CJA Awards 2018

In a very happy and humbling turn of events, I learned that I won the “Best Chess Column” award from the Chess Journalists of America for 2018 at this year’s US Open. This is one of their ‘Big Four’ Awards, and for me, it’s really a big deal.

To be considered in the same category as Al Lawrence, Daniel Naroditsky, Gregory Serper, Andy Soltis, and Jon Speelman is one thing, but to win it, well… that’s pretty darned amazing.

I was also fortunate, and very pleased, to win “Best Print Review” for my February 2018 roundup of endgame books.

Thanks to Dan Lucas and Melinda Matthews for nominating me, to the CJA and its members / voters, and of course, thanks to you for continuing to read my work and supporting longform criticism in chess.

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Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 2018 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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Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

Soltis, Andy. 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take One a Day to be a Better Chess Player. London: Batsford, 2017. ISBN 9781849944342. PB 384 pp.

Sosonko, Genna. Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2018. ISBN 978-5950043383. PB 314pp.

Sosonko, Genna. The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2017. ISBN 978-5950043314. PB 272pp.

Tkachenko, Sergei. One (Bishop, King, Knight, Pawn, Rook, Queen) Saves the Day: A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (series)

I had a real E.F. Hutton moment a few weeks ago.

E.F Hutton, you may recall, was the eponymous founder of a New York brokerage of whom it was said, “when E.F Hutton talks, people listen.” Or so the commercial went, anyway.

Such was my reaction when I read a post-Candidates Tournament interview with Fabiano Caruana at chess.com. Peter Doggers asked Caruana about his pre-event preparation, which, as one might expect, involved a lot of opening study. How that preparation looked in practice, however, might seem rather surprising. Here’s what Caruana had to say:

The other guys [Chirila, Dominguez, Ramirez, and Kasimdzhanov – jh] worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don’t like doing, because it’s hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it’s fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work.

It makes sense that Caruana would brush up on his endgame theory via Dvoretsky, and that he’d play training games against his seconds in openings he expected to encounter. But… studies? I have to admit that my ears perked up, proverbially speaking, when I read this.

Part of my attention to Caruana’s comment came from a long-standing interest in endgame studies, the solving of which I find perversely pleasurable. (Turns out I’m terrible at it.) Perhaps more relevant were the confluence of strong Grandmaster endorsements for this training strategy. I’d seen GM Peter Leko and GM Melikset Khachiyan independently recommend studies for calculation training in a span of just a few weeks. It makes sense: because studies, by definition, try to create new and interesting twists on known tactical motifs, players can’t just ‘recall’ the right answer. They have to do the work to find it.

There is no shortage of good sources for studies. Harald van der Heijden’s HHdBV database is the gold standard, containing over 85,000 studies that span the full history of the genre. Journals like EG bring new studies to your mailbox quarterly. And there are of course books, including the canonical Domination in 2,545 Endgame Studies by Kasparian, The Art of the Endgame by Timman, and Studies for Practical Players by Dvoretsky and Pervakov.

A key difficulty faced by many new solvers, and common to most of the titles listed above, is that most studies are not suitable for the novice. The solutions are too long to calculate, and the positions are too cluttered and artificial. Here is where an innovative series of pocket-sized titles from Elk and Ruby, a new Russian/English publisher, might be of interest.

In these six books, one devoted to each of the six different chessmen, the Ukranian composer Sergei Tkachenko offers 100 studies with solutions no longer than six moves deep. Consider a typical example (49-50) from One Knight Saves the Day – A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (Note that each of the six books bears the same title, with the only change being the thematic piece featured therein.) It’s White to play and draw in this study by Rusinek, and the notes are Tkachenko’s unless otherwise noted.

image

White has an unenviable position – his king is dancing with checkmate… For example: 1.Qf6+? Qxf6+ 2.Nxf6 Nf7#

1.Rh6+!! Kxh6 2.Qf8+!

2.Qh2+? Kg6 3.Qc2+ Nf5–+; if 2.Qh4+? Kg6 3.Qh5+ Kxh5 4.Ng7+ Kg6 5.Nxe6 Nf7# (not given in the book)

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

3. …Kh5 4.Nf6+ Kh4 5.Qh6+ and Black loses a knight.

At first glance it looks like white has used up all of his defensive resources… And yet:

4.Qf6+!! Qxf6+ 5.Ng7+!

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

A few points are worth mentioning here. The position above appears only after Black’s seventh move in Rusinek’s original. By truncating the study, Tkachenko removes some interesting tactics, but he also makes it much more reasonable a task for mortal solvers.

There is also a typo in the text. (You thought Chess Life was asleep at the wheel, didn’t you?) 6. …Ke5 is erroneous, and 5. …Ke5 (or Rusinek’s …Ke4) are the correct final moves. It may seem nit-picky to mention this – it’s rare that any book, chess or otherwise, is completely typo-free – but it’s worth mentioning in light of Elk and Ruby’s innovative publishing model.

Elk and Ruby makes use of print-on-demand (POD) technology across its list. There are serious advantages to this approach, as argued by its owner, managing editor, translator, and general ‘hype man’ Ilan Rubin in his manifesto “Who Needs Chess Book Publishers?” If you don’t need to worry about inventory or delivery – the POD provider handles it for you – you can keep staffing very lean, leading to greater profitability for both author and publisher.

There are, as Rubin admits, also downsides to this hybrid model. We see one in the example above.[1] Because Rubin wears so many hats, and because he does most of the work himself, errors can creep in. Three of Tkachenko’s six study books had problems with their diagrams in their first ‘printings;’ because the titles were POD, however, the errors were quickly corrected.

Tkachenko’s study collections are wonderful for those looking to train their calculation, and also for those who just want to enjoy the beauty of endgame studies in a digestible format. They are also perfectly sized at 4” by 6” for travel or beach reading. And who among us doesn’t like to solve studies at the beach?

Elk and Ruby is home to a growing list of Russian and Soviet themed historical works as well, including two new books from Genna Sosonko, one of chess’ leading writers and memoirists. With The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein and Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi, Sosonko offers his readers intimate pictures of two of the chess world’s most complicated men, and with equally complicated results.

Sosonko’s portrait of Bronstein is very hard to read. Not because it’s poorly written, but because Bronstein was a deeply unpleasant man, and Sosonko pulls no punches here. Bronstein saw his failure in the 1951 World Championship match as the defining moment of his life, and he never got past his hatred for Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet ‘favored son.’ Whether he was forced to throw the match remains unclear, and Sosonko catalogues the different explanations given by Bronstein across the years.

Why would Sosonko, Bronstein’s friend of fifty years, write such an ugly book? Why puncture the myth of the happy-go-lucky defender of human creativity against computer onslaught – his battles in the Ageon tournaments are the stuff of legend! – and show the world how narcissistic and petty Bronstein could be? It’s not as if Sosonko was unaware of what he was doing with his ‘warts and all’ approach to the matter. (269)

Bronstein is quoted from a conversation towards the very end of his life, talking about books written ‘in his name’ – one of the highlights of Sosonko’s book is the story of Boris Vainshtein (126-140), powerful apparatchik and the true author of Bronstein’s famous book on Zurich 1953 – where he says “what [do they] understand about our life? I’m sorry about my life. About my entire life.” (251)

It occurs to me that part of Sosonko’s goal, in these books and elsewhere, is to try and explain “our life,” or the stark realities of daily life in the Soviet Union. He says as much in the book’s first chapter:

[h]ow can I enliven the dead letters of a text with the winds of those times, with meaning to the contemporary reader without detailed explanations? How can I convey a whole set of prejudices and beliefs without relying on the words everyone once understood? You see, many aspects of the distinct atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s in the USSR are now gone. (17)

Born a Jew to a father banished to the gulag, and coming of age during the horrors of the Second World War, Sosonko’s Bronstein in The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein was deeply stunted by the banal violence of Soviet bureaucracy and unofficial state racism. He does not excuse Bronstein’s behavior, not exactly, but he does seem to offer reasons that might mitigate our passing judgment on him. It’s hard to read, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. Still, I think (?!) I’m glad I did.

