sábado, 1 de febrero de 2020

Improving your tactics


Tactical skill is one of the main skills to dominate to play good chess. In my view, this should be the first skill to hone down when you start learning the game, as the majority of the games between lower rated players will be decided by a blunder. After that, endings, positional chess, and openings are other crucial skills to master.

Practice, of course, is the main precept to improve, and tactics is no different here, so the main advice you get is 'practice your tactics'.

Nowadays there are a lot of options. Not only can you go the traditional way and buy a good book on tactics (I have reviewed some of them on this very site), but there are many sites that have tactic practice, chess24.com, lichess.org or chess.com to name a few.

My site of preference is beta.chesstempo.com, which I already recommended in the blog. What follows will be based on my experience on this site exclusively.

Type of tactics

I imagine each site will have its own set of rules to allow a position to be made into a problem. I am going to introduce you to the rules of the site Chess Tempo as I have not solved tactics in other sites.

I play in Blitz mode, where you have to solve problems under time pressure. If you take too long (longer than the average of successful solvers before you), you may start losing rating points.

I also play with the option that there are no alternate wins, hence I know when a problem is shown that (1) it has only one move that wins for each position I have to move; (2) that move will have to at least result in a clean exchange up (an advantage of +1.75); (3) if I take too long to solve the problem, I will lose points as if I had failed it.

Comparing this with the books I have on tactics, I can make the following considerations
  • Tactics in books are usually more beautiful, as the author has chosen those problems by hand.
  • Chess Tempo tactics are more normal. As the positions are picked from real games, it is not necessary to sacrifice the queen to find a flashy finish. The position may be a simple exchange, exchange, exchange and pick up the loose piece.
  • Chess Tempo tactics are usually easier than those found on books. Only rarely do you think for 15 minutes on a problem, while tactics in books may very well take this time on average.
  • Tactics in books may have multiple solutions, or may revolve around winning a pawn. In Chess Tempo (at least in the version I play), the focus is to win at least an exchange and there is only one path to victory.
To me, the contrast between the first two points favors Chess Tempo. I think it is better to have normal tactics than flashy ones, as the main source of mistakes in your games will come down to normal variations you failed to assess correctly, instead of missing a very hard and obscure winning motive.

The fact that Chess Tempo is easier (this is just half true, as you can be good enough to be presented with really challenging problems, especially if you ditch Blitz mode in favor of Standard mode) may be seen as a detriment, but I do think there is a place for fast solving too, as in a real game you cannot spend 15 minutes in each position.

Knowing that there is only one solution can make you wary in positions where you see too good candidates, and this in itself is a help you do not get in a book. There is a mode to allow alternates, but I do not like that mode, as if you play a weaker alternate move it forces you to find the strongest one, and many times I have failed after finding a good enough move.

All in all, I think there is a place for both approaches to solving tactics and you should combine them.

In what follows, though, I will restrict myself to Chess Tempo (and similar online sites).

The plateauing problem

I have been solving tactics on Chess Tempo since the summer of 2017. First, I solved them in Standard mode (where time to solve a problem was of no importance). I improved continuously and there was no plateau to be found:

but I achieved that by taking longer and longer the solve the problems I was facing. It reached a point where I would take more than 20 minutes for each problem.

I thought that even if I would improve further, that would not help my practical play as I would not have time to take this long on a real game, so I started playing blitz.

I made at least a problem a day for near two years, until March 2019 and I practice Blitz mode almost exclusively from January 2018 to said March 2019. The results were as follow:

Here, unlike in Standard Mode, it is clear that I hit a plateau in my solving quite fast and I did not improve at all afterwards.

One day I failed to enter the site and so stopped my streak of consecutive days solving, I got angry with myself, and stopped entering the site.

Last October (2019) however, I got bored and made some tactics, and afterwards I have been solving tactics for more than 100 days in a row (as of today).

However, the plateau problem is something that genuinely bothered me. Was this happening to anyone else? Let's see people around my elo in the same site:

From the first three people I just checked, one (the first) is showing clear -albeit slow- progress, while the other two are in their respective plateau.

So this is a real problem. Some people hit a given level and will not improve past that.

Why the plateau problem exists at all

Of course I am no expert here, so take my opinion as that from a guy on the internet.

My reasoning behind the existence of this plateau is as follows: when we solve tactics online we do it because we are having fun. Yes, we have the secret (or not so secret) desire to improve our chess, but the main reason that we enter is because it is just fun. It is like playing blitz online.

Playing blitz has long been regarded as useless (if not directly harmful) in your path for improvement (Botvinnik comes to my mind first defending that position), but no such a thing has happened in the solving tactics spectrum.

In fact, quite the opposite. You can see how chess.com is pushing really hard for his puzzle rush mode as if it would improve your tactics. I cannot but consider this mode totally useless, as the main thing you do is solving incredible easy problems until you find some where you spent some time and you lose on time.

I defend (very strong trainers have held this view before me) that improvement comes with suffering (like in the gym). If you do something just for pleasure, you are not forcing your brain to change, and if it does not change, you will not improve

What is wrong with our solving

There are many things we do wrong when we solve tactics, but I believe the root of the problem is that we do not think twice about our mistakes.

If we do a tactic correctly (in blitz mode it means we solved it in less time than required), we have not really learned anything. We had it within ourselves to solve it and we did. Nothing to change. But when we fail a tactic (o fail to solve it on time), we do not often stop to think about it. And that is the only way to improve. If your brain is wired such that you fail a certain tactic, you should rewire it so it will not fail it again, that is the hole point of improvement, change yourself to better do the task at hand.

