11 June 2012

Book completed - Understanding Chess Tactics

I recently completed Understanding Chess Tactics by FM Martin Weteschnik (Quality Chess, 2007).  Another revised/expanded edition has also just been released, with a new title of Chess Tactics From Scratch.  The 2007 edition that I went through had a number of fixes and improvements from the original 2006 edition, while according to the publisher's description the new 2012 version has added a large number of chess problems to the book.

What is this book about?  In the author's words:

"Chess is a visual game.  A chess player must be able to recognize elementary patterns, therefore the tactics in this book will be primarily explained graphically...Chess is also a game of logic.  Logic, in the same way as chess tactics, depends on collecting and processing information.  This book will show you how to accurately find the elements of tactics, and work with them creatively."

The last sentence of the above description is the most important one and is the reason I worked through this book.  As a self-defined "positional player" from early on in my career, as well as being completely self-taught, I have not been systematically exposed to tactical concepts until relatively recently.  Although doing tactics problems in themselves certainly helps the familiarization process, I also need to be able to think more coherently and completely about what tactical possibilities exist while I am playing a game.

The book is organized into ten chapters.  Each chapter presents a key tactical concept, relying on plentiful diagrams to illustrate both the basic principles and more complex applications of the concept, with a large majority of examples taken from master games rather than being composed.  At the end of each chapter are several problems to solve as an independent test.  I found the book to be quite useful without large numbers of additional problems included, since that's not what the book is really about; however, I'm sure the new 2012 edition will please those who would prefer to have a large associated problem set to solve.
  • Chapter 1: Becoming familiar with the pieces!  This provided a short illustration of the fundamental characteristics of pieces - how they move, influence squares, and can be restricted by other pieces - and the need to understand them as the building blocks for tactics.
  • Chapter 2: The pin.  This may have been the most valuable single chapter for me.  Everyone is familiar with basic pinning themes, when an attacked piece either cannot move (if the king is behind it) or if its moving away would lead to the loss of material (a more valuable piece is behind it).  I had previously thought of this tactic largely in the context of trying to win the pinned piece where possible, or just to give my opponent some difficulty in development.  Explicitly understanding and seeing examples of how a pinned piece no longer functions except along the axis of the pin, however, was something of a revelation.  Most importantly, such a piece no longer protects other pieces or squares, giving rise to a lot of other tactical possibilities.  The concept of creating a pin against a key square was also quite useful to see and deepened my understanding of the pin in practice.  Finally, the demonstrations of forcible breaking of pins or using the limited movement still remaining to a pinned piece was quite valuable, providing useful resources for the defender in these situations.
  • Chapter 3: The discovered attack.  I found this to be a straightforward chapter, although as in the previous chapter it was particularly useful in demonstrating how discovered attacks could be conducted against key squares, not just against the opponent's pieces.
  • Chapter 4: The reloader.  At first I was somewhat skeptical of this as a separate theme, but now I realize the value of understanding this as a discrete concept.  The phenomenon referred to is when a second piece with a similar function fills the place of a first on the same square, following a capture by the opponent.  For example, in the sequence 1. Bf6 exf6 2. gxf6 the g-pawn "reloads" the f6 square where the White bishop has just been sacrificed; assuming that White has a Qh6 and Black is in a typical fianchettoed king position (pawns on f7-g6-h7) but missing a Bg7 for protection, the situation is now deadly.  The point of the concept is that the second piece can fulfill the same function as the first, as in the above example controlling the g7 square for the queen to mate there, so getting rid of the first piece does the opponent no good.  The "reloader" phenomenon is in fact key to a number of sacrificial themes.
  • Chapter 5: The double attack.  This is probably the most fundamental tactical theme and the most commonly deadly one.  Again, the concept of searching for targets that included both pieces and key squares was valuable for me, as was the repeated motif of sacrificing material in order to create a decisive double attack situation.  While knights of course feature prominently, all of the other pieces (including the king) are capable of conducting double attacks, an important point to remember.
  • Chapter 6: Mate.  Here the focus is on understanding mating patterns and how they restrict the movements of the opponent's king.  The emphasis on dominating squares and how the different combinations of pieces can do this helped fill a gap in my understanding of mating attacks, particularly with patterns like the bishop and rook mate.  The examples provided show how recognizing the possibility of a mating pattern appearing on the board is the most important element; starting from there, even relatively complicated sacrificial sequences can be much easier to find.
  • Chapter 7: Gain of tempo/Intermediate move.  This is another chapter where I was skeptical at first of its value as a discrete concept, but was convinced by the end of it.  Actively looking to save or gain a tempo as part of your thinking process can easily win you the game and create additional tactical possibilities.
  • Chapter 8: The x-ray attack.  This concept, if not understood, can lose you games, particularly on the back rank.  Should be part of a player's thinking when considering how queens, rooks and bishops are interacting.
  • Chapter 9: Opening and closing lines/lines of communication.   This is where the author deals with things like interference motifs (closing lines of communication with pieces or squares) and how opening lines can create decisive tactics.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and was quite valuable for me for the new ideas and ways of thinking it introduced (although see below caveat).
  • Chapter 10: Status Examination.  Here the author brings it all together and recommends that players actively conduct an inspection of the status of all pieces, in order to uncover the tactics present on the board.  He takes a practical approach to it and provides a number of examples of how examining what a piece is doing (or cannot do) can lead to finding tactics involving that piece.
This book is specifically aimed at improving adult players who do not have a systematic understanding of tactics - although of course juniors should also get a lot out of it - so I am exactly its intended target audience.  It most certainly provides the conceptual foundation necessary for an understanding of tactical play writ large, along with numerous practical examples ranging from the relatively simple to the complex.  The only weakness I saw was that it could use a better and fuller description of the "removal of the guard" tactical theme, which is only covered briefly in Chapter 9 (as a disruption in the line of communication between defending pieces).  In practice, this theme appears much more often proportionally than the attention given it by the author. 

