Analyzing the 2016 World Chess Championship

This review has been printed in the December 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Alburt, Lev, and Jon Crumiller. Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship, New York 2016. New York: Chess Information & Research Institute, 2017. ISBN 978-1889323299. PB 336pp.

Looking back at my time at the World Chess Championship in New York last year, and looking through the hundreds of pictures I took, one image clearly stands out. It’s not of Magnus or Sergey. It’s not of the crowds of casual spectators and hardcore fans. And it’s certainly not of the VIP section, fully one-quarter of the event floor space and totally off limits to the hoi polloi like me.

I attended the third game of the match as a “credentialed journalist,” giving me access to the Press Room. It was a small space, crammed with laptops and cameras, extension cords and water bottles. There I tried not to gawk as the famous Spanish chess journalist Leonxto Garcia wrote and filed his report, and with NRK’s Ole Rolfsrud interviewing many of the journalists for Norwegian television, I suspect I’m in more than a bit of their B-roll.

Game 3 was a long one, more than six hours in all, and there was a palpable sense of relief when it concluded in a hard-fought draw. With a train to catch, and with the press conference dragging on, I returned to the Press Room to gather my things.

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The room was nearly deserted, despite the arrival of the long-rumored pizza. Only two people remained. One rested her head on the narrow table and slept. The other – Chess Life columnist GM Robert Hess – sat typing, earbuds in and oblivious to the emptiness around him, racing to complete his rapid game analysis for Chess.com.

In some ways, what I saw Hess and his colleagues from Chess.com doing that day was nothing new. Baseball writers, for example, are often are forced to rework their articles after late inning heroics. But I had never really considered what it took to produce the near-instant news articles and expert analysis we have come to expect in the digital age.

It was fascinating to watch FM Mike Klein, Chess.com Director of Content and frequent Chess Life contributor, write and rewrite his reporting, changing its title as Carlsen’s winning chances ebbed and flowed. Hess had multiple chess websites open on two laptops as he wrote, cross-checking his ideas with those of engines, the Agon announcing team, and analysts from around the world.

There is no doubt that the chess world is greatly enriched by these kinds of efforts. It was awesome (in the original sense of the word) to play through Hess’ analysis on my smartphone on the train home, and I was glued to the competing livestreams as the match unfolded.

For all of this, it seems to me that something is lost in the dromological arms race endemic to contemporary mass media. Fast – and this is by no means a slight on Hess or Klein – may not always be definitive. Some of the games in the Carlsen-Karjakin match, like game three, were incredibly complex, requiring analytical depth and distance hard to muster in real-time. And this, traditionally, has been the role of the match book.

The match book, like the tournament book (see my April 2017 column), is increasingly an anachronism in modern chess literature. Sure, there are always the “instabooks” published as soon as the match ends, but serious, learned studies of World Championship matches seem to be a thing of the past.

Or maybe they’re not.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship 2016, written by GM Lev Alburt and NM Jon Crumiller, is a readable and rigorous analysis of all sixteen match games. Alburt, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, is a three-time winner of the US Championship, the author of numerous instructional books, and – as a recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile makes clear – the chess teacher of choice for Manhattan’s financial elite. Crumiller is a long-time Alburt student and a master in his own right, having earned the title in over-the-board and correspondence play. He is also one of America’s leading chess collectors.

With both authors living in the New York area, and with their strong connections to FIDE (Alburt) and Agon (Crumiller, who was a major contributor to the Agon published Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World), Alburt and Crumiller attended most of the games at the Fulton Market playing venue. The roots of this book, as Crumiller explains it (7), can be found in their mutual attempts to understand each day’s games.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is not written as a holistic historical record of the match. Rather, as the above suggests, it largely focuses on the games themselves, combining in-depth analysis with more basic instructional elements. There is for this reason something of an internal tension to the book, and this tension is only intensified when we consider the contributions to Carlsen vs. Karjakin by former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik does more than just offer “round-by-round game analysis,” as the cover art describes it. He’s really the book’s third author, providing serious and provocative commentary for each game along with two lengthy interviews. Because he competes against both Carlsen and Karjakin on a regular basis, and because he knows all too well the pressures of playing for the World Championship, Kramnik is an ideal match commentator, and his insights here are invaluable.

The structure and layout of Carlsen vs. Karjakin will be familiar to anyone who has read one of Alburt’s previous books. Each of the twelve regulation and four tiebreak games receive their own chapters, prefaced with three “key position” color diagrams, a brief introduction, and a picture. The great bulk of the book lies in the analysis, with Alburt and Crumiller providing the main notes and Kramnik’s contributions appearing in blue text boxes.

There is a kind of productive dialectic between these two narrative voices when Carlsen vs. Karjakin is at its best. Kramnik helps readers understand how a super-GM approaches specific positions and decisions from a first-person perspective, and his discussions of match psychology are particularly illuminating. Alburt and Crumiller write in a more objective, third person voice, making extensive use of strong engines to try and reach the truth of key positions. Their account of Karjakin’s Game 10 blunder (56. …Rhh7?) is a case in point: the notes run for four dense pages, and they improve on Giri’s analysis in New in Chess.

