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Book Review: Back To Basics: Tactics

  • menofsticks
  • | Feb 19, 2009
  • | 7452 views
  • | 15 comments

I've been a fan of Dan Heisman 's Novice Nook column for quite some time now, so it should be no surprise that I wanted to check out his books.  First on my Heisman reading list was Back To Basics: Tactics.

This book is largely what it sounds like:  a study guide to the basic tactical motifs in chess.  It includes all the usual friends of the chess player, such as pins, skewers, forks, and so on.  It also speaks to some things that aren't often covered in tactics books, namely removal of the guard, defensive tactics and seeds of tactical destruction.

Removal-of-the-guard goes buy various names in the chess universe, such as "deflection" and "overworked pieces," and I've never before seen a decent coverage of this important tactic.  Removal of the guard is one of Heisman's favorite axes to grind and he works it over at length and in depth in Back to Basics: Tactics.

Defensive tactics are another motif that most books about tactics ignore, which is unfortunate considering how useful they can be in the practical life of the aspiring chess player.  Heisman, always in the realm of the practical, dishes up a good helping of defensive play.

"Seeds of tactical destruction" is an interesting addition to this book and it highlights Heisman's emphasis on practical play.  This topic covers solutions to a time management problem.  How do you recognize when there is a tactical solution to the current position?  If you can quickly see that there is no chance for the use of tactics, you can eliminate a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in searching for a tactic to play.  On the other hand, you don't want to lose the opportunity to play a tactic just because you couldn't recognize its existence!

If you are an avid Novice Nook reader, a quick look at this book's table of contents will be very familiar.  In fact, every topic in Back To Basics: Tactics is covered over at Novice Nook, so what extra does this book bring to the party?  Chess problems, and lots of them!  Each tactics topic comes along with many problems to work through, with heavy emphasis on removal of the guard problems - that set of problems is easily the largest set of problems on a specific tactic in the book.

There is a chapter in the book entitled "78 Problems On 64 Squares," which is a set of problems covering all the tactics discussed in earlier chapters.  The problems are in no particular order, which is intended to simulate a real playing environment.  After all, in a real game, there's nobody looking over your shoulder saying, "White to mate in three," or "Black to play and win a pawn!"

I found most of the problems in Back To Basics: Tactics fairly easy.  Considering how much emphasis I place on tactics in my chess studies, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.  However, there certainly were some problems that gave me a bit of a hard time, and I had the most trouble with problems sets about tactics I have not much seen in other books, specifically removal of the guard, defense and seeds.  I will no doubt be coming back to those chapters repeatedly and often until I get the hang of them.

Even working through the problems which seemed a bit simple at my stage of development was useful, though, because often the solutions given by Heisman were enlightening.  Fairly often I might solve the problem correctly, but not exactly for the same reasons that the author gives in his explanations of the solutions, and sometimes he gives contunuations for the answers that hadn't occured to me.

At the beginning of the book, there is a section on counting, a topic to which Heisman gives high priority.  This is another topic about which the author explains in a way that other books I have read do not, and it certainly has changed my game since reading Heisman's explanation.

I think that all newcomers to chess should read this book, and read it carefully, but so should most intermediate players.  Rank beginners obviously need to learn about all these tactics, and this book is a great place to start.  More advanced players may know all or most of these tactical motifs, but to them the big payoff from this book is faster, clearer thinking about tactics.

All is not peaches and creams, unfortunately.  Back To Basics: Tactics has a rather long errata list, which you can't just download, you have to email Heisman and ask him to email back the errata sheet.  Admittedly, when I requested the errata list from the author I received a reply inside an hour or two, so this is more of an annoyance than a major hassle.  If what I have read is correct, there will be a second printing of this book and it will contain all the corrections, so anyone that is interested in buying a copy might consider waiting until the sophomore printing hits the bookstores.  Unfortunately, I don't know how long that wait will be, so the choice to wait is a bit of a judgement call on the potential reader.

