Category : Books

Tactics For Beginners

The chess learning site Chessable I am actively cooperating with, recently released a new book that completes the site’s coverage of all the phases of a chess game.

Chessable is primarily an opening-learning platform (and it has a large number of available books on openings to be learnt there) but some time ago they also introduced an endgame book on the endgames you must know. With their latest inclusion, 1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners, they covered the middlegame as well. I am quite happy that Chessable grew to an extent to cover all the phases of the game!

The new book, written by Franco Masetti and Roberto Messa and published by New In Chess, is a very handy guide to the basic tactical motifs a chess player must be familiar with. To be honest with you, I am never quite sure how a certain motif is called (deflection, decoy etc.) but I can assure you that I can spot them immediately! I find the main advantage of the book in the systemisation of the motifs and providing the reader with a lot of examples to drill those in, thus committing them to memory (the motifs, not necessarily the names!). If you add to this Chessable’s unique learning algorithm, you have a winning combination (pun intended) and a fast track to tactical mastery.

The book opens with relatively easy Mate in 1 exercises, followed by Mate in 2. Then the main tactical motifs follow and the book ends with Mixed Motifs for both White and Black and then with Mate in 3, Mate in 4 and Curiosities. As the title suggests there are 1001 exercises but they are quickly solved and time flies doing them.

The Introduction begins with “Chess in 99% tactics!” and I couldn’t agree more. In fact that is what players of all ages and strengths are doing when trying to get into shape – they solve tactical exercises. True, the ones Carlsen solves will differ from the ones I solve, but the core is the same. If you want to get better and get into a right frame of mind for a good game of chess, you must follow down the path of tactical work. There is simply no other way.

1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners


100 Endgames You Must Know – Chessable Edition

I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Chessable started a cooperation with New in Chess and the first product of this cooperation was a book that I recommend to all my students.

GM Jesus de la Villa wrote a masterpiece with his 100 Endgames You Must Know. The book consists of the most basic core of endgame knowledge any player, from beginner to GM, must know. When an opening finishes the middlegame begins; when the middlegame finishes the endgame begins; when the endgame finishes, the game ends. One can hope to rectify the mistakes of the opening and the middlegame, but the mistakes of the endgame are usually the last ones. Simply put, the endgames must be played well.

“But they are boring, aren’t they?” I have always wondered why people thought like this. To my mind, these people have failed to grasp the beauty of the harmony that the few pieces left are capable of creating.

The 100 endgames are a must, as the title says. They are the basis upon which a player will build all his subsequent knowledge. And in order for that subdequent knowledge to be useful, the basis must be solid.

The combination of Chessable’s learning method and the 100 Endgames is a match made in heaven. You need to remember those endgames, learn them almost by heart. De la Villa wants you to learn the principles so he spends quite a few words in explaining them. Based on these principles you should find it easier to produce the moves and eventually remember them. Add to this concept Chessable’s powerful learning method and you have a winner – thorough textual explanations and a scientific method to memorise the moves effectively.

I have also used the 100 Endgames for my own improvement. It is a handy book for a quick overview of the basics once you know them. I would say that this blend of endgame knowledge presented in an easy-to-learn way is a must for players who want quickly to improve not only their endgame skills, but also their overall playing ability. Go ahead and study the book – you won’t regret it and you will see the results from this work fast. What more can one ask?

100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa


Chessable, Or the Power of Repetition

Repetitio est mater studiorum.

I never really studied while I was at school. Why? Because I had a simple system, taught to me by my father at the very start of my school years. It’s elementary really, but it does take a bit of discipline. It consisted of the following:

1. While in class, pay total attention to the professor and the lesson. No distractions.
2. When you get home the first thing you do is read the lesson from the textbook. Once should be enough if you paid attention in class.
3. Before the next class of that same subject, read the lesson once again.

And that was it. I don’t know how my father knew of this system but it worked wonders for me, leaving me a lot of free time for chess. I applied the same system at University and it worked like charm again, I finished University in record time.

