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.

CATALAN OPENING [E11]

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

image

“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.

Advertisements

End of an Era

This review has been printed in the June 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.

Readers may also be interested in an interview I did with Avrukh for Chess Life Online, where we talk about the book, his writing process, and look at a recent game of his from the 2019 Chicago Open.

—————-

Avrukh, Boris. Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830465. PB 529pp.

With the publication of Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems, the fourth and final volume in his revised White 1.d4 repertoire and his tenth title published with Quality Chess, GM Boris Avrukh has announced that he is taking “a break” from book publishing. It is, at least for now, the end of an era.

When Avrukh published the first edition of his 1.d4 repertoire in 2008 and 2010, the effect was nothing short of revolutionary. He coupled astute opening choices with World Championship level analysis – Avrukh seconded Gelfand in the 2012 World Championship match with Anand – to create a professional, poisonous two volume repertoire that anyone could buy for $65.

Opening theory never stops moving, of course, and with the appearance of GM Repertoire 2B, Avrukh has completed the revision and expansion of his repertoire. What was two volumes is now four. Two – 1A (2015) and 1B (2016) – focus on 1.d4 d5, including the Catalan, Queen’s Gambit Accepted, the Slav, the Tarrasch, etc. Two more – 2A (2018) and 2B (2019) – treat everything else, including the King’s Indian, Grunfeld, Dutch, Benko, and so forth.

While statistics show that Catalan was already in ascendence when GM Repertoire 1 was published, Avrukh’s influence on the popularization of the opening cannot be overstated, and I would argue that it was his treatment of the Catalan that made his name in the chess publishing world. His analysis in GM Repertoire 1 reshaped both the theory and practice of the system, and again, we can see his influence in database statistics.

Avrukh’s original recommendation in the Open Catalan – 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 and now 8.Qxc4 instead of 8.a4 – took a somewhat neglected move and reinvigorated it. The relative popularity of 8.Qxc4 spiked after GM Repertoire 1 was published in 2008, and then waned after Avrukh argued for 8.a4 in 1A.

Correlation is not causation, and Black improvements after 8.Qxc4 no doubt contributed to this shift. But the fact remains that Avrukh’s books have had a palpable effect on opening theory at even the highest levels. The same can be said for his Anti-Slav ideas. His move order against Meran-style setups – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5. b3!? – was little known before he wrote about it, and today it is one of the main ways that White tries to eke out an advantage against the Slav.

While Avrukh tweaks his recommendations in 1A and 1B, he does not fundamentally alter his repertoire. There is the shift to 8.a4 in the Open Catalan, as discussed above, a move from 3.e3 to 3.e4 in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, and the replacement of 10.Nd2 in the mainline Fianchetto Benoni with 10.Bf4. The basic contours of his 1.d4 Nf6 and 1.d4 “varia” repertoires also remain the same in the revised GM Repertoires 2A and 2B.

Fianchetto setups are integral to Avrukh’s repertoire against the Grunfeld and King’s Indian in 2A. Against the “Solid Grunfeld” he offers 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 c6 4.Bg2 d5 5.Qa4!?, hoping to prevent Black from recapturing on d5 with a pawn. The “Dynamic Grunfeld” builds upon his GM Repertoire 2 analysis, and the bulk of the book (nearly 80%) is a revised and extended treatment of his ideas in the Fianchetto King’s Indian.

This leaves the sundry defences that many 1.d4 players dread – the Dutch, the Benko, and the Budapest, along with the odd sidelines that strong players trot out from time to time. GM Repertoire 2B offers remedies for all of these, and it’s worth spending some time looking at three specific prescriptions to get a sense of Avrukh’s style and analysis.

(1) One of Avrukh’s more prominent ideas in GM Repertoire 2 came in the Classical Dutch. After 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 Be7 5.Nf3 0–0 6.0–0 d6 7.Nc3 Ne4 8.Nxe4 fxe4 9.Nd2 d5 10.f3 Nc6 and here Avrukh recommended 11.fxe4 Rxf1+ 12.Nxf1 dxc4 13.Be3 in GM Repertoire 2, but Simon Williams’ improvement 13. …Bd7! (Sen-Williams, Uxbridge 2010) led Avrukh to search for another path forward.

image

His new idea is 11.e3!? exf3 12.Nxf3, when “[t]he position resembles a Catalan, except that the f-pawns have been removed.” (2B, 78) This seems a canny choice, fitting with the larger contours of Avrukh’s repertoire: playing for a positional advantage and limiting the opponent’s dynamism. That Stockfish 10 approves it also doesn’t hurt! Avrukh analyzes two continuations.

[A] 12. …b6 is seen in a correspondence game: 13.Bd2 Bb7 14.Rc1 Qd6 15.Qc2 Rac8 16.cxd5 exd5 17.b4! (Oppermann,P-Prystenski,A, ICCF email 2016)

[B] 12. …Bf6 13.Bd2 a5 14.Rc1 Kh8 and now instead of 15.Ne1 (Schmid-Halkias, Wunsiedel 2014) Avrukh analyzes the novelty 15.Rf2!? with good prospects for White.

(2) The Benko Gambit is often dreaded by club players. Black sacs a pawn for what appears to be solid compensation and plays on ‘auto-pilot,’ making typical moves while White sweats her way through the middlegame, frantically clutching her extra pawn. Avrukh shifts in 2B from his earlier recommendation of the Fianchetto Variation to the now-trendy 12.a4 ‘King-Walk,’ and he also gives White a weapon against a new sideline in the Benko.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6!?

Postponing the pawn capture is a new idea, and the subject of Milos Perunovic’s very interesting The Modernized Benko Gambit. Benko players have flocked to it, largely because of the current problems in the Benko proper.

Avrukh follows current theoretical trends in the ‘old’ Benko by recommending 5. …Bxa6 6.Nc3 g6 7.e4 Bxf1 8.Kxf1 d6 9.Nf3 Bg7 10.g3 0–0 11.Kg2 Nbd7 12.a4!. White is currently scoring very well in this line championed by none other than Magnus Carlsen (via transposition). See Carlsen-Bologan, Biel 2012.

6.Nc3 Bg7 7.e4 0–0 (7. …Qa5 8.a7!) 8.a7!

“The most dangerous idea for Black. White’s idea is clear: with Black’s rook on a7, he can always win a tempo with Nb5. Now we can’t play …Qa5 because after Bd2, White has the threat Nb5.” (Perunovic, 109)

Avrukh notes that we can’t play 8.Nf3 because of 8. …Qa5! when the pin and attack on e4 forces us to choose between 9.Bd2 and 9.Nd2.

8. …Rxa7 9.Nf3 e6

Perunovic’s recommendation. Black has a few alternatives: 9. …d6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0; 9. …Qa5 10.Bd2!; and 9. …Qb6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0.

