Review: three excellent puzzle books
I don't like games (except chess) and I hate puzzles. I'm one of those people who doesn't like to solve something others have solved before, let alone trying this in the presence of someone who already knows the answer.
I'm always afraid I won't be able to find the solution and will have to conclude I'm a horrible chess player (or a quiz participant, or a student). Still, I very much like reading chess puzzle books as long as I can look up the answer right away.
So it was with a mixture of enthusiasm and (inevitably) dread that I noted the recent appearance of no less than three chess puzzle books by major publishers: The Quality Chess Puzzle Book by John Shaw, The ChessCafe Puzzle Book 3 by Karsten Mueller and Merijn van Delft, and Coffeehouse Chess Tactics by John Healy.
There are, of course, hundreds of chess puzzle books available, and I believe all of them can make you a better chess player, as long as you really study the exercises and try not to look at the solution the moment you're stuck. Which is exactly why I'll never improve by doing just that, but fortunately, there's a lot to enjoy in all three books apart from trying to become a better player. Shaw's book gives you the most exercises (a whopping 735), while Healy is the funniest writer and Mueller and Van Delft have the best explanations.
Let's start with John Healy's Coffee House Chess Tactics, somewhat surprisingly published by New in Chess, which is really not a puzzle book but does contain lots of puzzles. John Healy is a unique author in the chess world, if only for the fact that he's served a serious amount of time (12 months) in prison. Asked by a fellow inmate to teach him how to play chess, Healy soon realized he'd become hooked on chess himself and never was the same person again. Moreover, he turned out to be a great (if somewhat unsophisticated) writer. Allow me to recommend the following fragment to certain top-10 players especially:
Talent and youth, bright middle-class children with psychopathic tendencies - that's what's needed for success at tournament chess; with the emphasis on youth. And so their mums send them forth with the Spartan mother's warning: come back victorious or don't come back at all. Well, it is a discipline, codes-rules-values, and part of the code is to shake hands, win or lose, with friend a foe alike. The ritual is repeated before and after each game regardless of results.
Over come the hands: small, large, medium, enormous, dainty, delicate, strong, weak, hard, soft, limp, damp, and dry. After this sporting gesture one is free to cheat, lie, jostle, harangue, pace up and down, fart loudly, laugh, cry, sneeze, bang the pieces down, intimidate, glare and stare until the game ends once more with a gentlemanly handshake.
The prose parts are clearly the book's best and should alone be sufficient reason to buy the book. The actually chess part of the book (consisting mostly of fragments from Healy's own offhand games - inevitably full of 'coffeehouse' elements) seems really just an afterthought, though there are useful examples for players rated below 1900.
International Students' House, 1980
This is a puzzle that is not directly obvious - at least it wasn't to me. Clearly, 1.Rxf7+ is the move, but after 1...Rxf7 2.Rxf7+ Qxf7 3.Qxe5+ Black has 3...Qf6 and though White is clearly winning after taking on b8, this seems a bit thin even for a sub-1900 puzzle. This is usually the moment in a puzzle where I stop and look up the solution, concluding I'm too old (and lazy) for this stuff, but then of course White has 4.Qc7+! and there's no Qf7 so White picks up the rook with check and cashes the bishop as well.
While Healy's puzzles are mostly about pretty straightforward tactics (and there's nothing wrong with that!), John Shaw's Quality Chess Puzzle Book, published, as the title suggests, by Quality Chess, is much more ambitious. From the introduction, we read that:
We often start the action a little earlier than is usual, in a position where the big punch is some moves in the future. The reader thus has to find the introductory moves that make the tactic work. Naturally, this is tougher than just spotting the Bxh7+ and then a few checks.
To be honest I did see quite a few exercises where the first move in fact is also the 'big punch', but there are also complex ones like the following from the chapter 'Simple but not Easy':
Poland (ch) 2007
The question is not whether White starts with 1.Bxg7+! (though see below) but how things continue after 1...Kxg7 2.Qg6+ Kh8. The answer is the beautiful 3.Bg8! and again this is the moment I usually look up the solution, only to discover that actually Black still has a way to stop mate with 3...Rf7! after which White still has to find 4.Qxf7! (not, as Shaw notes, 4.Bxf7? Qxd2) 4...Qxg8 5.Qxe7 and White is two pawns up. Importantly, Shaw explains how 1.Qg6 seems to lead to the same thing, but doesn't since after 1...gxh6 2.Bg8 Rf7! 3.Qxf7 Qxg8 4.Qxe7 Rd8! the position is in fact very unclear.
