Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

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As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

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The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!

Putting a Second in your Corner

This review has been printed in the April 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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There was a curious moment at the opening press conference for the 2013 World Championship Match. A local reporter asked the players to name their “seconds.” Anand answered first, cheerfully disclosing the makeup of his four person team. After thanking Anand for his “openness,” Carlsen said that he would not return the favor.

Why the secrecy? Why wouldn’t Carlsen reveal who he’d been working with?

And what’s a second anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a second was originally an assistant in dueling. If he could not negotiate a satisfactory means of regaining honor, your chosen second – usually a friend or family member – helped you in your preparation for battle and saw that the agreed conditions of the duel were met.

In chess, a second is something like a research assistant, a sparring partner, and a confidant all rolled into one. Because adjournments no longer exist, and because the opening has become so important in the post-Kasparov era, the modern second works primarily on openings.

Perhaps this was why Carlsen was so reluctant to name the members of his team. Knowing who your opponent employs as an opening analyst might give you some insight into their match preparation.

Carlsen must have known he’d face the same question in the run-up to the 2014 rematch with Anand, because, when asked, he had a prepared answer: “there’s the Dane [Peter Heine Nielsen], and there’s the Hammer [Jon Ludvig Hammer], and that’s about it.” But this was only half-true. Among Carlsen’s other, ‘secret’ assistants was Mickey Adams. Had Anand known this, he might well have predicted some of Carlsen’s openings in Sochi.

The wide availability of databases and powerful engines would seem to obviate the need for a second, but many world-class grandmasters still retain them. Garry Kasparov had Yuri Dokhoian as his second for many years; after Kasparov’s retirement, Dokhoian was hired by Sergey Karjakin. Elizbar Ubilava worked for Anand for about ten years before he was replaced by Peter Heine Nielsen. Nielsen was then poached by Team Carlsen before the 2013 Anand match, but he recused himself from that contest in the interest of fairness.

Right now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I might be a mere B player, but I also employ a second. In fact, I employ twelve of them, and for a price that is a true pittance, you can too.

ChessPublishing.com is a subscription-based opening analysis website owned and operated by Grandmaster Tony Kosten. The concept is simple. Recent games with opening innovations are annotated every month by leading theoreticians and sorted into sections. Each section update consists of approximately five to ten games. Subscribers can purchase access to one or more sections, and they can view both the monthly updates and archived data while their subscriptions remain active. They can also access their subscriptions through the Forward Chess app.

ChessPublishing.com divides its data into twelve sections. Because the way in which the sections are constructed is slightly idiosyncratic, let me list each section with its contents and its current author, and in the order that they appears on the website.

  • 1.e4 e5 (ECO C20-C99): GM Victor Mikhalevski covers the full range of the Open Games.
  • French (ECO C00-C19): No one knows the French better than IM John Watson, and he is your guide through the thickets of French theory.
  • Dragons (ECO B27, B34-39 & B70-79): The ever-popular Sicilian Dragon gets its own section, and GM Chris Ward is its long-time editor.
  • Open Sicilians (ECO B32-33, B40-49, B54-69 & B80-99): GM Michael Roiz is (at the time of writing) the highest rated section chief, and his updates cover all the non-Dragon Open Sicilians.
  • Anti-Sicilians (ECO B20-31 & B50-55): GM David Smerdon analyzes all of White’s attempts to avoid the Open Sicilian. He is a particular expert in the 2.c3 lines.
  • 1.e4… (ECO B01-B19): The remaining defenses to 1.e4 – Alekhine’s Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Pirc/Modern and the Scandinavian – are all found here, with new ideas carefully scrutinized by GM Neil McDonald.
  • 1.d4 d5 (ECO D06-66 & E01-09): IM Max Illingworth analyzes innovations in the Queen’s Gambit (Accepted and Declined), the Slav, the Semi-Slav, and the Catalan.
  • d-Pawn Specials (ECO A45-49 & D00-05): For the fanatics! Openings like the Colle, the London, the Torre and the Trompowsky are scrutinized by IM Richard Palliser. There is extensive coverage of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit in the archives.
  • King’s Indian (ECO A41-42, A53-55, A68-69 & E60-99): IM David Vigorito covers all the latest trends in the King’s Indian Defense. The Old Indian also appears here.
  • Nimzo & Benoni (ECO A40, A43-44, A50, A56, A60-79 & E10-59): Many players pair the Nimzo-Indian with the Benoni in their repertoire, in part to avoid the Taimanov Benoni. GM John Emms covers both openings in this section, throwing in the newest ideas in the Queen’s Indian and the Bogo-Indian to boot.
  • Daring Defenses (ECO A40, A50-52, A57-59, A80-99, B00, D08-09, D70-99 & E10): GM Glenn Flear treats some of the most dynamic defenses to 1.d4 in this section, including the Albin, the Benko, the Budapest, the Dutch and the Grunfeld.
  • Flank Openings (A00-39): Site owner GM Tony Kosten covers all of the Flank Openings. 1.c4 and the Reti are the main subjects of inquiry, but the King’s Indian Attack, the Bird and Larsen’s 1.b3 are also analyzed here.