10.Be2 exd5 11.exd5 d6 12.0–0 Na6

If 12. …Ba6 Avrukh likes 13.Re1, which provides “a [simple] route to an edge.”

13.Nb5 Rd7 14.Bc4 Bb7 15.Bg5

Perunovic analyzes this position out to move 18, saying that Black has compensation for the pawn. Avrukh extends that analysis to move 23 and thinks that White gets the better end of things.

(3) After recommending 4.Nf3 against the Budapest in GM Repertoire 2, Avrukh turns to a little-known sideline to justify his new selection, 4.Bf4.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.Bf4 g5

Avrukh had avoided this line in GM Repertoire 2, feeling that 5.Bg3 Bg7 was “quite reliable for Black.” He revises his opinion in 2B, having found a “powerful antidote… [that is] both easier to learn and objectively stronger, in my opinion.” (339, 340)

Note that White is said to get an advantage after the alternative 4. …Nc6 5.Nf3 Bb4+ 6.Nbd2 Qe7 7.e3 Ngxe5 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.Be2 0–0 10.0–0 Bxd2 11.Qxd2 d6 12.b4, preparing c4–c5.

5.Bd2!? Nxe5 6.Nf3 Bg7

6. …Nbc6 7.Nc3 d6 8.Qc2 Bg7 9.0–0–0 and Avrukh’s analysis runs to move 16, giving White a strong edge.

7.Nxe5 Bxe5 8.Nc3! d6 9.g3 Nc6 10.Bg2 Be6 11.Nd5 g4 (Dreev-Zwardon, Warsaw 2013) and now 12.Bf4 h5 13.Qd2 “with a clear positional advantage.”

What do these examples teach us about Avrukh’s work in 2B, and about his repertoire more broadly? Keeping in mind the impossibility of summarizing nearly 1800 pages of analysis, we can perhaps draw a few conclusions.

It’s clear that Avrukh has done his due diligence in these books. He cites all the relevant sources, and attempts to improve on each of them. Avrukh makes extensive use of correspondence games in his research, and he’s not ashamed to mention the (heavy) influence of the computer in his recommendations. Very few authors meet the standard of excellence Avrukh sets in these books.

What about the repertoire itself? My sense is that Avrukh’s recommendations tend to follow the Quality Chess shibboleth to “try the main lines.” There are no dodgy gambits here, but mainly concrete, positionally oriented variations that allow White to aim for a two-result game. This explains, in part, the use of the kingside fianchetto against the King’s Indian (and Grunfeld). His recommended lines minimize Black’s attacking chances, and force the game into more controlled channels.

Who should adopt Avrukh’s repertoire? Because it is concrete and positionally oriented, some of the key positions require serious technique to convert the small edge he claims. (I’m particularly thinking of his recommendations in the Catalan.) This is high-level chess, and it’s probably best suited for experts at minimum. That’s not to say that class players can’t learn something here, but the kinds of advantages that Avrukh aims for with White – sometimes just a “space advantage and bishop pair,” as he says in GM Repertoire 1 (11) – often barely register as advantages on the amateur level.

Because Avrukh’s analysis is so vast and detailed, some kind of “executive summary” of key recommendations would have been welcome. Some Quality Chess opening books – I’m thinking of Kotronias’ GM Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov in particular – have summaries after each chapter that, in themselves, could function as a first repertoire. The chapter summaries here are perfunctory at best, and it’s an opportunity missed.

As Avrukh steps back from book publishing, it remains to be seen what is next for the Chicago-based Grandmaster. One of his web projects, Chess Openings 24-7, discontinued its services as of April 2nd. He has authored an opening file for modern-chess.com as recently as March 16th of this year; see our May 2017 issue for a review of a similar effort. Will he continue in this vein? Will he keep writing at all? Like many fans of chess literature, I’ll be interested to find out.

Join the Club

This review has been printed in the May 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.

———————–

Soltis, Andy. Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1476671468. HB 394pp.

Tanner, Robert. Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0786496020. HB 328pp.

It will not be news that women are underrepresented in chess, both historically and in the current day, to readers of Chess Life. We know all too well that there are not enough women playing our game, and whatever the reasons for the disparity might be, the new US Chess initiative is both welcome and overdue.

Nor will it be news to fans of chess literature that women are underrepresented in chess books and literature. There are precious few women authors – Judit and Susan Polgar, Alexey Root, and US Chess Women’s Program Director Jennifer Shahade are among the few that come to mind – and even fewer titles devoted to women’s chess or leading female players.

So I, like many interested in chess history, was excited to get my hands on Robert Tanner’s Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games, published by McFarland in late 2016. Tanner’s is the first serious biography of Menchik in English, although Jennifer Shahade has written extensively about Menchik in her 2005 Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.

The basics of Menchik’s life and career are described in Part I.3, “A Biographical Sketch.” Here Tanner rehearses much of what is already known. Born in 1906, Menchik’s family left the Soviet Union after the revolution and she ended up in England by 1923. Her mother was English; her father was absent after the early 20s, although Menchik did not break relations.

Menchik joined the Hastings Chess Club, studed with Maróczy, and rapidly improved. She won the Women’s World Championship in 1927, which she defended six times, and was the first woman to compete in both Carlsbad and Hastings in 1929 after a banner year in international play. Perhaps her most important tournament was Moscow 1935, won by Botvinnik and Flohr. Menchik finished in last place. She married in 1937, and was killed in London during the Blitz in 1944.

Menchik was largely seen by her peers as a curiousity at best. Albert Becker demeaningly called for the creation of a “Vera Menchik Club” at Carlsbad 1929, membership in which would be awarded to anyone who lost to her. (Draws counted as half- or candidate membership.) What irony, then, that Becker was the club’s inaugural member!

DUTCH DEFENSE (A85)
Vera Menchik
Albert Becker
Karlsbad (3), 02.08.1929

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Ne4 6.Bd3 f5 7.Ne5 Qh4 8.0–0 Nd7 9.f4 Be7 10.Bd2 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Bc5 12.Bxe4 fxe4 13.Qb3 Qd8 14.Na4 Be7 15.Bb4 b6 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.cxd5 exd5 18.Rac1 Bb7 19.Nc3 Qf7 20.Qb4 Rd8 21.Rfd1 Ba8 22.h3 Qe7 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.b4 Rd7 25.Rd2 Rhd8 26.Ne2 Rc8 27.Rdc2 Rdc7 28.Nd4 g6 29.Nb5 Rd7 30.Kf2 h6 31.g4 a6 32.Nd4 Rdc7 33.f5 g5 34.Kg3 Bb7 35.h4 gxh4+ 36.Kxh4 Kf7 37.Kh5 a5 38.bxa5 bxa5 39.Nb5 Rd7 40.e6+, Black resigned.

Tanner explains how prejudice against Menchik still exists. Her “restrained and positional” style (23) has been called “dull” by Internet dullards, who evaluate her playing strength as that of a US Chess expert, and who pooh-pooh her ongoing choice to live a “well rounded life” instead of “eating and breathing chess.” (ibid.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone would criticise a man for such imagined sins.

