Friday, December 28, 2012

The Ubiquitous Smirnov Chess Courses

     It seems I keep running into Smirnov's spam-like advertisements for his chess courses.  To me, the ads themselves look over-hyped and sleazy, but I admit to being a skeptic when it comes to a lot of things.  It appears he runs an affiliate program paying commissions to those who refer customers his way. Add that to the fact that my Webroot Anti-virus warns against visiting the site makes the whole thing look suspicious.  In regards to this warning, one forum poster wrote that the course he bought caused his anti-virus program to quarantine the main menu program but he was still able to run the individual components. 
      I have searched a lot of forums just to get a diverse opinion of people who have actually tried the program and have made an effort to avoid “testimonials” that looked to me like they were presented by shills. i.e. satisfied customers used to dupe folks into participating in a swindle.  In regards to this last point, one poster commented, “…the less savvy consumer (will believe) all recommendations to be an affiliate 'shill' for the seller...when in fact, the possibility does exist that he could just provide good products.”
     So, I decided to go on a search of the chess forums to see is anyone has actually bought any of Smirnov’s course and more importantly, to see if they have actually helped anybody improve.  What follows is a compilation of answers to the question of how good are the courses and I will let the reader be the judge of the merits of the programs.

... his marketing strategy looks very sleazy, and yet he delivers just what he advertises.
Since he offers a money back guarantee there doesn't seem to be any risk involved.
I have seen positive reviews from strong players.
      What I can say is that Smirnov's materials helped my thinking process and improved the clarity of my understanding and planning/move selection, and also helped me to explain things better in classes and in lessons. I wish I had his courses in 1997 or 1998.
     And for levels between beginner to 1800 I stand by my observation that there is little difference between Smirnov and Heisman…

Smirnov is very clear…
     One other mistake that is easy to pick up from almost any instructional writer is the "balanced" training schedule: You need to work on endgames, openings, attack and defense, strategy, calculation etc. to get good…But then none of it is likely to stick…I've never seen anyone else being as explicit about avoiding this trap as Smirnov is.
     The program has changed my idea of what a good training process should be though: Focus on one isolated skill at a time, and train it (to a higher level) until it becomes more or less automatic. In the past I've spent too much time trying to do a bit of everything, with little progress.
…I have Smirnov's course: "The Grandmaster's Secrets" and I found it simple to understand and very practical.
     I have bought FOUR of GM Smirnov's courses, and have not regretted them at all. I have just (got) a performance which will probably boost my rating by almost 200 points, getting me to the clear expert level.
     His base course the GM secrets explain how to study chess properly and get fast results
…I recently purchased Smirnov's course, the Grandmaster's Positional Understanding and I am not disappointed with the material.
… Smirnov presents the material in an instructive, methodical, and easy to understand manner.
…As a novice, I sought a deeper understanding of why moves are made and was discontented with rote learning. This course has definitely assisted in understanding the thought processes involved in making moves.
…if the cost is something that will not lead to a default on your car payment, then I do recommend it….
     There is one friend of mine…who…used this course as his only teaching aid and he got to a rating of 1800 in a bit more than one year.
     If you ask me, I'll say it's definitely good stuff!
     I liked his endgame course…pretty simple ideas but they helped me playing endgames like a 2200.
     I bought some of his courses and I do think they're helpful.

I'm not too impressed, BUT I have to admit I have not done the exercises!
Passive listening and looking will not make you a better chess player.
      Nothing Smirnov says is new or secret or presented in some mind blowing innovative way…
     Has it changed (my) chess in a positive way? The honest answer has to be "no". I believe the only fair way to judge is by results, and I've had a few good tournaments but also one really bad one that canceled out my previous rating gains.
     I've done his opening course and I have to say I thought it was a complete waste of money… after this I didn't think it would be worth buying anything else from him.
     I have bought the Grandmaster Secrets course.I'm not impressed.It consist of 5 short video lesson (about 20-30 minutes each), and 11 game tasks. Every task consists of about 5 games to study. For each of the games are there annotated games with solutions by Smirnov.
…I have not found anything new, which I haven't read before.
     (Smirnov) explains that chess players who heard his videos and did not improve simply refused to do some exercises because they think that they do not need it and that it is one of the reasons that adults fail to improve in chess.

