Review: The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

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The Most Valuable Skills in ChessThe more you understand of chess, the harder it is to understand how difficult it really is. At least, this is my personal experience when explaining beginners the absolute basics of chess. Suddenly, a capture is not obvious anymore; a developing move is not made automatically, and mate in one is not spotted immediately. So, in my view, we have to respect Maurice Ashley for writing a chess book for absolute beginners that's not only instructive but also entertaining.

In The Most Valuable Skills in Chess, his first real teaching book, GM Maurice Ashley starts with a similar confession as the one I described above:
When I was first asked to do a beginner's book, I felt a bit uneasy. It seemed to me that I had nothing to add to the numerous quality books already in print. Just to slap my name and grandmaster title onto the same old rehashed material seemed boring, and in some way, a bit dishonest. It took a long time for the ideas you now hold in your hands to hit me over the head and insist that they be written. (...) Writing this book for beginners forced me to look very closely at little things about the game. This process led to pleasurable discoveries. My friends seemed bewildered when I called them up in delightful amazement to tell them how I had just discovered for the first time that a nearby king can only attack a bishop from one quare.
It's clear from the start that Ashley has really tried to put himself in the shoes of the readers he's writing for, and this is always a good thing. But there's also something funny with the argument Ashley uses. This is already clear from the example he uses, but here's another, more interesting illustration of it:

The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

This example, taken from the 5th chapter called 'Wall Street', is already quite advanced. The entire chapter is about 'fair trade' in which Ashley talks about exchanging pawns and pieces. He has just explained an important rule of thumb: "when attackers and defenders are the balance, then the target must be worth as much as the capturing piece." This position is an illustration of the principle. It's black to move and of course he plays 1...d5!  Ashley explains:
White is attacking the pawn four times (yes, the rook on d1 also counts!) while Black is defening the pawn four times (the rook on d8 helps out). White's simplest response is to play 2.exd5. Black wants to take back with the knight. But wait! Black is about to take a lowly pawn with an important knight. Isn't that against the rule I just stated myself? Actually, no. The rule does imply that if there are an equal number of attackers and defenders, then it is normally best for the capturing piece not to be more valuable than the target. The key word above is equal. Once the white pawn captures on d5, it is transformed from being an attacker to being a target!  
I don't know about you, but I had to read this paragraph three times before I actually understood what it implied. And this is my point. It's plain to see that Ashley's rule of thumb is quite correct and also very clever, but I don't think it's at all useful for beginners to spell it out like that let alone memorize it. I myself certainly have never thought about exchanges this way before, and I can't say it has ever bothered me. I'd love to be proven wrong by a reader who has actually benefitted from this kind of rules of thumb, but I suspect it's just Ashley's enthusiasm (in itself quite justified) over this 'discovery' that's playing up here and in the example of a king being able to attack a bishop only from one square. I mean, honestly, who cares?

In my opinion, Ashley's visual illustrations (diagrammed positions) are the best aspect of The Most Valuable Skills in Chess. Here's how he illustrates the principle of 'crowd controle', i.e. lack of piece movement.  
The Most Valuable Skills in Chess   The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

These are nice examples: vivid, inviting to play around with for a while, and still marvellously obvious and simple. And when I say simple, I really mean simple. Remember, this is a book for chess beginners, so I'll give another example to see what that implies.

The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

"In this position Black is a queen up, and would be right to wonder when White is going to throw in the towel."

This obviousness, by the way, is not always present in the excercises accompanying the chapters. This one is from the same chapter where, mind you, the principle of smothered mate is introduced:

The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

Now how fast did you spot the mate-in-four? Even though I vaguely remembered the problem, it still took me a while to figure out the solution. Imagine how long it would take someone who's been introduced to the smothered mate a mere two pages before. Moreover, this imaginary reader is yet to see the 'tables of values' (pawn=1, knight=3 etc.) in chapter four!

Of course, it's extremely difficult to find the right order to introduce elementary concepts without spoilers in previous examples and in general, Ashley does a fine job. Many of his exercices consist of simply counting possibilities (ways of attaking, ways of checking, etc.) and I think this is a very good interactive method (although he probably overdoes it a little from time to time). Of course, Ashley sometimes can't help himself and throws in a complex example like the one above. I'm sure many readers do like a good challenge once in a while.

After dealing with seven most valuable basic skills (pieces, 'crowd control', dangerous squares, material values, exchanging, defending and mating), Ashley illustrates these themes with five famous, 'fabulous' attacking games. Here, Ashley must of course delve a little deeper in the positions to show what's going on. He does the job marvellously, in lively and ardent yet objective way, not only praising the attacker but also the defender.

Steinitz-Von Bardeleben Hastings 1895 The Most Valuable Skills in Chess

22...Kf8! OK, it's his only move, but what a move! Black leaves his queen to be captured, but White cannot take it with either his rook or his queen because he would be harshly checkmated on the back rank. Now it's White who has four pieces hanging, en prise, under attack, however you wish to say it. Amazing that this could happen in the middle of an attack, that every one of the attacker's pieces (including the king!) can suddenly find itself in mortal danger. Had Steinitz forseen that all his pieces would be dangling from the edge of the abyss? We will never know for sure. However, his next two moves prove that the great ones are ready for any eventuality.

23.Rf7+! Kg8! 24.Rg7+!!

Steinitz is undaunted. The rook is dancing around like a burglar in an empty living room. Black still cannot capture the impudent piece without losing material, since 24...Kxg7 allows 25.Qxd7 with check. (...)
As you can see, this book is not only about explaining the utter basics, but also about having fun with chess and with analysing chess games. And that's just why Ashley's book is so nice. He wants his readers to enjoy chess rather than to be very good at it. And this, of course, is the most valuable skill of all.
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