To his credit, and in agreement with the likes of Leonard Barden and John Saunders, Tanner pegs Menchik as being of International Master strength. He also paints a fuller picture of Menchik’s style in Part II, “Her Games, Events and Crosstables.” Among the 350 games in the book is her most famous combination, played in the fourteenth game of the 1937 match for the Women’s World Championship against Sonja Graf, and this delightful knight sacrifice against Sir George Thomas from 1932.

KINGS INDIAN DEFENSE (E85)
Vera Menchik
Sir George Thomas
London (4), 04.02.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 e5 7.Nge2 b6 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.d5 Ne7 10.g4 Nd7 11.Rg1 a5 12.0–0–0 Nc5 13.Ng3 Bd7 14.h4 a4 15.h5 Qb8 16.Bh6 Qa7 17.Bxg7 Kxg7

Menchik-Thomas

18.Nf5+! Nxf5 19.gxf5 a3 20.f6+ Kh8 21.Qh6 axb2+ 22.Kb1 Rg8 23.hxg6 fxg6 24.Qxh7+!, Black resigned.

There are also problems with Tanner’s work. The first is the presence of numerous typos and unremoved editorial markings. Names and words are repeatedly misspelled, sometimes lines away from correct spellings, and the remnants of a writer’s placeholding trick (multiple x’s, a sign to come back and fill in later) were never removed. (24, 166) Such carelessness is surprising for a McFarland title, especially one that is described in the colophon as a second printing with corrections.

Other critics, notably Vlastimil Fiala [1] and Edward Winter [2], have taken Tanner to task, both for the typos and for a relative lack of historical research. Fiala’s concerns have more than a whiff of sour grapes – he admits that he had once aspired to write his own biography of Menchik – and his judgment that the book “should never have gone to print” is very harsh.

Still, there is a kernel of truth in their critiques. Tanner’s bibliography is comparatively slight, and Fiala notes multiple chess journals and columns that Tanner could have reasonably been expected to consult. Such research is vastly easier in the modern day, especially with new databases available in English libraries. See Tim Harding’s essential British Chess Literature to 1914: A Handbook for Historians, particularly Chapter 8 (“On Doing Chess History Today”), for more on this key topic.

Let me also mention one last concern, and a personal peeve. Tanner uses internet sources (chessgames.com, 365chess.com) to cite multiple game references. This is substandard. No game database, not even MegaBase, is free from errors, and chessgames.com even allows users to upload data without an apparent quality check. It’s the chess equivalent of citing Wikipedia, and it’s out of place in a book that aspires to typical McFarland quality.

To sum up: Vera Menchik is, despite its very real flaws, a welcome addition to the literature. It shows that there is space for scholarship on women’s chess, and it gives readers unfamiliar with Menchik a competent overview of her life and career. Unfortunately it also feels like a book that, in its publication, shirks the hard historical work that would complete it. One can hope for a second edition that is actually corrected and somewhat expanded.

One book does not change an entire field. There remains a palpable Whiggish tendency in contemporary chess historiography, one that presents the history of chess as a progression of great men and their great ideas. (Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors is a paradigm of this tendency.) In doing so, it passes over traditional underclasses like minorities and women, and undermines the role of artifacts and technology.

Andy Soltis’ Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games can be read in this way. The criticism is, in part, correct, but one of the many things I like about the book is the way that Soltis focuses on the contributions of women in the success of their famous partners.

Soltis says in the Preface that Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi was a book he wanted to write as he researched his canonical Soviet Chess 1917-1991, but could not at that point (2000) for a lack of original source documents. His idea was to show the intertwined lives, both professionally and personally, of these great champions – and show it warts and all. In this he succeeds, and anyone interested in any of these players or chess in the Soviet era would do well to pick up Soltis’ book.

There is a lot of tea spilt in Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi. There are plenty of beautiful, well-annotated games, of course. The real interest, at least for me, is found in the unveiling of private lives.

No man is an island, and there is value in seeing how biography and influence shaped the ‘great men’ of chess history. We learn about Korchnoi’s horrific childhood in a decimated Leningrad, and how it haunted him. We are there when Spassky meets his ‘fater’ Bondarevsky, and we see the effect that it had on an undisciplined youth’s life and career. Soltis’ telling includes the influence of friends and lovers, trainers and government apparachiks, and it makes for a richer picture of these tremendous players than is commonly known.

Soltis makes special mention of two women in the book. Sally Landau met Mikhail Tal in 1959, marrying him the next year. Landau, a powerful personality in her own right, was an actress and singer of regional repute, Her ten years of marriage to Tal were tempestuous, but she bore him his son Gera, and her 2003 biography of Tal is a primary (if contested) source of knowledge of Tal’s life.[3]

Even more interesting is Rona Petrosian, the power behind Tigran Petrosian’s throne. Soltis makes a convincing case for the pivotal role Rona played in Tigran’s success, pushing and goading him to press and win, making and using connections with the vlasti (Soviet officials and bureaucracy) to benefit her husband. She “completed” him (50); without Rona, there would not be Tigran as we know him today.

There is a movement in public history towards the reconfiguration of what counts as history. History is moving beyond the retelling of facts from above, from the perspective of the victor or powerful. Soltis’ book does some of that – how could a book on three World Champions not? – but it also attends to the stories of those left out by the traditional narrative. Read it for those stories, and stick around for the beautiful games.


[1] Fiala, Vlastimil. “Chess Review: Vera Menchik Biography.” Quarterly for Chess History (5:20: Spring 2019), 563-581.

[2] See (1) http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter148.html (2) and http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter175.html

[3] A translation of Landau’s book has been announced by the English / Russian publisher Elk & Ruby.

Game Changer?

This review has been printed in the April 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.

—–

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918187. PB 416pp.

Sigmund Freud once described the “three severe blows” suffered by human narcissism in the course of Western history.[1] The cosmological blow, struck by Copernicus, expelled us from our supposed place at the center of the universe. Darwin’s biological blow denied us the comfort of our separation from, and superiority over, the animal kingdom. And Freud himself landed the final, psychological blow, exposing the irrational unconscious forces beneath even the greatest achievements of human rationality.

To these three psychic wounds chess players can add a fourth: Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue in 1997. Deep Blue’s victory was portrayed in the mass media as a referendum on human intelligence, a ‘canary in the coalmine’ moment in which the inevitable overtaking of human creativity by machine intelligence was made manifest.

Curious thing, though. What was imagined as an antagonistic relationship between man and machine has instead proven to be a constructive one. Sure, humans have given up trying to beat Stockfish or Komodo, even at odds, but our ‘metal friends’ (Tukmakov’s delightful turn of phrase) are now our trusted analytical partners and teachers.

