2019 Last Minute Gift Guide

FYI – my 2019 Last Minute Chess Gift Guide at uschess.org has mini-reviews of a number of books, including:

Caruana, Fabiano. Navigating the Ruy Lopez, Volumes 1-3.

Dvoretsky, Mark, and Jan Gustafsson. Calculation with Dvoretsky and Endgames with Dvoretsky. Both reviewed here in November 2016.

Hansen, Carsten. Daily Chess Training: Chess Tactics, Volume 1.

Hansen, Carsten. Daily Chess Training: Chess Tactics, Volume 2.

Levenfish, Grigory. Soviet Outcast: The Life and Games of Grigory Levenfish.

Kamsky, Gata. Gata Kamsky: Chess Gamer, Volume 1 Awakening (1989-1996)

Kamsky, Gata. Gata Kamsky: Chess Gamer, Volume 2 Return (2004-2013)

Krasenkow, Michal. Learn from Michal Krasenkow.

McDonald, Neil. Coach Yourself: A Complete Guide to Self-Improvement at Chess.

McGowan, Alan. Kurt Richter: A Chess Biography with 499 Games.

Renette, Hans. Louis Paulsen: A Chess Biogrpahy with 719 Games.

Rowson, Jonathan. The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.

Lessons Learned

This review has been printed in the December 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Geller, Efim. The Nemesis:  Geller’s Greatest Games. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830618. HB 480pp.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

Anniversaries are a time for celebration, for looking at the great accomplishments of the past, and for understanding how they might weave their way into the

So it is with the 80th Anniversary of the US Chess Federation, an organization that has grown from a membership base of 533 in the middle of World War II (1943) to the nearly 100,000 members we boast today. Chess Life, along with its predecessor Chess Review, stands as a chronicle of  American chess in those eighty years, and the digitization project announced at the 2019 Delegates Meeting is the best anniversary present that US Chess could possibly have given its members.

I have spent more than a few hours perusing this archive, which should soon be available to US Chess members (if it is not already). And I am struck by the tremendous variety of materials found there, and how they differ from what we find in today’s chess magazines.

While the analysis itself cannot be expected to stand the test of time, there is much in these issues that retains value. The contemporaneous reporting of big events have not lost their vitality. Endgame columns by Edmar Mednis and Pal Benko are still vital sources of knowledge, even if some of the particulars are wrong. And the annotations… one finds a treasure trove of analysis from some of the world’s leading players, now free for anyone to download.

Take, for instance, the May 1974 issue of Chess Life. Svetovar Gligoric analyzes the famous Karpov-Uhlmann “a-file game” (Nice, 1974) over three pages, including a massive opening theoretical. Paul Keres annotates games from the Karpov-Spassky match. Bent Larsen writes about Las Palmas 1974, Reshevsky discusses two of his games, and Laszlo Szabo turns his eye to three games from recent competitions. Couple this with Mednis’ excellent work on the endgame and “Benko’s Bafflers,” and you begin to see what a massive resource US Chess has given the world.

Why am I taking so much time to talk about magazines? Aren’t they obsolete in the perpetual now of YouTube and Stockfish? Absolutely not. While the chess media landscape has changed in the Internet age, with constant livestreams of big events, and websites like Chess Life Online providing quick, solid reporting, perspective and context can be hard to pin down in real-time. That’s where publications like Chess Life are so valuable. They distill and memorialize the ephemeral, standing as a publication of record for future generations.

More: besides being a pleasant diversion, serious study of chess history and analysis is essential to ongoing improvement. When someone works through well-annotated games as found in Chess Life, she learns how openings evolved, how initiative moves into attack and how mini-plans are woven into long-term advantages. All of this is precisely what an engine or tactics trainer cannot teach you.

I was reminded of this when listening to GM Ramesh RB talk about his life and career on the Perpetual Chess Podcast. He laments the obsession of young players with engines and databases, and argues that it is critical for his students to study books, particularly games collections of great players. In doing so, they learn the history of the game, but also pick up key ideas about strategy and technique.

And it’s not just coaches who understand this. Fabiano Caruana showed his historical knowledge at the recent FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, dredging up an antiquated opening idea in the Rossolimo Sicilian to defeat Vladimir Fedoseev. Awonder Liang described the Yermolinsky-Ehlvest game at the 2019 US Senior Championship as “90s era chess”[1] where play is less concrete but more thematic, thereby exhibiting his grounding in chess history… and perhaps a bit of the impudence of youth!

The new Chess Life digital archive is one source for this kind of material. Another is the tried and true chess book. Amidst the avalanche of opening books and self-help tomes, publishers have also put out some excellent historical and biographical titles in recent years. When I look back at the best books that have passed through my mailbox, many are of this variety, but I was particularly impressed with one in particular.

The “Chess Classics” series at Quality Chess has included some important titles, including Python Strategy, an annotated collection of Petrosian’s games, and The Science of Strategy, a textbook of sorts from Alexander Kotov. The newest book in the lineup is The Nemesis: Geller’s Greatest Games, a translation of a 2017 Russian collection of Efim Geller’s annotated games. It is excellent.

Geller was one of those players who, while not quite at the level of the World Champions, wasn’t far off their standard. Tactically gifted and technically skilled, Geller was particularly valued by the Soviets as an opening theoretician. He created numerous ideas in the Sicilian and King’s Indian – Botvinnik famously said that “before Geller, we did not understand the King’s Indian” – and seconded Spassky, Karpov, and Kasparov in World Championship play. Perhaps his only weaknesses were perfectionism, leading to time trouble, and a (relative) propensity for blunders.

The Nemesis contains 135 games annotated by Geller’s own hand, organized chronologically with the exception of two appendices featuring his brilliancy prizes and best adjourned endings. 86 of the games have previously appeared in English in The Application of Chess Theory (Cadogan, 1984), but the new edition has a number of advantages over its predecessor.[2] Two are worth mentioning.

The Application of Chess Theory is organized by opening, while games in The Nemesis occur in the order they were played. I prefer the latter, as it allows readers to get a sense of Geller’s growth from tactical hacker to all-around player. This may simply be personal preference, but it is not hard to see Geller’s stylistic progression as one works chronologically through his games.

I had not seen much of Geller’s writing before I began reading The Nemesis, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. His annotations are matter-of-fact and sometimes a bit sharp, and he does a fine job explaining the key features of positions without droning on. The analysis is also well-tuned, with lines going deeply enough when it is necessary, but without overwhelming readers.

The games themselves are fantastic. Genna Sosenko’s comment in Russian Silhouettes –  “a lot of what seems obvious and straightforward in present-day chess is based on positions and principles which were developed by the best players and analysts of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And one of the most significant of these was Efim Geller.”[3] – is lent credence in these pages, and I suspect that readers will find much in Geller’s games that can be applied in their own

The Nemesis also properly handles the problem of how to introduce computer analysis into pre-computer annotations. Engine-assisted improvements by IM Max Notkin, the editor of the Russian edition, appear in italics in the text tastefully and

Case in point: consider this critical position from Fischer-Geller, Monte Carlo 1967.