The Chessable website has created something similar to the above. The main focus of the site is openings and their memorisation. One of the co-founders is IM John Bartholomew and he is mainly in charge of the chess-related material, even though they have others on board too, I noticed GM Leitao’s Najdorf repertoire, for example.

So how does it work? After signing up, which is free (there is also a paid pro membership), you get access to various repertoires (called “books”). Some of them are free, others need to be bought (the most expensive was $9.99). It seems it’s still the early stages of the site so for the time being there aren’t many of them. I checked several of the free ones and here comes the repetition part: you are looking at a chessboard and you read explanations in words on the side. Then moves are made on the board and then you’re asked to make the same moves for the side you’re studying the repertoire, repetitio in the purest form. You get points every time you get a move right. This starts slowly, you are asked to repeat the moves after move 1 or 2, then it goes deeper, but not much. The maximum depth I got was around 7-8 moves, probably the paid repertoires are developed in greater depth and detail. The repetition session doesn’t last long, around 1 minute or less in my case, but the site does remind you that “learning chess requires practice every day.” Here I see the main merit of the site and the idea – you are encouraged to repeat what you have learned every day. Repetitio est mater studiorum. You also get “rubies” (which can be used for various purchases on the site) and points to further encourage you to follow through.

Coincidentally, I have a student (rated around 2000) who is using Chessable to study openings and he is quite satisfied with the service. As I see it the site is intended and aimed at exactly this level of players, rated up to 2000 or perhaps a bit higher, who want to practice and learn their openings well. Even though at present there is no wide choice, I expect the site to grow and add more openings. Who knows, maybe I even give it a try and publish my own repertoire there?

I think the site is worth giving a try, especially if you’re not very good in the opening and want to learn one or two (or more!). For starters you can try the free versions and then decide if the whole system works for you. In any case, don’t forget to practice every day!


Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy

I finished my last post with the invitation to my readers to suggest, if they wish, a book on which they would like to hear my opinion. My very good friend IM Chedomir Micic suggested a true gem, actually two of them – Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action, both by John Watson.

I will start by saying that both books are incredible. They are one of the rare modern books (published in 1998 and 2003 respectively) that truly provide something new in the sphere of chess strategy. I don’t think I was the only one who was under the impression that the last thing about strategy was written in Nimzowitsch’s My System and from then on it was just studying the great players’ games and picking up strategical ideas (for example Petrosian’s exchange sacrifice). Even though I noticed that white players started to push g2-g4 in the opening more frequently, I wasn’t really surprised by that, after all we have the Keres Attack in the Sicilian and there were several games by Fischer when he did just that. But it is not for nothing that Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy has the subtitle Advances Since Nimzowitsch. Watson managed to categorise and organise the material in superb manner. There are two parts of the book, Part I deals with Refinements of Tratidional Theory and here we have the typical elements like Centre, Pawn Minorities and Majorities, IQP etc observed through the prism of the modern practice, taking careful note of what has changed since the times Nimzowitsch wrote his classic. One of the most impressive examples is from the game Ivanchuk-Anand, first game of their match in 1992:


White’s last move was a mistake, it was better to take on d2 with the rook. But after black’s unexpected next move white is worse! After 18 Rd2 h5! we see the depth of the concept – Watson quotes Anand who says that white cannot consolidate his kingside (black threatens …hg4 and …Rh3) and is much worse. The following two moves are also very instructive:

“A sterling example” – Watson.

The second book, Chess Strategy in Action is a continuation of the topic in similar vein. Again there are two parts, only this time Part II is analysis of complete games, 35 in total. In Part I he examines concepts like The Surrender of the Centre, Hedgehogs and their Territoriality (an important advice for black playing the Hedgehog is to avoid exchanges in spite of his lack of space, because without pieces his position will lose its dynamism!), The Flank Pawns Have Their Say (here’s the chapter dedicated to moves like g2-g4 for white and …h7-h5 for black, a common occurrence in modern practice), The Positional Pawn Sacrifice, a chapter dedicated to Bishops and Knights and many more. I will give here a couple of examples from Part II that left an impression. The first one is from the comments of the game Shirov-Kramnik from 1994:

Black to move

And Kramnik’s suggestion here is 13…Rh7 14 Nc2 Nh8!! Great stuff! The following example is probably the most original of all:

The true value of the books lies in the fact that Watson managed to organise the material and show in a systematic manner how modern chess is played. The conclusion is that modern chess is concrete to the extreme (the development of chess engines is also very responsible for this development) and there isn’t a single rule that doesn’t have an exception and these exceptions are becoming more frequent in modern practice. These books are a must for every aspiring player who already has knowledge of the classical chess and is looking for a concentrated and well-chosen material from the modern chess practice.


