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.

January update

I became a father last week – a first-time father! – so I expect that posting will be sporatic for a month or two. There are reviews in various stages of completion on my hard drive, but bringing them to ‘print’ depends a lot on how much sleep I get these next few weeks!

In the meantime, I did want to point my readers to an interesting piece by Jeremy Silman on “The Best Chess Books Ever.” The title is a bit misleading, as I understand that at least a few of his respondents were asked about their “favorite” books and not those books they thought objectively best. Still, it’s a very interesting read, and some of the comments are also worthwhile!

http://www.chess.com/article/view/the-best-chess-books-ever

Unwrapping the Enigma

This review has been printed in the January 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate 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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Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. ISBN 978-1941270028. PB 384pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish on Amazon.

Who is Mark Dvoretsky?

This might seem a curious question in the age of Google. A quick search reveals that Mark Dvoretsky is an International Master, a well-published author with at least a dozen books in multiple languages to his credit, and a chess trainer. Multiple websites refer to Dvoretsky as the world’s best trainer, and with very good reason.

Mark Dvoretsky trained three World Junior Champions and was second to Nana Alexandria in her World Championship match. He is perhaps best known for his long and on-going work with Sergei Dolmatov and with Artur Yusupov, whom he nearly guided to the top of the chess world in the 80s and 90s. Before there was Chernin or Chuchelov, there was Mark Dvoretsky.

Still, for all of this ‘data,’ I’ve always found Dvoretsky to be something of an enigma. Who is the man behind all the books and achievements?

So it was with great interest that I read Dvoretsky’s newest book, titled For Friends and Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach and translated from the German. For Friends and Colleagues is a two-volume work, with the first volume (under review here) chronicling Dvoretsky’s playing, training and writing careers, and with the second (due out this spring) consisting of a series of occasional pieces about chess training, literature and personalities.

Profession: Chess Coach is not an analytical work, although dozens of interesting games are included, and neither is it a typical autobiography. If pressed, I would describe it as a memoir of his life in chess. There is little in the way of traditional biographic detail. We learn almost nothing about Dvoretsky’s childhood except as it relates to chess, and while photographs of his wife and son appear in the book, almost no reference to them appears in the text.

One of the quirks of this book is the liberal – almost excessive – sprinkling of quotations amidst its pages. Dvoretsky invokes the words of a famed Russian poet in the book’s preface to shed light on its raison d’être:

Vladimir Mayakovsky once said, I am a poet. That’s what makes me interesting. In my life, working as a coach has been most important. Thus, I have conceptualized certain life events and later used them in my coaching. In this book, I have likewise tried to assess… various events from a coach’s point of view, whether these events were related to chess, university studies, etc. This is the main focus of my new book. (12)

The majority of this book revolves around Dvoretsky’s training career, and we spend a lot of time reading about the achievements of four of his pupils: Valery Chekhov, Artur Yusupov, Sergei Dolmatov and Alexei Dreev. But I wonder if Dvoretsky is not being too modest in his self-assessment.

The legendary Talmudist Rashi believed that “when one teaches the Torah to the sons of one’s fellow man, it is as if one had engendered them oneself.  The true descendants are students, those whom one has taught.” To this, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas added: “true filiation… is giving instruction.”[1] When we read Dvoretsky’s account of his various pupils, of why some succeeded and others failed, we are – as Rashi and Levinas would surely agree – learning about Dvoretsky himself.

Success in chess is intimately linked for Dvoretsky to character, and the virtues and vices of numerous characters are chronicled in Profession: Chess Coach. The absurdities of life under the Soviet regime are made plain through tragicomic tales. Many center on the effect of the so-called ‘fifth point,’ or the official notation of one’s Judaism on internal passports. Some allowed their moral compasses to be stunted under these conditions, while others strove for basic decency and freedom of thought against the grain. Dvoretsky tells the good and the bad, and pulls no punches in the process.

Chekhov never fulfilled his promise because of pride and complacency. Dreev suffered because he gave simuls to support his family, leading to sanctions from Soviet officials. Yusupov and Dolmatov found success, in Dvoretsky’s view, because their character and good natures allowed them to succeed despite roadblocks.

There is some score-settling in Profession: Chess Coach. Tal comes off well, as does Gulko, but Botvinnik less so. Dvoretsky eviscerates Josh Waitzkin, rebutting Waitzkin’s account of their relation in The Art of Learning and painting him as soft and incapable of hard work.

If you are looking for a book to help you improve your chess, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are interested in a first-hand account of some very important events and persons in chess history, it’s hard to find a better book than this one. Few have influenced modern chess like Dvoretsky has, and Profession: Chess Coach reads like his valedictory address.


[1] Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life And Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2006), 142.