Here, after more than twenty minutes thought, Fischer played the incorrect 20.Bg4. Geller writes: “Condemning him for it is easy; avoiding the error is much more difficult. Objectively speaking, Black’s king should hardly be able to survive under fire from four white pieces, but finding the route to victory over-the-board is not so simple: there are too many continuations to analyse.”[4] (225) Play continued 20. … dxc4 21. Bxe6 Qd3 22. Qe1 Be4! and Black won shortly thereafter.

Geller spends two full pages unpacking the three alternatives Fischer had to consider – 20.Rf3, 20.Bd1, and 20.Qc2 – deciding that White’s attack would only work with the final two moves. The computer shows that just 20. Qc2 gives an advantage, as Black survives after 20. Bd1 Kd7 21. Rf7+ Kc6. But what about 20. Bf3, putting more pressure on the center and asking Black to make a productive

I stumbled upon this idea when checking Geller and Notkin’s notes with a prototype of the new Fat Fritz neural-net engine. Fat Fritz, in contrast to both Stockfish and Leela, thinks that 20. Bf3 is the best move in the position by a large margin. Together we worked out the following ideas, a much fuller version of which appears in this issue’s accompanying pgn file at uschess.org.

20. Bf3!? Be7

20th move alternatives: (a) 20. … Qb4 21. Qc2! (with the ideas of Rb1 and Qxh7) 21. … Be7 22. Rb1 Qxc4 23. Qxc4 dxc4 24. Bxb7 Rd8 25. Be3; (b) 20. … g6 21. Rb1 Rb8 22. cxd5 Bd4 (22. … exd5 23. Bxd5) 23. Qd1; (c) 20. … Rc8 21. cxd5 Qb4 22. Qd3. All give White a significant advantage.

21. Rb1 (21. cxd5!? Rd8 22. Bxe7 Qxe7 23. Qc2 with the initiative) 21. … Ra7

21st move alternatives: (a) 21. … Bxg5 22. Qxg5 Qd3 23. Rc1 Kf7 24. Qxe5 Re8 25. Bh5+ g6 26. Bg4 and the attack continues; (b) 21. … Rb8 22. cxd5 exd5 23. Bxd5 Bxg5 24. Qxg5 (24. Bc6+ Kf7 25. Qxg5 Qd3 26. Qc1 and White wins the exchange) 24. … Qd6 25. Bb3 and White continues to press.

22. cxd5 exd5 23. Qe2 Qd6 (23. … e4 24. Qf2; 23. … Bd6 24. Qc2) 24. Be3 d4 25. Bxb7 dxe3 26. Qxe3 Rxb7 (26. … Qd4 27. Bc6+) 27. Rxb7 Qd1+ 28. Qg1 Qd5 29. Rb8+ Kf7 30. Qf1+. White should win this easily.

Purdy once said that the best way to improve was to “play against champions”[5] by studying their games and testing our ideas against their moves and analysis. In doing so we renew the conversation with the past, conjuring the spirits of the game’s greats and bringing them into discussion with the present and future.

The Nemesis provides a model for how we might understand that dialogue today, including silicon-enhanced insights without harming or undermining Geller’s particular genius. That dialogue extends indefinitely, as Fat Fritz and I learned in the lines above. Perhaps some of my readers will investigate the new Chess Life digital archive to see what kind of conversations they might find there.

[1] See the STLCC live coverage of the 7th Round of the U.S. Senior and Junior Championships (at about 2:41). Thanks to Jeremy Kane and Tatev Abrahamyan for helping me find this via Twitter! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWRkUiYTTO8

[2] The inverse of the in-text statement is that 14 games in The Application of Chess Theory are not to be found in The Nemesis. The explanation, per the publishers at their blog, is that only Russian-language sources were included in the 2017 Russian edition, thereby undercutting IM Notkin’s claims in the Preface to this being Geller’s “complete works.”

[3] Sosonko, Genna. Russian Silhouettes. 3rd edition. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2009 (2001). p.81.

[4] As an aside, Geller includes a fascinating observation. “The characterization of Fischer that I rightly relied on was borne out at this very juncture: in unfamiliar sharp positions he loses his bearings.” (ibid.)

[5] Purdy, C.J.S., and Ralph Tykodi, editor. C.J.S. Purdy’s Fine Art of Annotation and Other Thoughts, Volume 1. 2nd edition. Davenport: Thinker’s Publishing, 2004. viii.

A Legend Never Dies

They didn’t tell me I’d be writing obituaries when I signed on as US Chess Digital Editor.

So when I saw that Pal Benko had died on August 26th, I slumped back in my chair and began to think. What could I possibly write about a legend like Benko, especially as I had never had the pleasure to meet the man?

And then these lines floated through the years back to me, lines I read years ago in Fred Waitzkin’s masterful book on Garry Kasparov. Here, Waitzkin encounters a dejected Kasparov packing up his hotel suite in New York after a difficult first half of the 1990 World Championship match.

“The last two or three times I had visited, I had brought with me an autographed copy of Grandmaster Pal Benko’s endgame book, a volume that Benko had published himself and which he had asked me to give Kasparov. I believe there were a hundred copies or so in this new edition. Each time I came, I forgot to give it to Garry, or his mood was so bad that I thought that he wouldn’t notice it. …

When Garry came back in the room to sit among the boxes, I handed him Benko’s self-published book, half-expecting him to drop it at his feet. But instead, he started reading. “This is very important,” he said, as he slowly turned a page. Garry’s face softened. He moved his lips and smiled as he calculated a witty move. For the next hour or so, he lost himself in Benko’s book, which contained interesting and instructive endings culled from numerous games, along with Benko’s sharp analysis. Garry was enjoying chess for the first time since the start of the match.”[1]

Pal Benko was an outstanding chess player, an important opening theoretician, and one of the world’s leading authorities on chess problems and studies. But his true legacy may lie in his writing. Benko wrote six books and countless columns published right here in Chess Life. (He also revised and algrebratized Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings, one of the most important books in chess history.) This month we celebrate the words and works of Pal Benko.

Benko’s first book, The Benko Gambit (1973), was one of my first chess books. Or, to be more precise, it was one of the first that I devoured as a young player, scouring the shelves of Long Island libraries in a search for knowledge. I recall how mystified I was by Black’s effortless activity, and at the cost of just one pawn! A notebook, filled with lines cribbed from Benko’s book, is lost to time. Just as well – one wonders what holes the engines would punch in the analysis…

Winning with Chess Psychology (1991), written in conjunction with long-time Chess Life editor Burt Hochberg, is an interesting book with a slightly misleading title. It is not an academic study of chess from a psychological perspective, as one might find in de Groot’s Thought and Choice in Chess, or Krogius’ Psychology in Chess. Instead, readers are given practical advice rooted in Benko’s knowledge of chess history and culture.

The first part of the book, five chapters in all, sketches “the development of the psychological method” with reference to the World Champion, viewing chess alternatively through the lenses of fight, art, sport, life, and war. The remainder of the book offers Benko’s ideas about “chess psychology” in all facets of the game, including openings and endings, draw offers, final rounds, and time pressure. The chapter on women and computers is at once ahead of its time (regarding women) and badly dated (regarding engines).

While both of these titles were good for their time, neither can begin to compare to Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions, co-written with and edited by Jeremy Silman, and featuring an extensive opening survey by John Watson.

