Mastering Chess Middlegames

This review has been printed in the February 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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Panchenko, Alexander. Mastering Chess Middlegames: Lectures from the All-Russian School of Grandmasters. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056916091. PB 240pp. List $24.95, currently $20.75 at Amazon.

How important is it to study tactics? Are they the royal road to chess excellence? I usually avoid debates on this topic in Internet forums, as they never seem to lead anywhere good, but a recent exchange on the Reddit Chess sub-forum prompted me to revisit the question.

Responding to a topic titled “Why do people stress tactics so much,” IM and chess.com head-honcho Danny Rensch reasoned as follows: while he himself was trained in the ‘Russian’ style, with a thorough grounding in positional play and endgames, he could see why some stress tactics so highly. “Tactics eventually decide every game. No matter what. At every level.” Rensch now believes that “teaching tactics first and foremost… is a good idea so that [his] students can start winning games.”

Intensive tactical study is doubtless necessary for chess improvement. Note, however, how Rensch immediately qualifies his statement: “…[w]ith balance of course.” Because tactics decide games, they can lead to more wins and increased enjoyment. Players who win are more likely to stick around long enough to learn the “advanced planning and strategical principles” that “govern who gets good tactics.”

Reading all of this, I was reminded of the famed lament of Rudolf Spielmann, a great attacking player from the early 20th century. “I can see combinations as well as Alekhine,” he said, “but I cannot get to the same positions.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the tactics-only approach. The tactician always has a puncher’s chance, but if your opponent hangs no pieces or mates, the only way to make use of your tactical prowess is to play into a position where the tactics exist.

There are plenty of primers of positional chess around, with Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, Silman’s Reassess Your Chess and Stean’s Simple Chess being some of my favorites. A new book from New in Chess represents a slightly different approach to the problem of getting good positions (and defending bad ones).

Alexander Panchenko was a leading Soviet coach, on par with Chebanenko, Kart, Lukin and perhaps even Dvoretsky. If he is known to an American audience, it is for his two-volume endgame manual The Theory and Practice of Chess Endings. His new book, Mastering Chess Middlegames: Lectures from the All-Russian School of Grandmasters, is (like the endgame volumes) rooted in his lectures at the “Panchenko school.”

Mastering Chess Middlegames is not a textbook, despite its being drawn from Panchenko’s lecture notes. It is an inspirational set of examples that illustrate common middlegame themes and tasks – attack, defense and prophylaxis, realizing an advantage, playing equal positions, etc. – along with typical play in important material configurations. Each chapter concludes with sets of positions for solving and playing out with a training partner.

This approach to improvement – the study of illustrative examples rounded out by practical experience – is much the same as found in more advanced books by Aagaard or Dvoretsky. In contrast to those works, probably best suited for experts and above, Panchenko’s book can be profitably read by ambitious class players.

Grandmasters Rublevsky and Timofeev note in their contributions to Panchenko’s book the centrality of defense in his teaching. Three chapters, nearly a quarter of the book, are devoted to this theme. In Chapter 2, ‘Defense,’ Panchenko provides 47 lightly annotated positions, some famous and some less so, arranged under a number of subheadings. 15 positions are given for solving, and 6 for playing out. Here is one of the positions to solve. Can White (on the move) save the game?

image

Mastering Chess Middlegames is a practical guide to navigating standard middlegame situations and themes with an emphasis on active learning. Reading it will not replace or undercut the need for tactical study. After working through its pages, however, and honing your skills in solving typical middlegame problems, you might fulfill Spielmann’s dream and find yourself in the types of positions from which combinations flow.

Solution:

E22 Study by Gleb Zakhodyakin 1930
1.g7+ Nxg7 (1…Kg8 2.Ng4) 2.Nf7+ Kg8 3.Bc5 f1=Q 4.Nh6+ Kh8 5.Bd6 The black king is caught in the corner, the knight cannot move because of Bd6-e5+, and taking the bishop with the queen on d6 or e5 allows Nh6-f7+. Draw.

