Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

This article has been printed in the December 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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After learning of the death of Mark Dvoretsky on September 26th via Twitter, I found myself standing in front of my bookshelf, thumbing through one of his many titles. Suddenly I found myself hurled back in time, much like Proust after biting into his madeleine, and in unpacking that involuntary memory, I came to understand why the news of his death had affected me so.

I am old enough to remember a time before the ‘disenchantment’ (to borrow a phrase from the sociology of religion) of the modern chess world, a time before everyone had a Grandmaster in their cell phone and the Internet brought tournaments from around the world into our homes. In the days before the computer, master-level play had yet to be demystified. Amateurs had almost no access to the thought processes of masters and Grandmasters, and without the false security provided by the engine, we rarely understood their moves.

All of this changed when Mark Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Training was published in 1991.

Standing there in my basement, I was 15 years old again, wandering through the local Waldenbooks and discovering a pink book that promised to teach me the secrets of chess. I remember struggling to make sense of the analysis within, and how I persisted in doing so, even when it was evident that I lacked the ability to understand any of what I was reading. Others may not have shared my fruitless dedication, for legend has it that USCFSales stopped stocking the book after too many frustrated returns.

Mark Dvoretsky will be remembered for many reasons. He worked with three World Junior Champions, a Women’s World Championship Challenger, and a myriad of masters and Grandmasters, earning him the unofficial title of “World’s Best Trainer.” He was a very strong player in his own right, winning the Moscow Championship in 1973, the Wijk aan Zee B tournament in 1974, and finishing =5th-7th in the 42nd Soviet Championship. Dvoretsky’s rating peaked at 2540 in January 1976, making him the 35th ranked player in the world at the time. He was also, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

For all of these accomplishments, I think Dvoretsky’s true legacy lies in his writings. Very few authors contribute something radically new to chess theory, and Dvoretsky, with the possible exception of his concept of the ‘superfluous piece,’ was not an iconoclast. (Pieces, and particularly knights, become superfluous when two or more aim at one square.) Instead, he took the best elements of the Soviet training system, added his own twist – the solving of problems from his famed collection of positions – and shared the fruits of his labor with the world.

It’s not simply that his books are well written, although of course, they are. There is something about Dvoretsky’s style, something intimate – ‘here is what Yusupov saw… here is what Dreev missed’ – that remains powerful, even in the age of the silicon beasts. We are not merely allowed to peek inside Dvoretsky’s chess laboratory. We are invited to join in the search for truth, and in his writings, this task feels as important and vital as anything in the world.

There are two ‘halves,’ as it were, to Dvoretsky’s authorial career. His nine books (seven of which are revised and extended versions of books originally published with Batsford) and two series with Edition Olms made him famous. We will examine them first before turning to more recent titles published with Russell Enterprises.

The School of Chess Excellence (SCE) series consists of four titles published from 2001-2004: Endgame Analysis (SCE 1), Tactical Play (SCE 2), Strategic Play (SCE 3), and Opening Developments (SCE 4). In his recent video series for Chess24 – which I highly recommend for the newcomer to Dvoretsky’s work, and to which I will return shortly – Dvoretsky says that these four books are best understood as “one big book,” covering a wide array of ideas in essay form.

The School for Future Champions (SFC) series takes its name from the chess school run by Dvoretsky and Yusupov from 1990-1992. The five books in the series – Secrets of Chess Training (SFC 1; not the same as the 1991 title, now SCE 1), Secrets of Opening Preparation (SFC 2), Secrets of Endgame Technique (SFC 3), Secrets of Positional Play (SFC 4), and Secrets of Creative Thinking (SFC 5) – were published from 2006-2009 and based on lectures for talented children. While Dvoretsky and Yusupov wrote the bulk of them, guest lecturers like Kaidanov, Kramnik, and Shereshevsky also contributed.

Taken together, these nine titles represent a fairly systematic curriculum for chess mastery. What does that curriculum look like? Interestingly we find the clearest accounts of Dvoretsky’s ‘philosophy’ in his writings on the endgame, including chapters in SCE 1 (“The Benefit of Abstract Knowledge”) and SFC 3 (“How to Study the Endgame”). A particularly cogent articulation also appears in his “Endgames with Dvoretsky” video series for Chess24, released mere weeks before his death.

In a video entitled, appropriately enough, “Philosophy,” Dvoretsky makes a few interrelated claims about his approach to chess training. First, he argues that it is essential to develop intuition, or what he describes in SFC 5 as “the ability easily and quickly… to grasp the essence of the position, the most important ideas… and to assess the promise of particular continuations.” (41)

How do we do this? Through the conjoined tasks of study and solving. Dvoretsky offers a vision of how this might work in SFC 1, a book that IM Greg Shahade has called “the best instructional chess book of all time.” Players should increase their knowledge of general principles and ideas through the study of chess classics and rigorous self-analysis. Solving carefully chosen exercises reinforces what has been learned and boosts calculative, evaluative and imaginative skills. Enriching intuition in this way allows players to correctly apply relevant rules or principles in novel situations.

We can see the value of this training method in this adjourned position (SCE 1, 64-7; also, Chess24, “Endgames with Dvoretsky”), taken from the 1980 Candidates Match between Nana Alexandria and Marta Litinskaya.

image

What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

One idea would be use the opposite-colored bishops to construct a fortress. Initial analysis showed that this was difficult: if 42.Rd2 then Black plays 42…Rf4! and White has multiple weaknesses while Black’s pieces are active.