One final comment that seems to apply to all instruction whether from books, videos or a chess coach: This video/lesson did not help me, but I did not do the hard work he requested.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Correspondence Chess in America by Bryce Avery

      Published March, 2000 by McFarland & Company, Inc.  McFarland has published several books on chess.  They do an absolutely beautiful job but the books are a little on the pricey side.  Well, actually a lot on the pricey side, but I got this book as a gift for Christmas, so cost was not an issue.
      Avery begins by devoting the first chapters to American correspondence chess history up to the early 1970's with most of the focus on the Correspondence Chess League of America.  Actually, the whole book is mostly a detailed history of the CCLA, but the fact that Avery is the historian of the CCLA would account for that.
      Based on a few minor errors of fact it would appear that the post-1970s era has not been quite so well researched.
      I would like to have seen more coverage of Al Horowitz’ Chess Review tournaments, US Chess Federation CC (though theirs is basically a continuation of Horowitz’ efforts) and the American Postal Chess Tournaments (APCT).
      Avery also covered some of the reasons why US players had a lot of trouble in international events back in the old post card days.  I can sympathize with these problems.  Years ago I entered an ICCF event at what today would be about the expert level and distinctly remember two particularly dastardly acts on the part of players who were in those days referred to as behind the Iron Curtain. 
     One was against a Russian. We got assignments about 30 days before the official start of the tournament and were allowed to begin play.  I mailed 1.d4 and never heard anything so when the official start date arrived I sent a repeat.  30 days later I got a letter from the East German TD informing me that I had lost on forfeit.  I composed a nice reply in German giving the details then had it checked by a native German-speaker just to make sure it was correct and all; never heard from the TD.  There was a similar incident against an East German opponent.  We played a few moves and I quit hearing from him.  Repeats were unanswered and in a couple of months I got a notice I had forfeited that game also.  Of course my reply to protest was unanswered.  In the words of my Swedish opponent, “Something is rotten.”  Avery described several similar incidents with other  US CC players. I also had a Canadian opponent who worked on a pipeline north of the Arctic Circle who said they flew his mail in about every two weeks.  After a year and 10-12 moves we agreed to a draw.  I never played international CC again using postcards.
     Where was I?  Oh, yeah; the Avery book.  Avery then does a very good presentation of the US World Correspondence Chess Champions Hans Berliner and Victor Palciauskas.
     There are also four appendices detailing the history of correspondence play in the United States, a bibliography and indexes of openings, players and general. The book contains 233 lightly annotated games and a very few OTB games that have a connection to CC.
     The fact that the book is really not a history of correspondence chess in America but of the CCLA is, in my opinion, a serious drawback, but that has not in any way reduced my enjoyment of the book.  But, would I recommend it? The games are interesting because it shows even unknown players were capable of playing some beautiful games given enough time.  But…unless you are specifically interested in the CCLA and have a wad of extra cash you don’t know what to do with, save your money.  On the other hand, if you can get it free as a gift like I did, it’s a great book.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Houdini 3

       Houdini 3 contains many evaluation and search improvements in all phases of the game and is claimed to be about 50 Elo stronger than Houdini 2.
      It has  been programmed for improvements in the the opening. These improvements are based on increased piece activity and space management and are demonstrated by its performance Fischer Random Chess. In the middle game Houdini 3 has significant enhancements for recognizing pieces with limited mobility and in king-side safety. In end games Houdini 3 will seek deeper and solve more positions than before.
       Recently Houdini 3 played long matches against Houdini 2.0c, Stockfish 2.3.1 and Komodo 5. Each match consisted of 120 games at 90 min + 30 sec/move with the overall results that Houdini 3 scored 62%. In the Tactical Mode Houdini 3 will adapt its search strategy to prefer tactical solutions rather than positional moves in the root position which supposedly makes it the most proficient tactical position solver ever. The Accelerated Principal Variation Search or “Smart Fail-High” is especially useful in very deep analysis when a different move becomes best at very high search depth. Hash usage has been optimized and it will now support hash tables up to 256 GB.
       Another major area of improvement is the engine evaluations have been recalibrated so that +1.00 pawn advantage gives a 80% chance of winning the game against an equal opponent at blitz time control. At +2.00 the engine will win 95% of the time, and at +3.00 about 99% of the time. If the advantage is +0.50, expect to win nearly 50% of the time. For further discussion of Houdini 3 visit their Facebook page.
     If you prefer...the Aquarium interface:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Only Chess Books You Will Ever Need (?)