Staying Relevant

This review has been printed in the January 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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Tadic, Branko, and Josip Asik, eds. Chess Informant 125: Enigma Edition. Belgrade: Sahovski Informator, 2015. ISBN 9788672970791. PB 344p.  List $39.99 (book), $29.99 (cd / download), $49.99 (book & cd).

Sometime after the first few issues were published beginning in 1966, Tigran Petrosian famously derided the upcoming generation of players as mere “children of the Informant.” He believed that the explosive popularity of the Chess Informant series of books, which featured theoretically important games analyzed by top players, was stripping his beloved game of creativity and reducing it to a contest of memory.

If the Informant was the first paradigm shift in chess informatics, the arrival of the Internet, chess engines and databases effected the second. Few sectors of the chess world have been as disrupted dramatically by this shift as have periodicals.

When the Informants – and Chess Life, for that matter – were first published, it was standard for weeks or months to pass between a game’s being played and published. Today games from even minor tournaments are available on the Internet the day they’re played. How can something like the Informant stay relevant in the age of the machines?

The latest issue, Informant #125, is an attempt to answer that question.

My first Informant was #51, published in 1991. It was fairly representative of the series as a whole. The book began with the announcement of the best games and novelties from the previous issue, followed by 637 games densely annotated in the trademark Informant languageless commenting system. It concluded with game and annotator indices, lists of FIDE rated events and player ratings, and a selection of interesting combinations and endings played in the previous six months. (The series was then bi-annual. It now appears quarterly.)

Compare this with Informant #125, published this past October. The first thing you notice is that half the book is written in full, flowing English prose! This is the culmination of a series of editorial decisions that began with issue #113 and reach their zenith here. Some of the traditional apparatus – the best game and novelty, the list of major rated tournaments, the combinations and endings sections – have been retained. The languageless annotated games section also remains, and just over 200 games appear in #125.

The bulk of the book consists of English-language articles, and this is where the Informant brand makes its stand for relevancy. There are plenty of places to find raw game scores and even annotated games on the web, including The Week in Chess, chessbase.com, chess24.com, and uschess.org. An ambitious amateur, armed with an engine and a database, might even do a passable job in answering most of her own questions about specific moves.

What is missing from most of the reporting found on the Internet is perspective, and that’s exactly what the English-language articles in Informant #125 bring to the table. It’s one thing to let an engine show you ‘better’ moves and numerical evaluations, and entirely another to have a Grandmaster explain thought processes and key decisions. Periodicals remain relevant when they do what engines can’t – they provide color and context that only human expertise can deliver.

Typical of this ‘color and context’ is the coverage of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup in #125. Three Grandmasters treat the tournament in some detail, with seven games from the event receiving comprehensive annotations. Karsten Müller’s endgame column, here dealing with rook against bishop endings, is always worth reading, and Mauricio Flores Rios’ piece on Carlsen’s problems in the 2015 Stavanger tournament is a gem.

Not every one of the articles in #125 is a hit. While it is interesting to see how a Super-GM like Morozevich picks apart a line in the Rubinstein French, the piece feels rather impressionistic despite its length. I also wonder about the overlap between Kotronias’ 2.c3 Sicilian repertoire, the 7th(!) and final installment of which appears in this issue, and his forthcoming book on the Anti-Sicilians with Quality Chess.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the book can be found in its list of annotators. Very few top players now annotate their games for the Informant, with the bulk of the work having been farmed out to in-house analysts. This used to be the main strength of the series – the list of annotators in #51 is a Who’s Who of chess at that time – and while the in-house staff does fine work, there is no substitute for notes provided by the combatants themselves.

Informant #125 goes some distance in proving that there is still room for periodicals in the Internet age. If they manage to bring more top annotators back into the fold, they may well reclaim their place as the preeminent series in the chess world.

Dealing with 1.d4?

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

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Schandorff, Lars. Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982941. PB 264pp. List 29.95.

Sielecki, Christof. Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781941096. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Svidler, Peter. The Grünfeld According to Svidler (ebook). Available for $19.99 as a standalone product at chess24.com or as part of their Premium membership package.

In May I reviewed six books on the Sicilian, thus helping to put 1.e4 effectively out of business. (Ha.) But what about 1.d4? How can Black hope to respond to such a move? Fear not, dear reader: this month I look at three recent books which aim to help us with that very problem.

Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav is Lars Schandorff’s latest book with Quality Chess. Taking the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 as a starting point, Schandorff offers a complete repertoire in just 264 pages. This is no mean feat, as he covers both the Botvinnik and Moscow variations along with the 8…Bb7 Meran and assorted sidelines.

Strong players are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their opening research. Schandorff’s coverage of the Botvinnik variation is inspired, at least in part, by the games of the ICCF GM Alexandr Efremov, and he uses some of Efremov’s innovations in blazing a path to safety for Black. His analysis runs well past move thirty in key lines. While he does not skirt the need for memory work, Schandorff offers readers sufficient and welcome signposts to assist in the task.

Because Schandorff is so concise in his analysis, a few details are missing. Some move order technicalities in the Botvinnik are glossed over, and readers must supplement the book with study of the Exchange Slav, Queen’s Gambit Exchange variation, or the Marshall Gambit depending on how they choose to get to his tabiya. Neither issue detracts greatly from the book, which lives up to the heady promise of its title.

Christof Sielecki is new to the chess publishing world, but he’s very well known to his twenty thousand subscribers on YouTube as ‘chessexplained.’ With his new book from Everyman, titled Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian, readers are presented with a complete repertoire after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6.

In his introduction to the book, Sielecki explains his rationale for what follows. Most Nimzo repertoires have followed what he calls a ‘light-squared’ approach, where play in the center with …d7-d5 and fianchettoing the bishop with …b7-b6 are standard motifs. One might think of Karpov’s trademark approach to combatting the 4.e3 Nimzo as emblematic in this regard.

Sielecki, in contrast, tends to recommend lines that follow a ‘dark-squared’ approach, placing central pawns on dark squares. While not all of his repertoire choices follow this path to the letter – see the anti-Hübner lines (chapters 6 and 7) in the 4.e3 Nimzo as examples – many variations share strategic themes, making them easier to learn. The Bogo and ‘Catalan-Bogo’ lines share the same general philosophy.

My silicon friends and I spent some time checking Sielecki’s analysis in the two lines for White that I know best (4.Qc2 and 4.f3). I found his analysis to be comprehensive, well sourced and well explained. The variations occasionally become heavily nested, making things hard to follow, and I abhor the ‘French flaps’ that have become standard for Everyman paperbacks. Here again, the overall quality of Sielecki’s book greatly outweighs these small defects.

The final book under review this month isn’t really a book at all. For months after the 2014 appearance of Peter Svidler’s magisterial series on the Grünfeld for chess24.com, anxious viewers longed for the set of analysis files promised by Svidler. They were published earlier this year as an eBook, and they were worth the wait.

The eBook version of The Grünfeld according to Svidler contains all of the analysis presented in the video series along with much, much more. Take the very sharp position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 c6 7.e4, for example. In the videos Svidler proposes the novelty 7…Bg7 while also briefly analyzing three alternatives for Black. The eBook contains a dramatically fuller account of 7…Bg7 along with complete analysis of the three alternatives.

There is no better guide to the Grünfeld than Svidler, and his analysis in this eBook borders on the astounding. The eBook can only be accessed in your browser, and – perhaps due to concerns over piracy – there is no easy way to save the text other than to copy it manually into your database. The effort, however, is entirely worth it.

Of the three books reviewed this month, Sielecki’s is probably the ‘simplest,’ suitable for the ambitious club player. Schandorff and Svidler present very sophisticated repertoires that require good memories and, in the most critical lines, very strong nerves. All three can be warmly recommended, but as always, readers should heed the Delphic oracle and know themselves when buying.

Diving into Databases

BigBase / MegaBase 2016

Correspondence Database 2015.

The Week in Chess (TWIC)

Paramount Chess Database.

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When I was in high school and learning about the basics of computer science, I was taught an acronym to underscore the importance of having clean data to work with: GIGO, or ‘Garbage in, Garbage out.’ You can have all the fantastic algorithms and formula you like, but if your data is in poor shape, you’ll never come close to the results you desire.

