Book Review #1 – 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets by Andrew Soltis

“100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames” (Batsford Chess) has been on my book shelf a while and is a book that I regularly dip back into, especially before big tournaments.  Ive always been a massive fan of the writing of GM Andrew Soltis, so who better to start with for the first official book review on the Bristol Chess Times? Lets take a closer look…

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I love the design of the Batsford Chess book covers

What is a Priyome? Pardon? Even the most ardent chess players may not have heard this expression before!  GM Soltis explains at the start of the book that a Priyome is a Russian word which is best translated as a strategic pattern or a theme that a player can learn and apply in many situations. He talks about how the Soviet Chess School believed that there were a set of top Priyomes that every master has to learn in order to progress.  For example, in the diagram below, a simple priyome in a pawn and rook endgame with a single open file would be 1. Rd1 and 2. Rd7 leading to advantage white.

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Priyomes and other strategic motifs are effectively the top trade secrets referred to in the title of the book.  GM Soltis believes that the 100 trade secrets described in the book are all known by masters and therefore essential for an ambitious amateur to learn. The book is effectively split into four chapters, each containing 25 examples of the patterns across four key categories:

  • 25 Key Priyomes
  • 25 Must-Know Endgame Techniques
  • 25 Crucial Sacrifices
  • 25 Exact Endings

Each trade secret has no more than a handful of pages dedicated to it in order keep each particular lesson light and simple, something that I enjoy and find easily accessible.  An essential need for the time poor club player with a busy life.  This choice of light touch lessons also has another advantage.  You don’t have to read the book in any particular order, or for any great length of time.  It reads more like a reference book that you can dip in and out of.  For example, with a big tournament coming up perhaps I will just refresh my memory on the top 25 priyomes (remember this means strategic device) to aid my planning and thinking.  Perhaps I will only feel the need to dive into five of these. Perhaps I will just remind myself of which openings in the Crucial Sacrifices chapters involve sacking the exchange on f3.

The great thing about this arrangement in the book is that I suspect most players pick up 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets and know a reasonable percentage of the content already. This leaves the reader reassured in their personal chess ability but also encouraged that they are also plugging valuable gaps to make them a better all round player.

To give you an example of trade secret that I suspect most club level players rarely think of (atleast below 1800 ELO), here is Crucial Sacrifice #5:The File Plugger

The File Plugger

GM Soltis writes:

This arises in several different pawn structures with an open file.  The sacrificer, White or Black, wants to close the file and secure positional benefits like a protected passed pawn.

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Epishin – Dolmatov. Russian Team Championship 1992. White to play

White can occupy c7 with his rook but it can be challenged by …Rc8.

Better is 1. Rc6! threatening the pawns on b6 and d6.  After the forced 1…Bxc6 2. dxc6 we can evaluate:

a) White created a protected passed pawn at c6.

b) He opened a splendid diagonal leading to f7 and threatens Bc4

c) He is virtually certain to win back atleast one pawn.

Of course, Black has an extra exchange. But rooks need files to prove they are superior to minor pieces. Since the c-file is now plugged up, a diagonal, a2-g8 counts much more. 

(p129-130 in 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets, Batsford Chess)

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The completed File Plugger

The author goes on to explore the idea of the “File Plugger” in more detail over the next handful of pages but again not to the extent of covering all known theory.  His intent is to provide the reader with a memorable principle (the names he chooses also help in this regard) that can be taken forward into your amateur games and hopefully spark an idea at the right time over the board.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I can thoroughly recommend this book to the amateur club player as I feel it just has so much to practically offer. For very experienced players I believe it still provides value as even if a player already knows 80 of GM Soltis’s 100 trade secrets, how much of a difference to their game could the remaining 20 make?  The structure of the book aids easy study, allowing the club player to focus on a number of key areas, specifically strategic themes, sacrifices, and endgame techniques without overwhelming the reader (like a lot of endgame manuals and tomes do).

Overall, a refreshingly different approach to learning key principles.

Here is a link to 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets.

Finally, I’ve been planning to write some book and DVD reviews for the Bristol Chess Times for a while now. If you are a regular reader and want to get involved in telling us about a particular favourite book or DVD then do get in touch at bristolchesstimes@gmail.com.  We always welcome contributions from new authors.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.

Using chess.com explorer to prioritise opening study

For most of us in the amateur club scene we regularly purchase books or trawl YouTube for the latest “Win with Black with the Bonecrusher Opening” (editors note – This is not a real opening). Many club players spend ages reading and nodding along with the main line of their new opening only to discover that hardly anyone plays it against them.  Thus the big dirty secret of amateur chess emerges – the frequency of mainline theory is far far lower in amateur chess circles. Often the lines covered as an afterthought at the back of opening books, DVDs and YouTube under the “Other sidelines’ title are the very lines that we encounter most often. Lets look at how we can overcome this problem using a great feature on chess.com called MyGames Explorer.

