Dan Heisman suggests that there may be about 2,000 basic tactics patterns, and recommends 7 tactics books that he says together “may” contain about 97% of these tactical patterns:
Chess Tactics for Students - John Bain
The Chess Tactics Workbook - Al Woolum
Winning Chess Strategy for Kids - Jeff Coakley
Back to Basics: Tactics - Dan Heisman
The Winning Way - Bruce Pandolfini
Winning Chess Traps - Irving Chernev
Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess - Bobby Fischer
He also suggests that if you need more basic patterns, “throw in”:
Starting Out: Chess Tactics and Checkmates - Chris Ward
Checkmate for Children - Kevin Stark
The Art of the Checkmate - Georges Reynaud & Victor Kahn
The purpose of this article is to review these books with regard to their suitability for learning basic tactical patterns. (See my earlier articles Dan Heisman’s Basic Tactics Training, Discrete Random Selections and A Pattern Matching Model for discussion of pattern recognition. The number of simple common tactical patterns clearly depends on how simple and common they have to be to qualify. If 2,000 patterns are randomly sampled “with replacement,” we need to sample about 7,000 to achieve 97% coverage. For 1,000 patterns, we need to sample about 1,600 to achieve 80% coverage, which looks more realistic for these books.) In this article, I will assume that you already know how to find basic tactics; but want to become faster and more accurate, using learning by repetition.
I am writing from Yorkshire, and Yorkshire folk are famous (some would say notorious) for their reluctance to part with their money. I would be letting my adopted county down if I did not fully consider value for money. The relevant statistics are summarised by the table below:
Book Cost Problems Per Problem
Bain £9.20 388 2.4p
Woolum £9.99 792 1.3p
Coakley £20.65 205 10.1p
Heisman £10.67 434 2.5p
Pandolfini £8.80 150 5.9p
Chernev £13.31 300 4.4p
Fischer £3.56 275 1.3p
Ward £12.74 150 8.5p
Stark £12.99 150 8.7p
Reynaud & Khan £8.99 80 11.2p
(I do not have copies of Ward or Stark, so I have had to estimate the number of problems in these two books, see below. The costs include delivery, and are what I paid for each book, or prices from Amazon or the London Chess Centre, as appropriate.)
Bain is the easiest of these books, and passed the practical test in the Bain Experiment. The book does not appear to have a British supplier, but I managed to get a second hand copy from a supplier on Amazon (.com) for $1.25 plus $12.49 USPS shipping! My copy is not the new 10th Anniversary Edition, but as far as I know, the new edition is not materially different. My edition has 390 problems that are not exact duplicates, but this includes two duds, so I got 388 problems for my money, which is reasonable value. The diagrams are large and clear, but not as good as those in Woolum. A large proportion of Bain’s problems are either simple examples from Reinfeld, or simplified versions of more complicated ones. In addition to the exact duplicates, Bain also has many problems that are the same as another problem within the book, but on a different part of the board, or with one move less at the beginning. Bain does not provide solutions, as such, but the hints are so detailed that a solution is hardly necessary. Susan Polgar’s World Champion’s Guide to Chess has been suggested on the web as a more widely distributed alternative to Bain.
Woolum is the star as far as value for money is concerned, and it passed the practical test in the Woolum Experiment. The book is not expensive, and has 792 problems in the main section. The problems in the “Canadian Corner” probably duplicate those in the Coakley books (and the triple Lloyds and mazes are not suitable for speed training anyway), so I have not included them in the total. Woolum is heavy on checkmate problems, but Bain and Heisman are both light on them. The book is well presented with large and exceptionally clear diagrams. There are a significant number of exact duplicate problems and near duplicates, but less as a proportion than in Bain. I recognised a number of problems from Reinfeld and other books. There are some errors in the diagrams, and many errors in the solutions, but my Woolum Errata should help here. Woolum is harder than Bain. Nonetheless, most of the problems are easy, but some are not at all easy!