The same is true of chess data. You can buy the fanciest GUI (graphical user interface) the market has to offer, and you can collect all of the strongest engines around, but if you’re working with poor quality data, your research will suffer for it. Fortunately for us, there are a number of high quality databases out there, each fulfilling a specific set of needs for different types of users.

In this review I’ll look at four (or five, depending on how you look at things) of the most important databases out there, and as we will see, there is something useful for just about everyone. All of them are available in ChessBase’s native data format, and two (TWIC and Paramount) are also available in .pgn format, making them readable by those using GUIs other than ChessBase or Fritz.

Big / MegaBase 2016

There’s no way around it. You need a large reference database if you’re going to do any serious chess research or study. Online databases like chess-db.com, chessgames.com and ChessBase’s own online database are no substitute. They require internet connections and you can’t easily manipulate online data. The largest and most well-known of these reference databases are Big Database (BigBase) and Mega Database (MegaBase) 2016 from ChessBase.

BigBase and MegaBase each contain over 6.46 million games running from the earliest recorded games through October of this year. The database is searchable by player, tournament, and annotator (among other things), and you can access various indices or ‘keys’ for openings, endgames, strategic and tactical themes. Note the last three keys are not accessible in the default ChessBase 12/13 settings. You can access them by going to Options – Misc – Use ‘Theme Keys.’

Mega 2016 keys

You might suspect, given the name of the product, that each year brings a new version of the database to the market. And you would be correct to do so. The 2015 release of MegaBase contained 6,161,344 games, and the data wranglers at ChessBase have bumped that total to 6,466,288 in the 2016 edition. About half of these games have appeared in issues of ChessBase Magazine and ChessBase Magazine Extra, but 166,692 of them are entirely new to the ecosystem.

Mega 2016 Sources

While the majority are from 2014 and 2015 events, there are some historical additions as well. Among them are 18 games played by Botvinnik, 14 by Alekhine, and 9 by Spassky.

There are a number of similarities between BigBase and MegaBase. The number of games in each product is identical, as are the indices and keys. So what distinguishes them? MegaBase comes with two additional features that BigBase lacks: the inclusion of annotated games and a year’s worth of weekly updates. [MegaBase also comes with an updated version of PlayerBase, which collects rating data and pictures for thousands of players, but since I don’t use the feature, I will refrain from commenting on it.]

The 2016 version of MegaBase includes over seventy five thousand games with named annotators. This represents an increase of 3425 annotated games over the 2015 edition. While regulars like Atalik, Ftacnik and Marin provide notes to Super-GM games, there are also analyzed games by lesser-known combatants. Hundreds of annotated games from John Donaldson and Elliot Winslow are new to this edition, all of which come from amateur contests at the Mechanics Institute in the past few years.

MegaBase also comes with an update service, where weekly downloads of 5000 games are provided for a year. As a point of comparison, we are currently at update number 49 for MegaBase 2015, and 245713 games have been added to the database with all updates included.

MegaBase Update Service

This means, by the way, that not every game submitted to ChessBase is included in these weekly updates. Apples to oranges comparisons aren’t possible, but about sixty thousand or so games are in the 2016 database and not in the fully updated 2015 version.

BigBase and MegaBase are the preeminent reference databases available today. They are not perfect. Tim Harding has remarked on problems (some of which appear to have been fixed) with Blackburne’s games, for example, and John Watson never played in the 1966 British U14 Championship. Doubtless there remains plenty of tournaments, like the 1995 MCC/ACF Summer International (whose bulletin sits on my desk), just waiting to be entered into the computer. But no other database comes close to these two in terms of comprehensiveness and cleanliness of data. Anyone doing serious chess work, from openings to history to biography, needs one of these two products.

BigBase 2016 is available for download or post for €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT for those outside the EU). MegaBase 2016, which includes the annotated games, the weekly updates and the PlayerBase, costs €159.90 ($147.93 without VAT), and updates from previous versions of MegaBase costs €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT). The Update option comes with the annotated games, weekly updates, etc.