Far from killing our game, chess in the e-sport era now depends on the presence of engines, which play the role of the hole-cam in the poker boom. They give the illusion of prescience, allowing amateurs the heady feeling that they know more than the players themselves.

So imagine the shock when a scientific pre-print appeared on the Internet in December 2017. Its title, “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm,” was anodyne enough, but the paper announced a seismic shift in artificial intelligence and chess. AlphaZero, a program created by a Google subsidiary known as DeepMind, trounced Stockfish in head-to-head play. In doing so it forced us to rethink everything we know about computer chess.

The principles governing Stockfish’s play are not fundamentally different than those guiding Deep Blue, although they have been profoundly refined in the intervening years. Stockfish uses human-tuned criteria to evaluate each position in its search tree, and through “alpha-beta” search methods it is able to focus on promising continuations while pruning away inferior moves. Each move and each decision are the result of precise mathematical calculations, and human users can extract exact numerical evaluations for any given position.

AlphaZero is different, as Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan lucidly explain in their new book, Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Pre-programmed with only the basic rules of chess, and using general (non-specific) self-training algorithm, AlphaZero trained itself to play chess over the course of nine hours and 44 million self-play games. Periodically the program would refine its neural network, promoting tunable weights and network ‘layers’ that led to favorable outcomes, and demoting those that didn’t.

AlphaZero functions by combining these self-taught evaluative values with a Monte Carlo style tree search, where possible future game positions are spun out, evaluated, and ranked probabilistically. We don’t know exactly how AlphaZero decides what to play. The algorithm is a ‘black box’ in the Latourian sense, where inputs and outputs are known but (in contrast to Stockfish) its internal mechanisms remain opaque, even to DeepMind. What we do know is that AlphaZero is immensely, improbably strong, exhibiting an attractive attacking style reminiscent of Kasparov.

Perhaps this is what makes AlphaZero so remarkable – its style. What we see in its victories over Stockfish should, given all we know about computer chess, be impossible. Stockfish is typically seen as a calculative god and defensive wizard, able to soak up pressure, induce errors, and grind down its opponents. AlphaZero defeated it by playing the kinds of attacking, sacrificial ideas that, played by humans, would inevitably be refuted by the machine.

Sadler and Regan spend two chapters of Game Changer describing the technical aspects of AlphaZero’s self-training regiment, the way it “thinks,” and what its evaluations and expected scores mean. Their extensive access to the DeepMind team and the algorithm allow them to craft accessible explanations of difficult subjects, and the mini-interviews with DeepMind team members are helpful.

The meat of the book, however, focuses squarely on AlphaZero’s style. What makes it so good? How can we reverse-engineer the logic of its moves and apply that knowledge to our own games? By studying the roughly 230 publicly available AlphaZero games, along with approxmiately 2100 additional games provided by DeepMind, Sadler and Regan distill a number of tantalizing traits in AlphaZero’s play.

An example is useful. Consider this game, which Sadler describes as “perhaps AlphaZero’s most beautiful game of all.”[2]

NIMZO-ENGLISH (A17)
AlphaZero
Stockfish 8
AlphaZero v. Stockfish Match, 2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 a5 7.b4 d6 8.e3 Ne4 9.Qc2 Ng5 10.b5 Nxf3+ 11.gxf3 Qf6 12.d4!?

Sadler and Regan expected 12.Bb2 Qxf3 13.Rg1 but AlphaZero instead plays for long-term compensation.

12. … Qxf3 13.Rg1 Nd7 14.Be2 Qf6 15.Bb2 Qh4 16.Rg4!?

Giving up the h-pawn to open the file. Stockfish sees this position as better for Black, while AlphaZero thought that White had a slight advantage.

16. … Qxh2 17.Rg3 f5 18.0–0–0

Offering pawn number three!

18. … Rf7

After 18. … Qxf2 19.Rdg1 Rf7 20.R1g2 Qe1+ 21.Bd1 White’s compensation is undeniable.

19.Bf3 Qh4 20.Rh1 Qf6

image

What does AlphaZero have for the two pawns? Two half-open files and massively superior mobility. This is a key idea for Sadler and Regan. As they explained in a conference call for chess journalists – the first such promotional call I’ve been on for a chess book! – the concept of mobility is fundamental for understanding how AlphaZero plays. It works to maximize the mobility of its pieces and minimize the mobility of its opponent’s. One of AlphaZero’s most striking tendencies, the pushing of its rook pawns to restrict the opponent’s king, is emblematic in this regard. Here, having opened lines for its rooks, AlphaZero now proceeds to open diagonals and further increase its mobility.

21.Kb1 g6 22.Rgg1!? a4 23.Ka1 Rg7 24.e4 f4 25.c5 Qe7 26.Rc1 Nf6 27.e5 dxe5 28.Rhe1 e4 29.Bxe4 Qf8

This is a key position in both the game and the book. Sadler and Regan use it to illustrate AlphaZero’s “thought processes” in Chapter 4.

30.d5!

AlphaZero sacrifices another pawn to open the a1–h8 diagonal!

30. … exd5 31.Bd3! Bg4 32.f3 Bd7

White’s initative grows after 32. … Bxf3? 33.Rf1 Be4 34.Rxf4.

33.Qc3 Nh5 34.Re5

AlphaZero rates its winning chances at 80.3% here. (It evaluates positions by win percentage in Monte Carlo game rollouts.) Stockfish 8 thinks White is significantly better, but newer versions of the engine more clearly understand the danger.

34. … c6 35.Rce1 Nf6 36.Qd4 cxb5 37.Bb1 Bc6 38.Re6 Rf7

Stockfish hopes to return some of its material advantage and weather the storm. AlphaZero does not oblige.

39.Rg1 Qg7 40.Qxf4 Re8 41.Rd6 Nd7 42.Qc1 Rf6 43.f4! Qe7 44.Rxf6 Nxf6 45.f5 Qe3 46.fxg6 Qxc1 47.gxh7+ Kf7 48.Rxc1 Nxh7 49.Bxh7 Re3 50.Rd1 Ke8 51.Ka2 Bd7 52.Bd4 Rh3 53.Bc2 Be6 54.Re1 Kd7 55.Kb2 Rf3 56.Re5 Rg3 57.Re3 Rg2 58.Kc3 Rg4 59.Rf3 Ke8 60.Rf2 Rg3+ 61.Kb4 Rg4 62.Rd2 Bd7 63.Ka5 Rf4 64.Be5 Rf3 65.Rd3 Rf2 66.Bd1 Bc6 67.Kb6 1–0

One can’t help but feel as if a superior, alien intelligence has taken the White pieces and opened a new vista on to our beloved game.

Part III of Game Changer brilliantly distills some of the key features of AlphaZero’s attacking prowess. We see, through detailed analysis and clear explanation, how AlphaZero values outposts, why it rams ‘Harry the h-pawn’ forward, how it plays on color complexes and sacrifices for what Kasparov called quality. Part IV, devoted to AlphaZero’s opening choices, is less successful. The authors laud AlphaZero’s novel handling of the White side of the Carlsbad structure, for instance, but the game they cite departs from theory on the sixth move, rendering much of the fine preparatory explanation useless.

