The Grind

This review has been printed in the February 2020 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Abeln, Michiel. The Anand Files: The World Championship Story, 2008-2012. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830670. HB 512pp.

Anand, Viswanathan, and Susan Ninan. Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life. India: Hachette India, 2019. ISBN 978-9351951506. HB 312pp.

ChessBase. Master Class: Viswanathan Anand. Available from chessbase.com

Viswanathan Anand, the 15th Classical World Chess Champion, turned 50 on December 11th. He is a rarity in modern chess, a middle-aged man who still competes at the highest levels. While Kramnik and Kasparov have both retired, and Topalov has abandoned any serious aspirations, Anand trudges on, ranked 13th in the world as of January 1st, and the only player above 2700 born before 1970.

There has been much celebration of Anand’s golden jubilee, and for good reason. The undisputed World Champion for six years, the winner of multiple rapid championships both official and unofficial, and the first Indian to earn the Grandmaster title, Anand is a giant of Indian sport. Without him and his success, I do not think the current explosion of chess in India would have taken place. Anand’s 50th birthday gives us a chance to rethink his place in the broader chess pantheon, and two new books have appeared that aid us in this task.

Michiel Abeln’s The Anand Files: The World Championship Story, 2008-2012 is a brilliant reconstruction of the inner workings of Team Anand in the 2008, 2010, and 2012 World Championship matches. The immense detail on display would be a marvelous accomplishment were Abeln an internal member of the team, but what makes the work so astounding is that he was not present for any of the events he describes. Through extensive interviews of Anand’s seconds and some impressive detective work, Abeln has produced one of the best match books in the history of chess literature.

What struck me most when reading The Anand Files was the unrelenting emphasis on opening preparation and engine analysis. I had always imagined that elite GMs have to memorize reams and reams of material, but it was shocking to read about preparation at the World Championship level. No wonder these guys want to play Fischer-Random!

Anand’s seconds made it a habit to download Internet blitz games played by well-known opening theoreticians, scouring them for hidden novelties. Individual analytical files were up to 8000 line moves long, more than 2.5 times the size of the most heavily annotated game in MegaBase. One 15th move alternative in the Slav alone required 5000 line moves to grasp, and the 3.f3 Anti-Grunfeld files in 2012 amounted to over 30,000 moves.

And then there was the grinding, unyielding effort put into Rustam Kazimdzhanov’s idea in the Meran Semi-Slav, covered in painstaking detail by Abeln and his sources.

“KASIM’S MERAN BABY” [D49]
Vladimir Kramnik (2772)
Viswanathan Anand (2783)
World-ch Bonn (3), 17.10.2008

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 a6 9.e4 c5 10.e5 cxd4 11.Nxb5 axb5 12.exf6 gxf6 13.0–0 Qb6 14.Qe2 Bb7 15.Bxb5

Diagram 1

“One of the key positions… Black’s king isn’t exactly safe in the center, but it was hoped that there was sufficient counterplay against the white king. The complete analysis covered 75 A4 pages…” (81–82, emphasis mine)

15…Bd6

In Game 5 Anand varied with 15…Rg8 (the original idea, temporarily shelved and then repaired in Bonn) 16.Bf4 Bd6 17.Bg3 f5 18.Rfc1 f4 19.Bh4 Be7 20.a4 Bxh4 21.Nxh4 Ke7 22.Ra3 Rac8 23.Rxc8 Rxc8 24.Ra1 Qc5 25.Qg4 Qe5 26.Nf3 Qf6 27.Re1 Rc5 28.b4 Rc3 29.Nxd4 Qxd4 30.Rd1 Nf6 31.Rxd4 Nxg4 32.Rd7+ Kf6 33.Rxb7 Rc1+ 34.Bf1 Ne3 35.fxe3 fxe3 0–1 Kramnik,V (2772)-Anand,V (2783) Bonn 2008.