Dvoretsky, who was Alexandria’s second, quickly intuited that another rule – positions with rooks and opposite-color bishops favor the attacker – was more applicable here. Activating the rook was necessary. But how? 42.Ke1?! seemed a likely choice, but after 42…Rf4! 43.Rc1 (if 43.a5 Rxg4; Modern engines prefer 43.Rd3!? Rxg4 44.Rg3 Rxg3 45.fxg3 and the endgame is probably drawn) 43…Bxf2+ 44.Kd1 Bb6 Black kept the advantage.

Only 42.Kg1! was sufficient to save the game.

Black’s best chance lay with 42…Rf4 43.a5! (stopping Bb6; 43.Rd3!? is possible here too) 43…Rxg4 (if 43…Kc7 44.Kh1! Rxg4 45.Rb1! (with the idea of Rb7+) 45…e4 46.Rb4 Rh4+ 47.Kg1 Bxf2+ 48.Kf1! and White draws after exchanging rooks) 44.Rc1 Kc7 45.Rb1 e4 46.Rb4 Bxf2+ 47.Kf1! Be1! 48.Ra4!! and analysis shows that White can draw.

Litinskaya played the inferior 42…Kc7?! allowing Alexandria to draw easily after 43.Rb1 Bxf2+ 44.Kh1 Rb8 45.Rd1 Rd8 46.Rb1 Rb8 47.Rd1 Rd8 ½–½

Had Dvoretsky’s authorial career ended with those nine titles, his position in chess history would have been secure. Luckily for us, he kept writing. His books with Russell Enterprises are some of his best, extending his earlier work and opening up new avenues of inquiry.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss all of Dvoretsky’s books with Russell for lack of space, but merely touch on the highlights. In particular I want to thematize two signature features of Dvoretsky’s work – prophylaxis and the use of endgame studies – as they appear in his later books.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) was published in 2003 to tremendous and deserved acclaim, and is now in its 4th edition. It consists of 1100+ examples and exercises, using novel textual devices to demarcate 220 ‘precise positions’ for memorization (blue print) and dozens of typical endgame schemata (bold italics). DEM is perhaps Dvoretsky’s best book, and certainly his best known. It is widely recommended by top teachers to those looking to learn endgame theory.

Although he did not invent it, Dvoretsky is often associated with the concept of prophylaxis or prophylactic thinking. Prophylaxis requires that players consider what the opponent wants to play were she on move, find an answer to that question, and then use that answer to help guide analysis.

This idea is discussed in SCE 3 (“Don’t Forget about Prophylaxis!”) and SFC 4 (“Prophylactic Thinking”), but I think Dvoretsky’s clearest rendering comes in Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources (2015). The book is the Platonic ideal of Dvoretsky’s training philosophy, containing hundreds of exercises for solving and clear examples to orient intuition.

Endgame studies are also a key component of Dvoretsky’s methodology, and in two ways. Solving studies can be useful in training imagination and calculation, and they can also be used as set pieces for ‘two-handed play’ between training partners. (SCE 1, 207, 200) His interest in studies spans his publishing career, with a full book – Studies for Practical Players (2009, co-authored with Oleg Pervakov) – devoted to the topic.

Dvoretsky described solving studies in SCE 1 as “pleasant, but useful.” Much the same can be said for the study of his books. So long as chess is played, Mark Dvoretsky’s books will be certainly be read, both for pleasure and for improvement.

London Calling

This review has been printed in the November 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Romero Holmes, Alfonso, and Oscar de Prado. The Agile London System: A Solid but Dynamic Opening Choice for White. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916893. PB 336pp. List $29.95.

Sedlak, Nikola. Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White after 1.d4 d5. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-8394429096. PB 224pp. List $27.95.

The opening theory arms race never ends. It used to be that a novelty played one day could be used for weeks; now, with the transmission of games via the Internet, today’s hot new move is almost instantly in tomorrow’s databases. So increasingly we find even super-GMs ‘opting-out,’ preferring to play less studied variations instead.

Nowhere do we see this phenomenon more clearly than with the explosion of interest in the London System. Once considered suitable only for amateurs with little time to study, today the London is being played at the highest levels, with Carlsen, Kramnik, and Kamsky (among many others) championing its cause.

That the world’s elite are playing the London has not escaped the notice of chess publishers. No less than three books and one DVD devoted to the London have appeared in recent months, leading one sly wag at chesspub.com to win the Internet when he proclaimed:

…I can no longer keep up with the deluge of dense theoretical material published on the London System on a weekly or monthly basis. … I have decided to cut my theoretical workload by switching to the Ruy Lopez.

This month we look at two of these new London titles: The Agile London: A Solid but Dynamic Chess Opening Choice for White by GM Alfonso Romero Holmes and Oscar de Prado, and GM Nikola Sedlak’s Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White against 1.d4 d5.

Some might wonder how the stodgy old London could rightly be described as agile or modern. The answer lies in the move order. Following pioneering work by Eric Prié at ChessPublishing.com and Johnson and Kovačević in Winning with the London System, today’s Londoneers play 2.Bf4 first, keeping Ng1-f3 in reserve. This allows them to avoid a few problematic lines, but it does not solve the problem of what to do against the King’s Indian, a traditional bugbear for London players.

Sedlak so fears the King’s Indian that, in his Preface, he explains he can only recommend the London after 1.d4 d5. This seems slightly overwrought to me. The standard London setup is no worse against the King’s Indian than other variations, and changing plans with an early Nc3 could transpose to the Barry Attack or the Pirc. Both options are covered in The Agile London, along with heterodox lines like the Jobava and Pereyra Attacks.

Here we see one of the main differences between the two books. The Agile London is encyclopedic in scope, offering readers a complete London-style repertoire, and often with multiple options. It consists of 71 densely annotated games leavened with both game and chapter summaries, making the intimidating-looking analysis slightly less frightful. 60 tactical and strategic puzzles are also included.

