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Silman's Holiday Pick: Strategy for Club Players Print E-mail
By IM Jeremy Silman   
December 3, 2013
ChessClubStrat250.jpg IM Jeremy Silman, author of many books himself, writes about his top holiday book pick.  

Christmas is almost upon us and gift ideas can be hard to come by. Chess players in particular are difficult to please since they probably already have their favorite chess set, they have already subscribed to their favorite chess magazine, and they also have quite a few chess books.

And here we’ll settle on chess books and leave other chess paraphernalia behind. I’m sticking with chess books because there’s nothing else that attracts, appalls, endears, or horrifies chess people like a chess book. One book will offer opening/tactical/strategic/endgame enlightenment. Another will promise a huge rise in your rating. Others are merely entertaining, and others take you deep into the world of chess history.

Chess books offer a true love/hate relationship since many promise the world and then disappoint. Others are too advanced or not advanced enough. Some are rejected simply because you don’t like the author’s writing style, and others are (unfortunately) embraced because they pull the wool over your eyes by selling literary snake oil. One man’s favorite chess book – prominently placed in his bookshelf – may well be sitting in another guy’s trashcan.

And let’s not forget about the additive nature of chess books. Some people buy lots of them in the hope that, if they walk past an instructive book enough times, knowledge will somehow photosynthesize in their brain. Others just love the look and feel. Some collect (yes, some have tens of thousands of chess books!), and some try to keep the amount down to reasonable proportions, though non-chess playing spouses start to get upset as the books begin to seek space and fill up one room after the other.

However, though you (or your spouse) might have had a bad experience with chess books, though you may have too many to count, and though you might have found that these books never seem as instructive as they claim to be, I’m going to ask you to buy one more chess book as a gift to yourself. It’s by International Master Herman Grooten and it’s so good that it deserves to be in every respectable chess player’s library. And, if your significant other is the chess player and you’re looking for something he/she would really appreciate, Grooten’s book is the solution to the, “What should I get him/her” dilemma.

I can hear some of you asking, “But it came out in 2009. Isn’t that old?”

That would be a valid argument if it was a book about openings, but the things this book teaches are timeless: passed pawns, weak pawns, strong and weak squares, pawn islands, the pawn center, open files, the two Bishops, centralization, space, etc. He also discusses what makes combinations work, what plans are, and quite a bit more.

That’s a lot of stuff, but one could reasonably ask, “There are lots of books that explore these things. What makes this so special?” The answers to this are: 1) Excellent (and compelling!) writing; 2) A conversational voice that (due to world class teaching skills) constantly soothes and instructs you; 3) Stories that reinforce the lessons, keep you completely focused on the material, and make reading the book a highly enjoyable experience. There’s a reason why Chess Strategy For Club Players won the ChessCase 2009 Book of the Year award!

Time to take a look under the cover. Let’s start of the Preface: “This book has been written for ambitious club players and ‘tournament sharks.’ It is an attempt to answer the question many players ask themselves: ‘The opening is over, how should I continue the game?’”

Chapter One is about “Steinitz’s Elements,” but Grooten isn’t going to give us some dry rendition of material that wowed the world over 100 years ago. Instead he elegantly tells us why we need to know those “elements”:

“Ever since Kasparov lost his match with Deep Blue and Kramnik went down in a match with Deep Fritz, it looks as if humankind has definitely lost the battle with the machine. According to the Dutch grandmaster and columnist Hans Ree, this is a blessing for chess. ‘We human beings are finally on our own again, he once quipped with great satisfaction.

“As long as we don’t play against computers, we can permit ourselves to make (tactical) mistakes. At club level, but also in the international tournament arena, nobody is capable of turning out a perfect game. And this is just as well, since that’s what makes our game so exciting and fascinating. Precisely at such moments, when the mistakes crop up, the game is all about outwitting your opponent.

“How do games develop in general? After the opening a struggle unfolds where the main purpose is to play your pieces to good squares. But which squares are good? And how do we determine this?

“Several times in the game – of course, depending on the type of position we find ourselves in – concrete calculation is needed, and we have to take stock of the tactical motifs. But in a substantial part of the game there is nothing concrete to calculate, and we have to try to improve our position. Precisely for those cases, we must accumulate a certain amount of understanding of how to go about this. In this book we offer a guideline for making well-considered choices in this area.”

