Review: The Art of Planning

Review: The Art of Planning

Jul 16, 2009, 10:50 AM |

As indicated in its title, strategy is the topic of the book The Art of Planning in Chess (Batsford, 2006) by  Grandmaster Neil McDonald (pictured).

The book consists of 36 annotated games that are selected to illustrate how strategy can evolve around piece or pawn related thematic  principles.  For example, the final chapter is entitled “Horrible Holes” and there are some artful games devoted to the theme of creating, maintaining and exploiting knight outposts.  There are other chapters that focus on file control by rooks, diagonal control by bishops, pawn structure, and more.  Each game consists of lightly annotated openings followed by detailed and clear annotations of each move in the middle game.  When there is a clear win pending, McDonald lets the endgame play itself out without further comments.

As a novice player, I found some useful concepts that were new to me.  For example, in one of the chapters that focus largely on pawn structure, he demonstrates how the winning side meticulously builds up control of either the light or the dark squares.  Then comes the insight, “When a player has mastery over squares of one colour, a winning breakthrough usually occurs on a square of the other colour.”

One of the games used to illustrate this idea was played between Sakaev and Belov in Krasnoyarsk, Russia in 2003.  The breakthrough comes on White’s 32nd move – a rook sacrifice on f5, a white square – after acquiring control over key black squares. 

When I was just beginning to study chess five years ago one of the first general ‘rules’ I learned was to exchange pieces if I ever get a material advantage.  There’s a simple algebraic explanation of why this is a good idea.  Suppose you are up an exchange and therefore have a two pawn advantage.  If you count up the unit values of your pawns and pieces and divide them by the sum of your opponent’s unit values, then that ratio might be something like 12/10 = 1.2.  In other words, you have a 20% material advantage.  If you then trade rooks the ratio becomes 7/5 = 1.4 and your material advantage just doubled.

McDonald also employs a math argument (though he strangely uses cabbages rather than chess pieces), and he essentially argues for a similar increasing advantage by trading pieces not when you are ahead on material, but when you are ahead in development.  The game used to illustrate was Anand as Black, who is ahead on development versus Kasimdzhanov as White.

In a previous review of Soltis’ book How to Choose a Chess Move, I pointed out an interesting concept that I dubbed 'tactical entropy'.  This refers to the devilish notion of making a move that deliberately complicates the position, making it more likely that your opponent will make a bad move in reply.   I was happy to see an oblique reference to the same idea when McDonald writes, “When a player has positional threats at his disposal, he normally tries to delay the moment of truth for as long as possible, in order to keep his opponent guessing as to where the blow is going to come from.” (p. 85).

In his annotations, McDonald provides some alternate variations to the text moves, but not so many as to become mentally burdensome for those of us not (yet) playing at expert or master levels.  While the book focuses on developing a strategy and carrying it out, the author often points out where tactics support the players’ strategies, helping the reader arrive at a deeper understanding of the nuances of each game.

There are additional useful concepts to be discovered in McDonald’s book, which I highly recommend for the serious intermediate student of the game.  As for me, I will now place McDonald on the shelves to gather dust while I finish Aagaard’s utterly fascinating Inside the Chess Mind.  Watch this space for a future review.