When Alburt and Crumiller reference Kramnik’s contributions and refine them, adding analytic heft and clarity to his ideas, the book really hums. There are places, however, where this interplay breaks down and readers are left stranded. Consider this position from Game 4, where Karjakin has just played 45.Nd1.

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After Carlsen’s 45. …f4?, Karjakin was able to build a fortress and, after nearly fifty more moves, hold the draw. 45. …Be6 is a clear improvement that should lead to victory. But how?

Calling the win “trivial” and “even easier… than [he] had thought,” Kramnik states:

“When you have the two bishops, you need to open up the position. That’s just basic logic. The winning plan in general is:

I. After …Be6, White’s knight eventually needs to come to f2, so Black can put a pawn on a4, bishop on d5, bishop on c7 (White will probably have his bishop on d4).

II. Then Black plays …fxg4 and after Nxg4, …Kf4. If the knight goes back to f2, then the pawn travels through g4 to g3, and eventually promotes. And if Ne3+, then …Ke4, because the bishop endgame is completely lost. Black can just invade with the king and then push the g-pawn.” (77)

This is a very advanced example of what Mikhail Shereshevsky calls schematic thinking. Not surprisingly, I struggled to understand it, “basic logic” or not, and I suspect that most class players would have similar difficulties.

If Kramnik overshoots his audience here, Alburt and Crumiller miss in the opposite direction. Rather than expanding on Kramnik’s plan with illustrative variations, they write: “45. …Be6 keeps all options open for Black, in the form of three different plans: [1] play on the kingside, [2] penetrate with the king in the center, and [3] penetrate with the king via a long walk to the queenside. … A similar concept can be found in the strategy of ‘playing against two weaknesses.'” (78) This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help me understand how to actually win after 45. …Be6.

[Interested readers can click here to see just how Carlsen could have won. I draw on published analysis from Chirila, Giri, Lund and Svidler.]

I do not want to overstate the case, because in general I think Carlsen vs. Karjakin to be a very fine work indeed. Still, there are times when the various commentary tracks – Kramnik’s deep, “pull no punches” insights, Alburt’s pedagogical bon mots, and Crumiller’s engine verified analysis – don’t quite sync up, leaving the book slightly at odds with itself and unclear on what it wants to be. For an ambitious work like this one, the sin is small and forgivable.

Many books are described as “labors of love” by their authors. Carlsen vs. Karjakin is the real McCoy. Alburt and Crumiller could have written a perfectly serviceable book on their own, but by bringing Kramnik on board, they have produced something special. Certainly there are some downsides to this level of authorial investiture – there is no reason to include pictures of Crumiller’s sets and books, and the repeated mention of other Alburt titles is tacky – but here again, such minor lapses in objectivity are justified by the end result.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is a definitive study of the 2016 World Chess Championship. Its authors invested a lot of time, effort, and (I suspect) money in the book. The layout is attractive, the book lies flat, and dozens of color pictures from the match are included. Ultimately, though, this is a book whose raison d’être is its game analysis, and it’s on that basis that it really shines.

Nota bene: Chess Life Editor Dan Lucas served as editor for the book under review this month, and he wrote its Introduction and Epilogue. The opinions and conclusions above are fully mine, and with the exception of minor grammatical or stylistic changes, it is identical to what I originally submitted. – JH

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The Goldilocks Problem

This review has been printed in the November 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Fishbein, Alex. The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2017. ISBN 978-1941270745. PB 128pp.

Astronomers and astrophysicists often speak of a “Goldilocks Problem” when discussing the origins of life in the universe and the search for life beyond our own Solar System.

There seems to be a fairly narrow “habitable zone” – neither too hot nor too cold, neither too close to their home stars nor too far away – if planets are to be able to support life. Lucky for us, the Earth is juuuust right in its relation to the Sun!

Chess authors have their own version of the “Goldilocks Problem,” and we see it most clearly when we consider the competing difficulties in writing an opening book.

It’s a tricky balancing project. Authors have to include enough analysis to make their case, but not so much that they overwhelm their readers. The analysis should be objective, but a bit of advocacy is necessary too. Why should a reader spend time learning your lines if it’s clear that you don’t really believe in them?

There have to be enough words to explain the rationale for repertoire choices, but not so many that the book seems flip or frivolous. The variations should be solid and sound, containing enough poison to play for a win without shading into too much speculation. The book should be concise without sacrificing coverage, and it (ideally) should teach you something about chess beyond any specific opening system.

Now, no book is perfect. But some are better than others at searching out this sweet spot and trying to inhabit it. One of the best books I’ve seen in recent months, and one that checks most of the boxes listed above, is Grandmaster Alex Fishbein’s The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White, newly published by Russell Enterprises.

