16 February 2013

Book completed - Practical Middlegame Techniques

Today I completed Practical Middlegame Techniques by IM Danny Kopec with FM Rudy Blumenfeld (Cadogan, 1997, First Edition).  There was a second edition released in 2012, with a considerably expanded page count (242 pages versus the original 128) that is referenced in the above link; all comments here pertain to the first edition.

I would liken the effects of working through this book to drinking a large cup of coffee and taking a multivitamin.  It's not going to improve your chess the same way as a full-course meal would, but it should give anyone Class B and below a relatively quick and permanent boost to their understanding and skills.  Although the book is slim, it is content-rich and took me a fairly long time to work through.  (This was in fact my third attempt to do it.)  I'll take the fact I completed it now as a positive sign of my commitment to training, rather than bemoaning my previous laziness.

The contents are divided into three chapters:
  • Chapter 1: Essential Tactical Methods presents a series of common (and not-so-common) mating patterns and then some increasingly complex examples incorporating them.  The chapter moves on to define and illustrate different types of material gain combinations and then finishes with a series of more complex combinations incorporating different themes.
  • Chapter 2: Pawn Structures and How To Use Them, as the authors acknowledge, draws heavily on Dr. Hans Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess, but then again so do most other books on the topic.  The presentation of pawn structures and how to use different types of "levers" (perhaps best described as pawn advances with a specific purpose, usually challenging another pawn) is concisely done and dispenses with most of Kmoch's weird vocabulary.
  • Chapter 3: The Conditions and Methods for Attacking the King focuses on attacking play and presents some typical maneuvers used, along with identifying the conditions under which they can be used.   
I fit the profile for the best target audience for the book, which would be an intermediate-level player who is self-taught and can benefit most from exposure to the structured concepts in each section.  Someone who has already done years worth of mating and combination study would not find anything new in Chapter 1, although the mating pattern list is probably the best single reference that I've seen on the topic.  I haven't had that kind of rigorous exposure to tactics training, so I significantly benefited from the explanation and examples of mating and other tactical themes.

Similarly, Chapter 2 may not surprise anyone who already has some exposure to the positional concepts of pawn play, but I found the discussion of pawn structures and their static and dynamic qualities to be well worth the time. The examples given, largely game fragments but also including some complete games, were all well-chosen.  For me, I found the illustrations of the "sweeper-sealer" lever (sacrificing a pawn to free its square for a piece), minority attack and techniques for shielding backward pawns to be the most valuable.

Chapter 3 I found to be worthwhile, but more uneven.  The first two parts were the most enlightening, including examinations of things like how to use a space advantages in the attack and particular cases of this advantage such as when White possesses an advanced pawn on e5.  Separate sections focusing on the rook lift maneuver and exchange sacrifice on the long diagonal also were especially useful.  The last part of the chapter ("Radical Approaches") introduces sections on the king hunt, major material sacrifices, and concentration of forces.  Here the examples given struck me as not being as clearly illustrative of the concepts as those in previous chapters.

The wide range of games and game fragments presented in the book is one of its strengths.  They include some classic examples from earlier 20th century play, examples from the authors' games, and selections from more modern and contemporary international tournament practice.  Kopec's annotations are concise and helpful, although there is a lot of "...and wins" type commentary when presenting variations.  It is primarily for this reason that I would say the book is best suited for intermediate players (Class B/C) who will be able to work out some of the tactics not explicitly given in the text.  Of course, this is the case whenever you work through annotated games, so the book is not unique in that respect.

As someone looking for the proverbial shot in the arm for their middlegame technique, I found the time put into the book to be worthwhile and will return to it for reference and to refresh my memory and understanding in the future.

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