Winning with the Modern London System is a breezier, more personal book. Sedlak plays the London regularly and advocates for it here, using many of his own games along the way. Each chapter begins with a summary of repertoire choices, and the analysis is presented through complete games that are followed by ‘lessons to be learned.’

While I think both books good and useful, I suspect that different players might gravitate towards one or the other. Romero Holmes and de Prado have written an objective book that maps out numerous paths forward for the Londoneer. Sedlak’s book is an optimistic call to arms, quite suitable for new London players.

It might be argued that the only drawback to Sedlak’s book is his optimism. Sometimes he sees advantages for White where none exist. Take, for instance, one of the current main lines of the London – and one recommended by Boris Avrukh in Grandmaster Repertoire 11: Beating 1.d4 Sidelines.

[Note that an extended version of this analysis is available in replayable format.] 

After 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 7.Bg3 0–0 8.Bd3 b6 (the key tabiya) 9.Ne5 Bb7 10.f4 Ne7 11.Qb1

Sedlak says this is White’s only chance for an advantage, but there are options. Most notably, White can play 11.Qf3 Nf5 12.Bf2 Be7 when Romero Holmes improves on Sedlak’s 13.g4 with 13.0–0!? Nd6 14.dxc5N (Avrukh only gives 14.Rad1) 14…bxc5 15.Qh3 Qc7 and the position is equal.

11…g6 12.Bf2 cxd4

12…Nf5!? looks reasonable, and Romero Holmes says 12…a5 13.0–0 Ba6 is equal, while Sedlak prefers White.

13.exd4 Nh5 14.g3 f6 15.Nef3

Following Grischuk-Wang Hao, Beijing, 2014. This position is evaluated as equal in The Agile London; Sedlak gives the moves but no evaluation. Either way, it’s hard to see how 11.Qb1 leads to an advantage.

Everyman Roundup

This review has been printed in the October 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Collins, Sam. Karpov: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781942291. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Engqvist, Thomas. Stein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942697. PB 496pp. List $34.95.

Franco, Zenón. Rubinstein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943144. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Franco, Zenón. Spassky: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942666. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Giddens, Steve. Alekhine: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943175. PB 304pp. List $27.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Fischer: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942727. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Tal: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943236. PB 400pp. List $29.95

Pritchett, Craig. Steinitz: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942543. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Some years ago I gave a talk at a university in New York about how we might use the technology of chess to better understand the nature of technology. I argued that modern chess players were, for all intents and purposes, cyborgs, and I meant this fairly literally. The dividing line between man and machine is blurred in contemporary chess, with top young players internalizing the lessons taught by Komodo and Stockfish so deeply that they begin to play like computers themselves.

The rise of the machines has wrought many changes in our beloved game, and none so lamentable as the slackening of historical memory among its players. There are many GMs today who proudly gained their titles without studying the classics of chess literature. And it kind of makes sense: if chess today has mutated, becoming intensely concrete and pragmatic, why study Alekhine’s games when (a) they no longer resemble modern practice and (b) the computer tears apart his analysis?

As a chess teacher and a fan of chess history, this gives me the sads. The majority of chess players would benefit greatly from a grounding in the classics; as John Watson puts it, “classic games by the old masters make particularly good teaching material, because the strategic ideas in them are relatively simpler to understand and more clearly expressed than in modern games.” Such study can also be pleasurable, something I find difficult with modern and inscrutable super-GM contests.

This month I take a look at eight recent biographies / individual game collections from Everyman, one of the most prolific publishers of such books today. All eight appear in their Move by Move (hereafter, MBM) series. Most current Everyman books are presented in this way, using a question and answer format to mimic a private lesson and functioning as a kind of Greek chorus for the proceedings.

Let’s begin with Steinitz: MBM, written by Craig Pritchett. It consists of thirty-five well-annotated games ordered chronologically and with historical context. Pritchett views his book as a “traditional games collection and biography” (8) and it succeeds in this, giving readers a solid overview of Steinitz’s career and contributions to the game. There is a heavy emphasis on the 1886 match with Zukertort, and Pritchett does a nice job of sketching the basics of Steinitz’s revolutionary positional theories. (174-6)

Steve Giddens’ Alekhine: MBM is, in contrast, almost wholly a games collection. Giddens analyzes thirty-five of Alekhine’s games and includes twenty positions from Alekhine’s play for the reader to solve. He tends to use more words and less concrete analysis in explaining Alekhine’s moves, making this book excellent for the lower-rated player. I did find it curious that Giddens relied on a seven year old engine (Fritz 12) to check his lines, and I also would have appreciated some biographical content – there is almost none in the book.

Stein: MBM is the largest book on review here at 496 pages, and this is made all the more impressive by the fact that it uses a smaller font than the others! Thomas Engqvist does an impressive job of contextualizing each of the sixty thoroughly annotated games in Stein: MBM, explaining who the opponents were and incorporating extensive research into the notes. He carefully traces Stein’s progression from “new Tal” to complete player, attributing some of the shift to Petrosian’s influence. All of this makes for a wonderful book, and it should become the standard work on Stein’s life and games.

Sam Collins’ Karpov: MBM is, by the author’s own admission, neither a biography nor a collection of Karpov’s best games. Collins chose to “select a number of aspects of Karpov’s play which could be helpful to club players.” (7) He uses Karpov’s games to illustrate typical middlegame themes – prophylaxis, the IQP, etc. – and supplements this with sketches of his opening play and a selection of games from his famous Linares 1994 tournament victory. This is a novel approach, but unless you’re particularly interested in Karpov’s games under these exact parameters, I think this is a title you can safely skip.