Good Books – Part III

Here I will discuss some books of more general character. Apart from studying the moves I have always been interested in chess history and the life of the players. What intrigued me most was how they prepared and how they thought about various problems. Perhaps understandably so, because I never had a coach in my life so I never exactly knew how things should be done. Everything I knew I learned by myself based on my own experience, so I was always seeking for some insight as a sort of check to see if I am doing things right.

The most impressive of these was definitely Russians vs Fischer by Voronkov and Plisetsky. Even though I knew the Russians were preparing collectively in general, I was still amazed to learn to what lengths they went. More than half of the book is devoted to Fischer’s ascent from 1970 onwards and how the Russians were becoming more and more worried as he approached Spassky. One of the best parts in the book is Korchnoi’s analysis of Fischer’s style, openings and characteristics. It is quite different from the analysis of the other players who were tasked with it – Tal, Keres, Smyslov and Petrosian, who obviously didn’t quite feel they should be doing that in the first place and just wanted to get rid of the task. For example, Keres, Smyslov and Petrosian suggested their own repertoire as the best way to play against Fischer’s openings! The book also investigates Karpov’s preparation for Fischer in 1975. A revelation to me was Alatortsev’s analysis and report. Alatortsev was head of a laboratory that was analysing the psychology and physiology of the chessplayers using various methods. This striking analysis included diet, sleep, physical preparation, behaviour during the games etc. I learned an awful lot from this material and I still re-read it from time to time. This book is a must for everyone who wants to know the deepest secrets of chess preparation at the highest level.

To a lesser extent Kasparov’s Predecessors that deal with his matches with Karpov (Modern Chess Part 2Modern Chess Part 3 and Modern Chess Part 4) are books of that kind. I seem to be one of the rare people who haven’t been impressed with Kasparov’s series. Yes, they are good books, but I knew most of the stories he told and I expected much more from him when he was personally involved in the games. I was eagerly awaiting the books on the matches with Karpov, after all they are the defining point of his career, so I was looking forward to some big revelations concerning his preparation process, opening analysis, ideas he had etc. Even though he does say a lot about these things, I found it insufficient. Perhaps because I know that there are many more things that he didn’t talk about. This is one of the problems when you already know a lot, it is increasingly difficult to learn new things! One of the most useful things for me what playing through all the games of his unlimited match with Karpov. Slowly, deliberately, trying to understand what was going on. And after a while I got “into” the match, started to feel the flow of the match, I started to understand the opening choices and the tension. I also did this with the other matches and for me this was the best experience from the books.

Recently I read The King by Donner. It is a collection of his essays throughout his career as a chess journalist. Some of them are amazing, some less so. Donner had a sharp sense of humour and was confident in his beliefs and didn’t shy away from publishing them, even if they were largely controversial (there is an essay called “Women and Chess” where he openly states that “women cannot play chess.”) A thing I found surprising is that most of the problems we face now (making chess commercial, the diminishing payout of the chessplayers etc.) were very much topical in Donner’s time in the 1960s and 1970s.

I will end with a real rarity – Vukovic’s books “Od Steinitza do Botvinika” (From Steinitz to Botvinnik) published in Zagreb in 1949. Unfortunately I don’t think they are possible to find nowadays.