Sosonko’s portrayal of Viktor Korchnoi in Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi is more positive, and more much palatable. His book covers the whole of Korchnoi’s life and career, focusing on his 1976 defection from the Soviet Union, the Karpov matches, parapsychology, and his life in Switzerland with Petra Leeuwerik. What shines through the text, however, is Korchnoi’s absolute love for chess, his indefatigable energy and drive to explore every element of the game. Sosonko does not shy away from Korchnoi’s character flaws, but the treatment is even-handed and enjoyable.

Elk and Ruby are not the only chess writers / publishers using POD technology. I wrote about GM Lars Bo Hansen’s pioneering efforts in this area back in 2013. His seven Master Chess pamphlets are available on Amazon and worth your attention. More recently, FM Carsten Hansen has made extensive use of POD with some of his recent titles.

Hansen has three series currently in print: Chess Miniatures, published by Russell Enterprises; Winning Quickly at Chess, which is self-published; and Specialized Chess Tactics, also self-published. Here I’ll discuss books from the first two series. I have not seen titles from the third.

All of Hansen’s books are essentially collections of miniatures organized by opening. In Chess Miniatures, the games are no longer than 25 moves long, while in Winning Quickly at Chess, games are limited to 15 moves. All combatants are rated at least 2350 in both cases. So readers can expect master-level games in specific openings where one side wins quickly, and the idea is that some knowledge of typical traps and tactics can be discerned by playing through them.

In principle, this sounds wonderful. In practice, however, I have my doubts. Many of the defining errors in Hansen’s games occur when a player leaves opening theory, and because Hansen includes a LOT of game references in his notes, there’s often very little room for original analysis. Consider Game #78 in Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening Volume 3: Flank Openings, a title in the Winning Quickly series.

English Opening [A21]
Alexander Belezky (2381)
Vladimir Moskvin (2691)
Ilyumzhinov Cup Internet, 06.05.2006

1.Nf3 g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 d6 4.d3 e5 5.c4 f5 6.Nc3 c6 7.0–0 Nf6 8.Bg5

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

This is a new move, and a mistake. Hansen gives 13 lines of game citations in the notes, including some verbal discussion of key alternatives.

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

12.dxe4 Qxc3 13.exf5 Bxf5 14.Rb3 Qf6 0–1

Most of the action (and spilt ink) takes place in the citation of opening alternatives, and not in the analysis of the actual games under discussion. This is especially true in the self-published volumes, which may be partially attributable to the games being shorter, and the errors occurring with divergences from theory. I can see the value in Hansen’s publishing concept in these series, but for me, the execution is lacking.

Those looking for a miniatures collection will be happier with Andy Soltis’ latest book, 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take one a day to be a better chess player. Readers are advised in the preface to take the book as a series of 365 lessons, one per day, where a miniature of 20 moves or less is analyzed, one or more questions are asked, and a supplementary game wraps things up. The unspoken conceit is that this will lead to real improvement after a year’s time.

For me, this last bit is rather artificial, but the book stands on its own as an outstanding games collection. Soltis is as reliable an author as it gets, and his analysis here is concise and to the point. Many of the games are uncommon or unknown, and more than a few are missing from my nearly 10 million game database.

This is one of those missing games, starring former US Chess President Leroy Dubeck in a pretty win from 1958. The notes are Soltis’, and the theme of the ‘chapter’ (Day 181) is “[b]acktracking. To get from a bad opening to a playable middlegame may require some backtracking.”

Smith Morra Gambit [B21]
Leroy Dubeck
Raymond Weinstein
New Jersey Open, 1958

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 Na5? 7.Qd4! f6?!

Black now sees 7. …Nf6 8.e5. But 8. …Nh5 9.e6 f6 and …Nc6 looks worse than it is.

8.0–0 Nh6

White allowed 8. …Nxc4 9.Qxc4 because he would threaten 10.Nb5 or 10.Nd5 followed by Nc7+.

9.e5! Nf5?

Black would have to admit his sixth and seventh moves were bad if he continued 9. …Nc6! 10.Qf4 f5 . But then would get to play a middlegame.

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

Better than 12.Qxf6 because 12. …Nxd4 13.Nxf6+ Kf8 14.Bh6#

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

No, 14. …Kg8 15.Nxf6#, and 14. …Nxh6 15.Nxe7 is hopeless.

15.Qc3 Qd6 16.Re1+ Kd8 17.Bf4 Qc6 18.Qxf6+! 1–0

Black resigned before 18.Qxf6+ Qxf6 19.Bc7#.

365 Chess Master Lessons is excellent, and players of almost any rating and ability would find something of value in it. Some might find it old-fashioned, coming from a traditional press like Batsford, but I’ve long believed that old-fashioned never really goes out of style.


[1] Publicity is also difficult for POD publishers. Without dedicated marketing teams, advertising falls to Twitter, Facebook groups, and “earned media” like reviews. Such efforts can feel artificial and astro-turfed.

One Small Step

This review has been printed in the July 2018 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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Shankland, Sam. Small Steps to GIant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830519 (HB) and 978-1784830502 (PB). 336pp.

Pawns may well be the soul of chess, as Philidor famously remarked, but they have received relatively little attention from authors. A few major works (and types of works) stand out among those in print.

Hans Kmoch’s Pawn Power in Chess was perhaps the first book to attempt a comprehensive analysis of proper pawn play. It is a difficult read for the contemporary student, with its clunky terminology and strange neologisms. Still, Kmoch deserves no small credit for his pioneering, systematic treatment of all kinds of pawn-piece relations and structures.

More useful is Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess, originally published in 1976 and revised in 2013. In contrast to Kmoch, Soltis wisely chose to limit his study to 12 structural ‘families’ covering a broad swath of opening theory. In each chapter Soltis describes the basic positional features that emerge from a pawn skeleton, using illustrative games to flesh things out. The outstanding (and more advanced) Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide by Mauricio Flores Rios is written in this vein.

There are also specialized works on specific elements of pawn play. The Isolated Queen’s Pawn is one of the most important structures in chess, and the long out-of-print Winning Pawn Structures by Alexander Baburin is by far the single best book on the topic. (If you have a chance to pick up a copy, do so immediately without regard to price.) The IQP is also treated, alongside other pawncentric topics, in Jörg Hickl’s The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners, reviewed in these pages in July 2016.

Notably lacking in the literature is a broad, high-level discussion of “best pawn practices.” Sam Shankland’s new book, Small Steps to Giant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess, fills that niche admirably. With Shankland’s impressive victory in the 2018 US Championship, coupled with his win in the Capablanca Memorial in Cuba as this article was going to press, I suspect that this will be the rare chess book that receives the attention it deserves.

