Book review: 365 Chess Master Lessons – GM Andrew Soltis

Publisher: Batsford Chess Author: GM Andrew Soltis 384 pages ★★★★☆

365 Chess Master Lessons book reviewAn all too familiar problem facing chess players is the question of what to study. Most of us have jobs, families or other commitments leaving us precious little time for studying chess and, when we do manage to eke out an hour here or there, we spend most of it deciding between tactics, openings and the always postponed game analysis.

In his latest book, GM Andrew Soltis takes some of that difficulty away by presenting enough daily lessons for an entire year. No need to waste precious time deciding what to do, just pick up the book and make sure you actually learn something that day.

Each lesson illustrates a theme (such as attacking a pawn center and making assumptions about our opponent’s intentions) with a short game, usually under 20 moves. The great thing about the miniature is we get to see the concept without having to wade through an extra 40 moves that have little to do with the lesson. There is at least 1 question to test your ability each day (answers at the back of the book) and then a second game, sans commentary, is provided to reinforce the idea.

365 Chess Master Lessons book review diagram

For instance, one of the lessons is called Thematic Suicide, and shows the danger of sticking to a strategy that no longer works for tactical reasons. In this game, Black, playing the Dutch Defence, makes a couple of not-obvious inaccuracies in the opening. Having prepared and now forced through the thematic …e5, Black finds himself in the terrifying position to the left… and White has a beautiful mate in 3!

 

The author recommends you set aside an hour for each lesson and many can be covered in considerably less time than that, giving you the option of squeezing in a quick 20 minute chess study or just covering more material. No need to beat yourself up about missing a day or 3 either.

I can see this book being of great help to anyone who recognises themselves in the opening paragraph: little study time and often doesn’t know where to start when they do get time. If that’s you, make this book part of your daily practice. It will keep you stocked up with fresh ideas and you’ll benefit from thinking about chess daily.

I have one criticism and that is the variability of the practical use of the lessons. Some seem to be less an important concept you can hope to apply, and more a description of what happened in that game. For instance, one game sees Black capture the b2 pawn with his rook, only to lose his piece to 0-0-0+! The lesson here seems to be that a castling move that delivers check might win you material. Maybe useful to some who haven’t seen such a situation before but I doubt that will include many readers.

Overall, a great book for those who want some kind of study plan or anyone who likes to build up their database of chess ideas.

Buy the book from the publisher here.

The 5 Best Ways to Get Better at Chess

How to get better at chessChess is a competitive game and those who play it like to win. But it’s not always so easy when your opponent is hell-bent on winning too. If you want to win more games, more tournaments, more prizes and perhaps become a titled player, you need to be constantly improving.

But how? It’s a running joke that many chess players spend more time asking “what should I do to get better at chess” than they do actually training! And with the seemingly infinite number of suggestions out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and never actually start.

Now first off let me say that doing anything is better than doing nothing. If you want to practice the Knight’s tour daily, it’s not going to harm your chess… but your time could be spent better elsewhere.

The purpose of this post is to give you the 5 best (most efficient) ways to get better at chess. Don’t expect any massive secrets – you’ve probably heard all of them before. But do know that, if you take action and spend your time on these 5 things, you’ll get better at chess much quicker than if you do anything else.

Ok, let’s begin:

1. Analyse your own games

No doubt about it, analysing your own games is the quickest way to get better at chess. I know this from personal experience but let’s listen to what Garry Kasparov has to say:

By strictly observing Botvinnik’s rule regarding the thorough analysis of one’s own games, with the years I have come to realize that this provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery.

Why is analysis of your own games so effective?

  1. You’re practicising all the skills you need in a real game. Sure, you can take more time and you can take moves back. You can see what works, what doesn’t and work your way back to find out why. But everything you notice will be something that will help you in your future games.
  2. You learn all about your personal strengths and weaknesses including mistakes that you consistently make. If you notice that you often start an attack without proper preparation or you underestimate your opponent’s Queenside pressure, these are things you can work on. On the flipside,if you notice that you tend to come out on top in complicated tactical positions, you might purposefully choose sharper moves in your games.
  3. You’re learning more about the positions you actually find yourself in. If you play the Sicilian Defence exclusively, you’re going to get a better return from your training looking at those positions than, say, Caro-Kann formations.
  4. You’re studying a whole game – not just the opening, middlegame or endgame – and learning something new about each phase.

2. Practice, practice, practice.

This means playing more games. How many you play is a personal decision but, if you want to get better at chess as quickly as possible, I recommend playing as many games as you can at 100% concentration. For some people this might be 1 a week; for others it might be 10. The number doesn’t matter so much, everyone is different. What is important is you are putting in your very best effort for every move of every game (or, at least, aiming for this ideal).

Referring back to point #1, analysing your own games, it’s best not to play more games than you have time to analyse. Get the balance right and you’ll have a beautiful cycle of study and practice, constantly eliminating weaknesses, building on your strengths and testing your strength on the battlefield.

A note: blitz games don’t count, bullet games don’t count, chess variant games don’t count. Not if your aim is to get better at classical chess, anyway.

