Book Review: Mating the Castled King by Danny Gormally (Ebook)
NOTE: This review is part of a three part series reviewing the Forward Chess app for chess ebooks, this book, and Techniques of Positional Play by Bronznik and Terekhin.
Mating the Castled King is a new book from GM Danny Gormally published by Quality Chess. This is the first book by GM Gormally that I have read (He also wrote Calculate Like a Grandmaster.), and it is one that inspires considerable enthusiasm. The topic of mating the castled king is clearly a critical one, but, to my knowledge, it has rarely been the solitary topic of a book before. Perhaps the nearest competitor is Vukovic’s classic work - The Art of Attack in Chess, but it has been decades since Vukovic first published his book. There certainly seems room in the market for Gormally’s book. In addition, the publisher, Quality Chess, has established an outstanding reputation for quality so naturally I expected great things.
Mating the Castled King is organized as follows…
Table of Contents from Mating the Castled King
Chapter 2 and Chapter 7 contain puzzles while the remaining chapters contain ideas and examples regarding the attack. As one can see, a major theme of the book is the different role played by pawns and pieces.
This book is perhaps best viewed as a collection of mating/attacking patterns. GM Gormally even references IM Hendricks award winning book Move First, Think Later which debates the value of generalizing a chess position. Hendricks' book argues that to improve as a chess player, we must focus on absorbing more patterns. This thinking seemed ingrained in Gormally’s approach to this book. He very rarely generalizes about his examples. Rather, he relies on the quality and quantity of his examples to impart the necessary patterns. In general, I think this is an excellent approach.
As Gormally is a distincitve writer, I think it is worth taking a moment to discuss his writing style. In most cases, his prose is clear and effective. The book also excels at balancing textual explanations and variations. There are neither too much nor too little of either. My one quibble with Gormally’s writing is that I felt he occasionally tried too hard to make the writing interesting. Sometimes he resorted to excessively complex language to do so, and sometimes I felt he was substituting clear prose with more exciting, but less suitable, synonyms. One example is found in Chapter 5 - “This is the feared Tower of Terror that I introduced earlier in the book. This citadel of chaos casts such a malign shadow over the immediate landscape that the enemy forces can but tremble and cower in its evil presence.” Gormally references this type of style as being a part of his style. He reminds the reader that chess is only a game and he is trying to embrace that in his writing. Many may find this effective. Personally, I found the language distracting. Why must one anthropomorphise the chess pieces? In this example, I suspect that Gormally did not want to overuse the phrase “Tower of Terror” so he used the synonymous phrase “citadel of chaos”. Neither seems as useful as simply saying “pawn on g6”. The book has much such writing, and I invariably found it distracted from the meat of the book - the outstanding game fragments which were sufficiently interesting and fun on their own merits.
Gormally’s enthusiasm also lead him to say some things that seemed unnecessary, inaccurate, or imprecise. For instance, in the following example from a famous Kasparov vs. Karpov game he says “We can file this sacrifice under ‘shocking knight moves’ a subject we will come back to several times during the rest of the book.” The sacrifice, while nice, is not “shocking” and “shocking” is not a particularly useful category. It has no instructive value here. Why didn’t Gormally discuss this as an example of ripping away the king’s cover - a topic he does rightfully address in the book?
Quality of Examples
It may well be argued that a chess book can be evaluated by the quality and freshness of the chess content alone. On these grounds, Mating the Castled King is generally outstanding. As I originally delved into the book, I suspected I was reading a modern classic. Most of the examples are recent - later than 1990 - and many are fresh. Personally, I believe that better than 50% of the examples were new to me. For many casual readers, 90% or more may be new. The novelty of the examples does not detract in any way from their value. I never felt that the examples were less illustrative than better known examples.
I also appreciated many aspects of the presentation of examples. In many of his 160 mating finishes, Gormally takes the time to show instructive aspects of the preceding play before giving the solution. This was a simple and effective way to show instructive examples of building an attack. The following is a good illustration. I have reproduced the problem from the book. The full solution contains the preliminary moves and Gormally's annotations.
I also liked that Gormally would frequently present 2 or 3 puzzles with a very similar pattern in different positions. This seemed a good way to build understanding of the pattern while challenging the reader to detect the different tactical points presented by the different positions. Gormally occasionally included counter examples in which a tempting pattern had a subtle refutation. A fine example is the following one from the section on the Bxh7+ sacrifice. I only wish that there were more such examples included in all chess books.
For the most part, the examples are sound. I certainly did not come across any outright refutations in the book, but there were some frustrating alternate solutions. Alternate solutions may not be as egregious as refutations, but they are still very frustrating to the reader who has invested time solving a problem and is now implicitly told his/her calculations are incorrect. For instance, in the following example, Nb5! is given as the sole solution, but the solution I intended Nxd5! is at least as effective as Qxd5 c4! traps the queen.
Another personal frustration is Gormally’s frequent reference to “practical problems” in his evaluations. The practical aspect of chess is important, but a quality work should at least acknowledge the objective evaluations of the position.
My great frustration with this book is its organization. The book bounces around from topic to topic without a compelling sense of purpose. The book feels like two halves. The first, and best, half is dedicated to the 160 mating finishes. This section is an excellent introduction to some of the most common mating patterns in chess. The second half is dedicated to the roles of pieces and pawns. This is topped off with 12! problems in chapter 7 which are intended to test the readers' newfound skills. What is the point of even including chapter 7 if one is only going to include 12 problems? These problems are also not well selected. They are far inferior to most of the examples.
Many of my complaints about organization are small. For instance, is there a meaningful difference between the sections containing mating finishes on the g file and mating finishes on the b file? Functionally, what is possible with one is possible with the other. Also, the section on “Dragging Out the King” is primarily sacrifices on f7. Couldn’t one have more accurately included a “Sacrifices on f7” section? A similar complaint is that there are sections on the Bxh7+ sacrifice in both chapters 2 and 4.
Another section included is one on the rook lift Rh3-g3. This can certainly be a handy rook lift, but it hardly seems a quintessential attacking idea. Why not use a more general section on rook lifts? It is a general complaint that the section topics are neither the most essential nor the most representative. Personally, I would much rather a section have been included on rook lifts in general.
It is difficult to explain in a review why a book felt disorganized, but my sense of disorganization permeated my experience of this book. Proper organization is essential for the reader to make sense of the ideas and to acquire the patterns. I felt that the book consistently undercut the excellent quality of its examples with the poor quality of its organization.
In general, the Ebook experience is very good. One nice addition is the use of a show/hide solution button for the 12 problems in chapter 7. I only wish that this had been included with the 160 mating finishes. It was frustrating to have to constantly scroll back and forth between the problems and solutions when the book could have easily included the show/hide solution button or links back and forth between the solution and the problem. This, however, is not a criticism (a mild one) of the author or Quality Chess, but of the app maker, Forward Chess.
This book has many excellent and novel examples of mating play against a castled king. For that, it is well worth reading, and if you are looking for some fresh material, I can recommend this book. The quality of the examples also inspired me to be excited for future works from GM Gormally. If he had a regular chess column, I would certainly be reading it eagerly. However, I feel that the book’s organization significantly detracted from the book. There are many books that deal with attacking topics in a better fashion. I would cite Vukovic’s The Art of Attack in Chess and Christiansen’s Storming the Barricades and Rocking the Ramparts for a start.