Book Note: Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (4th Edition)

Because there are just too many books coming out to keep up with, I’ll be doing some brief book notes along with my longer, in-depth reviews and essays. This is the first of those notes. – JH

Dvoretsky, Mark. Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, 4th edition. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. 424pp. ISBN 978-1941270042. PB $34.95; currently $26ish on Amazon.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) is, for my money, the best single-volume endgame textbook in print. (There is an argument to be made for Muller & Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings, but that is an issue for another post.) Originally published in 2003, DEM is now in its fourth edition and fifth printing. What has been changed for this new edition?

The first thing that a reader might notice is an increase in the number of diagrams in the text. Dvoretsky claims in his author’s note to this edition that some 200 diagrams have been added, making it easier for his readers to study the book without a board. (What an optimist!) As new seven-person tablebases have become available, analysis of such positions has been checked and corrected where necessary. Other corrections – notably in the realm of certain rook endgames – have also been included, as theory has progressed dramatically in some cases, even since the previous edition was published in 2011.

Much of this movement in the theory of rook endgames is due to the remarkable analysis of a few obsessive endgame fans in the ChessPub Endgame forums. Dvoretsky pays special tribute to the work of Vardan Poghosyan, an endgame specialist whom I have mentioned in an earlier review, as being particularly important in this regard.

It is often said that opening books are out of date as soon as they are printed, as new games and new ideas are produced every day. This is less true of endgame manuals, but it is still a fact of publishing life. Another drawing idea in the Kantorovich / Steckner position was discovered by Jacob Aagaard earlier this year and verified by Poghosyan in the Chesspub forums. Because this discovery appeared too late for inclusion in the new edition of DEM, I provide it here. The position is 9-158 in DEM 4th edition, 9-144 in DEM 3rd edition.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2014/12/26/Game1157185234.html

While there are a number of improvements to this new edition of DEM, there is also potentially a regression. Some readers of earlier editions, notably the first and second, complained that some of the blue print (used to denote key theoretical positions and analysis) was fainter than they would have preferred. A few of the pages in my copy of this new edition suffer from the same problem. There are even a few pages where both the black and blue print are faint. All pages are fully legible, and I cannot say whether problem is unique to my copy or endemic to many; still, if you are sensitive to such things, be aware.

I don’t think you can call yourself a serious student of the endgame and not own Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. If you already own it, you can probably skip upgrading to the new edition, unless you (like me) are the sort of person who likes to have the most up-to-date theory at your disposal. If you don’t have it on your bookshelf, you should SERIOUSLY consider adding it to your collection.

Holiday Gifts for Chessplayers

Last year I posted a three-part guide to holiday gifts for the chess player or aficionado in your life. Most all of what was written there still stands, so before I mention a few newer items of note, I refer you to those three posts. I also encourage you to check out my complete list of reviews.

2013 Buying Guide #1: Clocks and Chess Interfaces (Note – ChessBase 13 is now available)
2013 Buying Guide #2: Databases and Engines (Note – the discussion of engines is slightly out of date; see this for updated information)
2013 Buying Guide #3: Chess books

Here are a few new thoughts on the swag you might buy for your beloved chess fan. Some (but not all) of what I mention has been reviewed here already; if it has been reviewed, I will link to the review in question.

For the serious player (or the player who wants to get serious):

ChessBase is indispensable. It is expensive, but it’s worth it, and your player will be over the moon upon receiving this. You can order from Amazon (available from Prime sellers) or download directly from chessbase.com if time is of the essence.

If they have ChessBase already, perhaps they need a new engine to use in it! You might also consider getting them Jon Edwards’ lovely (and useful) book on getting the most out of ChessBase.

For the improving player:

Don’t let the length of Arthur van de Oudeweetering’s name trouble you. His new book from NIC, Improve Your Chess Pattern Recognition, is a great (and pronounceable) read on positional ‘priyomes’ or patterns. Most of the book started as columns in the defunct ChessVibes Magazine, and those columns were just brilliant. I expect the book (still waiting on a review copy) will be no different.

Pete Tamburro’s Openings for Amateurs is really good for young players and players rated below 1800. It is good with explaining ideas but also contains enough analysis to form a coherent repertoire.

The 4th edition of Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual is out, and it’s the gold standard for one-volume endgame books. It’s a serious book for serious students, but I can’t think of a more useful book for someone who really wants to improve.

The Stappenmethode series of books is, in my opinion, the best training system available.

For the openings theoretician:

Two recent books from Quality Chess are stellar:

1.d4 players will appreciate any of Alexei Kornev’s three volumes on closed openings. I’ve spent some time with the third volume, devoted to the Nimzo-Indian and other lines, and I’ve found the analysis to be solid and understandable for non-masters.

Those with limited time for opening study and those looking for a very solid response to 1.e4 will like Hannes Langrock’s French Defense: the Solid Rubinstein Variation.

For the historian:

Andy Soltis has written a number of really important historical works, but for a long time they were only available in expensive hardcover format. Now McFarland has begun printing some of those titles in paperback. Two of them are worth consideration: Frank Marshall, United States Chess Champion, and Soviet Chess 1917-1991. I found the latter to be indispensible when I was reading and reviewing Soltis’ new book on Mikhail Botvinnik, which itself won the 2014 Chess Journalists of America Book of the Year award.