Correspondence Database 2015

Opening theorists are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their work. In his newly released Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav, for instance, Lars Schandorff makes extensive use of games by the Russian Correspondence Grandmaster Efremov in working out the theory of the Botvinnik Variation. Such scrutiny is entirely logical if you think about it. The best correspondence players use all possible resources – books, computers, whatever! – over a period of months to choose their moves, making their games a veritable gold mine for opening ideas and novelties.

This is one area in which both the Big and Mega Databases are lacking, as they contain only over-the-board games. It is possible to cobble together a database of correspondence games by going to the websites of major correspondence organizations (ICCF, IECC, BdF, LSS) and collecting published games, but instead you might consider the Correspondence Database 2015 from ChessBase.

The Correspondence Database 2015 (CorrBase) contains 1,274,161 games played by post and e-mail from 1804 through January 2015. (The dates in this database seem to refer to the start date for the games.) 5649 of those games are annotated. The 2015 version of CorrBase also contains over 200,000 new games when compared with its 2013 incarnation, and it includes games from all of the leading correspondence groups.

So what will you find here? Let’s look at the games of ICCF-GM Aleksandr Gennadiev Efremov, the ‘hero’ of the early chapters of Schandorff’s new book. 577 of Efremov’s games appear in CorrBase 2015, including dozens of games (with both colors) in the Semi-Slav. The latest of these began sometime in 2013, and just about every one of Schandorff’s citations can be found in CorrBase.

CorrBase 2015 is an incredibly useful resource for the serious opening theorist or correspondence player. Because there is no update service (the TeleChess sections of CBM notwithstanding) discerning users will want to search out the latest games each month at organizational websites and add them to their databases. The effort is entirely worth it.

The Correspondence Database 2015 is available via download or post for €99.90 ($92.42 without VAT). An upgrade from earlier versions is available for €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT).

The Week in Chess

Not everyone can afford to buy MegaBase, and for those who do buy BigBase, there remains the problem of keeping the database up-to-date. For both of these problems there is Mark Crowther’s indispensable e-magazine The Week in Chess (TWIC).

The first issue of TWIC appeared in September of 1994. Each week since then, Crowther has produced a text report on the week’s chess news along with a database of new games in ChessBase and .pgn formats. Because both have always been available to download at no cost, TWIC has become a weekly must-see for players of all strengths. Indeed, we get a sense of just how central Crowther’s work has become with this tweet from Anish Giri:

Giri's tweet

We should cut Giri some slack. He was, after all, on his honeymoon!

Every issue of TWIC, from #1 (Sept 17, 1994) through the current day (#1094 at the time of writing), can be downloaded from The Week in Chess website. The databases from issue #920 (June 25, 2012) forward are also available. Combining those 175 files, a user could create a free database with 495,966 (482,290 after killing doubles) games to study. Among them we find 640 games played by Vachier-Lagrave (the most in the database), 516 by Nakamura, 507 by Svidler, and 7 miserable efforts by Hartmann.

This would be sufficient as a first step in chess research and database use, but Crowther also offers his readers the possibility of downloading a copy of his complete, private database for a donation of £30. The database contains every game ever published in TWIC, and as of the last version (#1-1093) it contained nearly 1.8 million games.

Crowther’s £30 offer is, in my opinion, very good value for the money. This is all the more true once you consider that you can keep it updated for free by downloading new issues of TWIC each week. I also suspect that you would boost your karmic standing by supporting Crowther’s tremendous efforts with a donation.

Owners of BigBase, who do not receive weekly updates as part of their purchase, can also use new issues of TWIC to update BigBase. Just keep in mind that the standardized names used by ChessBase and TWIC are different, so if you’re interested in studying (for instance) Kramnik’s games, you’ll have to look at ‘Kramnik,Vladimir’ (BigBase) and ‘Kramnik,V’ (TWIC) to find them all.

Paramount Chess Database

The Paramount Chess Database (Paramount) represents a complementary approach to chess research. Instead of the millions of games found in the databases discussed above, Paramount only contains 113,832 games with a roughly 70/40 split between complete games and fragments. What’s the value in that, you might ask? These are the collected games of issues 1-123 of the Chess Informant series of books, legendary among players since the first one was published in 1966. There are decades of history and knowledge collected in these games.

