“Year” books

This review has been printed in the August 2016 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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Gormally, Danny. Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-934656-9-9. PB 248pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $31ish at Amazon.

Zhdanov, Peter. Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-937009-7-4. PB 376pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $23ish at Amazon.

What would you give to become a grandmaster? Years of travel and heartbreak? The lack of a proper social life? Perhaps your pinky toe?

Whatever your answer, you may rethink it after reading Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World, one of a number of new books from the Polish publishing house Chess Evolution.

Gormally is an English Grandmaster rated 2494 FIDE as of June 2016. He’s not a guy who gets invites to the top events, and at age 40, there’s little hope of his suddenly ascending the Elo list. Gormally is a working-class GM, one who has to scramble to find teaching and writing gigs to supplement his tournament winnings and support himself.

The problem, as Gormally describes it, is that he is too lazy for teaching, writing is hard work, and age, lack of study and increasingly solid competition make tournaments a risky source of income.

Still want to be a Grandmaster?

A Year Inside the Chess World is, on first blush, an awfully bleak book, and Gormally pulls no punches in its telling. He berates himself for his inability to beat untitled players, for his lack of luck with women, for his being overweight. We eavesdrop on many nights spent drinking with floundering colleagues. There is more than a whiff of a sexism that is all too typical in the chess world. And there are pages where Gormally veers dangerously close to TMI territory with references to thwarted onanism and dodgy Hamburg strip clubs.

In its brutal honesty, however, there is something admirable and perhaps even triumphant about A Year Inside the Chess World. As the book progresses, we see Gormally start to reckon with his limitations. He considers leaving chess and taking up a straight job, but at the same time, we see him begin to take steps to make chess a viable profession once more.

So what changes? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was authoring a DVD on the English Attack for ChessBase that gave him confidence. Perhaps it was working seriously with modern engines or analyzing with strong GMs that stoked his analytical fire. Ultimately I suspect that the writing of the book itself, and the self-examination it required, played a therapeutic role.

There is much more to A Year Inside the Chess World than suggested above. Gormally includes excellent analysis of his games and those of others, and there are many asides and essays on chess personalities and the current state of the game. Still, this is largely a book about Gormally himself, and in pulling back the curtain on his life, warts and all, he has given us something truly fascinating.

Some of the inspiration for Gormally’s book came from blog posts he wrote for pogonina.com, the online home of WGM Natalia Pogonina and her husband / manager Peter Zhdanov. Zhdanov has also recently published a book with Chess Evolution called Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Unfortunately for Zhdanov and for his publisher, it is not a particularly good one.

The conceit underlying Yearbook of Chess Wisdom is fairly clear. There are 366 short essays on various themes, one for each day of the calendar year. The topics covered follow no discernible pattern or order. In truth it is nothing more than a compendium of Zhdanov’s meandering thoughts on the chess world.

It’s not that there’s anything objectionable in the essays per se – well, actually, there is, and I’ll get to that shortly. The problem is that most of Zhdanov’s book is banal or uninteresting, and the few interesting ideas are usually borrowed from others. So the useful essay on studying the opening (9/7) is basically cribbed from GM Roman Ovechkin, while the numerous listicles, the musings on Zodiac signs (1/11), and the gross elitism (9/30) are all Zhdanov.

There is also the issue of Zhdanov’s sexism. There are multiple essays (7/11, 7/16, 7/26, 8/25, 12/15) that are laughably sexist. There is an essay devoted to “pick-up lines for Caissa” (9/8) wherein the goddess is said to prefer guys who – surprise! – seem very similar to Zhdanov. He even offers bizarre advice about sex at tournaments based on “extensive research” (3/23) – his “Chess Kama Sutra” book from a few years back.

I have no doubt that untitled players like Zhdanov can write important chess books. This is not one of them. Zhdanov is long on platitudes, short on insight, and drops far too many names. His Yearbook of Chess Wisdom hardly lives up to its title, and you’d be wise to pass on it.

