Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review : Improve Your Chess Tactics

A new book I ordered just arrived at my desk today. It's Yakov Neishtadt's "Improve Your Chess Tactics".

Before I start my review, I'll just give a brief blurb. I am familiar with Neishtadt's older tactics tome "Test Your Tactical Ability" from 1981 so I would do a bit of comparison with this new book and his older book.

First off, this book is fairly thick (but nowhere near the monstrous Chess Informant's Anthology of Chess Combinations 3rd Edition - if you'd ever want to get a hernia, carrying that book around would do it *wink*).

But this is not to say that this book offering from Neishtadt is lightweight either. It numbers 385 pages and offers over 700 lessons and exercises.

The first couple of paragraphs in the Introduction is word for word identical but there are some differences between the 1981 tome and this book, resulting in the introduction being worded slightly differently. This is not that big a problem. In fact, I find the introduction extremely well written and I do not think it needs any changes.

With that out of the way, let's go onto the meat of the book.

The book is classified according to themes. The first few sections are devoted to the primary ideas of Deflection, Decoying, Eliminating Defenders, Clearing Squares And Lines.

Each page has been arranged in 2 columns (with the exception of some section introductions).

Chess diagrams are clearly displayed and a small white box or black box indicated to the left of the chess diagram denotes which is the side to move.

The font used is typical of other New In Chess books (you can see the font in the puzzle diagram below). I've owned other New In Chess books including the excellent tournament books (also by New In Chess) Botvinnik-Smyslov and Botvinnik-Petrosian (I humbly suggest that you at least get Botvinnik-Smyslov if you're looking to get a good tournament book about the history behind the World Chess Championships - Botvinnik's annotations are superb).

Each section begins with a chockful of lessons. The author has clearly taken time to explain the not just the moves but also the ideas behind the moves and did not simply to resort to just pure Chess Informant style notations. Additional diagrams for these lessons are supplemented when the variations run too long and this is very nice to see. After all, not everyone can calculate like Magnus Carlsen or Vladimir Kramnik and can retain the diagrammed positions in their heads after some 12 ply moves.

It must also be noted that some lessons from the 1981 tome has carried over to this book (eg. Puzzle 103 Levitina v Gaprindashvili). However, the similaries end there. The words have clearly been rephrased so it looks like the author and editors have taken care to each puzzle and did not simply rehash the same paragraphs. However it must be noted that this simple rephrasing of the words does not mean that they make the explanation any less unclear.

Unlike the 1981 book, this book places a lot more emphasis on a combination of themes. While the older book focuses on specific themes like pinning, decoying etc, the newer and later chapters concentrate more heavily on the topic of a combination of themes. This is IMHO, a very good change and a refreshing update as compared with the old book. At the upper echelons of chess games, it is very unlikely that a game can be won through a simple theme like a pin. Typically, a combination of themes is a certainly required to turn the game to your advantage.

Unfortunately, the claims of having the combinations of the puzzles computer-checked is that it is not thorough. I've recently discovered a small error in the book and have emailed the editors about it and will await their response. I will update it once I've heard from them.

Now having spent some more time with this book for a good few hours, I've not noticed any more visible mistakes. In fact, I found the addition of newer games a very welcome change because some of the ideas and the games I've not seen before and are extremely instructive. Some of the combinations require a good deal of calculation. One of the nice things about this book is that the variations in the lessons never get too far ahead that it makes your brain struggle.

Once the lessons end, the real homework begins. This book is slightly different in its approach. In the older tome, Test Your Tactical Ability, the puzzles that proceed after the lessons are given with hints and problems to overcome. These are then followed by puzzles with just diagrams and no verbose provided.

In this book, puzzles with no explanations nor descriptions (just single diagrams) are presented first. It is only after these puzzles that is then followed by puzzles with some verbose question. In other words, the order of the puzzles have been reversed.

I have to warn you that at my patzer level, the puzzles that are aided with hints/questions are definitely not easy. Some are just given one-liners like "Continue the attack" or "Is Black's kingside really well defended?" or "Can you take the pawn on e5?" Others are however given very extensive treatment and can take up to a paragraph or two. A case in point, Puzzle 309 reads,"White has sacrificed a knight to open the h-file and his pieces are aiming at the kingside. By playing 1.Qe4, he threatens to bring the Queen to h4. It cannot be taken because of mate on h8. How can Black defend?"

Such questions can add to or detract from the puzzle (depending on your tastes) because they provide subtle hints that forces you to work through them. On the other hand, if you feel like up to a challenge, you can also choose to cover these hints with a piece of paper as you work through them. However what these questions do is that they force you to think critically and tactically.

