Coach Yourself, Neil McDonald, Everyman Chess, ISBN 9781781945124, 304pp., Paperback $28.95; Ebook $21.95
Neil McDonald became a grandmaster in 1996 and a FIDE trainer in 2017. He is a regular coach of the England Junior team at international events. McDonald has written numerous books on openings, endgames, tactics and strategy as well as biographies of famous players. This is at least his twenty-fourth book for Everyman Chess. He lives in Gravesend in Kent, England.
Here is how Coach Yourself is described on the publishers website:
“Many players are serious about their chess but become stuck at a certain playing strength. It’s rarely a lack of talent or practice or opening knowledge that holds them back. Usually they get left behind because they don’t know how to make best use of the time they have available to study chess.
“This book addresses this problem and is your self-improvement plan. It shows you how to work on your own games to root out mistakes. It will sharpen your calculation of variations. You will be challenged to find the best middlegame strategy. Endgame technique is also covered in detail. All topics are discussed with numerous examples and puzzles from the games of modern players such as Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Viswanathan Anand. If you want your chess to leap forward it’s time to Coach Yourself!
- A complete self-improvement programme.
- All aspects of the game included.
- Utilizes a structured approach, making the most of your study time.”
The main content is divided as follows:
- Immunizing Yourself Against Blunders
- Training Your Tactical Imagination
- Teaching Yourself to Calculate
- Judging the Right Moment to Use a Combination
- Supercharging Your Feel for the Initiative
- Know Yourself: Diagnosing Positional Mistakes
- Learn How to Shut a Piece out of the Game
- Getting Full Value from Your King
- Wearing Down the Opponent’s Pawn Structure
- Practice Planning on a Grand Scale
- Mastering Pawn Breakthroughs in Endgames
- Understanding the Essentials of the Endgame
- Making Good Opening Choices
McDonald writes “The aim of this book is to show you everything you need to be working on to become a better player. Tactics, strategy, and the endgame are covered in detail, and you are offered guidance on subjects such as calculation, analysing your games, and choosing your openings.” He suggests Coach Yourself “is meant to get you thinking and pushing forwards at the limits of your understanding.”
For instance, “There is a limit to what is humanly possible and factors such as time pressure and anxiety – or its opposite, overoptimism – make perfection even less likely. Unless your opponent puts up no resistance you are surely going to overlook some things, even in games you win. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone makes ‘inexplicable’ oversights. Instead of kicking yourself during a game for missing something, accept this as an inevitable part of chess.” He writes “I hope you also develop the habit of solving puzzles. A few a day could make all the difference.” To this end we feel compelled to recommend our Trial by Tactics feature here at ChessCafe.com.
Let’s look at two examples from Chapter Three, “Teaching Yourself to Calculate.” Both from the games of former world champion Viswanathan Anand:
Most of the time players are focusing on their plans. As they carry them out they might look a couple of moves ahead to make sure they aren’t going to fall for any of the traps outlined earlier in this book. Similarly, they will be alert to any unexpected tactical chances if their opponent slips up. But the emphasis is on the role of calculation, if it occurs at all, as a kind of blunder check. It reassures them that the path they are taking is a safe one. That changes when we reach scenarios like those discussed in the previous chapters. Tactical sparks begin to fly when the two armies are locked in close combat. The pieces will fight to the death to defend their king and will employ all the tricks at their disposal. Suddenly calculation is not only necessary, you have to find something special. You can’t rely on common sense any more. Usually there is a key move on which the success of a combination depends. We have to use our powers of calculation to find it. Five factors come into play:
1. How unusual or otherwise difficult to see is the key move?
2. How far down a variation is the key move concealed?
3. How long is the combination?
4. How forcing is the combination?
5. How many other variations are obscuring the line with the key move?
In order to find the key move you need both tactical vision and imagination. It doesn’t matter if you can calculate ten moves deep if the winning idea escapes your attention because it is counter-intuitive.
The Key Move is Right There, but Difficult to See
[FEN “4r2k/1p6/3p1q2/R2B2pp/3P4/2PQ1P2/1P3KPP/4r3 w – – 0 36”]
Question: It is White to play. After the game Anand regretted his next move and suggested to his opponent that “36 g3 would have been about equal.” What did Caruana have great pleasure in telling the Indian grandmaster was his intended reply? (See below for the answer – it’s something special!)
Let’s see how the game actually continued:
Aiming to reduce the pressure on the e-file, but:
A deadly infiltration and much better than 36…Rxa8 37 Kxe1.
37 Rxe8+ Rxe8 38 Qd1
To meet the threat of 38…Qh4+ and also stop 38…Qc1.
Now the white king was in danger and gradually driven out and mated. Anand resigned on move 51.