At 668 pages My Life, Games, and Compositions is exactly what its title suggests: a comprehensive look at Benko’s life, 135 of his self-annotated games, and 300 of his problems and studies. But without Benko’s incredible life story, those 668 pages would “thin soup” indeed. Very few have led lives as rich, for better and for worse, as did Pal Benko, and I cannot think of a chess biography as good as this one.

Benko takes us through his early life in Hungary, his suffering during the Second World War and under Russian occupation. Playing tournaments (literally) to eat, Benko built a reputation for himself, becoming a master in 1945 and an International Master in 1950.

Never a member of the Communist Party, Benko was jailed in 1952 by Hungarian authorities for attempting to defect, and for more than a year and a half he was held in a squalid work camp. Released in October 1953, Benko kept playing chess and looking to the West. He finally managed to defect in 1957 at the World Student Championships in Iceland, and after a few years working in the financial field, he became a “chess professional,” with Fischer (on his telling) being his only colleague.

Gripping as it is, Benko’s tale is told in service to the presentation of his games. And for those of us who only knew Benko as “the endings theoretician” or “the guy who gave Fischer his Interzonal spot,” it may come as a shock to play through Benko’s games and realize just how good he was. A positional player by nature, and of course known for his endgame acumen, he could also mix it up tactically, as his 1951 brilliancy against Korody shows. While Benko says that this is his most published game (55), it does not appear in MegaBase.

Semi-Slav Meran [D47]
Pal Benko
Budapest, 1951

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0–0 b4 10.Ne4 c5 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.Qe2 Qb6 13.a3 Bd6 14.axb4 cxd4 15.exd4 Rg8 16.b5? Qxd4!! 17.h3  

17.Nxd4 loses to 17. … Rxg2+ 18.Kh1 Rxh2+ 19.Kg1 Rh1 mate.

17…Ne5! 18.Nxd4 Rxg2+ 19.Kh1 Rh2+  

The forced mate runs 19. … Rh2+ 20.Kxh2 (20.Kg1 Rh1#) 20. … Ng4+ 21.Kg1 Bh2 mate.


My Life, Games, and Compositions also illustrates the depth and scope of Benko’s compositional efforts. Few auteurs work across the whole of the problem world – mate problems, endgame studies, helpmates, serials and retros – and Benko shows us the full span of his artistry. Here is one of his “Bafflers,” published in these pages in 1994, and while Benko himself preferred more complex compositions, his “lightweight” (620) efforts are both pleasing and practical for we mortal solvers.

(For the answer, in best “Baffler” fashion, please check the bottom of this post.)

This study featured in Benko’s longest running Chess Life column, “Benko’s Bafflers,” which appeared monthly from 1967 through Benko’s retirement in December 2013. But that was not his first foray into chess journalism. Benko’s words first appeared in Chess Life’s September 1963 issue as annotations to Benko-Gligoric from the 13th round of the First Piatgorsky Cup.

Beginning in December 1963, when “Two Wins from Chicago” was published, Benko’s name graced the Chess Life masthead with increasing regularity. “Benko’s Bafflers” helped introduce problems and studies to a broad readership. He took over the “In the Arena” column beginning in 1971, analyzing games (often his own) from important events around the world.

In January 1981 Benko switched gears, inaugurating his “Endgame Laboratory.” It was not Chess Life’s first endgame serial – Edmar Mednis’s “The Practical Endgame” had ended 18 months earlier – but Benko’s work here raised the bar, with a remarkable depth of analysis and clarity of explanation.

Benko always kept his focus squarely on the practical needs of the over-the-board player, and he was ahead of the technological curve, citing endgame databases and computers before it was popular to do so. With examples current and classic, and through his engagement with readers through contests and published letters, Benko made the endgame accessible to generations of Chess Life readers.

Benko’s two self-published collections of his endgame columns, both named Chess Endgame Lessons (1989, 1999), together cover two decades of his work. Both are widely sought after by aficionados.[2] Jeremy Silman once called the first volume “the best endgame book ever written,” and the aformentioned John Watson wrote that it was “one of [his] favorite endgame books.”[3] For my part, the two volumes of Chess Endgame Lessons were on a very short list of titles that, once acquired, gave me the sense that I was a real collector.

Today these books hard to find, and neither I nor (presumably) Kasparov are looking to sell ours anytime soon. But there is good news for those who might want to dip into the vast store of Benko’s Chess Life writings.

It was announced at the 2019 Delegates Meetings in Orlando that, in the interest of our 501(c)3 educational initiatives, back issues of Chess Life were being digitized and released to the general public for free download with a one-year paywall. When this project is completed, all of Benko’s writings for US Chess will be available to anyone with an internet connection. The files are big, so be patient when downloading. I assure you that it will be entirely worth it.

Answer to diagrammed Baffler:

1.Nf7+ Kh7 2.Bh3! Qb5 [2. … Qd5 3.Bg4 Qb5 4.Ng5+ Kh8 5.a3 Qd3 6.Nf7+ Kh7 7.Bf3!] 3.Ng5+ Kh6 4.Bg4 Qxb4+ [4. … Qd3 5.Nf7+ Kh7 6.Bf3!] 5.Kg8 Qxf4 6.Nf7+ 1–0

[1] Waitzkin, Fred. Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov. New York: Putnam, 1993. 186-7.

[2] There is a separate collection, Pal Benko’s Endgame Laboratory published by Ishi Press in 2007, that also contains the first six years of the column.

[3] Both quotes are from reviews at Jeremy Silman’s old website, obtained via archive.org.

Quest or Obsession?

This review has been printed in the October 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves (Doubleday, 2019) is, on first blush, a fairly conventional tale of a young man’s obsession with chess. Chapin first approached the board as a troubled teen, and in the book’s early chapters, he recounts his early dalliances with the game on his school’s chess team.

Already in these initial pages we find the two competing elements of Chapin’s life in chess. He describes the “ecstatic flight from [him]self” that he discovered in the game, and the growing importance it held in his day-to-day living:

… I lost interest in all of my other typical activities. The brief thrills of breaking the law or almost breaking a condom felt like shallow flutters compared to the sustained joy of playing over one of Bobby Fischer’s masterpieces. (24)

But for all of the pleasure that chess provides him, Chapin also discovers that he’s not a very good player. While he can deal with losing to other “chess nerds,” a series of ego-crushing defeats by his older brother is a step too far. Chapin swears the game off (33), assuming that it’s “just one of those things I liked when I was a kid, like cartoons, or Sartre, or weed…” (Here, as above, we see Chapin’s repeated sensationalism in action.)

Chapin’s “remission” ends when, during a hastily arranged reporting trip to Nepal, he encounters street hustlers in Katmandu. Predictably he loses, but the obsession returns, and while Chapin wonders if it’s not due to the effect the heat is having on his mood stabilizers (45-6), soon he is passing up the pleasures of the flesh to play chess on the Internet.

The bulk of All the Wrong Moves is devoted to Chapin’s abandoning himself, sometimes against the advice of his better angels, to chess. He starts with a local club in Bangkok, followed by a painful loss at the Bangkok Open that prompts him to withdraw from the tournament. He heads to New York and then Toronto, intending to exile himself from the game, but instead falling deeper and deeper under its spell.

