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Chess Beach Reading Print E-mail
By Elizabeth Vicary   
July 18, 2008
Photo Jennifer Shahade
There was recently a vehement debate on my blog about how important solving tactics problems is or should be in a training regimen. The popular and obvious answer is “very,” but I’ve heard the opposite view from enough high level players to believe the question is complicated. Several years ago, Daniel Ludwig said in an interview with me that he prefers to analyze complex positions without clear solutions, and then compare his analysis with the published thoughts of strong players. I asked Alex Shabalov if he solved tactics growing up and he practically echoed Ludwig’s thoughts: ”The answer is no; I hated tactical problems and was very bad at solving them ....certainly never did it on my own. But I was solving a lot of ambiguous attacking the Alekhine games, where the answer is never clear and could have been argued with a coach. When I was able to argue in my favor a clear crap, then I knew I was way better than them. That worked all my way up until GM Bagirov became my coach....the crap never worked with him.”

One big problem with tactics books is that the answers are cut and dried, much more so than in real games. How often do you really get a chance to sacrifice your queen? And if the answer really is 1 in 10,000 games, then why practice it over and over? It’s like trying to model your life after movies: day to day existence isn’t nearly so dramatic. It might be much more useful to practice other skills, like deciding which pieces to exchange in a given position or evaluating the difference between two non-forcing positional moves. 

My own feeling is that you have to look at your games to figure out what work needs doing. Personally, I’m pretty sure that solving mates in three won’t help me much, but I definitely do miss a lot of forcing variations, especially when they involve quiet moves. I’ve also noticed that I’m bad at deciding whether a position really is perpetual check, so that’s on my list of problems to work on. But of course, I do solve tactics, because it’s easy, fun, and clearly to some degree helpful.

I have two modes for this. When I’m serious, I set the harder positions up on a board, take my time, and write out the solutions. For this, my current favorite book is Perfect Your Chess (Volokitin and Grabinsky). If I’m just solving puzzles for fun, then I want to be able to read the book comfortably on the subway/ at the beach/ while lying in bed. This means the solutions have to easy enough that I can follow them in my head. In the first instance, I’m doing the hard, rewarding work of practicing analysis and calculation; in the second I’m enjoying myself and maybe working a little pattern recognition and visualization in the mix. With that in mind, let’s take a look at two recent tactics books.

Jon Speelman’s Chess Puzzle Book is perfect for summertime beach reading. The problem selection is good: interesting, easy-to-medium difficulty, and, for the most part, the problems are fresh and unrecycled. I like the feel and look of the book, the font and the layout. The organization is thoughtful: the first half is arranged by the type of tactic; the second half by difficulty. While I’ve enjoyed reading this for my own pleasure on trains, I found it even more useful for teaching. The one thing that puzzles me is the somewhat-randomness of topic selection. Why a whole section on knight forks but nothing on any other kind of double attack? Why does the section on opening and closing lines come before the section on pins? Why no discoveries at all? But these are minor questions and do not detract from an otherwise great book.

Charles Hertan’s Forcing Chess Moves is a much more serious study partner. Hertan’s premise is that we all need more practice in identifying and analyzing the forcing moves—the checks, captures, mate threats, threats of captures-- in any position. By training ourselves to systematically check every forcing move in every position, we develop “computer eyes,” -- by this he means both the ability to accurately calculate variations and the ability to see unusual but strong moves. 


Each section starts with a “lesson,” where Hertan guides the reader through the thinking process, followed by exercises, where you practice. Let me come out and say upfront: I love this book, mostly because the positions are absolutely exquisite. I have a student who exclaims “Sexy!” whenever we do a problem in class that he finds aesthetically pleasing, but I’ve never been tempted to think of chess in those terms until I read this book. Let’s look at some examples:

From the “Forcing Retreats” lesson:

Filguth – De la Garza,
White to Move


Show Solution

An exercise from “Equal or Stronger Threats”:
Alexander Karpov – Ovetchkin Smolensk 2000,
White to Move

Show Solution

Doesn’t that make you catch your breath? Send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Almost every time I open this book, I find something new and beautiful.

I also find Hertan’s explanations amusing, particularly his intermittent but endearing use of ALL CAPS. Here is another example, from the chapter  “Quiet Forcing Moves."

“Your COMPUTER EYES must learn to shed human bias to find the following quiet connector, almost as routinely as you would consider a check or capture, as we have studied a very similar STOCK idea:

Graf –Wurm Augsburg 1953,
White to Move


Show Solution

    My only quibble with Forcing Chess Moves is the logic behind the cover photo. It shows a flexed, muscular arm, but one that has been digitally altered to make it appear pixilated. The photo seems to imply that seeing things through computer eyes blurs representations of natural human strength—surely this is antithetical to the entire message of the book? It’s a catchy, interesting image, but I wish it made more sense. But this is just a detail, and doesn’t stop me from recommending the book wholeheartedly, both for the reader’s training and enjoyment.

For more by Elizabeth Vicary and books, check out a recent post on her blog on two books by Quality Press.