And Then There Were Two

Komodo 9, written by Don Dailey, Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler. Available (1) with Fritz GUI from Amazon ($80ish as of 5/28), (2) for download with Fritz GUI from ChessBase.com ($73.50 w/o VAT as of 5/28) and (3) directly from the Komodo website without GUI for $59.98; also available as part of a 1 year subscription package for $99.97.

Stockfish 6, written by the Stockfish Collective. Open-source and available at the Stockfish website.

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Now that Houdini seems to have gone gentle into that good night, there are two engines vying for the title of strongest chess engine in the world. Those two engines – Stockfish and Komodo – have each seen new releases in recent months. Stockfish 6 was released at the end of January, while Komodo 9 became available at the end of April from komodochess.com and the end of May from ChessBase.

Last year I wrote a review of Komodo 8 and Stockfish 5 that was republished at ChessBase.com, and much of what I wrote there applies here as well. Fear not, frazzled reader: you don’t need to go back and read that review, as most of the key points will be reiterated here.

First things first: any top engine (Komodo, Stockfish, Houdini, Rybka, Fritz, Hiarcs, Junior, Chiron, Critter, Equinox, Gull, Fire, Crafty, among many others) is plenty strong to beat any human player alive. This is not because each of these engines are equally strong. While they don’t always play the absolute best moves, none of the aforementioned engines ever make big mistakes. Against fallible humans, that’s a recipe for domination. It’s nearly useless – not to mention soul-crushing! – to play full games against the top engines, although I do recommend using weaker engines (Clueless 1.4, Monarch, Piranha) as sparring partners for playing out positions or endgames.

Even if all the major engines can beat us, they’re not all created equal. Three major testing outfits – CCRL, CEGT, and IPON – engage in ongoing and extensive testing of all the best engines, and they do so by having the engines play thousands of games against one another at various time controls. In my previous review I noted that Komodo, Stockfish and Houdini were the top three engines on the lists, and in that order. This remains the case after the release of Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6:

CCRL (TC 40 moves/40 min, 4-cpu computers):
1. Komodo 9, 3325 (Komodo 8 was rated 3301)
2. Stockfish 6, 3310 (Stockfish 5 was rated 3285)
3. Houdini 4, 3269

CEGT
40/4: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4
G/5’+3”: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4
40/20: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4 (NB: list includes multiple versions of each engine)
40/120: 1. Stockfish 6, 2. Komodo 8 (does not yet include version 9), 3. Houdini 4 (NB””: list includes multiple versions of each engine)

IPON
1. Komodo 9, 3190 (Komodo 8 was 3142)
2. Stockfish 6, 3174 (Stockfish 4 was 3142)
3. Houdini 4, 3118

The results are fairly clear. Komodo 9 is ever so slightly stronger than Stockfish 6 when it comes to engine-engine play, and this advantage seems to grow when longer time controls are used.

For my purposes, though, what’s important is an engine’s analytical strength. This strength is indicated by engine-engine matches, in part, but it is also assessed through test suites and – perhaps most importantly – by experience. Some engines might be more trustworthy in specific types of positions than others or exhibit other misunderstandings. Erik Kislik, for instance, reports in his April 2015 Chess Life article on the TCEC Finals – some of which appeared in his earlier Chessdom piece on TCEC Season 6 – that only Komodo properly understood the imbalance of three minor pieces against a queen. There are undoubtedly other quirks known to strong players who use engines on a daily basis.

In my previous review I ran Komodo, Stockfish and Houdini (among others) through two test suites on my old Q8300. Since then I’ve upgraded my hardware, and now I’m using an i7-4790 with 12gb of RAM and an SSD for the important five and six-man Syzygy tablebases included with ChessBase’s Endgame Turbo 4. (Note: if you have an old-fashioned hard drive, only use the five-man tbs in your search; if you use the six-man, it will slow the engine analysis down dramatically.) Because I have faster hardware I thought that a more difficult test suite would be in order, and – lucky me! – just such a suite was recently made available in the TalkChess forums. I gave Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 one minute per problem to solve the 112 problems in the suite, and the results were as follows:

Komodo 9 solved 37 out 110 problems (33.6%) with an average time/depth of 20.04 seconds and 24.24 ply. Stockfish 6 solved 30/110 (27.2%) with an average time/depth of 20.90 seconds and 29.70 ply. (Note that while there are 112 problems in the suite, two of them were rejected by both engines because they had incomplete data.) The entire test suite along with embedded results can be found at:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2015/6/6/Game1753083657.html