I do not know about you, but when I fail a tactic, I usually move along pretty fast, trying to get back my lost elo, instead of pondering what went wrong with me.

The path to improvement

Given that I consider the lack of reflection upon failure the root of the plateau problem, I set to improve that.

My advice would be to always think about your mistakes. Take your time and reflect on them. Ensure you have understood the tactic and why you failed it.

In my view, there are two big categories that explain the majority of our fails:

  1. Failing to consider your opponents resources (there is a famous Dvoretsky's book with that title). That happens when you think that X move is winning, only to miss that the strong Y reply from your opponent exists. To stop failing this kind of problems you need to be aware of your opponents and ensure you are not missing anything.
  2. Failing to reckon a move that when considered you immediately realize that it is the right move. The way to improve on that is trying to expand your candidate search when you are thinking about a position. That is, you have considered the sequence X - Y - Z but you do not see the win after those moves... and you keep thinking and thinking in the position after Z. Maybe the problem is that you should  think about A, B or C in the starting position. 
I think it is possible to improve on a basic membership on Chess Tempo (free), and I would suggest the following:

  • When you fail a problem, read the comments on that problem. Comment yourself explaining what went wrong with your thinking. That way, not only are you forcing yourself to think about that, but you will know what was going on in your head in the future, the next time you face the position.
  • If you think the problem is such that you are more prone to incorrectly solving it than other players, consider inserting it in a database of problems you consider difficult for constant review. That way you may help your brain rewire that flaw.

Upgraded membership on Chess Tempo

Although the advice above may be good if you choose to follow it, we do tactics to have fun. Stopping in every mistake and taking 15 minutes to review a position may not be pleasant (although is the only way to improve) and you will be hard pressed to do it every time.

I found a good compromise upgrading my membership on Chess Tempo. If you pay (20€/year, you are not going to go broke on that) you have some features that basic membership does not have.

In particular, you can search problems and create custom sets.

From November 2019 I have created a personal tag with problems I find difficult and I have created a custom set to review those problems as if I was learning openings -spaced repetition.

When I solve a problem in that custom set, I try to do the following:

  • Find the solution (of course!).
  • Think about every alternative for the defending side which may not be showcased in the solution but would be interesting... to find those, the alternatives you considered for your opponent and those found in the comment section are your ally. This will help you notice more often the opponents resources.
  • Think about the most common mistakes in the position. So here the job is to find the moves that other solvers have played mistakenly. Of course, once found, you should refute them! With this exercise, you not only broaden your mind to different candidate moves, but also train yourself to find the opponent refutation of those mistakes.
I usually try to comment on those problems, too, trying to highlight all this above. This way the next time I face the problem I can try to solve it and then go to my comment and see if I have missed something.

After two and a half months, I have 630 problems tagged as difficult to me. Of those, I am studying 367 of them (remember this is spaced repetition, hence I will have to solve the same problem multiple times) for a total of 1400 attempts on those 367 problems. Of those problems I have commented extensively on 77.

the numbers above of course should be better, but what can I say? I want to have fun too, so I tag problems and continue solving and only review the tagged ones on the subway... So I could be doing better, but I am not doing too badly either.

The results

But you may wonder, is all of this working?

I think it is working. This is the complete graph on my blitz mode solving:

and this is the graph since October of 2019 when I started trying to improve (the last chunk of the graph above):

To me it is pretty obvious that around Christmas something happened, something clicked on my mind, and I am better now than I was before.

I do not want to read much on the record I set this week, but on the general trend of improvement. Maybe it is not much, but it is something, and continuous improvement is key.


To me it is clear that there is improvement to be found, but only if you put the effort required. I have improved my elo in Chess Tempo around 50 elo points in two months, from being around 2000 to 2050 to being around 2060-2110.

And this last week I have been at around 2120-2135 for 30 problems. I guess that I will drop that, but I am reasonably sure I will not drop below 2050... I think that I have consolidated that elo (while previously I tried in vain to not drop below 2000).

So results are quite satisfactory and I hope that long lived too.

martes, 15 de mayo de 2018

Books to reach IM level

I always had a lot of chess books but I must confess that I was not very keen in seriously studying them. When my level stabilized around 2150 elo points I more or less gave up chess as a competitive sport. I got stressed when I lost and as I played to have fun it made no sense for me to continue playing.

I continued playing the club league each year, so like 10 games each year and for some reason or another (I guess mainly because I studied the opening a bit) I peaked at 2225. 

Unfortunately for my free time, I decided to play a tournament and lost 50 elo points. As I am a very proud person, I could not leave things as they were and decided I would study seriously some chess to come back and do my best. The next year, I returned and dropped another 50 elo points (I had gained a lot on the club league in between, though).

So then I came with the definite list of books I would study to not only show that I  can play good chess, but that I would actually achieve my child's dream to become an IM (I only really care about reaching 2400, even if I do not get the title). The point was that I was lacking 200 elo points so studying 20 books (now the list contains 33 books without counting openings) would rise my level by that much if only each of those books would give me only 10 elo points. At that time it seemed a good idea.