Let’s take a closer look at one update and see what ChessPublishing.com has to offer. Chess Life readers can examine Richard Palliser’s February update of the d-Pawn Specials section at this link, courtesy of Tony Kosten.

Suppose, just for argument’s sake, that I play the Trompowsky. It is becoming popular again – there are two new books about it and a video series on chess24.com – and I want to keep tabs on its theory. How to proceed?

Mark Crowther releases game and news updates for The Week in Chess every Monday night. So perhaps I might download the new database each week, search for games in the Tromp, and try to discern what’s new or important. This is not a simple task for a class player, even for someone well equipped with books, databases and engines.

In Palliser’s February update I find four Trompowskys, although two transpose to other lines. The games are well-annotated, and new ideas are put in the context of existing theory. Some of the games are of real theoretical relevance, while others, like Popov-Mozharov (Parsvnath Open 2015), are just plain fun to study.

I know that some will see this as wish fulfillment – and they might not be wrong! – but I can’t help but see each section editor as my own virtual second, lending me their theoretical expertise each month. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. There are multiple IMs and GMs who subscribe, with former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov being the most well-known among them.

Palliser’s updates are among the best on the site, but there are others of note. John Watson, who used to handle the Flank Openings and 1.e4… sections, does a bang-up job with the French Defense. David Vigorito and Glenn Flear are excellent as well. I had worried about the 1.d4 d5 section when GM Ruslan Scherbakov was forced to take a leave of absence, but the young Australian Max Illingworth is proving himself up to the task.

Among the other benefits for subscribers, a few stand out. Opening summary files (“ChessPub Guides”) are updated each month and made available in .pgn format. Some sections also have ebooks in .pdf and ChessBase formats, although these are not updated as regularly. At the time of writing there are 940 ChessPub Guides available, along with over 22,000 annotated games in the complete ChessPublishing .pgn archives.

There are four levels of paid membership. Access to one section is $19.50/year. Any three are available for $39, while six cost $69. A subscription to all twelve sections is $99 for the year. If updates are late, as sometimes happens, I have seen subscriptions be extended so that members receive twelve full updates.

I find ChessPublishing.com to be an indispensible resource, and not just as a tournament player. Elizabeth Spiegel (formerly Vicary) noted its value for chess teaching in her 2007 CLO article on “E. Vicary’s Top 10 Teaching Books.” As she wrote, you can quickly find annotated examples of most any opening variation in its archives. It has saved the bacon of this chess coach more than once.

If you remain unconvinced or uninterested, let me suggest one more website to visit. ChessPub.com, owned and operated by ChessPublishing.com, is a free forum devoted primarily to analysis and discussion. While the site was originally conceived as a kind of advertisment for its subscription-only sibling, ChessPub.com has taken on a life of its own. There is a lot of high-quality material there, mostly about opening theory, but the Endgames section is also of particular interest. No less an authority than Mark Dvoretsky has cited some of its posts in his books!