Structures, Plans and Ideas

This review has been printed in the July 2016 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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Hickl, Jörg. The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916312. PB 192pp. List $19.95, currently ~$14.00 at Amazon.

Originally published in 2008 to positive reviews, Jörg Hickl’s Die Macht der Bauern: Strukturen, Pläne und Ideen für Vereinsspieler is out in translation from New in Chess as The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Why now, after eight years and when other books have been published on similar themes?

The short answer is that Hickl’s book is rather good and deserves to be exposed to the English speaking chess world. There are multiple titles available that deal with typical pawn structures and how to play them, but The Power of Pawns is among the best for club players (a better translation for Vereinsspieler) looking to boost their general chess sense.

Hickl describes the impetus for his book in its Introduction.

In the middle of the 90s, when in addition to top-level sport I focussed more of my chess activity on the organisation of chess holidays and chess training, the needs of the majority of club players were foreign to me. … In more than ten years of intensive work and communication with the participants in my holidays, the same questions about structures and evaluation of positions kept coming up. I became aware that club players have to struggle with a similar approach and similar problems.

These reflections led among others to the following questions: ‘Can I do some­thing to improve this situation? Where can my experience help to make learning easier for chess players? And how can they make progress?’ (7)

What Hickl discovered was that club players, generally speaking, were not linking their in-game planning to the pawn structures on their boards. Certain structures – hanging pawns, the isolani, doubled pawns, etc. – required working knowledge of typical plans and ideas (Pläne und Ideen as in the German sub-title) if they were to be successfully navigated. An examination of those structures, plans and ideas is the project of The Power of Pawns.

Hickl’s book proceeds in two parts. The first and slighter section deals with the pieces most affected by pawn structure: knights, bishops and rooks. In three successive chapters he explains why some ‘bad’ bishops can be good, where knights are better than bishops (and vice versa), and why rooks love open files.

The majority of the book treats seven ‘basic’ pawn structures or features of pawn structures, one per chapter: hanging pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, passed pawns, doubled pawns, weak squares and pawn chains. There is some disconnect between the generic chapter titles and their contents. The chapter on isolated pawns, for instance, deals solely with the isolated queen’s pawn, and it is primarily structures coming from the Nimzo-Indian (pawns on c3/c4/d4) and Sicilian (f7/f6/e6/d6) under scrutiny in the chapter on doubled pawns.

Chapters share a common format. Hickl begins with a pawn skeleton and sketches the key plans and ideas that arise from it. Model games are presented thematically and with wordy analysis. Instructive supplemental games are recommended. Along the way Hickl asks questions of his readers and inserts helpful hints for the improving player. The result is a compact, eminently useful guide to key positional themes and structures.

Many chess players now study chess books on tablets or computers, and in a wise marketing move, Hickl provides the raw scores of all the games for his readers to download. Curiously, however, the link given in the book – www.joerg-hickl.de – has not been operational since 2011. The URL redirects to another site where the games are available, but it does lead one to wonder why the editors kept the reference to an outdated link, and why an English language reader has to navigate a German page to find the promised downloads.

Other quirks point to an inconsistent editorial touch. The title is given as “The power of the pawns” on the first page of the Introduction. Analytical updates to the 2008 edition are haphazard. Old (and incorrect) engine analysis is left to stand on one page (99) and reference is made to the newest Komodo two pages later (101). The translation is clunky in places; see the block quote above for a typical example. And why have the German co-authors (Erik Zude and Uwe Schupp) been demoted to mere acknowledgees?

The German book website suggests that The Power of Pawns is suitable for players rated from 1300-2200. This range seems a little wide to me on both ends. All the same, Hickl has a knack for clearly explaining complex matters, and the club player looking to improve her knowledge of typical structures would find this book quite instructive.

Rage, rage…

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Chess for Life. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093832. PB 224pp. List $24.95, currently $18.63 at Amazon.

