Monday, March 30, 2015

A Good Book That May Well be Useless

49 Black resigns
Shirov - Timman, Wijk aan Zee 1996

If you’ve spent any time with endgame books recently, this position may well be familiar to you. You’ll find it all over the place. Partly because it’s an interesting position, both instructive and deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Mostly because Timman managed to do something even worse than making the worst move on the board. He resigned the game in a position which is not in fact lost.

Benjamin devotes two entire pages to Shirov - Timman. Around three-quarters of that he spends on the position in which the Dutchman threw in the towel, showing what could and should have happened. I don’t really consider myself qualified to pass judgement on the quality and accuracy of his analysis, but when compared with other sources - e.g. Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual or Muller and Lamprecht’s Secrets of Pawn Endings - Benjamin’s coverage can hardly be described as skimpy.

It is a comprehensive and detailed analysis of a position that bamboozled two chessers who were part of the world’s elite at the time the game was played. It is also a very clear example of Liquidation on the Chess Board’s fundamental flaw.

It’s not difficult to imagine why Timman resigned the game against Shirov. He could have gone after White’s c-pawn with something like,

49... Kd6, 50 h4 Kxc6, 51 f5 Kd6, 52 f6

but it seems that both players felt that White could simply zugzwang Black into giving up the c-pawn. Sooner or later they’d end up in an some very close to a mirror of the end of Shirov’s game against Akopian at Oakham four years earlier (see last week’s Work Avoidance).

Demonstrating that this logic is faulty and showing how the line given as well as every sub-variation ends in a draw is a much bigger ask. Well not to worry. We’ve got a tonne of analysis from which tells us everything we need to know. So what’s the problem?

Let me answer my own question by asking some more. When the author sat down and laid all this out for us, how did he imagine it would help us improve our game? How we would make use of his painstaking work? When exactly did he think we would be doing as we 'read' his book?

The answer to all of those questions is: 'dunno'. The reason we don’t know is because Liquidation on the Chess Board doesn’t contain any introductory chapter with a title along the lines are, 'How to use this book'.

To be fair, hardly any chess books do. That’s not universally true. I gather Yusupov’s 9-volume course does. de la Villa’s 100 Endings certainly does. With most books, though, what you get is:-
here’s a position, here’s some analysis, here’s another position, here’s some more analysis ... 
Repeat to fade and do with it what you will. This approach is so normal in the chess world that it’s easy to overlook how odd it is.

What is a good (let alone the best) way to use the book to acquire knowledge? How are you going to take that knowledge and turn it into a skill? In what way will you make reading the book make a difference when you’re sitting at a chess board playing an actual game?

The implicit suggestion of Liquidation on the Chess Board, like most chess books, is that the reader simply knows that stuff. I find that a rather dubious proposition to say the least. I suspect that the proposition that the way information is traditionally presented in chess books is a good (let alone the best) method of aiding learning is also a pile of cobblers for that matter.

It’s self-evident that no book will help you if you’re not going to work at it (10 Types of Chesser III). That said, it must also be true that authors who put some thought into how their readers might best engage with their book are much more likely to produce a text that’s much more helpful that writers who don’t.

Did Benjamin give even two minutes’ thought to who his readers might be and how Liquidation ... might aid them improve their chess. Maybe he did, but there’s nothing in his book to indicate that this was the case. Which means that even if he did he may as well not have bothered.

Which is a pity because, the high quality of information in his book notwithstanding, it’s not going to be make much practical difference for most readers. They might enjoy it. They might even 'learn something' to a fashion. Will it help them get better at chess, though? I rather doubt it.

King and Pawn Index

Review Copy of Liquidation on the Chess Board supplied by New in Chess


Matt Fletcher said...

In the introduction to each of Yusupov's books there is around a page on "How to work with this book" - for example

- "You absolutely must play through all the examples and all the variations on a chessboard"
- "Try to solve the positions without moving the pieces! If you cannot solve the position straight away, you must try for a second time for approximately 10 minutes. This time you may move the pieces. You must look for new ideas"
- [when solving the puzzles]"It is very important to write down all the necessary variations"

That's not to say I follow the instructions rigidly (I often don't have a board to hand) but it is very clear what you're meant to do, to get the most out of the books.

Jonathan B said...

Sure. I suppose the point is not so much you do *exactly* what the author tells you to. Just that if you know what he/she thinks you should be doing you can then tailor your approach to achieve the same goal in a way that suits you.

Jonathan B said...

Btw Matt,

Do you think that the first three volumes of the Yusupov series (The Fundamentals I think he calls them), are worth getting for the more experienced player? Or jump straight in higher up?


Matt Fletcher said...

On point 1, I think he's saying that his way is how to get the most out of the books, and I agree that I'd get more his way than mine.

On point 2, it's a bit of a tricky one. I certainly didn't find the first 3 books difficult for the most part, but they're not trivially easy either. Probably mostly around 1800 level which was too easy for most of the tactics chapters but pretty good for some of the strategic stuff.

The later books build on the earlier ones in some areas so I suspect you'd lose a bit from the later books by not doing the early ones.

Maybe aim to borrow the first 3 from a friend and go through them quickly?

dfan said...

Jonathan B: it would be useful to know what "the more experienced player" means exactly. If you are say, c. 2000 FIDE, the first set of books will be fairly easy, but you will not get a perfect score, and on some tests (positional and strategy ones particularly) you will probably be disappointed in your score. You'll then have shored up all the fundamentals he expects you to have for the second set. So if you have the time, energy, and money, I recommend it.