The basic premise of Shankland’s book is simple. Pawns are the only pieces that cannot retreat; we must, therefore, take care when we push them, lest they become weak when too far advanced. A recent example from the 2018 Candidates shows how easily this can happen, even to the world’s elite:

image

7.h3?

7.Nbd2 is standard, but the pin after 7. …Bg4 can be annoying. What if the cure is worse than the disease?

7. …Rg8!

Kramnik’s intent is clear – he wants to tear open the kingside with g7–g5–g4, using the h3 pawn as a ‘hook.’ [A hook is “an advanced pawn which can be exploited by the opponent to open lines.” (Small Steps, 87)] The concrete tactical threat is 8. …g5 and if 9.Bxg5 (worse is 9.Nxg5 h6 10.Nf3 Bxh3) 9. …Bxh3 10.gxh3 h6 and Black is winning.

8.Kh1

If only Aronian could play h3–h2! In lieu of such a retreat, vacating the g-file seems logical, as it avoids the aforementioned tactical ideas. 8.Nbd2 is another option, also met by 8. …g5.

8. …Nh5 9.c3?! g5 10.Nxe5 g4 11.d4 Bd6 12.g3 Bxe5 13.dxe5 Qxe5 14.Qd4 Qe7 15.h4 c5 16.Qc4 Be6 17.Qb5+ c6 18.Qa4 f5! 19.Bg5 Rxg5 20.hxg5 f4 21.Qd1 Rd8 22.Qc1 fxg3 23.Na3 Rd3 24.Rd1 Bd5 25.f3 gxf3 26.exd5 Qe2 27.Re1 g2+ 0–1

Perhaps we are being unfair to Aronian here, as Kramnik’s idea was very hard to foresee, but the point remains. Pawns can rapidly become problematic when they advance, and in Small Steps to Giant Improvement, Shankland discusses five typical pitfalls (14) to avoid.

1. Pawns can become vulnerable as they advance.

2. As they advance, they can lose control over key squares.

3. Advancing pawns may block lines or squares needed by other pieces.

4. Pawn advances can weaken the king’s cover.

5. Advancing pawns can become a hook.

Part I (Chapters 1-5) offers elucidations of each of these insights, a chapter at a time. In Part II (Chapters 6-10), Shankland turns the tables and discusses reasons we might induce our opponents to advance their pawns. In doing so, he argues, we could take advantage of one of the five potential weaknesses described above.

Together the first ten chapters constitute approximately two-thirds of the book. Part III (Chapters 11-13) and Part IV (Chapters 11-16) constitute the remainder, and focus on doubled pawns. Shankland follows the same template here as in Parts I and II. In Part III he sketches three general problems (209) with doubled pawns, and how to avoid them:

1. They can be slow when trying to create a passed pawn.

2. They can easily fall prey to attack.

3. They may have trouble closing lines or controlling important squares.

Part IV, like Part II, reverses our perspective. It describes situations in which we might want to double our opponent’s pawns, thereby inflicting positional weaknesses on their positions.

Seems simple enough, right? Take care with your pawn advances, lure your opponent into inopportune pushes, and win? A more granular look at Shankland’s book, and more specifically, the way in which each chapter is structured, reveals that matters are vastly more complex than they first appear.

Each of the 16 chapters in Small Steps to Giant Improvement share a common makeup. Shankland uses concrete examples to illustrate the main point of the chapter, and then derives a guideline – a key word in the book – for practical play from them. Almost immediately, however, he uses another example to expose the limitations of that principle, offering a second, contradictory guideline for readers to consider. The movement is almost dialectical, although it is not clear that there is a grand synthesis or resolution at the end of it.

Chapter 13 (‘Avoid Redundant Workers’) is a case in point. Shankland begins by describing situations in which doubling your opponents pawns can weaken key squares or lines, and he uses two games (Dreev-Jakovenko, Togliatti, 2003, and Djukic-Mogliarov, Plovdiv 2012) to illustrate his claims. The Dreev position is of particular interest.

image

Shankland writes: “The position is extremely double edged, but I prefer Black. He is more prepared to open lines on the queenside with …b5–b4 (a little throwback to the section on hooks!) than White is to make anything happen on the kingside, plus White’s d5–pawn could be a target. But Jakovenko clearly underestimated the danger to his position, and let White show just how troublesome doubled pawns can be.” (245–6)

20. …b4? 21.Bxg6! hxg6

21. …fxg6? 22.Qe6+ is crushing.

22.Qh4!

“The deficiency of Black’s doubled pawns is on display. If he had a healthier structure with his pawn back on h7, he could simply advance …h7–h6. By doing so, he would expel the knight and clog up the h-file. As is, Black’s lack of an h-pawn means he will promptly be mated on h7. Dreev finished the game in style.” (246)

22…bxc3 23.Rhe1! Be5 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Qh8+ Ke7 26.Qxg7 Kd7 27.Qxf7+ Kc8 28.Qe6+ Rd7 29.Qe8+ Rd8 30.Qxe5 Qxe5 31.Rxe5 cxb2 32.Kxb2 Kd7 33.Ne4 Rf8 34.Kc3 Rac8 35.Rb1 Ba8 36.Rb6 1–0

The lesson seems clear, and here Shankland provides his first guideline of the chapter. “Always be cautious about allowing your pawns to be doubled if the square directly in front of the newly doubled pawn can be put to good use by your opponent, or if the pawn no longer blocks a key line.” (249)

But wait! Just two pages later, Shankland returns to the position, arguing that Jakovenko missed a key defensive idea. He could have played 20. …Bf4! where “[t]he point is that the knight on g5 cannot be tolerated, if White wants to take on g6 and place his queen on h4. By removing one of the key attacking pieces, the doubled pawns will be much less of a big deal. Black is better in all lines.” (249) After 21.Bxg6 hxg6 22.Qh4?! (22.d6! Rxd6 23.Rxd6 Qxd6 24.Rd1 is only slightly better for Black) 22. …Bxg5! Black is better.

Shankland therefore offers a second and seemingly contradictory guideline. “You can allow your pawns to be doubled in a way that allows your opponent access to a newly weakened square or a newly opened line, as long as your pieces can pick up the slack and prevent your opponent from making good use of it.” (251) What gives?

The answer comes with “the final guideline, which is seen in some form in almost every chapter. You can allow your pawns to be doubled in a way that allows your opponent access to a newly weakened square or a newly opened line if it does something that is good for your position that you deem to be of higher priority.” (251, italics mine) Each guideline should – indeed, must! – be bent or broken if concrete conditions demand it, and it is only through calculation that we can determine whether any specific case warrants such lawlessness.

This is the irony of Shankland’s work. It contains dozens of positional precepts for players to consider, and yet, the examples and analysis they are derived from only underscore the fragility of such heuristics. I suspect this is why Shankland is so consistent his terminology. Guidelines have the sense of being flexible, in contrast to “rules,” and they lack the sanctity of “principles.” His guidelines are valid insofar as they work in a given position; if they don’t, we are free to discard them.

Small Steps for Giant Improvement is, nominally, a book about pawn play, and readers will certainly think differently about their pawns after reading it. Nevertheless, I would argue that the real subject and value of the book lies elsewhere. What we get in Small Steps is an intimate, unvarnished interrogation of a strong Grandmaster’s mind at work, and a clear articulation of the pragmatism at the heart of contemporary chess praxis. It is a fascinating first effort from the new US Champion, and I sincerely hope that the promised second volume (14) soon sees the light of day.

