David MacEnulty, My First Book of Chess Tactics (Russell Enterprises, 2015). 208 pp., $19.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
As the title suggests, this is a book for beginners, or at least near-beginners, and treads on well-worn ground introducing new and young players to the fundamentals of tactics. The obvious question is, does the chess world need another introductory puzzle book talking about forks, pins, skewers, discoveries and discovered checks, etc.?
I'm not sure, because my knowledge of the literature for beginners is incomplete. What I can say is that this book does some things very well, things which are often overlooked in books of this sort. It really is an attempt to bridge the gap from near beginner-hood in chess to a reasonably sophisticated level, and aside from assuming a knowledge of the rules of the game it supplies pretty much everything else. First there's a discussion of chess notation, then the point values, then a glossary of tactical terms and concepts, with a special subsection distinguishing attacks and captures. An obvious point to any experienced player, but as experienced teachers know it's one that is often confused by younger, newer players.
After this, David MacEnulty, a very experienced and successful chess coach in New York City (and the subject of the movie "Knights of the South Bronx"), makes another wise move. Rather than going straight to the sorts of tactics listed in the initial paragraph, he has a preliminary chapter called "En Prise". There's no sense in working on two- and three-move combinations if one can't first see a single move ahead, so MacEnulty begins at the beginning.
The next chapter is also very wise: "Take a More Valuable Piece (Get more points than you lose)." Again, it's a completely obvious idea to the experienced player, but something kids can take some time to learn without guidance. The next chapter, chapter 6, is in the same vein: "More (or Better) Attackers than Defenders (Attackers outnumber the defenders; go take something!)".
Only after these preliminaries does he turn to the standard list of tactical themes, followed in chapter 18 with "Make the Right Capture" (this is somewhat related to "Take a More Valuable Piece") and then a relatively long chapter where all the tactical ideas are included ("Mixed Tactics") without announcing which kind of tactic is needed. Finally, there's a brief chapter introducing the relationship between strategy and tactics, followed by the solutions to the mixed tactics problems (some of which will challenge even experienced club players).
From chapters 4 ("En Prise") through 19 ("Mixed Tactics") each chapter is set up as follows. First, there's an explanatory section called "What's the Big Idea?" which explains the concept or what's going on in the rest of the chapter. This is followed by one or more examples, and then with puzzles for the reader to solve without any coaching. Finally, some (but not all) of the chapters conclude with one or more games or game fragments illustrating the theme.
It is a thoughtfully designed book, and while I believe I would say this in any case it is important to admit that I occasionally worked with MacEnulty in the late '90s and with almost all of the people who gave input into the book. In fact, I co-coached with two of them for a couple of years, winning a national K-8 championship with a group of kids who were largely inherited from the school MacEnulty coached at. So one might suspect that there could be one or two people who would be more impartial than I am in reviewing this book.
Despite my liking for the book, its author and its helpers, however, I do have some critical comments to make - primarily concerning the editing. I found a few typos with moves, a couple of diagram errors (missing pieces), and fairly regular cases of inconsistent punctuation (generally pawn captures are given with just the starting file - ...bxc6 - but sometimes with the full square - ...b7xc6; sometimes he would write 'disc+' for discovered check, other times the standard '+' would be given by itself - and there are some typos where the check symbol is missing altogether). Such errors are minor, of course, but there are enough such errors that it becomes noticeable.
His use of evaluative punctuation also went astray a few times. For instance, on page 64 he gives 5...Nxd5 a question mark (after 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Bb4 5.Nd5) and on page 67 does the same for 4.Nc3 (after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6). I would agree that neither move is the absolute best and most testing try, but neither move merits even a '?!' symbol, let alone a question mark. The first move, 5...Nxd5, was even used by Nepomniachtchi in a win over Grischuk (albeit in a blitz game), while in the second case White may still have chances for an edge after 4.Nc3 Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Bd3 dxe4 7.Bxe4 Bd6 8.0-0 (the line MacEnulty himself gives). On the flip side, he sometimes fails to give question marks to moves that clearly deserve it. On page 87, for instance, no punctuation is given to 6.Nxd5(??) after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5.cxd5 exd5, even though it loses a piece (as he of course points out).
So (much) more editing was in order, and editing of a different sort was called for in his invocation of the mythological four-move game between Gibaud and Lazard. (A further problem is that there have been shorter games, e.g. 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 c6 3.e3 Qa5+ 0-1, which has occurred at least twice.)
Having offered some criticisms, let me continue the review with some praise. On page 43 MacEnulty articulates something all experienced players understand but may not have thought to put in words when instructing students: "An important note about forks: you must be willing to actually take the units that are under attack for the position to be a true fork." Thus in the position after 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 the white queen isn't really forking Black's pawns. It attacks three of them - on e5, f7 and h7 - but only one, the pawn on e5, is edible.
This is an excellent point that shows his attention and experience as a teacher. Once again he addresses something we all take for granted, but that we all needed to learn at some point. The funny thing is that even he forgets it a page later when one answer to a puzzle labels ...Qc6 a fork when it attacks a knight on c7 and a rook on a8. The rook is protected by the knight, so Black normally won't be willing to actually take that unit, unless of course the knight runs away.
Finally, kudos to MacEnulty for noting the move 4...Nd4 after 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Qg4 (page 106). This is an almost completely unknown move, but an interesting and playable reply to White's tricky opening line.
In sum, it's a worthwhile book for near-beginners that will not only give them some useful training in basic tactics but will also bridge the gap they need to cross in order to properly appreciate those basic tactics. It could and should have been better edited, but it's worthwhile nonetheless.