This leaves us with two books each by two of Everyman’s most prolific Move by Move authors, Zenón Franco and Cyrus Lakdawala. Attentive readers will recall that I have already reviewed books by Franco (Anand: MBM) and Lakdawala (Carlsen: MBM) in the February 2015 issue, and that I was decidedly less impressed with Lakdawala than I was with Franco. That opinion has not changed, and in the remainder of this month’s column, I’ll explain why.

Franco’s books – Rubinstein: MBM and Spassky: MBM – are both thematically structured works that focus on the player’s games and not on their biographies. Both books are scrupulously sourced and work to expose the reader to the specific strengths of the player in question.

With Rubinstein, for example, Franco analyzes thirty-four games that center on Rubinstein’s positional play (§1) and endgames, with special emphasis on his rook endings (§3,4). The forty games in Spassky: MBM revolve around Spassky’s handling of the initiative and his special expertise in favored opening systems. Both titles begin with studies of each player’s style, both are well-researched, and the analysis in each is absolutely top-shelf. Indeed, Franco often improves on the published analysis of others, and particularly in the Rubinstein book.

Having reviewed three of Lakdawala’s books, I have hesitated to review more for fear of being seen as too harsh. My views on Lakdawala’s style are well known by now, something Lakdawala might be pointing out in Fischer: MBM when he decries “the misguided readers who hate my writing style and punish my books with a hateful review.” (49)

There are some who absolutely adore Lakdawala’s color, wit, and total lack of restraint. There are others – count me among them – who find it all just too cute by half. The good news is that some of the worst of Lakdawala’s excesses seem to have been tempered in his two newest books, Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM. The bad news is that they haven’t been tempered enough.

Fischer: MBM consists of fifty six games, and like most of Lakdawala’s other biographical titles, it is structured thematically.[1] The fifty-three games in Tal: MBM are ordered chronologically, making it unique in Lakdawala’s oeuvre. So what is it about Tal that prompts Lakdawala to abandon his standard book format?

Part of what drives the shift is Lakdawala’s almost cartoonish caricature of Tal. His Tal is a tactical wizard, a “con-artist” with an “aversion to swaps of any kind,” an alchemist whose guiding principle in chess was “[w]hat would Satan do?” (153-4) and whose sacrifices were rarely sound. (246) If Tal was indeed this one-dimensional, it wouldn’t make sense to waste time on endgames or defensive motifs.

The problem is that more recent and sober studies expose the fallacies of this interpretation. Tukmakov, for instance, shows in Risk and Bluff in Chess that Tal’s sacrifices were often correct, even by modern standards. And Karolyi – who is cited in Lakdawala’s bibliography – takes care to point out Tal’s “skill in quieter positions and endgames” (8) in his Mikhail Tal’s Best Games, Volume 1.

People of good faith can disagree about a writer’s style. The real problem with both Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM is a lack of rigor and serious research. Bibliographies for both books are slight, and Lakdawala’s failure to engage other analysts and biographers undermines his own work.

Example #1: in analyzing the 19th (not the 18th, as appears in Fischer: MBM) game of the 1972 World Championship, Lakdawala has this note after 24.exd5: “White’s only chance for the win lay in 24.Rc7! Nxd4,” and he gives a line of Houdini-inspired analysis to justify his claim. (Fischer, 203) But as early as 1972 Olafsson and Timman both correctly saw that 24…dxe4! holds the balance. This move is also found in Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors IV, a book that appears in Lakdawala’s bibliography.

Example #2: Consider Tal-Smyslov, Candidates 1959, round 8. After 1. e4 c6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 e5 4. Ngf3 Nd7 5. d4 dxe4 6. Nxe4 exd4 7. Qxd4 Ngf6 8.Bg5 Be7, why did Tal avoid the superior 9.Nd6+ in favor of 9. O-O-O? For Lakdawala, this is evidence of Tal’s emotional irrationalism (Tal, 148-9) – he was ‘bored’ by endgames so he avoided them! Kasparov and Karolyi have a simpler explanation: Tal thought that Smyslov would be more comfortable in a worse endgame than an unclear middlegame.

Example #3: Lakdawala laments the fact that he could not present a student’s lost simul game with Tal. (Tal, 123) I remember seeing this game – Tal-Miller, Los Angeles, 1988 – years ago, and it’s as good as advertised. It’s also in MegaBase, and it has been since 2012. (A quick Google would have turned it up too.)

What’s maddening about Lakdawala is that he can, when he chooses, produce excellent work. There is less nonsense in Fischer: MGM and Tal: MBM than in previous efforts, and there is more clear explanation of ideas. But there are no new insights in either book; instead, we get questionable psychologizing and a lot of stream-of-consciousness fluff. If you like Lakdawala’s other books, you’ll like these; if not, you won’t. Caveat emptor.


[1] That seven books on widely disparate players have a more-or-less identical structure – sections on attack, defense, dynamism, imbalances, accumulating advantages and the endgame – is disconcerting. Surely books on, say, Kramnik and Kortchnoi should not be identically structured .

Time for a New Clock?

This essay has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Note that all prices listed in the review are from uscfsales.com as of mid July 2016. The in-text links do not go to USCF Sales but to Amazon (with the exception of the Vtek), and so prices may vary widely.

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Each year the Delegates to the United States Chess Federation meet at the U.S. Open. Among their many duties are the consideration of various motions, some of which deal with changes to the Official Rules of Chess. Some of these changes are minor and of little practical consequence for the majority of players. Others, like the rewriting of Rules 5E and especially 5F – passed at the 2015 Delegates Meeting and enacted on January 1st of this year – warrant closer attention.

Rule 5F deals with the ‘Standard Timer,’ enumerating the criteria by which a chess clock can be considered tournament legal. You can find all of the details online at uschess.org, but the bottom line is this: analog clocks, while still legal, are on the way out. They don’t allow for delay time, now assumed standard, or increment (5E), and digital clocks are to be preferred to analog clocks in all cases (5F4).