Here the story takes a turn. Chapin meets a woman and comes to make a bold decision. Instead of fleeing from chess, and in an effort to overcome the shame he felt in his divided attention, Chapin rips off the band-aid. He effectively “goes pro,” trying to improve seriously over the course of a year, and with the goal of defeating a player rated 2000.[1]

This quest – and it’s clear that Chapin has shaped his tale as a quest – takes the author to Saint Louis for a month, where he hates everything about the city save the Chess Club and his lessons with Ben Finegold. He plays rated games in Toronto, New York, Hyderabad, and finally Los Angeles, where a win over an A player and a draw with an expert brings the journey to its completion.

Quest narratives like Chapin’s are not only about actions and deeds, but also meaning and growth. The hero is supposed to have learned something, become different and wiser, in his travels. What is the net result for Sasha Chapin after his sojourn in the chess world, and what should we take from it?

There is no small difficulty in reviewing a memoir. Any criticism runs the risk of reading like bad psychoanalyzing, and as someone who writes about chess for a living, it’s tricky to avoid expecting too much from a trade book aimed at non-specialists. Still, with these admonitions firmly in mind, we might hazard the following reading.

There is a chasm in Chapin’s tale between the descriptions of the joy he finds in chess, and the agony losing brings him. On the one hand, he senses and articulates quite well the beauty of the game (25, 52, 88-90), but the pleasure he finds pales in comparison to the self-loathing wrought by defeat.

For much of the book Chapin simply cannot abide the blows to his ego brought on by losses. After a child beats him, he says “I feel nothing but rage, and I am its only object.” Later he decides that perhaps “the essential ingredient to good chess play was self-hatred… I made sure to be as sad and uncomfortable as possible.” (103, 107)

It is odd that of all the methods Chapin employs to try and win more games, the most logical – study – never appears in the book. In 224 pages there is no mention of chess books or videos, no effort expended in showing readers the day-to-day work of chess improvement. Instead we get tales of days-long Internet blitz benders, which are fun, but which do little to improve his play.

And it’s not as if Chapin is unaware of chess literature and culture. He name-checks Aron Nimzowitsch, Jonathan Rowson, and Peter Svidler during his August 13th appearance on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess Podcast. He ominously cites “the Database” (47) as something that the best players have to master. So why doesn’t any of the hard work of improvement appear in the book?

Part of this omission may have to do with his audience. A memoir that details weeks analyzing the Sveshnikov probably won’t tear up the best-seller list, and Chapin admits on the Podcast that he made an authorial decision to “compress” the technical content.

But I suspect that the lack of focus on training has more to do with the almost Manichean framework of Chapin’s tale. Chapin is a believer in talent – you either have it, or you don’t. He incorrectly thinks that Magnus Carlsen is “infamous for not needing to study quite as hard as other high-level players” (77) due to his innate talent, while he laments his personal lack of any such gift.

The upshot, on this account, is that you can’t hate yourself for not being great. (77) Hard work and deliberate practice, the kind originally championed by Anders Ericsson can only paper over a lack of talent. So it’s not Chapin’s fault he’s bad at chess – it’s his inability to create mental images (43), his lack of God-given ability, or his opponent’s odorous distractions (153), but never the fact that, at least in the book, he doesn’t seem to actually try to improve.

There is more than a bit of magical thinking on Chapin’s part. Is it rational to move to Saint Louis for a month to take lessons with a GM? Certainly it’s good for the book. The pages on Finegold are delightful, and the koan-like lessons he recounts are memorable. But it also may be the case that the bitter truths Finegold tries to impart – have less fun! never sacrifice! don’t lose all your pieces! marriage is ok! – are self-fulfilling for Chapin’s understanding of the game’s value, and his along with it, as wholly measured in wins and losses.

Stranger still is the decision Chapin makes to travel to Hyderabad, taken as part of a desire to find “some way to speed things up a bit – some way to sell my soul to chess itself – some great and costly hero’s errand [he] could embark on, with epiphany as its reward.” (142) So he decides to play a tournament in India to “find Caïssa,” the goddess of chess, in the place where chess was born. Nevermind that Caïssa is a Greek dryad, or tree nymph, in William Jones’ poem!

Chapin’s “pilgrimage” makes for good reading, but what effect does it have on his chess career? He plays a few games with poor results, gets violently ill, and is forfeited out of the tournament. Something shatters in him; as he writes in a key passage,

I looked myself in the eyes. I was greenish, tired, and covered with a grimy residue of boomtown pollution commingled with sweat. … How would the rest of this go? I wondered. Like, the rest of my life? Probably like this, because this was it. How cute. Running from one distraction to another. Finding any defined life unbefitting of a never-ending sense of grandiosity. Neglecting a good woman in favor of a form of comfortable self-imprisonment. Just like a few girlfriends prior, whom you’d abandoned so you could experience mental episodes in peace. This is how you are. You know all this stuff. And now you’re spending all of your time learning it all over again. Super, super cute. Welcome to Hyderabad. (167)

The final pages on the Los Angeles tournament are almost anti-climactic after his Hyderabad revelation. While Chapin is happy to draw a player rated 2040, he seems almost relieved to tragicomically lose his last over-the-board game. Why? Are Finegold’s teachings, and in particular, his koan-like “secret to chess” – the capstone to the book which I will not spoil here – a mantra to bring peace to patzers everywhere?

It’s clear that the final pages of the book are meant as a grand denouement, a big reveal. Chapin achieves some kind of equanimity where everything – wins, losses, brilliancies and blunders – are all “mostly fine,” but the side effect is that the passion drains from Chapin and from his chess. Is this indeed enlightenment, or is it resignation?

I am of two minds here, and so I leave it to the reader to decide which is more true. (Perhaps both are?) But the second possibility raises a troubling question for chess players. Is it possible to love chess without excelling at it? Is it ok to be obsessed with a game that, for all of its pleasures, will break your heart again and again and again?

For Chapin, the answer seems to be no. But if we shift our thinking a bit, and understand the object of our infatuation with chess less in terms of wins and losses, and more in terms of beauty and meaning, the answer (even on Chapin’s own account) may be yes.

There are pages where Chapin hints in this direction (54, 84-89), towards viewing chess as “the most human thing you can do,” as violence made beautiful through abstraction and sublimation. But he never gets to the key point, namely, that to be human is to be a creature in search of meaning.

Tarrasch was right when he said that chess, like music and art, has the power to make us happy. But more to the point, chess, like its more respected cousins, can orient a world. It doesn’t happen automatically or for everyone – an act of apprenticeship is required, as Deleuze said of Proust’s apprenticeship to signs in his Search for Lost Time – but I would bet good money that more than a few of my readers understand what I mean.

I will not speculate on why Chapin does not make this final connection, but it may explain why he misunderstands the example of Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicates a full chapter of All the Wrong Moves. Chapin takes Duchamp’s self-abandonment to the game as the model for his own quest, but ultimately deems him a failure who wasted his creative powers.

I think Chapin underestimates Duchamp’s achievements. Far from being “never excellent, as Chapin claims (69), Duchamp was of master-level strength, a member of the French national team and the winner of both over-the-board and correspondence tournaments… none of which, it turns out, is relevant to the question at hand.

Duchamp’s “gambit,” his abandoning the art world in favor of chess, can only be understood as a personal quest for meaning. Because chess could not be commercialized, because it was beautiful like art but without economic value, outside “social position,” as he told Time in 1952, it took hold of him, giving him an axis mundi around which to build a life. Even if he had never won a game, that would be enough reason to give himself to Caïssa and become her servant.