When a non-chess player sees a 10 year old playing an adult they feel sympathy for the child. When a chess player sees the same thing he feels sympathy for the adult.

– Brian Karen

Aging is, if we’re lucky, an inevitable element of human existence. On the whole we trade rapidity of thought for wisdom, but the hard fact of aging for chess players is that the trade is never equal. While we can play chess until we the day we die, the competitive nature of the game means that after a certain age, our results and ratings will begin to slip.

This is particularly true in the age of the machines. The concrete nature of modern chess practice tilts the playing field towards youth and their silicon-sharpened calculative abilities. Adult players could work harder to keep up, try to hone our dwindling skills as well as we can, but with jobs and children and all those responsibilities, this is an arms race that we cannot hope to win.

What’s a rapidly-approaching-middle-age guy to do? (Remember – research is me-search, folks.)

The subtitle of Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s Chess for Life is “understanding how chess skills develop and change with the passage of time.” It is also fairly illustrative of the book as a whole. In a series of interviews with, and case studies of, ‘older’ chess players, Sadler and Regan have written a thought-provoking and useful book for players of all ages. ‘Mature’ players will find it particularly helpful, however, as much of the material focuses on specific challenges faced by aging competitors.

Sadler and Regan are listed as co-authors of Chess for Life, but the preface makes clear that the division of labor was not equal. Sadler is responsible for the chess content and analytical work, while Regan crunched some of the data and worked over the prose. Both co-authors were involved in the ten interviews published in the book. You can see a table of contents, and therefore a list of interviewees, in this sample provided by Gambit.

The interviews are generally well done, and I can recommend most of them, excepting those with Judit Polgar, Ingrid Lauterbach and Sergei Tiviakov. These interviews are too cursory to do anything but scratch the surface of questions raised, although Tiviakov’s is partially redeemed by the case study that follows it.

Indeed, it is in the case studies, and in the manner in certain case studies augment the interviews, that this book shines. Sadler is a superlative chess writer – his book on the Queen’s Gambit is still among the finest available on the opening – and his analytical powers are on full display in Chess for Life. The study of Pia Cramling’s openings, for example, is a clear, concise dissection of how one builds a 1.d4 repertoire and how one tweaks it over time. The analysis of Tiviakov’s 3…Qd6 Scandinavian is painstakingly thorough. The discussion of Capablanca’s games – sadly the third World Champion could not be conjured for an interview – is as inspirational for us as Capablanca’s games were for Sadler.

The real star of Chess for Life is Keith Arkell; or, better put, Arkell as seen through the lens of Matthew Sadler. The interview is admittedly slight, but the two case studies that follow are outstanding. Sadler sifts through hundreds of Arkell’s games and teases out two key themes: his mastery of the Carlsbad Structure and his love of rook and pawn endings. In both cases Sadler does a superlative job of distilling the fundamentals of Arkell’s play and rendering them comprehensible for his non-GM readers.

If Chess for Life lacks anything, it is a concrete program for training or improvement by mature players. Most of the interviews are inspirational in nature, and while some of the case studies illustrate the building of opening repertoires, there are only two places in the book that we get anything resembling training tips or a list of best practices.

The first of these is in the interview with Terry Chapman, an amateur who took up chess with vigor in his retirement. Chapman is candid about the difficulties he faces as an older player – the errors in calculation, the blunders, etc. – and forthcoming with the training techniques he has developed to blunt them. Sadler and Regan compare Chapman’s account of his thought processes with that of Speelman, and I wish this aside had been a bit longer.

The second of these is the five page Conclusion that summarizes the author’s findings. The recapitulation of training strategies and tips on opening is useful, if brief. Sadler’s advice to play against engines on a mobile phone, however, left me cold. It might be good practice for a GM, but it would do nothing but demoralize an amateur player.