Decisions, Decisions

This review has been printed in the June 2018 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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Ramesh, R.B. Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making. Los Angeles: Metropolitan Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-0985628161. PB 288pp.

Since winning the World Junior Championship in 1987 and becoming the first Indian Grandmaster in 1988, Viswanathan Anand has almost single-handedly defined chess in India. His rise to the World Championship was eagerly followed by his countrymen, chess fans and lay-people alike, and his 2013 match in Chennai was, despite Anand’s loss to Magnus Carlsen, a huge boon to Indian chess.

Anand’s example served as an inspiration for an entire generation of Indian chess players, including Grandmaster Ramachandran Ramesh – “R.B. Ramesh” as he is widely known – who served as a commentator for the 2013 match. He was the first Indian to win the British Open Championship in 2002, earning his Grandmaster title a year later. In 2014 Ramesh captained an Indian Olympiad team that won its first medal (bronze, open section) in that nation’s history, and he currently coaches the Indian U16 and Olympiad teams.

Having retired from active competition in 2008, today Ramesh is one of India’s leading chess trainers. Among his students are R. Praggnanandha, the youngest International Master in history at 12 years old, and the 18 year old Grandmaster Aravindh Chithambaram. He has also launched an online chess academy at chessgurukul.com and at nurtr.com, with the ultimate aim of offering chess training to all comers, regardless of ability to pay. If Anand is responsible for the current popularity of chess in India, it will be trainers like Ramesh who will shape its future.

Now Ramesh has written a fine new book, Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making, published by Metropolitan Chess Publishing out of Los Angeles. As its title suggests, the book offers readers a thoughtful, didactic account of over-the-board decision making. I enjoyed it immensely.

At its root, chess is all about decisions. We use various tools – principles, logic, calculation – to make the best choices we can in the time we have available to us. If we make better decisions than our opponent, we win. If not, well…

Chess training, on Ramesh’s telling, is designed to teach us to use all of the tools available to us in the decision making process. His emphasis is practical – after all, as he notes, “knowing is NOT doing!” (25) – and in this, he echoes the philosophy of Mark Dvoretsky, whom he mentions in the Introduction (6-7) as an important influence on his teaching and playing.

Ramesh cites a rather famous game between Carlsen and Aronian from the Bilbao Grand Prix in 2008 to begin to unpack his point.

image

Here Carlsen played the amazing 15.d5!!, and Ramesh writes:

I remember checking this position with an engine and 15.d5 was its 31st choice! Does this make d5 good or bad? … Carlsen came up with the surreal move 15.d5!! to open up the dark-squared bishop and to create attacking chances against the Black king, temporarily stuck in the center of the board. It is not unusual for strong players to give up a pawn for the initiative. But would the mere knowledge of this principle convince us to play this move in an actual game? I think not. (11)

[For the record, the game continued: 15. …Nxd5 (if (a) 15…cxd5? 16.Bb5+ Nd7 17.Ne5 Bc8 18.Qh5 g6 19.Qf3 and White should win; (b) 15. …exd5 is met with 16.Nd4 where White has ideas of Qa4 and Nf5 with full compensation; and (c) 15. …Qxd5 is answered by 16.Ne5 Bb4 (16. …Bd6 17.e4 Qc5 18.Rc1 with initiative) 17.Qa4 0–0 18.Rfd1 and White has the initiative)

16.Ne5 Nf6 (after 16. …Be7 17.Qh5 g6 18.Qh6 Bf6 19.e4 Nb6 20.Rab1 and White has the initiative) 17.Qa4 Bb4 18.Nxc6 Bxc6 19.Qxc6+ Ke7 20.Rfd1 and White has good compensation for the pawn. Aronian resigned after the 36th move.]

How did Carlsen decide to play such a move? There are, I think, some terminological difficulties in Ramesh’s account, but he seems to argue something along these lines. Neither brute calculation nor intuition – defined as “the output of our knowledge, experience, and confidence at that point in time” (16) – alone could have guided Carlsen’s choice. Both are required to accurate assess a nebulous concept like compensation, and particularly in such a complex position.

Ramesh contends that “young players” will often depend heavily on either calculation or intuition when they should harmoniously consult both. In the course of his discussion, however, he appears to argue that there is a tendency today towards the calculative pole of this dialectic, especially among the young, and that the training of “logical, intuitive thinking” is a necessary counterbalance. Such training is achieved through “accumulating more knowledge and experience in various types of positions.” (16)

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is clearly constructed with this goal in mind. In Part I (“Logical Reasoning”) Ramesh tries to unpack the nature of our thought processes, and Chapter Two, entitled “The Problem of Choices,” is perhaps the core of the book. We are faced with the necessity of choosing between multiple reasonable moves in most non-critical positions, and most of us, I suspect, would admit that this can be the source of no small angst over the board!

Ramesh offers general advice for such situations: we use a ‘scanning technique’ to make a broad list of possible moves, which we prune by process of elimination. We analyze forcing continuations to see if any tactics exist, and we try to remain practical in our decision-making. Ultimately, as he puts it, “[c]ontradictory principles occur all over the board… We need to choose the principle appropriate to the position at hand in order to find the best move or a decent plan.” (68) To me this sounds like an argument for training intuition in a more traditional sense.

Part I is largely a series of annotated examples that unpack elements of our decision making and thought processes. Part II (“Practical Chess Play”) turns to more practical applications of logical reasoning, again through the use of illustrative examples. Chapters are devoted to topics like the initiative, conversion of advantages, and prophylaxis, but I was most interested in Chapter 9, “Playing on Colors.”

Talk of color complexes and weaknesses has always been somewhat opaque to me, and good explanations of what is meant by a “dark-square weakness” are lacking in books on chess strategy. Here we get a ‘teacherly’ exposition of how to approach the topic, focusing mostly on the bishops, and I want to quote Ramesh’s summary at some length before turning to one of his examples. (Thanks to Metropolitan Chess for granting permission to use these passages in this review.)

Here is a general guide for knowing which color to play on, depending on the situation:

1. Same colored bishops for both sides: Only the bishops should focus on their colors. All the other pieces should play on opposite colors. For example: if both sides have dark colored bishops, we should put all our other pieces on light squares.

2. Two bishops versus bishop and knight: The side with the two bishops should play on the colors where the opponent does not have a bishop. The side with the bishop and knight should play on the color of the bishop.

3. Opposite colored bishops: Both sides should play on the colors of their bishops.

4. One bishop versus one knight: The side with the knight should play on the opposite color of the opponent’s bishop. The side with the bishop should utilize his other pieces on the opposite color of the bishop.

5. Both sides have both bishops: When the central pawns are fixed on a particular color, we should play on the opposite color of our opponent’s centralized pawns, and try to exchange the opponent’s bishop of that same color. For example: if the opponent’s center pawns are fixed on light squares, then we should exchange the dark colored bishops and fight for the dark colors with other pieces. (208-209)

Ramesh follows this with eight examples, each demonstrating some element of this general framework. The discussion of the first position, taken from Polzin-Motylev (Bundesliga, 2008), is typical of both Ramesh’s style and analysis:

image

14. …Nc4 Both sides have dark-squared bishops, so they should try to put their other pieces on light squares.