I have also been using both Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 in my analytical work and study. So that you might also get a feeling for how each evaluates typical positions, I recorded a video of the two at work.  Each engine ran simultaneously (2 cpus, 2gb of RAM) as I looked at a few games of interest, most of which came from Alexander Baburin’s outstanding e-magazine Chess Today. The video is 14 minutes long. You can replay the games at this link:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2015/6/6/Game1752975735.html

Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 in comparative analysis

Even a brief glance at the above video will make clear just how good top engines are becoming in their ability to correctly assess positions, but it also shows (in Gusev-Averbakh) that they are far from perfect. They rarely agree fully in positions that are not clear wins or draws, and this is due to the differences in evaluation and search between the two. Broadly speaking, we can say that evaluation is the criteria or heuristics used by each engine to ‘understand’ a position, while search is the way that the engine ‘prunes’ the tree of analysis. While many engines might carry similar traits in their evaluation or search, none are identical, and this produces the differences in play and analysis between them.

Stockfish 6 is a rather deep searcher. It achieves these depths through aggressive pruning of the tree of analysis. While there are real advantages to this strategy, not the least of which is quick analytical sight and tactical ingenuity, there are some drawbacks. Stockfish can miss some resources hidden very deep in the position. I find it to be a particularly strong endgame analyst, in part because it now reads Syzygy tablebases and refers to them in its search. Stockfish is an open-source program, meaning that it is free to download and that anyone can contribute a patch, but all changes to evaluation or search are tested on a distributed network of computers (“Fishtest”) to determine their value.

Komodo 9 is slightly more aggressive in its pruning than is Komodo 8, and it is slightly faster in its search as well. (Both changes seem to have been made, to some degree, with the goal of more closely matching Stockfish’s speed – an interesting commercial decision.) While Komodo’s evaluation is, in part, automatically tuned through automated testing, it is also hand-tuned (to what degree I cannot say) by GM Larry Kaufman.

The result is an engine that feels – I know this sounds funny, but it’s true – smart. It seems slightly more attuned to positional nuances than its competitors, and as all the top engines are tactical monsters, even a slight positional superiority can be important.  I have noticed that Komodo is particularly good at evaluating positions where material imbalances exist, although I cannot say exactly why this is the case!

As more users possess multi-core systems, the question of scaling – how well an engine is able to make use of those multiple cores – becomes increasingly important. Because it requires some CPU cycles to hand out different tasks to the processors in use, and because some analysis will inevitably be duplicated on multiple CPUs, there is not a linear relation between number of CPUs and analytical speed.

Komodo 8 was reputedly much better than Stockfish 5 in its implementation of parallel search, but recent tests published on the Talkchess forum suggest that the gap is narrowing. While Stockfish 6 sees an effective speedup of 3.6x as it goes from 1 to 8 cores, Komodo 9’s speedup is about 4.5x. And the gap is further narrowed if we consider the developmental versions of Stockfish, where the speedup is now around 4x.

Hardcore engine enthusiasts have, as the above suggests, become accustomed to downloading developmental versions of Stockfish. In an effort to serve some of the same market share, the authors of Komodo have created a subscription service that provides developmental versions of Komodo to users. This subscription, which costs $99.97, entitles users to all official versions of Komodo released in the following year along with developmental versions on a schedule to be determined. Only those who order Komodo directly from the authors are currently able to choose this subscription option.

The inevitable question remains: which engine should you choose? My answer is the same now as it was in my previous review. You should choose both – and perhaps more.

Both Komodo and Stockfish are insanely strong engines. There remain some positions, however, where one engine will get ‘stuck’ or otherwise prove unable to discern realistic (i.e. human) looking moves for both sides. In that case it is useful to query another engine to get a second (or perhaps even third) opinion. I find myself using Komodo 9 more than Stockfish 6 in my day-to-day work, but your mileage may well vary. Serious analysts, no matter their preference, will want to have both Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 as part of their ‘teams.’

The Soviet Chess Primer

This review has been printed in the June 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Maizelis, Ilya. The Soviet Chess Primer. trans. John Sugden. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982996. PB 400pp. List $24.95, currently $19ish on Amazon.

Until very recently it was hard to imagine Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov agreeing on much of anything. That changed when each man ran unsuccessfully to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as President of FIDE. Nevertheless, as someone who remembers the white-hot rivalry of their world championship matches, I was startled when I received the new translation of Ilya Maizelis’ The Soviet Chess Primer from Quality Chess. Both Karpov and Kasparov are quoted on the cover, and they both love this book.

And it’s not just the two K’s who are fans. In his Foreword to this edition, Mark Dvoretsky describes his youthful encounter with Maizelis’ book, calling it “dear to me” and recounting how his personal copies were often ‘lost’ after being lent out. Tigran Petrosian (as Andy Soltis tells it) preferred the book to breakfast, saving his meal money up and buying a copy instead.