Game Changer is an excellent book, fully deserving of the critical praise it has received. Sadler and Regan patiently explain the technical minutia for a non-technical audience, and their attempts to divine the essence of AlphaZero’s style are clear and convincing. Until DeepMind succeeds in “recovering back” AlphaZero’s implicit heuristics through some secondary algorithm, this treatment is as good it gets.

What remains less settled, at least in my mind, is the issue of the book’s title. Is AlphaZero really a game changer? Does its advent herald a revolution in chess?

DeepMind’s novel computational solution – AlphaZero’s self-learned strength and style – is as disruptive today as Deep Blue’s brute force approach was in 1997. Both reconfigured our understanding the possibilities of computer chess and, truth be told, of chess itself.

This, unfortunately, does not exhaust the two project’s similarities. AlphaZero seems doomed to a life behind corporate bars much like its august predecessor, hidden away from the public in the interest of protecting trade secrets. And as with Deep Blue, AlphaZero’s influence on chess will be as a consequence be limited.

I suspect that the real game changer will be Leela Chess, an open-source project that mimics AlphaZero’s self-learning algorithm. Because it is open-source, like the now ubiquitous Stockfish, Leela can be used by anyone without cost. Players can train with Leela, use it to analyze their games, and test their ideas against it. The democratization of chess information that began with Robert Hyatt’s Crafty, Mark Crowther’s The Week in Chess, and Stockfish continues with Leela, and the chess world will be much the richer for it.


[1] See Freud’s Compete Psychological Works (Standard edition, ed. Strachey), volume 17, p.139-141.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RuIHfNcPO0

Filling a Gap

This review has been printed in the March 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.

Also note that an interview with Benjamin, conducted by this reviewer, appears at uschess.org.

————–

Benjamin, Joel. Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918071. PB 224pp.

Joel Benjamin’s biography at uschess.org says that he has “seen the board from many angles.” This is quite the understatement. Few players have has left as wide and varied a mark on American chess.

Most readers will, I suspect, know Benjamin as a chess player. Once the youngest master in American history, he won the Triple Crown of national scholastic events in his youth along with the US Junior, US Open, and World Open titles. Benjamin competed in 25 US Championships, taking the title thrice (1987, 1997, 2000), and he played for the United States in international competitions across four decades. Most recently he helped win the gold medal for the US in the 2018 World Senior Championship. (See the October 2018 issue of Chess Life for his report on the event.)

But there is much more to Benjamin’s career than his stellar competitive record. He famously served as Deep Blue’s trainer in the mid 1990s, and he has long featured as an event commentator and “banter blitzer” for chessclub.com. Now Benjamin appears to be increasingly turning (or returning?) his attention to the written word. His newest title – Better Thinking, Better Chess: How a Grandmaster Finds his Moves – is an early candidate for Book of the Year.

Benjamin’s writing talent has been evident for many years. He published his first book in 1987, sharing authorial duties for Unorthodox Openings with the late FM Eric Schiller. In the early 1990s he was co-editor of the cult classic Chess Chow, certainly the funniest chess periodical in American history.

American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures appeared in 2007, and Liquidation on the Chess Board: Mastering the Transition into the Pawn Endgame was released in 2015 with a second, improved edition arriving soon. Benjamin has also been a frequent contributor and columnist for Chess Life and New in Chess for more than three decades.

Why is all of this worth mentioning? One of the difficult truths of chess publishing is that chess skill and writing prowess are not one and the same thing. Some authors may be outstanding over-the-board, but lacking that certain panache when seated at their laptops.

Benjamin is an outstanding writer. Better Thinking, Better Chess is clear and accessible without sacrificing complexity, and – this will be of no surprise to Chess Chow readers – it’s funny. It’s rare that I laugh in pleasure when reading chess literature, but there were multiple such moments here, along with (it must be said) a few Dad-joke groans. The end result is excellent, and readers will find themselves both educated and entertained by this book.

Better Thinking, Better Chess might best be understood as a variant on the old “give a man a fish / teach a man to fish” proverb. It is indisputably useful to have a teacher explain specific errors in your play, but explanation of flawed thought processes and modeling of proper in-game thinking goes much further. Instead of correcting past problems, it aims to prevent future oversights.

So Benjamin’s book is less about chess knowledge per se than it is about practical chess skills. Put differently, it’s about “the work during games” instead of “the work between them.” (7) Readers will certainly learn useful bits of openings, tactics, and endings if they work through the 118 games and 76 “Challenges” in Better Thinking, Better Chess, but more to the point, they will begin to reorder their thinking and hopefully better it.

Some of Benjamin’s examples and advice center on the need for ‘chess culture.’ Chapter 1-3 highlight the immense utility of theoretical knowledge in successful over-the-board problem solving. Game 3 is a clear illustration of this value.

QUEEN’S GAMBIT [D60]
Jay Bonin (2382)
Benjamin Medina (1968)
New York, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Qb3 e6 5.Bg5 Be7 6.Nc3 0–0 7.e3 Nbd7 8.Rd1

image

Black has a number of options in this position. He could follow known plans: 8. … dxc4 9.Bxc4 Nd5 is “Capablanca’s freeing maneuver,” and 8. … Ne4 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Bd3 Nxc3 11.Qxc3 dxc4 12.Bxc4 (if 12.Qxc4 e5) 12. … b6 followed by an eventual … c6–c5 would emulate Lasker.

Benjamin offers two other ideas, both aimed at freeing the c8-Bishop. Black could try the “unsophisticated but acceptable” 8. … b6 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.0–0 c5 when he may have equalized, and the “more sophisticated” 8. … a6, which aims to gain a tempo after 9.Bd3 dxc4 (9. … b5 10.cxd5 cxd5 is Benjamin-Kogan, US-ch 1986) 10.Bxc4 (10.Qxc4 b5! 11.Qxc6 Ra7 is in Black’s favor) 10. … b5 and Black can “break out if White is not careful.” (18-19)

Instead Black lost the thread and the game: 8. … Qb6?! 9.Qc2 dxc4?! 10.Bxc4 Re8 11.0–0 c5 12.d5! exd5 13.Bxd5 Qc7? 14.Bf4 Qa5? 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7 16.Ng5+ Kg8 17.Qb3+ 1–0.

It is certainly possible that Black, faced with this non-standard QGD / Slav hybrid, might independently stumble upon one of these four plans. But it’s more likely, especially given the quick time control, that Black would have better navigated this position by applying knowledge drawn from analogous games. Benjamin’s point is well taken: while understanding trumps rote memorization (13, 44, 46), specific knowledge of key openings, endings (41, 55), and tactical patterns (66-7, 74) is of great assistance in concrete decision making.

Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of the book, dealing with proper calculation and roadblocks endemic to it. These pages are full of useful advice on structuring calculation and locating hidden resources. Benjamin admonishes his readers to work hard at the board, to focus on high-reward forcing moves (86) and prioritize the search for candidate moves (108f). Players should “aim high” (118, also 24) before scaling down expectations, and they should extend their analysis “one move beyond the last capture” (105) to sniff out hidden chances.

What I particularly like about Better Thinking, Better Chess are the examples. The vast majority are digestible for non-masters, and the explanations are exemplary. Some positions are admittedly difficult – Gruchacz-Benjamin (Game 72) and Abramovic-Benjamin (Game 93) come to mind – but even here, Benjamin takes great pains to break things down in an edifying manner. I never felt overwhelmed by his analysis, although it required no small effort for me to follow.

Challenge 47 is typical in this regard, and it’s worth looking at in some detail.

CATALAN [E17]
Tan Nguyen (2216)
Shawn Rodriguez-Lemieux (2057)
Morristown jr, 2017

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0–0 6.0–0 Nbd7 7.Nbd2 b6 8.b3 Bb7 9.Bb2 c5 10.cxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Rc8 12.Nh4

Here White should probably not get too ambitious. 12.e3 with the idea of Qd1–d2 and Rf1–d1 looks like a sensible continuation.” (112)

12…Re8 13.Nf5 Bf8 14.Nc4 Ba6

image

Where should White move his knight?

Nguyen played 15.Nce3 g6 16.Nh4 Bg7 (16. … Bh6!) 17.Re1? Bh6 and Black won quickly. If White was focusing on forcing moves, the …Bh6 idea should have been forseen “at least before move fourteen, and ideally before 12.Nh4. The moves in this sequence are somewhat forcing and predictable, so it’s not unreasonable for a strong, hard-working player to do so. But at minimum, White should stop at move fifteen and seriously consider the ramifications of different knight moves.” (113) Neither 15.Ncd6 nor 15.Ne5 are totally satisfactory, but both improve on the game.

Chess improvement, as Jonathan Rowson famously remarked, takes place at the edge of our comfort zones. We’re approaching one of my edges here. I can easily see myself missing the … Bh6 idea were I not rigorous in my thinking, but it’s also not inconceivable that I could discover it with disciplined calculation. Better Thinking, Better Chess is stuffed with well-chosen Challenges like these, walking the fine line between ‘too easy’ and ‘way too hard.’

Space prevents me from discussing the full panoply of important insights found in this book – you can check Chapter 9, “Words of Wisdom,” for a summary list of key ideas – but I do want to highlight just one more, one that I marked “!!” in the margin of the page.

“I have noticed,” Benjamin writes, “that players below 2300 tend to be hesitant to sacrifice the exchange. Yes, they will do it to mate, or win material, or earn something tangible like dangerous passed pawns. But if they can’t calculate an immediate return they get put off it.” (144) This seems entirely correct. Material is but one factor in the calculus of positional assessment, and the ability to play sacrifices that lack ‘immediate gratification’ appears to be a sign of chess improvement.

Books like Better Thinking, Better Chess don’t come along every day. It’s insightful, well-structured, and it fulfills the promise of its title. It also fills a gap in the marketplace – the only comparable work I can think of is Jacob Aagaard’s excellent, but demanding, Thinking Inside the Box. I suspect Benjamin’s book is suitable for a slightly lower rated audience, say 1500-2200, but don’t mistake its sunny disposition for a lack of rigor. This is a first rate effort.

Instant Gratification

This review has been printed in the February 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.

—————-

Keene, Raymond, and Byron Jacobs. Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018. London: Everyman, 2018. ISBN 978-1781945131. PB 208pp.

Konikowski, Jerzy, and Uwe Bekemann. World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2018. ISBN 978-3959209816. PB 184pp.

Gustafsson, Jan, Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet. Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. video series, available at chess24.com.

What will chess historians remember most about the 2018 World Championship match? The smart money would appear to be on “the draws.”

With so many drawn games in both the 2016 and 2018 matches, and with players facing such difficulties generating chances with the White pieces, many pundits are proposing fairly radical changes in match structure and time controls. To me this seems slightly overwrought – two matches are a small sample, after all – but it mirrors a definite trend towards faster chess at the highest levels.

But perhaps the real story of the 2018 match will, in retrospect, have been the full arrival of chess as an e-sport. Today an ever-increasing number of major tournaments are streamed on YouTube and Twitch, including the US Open and US Chess National Scholastics, and some competitions (like the Pro Chess League) are now contested entirely online.

At least four major chess media outlets – chess.com, chess24.com, the Saint Louis Chess Club, and Agon / Worldchess – offered real-time English language streaming commentary on the Carlsen-Caruana match. Others, including chessbase.com, chessclub.com, and uschess.org, offered post-game wrap-ups and analysis. It’s worth spending a bit of time discussing the four competing live video streams, both to understand the novelty of their coverage as well as their limitations.

Danny Rensch and fellow Chess Life columnist Robert Hess hosted the chess.com coverage. Multiple guests appeared on the livestream, including Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Hou Yifan. Shankland provided the majority of the post-game annotations for chess.com readers, and everyone’s favorite “Uncle Yermo” Alex Yermolinsky recorded the post-game video wrap-ups.

Chess fans were treated to a veritable Murderer’s Row of chess commentators at Chess24. Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk were joined by Sopiko Guramishvili (Games 1-8) and Anish Giri (Games 9-12 and tiebreaks) for the live analysis, and Svidler recorded the post-game summary videos.

The Saint Louis Chess Club’s “A-Team” of Maurice Ashley, Yasser Seirawan and US Chess Senior Digital Editor Jennifer Shahade returned to helm the Saint Louis coverage of the match. Here too guests added spice to the proceedings, including Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Frequent STLCC broadcaster and Caruana second Cristian Chirila checked in from London.

All three of these streaming platforms provided their video to viewers on YouTube or twitch.tv free of charge. None were permitted to use live footage from London. Another option – worldchess.com, the paid broadcast arm of match organizers Agon – offered exclusive video of the players along with commentary from Judit Polgar, Anna Rudolf, and on-site guests like Demis Hassabis, one of the creators of Alpha Zero. While the cost to view the Worldchess stream was a reasonable $20, early reports of website instability and login problems spooked me. So I ended up flipping between the chess.com, chess24 and Saint Louis streams on my Roku Player.

With competition comes choice, and I felt that the three free streams were aimed at somewhat different audiences. Chess.com pitched its coverage towards gamers and enthusiasts. Chess24 tried to capture more serious players and students of the game. Saint Louis was the natural destination for American fans and a broadly pro-Caruana audience.

Most of my time was spent with chess24, and in no small part because of their general no-engine policy. There is little I enjoy more than watching vastly strong players analyze, and getting to see how Giri, Grischuk and Svidler worked through difficult positions together was a most welcome treat.

