Sunday, January 6, 2008

Book Reviews

Anyone can mail me a chessbook review, whether it has over-the-board games, or not, to: rich_j_8990@yahoo.com

 

June-July 2006 Review

 

Rethinking the Chess Pieces

Andrew Soltis

Batsford Chess (Sterling Publishing Co., NY, NY)

2004

 

First off, I have to say that this is a great book. Everyone that is below master strength should buy this book. Masters will probably know all of the concepts in the book already, but for us “mere mortals” it may be the best chess book around for players with ratings between, say, 1400 and 2200. It is not a great book for beginners. I have not been impressed with some of the other chess books by Soltis (ex. Pawn Structure Chess), which by the way should be in the SDCC library; I donated it a while ago. Soltis often goes way too deep in analysis for the non-master to appreciate, but this book is a gem---it is loaded with common positions and is easy to understand. It may be the most practical chess book I’ve read. The book is basically about tactics and endgame positions, and is MUCH more interesting to read than other books on those subjects. It’s almost like cliffnotes on tactics and the endgame; again page for page its one of the best chess books available. And as far as tactics are concerned, the interesting thing about the book is that it teaches more often when NOT to sacrifice than when to, and that’s very important information to the intermediate player. The tactics and endgame positions are sprinkled throughout the book, but in the review I’ll simply separate the book into these two categories.

TACTICS:

One of the most common things to think about before initiating a sacrifice or combination is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. However, Soltis correctly points out that pawn and piece values change during the course of the game. Below is a list of the piece values assessed by different players (or even non-players who are mathematicians or the like). (Pawn = 1). 


Assessor:..........................................................Knight.........Bishop...........Rook.............Queen
“Western” assessment.........................................3.0..............3.0................5.0.................9.0
Soviet Chess Program.........................................3.5..............3.5................5.0.................9.0
Pratt (Editor of a Philidor Book).......................... 3.0..............3.5................5.5................10.0
Yevgeny Gik (Russian writer).............................. 2.4..............4.0................6.4................10.4
David Meador (Mathematician)........................... 3.65............3.92..............6.44..............10.23
-     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -
Greg Beil (Chess Life analysis):
Moves 6-25.......................................................3.3..............3.1................2.6..................6.6
Moves 26-45.....................................................3.3..............3.5................4.3..................7.0
Moves 46-75.....................................................3.3..............3.8................5.1..................9.6


Notice that in the last analysis, most pieces only reached their “full” value after move 46. Lasker agrees with this, saying that piece value is really “endgame value”. This is usually because by then most pawns have been cleared away. The last assessment of piece value by Biel is the most realistic, since, for example, a Rook does not have much value if it can’t move vertically and can only move a few squares to the center during the opening. Conversely, a Knight has more value than a Rook in the opening, since it can hop over the pawns and instantly become active. The values of the Bishops, Rooks, and Queen increase as pawns leave the board, since they have more space to operate. However, the pawns themselves also increase in value if they are advanced and have the possibility of Queening. So, saying that a Bishop is worth 3.8 pawns in the endgame is of course a generalization and should be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, some would argue that the value of the minor pieces should DECREASE in the endgame, if their sacrifice can create, say, advanced connected passed pawns.
 
Soltis states its common (master) knowledge that two minor pieces are superior to a Rook and 1-2 pawns in the middlegame (Fine says they are equal/inferior in the endgame---see that section). The Rook generally only comes into its own in the endgame. As Rudolph Spielmann stated, “Knight and Bishop are much better fitted for attack than Rook and pawn”. An additional variable is the availability of targets. Even if a Rook is on an open file, it may not have any targets in the middlegame like the minor pieces would.

As far as the pawn values are concerned, it’s generally agreed that center pawns are worth slightly more than a- or h- pawns (5-20% greater value). However, both Fischer and Spassky agreed that center pawns lose value as the game progresses, since the opposing King, minor pieces, etc. can attack them in the endgame.

The relative values of Knight vs. Bishop also change during the course of the game. A database analysis concluded that Bishop taking Knight in the opening is fine, since the Knight is at the peak of its strength in the opening. Another thing to take into account is whether the position is open or closed---open games favor Bishops and closed games favor Knights (you already know that, right?). Dorfman added to this rule that owning the Bishop pair is of no advantage at all when the pawn structure is fixed. Another interesting comparison between the values of Knight vs. Bishop is a database survey done by Timoshchenko: more than four pawns each on the board: advantage Knight. Four pawns each on the board: equal value. Less than four pawns each on the board: advantage Bishop. A second survey done by Kaufman put the break-even value point at five pawns each. These examples are consistent with the theory that the Knight is stronger in the opening and the Bishop stronger in the endgame. However, there are some very strong masters that prefer a Knight to a Bishop in the endgame (I mentioned that Fischer preferred this in the previous book review). Kaufman conducted a survey in which he found that the Bishop pair was not necessarily worth more fractions of a pawn than the Knight pair, rather, it was worth roughly a tempo. This gives some justification to say, giving up the Bishop pair rather than wasting a tempo if for example, Bg5 h6, Bxf6 (instead of Bh4 or Bf4). He also found that unpaired Bishop vs. unpaired Knight is generally equal.

Soltis favors putting both Knights on their “best” squares in the opening: Nc3/6 and Nf3/6 instead of the more solid positional Ne2/7 or Nd2/7. He argues that the one Knight backing the other one up is too redundant, unless there is a good change of an exchange of the “forward” Knight. This redundancy should be taken into consideration with both Knights and Rooks. One of the reasons Capablanca won so many games is that he supposedly traded off one Knight, one Bishop, and one Rook most of the time to reach an endgame that favored the pieces he kept on the board.