Fishbein, the author of two previous books (King and Pawn Endings in 1993 and Fischer! in 1996), was a very active player in the early 1990s, but he put aside his professional chess career and entered the world of high finance. Never fully giving up the ghost, Fishbein has in recent years dipped his toes back into competitive play with greater and greater regularity.

The Scotch Gambit offers its readers a complete repertoire for White after 1.e4 e5. The final chapter deals with the Petroff and Philidor Defenses along with the Latvian and Elephant Gambits, but by and large, this is a book about how to answer 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6.

This is no small problem for 1.e4 players right now. 1. …e5 is hugely popular at elite levels, as we saw in my May column, and this trend trickles down through to the amateur ranks. Difficulties in cracking the Berlin and Marshall have driven White players towards the hoary Giuoco Piano, which (if we’re honest) is hardly inspiring stuff.

Fishbein’s answer is to bypass all of this by playing 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4, entering into positions where White offers a pawn to gain attacking chances. There is theory here to learn, of course, but the field is delimited and White can try to channel the game into positions he knows better than his opponents.

At just 128 pages, The Scotch Gambit is a surprisingly dense book. Each of its ten chapters begins with a theoretical overview of critical variations, followed by a set of supplementary games that expand and unpack that analysis. Not all of the illustrative games show victories for White, which to my mind is rather useful. Sometimes a ‘cautionary tale’ can prove more enlightening than a dozen typical miniatures.

The heart of The Scotch Gambit lies in Fishbein’s analysis and repertoire choices, but equally as important is his effort to continually leaven that analysis with clear positional explanations. Fishbein repeatedly stops and explains to his readers how he evaluates specific positions, even (and especially) when the computer disagrees. As he puts it in chapter 5,

You study the opening not just to prepare for all different moves that your opponent can play, but, more importantly, to gain intuition about evaluating the position. … You will need general understanding and the skills to evaluate positions to deal with [new moves]. If any game that I annotate in this book does not teach you something about how to evaluate positions, something that you can use in other games or variations, then I have not done my job. (64)

There is plenty of analysis for even master-level players in The Scotch Gambit, but for me, the emphasis on explanation is what distinguishes Fishbein’s book from its competitors.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Black has two main options: 4. …Nf6 and 4. …Bc5. Chapters 1-5 of The Scotch Gambit deal with 4. …Nf6, while Chapters 5-9 explore responses to 4. …Bc5. We’ll take each in turn.

The first two chapters of the book deal with what Fishbein calls the Modern Attack: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4 Bd7. There are two points here worth mentioning.

(1) White often chooses between two 5th move options in this variation: 5.e5 and 5.0-0. Fishbein makes a cogent case for the superiority of 5.e5, and in chapter 5, he shows why this is the case. Recent analysis by Lokander and Ntirlis prove that Black is fully equal, if not potentially slightly better, after 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!

(2) Black sometimes (following Ntirlis, among others) tries to offer a pawn sacrifice with 7. …Bc5. Fishbein explains in chapter 3 that White should decline the pawn with 8.Be3 0–0 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Bxc5 Nxc5 11.Bxc6 Rb8 12.Qxd5

“Unusual” is 12.0–0 Ba6! (12…Rxb2 was seen in Nakamura-Onischuk, Saint Louis 2015) 13.Re1 Rxb2 14.Qd4 Rxc2 15.Na3 Nb3 16.axb3 Rxc6=.

12…Qe7

12. …Qxd5 13.Bxd5 Rxb2 14.Na3! with the idea 15.0–0–0.

13.0–0 Rxb2 and here, instead of 14.Nc3, Fishbein proposes 14.Na3!? as “a good practical try.” (40)

While there are a lot of move orders issues to consider, as is true throughout the book, the key position of the Modern Attack appears after 7. …Bd7 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.0–0 Bc5 10.f3 Ng5 11.Be3 Bb6 12.f4 Ne4 13.Nd2 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 c5 15.Nf3! d4 16.Bf2 and now Black has a choice of moves.

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After 16. …Bc6 (keeping the option of castling queenside alive) Fishbein persuasively argues that White should play 17.f5! as in Stopa-Schneider (Richardson, 2007). Other moves are imprecise: 17.Bh4 allows 17. …Qd7, fighting for the f5 square, and in the case of 17.a4 a5 18.f5 Qd5 19.Qg5?! (better is 19.Bh4) 19. …h6! 20.Qxg7 0–0–0! Black is for choice. The main line runs 17. …Bxf3 (if 17. …Qd7? 18.e6!, and after 17. …Qd5 18.Bh4!) 18.gxf3 Qd5 19.Qg5 when the White king is safe enough and Black has trouble castling.