Such high regard may be surprising for an American audience, for whom Ilya Maizelis is something of a mystery. If his name is recognized at all, it is as a co-author of the classic Pawn Endings with Yuri Averbakh, although in truth Maizelis was its primary author. The few references to Maizelis that exist in English describe him as a translator and endgame analyst, with special expertise in pawn endings and technical rook endings. Sixty-three of his endgame studies appear in Harold van der Heijden’s definitive study database.

The Soviet Chess Primer is a partial translation of the 1960 edition of Maizelis’ Shakhmaty osnovy teorii (Шахматы основы теории / Chess: Fundamental Theory). Approximately 60% of the Russian text appears in The Soviet Chess Primer; although I cannot read the Cyrillic lettering, it appears that some detailed opening analysis and sections on the history of chess were excised. The translation by John Sugden reads well, and – as one expects from Quality Chess – the production values are high.

A quick glance at the table of contents would suggest that the English title is apt. After Chapter One, “The Game Explained,” readers are taught the “Aim of the Game” (ch 2) and “Tactics and Strategy” (ch 3). More advanced topics, including further elucidations of combination and positional play, follow. Each chapter concludes with a whimsical set of “Entertainment Pages,” where miniatures and ‘fun exercises’ appear, and some of the original drawings are brought over from the Russian.

So far, so good. Closer scrutiny of The Soviet Chess Primer, however, leads me to question the title chosen by Quality Chess for this new translation. Maizelis’ book is fascinating, especially for the reader interested in chess culture and history, but it is not a primer by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that the knight’s tour is used (18) to help illustrate how the knight moves. Maizelis includes outrageously difficult mate problems in the ‘fun’ section of chapter one, and his account of the theory of corresponding squares (152) belongs in an endgame tome and not here. The breakneck pace of the book and the complex examples preclude me from thinking it appropriate for the beginner.

Take, for instance, this ‘ancient puzzle’ (72) used to illustrate the restriction of piece mobility. White mates in three moves.

image

Solution: 1.Ne6! Bh6-any 2.Ne6xBishop Ba2 3.Nxc2#.

Yes, Black is in zugzwang, but surely there are much clearer and Elo-appropriate ways to illustrate the point than this?

Despite my reservations about the title, The Soviet Chess Primer is a fine book and its acclaim is deserved. I suspect, however, that the particular affection felt for it by former Soviets may have another source. Chess books were hard to come by in the Soviet Union as demand was high and paper was often scarce. It should not surprise us that youthful attachment to cherished books would persist, and in this case the attachment is justified. There are certainly better primers in print today, but few books are more interesting than is The Soviet Chess Primer.

Six Sicilians

This review has been printed in the May 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Amatov, Zhanibek and Kostya Kavutskiy. Modernized: The Open Sicilian. Los Angeleis: Metropolitan Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-0985628116. PB 568pp. List $34.95; currently around $31 on Amazon.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982927. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Kozul, Zdenko, and Ajojzije Jankovic. The Richter Rauzer Reborn. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-9082256604. PB 316pp. List $30.99; currently around $25 on Amazon.

Negi, Parimarjan. Grandmaster Repertoire: 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1906552398. PB 360pp. List $29.95.

Rotella, Tony. The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov. London: Everyman, 2014. ISBN 978-1857446654. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Sveshnikov, Evgeny. Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056915452. PB 272pp. List $28.95; currently around $21 on Amazon.

More than 20% of all chess games begin as some form of a Sicilian Defense, if my math and MegaBase are to be trusted. It’s no wonder, then, that so many books have been written about this opening. This month I look at six books on the Sicilian that have recently appeared in my mailbox.

The Richter Rauzer Reborn is the first title from Thinkers Publishing, a new chess publishing house headed by GM Ivan Sokolov and not to be confused with Bob Long’s longtime imprint Thinker’s Press. Written by GMs Zdenko Kozul and Alojzije Jankovic, the book consists of a Black repertoire after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to what Alex Yermolinsky once called the ‘Kozul Suicide variation,’ which appears after 9.f4 b5 10.Bxf6 gxf6.

That this is a first effort from a new publisher is obvious. The cover features a chessboard that is set up incorrectly. The chapter structure and typesetting is confusing and hard to read, and the inconsistent editing does little to mitigate that fact. Still, those who hazard the Kozul variation will want this book because of the stellar analysis. Here’s hoping that future Thinkers Publishing titles feature the technical improvements necessary to do justice to the wonderful content their upcoming titles promise.

The Sveshnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5) is among the most popular variations of the Sicilian today, having been essayed with Black by some of the world’s strongest players. With Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov, GM Vassilios Kotronias has written a complete and comprehensive repertoire book in the Sveshnikov, and brilliantly so.