According to USCF Life Master and chess instructor Alan Goldsby this list of books are the only ones the beginner will ever need.
1.       Chess Fundamentals by Capablanca
2.      Complete Chess Player by Reinfeld
3.      Logical Chess Move by Move by Chernev
4.      The Amateur’s Mind by Silman
5.      The Art of Attack in Chess by Vukovic
6.      The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Fine
7.      The Most Instructive Games Ever Played by Chernev
8.     Modern Chess Openings by De Firmian
9.      Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy by Watson
10.  The Road to Chess Improvement by Yermolinsky
11.   Pawn Structure Chess by Soltis
12.  Zurich International Chess Tournament by Bronstein
13.  Winning Chess Ending by Seirawan
If I were to take exception to his list it would be to eliminate Modern Chess Openings. Fine’s Ideas Behind the Openings is now in the public domain and can be downloaded free from a number of sources.  While the lines in Fine’s book are badly out dated, the IDEAS still remain valid.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Best Sellers on Amazon

I checked out the best sellers on Amazon and here is their top 25 best selling chess books. It is interesting because 7 of the books are aimed at juniors. Surprisingly, there is only one book on tactics; I would have thought that with the popularity of people on forums advocating the study of tactics, the number would have been higher. Maybe they prefer to use tactics servers instead. On the other hand several of the best sellers are strategy books; maybe the pendulum is swinging the other way? Only one book on endings (bad) and two books on openings (good).

1.Chess for Children by Murray Chandler, Helen Milligan 4.7 out of 5 stars
2.How to Beat Your Dad at Chess by Murray Chandler 4.2 out of 5 stars
3.Chess Tactics for Kids by Murray Chandler 4.7 out of 5 stars
4.Checkmate!: My First Chess Book by Garry Kasparov 4.5 out of 5 stars
5.The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin 4.3 out of 5 stars
6.Tactics Time! 1001 Chess Tactics from the Games of Everyday Chess Players Tim Brennan, Anthea Carson 4.7 out of 5 stars
7.The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin 4.3 out of 5 stars
8.Practical Chess Exercises: 600 Lessons from Tactics to Strategy by Ray Cheng 4.0 out of 5 stars
9.Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer, Stuart Margulies, Don Mosenfelder 3.5 out of 5 stars – I have seen this book and unless you are an absolute beginner pass on it.
10. The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster by Tim Crothers 4.7 out of 5 stars - Sounds weird.
11.Chess is Child's Play: Teaching Techniques That Work by Laura Sherman, Bill Kilpatrick 4.9 out of 5 stars
12.How to Reassess Your Chess, Fourth edition by Jeremy Silman 4.6 out of 5 stars – A classic…wish I’d had it 40 years ago.
13.Learn Chess by John Nunn 4.7 out of 5 stars – Anything Nunn writes is good.
14.Chess For Dummies by James Eade 4.5 out of 5 stars – I’ve seen this in bookstores; I’d pass.

15.Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner to Master by Jeremy Silman 4.6 out of 5 stars – Anything Silman writes is good.
16.Complete Book of Chess Strategy: Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z by Jeremy Silman – Anything Silman writes is good. 4.0 out of 5 stars
17.Power Chess for Kids: Learn How to Think Ahead and Become One of the Best Players in Your School by Charles Hertan 4.3 out of 5 stars
18.The Mammoth Book of Chess by Graham Burgess, John Nunn 4.4 out of 5 stars – Thanks to National Master Vieira of Portugal for pointing out that I had this book confused with another one of Nunn's books.  This one is a book on general instruction. 
19.The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery by Jeremy Silman – Anything Silman writes is good. 4.1 out of 5 stars
20.Modern Chess Openings, 15th Edition by Nick De Firmian 3.3 out of 5 stars – This book has outlived its usefulness. If you are looking for a general overview of openings you can get better information on the Internet. If you intend to play a specific opening buy a book on that opening. I have been buying the latest edition of MCO since the 9th edition and have used this one only on very rare occasions. Even with limited use all tha pages are falling out.
21.The Powerful Catalan: A Complete Repertoire for White by Victor Bologan Publication Date: December 16, 2012
22.Play Winning Chess by Yasser Seirawan 4.5 out of 5 stars – Seirawan is another of those authors you can’t go wrong with.
23.Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman, Allen S. Russell 4.4 out of 5 stars – This was the book that I used to study the middlegame many years ago. It’s and abridged edition of Pachman’s original opus and is good for an overview of how the pieces and Pawns are best used. A good book, but I think Silman’s books have expanded on Pachman’s work, so I’s buy them instead.
24.Chess for Juniors: A Complete Guide for the Beginner by Robert M. Snyder 4.9 out of 5 stars - Snyder was a great teacher...these days he's probably teaching chess in prison. But maybe not; I've heard they don't cotton to pedophiles in prison.
25.What It Takes to Become a Chess Master by Andrew Soltis 4.6 out of 5 stars – I like Andy Soltis and his books are always interesting.

