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John Watson Book Review (2)

Three Improvement Books

Secrets of Practical Chess; John Nunn; 176 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998 Improve Your Chess Now; Jonathan Tisdall; 224 pages; Cadogan Chess, 1997 S.T.A.R. Chess; Paul Motwani; 240 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998

Three Improvement Books

Secrets of Practical Chess; John Nunn; 176 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998

Improve Your Chess Now; Jonathan Tisdall; 224 pages; Cadogan Chess, 1997

  1. Chess; Paul Motwani; 240 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998

With this review, I continue to look back upon books published over the last year, so that I can include two more of my personal favorites! The three books above can all be put in the somewhat nebulous category of 'improvement books' which, as opposed to 'instructional books', signifies that the reader will be given general practical advice and analysis rather than, say, a traditionally systematic presentation of standard positions and concepts. To those of us who write opening books, GM John Nunn is a sort of semi-deity whose books represent a barely-attainable ideal. In some future opening book review, I'll discuss why that is, but suffice it to say that he combines originality, objectivity, and thoroughness. Many grandmasters fail to achieve even one of these qualities in their theoretical writings, much less all three! At any rate, Nunn makes it even harder for the rest of use hacks to measure up by putting out superb games collections and quality revisions of classic books as well. His recent book, Secrets of Practical Chess, is for the most part aimed at a less sophisticated audience than Nunn is wont to address. It is, as usual, well-written, thoughtful, and original.

The book begins with a series of mini-essays on topics such as calculation, positional play, tactics, blunders, and time trouble. Nunn gives us practical advice about all these subjects, and then moves on to separate chapters on the opening, middlegame, endgame, and 'using a computer'. Every chapter is well-done; but I personally feel that the endgame chapter is a little incongruous, being essentially a survey of frequently-occurring endings. Not only do scads of other books cover this material, but the amount of practical advice (e.g., how to think about endings and how to approach the example at hand) is minimal in comparison with the rest of the book. This is not a very serious objection, however, as just about everyone could use a review of this material. The only other aspect of the book which is slightly disappointing is its length: the material is so good, we could use more of it!

For the rest of this review, at the risk of ignoring other interesting aspects of Nunn's work, I would like to draw the reader's attention to one superb piece of writing called 'Books on Offbeat Openings'. I suspect that I read more of such books than Nunn does, so I was delighted and impressed with his insights into them. He gets right to the essence of the matter, pointing out a number of dubious tendencies such books normally exhibit, for example: (a) they claim that 'recent games' justify a previously-discredited opening (Nunn points out that the games are usually by unknown players and don't stand up to examination); (b) the authors of these books "display great ingenuity in finding resources for 'their' side, but often overlook even quite simple tactical defenses for the 'other' side" (how true!); (c) the author's analysis includes both 'nothing moves' by the opponent and variations in which the opponent grabs all the offered material and cooperates in a glorious self-immolation (when in both cases, rational continuations were available). The great thing is that Nunn backs this criticism up by examining two such books by GMs: Tony Kosten's The Latvian Gambit and Andy Soltis' Winning with the Giuoco Piano and the Max Lange Attack. Tackling the former book first, he simply devastates Kosten's analysis of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Nc6, and then does the same for Kosten's main line of 3...Qf6 4.Nc4 fxe4 5.Nc3 Qf7 6.Nc3 c6. In typical Nunn style, this takes four pages of what appears to me to be flawless analysis. He then turns his attention to Soltis' book and in a further four pages, simply refutes Soltis' superficial 'analysis' of both of Black's main defenses in the most critical variations. After Nunn finishes, Black has two ways of getting an advantage versus a line with which White is supposed to be able to 'win'! This exercise is vintage Nunn: devastating and pathbreaking at the same time. I do have a small quibble with his characterization of the books involved, however. Unfortunately, he by implication equates Kosten's and Soltis' efforts, calling the former book 'one of the better ones' of this genre, and the latter 'a relatively high-quality product from a reliable GM author'. The sad truth, as I know from poring over Soltis' book with my students, is that it is a thoughtless work which obviously took little effort to write. There are other sections in it with problems similar to those Nunn points out, and Soltis is too strong a player to have actually analyzed or even looked at much of the material he presents. (Let me hasten to add that Andy has written some wonderful books, e.g., Confessions of a Grandmaster and The Art of Defense, among others, so he was certainly capable of better in this instance). On the other hand, Kosten offers much original and sometimes ingenious analysis, and clearly puts his heart into The Latvian Gambit. Although Nunn brilliantly demonstrates the flaws in two very important lines, Kosten has nevertheless added significantly to the theory of the Latvian Gambit, and his efforts in this rather hopeless endeavor still deserve our admiration. On the essential point, however, Nunn says what has long been needed to be said about such books. I can confirm from extensive experience that the type of errors he discovers are indeed rampant in typical books on offbeat openings, and in my opinion, they are at least as egregious in books written by grandmasters as in those by mere masters (who as a rule seem to work harder). It would be fun to discuss more of this excellent book, but I will stop here and just say that Secrets of Practical Chess is highly recommended, with players from 1500 to 2200 probably able to benefit the most from it.