Kotronias does not cover every variation in the Sveshnikov, skipping (for instance) 10…Bg7 in favor of 10…f5 after 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5. What he does do is offer a response to every one of White’s key moves after move five. His analysis runs past move thirty in many instances, but I never found myself overwhelmed by it. The book is very well structured, as is typical for Quality Chess titles, and the conclusions at the end of each chapter function as useful summaries. Anyone who plays the Sveshnikov with either color needs to study this book.

Some potential buyers of The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov might dismiss the book because of its author. Tony Rotella does not have an international title. He’s not even a master, but a ‘mere’ expert in over-the-board and correspondence play. (Who does this guy think he is, anyway?!) Prejudice is never to be recommended, but it would be especially unfortunate here. Rotella has written an unusually fine book.

Much like the Sveshnikov, the Kalashnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5) admits of varying treatments. Some variations are calm and strategic in nature, while others are of immense tactical complexity. In many cases Rotella offers his readers the choice of two continuations, one tactical and one more positional in nature. The analysis is excellent indeed, but what sets the book apart is its explanations. Rotella’s prose is clear and insightful, and each chapter ends with a set of “Key Takeaways” that sum up important positional ideas.

It should be noted that Rotella’s book also contains a complete repertoire against the Anti-Sicilians. His recommendations include: 3…Nf6 against the Rossolimo, 7…Nb6 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin mainlines, and the …g6 / …e5 / …Nge7 lines of the Closed Sicilian. Against 3.Nc3 – a problematic move-order for Kalashnikov players – Rotella recommends 3…e5.

If Anti-Sicilians concern you such that you desire a ‘second opinion,’ consider Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. This is the first title in a series of three from GM Evgeny Sveshnikov, the second being devoted to the Rossolimo and the third to the Kalashnikov. Sveshnikov is a pugnacious and self-assured writer, not in the least afraid of courting controversy. In Chapter One he claims to correct no less than Botvinnik and Dvoretsky, and in the Conclusion he argues that the Polugaevsky and Dragon variations will soon be unplayable!

Sveshnikov’s book, the bombast notwithstanding, is an interesting (if idiosyncratic) set of responses to some key Anti-Sicilian lines. It uses annotated games, unlike the other books discussed thus far, to impart Sveshnikov’s recommendations, and about half of the games are from Sveshnikov’s practice. Like Rotella, he advises 3…e5 against the 3.Nc3 lines, although they differ on move orders later on. Other recommendations include …g6 / …Nf6 / …e5 lines against the Closed Sicilian, three ideas (including transposing back to the Alapin) against the Smith-Morra, and 7…dxe5 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin.

Not all books on the Sicilian are written from Black’s perspective. Recently I’ve received two books designed for those of us who have to face the Sicilian with the White pieces. Both are very good, albeit for somewhat different audiences.

Modernized: The Open Sicilian is the second title from Metropolitan Chess Publishing. The complete repertoire proposed by IM Zhanibek Amanov and FM Kostya Kavutskiy tends to favor slightly more positional (and less all-or-nothing) recipes for fighting the Sicilian. Among them: 6.h3 against the Najdorf, 6.g3 against the Kan and Taimanov, and 9.0-0-0 against the Dragon. They offer lines against minor Sicilian variations as well, including the Grivas, the Nimzowitsch, and the O’Kelly. Using densely annotated games to carry the analysis, the book is well researched and the repertoire choices make sense for the practical player.

Grandmaster Repertoire 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I is a clunky title for a fantastic book. This is the second entry in GM Parimarjan Negi’s 1.e4 series, the first of which (1.e4 vs The French, Caro-Kann and Philidor) deservedly won the 2014 ChessPub.com Book of the Year award. In his new book Negi turns 6.Bg5 into a fearsome weapon against the Najdorf suitable even for his Grandmaster readers. This is a serious book for advanced players, one that will drive the theoretical discussion on the Najdorf for the foreseeable future.

I find it useful to study points of convergence between opening books, particularly those that advocate for different sides of the same positions. There are three such intersections among the books reviewed this month, coming from Modernized: The Open Sicilian for White and The Killer Sicilian and Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov for Black. I’ll close this column by looking briefly at each of them.

In Modernized… Amanov and Kavutskiy advocate the trendy 11.c4 against the Sveshnikov, with their main line being 11…b4 12.Nc2 0-0 13. 13.g3 0–0 14.h4. Here Kotronias advocates the pawn sacrifice 14…a4!?, and while his mainline is 15.Ncxb4 Nxb4 16.Nxb4 Qb6 17.a3 Bd8, he also discusses 15.Bg2 and 15.Bh3.