For a while now I have been interested in the differences between professional and amateur chess players with regards to opening choices.  Fortunately, chess.com contains a lovely feature that does just that! Lets first look at what this feature is and where to find it and then we will look at an example using the Nf6 Scandinavian.

Looking at My Games with the chess.com opening explorer

When logged into chess.com go to “Explorer” in the navigation:

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The Explorer option is underneath the weird blue and white icon with an arrow on it…

You will see the following page:

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The main Explorer page on chess.com.

At the top of the Explorer page are two dropdown menus. Change the first dropdown from “Master Games” to “My Games”.  And you will get a full breakdown of statistics for all your games.  The second dropdown menu allows you to view your games with black or white.

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With MyGames and black selected I can start to look at the opening statistics of different lines that my opponents play against me online.

Now you know where to find this great feature, lets start to use it to understand how amateur chess players differ from professional and thus aid ourselves in directing our study efforts.

Comparing Profesional to Amateur Opening Statistics – An example

Ive been playing the Nf6 Scandinavian for almost 18 months and like most players who want to learn a new opening I bought a book and started playing loads of blitz games.  I highly recommend Smerdon’s Scandinavian by GM David Smerdon if you are interested in this opening, it really is one of the best opening books I have ever read. One feature I love (which is sadly missing from most opening books) is a diagram outlining the likelihood of facing each line out of every 100 games.

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The diagram (editors note – taken from Amazon’s preview feature, I don’t know why its grey and blue?!) at the start of Smerdon’s Scandinavian showing the likelihood of each line occurring. A wonderful feature for all opening books.

Im not going to dwell on Scandinavian opening theory in this article.  What I want to look at is the percentages of common lines occurring amongst professional / strong players according to GM Smerdon:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. d4 – 47% 
  • 3. c4 – 19%
  • 3. Bb5+ – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 11%
  • 3. Nc3 – 10%
  • All other lines – 6%

This all looks nice and normal right?  It would seem that I would be sensible to prioritise looking at d4, c4 and Bb5 lines as part of my study. Now lets compare these statistics to my own experience in online games against 1300 – 1900 rated opposition.  The MyGames Explorer feature on chess.com shows me that I have played 340 games of (admittedly blitz) in the Nf6 Scandinavian and my opponents have responded in the following way:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nc3 – 26%
  • 3. c4 – 18%
  • 3. d4 – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 13%
  • 3. Others – 8%
  • All other lines – 18%

Comparing the predicted occurrence of a line in the book to amateur occurrence shows some interesting insight:

  • The d4 mainline occurs a whopping 30% less of the time compared to predicted theory.
  • The third best line for white, Bb5, is not even on the radar of most amateurs with a measly 7 occurrences from 340 games or 2% of the time.
  • The fifth most common line at professional level, Nc3, is the most popular line at amateur level occurring 2.5 times more often.
  • Almost 20% of players don’t take on d5 on move 2 (compared to 6% of professionals).  A response widely regarded by theory as leading to inferior positions for white.
  • The propensity of greed (i.e. keep the d5 pawn) amongst professionals and amateurs is about the same (editors note – this is a joke before anyone kicks off!)

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Amateur chess players seem to demonstrate an annoying obsession with 3. Nc3…

To back these numbers up in over the board play, in the last 18 months I have played the Nf6 Scandinavian 12 times with the following breakdown of white responses:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nf3 – 25%
  • 3. d4 – 25%
  • 3. Bb5 – 25%
  • 3. Nc3 – 25%

Admittedly 12 games is not a large sample size but the percentages are certainly close to the amateur statistics observed online (with the exception of Bb5).

This is not the first time I have spoken about the differences between amateur and professionals in their opening choices. My article from last summer comparing responses to Larsen’s Opening has become one of the most popular blogs I have written and highlighted stark differences again. To me it is becoming clear that there is a demand at the amateur chess scene for opening statistics for the club level player to help prioritise which lines to study, especially given how time poor your average club player is with regards to study. This is exactly the gap that I see chess.com’s MyGames Explorer filling.

 

Conclusion

Whilst we all recognise that below 2000 ELO, opening study is unlikely to yield big changes in rating compared to studying tactics and endgames, we can’t get around the fact that we all love playing with our opening repertoires. Using the My Games Explorer has the potential to identify differences that we didn’t even know existed and allow us to plug valuable gaps in our knowledge at the amateur level.

I remain fascinated by the differences in move choice between amateur and professional levels and am certain that many publishers and producers of opening content could benefit from thinking about and recognising these differences.  In my opinion, we can’t ignore the fact that when it comes to amateur chess the sideline is the new mainline.

