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!