What has traditionally separated the Informant series from other chess publications was its annotators. It was a badge of honor to have your game selected for inclusion in the Informant, and just about every major player since the 60s has annotated for the series. All of those annotations are collected in the Paramount Database, and that’s what differentiates this products from those discussed above.

Here are some examples: there are 60 games annotated by Kasparov in MegaBase 2016, and 592 in Paramount. Anand annotated 506 games in Paramount and 267 in MegaBase. Older players like Larsen, Petrosian and Tal each have hundreds of annotated games in Paramount, while their notes in MegaBase can cumulatively be counted on two hands.

Why is this important? Others might provide competent notes, especially in the age of the computer, but games annotated by the combatants themselves have a special value. This is where the Paramount database shines, albeit with one caveat. You are more likely to find annotations by today’s Super GMs in MegaBase than in Paramount due to editorial shifts in Belgrade.

How might a player use the Paramount database? Two avenues come to mind. First, this database is very well suited to doing the kind of historical opening research championed by Kasparov in Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess: Revolution in the 70s. It’s hard to think of a better way to gain insight into, say, the Zaitsev Ruy than to actually study the games and notes that created modern theory, most of which appear in Paramount. The database can also be used to study the most important games of specific players, many of which are (as noted above) annotated by the players themselves.

One nice feature of the Paramount package is the way in which the data is presented after installation. You get a complete database of all the games, but dozens of smaller databases organized by opening, player and annotator are also included. This makes studying a specific player or important opening very easy. Each issue of the Informant appears in its own separate file, and the data is also provided in .pgn format.

Paramount databases

The Paramount Chess Database is available by download or post for $199 from the publisher, although you can find discounted deals at various chess retailers on the web.

Summary

There is no substitute for having a large research database such as MegaBase or BigBase at your disposal for pre-game preparation, opening research and general chess study. Because MegaBase comes with annotated games, weekly updates and the PlayerBase, it is the premier database product on the market today. Serious opening analysts and correspondence players should absolutely consider supplementing BigBase or MegaBase with CorrBase.

Not everyone can afford MegaBase. For those on a budget, BigBase is an adequate stand-in for MegaBase. For those less interested in historical games and more in recent examples, Mark Crowther’s complete The Week in Chess database is perhaps a more worthy and cost-effective replacement.

Downloading the free weekly updates of TWIC and maintaining a stand-alone TWIC database should be part of every ambitious player’s weekly schedule, even if you own MegaBase and use the update subscription service. Games appear at different times in the TWIC and MegaBase updates, so if you’re doing pre-game scouting on an opponent, you should have a look at both sources.

The Paramount Chess Database has a different role to play in your research portfolio. Paramount is a wonderful historical document, a font of opening ideas to be mined and a tremendous source of well-annotated games by the best players of the past half-century. It is a superb complement to your reference database of choice, but it does not replace the need for one.

The Spice of (Chess) Life

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

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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915957. PB 240pp. List $26.95.

Chess, unlike poker, is a game of complete information. All of the pieces are on the board, and none are hidden from sight. Each player has access to the same information when deciding on their moves, but what is done with that knowledge will naturally vary from person to person.

In poker, players lack knowledge of one or more cards belonging to other players or the community. This lack of complete knowledge allows players to bluff, to act as if they have hands that depart dramatically from what they actually possess. One of the reasons that televised poker became such a fad in the ‘aughts’ was the introduction of the hole cam, giving viewers more information than the players themselves and exposing the logic (or lack thereof) of betting actions.

On the face of it, it would seem impossible to bluff in a game of complete information like chess. Once a move is played, it is what it is, and a player cannot dissimulate its strength or weakness. And yet, as Vladimir Tukmakov shows us in Risk and Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks, carefully modulated risk and the well-timed bluff can be powerful tools when used judiciously.

Tukmakov, who moonlights as the personal second of Anish Giri, is the author of two previous books. In the first, Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Tukmakov tells the story of his chess career, rising from promising junior to member of the Soviet Olympic team and top-fifty player for nearly two decades. In the second, Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, he sketches the history of chess preparation and treats in fascinating detail the role of the computer in contemporary preparation.