3. Study the endgame

No, don’t run away! It’s not that scary, I promise! It’s fair to say a lot of chess players find the endgame boring and I understand why. Learning theoretical endings can be tedious. But I’m not talking about that (although there are a number that you really do need to know).

I’m talking about practical endgames, which normally revolve around promoting a pawn, winning material or perhaps even delivering mate.

“In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else,  for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame” – Jose Raul Capablanca

By analysing some famous endgames, you’ll learn a ton of surprising tactics (the endgame is full of them), game-winning strategies and, perhaps most importantly, how to coordinate your pieces. It stands to reason that if you can’t handle 3 pieces well, you’re not going to do great with 16!

You’ll also add to your ‘database’ of pattern recognition. A simple example being if your opponent has an isolated pawn, you know you can trade pieces, attack the pawn, force their King to stay defending it while you march your own pawns to promotion.

4. Train tactics

Nearly all chess decisions involve some level of calculation and improving this skill is perhaps the fastest way to get better at chess. So why have I put this at #4? Mainly because all of the above involve practicing calculation anyway!

The major benefit of training tactics on their own is to save time. If you’ve only got 10 minutes spare, you haven’t got enough time to do the 3 recommendations above – but you can solve a few tactics.

I really recommend solving tactics daily, even if it’s only a few. Every day off blunts your tactical ability. And make sure you give it 100% – no guessing, no “this looks ok”. Calculate everything, look for the strongest responses and try to find problems with your move. When you’re sure you’ve found the right idea, play it. Of course, this applies to your thinking during games too.

Want to solve some tactics now? Click here and solve the 500+ on this site!

5. Healthy body, healthy mind – exercise!

I almost left this off as it’s not strictly chess related – but it makes such a huge difference to your performance, it would be wrong not to mention it.

Chess requires concentration and a lot of tiring mental work. You need energy, you need to be getting oxygen to your brain and exercise is the way to improve this. It’s no coincidence that top-level chess, despite not being a physical sport as such, is dominated by young, healthy players.

Avoid heavy meals before playing, take a walk, stretch, do some deep breathing. These are things most people can do regardless of physical shape. Of course, the fitter you are, the more you do, the greater the benefit.

You’ll stay alert longer and find it’s your opponents who blunder on move 40 instead of you.

So there you go – the top 5 ways to get better at chess. Sure, you’ll hear a million others: read this or that book, study openings, analyse a complex position for 20 minutes and so on. But if you want the biggest bang for your buck, do the above.

Make a commitment to yourself, decide what you’re going to do to get better at chess and how often. Keep it realistic – very few people can manage 3 hours a day. Perhaps you can only commit to 2 study sessions of 1 hour each per week. That’s fine. Steady progress is better than doing nothing (and trying to do too much usually ends up as doing nothing).

Good luck with your chess improvement!

 

 

 

Hou Yifan and the Bizarre 5 Move Loss

Hou Yifan 5 Move Loss GibraltarWomen’s World Champion Hou Yifan (2644 Elo) played a shocking game in the final round of the Tradewise Gibraltar chess tournament, resigning after just 5 moves – the quickest loss by a Grandmaster.

Of more interest was just how bad those 5 moves were and why she played them.

Playing White against Indian GM Babu Lalith (2584), Hou Yifan opened with the rarely seen 1.g4. GM Lalith calmly played 1…d5 then came the shocking 2.f3?? Note that if Babu had played 1…e5, this would lead to Fool’s Mate with 2…Qh4#

Sensing something strange was going on, GM Lalith played 2…e5, Hou Yifan made a flight square for her King with 3.d3 and Black checked with his Queen on h4. Already, this is a winning advantage for Black – one a GM would easily convert.


2 more moves and Hou Yifan resigned. Obviously she had played these terrible moves intentionally – but why?

After the game we found out. Hou Yifan was annoyed with what she viewed as disrespectful pairings – she had faced 7 women in 10 rounds, a statistically unlikely event given the majority of participants were male.

However, Hou Yifan’s fears were misplaced. All of the pairings were made by a computer based on the usual factors: previous results, rating, colours played and so on. There was no bias; there was no conspiracy.

Hou Yifan apologised for her protest – an action that seems quite out of character for a popular, normally calm player.

This bizarre incident gives us a new record (the previous quickest loss by a Grandmaster was by Viswanathan Anand, incredibly, who resigned after just 6 moves after dropping a piece in his 1988 game against GM Alonso Zapata) and a hypothetical question: would Hou Yifan have played 2.f3 if GM Babu Lalith had played 1…e5?

 

The Chess Quiz: Famous Players

The Chess Quiz: How Well Do You Know The Players?

How well do you know the famous names of chess?
Take this quiz and find out!

No cheating. It’s easy to search the internet but that defeats the point of playing.
Winners don’t cheat 🙂

Once complete, share the quiz and challenge your friends!

Instructive Rook Endgames: Nakamura – Giri

NakamuraGiriHikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri played out an instructive Rook endgame at the Grand Chess Tour Paris Blitz event this year.

Material is level but Nakamura (White) has his Rook ideally placed behind his pawn and his King is helping out too.