We are now far afield of the typical “book report” review some may have expected. My trip into the weeds has been an effort to take Chapin’s book seriously, and to do it justice. It is a raw, intimate, unvarnished look at one man’s journey through the chess world, and it’s a good read to boot. Many of us, myself included, will see more of ourselves in it than we might want to admit.

I found the end of All the Wrong Moves unsatisfactory and unfinished. That may be more about me than about Chapin’s book; in any event, my feeling was meliorated in no small part by Chapin’s appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where his eventual return to chess is left open. For his sake, I hope he finds a way to give it a go.

[1] Note that there’s slightly more to the story here than the book lets on. Chapin was supporting himself as a feature writer during these months, publishing pieces on Eric Hansen and the 2016 World Championship Match among others, and on the basis of a feature that eventually became Chapter 3 of All the Wrong Moves, he had already secured a publishing contract for the book under review.

Multi-Tasking to the Max

This review has been printed in the September 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Edouard, Romain. My Magic Years with Topalov. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510440. PB 310pp.

Edouard, Romain. “Play the French.” video series at chess24.com.

The immortal James Brown is often said to have been the “hardest working man in show business.” Recently I found myself wondering who would hold the same title in the chess world.

One way to answer the question would be to look at the new Leader Boards page at uschess.org. For the year running from June 2018 through May 2019, New York’s “chess ironman” Jay Bonin has played a whopping 578 regular and dual rated games, good for second place in the games count. The leader is a 7 year old girl from California, Dada Cabrales-Goldstein, who has an amazing 655 games to her credit.

If we take a broader view, including chess labor that is not strictly ‘at the board,’ the candidate pool broadens. Seconds for the world’s elite, such as Peter Heine Nielsen (second to Magnus Carlsen) or Rustam Kazimdzhanov (Fabiano Caruana’s trainer), are logical choices, as are top streamers like Agadmator or ChessNetwork.

My pick, however, might be GM Romain Edouard. Currently rated 2647 and a recent member of the +2700 club, Edouard is an active player, playing on multiple club teams around Europe. He is the editor-in-chief of Thinkers Publishing, and the author of six titles for his imprint, including his newest, My Magic Years with Topalov, which we’ll look at this month.

Edouard has also begun to move into chess streaming and videos, having recently worked as a French commentator for the Grand Chess Tour livestreams. He has also released two video series for Chess24: “Veselin Topalov: The Initiative in Chess,” derived from his Topalov book, and “Play the French,” which will occupy the bulk of this month’s column. A third, titled “10 Endgame Principles You Should Know,” should be out by the time you read these words.

My Magic Years with Topalov tells the story of Edouard’s time (2010-2014) as Veselin Topalov’s second. A second, for those unfamiliar with the term, functions as a “chess assistant” for an elite player, helping them with opening analysis, serving as a sparring partner in training games, and sometimes playing the role of confidant and psychologist.

Edouard worked as Topalov’s second during the later part of Topalov’s years in the elite, including the 2012-13 Grand Prix cycle and the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, where Topalov finished in a disappointing eighth place. Here he spills the beans on his work for Topalov, offering readers an intimate, unvarnished account of his role as second, of Topalov’s games in that period, and of Topalov ‘the person.’

In his Preface to the book, Topalov lauds his former assistant, saying that he “believe[s] chess fans will like the honesty of the stories as nothing is hidden.” (7) Edouard’s candor does both players a service: we obtain important insights into his work with Topalov, and we also get a sympathetic portrait of Topalov himself that, in part, erodes the damage done to his reputation by the ‘Toiletgate’ episode in 2006.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Edouard’s book lay out the nature of his job as Topalov’s second. He explains how the second must merge silicon insights with human intuition to produce useable analysis, and how organizational skills – presenting the material in a succinct, digestable manner – are critical to the task. And even then, players have to read their emails, lest they overlook important novelties cooked up by their team! See Edouard’s account of the Gelfand-Topalov and Giri-Topalov games at the 2012 London Grand Prix for this tale that turned out well. (86-89, 104-108)

The great bulk of My Magic Years with Topalov consists of tournament recaps and dense game analysis. Here Edouard shines. Without shying away from sometimes necessarily deep analytical dives into key positions, Edouard largely manages to keep things comprehensible for the amateur reader, and he is very generous in providing ‘unexploded’ opening ideas along the way. As a collection of Topalov’s games, this book is a standout, but when combined with the behind-the-scenes stories and insights, My Magic Years with Topalov becomes one of the year’s best works.

“Play the French” is a set of 13 videos, running 5 hours and 13 minutes in all, presenting a repertoire in the French Defense. The stated goal of the series is “[t]o provide the viewer with a complete Black repertoire after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5.” In this Edouard largely succeeds, offering a set of fighting variations for Black to play for a win. There are some key omissions, which we will note along the way, but Edouard manages to pack an impressive amount of material into five hours of video.

After a short introduction, and a 44 minute video on the Exchange Variation where … Nc6 lines are largely avoided, Edouard spends 74 minutes over two videos proposing 5. … Bd7 against the Advance Variation. Against White’s three main choices, he recommends 6. Be2 f6!?, 6. a3 c4, and heading into the main lines of the Milner-Barry with 6. Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Qb6 8.0–0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6 11.Qe2 Rc8!, following Sulskis-Giri, Batumi 2018.

Edouard’s analysis is solid, and he does a good job of explaining the ideas in the video, if perhaps a bit too quickly at times. He also omits coverage of important sidelines, particularly in the Milner-Barry. The dangerous 9. Nbd2, or the ‘Nun’ variation, is not included in the video. Nor is 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3 a6 11. Re1, which is the second most popular continuation in the database.

Edouard needs five videos, and 90 minutes, to unpack his recommendations against the Tarrasch. Here he analyzes the trendy 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Ngf3 cxd4 6. Bc4 Qd7!? as his main line, along with 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. dxc5 Bxc5 6. Ngf3 Nf6 7. Bc4 Qc6 and 4. Ngf3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 (note that 5. exd5 transposes to the main line above) 5. … Nf6 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Nb5 Na6 8.Nc3 Qd6. I found the coverage to be convincing and comprehensive, with no major omissions to note.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Edouard’s repertoire is his recommendation against 3. Nc3. Across three videos, running 89 minutes in length, Edouard proposes that readers play 3. … Nf6 and aim for two intensely aggressive variations.

If White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5, Edouard recommends the “neo-Morozevich” variation (per Larry Kaufman in NIC Yearbook 90): 4. … dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6 7.Nf3 f5. Play is sharp in all variations, but the key line, where White sacrifices a piece for the attack – 8. Nc3 a6 9. g3 b5 10. Bg2 Bb7 11. 0–0 c5! 12. d5 b4 13.dxe6 bxc3 14.exf7+ Kf8 – is analyzed to equality by Edouard, following Kosten-Bluebaum, Brest 2018.