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This is Volume 1, dealing with Steinitz, Lasker and Capablanca. In it he analyses all the games from the matches for the crown. The revelation for me was the chapter on Lasker. A lot has been said and written about Lasker’s psychology and how he allegedly played inferior moves (especially in the opening) in order to get his opponents out of their comfort zone. I always found that hard to believe and in this book I found what I had been sensing all along. Vukovic’s explanation is that Lasker found it hard to get into the game, so in the beginning he was often careless and this led to mistakes. Once in a bad position he would immediately snap out and concentrate hard and coupled with his incredible tactical talent he posed very difficult problems to his opponents, who were, after all, fallible. As the game progressed Lasker was playing better and better, especially if the momentum had swung his way, and when they finally reached the endgame Lasker was at his best. I think this is the most precise explanation of Lasker’s “psychology” I have read and in my opinion one that best describes the great champion’s way of playing.

Here I will conclude with my Good Books and if you have any questions or would like to know my opinion on a book feel free to contact me. As new books come out and I read them at some point I will surely continue with my reviews.


Good Books – Part II

I actually read Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games in Russian (only many years later I read it in original and I must say that it was even better!) The books in Russian dedicated to great players were part of the famous “black series” – the name comes from the black cover these books had. There were two other players from that series that left deep impression – Akiba Rubinstein and Isaak Boleslavsky (both in Russian, I don’t think they have been translated to English). The book on Rubinstein was written by Razuvaev and Murahveri and it is a classic (and I think pretty difficult to find) – it is also one of Gelfand’s favourite books. Rubinstein’s smooth and seemingly effortless positional style is one to admire and impossible to copy. In this sense it is very similar to Capablanca’s and in my opinion it is the weakness of his nervous system (and force majeure coincidences) that prevented him from becoming a World Champion. The book on Boleslavsky was written by Suetin and it was a true gem. Boleslavsky was at his prime in the early 1950s when he won the Candidates tournament in Budapest in 1950 together with Bronstein, only to lose the play-off match to him later that year. After that his career quickly went downwards but he was an excellent theoretician and went on to become Petrosian’s coach for many years. Boleslavsky’s contribution to modern theory is often unfairly neglected. He was one of the first players to use the King’s Indian with black in the 1940s and 1950s and his treatment of the Spanish with white was exemplary. What interested me most was his play with black in the Sicilian – he was the first to play …e5 in the position after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Be2 e5! He showed the viability of the positions after black creates a “hole” on d5 and this led to the boom of all the Najdorf lines when black plays …e5 (in the Najdorf black has the additional possibility to place his knight on d7). This was picked up by Fischer and the Najdorf became one of the most popular openings ever since.

Studying chess was easy and pleasant for me until the moment I discovered the books by Dvoretsky. It was (and still is) a fiendishly difficult time when I try to solve the exercises in his books! Only upon trying that masochistic task did I realise how difficult it is to play chess at the highest level. I read and studied all Dvoretsky’s books, but not all of them left the same impression. For me two of them stand out – Opening Preparation and Secrets of Chess Tactics. I have always been interested in opening study and analysis so the Opening Preparation widened my views and gave me a lot of ideas not only in various openings and schemes (a notable chapter is on the King’s Indian Attack) but also how to study and explore openings. There was also stuff I knew from my own experience, but sometimes it is good to have confirmation by a high authority that what you know is good. The Secrets of Chess Tactics was an eye-opener: there is a sub-title on page 147 called Science Fiction and there follow two games by Tal – Tal-Portisch, 2nd game of their match in 1965 and Tal-Larsen, 6th game of their match in 1965 (with a game by Yusupov in between). The analysis of the Tal games and my attempt to put myself in his shoes opened my eyes to a completely new way of playing chess – I just “got it” how Tal played and how it was possible for him to play like that. I also understood that I cannot play like that, it isn’t my style and character, but the fact that I came to see another dimension of chess made me feel that I have expanded my horizons immensely.

Smyslov’s book Letopis Shakhmatnogo Tvorchestva (basically a selection of his best games, the closest thing in English are probably these two volumes – Volume 1 1935-1957 and Volume 2 1958-1995) is similarly laconic like Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals I mentioned in Part I. But it is not so much his words that matter, the feeling I got when playing over and analysing his games and trying to delve into the positions and understand his thinking processes is what makes it an excellent book. There are 326 games in it, so plenty of material to get into Smyslov’s mind and get a grasp of his feeling of harmony.