Grooten then discusses why opening study is overrated (in fact, it can become a detriment to true improvement), and why real positional understanding is both extremely important and well within most people’s range to grasp. Then he lists Steinitz’s Elements (breaking them between permanent and temporary advantages), and finally leaps into the subject head first by exploring one of my favorite subjects, Knight vs. bad Bishop. He first shows a 14-year-old student of his playing a flawless game by using this theme. Then he takes things further by presenting a game where a 12-year-old student uses the same theme to build a huge advantage:

Notes by Grooten
Benjamin Bok – Joost Offringa, Venlo 2007
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.c3 a6 6.Ba4 d6 7.d4 Bd7


“In my training with Benjamin I had talked about good and bad bishops. With the help of positions arising from the French and the King’s Indian, I talked about the strategy to exchange your bad bishop for your opponents good one. King’s Indian players know that in the Main Line especially, Black’s light-squared bishop is important in order to have a chance at success in the attack. With this knowledge in the back of his head, Benjamin opts for a clear strategic concept, displaying a good understanding of what he is doing.”
8.d5 Nce7 9.Bxd7+ Qxd7 10.c4

“Thus, White has created a kind of King’s Indian structure where he has already succeeded in exchanging the light-squared bishops.”

“Now 10…f5 would not have been good in view of 11.Ng5!, and the knight occupies the unassailable square e6.”
11.Nc3 0-0 12.Bg5! h6



This curious exchange is the consequence of White’s previous move. White gives his beautiful bishop for a knight. This theme had also been a subject during our training sessions. In chess, what matters is always which pieces remain on the board. In this case, in a closed position White possesses two knights against a knight and a bad bishop. That is a highly favorable material balance.”
13…Bxf6 14.b4 b6 15.c5


“Very straightforwardly and effectively played. The base of Black’s pawn chain must be attacked.”
15…Bg7 16.Nd2 f5 17.f3 Rfc8 18.Qb3 Kh7 19.Nc4 bxc5 20.bxc5 dxc5 and now 21.Na4! would have given White a big advantage.

I love notes like this. Perhaps Grooten’s writing style reminds me of my own (in How to Reassess Your Chess), but clear and highly instructive explanatory prose is, in my eyes, a beautiful thing.

In Chapter Two (The Eye of the Grandmaster) Grooten does a fantastic job showing the importance of both tactical play and strategic play. He also highlights one of the most important ingredients of tactical play, the Undefended Piece:

In this position the experienced player would immediately take note of one incredibly important factor: Black’s queen isn’t protected. The fact is, unprotected pieces are often the glue that make combinations work, and this example shows this to perfection.

White wins with 1.Rxf6! and the game is over. Why? If Black doesn’t take the rook then White will be a full piece ahead. But 1…gxf6 also goes down hard to 2.Qg3+ when black’s Queen is lost after both 2…Kh8 and 2…Kf8 due to 3.Ng6+ followed by 4.Qxc7.

Very nice and very important. But Grooten doesn’t regale us with endless tactical examples. Instead he says (after discussing tactical players), “Another type of player is he who takes a long-term view of the game. His play is based on pawn structures, finding strong squares, and besieging weak pawns. He makes plans that are in accordance with the strategic demands of the position. Such a player is called a strategist.”

He gives a great example, which I’ve used myself on many occasions:

Robert Fischer – Olicio Gadia, Mar del Plata 1960


This position is absolutely horrible for Black. If you can’t see why, there’s no shame. But if you wish you could see why at a glance, you’ll be happy to hear that this kind of skill-set is far easier to acquire than you would suppose.

Grooten starts by giving us a Fischer quote: “This is the kind of position I get in my dreams.”

Grooten goes on to break the position down point by point. And then he shows us Fischer’s devastating move: 21.Ra1!!

Clearly, this move would make anyone faint in awe and fear! You can read the breakdown when you buy Grooten’s book, but what I really love about his handling of this example is that he points out White’s other good move, 21.f6! which tears up Black’s kingside. He does a serious analysis of the consequences of 21.f6, and though computers go hog-wild over 21.f6 (which is indeed strong), eventually he decides that Fischer was right and 21.Ra1 is even better.

To me, 21.f6 is a common move that anyone (even very high rated players) would toss out. But 21.Ra1 is something to be proud of. Oddly, the game ended with the same tactical theme I mentioned earlier (undefended piece): 21.Ra1!! f6 22.a4 (Black’s pretty much doomed, but his next move allows White to end the dance right away.) 22…Rb8??

Do you see the theme? Black’s c6-Rook is no longer protected!

23.Nxe7+ and Black resigned since 23…Qxe7 24.Qd5+ picks up the c6-Rook. Clearly, tactics and strategy work hand in hand and if you wish to become a good player you’ll need to become at least reasonably adept at both.

Each chapter is filled with instructive information, great examples, fun stories, eye-opening insights, and nice photos. It’s a book you can study with a board, and it’s a book you can simply read. Both will give you enormous enjoyment and, perhaps, a new way of looking at chess.

Chess Strategy For Club Players is available at the USCF store
and in various other formats. If you love chess books, if you love reading about chess, and if you want to be a better player, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. It may well be the crown jewel of your chess book collection!