So without further ado I present you the list (which I have been tweaking since then, four years ago). with some comments on the books:

Tactical play:

  • Weteshnik - Chess tactics from scratch 2nd edition. Already reviewed.
  • Flear - Tactimania. Already reviewed
  • Gormally - Mating against the castled king. Already reviewed
  • Aagaard - Attacking manual 1. Already reviewed. I must confess that I have grown to like this book a lot. I find myself recommending it over other attacking books (like Gormally that I liked better according to the review). 
  • Aagaard - Attacking manual 2. I am readying this right now (I am at page 60 or something like this) and I'm finding it quite interesting. It is more similar to Gormally's book (or a normal book on attacking chess) as opposed to the previous attacking manual. I think it is really worth it.
  • Shaw - Quality Chess Puzzle Book. Already reviewed
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Calculation. I have not reviewed this book but I have read half of it. I like it a lot. I find it quite challenging (more than Shaw's puzzle book) and this has stopped me from finishing it. I studied it with a 2350 guy and we took 10 minutes for each exercise and the last of the chapter are simply too difficult for me and really difficult for him.
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Attack and defense. Already reviewed.
  • Nunn - Chess puzzle book. Already reviewed.
  • Grabinsky & Volokitin - Perfect your chess. This book is a really difficult puzzle book. It has a lot of exercises aimed at IM level. I have only seen the first exercises at the beginning and did not find them very hard, but many people have told me this books is really difficult so I'm saving it for the last push to 2400.
  • Dvoretsky - Recognizing your opponent resources. This one is another puzzle book. It has a lot of exercises (like 400 maybe) and there are some extra ones in the solutions. I went through the first 130 of the first chapter (which has 180 I think). I just stopped because I was having a success rate lower than 40% and it made no sense, things would get much harder later and failing every time does not improve your chess. I keep this for just before Volokitin's one and after finishing the GM Preparation series.
  • Gelfand - Dynamic decision making in chess. Already reviewed.
  • Aagaard - Practical chess defense. Another very hard book. It is an old book and is only on paperback, but I got it anyway. Some day I will study it, right now I keep my distance as I do not want to abandon chess altogether out of frustration.
  • Gaprindashvili - Imagination in chess. This one was recommended by Gelfand and I did not know it. I have not buy it yet but I added it to the list. Other people have told me that they have worked with the book and have not find it impossible (as I see it, the book can be perfect for Gelfand and to no use for us mortals, but it does not seem to be the case).
  • Afek - Invisible chess moves. Another late addition because of Gelfand's advice. I have nothing to say as I do not have the book.
  • Hort & Hansa - The best move. The last addition to the list thanks to Gelfand's recommendation. I do not have the book either, so nothing to say.

Positional play

  • Flores - Chess structures. Already reviewed
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Positional play. Already reviewed.
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Thinking inside the box. Already reviewed.
  • Gelfand - Positional decision making in chess. Already reviewed
  • (?) Dvoretsky & Yusupov - Positional play. I have this book as a maybe as I'm not a fan of Dvoretsky's classical books, but as the positional play section was kind of lacking I put this as a maybe.
  • Dvoretky - Manoeuvring, the art of piece play. Already reviewed.
  • Karolyi - Karpov's Strategic wins (2 books). I like Karpov style and I thought a good book on his games would be a sensible choice. I do not know if I would like this book or not. It seems that it packs a lot of games in very few space so the quality of the analysis or the explanations would not be great, but I have not dive in, so I simply do not know.
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Strategic play. This one was supposedly the book you ended up with in the GM Preparation series and I always had a lot of respect for it, so I never tried it, keeping it for last. However a friend of mine (which I introduced to GM Preparation, positional play) tells me the level is more or less the same. In any case I'm sure the book is great and I will go at it with great pleasure once I decide to study it.

Endgame play

  • de la Villa - 100 endgames you must know. Already reviewed.
  • Van Perlo - Endgame tactics. This book is very famous. It is kind of a puzzle book but not every diagram is a puzzle. I do not like the randomness of it. You see a position and think about it for 5 minutes and you do not see anything. Then, you read the comments and it turns out the position will be a puzzle after White plays a blunder. You feel really stupid. This and the awful edition of the book (it is really really thick, with bad quality paper and where half a page is taken by diagrams and the other half by solutions (vertically separated), but in the diagram section it may very well be that there is only one diagram, or two, resulting in a lot of wasted space). The book is good, the comments funny and it makes endings engaging, but the atrocious edition and the randomness of the task to solve puts me away from it. I have read like 10% of the book.
  • Shereshevsky - Endgame strategy. This is another famous book. I went for it as it was famous and read like 50 pages (which is a lot if you think it has 200 pages) but I became disinterested as I found it too simple for my taste. I was reading Marin's book too and compared both analysis in a game they both shared and Shereshevsky's book was just at a tenth of Marin's depth. However now maybe I view it differently. I came to understand that when you are playing it is not so important that this position is won, drawn or lost, but what makes a difference is that you play it reasonably well, as you won't have time to think much anyway. So Shereshevsky's simplistic approach may be well founded for the practical player. On the other hand, I have not touched the book in 3 years so it may be possible that when I return to it I remember why I did not like it in the first place.
  • Marin - Learn from the legends - Already reviewed.
  • Dvoretsky endgame manual. Already reviewed.
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation Endgame play. I have gone reasonably far in this book (like 50% of it) to know that is a good book, but it is hell. I left it when I was in the difficult rook endgames chapter. There was another chapter after it on more difficult rook endgames! I am not at that level yet. I will be (I hope). Of course, the same advice applies to all puzzle books sorted by difficulty (the GM Preparation series is sorted by difficulty inside each chapter, as is Shaw's and Dvoretsky's puzzle books). Everyone can enjoy the book if they just study the puzzles at their level and ignore the ones too difficult.
  • Karolyi - Endgame virtuoso. This has a similar reasoning as the book on Karpov's middlegame play. I do not own this book yet so I hope it is good but I have no way of knowing.
  • (?) Lund - Sharp endgames. I read the excerpt from the web and it seems a really good book which forces you to study. Right now this book is a maybe, but I think I'm going to buy it.