I'll sum up by saying that, at least for the time being, practicing the problems in Back To Basics: Tactics has replaced my daily ritual of fighting the Tactics Trainer for an hour or so.

 

As always, I'm Stick, your resident wordslinger, and I'll see y'all out there on the gridiron!


Check out the rest of Stick's articles.

Comments


  • 5 years ago

    unixadmin

    This is probably one of the best book reviews that I have read.

     

    Good job!

  • 5 years ago

    likesforests

    On Sunday, puzzle 2-42 appeared in one of my tournament games. :)

  • 5 years ago

    mongreltiger

    After reading Heisman's Everybody's 2nd Chessbook, I purchased Back to Basics: Tactics and I am about to crack it open for the first time.  I knew nothing of the errors in the book until finding this review.  Thank you menofsticks and thank you chess.com

  • 5 years ago

    TonightOnly

    Wow, really? I didn't know you believed in it so much. Maybe I will give it a second look when I see it in the bookstore. In your first post, you said that 'Understanding Chess Tactics' was a better book in a few different aspects, so I thought you had somewhat dismissed this book.

     

    "The idea of buying three separate $15 tactics books as my skill increases doesn't bother me."

    Yes, but here's the rub: currently in print, there are roughly 4,736,942,813 chess books. About 97% of these are 'for beginners.' About 97% of that 97% are about as valuable to chess beginners as a pair of dingo's kidneys.

    If we were comparing a worthy book that approached most skill levels to another worthy book that was part 1 in a 3 part series, then I would not really have a preference either. When I made the comment, though, I hadn't yet been convinced that this book was anything special.

  • 5 years ago

    likesforests

    TonightOnly> I think there would be many books where a beginner could read them, reach x, and yet continue to grow.

    That's a nice idea, but I'm not familiar with any tactics book that I would highly recommend for beginning, intermediate, and expert players. Then again, the idea of buying three separate $15 tactics books as my skill increases doesn't bother me. I try to always have the best tool for the job at hand. If you really want a dense all-in-one book there's Polgar's classic 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.

    I just re-read Back to Basics: Tactics for the tenth time in preparation for an OTB tournament tomorrow. A quick review is how I use it at this point.  :)

  • 5 years ago

    TonightOnly

    "...if you grow out of it you'll be a stronger player."

     

    Certainly, but that goes for any chess study. Call 'x' the objective strength of a player who recently finished reading 'Back to Basics.' I think there would be many books where a beginner could read them, reach x, and yet continue to grow. That is, if my assumption is correct that this is not a very deep book.

    That was IM Silman's idea in his 'Complete Endgame course.' He decided to make a book that would keep giving over the years and you could keep going back to the shelf for, as you moved up the ratings ladder. Even though this was the first time I had seen such a plan laid out explicitly, there are a handful of books in my collection that have been able to give in this way.

  • 5 years ago

    likesforests

    TonightOnly This seems like a book that beginners would grow out of quite quickly.

    True, for a couple reasons: (a) almost all the tactics are one to two moves deep and with no branches and (b) the core tactics section only has 250 positions. But I would argue, if you're under 1400 chess.com missing basic tactics is usually one of your problems, this book will help you more than most, and if you grow out of it you'll be a stronger player.

    TonightOnly - Even complete beginners can understand and appreciate the intricacies of the twenty or more standard tactical motifs of chess

    How many motifs is right for a beginner tactics book is debatable, but here's how many Heisman covers vs Polgar's intermediate tactics book:

    Dan Heisman covers 9 motifs plus counting, mates, and defensive tactics.

    Susan Polgar covers 15 motifs plus mates, game-saving combinations, traps & countertraps, sibling positions, and 25 famous combinations.

  • 5 years ago

    boyerbcb77

    This book does sound like a very good read.  Thanks for the critique.

  • 5 years ago

    paulo77

    I found this review very helpful and am seriously considering buying this book as a newcomer to chess.

