Review: 'Secrets of Practical Chess' (new edition)

0 | Chess Event Coverage
During the last Corus tournament I received good news: a new edition of John Nunn's classic Secrets of Practical Chess (1998) was forthcoming. In those days (1998) I was working for Chess and Goshop Het Paard in Amsterdam, and I often had to advise chess players which books to buy. I have often recommended Nunn's book to chess players of my own level (at the time I had a national rating of around 2100) and slightly below.

Nunn's style is clear and comprehensible, and that makes the book also interesting and instructive for players of lesser strength (say from rating 1800 onwards), but I think that 2100-2350 rated players will find this book most useful. The examples are ambitious, the analysis and explications are complex, and Nunn demands concentration and attention from the reader. Of course you can put this book by your bedsite, but it's much better and useful to grab a board and really think about what Nunn says. The concrete tips ("don't analyse unneccessary tactics", or DAUT, to mention just one) are especially useful to players who already know that the bishop pair is often better than knight and bishop in open positions. Anyway, Secrets of Practical Chess has rightly won several prizes at the time, and has been reviewed extensively and with much praise. I was especially curious how much added value there was in the new edition. The number of pages was promising: 252 in the new edition against 172 in the first: that's an extra 80 pages!

when I started to read the book, it soon became clear that the last part was the part that did it. The first four chapters - page 9 to 166 - where Nunn writes about practical decisions at the board ('At the board', in my view one of the most useful chess pieces ever written), building an opening repertoire, analysing and evaluating middle game situations, and different aspects of the endgame, are identical to the first edition. To me, this was a disappointment. Personally, I had hoped that Nunn would have extended his superb chapter on practical decisions - which not only features the above-mentioned principle of 'DAUT' but also things like psychological pressure, positional insights and time trouble - with examples and new insights, for example related to the recent books by John Watson and Jonathan Rowson.

So what has changed, and what's in the extra pages of the new edition? The chapter 'Using a computer' comprises the biggest addition. In 1998, Nunn spent a mere 3 pages to this phenomenon, now he does it in more than fifty. We can all understand why: using computers has expanded enormously in the past ten years. We also all know that using programs like Chessbase and Fritz isn't easy, and that there's much ignorance and misunderstanding about it. Perhaps it even causes damage, who knows? But fifty new pages? Is this because of the new and multiplied software offer, or are there also new insights?

To answer that last question, we only need to compare the first sentences of the chapters from 1998 and 2007. What did Nunn write in 1998? "Computers are wonderful tools." That sounds positive, if not jubilant. Nunn now thinks about the issue with a lot more nuance. In 2007 he writes: "Computers are especially useful tools because of their flexibility."

In the chapter on computers, Nunn pays, of course, much attention to comparing various chess engines. In 1998 only Fritz existed, now you have Rybka, Shredder, Junior, et cetera. Perhaps this explains the 50 pages? No, for Nunn is still, like in 1998, mainly a connaisseur of Chessbase software. However, this doesn't stop him from remarking: "In terms of playing strength, on the basis of currect versions, I would assess Rybka as strongest, followed by Shredder." Use it to your advantage. And although the detailed descriptions of software and certain positions is fascinating to anyone who likes it, I somehow got the feeling that this was a different ballgame than the one I found in the first chapters of the book. In my opinion, these software comparisons don't have too much to do with practical chess.

The same could be said of the extensive descriptions of search functions and other options in Chessbase, which can be summarized with the term RTFM (Read the Fucking Manual). It's interesting for anyone who's too lazy to delve into the world of database software, and no doubt it's compulsory stuff for professional players who use their database daily and extensively, but it's somehow less imperative for playes of the level 2100-2350. My good friend and colleague Chessvibes editor Merijn van Delft is a fanatical user (and a great connaisseur) of the Chessbase program and has no doubt much profit from Nunn's tips and tricks. After all, he is a professional chess player and an International Master. But that's a different audience than Nunn seems to intend in the first part of the book - though Merijn will be the first to acknowledge that for him, too, the first part is very useful.