The solutions are presented in the later half of the book. What I do like about the Solution pages is the layout (see picture on the right). Instead of just simply cramming in the solution to a single 1-2 liner littered with chess notation and symbols, detailed descriptions including explanations of the ideas are provided. That is a great aid to anyone who wishes to improve their tactical vision.

A more welcome change is that the original puzzle diagram is also posted to the left of the solution. This is more than an advantage than it appears. No longer do readers need to flip and back-flip to the puzzle page and solution page ad nauseum.

The older book, Test Your Tactical Ability has a section that is no longer present in this book. It is a small section titled,"Do you know the Classics?" In it, you will find the games played by great chess players of the past, and they range from well known tournaments to lesser known games vs lesser known opponents. While I find the omission of this section a bit sad (but not by much), I can understand why it has been removed. Sometimes, the moves played by great chess players of the past do not stand up to scrutiny against the most vicious chess engines of today.

All up, in spite of the error I discovered, I liked this book a lot and I can forsee that it is going to take me up to a year to work and re-work through the puzzles (yes, I have a day job) and I'll be having a lot of fun with it. I'm an old stick-in-the-mud player so I think the maximum benefit that can be derived from this book is if they set up the positions on an actual chess board and work through them by hand (alternatively, you can setup the board position on Fritz/Chessbase in 3D to give you roughly the same effect - although it's not the same, it saves you time from resetting the board positions ).

Conclusion: IMHO this book is fantastic. It is a great learning tool for players and coaches.
Target rating: 1700 - 2200

UPDATE: I've received the reply from the New In Chess editor. They were extremely responsive and replied with the next day. The problem with the diagram I've posted above (2nd diagram) is that there is a error in the line.

The original line is given as:

3. Bg6+! Inviting the king into a mating net
…… Ke6
4. Qc8+ Qd7
5. Bf5+ Kf7
6. Qxd7+ Kf8
BUT now
7. Qd8+ cannot be played because of Black's dark square bishop guarding the d8 square and thus, the rest of the continuation falls apart.

Instead, I've found a much better way to proceed. (LinuxGuy, nice spot on Qxc7 in the comments!)

3. Bg6+! Ke6
4. Qg8+! (idea is the White Queen stops the Black King's escape route along the back rank) Kd7
5. Bf5+ (the Black Queen is now forced to sacrifice itself) Qe6
6. Qxe6+ Kd8
7. Qd7#

Apparently, the NiC editor discovered my mating line was even quicker so they will add my line to the Errata page as well. :D


  1. Instead of 7.Qd8+, right take the bishop first 7.QxBc7 followed by either an unavoidable Qf7 mate or queen mating on the back rank.

    Thought you didn't see 12 ply ahead, eh? ;-D

    I am studying my checkmates too, and reading some out of 'Test of Time'. Tactics are the main thing, though, at our level, yes.

  2. Hi LinuxGuy, well done. LOL.

    Yes that was a very good spot. In fact, I had intentionally posted that diagram and wondered who will be the first to spot the error.

    I saw the error immediately on picking up the book and have emailed the New In Chess editors.

    I've appended the main blog to highlight it.

    Thanks and cheers.

  3. What you have not clearly said is whether it is worth my while buying the new book when I already have the old one. Excluding "Do you know the Classics", there are 324 numbered exercises in the old book, but the diagrams in the introductions can be used as exercises too. How does "700 lessons and exercises" compare with that?

  4. Hello Bright Knight,

    I've now spent a few weeks with the book. If you're looking to find an updated version of the book, then the book is worth the price.

    The additional puzzles in the book have definitely added more depth to the earlier book, thereby placing greater emphasis on combinational themes.

    The biggest significant difference comes mainly in the last section on exams. There was a marginal increase in the number of puzzles with hints but a huge jump in the number of puzzles without hints (accounting for much of the increase to 700 puzzles from the previous 324).

    These puzzles vary in terms of continuations/variations. Some are simple forced lines while others require more thought.

    To sum it up, if you're looking for more of the same lines (puzzles) along the previous Neishtadt book, you won't be disappointed.

    However, if you are already a very strong player, and you want to look for a greater challenge, I suggest Volokitin's puzzle book Perfect Your Chess instead.


  5. Ooops, I forgot to add that the introductions are very much in the same vein as the earlier Neishtadt book but with more updated examples. Some of the older examples have been removed.

  6. Thank you very much for that. An increase from 324 + DYKTC to 700 is a big improvement. I solve the problems from the diagram, so Neistadt is hard enough for me. DYKTC was too hard, and I always gave up before the end of the chapter!

  7. Just picked this up / a nice book./