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Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: Practical Chess Exercises

Practical Chess Exercises, by Ray Cheng, 2007 Wheatmark, 212 pp.

Subtitled “600 Lessons from Tactics to Strategy,” this is a great book to use whether you have two minutes to spare or two hours. Let me put this delicately: Practical Chess Exercises is a good choice for those times when you’ll be sitting down for a few minutes (I’m not talking about blitz chess) and might want something to read. But of course, you don’t need to wait until nature calls to take this book off the shelf.

No board and set is needed – Cheng presents 600 positions and simply asks, “What would you do now?” The primary benefit of this exercise book is that, in contrast to most offerings in this genre, the reader isn’t told what type of problem he’s facing. Is it a mate-in-two? Does the position call for a defensive maneuver to combat a potential enemy tactic? No clues are provided, much like what one faces in a real game. And as the subtitle suggests, it’s not all about tactics. Occasionally the reader must react correctly to an endgame position, for example, a Philidor or Lucena setup. Other times it’s knowing when to push a thematic break in the position.

The arrangement of the book is quite simple. Each left-hand page contains six problems, with their solutions on the corresponding right-hand page. This avoids the need to constantly flip to the end of the book to check your answer. On the other hand, such books typically suffer the problem of “Oh no, I just saw the answer to the next problem!” Practical Chess Exercises isn’t devoid of this problem – it may be helpful to cover the answers with an index card so that only the desired answer is seen. Another way I dealt with this is simply to randomly flip through the book, typically solving only one problem per page before moving on to another part of the book. The problems are arranged randomly anyway.

Regarding the solutions themselves, Cheng kindly provides a little explanation with his answers. This is so much more effective than just seeing that the solution is “1…Bf5!” Let’s look at a few examples. Incidentally, the number of asterisks at the start of the solution indicates Cheng’s assessment of the problem’s difficulty – from one star for “easy” to four stars for “very difficult.” In this first example, it is Black to move.

**** Do not hurry
Rather than capture immediately at d4, Black first ties down the White rook, and improves his king position. 1…Rh3! [on 1…Kxd4? 2.Rg4+ Kd5 3.Rh4 White gets an outside passed pawn, probably enough to secure a draw] 2.Rd2 Kc4 3.Kc1 Rh4. Black next captures the d-pawn under much better circumstances. (Smyslov-Keres, Moscow/Leningrad 1941)

A simple, but instructive example is the following, with White to move:

** Wrong-colored bishop
If the Black king could get to g8 or h8 this would be a draw, as the bishop doesn’t control the promotion square. The only way to secure the full point is 1.Be6+! Kf8 [1…Kxe6 2.h7] 2.Kg6 and the pawn marches forth.

Lastly, we have a position in which it is White’s turn to move.

** Fade-away jumper
1.Ne1!. There is no defense against Nd3, winning at least the exchange.

Some of the problems are easily solved quite quickly, but most require substantial thought, and some of them may well indicate to the reader the need for additional study. For example, if the reader isn’t familiar with the idea of the “wrong-colored bishop” or is clueless about Philidor, he’ll know to dig further into these subjects. This may be one of the most beneficial ways to utilize the book – as a jumping-off point to identifying, then strengthening, one’s weak spots.

The book’s production is excellent, with an attractive cover, and clear diagrams and text. Readers may not be familiar with author Ray Cheng, but his teacher, the well-known and respected International Master John Watson, wrote the Foreword to the book and lends his approbation, as does national master and multi-book author Dan Heisman.

It admittedly took me awhile to get around to reviewing Practical Chess Exercises (it was published in 2007), but it was well worth the wait. It’s a fun, entertaining way to spend a few minutes (in or out of the loo), and as Watson states on the back cover, “If you study this book, you will acquire the most important chess skill of all: the ability to think for yourself.”



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