Review: A Course in Chess Tactics & Boost Your Chess 1 - The Fundamentals

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Boost Your Chess & A Course in Chess TacticsWhile there are numerous competing theories on how to improve one's chess, one thing that is absolutely undisputed in chess training philosophy is how to stay sharp in chess: by regularly solving tactical chess puzzles. It doesn't much matter how you do it, as long as you do it frequently, so why not practice your chess tactics with two good and entertaining new puzzle books on the market?

In this review, I'd like to draw your attention to two very good books to sharpen your chess: A Course in Chess Tactics by Dejan Bojkov and Vladimir Georgiev (published by Gambit) and Boost Your Chess 1 - The Fundamentals by Artur Yusupov (published by Quality Chess). The books do have slightly different purposes and intended audiences, but they're both full of great chess puzzles which will help you stay in shape.

In the introduction to A Course in Chess Tactics, the authors explain their purpose:

Our aim is to help you develop an understanding of the principles of chess tactics, so that they become instinctive. With some practice, you will start to sense the crucial moments, to feel danger in your position and to smell when something is wrong in your opponent's camp. Inevitably a chess-player learns by trial and error, but it is possible to progress faster and with fewer failures by learning and applying chess principles. Moreover, tackling and solving carefully chosen excercises will help you subconsciously memorize typical patterns.

Nothing new here, of course, but the authors are right in stressing the intuitive way of acquiring knowledge, and they create sympathy and understanding by being modest about their immediate goals. It's a point Artur Yusupov makes as well in the introduction to Boost Your Chess:

The reader will benefit from the methodical build-up in this book, even if some of the material is familar, as it will close any possible gaps in his chess knowledge and thus construct solid foundations for future success. (...) I must emphasize that just working with this book does not guarantee a rise in your rating. It simply gives you a solid basis for a leap forward in chess ability. You should also play in tournaments, analyse your games, play through well-annotated games of stronger players and read books on chess.

That said, the books do have different set-ups and intentions. Sure enough, both books are mainly organized around well-known themes such as 'deflection', 'discovered attack', 'back-rank mate', 'open files' (Bojkov and Georgiev), 'the windmill', 'outposts', 'perpetual check (Yusupov) and stalemate and fortresses (both). But in general, Bojkov and Georgiev cover the more basic elements ('pin', 'knight fork') while Yusupov's themes are slightly more sophisticated and also more strategical ('exploiting weaknesses', 'the principles behind mobilization', 'zugzwang') and features more difficult examples. On the other hand, Bojkov and Georgiev offer more explanations and worked-out examples - from very recent games, too, which I always like a lot - and they also make a genuine effort to explain how and why themes actually are related and should be studied. They also adopt a more casual and personal writing style. Here's a typical fragment:

As we have seen, it can cost a great deal of material to neutralize a well-supported passed pawn. The following example is even more drastic:

Bojkov-Bayram Izmir 2002
Diagram 1 Unfortunately, not all of my experiences with passed-pawn duos are pleasant. In this game I had a lesson - luckily, for free. I had just exchanged knights on d5, and was highly optimistic: I am a pawn ahead, and a second one is coming on the next move. I did not consider seriously the knight sacrifice, but this was exactly what my opponent did!

22...e4!! Now White is in danger too!

23.dxc6 e3 24.Rf4 Qc5 25.Kh1 Rfe8 26.Re4?

Diagram 2

Following a passive plan of exchanging rooks that leaves my back rank weak. White should seek counterplay with 26.Qb3!, the main point being 26...Re7 27.Rd4 with complications.

26...Rxe4 27.Bxe4 e2 28.Qd2? Qf2 29.Rg1 Re8 30.c7 Having played brilliantly to achieve a won game, Black now blundered in time-trouble:

30...Kh7?? Instead he could have created a true masterpiece by letting me promote: 30...Rxe4!! 31.c8=Q+ (with check!) 31...Kg7 32.Qh3

Diagram 3

An amazing position! Black's pawn duo will cost White both his queens. We already know the method: the road should be cleared: 32...Qxg1+!! 33.Kxg1 e1=Q+ 34.Qxe1 Rxe1+ 35.Kf2 d2 -+ and there is nothing more for me to do than congratulate my opponent on his excellent play. (...)

