Peter John McLean

Polgar’s Chess and Why I Like Compositions (chess)

If you trawl the Internet for remarks about Laszlo Polgar’s Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games you’ll find lots of comments about how long the book is. With a thousand pages and five thousand chess problems, I’d say those comments aren’t wrong. If you read more comments you’ll find the usual complaints about the book being repetitive, unnecessary, and—of course—that it uses compositions.

Compositions, in chess parlance, mean that the position isn’t taken from a real game but was instead composed by someone as an exercise in chess piece activity. For reasons I cannot hope to ever understand, this tarnishes a puzzle’s value in the eyes of a shitload of otherwise cool and interesting chess players. If the position didn’t come from a game then it isn’t practical, they say, it’s just pure fantasy that you won’t ever come across in a real chess game.

In a lot of these cases, they’re absolutely right. Some of the puzzles, especially in the massive section of Mate in Two puzzles, are utterly ridiculous with three bishops or five knights, all carefully placed around a lone black king who, in many cases, doesn’t even have any current flight squares. In order to solve the puzzle the reader must figure out how to provide the king with just one flight square (to assure a stalemate isn’t reached) and then checkmate with the follow up move. For me at least, many of these puzzles are incredibly challenging, some taking me as much as twenty minutes to solve.

So why do I waste hours of my evenings solving puzzles that I won’t ever see in my games? To understand that, you need to understand something an amateur painter and ex-con told me in a dingy bookstore at two in the morning in Pueblo, Colorado, circa 2009…

“The entire world is just teardrops and eggshells,” he said. He was wearing nothing but a wife-beater and ripped jeans, a canvass of homemade tattoos displayed on his arms and chest and his clothes were smeared with a reddish dust colored paint he was using to try and render the mustache of an eighty one year old chain-smoking war vet. He might have slurred his words, as he was drunk on cheap wine and was trying to paint a picture of the WWII veteran Don Campbell, who owned the bookstore and let us stay up all night drinking and painting and smoking in his bookstore.

I never figured out how to paint and honestly I never cared. I preferred writing and playing chess but the concept he was relaying stayed with me anyway. His point was that a complex image can be reduced to just teardrops and eggshells. Once you fully understand that, it becomes easier to paint because you’re just breaking the image down into teardrops and eggshells and then building on these simple brushstrokes. If you can paint these two very simple shapes, you can paint anything.

Now back to chess, Polgar, and the debate about compositions.

Compositions are the eggshells and teardrops of chess. Many of the puzzles Polgar presents in his book don’t resemble real chess positions. Not even close. But they force you to consider the flight squares a king might travel, the way the pieces can interact to protect each other while roping off the king, and they force you to think about all of the legal moves a piece can make, instead of the traditional ones you’ve been making in one game after another.

It’s easy to play an opening like the King’s Gambit or the French Defense and just put your knight on f3, your bishop on c4 and try to castle as early as possible, looking for the same tactics you look for every time. You play practically the same game every time, winning or losing based on a couple of tactical missteps.

Polgar’s book helps you to start seeing more possibilities. Sure you won’t revolutionize the opening, disproving 1.e4 and proposing the fundamentally ridiculous 1.h4 (my friends and I call this the McLeanovich), but you’ll consider knight and bishop moves that previously seemed nonexistent. You’ll have a better understanding of how to force a king where you want him with a quiet move, instead of checking him wildly and pushing him into complete safety (something I did constantly before studying Polgar).

I’m still working through the Mate in Two puzzles of Polgar’s book. I spend so much time solving them, and struggle with so many (even getting quite a number of them wrong) that as soon as I finish the puzzles I will return to do all of them over again. I might even set them all up on a real board for my second time through, so that I’m seeing what they would look like in an OTB (over the board) game.

I’m by no means a good player. I’m about 1500 across the board at, about 1600 on ICC, and have a pitiful 1100 provisional rating with the USCF. There is a lot about chess that I don’t know, but what I do know is that when I dedicate a lot of time to Polgar’s book, my ratings steadily rise. When I stop using his book and just play, my ratings drop or stagnate.

One final note. The only other criticism I see consistently lodged at Polgar is that it’s a book of mating puzzles, which teaches players to attack constantly and isn’t relevant except in complex endgames. Again, this argument is really no different than the argument about compositions. Even though the puzzles are all forcing moves leading to an immediate checkmate, the purpose is to find strong forcing moves that surpass the value of all other moves on the board. The only real difference between this and the many other middle game tactics books available is that if you run positions from the other books through an engine, a fair amount of the time you’ll discover there is an even better move. With Polgar’s book this has never happened to me and likely never will, because the moves are so forcing they lead to mate in either one, two, or three moves.