Chernev and Soltis

This review has been printed in the March 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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Chernev, Irving. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-1849941617. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win. Revised edition. Newton Highlands: Mongoose Press, 2014. PB 328pp. ISBN 978-1936277605. List $19.95, currently around $15 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The New Art of Defence in Chess. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 232pp. ISBN 978-1849941600. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

This month we look at three books that have recently returned to the marketplace. Two hew closely to their previous incarnations, while the third is an update and reworking of a classic. Each one would make a worthy addition to your collection.

Irving Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Every Played was one of my first chess books. Chernev, a witty author and master-level player, originally published this book in 1965. It contains sixty-two well analyzed games, each one possessing both artistic and educational value. Now Batsford has republished Chernev’s book in algebraic format, retaining all the text and features of the original save nine photographs.

What John Collins wrote in his 1966 Chess Review survey – “[i]t is a great book and should be read over and over” – remains true today. Chernev’s annotations are pedagogically precise, eminently readable, and his choice of games is inspired. The errors in analysis, and the computer reveals a few, do not detract greatly from the reading experience.

Most chess teachers will recommend that their students study the great games of the past as part of their training. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played is ideal for those looking to study beautiful games with clear strategic lessons. If you haven’t already worn out your old, Descriptive copy, you should pick up this new edition.

Andy Soltis’ 1994 The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win is also newly republished, this time by Mongoose Press. Here Soltis has included minor revisions of the text, updating / replacing some examples and references, but the basic structure of the book and most of the prose remains the same.

The Inner Game of Chess is a thorough treatment of a thorny topic. Very rarely do we examine the nature and structure of our thought processes. Soltis does not prescribe a specific method of calculation in this book; rather, he is content to break our calculative process into its constitutive parts so that we can see how it might work.

So we get chapters on candidate moves, Kotovian trees, force and forcing moves, and analytical monkey-wrenches (or why we miscalculate). The chapter on ‘counting out’ reckons with topics like compensation, move orders, bailouts and calculative ‘chunking.’ I, naturally, found Soltis’ discussion of typical causes of analytic oversight particularly pertinent.

There have been a few works on calculation since The Inner Game of Chess was first published. Tisdall treats the theme well in Improve Your Chess Now. Aagaard has two advanced books on the topic (Excelling at Chess Calculation and Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation), and Axel Smith’s discussion in Pump Up Your Rating is stellar. Soltis’ effort hangs in with the best of them, and is particularly good for the sub-2000 player.

Another Soltis title, also from Batsford, has returned to the shelves, but this one involves a dramatic revision of one of his first books. In the 1975 The Art of Defense in Chess Soltis described defense mainly in terms of stubborn resistance. Much has changed since then. The New Art of Defense in Chess aims to explain how these changes affect how we defend.

Some of the chapter structure and prose of the 1975 edition is retained here, and some of the analysis, translated into algebraic notation, makes its way over as well. On the whole, however, The New Art of Defense in Chess should be seen as a fundamentally new book. This is because Soltis recognizes the way in which dynamism and activity have become fundamental to modern defensive techniques.

Modern players are, as Soltis explains, less risk-aversive, more open to ‘ugly’ moves, and more reliant on counterplay and activity in defending. He claims that the “New Defenders” realized the limitations of passive defense when challenged by Mikhail Tal’s speculative attacks in the 60s and 70s.

While this might be true, I would argue (following Müller in The ChessCafe Puzzle Book #3 and Aagaard in Practical Chess Defense) that the decisive shift towards New Defense comes later. Top-level chess has become very pragmatic and concrete since the 90s, mostly due to the influence of the computer. I would have preferred to see more discussion of this influence in Soltis’ book, but this is a minor quibble.