A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer

      Fischer's ascent to the pinnacle of chess genius and brilliance was rapidly followed by his psychological decline into social isolation, paranoia, and likely mental illness. A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer: Understanding the Genius, Mystery, and Psychological Decline of a World Chess Champion makes an effort to understand the inner workings of Fischer’s mind by examining the genetic, personal, family, cultural, and political factors that provide a window into the why of Fischer’s genius and bizarre behavior.  Counseling psychologist and author Dr. Joseph G. Ponterotto deconstructs almost every aspect of Fischer s personal and career life to form a psychological profile.  This book claims to be the first scholarly psychological assessment of the world s most famous chess champion.
      Among the topics addressed in the current volume are Bobby s early family environment and his natural intellectual gifts that predisposed him to genius in chess. Critical to understanding Bobby s personality development is his relationship with his mother Regina Fischer and his sister Joan Fischer, as well as his relationship to his likely biological father, Paul Felix Nemenyi. These topics are explored in-depth and the impact of these relationships on Bobby s psychological development is highlighted. Bobby s later-life internal mental state -- his mistrust, anger, and hatred of Jews is explored and the origins of this affective state are closely examined.
      Dr. Ponterotto also provides the first, carefully and cautiously sculpted psychological autopsy of Bobby Fischer relying on modern psychological assessment procedures. Of interest will be a full chapter comparing the genius and mental health challenges of Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer. This book also explores the topic of the prevalence of mental illness among elite chess players, and provides a critical review of the research on the potential relationship between creativity and vulnerability to mental illness.
      Finally, Dr. Ponterotto outlines counseling and psychotherapy interventions that very likely could have helped Bobby throughout his life. The book includes 10 chapters and tables, figures, and family genograms, as well as appendices providing extensive detail on the life of Bobby Fischer and family. Finally, the book includes some original family photos never before published.

Monday, December 3, 2012

ChessBase 12

ChessBase is the database program which has become the world-wide standard and the advertisement says version 12 comes with a wealth of fantastic new analysis and search features.

The main advertising feature is cloud-based analysis with Fritz 13. The idea is that if someone else has already analyzed the position before you, you can download and make use of their analysis. How valuable this is to the average player is open to debate.

One commentator who owned both ChessBase 11 and Aquarium 2011 made the same comment I did concerning Aquarium and it IDeA function:  “…the IDeA part of it in particular is WAY too complicated for what one might get out of it...unless you are a chess monk with no life. Seriously, check out the Rybka/Aquarium forums before you purchase. THOSE people…are basically the ones who get something out of it...most people are not so dedicated and have given up…. Chessbase is pretty intuitive.”

New in ChessBase 12:
“Deep analysis” generates a dynamic tree of variations. Leave the analysis running as long as you want. The longer the running time, the more reliable the variations displayed. Variations which do not hold up at the greater depth of calculation are automatically excluded. The result is commentary containing analysis of the important candidate moves.”

This feature is an improvement over the deep position analysis function in Fritz, because you can stop the analysis and when you restart it, the engine picks up where it left off.  In the case of deep position analysis, once you stop it, all analysis is lost.

Cloud analysis is a deep analysis done by several engines working in parallel, which saves an enormous amount of time. With the new Fritz, you can purchase time on other peoples’ computers or sell time on your own.

One nice feature is the “Similarity search.” In ChessBase 12 endings and middlegame positions can now be looked for and displayed classified according to their similarity to the position on the board.  The value of this is obvious.  For example, finding positions with a similar P-structure could be very useful.

There is also an online player encyclopedia with Elo ratings, upgraded throughout the year.  The “Lets Check” gives access the world’s largest database of in-depth analysis.

The basic package sell for $234 ($130 if downloaded)
Access to ChessBase Online Database (over 6.4 million games)
Premium membership on (1 year)
Big Database 2013
Games download until 31st December 2013
Access to ChessBase Online Database (over 6.4 million games)
Access to “Let’s Check” and “Engine Cloud”
Half a Year’s subscription to ChessBase Magazine (3 issues)

Mega package ($351)
Mega Database 2013
Games download until 31st December 2013
Access to ChessBase Online Database (over 6.4 million games)*
Access to “Let’s Check” and “Engine Cloud”
Year’s subscription to ChessBase Magazine (6 issues)

Premium package ($481)
Premium membership on (1 year)
Mega Database 2013
Games download until 31st December 2013
Access to ChessBase Online Database (over 6.4 million games)*
Access to “Let’s Check” and “Engine Cloud”
Year’s subscription to ChessBase Magazine
Corr Database 2013
Endgame Turbo 3 (9 DVDs)

For most players I would think the basic package would be more than sufficient to meet their needs.  As for the other packages, unless you are a geek that simply wants the latest and greatest software or a titled player who needs to keep up with the latest trends or are a correspondence player of the top level who uses dedicated computers to analyze, they seem to offer more “stuff” than most of us will ever need. 

For 99.9 percent of us, free programs and engines will be more than sufficient.  I use Fritz 12 with Houdini 1.5, but that’s only because I found Fritz at Office Max for $20 otherwise I would use the free Arena or SCID.