Answer: After 36 g3? Black has the pretty queen offer 36…Qf5!. Then 37 Qxf5 R8e2 is mate, while if 37 Be4 (what else?) 37…Qxa5 38 Kxe1 d5, Black wins the bishop.
The refutation of 36 g3 is easy to calculate once you have become aware of Black’s first move. But leaving the queen en prise isn’t intuitive and takes tactical imagination.
The Key Move is Two Moves Deep, and Difficult Enough to Fool a World-class Player
[FEN “r5r1/3n1p1k/2p1q2p/1pp1pR2/4Pp1P/pP1P1N1Q/P1P2P2/1K1R4 w – – 0 27”]
Question: It’s White to play. Black has just moved his rook from d8 to g8. Can you find the short but great combination which clinched for Anand the game (and also the tournament)?
There is a video of Grischuk’s face at this point. He looked totally bemused after Anand’s next move as he hadn’t seen the idea behind the knight sacrifice. Well, he didn’t have long to wait in a rapidplay game to find out:
Answer: 27 Ng5+! hxg5 28 Rxf7+! Qxf7
Otherwise the queen is lost.
29 hxg5+ Kg7 30 Qh6 mate
Note that you can’t play the moves in the order 27 Rxf7+? Qxf7 28 Ng5+ as Black then has 28…Rxg5! 29 hxg5 h5.
The hard move was 28 Rxf7+!. Most players would notice the possibility of 27 Ng5+ hxg5 but look at no alternatives other than 28 hxg5+?, when 28…Kg7 leaves White with nothing for the piece. It takes imagination to see that, despite only having the queen and a pawn on g5 left to attack with, White can mate on h6: the black king is boxed in by his own queen on f7 and rook on g8.
The chapters on calculation and combinations certainly gives something to which aspire, and MacDonald walks us through the complications dilligently, but in the examples where it takes two pages of analysis to explain what’s going on, or even two paragraphs, then it’s beyond the ken of the target audience. And this could be discouraging to those who are not super-talented juniors.
One striking stand out game from the book, which would be anthologized forever had the winner been named Carlsen or Anand, was the following:
Bai Jinshi – Ding Liren
Chinese Team Championship 2017
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3 0-0 5.Bg5 c5 6.e3 cxd4 7.Qxd4 Nc6 8.Qd3 h6 9.Bh4 d5 10.Rd1 g5 11.Bg3 Ne4 12.Nd2 Nc5 13.Qc2 d4 14.Nf3 e5 15.Nxe5 dxc3 16.Rxd8 cxb2+ 17.Ke2 Rxd8 18.Qxb2 Na4 19.Qc2 Nc3+ 20.Kf3 Rd4!! 21.h3 h5 22.Bh2 g4+ 23.Kg3 Rd2 24.Qb3 Ne4+ 25.Kh4 Be7+ 26.Kxh5 Kg7 27.Bf4 Bf5 28.Bh6+ Kh7 29.Qxb7 Rxf2 30.Bg5 Rh8
[FEN “7r/pQ2bp1k/2n5/4NbBK/2P1n1p1/4P2P/P4rP1/5B1R w – – 0 31”]
A picturesque diagram that looks like a composed problem.
31.Nxf7 Bg6+ 32.Kxg4 Ne5+! Megadatabase 2019 shows the game ending here, but McDonald continues with 33.Nxe5 Bf5+ 34.Kh5 Kg7+ 35.Bh6+ Rxh6 mate
McDonald concludes, “I’m sure you’ll agree that was a great game, one of the best of the modern age. Ding Liren built his magnificent attack on his knowledge of a host of tactical themes.” His analysis of this game spans almost five pages. By the way, Ding was the recent winner of the 2019 Sinquefield Cup, topping none other than world champion Magnus Carlsen in the rapid and blitz tiebreak.
There are keen insights about how to improve at chess throughout the book. MacDonald’s most important advice is perhaps “I hope that this book will spur you on to devise your own study plan. This will mean making time not only to look at openings, but also to solve chess puzzles, annotate your own games, learn about chess history and the great masters, read books about the endgame, practice calculation by selecting complicated positions to analyse to death, and so on.” In fact these two sentences encapsulate all you need to do to fulfill the premise of the title.
We encourage you to avail yourself of McDonald’s advice that “Immersing yourself in the great games of chess history is a perfect way to sugar the pill of chess study. You might think you are just having fun and relaxing but you’ll pick up loads of essential ideas ‘by accident’.” Reading the instructive content of Coach Yourself is just icing on the cake. This is an easy-to-read, enjoyable book.
The ebook works wonderfully in the free Everyman Chess Viewer app, and makes it simple and convenient to play through the games. The app comes with a built-in chess engine, but it will not let you enter sideline variations on your own. Chess Viewer eBooks are compatible with Apple and Android products, as well as with any PGN software. Each eBook comes with a ChessBase and PGN file that can be added to your device of choice.