Review: Dynamic decision making in chess by Gelfand

Title: Dynamic decision making in chess.
Author: Boris Gelfand.
Publisher: Quality Chess.
Year: 2016.
Pages: 288.
Price: 24.99€ (paperback) - 29.99€ (hardcover).

This book is the second one on a series of books about decision making in chess. The first instance was Positional decision making in chess which I already reviewed here.

The series is created by two authors although only one name is in the cover: Gelfand is the one creating the chess content (although I guess that Aagaard put a little more effort than he claims credit for, but this is just my feeling) while Aagaard is the one translating this chess content into a book.

I did not liked the first book on the series and I nevertheless bought this second book. Why? Because I like books and I think the price is something I can afford. And because I do not have to explain myself to you, okay?

So what is this book about? As the name suggest, the first one was on positional chess while this one is on dynamic chess, tactics, blunders, long term (or real) sacrifices, etc. and how to play these positions.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Some have very specific topics: compensation and time come to mind, on the other hand there are other chapters that has no clear focus: Minsk 1979 (about games from that Soviet Championship) and Petrosian (similar to the Rubinstein chapter from the first book, mixing Petrosian and Gelfand games and what you can learn from him, but much shorter). And yet there are other chapters with a clear focus but not one that it is useful to any facet of chess study, like tactics at the top level (some tactics), the nature of tactical mistakes at the top level (which simply shows mistakes at the top level), and two chapters on collections of great attacking games and great defending games.

Overall I feel in this book too there is a lack of cohesive view or overarching theme that justifies each section. Like in the first one the first chapters have more random sections (sections that feel like and old's man story, jumping from one point to the next without really getting to the point) while the last chapters improve on that respect.

The hardcover edition I posses is great and its length is very similar to the other book. No surprises really here.

The prose is good as it is every time in Aagaard works, but as I stated here (and in the previous work's review) it feels some kind of ramble at times.

The analysis is good. There are 45 annotated games (although some are more lightly annotated than others) in 272 pages (excluding the appendix) which is more games (or less analysis per game) than in the previous work. On the other hand here the focus is in the tactical aspect of chess, hence there is less need for lengthy comments.

Sometimes I felt that the book went to great detail in some variations while skipping through other positions really fast, but I noticed it here less than in Positional decision making.

Overall this book has claimed much less recognition than the first one. I think the reason is that in the first one you could get some (not much) great insight into some positional subtle points while here the insight can be summarized into:

I calculated up to this point and saw my position was very promising so it was not necessary to go further.
This kind of advice is not as appreciated because either you can calculate everything till the end or you cannot (and it depends, too, on the time you have on your clock), so you will try to make the best job you can either way. It reminded me a lot of Thinking inside the box and critical moments. I understand the concept but I cannot find a practical application in my games.

I did not like this book either and I think I too liked it less than the previous work. In this book (as it has become a norm in the books I read) I tried to find exercises on the diagrams in the chapter. This book has some exercises at the beginning of the chapter (which are solved within it) which is a great addition, but I wonder why nobody uses Dvoretsky's question marks on the diagrams to denote that you have to solve the diagram. It is not that difficult to add (or it does not seem that way) and would give great value to the hardworking students. For example in chapter 6 (time) I found 22 such exercises, in chapter 7 (dynamic masterpieces) I found 18. So if this numbers hold approximately on the book, you could have 8 * 20 = 160 exercises embedded in the book with almost no extra effort. As it is both chapters had 8 diagrams at the beginning, giving a total of 8 * 8 = 64 exercises on the whole book. And while I like that there are exercises in the first page of the chapter for those with the will to do them, I find myself unable to concentrate on them, I am eager to start the chapter, so I rather have the '?' symbol on those diagrams which are perfect for solving.

Well, I stop the rambling now. I do not recommend this book. I think there are tons of better books on dynamic chess. I am now reading Attacking Manual II and I feel it is may be one of the best books I've read (admittedly I'm on page 60 or so), but even Thinking inside the box is much better than this book and it is mainly focused on dynamic chess.

Post Script:

Gelfand in the introduction to this book gives advice on puzzle books:
  • Aagaard - GM Preparation, Calculation.
  • Grabinsky & Volokitin - Perfect your chess. 
  • Hort and Jansa - The best move.
  • Afek - Invisible chess moves.
  • Gaprindashvili - Imagination in chess.

miércoles, 6 de diciembre de 2017

Books from my childhood

I've been asked which books I read when I was younger that allowed me to go from 1700 to 2000 elo points.

I'll give you the books I used to go from unrated to 2150 (where I stabilized). I'll try to make clear if I think the book is worth it.

Beware, however, that:

  • There may be better books out there.
  • The title I give may not be the right one in English as I'm translating it from Spanish. I've searched in google to try and find the right title.
  • When I say I've read a book, you must not understand that I have studied it. I just read it (quite literally). I've played the moves on the board but I may or may not have given it a second thought (usually I did not give any move a second thought).

Openings: I did not read any books on openings (those were other times at the end of the 90's). I just read the main line of the informator and constructed my repertoire based on the games I played.

Botvinnik - Selected games: Those are three books on Botvinnik's games. I liked it quite a lot and I think I read it twice or three times. Afterwards I've read about it that Botvinnik was quite complacent about his own play and did not study the games in depth. As I did not either there was no problem for me.