Less common is 16. …0-0, which is on Fishbein’s account “[t]he most solid and … best move.” (11) White usually plays 17.Qd3 in this position, with the idea of f4-f5, but Fishbein thinks that after 17. …Qc8 White has no chance for an advantage. Instead he recommends the very rare 17.b3!?, and after 17. …Qc8 18.a4 a5 19.Nh4 Re8 20.Rae1 Fishbein writes “White’s plan is clear: f4-f5 and, with any luck, an attack on the king. White’s next moves may be Qd3 and Bg3. Black has his trumps: a good light-squared bishop and a flexible position. If Black can time a central advance well, White’s attack can backfire. However, White’s position seems easier to play.” (13)

What about 4. …Bc5? Here Fishbein provides two alternatives for readers to consider. White can play 5.0-0!?, leading into the Max Lange Attack (Chapter 6) after 5. …Nf6 and the “von der Lasa” variation (Chapters 7-8) after 5. …d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3. Alternatively, if White desires a quieter game, he can try the Jobava variation – 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 (6.cxd4 Bb4+ is the Giuoco Piano) 6…d5 7.Be2 – recently popularized by GM Baadur Jobava and analyzed in Chapter 9.

I think the choice between these two moves comes down to whether you believe in Fishbein’s rehabilitation of the von der Lasa. This is a very old variation, analyzed years ago by Steinitz and Cordel, and more recently by Lev Gutman in Kaissiber. While Black can vary with 6. …dxc3, 6. …Nf6, and 7. …Qd7, the key line runs 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0–0 d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

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Here White has avoided the faulty 9.Bxg8? Rxg8 10.gxf3 g5!, but is faced with a multitude of decent choices for Black, including 9. …d3, 9. …dxc3, 9. …Bb6, and the most popular move, 9. …Nf6.

Fishbein tries to show through creative analysis that the von der Lasa is ultimately unclear, with neither side able to truly claim an advantage. I think this is slightly optimistic. For example, if Black tries the untested 9. …d3!? 10.Be3 Ne5 11.Bxg8 Rxg8 12.Nd2 Qh4, White is under pressure but probably should hold.

9. …Nf6, played by Steinitz and recommended by Bologan, might be a tougher nut to crack. Fishbein’s main line runs 10.Bc4 Qd7 11.Kg2 (improving on Bologan’s 11.Be6 Qe8 12.Bh3 g5!) Na5 12.Qb5 Nxc4 13.Qxc4 Re8 14.Re1 1Qf7 15.Qd3 Qg6+ 16.Kf1 d5 17.cxd4 Bd6 18.Nc3 Bxh2 19.Qe3 where he claims that ” [i]n this double-edged position, White’s central pawns cover the king and also offer good prospects in the ending… Neither king is completely safe (always the case in this variation).” (79)

Fair enough. But what about 11. …Re8, with the idea of Re8–e5–h5? Fishbein gives 12.Qd1 (12.Bf4? g5) 12. …Re5 13.Kh1 (13.h4!?) 13. …Rh5 14.Rg1 as “an unclear position in which Black can easily get overextended.” (78) To me this sounds like a tacit admission of Black’s superiority, and I’d much rather play Black in this position.

That Fishbein is slightly overly optimistic for White, here and elsewhere, is not surprising. He plays these lines himself, so I’d hope that he believes in them! From my perspective, this is the only drawback to the book, and it’s a slight one indeed. There are a couple of minor editorial lapses – three moves are missing on page 101 – and small analytical improvements found by the computer, but on the whole, this is a work of very high quality.

The Scotch Gambit is an excellent book, filled with interesting ideas and sharp analysis. What makes it special is the clarity of Fishbein’s positional sketches and descriptions. It avoids all the extremes of the opening book genre, and in so neatly tying together analysis and exposition, Fishbein has written the rare book suitable for both amateurs and masters.

Replayable analysis references:
Modern Attack ML
Von der Lasa

Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

No KIDding – New KID books

This review has been printed in the September 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Bologan, Victor. Bologan’s King’s Indian: A Modern Repertoire for Black. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917203. PB 448pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 1: Fianchetto Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013. ISBN 978-1906552503. PB 680pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 2: Mar del Plata I. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982873. PB 320pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 3: Mar del Plata II. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982538. PB 280pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 4: Classical Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830199. PB 464pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 5: Sämisch and the Rest. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1784830359. PB 560pp.

Pavlovic, Milos. New Weapons In the King’s Indian. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510020. PB 242pp.

I have noticed that a lot of amateur defenders of the King’s Indian (KID) tend to ‘wing it’ in the opening. They trust that their general knowledge of the KID will suffice as they fling their pawns and pieces forward, or that the Muse will grace them with the right move just when they need it.

What they forget is that even Kasparov – one of the most dynamic players in chess history, and one of the KID’s greatest champions – had to marry inspiration with theory, memorizing variation after variation as he tried to survive his theoretical arms races with Karpov and Kramnik. Eventually he gave up, deciding that the memory work required to play both the Najdorf and the KID was too much, and that the Najdorf was a better use of his time.