If, instead, White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5, Edouard proposes we play a new line in the Steinitz: 4. … Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. dxc5 0–0! 9. Qd2 Qa5 and after 10. 0-0-0 b6 11. Bb5 we try 11. … Nb4!? This is a recent idea, offering to sacrifice a piece for a serious attack, and it was seen in one of the most brilliant games of recent months:


GM Alireza Firouzja (2669)
GM Constantin Lupulescu (2634)
Reykjavik Open (7.1), 14.04.2019

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0–0 9.dxc5 Qa5 10.0–0–0 b6 11.Bb5 Nb4 12.a3 bxc5 13.Bxd7 Bxd7 14.axb4 cxb4 15.Nb1 Rfc8 16.Nd4 Qa2 17.f5 exf5 18.Rhf1 a5 19.Nxf5 Bxf5 20.Rxf5 a4 21.Bd4 a3 22.e6 f6 23.Qd3 b3 24.Rf2 Ra4 25.c3 Rxd4 26.Qxd4 Bc5 27.Qd2 Bxf2 28.Qxf2 Qa1 29.e7 a2 30.e8Q+ Rxe8 31.Qf5 d4 0–1

White can vary at a number of places – 10. a3, 13. Kb1! (which may be best), etc. – or can avoid taking the c-pawn entirely. After 8. Qd2 0-0 9.Be2, Edouard looks at 9. … b6 10. 0-0 f5!? and assess the resulting lines as unclear. While this recommendation will require some memory work, Edouard does a fine job of synthesizing and summarizing his analysis, and I think viewers would feel comfortable playing the variation after watching the video. That Edouard, a long-time French player, has played this exact line with Black (Santos Ruiz-Edouard, Skopje 2019) is a good sign that he believes in what he’s offering here.

In “French Toast: How Harikrishna fries 1. … e6,” his new Anti-French repertoire just out from Chessable, GM Pentala Harikrishna recommends that White avoid the mainline Steinitz by varying with 5.Nce2 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Nf3.

Steinitz 5.Nce2 7.Nf3

Here Edouard first offers 7. … Qb6, when both he and Harikrishna follow the same path: 8. a3 f6 9. exf6 Nxf6 10. g3 cxd4 11. cxd4 and now the novelty 11. … e5!?. (Note: this has now been tested in Jacobson,A-Shetty, Philadelphia, 2019). Edouard analyzes out to move 22, finding that White gets a slight advantage in sharp play, while Harikrishna extends Edouard’s line two moves and concludes that “White is still pushing.”

It’s not clear to me that Black is that much worse after 11. … e5, and I’m not sure why both analysts reject the natural 11. … Bd6 12. Bg2 0–0 13. 0–0 Bd7 14. Bf4 Bxf4 15. Nxf4 (Bologan-Svane, Berlin 2015) and now 15. … Ne4. Still, despite deeming 7. … Qb6 and 11. … e5 playable, Edouard offers 7. … a5 as an alternative.

After 7. … a5 Harikrishna likes 8. a4, and Edouard analyzes 8. … Qb6 9. g3 Be7 10. Bh3 0–0 11. 0–0 Qa6 12. Nf4 b5 as “unclear.” This line is not forced, as we see when we compare Harikrishna’s main variation: 8. … Qb6 9. g3 cxd4 10. cxd4 f6 11. exf6 Nxf6 12. Nc3 e5!?, leading to a slight advantage for White. Suffice to say that there is room for creativity and debate here.

At least four important lines are missing from Edouard’s Steinitz coverage. After 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 White can play 5.Qg4, 5.Qh5 (the “Haldane Hack”) and 5. Nf3 c5 6. dxc5 Nc6 7. Bf4. He also overlooks 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. Qd2 0-0 9. h4, an idea covered in Chessbase Magazine 188 and played by the likes of Wang Hao and Ray Robson.

Because it omits sidelines like these, and because the final video, covering “odds and ends,” is relatively slight, new French players will have to supplement the series with another resource. Of the standard titles – Berg’s three volumes from Quality Chess, Moskalenko’s Even More Flexible French, and Watson’s Play the French 4 – none completely matches Edouard’s choices, with Moskalenko’s being the relatively best fit.

Perhaps it is too much to ask Edouard to analyze everything in just over five hours of video. What is covered in “Play the French” is outstanding, providing the framework for a master or even Grandmaster-level French repertoire. Any French player looking to add some new ideas to their arsenal would do well to check it out.

Data-Driven Chess

This review has been printed in the August 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Erwich, Frank. 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players: The Tactics Workbook that Also Explains All Key Concepts. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918194. PB 160pp.

Luther, Thomas, et al. Chess Coaching for Kids: The U-10 Project. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-3944710358. HC 255pp.

Zaninotto, Franco. Learning from the Mistakes of Others. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019. ISBN 978-3959209823.

Zaninotto, Franco. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions! Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917746. PB 144pp.

Professional sport is becoming increasingly data-driven at the highest levels. Baseball teams obsess over exit velocity, spin rate, and advanced sabermetrics, while basketball analysts chart shot selection and work to quantify defensive abilities. All this is done in the interest of efficiency and improved results.

Chess players are no exception to this trend. Data-driven players use engines and immense databases to study their opponents and hone their intuition. Some rely on off-the-shelf databases like MegaBase or TWIC (The Week in Chess). Others “roll their own,” searching out correspondence games and engine matches to increase their data trove.

One interesting effect of this “data arms race” is the availability of amateur and junior games – not just players rated under 2000, but under 1400 or even 1000 – for analysis and study. This presents some intriguing possibilities for both players and coaches.

If we want to understand typical errors made by amateurs and juniors, it might make sense to undertake a study of their games. And while showing a 800 player a Morphy brilliancy might inspire them, it would arguably be more useful to feature mistakes from players of their level, and then help them to avoid them.

Italian FM Franco Zaninotto has published two books that aim to do just that. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions (New in Chess, 2018) and Learning from the Mistakes of Others (Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019) are twin titles that draw their content from games by lower-rated players.

Super Chess Kids focuses on “strategy” (Part I) and “tactics” (Part II), using games from youth championships from around the world as examples. Learning from the Mistakes of Others takes a broader view, with positions from amateur games employed as “teachable moments” in all three phases of the game. Because both books are structurally similar, we will treat them together.

The main sections of Zaninotto’s books consist of concise thematic chapters followed by a series of positions to solve with their solutions. The “Calculation” chapter (Super Chess Kids, 78-84) is typical, offering advice for improving one’s calculation along with illustrative examples. His advice (78-9) is based on Kotov, but it boils down to (a) finding sensible candidate moves, and (b) choosing the strongest one. All five examples in this chapter include this dual admonition, and each can be solved by doing as Zaninotto asks. Here’s an example where White played 13.Qe3 – what did he miss?


There are a number of plausible candidate moves (13.Ng6, 13.Bf4, 13.Bb5), but by following Zaninotto’s model, and by focusing first on forcing moves, White might have found 13.Nxf7! Rxf7 14.Qxe6 (14.Bxe6? Nf8 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7) 14. … Qe8 15.Qxe7 Qxe7 16.Rxe7 with a tremendous advantage.

But White didn’t play the best move. Why? Because he took seven minutes to play 13.Qe3, Zaninotto speculates that White analyzed 13.Nxf7 but missed the pin on the rook on f7, which might suggest a problem of visualization. How to improve this? Zaninotto offers seven bits of advice or “exercises”, all of which can be reasonably enacted by chess mortals.