Euwe & Kramer - The middlegame in chess vol. i & II: A book on pawn structures. I did not like it much, it seemed to be quite shallow.

Petrosian - Chess at the summit: I'm reasonably sure I translated it wrongly. The book is Petrosian talking about a bit of everything. It is interesting but I was never too fond of it.

Dvoretsky & Yusupov - Opening Preparation: I have never liked Dvoretsky's books until the last ones with pure exercises came to the market. This may be the reason why. I doubt I finished this one.

O'Kelly - World Championship 1969: A book about the Petrosian - Spassky match that won Spassky. I never took it seriously and I doubt I finished it.

Levenfish & Smyslov - Rook endgames: I read this like three times and may be like the most boring book ever (I always had a thing for endgames). Of course I forgot everything rather soon.

Maizelis - Pawn endgames: I read this like three times too (curiously I've read the pawn endgame chapter from Dvoretsky's endgame manual three times too already). It is not as boring as the Levenfish and Smyslov book, but today the job is done better.

Nimzowitsch - My system: A book every youngster is really fond of. I read it several times and was shocked when I lost a game were I was occupying an open file as advised in the book. Admittedly the open file was the a-file and I was getting massacred on the centre. After that I took this book with a grain of salt. As an adult I read mixed opinions of this book. Some think it is one of the greatest books ever, others thing is just really outdated.

Nimzowitsch - The practice of my system: It should be similar to the previous book but I do not keep any memory of it, so it should not be great.

Alburt - Test and Improve Your Chess: I read this when I was starting to play more seriously and thanks to it I played the Alekhine defense and the Benko gambit. Other than that I do not remember this book as anything special.

Bronstein - Zurich Candidates 1953: The book I'm most fond of. I should have read it more than three times and was (and maybe still is) my all time favorite. I won't read it again as I may change my opinion of it because I'm sure the analysis does not hold up and is shallow.

Kotov - Think like a Grandmaster: This book is quite famous. I tried to read it but never quite like it (although I tried really hard). Every comment about it I've read as an adult points out that I was not alone.

Fischer - My 60 memorable games: I should have liked this book as it is about a collection of games (the books I liked the most), but I never quite liked it. Maybe it is because I never liked Fischer (not because he was mad but because everyone was always such a fanboy about him I could not stand it) but I do not think I have finished this book.

Timman - The art of the analysis: Another supposedly great book that I was not really fond of. I guess here it is because Timman really worked in his analysis and as I mainly read the text commentary it did not attract me.

Alekhine - My best games vol I & II: It was not a bad book but I had it photocopied (a club's mate got it photocopied and then bought the book so he gave me the pirated book) and I did not liked it as much because of it.

Reinfeld - 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices & Combinations: Not a bad book. I should have read it two or three times when I was reaching my peak elo (I was never good at tactics and that may be the reason). Nowadays I'm sure there are tons of books better than this but in the 90's that is what we had. The book is really worn out because I inherited it from my parents.

And that's all the books I've got on my bookshelf from my childhood.

domingo, 29 de octubre de 2017

Review: Thinking inside the box by Aagaard

Title: Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking inside the box.
Author: Jacob Aagaard.
Publisher: Quality Chess.
Year: 2017.
Pages: 408.
Price: 29.99€ (hardcover).

This book is the sixth and last one on the Grandmaster Preparation series from the acclaimed author Jacob Aagaard.

I have reviewed two previous instances of this series: Positional Play and Attack and Defense. I reviewed both highly if my memory serves me correctly. Both are workbooks with exercises to train your positional play and your attack and defense skills. The other ones in the series are also workbooks into calculation, endgame play and strategic play. This book I'm reviewing, on the other hand, it is not an exercise book.

If I understood it correctly, this is the first book you are supposed to read in the series and will lay down the foundations of the work with the other books. It is like a synopsis plus a book on self-improvement. Aagaard tries hard to explain his approach to how do you improve on chess: making better decisions at the board. He classifies the decisions you make into four categories and tries to give you some tips for each of this decisions. Moreover you will get acquainted with the material of the other books on the series before you can try to solve puzzles (except for endgame play which is totally ignored here).

To paint it with a very broad stroke each chapters deal with a subject (that may or may not be portrayed in the workbooks). The subject is explained using words (lots of them, I'm happy with that), and games mainly from the author.  I advice you to read  John Hartmann's review on this very same book to get another viewpoint on what the book is about.

Come on, I'll wait. He is a great reviewer and I always read his reviews eagerly.

So now that you more or less know what the book is about I want to highlight a nice thing in the structure of the book. Each chapter has a Test yourself section were you will find up to eight diagrams asking you to answer a question (generally which is the best move). Those positions will be found later in the chapter (unfortunately not always in diagram form, something I find is kind of a blunder). It is a great addition as you get the chance to think about the content of the chapter beforehand. Every book should have this!

The edition of the hardcover version of the book is great as it usually is with this publisher and the length is more than enough rivaling even opening books (which are usually thicker).

The book is quite interesting. You won't get bored reading it, that's for sure. Aagaard's style really shines in this format better than in the other ones in the series (as there he has no room to expand, being exercise books). It reminds me of his work for Everyman or his Attacking manual. If you've read any of those you know what you are getting here.

The analysis of the games is great. At least I do not think I find a mistake anywhere. I'm sure there will be, but very subtle and hidden ones. I feel the depth of the analysis is adequate (which for me is very deep analysis) and normally I would not get lost in it.