It is absolutely critical to know your theory if you want to play the KID, particularly at the master level or in correspondence play. And chess publishers have come to the rescue, with a slew of recent titles that cover the main lines, the side lines, and everything in between. We’ll take a look at seven books by three authors this month, using two examples to help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of each author’s project.

The fifth and final volume of Vasilios Kotronias’ epic series on the KID is newly published by Quality Chess. Clocking in at over 2300 pages, these five volumes – Kotronias on the King’s Indian 1: Fianchetto Systems (2013), 2: Mar del Plata I (2015), 3: Mar del Plata II (2015), 4: Classical Systems (2016), and 5: Sämisch and the Rest (2017) – almost certainly represent the most detailed examination of a single opening in chess history.

In a clear echo of Quality Chess’ slogan, the series promotes the most central and principled of main lines in KID theory. This includes the ‘Kasparov’ line against the Fianchetto (v1) featuring ..Nbd7, ..e5, and ..Qb6, the famous Mar del Plata variation in the Classical (v2 and v3), and the super-topical 6. ..c5 against the Sämisch (v5). While the vast majority of the lines discussed in the early volumes still stand up – current top-level correspondence games seem to support this – Kotronias has kindly included 46 pages of updates and revisions to previous analysis in the fifth book.

Victor Bologan’s Bologan’s King’s Indian: A Modern Repertoire for Black (New in Chess, 2017) is a mildly revised version of his 2009 The King’s Indian from Chess Stars. Some of the material also appears on two DVDs released by ChessBase in 2009 and 2015. The book is not designed to be an exhaustive treatment of the opening a la Kotronias, but rather, one that describes the “KID Bologan Style.” (8)

On the whole the repertoire is very similar to that proposed in the 2009 edition. It trends towards the main lines (Panno against the Fianchetto, the Mar del Plata, 6. ..c5 vs the Sämisch) but nearly always included multiple repertoire choices for readers to choose from. Bologan also provides suggestions against the English Opening, White’s double fianchetto, the Torre and the London. His is the only book under current discussion that does so.

Our third and final book comes from Milos Pavlovic and Thinkers Publishing. New Weapons in the King’s Indian (2017) consists mainly of lesser known paths in the KID. Pavlovic analyzes the ..exd4 lines in the Classical and 6. ..Nbd7 in the Sämisch (which backs up into some 6. ..c5 variations). He eschews typical KID lines in the Fianchetto variations, instead arguing for the viability of an old pawn sac in the English Four Knights after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3 c5 5.Bg2 cxd4 6.Nxd4 0-0 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.0-0 d6!?.

Pavlovic’s book is largely raw analysis. There is, the table of contents notwithstanding, no bibliography in the book, and it can sometimes resemble a database dump a bit too much for my taste. The layout is very clear and pages have plenty of white space, but once again a Thinkers Publishing book suffers from mangled English. It is fully readable, to be sure, but the editorial lapses range from the mild to the comical.

One of the best ways to try and compare opening books is to compare their common analyses. There is quite a bit of overlap in some of the main lines between Kotronias and Bologan, and some with Pavlovic. Here we’ll take a look at what they have to say about two currently theoretically important positions.

The Bayonet Attack in the Classical KID remains quite trendy at all levels. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0–0 6.Be2 e5 7.0–0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.b4 Black has two main options: 9. ..Nh5 and 9. ..a5.

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Both Bologan and Kotronias analyze 9. ..Nh5, where one of White’s current thematic tries is 10.Re1 f5 11.Ng5 Nf6 12.Bf3 c6. Here 13.Be3 and 13.Bb2 are White’s most common moves, but 13.dxc6!? is a rare move played by Vishy Anand’s long-time second Radoslaw Wojtaszek. After 13. ..bxc6 14.exf5 gxf5 15.b5 White has given up the center, but has some tactical possibilities in exchange. Kotronias devotes a full chapter to this variation, claiming that Black can ‘hold his own’ after 15. ..h6 16.Nh3 d5 17.bxc6!? e4 18.Ba3 d4 and 17.Ba3 e4 18.cxd5 cxd5 19.Nf4 Re8, with analysis running out to move 49!

13.dxc6 does not appear in Bologan’s book, but he does (briefly) discuss the alternative 12. ..h6. This precludes Wojtaszek’s move and forces White back into more traditional lines with 13.Ne6 Bxe6 14.dxe6 c6 as discussed by David Vigorito in his excellent column at ChessPublishing.com.

Bologan also covers 9. ..a5 and 9. ..c6 as alternatives to 9. ..Nh5. His discussion of 9. ..a5 is worth particular attention. After 10.Ba3 (10.bxa5 c5 locks up the queenside) 10. ..axb4 11.Bxb4 Nd7 12.a4 he analyzes the relatively rare 12. ..Kh8!? and shows it to be a very reasonable path for Black.

