Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review of "Power Chess for Kids" by Charles Hertan

I've coached chess kids for many years, and have always sought good material to recommend to students who want to make progress. For the student who is at the appropriate stage in development, Hertan's work is among the best I've seen.

Hertan teaches four "power tricks" to get better:
1. Know and use the value of the pieces.
2. The 'Quick Count' - Count the defenders and attackers to see whether a piece can be safely captured
3. Takes Takes Bang! - Make a trade to set up a winning (bang!) move
4. Check Moves Bang! - Use a check to set up a winning (bang!) move

The last 2 power tricks are a very useful introduction to forcing moves, which every chess player must master in order to become strong.

Hertan then shows how to use these power tricks with 4 different tactical motifs: forks, pins, skewers, and interference moves. The last 4 chapters contain a total of about 150 teaching positions, along with 30 exercises to reinforce the reader's grasp of the concepts.

The book closes with a useful glossary of chess terms (like "endgame" and "perpetual check") for the chess learner. The author references a forthcoming second book, which will presumably cover how to apply the 4 power tricks with other tactical motifs like discovered attack, deflection, and removal of the guard. Keep an eye out for it; it's sure to be worthwhile.

The 4 cartoon characters add zest and quirky humor, making it a fun read. I asked my teenage son, a retired chess prodigy, to read the book and give me his opinion. He said he really enjoyed it and found it helpful; in fact, he wished he had been able to read it when he was playing chess. That, in a nutshell, is why I award the book 5 stars out of 5.

That said, I must disagree with the notion that this is the most complete chess book for kids:

* It is too advanced to serve as a second book for chess learners, who need more grounding in fundamentals like not leaving your pieces unguarded, and not playing with just your queen. It also assumes a mastery of chess rules, and the explanation of chess notation is quite rudimentary.

* It does not cover some important topics, like checkmate patterns, openings, and endgames. I understand the author's desire to narrow the scope of the book, as it provides greater focus on the 4 power tricks. Moreover, middlegame tactics are the single most important topic to learn if you want to become strong. However, you forfeit the right to call the book a "complete" set of chess lessons when you exclude these other important topics. After you finish this little gem, I'd suggest the following reading program --

For checkmate patterns, you'll want to obtain Checkmate for Children: Mastering the Most Important Skill in Chess or How to Beat Your Dad at Chess. For openings, you might try The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess Openings. And for endgames, you should consider Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner To Master.

Like pretty much every chess book, the work under review has some minor flaws:

* The terms "interpolation" and "hook-up" are used without definition, and do not appear in the glossary.

* A few examples have unexplored alternative solutions.

* Chess mastery is gained more from practice than from conceptual understanding, and this book is light on the exercises that would provide practice opportunities.

So it has a couple of warts and limitations...who cares? It's still a fun, instructive and helpful book for anyone--kid or adult--rated 600 to 1400 who wants to get better at chess.

Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book to me. I have endeavored to remain completely unbiased and helpful, and feel confident that the review reflects my commitment to objectivity.

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