So all in all, it seems the book has a lot of great things going on for it. But you will know by now there will be a but. Two buts indeed.

The first problem with the book is its purpose. When first I learn about the book, judging by its tittle I though Aagaard was making a treatise of the current knowledge in chess (like good/bad bishops), open files, weakened king, etc) and provide examples for us to solve. But it is nothing like this. The purpose of the book is to explain us how to improve our chess.

This objective is really ambitious and Aagaard himself admitted (I'm not sure if it was in the introduction of the book itself or in his blog) that it would be normal if we would read the book and felt we have not learned anything from it as he was going to state the obvious to try to make us conscious about it.

In my case, he hit the nail. I finished the book thinking I have learned very very little. There is the occasional thing to pick up here and there, do not get me wrong, but mainly everything is obvious (as Aagaard himself intended).

Obviously the chapters that are developed further in the other books of the series are kind of redundant to me as the books already feature their own introduction to each theme, but maybe someone reading the material in the order intended by Aagaard will not share this view.

Let me instead get deep into one instance that I feel showcases the book at its worst and that luckily Hartmann has also focused on: the division of chess decisions into four categories, which seems to be the core of the book. According to Aagaard there are four types of decisions:

  • Automatic decisions: Those where your choice is obvious, you recapture, avoid a check, etc. In this kind of decision the only reasonable thing to do is make sure the decision is indeed automatic and then make the move.
  • Simple decisions: Those were you just improve your position following the steps presented in Positional Play. You should not spend more than a couple of minutes on this because this decisions are by no means game-changing. You need to save time for tough decisions.
  • Critical decisions: Here you have to calculate all the way to a definite conclusion. This is what the book Calculation and Endgame Play are all about.
  • Strategic decisions: Here you have to make a decision were you cannot reach a definite conclusion and you therefore should guess somewhat. This is what Strategic Play and Attack and defense are all about (and I'm not quite sure the second book qualifies to be here).
 I find this division very interesting and kind of useful. I do spend a lot of time with simple decisions while I should spend less time on them. I will bring that home after reading the book and this is a success for Aagaard.

Nevertheless, I do not get the difference between critical and strategic decision.

The very concept of critical decisions has been debated over in the quality chess blog and Aagaard found many voices arguing against it. I do not want to enter that discussion as I might side with Aagaard here. I do think it is useful to know there are decisions that are critical and should be calculated accurately on a game, even if you miss them. Next time maybe you are aware of the concept and make a special effort to not miss such situations.

But when I start calculating I may be facing a critical or a strategic decision. The only difference from a practical point of view (as far as I can see it) is that in one you will have finished your calculations while in the other you will not because you lack the time and you will have to guess. Anyway you will have to move one way or the other.

So even in the most important point of the book I feel something is missing. Either my understanding of the classification is flawed (in which case the book is at fault as it did not get the job done) or the classification is flawed from a practical point of view, which defeats the purpose of having two different categories for the same basic decision: go deep and calculate.

Another example would be the classification of the players into four categories: intuitive vs logical, technical vs dynamic. I know I'm a technical player, but I have no idea if I'm logical or intuitive. The exposition of the chapter gave me no clue as this division was underdeveloped. Moreover this division seemed only accessory with no practical advice behind it.

Maybe I'm nitpicking, but the idea with which I finished the book is that there were many interesting ideas but nothing special. The book failed to get a better player out of me.

The second problem is that the games are chosen primarily from Aagaard practice. As he is mainly an attacking player, this is what you are getting, tons of attacking games. Games that would fare better in an Attacking Manual than in a book about improving your chess. After all, not everyone plays this kind of chess (I do not, for instance), and those feel a bit left aside.

So my conclusion is that you have to think about this book as a best game's book. The advice on improvement is interesting and the prose is great, so you are not losing on that front, it may not be useful, but think of it as an extra. The games are quite interesting and well analyzed. So forget it is a Grandmaster Preparation book. It is not. When you are in this state of mind you can judge the book fairly. My personal feeling is that is a good book worth having. I like it a lot more than Gelfand's books which everybody seems to love.

So I recommend this book with some reserves.

A final addition is that you may enjoy this book whatever your elo is, as a  best games' book you will pick what you can.

martes, 17 de octubre de 2017

Review: Chess software

I have been wanting to make a review on the software I use when I study chess but never got around it.

As I reviewed John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book I realized that being able to talk about this chess software is quite useful for the reviews, so I decided to set aside laziness and go for it!

In this review I will single out what I do in chess and which software best suits my needs. However I would like to highlight two things before we begin:

  1. I have a open source operating system in my desktop (so, not windows, not apple). Many software won't work on it even if I were willing to use it.
  2. Given the  choice, I try to go for the open-source solutions. I am kind of stubborn and follow that principle quite a lot.

Playing on-line:

I play on-line in a server called Free Internet Chess Server. As the name states it is free and it is enough for me. It is like an ICC from ten years ago (maybe ICC still has the same interface, I wouldn't know) and it does not take me long to find games there. My rating fluctuates between 1900 and 2000 generally (I am fide 2200).

I'm sure there are better sites there, but this is the one I know and I'm able to use given my software requirements.

To play on it I use Xboard (Winboard for Windows users). On my current Operating System (Linux Mint) I only had to download Xboard from the repositories and issue the following command on a terminal:

xboard -ics -icshost freechess.org

Xboard may not be the best software ever, but to play on-line you do not need much. A board and a way to seek opponents. Xboard gives me that and makes it easy for me to play. Windows users may not be able to relate, but being able to set things easy is a big plus.