Every active tournament player should own a digital clock, but which one? Two traditionally popular manufacturers – Excalibur (Gametime II) and Saitek (Chess Competition or ‘Blue Scholastic’ clocks, Competition Pro) – have ceased production. The venerable Chronos clocks are still generally available, although they have been hard to come by in recent years, and programming them remains a challenge even for seasoned users. [1]

The good news is that a slew of new clocks have come to market, with options and price points to appeal to every type of chess consumer. Which one is best, and for whom? There is no single answer to this kind of question, but readers should be well-equipped to make educated buying decisions by the end of this article.

Modes and Methodology

One of the difficulties in assessing the features of competing clocks is the terminology. What’s the difference between delay, Bronstein, and Fischer modes? What’s the difference for the practical player?

The U.S. Chess Federation rule book differentiates between delay (pause) and increment (added) time modes (Rules 5, 42), and it recognizes two types of delay. Most American players are familiar with simple delay, where a player’s clock does not begin to decrease for a specified amount of time (usually five seconds) after pressing the clock.

With Bronstein or ‘add-back’ delay, invented by former World Championship Challenger David Bronstein, clock time begins to decrease when it is a player’s turn to move, and the time used, up to the specified delay, is added back when the player hits the clock. US Chess rules consider these two forms of delay to be mathematically equivalent.

Fischer or ‘bonus’ mode, named after its inventor, the American World Champion Bobby Fischer, is usually described in America as an increment. Time is added to a player’s clock with each completed move, although some clocks (notably DGTs) also add the increment time when a player’s clock first starts. In both cases, and in contrast to delay, a player can accumulate more time than she started with via the increment.

Current US Chess rules do not specify which type of delay is preferred, although simple delay is the de facto standard. FIDE prefers Bronstein delay. The clocks under consideration in this article will vary as to how they implement both delay and increment, and I will note these differences accordingly.

My analysis is drawn from extensive hands-on investigations and over-the-board play. I have also lent some of them out to friends and students for their inspection and comments. In what follows I first offer descriptions of all the clocks ordered by manufacturer, and I conclude with a series of recommendations for different types of players. All clock prices are drawn from the USCF Sales website as this article went to press.

DGT

Digital Game Technology, or DGT, is perhaps the leading purveyor of chess technology in the world. Based in the Netherlands, DGT manufactures the e-boards and e-pieces used to transmit moves to the web at all the biggest events, and they also produce a full line of clocks.

Broadly speaking, we can divide DGT’s product line in two: a scholastic segment (1001, Easy, Easy Plus) and a tournament segment (2010, 3000, NA). The scholastic clocks are tournament-legal but lack certain features that more serious players would expect; this is reflected in their relative cost. The tournament clocks, while slightly more expensive, possess a full range of features and settings. Let’s have a closer look at each model.

The DGT 1001 ($29.95) is a small clock designed for the beginner. It lacks delay and increment, and it can only be set for one time control – for G/90, say, instead of 40/90, SD/30. The tradeoff is that it is incredibly easy to program. You just press the plus or minus buttons on the top of the clock to change the starting times, hit the play button, and you’re off. My youngest student, age 8, managed to correctly set it within a minute or two of opening the box.

The Easy ($34.95) and Easy Plus ($44.95) share a unique housing and profile: they are shaped rather like an index card folded longways. The Easy comes in three different colors and the Easy Plus in just one, and both clocks can only be programmed for one time control. What distinguishes the two is their ability to handle delay and increment. The Easy lacks these functions, while the Easy Plus can be set for simple delay and increment. These clocks seem the sturdiest of the DGT line, and I found them fairly easy to set.

While the 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus are all limited and perhaps best for beginning or scholastic players, the DGT 2010, 3000 and North American (NA) are robust clocks suitable for all playing conditions and time controls. Because of the similarities between the 2010 and NA, I will treat them in tandem before turning to the 3000.

The 2010 (unavailable through USCF Sales; $85.95 at Chess4Less) and North American or NA ($49.95), like the Easy and Easy Plus, share a common housing and are physically identical save their color. What separates them is their feature set. The NA was specifically designed for the North American market, with settings and timing modes commonly used in American tournaments. The 2010 features Bronstein delay and increment along with other time settings like byo-yomi and count-up that are used in Go and Scrabble. Both can be set for up to four time controls.

The 2010 and NA are programmed in the same manner. Users select from presets – thirty-six in the case of the 2010, twenty-three in the case of the NA – listed on the bottom of the clock, including a number of adjustable options. I found the setting of both clocks to be quick and intuitive, although I have to admit that I struggled until I actually read the LCD and configured seconds instead of delay time! Blitz fans, however, will lament the fact that you have to pick the clock up and turn it off/on to reset it for each game.

The 3000 ($109.95) is DGT’s top-of-the-line clock. It’s the one you see in use at major events like the U.S. Championship, the Sinquefield Cup, etc., because when connected to a DGT e-Board broadcasters can transmit both moves and move times to the Internet. The 3000 is the only DGT clock to allow for simple delay, Bronstein delay, and increment, and it’s the only clock I’ve seen that shows seconds on the display in all time controls and timing modes.

The 3000 comes with twenty-five presets along with five manual settings that can be saved for future use. It is set in much the same fashion as the 2010 and the NA – both of which it resembles, save the slightly larger LCD – but the 3000 also allows users to choose timing methods from a list on the display. This makes its programming very simple. You do have to pick up the clock to reset it, as with the 2010 and NA, so players primarily searching for a blitz clock might look elsewhere.