16.Rd1 Rg8 17.g3 Rg4 18.Bf4 Bxf4 19.Nxd4 h5 20.Nxe6 fxe6 21.Rxd7 Kf8 22.Qd3 Rg7 23.Rxg7 Kxg7 24.gxf4 Rd8 25.Qe2 Kh6 26.Kf1 Rg8 27.a4 Bg2+ 28.Ke1 Bh3 29.Ra3 Rg1+ 30.Kd2 Qd4+ 31.Kc2 Bg4 32.f3 Bf5+ 33.Bd3 Bh3 34.a5 Rg2 35.a6 Rxe2+ 36.Bxe2 Bf5+ 37.Kb3 Qe3+ 38.Ka2 Qxe2 39.a7 Qc4+ 40.Ka1 Qf1+ 41.Ka2 Bb1+ 0–1

What was already difficult in Bonn became only harder in Sofia (2010) and Moscow (2012), and Anand’s near-eidetic memory could not keep up with the avalanche of engine-checked analysis his team produced. This is seen most clearly in the 2012 match with Gelfand, where Anand repeatedly misremembered details of his preparation, leading his seconds to refocus and streamline their summaries.

Abeln does a tremendous job of capturing the intra-team dynamics in each match – readers really do feel like those proverbial flies on the wall! – and he went so far as to study the post-match games of Anand’s seconds with the idea of discerning unused match prep. (In contrast to years past, today’s seconds are often allowed to use “unexploded” novelties by their employers.) We are privy to the surprising offers of assistance from Kasparov and Kramnik in 2010, the team’s struggles in 2012, and day-by-day accounts of key decisions and choices. Not many chess books are proverbial page-turners. This one is.

The Anand Files is a triumph, beautifully written and accompanied by than one hundred full-color photos. Abeln has done his subject justice, and the only flaw in the work is that it ends. This is a book that every serious fan will enjoy.

For those looking for a broader sense of Anand’s life and thinking, there is Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life, co-written with Susan Ninan and published on December 13th, just two days after his 50th birthday.

Mind Master is structured as a series of “lessons learned” across Anand’s career, all clearly pitched as that intersection between business and self-help books. I sincerely doubt that any executive will find any real insight into best business practices here, and the tacked-on lessons at the end of each chapter ring hollow from that perspective. But read as an autobiography of sorts, Mind Master is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

The general outlines of Anand’s career – learning chess from his mother and a Manila TV show, the youthful speed of his play, his mid-90s battles with Kamsky and Kasparov, and the great successes of the early 2000s – are well-known, but his own telling of the tales is typically modest and without artifice. To his credit, he doesn’t shy away from difficult moments, and the resulting picture is that of a wholly decent and honorable man.

It is interesting to juxtapose Anand’s accounts of the World Championship matches (chapters 9-11) with Abeln’s, but my favorite parts of Mind Master deals with what happened after the Gelfand victory. Anand is honest about the difficulties of aging, how Carlsen had grown stronger while his strength dwindled, and how Carlsen fully deserved to defeat him in Chennai and Sochi. In chapter eight we get one of the first top-level accounts of what Leela and AI mean for chess today.

Hampered by its artificial structure, Mind Master is still a book worth reading. It fleshes out Wikipedia-style accounts of Anand’s career, and it puts a very likeable, human face on a chess Olympian. Your game won’t improve after reading it, but your perspective on your wins and losses might.

In preparing this month’s column, I played through hundreds of Anand’s games, using the new Master Class: Viswanathan Anand DVD from ChessBase as my primary source. This is the 12th edition in the Master Class series devoted to the world champions (and ‘unofficial’ champion Paul Morphy). Each DVD includes the player’s collected games along with multiple hours of video instruction.

Master Class: Viswanathan Anand contains 3940 games, 1180 of them annotated, alongside 457 tactics training questions and roughly seven hours of video from Mihail Marin (strategy) Karsten Müller (endings), Yannick Pelletier (openings), and Oliver Reeh (tactics). It is odd that Marin highlights Anand’s match win over Kramnik while neglecting to discuss any of the games, but Müller’s contributions are of his typical high quality.

Here’s an example, where we see Anand’s bishops act like “swarming midges” in this neat endgame win over Joel Lautier.

SWARMING MIDGES
Viswanathan Anand (2725)
Joel Lautier (2645)
PCA/Intel-GP London (1), 08.1995

Diagram 2

34. Bxb7! Kd7

34. … Nxb7? loses to 35. a6 Kd7 36. a7, while 34. … Bxc2 lets the pawn run with 35. a6.

35. Bb4

The second midge attacks!

35. … Kc7

35. … Nxb7 is still a blunder: 36. a6 Kc7 37. a7+–

36. Bd5 Na6 37. c3 Nxb4 38. cxb4 c3 39. Ke3 Kd6 40. Bf3

40. a6! is faster. Now if 40. … Kxd5? 41. a7.

