Review: Chess Strategy for Club Players

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In my previous review, I praised Bobby Fischer's compact use of language. This time, I want to show that good chess writing doesn't have to be compact - the book I'm reviewing today is everything but compact, but it's also very good. IM Herman Grooten, a well-known Dutch chess trainer and author of chess books, has finally collected his training material and put his ideas (partly published in Dutch already) into one book, Chess Strategy for Club Players, published by New in Chess. The result is one of the most detailed and well-explained books for serious (club) players.

Herman Grooten has an excellent reputation as a trainer in the Netherlands. He has trained grandmasters Loek van Wely and Jan Werle as youngsters, and also ChessVibes co-editor IM Merijn van Delft, who still speaks highly of him. Grooten is best known for his positional feeling - in his foreword to Chess Strategy for Club Players - The Road to Positional Advantage, Jan Timman recalls that Loek van Wely once said of Grooten that "his positional rating was much higher than his tactical rating". I add to this that Grooter's "teacher rating" is also much higher than his FIDE rating, because the book could easily have been written by any 2600-player. The book explains strategic and positional aspects of chess by dissecting Steinitz's famous Table of Elements. This is already an indication both of Grooten's ambition and his 'structured elaborateness'. (This love for structure goes quite far in some cases. As an example, all chapters in the book - even the 'epilogue' - start with a new paragraph number and the word 'introduction' - as if we hadn't guessed that yet!) In fact, according to Timman, Grooten has 'modernized and updated the work of Steinitz'. Indeed, Grooten has looked critically at Steinitz's table (both with a computer and - much more extensively - with his trainees) and has formulated his own opinions and principles as well. This makes the book not only useful, but also interesting from a historical point of view. Although it surely wasn't Grooten's intention to write a book on the historical development chess strategy à la Watson, it definitely can be read that way. (But I can't help noticing it is a missed opportunity that Grooten doesn't actually mention Watson's books at all, nor does he mention Jonathan Rowson's or Jacob Aagaard's recent classics. In general, it's something many great chess books are lacking in my opinion: they are very good in discussing the works of Nimzowitsch and Steinitz, but they hardly ever mention any of the scholarly progress made in recent years. On the other hand, you could argue that a trainer and his students - especially club players - should only be concerned with simple, straightforward lessons, rather than be confused by all sorts of postmodern developments. Yet, isn't this underestimating readers? In highschool, we didn't only read Romeo and Juliet - we also saw West Side Story...)Apart from this, the first two chapters of the book (introducting Steinitz' elements and discussing 'the eye of the grandmaster') are very well-researched and scholarly. For instance, Grooten very eloquently describes A.D. de Groot's pattern-recognition research, its importance - and there's even a photo of grandmaster Adorjan doing an eye movement test. Grooten's (well-argued) theory is that pattern recognition doesn't only exist for tactical combinations, but also for strategic factors. So, if you know a lot of general strategic elements, you'll recognize them faster in your own games, and you'll become a better chess player. In the preface, the author explains himself quite clearly:

In my career as a chess trainer (...) I have often felt the need to pass on general rules, principles, dogmas and advice. Of course I realize that fundamental principles can be formulated in chess, but at the same time the game is full of exceptions to those rules and principles. (...) It is a challenge for me to provide chess students with stepping-stones, in such a way that they keep an eye open for special details.

(By the way, I still recognize Grooten's style when analysing with Van Delft or Van Wely - they too are in my opinion very fond of formulating 'principles' or 'rules' as they go along, even when they're just talking about a single game! Of course, they also have a fine eye for detail.)Grooten's eye for detail can also be seen in his writing style. He tends to explain himself very carefully and extensively. Take the following explanation of the difference between 'tactics' and 'strategy':

The tactical concept plays an important role in sports in general, and in present-day soccer especially. Actually, for a chess player the term 'tactical concept' is misleading. With tactics we think of combinations. But when a soccer coach talks about tactics, he means the strategy he wants to pursue in order to outsmart his colleagues in the dug-out. The coach's brainwork - which 'puppet' is put in which place, and which assignment is given to the 'puppet' - is of a purely strategic nature in chess terminology. What is more, in chess, we can also see the player himself as a kind of coach. For he is the one who determines which puppet goes where. Contrary to soccer, in chess ...

