Book Review by Carl Portman
Wesley So Michael Adams John Nunn Graham Burgess
Desert Island Chess Puzzle Omnibus
1st edition (softcover, 320 Pages) £18.99
Also available as an e-book and an app-book
Not another chess puzzle book! That is how I usually react when a new one appears on the market. I am clear that such publications range from fair to excellent. It should do what it says on the tin – and be a book of puzzles, but there is more to this. It matters what examples are used in accordance with the aim of the book and how the book is laid out in terms of puzzles and solutions. Sometimes it can be more challenging to find the solutions than it is to actually solve the puzzles. The beautiful thing about chess of course is the wealth of material that we can draw upon and of course if a puzzle book contains positions I have not seen before or that are very recent (or a combination of the two) then it usually works for me. If I see another Reti puzzle just one more time, I might scream.
Some readers might think ‘Adams, So, Nunn and who? However, the discerning reader would know that Graham Burgess belongs amongst this esteemed group on merit. Not only is he a FIDE Master but a prolific (and excellent!) author in his own right. He has a head full of wonderful chess knowledge as any proper chess fan would know. Further, in my opinion he provides the most poignant line of any of the introductions in the book. He remarks that ‘It can be hard to strike the right balance in a puzzle book. The spectacular puzzles tend not to be instructive. The most instructive ones may not be too entertaining.’ This is profound.
The four authors each provide 100 puzzles ranging from fairly easy to difficult. Adams, Burgess and Nunn choose games from across a wide spectrum whilst Wesley So chooses 100 of his own games. These four chapters were (I believe) previously issued independently but GAMBIT decided to put them together as an omnibus offering which I think is a fruitful idea.
This is a historical chess book in a very strange way. In his introduction, Wesley So makes mention of the ‘Coronavirus plague.’ Who on earth a few years ago would have thought that such a shocking phrase would have appeared in any chess book? The plague? It is the first book (as opposed to magazine) that I have read that contains reference to the Coronavirus pandemic and quarantine, therefore it must occupy a special place in my collection.
I wanted to pick a puzzle by way of an example. I am not being lazy here but I see no reason why I should not use the example that John Nunn himself analyses in his online video (details further on) because it illustrates the beauty of chess and the possibilities available despite us not being able to see them. Nunn was White in the position below against fellow GM Mark Hebden and he played 55.Rxg5. The question asked of us is, was this the best way to win? Surely Black is threatening to play his rook to g1+ and if the king captures it then the pawn goes to e2 and the king cannot stop it from promoting to a queen. I shall not spoil it. I will leave it for the reader to play a few moves and have a go at countering this position and then they can check it out on the video. It's quite lovely, it really is.
You can watch the YouTube video here:
I am of the opinion that posting video samples from books is a masterstroke from GAMBIT Publications, because it provides a tantalising taster of what is to come. It also provides valuable insight into the mind of a world renowned, and hugely creative chess player (Mr. Nunn).
It is probably fair to say that Mickey provides the reader with the ‘easiest’ puzzles and it is a good thing that his selection appears first. After all we want to get into the rhythm of the book and solve a few puzzles to experience the feel-good factor, otherwise we might be put off and not venture further. That would be a shame because their is a rich seam of beauty running through the book. You have to be willing to dig and mine it. We all like to solve some puzzles in our heads, and only then move on to a real chess set and start moving pieces around when it gets too difficult. You can do that here, I am pleased to say.
Some of the official blurb says.
If you had to choose a single luxury chess item to take to a desert island, then how about this – a superb selection of 400 puzzles to solve? Each author has carefully chosen 100 original positions, graded by difficulty and theme into four sections of 25. The emphasis throughout is on entertainment, instruction and inspiration. The solutions pinpoint lessons to be learnt and explain why plausible but incorrect solutions fail.
Wesley So presents 100 puzzles from his own recent games, many from elite events. They range from easily-overlooked but straightforward ideas to moves of great depth.
Michael Adams offers positions from his files that have inspired him over the years, and includes a section of ‘warm-ups’.
John Nunn challenges you to find beautiful tactics in recent games and studies, as well as some of his own career highlights.
Graham Burgess has scoured his work over the years for hidden unpublished gems, and includes themed sections on opening tactics and defensive ideas.
Did the book live up to the marketing? In my opinion, yes and I shall explain why. I like the fact that there is a combination of contributors – that works well. I also feel that there is a personal touch to the book and the puzzles really mean something to the players. We don’t all use computers or kindle to read our books (I never do) so having this as a hard copy book (you know, a real book) is a joy. It is currently in a very sacred place - the back seat of my car where I can pick it up and pass the time whenever I have to wait around, such as at hospitals where I am not allowed in because of Covid restrictions.
I don’t want to get too sentimental, but I suddenly realised that I have actually played Nunn, So and Adams in simultaneously displays and lost to all three! It was my privilege. As for Mr. Burgess, I wonder if he gives simuls? I need to make it a quartet.
On one comical note I also thought about was this. I like hard copy books because you can also get ‘the author’ to sign it. In this case I would have to hunt down four people, which might mean that the task is never completed. 😩
On a more serious note, there are two constructive comments I should make. This is a personal viewpoint only, but I do like to have two or three blank pages at the end of a chess book so that I might make any notes and comments. I would beg Gambit to do this if possible in the future.
My other point is this. Browsing through the book, I wanted to know which author belonged to which puzzle. Sometimes I had to flick back to the beginning of the chapter to confirm. Just putting the author’s name at the header of each page might have been useful but again that could just be me. It is not a flaw in the book – but something that I would like.
To conclude. If you like chess puzzles – well this is a chess puzzle book. It is well thought through, the layout is easy on the eye (and brain) and it is contains a more contemporary selection of original puzzles. It is the sort of quality publication that I have come to expect from Gambit. There is much to learn about opening. Middlegame and endgame positions here, so it is not just about solving the puzzles. There's more if you want it.
Would I take it to a desert island? Well at the time of writing we are still isolated in lockdown so in a way I already have. Yes, it is another chess puzzle book and one that you would do well to snap up quickly - lest lockdown returns to haunt us all again later in the year.