40. … h5 41. a6 1–0

One of the difficulties with this DVD is that it treats an active player, so almost as soon as it is released, it is out of date. The games collection is current through July 2019, but already there are more than 100 new Anand games in MegaBase, and there are none in Master Class: Viswanathan Anand that are not in MegaBase as well. Not everyone owns MegaBase, of course, but Anand fans will have to decide if the videos warrant purchase of this interesting but inessential product.

The Tarrasch lives!

This review has been printed in the January 2020 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Bezgodov, Alexey. The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917685. PB 320pp.

Ehlvest, Jaan. Grandmaster Opening Preparation. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830526. PB 272pp.

l’Ami, Erwin. Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation. Online course from chessable.com.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Fight 1. d4 with the Tarrasch!: A Complete Black Repertoire vs. 1.d4. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2019. ISBN 978-1949859072. PB 384pp.

I have long thought that the Tarrasch Defense (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5) is the Swiss Army knife of chess openings. It forces players to learn how to handle the Isolated Queen’s Pawn, a fundamental structure that appears across multiple opening variations, and it can be reached from a number of move orders, including both 1. c4 and 1. Nf3.

But the Tarrasch is also one of those openings that suffers from the vagaries of taste and fashion. Spassky made it popular when he used it to defeat Petrosian in the 1969 World Championship match, and it was a key part of the young Kasparov’s repertoire in the early 1980s.

It went out of favor after Karpov’s victories of Kasparov in their first World Championship match. Despite Grischuk reviving the 9. …c4 line in the late ‘aughts, and the contemporaneous publication of two books – Aagaard and Ntirils’ Grandmaster Repertoire 10: The Tarrasch Defense (2011), and Sam Collins’ The Tarrasch Defense: Move by Move (2013) – it has been neglected by the world’s elite.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back once more. Magnus Carlsen recently trotted out the Tarrasch at the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz; in doing so, he was perhaps inspired by the games of his former second, Daniil Dubov, who has reinvigorated a dormant line of the Tarrasch – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Bc5 – and made it a key part of his repertoire.

Dubov’s invention is the subject of a new course on Chessable from Erwin L’ami, a Dutch Grandmaster and second to both Topalov and Giri. Over the course of 54 trainable variations in “Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation,” L’ami dissects the Dubov variation, explaining in great detail the nuances of Dubov’s ideas. Here is a brief overview, using a game between Dubov and Hikaru Nakamura as our example.

The “Dubov Variation” [D33]
Hikaru Nakamura
Daniil Dubov
Moscow FIDE GP (2), 20.05.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 exd5 6.d4 Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Nb3

A key alternative is 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.0–0 0–0 11.Na4 Bb6 12.Nxb6 axb6 13.Qc2 c5 as in Nakamura,H (2754)-Dubov,D (2700) Paris 2019.

9…Bb6!

The defining move in Dubov’s approach.

10.0–0

Other ideas:

(a) 10.Nxd5 is met by 10. … Be6 – “development before everything,” says L’ami!

(b) 10.Na4 0–0 11.Nxb6 axb6 12.Be3 h5!? (Mamedyarov,S (2765)-Dubov,D (2700) Riga 2019)

10…d4 11.Na4 0–0 12.Bg5 Re8 13.Nxb6

13.Re1 is “the big test” according to L’ami. After the forcing 13…h6 14.Nxb6 axb6 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Qxd4 Black has to prove compensation for the pawn. L’ami analyzes out to move 37 in the main line, claiming an equal endgame.

13…axb6 14.e3 d3 15.Bxf6 gxf6

diagram3

Modern chess at its finest! Black’s pawns are an utter disaster, but his pieces and the d3-passer more than make up for the structural weaknesses. The game was drawn after:

16.a3 Be6 17.Rc1 Rc8 18.Rc3 Ne5 19.Nd4 Rxc3 20.bxc3 Qc7 21.Qd2 Bd7 22.Re1 Rc8 23.Rc1 Qc5 24.f4 Nc4 25.Qxd3 Qxa3 26.Rb1 Nd6 27.Ne2 Bf5 28.e4 ½–½

L’ami does an excellent job of clarifying the nature of Black’s compensation in key positions, and his research is thorough. I could find no major omissions after a few hours of scrutiny with both Stockfish and the latest Fat Fritz.

The course is also perfect for Chessable, which prides itself on its use of spaced repetition in its “MoveTrainer.” Not every book translates well to the platform, but L’ami’s course is relatively short, and the variations are carefully broken down for training purposes. Perhaps the only question about the course is its price.

“Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation” is $12.98 for the trainable analysis, while $42.98 gets you the moves and a two hour video. L’ami’s ChessBase DVD on the Tarrasch costs €29.90 or roughly $33, and unlike the Chessable course, it presents its viewers with a full Tarrasch repertoire (not including the Dubov line). It’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but buyers are getting less material for more money on Chessable if they choose the video option.

Another option for Tarrasch players looking for complete coverage of the the opening is Vassilos Kotronias’ new title from Russell Enterprises. Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch: A Complete Black Repertoire vs 1.d4 arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox, as Kotronias had announced his “return to pure chess-playing” in the introduction to his fifth and final volume on the King’s Indian in 2017. With this new book, Kotronias continues to meet the standard of excellence found in his Quality Chess titles, and in some ways, he may have exceeded it.

Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch includes a coherent repertoire against the London, neo-Trompowsky, Colle, and Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. The meat of the book is devoted to the Tarrasch proper, with the “new mainline” of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4 at its center. (Kotronias discusses the traditional 9. … cxd4 in a three page aside, and there is no coverage of the Dubov line.) The analysis is exhaustive, and while the book sometimes skimps on references to other sources, this is more than made up for by the avalanche of new ideas.

Here’s an example, one relevant to those who might want to play the Dubov variation.

Kotronias on 6. dxc5 [D32]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5

Though it looks innocuous, this move has proved quite a challenge for Tarrasch players, and L’ami urges his readers to take it seriously. Kotronias introduces (194-221) an important new idea in a critical line.

6…d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Qd2

9.Bd2 is the other move. After 9. … Qxc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.e3 Kotronias analyzes two ideas: the “solid option” 11…Nf6!? and the riskier 11…dxe3 12.Bxe3 Qxb2. Black equalizes after the gambit idea 10.b4!? Nxb4 11.Rc1 Qd6.

9…Qxc5 10.a3

Intending b2–b4 and the long fianchetto. 10.e3 is nothing to worry about after 10…dxe3 11.Qxe3+ Qxe3+ 12.Bxe3 Nge7.

10…Nf6!?

A novelty that the engine hates until high depths, but over the course of 10 (!!) pages Kotronias shows that 10. … Nf6 is fully playable. His analysis extends out to a 4 vs 3 same-side rook endgame, and the notes are both deep and didactic, even including a thumbnail sketch of how to draw such an ending.

10…Nge7 was Aagaard & Ntirlis’ suggestion. Kotronias analyzes it too, giving 11.b4 Qb6 as his mainline, but also offering the “evil” idea of 11…Qh5!?.

11.b4 Qe7!

Kotronias shows that Black can sacrifice the pawn with 12.Nxd4 (12.b5 Ne4!) 12…Nxd4 13.Qxd4 0–0 with analysis going to the 38th move.

I was stunned by the depth and density of Kotronias’ book. The influence of the engine is obvious, but compared to the King’s Indian books, this one was ‘chattier,’ filled with interesting positional asides and insights into his thought processes. Readers will learn about chess while learning the Tarrasch, and not every book can claim that.

The only drawback to Kotronias’ book is the layout. It uses an old-style ‘nested variation’ model of presentation, a difficulty exacerbated by the depth of analysis, and there are no indications in page headers or footers as to chapter or variation. I found myself continually having to refer to the table of contents to orient myself, and too often I was flipping pages trying to find specific lines on crammed pages. Were this a Quality Chess publication, I suspect that what is one volume here would have been at least two.

Design problems notwithstanding, Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch! is an impressive, encyclopedic work, and it should now be seen as the definitive work on the Tarrasch. It is perhaps best suited for advanced players and those already familiar with the opening, given its density and ‘no holds barred’ approach to analysis.

For those looking for an introduction to the Tarrasch, or for analysis of the traditional 9. … cxd4 lines, there is Alexey Bezgodov’s 2017 The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Bezgodov presents a Tarrasch repertoire using a complete game format, and his notes are clear and to the point. He also includes two interesting sections worth mentioning.

In the first, “Four ‘bad’ lines that are actually good,” Bezgodov tries to rehabilitate a number of Tarrasch lines that history has deemed substandard, including the “Keres System,” or the Dubov variation mentioned above. While he does not anticipate Dubov’s key 9. … Bb6 idea, he does confirm the viability of the general approach in other lines.