An exchange sacrifice involving a Rook for one of the minor pieces is a major topic in the book. Tarrasch wrote that the value (worth) of the exchange increases as the game progresses. Cecil Purdy went so far as to say that in the opening or early middlegame, losing the exchange is better than losing a pawn! This obviously runs contrary to the pawn gambit openings. Soltis concludes that in practical play, the piece value chart should be put in the back of the player’s head so they can focus on the unique characteristics of each position. Soltis claims that exchange sacrifices often work best when the player with the Rook has a pawn “screen” in the center. Thus, when the minor piece takes the Rook, pawns can be reconnected and advanced. This idea is particularly useful if the exchange sacrifice creates two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank (obviously even better on the seventh!). Exchange sacrifices rarely occur in the endgame (mostly in the middlegame). Kasparov stresses this by stating that the exchange sacrifice works best when there are still many pieces left on the board, or else the sacrifice tends to run out of steam. Soltis cites several rules for when an exchange sacrifice is worth attempting: when it helps minor piece activity, when the opponent’s Rook(s) cannot live up to their potential value, when there are several minor pieces left on the board (see Kasparov above), when the exchange sacrifice greatly damages the opponents pawn structure, and if it gains the Bishop pair. Some analysts claim that the Bishop pair is worth between ½ and a full pawn.

It’s rarely a good idea to give up two minor pieces for a Rook, and even for a Rook and a pawn. Only if there is a Rook and two pawns for the two minor pieces will the minor piece exchanger have an advantage. In fact, Steinitz claimed that the Bishop pair is superior to Rook and two pawns.

Soltis warns against developing TOO naturally (pawns first, then Knights, Bishops, Rook, and Queen last). He cites two games where developing the Queen too late (for its safety) ended up taking the Queen out of the action and the games ended in losses for the careful player.

As far as Queen sacrifices are concerned, Minev says that the sacrificer should have at least three minor pieces remaining, if not four, before even considering a Queen sacrifice. Conversely, both Lasker and Tarrasch said that two Rooks for a Queen is generally not advised.

Interestingly, Bishops of opposite colors in the middlegame favors a kingside attack, since the opposing Bishop cannot defend against the other attacking Bishop.
Bad Bishops can serve useful roles, protecting the pawn(s) in front and diagonal to them, and most GM’s will not trade a bad Bishop for two pawns. In fact, Sarratt even advised against sacrificing any Bishop for three pawns unless it achieved some important positional objective (such as preventing castling or destroying the pawn structure). In fact, Kaufman states that the Bishop pair is clearly superior to three extra pawns, and is almost equal to four extra pawns. The player with the Bishop pair benefits from Rook trades.


ENDGAME:

There is no real definition for the endgame to start, since sometimes the Queens are the only pieces left on the board, and most players would agree that this constitutes a bona fide endgame. To divide the endgame section from the tactics section, I’ll arbitrarily set the “endgame” condition as three pieces or less remaining on each side.

There are times in the endgame when there is a Queen and Rook vs. two Rooks and a minor piece. Karpov claims that the player with the two Rooks should avoid trading one of them, since the two Rooks coordinate better against the Queen. Conversely, if a player has a Queen and minor piece(s) vs. two Rooks and minor piece(s), the player with the Queen should not exchange any of the minor pieces, because the Queen needs them to coordinate for attack. If the Queen is alone against two Rooks, certain variables decide which player has the advantage. If the player with two Rooks has his King shielded from checks and double attacks by the Queen, that player has the advantage.

Reuben Fine stated that a Rook and pawn is equivalent to two minor pieces. A Rook and two pawns are winning against two minor pieces. Sarratt concurred that Rooks and pawns increase in value as the game progresses. The player that has a Rook against two minor pieces should place the Rook in position where it can check the opposing King on both ranks AND files.

In Bishops of opposite colors endings, the pawns should be placed on the opposite color of a player’s Bishop (same color as the opponent’s Bishop). This is also true when a player is an exchange down---believe it or not the Bishop should still be on opposite colors of the remaining pawns, so that it can prevent the opponent’s King from infiltrating (the player’s own King can guard the base pawn from the opponent’s Rook).

If a player has a Rook against Knight in the endgame, one of the best squares to place the Rook is two diagonal squares from the Knight. This takes up to four moves away from the Knight. It’s also an excellent way for the Rook and King to trap the opponent’s Knight.

Soltis gives a ranking of which minor piece endings are the easiest to win (assuming the player going for a win has some kind of an advantage such as an extra pawn or more centralized king, etc.). Easiest is Knight vs. Knight, then Bishops of same color, then Bishop vs. Knight, then Knight vs. Bishop, then Bishops of opposite color. Two Bishops vs. Bishop and Knight is usually a big advantage in the endgame.

If there is a Queen sacrifice for a Rook and minor piece, both players need to keep the following in mind when the endgame is: equal pawns on the board = Queen should win; Rook + minor piece + 1 extra pawn is equal; Rook + minor piece + 2 extra pawns = Rook and minor piece will often win. This rule reinforces the western classification of pawn = 1, minor piece = 3, Rook =5, and Queen = 9.                  

Queen and Knight are generally superior in the endgame to Queen and Bishop. However, this advantage dissipates proportionally to how many pawns have been taken off the board. In a Q + R vs. Q + 2 minors, trading Queens in the endgame hurts two minor pieces and helps the Rook. Two Bishops and Knight is often superior to two Rooks, but not two Knights and one Bishop vs. two Rooks.

Buy this book!
 
  

 

 

 

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