Ask the pieces by Becker and Mueller

by Albert Silver
8/21/2013 – When a new product on chess instruction stands out, it is usually based on quality and clarity, but rarely originality or humor. However, the latest "Ask the pieces" does just that, by dissecting the positions via a dialogue that helps uncover seemingly mysterious brilliancies giving rich ideas to both the student and teacher. Here is a review by Albert Silver.

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Ask the pieces

Review by Albert Silver

When perusing the latest products by ChessBase, one stood out for its intriguing title: “Ask the pieces”. It sounded like a beginner work on chess, but the question remained: was it just a cute title, or did the content live up to the title's originality? On a limb I decided to take a look and I am gald I did so, since although I am certainly beyond the scope of its instruction, any teacher will agree that finding novel ways to present the noble game is often a hard and unforgiving task.

After downloading and installing it, the table of contents seemed fairly inconspicuous and I wondered whether I had made a mistake. There was a list of chapters (videos) with reference games and a couple of unrevealing titles, other than the key (presumably) winning method:

Introduction  
  Chapter 1: Endgames  
  1.1 The Knight - Squares and Knightmares: Sakelsek,T - Braun,A  
  1.2 The Rook - Mating Attack out of the Blue: Boensch,U - Mueller,K  
  1.3 The Queen - In Kasparov's hands: Topalov,V - Kasparov,G  
  1.4 The Bishop - Bishops and Breakthroughs: Polugaevsky,L - Mecking,H  
  Chapter 2: Middlegames  
  2.1 Short's King: Short,N - Timman,J  
  2.2 Fischer's Evergreen: Byrne,R - Fischer,R  
  2.3 The Lawn Mower Mate: Berkes,F - Zhang Pengxiang  
  2.4 Harmony of the Major Pieces: Gavrikov,V - Chernin,A  
  2.5 Flying Piket: Piket,J - Van Baarle,J  
  2.6 Kasparov's Attacking Roads: Kasparov,G - Ivanovic,B  
  2.7 Kings and Queens: Vajda,L - Fridman,D

The introductory video showed co-author Stefan Becker explain that years back, when Nigel Short had uncorked his incredible king maneuver to beat his elite opponent Jan Timman, he had been left wondering above all: how on earth did he even imagine this idea at all? The question is quite valid, and most people will usually write it off to ‘great imagination’, ‘brilliant positional feel’ or any such pat answer that basically says that you will never be so lucky. He was not content to do this and came up with his own solution: “Ask the pieces”. Even after saying this, you still expect a fairly normal analysis to follow in the next videos, with perhaps a minor twist of his own. It is worth mentioning that while he said all this, I winced slightly at his presentation, not because of his accent, but because I kept wondering whether he was holding his breath while he spoke. I shrugged and clicked on the first video to see how it went.

In the first actual game, an interesting knight endgame came up, we are now faced with both Stefan Becker and GM Karsten Mueller. My ears perked up when Becker, in his out of breath voice, says, “As usual, we begin to talk to the pieces…”, and I thought, ‘What?’ “How do you feel black king?” Out comes GM Mueller with his energetic baritone voice, “Verry comfortable! I am in a strong dominant position.” I must confess I began to chuckle uncontrollably at the contrast, and had to stop and play back the video.

The first video introducing the duo Becker and Mueller

When playing through the classic comedic duos, the most famous invariably juxtapose extreme physical differences such as Abbot and Costello, tall and intelligent compared to short and boisterous, or Laurel and Hardy, fat and sensitive as opposed to thin and simple-minded.

The timeless Abbot and Costello in their most famous skit, "Who's on first?" If you find it too fast to follow, here is the full transcript.

It seems that chess has come up with its own, possibly involuntarily, Becker, the soft-spoken out-of-breath asthmatic, and Mueller, the punchy self-affirmative baritone. If I bring this up, it is not simply to point fun, but because this aspect of the videos works very well, and adds an unexpected and attractive flavor.

Karsten Mueller tells Stefan Becker the joys of being a knight

The content actually does present a very digestible dialogue between Becker, the inquiring mind, to Mueller who gives his impressions of how each piece must feel about their respective roles. If they are well placed and strong, they will say so and why, and if not you will be told the pieces are unhappy or very afraid and the reason. As each piece speaks its piece (bad pun), the mystery of these key positions dissipates and the solution becomes  more and more apparent. Gradually, the moves of the path to victory are played and the question and answer process is repeated step by step.

Move by move and question after question, the position is dissected and the solution makes itself apparent.

In the end, my overall impression was that the authors had succeeded in communicating their concept quite well, and the unexpected humor of their presentation was not just a gimmick, but an aspect that helped keep it dynamic and fun. The level of the material is really not aimed at players rated over 1700-1800, but anyone can get something from it, whether a budding junior or adult, looking for something fun and offbeat, or an advanced player seeking something to spice up the classes for the student.

'Ask The Pieces' can be purchased at the ChessBase Store



Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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