A First Rate, Interactive Game Collection
Review by Michael Ciamarra
Test Your Chess (Ebook), by Zenon Franco, PGN and ChessBase formats, Everyman Chess 2014, $21.95
In a recent online post author, video commentator, FIDE Senior Trainer and coach, IM Andrew Martin noted “self-training is hard work, but can be fun.” Martin’s observation would precisely summarize the contents and objectives of GM Zenon Franco’s Test Your Chess.
Interactive chess books and interactive chess columns, that feature questions on positional assessments or tactical calculation placed at critical moments of an illustrative game, have been a perennial favorite with the chess student for many years.
This method as an education tool is a simple one – motivation to learn and excel. The student accumulates points awarded for their best chess guess and clear explanations follow in the text as to why your answer is correct, second-best, or a blunder. You add points up and a point scale, with a rough approximation, indicates how well you have ‘played’.
Beginning with Solitaire Chess published in Al Horowitz’s Chess Review magazine (“All you need to play Solitaire Chess – an indoor sport for chess players originated by Chess Review – is a pocket chess set, or your regular board and pieces.”) and Fred Reinfeld’s Learn Chess from the Masters (originally published as Chess By Yourself) and Chess Mastery By Question and Answer, followed by Leonard Barden’s How Good Is Your Chess?, among others, all were early attempts to perfect and standardize the Q&A format where you accumulate points and grade your approximate playing strength.
Bruce Pandolfini’s contemporary column Solitaire Chess found in Chess Life continues this long standing favorite in a format that has remained virtually unchanged, albeit with slight modifications, since the 1940s. It’s about motivation and cheerful persistence – work out the best moves, gather points and your total score determines your approximate rating.
Test Your Chess author Franco believes strongly in this form of self-training. Franco relates that much of his own chess mastery is a result of the question and answer, point accumulation method. He grew up in Buenos Aires and “many chess clubs there used to hold regular competitions where you had to guess the next move, and this tradition continues to this day.”
Paraguayan Grandmaster Zenon Franco (in Spanish speaking countries: GM Zenón Franco Ocampos) has a vibrant social media presence and is chess columnist for the Paraguayan news site abc.com.py. In his column (http://www.tabladeflandes.com/zenon2006/zenon_528.html) he writes about contemporary chess events, and, with painstaking care, showcases and annotates classic games. Franco has had an illustrious and long chess playing career, is an accomplished author, and a much sought after trainer.
Readers who are familiar with Franco’s previous interactive Q&A work, Chess Self-Improvement will find Test Your Chess of the same very high quality, readability, and carefully chosen games that takes this genre of instruction to a new level.
But in Test Your Chess there is much more than in his previous work. Franco’s annotations are thorough and compelling without being excessive in overloading with myriads of computer generated variations (thank goodness!). Franco guides the reader through the drama and intensity of each game so that you are experiencing the full value of the interactive approach of training. In this he exceeds expectations.
Franco ‘invites’ you to “try to find the best moves at all the important moments.” His annotations show a remarkable feel for nuances, critical moments, and transitions from the varying phases of the game to the next phase.
Franco has chosen games that demonstrate and emphasize a particular theme. He showcases lesser known games that, frankly, should be more well-known. Always something new, something interesting in the games Franco selects: beautiful variations, imperfections, classic technique and a whole of lot of instruction value.
Franco suggests, “You should spend between an hour and a half to two hours on each game. Points are awarded for selecting the best moves and are deducted for blunders.”
You are invited by the author to, “leave aside your computer for a while, set up the chess pieces on the board and ‘play’, as if it were a real game.” Certainly in the digital eBook version, leaving aside “your computer” is not what he had in mind, rather turn off your engine and do your own thinking.
Franco does make use of chess engines Rybka, Houdini, and Fritz to check older annotations and his own notes. With great relief to this reviewer, Franco does not repetitively reference in his annotations to “Ryba first choice is…” or “Houdini refutes…etc” which several recent chess titles have done.
“I consider it more important to be able to understand a move, rather than justify it tactically with a complex line only a computer could see.” Franco, with his consummate sense as a first rate chess trainer, makes it very clear by using your own chess reasoning and judgment, even if you make mistakes and have points deducted, you will derive great benefit to your own analytical skills.
In the ebook version, each game grouped by thematic content and the reader will be able to navigate will tremendous ease back and forth. If you are using the Everyman Chess Viewer app for Apple or Android devices, you can even bookmark positions of interest that you wish to return to later.
- Part One – Attacking the King (11 games)
- Part Two – Attack, Defense and Counter-attack (12 games)
- Part Three – Positional Play and Pawn Structures (12 games)
- Part Four – Endgames (5 games)
Franco selected 40 games from 1949 to 2012. “A knowledge of the classics can provide us with ‘fresh ideas,” he tells us. One fascinating inclusion in Test Your Chess are several little known, but remarkably instructive games, played by South American masters in the 1950s-1960s. For example, Julio Bolbochan v Miguel Najdorf, Buenos Aires, 1949; Oscar Panno v Hector Rosetto, Rio de Janeiro Zonal, 1957; two Najdorf wins versus Americans Samuel Reshevsky and Reuben Fine. Included are five games of Mikhail Tal meticulously annotated, and as far as this reviewer can determine, not as well-known as the standard Tal anthology games. Four of these Tal games are to be found in, where else, Part One: Attacking the King.