Coakley scores poorly if you are just looking for problem book. It is an expensive book, and has only 205 problems that are clearly numbered as exercises. The smaller diagrams are good, but I had some difficulty with the larger diagrams. Coakley failed the practical test in the CHP Experiment. The problems appear to have too easy for me at that stage, and I did not make a measurable improvement at solving fresh problems from the book. Perhaps there just were not enough problems for me to show a measurable improvement, but the book loses either way. Nonetheless, Coakley is a great book if you are looking for an entertaining introduction to the basics of chess strategy, with some simple tactics examples thrown in. How can you dislike a book which opens a section with “rooks are usually glad when pieces and pawns are exchanged,” or with GM Potatowoski offering to “help you think like a potato?” The illustrations are also very amusing. I particularly like the one where a bishop (you can tell from his hat) is fiddling with a safe. The caption reads: “I wish I could remember the combination to this safe - I left my sandwiches in there last week!” This book is a real hoot. The lessons are basic, but the examples are very good, and Coakley does an excellent job of showing how tactics arise out of strategy. This is a great book for its intended purpose, but I do not believe that it is good value as a source of tactics problems.
Heisman is another star book. It is not expensive, and contains a reasonable 434 numbered exercises. It also passed the practical test in the CHP Experiment. The book is harder overall than Woolum. The diagrams are good, but not as good as those in Woolum. The book includes many simple pieces of tactics that do not seem to find their way into other books.
Pandolfini is primarily an opening traps book, and is of questionable value for money as a problem book. It is not expensive, but contains only 150 diagrammed positions that can be used as problems. The diagrams are large and clear. The book appeared to pass the practical test in the CHP Experiment, but with only 150 problems, I cannot claim any degree of statistical significance here. I thought that the problems were very easy, but my statistics suggest that the book is at about the same level of difficulty as Heisman. Pandolfini’s problems are mostly very simple, but you have to look at the whole board to find them, which takes vital seconds. Pandolfini is a reasonable choice here, but I expect that there are better value problem books out there. If you make horrible blunders in the opening or your opponents do, it might be useful to use the book as the author intended.
Chernev is another opening traps book. It is out of print, but I managed to get a battered second hand copy from a supplier on Amazon (.com) delivered for about the same price as a new one sourced locally. The book contains 300 problems. These problems are all available free online, see http://wwwu.uni-klu.ac.at/gossimit/c/chess.htm, but the book is more useful. The book is an old classic, but the diagrams are small and fuzzy, and some of the combinations are more than ten moves deep. I do not believe that this book is suitable for speed training. I expect that it will come in useful one day, but for now, it has been assigned to the bookshelf.
Fischer is seriously cheap and contains 275 problems. I did not have any difficulty with the diagrams, despite the negative reviews of the print quality on Amazon. Unfortunately, the problems in this book (which are all back rank problems) are nearly all very easy, and do not represent a progression from Heisman. The format of the questions (e.g. can White mate?) is not very suitable for rapid pattern recognition training. This book too has taken up residence on the bookshelf.
Ward is primarily a “how to” book rather than a problem book, see:
There appear to be ten or so problems at the end of four chapters and 100 quick-fire puzzles, perhaps 150 problems in all. I expect that Ward is a good book, but it does not appear to offer many problems for the money.
Stark also appears to be primarily a “how to” book rather than a problem book, see:
There appear to be about 24 pages of checkmate problems at six to the page, perhaps 150 in all. Again, it looks like a good book, but does not appear to offer many problems for your money, and the problems that you do get look very elementary.
Renauld & Kahn is an outstanding old classic and I have had a copy for many years. This book is essentially a “how to” for checkmates, with some instructive and well annotated games and 80 exercises. I have marked up the examples in my copy so that they too can be used as exercises. Even so, you do not get many problems for your money.
The Rabbit’s Choice for the task in hand is Bain, Woolum and Heisman. Susan Polgar’s World Champion’s Guide to Chess may be a good alternative to Bain. Sergey Ivashchenko’s Chess School 1a is worth considering as a supplementary source of problems. Susan Polgar’s harder book, Chess Tactics for Champions forms the basis of my next experiment. As a follow on from that, I have not found anything better than Chess School 1b, followed by Jeff Coakley’s harder book Winning Chess Exercises for Kids.