My breakthrough in 2005, when I reached another level of chess understanding and playing strength, can be attributed to one book. It is a book on Capablanca by Euwe and Prins (here’s a link to the book in German. I read it in Russian with the title Baloven Kaissi, while it doesn’t seem to be translated in English).

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It is a great pity that it cannot be found in English because the book is amazing. I had a bad end of 2004 and I spent the whole December, January and February studying Capablanca’s games. I got the books I had by him: My Chess CareerThe Last Lectures and all the books that had something on him: Kasparov’s Predecessors Volume 1 and Alekhine’s tournament books on Nottingham 1936 and New York 1924 and 1927 and I put them next to the chess board that I used for study – they were used on a daily basis for 3 months. Still, the most useful and thought-provoking was Euwe’s book. It is written from a psychological perspective and it analyses the games from this angle. The analysis of the moves isn’t always correct, but for me the most important was to try to get into Capablanca’s mind, to try to understand his move-finding algorithm. Going through his games over and over again for days on and thinking about them all the time produced a result. I started to sense the way he played, why he played certain moves and how he handled various situations. The greatest eye-opener was how precise he actually was. Every single move had a “why” and it always answered a concrete question. Exploring very carefully every move and stopping to ask myself why he has played a certain move formed a habit in me to do the same in my own games. At the end of this period I played a strong open tournament in Malaga which I won, scoring my second Grandmaster norm.

In approximately the same period I discovered Rowson’s books The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras. Rowson is a deep thinker (and a very friendly fellow, as I discovered in 2014 when we shared a taxi from our hotel in Hinckley to the train station on a Sunday afternoon after a 4NCL weekend) and he touches subjects that have always intrigued me. In Sins he defines 7 main shorcomings that chessplayers are prone to in their thinking and suggests ways to overcome them. He gives these sins peculiar names, like Blinking, Wanting and Egoism, but the concepts are profound and his advice sound. In Zebras he continues along the same lines of psychological insights, only this time he examines wider problems, like why it is difficult to improve after a certain age, how to play with black and white, myths and style, concentration, doing and being, and many more. I have known Rowson’s writing from his first book, Understanding the Grunfeld, a theoretical book written in such a way that I had no choice but to start playing the Grunfeld immediately, yet the above-mentioned books are the cornerstone to understanding the psychology of chess and chessplayers. At the end of the day better chess comes from better thinking processes and every one of us must first become aware and understand his or her own thinking processes before he or she tries to improve them. These books helped me do just that.

In Part III I will talk about books that deal with broader aspects of chess and are less concerned with the moves.


Good Books – Part I

I have often been approached and asked to suggest some good books that will help the player improve. There is no universal answer to that question because it depends on the level of the player who is asking the question. One book is good for one player, but it can be useless for another. In this post I wanted to outline the books that made a deep impression on me throughout my career, both from a perspective of improving me as a player and also from a psychological and human angle.

I made my first steps with Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals, albeit I read it in Serbian as “Osnovi Saha.” A clear book that explained the basics with Capablanca’s own games analysed in the last chapter of the book. I think that replaying those games, coupled with my father showing me a lot of games in the Spanish (I still feel the harmony of white’s position after the Nbd2-f1-g3 maneuver) developed my positional understanding.

When I improved a bit my father made the monumental effort to translate Nimzowitsch’s My System from Russian, so that I can read it myself. I remember the thick book with black cover and fine thin pages, I still have it in my library. A few years later I learned to read Russian so I could read the original, but going through the book with my father deepened my positional understanding and introduced me to the concepts of blockade, prophylaxis and outpost. I think that these two books, Capablanca’s and Nimzowitsch’s lay the foundation of my sound positional undestanding and intuition.

Then came Kotov’s How to Become a Grandmaster (this is actually my translation of the Russian title Kak stat Grossmeisterom, which I think in English comprises two books, Think Like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster). This was a more “mathematical” book than the previous two, which were more laconic. It provided a structured way how to analyse a position (numbering all the elements of the position, both stable and temporal, citing Steinitz’s 4 rules of positional play, all the combinational elements etc.), how to construct a plan, how to calculate variations. The last part (on calculation, Kotov’s famous variation “tree”) has drawn a lot of criticism lately, but it nevertheless had a positive impact on the inexperienced youngster who never had a coach because it gave me a direction and showed me how things should be done ideally. As I grew stronger I realised the limitations of Kotov’s method as I became more aware of my own thinking processes. Nevertheless the book was a great guidance at the time and it helped me discipline my thinking.