Database handling:

My main reason to handle game databases is to manage my opening repertoire. I like to put the lines in the books on a database so it is easier to maintain and improve. There are two applications there that do what I need:

  • SCID: This application is for the desktop computer and you may think of it as the open source version of Chessbase. Maybe it is uglier but I can do whatever I need to do with my files: I can create variations, comment on the game, etc. It also has a mode that I love called 'Opening Training' where it will make the moves for one side randomly from the opening file you have chosen and wait until you insert the move of the other side. This is a great way to study openings. It is very similar to what you can do in https://openings.chessbase.com/ but it will use your files!
  • Scid on the go: This application is for android and is a derivative version of SCID. This android version is able to read databases, search positions and names and create games. I use it to introduce the moves from the book while on the bed before I go to sleep. Afterwards I put them in the computer through dropbox. It has the option to hide the notation of the game so you can train the openings there too (but it won't pick the move at random this time, but the main move of the game you are at). It is not as great as in SCID but it does the trick when you are studying in the subway. There are two things I do not like about this app: (1) it does not allow you to introduce comments on the notation and (2) when the game has a lot of variations and comments it turns slow and somewhat unresponsive when 'clicking' on a move. Furthermore, it won't allow you to change the settings of the engine.
Analyze games:

This is a different section because in the normal world there are both Chessbase and Fritz. As I do not play against the computer the only reason for me to use Fritz (or Houdini or whatever) would be to analyze a game. My engine of preference is of course Stockfish which fits the bill perfectly as it is not only free but open source, and it it the best engine overall (including commercial engines) by elo (or very close to it that you would not see the difference anyway), and I use it in the following apps.
  • SCID: On the desktop computer I use SCID for analyzing too. It allows me to do whatever I want as noted earlier. 
  • Droidfish: On the cellphone I use Droidfish. I just recently found out about its hidden potential (previously I only thought of it as an interface to play the computer). It allows you to add comments (which is very important for me as i not only introduce the lines from opening books but also create tactical and positional problems from them) and you can change the engine settings. I use that to check the positional exercises I create from an opening. An exercise is good if the first line of the engine is at least +0.2 better than the second one, so when I find a position which seems interesting (generally the ones in diagrams or before a ! move) I load the engine showing two lines and there I know if the position is a good exercise. Sadly Droidfish does not seem to be able to manage databases, so once I have finished analyzing the game/exercise and I have added all the comments, I share the game with Scid on the go where I am able to store it in the correct database. Being able to do it swiftly is one of the great discoveries I had recently.
Train tactics:

I train tactics in Chess Tempo. The site is free to train but some functionality is only available for paying members.  I do not pay so I have no idea if the paying section is worth it, but the free version is great. You can solve tactics slowly or in a mode called blitz (which takes into account the time you use to solve it). There are like 100,000 exercises to solve with a wide variety of different levels. The exercises you are presented with depend on your rating so you won't get something out of your league (too easy or too difficult).

I have been using the site for two month now and I have slowly climbed to 2130 elo in the standard mode. At this level I have to spend like 20 minutes per exercise to get them right. That means that those exercises I'm solving are harder on average than John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book. 

There are other sites available (chess.com, chess24.com) and I guess they would be good as well. I'm trying to spend 30 minutes each day solving tactics on-line (which sadly now is like two exercises, as I take sooo long to solve them) and my hypothesis is that it should raise my tactical awareness, specially when done without time taking into account. The blitz mode may be more fun but you do not invest as much in those problems and the improvement comes from the energy invested.

In particular ChessTempo (I cannot say for other sites) will show you exercises where only one move wins (a computer evaluation bigger than 1.75). The exercises are different from normal tactical books as they are not chosen to fulfill any criteria on beauty but just to have one good move available. It takes time to get used to it but all the positions are from real games, so you will be very close to real game scenarios (except for the fact that you know there is only one good move and that good move is winning).

To me this site has make puzzle books more or less obsolete . Note that this does not mean I won't be reading puzzle books in the future or I'm giving away the ones I own. I will continue to use puzzle books and I will buy more, but that's because I like the feel of studying with a book, writing in pencil what you have thought so you  can come back a year later and see if you have improved, and specially that if the author is good he gives you something special in the solution or in the selection of exercises.

But when you are studying tactics for tactics' sake, then you may as well go to one of this sites, you do not need anything else, as those are places for the day to day training. The site will bring you puzzles at your level and your rating will be updated after each puzzle, so you will see if you are improving or not.

Chess diags is a little app for android for solving mates. It starts with mates in 1 and goes all the way to mates in 10. There are like 2,000 mates and the potential for anyone to create their own set.

The difficulty is varied, there are a lot of trivial mates, but others really forced me to set the position in an engine.

As far as I can see, the only problem with this app are: (1) It is a data dump of a lot of mates, so some are good, some are bad, it really does not care if you are a queen up, you just have to mate; (2) it does not have an engine that might help you when you are stuck.

SCID on the go as training tactic is feasible if you have a database of tactical problems as you use the training mode in the same way as you did for your openings. You make a move and if it is the correct one SCID will answer it with the main line of the variation until there are no more moves.

Reading books:

To read books I use Forward Chess. It is an app for android and iOS that a lot of publishers use to sell their electronic books.

The application is not bad (although there are tons of things I would it to do that it does not but SCID on the Go does) and you do not really have a choice there, if you want an electronic book from one of its publishers you have to have this app (which is free).

