05 August 2017

Five Days to Better Chess

Five Days to Better Chess: Essential Tools was published a few days ago. What is this book about? Who is the audience?

This book offers content and process. This process is for all chess enthusiasts who seek to improve their own game, or who help others to do so. The content aims principally at developing players up to average club strength (Elo 1400-1600). Will it lift you to this level in five days? No. It was noted by a critic on Facebook that a title like "five days to..." cheapens content by promising what no book can deliver. Maybe I could have called it "five steps ..." instead? Better is not best. Improvement is a journey; this book offers a map.

The process mapped in Five Days to Better Chess is neither original nor the norm in chess training. The process is rooted in the experience of watching players of all levels fail to demonstrate basic skills. This process begins at the end of the game and works from there towards the beginning. That is, it starts with checkmate. First, there are elementary checkmates with a few pieces against a lone king. Chess Fundamentals (1921) by Jose R. Capablanca begins the same way. From elementary checkmates, Capablanca moves to simple pawn endings, then middlegame positions, and finally general opening principles. He then repeats the sequence from endings, through middlegames to openings. In Chess Fundamentals, this sequence repeats a third time, then the book contains illustrative games.

Five Days to Better Chess advocates this repeating process, but the book is structured in five units: checkmates, endings, middlegames, openings, and great games. The first four units each begin with relatively elementary skills and build towards more complex. The plan is for readers to read part of each unit and then go through the book again, reading other parts.

The beginning of the checkmate unit illuminates this structure:
How do you become better at checkmate? Skill at execution of checkmate is your tool box for finishing the game. Your tools are 1) mastery of elementary checkmates with heavy pieces, 2) experience with minor piece checkmates, 3) recognition of common checkmate patterns, and 4) calculation skill.
Among the patterns are a list of 37 checkmate configurations, a section on the varieties of corridor checkmates, some work on the weakness of f7/f2 designed to steer players away from attempting scholar's checkmate. Legall's pseudo-sacrifice is offered as a better effort to trap the unwary. Finally, there is a section on the classic bishop sacrifice (Bxh7+) that highlights defensive resources.

Several instructive portions in each of the first three units offer a small number of exercises. Each of the first three also have forty exercises that conclude the unit. For strong class players (above 1600), these 120 exercises could offer a quick warm-up before tackling tougher problems. For those under 1400, they may prove challenging. The exercises offer a range from quick and easy, and thus within reach of those new to the game, to a few with instructive nuances that cause stronger players to pause and calculate.

When I was studying Byrne -- Fischer 1956--the "Game of the Century"--a few months ago, I had this position on the dining room table all weekend.

White to move

Without moving any pieces, I tried to calculate and record the principle variations. I became caught up in long and difficult assessment of variations that follow after 18.Bxe6, which was not played in the game. The obvious answer finally hit me while folding my laundry. The position after 18.Bxe6 is on the book's cover and is Checkmate Challenge #70 at the end of the checkmate unit. The notes that I produced that weekend also appear in the fifth unit, devoted to great games.

After checkmate, the process advocated in Five Days to Better Chess presents endgames as day two. It begins with elementary king and pawn positions that highlight the square of the pawn, breakthrough ideas, and the fundamentals of opposition and outflanking. There are sections on knight vs. bishop, queen vs. pawn, and queen vs. rook. A large chunk on endings presents the most important rook endings, concluding with two examples of Vasily Smyslov's exemplary defense against a rook and two pawns with a rook (pawns on the f- and h-files). All of these topics are treated in much greater detail in books by Yuri Averbakh, Jeremy Silman, Mark Dvoretsky, and others. Nonetheless, my explanations may prove useful to many students and coaches. Five Days highlights those skills that are most fundamental.

A section of the middlegame unit offers an extended discussion of the many aspects of pins. Then a short glossary defines with examples the other thirteen most common tactical ideas from attraction (decoy) to zwischenzug. A section on strategy builds upon Dan Heisman's Elements of Positional Evaluation (1999) through deep analysis of the key moments in Pillsbury -- Lasker 1896.* Lasker's own presentation of this game in Lasker's Manual of Chess (1947) validates the usefulness of Heisman's seven elements. Annotations to a couple of Paul Morphy's games further develop the reader's understanding of positional play.

The opening section develops basic principles, and then returns to Lasker's critique of his loss of time against Pillsbury, then offers move-by-move discussion of one line of the classical French (the opening in that game). Four more openings are presented, highlighting verbal explanations of basic principles--Italian, Spanish, Queen's Gambit, and London System. These are tied to model games, including a thrashing of Pavel Eljanov's Catalan by Magnus Carlsen. The exercises at the end of the chapter are twelve instructive miniatures for readers to analyze. Solutions in the back of the book highlight the key errors.

The chapter on great games offers a narrative of my quest for the best game ever played and annotations of three masterpieces that just missed the top ten. The annotations highlight my own learning process as a model for readers, including an extended discussion of how Vladimir Barsky, The Ragozin Complex (2011) helps elucidate strategies Jon Ludvig Hammer employed in his masterpiece last year in Stockholm. My ten candidates for best game are presented in full for reader analysis. Five Days offers brief statements of the merits that I see in each game. The focus in this unit is offering suggestions on how students of the game might approach learning from such games, especially how these games teach all elements from the opening to the endgame.

Two Notes

The subtitle, essential tools, employs a metaphor. Those are my tools on the cover. The metaphor comes out in the writing.


Regular readers of Chess Skills already know that I am a historian. This book offers many anecdotes and vignettes of chess history, such as the origin of the word pawn.

Genesis of the Work

Five Days to Better Chess is the culmination of more than ten years' work. In summer 2008, I offered my first chess camp for children at the school where I had been coaching eight years. My work as a youth  chess coach began as a parent volunteer at my son's school. When he moved on to another school, I was offered a stipend so that I would stay on as the coach.

Offering a chess camp extended the chess work one week into the summer, while also intensifying the learning opportunities. To keep the children focused, I prepared more exercises than they could possibly finish even if that is all they did during camp. Camp included competition--a pawn wars tournament, checkmate contests, a camp tournament with one game per day--lectures, and solving sessions. Camp points  accumulated as long as behavior was good and exercises were completed. Bonus points were awarded to those who won games, and to those who practiced chess notation.

Assembling the exercises and some of the instructional material into a workbook gave the students something they could take home. My hope was that they would study on their own through the summer. The school photocopied my materials, and then I had them spiral bound with card stock covers at Kinkos or Staples.

I used the same workbook the second summer, changing only the date on the cover. The third year, I created a new workbook focused on learning from Adolf Anderssen, titling it "Attacking with Anderssen". Tactics exercises came from his games. I recycled some of the materials, especially the elementary pawn endings. As the theme changed year after year, some materials that I recycle were fine-tuned. These appear in Five Days to Better Chess.

When I published Forcing Checkmate through Amazon this spring, I learned that Amazon's printing cost and mark-up was barely more than I paid at Staples for spiral binding. It seemed time to expand my workbook and get professional binding. I aimed for 200 pages because that was the minimum length that would allow printing the title on the book's spine. I ended up with more than 225 double-column pages of content, plus front matter and a couple of blank pages to facilitate design elements.



*The second edition of Heisman's book was published in 1999. I have the fourth edition as well.

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