With the benefit of seeing Kotronias’ book before theirs went to press, Amanov and Kavutskiy recommend 15.Bg2 Be6 16.0–0 b3 and attempt to better Kotronias’ 17.Nce3 with the ‘novelty’ 17.axb3!. Their analysis proceeds: 17…axb3 18.Rxa8 Qxa8 19.Nxf6+ gxf6 20.Ne3 Nd4 21.f4! and White has the initiative. 17.axb3 does seem to improve on Kotronias, but unfortunately, it is not a novelty. Amanov and Kavutskiy do not refer to correspondence games in their book; if they did, they might have found Schramm-Jordan (corr. 2010) which anticipated their line in full.

There is more sustained overlap between Modernized… and The Killer Sicilian. Amanov and Kavutskiy propose that White play 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.c4 Be7 7.N1c3 a6 8.Na3 against the Kalashnikov, and Rotella analyzes both 8…Be6 and 8…f5. Their disagreement after 8…Be6 9.Be2 Nd4 10.0–0 Nf6 11.Be3 Nxe2+ 12.Qxe2 0–0 13.f3 Rc8 14.Rac1 Nh5 15.Qd2 f5 16.exf5 Rxf5 17.g4 Rg5 18.Kh1 Nf4 is minor. Rotella thinks that Black has fine counterplay after 19.Rce1, while Amanov and Kavutskiy assess 19.Rfe1 as +/=.

The divergence after 8…f5 is perhaps more interesting. After 9.exf5 Bxf5 10.Nc2 Nf6 11.Ne3 Be6 12.g3 Nd4 13.Bg2 b5 14.cxb5 axb5 15.Ncd5 Rc8 16.0–0 0–0 17.b3 Kh8 18.Nxe7 Qxe7 19.Bb2 Nf5 20.Nxf5 Bxf5 21.Rc1 we reach a position that deserves a diagram.

image

Both books argue that 21.Rc1 improves on an old Smirnov-Radjabov game, but they disagree on their assessment of the ensuing position. Rotella writes that “[a] better try for White might be 21.Rc1 Qd7 22.Qe2, though 22…Bg4 23.Rxc8 Rxc8 24.Qd2 Bh3 seems about equal too.” Amanov and Kavutskiy think White has “…a noticeable plus. The two bishops are clearly felt here, and the b-pawn remains a chronic weakness.” I think this is a little optimistic, and that Black is just fine here. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise! Readers?

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

image

As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

image

The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!

Putting a Second in your Corner

This review has been printed in the April 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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There was a curious moment at the opening press conference for the 2013 World Championship Match. A local reporter asked the players to name their “seconds.” Anand answered first, cheerfully disclosing the makeup of his four person team. After thanking Anand for his “openness,” Carlsen said that he would not return the favor.

Why the secrecy? Why wouldn’t Carlsen reveal who he’d been working with?

And what’s a second anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a second was originally an assistant in dueling. If he could not negotiate a satisfactory means of regaining honor, your chosen second – usually a friend or family member – helped you in your preparation for battle and saw that the agreed conditions of the duel were met.

In chess, a second is something like a research assistant, a sparring partner, and a confidant all rolled into one. Because adjournments no longer exist, and because the opening has become so important in the post-Kasparov era, the modern second works primarily on openings.

Perhaps this was why Carlsen was so reluctant to name the members of his team. Knowing who your opponent employs as an opening analyst might give you some insight into their match preparation.

Carlsen must have known he’d face the same question in the run-up to the 2014 rematch with Anand, because, when asked, he had a prepared answer: “there’s the Dane [Peter Heine Nielsen], and there’s the Hammer [Jon Ludvig Hammer], and that’s about it.” But this was only half-true. Among Carlsen’s other, ‘secret’ assistants was Mickey Adams. Had Anand known this, he might well have predicted some of Carlsen’s openings in Sochi.

The wide availability of databases and powerful engines would seem to obviate the need for a second, but many world-class grandmasters still retain them. Garry Kasparov had Yuri Dokhoian as his second for many years; after Kasparov’s retirement, Dokhoian was hired by Sergey Karjakin. Elizbar Ubilava worked for Anand for about ten years before he was replaced by Peter Heine Nielsen. Nielsen was then poached by Team Carlsen before the 2013 Anand match, but he recused himself from that contest in the interest of fairness.

Right now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I might be a mere B player, but I also employ a second. In fact, I employ twelve of them, and for a price that is a true pittance, you can too.

ChessPublishing.com is a subscription-based opening analysis website owned and operated by Grandmaster Tony Kosten. The concept is simple. Recent games with opening innovations are annotated every month by leading theoreticians and sorted into sections. Each section update consists of approximately five to ten games. Subscribers can purchase access to one or more sections, and they can view both the monthly updates and archived data while their subscriptions remain active. They can also access their subscriptions through the Forward Chess app.