Defending is one of the hardest skills in chess, and one of the least written about. The New Art of Defense in Chess is a lucid explanation of modern defensive practice, and players of most all strengths would learn something from it.

So many good chess books have been allowed to fall into obscurity over the years. Sometimes this is because the books have gone out of print, while in other cases, it is because today’s players cannot decipher the older descriptive notation. Kudos to publishers like Batsford and Mongoose for bringing some of them, like the three discussed in this review, back into the spotlight.

Rematch by Proxy

This review has been printed in the February 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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Franco, Zenón. Anand: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 376pp. ISBN 978-1781941867. List $29.95; currently $23ish at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Carlsen: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 432pp. ISBN 978-1781942079. List $29.95; currently $25ish at Amazon.

You’ve got to hand it to the guys at Everyman Chess. They know an opportunity when they see one.

With the 2014 World Championship fast approaching, and with no titles on the combatants in their catalogue, Everyman asked two authors – one of their most prolific, and one of their newest – to remedy this most unfortunate situation.[1] The books under review this month, out just in time for the match, are the fruit of those labors. Both should also be available in e-book format by the time this review goes to press.

For Carlsen: Move by Move, Everyman turned to its most indefatigable author. International Master Cyrus Lakdawala has penned 21 titles (including forthcoming books) with Everyman since 2010, six of which are focused on a specific player. Carlsen: Move by Move is structured like most of Lakdawala’s biographical works for Everyman, with 54 annotated games divided into six thematic chapters.

I have reviewed two of Lakdawala’s books – Capablanca: Move by Move on my blog, and Botvinnik: Move by Move in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life – in the past. In those reviews I noted a troubling trend, one that continues unabated in Carlsen: Move by Move. With each new book he seems to cram more and more cutesy, cloying commentary into his analysis, and his work is beginning to suffer from it. For instance:

  • “[t]he black queen emits an odd, adenoidal grunting sound in response to her sister’s intrusion.” (259)
  • “[t]he rook staggers from the sudden unveiling of the truth. He sneaks out, the way a chastised third grader creeps out from the principal’s office.” (262)
  • “Annoying white pieces stick to Black’s hanging knight like discarded gum on a shoe. … [t]he g-pawn’s attempts to intimidate remind us of a Chihuahua, mimicking the Pitbull’s fury…” (ibid.)

This personification of pieces is relentless and tiresome. What’s worse, some of Lakdawala’s ‘metaphors’ seem confused or nonsensical. In Carlsen-Caruana (Biel, 2011) – game #32 in the book, from which all the above is taken – we encounter a typical example of this shtick gone awry.

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Carlsen has just played 25.f4?!. Caruana might have responded 25…Ne3!, of which Lakdawala writes: “the knight inserts his head into the lion’s mouth, hoping he has been well fed.” If the hungry rook takes the bishop with 26.Rxe3 (White’s only move), Black has 26…Bxf4 with compensation. Caruana blundered in the game with 25…Re6??, allowing White to trap the knight by placing “calming hands” (???) on the rook and bishop with 26.Bd5.

Lakdawala’s analysis is decent enough, although he, like many authors, seems to lean on engines a bit too much. He can clearly break down the essentials of a position when he so chooses. But what is valuable in Carlsen: Move by Move gets lost amidst the avalanche of bad jokes and vapid prose.

Zenón Franco has done a much better job with Anand: Move by Move. The Paraguayan Grandmaster, having already published on Anand (Viswanathan Anand – Quíntuple Campeón del Mundo, 2013), has written a relatively straightforward biographical work. Anand: Move by Move begins with a twenty-five page assessment of Anand’s style. Franco lauds Anand’s flexibility, noting his ability to change his playing style to defeat Kramnik (236) and Topalov (264) in World Championship matches. He goes so far as to compare Anand’s universality with that of Fischer (11) – no small compliment!