I like it mainly for opening books so I can study them in the subway but I have bought normal books there too (Chess Structures for example) and it is useful to have the engine running at your fingertips.

Importing a diagram to your phone:

The problems with physical puzzle books is that often you are left wondering why your move did not work. Recently I found an app called ChessOcr which will let you read the diagram with the camera of the phone and send it to the app of your choice for studying that diagram (I send them to Droidfish).

The app is great and has saved me tons of time by not forcing me to set-up the board on Droidfish, but you will have to pay for it :( But if you are like me and wonder why your intended move is bad and find yourself setting up the position by hand in an engine a lot, maybe you could consider buying it!

viernes, 13 de octubre de 2017

Review: John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book Enlarged Edition

Title: John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book Enlarged Edition.
Author: John Nunn.
Publisher: Gambit Publications.
Year: 2009.
Pages: 336.
Price: 20.25€.

Last summer I bought Dvoretsky's Maneuvering: The art of piece play, Gabrinsky's Perfect your Chess and John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book. The main desire was to get Dvoretsky's book but I took the chance and went to get two puzzle books to go along with it. Perfect your Chess was meant to be there waiting for my level to go up, as it is allegedly hard while I hopped John Nunn's puzzle book would be an accessible book to give me a break from the difficult Aagaard books.

Nunn is an accomplished author and I was at a loss as of which book would be interesting (now I have some better ideas, when I get to review Dynamic Decision Making I'll share what Gelfand recommends you) so I thought his book would do the trick as it was computer-checked and I thought the fact that I had not seen much praise about it would mean that its level would be quite accessible. I do not want to spoil the review, but I can advance that it is not.

The book features 300 tactical exercises in 336 pages. if you look at other reviews I've done that ratio is not really high for a tactics book. The format is unlike anything I've seen so far. It has the puzzles at the beginning and the solutions at the end of the book, but there is a middle section with hints for 252 of the problems. It also features 48 problems in a test format (without hint) where you can rate yourself.

The hint section gives you some advice as to how to solve the problem and gives you the difficulty of it. The hints vary in usefulness. Some spoil the problem completely while a lot more are not useful at all. When solving I only gave myself half the marks if I had to look at the hint to get the solution right even if the hint was obscure.

The edition of the book is poor and is something that shocks me to this day. As far as I understand it Nunn is one of the owners of Gambit Publications so one would think that he would want his book in the best quality available, specially if they are committed to a second edition (it is called enlarged because it features some more exercises, but it is a second edition after all).

However the book is paperback (well, everyone except for QC goes for paperback, but I can still complain as this is my blog!) and the quality of the paper is the worst I've seen in years. This is the problem when you buy in amazon, you won't have the book on your hands and you may end up buying something you dislike.

It seems that this edition not only has new exercises (which is good), but also a diagram at the beginning of the solution for each exercise to help you follow the solution. I cannot judge the usefulness of it as I did not study the previous edition but given how hard it is to navigate the book my guess is that it is a good addition.

The length of the book is excessive for only 300 exercises but the hints and the extra diagram in the solution take space too. The book is about the adequate thickness (thanks in part to the bad quality of the paper on it) so while it would be able to fit a lot more exercises with a better structure you have to think about the cost of each exercise (less than 0.07€) and stop complaining.

The solutions are thoroughly commented (unlike QC puzzle book, for instance), the solution normally takes around half a page per exercise and the comments are good.

The analysis is also adequate. I think I found only one flawed exercise (where the intended solution did not win). The exercises, though, are difficult. The exercises are rated with stars (with one star for the easiest puzzles to 5+ to the deadliest ones) and the 2-star problems were difficult but manageable for me, the 3-star problems were very difficult but I could solve them about half of the time and the 4-star problems were hell and took me quite a lot of time and even then I had poor success.

The average difficulty of the book is between 2 and 3 stars. Unlike the QC titles the problems are not ordered by difficulty so there is no obvious point were you can go to the next chapter, you have to suffer all the way to the end. However I cheated and looked the difficulty before trying to solve the exercise. I do not know if it gave me a big advantage, but at least it gave me solace when I would get stuck solving. You may as well skip the hardest problems if you like, although I wouldn't do that myself.

As I said earlier at the end of the book there are some tests. I loved that. As Nunn's point out, the elo you will get from there is not reliable but I was surprised that I got around the same marks for each test. The final mark was 2132 which is surprisingly close to my rating (and I was never good at tactics so it makes sense that my elo in tactics is lower). That elo is just the one you will get for having a level between 2 and 3 stars exercises (which is what I got in the rest of the book).

So all in all I do not regret having bought the book. The quality of the edition is terrible and I did not like a bit its structure. I like QC style of having the solutions of the problems just in the next page. That way you only need one marker to know where you are. Here not only you need two markers for the exercise and the solution, but a third one for the hints!  That is a pain to move across the book and it is easy that you see other hints or other solutions by mistake.

But the exercises are challenging and well commented, the test is a lot of fun (at least for me) and overall the difficulty assigned to the problems make sense.

I think a guy at 2000 should be around the 2 star mark and the book features enough 1 and 2 star exercises to make the purchase worthwhile, but maybe at 1800 it makes no sense as you will be struggling too much. On the other hand I think a 2300 will have a run for his money with the book.

That said, I do not recommend the book (even if I do not regret buying it myself). There are a lot of puzzle books out there. This is interesting but not the best one by a long shot. I have reviewed better puzzle books in this page and I plan to share with you Gelfand's recommendation on the subject. This book is not there.