A nice thing are the 'case studies' Nunn has made to explicate how to analyse with chess engines and using chess software. He delves very deeply (in my view much too deep) into the theory of the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn variation and with the use of concrete tactical complications he shows what the computer is good at, and what the computer is bad at. I suspect most players who turn on Fritz occasionally will already sort of know what to focus on and what not - the depth with which Nunn treats the opening lines is really a few bridges too far for a simple 2250-player like myself, especially in a book on practical chess. The case study about the positional Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.Bxc6) was a lot more useful and interesting to me, because here, more general chess principles can be extracted. Here, finally, it's about manoeuvres, principles, structures and plans again.

In the end, as a serious chess student I am mainly interested in those elements - not in what the computer thinks of some crazy sac. Human chess is primarily about understanding and intuition - that is, for mere mortals like myself. Of course, Nunn's intention of this analysis of the Najdorf (tactics) and the Rossolimo (positional) is to show where computers rule and fail, but I think it's too theoretical a point, and not in line with the practical atttitude of the rest of the book.

Strangely, a number of warnings about computer chess from the first print, seem to have been removed. For example, Nunn doesn't mention anymore the not unimportant and irritating fact that players names are still being spelled inconsistently, how to handle double games, and the fact that many moves are entered incorrectly. Apparently, Nunn either assumes that users will know this by now, or that these problems are now more are less a problem of the past. Somehow, I have my doubts.

The last new chapter of the book is really an essay about chess literature in general. Nunn asks the question how to select a chess book. He says, among other things: "a lower-rated player who writes well and can explain ideas clearly may be more helpful than a top GM who lacks talent for writing." Perhaps here we can also hear the voice of Nunn as director of Gambit.

Nunn also gives the useful tip to try to find out whether the author of an opening book has played the opening himself. Using extensive examples from chess literature, he further shows that all chess books contain errors, that this doesn't have to be a really bad thing, but that there's the duty in second editions to correct mistakes. (We can safely assume that there were no mistakes in the original edition of Secrets of Practical Chess, since no changes have been made to the first four chapters!)

Nunn also has a few words to say about book reviews. And since this is a review of his book, perhaps it's interesting to take a look at some of his opinions. He writes: "Book reviewers have a responsibility to put aside their personal preferences and offer an objective view of the book." I wonder if I agree with this. Every reader has personal preferences. I consider myself to be fairly representative for chess players at my level, with regard to understanding, interest, and available time. How can I as a patzer judge the objective quality of a book written by a top grandmaster? Isn't my personal impression actually the only thing that matters here? Why should I put aside my personal, but probably quite representative preferences? Am I really doing my readers a favour by that? Which I guess is just another way of saying: Nunn's opinions about chess literature are certainly interesting, but they raise a whole host of new questions.

I most enjoyed Nunn's review of the book Rapid Chess Improvement by Michael de la Maza. With deadly sarcasm and strong arguments, Nunn completely and splendidly demolishes the entire concept of the book. There's nothing like a good negative review. I haven't read De la Maza's book myself, but I have heard a lot about it from others who have tried his methods. While reading Nunn's review, I had to laugh aloud quite a few times. Remarks like "Throughout the book de la Maza rubbishes positional understanding, but he is a 2000 player who has studied only tactics" are deliciously merciless - although I wondered how Nunn regards this comment in the light of his earlier criticism on a review by Matthew Sadler, who wrote that he wasn't interested in what some 2300-player had to say about a particular opening. Says Nunn about Sadler: "That's just arrogant." Is it cheeky to blame Nunn the same arrogance with regard to De la Maza - especially since he really doesn't come up with concrete examples to prove De la Maza's supposed lack of understanding?

Nunn ends the book with a short selection of 'recommended reading'. Most books on this list are pretty predictable. Keres, Tal, Shirov, Kasparov, Yermolinsky, and also Nunn himself is mentioned more than once. Most chess players in the audience will already have these books. Big absentee in Nunn's list is Jonathan Rowson. His book Chess For Zebras is in my view, with Secrets of Practical Chess, the biggest competitor for the most inspiring chess book of the past years.

Whoever hasn't read Nunn's book yet: run to the shop now, or order it directly via internet. Whoever has the first edition already: if you want to know what Nunn says about buying chess books, or if you don't think you get enough out of your Chessbase manual, but are also interested in how The Doctor uses it himself, it's worth it buying the second print as well. The best chapters, however, are already in the first edition.
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