Review: Advanced Chess Tactics
Self-improvement is nowadays mainly focused on learning new openings with the aid of databases. Young people especially tend to neglect studying other parts of our royal game, which might result in fundamental shortcomings. Lev Psakhis insists that a mastery of tactics is an invaluable strength for a competitive chess player.
Psakhis is a well-known grandmaster who twice won the Soviet Championship before emigrating to Israel. During his active career he’s worked together with Kasparov and the Polgar sisters amongst others and in 2006 he fully shifted his attention to coaching. By adding Psakhis to their list of authors Quality Chess has made another excellent move (The Alterman Gambit Guide Black Gambits 1, the subject of my first review, is also a Quality Chess publication), as in Advanced Chess Tactics the Israeli GM has succeeded perfectly in putting his gigantic experience and knowledge down on paper.
The structure of the book (365 pages) differs from what you might normally expect from a manual on tactics. Advanced Chess Tactics has been divided into 9 chapters, with each of them highlighting a particular opening (e.g. the Benoni or the Sicilian) or a typical pawn structure (e.g. three chapters have been devoted to various ways of attacking with an Isolated Queen’s Pawn position). Each chapter starts by offering the reader 8 critical moments which are subsequently going to be examined in the annotated games. The idea behind this approach is to think about each position on your own for approximately 15 minutes, as recommended by Psakhis, in order to get more acquainted with the types of structure. It does indeed seem helpful to delve deeper into the positions before going through the extensive analysis, although it doesn’t, of course, guarantee that you’ll successfully answer the questions.
I'd like to draw attention to one of those exercises, which stems from a game by Botvinnik analyzed in detail in Chapter 2: Attacking with Hanging Pawns. This exercise is a prelude to some amazing tactical variations which emerge later.
An excellent decision, which to us looks absolutely natural, though I suspect that in 1938 it may have come as a real shock to White. The bishop is abandoning the very important long diagonal (thereby giving extra scope to the white bishop on b2); but on the other hand Black increases the pressure against the vulnerable e3 and f2 points, casts a glance towards the white rook on c1 and is ready to start an attack on the enemy king's residence. White now needs to show considerable mastery in defence.
The following example has been taken from Chapter 4, IQP Positions: Attacking with the h-pawn. I followed Psakhis' advice and put the pieces on a chessboard before testing myself in the labyrinth of tactical possibilities:
It's very hard to calculate all the variations covered in the book and ultimately come to the conclusion that instead of this tempting sacrifice White should have opted for the quiet 23.Qd2! And that's only the beginning of a heroic battle! Fortunately, despite having failed to work out all the variations properly I didn't feel daunted at all. On the contrary, I was eager go through all the hidden resources and badly wanted to share the joy of the culmination of this fascinating encounter. Who wouldn't, in fact?
These two examples alone, and there are many more in the book, are enough to make some interesting observations.
1) The book has been written for a high-level audience. In the introduction Psakhis notes:
I think (hope) that chess players ranging from 2000-2600 will find something useful and interesting in it. While writing it, I visualized a typical reader as a young International Master who doesn't want to rest content with what he has already achieved. But of course, players in a considerably weaker class can also benefit from the book.
I dare say he’s succeeded in that task. The second example especially is a nice teaser for the ambitious reader. What he calls ''players in a considerably weaker class'' certainly won’t get bored either. Although they might drop off earlier in the deep variations, the selected games are brilliant and pleasing to the eye to replay. Moreover, I'm pretty sure they could also learn something from, for instance, Botvinnik's play with hanging pawns, since Psakhis' textual explanations are perfectly accessible for a wide public.
2) Psakhis’ approach of launching each chapter with 8 exercises seems very beneficial for the reader. By forcing you to study the critical moments of the game Psakhis makes it easier to absorb new information. After studying the example from the game Banas-Navarovszky I immediately compared my own findings with the author's comments, rather than replaying the game in its entirety. I suppose Psakhis consciously took into account that this approach would stimulate the absorption of the material on offer. Once you’re aware of all the subtleties in certain complex positions it becomes easier to understand the preceding play and also more enthralling to study the opening process.
My positive view of the book is partly due to Psakhis’ breezy writing style. Many (educational) books on the chess market present their content in a dry way, giving just variations and advice. Psakhis certainly can’t be accused of that:
The critical moment of the game has arrived, but unfortunately there is no CNN newsflash to announce it, and Lev Polugaevsky misses a fortunate chance.
The following phrase has been taken from a lengthy variation, where the Israeli GM concludes:
[...], and the black pieces are beginning to be starved of oxygen. Black’s chief problem is his lack of Lebensraum (I use this word without any fascist overtones!); he simply hasn’t enough space for starting active operations.
Psakhis is a real chess lover and although in his analytical work he's always searching for the objective truth, Advanced Chess Tactics offers some valuable tips for the practical tournament player as well.
A few practical hints:
(1) Don't go out of your way to calculate long variations. A capacity for precise calculation to a depth of 2-4 moves is usually quite enough.
(2) An attack may be prepared over quite a long stretch of time, but when carrying it out, do so at top speed without letting your opponent get his bearings.
(3) Don't relax too soon, even if it seems to you that the goal is already attained - your opponent may take a completely different view.
(4) Most importantly: constant time-scrambles are the worst sign of a poor chess education!
I doubt many players and trainers would disagree with the first three points, but the last one seems to be a bit exaggerated. In the book he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of avoiding time-scrambles, and rightly so. To some extent this statement makes sense, though I find it hard to call Grischuk (just to name a counterexample which springs to my mind) a product of a poor chess education. Apart from such a theoretical approach to playing the game, Psakhis is also happy to share his view of tackling the decision-making process. The following example has been taken from a game by one of his strongest current pupils.
Aeroflot Open (Moscow) 2008
An interesting question is whether Black could play 17...h6 here, forcing his opponent's dark-squared bishop to reveal its intentions. Should White take the h-pawn or ''chicken out''? Working out the variations in full is anything but simple, and the sovereign intuition must be called on for assistence! I will just give you one piece of practical advice: if you didn't risk sacrificing the bishop, you would be regretting it all through the game if not longer, and this would be bound to affect the quality of your play. So if in doubt whether to sacrifice or not, there can be one right answer: Yes!
Undoubtedly his younger students have benefited from their cooperation with this living chess legend and I expect a lot of people will profit from reading Advanced Chess Tactics. The material on offer has been carefully selected and checked by the engines. Of no less importance is that Psakhis' enthusiasm and instructive comments make sure this book will be a source of inspiration in your future games. An absolute must for anyone who’s aiming to improve his tactical abilities in a structured manner!
As Colin McGourty pointed out, Psakhis wrote the book while very ill with cirrhosis (due to Hepatitis C). An interview with Mark Livshitz for a Russian-language Israeli newspaper ("Vesti") was posted at Chess-News after Psakhis had a liver transplant. Luckily, he is now feeling much better.
Where were you during that period? At home or in a hospital?
Mainly at home, where I even managed to write a book in English, "Advanced Chess Tactics". A testament of sorts... You know, cirrhosis has one "remarkable" property - encephalopathy. A terribly "nice" thing, when your head simply cuts out. That happened to me a dozen times.
You were cut off from reality?
And there was nothing that could be done. I thought, contrary to expectations, that all the other organs would cease to function except for my head. One of the first symptoms is lethargy and memory lapses. That's truly horrifying. I tried to be brave but I realised the end was close. Therefore I somehow had to train my head so that it didn't once and for all turn into a kind of biological product, completely devoid of mental abilities. The book, by the way, has been published in England, and it seems they're even planning on translating it into Russian.
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