Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Review: Practical Chess Exercises

I sat on Ray Cheng's new book Practical Chess Exercises for a couple of months, thinking it would be yet another run-of-the mill book of puzzles. Even the enthusiastic back-cover endorsements from Dan Heisman and John Watson (Cheng's coach) left me unimpressed. Such endorsements are typically written as favors by people who have only read the publisher's description of the book, or perhaps a small excerpt.

Once I cracked it, I liked the format of this book of 600 problems. Its layout is a boon for those of us who like to read chess books in planes and trains. Open the book to any page: on the left page you will find six positions while the right-hand page provides solutions to those same problems. No need to clumsily flip back and forth to find the answers in the back. Just hold a piece of paper over the right-hand page while working on a problem.

When I finally started working through the problems, my aforementioned skepticism quickly melted away. Then my enthusiasm grew as I realized I held a splendid and unique chess book in my hands. This is the first book I've read that makes me feel like I'm in a real game, where I need to use my full thinking process to pick the best move.

How did Cheng so adeptly manage to capture the spirit of playing in real games? Three reasons stick out. First, the variety of problems is as wide as the variety of positions you'll encounter in the game of chess. The problems include not just tactical themes, but also problems with a defensive problem to solve, endgames, opening themes (see below for an example), and about a third of the problems focus on positional themes. One really nice feature is that for some of the strategy problems there are multiple good moves (just like in real games!), not a single best move. For these positions Cheng mentions the many perfectly acceptable moves.

Second, the problems don't come labeled with themes, and are not sorted by theme or difficulty level. Positions in real games aren't labeled 'Mate in three' or 'Knight outpost.' There isn't a neon sign that starts blinking when there is a tactic to be found. Dan Heisman isn't there in shoulder-angel form to whisper "This is a difficult position, so be sure to give it a deep think." Cheng's problems serve to recreate the fog of war in chess, where it is up to you to determine whether there is a tactic in a position.

Third, the positions are from real games. No kooky compositions. Indeed, many of the problems are from internet games and remind me of the types of positions I see all the time.

All these facets combine to make the book a fun and helpful simulation of the chess battlefield. It forces you to think flexibly about the positions from multiple angles. Are there any major threats I need to deal with? If not, how can I improve my position? It even helps with time management, as the solutions provide quick feedback on how good you are at recognizing critical positions that require lots of thought, versus more quiet positions for which choosing moves based on general principles is appropriate.

The problems include no hints or labels. Just positions. The solutions on the next page have three features. First, a title that encapsulates the theme (e.g., 'Pawn sac to open lines' or the whimsical 'Win a pawn, lose the game'). The titles are useful for getting a big-picture perspective on the problem, and can serve as helpful hints before you cheat and look at the full solution. Next, the main body of each solution provides insightful analysis that strikes an excellent balance between word-explanation and variation crunching. Third, to indicate the difficulty-level of the problems, Cheng gives each problem between one and four stars (one being the easiest). I can find most of the one-star solutions within a few minutes, and tend to get the four-start problems wrong. I discuss the book's likely target audience below.

Reviews usually have criticisms, so I need to come up with some (note I consider these to be minor). For one, it would be nice if Cheng had included an index of themes in the back of the book for those who want to touch up on some particular weakness in their play. Also, while most of the explanations are chess enlightenment in word-form, a small minority could use a bit more meat (e.g., in problem 18 he gives the explanation "intending Nc4 with the advantage": the advantage isn't clear to this patzer and could be made a bit more explicit).

I unreservedly recommend this book, which is likely to be helpful for players rated between 1100 and 2000 at ICC (I am frankly not good at judging how the book would be for players rated so much higher than me, so this upper limit is something of a guess). Cheng himself is rated around 1700 USCF (tournament history here). This is a book to be savoured, and I am not looking forward to finishing it because it's just so damned fun working through the problems. Cheng doesn't plan on putting out another such book, so enjoy this superlative work. My hunch is that it took him a great deal of time to put it together (Fritzo-philes rejoice that he computer checked all the problems, and I did the same with a random selection and found his analysis spot on).

In the name of full disclosure, I should say that I received this book as a free review copy. But if I hadn't, if I had just checked it out of the library, I would quickly return it and buy the book.

To cap off this review, I'll provide one example. It is Problem 20 from the book, and received two out of four difficulty stars. White to move:
(20) ** Stop thematic pawn advance
Black's counterplay in the Semi-Slav Defense relies on the ...c6-c5 advance, opening the diagonal for his light-squared bishop, extending the scope of the rook on c8, and challenging White's pawn center. Here, after unusually restrained play by both sides White can prevent Black's thematic advance with 1. b4!

Note I just found out that Chess Relearner recently posted a similarly glowing review of the book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review. I have seen the book being mentioned here and there and it caught my eye. But i really have to keep a lid on buying more books right now.

9/19/2007 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying very hard to avoid buying more books.

This really sounds like one I'd like though - thanks for the review.

9/19/2007 08:30:00 PM  
Blogger Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

Hey, how do I score free chess books?! Seriously, a nice review. Sounds like something I'd be into. I have promised myself no more chess books for awhile, but how many times have I trampled over that oath?