This theme – the centrality of the ‘silicon friend’ (SF) in modern chess – recurs in Risk and Bluff in Chess. Risky moves are quickly debunked by even the casual fan armed with the latest engine. Brilliant bluffs are ridiculed. What is forgotten is that chess remains a game played between two humans, each of whom is fallible, subject to emotion and fatigue. Tukmakov’s book reminds us that it is still possible, and in some cases necessary, to risk and bluff our way to victory in the age of the machines.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is less a how-to manual than it is a series of inspirational vignettes. We meet the hero of the tale in its first chapter. While Tukmakov sees historical antecedents in Lasker and Alekhine, and contemporaries in Larsen, Spassky and Stein, it is in the games of Mikhail Tal that he identifies a mutation in how we assess risk in chess.

Tal possessed the unique ability to steer games towards unbalanced positions where his “remaining pieces acquired a completely different value, and operated with a harmony that only he could achieve.” (45) This is not to say that he played incorrectly. The computer, as Tukmakov notes, reveals that in many cases Tal’s sacrifices were entirely sound. He brought an “unrepeatable magic” (47) to the game, and that magic brought him to the world championship.

In the remainder of the book, we see how risk and bluff function in various situations, including the opening (chapter 2), defense (chapter 6), and must-win games (chapter 8). Of particular interest for the practical player is the fourth chapter, titled “The Logic of the Irrational.”

Granting, as Tukmakov does, that not everyone can play like Tal, what might a reader take from this chapter? In discussing positions where the board seems to have been constructed almost at random, Tukmakov offers two pointers. One must rely on one’s intuition as “one cannot calculate the incalculable.” (124) There is also a rule that Tukmakov finds useful: “non-standard positions require non-standard decisions.” Examples are drawn from the games of Larsen, Gelfand, Kortchnoi and Tukmakov himself (among others) to illustrate these ideas, and the chapter wraps up with a ‘Conclusion’ that reads like a coach’s pep talk.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is a fascinating study of two often misunderstood themes in chess. It is not an instructional work in the usual sense of the term, but it might inspire readers to add a bit of spice to their play. Tukmakov’s analysis tends towards the comprehensive, so some sophistication is required to take its full measure. All the same, I suspect that most players who have a taste for complication in chess would enjoy this book.

For the kids?

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

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Hertan, Charles. Basic Chess Openings for Kids: Play Like a Winner from Move One. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915971. HB 160pp. List $18.95.

Müller, Karsten. Chess Endgames for Kids. London: Gambit Publications, 2015. ISBN 978-1910093610. HB 128pp. List $16.95; currently $13.56 at Amazon.

The number of children playing chess continues to grow, but there remains relatively few good books for them to study. Part of this involves a generational shift away from paper and towards the world of apps, but I suspect that it also has to do with the difficulty of actually writing for children. There are precious few instructional works that manage to entertain and enlighten without sliding into farce.

Two books explicitly aimed at kids – Basic Chess Openings for Kids by Charles Hertan, and Chess Endgames for Kids by Karsten Müller – have recently been published. Both authors have impressive track records, but do these new efforts really work as books for children?

Basic Chess Openings for Kids is Charles Hertan’s fourth book with New in Chess, and his third written for children. The new book has much in common with its predecessors (Power Chess for Kids and Power Chess for Kids 2), including its terminology and the four helpful characters who ask questions along the way. For those unfamiliar with Hertan’s earlier works, a brief chapter on piece value and counting attackers / defenders is included, as are a glossary of terms and twenty quiz positions.

Hertan believes that the main goal of the opening can be summarized as follows: “get your pieces into action quickly and effectively!” (10) He argues that development or mobility is thus key to good opening play, and to that end, he devotes full chapters (2-5) to developing knights, bishops, rooks and queens. Chapter 6 focuses on the relation between pawn and piece play, analyzing two pairs of opening ‘schemes’ to make his points. The book concludes with an outline of five typical opening mistakes in Chapter 7.