ChessPublishing.com divides its data into twelve sections. Because the way in which the sections are constructed is slightly idiosyncratic, let me list each section with its contents and its current author, and in the order that they appears on the website.

  • 1.e4 e5 (ECO C20-C99): GM Victor Mikhalevski covers the full range of the Open Games.
  • French (ECO C00-C19): No one knows the French better than IM John Watson, and he is your guide through the thickets of French theory.
  • Dragons (ECO B27, B34-39 & B70-79): The ever-popular Sicilian Dragon gets its own section, and GM Chris Ward is its long-time editor.
  • Open Sicilians (ECO B32-33, B40-49, B54-69 & B80-99): GM Michael Roiz is (at the time of writing) the highest rated section chief, and his updates cover all the non-Dragon Open Sicilians.
  • Anti-Sicilians (ECO B20-31 & B50-55): GM David Smerdon analyzes all of White’s attempts to avoid the Open Sicilian. He is a particular expert in the 2.c3 lines.
  • 1.e4… (ECO B01-B19): The remaining defenses to 1.e4 – Alekhine’s Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Pirc/Modern and the Scandinavian – are all found here, with new ideas carefully scrutinized by GM Neil McDonald.
  • 1.d4 d5 (ECO D06-66 & E01-09): IM Max Illingworth analyzes innovations in the Queen’s Gambit (Accepted and Declined), the Slav, the Semi-Slav, and the Catalan.
  • d-Pawn Specials (ECO A45-49 & D00-05): For the fanatics! Openings like the Colle, the London, the Torre and the Trompowsky are scrutinized by IM Richard Palliser. There is extensive coverage of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit in the archives.
  • King’s Indian (ECO A41-42, A53-55, A68-69 & E60-99): IM David Vigorito covers all the latest trends in the King’s Indian Defense. The Old Indian also appears here.
  • Nimzo & Benoni (ECO A40, A43-44, A50, A56, A60-79 & E10-59): Many players pair the Nimzo-Indian with the Benoni in their repertoire, in part to avoid the Taimanov Benoni. GM John Emms covers both openings in this section, throwing in the newest ideas in the Queen’s Indian and the Bogo-Indian to boot.
  • Daring Defenses (ECO A40, A50-52, A57-59, A80-99, B00, D08-09, D70-99 & E10): GM Glenn Flear treats some of the most dynamic defenses to 1.d4 in this section, including the Albin, the Benko, the Budapest, the Dutch and the Grunfeld.
  • Flank Openings (A00-39): Site owner GM Tony Kosten covers all of the Flank Openings. 1.c4 and the Reti are the main subjects of inquiry, but the King’s Indian Attack, the Bird and Larsen’s 1.b3 are also analyzed here.

Let’s take a closer look at one update and see what ChessPublishing.com has to offer. Chess Life readers can examine Richard Palliser’s February update of the d-Pawn Specials section at this link, courtesy of Tony Kosten.

Suppose, just for argument’s sake, that I play the Trompowsky. It is becoming popular again – there are two new books about it and a video series on chess24.com – and I want to keep tabs on its theory. How to proceed?

Mark Crowther releases game and news updates for The Week in Chess every Monday night. So perhaps I might download the new database each week, search for games in the Tromp, and try to discern what’s new or important. This is not a simple task for a class player, even for someone well equipped with books, databases and engines.

In Palliser’s February update I find four Trompowskys, although two transpose to other lines. The games are well-annotated, and new ideas are put in the context of existing theory. Some of the games are of real theoretical relevance, while others, like Popov-Mozharov (Parsvnath Open 2015), are just plain fun to study.

I know that some will see this as wish fulfillment – and they might not be wrong! – but I can’t help but see each section editor as my own virtual second, lending me their theoretical expertise each month. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. There are multiple IMs and GMs who subscribe, with former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov being the most well-known among them.

Palliser’s updates are among the best on the site, but there are others of note. John Watson, who used to handle the Flank Openings and 1.e4… sections, does a bang-up job with the French Defense. David Vigorito and Glenn Flear are excellent as well. I had worried about the 1.d4 d5 section when GM Ruslan Scherbakov was forced to take a leave of absence, but the young Australian Max Illingworth is proving himself up to the task.

Among the other benefits for subscribers, a few stand out. Opening summary files (“ChessPub Guides”) are updated each month and made available in .pgn format. Some sections also have ebooks in .pdf and ChessBase formats, although these are not updated as regularly. At the time of writing there are 940 ChessPub Guides available, along with over 22,000 annotated games in the complete ChessPublishing .pgn archives.