If the various streams had a common weakness, it was a certain modicum of perspective due to the real-time nature of the medium. “Hot takes” are quick and easy, but perspective requires time and critical distance, as no less than Garry Kasparov learned when he tapped out this ill-fated Tweet after Game 12. Full disclosure: I may have enthusiastically retweeted this.

Kasparov tweet

It’s vitally important, today more than ever, to resist the equation of instant analysis with veritable truth. There’s a reason that good writing and commentary take time, particularly in chess. Engines provide the illusion of accuracy and understanding, but authors can only begin to peel back the surface of events by standing back from them.

Here is where match books have traditionally been important. The problem, as I noted in December 2017, is that such efforts are increasingly rare, and the titles that do appear are often slapped together to make a fast buck.[1] There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such books – authors and publishers have to eat too! – but the results are usually unsatisfying, the literary equivalent of a greasy fast food meal.

Everyman’s Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018, released two weeks after the match closing ceremonies, is the definition of an “instabook.” Everyman editor Byron Jacobs teamed up with Raymond Keene, well known for his proclivity for borrowing texts both from his previous works and from those of others, to produce a thoroughly forgettable work.

Game annotations make up the bulk of Carlsen v Caruana, and while there are some oddities – playing an unforced Bxc6 in the Rossolimo, for example, was Chebanenko’s idea and not a Fischer invention, and Woody Harrelson’s accidental ‘king tip’ before Game 1 was a prearranged joke – they are serviceable if hardly groundbreaking. The book’s front matter, however, is another story entirely.

Large chunks of text in Carlsen v Caruana are recycled from previous Keene writings. The Introduction, “World Chess Comes to London,” is a verbatim reprint of his preface to the Summer 2018 issue of Synapsia, the house magazine for Keene’s Brain Trust Charity, and one of the final paragraphs reappears in his September 15th newspaper column. The “History of the World Championship” section is similarly self-referential, with many multiple paragraphs taken directly or closely paraphrased from previous Keene books, with The Brain Games World Championship 2000 being just one example.

Reusing one’s own text is not illegal or immoral, but the fact that the reuse is so blatant, and that Keene has made such a career of it, leaves something of a bad taste here. Couple this with the editing and spelling problems – “Kieseritsky,” “Vesselin Topalov,” and World Championship “Finallist” Nigel Short are but a small sample – and Carlsen v Caruana must be seen as something of a disappointment, failing to add anything new to the literature.

World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen, written by Jerzy Konikowski and Uwe Bekemann for the German publisher Joachim Beyer Verlag, proves that a rapid-response title can be done competently. The translation is a bit wonky – for some reason “World Championship” becomes “World Cup,” “and” is occasionally “und,” etc. – but the authors generally succeed in creating an original, accessible account of the match.

Konikowski and Bekemann aim to offer readers a “complete picture” (8) of the players by sketching Carlsen and Caruana’s careers and analyzing a selection of their pre-match encounters. Artur Yusupov and Karsten Müller provide useful insight into the players, and Müller’s contribution of fifteen annotated games meets his usual standard of analytical excellence. Only the combination section, featuring 24 positions from Carlsen and Caruana’s practice, seems extraneous.

Notes to the match games make up more than half of World Chess Championship 2018. There is less ‘color’ here than in Carlsen v Caruana, and the notes (save the excessive opening citations) tend to be terser. Konikowski and Bekemann’s book is certainly preferable to Jacobs and Keene’s, although it too left me wanting more. So it is perhaps a sign of the times that, with no other match books on the horizon, the most insightful treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match is – you guessed it – an online video series.

Chess24 series promo

Chess24 viewers were surprised when Jan Gustafsson, the public face of the website, was absent from the Game 1 coverage. While Svidler gamely tried to maintain operational security, we learned only after the match concluded that Gustafsson was holed up in Thailand, working remotely for Team Carlsen.

Over the course of nearly eleven hours of video, Gustafsson and fellow Carlsen seconds Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet walk viewers through the highs and lows of the match in Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. The result is an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which I can only begin to describe here, and the series stands as one of the most intimate accounts of a World Championship Match ever produced. Only From London to Elista by Evegny Bareev and Ilya Levitov can compare to it.

Impatient viewers – count me among them – might want to start with the final “Wrap-up” video, where Team Carlsen discusses the opening battles, Nakamura’s claim that Caruana dominated the Classical games, the question of whether Carlsen’s title was diminished by winning in tiebreaks, and how different team members worked during the match. Still, fascinating as the reflections on the match metagame were, the individual game analyses were better.

Chess24 Game Window

Take the coverage of Game 10. Gustafsson, Fressinet and Nielsen describe quite frankly how they missed 12.b4 in their preparation, discussing typical plans for both sides and citing Alpha Zero analysis. They speculate on the psychology of the moves leading up to the critical position after move 23, and Nielsen borrows a line from an Anand video to help us understand Caruana’s all-too-human 24.g3. The positions after 24.Bxb5, he says, are the sort where if the computer told you either White or Black were +1.5, you’d believe it. This is an important insight, and the emphasis on the human factor in the match is a key theme in the series.

Comparing books and videos is a bit of an apples and oranges endeavour. Books take longer to write – in most cases, anyway! – and there are production and distribution costs for print materials that do not exist for video platforms. Those considerations aside, it’s clear that Inside the 2018 World Championship Match is the best treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match, and by some distance. At $14.99 it’s also cheaper than the Keene / Jacobs and Konikowski / Bekemann books. The series is a real coup for Chess24, and I recommend wholeheartedly.


[1] It’s worth noting once more, as I did in my December 2017 review, what a welcome departure from this practice Alburt and Crumiller’s outstanding book was.

Books and Beyond

This review has been printed in the January 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.

Readers interested in seeing a video review of the new features in ChessBase 15 may be interested in this:

https://youtu.be/MBGz4ol_0-g

————

There are precious few pleasures left for the modern American air passenger. The lines are long. The seats are small. The snacks are very, very sad.

One consolation, at least for this weary, wordy traveler, is the in-terminal magazine stand. With so many magazines in print, and with limits to what one can responsibly subscribe, it is a great consolation to be able to pick an interesting looking issue of something off the shelf and distract myself with it while airborne.

I will admit that I picked up the October 2018 issue of Harpers because I mistook the cover author, Will Self, for NPR’s “enigmatologist” Will Shortz. Opening to the cover story, “The Printed Word in Peril: Reading, Writing, and the Tyranny of the Virtual,” I was quickly disabused of my misconception.

Self’s concern is debatable but simple. The literary novel is, on his account, becoming a “conservatory form” like easel painting or symphonic music, with BDDM – bidirectional digital media, or the apps and screens that link our devices to the cloud – being chiefly responsible for its demise. There does seem to be something to this phenomenon. After all, who has the sitzlfleish to read Middlemarch when there is another game of Fortnite to play?