Bezgodov also gives the “Giants of the Tarrasch Defense” their own section, using the games of Keres, Spassky, Gligoric, and Kasparov to show the historical progression of the opening. Importantly he shows how these players approached the Tarrasch with both colors, something overlooked in many such studies.

A final word on another book that treats the Tarrasch from a historical perspective: Jaan Ehlvest’s Grandmaster Opening Preparation (2018) is an absolutely fascinating work that tries to merge the insights of pre-computer Soviet training with those derived from our metal friends. While Ehlvest’s concern is to show how to approach the creation and maintenance of opening repertoires in general, the Tarrasch and IQP are key examples, with over 100 pages devoted to showing how ideas in the IQP grew and transformed. Despite an unfortunate aside about “women’s openings,” it’s a worthwhile read, especially for strong players interested in meta-opening considerations.

2019 Last Minute Gift Guide

FYI – my 2019 Last Minute Chess Gift Guide at uschess.org has mini-reviews of a number of books, including:

Caruana, Fabiano. Navigating the Ruy Lopez, Volumes 1-3.

Dvoretsky, Mark, and Jan Gustafsson. Calculation with Dvoretsky and Endgames with Dvoretsky. Both reviewed here in November 2016.

Hansen, Carsten. Daily Chess Training: Chess Tactics, Volume 1.

Hansen, Carsten. Daily Chess Training: Chess Tactics, Volume 2.

Levenfish, Grigory. Soviet Outcast: The Life and Games of Grigory Levenfish.

Kamsky, Gata. Gata Kamsky: Chess Gamer, Volume 1 Awakening (1989-1996)

Kamsky, Gata. Gata Kamsky: Chess Gamer, Volume 2 Return (2004-2013)

Krasenkow, Michal. Learn from Michal Krasenkow.

McDonald, Neil. Coach Yourself: A Complete Guide to Self-Improvement at Chess.

McGowan, Alan. Kurt Richter: A Chess Biography with 499 Games.

Renette, Hans. Louis Paulsen: A Chess Biogrpahy with 719 Games.

Rowson, Jonathan. The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.

Lessons Learned

This review has been printed in the December 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Geller, Efim. The Nemesis:  Geller’s Greatest Games. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830618. HB 480pp.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

Anniversaries are a time for celebration, for looking at the great accomplishments of the past, and for understanding how they might weave their way into the

So it is with the 80th Anniversary of the US Chess Federation, an organization that has grown from a membership base of 533 in the middle of World War II (1943) to the nearly 100,000 members we boast today. Chess Life, along with its predecessor Chess Review, stands as a chronicle of  American chess in those eighty years, and the digitization project announced at the 2019 Delegates Meeting is the best anniversary present that US Chess could possibly have given its members.

I have spent more than a few hours perusing this archive, which should soon be available to US Chess members (if it is not already). And I am struck by the tremendous variety of materials found there, and how they differ from what we find in today’s chess magazines.

While the analysis itself cannot be expected to stand the test of time, there is much in these issues that retains value. The contemporaneous reporting of big events have not lost their vitality. Endgame columns by Edmar Mednis and Pal Benko are still vital sources of knowledge, even if some of the particulars are wrong. And the annotations… one finds a treasure trove of analysis from some of the world’s leading players, now free for anyone to download.

Take, for instance, the May 1974 issue of Chess Life. Svetovar Gligoric analyzes the famous Karpov-Uhlmann “a-file game” (Nice, 1974) over three pages, including a massive opening theoretical. Paul Keres annotates games from the Karpov-Spassky match. Bent Larsen writes about Las Palmas 1974, Reshevsky discusses two of his games, and Laszlo Szabo turns his eye to three games from recent competitions. Couple this with Mednis’ excellent work on the endgame and “Benko’s Bafflers,” and you begin to see what a massive resource US Chess has given the world.

Why am I taking so much time to talk about magazines? Aren’t they obsolete in the perpetual now of YouTube and Stockfish? Absolutely not. While the chess media landscape has changed in the Internet age, with constant livestreams of big events, and websites like Chess Life Online providing quick, solid reporting, perspective and context can be hard to pin down in real-time. That’s where publications like Chess Life are so valuable. They distill and memorialize the ephemeral, standing as a publication of record for future generations.

