Puzzles are in the air

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Puzzles are in the airThis spring, there seems to be a real explosion of new chess puzzle books on the market. Cultural pessimists will hardly find this very puzzling. In these busy times where everyone has his own Twitter, Facebook, ICC and PlayChess account, who has time for serious chess comtemplation? One or two puzzles a day - that's all the time we've got to spend on chess.

Of course, that's the shallow point of view. Anyone who takes the time to have a closer look at the chess puzzle books will notice that the books themselves are hardly shallow - in fact, a somewhat new genre seems to emerge: the serious chess puzzle book, in which the reader can't just glance at the diagram and solve the combo instantly, but is required to think hard before deciding and will often be surprised by the actual solution.

1001 Deadly CheckmatesThe great master of such puzzle books is surely the prolific John Nunn, who recently published yet another: 1001 Deadly Checkmates (Gambit). In 17 chapters, each illustrating a particular theme (The Lethal Strong Diagonal, Death on the Rook's File, Hunting the King, etc.) Nunn takes the reader on an increasingly difficult ride with checkmates from mostly unknown and surprising games.

I got the impression Nunn's philosophy in this book is very much based on the idea that the more you see of a particular theme, the more likely you are to find such mates in your own game. (Though clearly that's more or less the general idea of any chess book!) Compare the basic motifs behind these two exercises (the first of which was played by one of our co-editors, the second of which I happened to be a live witness of):

Tratatovici-Ris Reykjavik 2009 Tratatovici-Ris

Black to play (2 points)

1...Rh2+ 2.Kg1 Rdg2+ 3.Kf1 Ne3+ 0-1

Van den Doel - S. Ansell Hilversum 2008 Van den Doel - S. Ansell

White to play (3 points)

1.Qxg6+ 1-0

The power of repetition! Well, I'm sure it works, and as said the collection is original and interesting, but I must admit I've come to expect a little bit more from such an outstanding chess author. While browsing through the hundreds of chess diagrams, I couldn't help thinking Nunn just wrote another set of beautiful generic scripts to query his huge game database, and that I was simply looking at the result of that query with some additional commentary from "the Doctor". 1001 Deadly Checkmates is a good effort to be sure, but also, to be honest, a tad bleak.

1000 Checkmate CombinationsIt's funny that almost on the same day as I received Nunn's book, I also found a book in the mail with almost the very same title: 1000 Checkmate Combinations by Victor Henkin (published by Batsford). Although not a new book (it is a Russian classic from the 1970s), it was translated in its entirety for the first time in English so it's likely to be a valuable addition for most of the ChessVibes readers. To me it was, at least - rarely have I read such an outstanding guide on chess tactics. The only drawback is that many (if not most) of Henkin's diagrams have made it to other classics and are therefore not entirely new.

However, Henkin's explanations are still quite instructive, to the point and erudite in a way that is only seen in Russian chess books. In chapter five (The Pawn), for instance, Henkin kicks off with a quote from a poem by G. Agatov, only to continue by reproducing a lengthy fragment from the poem 'The Load at the Top' by the famous Futurist (and later, Revolutionist) poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) about pawns that 'eat' monarchists:

... That Petya could dash To critique a world match "Neither is worth a thing - Capablanca and Alekhine both, oh my, evasive in the ring guarded their king ... ... and I won't stand for all of this - let a pawn eat monarchists!"

From there, it's a piece of cake for Henkin to observe that in chess, a pawn hardly ever "eats" a king. The following endgame study by Morphy, however, is one way to do it:


White mates in 2 moves

After 1.Ra6! Black falls into zugzwang, since his bishop cannot leave the b8 square because of 2.Ra7X, while 1...bxa6 frees the way for the pawn - 2.b7 X

I think it's safe to say that most chess players have seen this famous study before - and as said, this illustrates the book's biggest drawback: it's outdated. Of course this isn't a problem for newbies and kids, but more experienced chess players willing to improve their chess with some well-selected combinations will probably have a strong feeling of familiarity with many of the book's fragments and studies.

(Here I cannot resist mentioning the brand new ChessVibes Training magazine, which will have twelve new combinations every week, from recent tournament practice, selected by the aforementioned IM Robert Ris!)

Naturally, I found a lot of positions and combinations I didn't know before, but there was also a lot that I did recognize and didn't challenge me any more. Contrary to Madonna's wisdom, time goes by rather quickly in the chess world, and while 1000 Checkmate Combinations may well have been the "Russian chess classic" that Batsford claims it to be, I'd now rate it as not more than average. My suggestion would be to buy it for the poems and the prose, rather than the positions.

Boost Your Chess 3The third puzzle book I would like to mention is Artur Yusupov's Boost Your Chess 3, published by Quality Chess. As mentioned in previous reviews, the Boost Your Chess books are a fine, if somewhat casual-looking series. In 20-odd chapters, all sorts of topics are expertly discussed and illustrated, but it's often a little hard to find anything that interconnects the themes, apart from the book's subtitle, "Mastery".

It sometimes makes for a "puzzling" experience in its own right. For instance, the chapter on Knight Endings is immediately followed by a chapter on the English Opening. Perhaps it makes sense to you, but to me it doesn't. In the chapter on the Reti Opening, we read:
Typical of the Reti Opening is the fianchetto of the king's bishop (1.Nf3 d5 2.g3). The basic idea of the Reti consists of creating piece pressure against the centre; so White often tries to fianchetto both bishops.

In general this is, of course, quite true but isn't the Reti Opening, in fact, characterized by the moves 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4, when Black's main theoretically independent responses are 2...d4 and 2...dxc4? Indeed, the first game that Yusupov mentions (Reti-Yates, New York 1924) also begins with 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4, and while it is certainly true that White normally does continue with g2-g3 on one of his next moves, it seem kind of sloppy and un-Yusupovian to introduce this kind of move order confusion in the very introduction to the chapter.

That said, the middlegame chapters especially are good and contain a lot of engaging, vintage Yusupov stuff, though for people who are already familiar with Yusupov's (or Mark Dvoretsky's) work, much will sound quite familiar. Here's how the chapter on 'Defence' begins:

For many players, defending is noticeably more difficult than conducting an attack; they must first of all spot the opposing threats, so that they can react appropriately to these threats. Very often the defender must play with extreme accuracy and find only moves. Accurate calculation of variations and well-developed tactical vision are very important in order to save the game.

Very, very true, but also very, very obvious. Reading these books, I asked myself whether maybe acclaimed authors like Nunn and Yusupov have simply said all they have to say. Most of their recent books seem to lack the sense of urgency that these writers used to be famous for.

In fact, I sometimes wonder when readers will say 'Enough is enough!' and stop buying any more new puzzle books - never mind who wrote them, and never mind how the exercises are introduced - because they all still aim for the same thing and it's cheaper and, in these internet-dominated times: quicker, to just re-use the puzzle books they read 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. I, for one, prefer a more ambitious type of chess books, so we'll have a look at some of them in my next review.