15.Qe2 b5 White at some point could kick the c4-knight with b2-b3, so Black aims to put his pawn on a4 to stabilize the c4-square for his knight. Moreover, if Black castles on the kingside, where he does not have as many defenders, it is possible that White could launch a direct attack with f2-f4, g2-g4 and f4-f5. Hence Black wants to secure adequate counterplay on the queenside before he makes the decision to castle short. If things get too hot on the kingside, then he could consider keeping his king in the center or even sending it to the queenside if necessary.

16.axb5 cxb5 17.f4 Qb6 18.Nd2 If White tried to launch an attack immediately with 18.g4 then Black would have adequate resources: 18. …a4 19.Nd2 Qc6 20.f5 gxf5 21.gxf5 exf5 and Black is much better … [note that] 22.Rxf5 is impossible in view of 22…Qg6+.

18. …Qc6 19.Nf3 a4 With a small advantage, Black went on to win from here. In this example, Black not only used his pieces but also his pawns to gain control over the light squares on the queenside.

Part III (“Fundamentals of Chess Training”) is devoted to general training advice – how to study the opening, how to prepare for tournaments, how to understand the endgame, etc. – and what I would call Ramesh’s ‘philosophy of improvement.’ Many teachers warn their students not to worry about their ratings. Borrowing from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and classical Indian philosophy, Ramesh persuasively argues that such worry has deleterious effects on our results and, more importantly, our enjoyment of the game.

Parts I and II are very concrete in nature, offering readers dozens of examples to illustrate key teaching points. Part III is, in contrast, almost all text. There is a lot of interesting and inspirational material here, to be sure, and Ramesh’s trademark optimism is especially apparent in these pages. Still, the book feels somewhat disjointed, and Part III feels in some ways like an afterthought or appendix to the main part of the book.

This is particularly true in Chapters 11 and 17, where Ramesh discusses the proper use of the computer in opening study. ChessBase is not an intuitive piece of software to use, and instruction should involve specific how-to’s and illustrative screenshots. Instead we get text-only renderings of database screens and opening trees. It’s an opportunity missed, and one that would have been very easy for the editors to fix.

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is a vastly ambitious book, covering wide swaths of chess philosophy and practice. Such enthusiasm makes its small flaws rather forgivable. Its target audience – “younger players,” or, in Ramesh’s system, those rated 1500-2400 (!?) – is very wide, and one could argue that the book tries to cover too much ground. But I would much rather read an enterprising work than a limited, modest one, and at the end of the day, the author has given us a book that will reward multiple rereadings. Well done, “Ramesh sir.”

A Russian Revival?

This review has been printed in the May 2018 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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Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Opening and Middlegame. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916824. PB 368pp.

Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Middlegame Structures and Dynamics. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917425. PB 368pp.

Shereshevsky, Mikhail. The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess: From Club Player to Master. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917647. PB 352pp.

One of the many virtues of Andy Soltis’ Soviet Chess 1917-1991 is the concise manner in which it describes how Soviet chess suffered as the country fell. Leading players and promising talents left the USSR, spreading across the globe in search of opportunity. Many nations, including ours, were great beneficiaries of a sudden Soviet diaspora. From Kamsky to Kaidanov to the beloved “Uncle Yermo,” American chess was much enriched with this influx of talent.

It seems to me, however, that it was the dispersion of the machinery of Soviet chess – the coaches, trainers, and infrastructure – that was of greatest consequence. Soltis quotes Evgeny Vasiukov as saying in 1997 that “…the structure is destroyed and I fear that we will have to give up our position” (Soviet Chess, 419), and we see some evidence of this if we look at the history of the Chess Olympiad.

From 1952 through 2002, the Soviet Union / Russia failed to win gold at the Olympiad only twice: in 1976, when they boycotted the event’s being held in Israel, and in 1978, where Hungary shocked the world by taking the gold, leaving the Soviets with the indignity of the silver. In the years since 2002, four countries – Ukraine, Armenia, China, and the United States – have won gold, and Russia has had to reckon with its fall from Caïssa’s grace.

The Russian Chess Federation (RCF) has taken concrete steps in this decade to restoring Russian chess to its former glory, increasing funding for chess schools and renovating the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The 2014 election of Russian billionaire Andrey Filatov to the RCF Presidency dramatically accelerated this process.

Filatov, much like our own Rex Sinquefield, has contributed vast sums from his personal fortune to chess. Current RCF Director Mark Glukhovsky recently stated that more than half of the RCF budget comes directly from Filatov. With this funding the RCF has extended support to numerous constituencies, but none so important (on Glukhovsky’s telling) as children’s chess and the opening of the Chess Department at Sirius.

The brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who remains chairman of its Board of Trustees, Sirius is a Sochi-based school for gifted children in academics, arts, and sports. The Chess Department is nominally headed by Vladimir Kramnik, but the day to day operations are led by a staff that includes GM Konstantin Sakaev and, more recently, IM Mikhail Shereshevsky. Russia’s most promising juniors attend training camps at Sirius throughout the year.

One corollary to this educational initiative is the addition of a publishing arm to RCF activities, with Russian language books by Sakaev and Shereshevsky among the most prominent new titles in the “RCF Library.” New in Chess has translated three of these books into English, and this month we’ll take a look at them.

Konstantin Sakaev is largely known in the West as an opening theorist, having seconded Kramnik and penned titles on the Grünfeld and Slav. Here, in the two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0, we discover Sakaev’s estimable chess knowledge and erudition. Mikhail Shereshevsky, to whom we will turn shortly, likens him to the famed Soviet player and coach Isaac Boleslavsky, only “armed with a modern computer.” This is high praise indeed, but on the basis of these books, it might be warranted.

Co-written with GM Konstantin Landa, The Complete Manual of Positional Chess (hereafter CMPC) is an advanced training manual centered on the middlegame. In the first volume, subtitled Opening and Middlegame, Sakaev and Landa offers a short section on typical opening problems and then take up topics related to thought processes and static features of positional play. Chapters on “[c]alculation of variations and methods of taking decisions” (#7) and “Prophylaxis, strengthening one’s own position” (#14) are of particular interest.

The book consists of a series of positions for study and solving. Here’s a quick example from chapter 17, titled “[t]he problem of exchanges. Simplifying positions.” Note that on a scale of one to three stars, with one star denoting an “easily understood, simple example” and three stars denoting “especially complicated” cases, this problem is rated at two stars. It’s White to play. How should you proceed?

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Sakaev and Landa write: “White has more space, a strong pawn on e5 and the two bishops. He has the advantage. However, Black has organised a blockade in the centre, and it is not easy to open lines on the queenside. Therefore, White voluntarily surrenders his two bishops, obtaining in return new objects of attack:

19.Bxd5! Rxd5 20.Qxd5 cxd5 21.Rac1 Black has to deal not only with a possible entry down the c-file, but also with the defense of the pawn a5 – this is impossible.

21. …b6 22.Rxc7+ Kxc7 23.Rc1+ Kd7 24.e6+! Kxe6 25.Rc6+ Kd7 26.Rxb6 The a5–pawn is lost, and White is close to winning.” (CPMC 1, 184)

The second volume, subtitled Middlegame Structures and Dynamics, reads more like a traditional middlegame text. Its first part, roughly a third of the book, focuses on pawns and pawn structures, including typical pawn play in attacking play. The remainder deals with tactical themes and attacking ideas, with particular emphasis on attacking the king. Here again, a short example is illustrative. This is a one-star problem from chapter 43, “The king in a mating net.” It’s Black to move:

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“It is obvious that Black has a fine concentration of pieces around the white king. But where is the mate? Players with a sharp tactical vision will have no trouble spotting the finish.”

