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Review of Chess: Lessons From a Grandmaster Print E-mail
By Elizabeth Vicary   
March 23, 2009
The cover of Shulman and Sethi's introductory chess curriculum
Normally, I don't get to choose the books I review-- the editor does. But I asked to write about Yury Shulman and Rishi Sethi's introductory curriculum, Chess: Lessons from a Grandmaster (available on Yury Shulman's website) , because I think it's an exceptionally good book that is unlikely to get the recognition or sales it deserves. Why? For starters, it's self-published, and that always means a more limited distribution. It also means that the design and layout are not professional quality- each page has two long, narrow, justified but un-indented columns (clear enough, but the aesthetic equivalent of Eastern European apartment buildings), decorated with hundreds of small, black-and-white photos of kids you don't know playing chess. If I flipped through it at a bookstore, I would never buy it.

But that would be my very tragic loss. Shulman and Sethi have written an introductory curriculum that strikes me as the most effective I've ever seen, and I mean "effective" in the (perhaps unusual) sense of "effective at producing strong chessplayers." It has excellent basic lessons on piece movement, check, and checkmate, but many good books have this. Shulman's book stands out for including useful early lessons that many books skip over because they don't really have a name, like the ways to defend an attacked piece (capture, move, block, protect, counterattack), or homework puzzles that ask whether or not castling is legal, or whether a position is checkmate or just check.

For me, though, the exceptional part of the book is at the end, with four chapters on the properties of the pieces, and three more on their interactions. (e. g. "Coordination of the Queen and Rook and Queen and Bishop") Chapters on individual pieces begin by listing the pros and cons of each piece; for example:

The Rook

  1. The Rook is a long range piece and can attack from a distance.
  2. The Rook can quickly move across the board.
  3. The Rook is effective on Open Files (files with no pawns on them) and it is generally a good idea to put Rooks on open files.
  4. The Rook is powerful on the seventh (or second) rank. Two rooks on the seventh (or second) rank are even better.
  5. The Rook is involved in castling, so it can be brought into the center of the board.
  1. The Rook is difficult to develop if castling does not take place.
  2. The Rook is generally not effective when it is placed in front of its own pawns. Pawns block the rook from retreating, if it is attacked.
  3. The Rook is a "clumsy" piece. If the Rook is surrounded and blocked in by other pieces, it may easily be captured.
As a teacher, I really love lists like these for two reasons:

  1. I think articulating very simple chess ideas is extremely important,
  2. I love to have information in a form that I can write on the board and they can take notes on, since adding those components of reading and note-taking to a lesson allows students to experience new ideas in different forms. Most people process new information much more efficiently when they can see as well as hear it.
Following the pros/cons is a lesson of twelve very simple practical positions illustrating the following rook concepts:

  • back row mate
  • ladder mate
  • forks
  • the long range nature of the rook
  • how the rook attacks the king
  • checkmates on side files
  • rooks on the seventh rank
  • skewers
  • how castling activates the rook
  • doubled rooks
  • how rooks can be used to pin and win isolated pawns
  • rooks versus passed pawns
A homework sheet concludes the chapter, and it is also well-designed: the problems are appropriately easy and directly reinforce the ideas taught in the chapter. I'm increasingly picky about the homework I give my students: it's important that   

a) it's not too difficult (causing frustration and lowered motivation)


b) it uses problems that are direct thematic echoes of ones studied in the chapter/ lesson, so that the student will on some level "recognize" the answer. This type of repetitive reinforcement helps transfer the tactical pattern into long -term memory. It's a really way effective and efficient to learn.

Also great are the chapters about the interactions of pieces. I quote the entire section on the coordination of the rook and knight below (with my own comments in italics) to show how carefully the material is structured so that each example builds on previous one.

Rook and Knight

The Rook and Knight are powerful together, but usually not as powerful as a Rook and Bishop. The Rook and Knight can sometimes set up a perpetual check.


Black's two pawns are about to promote, and White has no way of stopping them. But White can save his position using a perpetual check: 1. Nxh7+ Ke8 2. Nf6+ Kf8 3. Nh7+ Kg8 4. Nf6+ Kf8 5. Nh7+ and the game is drawn due to threefold repetition. If Black plays 4...Kh8? 5. Rh7# is checkmate. The coordination of the Rook and Knight saved White.

Let's see another position where the Rook and Knight set up a perpetual check.


White is down material, but he can draw by 1. Rb8+ Kh7 2. Nf8+ Kg8 3. Ne6+ Kh7 4. Nf8+. Black has no choice but to repeat the position and the game is drawn.
If there was a white pawn on h5 as in the diagram below, the outcome of the game would be different.

  1. Rb8+ Kh7 2. Nf8+ Kg8 3. Ng6+ Kh7 4. Rh8#. The pawn on h5 protects the Knight, so White is able to checkmate Black.
I really love examples like this that illustrate the importance of small details -I think this is something that children have a harder time than adults appreciating. I also appreciate that the examples are easy to transition between on a demo board-fumbling with pieces is humiliating when you are in front of a class.

In the following diagram, the Knight uses discovered checks from the Rook to win material. Black to move.


1...Rc1+ 2. Kh2 Nf1+ 3. Kg1 Nxg3+ 4. Kh2 Nf1+ 5. Kg1 Nxe3 6.Kh2 Nxd5
and Black has an extra Knight.

The chapter's homework included the following rook and knight problems (All White to Move):


Show Solution


Show Solution


Show Solution


Show Solution

Authors GM Yury Shulman and Rishi Sethi. Photo Betsy Dynako
There is also a very good final chapter on endgames, and a useful appendix of 202 mate in ones. I approve of this high number. Beginners should solve mate in one problems over and over until the recognition of mate becomes almost unconscious.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I've been teaching the later lessons to my intermediate (non-tournament) players, and it's been fantastic. When a lesson goes well, I feel so on-top-of-the-world, and this book has really made my last couple of weeks. (One class even chose to have a second lesson last week instead of playing blitz-that's never happened to me before!) It's made me look forward to teaching beginner classes next school year-a few years ago I fine-tuned my own working introductory curriculum, and it hasn't changed one word since then, but now I'm excited to steal incorporate Shulman/Sethi's ideas.

Learn more about Yury Shulman including summer camps and how to purchase his book at his website, shulmanchess.com. GM Shulman will also be at SuperNationals IV, where he will be giving two simuls (April 3 Friday, 8 PM and Saturday April 4, 4 PM-sign up at the USCF Store ) as well as a seminar on April 4, Saturday at 10 AM "Chess Preparation: Hard Work or Fun?"


March - Chess Life Online 2009

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