Super Chess Kids is focused on strategy and tactics writ large, covering weaknesses, piece play, positional evaluation, calculation, attack, and defense. Learning from the Mistakes of Others has sections on theoretical and “strategic” endings, broad middlegame themes like “chess culture” and developing a plan, and a short coda on the opening. The chapter on “Mistakes and Mindsets” is particularly good, and could be used effectively as a stand-alone lesson with a student.

Zaninotto describes his work (Learning, 6-7) as being aimed at players roughly 1400-1800 FIDE, with some wiggle room on both ends, and that seems accurate. There’s nothing earth-shattering in his prescriptions, but I suspect that’s the point – what Zaninotto has done here is collect solid, time-tested advice for improving players, and he imparts that advice through use of well-chosen practical examples. The numerous exercises and didactic elegance common to both titles make them suitable for coaches and ambitious juniors alike.

Moving on: it’s rare that a new book appear on my doorstep completely unexpectedly, but such was the case with Chess Coaching for Kids: The U10-Project (JugendSchachVerlag / Thinkers Publishing, 2018). It does not seem to be getting a real advertising push, and that’s a shame. This is a very interesting book.

Edited by GM Thomas Luther and written by a team including Heinz Brunthaler and Martin Weteschnik, Chess Coaching for Kids takes a more directly data-driven approach to coaching and improvement. The theoretical heart of Chess Coaching for Kids is a statistical analysis of over 1400 games taken from national and international under-8 and under-10 tournaments.

Part I, “Analysis of Mistakes in u8 and u10 Tournaments,” articulates a “points system” (8) to quantify mistakes. “Soft moves,” or “small inaccuracies which… deteriorate the position long term,” are not accounted for in this schema, as Brunthaler (the author of Part I) argues that most players are incapable of taking advantage of such nuances at this level.

What did they learn? The older players, not surprisingly, made fewer and less severe mistakes than did the younger ones, and tournament medalists make fewer “hard” and “soft” mistakes than do tail-enders, playing “purposeful” chess (26) that induced errors by their opponents. Gender also plays a role: girls tend to make more mistakes than boys in this age range, and they do not advance as quickly. (They do not speculate on why this is the case.)

From this, Brunthaler concludes that coaching should focus on remedying both “clear mistakes,” like those described above, and the “soft moves” that rot a position. (26) “[T]he strategic principles should be shown to kids as early as possible, even in the first months of training. Highlighting these principles (especially the violation of them)… should enable the kids to fully grasp their importance.” (35) He also argues that girls should avoid all-girl events as they “stagnate” (34) their chess, and instead play in mixed events.

Part II of Chess Coaching for Kids, written by the authorial collective, presents “practical examples” drawn from the u8 and u10 games. Topics include “openings and opening deficits,” the pin in junior games, positional themes like weak squares and the 7th rank, and “fighting spirit.” Here’s a typical example, drawn from a game played between a D and an E player in a German girls event:


“Sometimes, tactical chances are missed for fear of running into the opponent’s trap (which, by the way, mostly was not the case). Here, Black presumably thought that her opponent would win back the piece and, therefore, abstained from the pawn fork. However, she should have calculated a little longer:

19. … e4 20.Qe3 exf3 21.Qxe7

Probably White had only seen 21. … Qxe7 22.Rxe7 but even then Black is clearly better, for instance 22. … fxg2 23.Rxb7 and Black is much better.

Still better is 21 … Qc6 e.g. 22.Bb2 (otherwise the devastating 22. … Rfe8 will follow, skewering the queen and the mating square e1) 22. … Rfe8 23.Qg5 f6 24.Qg4 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 fxg2+ 26.Qxg2 Qxg2+ 27.Kxg2–+.

And the best move is 21. … Ne2+! 22.Rxe2 fxe2 23.Qxe2 Rac8 with good winning chances for Black.” (81)

Here we can see the utility of the work done in Chess Coaching for Kids. The example clearly illustrates a common mistake at this age and rating, and the authors use it to move into a discussion of the importance of visualization and how to train it. The advice is perhaps not as dense as in Zaninotto, but this makes sense if we consider audience. Chess Coaching for Kids is written entirely for coaches.

The bulk of the remainder of the book comes in Part III, which features five lengthy “tests” of increasing difficulty that can be given to students whole-cloth or mined for teaching material. Three short sections (Parts IV, V, and VI) wrap things up, with discussion of the nature of talent, best coaching practices, and a study of u12 games and training needs.

Chess Coaching for Kids is one of the first serious attempts to quantify success in high level junior chess. As such, I think it offers readers a useful lens to re-examine their ideas about coaching and improvement, both for their students and for themselves. It will be interesting to see if Luther et al continue their work with studies of more advanced / older players.

By way of conclusion, let me briefly mention a new tactics book that, while not directly “data-driven” in orientation, is rooted in a well-tested teaching philosophy. Frank Erwich’s excellent 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players (New in Chess, 2019) takes its vocabulary and structure from the “Steps Method” or Stappenmethode.

Created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden, the Steps Method is a structured instructional program wheres students are taught to discern key features of positions using ‘search strategies’ and by solving exercises. Each of the six ‘Steps’ builds upon previous ones, with the result being that learners get level-appropriate instruction, taking them from beginner (Step 1) through expert or low master (Step 6).

Erwich’s book is a collection of tactical problems taxonomically organized as in the Steps. This is a boon for Steps teachers and users, of course, but Erwich does a good job of explaining the key motifs through illustrative examples for non-initiates. The problems themselves are relatively advanced – usually at least five ply, requiring one or more ‘preparatory moves’ – but not impossible, and many diagrams have hints underneath them.

1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players is best suited for players over 1700 USCF, or those who have finished Step 3 of the Steps Method. It’s a very good intermediate tactics book, and with its availability on Chessable, I think it might work very well for a Woodpecker-style study using spaced repetition.

Trainer to the Stars

This review has been printed in the July 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Tukmakov, Vladimir. Coaching the Chess Stars. Ghent: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510501. PB 352pp.

Anyone can teach a beginner the rules of chess, but it is a rare individual who can mould raw talents into Grandmasters. It is perhaps rarer to be the person who polishes Grandmasters and helps them grow into one of the world’s elite. This month we look at a book by and about just such a person: Vladimir Tukmakov’s Coaching the Chess Stars.

Tukmakov’s name may be familiar to regular readers of this column. He is the author of three previous books – Profession: Chessplayer, Grandmaster at Work (2012), Modern Chess Preparation (2012), and Risk and Bluff in Chess (2016). A vastly strong player in his day, Tukmakov has been the captain of numerous medal-winning teams in both club and international competitions, and most recently, he has served as the trainer for Anish Giri and Wesley So.

Coaching the Chess Stars is a memoir of Tukmakov’s time as captain and coach. About 40 percent of the book revolves around his work with the national teams of the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the Netherlands, along with his captaining the powerful Azeri SOCAR club team. There is much that is interesting here, including discussion of the psychology of team selection, and his memories of the late Vugar Gashimov. Still, I suspect most people will read it for the stories about his individual students, and in particular, Anish Giri.

While Tukmakov was part of Karpov’s team from in the 90s and worked with Geller, Tseshkovsky, and Korchnoi, among others, it was Anish Giri who first brought Tukmakov into full-time coaching in 2014. His initial impressions of the 19 year old (and already 19th in the rating list) Giri appeared logical enough: “I expected to work with a gifted tactician who would simply have to learn the deeper layers of positional chess.” (210) The truth, however, was more complicated.