The bulk of the book is 32 annotated games from 1991-2014, representing a decent cross-section of Anand’s career. Franco takes pains to situate each game both in terms of its tournament situation and its broader place in Anand’s oeuvre.

The inclusion of a strong biographical narrative in Anand: Move by Move is most welcome. Unlike Lakdawala, who actually points to an unsourced Wikipedia quote to prove a point (Carlsen, 9), Franco references multiple sources in his text, citing Anand’s own words whenever possible. The analysis is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Houdini’s presence is not onerous.

Were this a competition between the two titles, a rematch by proxy, Anand would certainly have his revenge here. Poor Carlsen will just have to console himself with his champion’s crown.


[1] That the books are aimed at those interested in the match is obvious: see Carlsen: Move by Move, 9, and Anand: Move by Move, 368.

January update

I became a father last week – a first-time father! – so I expect that posting will be sporatic for a month or two. There are reviews in various stages of completion on my hard drive, but bringing them to ‘print’ depends a lot on how much sleep I get these next few weeks!

In the meantime, I did want to point my readers to an interesting piece by Jeremy Silman on “The Best Chess Books Ever.” The title is a bit misleading, as I understand that at least a few of his respondents were asked about their “favorite” books and not those books they thought objectively best. Still, it’s a very interesting read, and some of the comments are also worthwhile!

http://www.chess.com/article/view/the-best-chess-books-ever

Unwrapping the Enigma

This review has been printed in the January 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate 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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Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. ISBN 978-1941270028. PB 384pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish on Amazon.

Who is Mark Dvoretsky?

This might seem a curious question in the age of Google. A quick search reveals that Mark Dvoretsky is an International Master, a well-published author with at least a dozen books in multiple languages to his credit, and a chess trainer. Multiple websites refer to Dvoretsky as the world’s best trainer, and with very good reason.

Mark Dvoretsky trained three World Junior Champions and was second to Nana Alexandria in her World Championship match. He is perhaps best known for his long and on-going work with Sergei Dolmatov and with Artur Yusupov, whom he nearly guided to the top of the chess world in the 80s and 90s. Before there was Chernin or Chuchelov, there was Mark Dvoretsky.

Still, for all of this ‘data,’ I’ve always found Dvoretsky to be something of an enigma. Who is the man behind all the books and achievements?

So it was with great interest that I read Dvoretsky’s newest book, titled For Friends and Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach and translated from the German. For Friends and Colleagues is a two-volume work, with the first volume (under review here) chronicling Dvoretsky’s playing, training and writing careers, and with the second (due out this spring) consisting of a series of occasional pieces about chess training, literature and personalities.

Profession: Chess Coach is not an analytical work, although dozens of interesting games are included, and neither is it a typical autobiography. If pressed, I would describe it as a memoir of his life in chess. There is little in the way of traditional biographic detail. We learn almost nothing about Dvoretsky’s childhood except as it relates to chess, and while photographs of his wife and son appear in the book, almost no reference to them appears in the text.

One of the quirks of this book is the liberal – almost excessive – sprinkling of quotations amidst its pages. Dvoretsky invokes the words of a famed Russian poet in the book’s preface to shed light on its raison d’être:

Vladimir Mayakovsky once said, I am a poet. That’s what makes me interesting. In my life, working as a coach has been most important. Thus, I have conceptualized certain life events and later used them in my coaching. In this book, I have likewise tried to assess… various events from a coach’s point of view, whether these events were related to chess, university studies, etc. This is the main focus of my new book. (12)

The majority of this book revolves around Dvoretsky’s training career, and we spend a lot of time reading about the achievements of four of his pupils: Valery Chekhov, Artur Yusupov, Sergei Dolmatov and Alexei Dreev. But I wonder if Dvoretsky is not being too modest in his self-assessment.

The legendary Talmudist Rashi believed that “when one teaches the Torah to the sons of one’s fellow man, it is as if one had engendered them oneself.  The true descendants are students, those whom one has taught.” To this, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas added: “true filiation… is giving instruction.”[1] When we read Dvoretsky’s account of his various pupils, of why some succeeded and others failed, we are – as Rashi and Levinas would surely agree – learning about Dvoretsky himself.