There are few books written specifically for the mature chess player, and even fewer that focus on the competitive challenges we face as we age. Chess for Life is a wonderful read for those of us who rage against the dying of our chess lights. Anyone who finds themselves dreading yet another game against ‘that hotshot kid’ would do well to check it out.

Understanding Rook Endings?

This review has been printed in the June 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  Note that there are slight differences between the printed text and this version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Müller, Karsten, and Yakov Konoval. Understanding Rook Endgames. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093818. PB 288pp. List $26.95, currently ~$19.60 at Amazon.

There is something of a consensus among top authors and teachers about how to study the endgame. First, there are key technical positions that must be memorized. The precise number of these positions varies – for Dvoretsky, it is about 220, while for de la Villa and Smith it is 100 – but the idea is that players should know certain terminal positions and aim for them in their analysis. This is to be coupled with a study of endgame strategy or typical endgame themes, with Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy typically recommended for this purpose.

What comes of such a plan for improvement? Ask Jeffery Xiong, who – as I was writing this review – used his knowledge of rook endings both typical and theoretical in this round one draw with Alexander Onischuk from the 2016 US Chess Championship.

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30…b3+! 31.Kc1 Ra6 32.Rd8+ Kh7 33.Kd2 Rxa4 34.Kc3 Ra1 35.Rd2 a5!? 36.Kxb3 a4+ 37.Kc4 a3!

Heading for a theoretically drawn rook endgame with 3 pawns versus 2 on the kingside.

38.bxa3 Rxa3 39.Kxc5 h5! 40.Kd4 Ra5 41.Ke4 g6 42.f4 Kg7 43.h3 Kf7 44.Rd6 Ra2 45.g4 hxg4 46.hxg4=

This position is drawn according to the Lomosonov tablebases.

46…Ra7 47.g5 Rb7 48.Ke5 Ra7 49.Rf6+ Kg7 50.Rc6 Re7+ 51.Kd6 Re4 52.Rc7+ Kg8 53.Rc8+ ½–½

With Understanding Rook Endgames, just out from Gambit, Karsten Müller and co-author Yakov Konoval aim to offer readers both elements of a proper education in rook endings. The first four chapters (p.11-222) are an encyclopedic study of positions with up to 7 men: R&P vs R (ch 1), R&2P vs R (ch 2), R&P vs R&P (ch 3), and R&2P vs R&P (ch 4). The final four chapters (p.223-244) treat broader themes, including basic principles of rook endings and theoretical positions with more than 7 men.

The stark differential in page count between the two ‘halves’ of the book is not incidental. On the whole, this is a book devoted to 5-, 6- and 7-man rook endings. More than half of its pages focus on R&2P vs R&P, with each and every position fully checked with new 7-man tablebases. The analysis in the first four chapters is thus entirely correct, and this features prominently in the book’s advertising.

Is analytical certainty important for the average reader? Perhaps. It is nice to know that what appears on the page can be trusted completely, but an excessive authorial fascination with the machines is not without certain risks.

Müller and Konoval present immense amounts of computer-driven analysis throughout the book. There are long strings of analysis derived from the tablebases that lack sufficient explanation. Some positions are given with raw output from the tablebases – see §4.15, “Longest Wins” – and no effort is made to unpack the logic of the moves for the human player.

Chapters 5-8 might leaven the narrow focus of the first four chapters were they not so brief. There are a total of 33 positions analyzed in these chapters, while there are 271 (and 58 section headings!) just in chapter 4. There are also precious few principles and guidelines to be found here. Instead of another abbreviated account of the famous Kantorovich / Steckner position (6.04), why not include a more typical example of the 4 vs 3 with a-pawn ending and use it to explain key plans or ideas?

Müller and Konoval write in the introduction to Understanding Rook Endgames that they adhere to the “dual philosophy” (p.6) sketched at the beginning of this review. I don’t believe that they succeed in this task, as they lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. Chapters 1-4 – 73% of the book – contain too many theoretical positions and too much analysis to remember. Chapters 5-8 – a mere 8% of the book! – feel bolted on, added solely to justify the book’s title.