Another important variation – this time in the Sämisch – comes from the famous game between Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk in the 2013 FIDE Candidates Tournament. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 c5 7.Nge2 Nc6 8.d5 Ne5 9.Ng3 h5 10.Be2 h4 11.Nf1 e6 12.f4 Grischuk set the board aflame with the fantastic piece sacrifice 12. ..Nxc4!? 13.Bxc4 b5 14.Bxb5 exd5 15.e5. All three books include this position as part of their repertoires, although Pavlovic reaches it by means of a slightly different move order (6. ..Nbd7 7.Nge2 c5 8.d5 Ne5, transposing).

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Grischuk continued with 15. ..dxe5, but there is an alternative: 15. ..Bg4. The key variation is 16.exf6 Bxd1 17.fxg7 Kxg7 18.Rxd4. Bologan thinks that this is improves over the Grischuk game: “[i]f White… exchanges queen for minor pieces, he will have to fight against a pawn wedge in the center.” (183) Pavlovic extends Bologan’s analysis with 18. ..d4 19.Rxd4 cxd4 20.Bxd4+ f6 and claims that Black stands better. (51)

Kotronias disagrees. Citing Svetushkin, he thinks that after 21.Ne3 “White had the more pleasant position… Black had a nominal material advantage with a queen and a rook against four minor pieces, but the pieces coordinate beautifully.” (476) I suspect that he might be right here, at least in terms of practical play. There are four over-the-board games with 15. ..Bg4 in my database, and after 16.exf6 White won all of them.

This is, by necessity, a small analytical sampling, but these examples help to illustrate some of the relative strengths and weakness of our authors and their books. Kotronias’ books are astoundingly detailed, scrupulously sourced, and analytically precise. It is hard to think that they could be bettered in accuracy or coverage. At 2300 pages, no one – not even Kasparov – could hope to memorize it all, so I suggest that readers focus on the skeleton of beginning of each chapter and the summaries at their ends. Fill in details as interest, practice and time allow.

Bologan’s book has two main strengths. It is concise, and it offers multiple repertoire choices when Kotronias tends to offer just one. That it covers ‘sidelines’ like the English, London or Torre is also very useful. Bologan’s analysis is generally of a high standard, but readers should pay special critical attention to pages that lack game citations after 2009.

I am less enthusiastic about Pavlovic’s book. I don’t trust his evaluation of 15. ..Bg4 as described above, and as I checked his analysis, both of Svidler-Grischuk and more broadly, I kept finding small problems. I think the book can be useful for those looking for lesser-traveled paths in the KID or for those whose repertoire matches up with his choices, but it’s just not in the same league as Bologan or Kotronias.

Analysis links:

Bayonet 9.b4 Nh5: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165832500.html

Bayonet 9.b4 a5: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165904844.html

Svidler-Grischuk: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165976625.html

Trend Hopping

This review has been printed in the August 2017 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.

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Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9789492510037. PB 250pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917159. PB 208pp.

Moskalenko, Viktor. Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises – Tactics, Strategy, Endgames. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916763. PB 336pp.

Every year it’s the same.

Someone stumbles upon an unlikely hit – think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Whatever – and others, desperate to get in on the riches, commission analogous titles. Similar books and movies appear in waves, and publishers try to surf those waves until they peter out, leaving their riders high and dry.

The chess world is not immune from such trend-hopping. Opening books are always in style and in print, but recently (and much to my liking) a spate of titles devoted to training have come to press. We looked at a few earlier this year, and we’ll check out three more in this month’s column.

Both the title and subtitle of Alexander Kalinin’s book – Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself – are evocative of the book as a whole. Kalinin implores his readers to think for themselves and resist the colonization of their thought by the engines. True mastery, he argues, can be achieved if four training principles are followed.

Players must form “a relationship with chess as an art,” strive for analytical mastery and precision, study the classics, and cultivate interpersonal relationships with teachers and exemplars. This last point is particularly important, as Kalinin’s book is filled with bon mots and other insights from Soviet trainers both famous and forgotten. My favorite comes from IM Oleg Averkin: “Tactics have a greater significance in the endgame than in the middlegame!” (65)

Kalinin is a persuasive writer, and the book is chock full of interesting and little-known illustrative examples. Most players would do well to heed his admonitions and turn off Stockfish most of the time. Still, I do wonder if there’s not a slight luddism in play here.

It is true that there is no small danger in our overreliance on the computer and its inhuman evaluations. But it is false that “we have stopped thinking and analyzing for ourselves.” (11) There are far too many computer-trained GMs and young phenoms for this to be true. If anything, the computer has, when handled judiciously, expanded our thinking about what is possible with 32 pieces on 64 squares.

I’m always happy to receive a new book by Viktor Moskalenko. His work is enthusiastic, inspirational and consistently worth reading. In his newest effort, Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises: Tactics, Strategy, Endgames, Moskalenko offers readers a wide range of positions for solving and training purposes. Each of the three main sections described in the subtitle contain multiple subsections with instructional elements and problems to solve.

