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MACA Chess Horizons Magazine Article
 Review: Joel Johnson, Formation Attacks
 Nicholas P. Sterling, Ph.D.
  March 2011

If you’re like me, you used to read games in chess books or magazines, or play games from a database, and wonder how you could ever pull off those neat triple-exclam moves that would sac the Queen and mate the King two moves after.   You know, the ones you could find in Reinfeld books? The ones you could never make happen in your games?  

I was devoted to Reinfeld as a teenager, and I used to pore over his florid annotations of tactical masterpieces during my free periods in high school when I used to walk across the street to the library.  Naturally I was deeply envious, because I could never understand how I could play a game to the point of making those sacs. What came before the triple-exclam? And what should I look for to know that one’s there waiting for me to find? 

Joel Johnson goes a long way toward addressing this need in his 2010 release, Formation Attacks. His stated purpose in writing the book was to fill a gap he perceived left by most books about attacking: namely, that none of them explained in detail the art or the skills of attacking, beyond just providing diagrams of brilliant attacks finished off.   To underscore the skills one truly needs to carry out attacks competently, Johnson opens with a short overview – what I found the most useful part of this book – of the steps masters must take to conduct productive over-the-board analysis. From there, Johnson takes us through a rapid-paced, sometimes crammed, game-by-game run-through of particular techniques, divided into three main sections of Attack Skills, Attack Info, and Attacks Games. What we get from all this is a blow-by-blow crash course on attacking.  

My impression?  As to attacking tips, no doubt about it: this book is a verified treasure trove, hands down. I’ll absolutely benefit big-time for my own attacking game and imagine that others will do the same. Besides the carefully detailed instructions on how to attack given positions, such as those with fianchettoed bishops (one of Johnson’s most extensively explored themes), Johnson’s great strength is in explicating the thought process to use in analyzing a position and deciding what kind of attack to use and when.  It takes real dedication for a player to keep to this process on each move, and such an approach is fundamental for playing at the master level.  

Most of the example games are fun to play as well as helpful for showing the attacking themes in action.  Check out Johnson’s games with the “Fishing Pole” (a Knight on g4 or g5 attacked on h3 or h6 and then defended on h5 or h4 with the Rook still on h1 or h8).  And be sure you see his “Most Thrilling Game Ever” – a study of a King walk emanating from a Traxler Two Knights. You won’t believe it when you see it! 

So this is a really entertaining and educational book, and for that I’ll give it a thumbs-up.  Unfortunately, it has some serious and disappointing flaws.  There are problems, first off, with the production, layout, and editing.  The cover photo is awesome, but the interior layout leaves much to be desired.  Each page is split into two columns, and the print, large for a book of this size, comes in three different fonts (serif and non-serif), giving each page a cluttered, crowded appearance.  Nor do the efforts of the “proofreading” team inspire my confidence: within minutes of opening the book for the first time, I found three fundamental grammar mistakes and two misspellings (“it’s” for “its” and “siezes” for “seizes”), and there are many more. 

A much bigger problem lies with the book’s approach to its topic.  The themes Johnson explains are without question vital for an attacking player to recognize when they occur.  The trouble is that Johnson provides hardly any analysis of most of his chosen games except when he arrives at his theme to be illustrated; the scores of the preceding moves lie mostly unannotated.  What about those parts of the games, though? What decisions were made, bad and good, to allow the analyzed positions to surface and the illustrated themes to materialize?  If one does not understand how to conduct a game before starting an attack – and this was my predicament with reading the Reinfeld books – then, when playing a capable player who avoids the mistakes that Johnson points out, one will hardly ever see the themes crop up and will have scarce opportunity to apply one’s knowledge.  

What is missing here?  Certainly Johnson’s topic-by-topic explication of attacking techniques is wonderfully informative and a superb asset for those who want to improve their attacking games.  On this basis, it will make an excellent addition to an aggressive chess player’s library. But because of the omission of analysis in most games’ early stages, Johnson’s themes seem strictly theoretical (like studying a scientific process in the lab and never finding out where it exists in the real world).  It would have been more practically helpful if Johnson, rather than throwing out a huge quantity of illustrative games with only spotty bits of attacking analysis, had instead selected fewer games and examined those fewer in much closer detail, especially in the openings.  (Maybe a second volume could do this with a selection of the games included in this book.)  Without examining the nuts and bolts of games in their earlier stages, I do not believe most players, except for unusually diligent, devoted, or experienced ones, will substantially improve their attacking games from just knowing the techniques alone.  So, as a study guide of attack, does Johnson’s book do it for me?  Though outstanding as far as it goes, regrettably, in this reviewer’s opinion, it just does not go far enough.

Joel Johnson responds:  

"Formation Attacks is NOT AN OPENING BOOK.  If Nicholas Sterling wants or needs help with the Openings, he should consult another book, this is not the book.  Using his rationale, you could say that the book does not include enough endings either. I purposely wanted to use as much space as possible showing examples. In addition, many books (especially endgame books) simply exclude the preceeding moves altogether and I have gotten quite a few people that are glad that the moves are there.

The format of the book is what separates it from other books and I have scores of readers that agree with me.  Most players can pull the attack ideas from the book and incorporate them into their game, regardless of the opening that they choose."