Friday, January 18, 2013

Simple Chess by Michael Stean

I found this post in my blog 'drafts' section and realized I never published it!   This is something I should have shared long ago and I hope someone finds some value in my recommendation.  (KT - 2013).

In my in opinion Michael Stean's Simple Chess is easily the best chess primer I've ever read. In point of fact, it's the only chess primer that I've ever read cover to cover and that is exactly my point! Why didn't anyone tell me about this book when I was first learning?

In order to explain why I think this book is so great, I need to explain what happened to me during my initial years playing the game. I started late at chess, having learned little more than the rules before starting to play more regularly in high school. My only opponents in high school were similar late bloomers. Most of us were good students, we thought we were pretty bright, so I took great satisfaction in edging them out over the board. Of course, I think one of the main reasons I started playing better than my friends is that I actually put some work into getting better, where they were mostly content to wing it.

I played a lot of blitz chess with my friend Ben and his older brother, Dan. Dan used to drive me crazy playing this pseudo Fool's Mate opening and so my life long addiction for chess opening books (I own nearly 100 of them and have read probably 5% of the pages!) began with Modern Chess Openings. Much to my chagrin, Dan's opening was deemed to be unplayable by the authorities, apparently, so I never did get much benefit from MCO (clearly I never learned from my experience, though).

So I eventually turned to Nimzovitch's My System. I recall reading somewhere that Petrosian slept with My System under his pillow, but I found it unbearably dense and never had the confidence that I could actually get through a comprehensive reading of it. Sure, I used it as sort of a reference tool, but I never made an honest study of it.

If only I had known about Simple Chess! I think the title of a book is wonderfully apropos. Chess is not a simple game. But in order to play an unfathomably complicated game, the human mind needs an approach. We need some way to organize our thoughts. We need to know what to focus our attention on and some way to think concretely about a position which sits at head of an exponentially expansive tree of possibilities.

What should that guiding approach be? Well for many positions the answer is, in fact, simple. The pawn structure is the roadmap for the game. Every pawn move is at once revolutionary and irreversible. Each pawn move weakens some squares, strengthens some squares, vacates as square and occupies a square. A good chess player must make his decisions based on the pawn structure or the future pawn structure. Everything about positional chess derives from this concept. Simple chess uses this conceptual framework to explain many of the tenets of positional chess in clear, simple prose, with perfectly selected games and examples.

Each of the short chapters takes some concept and deepens our understanding of it beyond face-value assertion. I will give one perfect example of how this book really bridges the gap between things you hear are good in chess and real application of the concepts at the board: Every beginner knows that rooks belong on open files. But open files are two way roads which can turn against you if you aren't prepared. In Simple Chess, Stean points out that the main purpose of having a rook on an open file is to penetrate with it to the 7th or 8th rank or to invade with other pieces on the squares you control along the file. Therefore a rook on an open file is only really useful if your opponent doesn't control at least one of the invasion squares. Likewise if you can control the squares on your side of the open file, your opponent will have difficult doing anything constructive with it, even if he has the rook there first!

That was a relatively easy one to explain, but he does a great job with other more advanced concepts like white-square/dark-square strategies, how to play with a space advantage, etc.

The only thing that would make things a little better for this book is if there were fewer typographical errors (be sure to check the comments on Amazon or google to find the minor errors) and if there were a companion workbook or exercises manual.

Caissa Chess

One of my most memorable courses in college was an introduction to evolutionary biology taught by the late Stephen Jay Gould.  What I enjoyed most about the course wasn't the biology itself, but rather his powerful and unique essay style.  One of his commonly used  essay strategies (and his essays were aimed mainly a popular audience, not professional biologists) was to draw in his audience by finding connections between seemingly unrelated topics (e.g. baseball, or his personal life history) and concepts of evolutionary biology.  Seemingly serendipitous links between esoteria like the disappearance of the .400 batter in baseball and the Adaptation vs. Progress evolutionary 'debate' abound in his works, serving to draw in his readers and triggering a creative/contemplative/curious state of mind which is ideal for learning.

A couple months ago my kids watched a National Geographic special on Charles Darwin.  Later we were chatting and somehow we got around to the topic of how Darwin came up with his theories.  I explained what I could remember about his visits to the Galapagos Islands and how his theories were imagined to explain the occurrence of adaptive radiation in finches.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was born from his struggle to explain how a single ancestral species of finches could give rise to multiple species of finches that exploited different environmental niches.  He posited that this ancestral finch species arrived in the Galapagos and after a million or so years of survival of the fittest adaptive pressure and isolation, we ended up with finches that have differing beak structures to exploit the relative abundance of different types of food in various locales.

An opposite phenomena is called convergence which is when different species take on similar physical forms due to adaptive pressures to survive in similar niches.  The canonical example of this are birds and bats (and pterodactyls and maybe flying squirrels and flying fish!) all developing wings for flight.

And so I come to the Caissa Chess Club which has seemingly sprung from thin air on a small island off the coast of Hong Kong, much like the varied finches of Darwinian fame.  Caissa has in very short order begun to serve the chess community of Discovery Bay and to some extend the city at large as a casual club, organised training facility and tournament organiser.

Of course I say this in jest, as the club's emergence has nothing to do with evolutionary forces, but rather the vision and hard work of it's founder, Mr. Garceran (and his talented children).

Nevertheless it pleases me to see this group flourishing and creating brand new opportunities for youth and adults in Hong Kong to enjoy the royal game.  If anyone needs any information about chess in the country, Mr. Garceran has kindly consolidated information about upcoming tournaments and playing opportunities and I would encourage anyone to visit the club's site.

We ourselves visited the club recently for the first Discovery Bay Blitz Tournament which Richie was fortunate to come away with a top youth prize.

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