Training with Moska lacks a substantive table of contents, making the book rather difficult to use. There’s no way to know what’s in each section without looking at each page, the book has no thematic index, and scanning the text for specific topics is difficult due to the cramped layout. This makes focused training very difficult.

It’s also not clear to me that the positions on offer here are practical, as the subtitle claims. Many of them are engrossing, even spectacular, but practical training might require more sedate, everyday moves and problems. I suspect that ultimately Training with Moska is best suited for pleasure reading and not for hardcore training workouts.

Our last book this month, Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames, is a much more austere training manual than Moskalenko’s. It is Romain Edouard’s second effort in this vein, with the first (Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2: Test Yourself!) being reviewed here this past January.

Chess Calculation Training consists of 496 positions from recent games separated into ten broad sections. Some of the tasks are typical of the genre, where readers must find winning tactical or positional moves. Others, like “Find the missed move!” (chapter 8) or “Evaluate the opportunity!” (chapter 9), are less common.

This is a rather Spartan book, especially when compared with Moskalenko’s. Edouard’s book is a set of difficult problems and sparse solutions, and that’s pretty much it. True, occasional hints are provided, but they are completely optional and appear on pages separate from the problems. You’ll need to work hard to find the answers in Chess Calculation Training, and that seems to be exactly Edouard’s point in writing it.

I’d suggest that readers consider their goals in chess before deciding to buy one of these books. Kalinin is fantastic for someone looking for a broad overview of training techniques, and Edouard is an advanced workbook for the ambitious improver. Moskalenko, I’d argue, is more appropriate for someone looking for interesting examples that might also impart some wisdom. Chess is supposed to be pleasurable, even when we’re trying to improve, and despite the warts, Training with Moska is a pretty enjoyable read.

Bisguier’s Books (and beyond)

This review has been printed in the July 2017 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.

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With the death of Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier on April 5th of this year, one of the last giants of post-World War II American chess has left us. The bulk of his chess legacy lies in his games and in the tremendous amount of publicity work done on behalf of US Chess over the years. Bisguier played simultaneous exhibitions across the country while in the employ of the Federation, giving players in remote places the chance to challenge a Grandmaster.

Bisguier’s contributions to chess literature are lesser known. He was a contributor to Chess Review, one of Chess Life‘s progenitors, for many years, and even took a turn as its Managing Editor. Towards the end of his life Bisguier also wrote two books: The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1: The Early Years (1945-1960) and The Art of Bisguier, Selected Games 1961-2003. (There is a third book bearing Bisguier’s name – the 1974 American Chess Masters from Morphy to Fischer, co-written with Andy Soltis – but it appears that Soltis did the vast majority of the work.)

Published in 2003, The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1 is an oversized (8.5″ by 11″) volume covering Bisguier’s early chess career. The book, co-written with Newton Berry and self-published, is primarily a games collection organized by year. Each ‘chapter’ leads with a brief account of what was happening in the chess world at large, and each game is prefaced with Bisguier’s thoughts about his opponent. The result is a fascinating, if somewhat idiosyncratic, read.

Some of Bisguier’s opponents, like Albert Pinkus and Alburt Simonson, are sketched in detail in the pre-game notes, while others (generally the more famous ones) receive a more cursory treatment. There is wide variance in these introductions, and this variance extends to the way in which different events are covered in the book.

Only one game from the 1959 US Open, for instance, is given in The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1. This is surprising as (a) Bisguier won the event outright and (b) he famously brought his new bride to Omaha as part of their honeymoon! Bisguier’s round 4 victory against legendary Minnesota master Curt Brasket is not in the book, but it provides a glimpse into his fearsome tactical talents at the time.

Brasket,Curt – Bisguier,Arthur [B43]

US Open Omaha (4), 23.07.1959

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 b5 6.Bd3 Bb7 7.0–0 b4 8.Nce2 Nf6 9.Ng3 h5 10.e5 h4 11.Ngf5 Nd5 12.Nd6+ Bxd6 13.exd6 Qb6 14.Qg4 Nc6 15.Nf3 0–0–0 16.c4 f5 17.Qg6 Nf6 18.Be3 Qa5 19.a3 h3 20.g3 Ng4 21.axb4 Qxb4 22.Qxg7 Qxd6 23.Rfd1 Rhg8 24.Qc3

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24. ..Nxe3! 25.fxe3 Rxg3+! 26.hxg3 Qxg3+ 27.Kf1 Qxf3+ 28.Ke1 h2 29.Kd2 Qg2+ 30.Be2 d5! Tearing open the center to get to the King! 31.Qc2 Nb4 32.Qc1 dxc4+ 33.Kc3 Qxe2 0–1

Bisguier’s second book, The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003, was published in 2008 by Russell Enterprises. This sequel, also co-written with Newton Berry, is a more polished work than its predecessor, and the introductory sketches seem more expansive here. Structurally, however, the two are very similar. In this later work we witness Bisguier’s transition from tactical dynamo to strategic grinder, and special attention is paid to Bisguier’s favorite openings (2.f4 in the Sicilian, the Berlin Defense in the Ruy Lopez) and his best endings.