Nevertheless, this is a drawn position. Only 1 move gets the draw however, the other 21 lose.

Anish Giri chose 68…Rb8 covering the promotion square – and lost.

This position isn’t really about stopping the a-pawn. White will get it to a7, Black must play …Ra8 then White brings his King to b7. Black is going to have to give up his Rook for the pawn eventually. The question is “will Black be able to do anything with his pawn?”

NakamuraGiri2Let’s see what happened in the game 69.a6 Kf6 70.a7 Ra8 71.Kb7 Rxa7+ 72.Kxa7 Ke5 (diagram)

Now there are many ways for White to win. He can cut off the King with 73.Ra4 forcing Black to protect the pawn, advance 1 square, protect… while White’s King races to help Kb6-c5-d4.

When the White King is close, the Rook goes behind the pawn (Ra8-g8) and the pieces combine to win it.

What Anish Giri should have played is 68…Rf5! with the idea of perpetually checking. Clearly f5 is the only square to operate from as here (and on f6/f7/f8) it is protected and it can’t go to the h-file as the Black King and pawn would get in the way.

NakamuraGiri3To stop the checks, the White King must go to e4 69.a6 Rf6+ 70.Kd5 Rf5+ 71.Ke4 Rf8 72.a7 Ra8. Now it’s going to take White 3 moves to get to b7, compared to 1 in the game. 73.Kd5 Kf6 74.Kc6 Ke5! (staying close to the pawn but making it tougher for the White King to get to d4) 75.Kb7 Rxa7+ 76.Kxa7 g5 (diagram).

Black has gained 1 tempo (pawn on g5 instead of g6) and it makes all the difference. 77.Ra4 Kf5 78.Kb6 g4 79.Kc5 g3 80.Kd4 g2 81.Ra1 Kf4 Draw (diagram).

Of course, you don’t need to calculate all this out in a game (and this was blitz). If you have a similar position as Giri where you’ll have to give up your Rook for a pawn, make your opponent use the maximum number of moves to do it!

You can use the extra tempi to carry out your own plan.

What did you think of this endgame? Any comments or questions? Leave them below!

Secrets of chess tactics: Reversing the move order

Ever had it where you get a really good position and your tactical radar starts going crazy? You know there’s a win here somewhere… but when you play the obvious moves your opponent somehow escapes.

Trust your intuition – there probably was a win… but it slipped away. This tip will reduce those frustrations and help you win more games.

It’s called “reversing the move-order”, a name which pretty much sums up the whole idea.

When you spot a combination but it doesn’t quite work as you want it to, try changing the move order. Here’s a simple example:

ReverseMoveOrderAll White’s pieces are aimed at the enemy King. There must be a winning combination.

Let’s start with the obvious 1.Rxh6+ Kg7 now what? 2.Rh7+ Kf6 and the King escapes.

Ok, 1.Rxh6+ Kg7 2.Rg5+ oops, …Kxh6.

But if we reverse the move order, 1.Rg5! wins …Nf5 2.Bxf5 exf5 3.Rxh6#.

This is a very useful idea to remember, you’ll find it helps in many different types of combinations. It’s also worth noting that removing escape squares (as with 1.Rg5!) is often better than playing immediate checks when on a King hunt.

Chess Tip: One Pawn Holds Two

Here’s a really simple tip which will help you take control of positions by claiming space and limiting your opponent’s possibilities. It’s a principle called “one pawn holds two”.

Imagine Black has 2 pawns, one on a6 the other still on b7. If White was to place a pawn on a5, neither of the Black pawns would be able to move. The a6 pawn is blocked and, if Black plays b7-b6 or b7-b5, the a-pawn could capture it.

OnePawnHoldsTwo

2r5/1p1bkp2/p3p3/3pP2r/P2P1P2/R2B4/2P3PP/5RK1 w – – 0 24

Here’s an example from one of my club games. White has 2 extra pawns and Black’s Bishop is pretty terrible so many moves are playable but I played the simplest a5. This fixes Black’s pawns on the same colour as his Bishop, prevents him (temporarily at least) from moving either of these pawns and frees my Rook from guarding the pawn.

However, it’s the restriction of Black’s a6 and b7 pawns that is most important. One pawn is stopping two – a very efficient move!

If you put this position into your engine, you’ll find a5 is one of the top suggestions but once you’ve seen the pattern it doesn’t require any thinking, you’ll find it in a 1 minute game.

So powerful is this idea that, if it was Black’s move in the above position, then …a5, stopping White’s pawn advance, becomes one of the computer’s favourite moves.

OnePawnHoldsTwo2

8/1p2kp2/p3p3/3pP3/P2P1P2/8/2P3P1/6K1 w – – 0 24

Here’s the same position with Bishops & Rooks removed and, to show the power of this idea, I’ve taken away White’s h-pawn too.

Again, many moves win but the strongest is a5! We’re not restricting a Bishop here, just slowing Black down, taking away his options. Without us playing this move, Black might try …a5 himself, followed by …b5 to get a passed a-pawn.

So, a simple idea but one to remember. It will come up loads of times in your games and make your job much easier!