GM Jonathan Tisdall's Improve Your Chess Now has a deceptively elementary-sounding title. This is a book with advanced and original insights, and arguably one of the very best chess books published in the last five years. Although many of the tactical and pattern-training exercises he presents are aimed at players of, say, 1600-2200 strength, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if grandmasters couldn't read this book and not only enjoy it immensely, but 'improve their chess' as well. Tisdall begins (as does Nunn, by the way) with a fairly lengthy discussion of Kotov's 'tree of analysis' method of calculation. Like Nunn, Tisdall concludes that there are a number of serious flaws in the extreme version of Kotov's technique, and includes some lengthy examples of real-world chess to illustrate those flaws. His list of tips on how to calculate, given at the end of first chapter, is concise, to the point, and well worth committing to memory.

Continuing with calculation techniques, Tisdall moves on to visualization methods, using blindfold chess and the idea of 'resetting the mind's eye' on intermediate positions as training techniques for improving one's calculations. These are ideas he has tested with his students in Norway; they represent a fresh approach to what is traditionally the most common failing of developing players.

Improve Your Chess is also a gold mine of practical advice. There is a chapter on playing bad positions, one on recurring patterns, and one on the value of the pieces (including a variety of positional sacrifices). Tisdall talks about bad bishops, the bishop pair, and a variety of material imbalances such as bishop and knight versus rook and pawns. Throughout all this, the author writes with a chatty and enthusiastic style. He draws upon a lifetime of thinking about chess, and includes numerous entertaining quotes and concepts from great players. In his last chapter, called 'Wisdom and Advice', Tisdall turns thoroughly philosophical, presenting a wide collection of provocative thoughts and observations from various sources. This includes some excellent practical advice about time pressure and an intelligent discussion of prophylaxis, a concept which is increasingly important in today's chess. One of the sources he taps is a bit unusual: proverbs from the game shogi! Tisdall manages to find proverbs in chess which are analogous to the shogi ones; but these are not very convincing, in my opinion. For example, he quotes (with what seems tacit approval) Lasker's rules such as not moving a piece more than once in the opening and developing knights before bishops, even though one could argue that these are among the most counterproductive of all such suspect generalities. But this is a small point; there is simply a wealth of absorbing and relevant advice here about attitude, over-the-board energy, objectivity, and a host of other facets of practical play.

To conclude his book, Tisdall provides two Appendices with useful mating and tactical patterns, followed by an entertaining bibliography with a mini-review of each book! If it isn't already obvious, this is one of my favorite newer books, and I think you can hardly help but learn from it and be entertained by it, whatever your strength.

Gambit Publications is producing an impressive series of initial titles (two of which I have already reviewed, including Nunn's above). But my first, second, and continued reaction to GM Paul Motwani's S.T.A.R. Chess is: I don't get it. I know that this book's predecessors, H.O.T. Chess and C.O.O.L. Chess, are quite popular (unfortunately, I haven't read them), so there will undoubtedly be enthusiastic fans of Motwani's latest effort as well. But to me, it is a book which combines apparently unrelated chess games with rambling and ridiculously self-indulgent prose. Moreover, from the examples I've looked at closely, the chess analysis itself is unimpressive (especially for a grandmaster); Motwani consistently prefers to show cheap tricks instead of examining the best moves, and apparently takes little or no time to research the numerous comments he makes about known positions. Worse still, it's never clear (to me, anyway) what the reader is supposed to be learning. The author seems far too in love with himself to slow down and tell us, and the constant supply of irrelevant 'puzzles' and amazingly banal new-age blather doesn't help in this regard. It seems to me that at some point, the stream of acronyms, colorless stories, bad poetry, astrological presentations, and conversations with extra-terrestrials(!) begin to consume so many pages (which the reader is paying for, after all) that the chess content of Motwani's book is seriously impaired. After going through the book a second time, trying to grasp what I was missing, I finally had to ask myself: Did I learn anything from this bookÿ Of course I did--a position here and a position there--but that's not much, and it's a bad sign that I even had to ask.

Well, I've been rather harsh, I admit; so let me present an alternative interpretation. Suppose that you're a chess student, intent upon improvement, say, 1100-1800 in strength. You have a full-time job with precious few hours in the evening for study. You've tried slogging though some encyclopedic endgame or middlegame works, or perhaps one of Watson's humorless, prose-starved opening tomes; but your eyelids just keep getting heavy in the face of such material and, hey, maybe there's something fun to watch on TVÿ Then one day at a tournament, you pick up a bright, witty book called S.T.A.R. Chess by an infectiously enthusiastic grandmaster who just has the craziest ideas about aliens and astrology, and it really makes you laugh. Better yet, when you play through the annotated games, there's one pretty two-move mate or deflection theme after another, and the pieces are really flying. Gee, this stuff is fun! A S.T.A.R. fan is born.

I can't really see it (especially the 'witty' part); but I would much rather have a student of mine be exposed to games and positions for whatever reason than to avoid studying altogether. And, although the games Motwani chooses tend to be a bit obvious, they are chock full of useful tactical themes. So if you can stand Motwani's philosophy and humor (I am resisting putting those words in quotes), this may be a good book for you. I just can't recommend it myself.

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