At that stage I was mainly studying the classics, so Alekhine featured prominently. After studying his games I always noticed improvement in my understanding, play and results. I felt the power in his games and I was particularly impressed by his technique, very forcing and precise. Alekhine’s own books On the Road to the World Championship and his book on both New York tournaments in 1924 and 1927 (I read it in one single book in Russian, in English there are two – New York 1924 and New York 1927) were huge – I remember one summer vacation with my family when I took On the Road with me and I spent hours analysing his games in our “Brako” trailer soaking wet from the heat inside. I even encountered a mistake in his comments to the game against Asztalos from Kecskemet 1927 when the line he gave at the end of the game was incorrect. And there was also Kotov’s monumental work on Alekhine in two volumes, Chess Heritage of Alekhine which was a deep analysis of Alekhine’s game from all possible aspects.

Continuing with the classics there were two more authors whose books influenced me greatly – Botvinnik’s trilogy of his best games (Volume 1 1925-1941Volume 2 1942-1956 and Volume 3 1957-1970) and Bronstein’s Zurich 1953. Botvinnik’s games taught me logic and technique, discipline and hard work during the game. He was merciless and the way he dispatched Tal at the age of 50 in the revenge-match in 1961 still amazes me. His comments were short but always to the point and served to explain his decisions. Bronstein’s book on the Zurich Candidates tournament was full of insightful comments that at times were difficult to understand. Later on I learned much more about Bronstein’s life and his way of writing and expressing things and I started to read between the lines. This made it even more fascinating, but that was later – the first time I studied the book I mainly focused on the games played in the Spanish and the King’s Indian as those were my main openings with white and black, respectively. I remember that I was feeling uncomfortable when I was going through the games in the fianchetto line in the King’s Indian because in the vast majority of them black played the system with Nbd7 and e5 and then took on d4, playing with a weak pawn on d6. I didn’t like those positions so in my games I was usually playing the line with Nc6 followed by Bg4 or Bf5.

Bobby Fischer was always my idol and the moment I got hold of My 60 Memorable Games it became one of my favourite books. I tried to absorb everything from it – the explanations, the variations, the style, the psychology. A lot of my theoretical preparation at those times (pre-computer ages!) was based on his analysis and ideas. It is one of the books that I kept returning to at various points in my career and I always managed to discover something new. As I undestood more about chess I understood more about Fischer and how difficult it is to play and win like him. And that always served as inspiration.

In Part II I will continue discussing the books that had profound impact in the later stages of my career when I already became a relatively strong player.


Ivory Vikings

Recently I came to know of a new book that should interest people interested in chess and history. The name of the book:

I have only read a bit so far, and may write a review later on, but it does speak a lot of King Magnus. Many of them actually. Here’s a little excerpt that speaks ominously of our present chess king (note the age of death and the time on the throne):

If the Lewis chessmen were carved in the last decades of the twelfth century,
two of the kings on our chessboard are Sverrir, who reigned from
1184 to 1202, and the king he deposed, Magnus V, who was crowned in
1164. Magnus V was killed in battle after twenty years on the throne: He
was then twenty-eight. Sverrir was twenty-four when he first claimed the
crown. Both are fantastic characters who challenge our assumptions of
kingship in the Middle Ages and of the limits of the Norwegian realm.
Neither spent much time in the city of Trondheim. Neither provided the
stable, wealthy royal courts we assume an ivory-carver would seek out.
Nor had the kings who preceded them.

You can read and download a larger version of the excerpt here.

I have always been fascinated by mythology and history (I really enjoyed reading Beowulf at University) and the book seems interesting so far. There’s a lot of fighting and harsh punishments, thus relating closely to our beloved game. Will keep you posted how it goes!

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