OmcorChess

OmcorChess is a chess manufacturer from Mexico, and the GameTimer 960 ($44.95) is their first clock on the American market. It is so new, in fact, that my review model was the first of its kind that I’d seen.

The shape and size of the clock are similar to that of the higher-end DGT clocks, and like them, the GameTimer 960 uses a rocker arm. It is also set in a similar manner, with fifty-eight timing options (printed on the bottom of the clock) available, including simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment along with byo-yomi and Scrabble options.

One important feature of the GameTime 960 is its utility for Chess 960 players. [2] Users can press the 960 button and a random 960 starting position will appear on the display. Unfortunately the GameTimer manual is very poorly translated, so I was not able to fully grasp all the dimensions of this feature. The clock also comes in a USB equipped version, allowing users to display clock times on a computer screen.

On the whole the GameTime 960 seems feature-rich and fairly well-built, although the rocker arm feels less secure than do those on DGT clocks. I did find the location of the delay / increment countdown to be unfortunate, as it appears in a spot on the display that would be natural for a seconds counter.

VTek

The VTek 300 ($149.95 at chesshouse.com), produced by VisualTek Inc. in conjunction with Shelby Lohrman of American Chess Equipment, is an American-made clock that boasts a unique feature. It is fully menu driven, with a series of options and suboptions accessed through a dedicated line of text on the LCD display.

The VTek has the largest footprint among the clocks reviewed here, and it is also the heaviest of the bunch. Available in multiple colors, the VTek has a metal housing with mechanical push buttons and LED move indicators. The manual suggests that there are 36 preset time controls available, along with a dedicated ‘create new’ option. Simple delay, Bronstein delay, and Fischer increment modes are available, but oddly enough, controls for Bronstein time are found under an increment settings menu.

There is no question that having a full text menu is helpful in correctly setting the VTek, and the fact that user preferences are set globally (FIDE style, USCF style, etc.) is an interesting innovation. It did take this long-time Chronos user some time to learn the button combinations needed to navigate the menus, and for some reason, you can’t specifically turn the move counter on or off. This last quirk might be corrected with updated firmware, something that VisualTek intends to make available to its users through a mail-in service.

Z-Mart

ZmartFun, a Miami-based company, offers two clocks that are perhaps the most direct challengers to Chronos’ market share. The ZMF-II ($59.95) has a plastic case and a bright LED display, while the ZMF-Pro ($99.95) is housed in metal and has two large LCD displays. Both are equipped with touch-sensitive buttons, and both share an identical set of menu options and settings.

There is a bit of a learning curve to setting ZMF clocks, and I had to refer much more closely to the manual than I did with the other clocks under review. Still, setting the clock is not onerous, and I found it simpler to learn (if memory serves) than was the Chronos. Users have three preset option slots available to them, and stock time controls and preferences can be edited and saved as new presets for future use. Both clocks feature simple delay and increment settings along with byo-yomi and Scrabble modes, and blitz fans will love the fact that the clock can be reset with three clicks of the central button.

There is a touch of iconoclasm about these clocks. The ZMF-II is the only clock on the market to use colorful LEDs for display panels, and the ZMF-Pro shows clock times with large numbers that fill the display. Both depart from the usual norms of chess clock design. I’ve found that players are divided on the ZMF-II, with some loving the bright LEDs and others (including me) finding them distracting. I’d not seen the ZMF-Pro before receiving my review clock; when I used it in a blitz tournament, I found the oversized numbers jarring and put it aside after the first game.

Recommendations

After all of this, the question remains: which of these new clocks should you buy? The answer is… it depends.

Let’s say you run a scholastic program or after-school chess club, and you’re not running US Chess tournaments regularly. In this case it would make sense to buy multiple inexpensive clocks, even if they lack features like delay, increment, or multiple time controls. The DGT 1001, Easy, and Easy Plus would all be logical choices, with the Easy being the best compromise between price and build quality.

At $49.95, the DGT North American is an outstanding choice for the majority of US Chess players, and I think it the best value on the market today. The NA is sturdy and reliable, and it has every feature that an American tournament player could need. The Omcor GameTimer 960 would also serve most players well, although I’d like to see it used more widely before recommending it, and blitz fans might turn to the ZMF-II for their blitz and tournament needs.

If you are looking for the best clock available, and money is no object, there are only two choices. The DGT 3000 and the VTek 300 are both fantastic. They are well built, easy to set, and feature-rich. If pressed, I would pick the 3000 because of the lower cost and the expansive display, but I’d resent being forced to choose!

I have used all of the clocks mentioned in this article over the past few months, but I keep coming back to three for over-the-board play: the DGT NA, the DGT 3000, and the VTek 300. Each of these clocks would serve you well for many years, and each one receives my full recommendation.


[1] It should be noted that the author tried to contact the manufacturers of the Chronos clock as part of this review on multiple occasions, as did industry intermediaries on behalf of the author. No response was ever received.

[2] Note that DGT also produces a 960 capable clock, the DGT 960 ($39.95), but its small size and design make it less than ideal for serious tournament play. As a portable game timer, however, the DGT 960 might make sense for many players, especially those interested in 960 chess.

“The Reader’s Road to Chess”

This review has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 2016) issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Chess Life began its life in 1946 as a four page newspaper, focused primarily on promoting USCF activities and reporting the news in American chess. The Nebraskan in me was thrilled to discover the coverage of Nebraskan chess and chess personalities in those early years, including the profiles of Rev. Howard Ohman and Delmar Saxton in issue I.7. The bibliophile, however, was initially left cold.

The first mentions of chess books in Chess Life appear in advertisements in issue I.5. The tournament book for the 1946 US Open was offered by the USCF on page 3, while famed New York bookseller Albrecht Buschke advertised works by Nimzovich and Reti alongside new titles by Chernev and Reinfeld on page 4. The announcement of a new “service department” appeared in issue I.10, marking the USCF’s entry into selling books and equipment to its members.