9/19/2007 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

PMD: perhaps a perk of being the Knight's Secretary? :O

9/19/2007 10:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good review. I bought this one along with Heismans new book about a month ago. Now I'm really looking forward to starting on Cheng's book.

9/20/2007 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger Loomis said...

The most important sentence of the review for me was: "Its layout is a boon for those of us who like to read chess books in planes and trains."

While I have plenty of tactics and positional training to do at home, almost none of what I own is travel friendly -- requiring a computer or a chess board is not good for lounging at the beach/pool or traveling light. When I decide to buy a book to ease my travels, this one will be on the list. Thanks for the review!

9/20/2007 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BDK: Great review! But I am also one of those who shouldn't buy any more books, I need to focus on the ones I have. Today I went out to get some new clothes but got bored. I went to the chess store and browsed through the books when I realised I wasn't supposed to buy any more I bought a new chess board for 70$.

Loomis: If you want to be able to use a chess board while travelling, I got a good tip for you. Buy a small flat magnetic chess board (with flat pieces that is), attach a clip-thingy on the back and a pocket at the bottom of the board. Then you can just clip it to the page opposite of the one your currently reading, kind of like a book light. The pockets in front are for the pieces.

I know, I'm the Martha Stewart of chess.

9/20/2007 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

SP et al: chess book addiction is a serious problem. I've gotten myself down to one a month.

9/20/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger transformation said...

thank you for alerting me to your post, and sorry my delay... much intensity at work after TWO of us away on vacations concurrently, so came back to a massive clusterFck so very, very tired and working a LOT of days in a row.

lots to say. agreed with loomis. less time at PC, more at board, or pleasure of books at beach, in a chair, all that stuff. i did as much with Alburt Pocket Chess for one year steady, have mostly been doing as much with Reinfeld, and plan next year or year after that, do similar with Gelfer's Positional Chess Handbook.

it seems that you have found your next step, considering Art of the Checkmate, PCT was it, and many others by you, too numberous to mention.

what matters is the passion. if you have passion, that is what matters, and whether this be best, or far better, or maybe not best is irrelevant. if it gives you energy, then it is right.

there are the rare things that steal our energy that are good for us, as far as training goes, but perhaps either unsustainable or hard to sustain.

if for mine feel we need (and i am not joking) a viseral or sensual experience of books, when we touch them or hold them, there is a sense of connection or desire, that fuels the thirst... and some books have it, and some dont--however reputedly 'great'.

lastly, we all know about having too many books. i am now stopped at 150' or 500m. do we really need five translations of the chinese Tao Te Ching, Two Virgils Aneid? Or two Lucretius or three Dante or Three Chaucers?

but seriously, while it is so easy to say that we are better of (true!!) taking ten books like My System, Silman Endgame, 1001 Sacrifices, NCO, Art of Attack, Zurich, Pawn Structure Chess, Chess Training Pocket Book, Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played, and 500 Master Games etc.,

it is more than true that first we must read many more books, some good, some bad, before we can say 'enough, stop!' and say 'i will ONLY read these books untill i know and have absorbed what is inside them.'

we must kiss many frogs before we will know who is our prince or princess. we cannot kiss one, and say, 'this is it'. yet, once we have made a large sweep, we can validate primacy or singularity to the exclusion of much else.

warmest, dk

9/20/2007 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

DK: Classic DK. Positive review isn't the same as shift in my plans. I'm not sure when I'll work through this book in its entirety: it will be a while after finishing the Circles before I want to work through a bunch of puzzles again. I'll do some annotated games first, as I've always planned.

Art of Checkmate is first on my list for post-circles. Then, if I still feel like it, working through annotated collections on each world champion up to Kasparov. Then, perhaps the wonderful Donaldson's 'Chess the art of logical thinking' and 'Art of planning' annotated collections to cap it all off. I have many books I want to read that have piled up during my tactical mania.

But most importantly, I'm gonna float free and do whatever I want for chess training after a year and a half of being an intensive Circle Jerk.

PCT is OK, but I've never been a huge fan. I may use it as a maintenance tool, though. No Knight has finished who has tried to do it through PCT. I don't know why...even hisbestfriend doesn't really post much about tactical training, and I thought he might be the first. Perhaps tacticus maximus?

CTB is the shiznit and that will be my primary tactical maintenance tool on my core tactical patterns.

9/20/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I don't have a blog, I've started using PCT for my tactics.

I don't know if I'll finish; still on Tactics unit 1 (of 6). I like it more than CTB, myself. The Auto-circle thing helps for me, as does more problems. Of course, I've finished CTB a few times, and maybe just want a change of pace.

One question - is Unit 1 the only checkmate unit in PCT? I'm starting to get a little burnt out on those, lol.


9/20/2007 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

nice! you have given me a reason to order from labate....

9/21/2007 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Bungerting Baloner said...

Great review and thanks for referencing my own review! I am enjoying and benefiting significantly from doing the problems carefully.

To the fellow who wants to order from labatechess: I have ordered from him and his service and customer friendliness is superb. I now keep an eye out for his wares and will buy from him in preference to others even if the price is a little higher.

9/21/2007 09:12:00 PM  

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