1. …Bg2+ 2.Rxg2 Qf1+ 3.Rg1 Ng3+! “The key idea.” 4.hxg3 Qh3# (CPMC 2, 245)

The two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess are not easy reads by any stretch of the imagination. Sakaev and Landa say in their Introduction – common to both volumes, a terrific read for players of all strengths, and available as part of the pdf sample at the New in Chess website – that the target audience is the “first-category” or 2000+ player, and this seems accurate to me. But for those hardy self-learners who work through these excellent and demanding books, I can’t help but believe that their efforts will be richly rewarded.

I had high hopes for the translation of Mikhail Shereshevsky’s The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess. Shereshevsky is widely known as the author of Endgame Strategy, one of the finest books on the endgame in print, and his 1994 The Soviet Chess Conveyor is a cult classic among chess bibliophiles. Shereshevsky was largely forced out of chess in 1992 by the economic turmoil of the post-Communist era, and I was anxious to see his long-awaited return.

This book, put simply, is not what I was hoping for. The Shereshevsky Method is deeply problematic from both structural and editorial perspectives, and as I will explain, I cannot recommend it to Chess Life readers.

The Shereshevsky Method is a work in three parts. Part I is a selection of texts related to The Soviet Chess Conveyor. Part II is a condensed and updated version of Endgame Strategy. Part III, solicited explicitly by the RCF for use at the Sirius School, discusses chess books, calculation, chess intuition, and best training practices.

Parts I and II are largely, but not wholly, unobjectionable. The second chapter, “Studying the Chess Classics,” is itself a classic of chess literature. Shereshevsky’s concern is to argue that improving players must study the great masters of the past to learn planning and train intuition.

This is of particular relevance in the age of the computer – a recurring concern in the book – insofar knowledge of the classics helps mitigate the dangers of overreliance on the engine. Humans think in principles and concepts, not brute-force analysis, and knowledge gained from of the games of Alekhine, Capablanca, and Rubinstein shapes and guides what we calculate.

The text of “Studying the Chess Classics” is based on a lecture given at Mark Dvoretsky’s school and published in Secrets of Chess Training: School of Future Champions 1. The updates to that lecture consist largely of quotations inserted into the text, some of which are shockingly long. Two and four page passages from Isaac Lipnitsky appear without warning, and while the practice is largely absent from Part II, it becomes endemic in Part III.

Let me preface what I am about to say by making clear that I am not a lawyer. I have not seen the relevant publishing contracts, and I am not making any authoritative legal arguments. That said: having spent years in the academy, where I had to constantly worry about fair use and copyright law, I was astounded by what I found in The Shereshevsky Method.

Russia, like the Netherlands and the United States, is a signatory to international copyright laws. Authors cannot take the work of other authors and use it for commercial purposes without the express permission of the copyright holders. Exemptions are carved out for educational or review purposes – what we call ‘fair use’ and what Russians call ‘free use’ – but this is limited to short passages, perhaps four to six lines of text.

I can see no possible manner in which Shereshevsky’s extensive copying of other author’s works can be said to fall under fair use, and at least one publisher has confirmed to me that no such permission was granted for English language use of their intellectual property. (I have no knowledge about Russian language permissions.)

The borrowing of huge chunks of text – multiple pages at a time! – from other authors is brazen in The Shereshevsky Method, with Chapter 13 being a particularly egregious example. Shereshevsky begins the chapter with three lines that introduce a 300 word quote from John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess. He then inserts about 150 of his own words before reprinting (244-250) six pages, well over two thousand words, of Nunn’s copyrighted text, and then wraps things up with a 100 word conclusion.

The title of the chapter? “Laziness.” You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Nunn is not Shereshevsky’s only victim. Large passages are repeatedly taken from Beim, Dvoretsky, and Gelfand, among others, and to make matters worse, Shereshevsky fails to adequately cite the passages he takes. He even congratulates the RCF for their publication (337) of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision-Making in Chess, ignoring the fact that the book was written in English for Quality Chess and only appeared in the “RCF Library” by contractual agreement.

There is more. Instead of referring to the original English language texts in these extensive quotations, and against standard practice, the translator re-translated the (already once-translated) Russian back into English. Nunn’s words are no longer Nunn’s words, but the product of a two-fold translatory transmogrification. I cannot for the life of me understand how this passed editorial muster.

The Shereshevsky Method, particularly in its third and final Part, reads like a freshman’s plagiarized term paper. Most of the interesting material in Part III is taken from other authors, while Shereshevsky’s original contributions tend to devolve to banalities or gossip. I have never seen anything like it from a major publishing house, chess or otherwise, and I’m at a loss to understand how a publisher with a deservedly sterling reptuation like New in Chess let it come to print.

Opening Lines

This review has been printed in the April 2018 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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Collins, Sam. A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093825. PB 160pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917463. PB 272pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916336. PB 208pp.

Most chess players like very little more than to talk about their openings. (The only thing that might top it is the cosmic unfairness of their last tournament losses.) They talk about what they’re playing, what they want to play, and opening trends among the chess elite. But when it comes to the question of which openings they should play, there’s rather less discussion.

Here I should forestall some criticism. In what follows, I am not arguing that any specific opening or opening system is intrinsically better than any other. Modern computer analysis shows us that, for the vast majority of players, most mainstream openings are entirely playable. But it may well be the case that some openings are better than others if improvement – understood both in terms of over-the-board results and playing strength – is our goal.

The late Ken Smith believed that lower-rated players should play simple “forcing systems” like the Bird, Colle, or King’s Indian Attack for White, and complementary systems like the Caro-Kann and Slav for Black. The idea is clear: if you know your opening’s ideas and typical structures better than your opponent, and you get a position you understand on the board, your chances of winning are increased.

Another typical recommendation, and one that Smith – who wrote in “Improving Your Chess” that “[u]ntil you are at least a high Class A player… [y]our first name is ‘Tactics,’ your middle name is ‘Tactics,’ and your last name is ‘Tactics’” – would applaud, is the use of gambits to force the game into tactical channels. Here again, the idea is clear: improving players need to hone their tactics, and gambit openings require those players to play sharply from the very first moves of the game. The Smith-Morra Gambit, named in part for Ken Smith, would be a good choice in this vein, as would the Blackmar-Diemer or Latvian Gambits.

The ‘Markovich Doctrine’ represents something of a median between these two (apparent) extremes. Named for its author, the late Ohio master Mark Morss (’Markovich’ in the chesspub.com forums), the idea here is that “open positions are fundamental… you must know how to play open positions well in order to play chess well.” Because all positions can potentially become open, an emphasis on tactics and active piece play is critical for long-term success.

Towards this end, Morss argued – passionately, if somewhat dogmatically – that improving players needed to play 1.e4 e5 with Black, particularly the Two Knights Defense and the Classical Ruy Lopez, along with the Tarrasch Defense against closed openings. This emphasis on open games and Isolated Queen’s Pawn (‘IQP’) positions also colored his choices with the White pieces, with the ‘Waitzkin variation’ of the Exchange French (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd4 4.c4) being a typical Morss recommendation. Players learn how to handle both sides of the IQP, but in doing so, they also learn how to play active, tactical chess.