There is plenty of fascinating material to be found in Understanding Rook Endgames, but it is an encyclopedia of theoretical positions and not an instructional work. Non-masters hoping to understand rook endings should instead look to Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings or Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings.

Sac’ing the Exchange

This review has been printed in the May 2016 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.

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.

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As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.

Biographies from McFarland

This review has been printed in the April 2016 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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Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

Harding, Tim. Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786474738. HB 592pp. List $75.00.

Sanchez, Miguel A. José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786470044. HB 277pp. List $55.00.

Zavatarelli, Fabrizio. Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786496907. HB 376pp. List $75.00

Most of the biggest publishing houses leave chess to their smaller brethren, with a few notable exceptions. Batsford and its valuable backlist have changed hands a few times, now resting with Pavilion Books out of London. The US Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess was for many years published by McKay, and is now in its 6th edition with McKay’s successor, Random House.

There is an American house that is publishing some very interesting studies of chess history as part of its wide and varied list, and chances are, unless you work in the industry, that you’ve never heard of them.

Until now, that is.

McFarland & Company is an independent publisher from North Carolina. Focused on the library market, they specialize in fields like military history, baseball and popular culture. Somewhere along the way they added chess to their purview, and today McFarland puts out more scholarly chess books than any other publisher.

Some of these titles – compilations of hard-to-find crosstables, bibliographies, etc. – are of limited popular interest, but the biographical works have potential cross-over appeal. I gave the 2014 McFarland release of Andy Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion a favorable review in these pages (May 2014), and the book went on to win the Book of the Year prize awarded by the Chess Journalists of America.

Four McFarland chess biographies have crossed my desk in recent months. Two – Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career by Fabrizio Zavatarelli and Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess by Stephen Davies – are first rate works on fine but lesser-known players. Zavatarelli’s book in particular is worth a look. The tale of Kolisch’s rise to fame and fortune, made possible in part through his chess contacts, is dramatically told.

Of possibly greater interest are the titles on José Raúl Capablanca and Joseph Henry Blackburne. The legendary Capablanca was the third official world champion, holding the title from 1921-1927, and Blackburne was one of the top tournament players of the later nineteenth century. Both books bear an identical subtitle – “A Chess Biography” – but as we shall see, it reads rather differently depending on the author.

In José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography, Miguel A. Sanchez paints his portrait of Capablanca against a broad backdrop of time and country, economy and politics. The first chapter, for example, describes the history of Cuban chess, showing how the sugar boom allowed aficionados to bring players like Morphy, Steinitz, Blackburne and Chigorin to the island. It also gives face and personality to many of Capablanca’s early supporters and rivals.

There is much that is familiar in Sanchez’s account. The general outlines of Capablanca’s life are well known and there are no shocking revelations to be found here. Still, I suspect that even the most ardent Capa fan will learn something new from Sanchez’s very readable book. Of particular, if morbid, interest is the discussion of Capablanca’s high blood pressure and health problems, the deleterious effects of which Sanchez locates much earlier in Capablanca’s career than commonly thought.

There are 192 competently annotated games in José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Because Sanchez emphasizes biography over chess, contextualizing Capablanca’s chess career within his life more broadly, this number feels appropriate. Contrast it with the 1184 games and 55 compositions in Tim Harding’s Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography, and you begin to get a sense of a stark difference in authorial attitude towards the biographical task.

Blackburne was the best British player before the rise of Miles, Short and Adams in the late twentieth century. He was a great popularizer of the game and one of its first professionals, making annual exhibition tours through the ‘provinces’ for nearly sixty years (1861-1921) and specializing in simultaneous blindfold exhibitions for fifty of them.

Most of Harding’s work has gone into excavating the details of Blackburne’s chess career. He has recovered unknown games, corrected errors in published games, and created detailed travelogues for his tours and travels. Many details of his family life are documented and dozens of pictures are provided, but make no mistake – this is a chess biography.