Contemporary games played by Carlsen, Caruana, Kramnik, Aronian, Anand and others are included. Franco presents a fascinating (definitive perhaps) analysis of Carlsen v Anand, Morelia/Linares, 2007 (Game 37, Part 4 Endgame). Anand is the ‘grinder’ this time and Franco observes, “You have to admire the tenacity with which Anand plays for a win. His opponent (Carlsen) learnt this lesson well, since he is well known for winning a lot of games like this one, the normal result being a draw.”
Throughout the thematically grouped 40 games, Franco availed himself of the players’ own annotations, contemporary sources, and he adds to and expands the annotations so that the student clearly understands the dramatic chess moves and strategic/tactical concepts unfolding as one replays the game (very easy in the Ebook version).
Your click on the game you wish to study, work through it in the allotted time Franco recommends and click back to section the game came from. The point scales are broken down, more or less, like this one from Game One. After you work through the game, you are asked:
- How did you do? (Maximum score: 45)
- More than 39 points: Super-Grandmaster
- Between 35 and 39 points: Grandmaster
- Between 28 and 34 points: International Master
- Between 20 and 27 points: Tal is one of your favorite players!
- Between 10 and 19 points: You found several key moves.
- Less than 10 points: You need to be more careful next time!
Franco admits that the scoring isn’t an exact science. He has tried to be as objective as possible in formulation of the point scoring method. I implicitly trust his judgment. Franco’s many years as a chess coach working with students of various strengths and his vast experience with this interactive method, his anticipation of your every question, gives confidence in his evaluations and the expertise of “Lessons Learned” at the conclusion of each game.
In the eBook version, I found myself having to tally up the points on a sheet of paper and minimizing right side box with the commentary and moves when the text asked **Your move** There was a temptation to view the answer (the move played). Once I had navigated through that and practiced minimizing the right side of my screen, the method worked perfectly. Perhaps in a future edition of Test Your Chess, Everyman might be able to solve this minor dilemma of covering up the answer on screen. In the book version, one would tackle the exercises by moving down a sheet of paper covering the text as Franco recommends.
One game for that was particularly intriguing and instructive is a forgotten masterpiece: Quinteros v Petrosian, Buenos Aires, 1979 (Game 31 found in Part Three). Here is an excerpt:
(3 points). A tempting sacrifice of a piece for three pawns, added to which the black king will be vulnerable. Furthermore, there is the practical aspect that the black position is unpleasant, whereas White’s position ‘plays itself’.
It is noteworthy that the engines don’t regard this as a good decision and prefer other moves, all of which are worthy of consideration by human players too. These include the familiar idea of 24.Nc4 (2 points); while another typical idea is gain space with 24.h4 (2 points), intending h4–h5 and even h5–h6 at the right moment, if permitted.
24…Kxh7 25.Nxf7 Rd5 26.Qxe6 Qd7
** Your Move **
Of course not 27.Qxd7?; or 27.Re1? (both lose 1 point) because the three pawns are not so strong in this precise position. There is no passed pawn yet, and the black king would be out of danger.
** Your Move **
After 27…Kg8 28.Nd6, White has good compensation for the piece.
(2 points). Discouraging the exchange on e4, which would give White a dangerous central pawn mass.
Each game ends with a summary of the points to be learned from the game:
1. “You have to give squares to get squares.” (14 c5!)
2. “Which piece can I improve?” is a question that you should keep asking yourself. (19 Bc1!, 23 Be4!, 23 Nc4!, 32 b4!, 44 Rh3!)
3. “Which piece should I exchange? Which one should I keep?” Answering these questions appropriately almost always clarifies the way forward. (11…Nxe4?, 20 Bg5!, 28…Nc8?, 29 g4!)
4. Loose pieces are ‘tactical weaknesses’. (35 Kf2?)
The image below shows how the ChessBase version makes use of colored variations:
Franco does not recycle or borrow from his other works. For example, Franco’s other recent release from Everyman Anand: Move by Move does not contain the above referenced Carlsen v Anand game. Franco provides readers with value and originality in all of his works.
The translation of Franco’s original Spanish text was done by Phil Adams. Everyman’s editorial team put forth tremendous efforts to ensure the translation and editing keeps the liveliness, the empathy, and enthusiasm of Franco’s original text intact. Test Your Chess commentary isn’t stilted or awkward but vibrant with Franco’s masterful commentary and constant encouragement to the aspiring chess student.
The Test Your Chess eBook belongs in the digital library of every chess player. There is something for everyone here – openings principles and variations explained, models for a variety positional themes, calculation practice, tactics, and exquisite endgames. Franco says you can simply enjoy this fascinating and unique game collection on its merits. Or you can put yourself in the game and with Franco as your guide, “self-training is hard work, but can be fun.” Test Your Chess is indeed the Solitaire Chess benchmark for all future works of this genre to be held to.
My assessment of this product:
Order Test Your Chess (Ebook)
by Zenon Franco
Order Test Your Chess
by Zenon Franco
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