Success in chess is intimately linked for Dvoretsky to character, and the virtues and vices of numerous characters are chronicled in Profession: Chess Coach. The absurdities of life under the Soviet regime are made plain through tragicomic tales. Many center on the effect of the so-called ‘fifth point,’ or the official notation of one’s Judaism on internal passports. Some allowed their moral compasses to be stunted under these conditions, while others strove for basic decency and freedom of thought against the grain. Dvoretsky tells the good and the bad, and pulls no punches in the process.

Chekhov never fulfilled his promise because of pride and complacency. Dreev suffered because he gave simuls to support his family, leading to sanctions from Soviet officials. Yusupov and Dolmatov found success, in Dvoretsky’s view, because their character and good natures allowed them to succeed despite roadblocks.

There is some score-settling in Profession: Chess Coach. Tal comes off well, as does Gulko, but Botvinnik less so. Dvoretsky eviscerates Josh Waitzkin, rebutting Waitzkin’s account of their relation in The Art of Learning and painting him as soft and incapable of hard work.

If you are looking for a book to help you improve your chess, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are interested in a first-hand account of some very important events and persons in chess history, it’s hard to find a better book than this one. Few have influenced modern chess like Dvoretsky has, and Profession: Chess Coach reads like his valedictory address.


[1] Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life And Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2006), 142.

Book Note: Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (4th Edition)

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 first of those notes. – JH

Dvoretsky, Mark. Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, 4th edition. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. 424pp. ISBN 978-1941270042. PB $34.95; currently $26ish on Amazon.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) is, for my money, the best single-volume endgame textbook in print. (There is an argument to be made for Muller & Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings, but that is an issue for another post.) Originally published in 2003, DEM is now in its fourth edition and fifth printing. What has been changed for this new edition?

The first thing that a reader might notice is an increase in the number of diagrams in the text. Dvoretsky claims in his author’s note to this edition that some 200 diagrams have been added, making it easier for his readers to study the book without a board. (What an optimist!) As new seven-person tablebases have become available, analysis of such positions has been checked and corrected where necessary. Other corrections – notably in the realm of certain rook endgames – have also been included, as theory has progressed dramatically in some cases, even since the previous edition was published in 2011.

Much of this movement in the theory of rook endgames is due to the remarkable analysis of a few obsessive endgame fans in the ChessPub Endgame forums. Dvoretsky pays special tribute to the work of Vardan Poghosyan, an endgame specialist whom I have mentioned in an earlier review, as being particularly important in this regard.

It is often said that opening books are out of date as soon as they are printed, as new games and new ideas are produced every day. This is less true of endgame manuals, but it is still a fact of publishing life. Another drawing idea in the Kantorovich / Steckner position was discovered by Jacob Aagaard earlier this year and verified by Poghosyan in the Chesspub forums. Because this discovery appeared too late for inclusion in the new edition of DEM, I provide it here. The position is 9-158 in DEM 4th edition, 9-144 in DEM 3rd edition.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2014/12/26/Game1157185234.html

While there are a number of improvements to this new edition of DEM, there is also potentially a regression. Some readers of earlier editions, notably the first and second, complained that some of the blue print (used to denote key theoretical positions and analysis) was fainter than they would have preferred. A few of the pages in my copy of this new edition suffer from the same problem. There are even a few pages where both the black and blue print are faint. All pages are fully legible, and I cannot say whether problem is unique to my copy or endemic to many; still, if you are sensitive to such things, be aware.

I don’t think you can call yourself a serious student of the endgame and not own Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. If you already own it, you can probably skip upgrading to the new edition, unless you (like me) are the sort of person who likes to have the most up-to-date theory at your disposal. If you don’t have it on your bookshelf, you should SERIOUSLY consider adding it to your collection.