Sam Collins, who recently scored his 3rd and final Grandmaster norm, presents something of a hybrid between the first and third approaches described above in his A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. Borrowing in part from some of his earlier works, including An Attacking Repertoire for White and the ChessBase DVD 1.e4 Repertoire: Grandmaster Lines Explained for Club Players, the emphasis here is on the IQP.

Collins justifies this decision (6-7) with three claims. (a) The IQP and its constellation of related structures can emerge from a wide range of openings, so it is important for players of all strengths to learn and understand it. (b) IQP positions are playable for both sides. Those with the IQP get some space and activity, while those playing against it usually have a defined weakness to play against and chances for a better endgame. Finally, in light of (a) and (b), Collins rightly argues (c) that it is possible to reach IQP positions in a healthy number of your games, making their study rapid and practical.

What does Collins’ repertoire involve? Here are the highlights:

1.e4 e5 – 7.Nbd2 Giuoco Piano and the Scotch Gambit against the Two Knights
1.e4 c5 – the c3 Sicilian (almost 1/3 of the book)
1.e4 e6 – 3.Nd2, aiming for Yevseev-style IQP positions
1.e4 c6 – Panov-Botvinnik via 2.c4
Pirc / Modern – setups with c3 / Bd3
Scandinavian – Bc4 and d2-d3 lines

While some of Collins’ choices are perhaps underrated by mainstream theory – Lawrence Trent used 7.Nbd2 in the Giuoco Piano to draw Kramnik in the Isle of Man tournament last September –his goal is not necessarily a clear opening advantage. Instead, I’d argue that these repertoire choices are designed to leave White in familiar, active-ish positions from which he can outplay his opponent.

This helps to explain a shift in a key line in his c3 Sicilian recommendation. Collins gave 1.e4 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.Nf3 d6 5.d4 cxd4 6.cxd4 Nc6 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb3 dxe5 9.d5 in both the book and DVD listed above; here, however, he shifts to 8.Bb5, which he had previously described as “safe for both sides” and here as “much less risky… [leading] to pleasant IQP positions for White.” (56)

His recommendation against the French is perhaps more anodyne. Following a path popularized by Yevseev, Collins proposes that White try to get an IQP after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3 cxd4 6.cxd4 dxe4 7.Nxe4 when Black is at a crossroads. He can try 7…Bd7!? but after 8.Nc3 (after 8.Nf3?! Nxe4 9.Bxe4 Bc6 Black is probably already better) 9.Nf3 Nbd7 10.0–0 Be7 11.Qe2 (11.Be3 is another option; as is 11.Re1 0–0 12.Bc2 Qb6! via Aagaard & Ntirlis) 11…0–0 “[t]his is just a balanced position with no opening advantage for White.” (122)

7. …Nxe4 is the other option, trying to advantageously simplify the position. After 8.Bxe4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 Nd7 11.Ne2 (11.Nf3?! is a well known error: 11. …Nf6 12.Bc2 0–0 13.0–0 b6! per Watson, Play the French 4) 11. …Nf6 12.Bf3 Qb6 13.0–0 0–0 14.Rac1 Rd8 we reach this position:

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White has some compensation for his long-term weakness, the IQP, with his active pieces and better development. But Black has already exchanged two minor pieces, and once he solves his development problems with …Bd7 or …e5, he should be at least equal. While this variation does take Black out of standard French-style positions, it’s hardly something to worry a prepared player.

If Collins’ book aims for similar types of positions whenever possible, the repertoires proposed for White and Black by the French youth trainer Vincent Moret take a very different tact. In My First Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go Package for Ambitious Players and its companion volume, My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black, Moret offers readers a set of recommendations that can be summarized as follows:

White:

1.e4 e5 – Giuoco Piano, Möller Attack
1.e4 c5 – Grand Prix Attack
1.e4 e6 – King’s Indian Attack
1.e4 c6 – ‘Night Attack’ (thematic pawn sac e5-e6) via 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4
Pirc / Modern – St. George Attack (f3, Be3, Qd2, h2-h4-h5)
Scandinavian – traditional mainlines

Black:

vs. 1.e4 – Scandinavian Portuguese Variation
vs. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 – Albin Counter-Gambit
vs. 1.d4 without 2.c4 – Stonewall
vs. 1.c4 – Reversed Grand Prix
vs 1.b4, 1.g4, 1.f4 – sharp mainlines

I have to admit my difficulties in grasping the inner logic of Moret’s choices on a first read. There is no ‘typical position’ to be found a la Collins, and the repertoire does not fit neatly into any of the three types listed above. With more careful study, I slowly came to realize that, despite the widely disparate set of recommendations, there was indeed an intended common thread. Moret aims for positions with clear themes and ideas, often involving direct kingside attacks, and where knowledge of plans trumps memorized theory.

Moret says as much in the introduction to his Black repertoire.

[T]he aim of this book… [is] to offer ideas and points of reference to players – young and less young alike! – who engage in competitions and are not sure where to start studying openings. … Rather than being able to recite the first ten moves of an opening by heart, it is far more important to know the typical middlegame plans that result from an opening, and above all the most common combinations and tactical themes. (For Black, 8)

Moret’s book is structured according to this philosophy. The Grand Prix Attack and the King’s Indian Attack clearly involve typical moves and maneuvers, as do the Scandinavian, Albin, and Stonewall. Each recommendation is introduced with copious structural and strategic instructions, in contrast to Collins’ fairly traditional analytical style, and newly acquired knowledge is tested with exercises at the end of each chapter.

For all of this, I remain skeptical about parts of Moret’s recommendations. Some of the proposals, like the Möller Attack, require rather more theoretical knowledge than Moret would have us believe, and the sharpest lines of the Scandinavian Portuguese require extensive study if Black is to survive the opening. Other suggestions, like the King’s Indian Attack agains the French, seem too strategically complex for most juniors. It may be the case that Moret’s talented students, many of whom compete in World Junior Championships, can handle these kind of complexities, but I suspect that most chess mortals would do better with simpler openings.

There are also some important omissions. The Fritz Variation (5. …Nd4) in the Two Knights is not addressed, for example, and a 2011 Avrukh innovation in the Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 exd5 7.Qe2 f6!) does not appear in the text. White’s difficulties in this last line, and more broadly where Black plays …e6 and …d5 against the Grand Prix, are somewhat glossed over.

So where do we stand after all of this? Ultimately I think that while both Collins and Moret provide responsible, interesting repertoires, and while I particularly applaud Collins for the amount of useful information he managed to distill into the 160 pages of his book, I am not convinced that either author makes things ‘simple’ enough for most people’s ‘first’ repertoires.

This is, admittedly, a big ask, and I’ve yet to find a book pitched to precisely that market. The closest thing I’ve found is a public e-book by the English chess coach David Regis. His Four Opening Systems to Start With follows the spirit of the Markovich Doctrine but keeps things very simple and light. I consider it a good prolegomena to serious opening work, and it might be a decent stepping-stool to the more complex repertoires of Collins and Moret.


Get off my lawn!

This review has been printed in the March 2018 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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Timman, Jan. Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-9056916725.

Once a haven for the geeks and oddballs among us, chess has taken on a new and more positive valence in the modern social imaginary. Chess is marketed to parents as a propaedeutic to academic achievement for their children, and as a source of important non-cognitive skills like ‘grit.’ The current US Chess mission statement – “empowering people through chess one move at a time” – highlights the benefits of playing more than it does the game itself.

