Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Point Count Chess by Horowitz and Mott-Smith

Looking over the USCF’s books for sale page this recently republished book caught my eye.

      This edition is by Ishi Press which, according to Wikipedia, was founded in Japan in the 1990's and was the world's leading supplier of Go books and equipment until they got embroiled in legal difficulties and were unable to pay their debts.  Sam Sloan became president in 1994 and has restored the company and expanded into publishing chess books.  I have the original edition published 45 years ago by Simon and Sshuster.
       According to the publisher, “This book is based on the following premise: Every move on the chessboard is an exchange, a give and take. The very first move, if it is a pawn move, for example, gives away control of the squares that the pawn had previously commanded and takes control of new squares. Similarly at any stage of the game, there is implicit in every move a plus and minus quality. To be sure, these differences of themselves are usually minute and carry little weight. When combined in series of inter-related moves – plans – their effect is to sway the course of the game. Pawn skeletons, chains, salients and other basic features of this valuable unit are compared structurally as to strengths and weaknesses. Outpost stations, wing demonstrations and a host of strategic ideas are described, appraised via the Point Count and illustrated in numerous examples from actual play.”
       “This book was greeted with calumny and ridicule when it first came out. However, there has been a re-appraisal. Chess coaches have found this book to be great for teaching chess to their students. It is now highly recommended by a large number of chess coaches and trainers. Computer chess programs have also adopted the concepts introduced in this book. Chess Review magazine called this book "a completely original concept in chess instruction."
      Personally, I never heard of a chess coach that recommended this book, but I could be wrong. The basic premise of the book is based on the old saying that "three tempi are worth a Pawn" and you simply count up the ‘points’ to evaluate the position. The idea is that every positional advantage is worth one-third of a Pawn. For example, if you get a Bishop pair, but get a doubled Pawn, it is an even trade. But if you get doubled, isolated Pawns on an open file you have lost two points, etc.  Somehow chess just doesn't seem that simple.  Still, that is basically the way chess engines evaluate positions.
       Included in the book is a Positional Point Count Table listing 20 positional advantages worth "plus points" and positional disadvantages for which you subtract points. Credit yourself for every item on the plus list and deduct for every one on the minus list. Do the same for your opponent's position. Then compare his net score with yours. The difference measures the strategic superiority.  I suppose the concept has some value, but to be honest, as a 1600-rated player in those days, I found all this adding and subtracting ‘points’ much too cumbersome and impractical to be of any value. Besides, it’s about the same as looking at an engine evaluation that tells you “White is 0.42 pawns ahead.”  You know you have a slight advantage, but then what do you do?  This point count method won't give you a clue.

       Samuel Reshevsky wrote the forward to the original edition which appeared in 1960.  Reshevsky wrote:
       “When I was a child prodigy many years ago, chessplayers were amazed at the ease and accuracy of my play against the veritable giants of chessdom. To be perfectly frank, I was no less amazed, and I have thought about this over and over again. What was it that I had which has been variously described as talent or genius or the divine afflatus which enabled me to select the proper move or line in a given situation? The answer to this question, of course, should prove enlightening. I discovered that I had the happy faculty of being able to spot weak and strong points in a position merely by a glance at its contour. Having done so, I could go on to the next step and enhance my strong points, while surveying my weak ones and/or contain my opponent’s strong points and exploit his weak ones."
      "I fear that I cannot account for this fortuitous bounty. I do know, however, that the foundation of chess logic is the perception of weak and strong points on the board or projected a few moves from possibility to reality. Point Count Chess exactly coincides with my reflections on this matter. Not only does it define the salient features, but also it evaluates them. It is unique in the annals of chess literature in that it is the first and only book that does so. Indeed, it is a great stride forward in bringing the essential ideas to the ordinary player.”
      Were those actually Reshevsky’s words or was it ghost written and he lent his name to them…for a fee, of course?  I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like Reshevsky to me. Does this book exactly coincide with his reflections on the matter?  Who knows?
       Following the first chapter describing the method the authors discuss of strategy, but in my opinion there are much better strategy books out there. Also, the publisher did not convert the book to algebraic notion; it’s still in English Descriptive. As I recall the book did not help me one bit when it first came out and I doubt it will help you either.  Buy something else.

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