Whatever one may think of Self’s points, it’s easy to see how they might be relevant for chess players and publishers. Chess streamers boast thousands of viewers on Twitch and YouTube. The publishing landscape is tilting towards digital media and products – just have a look at the latest catalogue from USCF Sales, where there are nearly as many pages devoted to software and videos as books!

This month we are renaming this column from “Looks at Books” to “Books and Beyond.” Our focus will remain on printed chess literature, which remains the center of theoretical discussion and output, and which generally continues to grow in quality with innovative publishers and the aid of our silicon friends.

We will also, from time to time, expand our focus a bit and investigate new digital products and programs. In this month’s column, we’ll look at two of the most interesting non-book releases in recent months: the granddaddy of all chess software, ChessBase, and Chessable, the new kid on the block.

ChessBase is the leading chess software manufacturer in the world, and its market share among the chess elite reaches monopoly status. Almost every leading player uses its products, and none more so than its flagship program, the eponymous database manager ChessBase, newly released in its 15th edition.

C15SplashL

The core functions of ChessBase all revolve around data management. Users can collect, maintain, and search vast collections of games to study openings, middlegame structures, and typical endings with plug-in engines like Fritz, Komodo, or Stockfish. Many of these core functions have been fairly mature since, say, ChessBase 7. So why would anyone need a newer version?

ChessBase had for some time answered this question with two words: the Cloud. Beginning with ChessBase 11, users could access online game databases from within the GUI. In ChessBase 12 the ‘Let’s Check’ feature from Fritz 13 was ported over, remote access to engines via the ‘Engine Cloud’ was introduced, and new analysis and search functions appeared. With ChessBase 13 the ‘ChessBase Cloud’ was born, allowing users to store and share data on ChessBase’s servers, and taking initial steps towards integrating ChessBase web account features into the program.

ChessBase’s authors returned their focus to in-program innovation with ChessBase 14. ‘Tactical analysis’ – automated engine analysis of specific games, previously available only in the Fritz interface – was introduced, as was assisted analysis, which provided tactical tips via the color-coding of possible moves. The way that games were saved changed, so that what was two functions – save and replace – became one unified process.

ChessBase 15 continues in this vein, with an impressive list of new features and tweaks that refresh the venerable program. Among the most important of these is ‘replay training,’ revamping training features to make them more interactive.

Replay Training

When the Training tab is activated, ChessBase keeps track of user accuracy in predicting moves, and an internal engine – a modified version of Ginkgo – assesses their relative strength. That same internal engine operates in “Instant Analysis,” a feature where games are very quickly analyzed upon loading, with each move’s evaluation appearing in a bar graph below the notation window.

CB15 game window

Search functions are also improved in ChessBase 15. There is a simplified, ‘one-line’ search for quick queries, and a number of new and upgraded search types are possible, including resulting endgame probabilities and plan explorers for specific positions.

My favorite new feature, however, is introduction of a tactical search mask. Users can now search databases for specific tactical themes, ranging from double attacks to overworked pieces to back-rank weaknesses.

Tactics Search Mask

The results are not perfect – every double attack is found through this search, even banal ones – but mining data for interesting tactics has never been easier.

One of ChessBase’s strengths is its ability to continue to innovate so far into its lifespan. Some changes, like the move towards the Cloud, are fairly organic, arising from broader technological advances. Others appear to be direct responses to competitor’s products.

The Deep Analysis feature introduced in ChessBase 12 and 13 is a take on Interactive Deep Analysis, or IDeA, in Convekta’s Aquarium program. The new training tab in ChessBase 15 has clear antecedents in openings trainers like Chess Position Trainer, ChessBase’s own Cloud Opening Trainer, and, most recently, Chessable.

chessable_logo_square_large

Chessable is a new website / “webservice” gaining quite a bit of mindshare with tech-savvy players. Part of this has to do with its association with IM John Bartholomew, one of chess’ leading streaming personalities, who also serves as Chessable’s Chief Communications Officer and co-founder. Bartholomew is a big draw in the streaming / e-sport landscape, and his involvement with the platform has undoubtedly aided in its rise to prominence.

The real selling point for Chessable, however, comes in its claims about the scientific basis of its product. Chessable combines the concept of spaced repetition – the repeating of learned material across increasingly wide intervals of time – with gamification features to create an effective and ‘sticky’ form of chess learning. Instead of using low-tech flashcards, users train their knowledge of opening lines, tactics, and endgames on the website, receiving nudges and rewards for returning each day.

The Chessable interface (“MoveTrainer”) is simple and attractive. From the main menu, users can choose to ‘review’ or ‘learn’ material in courses they own. ‘Learn’ takes users to the next new position in the course, where you can replay read-only lines or solve new problems. ‘Review’ runs uses through material they have already studied, using spaced repetition to emphasize moves and positions incorrectly solved.

chessable problem

Chessable was originally designed as an openings trainer, and it’s easy to see how a spaced repetition model of learning might be attractive in that context. Users can study an opening variation through a Chessable-produced course, with both free and paid content available, and they can also create their own courses by manually inputting variations or uploading .pgn files. The platform also allows for the study of tactics and endgames, both of which also lend themselves to a spaced-repetition approach.

Chessable is free to use, albeit with two important caveats. Some features of the MoveTrainer interface are only available for paid or Pro users. Among these features are the auto-tagging of moves or positions that you solve incorrectly, allowing for the study of “difficult moves,” access to advanced study and replay settings, and use of a full-depth opening explorer. Some courses, as mentioned above, are also paywalled.

Which of these tools should you consider buying? For me, ChessBase is the rare product that lives up to its advertising. When Garry Kasparov says that ChessBase is the most important innovation in chess since the printing press, he is not exaggerating. If you are a real student of the game, and you are not using ChessBase, you are shortchanging yourself.

The real question comes for those who are already using ChessBase. Is it worth upgrading to 15? For those using ChessBase 12, my sense was that updating to versions 13 or 14 was not entirely necessary unless specific features were of great personal value.

The weight of the cumulative improvements in ChessBase 15 may alter this recommendation. The auto-analysis features in 14 and 15 are useful, the integration of Cloud and web features is ever-tightening, and search enhancements are truly impressive. 15 introduces a new, backward compatible database booster that speeds all manners of searches, and the tactical search is a show-stopper. ChessBase is a mature, best-of-class product, and I cannot imagine seriously studying chess without it.

I have to admit my skepticism about Chessable when I first started using the site, and there are still some UI quirks that I could do without. As time passed, however, I began to see why its users are so rabidly attached to it.

The gamification features help to inculcate a strong study habit in users, and while spaced repetition may not be the panacea that Chessable claims it to be, it is indisputably useful to review material in a structured way. Newcomers may want to try a free course – the ‘Short and Sweet: The London Opening’ and ‘Olympiad Tactics 2018’ titles come to mind – to see if the platform speaks to their needs.