Alexander Bangiev's new ChessBase training CD

by ChessBase
10/20/2004 – Alexander Bangiev's new ChessBase training CD Squares Strategy is already stirring more than its share of controversy. Columnist Steve Lopez adds a few barrels of kerosene to the fire with his own somewhat controversial preview in this week's ChessBase Workshop. Read on and prepare to see red...

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previewed by Steve Lopez

Over the next few issues of ChessBase Workshop we're going to preview new training CDs from ChessBase. I've chosen to begin with Squares Strategy 1: Tactics for a number of reasons. It was the first of the trio to catch my eye because of the title. This dovetails nicely into another reason: I was eager to see how IM Bangiev approached the concept of color complexes (more on this shortly). And numerous people have asked me for my opinion on this specific CD.

One such chessplayer asked me about this disk for a very interesting reason: he'd read two separate reviews of Squares Strategy 1: Tactics and both of them were bad ones. He was interested in my opinion since I'm not a highly-rated player; I'm just an "average Joe" like the majority of the players who read this column regularly.

And, speaking as an "average Joe", I can accurately predict that I'm going to say some things in this column that will make the majority of readers see red. An intrepid few may actually take the time to consider what I'm saying and perhaps think that the ideas have some merit, but I'm betting on a major knee-jerk negative reaction from a whopping great number of readers. So be it. Let the fur fly as it will.

I've personally not seen either of the reviews in question nor heard anything about their specific content. But I can already guess why two reviewers panned this CD. The first is the aversion chessplayers have developed to anything that smacks of a "method". Over the last decade or so numerous training books have been published in which a titled player provides a "method" for success at chess. These titles have almost always been controversial; the whole concept of a "method" reminds some people of the myriad diet books that flood the mass market: "Lose 80 Pounds in 20 Days" or "The Blapkins Diet", etc. Typically, anything that promises a quick method for success usually isn't one. Even discounting the "diet/self-help book" connotations, many chess method books acquire a bad reputation because the "method" doesn't always work for everyone. Many players find Alburt's Comprehensive Chess Course to be too basic and anything but "comprehensive". Wetzel's Chess Master at Any Age simply appears bizarre to some readers (many of his suggestions, like creating flash cards of troublesome positions, are pretty good ones, while other suggestions like burning a $20 bill when you lose a "won" position are more than a bit over the top). Many of the Russian "methods" are too advanced for the average U.S. player. And on and on...

Another possible reason why two reviewers have taken exception to Squares Strategy 1: Tactics is that it will definitely require most chessplayers to completely restructure their thinking. Let's face some hard facts here. Generally speaking, people don't like to think. Human beings are most comfortable in rote routines; we get into certain "grooves" and when the equilibrium of these familiar patterns is upset, rationality goes spinning off into the void.

Chessplayers are no exception. At some point in our chess careers, somewhere between the point at which we learn which way the horsie moves and the time when we finally fling our chessboard and pieces across the room and take up cribbage, we develop some sort of structured pattern for looking at chess positions and considering candidate moves. Most of us develop it all wrong (which is what separates patzers like myself from great players) and we spend a lifetime living with the mistake.

The crux of the matter is that we need to unlearn the bad habits and learn better ones. So we blow our hard-earned ducats on "method" books and, when the "method" doesn't confirm our established (but flawed) thinking patterns and instead challenges us to restructure our thinking, we get torqued and write off the book as "junk". Why? Because our aforementioned equilibrium has been tipped on its side. Too many of us are looking for affirmation instead of knowledge.

Dovetailing into this point is the fact that to get better at something, you have to admit that you could do with a little (or a lot of) improvement. This is why Silman takes a lot of heat for his books. Many of his various volumes all begin with the same basic assumption: you, the reader, suck at chess. A lot of players don't like to hear that, and certainly aren't willing to face that fact. But wisdom begins with admitting that you don't know everything -- that's why there are so few wise people in the world. Silman asks a lot from the reader in his books, and he starts with the basic challenge: admit that you suck. A lot of people never get past that first step and that's why Silman takes a lot of heat.

People generally don't like to think and they damn sure don't like to be challenged. And that, in a nutshell, is why I think Bangiev's Squares Strategy 1: Tactics is already drawing flak from some reviewers. In order to profit from Bangiev's "method" (regrettably referred to throughout the CD as the "B-Method" for short), you have to be willing to accept a challenge, admit that you could use some help, and make the attempt to tear down your existing methods for looking at chess positions.

For most readers, that just ain't gonna happen. Period. You may now begin launching brickbats and tirades in my direction at your leisure.

