Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pump Up Your Rating: Unlock Your Chess Potential by Axel Smith

 When I noticed this book with its kind of silly title and promise to unlock hidden potential, my first question was, who is Axel Smith?! 
     It turns out Axel Smith is an International Master who boosted his rating from 2093 to 2458 within just two years. That's pretty good. Then, when I thought about it, the thought occurred that maybe Smith is some kind of prodigy so maybe the pumping up of HIS rating was only natural. It turns out Smith (born 1986), from Lund. Sweden, was not a prodigy. In 2006 he decided to focus on improving his chess after he won the Swedish junior championship and he was awarded his IM title in 2008. In January 2006 Smith's rating was a modest 2093, but then by January 2008 it was over 2450. After that his progress slowed, but at that level that's natural. 
     What player wouldn't be thrilled over a 365 rating point jump in two years? Still, there are some unanswered questions and some things about his training that Smith appears to have left out of the book. He put in a LOT of hours and, oh, by the way, former SuperGM Ulf Andersson was his coach. It never hurts to be able to study 8 hours a day and have a GM on staff to coach you. 
     Smith recommends something he dubs the "Woodpecker Method" for learning tactics. It's Michael de la Maza's debunked approach for learning tactics but with a new name. You get yourself a a set of puzzles and keep working them until the patterns are firmly imprinted in your brain. The difference is that Smith demands more than de la Maza did. He advocates that you need to analyze all the variations when you repeat a problem rather than just recognizing the first move from memory. He starts you out with a set of positions for you to work through, but for most players they are probably way too complicated. Besides all that, who has time to work through a thousand of those puzzles a day?! If you worked at chess 8 hours a day that's 125 puzzles an hour, or about 30 seconds each. 
     Some of his advice IS good, in fact excellent, but it must be remembered that, like almost all chess books, it contains a healthy dose of crap. Smith studied and played tournament chess over ten years, analyzed games with paid coaches, including GM Andersson and read a boat load of chess books. Personally, I'd venture a guess that Ulf Andersson probably had a LOT to with his improvement, but we'll never know because he conveniently leaves that information out. 
     So, what if you don't have the time to do all that woodpeckering and can only study a couple hours a week and can't afford a GM coach, or don't want one? Is there anything of merit in the book? Yes! 
     While it seems the book is intended for a 2000+ player it can definitely be beneficial to lower rated players and it has some very interesting ideas. It might be too hard for anyone below 1500 though and no matter what, that old bugaboo of chess players, hard work, is going to be required. 
     Smith covers opening preparation, middlegame play and endings and offers advice on how to practice and improve. He divides the book into two parts, first he covers strategy and thinking and then in the last half of the book, he offers advice on training. 
     For example, in Chapter One he discusses “No Pawn Lever – No Plan” by which he means Pawn breaks.  Andersson’s games were used as his models as seen Chapter Two where he discusses different types of exchanges and material imbalances. 
     Chapters Three and Four deal with thinking and calculation. For example, he offers a list of questions to ask yourself when calculating and one of the most important is to ask if the position is critical. He also explains what a critical position is. In Chapter Four he offers up a “method” for calculating. The truth apparently is that methods advocated by Kotov, Mark Buckley and others aren't really used by strong players. GM Andy Soltis confessed that despite all the different methods being advocated, in reality GM's skip around all over the place like everyone else. 
     In Part Two Smith offers a training program for improvement, supposedly it's the program that helped him jump from around 2100 to IM in two years. There's really nothing new in his program. He recommends: 

1) analyzing your games and making a list of mistakes
2) using a De la Maza method to study tactics 
3) doing serious opening study using ChessBase 
4) mastering approximately 100 key endgames. 

     He also recommends finding yourself a training partner because he believes that will likely offer the best chance of improving. That may be hard for a lot of players though. Living here in the city of Butt Crack, I would be hard pressed to find a training partner who would be interested in serious study and even if I did, their schedule isn't like to be compatible with mine. 
     Smith also discusses the use of engines in training. Like everyone else, Smith advises against initially analyzing your games using an engine. Analyze them on your own first then go over them with your training partner (if you have one) and only then check them with an engine. 
     Then make a list of mistakes you have been making, Honestly, I think about the only list you can make is 1) tactical errors. Really, how many non-masters will know about positional errors, incorrect positional evaluations or understand why they lost a complicated ending?
     Speaking of endings. Smith says you learn endgames by playing them and then analyzing them and he gives about a hundred endgames to memorize (which you can download). He says you study these endings once and after that, you need to review them annually. His memory is clearly better than mine! 
     All in all, it's clear that Smith has a passion for chess and he's a good writer, but in all honesty, the methods he gives are perhaps too ambitious for the average working stiff who has to devote time to work, family and life in general. It's also probably too much for an aging brain to absorb, too. But, that said, Smith offers a blueprint for improvement that one can probably modify to fit their schedule. 
     I can recommend this book to those that want to improve, but with two caveats: 1) Remember that Smith was working with a GM coach and 2) Don't expect to see a 400 point gain in your rating.

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