Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Secrets of Practical Chess (Embiggened Edition)

I had heard that Nunn's book was out in a "New Enlarged Edition". I remember thumbing through the first edition years ago in the bookstores, gleaning a few nuggets of information from it but not committing to buying it. I hadn't planned on picking this second edition up, but I succumbed on the strength of the computer section alone.

Even though I've doing many of the tricks Nunn mentions when using Chessbase and Fritz products, there were many revelations here. In particular, I want to get back on track and be more religious in using the Repertoire Database feature in Chessbase.

For people like me that historically have had a weakness to repertoire opening books, Chessbase is a great solution. The weakness of opening books is that it is unlikely that you will like, or even be comfortable with, all of the author's suggested lines, which means that you will be left plugging the holes yourself. I think a better approach to the openings is to ask yourself at each juncture: "What move do I personally like best in this position?". You can then check that move against a large database of games and with a chess engine, and if you still like the move, presto: your own repertoire move. I'm going to experiment with coming up with repertoires for a few of my openings by playing by general opening principles, and checking the lines I like as Nunn describes.

I think one advantage of this approach is that, if you're like me and don't have the greatest memory, you'll be playing moves that you like and arrived at yourself. I always tell my students that if they take the extra effort to understand a topic, it reduces the need to rely on memorization. For example, in the French advance Watson recommends the move ...Nh6 in some lines. I know it's the repertoire move, I understand roughly the point to it, and it still makes me uncomfortable. I can either spend extra time to convince myself how great that move is, or I can make my own repertoire and play a more "natural" move of my own choosing.

Another new section of the book deals with chess literature. I was amused to see that he uses both Silman and de la Maza as examples of flaws to watch out for. Nunn likes How to Reassess Your Chess but thinks that some of Silman's examples don't quite match the general principles they're supposed to demonstrate.

Silman's book is quite well-known and can be recommended as a good general guide for club players. My only real concern is that Silman's treatment is strongly tilted towards the 'covering up messy details' end of the spectrum, which can be deceptive since real-life games very rarely follow the smooth progression Silman describes.
He then goes through the example J. Sipaila--J.Silman, Reno 1993. He says that Silman's evaluation is correct but doesn't agree with the lines Silman gives to demonstrate that assessment.

In contrast, Nunn treats de la Maza's Rapid Chess Improvement far more harshly. Although he concedes:
There is a limited amount of truth in de la Maza's ideas. Tactics are certainly extremely important in chess, and are probably more so at the under-1800 level.
but then proceeds to essentially tear de la Maza a new one. It's tempting to quote, but I'll just direct the curious to their local book store.

(Aside: Personally, I believe that the most important thing under-1800 people can spend time on is making sure they play what Heisman calls "real chess" (rather than "hope chess") reliably on every move they play. I feel that this is the weakest link for most people, and I've been intending to write about this for a while. Studying tactics and improving your calculation helps in this regard, but the biggest boost in your chess strength will come from eliminating glaring oversights. Unfortunately, you can't really pick up a book entitled Don't be a Dumbass! and fix this problem...you have to actually work at rewiring your brain to a better way of thinking.)

I may comment more on the rest of the content in the future. Many of the examples and suggestions are targeted towards more advanced players, but a lot of the content can be applied by players of any strength {for example: the acronyms DAUT (Don't Analyse Unnecessary Tactics) and LPDO (Loose Pieces Drop Off)}.

I would definitely recommend people flip through this book at the book store and evaluate how much they feel this book will help them. If you use Chessbase products, the chapter on computers alone may be worth the money.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Personally, I believe that the most important thing under-1800 people can spend time on is making sure they play what Heisman calls "real chess"

I think this is partly true. I would say real chess is necessary but not sufficient, and it depends on how far under 1800 someone is!

Real chess (which basically means to analyze the consequences of candidate moves instead of playing impulsively) is key. But to be able to come up with good candidate moves requires that you can see tactics (for those U1400, tactics will decide nearly every game). This means that you need to build up pattern recognition and intuition by playing and by solving basic mating and other simple tactical puzzles. When you clear away all the BS from MDLM's book (and there is plenty of it), the core idea of the Circles is ultimately sound (for those who need help builting up an arsenal of tactical and mating patterns). I discussed this here (in a post which was part of a larger controversy that I was discussing).

It is unfortunate that MDLM's style and hype in the book tends to obscure what is essentially a truism in chess: beginners should solve lots of tactical problems if they want to improve. His style is understantably off-putting.

I'll be sure to check out Nunn's critique in the bookstore.

Grandpatzer said...

BDK: Thanks for the response. I'm going to have to post that "real chess" article soon so I can be clear about what I mean.

Yes, absolutely tactics are very important, and studying them will help you avoid blunders. From my own experience, however, a large portion of mistakes are where, either right after I make a move, or immediately upon my opponent's move, I realize that I've made a huge oversight. If your error is obvious to you practically immediately upon seeing your opponent's response, or if after your move you immediately see a simple tactic that gives a clear advantage, this indicates that you already had the tactical "chops" to know better. In contrast, if you only realize your error after expending some thought, then more of the fault lies with another area of your game such as tactics.

My argument is simply that, for a lot of people, they lose through outright blunders or fail to win through gross oversights when they already know better. Studying tactics improves your combinative vision, but if you play with your eyes closed it doesn't matter how good your vision is.

As your rating gets higher, the proportion of "I should have seen that!" errors should decrease, and the number of "I should have considered that interesting move more carefully" or "I had difficulty analyzing that complex position" errors should increase.

Grandpatzer said...

I should add: some may superficially feel that, the higher your ranking, the less important working on playing "real chess" is. I think that's putting the cart before the horse....their ratings are higher in large part because they're already playing "real chess" more reliably. My argument is that a big factor in the rating of below-expert players is the frequency of their blunders, i.e. how often they, even for just one move, play a move superficially. I argue that playing real chess is akin to always sinking a freethrow in basketball, or always making a 5-foot putt or chipping a golfball reliably to within a yard of the hole. Consistency here is what's important, because one hasty move can cost you a game. I believe achieving this is the single most powerful thing you can do to improve your game. Can you play "real chess" on 99% of your non-time trouble moves? (If you're routinely getting into time trouble, well, that's a whole other area to address).

If nothing else, analyze your games and tabulate how many of your errors were of the "D'oh!" instantly-seen-blunder variety versus how many were of the "Ooh, tricksy" variety. Every "D'oh!" corresponds to a game lost, or a won missed, because you didn't play Real Chess.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, quite the tease to say he rips MDLM a new one and then to say to go read it at your local bookstore. Boo!

chessloser said...

i love the embiggened edition...as usual, this is an excellent post with great information, some new, some a good reinforcement. with guys like you around, why would i need a chess coach?