Today’s leading players also bear the signs of this shift. Top tournaments are broadcast live across the world via YouTube and Twitch, and the competitors explain their wins and losses with sage-like equanimity, their sponsorship deals prominently featured on their blazers. ‘Lesser’ Grandmasters and Masters are riding the e-sport wave towards exclusive streaming deals and video series. Scholastic chess has become a growth industry: coaches and camps proliferate, and it seems like half the players at big tournaments are juniors.

Surely this newfound respectability is beneficial for American chess. But is it an unalloyed good? Is nothing lost when the chess world is transformed into a wholesome, family-friendly environment?

I think back to my first steps in the chess world, back to evenings at the public library in Merrick, NY, where I was the only person in the room under 40, and where I lost game after game to old Russian men who regaled me with wonderful, unprintable jokes. It was a space where the teenaged me wasn’t quite supposed to be, but I was there anyway, and I was learning to fit in.

You might think about your experiences at large tournaments like the US Open. The reputable players play their games, go back to their rooms, and get ready for the next round on their computers. Gone are the days of all-night blitz benders in the skittles room. Gone are the days of the pub crawl and the hangovers destroying the next day’s play. Worst of all, the postmortem is a relic, an antiquity, offered only by the aged and accepted even less frequently. Those that do occur are haunted by a third party – the ubiquitous Stockfish app, lurking, correcting, standing as the ultimate authority.

(Is this the part where I tell the kids to get off my lawn?)

Jan Timman’s newest book, Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions, is many things at once: a set of sketches of ten world champions, a study of their styles and games, a catalogue of Timman’s own dreams and memories. At its heart, however, I think Timman’s Titans is an elegy for what has been lost, for better and for worse, in modern chess, and a deeply personal remembrance of a world that no longer exists. As with most elegies, and here I follow Coleridge, it reveals equally the greatness of its subjects and its author. This is Timman’s best book to date.

Timman’s Titans consists of (a) personal remembrances of each of the world champions from Alekhine through Kasparov, (b) a discussion of their games and careers, and (c) highlights of Timman’s own games against the champion in question. The analysis is insightful and extremely well done, but the real reason to buy this book is for Timman’s memories and memorials.

Timman knew all of the champions he discusses save Alekhine, and he played against six of them in serious competition. The chapter on Alekhine, despite the handicap of never meeting him, is a particular highlight. We journey with Timman to Lisbon, Portugal, where Alekhine spent his final years. We accompany him on his wanderings through the snowy town, and we are present as he stumbles upon one of Alekhine’s own chess sets in a tiny junk shop. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, we get a sense of Timman the flâneur, and the writing is evocative of no less than W.G. Sebald or Teju Cole.

Of the nine remaining champions, Karpov is the subject of the largest chapter, at just over 50 pages. This is not terribly unexpected, as Timman faced Karpov more than anyone else in his career – some 115 games, according to my database. The chapter on Smyslov reveals a shared love of studies and justifies Genna Sosonko’s claim of a stylistic affinity between the two men. For me, however, the most interesting sections are those on Euwe and Tal.

Max Euwe was a friend of Timman’s parents, having taught Timman’s mother mathematics in her youth. It was, however, through a book of Euwe’s games – “a plain-looking book with a hard dark-blue cover. … The paper was thick, the letters were large. Euwe was the hero.” (33) – that Timman first studied “real, serious chess.”

Books are a constant reference in Timman’s Titans. We learn that a book on Botvinnik (Botvinnik Teaches Chess by Müller) was an early influence, and Euwe’s Judgment and Planning in Chess was an introduction to “strategic planning.” Later books by Alekhine (My Best Chess Games 1924-1937) and Smyslov (Selected Games) were of great importance.

Euwe, whom Timman could never bring himself to address by his first name, is described as bearing a “colossal authority,” as indefatigably hard-working and (despite the odd over-the-board blunder) eminently logical. For his part, Euwe tried to help Timman where he could, setting up contacts for an early tour of the Soviet Union, and quietly contributing rather large sums of money to the “Timman Committee” that aimed to support an assault on the World Championship.

It is clear that that Timman greatly admired Euwe, despite some sharp differences in personality between the two men.Where Euwe was solid and respectability, the young Timman was a bon vivant, someone who “hung around in shabby cafes… surrounded by shady types” (55) and who used a threadbare fur coat as a makeshift sleeping bag. Discipline and sobriety were not in his nature. Indeed, as Timman tells us, his attempts to emulate Botvinnik’s “spartan” training methods before his first Grandmaster tournament failed horribly, and it was only after he returned to his “trusted, unhealthy” lifestyle that he began to win.

Perhaps Timman’s admiration for Mikhail Tal, “a type of romantic player that has disappeared,” (111) can be traced to their similar outlook on life. He seems to take delight in describing his first encounters with the Seventh World Champion, how he succumbed to the famed “hypnotizing power of Tal’s eye” (110) in their first game in 1971, and how he spent a drunken evening getting the better of Tal in a 1973 blitz match.

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening at one of today’s leading tournaments. Sure, the Chessbrahs like to have a little fun while streaming, and there are videos on YouTube of bughouse games after big events at the St. Louis Chess Club, but as Timman correctly notes, “[t]oday’s top player is a teetotaller… It is unthinkable that he would mingle in the social circles around the tournament the way Tal did. The top grandmasters of yesteryear sat at the bar like all the other visitors. Young players who invited them to play a blitz game would never be turned down.” (111)

For all of this, Timman was not blind to Tal’s very real flaws, and in particular, his alcoholism. He tells a story of one of the first times he saw Tal “knocked out by alcoholic excess:”

Ischa Meijer (a well-known TV journalist at the time in the Netherlands – translator’s note) had come to Hastings to interview me. … Meijer described how Tal interrupted our conversation, saying: ‘Jan, don’t tell them about our lives.’ The interviewer reported: ‘A while later, he has to be carried off.’ My father, who had great respect for top chess players, was upset by this short sentence. How did the interviewer dare to write something like that?

But however painful this short sentence may have been, it was the truth. To me it was more interesting what Tal said before that. I remember the look in his eyes – a touch of despair was visible when he testified to our solidarity. (114)

I have to admit that I find the pathos of this passage almost unbearable. It is testament to the strength of Tal’s demons and the challenges of living under the Soviet regime, but more than that, it is emblematic of broader societal changes in the intervening years. Our knowledge of public health (rightly) stigmatizes smoking, an activity that permeates Timman’s Titans, and the ‘romance’ of addiction is much withered. Luckily for Timman and for us, he seems to have learned to moderate his vices, allowing him to write this book, and us to enjoy it.

This review was originally meant to have included discussion of two other books, but Timman’s Titans is so rich, so packed with stories and insights, that twice my allotted page space would not have done it justice. I do not think it controversial to say that this is one of the best chess books published in recent years, and players of all strengths would find it of great interest.

What may be more controversial are my concerns – mild as they may be – over the direction of modern chess. I offer this olive branch to those who disagree with me: you can, barring the unforeseen, find me in the bar after the evening rounds at this year’s US Open in Madison. Come visit. I’ll buy you a drink, and we can shoot the breeze while we play some blitz or eavesdrop on someone’s postmortem.

Do me a favor, though – don’t come too late. I can’t stay out all night like I used to, and I’ll have meetings and another round to get ready for in the morning.