Saturday, February 3, 2007

Chess Exam and Training Guide

The problem that I have with Chess Exam and Training Guide [IamCoach Press, 2004, 318 pages] is its scientific approach to teaching chess. Author Igor Khmelnitsky is an accomplished player, having attained the International Master title. No doubt he is a product of what was once called the Soviet School of Chess. But his book reminds me of an art critic who tries to evaluate an oil painting by using a tape measure on its component parts, rather than looking at the big picture. In other words, the 100 diagrams that comprise his chess exam seem disjointed instead of connected. Apparently most of the diagrams were selected for their tactical cleverness, not their educational value. Some of them are chess compositions that rely upon problematical piece placement. The net result is an inversion of values, where the person taking the exam is punished for judging that the position favors White, as such positions would 99% of the time, but this is the 1% where the position favors Black due to a tactical trick. This may work well in Andy Soltis's Chess to Enjoy column, but not in an instructional manual.

Nowhere in Chess Exam and Training Guide is there a discussion of pawn structure, open files, piece coordination, tempos, and other positional considerations except briefly in passing, usually by referring the reader to a suggested list of books. This book relies heavily on tactics, so much so that I found myself searching for hidden tactics even in the few diagrams where there were none. Basically, to score well on this examination you need to think differently from the way you would during a chess game because most over-the-board chess positions are not contrived to contain "cheapo" solutions.

It amazed me to discover how many great chessplayers missed the tactics in the diagrammed positions that were taken from actual games, including no less than Kasparov and Karpov and Alekhine. This begs the question of why their rare mistakes were chronicled in this book. Why not a chess book on what made them great players to begin with, in spite of their occasional lapses? For teaching purposes, why not accentuate the positive? But that would have entailed a different kind of chess book from the one that IM Khmelnitsky has written, one that concentrated more on positional strategy and less on tactical brilliance.

Despite the book's shortcomings, I learned a thing or two from studying its diagrams. From an aesthetic standpoint, there are some pretty combinations among the solutions. But by the end of the book, I was feeling like one of Rudolph Spielmann's opponents who has had a sacrifice sprung upon him, "dazed and confused", as quoted on page 297.

On the last page, author Khmelnitsky writes: "I value your feedback." In that vein, I will now suggest how I might have written such a book. First I look at the pawns! To me, pawns map out the geography of the chess battlefield. Only after the pawn structure has been evaluated can I devise an intelligent chess strategy to conform with their configuration. In implementing this strategy, tactics are resorted to only when they further these strategic aims. This is Nimzovich 101! My suggested reading list would be much shorter than IM Khmelnitsky's. For the opening, it goes without saying that you should buy chess books on your favorite variations, both as White and Black. As far as the middlegame is concerned, don't just read Nimzovich's My System; study it! And, in spite of its well-documented errors, Fine's Basic Chess Endings is still the last word on the endgame.

Play a lot of chess. Analyze your games afterwards, especially the losses. I recall to this day doing a postmortem of a game of mine against a grandmaster with the GM himself and hearing him say that you learn more from your defeats than from your victories! Accept these setbacks philosophically as opportunites to increase your chess knowledge. And remember that, in the final analysis, chess is not the exact science that proponents of the Soviet School would have us think. Chess is also an art form.

{This book review originally appeared in the July-September 2005 issue of Atlantic Chess News}