Bisguier’s two books received little attention, even among chess literati, and for all of their unevenness, that is a shame. But his written legacy goes far beyond his books, and at the end of the day, Art Bisguier might be one of the most widely read authors in American chess history.

If you are ‘of a certain age,’ you almost certainly saw Bisguier’s “Ten Tips to Winning Chess” in pamphlet form at some point in your playing career. It was available to organizers from US Chess headquarters, where Bisguier worked for two decades as a Grandmaster on Staff and Technical Advisor, and many a young player received a copy at their first tournaments. The document is still available at uschess.org in .html and .pdf formats, and dozens of websites still link to it.

Bisguier’s tips are pithy and well-chosen. We can feel his natural optimism in the text, something familiar to anyone who has played over his games. The tips may seem self-evident to experienced players, but a beginner who follows his advice – ‘have a plan,’ ‘control the center,’ ‘think about the endgame,’ etc. – will certainly benefit from doing so. As a first introduction to the deeper world of chess strategy, Bisguier’s pamphlet is outstanding, and it stands as a fine monument to one of the greatest promoters of American chess.

Doing Jay justice?

This review has been printed in the June 2017 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.

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Bonin, Jay, and Greg Keener. Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player. Newton Highlands: Mongoose, 2017. ISBN 9781936277766. PB 256pp.

Among Caïssa’s many servants, few are as devoted as is Jay Bonin. The International Master has been a fixture on the New York chess scene for over 40 years, and hardly a day goes by that Bonin is not playing at one of the Metro Area’s many tournaments. He has contested an astounding 16,885 rated games (as of 4/2/17, and across all time controls) since US Chess started keeping electronic records in 1991.

I came of age playing chess around New York, and I vividly remember encountering Bonin at one of my first tournaments at the Nassau Chess Club. That a titled player, someone one step away from being a Grandmaster, was right there in the flesh… it was astounding. Somehow I worked up the courage to walk up and ask him if he could recommend a book on bishop endings – how random! – and, looking back, the adult me can recognize the weary smirk with which he answered that gawky, sweaty teen.

It is not hyperbole to say that Jay Bonin is a legend of New York chess. So when I heard that there would be a book about Bonin, I was excited. There are so many great American players (particularly of Bonin’s generation) whose stories are never told, whose best games never make it to the databases. At least one of them would be spared that fate.

Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player is an annotated collection of 130 of Bonin’s games. While the stories and ideas are Bonin’s, the words themselves belong to co-author Greg Keener. This is Keener’s second such effort, having co-written The Czech Benoni in Action with another New York stalwart, FM Asa Hoffman.

Much of Bonin’s style seems to derive from the rigors of incessant tournament play. He is primarily a grinder, someone comfortable playing dry, technical positions to the bitter end against weaker opponents. We see this most clearly in chapters 4-7. Chapter 4 consists of games in Bonin’s pet openings, which often lead to quick queen trades and deceptively quiet situations. Chapters 5-6 show us how he handles sterile positions, using small imbalances to maximize winning chances. And Chapter 7 contains multiple examples of his counterpunching skills.

One of the very nice things about Active Pieces is the sparse, stream-of-consciousness nature of some of the annotations. It’s rare that we get something approaching unfiltered access to a strong player’s in-game thoughts, and I think there’s great value in seeing how Bonin goes about conjuring victories from equal positions.

Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed by the multiple analytical errors I found when playing through the games. I’m not talking about a swing from +0.4 to -0.3 pawns, which would be forgivable. The text glides over major blunders without comment, and there are notes containing deeply flawed evaluations and analysis. Here’s one particularly egregious example.

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In Bonin-Shchukin (Philadelphia, 2000) White has just played 38.Ne6, and Bonin and Keener write: “Decisive. The f-pawn will also have a say in matters.” (112) Black is indeed lost after 38. ..h5, but 38. ..Rb5+ is drawn. Some might argue that the draw is difficult, that it might be hard to see over-the-board, and I’ll willingly grant both claims. The fact remains that the annotation is fundamentally wrong.

Active Pieces is sloppy in other ways. The proofreading appears to have been lax, as there are incorrect move numbers in notes and inconsistent attribution of place in game headers (100). Bonin-Remlinger took place in Chicago, not New York, in 1992 (108), and Foxwoods is not in New York but in Connecticut (179). I also thought that the frequent repetition of games from chapters 1-8 in chapter 9, a set of 100 tactics to solve from Bonin’s games, deserved at least some kind of explanation.

Active Pieces could have been a fitting tribute to a man who has given much of his life to our game. Instead it feels like a first draft of that book. New York players will love it, but those concerned with accuracy may want to wait for a second and corrected edition.