The inaugural installment of “The Reader’s Road To Chess,” the first review column in Chess Life, was published in issue I.15. Chess Life editor Montgomery Major read Learn Chess Fast by Reshevsky and Reinfeld and found it “so adequate” that “this reviewer has no critical comments to make.” Among the other books to be favorably reviewed in those early issues were Chess by Yourself (I.17), Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess (II.9), Nimzovich the Hypermodern (II.13), and Botvinnik, the Invincible (II.18), all of which were written by Fred Reinfeld.

Some readers may be wondering if I’ve lost the plot. Fred Reinfeld? Wasn’t he the guy who wrote all those antiquated beginners books, the ones that every chess snob makes fun of? What gives?

While modern prejudice has swung against him, the truth is that Fred Reinfeld was a fine author, an important Chess Life columnist, and one of the strongest American players of his day. The winner of the New York State Championship (twice) and champion of both the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs, Reinfeld was ranked sixth on the first USCF rating list. An example of his playing ability can be found in this 1932 victory over Reshevsky:

Reinfeld,Fred – Reshevsky,Samuel [E16]

Western Championship Minneapolis, 08.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 c5 6.d5 exd5 7.Nh4 g6 8.Nc3 h6 9.0–0 a6 10.cxd5 d6 11.e4 Bg7 12.f4 Nfd7 13.a4 0–0 14.Be3 Kh7 15.Qc2 Nf6 16.h3 Nbd7 17.Rae1 Re8 18.Bf2 Ng8 19.e5 dxe5 20.f5 Nf8 21.fxg6+ fxg6 22.Be4 Qd6 23.Be3 Ne7 24.Rf7 Kg8 25.Ref1 Nxd5 26.Rxb7 Nxe3 27.Qf2 Nf5 28.Nxf5 gxf5 29.Qxf5 Kh8 30.Rf7 Ng6

1–0

A honest assessment of Reinfeld’s authorial career is made difficult by his conscious choice to write for a popular audience. This decision, like that to retire from active tournament play in 1942, was driven by economic circumstance. Reinfeld had a family to support, and Walter Korn quotes him as saying that “…I played and wrote seriously – and got nothing for it. When I pour out mass-produced trash, the royalties come rolling in.”

In this light it is possible to forgive the numerous ‘potboilers’ that appear under Reinfeld’s name and that re-appear under different titles. It should not, however, blind us to the many quality works that span his œuvre. We generally find the more serious analytical efforts early in Reinfeld’s career, while later titles are mainly popular in nature. Let me conclude this month’s column by mentioning the best of both types.

Almost all of Reinfeld’s serious games collections remain worthwhile for the majority of readers. Besides the three mentioned above, I can recommend his books on Capablanca (The Immortal Games of Capablanca), Keres (Keres’ Best Games of Chess 1931-1948), and Lasker (Lasker’s Greatest Chess Games; written with Fine). Stick with the original editions and avoid the dodgy reprints.

Some will harp on the errors in Reinfeld’s analysis. Of course they exist, but Reinfeld’s notes are generally trustworthy upon inspection, and he writes with a brevity that today’s silicon-enhanced authors often lack. I compared his analysis of Rauzer-Botvinnik (ch-USSR, 1933) in Botvinnik, the Invincible with that of Kasparov in My Great Predecessors II; if I am honest, I found Reinfeld’s version more digestible and edifying.

For the best of his later works, have a look at the “Fred Reinfeld Chess Classics” from Russell Enterprises. Reinfeld’s books are translated into algebraic notation in this series, making classics like 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate and 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations available to those who never bothered to learned descriptive. Generations of American players cut their teeth on these two books, and they remain useful for players looking to improve their tactics.

“Year” books

This review has been printed in the August 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Gormally, Danny. Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-934656-9-9. PB 248pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $31ish at Amazon.

Zhdanov, Peter. Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-937009-7-4. PB 376pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $23ish at Amazon.

What would you give to become a grandmaster? Years of travel and heartbreak? The lack of a proper social life? Perhaps your pinky toe?

Whatever your answer, you may rethink it after reading Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World, one of a number of new books from the Polish publishing house Chess Evolution.

Gormally is an English Grandmaster rated 2494 FIDE as of June 2016. He’s not a guy who gets invites to the top events, and at age 40, there’s little hope of his suddenly ascending the Elo list. Gormally is a working-class GM, one who has to scramble to find teaching and writing gigs to supplement his tournament winnings and support himself.

The problem, as Gormally describes it, is that he is too lazy for teaching, writing is hard work, and age, lack of study and increasingly solid competition make tournaments a risky source of income.

Still want to be a Grandmaster?

A Year Inside the Chess World is, on first blush, an awfully bleak book, and Gormally pulls no punches in its telling. He berates himself for his inability to beat untitled players, for his lack of luck with women, for his being overweight. We eavesdrop on many nights spent drinking with floundering colleagues. There is more than a whiff of a sexism that is all too typical in the chess world. And there are pages where Gormally veers dangerously close to TMI territory with references to thwarted onanism and dodgy Hamburg strip clubs.

In its brutal honesty, however, there is something admirable and perhaps even triumphant about A Year Inside the Chess World. As the book progresses, we see Gormally start to reckon with his limitations. He considers leaving chess and taking up a straight job, but at the same time, we see him begin to take steps to make chess a viable profession once more.

So what changes? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was authoring a DVD on the English Attack for ChessBase that gave him confidence. Perhaps it was working seriously with modern engines or analyzing with strong GMs that stoked his analytical fire. Ultimately I suspect that the writing of the book itself, and the self-examination it required, played a therapeutic role.

