Review: Counterattack! and Sharpen Your Chess Tactics in 7 Days
Prejudice is the root of all evil. It took me over five years before I finally picked up Mark Haddon's prize-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, just because I thought the title was terribly pretentious. Once I had read one paragraph, I couldn't stop until I had finished it a few hours later. Chess books, too, are often dismissed because of their title or even their cover.
Take the cover of Counterattack!, GM Zenon Franco's latest book in the Grandmaster Secrets series, published by Gambit. Can that cover really be ... two computer-made pawns, dressed as heavily-muscled roman gladiators? 'Fraid so. My first reaction was that this must be some shallow, funny-intended feel-good book on how, instead of resigning, you can trick your opponent when you're a piece down...
I wanted to put the book away and start reading it on another occasion, but then I noticed the title of the first chapter: Lasker, the Master of Defence and Counterattack. I had to admit that this didn't sound shallow at all. I thought it showed guts to start your book with a chapter on such an ancient player. Now, I had recently had the opportunity to talk to someone who had actually met the great Emanuel Lasker in person, so this seemed like a good opportunity to catch up on my chess history. Before I knew it, I was so immeresed in Franco's analysis that I had completely forgotten about its cover.
Tarrasch - Em. Lasker
D?ºsseldorf (m/2) 1908
Given that Lasker had a tremendous tactical ability - as well as other virtues - we don't know whether this was a tactical mistake or a practical resource to complicate the game using nothing less than his own king as bait. According to R?©ti, Lasker played dubious variations on purpose in order to 'force' his opponent to play positions which were not to their liking, even though they were objectively better for them. (...)
(...) After this, the white king won't be safe either but as Korchnoi pointed out, the g-pawn is the most important of the three in front of the king, and White will be able to exploit this some way or another. White now has more than one tempting continuation.
Objectively, this is perfectly good. White gets an extra pawn and an almost decisive advantage. Nonetheless, Tarrasch was criticized for slowing down the attack against the black king. 16.Qd4!, avoiding any premature simplification, is (...) much more dangerous from a practical point of view. (...) Many years later, Dvoretsky suggested 16.Qf3!?, reaching the conclusion that it was also promising for White. According to R?©ti, Lasker would not have played 14...Ng4? against an attacking player, but he did so against Tarrasch, who would rather play in meticulous and ordered manner rather than going for murky tactical complications.
This lengthy quote from the very first game in the book (Lasker went on to win it) shows that the author knows not only his historical but also his contemporary sources, and is able to introduce a topic (not only counterattack, but also psychology in chess) in a subtle but compelling way. There are many more very interesting games in the chapter about Lasker, all very well and objectively analysed without losing the focus of the book. But the book consists of much more than just classic games. It's a guide to all possible ways of countering an attack, such as simplification and prophylaxis, logically ordered by theme, each followed by lots of good excercises. Here's one from the chapter 'regrouping':
Franco - Larsen
Lugano (open) 1989
White is a pawn up but his structure is weak and his pieces lack coordination. Black, who controls the two open files, has apparently managed to infiltrate very strongly into the heart of White's position. The white queen dare not move away, since it must defend the b2-bishop and the 'forced' 22.Qxc2? Rxc2 23.Bc1 Rxf2 24.Kg1 Rc2 is dreadful.
A move that may be overlooked when calculating the position in advance. Such an undeveloping move is seldom effective but here it allows White to regroup his pieces to good effect and neutralize the activity of the black rooks. (...)
Interestingly, this is one of only two games in the book from Franco's own practice. This can mean two things: Franco is way too modest; or his head is so filled with interesting positions from other games, that he doesn't care about his own games. Well, it's probably a combination of both. Anyhow, despite its cheesy cover, Counterattack! by Zenon Franco is a truly interesting book not only for people who want to improve their game, but also for those who simply like classic games analysed by a contemporary grandmaster.
Another recent book that is easy to be biased against is Sharpen Your Chess Tactics in 7 Days, written by IM Gary Lane and published by Batsford. Really, just seven days? Sure that's not six, or twelve? Anyway, here, too, looks deceive. Lane is an author who writes in a much more personal style than Franco (readers of the highly popular Openings Lanes over on ChessCafe.com will no doubt recognize his style immediately). He likes to take examples from his own games and write honestly and often self-critically about it. At the same time, his writing-style is also 'lighter' than Franco's, which inevitably leads to superficiality from time to time, but is often just funny. The result, contary to what the title might suggest, is anything but quick and dirty.
The book is (predictably) divided into 7 main chapters (one for each 'day'). There's a slightly mysterious 'chess trivia' paragraph introducing each chapter, and there are also some photographs in the book. But the real treat of the book is stuff like this:
Nowadays your opponent can look up your opening repertoire on a computer database so it pays to tweak your favourite variations with a different move or two - just to keep them guessing. It is essential to know the typical traps in your favoured opening variations so that you can unload them when given the chance.
Lane - Rudd
British Championship 2002
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a4
This has been played before but surprisingly some players have not noticed the big flaw and have serenely carried on with 9.0-0 0-0 transposing to standard lines.
The threat to the knight on c6 and the pawn on f7 is disasterous for Black.
Although I have played the Ruy Lopez as Black and White ever since I started to play chess, I had never seen this trap. (In fact, I seriously considered not including this fragment in my review because I figured I could use it myself!) Also, note the introduction to this game, which, in all its obviousness, is actually very useful advice to anyone: don't just play your default repertoire when you know your opponent has had the opportunity to check a database.
True, not all examples were such eye-openers to me (although they may well be to others), but here's another interesting, well-reasoned one:
Lane - Djuric
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.c3
I could also have played c3 on the second move but I preferred to wait and see how Black responded on move 2 before deciding whether to play this or 3.d4, entering an Open Sicilian. Black has to watch out for both possibilities, so delaying the c3-Sicilian has some advantages because White no longer has to worry about lines with ...Bg4. I had a look at my opponent's games before our encounter and noticed against 2.c3 he played ...d5 and ...Bg4 in one game so it made good psychological sense to lure him into a line with which he would not be so familiar.
In general, Lane's book seems targeted at a a broader audience (say, 1600-2100 rating) than Franco's, which is likely to appeal to 2000+ players mostly. There's also no index in Sharpen your Chess Tactics, nor is there a bibliography like in Counterattack. But Lane's book is full of tips that are essential for the very best. The following example (from the advice 'stay alert') still hurts my eye when I see it.
Black is confident of making a draw here but you have to take care when you play even the simplest of moves.
79...Ke5?? 80.b8=Q 1-0
I suppose a legitimate question is if this kind of simple advice is likely to really help. Well, why not? Sometimes (but not always) an easy, striking example can leave a long-lasting impression, which at the end of the day may work better than pages of reasonings and profound explanations. It really depends on the examples the author chooses, and I think Lane is mostly succesful here. Sharpen Your Chess Tactics in 7 Days is a light-footed, nice little book full of useful advice for players of various strenghts. Its main quality is not depth, but broadness, clear and insightful explanations, often from first hand. It also contains a lot of recent and to-the-point examples.
More serious students should definitely consider buying Zenon Franco's Counterattack! Here, depth and insightful explanations go hand in hand. Any which way you choose, don't judge these books by their appearances!
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