Reviewing the book's contents again for this post reminded me of some important themes and I expect that I'll return to it repeatedly in the future for reinforcement and added understanding of tactical concepts.  Digesting a book like this along with regular tactics practice should be a potent combination for improvement on the tactical side of your play, not least because explicit mental identification of the various concepts used to solve tactical exercises ("x-ray attack", "gain of tempo" etc.) will aid you in remembering and spotting the themes again during play, and is a key aspect of tournament preparation.

(EDIT: as mentioned below, here's a link to the Predator at the Chessboard site.)

7 comments:

  1. This really is a good book. Far better than the majority that are "here is a pin, now here are 500 problems".

    The only similar thing I've seen is the Predator at the Chessboard website - another very "wordy" description of tactics, what to look for, and ways to set them up.

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  2. Funny you should mention that site, I'd started going through it and found it quite valuable, but then I got the book and focused on it instead. I plan to return to working through the site at some point, there's certainly a lot of content there.

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  3. Thank you for your interesting review. If I may impose, I am interested in determining if this book is a good fit for me. I believe I'm a common case, so the answers might prove valuable to others as well. In most respects, you've already answered the question, but I suppose I'm seeking further clarification of your already excellent explanation. Maybe I'm just seeking validation for a $28 purchase!

    I'm a dipper. Every few years I catch the bug and return. I've previously avoided heavy tactical training, which makes the entire project a dubious enterprise. Right now, I'm three weeks into the Chessimo tactics module, and my enthusiasm remains undiminished.

    So, I know what a pin is, a double attack, a skewer, etc. It sounds like this book goes deeper, and provides a methodical way of identifying weaknesses in the position that hint at a possible tactical shot, besides "the rook and king are on the same diagonal". If this is a good book for me, I would hope it would help formalize my thinking during tactical exercises. If I read it and feel that I could have learned the same from browsing the web for novice chess sites ("Identify the pin!"), I'd be sad. An Amazon review calls it a "feel-good" book for those who haven't learned tactical themes from intense practice. Would you disagree?

    I never heard the term "reloader". I like it a lot.

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    1. Finally found this in my spam folder...see below for the replies.

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  4. ((I received a copy of the following comment in my inbox, but for some reason it didn't appear here, so it's being reproduced below.))

    First Normal Form has left a new comment on your post "Book completed - Understanding Chess Tactics":

    Thank you for your interesting review. If I may impose, I am interested in determining if this book is a good fit for me. I believe I'm a common case, so the answers might prove valuable to others as well. In most respects, you've already answered the question, but I suppose I'm seeking further clarification of your already excellent explanation. Maybe I'm just seeking validation for a $28 purchase!

    I'm a dipper. Every few years I catch the bug and return. I've previously avoided heavy tactical training, which makes the entire project a dubious enterprise. Right now, I'm three weeks into the Chessimo tactics module, and my enthusiasm remains undiminished.

    So, I know what a pin is, a double attack, a skewer, etc. It sounds like this book goes deeper, and provides a methodical way of identifying weaknesses in the position that hint at a possible tactical shot, besides "the rook and king are on the same diagonal". If this is a good book for me, I would hope it would help formalize my thinking during tactical exercises. If I read it and feel that I could have learned the same from browsing the web for novice chess sites ("Identify the pin!"), I'd be sad. An Amazon review calls it a "feel-good" book for those who haven't learned tactical themes from intense practice. Would you disagree?

    I never heard the term "reloader". I like it a lot.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. From my perspective, this is a book which accomplishes its purpose, which is to instruct both the "what" and "how" to think about tactics - it goes much deeper than simply presenting an idea and then giving a bunch of related problems to solve. The deeper perspective on offer has significantly helped my tactical thinking process.

      If cost is an issue, you may want to take a look at the "Predator at the Chessboard" site linked. It isn't the same, but also gives an in-depth treatment of tactical ideas. (I picked up Understanding Chess Tactics as part of a USCF website sale, so got a great bargain.) That said, if you do get the book, it's definitely not going to be one of those that looks good but collects dust for the rest of your chess career.

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    2. It's more the cost per mote of dust ratio. My return to chess involves a strict chess book addiction recovery program. However, this book seems like a good plan. Just as I plan to buy a book on endgames when I study endgames, I can use this book immediately. All the other tactics books in a similar vein seem a little too high level; this should be great. Thanks!

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