There is much more to A Year Inside the Chess World than suggested above. Gormally includes excellent analysis of his games and those of others, and there are many asides and essays on chess personalities and the current state of the game. Still, this is largely a book about Gormally himself, and in pulling back the curtain on his life, warts and all, he has given us something truly fascinating.

Some of the inspiration for Gormally’s book came from blog posts he wrote for pogonina.com, the online home of WGM Natalia Pogonina and her husband / manager Peter Zhdanov. Zhdanov has also recently published a book with Chess Evolution called Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Unfortunately for Zhdanov and for his publisher, it is not a particularly good one.

The conceit underlying Yearbook of Chess Wisdom is fairly clear. There are 366 short essays on various themes, one for each day of the calendar year. The topics covered follow no discernible pattern or order. In truth it is nothing more than a compendium of Zhdanov’s meandering thoughts on the chess world.

It’s not that there’s anything objectionable in the essays per se – well, actually, there is, and I’ll get to that shortly. The problem is that most of Zhdanov’s book is banal or uninteresting, and the few interesting ideas are usually borrowed from others. So the useful essay on studying the opening (9/7) is basically cribbed from GM Roman Ovechkin, while the numerous listicles, the musings on Zodiac signs (1/11), and the gross elitism (9/30) are all Zhdanov.

There is also the issue of Zhdanov’s sexism. There are multiple essays (7/11, 7/16, 7/26, 8/25, 12/15) that are laughably sexist. There is an essay devoted to “pick-up lines for Caissa” (9/8) wherein the goddess is said to prefer guys who – surprise! – seem very similar to Zhdanov. He even offers bizarre advice about sex at tournaments based on “extensive research” (3/23) – his “Chess Kama Sutra” book from a few years back.

I have no doubt that untitled players like Zhdanov can write important chess books. This is not one of them. Zhdanov is long on platitudes, short on insight, and drops far too many names. His Yearbook of Chess Wisdom hardly lives up to its title, and you’d be wise to pass on it.

Structures, Plans and Ideas

This review has been printed in the July 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Hickl, Jörg. The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916312. PB 192pp. List $19.95, currently ~$14.00 at Amazon.

Originally published in 2008 to positive reviews, Jörg Hickl’s Die Macht der Bauern: Strukturen, Pläne und Ideen für Vereinsspieler is out in translation from New in Chess as The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Why now, after eight years and when other books have been published on similar themes?

The short answer is that Hickl’s book is rather good and deserves to be exposed to the English speaking chess world. There are multiple titles available that deal with typical pawn structures and how to play them, but The Power of Pawns is among the best for club players (a better translation for Vereinsspieler) looking to boost their general chess sense.

Hickl describes the impetus for his book in its Introduction.

In the middle of the 90s, when in addition to top-level sport I focussed more of my chess activity on the organisation of chess holidays and chess training, the needs of the majority of club players were foreign to me. … In more than ten years of intensive work and communication with the participants in my holidays, the same questions about structures and evaluation of positions kept coming up. I became aware that club players have to struggle with a similar approach and similar problems.

These reflections led among others to the following questions: ‘Can I do some­thing to improve this situation? Where can my experience help to make learning easier for chess players? And how can they make progress?’ (7)

What Hickl discovered was that club players, generally speaking, were not linking their in-game planning to the pawn structures on their boards. Certain structures – hanging pawns, the isolani, doubled pawns, etc. – required working knowledge of typical plans and ideas (Pläne und Ideen as in the German sub-title) if they were to be successfully navigated. An examination of those structures, plans and ideas is the project of The Power of Pawns.

Hickl’s book proceeds in two parts. The first and slighter section deals with the pieces most affected by pawn structure: knights, bishops and rooks. In three successive chapters he explains why some ‘bad’ bishops can be good, where knights are better than bishops (and vice versa), and why rooks love open files.

The majority of the book treats seven ‘basic’ pawn structures or features of pawn structures, one per chapter: hanging pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, passed pawns, doubled pawns, weak squares and pawn chains. There is some disconnect between the generic chapter titles and their contents. The chapter on isolated pawns, for instance, deals solely with the isolated queen’s pawn, and it is primarily structures coming from the Nimzo-Indian (pawns on c3/c4/d4) and Sicilian (f7/f6/e6/d6) under scrutiny in the chapter on doubled pawns.

Chapters share a common format. Hickl begins with a pawn skeleton and sketches the key plans and ideas that arise from it. Model games are presented thematically and with wordy analysis. Instructive supplemental games are recommended. Along the way Hickl asks questions of his readers and inserts helpful hints for the improving player. The result is a compact, eminently useful guide to key positional themes and structures.

Many chess players now study chess books on tablets or computers, and in a wise marketing move, Hickl provides the raw scores of all the games for his readers to download. Curiously, however, the link given in the book – www.joerg-hickl.de – has not been operational since 2011. The URL redirects to another site where the games are available, but it does lead one to wonder why the editors kept the reference to an outdated link, and why an English language reader has to navigate a German page to find the promised downloads.

Other quirks point to an inconsistent editorial touch. The title is given as “The power of the pawns” on the first page of the Introduction. Analytical updates to the 2008 edition are haphazard. Old (and incorrect) engine analysis is left to stand on one page (99) and reference is made to the newest Komodo two pages later (101). The translation is clunky in places; see the block quote above for a typical example. And why have the German co-authors (Erik Zude and Uwe Schupp) been demoted to mere acknowledgees?

The German book website suggests that The Power of Pawns is suitable for players rated from 1300-2200. This range seems a little wide to me on both ends. All the same, Hickl has a knack for clearly explaining complex matters, and the club player looking to improve her knowledge of typical structures would find this book quite instructive.