The MyGames explorer on chess.com could prove an invaluable tool to the average club player in terms of prioritising which lines to study or atleast which lines to have a response too. For example, I am now very comfortable with my response to 3. Nc3 in the Scandinavian scoring a respectable 53% with black. No I’m not telling you what it is, I need some secrets!

Thank you for reading and do let me know if you discover any other interesting differences in your own opening repertoires and if that changes which lines you study.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.

 

More mini games for coaching chess

The less experienced you are, the harder it is to take specific lessons from a full game of chess. This is the claim that I made in the last article on coaching. There are just way too many factors in a full game, and most of the time any interesting strategic play will be dwarfed by blunders. It is for this reason I believe more in the value of mini games – this means a game specifically designed to teach one or two aspects of the game.

Last time I showed a few games which only use one major piece.

Bristol league alumnus Chris Russell has contributed a further mini-game which he has used with great success in coaching: King, Queen and 8 pawns vs. King, 2 Rooks and 8 pawns. A queen vs. two rooks does come up from time to time in games, and depending on the position, can be much better for either side. The rooks like to be co-ordinated, and the queen likes more open positions and some loose targets. In the scenario with 8 pawns on their starting ranks – Chris notes that the queen has a slight edge because she can keep attacking pawns early on, and the rooks find it hard to establish the right battleground for them – but there’s not much in it.

Since writing the first article, I’ve also discovered that Chess.com has several training games of exactly this nature. I tried the ‘Queen vs. Queen with two extra pawns’ game (you have 5 pawns, the computer has 3) and surprisingly I ended up losing the first two games…
Once I had snapped out of that I managed to press the advantage for a bit and ended up drawing the next two. Fifth time lucky, I triumphed – but I had to calculate a queen trade very carefully. It just shows how hard these ‘winning’ positions are to convert! Anyway, this time let’s see a few other types of mini-game:

Classic mini chess

I started playing this as a youngster; it is arguably a streamlined chess game, reducing down to one of each major piece. Apart from being a shorter game, I like this one for coaching for a couple of reasons. Firstly there is an immediate way to blunder checkmate, so it doesn’t take much to explain the link between a general strategy and checkmate. Let’s take a look [n.b. the board is 5×5, pieces set up with R,N,B,Q and K on a- to e- files; and pawns in front of them, which can only move one square per move, unlike regular chess]:

minichess

1.d3 ed??

Blunder! (You have given your opponent both control and access to the square right in front of your king!) It is forced mate in four:

2.ed – threatening Qe2+ and mate on e4. Black can prolong this with cd (answered by cd) or Nc3 (answered by bxc3) but mate will come on e4 soon enough.

The other thing mini-chess should teach well is that pawns are powerful weapons – where they are only three moves away from queening from the start, strategies for promotion should quickly become apparent.

(It can also teach you about zugzwang – but that’s a bit advanced!)

Push or defend

For this one you’ll have to imagine a solid line between the a and b file. One pawn starts on the a file and can freely wander to the other end. Once it is promoted, you win the game.

However, the other side is trying to checkmate you. Try this one: (White doesn’t have a king in these games, just some pieces to attack with. Here it is Qh1, Rg1, Pf2. Black has the pawn on a7 – which will promote in 5 moves unless Black uses up some moves to avoid checkmate: Kg8, Rf8 and pawns on f7,g7 and h7.)

Push or defend.PNG

This should teach the basic importance of time, and having your own plans (counterplay). As an attacker it should force you to think about forcing moves, and see which threats really are threatening.

Endgame cuts

This one I recommend for absolutely all levels of chess – and was surprisingly inspired by a method for cutting cake fairly! I remember a puzzle from years ago about cutting cakes that are not uniform – different amounts of icing, toppings, corners etc – a potential minefield for any cake cutting scenario. The question was how can two people can ensure a cake is cut fairly between them, using only a knife? (n.b. you are not told anything about the shape or design of the cake).

The answer was pretty simple: One person makes the cut, and the other one gets to choose their piece. This encourages the cutter to cut as fairly as possible.

Okay, its not perfect – it’s a little unfair on the cutter. However, the same approach actually works much better for chess training:

One person sets up an endgame, and the other person chooses their colour.

Why does this help? Two reasons – it gets you to try to evaluate positions. As you set the board up, you will be thinking through all the various parts of the position. Material, time, and quality. Two connected past pawns? Maybe that’s equal to a bishop? Maybe they’re not, maybe they’re easily better. The point is it’s up to you, and you can modify the position until you think it’s equal.

The second reason I like it (except that it trains endgames, which let’s be honest we all need to do more of!) is that when you lose with the side that you picked, you are forced to re-evaluate. Psychologically it’s much harder to ignore the flaws in your thinking when it’s you who chose the position!


mikecircle

Mike Harris

Mike is a regular pretender in Bristol’s top division and can also be seen propping up local tournament ladders. He writes a regular column for the Bristol Chess Times and plays a solid 20 openings a season.