More: besides being a pleasant diversion, serious study of chess history and analysis is essential to ongoing improvement. When someone works through well-annotated games as found in Chess Life, she learns how openings evolved, how initiative moves into attack and how mini-plans are woven into long-term advantages. All of this is precisely what an engine or tactics trainer cannot teach you.

I was reminded of this when listening to GM Ramesh RB talk about his life and career on the Perpetual Chess Podcast. He laments the obsession of young players with engines and databases, and argues that it is critical for his students to study books, particularly games collections of great players. In doing so, they learn the history of the game, but also pick up key ideas about strategy and technique.

And it’s not just coaches who understand this. Fabiano Caruana showed his historical knowledge at the recent FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, dredging up an antiquated opening idea in the Rossolimo Sicilian to defeat Vladimir Fedoseev. Awonder Liang described the Yermolinsky-Ehlvest game at the 2019 US Senior Championship as “90s era chess”[1] where play is less concrete but more thematic, thereby exhibiting his grounding in chess history… and perhaps a bit of the impudence of youth!

The new Chess Life digital archive is one source for this kind of material. Another is the tried and true chess book. Amidst the avalanche of opening books and self-help tomes, publishers have also put out some excellent historical and biographical titles in recent years. When I look back at the best books that have passed through my mailbox, many are of this variety, but I was particularly impressed with one in particular.

The “Chess Classics” series at Quality Chess has included some important titles, including Python Strategy, an annotated collection of Petrosian’s games, and The Science of Strategy, a textbook of sorts from Alexander Kotov. The newest book in the lineup is The Nemesis: Geller’s Greatest Games, a translation of a 2017 Russian collection of Efim Geller’s annotated games. It is excellent.

Geller was one of those players who, while not quite at the level of the World Champions, wasn’t far off their standard. Tactically gifted and technically skilled, Geller was particularly valued by the Soviets as an opening theoretician. He created numerous ideas in the Sicilian and King’s Indian – Botvinnik famously said that “before Geller, we did not understand the King’s Indian” – and seconded Spassky, Karpov, and Kasparov in World Championship play. Perhaps his only weaknesses were perfectionism, leading to time trouble, and a (relative) propensity for blunders.

The Nemesis contains 135 games annotated by Geller’s own hand, organized chronologically with the exception of two appendices featuring his brilliancy prizes and best adjourned endings. 86 of the games have previously appeared in English in The Application of Chess Theory (Cadogan, 1984), but the new edition has a number of advantages over its predecessor.[2] Two are worth mentioning.

The Application of Chess Theory is organized by opening, while games in The Nemesis occur in the order they were played. I prefer the latter, as it allows readers to get a sense of Geller’s growth from tactical hacker to all-around player. This may simply be personal preference, but it is not hard to see Geller’s stylistic progression as one works chronologically through his games.

I had not seen much of Geller’s writing before I began reading The Nemesis, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. His annotations are matter-of-fact and sometimes a bit sharp, and he does a fine job explaining the key features of positions without droning on. The analysis is also well-tuned, with lines going deeply enough when it is necessary, but without overwhelming readers.

The games themselves are fantastic. Genna Sosenko’s comment in Russian Silhouettes –  “a lot of what seems obvious and straightforward in present-day chess is based on positions and principles which were developed by the best players and analysts of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And one of the most significant of these was Efim Geller.”[3] – is lent credence in these pages, and I suspect that readers will find much in Geller’s games that can be applied in their own

The Nemesis also properly handles the problem of how to introduce computer analysis into pre-computer annotations. Engine-assisted improvements by IM Max Notkin, the editor of the Russian edition, appear in italics in the text tastefully and

Case in point: consider this critical position from Fischer-Geller, Monte Carlo 1967.

Here, after more than twenty minutes thought, Fischer played the incorrect 20.Bg4. Geller writes: “Condemning him for it is easy; avoiding the error is much more difficult. Objectively speaking, Black’s king should hardly be able to survive under fire from four white pieces, but finding the route to victory over-the-board is not so simple: there are too many continuations to analyse.”[4] (225) Play continued 20. … dxc4 21. Bxe6 Qd3 22. Qe1 Be4! and Black won shortly thereafter.