Anish really felt at home in sharp dynamic positions – but only if he had the initiative. However, when his own king was threatened, he often switched to defence at the slightest hint of danger. … In general, I had to work with a very talented and well-educated chess player who had certain weaknesses. We managed to fix certain things at the training camp, but given the lack of time, our preparation was mainly devoted to the upcoming competition. (210)

We get a sense here of the promise of, and problems with, Tukmakov’s book. There is a clear diagnosis of Giri’s strengths and weaknesses, but precious little concrete discussion of exactly how they went about fixing “certain” things.

Certainly this seems reasonable. The relationship between coach and pupil is, after all, sacrosanct, and there is an implicit taboo against revealing too many details of the training without permission. But if you’re writing a book about coaching two of the world’s top players, surely you should satisfy your audience’s curiosity about how to help a 2730 player improve?

This is the irresolvable tension of Coaching the Chess Stars. On the one hand, Tukmakov gives readers a clear and thoughtful account of his two years with Giri. His dissection of their preparation for Alexey Shirov (217-226) is a fascinating bit of psychological acumen, and his notes to Giri’s games are refreshingly succinct and “human.”

As an example, here’s what Tukmakov had to say about two key moments in Giri’s win over Topalov from the 2015 Norway Chess tournament. The quoted comments and evaluation symbols are his.


GM Anish Giri (2773)
GM Veselin Topalov (2798)
Norway Chess (8) Stavanger, 06.24.2015

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 0–0 7. 0–0 c6 8. Qc2 Nbd7 9. Rd1 b6 10. b3 a5 11. Bc3 Bb7 12. Nbd2 c5 13. Ne5 cxd4 14. Bxd4 Nxe5 15. Bxe5 Qc8 16. Rac1 dxc4 17. Bxf6!?

“In this line of the Catalan, as in most of the others, White can, at the most, count on a minimal advantage. Implementing it is problematical and depends on numerous nuances. The unobvious exchange of his beautiful black-squared bishop for a seemingly nondescript knight is one such.” (Here we also get a sense of the occasionally stilted translation in Coaching the Chess Stars.)

17. … Bxf6 18. Qxc4 Bxg2 19. Kxg2 Qb7+ 20. Qe4! Rfb8 21. Rc6 Qd7 22. Rcc1! Qb7 23. Qxb7! Rxb7 24. Ne4 Be7 25. Nd6 Rd7


“Such positions seem worse but appear quite defensible. The problem is that up to a certain moment there appear to be no real threats, so the weaker side doesn’t need to look for only moves, but then, when they suddenly find themselves in such a situation, the necessary concentration has already been lost.” I should add that today’s leading engines, including Stockfish and Leela, struggle to properly evaluate this kind of position, thinking Black to be absolutely fine.

26. Nc4 Rxd1 27. Rxd1 b5 28. Ne5 Bf6 29. Nd7 a4 30. Rc1! axb3 31. axb3 Be7 32. Rc7 Rd8 33. Rb7 Bd6 34. g4! h5?! 35. gxh5 Kh7 36. b4! Bxb4 37. Ne5 Rd5 38. Nxf7 Rxh5 39. f4! Kg6 40. Ne5+ Kh7 41. Nf7 Kg6 42. Ne5+ Kh7 43. Nf3! Rf5? 44. Ng5+ Kh6 45. Kf3 Bd2 46. e3 b4 47. Nxe6 Rh5 48. Nxg7! Rxh2 49. Nf5+ Kg6 50. Ne7+ Kf6 51. Nd5+ Ke6 52. Ke4 Rh3 53. Rb6+ Kd7 54. Kd3 Bc1 55. Rxb4 Kd6 56. Kd4 1–0

“This victory was achieved in Giri’s trademark style.”

For all of this, there remains a frustrating lack of particulars in Tukmakov’s presentation of his actual work with Giri. Perhaps the most detailed assessment comes in an interlude entitled “Anand and Giri,” where Tukmakov (reprinting his response to Giri’s question) describes the “undeniable genius” of Anand’s continual “self-tuning” throughout his career, and especially in the context of the rise of the machines. (232)

The role of the computer in modern chess is a persistent theme in Tukmakov’s books. Here, as in Modern Chess Preparation, Tukmakov writes from the perspective of someone who grew up with a classical Soviet education, and before the ubiquity of the computer. Having worked to incorporate the insights of our metal friends into his Grandmasterly understanding of the game, especially as it relates to coaching and training, Tukmakov is well equipped to help us think through what best practices for the human-engine relationship might look like.

Tukmakov’s central idea, in both Modern Chess Preparation and Coaching the Chess Stars, is that players have to achieve some kind of harmony – a key word for Tukmakov – between modeling our play on the machine’s superior skills and losing our individual style or creativity in doing so. He advises his readers in Modern Chess Preparation to study the classics (123f) with the aim of internalizing essential rules and patterns, and to limit our time with, and dependance on, the engine. (199f)

This problem is seen from a different angle in Coaching the Chess Stars. The computer, Tukmakov writes, is the conductor of the “world chess orchestra.” It is authoritative, hegemonic, and equally available (at least in principle) to everyone. What, then, is left to the coach when Stockfish on a cell phone is stronger than any carbon based lifeform?

The answer for Tukmakov is harmony. The coach’s job is to help their student achieve their “unique ‘sound’ and distinct technique,” to jointly develop the student’s “unique creative side to the maximum” and induce a harmony between their personality, their talents, and the rigors of modern chess. (8)

In contrast to Anand, whose growth paralleled that of our metal friends, resulting in a stylistic synergy or “harmony,” Tukmakov diagnoses (233-4, 268-9) a disconnect between Giri’s opening preparation and the moves that follow. “Your moves are mostly good,” Tukmakov writes, “but now you are playing by ear; these moves are not backed up by long computer-generated variations and they do not claim to be the strongest. As a result, harmony collapses and your play fades.”

Tukmakov proposes two paths forward. Giri could simplify his openings and aim for greater harmony (the Carlsen option) or he could increase his tolerance for risk and complexity (the Caruana option). (234) But how precisely to do this? What kind of concrete training could help one of the world’s elite improve? Here Tukmakov is largely silent, which is unfortunate given how universal Giri’s “disconnect” would seem to be for today’s players.

The tension between prescription and privacy, between detailed narrative and the breaking of confidences, runs through Coaching the Chess Stars. To his credit, I think Tukmakov tends to err on the side of caution and respect for his former charges. There is nothing salacious in this book, no gossip mongering or settling of scores. One gets the sense that, even after being terminated, Tukmakov still holds Giri in very high regards.

The same is largely true of Tukmakov’s chapter on his time with Wesley So. So is portrayed as immensely talented but poorly educated, such that the coaching relationship was less about specific game preparation and more about the transmission of high-level chess knowledge. Here again, however, little is shared about what their work consisted of, beyond the mention of “tactics” (293) and work on “the great players of the past.” (295)

Coaching the Chess Stars is a fascinating view “behind the curtains” of chess at the highest levels. Tukmakov is a good writer and a better annotator, and the fact that the book is successful despite the near impossibility of his task, having to respect privacy while revealing the nature of elite coaching, speaks to the difficulty of the project as well as his skill in executing it.