If you're on a budget and can buy one book and want to maximize how much you get from it, though, you probably want to buy a later one.

Jonathan B said...

Good point. By "experienced player" I did mean me. I suspect Matt knew that as he and I know each other a little bit away from the blog and knows what my rating is. But of course nobody else could have known that.

My FIDE rating is currently a long way under 2000 but I do play +- that level, I think.

With your and Matt’s feedback I think I’d go for starting with the beginning books and working through from there. Checking out some of the free PDFs on the quality chess site the material is harder than I expected.

Niall said...

As a 1700 player, I felt most of the tactical material was fairly straight forward. Study the examples and solve the problems at the end of the chapter. Easy! Whether this means I'll spot similar tactics in a real game is another question entirely.

The endgame chapters were challenging enough, with a lot of stuff I thought I knew, such as basic pawn endgames and wrong bishop v rook pawn, gone into in deeper detail. I realised the basic knowledge was there somewhere, but more practical use of said knowledge such as identifying and reaching those positions, needed more work.

The strategy and planning chapters were very hard for me, and most people seem to find these chapters the hardest.

Apart from the fact of learning new material, I also feel sitting down for an hour or two a couple of times a week help improve my calculation and concentration over the board, so even if my knowledge doesn't increase (which of course it should), my skill will.

I personally feel you'd be best off starting from the start, Jonathan, but I understand that the length of the journey (9 books!!) might be quite daunting.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that the first three Jussupow's books were intended to German players with a national Elo of 1500. National Elo, that's the point. Because German enter in the national ranking at... 800 Elo! So, a 1500 player there is already rather strong. It isn't USCF.


Jonathan B said...

Apart from the fact of learning new material, I also feel sitting down for an hour or two a couple of times a week help ...

Oh I’m sure you’re right about that. In fact sitting down for an hour twice a week with a not particularly helpful book - Liquidation, say - is going to do us much more good than fanny around with a good teaching aid.

Of course, sitting down regularly with a good teaching/learning aid must be the best option of all.

Incidentally, I get the impression from people that have read the Yusupov books (or some of them, at least) that it really is a genuine "course" and not a bunch of stuff thrown together pretending to be a coherent whole.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Are you even sure Benjamin's book is meant as instruction? It occurs to me that I never read an introductory chapter in, say, a murder mystery, explaining how to use the book.

Anyway, if this really is a draw (I admit I don't see how, despite all your hints), the lesson must be that chess is hard. But you can't just say "chess is hard" and have it stick with your readers. No, you must show them a simple position with an incredible outcome, a position where everybody (me included), right up to top grandmasters, says "simple win", a position where the draw can only be proven by pages of analysis. Then and only then can we appreciate just how bastard hard chess really is.

Maybe how this might help in a real game is: you get a lost-looking position, and instead of resigning, you play on. Hoping not so much for a blunder by your opponent (although that would help), as for some slender resource, a resource that you can't see yet but Shirov-Timman tells you might just be there. And in fact it might really be there, because that's just the way chess is.

AdamFF said...

To answer how I "made use" of your work, due to seeing a position straight off at the top, I found myself trying to get to grips with it before reading on. It is probably easier to stop and look because this blog entry is a "bite-sized chunk", instead of part of a massive book that you feel the need to plough through.

I think the trick is that Black plays Kd7-e8-d7 etc. If White plays Kc6, Black replies Kd8 and White cannot lose the tempo he needs to (Kb7 would be unfortunate). Ke6 doesn't help after Kf8 (as Kd7 is again unfortunate). Should White give up his f-pawn for the c-pawn, then even though Black is boxed in he survives because he can always make a king move that's not to the corner. It would be lost without the h-pawns.

Whether I'd have seen that under pressure and without knowing there was something available is another matter!

Jonathan B said...

Are you even sure Benjamin's book is meant as instruction? It occurs to me that I never read an introductory chapter in, say, a murder mystery, explaining how to use the book.

A very reasonable question OCP. I think I’ll save my answer - and my response to your murder mystery observation - for next Monday’s post.

Niall said...

Well, I hope I'm not ruining your article for next week, regarding the question of whether the book is meant to be an instructional tome, but interestingly I received this in my inbox today:

"Dear Chess Friend,

What will guarantee more wins, or save some halves? Endgame Liquidation!
It is a vital technique that is seldom taught. Knowing when and how to liquidate can even help you win some prize money.

Have a look at this $10.000 Liquidation Error by Harika Dronavalli in the semi final of the World Women's Chess Championship: (Diagram)

Harika played 83.Qe3?? but the pawn ending was a draw. She lost the tie-break and had to settle for a $20.000 prize, while her opponent Mariya Muzychuk is guaranteed of $30.000 and will double that if she wins the final.

If you want to avoid this kind of mistakes, you can find a dozen examples of Queen Endings in the very first chapter of the book Liquidation on the Chess Board - Mastering the Transition into the Pawn Ending by former US Chess Champion Joel Benjamin.
He teaches you all you need to know about successfully liquidating into pawn endgames. He focuses on the practical aspects: what to aim for and how to get there. When to start trading pieces and how to recognize favorable and unfavorable liquidations.

The book got a rave review by GM Daniel King:
'Well written and thoroughly researched. The selected examples have a strong practical value (..) This is an instructive work for players at any level above beginner - but it's not a dry endgame manual. The games contain some beautiful ideas and overall I found the book very entertaining.'

Please have a look at this instant classic.

Best wishes,
Allard Hoogland"