Harding’s book feels definitive. Of course new material will continue to be discovered, but so much work went into its writing, so much material is presented, that it almost overwhelms the general reader. Historians will find Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography to be an indispensable resource, but casual fans may want to start with the chapter on Blackburne in Harding’s more approachable Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

Enter the Dragon

This review has been printed in the March 2016 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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Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 1. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830076. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 2. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830090. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Children love playing it. It appears as a plot point in the soapiest of Spanish telenovelas period dramas. The Chinese have even gone so far as to try to make it their own.

It’s gotta be the name, right?

Bobby Fischer famously claimed that he’d worked its defeat out to a science (“…pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!”) but the theory and practice of the Sicilian Dragon have come a long way in recent years. Not only are there new sub-variations to try – the Chinese Dragon, the Topalov Variation, the Dragadorf – but the traditional main lines have undergone extensive analysis and empirical testing. How can the Dragoneer hope to keep up?

Older one-volume introductions by Chris Ward and Mikhail Golubev are now dated. David Vigorito’s Chess Developments: The Sicilian Dragon (2011) is fairly current, but it does not cover every line. For a complete, cutting-edge repertoire, Dragon players should consider the new Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon 1 and 2 by Gawain Jones.

In theory few are better suited to cover this opening than Jones, a lifelong Dragon enthusiast with a rating in the mid-2600s. Of course Elo and experience are no guarantee of authorial talent, but after wrestling with the books for a few weeks now, I’m glad to report that Jones was up to the task.

The most critical lines in the Dragon emerge from this position:

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White’s three main tries here are 9.Bc4, 9.g4 and 9.0-0-0. Jones treats the first two in Volume 1, and the third in Volume 2. He recommends 9…Be6 against 9.g4, and more than half of Volume 2 is devoted to sidelines. The bulk of the work focuses on 9.Bc4 and 9.0-0-0.

Against 9.Bc4, the traditional main line, Jones has two recommendations. His primary repertoire choice is the Topalov Variation (9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5), and I take it as a good sign that Jones has continued to play the line post-publication. White can dodge the Topalov with 10.h4, leading Jones to also include coverage of the Soltis (10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5) and Burnett (12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5 15.b3 b4!) Variations. Readers are thus presented with two options against the Yugoslav.

9.0-0-0 is perhaps the more critical variation in modern practice, and just under half of Volume 2 is devoted to it. After 9.0–0–0 d5 Jones analyzes 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 (the current main line of the Dragon; if 12.Nxd5 Jones recommends 12…cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7) 12…Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 when two repertoire choices are offered: the slightly offbeat 14…Qa5 15.b3 Be6!? and 14…Qc7. After 10.Kb1 Black should play 10… Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6!, and in case of 10.Qe1, Jones plumps for 10… e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.exd5 Nxd5.

[Here is a summary of these lines in replayable format.]

The repertoire presented in the two volumes of The Dragon resembles that of Peter Heine Nielsen on his recent two DVD set for ChessBase (The Sicilian Dragon for the Tournament Player), although they are not identical. Nielsen’s videos are very good in terms of explanation, but they cannot begin to match the density of information presented in Jones’ books.

And make no mistake – these are dense books. The analysis is comprehensive almost to the point of pedantry, as is typical for Quality Chess titles. Given the nature of the opening in question, such obsessive detail is perhaps warranted.

Some bones are thrown to those of us unburdened with photographic memories. There is a useful twenty page section on typical Dragon themes in Volume 1, and Jones is careful to point out standard motifs as they arise in his analysis. His notes are surprisingly verbose given how much ground he has to cover.

The two volumes of Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon provide a thorough and tested repertoire for the hardcore Dragoneer. You don’t need to be a Grandmaster to read them, but stronger players will surely derive more benefit from the sophisticated analysis. Players new to the Dragon might want to start with Nielsen’s DVDs.