How To Calculate Chess Tactics

By Valeri Beim

How To Calculate Chess Tactics
How To Calculate Chess Tactics
Gambit Publications (2006)

175 pages
Reviewed by Jeremy Silman
Grandmaster Beim, the author of several highly thought of books, goes out on a limb with extremely interesting, How To Calculate Chess Tactics. There are so many books on tactics out there, but none really give the guidance on this critical subject that so many players seek. The closest to an actual method was Kotov’s classic, Think Like A Grandmaster.

However, books before it and after have more or less presented the usual "work hard” advice. Beim’s title tells us that this will be different, but is this the case?

It’s hard to find a bad book from Gambit. And, for some players, this won’t disappoint. The typesetting and overall book design is excellent, and the author has clearly given the subject a lot of original thought. He looks at Botvinnik’s classic definition of "combination” and, as I did in Winning Chess Tactics (with Seirawan), tries to improve upon it. Mr. Beim also gives useful advice throughout the book, and his chapter titles promise us the world. 
Here are a few examples that would make anyone think that How To Calculate Chess Tactics is nothing less than the Promised Land: Logical Analysis; The Technique of Calculating Variations; What to Do Before Starting to Calculate; When to Stop Calculating; Calculation by Stages; Calculation Training.

Beim’s examples are absolutely wonderful, and his comments and ideas tend to be well thought out and, at times, fascinating. In fact, he often speaks with a good deal of passion, which shows that the subject matter is dear to his heart. This passion is demonstrated in a game of Botvinnik’s, where the sixth World Champion avoids a winning tactic in favor of a positional continuation that retrains a firm grip without any undue risk. Botvinnik’s comment: "A pragmatic decision, preferring in time trouble a positional win, rather than tactical complications.”

Beim is far from pleased: "Despite all my respect for Botvinnik as both a player and an annotator, this comment shocks me. Certainly, even after the text-move, White retains a lasting and indisputable advantage, but hidden within his comments is a veiled contempt for the tactical element of chess, which could seriously mislead many thousands of chess players, who hope to learn from one of the greatest authorities of all time. On no account should one scorn tactics or calculation!”

Yow – lots of passion, and certainly fun. Yet, Beim seems to reading more into Botvinnik’s note than I do. After all, if the seconds are ticking down and you have the choice of securing an easy advantage or going for a tactical knockout, it depends on whether or not you can see a certain win in the time left to you. Botvinnik, who has admitted that tactics were not his strong suit, did look at the winning (and obvious) idea, but he miscalculated and deemed it good for his opponent. Thus, in my opinion his decision makes sense (it was only move 23, and I have no idea how much time was left). Whether one agrees with me or not, to say that, "hidden within his comments is a veiled contempt for the tactical element of chess” seems way over the top. But, this is the kind of thing that makes a book memorable. It’s hard to complain when an author lets it all hang out.

Beim uses lots of prose to illustrate his ideas and explain what’s happening in his examples. In the game Gelfand-Malakhov, Dagomys 2005 he makes some general comments about the position and then says: "Gelfand solves the problem in forcing style, alertly spotting that if his Knight gets to h5, Black’s Bishop will have no moves. I would suggest that the game variation was born out of this observation. I believe that this variation, being the one which lies in the direction from where the main blow is most likely to come, should be calculated first, and then the remaining variations become redundant.”

Though his observation in this case isn’t original, it is still very good advice.
In fact, making use of this concept can turn a seemingly long, complicated maneuver into simplicity itself. I think more "simple” observations like this would have served him well, since sometimes his train of thought, though hard to argue with, might leave the vast majority of tournament players a bit confused.

Here’s one sample: "But now we should go further along this road, and think about the fact that the calculation of variations only occasionally leads to a situation in which it is easy to assess the position. Further, we can say that calculation is the most important and multifunctional thing in chess. We are already acquainted with the functions of calculation, but now is the time to mention one of the most important: calculation of variations aims to clarify the position; in other words, by calculating variations, the player hopes in the end to arrive at a sufficiently understandable (and, if possible, favorable or at the very least, satisfactory) situation. Needless to say, all of these formulations include an element of the judgment function.”

Now it’s time to return to the book’s title (and the promise it implies): How To Calculate Chess Tactics. The author does offer a fresh way of looking at combinations and calculation, though it requires a good deal of thought – his ideas are anything but basic. Thus, I feel that Grandmaster Beim has given us an important addition to the literature on this topic, and that players from 1900 on up can get a lot out of it. However, players under 1900 might feel a bit put off by the subject’s complexity. In fact, they might even become somewhat depressed – Beim takes it for granted that the calculations he deems as being so simple will prove just as simple for the masses. I don’t believe this to be true. And a "how to” book for one level is not necessarily a "how to” for another.

To sum up, this is an original and thought provoking piece of work that will likely prove to be an excellent buy for the right level of player. However, those under 1900 might wish to hold off and seek something more accessible – something that speaks to their particular needs.