This is a great and instructive example, but it's quite different from the following example from Yusupov's book:

Yusupov-Risch Swiss Team Ch. 2004
Diagram 4

18.Rad1! White not only brings his reserves into play (even in the middlegame you should not forget about mobilization!), but at the same time he hinders his opponent's normal development.

18...f5 Black looks for counterplay. But his knight and the rook on a8 are not yet developed. For that reason his attack has no real chance against four white pieces. But unfortunately he cannot bring his knight into play either, since 18...Nc6? is simply met by 19.Rxd7 +/-.

19.Rd3! fxe4 20.fxe4

Diagram 5

20...Qe2 Black strayed from the correct path on move 6 and is still not sticking to the rules described above. He may win a pawn, but in doing so he comes under a strong attack by White.

21.Re1 Qxf2 22.Qe5 The black squares are too weak, the threat is mate.

22...Kf7 The only move, but in the centre the king will come under further attack.

23.Red1! +- Threatening Rxd7+. All the White pieces are now attacking. (...)

This is a great example, too, but I hope you see the difference. Yusupov also uses examples from his own games, but his style is much more distant and scientific, and - some would say - more relevant. Of course, Yusupov's book also features more 'real' tactics and Bojkov and Georgiev do analyse some more strategical or 'long-term' concepts, but in general Yusupov's book is broader, more serious and hence more suitable for advanced students. Nevertheless, I found Bjokov and Georgiev's the more charming of the two.

Let's move on to the actual puzzles in the two books, but first a little trick question: how should you, in fact, solve your chess-puzzles? I must admit I myself mostly make them without board, just by looking at the diagram and then trying to figure out what's the right move or variation, and then look up the solution, but I think I would have been sternly rebuked by Artur Yusupov for doing this:

It is very important to write down all the necessary variations. If you do this you will be able to compare your solution with the one given in the book and you can also see how well you have understood the particular subject. (...) We also recommend that you play through the solutions, including all the variations, on a chess board.

Perhaps he has a point. One of the things gained by writing down variations is that you organize the various possibilities in your head, something that's often easily forgotten once you spot a nice 'combo'. I think it would've helped me in a recent team match game I recently played:

Goes - Moll Utrecht 2010

Diagram 6

Black is almost winning and I was already intending to play 26...Bg4! when I suddenly saw a nice 'trick' and instead almost immediately played:

26...Nxe5?? The 'point' being, of course, that 27.Nxe5 Rxe5! 28.Rxe5 Qf4+ wins the house. Always fun to end a well-played game with a combination, isn't it? Not exactly.

27.Rxe5! Oops, missed that one. Fortunately, I managed to swindle the draw in time-trouble (after 27...Rxe5 28.Nxe5 Re8), but it's easy to imagine Yusupov (and indeed Bojkov and Georgiev) shaking their heads and thinking 'this guy really hasn't understood anything of what we wrote, has he?'

Both books have an excellent puzzle section. You can guess how it works and you should really solve them for yourself so I won't reveal them to you in this review. I found the layout of the Bojkov/Georgiev book slightly more pleasant to the eye, which I guess is not unimportant when solving excercises. On the other hand, if you set the position up on the board, as Yusupov advises you to do, you won't be bothered by his layout either. And Yusupov's book does contain more puzzles, so I really find it hard to make a choice between these two books.

You know what? I'm not going to choose at all; what matters is that whichever one you decide to buy, you'll be sure to stay sharp during important games ... as long as you keep in mind that combinations are not a random gift, but a reward for staying sharp and alert. Not only by spotting the combo, but also by correctly and accurately working out its solution.


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