There are four levels of paid membership. Access to one section is $19.50/year. Any three are available for $39, while six cost $69. A subscription to all twelve sections is $99 for the year. If updates are late, as sometimes happens, I have seen subscriptions be extended so that members receive twelve full updates.

I find ChessPublishing.com to be an indispensible resource, and not just as a tournament player. Elizabeth Spiegel (formerly Vicary) noted its value for chess teaching in her 2007 CLO article on “E. Vicary’s Top 10 Teaching Books.” As she wrote, you can quickly find annotated examples of most any opening variation in its archives. It has saved the bacon of this chess coach more than once.

If you remain unconvinced or uninterested, let me suggest one more website to visit. ChessPub.com, owned and operated by ChessPublishing.com, is a free forum devoted primarily to analysis and discussion. While the site was originally conceived as a kind of advertisment for its subscription-only sibling, ChessPub.com has taken on a life of its own. There is a lot of high-quality material there, mostly about opening theory, but the Endgames section is also of particular interest. No less an authority than Mark Dvoretsky has cited some of its posts in his books!

Chernev and Soltis

This review has been printed in the March 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Chernev, Irving. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-1849941617. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win. Revised edition. Newton Highlands: Mongoose Press, 2014. PB 328pp. ISBN 978-1936277605. List $19.95, currently around $15 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The New Art of Defence in Chess. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 232pp. ISBN 978-1849941600. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

This month we look at three books that have recently returned to the marketplace. Two hew closely to their previous incarnations, while the third is an update and reworking of a classic. Each one would make a worthy addition to your collection.

Irving Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Every Played was one of my first chess books. Chernev, a witty author and master-level player, originally published this book in 1965. It contains sixty-two well analyzed games, each one possessing both artistic and educational value. Now Batsford has republished Chernev’s book in algebraic format, retaining all the text and features of the original save nine photographs.

What John Collins wrote in his 1966 Chess Review survey – “[i]t is a great book and should be read over and over” – remains true today. Chernev’s annotations are pedagogically precise, eminently readable, and his choice of games is inspired. The errors in analysis, and the computer reveals a few, do not detract greatly from the reading experience.

Most chess teachers will recommend that their students study the great games of the past as part of their training. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played is ideal for those looking to study beautiful games with clear strategic lessons. If you haven’t already worn out your old, Descriptive copy, you should pick up this new edition.

Andy Soltis’ 1994 The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win is also newly republished, this time by Mongoose Press. Here Soltis has included minor revisions of the text, updating / replacing some examples and references, but the basic structure of the book and most of the prose remains the same.

The Inner Game of Chess is a thorough treatment of a thorny topic. Very rarely do we examine the nature and structure of our thought processes. Soltis does not prescribe a specific method of calculation in this book; rather, he is content to break our calculative process into its constitutive parts so that we can see how it might work.

So we get chapters on candidate moves, Kotovian trees, force and forcing moves, and analytical monkey-wrenches (or why we miscalculate). The chapter on ‘counting out’ reckons with topics like compensation, move orders, bailouts and calculative ‘chunking.’ I, naturally, found Soltis’ discussion of typical causes of analytic oversight particularly pertinent.

There have been a few works on calculation since The Inner Game of Chess was first published. Tisdall treats the theme well in Improve Your Chess Now. Aagaard has two advanced books on the topic (Excelling at Chess Calculation and Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation), and Axel Smith’s discussion in Pump Up Your Rating is stellar. Soltis’ effort hangs in with the best of them, and is particularly good for the sub-2000 player.

Another Soltis title, also from Batsford, has returned to the shelves, but this one involves a dramatic revision of one of his first books. In the 1975 The Art of Defense in Chess Soltis described defense mainly in terms of stubborn resistance. Much has changed since then. The New Art of Defense in Chess aims to explain how these changes affect how we defend.

Some of the chapter structure and prose of the 1975 edition is retained here, and some of the analysis, translated into algebraic notation, makes its way over as well. On the whole, however, The New Art of Defense in Chess should be seen as a fundamentally new book. This is because Soltis recognizes the way in which dynamism and activity have become fundamental to modern defensive techniques.

Modern players are, as Soltis explains, less risk-aversive, more open to ‘ugly’ moves, and more reliant on counterplay and activity in defending. He claims that the “New Defenders” realized the limitations of passive defense when challenged by Mikhail Tal’s speculative attacks in the 60s and 70s.

While this might be true, I would argue (following Müller in The ChessCafe Puzzle Book #3 and Aagaard in Practical Chess Defense) that the decisive shift towards New Defense comes later. Top-level chess has become very pragmatic and concrete since the 90s, mostly due to the influence of the computer. I would have preferred to see more discussion of this influence in Soltis’ book, but this is a minor quibble.