All of this sounds pretty radical. Many chessplayers don't like to think? Isn't playing chess all about cogitation? Sure, playing chess is fun. But studying chess (which is what we're actually talking about) is usually a real grind; progress is slow. And we live in a "microwave society": if something doesn't happen in thirty seconds or less, it's taking too long. That's why Beginner to Grandmaster in 45 Minutes While You Sleep books are so popular. Instant gratification, baby -- that's what we're all about these days. And the less thought that's required, the better we like it. Books on chess openings are super-popular. Why? Because no independent thought is required, just rote memorization. The perception is that you don't have to think for yourself -- you just memorize the contents of Winning with the Flachard-Bizzaro Gambit and you're well on your way to chess mastery. An endgame book? Whoops -- too much though required. Put it back on the shelf.

OK, keep all of that in the back of your mind for a few minutes while we detour back to the main point of this article: the preview. And we're going to look at the CD in the reverse direction from the one we usually take. We'll look at the specs first and talk about the content afterwards.

Squares Strategy 1: Tactics contains two databases. The first is the instructional database, called in this case the Learning Database. This database contains four instructional texts and fifty extensively annotated (tons of text) game fragments (i.e. the games don't start from the first move; they begin instead from the critical position where Bangiev's method of move selection comes into play). The second database is the Training Database, which contains two hundred timed training questions. You learn Bangiev's techniques from the Learning Database and then apply what you've learned by testing yourself with the Training Database. It's just like what you're already used to doing: learn a chess concept and then try to apply it in actual games. The timed training questions give you a generous amount of time for answering the questions (after all, this isn't a TV quiz show) and also let you get hints by using the "help" buttons.

The CD also contains a copy of the ChessBase Reader program, so even players who don't own ChessBase or one of the Fritz family of playing programs can use this training material without any other required software.

Now what about the content? I won't spill the beans here by describing Bangiev's method in detail. I will tell you that he presents a way of identifying and evaluating candidate moves by asking yourself three questions as you analyze a given chess position. And the key to these three questions lies in understanding color complexes.

The concept of color complexes is nothing new; I've been reading about them for years. But you know what? There's not one single book in my entire library of over 500 chess volumes that adequately explains the concept. What little I know about them has been picked up and pieced together in driblets, a little bit from this book, a little something else from that book, another tiny fragment from a third book, etc. It's a lousy way to try to learn something. So why hasn't anyone explained color complexes completely and in one place? First, it's a unique concept that resides in the never-never land between the concrete and the abstract, which leads to the second reason: it's hard enough to try to pin the idea down, much less explain it in easily-understandable terms. In many ways, it's almost an intuitive thing and it's tough to describe such an idea in twenty-five words or less.

The color complex is a difficult idea. And that, too, is at the root of why some reviewers have found Squares Strategy 1: Tactics to not be to their liking: you have to work hard to "get it".

This CD is definitely not something to be approached casually. You're not going to plow through it in an evening. Or a week of evenings. To master this material, you're going to have to work hard, to think hard, and to be willing to have your long-held ideas about chess evaluation challenged good and hard. The really wild part about this CD is that it's not for high-rated players -- it's written with the average club player in mind as the target reader. But we're not being spoon fed the material. It's not a subject for simple maxims. Bangiev's method for identifying color complexes is a challenge and you're not going to digest it the way you would a Fred Reinfeld book. While it's still not as difficult as the typical Mark Dvoretsky volume, it's still going to involve some serious skull sweat for most readers.

Look, I'll lay it right on the line for you. If you're looking for Add 500 Points to Your Elo the Easy Way, this ain't it (and I defy you to find such a work anywhere; one of the many reasons why chess isn't for everybody is because the game is itself highly unsuited to a "microwave/fast food/instant gratification" society). You have to be willing to at least consider the idea that the way you've been approaching positional analysis is dead wrong and to give Bangiev's "method" a fighting chance. Will it work? Time, as well as later volumes in the series, will tell. I'd love to be able to tell you that I completed this training CD and it instantly improved my play -- but if I did so, I'd be lying. I've only studied a few of the games on the CD and, while I understand what Bangiev is saying, I'm still struggling to incorporate the material into my own "chess vision".

The main idea (as I understand it) is to pay less attention to the pieces themselves (or, more correctly, the squares they sit on) and more attention to the squares they control and influence (as well as to squares that aren't being controlled or influenced). You've got to pay less attention to the wood on the board and more attention to the board itself. It's analogous to a general looking more at the battlefield's terrain rather than the units upon it: "OK, that hill is unoccupied -- now how do I exploit that fact?" That's what Bangiev is teaching us on this CD. He takes us straight to critical moments in master and grandmaster games and dissects the positions (as well as their following moves) in great detail, all in light of his three questions that must be asked when analyzing a position and deciding on candidate moves and their subsequent variations.

Does that sound tough? It is. It's also potentially very rewarding. And whether or not you adopt IM Bangiev's "method" as your own, Squares Strategy 1: Tactics is going to challenge you and force you to reconsider the way you presently approach positional evaluation. And this, by the way, is a good thing.

Until next week, have fun!

© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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