Well, and so on. If there's one thing that I would criticise in this book, it's that I think Grooten occasionally overstreches his explanatory drives a bit. Make no mistake: the analogy is a very good one, and an important one to make too (if only because the usual 'chess' analogy-nonsense from soccer commentators is often rather annoying to watch) but to drive the point home in three more long paragraphs is really pushing the limits of the reader's attention. But besides this minor quibble, it was most often a relief to read Grooten's down-to-earth comments, explaining things truly clearly and honestly not only to titled players, but focussing on club players' level especially:

Sometimes, while playing through a game between grandmasters, we read the sentence 'and the rest is a matter of technique' at the end of the analysis. The author assumes that it's clear to everyone that the player in question will know how to convert his advantage into a win. How he does this is apparently not considered to be interesting, since at this point the commentary usually stops. (...) However, in practice this stage of the game turns out to be not as self-evident as it seems.

Fortunately for us, Grooten isn't one of these authors. He specializes in 'making the seemingly obvious truly obvious', which is quite a rare gift for chess authors, no matter how strong they are. He manages to explain things are that sometimes (or rather often) taken for granted in analysis. Grooten may not write snappy sentences like Fischer, but he knows how to put emphasis on important moments in his own right. In the following example from the chapter 'passed pawns' (which was one of Steinitz's original elements), many authors would probably not even have commented on Black's first move.

Eliskases-Flohr Semmering 1937 White has a potential passed pawn on d4 and Black gives him a helping hand, so that he can even turn it into a protected passed pawn:1...e5 2.d5 Here the attentive reader will scratch his head in wonder. Why willingly give your opponent a protected passed pawn? The answer is simple: via the manoeuvre Na5-c4-d6, the pawn will be put behind bars, and then Black will achieve a number of things. He has fixed the centre pawns on the colour of the bishop (thereby downgrading the latter to a 'bad bishop'). On the blockading square d6 (or, as Nimzowitsch called it, the 'stopping square'), the knight fulfills a useful function. It can look 'beyond' the passed pawn, as it were, and apply pressure to the e4 pawn. As Black also has control of the c-file as well as a majority on the queenside, we can safely say that White has substantial strategic problems here.

Here, Grooten does exactly what many students want from any author: to give a clear and logical overview and subsequent evaluation of the position at hand. (Later on, there follow even more examples with similar structures, making the issues even more obvious.) The book also contains a number of quizzes and, after each chapter, relevant excercises with questions to solve for the reader. The following position from the chapter 'the open file' is given without the names of the players.

White has obtained a rather significant advantage in the centre. Furthermore, there is a field of tension between the pawns on a4 and b5. Can you think up a plan that is in accordance with these features?

This is a good example because analysing it inevitably leads you to the logical solution. Even if you haven't recognized the game immediately, you can't help noticing that white's light pieces do not occupy great positions, but how to improve them? Then you see that taking on b5 (the only concrete plan) is only attractive if White can then occupy the a-file. This leads to preparing this exhange on b5 by first doubling the rooks. As Grooten explains: "Since for positional reasons Black cannot go for b5xa4, White puts his pieces on the a-file, threatening a4xb5, with which he would conquer the a-file. Then Black's lack of space will prove fatal to him." And, of course, in Fischer-Spassky, Sveti Stefan (m/1) 1992, White did play 1.Ra3! and went on to win a beautiful game. Grooten analyses the rest of the game in great detail, but it's especially Grooten's last sentence (about Black's lack of space) that was the real eye-opener to me. Indeed, in the game White didn't take on b5 for quite a while, but once his heavy pieces were on the a-file, Black just couldn't make a move anymore and then White had time to improve the position of his pieces. So even though I already knew this example, I only started to really understand the depth of Fischer's idea after reading Grooten's explanation, which in fact was not only about open files, but also about space on the board in general. Chess is always much more complicated than one theme can illustrate, and Grooten himself recognizes this in his epilogue, when he writes that 'we should not lose sight of the fact in one game several themes may influence each other.' It's this kind of subtle points of view that makes a decent trainer into an excellent one. Luckily for us, Herman Grooten has now written an excellent book about his experiences as such a trainer.


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