Defending is one of the hardest skills in chess, and one of the least written about. The New Art of Defense in Chess is a lucid explanation of modern defensive practice, and players of most all strengths would learn something from it.

So many good chess books have been allowed to fall into obscurity over the years. Sometimes this is because the books have gone out of print, while in other cases, it is because today’s players cannot decipher the older descriptive notation. Kudos to publishers like Batsford and Mongoose for bringing some of them, like the three discussed in this review, back into the spotlight.

Rematch by Proxy

This review has been printed in the February 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Franco, Zenón. Anand: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 376pp. ISBN 978-1781941867. List $29.95; currently $23ish at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Carlsen: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 432pp. ISBN 978-1781942079. List $29.95; currently $25ish at Amazon.

You’ve got to hand it to the guys at Everyman Chess. They know an opportunity when they see one.

With the 2014 World Championship fast approaching, and with no titles on the combatants in their catalogue, Everyman asked two authors – one of their most prolific, and one of their newest – to remedy this most unfortunate situation.[1] The books under review this month, out just in time for the match, are the fruit of those labors. Both should also be available in e-book format by the time this review goes to press.

For Carlsen: Move by Move, Everyman turned to its most indefatigable author. International Master Cyrus Lakdawala has penned 21 titles (including forthcoming books) with Everyman since 2010, six of which are focused on a specific player. Carlsen: Move by Move is structured like most of Lakdawala’s biographical works for Everyman, with 54 annotated games divided into six thematic chapters.

I have reviewed two of Lakdawala’s books – Capablanca: Move by Move on my blog, and Botvinnik: Move by Move in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life – in the past. In those reviews I noted a troubling trend, one that continues unabated in Carlsen: Move by Move. With each new book he seems to cram more and more cutesy, cloying commentary into his analysis, and his work is beginning to suffer from it. For instance:

  • “[t]he black queen emits an odd, adenoidal grunting sound in response to her sister’s intrusion.” (259)
  • “[t]he rook staggers from the sudden unveiling of the truth. He sneaks out, the way a chastised third grader creeps out from the principal’s office.” (262)
  • “Annoying white pieces stick to Black’s hanging knight like discarded gum on a shoe. … [t]he g-pawn’s attempts to intimidate remind us of a Chihuahua, mimicking the Pitbull’s fury…” (ibid.)

This personification of pieces is relentless and tiresome. What’s worse, some of Lakdawala’s ‘metaphors’ seem confused or nonsensical. In Carlsen-Caruana (Biel, 2011) – game #32 in the book, from which all the above is taken – we encounter a typical example of this shtick gone awry.

image

Carlsen has just played 25.f4?!. Caruana might have responded 25…Ne3!, of which Lakdawala writes: “the knight inserts his head into the lion’s mouth, hoping he has been well fed.” If the hungry rook takes the bishop with 26.Rxe3 (White’s only move), Black has 26…Bxf4 with compensation. Caruana blundered in the game with 25…Re6??, allowing White to trap the knight by placing “calming hands” (???) on the rook and bishop with 26.Bd5.

Lakdawala’s analysis is decent enough, although he, like many authors, seems to lean on engines a bit too much. He can clearly break down the essentials of a position when he so chooses. But what is valuable in Carlsen: Move by Move gets lost amidst the avalanche of bad jokes and vapid prose.

Zenón Franco has done a much better job with Anand: Move by Move. The Paraguayan Grandmaster, having already published on Anand (Viswanathan Anand – Quíntuple Campeón del Mundo, 2013), has written a relatively straightforward biographical work. Anand: Move by Move begins with a twenty-five page assessment of Anand’s style. Franco lauds Anand’s flexibility, noting his ability to change his playing style to defeat Kramnik (236) and Topalov (264) in World Championship matches. He goes so far as to compare Anand’s universality with that of Fischer (11) – no small compliment!

The bulk of the book is 32 annotated games from 1991-2014, representing a decent cross-section of Anand’s career. Franco takes pains to situate each game both in terms of its tournament situation and its broader place in Anand’s oeuvre.

The inclusion of a strong biographical narrative in Anand: Move by Move is most welcome. Unlike Lakdawala, who actually points to an unsourced Wikipedia quote to prove a point (Carlsen, 9), Franco references multiple sources in his text, citing Anand’s own words whenever possible. The analysis is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Houdini’s presence is not onerous.

Were this a competition between the two titles, a rematch by proxy, Anand would certainly have his revenge here. Poor Carlsen will just have to console himself with his champion’s crown.


[1] That the books are aimed at those interested in the match is obvious: see Carlsen: Move by Move, 9, and Anand: Move by Move, 368.