A review of Chess Exam and Training Guide: Tactics by Igor Khmelnitsky

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Chess Exam and Training Guide: Tactics
By Igor Khmelnitsky
IamCoach Press, 2007

At the heart of this excellent book is a set of 60 astutely chosen positions, which taken together allow the reader to assess her tactical ability. The ‘chess exam’ consists of 120 multiple-choice questions, two for each position. When taking the exam, you may be asked ‘What is the best move?’ or ‘What is the worst move?’ or you may be asked to evaluate the position. Or you might be asked some other question entirely.

Overall, the positions are realistic and ‘game-like’, but the tactics can be spectacular. And the questions you are asked, the decisions you are required to make, are ones that you would have to take account of in an actual game. Clearly, there is an ‘ecological validity’ to this exam; it directly relates to competitive practice. One attractive feature of the solutions is that they assess process (that is, one’s thinking or cognitive process) as well as product (that is, the move or option selected). So, for example, you would get maximum points in questions 18-1 and 20-1 (and other questions too) only if you saw a key move in a particular variation. This capacity to assess process is an improvement on most standard IQ tests! Incidentally, the solutions are generally helpful and informative and include tips and advice, denoted by a light bulb icon, where relevant. Cogent, take-home messages, all.

The analysis of the test results is sophisticated and useful and takes the form of an ‘Exam Report Card’; it provides a detailed profile of one’s performance and pointers toward areas where future improvement may be required. Following the exam, there is a ‘Training Guide’ which includes advice and guidance on how to improve your tactical skill. Overall, this book is an attractive package and an extremely useful diagnostic tool.

While I won’t analyze any of the positions in the book as they pertain to the author’s questions (since clearly this may effect the reader’s exam performance and the validity of her results), I would like to point out a rather neat combination which has so far gone unnoticed. The position below is No. 33 in the book:

The motive for the following combination is Black’s far-advanced passed pawn on the b-file. Black can win with 1 … Rh1+! To deflect the bishop from accessing the d1 square. 2.Bxh1 (2.Kg2 Qh2 checkmate) Qg4+! Forcing the exchange of queens; the White queen is an obstacle to the b-pawn’s progress. 3.Qxg4 fxg4+ 4.Kxg4 b3 5.Bf3 b2 And the pawn queens; it is an easy win.

This combination is mentioned neither in Khmelnitsky’s book nor in the later Sharpen Your Chess Tactics in 7 Days by Gary Lane, where it appears on page 178. Given its otherwise excellent contents, the title of Lane’s book is surely an unintentional irony.

I feel that this position highlights, albeit it in a small way, the difference between computer and human evaluation in chess. A computer would most likely see 1 … Kb6 as the best move; as perhaps objectively it is. It is clear that the white queen is momentarily tied to the defence of the Bf3, and so therefore presents no danger, and Black’s threats will soon become overwhelming. Whereas a human player would most likely play the combination set out above; once it had been seen, of course. Mainly because queens are exchanged and any hint of possible danger is snuffed out; and Black will soon get a new queen. Also, this combination, like any other, has a certain beauty which the computer, for all its brute calculating power, cannot see.

As for the book under review, let me recap: Igor Khmelnitsky’s Chess Exam and Training Guide: Tactics is a brilliant diagnostic tool. If you love tactics and combinations, you will love the book. And as you work through the test positions, you will assess your tactical skill, learn a lot and be royally entertained. What more could you possibly want? A complimentary pot of jam when you purchase it? Not in this world, friend.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com