Jimmy Adams’ books have long been out of print and hard to find. His book on Johannes Zukertort, one of his best, has been reset and reprinted by New in Chess. There are lots of exciting attacking games in these pages.

For the chess fan:

Judit Polgar retired from competitive chess this year, but before she did, she left us with a gift. The three volumes of Judit Polgar Teaches Chess are luminous! They cover the entirety of her career, and while the books are structured by topic and theme instead of in a strictly linear fashion, there is a lot of color and personal reminiscence to complement the games and analysis. These are very personal works, and I think they’ll stand up against the best autobiographical works in the history of chess literature.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games makes the games of the Great Dane available once more to an English-speaking audience.

A ‘fan’ or a ‘historian’ would appreciate Mark Dvoretsky’s latest book, For Friends and Colleagues: Profession: Chess Coach. I reviewed this for the January 2015 issue of Chess Life, and while I can’t break the publishing embargo, let’s just say that the review was positive.

My best wishes to my readers for the holiday season!

The Great Dane

This review has been printed in the December 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate 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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Larsen, Bent. Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. Translated from Todas Las Piezas Atacan (volumes 1 and 2) by Freddie Poggio and John Saunders. ISBN 978-9056914684. 336pp. PB $34.95; currently (12/2) $25ish on Amazon.

The name Bent Larsen is, for many Americans, inextricably linked with that of Bobby Fischer. It was Larsen, not Fischer, who played first board in the 1970 USSR vs the World match, with Bobby – returning to chess after a three year absence – graciously giving way to the Dane. And it was Larsen who was Fischer’s second victim in his miraculous march to the World Championship, the score of the Candidates Semi-Final in Denver standing 6-0 in the American’s favor.

Such myopia is perhaps understandable, given the Fischer-colored lens that colors American understanding of chess history. It is also lamentable. Bent Larsen was not merely a bit player in the great Fischer drama. He was, for at least a decade, the only Western player (besides Fischer) to seriously trouble the Soviets, the winner of dozens of tournaments and three Interzonals, and a prolific writer to boot.

For years the English-speaking world has had to make due with just one games collection from Larsen: his 1970 Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess 1948-1969, now out of print and relatively hard to find. New in Chess has seized upon this fact and published Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. And not a moment too soon.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games is a translation of two recent Spanish collections. Games #1-74 are an extended and revised version of the material in Larsen’s Selected Games, with games through 1973. Games #75-124 come from Larsen’s 1973-77 journalistic efforts, so the notes have a slightly breezier feel than the earlier ones.

Larsen is not quite in the class of Botvinnik or Smyslov as an annotator, but he is very close. His notes are deeply instructive, judiciously mixing variations with prose. We get a real sense of Larsen the player and strategist in these pages, and the influence of his hero Aron Nimzowitsch is clearly felt.

Here is Larsen’s account of a ‘mysterious rook move’ that would have pleased the Stormy Petrel. White is to play.

image

18.Rb2!!

… the advantages of 18.Rb2 can be summarized as follows: (1) it leads to a direct threat, with a gain of tempo; (2) it prepares for a doubling of rooks on the d-file; for example, 18…Qc7 19.Na4, with the idea of 20.Qc4 and 21.Rbd2; (3) it is important to retain the c-pawn to support the knight on a4. That is to say, with the c-pawn solidly protected and the a-file blocked, White can concentrate his forces on exploiting the open d-file. Then White will be able to strengthen his position with Nd2 and Nc4, Bf1 and Bc4, or h3–h4 and Bh3. (43)

Here we see the profundity of Larsen’s play as well as his explanatory prowess. Modern engines may prefer the ‘dogmatic’ (Kmoch) 18.b4, but they do not contradict the validity of Larsen’s move. If we look at the text a bit closer, we might also see something else.

The same game – Larsen-Perez, Gijon 1956 – appears in Larsen’s Selected Games. There Larsen says that “it is really important to keep the pawn on QKt3, to protect the knight on QR4. With the pawn on QB5 solidly protected and the QR file blocked, White is able to concentrate upon the exploitation of the Queen’s file.” This earlier rendering makes more sense, and I suspect – although I cannot say definitively – that the new translation is mistaken.

There are other small errors sprinkled through the text. Impossible moves are given (11…Kf5, 153). Openings are incorrectly named (35) and evaluations are flipped (287). It may seem pedantic to note such issues, but Larsen’s writing deserves much better.

Still, this is a fantastic book. Bent Larsen was a world-class player and writer. His games remain vital, entertaining and educational. So do yourself a favor: put down that opening book for a few days and let Houdini rest for a while. Get out your set and pieces and spend some time with Bent Larsen’s Best Games. You might just remember why you started playing chess in the first place.