzowitsch, I think I understand the use of tempo in the opening.  Another issue about which I've been a bit shaky for some time is the use of rooks and open files.  Again, Nimzovitsch does an excellent job of clearing up this subject.  If you have studied many games by the masters, you've no doubt come across some rook moves that just don't seem to make any sense.  A player slides a rook over to a file that isn't even half-open, never mind open, as if there was some purpose, but the reason is completely opaque and the annotator conveniently fails to justify the rook move.  Well, Nimzovitsch calls these things "mysterious rook moves," and explains what they are all about.  A definite "aha!" moment for me.

Here's another thing that has perplexed me for quite a while.  I've often read a phrase along the lines of "provoke a weakness, fix it as a target, eliminate the target."  The discussions about this philosophy have been lacking at best, but as Nimzovitsch lays it out in his description of pawn chains and blockading, the issue emerges with extreme clarity.  Another "aha!" moment.

It's interesting to note that the author's definition of a pawn chain is somewhat different than definitions I have read before.  The reason for this is fairly clear from the text because Nimzovitsch's definition is necessary for his treatment of how to attack pawn structures.  He maybe could have chosen a different phrase to describe this pawn structure, but you'll get the hang of it quickly enough.

Probably the thickest common thread throughout the weave of My System is the center of the board:  how to occupy it, how to defend it, how to control it, and when to shift your attack away from the center and onto a flank.  I found that last bit particularly interesting because, as with much of this book, Nimzovitsch treats a subject about which I am familiar in a way that clarifies my understanding. 

It`s a bit difficult to speak about some of these topics in isolation because it`s often the case that the explanations in this book revolve around several concepts at once.  In general, it`s not a tough read, however, because the intertwining of concepts logically falls out from their nature.  It sure makes it a bit difficult to relate these topics without paraphrasing huge chunks of the book, so you`re going to have to trust me that it all makes sense in the end!

There are gobs and gobs of good things to say about My System, but hopefully I've given you a taste of what lives between the covers.

Besides the somewhat dubious translation, are there any other bad bits of which to be wary?  The trouble with trying to answer this question is that it's difficult for me to say much about the bits that I didn't understand.  I don't know if they didn't make sense because Nimzowitsch didn't describe them well enough, or because I'm just not far enough along in my chess study for them to make any sense.  I tend to lean towards the latter explanation.  At any rate, this is definitely a text for me to revisit, maybe six months down the road, partly for reinforcement of the issues I understood and partly to try to ferret out some understanding of the bits that made no sense the first time around.  The final chapter, entitled "Manoeuvring,"  totally baffled me.  I can't even tell you what it's about - I'm that stumped.

Nimzowitsch spends a bit of time railing against his critics, more time explaining how innovative his chess theory is, and some additional time bashing the followers of Tarrasch's school of thought.  Interestingly, Nimzowitsch makes it clear that he is not trashing Tarrasch himself, but rather the folks that blindly follow Tarrasch's methods.  None of this stuff is really germain to the Nimzowitsch system of play, but it certainly is an interesting look into the mind of the author.

I'd say that My System is a must-read for every serious chess player, but you'll need to be fairly well read to be prepared for this book.  If you've read most of the books I have read, or have read a similar assortment of chess books, I think you'll do OK.  In case you haven't been keeping up with my book reviews, you should check them out  and decide for yourself if you've got the jam for My System.  However, if you buy a copy of My System and find you aren't quite up to tackling it yet, you won't have wasted your money on it.  I'm sure you will eventually want (or even need) to read this book.

As always, I'm Stick, your resident wordslinger, and I'll see y'all out there on the gridiron!