There are many things to like about this book. Apart from the high quality material, the vast majority of the exercises are from very recent games (700 of 735 puzzles are from after the year 2000.) I also liked the fact that there's a chapter with 'Contributions from our Readers'. As a matter of fact, there was no immediate need for such an original approach as the author has made sure the puzzles in this book "have not been used in other puzzle books, so the reader has to solve the puzzle, not remember the answer from old books." Finally, I found it extremely convenient that the solutions to the puzzles aren't given in some obscure section at the end of the book, but on the very next page.
Although I recommend both Healy's and Shaw's books, I've saved the best for last. Karsten Mueller and Merijn van Delft don't give the solutions to their exercises on the next page, but we can easily forgive the authors for this minor inconvenience because The ChessCafe Puzzle Book 3, published by Russell Enterprises, is really an absorbing book. Instead of everything being about tactics, here it is about improving one's defensive skills, and the authors go to great lengths to explain this subject. In the very first chapter (Principles and Methods of the Defender), it already becomes clear how this book differs from the other two.
Las Vegas 1999
28...Bxh2+? Black couldn't resist the temptation to execute the classical double bishop sacrifice. Instead he should have settled for the modest 28...Qe7.
29.Kxh2 Bxg2 The standard procedure 29...Qh4+ 30.Kg1 Bxg2 doesn't work because the rook is hanging.
30.Rd1! A strong zwischenzug. White refuses to be a victim of Black's brilliant attacking play. 30.Kxg2? only leads to a draw after 30...Qg5+ 31.Kf3 Qh5+ 32.Kg2 while Black should stay clear of 32...Re5? since after 33.Bxf7+ all tactics neatly work in White's favor.
30...Qh4+ 31.Kxg2 Qg4+ 32.Kf1 Qxc4+ 33.Ke1 Qc3 34.Rd2 b5 Perhaps Black missed that 34...Rd8 is refuted by the strong 35.Qc2!
35.Qb3 Now White is simply a piece up.
It's true such a nuanced approach is hardly new, but the authors generously acknowledge chess writers like Rowson and Dvoretsky for their groundbreaking work in the area of improving one's defense. Moreover, the way they have arranged their material is in my view very original. For instance, how often do you encounter a chapter called 'Defense against a Minority Attack'? Usually, it's all about setting up one, isn't it? Here's the first exercise from that chapter:
White has announced his ambitions on the queenside. How to defend?
18...Nc8! Heading for the ideal square on d6.
19.Qb2 19.Nb3 Nd6 20.Nc5 g6 21.Nf4 Bf5 and Black is fine.
19...Nd6 20.a4 Bf5! Good timing to get rid of those bishops.
21.Bxf5 Nxf5 22.Nc3 22.b5?! runs into 22...Nxe3!
22...Ng6 23.b5 Ngh4! As it appears Black is suddenly having a strong initiative on the kingside. Now 23...Nxe3?! is answered by 24.Re1 (...).
The ChessCafe Puzzle Book 3 (the first two were written by Mueller alone; now Van Delft joined him, bringing important psychological expertise along) also contains 16 'Tests' where the reader has one hour for each of the tests - sure to be great material for chess trainers. In the introduction to these tests, the authors casually note a very important paradox:
If on the one hand you are comfortably reading a chess book, feeling you understand everything, you may in fact not be learning anything. If on the other hand you really put a lot of effort in and feel stupid because you couldn't solve the exercise ("looking for the edges of your comfort zone" in Rowson's words), in reality you may in fact be learning something.
They're right, of course. I shouldn't be so afraid to explore the edges of my own comfort zone - and perhaps more serious players, desperately wanting to improve their game, should be a bit more relaxed about things. Chess really is an endlessly paradoxical game. Reading Healy, I wanted him to show some of the versatility of Shaw. Reading Shaw, I wanted the book to have the depth of Mueller and Van Delft's approach. And reading Mueller and Van Delft, I wished they had a bit more of Healy's flourish in their style of writing.
The truth is, these are three highly entertaining chess books that will teach you as much as you allow them to.
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