  • 5 years ago

    TonightOnly

    Maybe that was too critical, but it seemed someone had to be. A glowing review is fine, but a fluffy review doesn't seem to help anyone.

     

    What do you think are some problems with the book? (real problems, not typos)

    How would you compare it to Likesforests' book or any of the other classic beginner books?

  • 5 years ago

    TonightOnly

    Well, this doesn't seem to be a very critical or even objective review, and kind of reads like an advertisement at parts.

    None of these ideas are new and don't even seem to be laid out very well. Destruction, deflection, decoy, overloading, are all individual tactical motifs with each their own intricacies all of which could fall under the concept of 'Removal of the Guard.'

    The way you make it sound, it might be dumbed down a little too much. Even complete beginners can understand and appreciate the intricacies of the twenty or more standard tactical motifs of chess, and there doesn't seem any reason to come up with cute names like 'Removal of the Guard' or 'Counting.' This seems like a book that beginners would grow out of quite quickly.

  • 5 years ago

    likesforests

    Thanks for the list, but be wary of taking the numbers too literally. Other publishers would call many of these enhancements rather than errors. For example, #2-226...

    My analysis might go:

    1...Qe1+ 2.Rxe1 fxe1=Q+ 3.Qf1 Qxf1# so

    1...Qe1+ 2.Qf1 Qxd1 3.Qxd1 f1=Q+ 4.Qxf1 Rxf1#

    Heisman's analysis is:

    2-226: 1...Qe1+ 2.Qf1 Qxd1 and Black promotes with mate after either 3.Qxd1 f1Q+ 4.Qxf1 Rxf1# or 3.Rxf2 Qxf1+ 4.Rxf1 Rxf1# or 3.Rc1 Qxc1 4.Qxc1 f1Q+ 5.Qxf1 Rxf1#. The immediate 1...f1Q+? fails to 2.Rxf1 Rxf1+ 3.Qxf1

    Heisman's "errata" item for this is:

    Page 110 – Answer for Problem 2-226 - Add “If 3.Ba6 Qxc2 wins easily.”

    This is what I mean--many publishers wouldn't call the original text an error--they would call adding an extra variation an enhancement. And so they would have smaller errata lists! From a quick scan of the list, I count 17 clear errors in the positions and answers.

    Anyway, that's my take. Good review... keep them coming!

  • 5 years ago

    farbror

    Great Review! Valid Comments. Chess.com is a Great Place!

  • 5 years ago

    menofsticks

    The errata list documents almost 40 errors.  With suggested enhancements for the next edition, the list has approximately 50 entries.  If you consider that this book is less than 200 pages long, that's a sizeable list.

    I've uploaded a text version of the errata in gzip format.

    I hope Mr. Heisman doesn't mind ...

  • 5 years ago

    likesforests

    What is it? It's a beginner's book on tactics.

    Who is the audience? I think players under USCF 1000 or under chess.com 1400 would benefit greatly from mastering these exercises, and even players rated upto 200 points higher would surely derive some benefit from it.

    I've worked through Heisman's book nine times. I still zip through it the day before tournaments as a review. I have only a couple nits with the review above. Mostly, I agree it's an excellent book well worth reading if you're in the target audience.

    menofsticks> "It also speaks to some things that aren't often covered in tactics books, namely removal of the guard."

    Almost all my books cover removal of the guard and defensive tactics. I think the one truly unique motif he offers is in chapter one, "Counting".

    menofsticks> More advanced players may know all or most of these tactical motifs, but to them the big payoff from this book is faster, clearer thinking about tactics.

    For more advanced players, "Understanding Chess Tactics" has better explanations of the basic motifs plus provides calculation practice to boot.

    menofsticks> Back To Basics: Tactics has a rather long errata list,

    How many errors are on the list? My guess would be no more than 10-20. Fair enough, they were a minor annoyance the first time through. But this isn't a book you read just once, and after I crossed through them with X's, subsequent reads went smoothly.

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