Geller spends two full pages unpacking the three alternatives Fischer had to consider – 20.Rf3, 20.Bd1, and 20.Qc2 – deciding that White’s attack would only work with the final two moves. The computer shows that just 20. Qc2 gives an advantage, as Black survives after 20. Bd1 Kd7 21. Rf7+ Kc6. But what about 20. Bf3, putting more pressure on the center and asking Black to make a productive

I stumbled upon this idea when checking Geller and Notkin’s notes with a prototype of the new Fat Fritz neural-net engine. Fat Fritz, in contrast to both Stockfish and Leela, thinks that 20. Bf3 is the best move in the position by a large margin. Together we worked out the following ideas, a much fuller version of which appears in this issue’s accompanying pgn file at uschess.org.

20. Bf3!? Be7

20th move alternatives: (a) 20. … Qb4 21. Qc2! (with the ideas of Rb1 and Qxh7) 21. … Be7 22. Rb1 Qxc4 23. Qxc4 dxc4 24. Bxb7 Rd8 25. Be3; (b) 20. … g6 21. Rb1 Rb8 22. cxd5 Bd4 (22. … exd5 23. Bxd5) 23. Qd1; (c) 20. … Rc8 21. cxd5 Qb4 22. Qd3. All give White a significant advantage.

21. Rb1 (21. cxd5!? Rd8 22. Bxe7 Qxe7 23. Qc2 with the initiative) 21. … Ra7

21st move alternatives: (a) 21. … Bxg5 22. Qxg5 Qd3 23. Rc1 Kf7 24. Qxe5 Re8 25. Bh5+ g6 26. Bg4 and the attack continues; (b) 21. … Rb8 22. cxd5 exd5 23. Bxd5 Bxg5 24. Qxg5 (24. Bc6+ Kf7 25. Qxg5 Qd3 26. Qc1 and White wins the exchange) 24. … Qd6 25. Bb3 and White continues to press.

22. cxd5 exd5 23. Qe2 Qd6 (23. … e4 24. Qf2; 23. … Bd6 24. Qc2) 24. Be3 d4 25. Bxb7 dxe3 26. Qxe3 Rxb7 (26. … Qd4 27. Bc6+) 27. Rxb7 Qd1+ 28. Qg1 Qd5 29. Rb8+ Kf7 30. Qf1+. White should win this easily.

Purdy once said that the best way to improve was to “play against champions”[5] by studying their games and testing our ideas against their moves and analysis. In doing so we renew the conversation with the past, conjuring the spirits of the game’s greats and bringing them into discussion with the present and future.

The Nemesis provides a model for how we might understand that dialogue today, including silicon-enhanced insights without harming or undermining Geller’s particular genius. That dialogue extends indefinitely, as Fat Fritz and I learned in the lines above. Perhaps some of my readers will investigate the new Chess Life digital archive to see what kind of conversations they might find there.


[1] See the STLCC live coverage of the 7th Round of the U.S. Senior and Junior Championships (at about 2:41). Thanks to Jeremy Kane and Tatev Abrahamyan for helping me find this via Twitter! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWRkUiYTTO8

[2] The inverse of the in-text statement is that 14 games in The Application of Chess Theory are not to be found in The Nemesis. The explanation, per the publishers at their blog, is that only Russian-language sources were included in the 2017 Russian edition, thereby undercutting IM Notkin’s claims in the Preface to this being Geller’s “complete works.”

[3] Sosonko, Genna. Russian Silhouettes. 3rd edition. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2009 (2001). p.81.

[4] As an aside, Geller includes a fascinating observation. “The characterization of Fischer that I rightly relied on was borne out at this very juncture: in unfamiliar sharp positions he loses his bearings.” (ibid.)

[5] Purdy, C.J.S., and Ralph Tykodi, editor. C.J.S. Purdy’s Fine Art of Annotation and Other Thoughts, Volume 1. 2nd edition. Davenport: Thinker’s Publishing, 2004. viii.

A Legend Never Dies

They didn’t tell me I’d be writing obituaries when I signed on as US Chess Digital Editor.

So when I saw that Pal Benko had died on August 26th, I slumped back in my chair and began to think. What could I possibly write about a legend like Benko, especially as I had never had the pleasure to meet the man?

And then these lines floated through the years back to me, lines I read years ago in Fred Waitzkin’s masterful book on Garry Kasparov. Here, Waitzkin encounters a dejected Kasparov packing up his hotel suite in New York after a difficult first half of the 1990 World Championship match.