Hertan’s basic strategy – investigating what each piece ‘likes’ to unpack good piece play – is solid, and his ideas-based approach to the opening is good for beginners. The reading level is not simple, so it might vex young readers, and I do worry a bit about the wide variance in the level of ideas presented. It’s one thing for beginners to see why knights like to be on c3 and f3, and another entirely for them to grasp the concept of outposts or knight maneuvers in the Ruy Lopez. I suspect that this is a book that would reward re-reading as players climb the ratings list.

Karsten Müller is, with apologies to our own Daniel Naroditsky, the world’s leading authority on the endgame. Having authored three classic books and fourteen DVDs on the topic, Chess Endgames for Kids is his work aimed at the youth market. The book is very good indeed, but I’m not convinced that it’s really designed for kids.

Chess Endgames for Kids consists of 50 distinct lessons or mini-chapters. Some of the initial lessons cover very basic endgames, including king and queen versus king and king and rook versus king. The complexity ramps up dramatically, however, and it does so very quickly.

Just about half the book is devoted to king and pawn endings and rook and pawn endings. The king and pawn coverage begins with the rule of the square, key squares and the opposition. I’m not convinced that most juniors need to know more than this before they reach Class C. Reti’s famous study (Lesson 12) is more aesthetically pleasing than educational for the beginner, and Bahr’s Rule (Lesson 15) is simply overkill.

We find much the same in the lessons on rook and pawn endings. The analysis of basic positions like Philidor and Lucena (Lessons 34-36) is useful and appropriate for novice players, but even Hikaru Nakamura lacked knowledge – or so he claimed on Twitter, anyway – of the Vančura position (Lesson 38) in his draw against Radjabov at the Gashimov Memorial in 2014.

Knowing Vančura is obviously important, as is the concept of the bodycheck in rook versus pawn endings (Lesson 32). The question is: for whom? Beginners would do probably do better with Winning Chess Endings by Seirawan or Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, and younger novices might best served by starting with Ten Ways to Succeed in the Endgame by Onions and Regis.

Chess Endgames for Kids is best seen as a terse endgame primer, slightly less complex than similar efforts by de la Villa (100 Endgames You Must Know) and Nunn (Understanding Chess Endgames). It is excellent for players with some experience who need to learn key theoretical endings, and it’s a steal at $16.95 in hardcover.

Book Note: Karolyi on Tal

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

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 1: 1949-1959, The Magic of Youth. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982774. PB 448pp. List $29.95, currently $23.70 on Amazon.

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2: 1960-1971, The World Champion. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982798. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently $21.74 on Amazon.

In the course of researching the games of Mikhail Tal for a forthcoming Chess Life review, I had the opportunity – and the pleasure – to spend some time with Tibor Karolyi’s two volumes on Tal. (A third, covering the remainder of Tal’s playing career, is in press.) Excluding Tal’s own efforts, there are no finer books on Tal in print.

Karolyi follows a recipe in these two books that he first cooked up in his two books on Karpov for Quality Chess. (Those books, Karpov’s Strategic Wins 1: The Making of a Champion and Karpov’s Strategic Wins 2: The Prime Years, can also be recommended.) He breaks Tal’s career down by year, interspersing deeply annotated games with discussion of tournament situation, personalities, and Tal’s personal life. Summaries of each year’s results conclude chapters, and indexes by player and page number are included along with a rough index of themes found in Tal’s games.

While Karolyi includes many of Tal’s most famous sacrificial efforts, he also analyses more ‘workman-like’ games, including no small number of his endgames. Karolyi is a diligent analyst, and while he (like many of his Quality Chess brethren) can sometimes present more analysis than can be easily digested, this is surely preferable to offering too little. The image of Tal we get through these books is of a much more well-rounded player than commonly thought.

Karolyi also spends a lot of time, and obviously spent a lot of effort, contextualizing each game. In some cases he sheds light on the identity of Tal’s opponent, while in others he sketches the situation Tal found himself in while playing the game. Many personal anecdotes are relayed, and the book is much richer for it.

69 fully annotated games are found in Volume 1, while Volume 2 contains 66 complete scores. Dozens of fragments and game citations (some with notes) are given as well. When the third volume is released, Karolyi will have given the chess world a comprehensive and compelling account of Tal the player and Tal the man. It will only further burnish the legend that is Mikhail Tal.