“The last two or three times I had visited, I had brought with me an autographed copy of Grandmaster Pal Benko’s endgame book, a volume that Benko had published himself and which he had asked me to give Kasparov. I believe there were a hundred copies or so in this new edition. Each time I came, I forgot to give it to Garry, or his mood was so bad that I thought that he wouldn’t notice it. …

When Garry came back in the room to sit among the boxes, I handed him Benko’s self-published book, half-expecting him to drop it at his feet. But instead, he started reading. “This is very important,” he said, as he slowly turned a page. Garry’s face softened. He moved his lips and smiled as he calculated a witty move. For the next hour or so, he lost himself in Benko’s book, which contained interesting and instructive endings culled from numerous games, along with Benko’s sharp analysis. Garry was enjoying chess for the first time since the start of the match.”[1]

Pal Benko was an outstanding chess player, an important opening theoretician, and one of the world’s leading authorities on chess problems and studies. But his true legacy may lie in his writing. Benko wrote six books and countless columns published right here in Chess Life. (He also revised and algrebratized Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings, one of the most important books in chess history.) This month we celebrate the words and works of Pal Benko.

Benko’s first book, The Benko Gambit (1973), was one of my first chess books. Or, to be more precise, it was one of the first that I devoured as a young player, scouring the shelves of Long Island libraries in a search for knowledge. I recall how mystified I was by Black’s effortless activity, and at the cost of just one pawn! A notebook, filled with lines cribbed from Benko’s book, is lost to time. Just as well – one wonders what holes the engines would punch in the analysis…

Winning with Chess Psychology (1991), written in conjunction with long-time Chess Life editor Burt Hochberg, is an interesting book with a slightly misleading title. It is not an academic study of chess from a psychological perspective, as one might find in de Groot’s Thought and Choice in Chess, or Krogius’ Psychology in Chess. Instead, readers are given practical advice rooted in Benko’s knowledge of chess history and culture.

The first part of the book, five chapters in all, sketches “the development of the psychological method” with reference to the World Champion, viewing chess alternatively through the lenses of fight, art, sport, life, and war. The remainder of the book offers Benko’s ideas about “chess psychology” in all facets of the game, including openings and endings, draw offers, final rounds, and time pressure. The chapter on women and computers is at once ahead of its time (regarding women) and badly dated (regarding engines).

While both of these titles were good for their time, neither can begin to compare to Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions, co-written with and edited by Jeremy Silman, and featuring an extensive opening survey by John Watson.

At 668 pages My Life, Games, and Compositions is exactly what its title suggests: a comprehensive look at Benko’s life, 135 of his self-annotated games, and 300 of his problems and studies. But without Benko’s incredible life story, those 668 pages would “thin soup” indeed. Very few have led lives as rich, for better and for worse, as did Pal Benko, and I cannot think of a chess biography as good as this one.

Benko takes us through his early life in Hungary, his suffering during the Second World War and under Russian occupation. Playing tournaments (literally) to eat, Benko built a reputation for himself, becoming a master in 1945 and an International Master in 1950.

Never a member of the Communist Party, Benko was jailed in 1952 by Hungarian authorities for attempting to defect, and for more than a year and a half he was held in a squalid work camp. Released in October 1953, Benko kept playing chess and looking to the West. He finally managed to defect in 1957 at the World Student Championships in Iceland, and after a few years working in the financial field, he became a “chess professional,” with Fischer (on his telling) being his only colleague.

Gripping as it is, Benko’s tale is told in service to the presentation of his games. And for those of us who only knew Benko as “the endings theoretician” or “the guy who gave Fischer his Interzonal spot,” it may come as a shock to play through Benko’s games and realize just how good he was. A positional player by nature, and of course known for his endgame acumen, he could also mix it up tactically, as his 1951 brilliancy against Korody shows. While Benko says that this is his most published game (55), it does not appear in MegaBase.

Semi-Slav Meran [D47]
Korody
Pal Benko
Budapest, 1951

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0–0 b4 10.Ne4 c5 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.Qe2 Qb6 13.a3 Bd6 14.axb4 cxd4 15.exd4 Rg8 16.b5? Qxd4!! 17.h3  

17.Nxd4 loses to 17. … Rxg2+ 18.Kh1 Rxh2+ 19.Kg1 Rh1 mate.

17…Ne5! 18.Nxd4 Rxg2+ 19.Kh1 Rh2+  

The forced mate runs 19. … Rh2+ 20.Kxh2 (20.Kg1 Rh1#) 20. … Ng4+ 21.Kg1 Bh2 mate.

0–1

My Life, Games, and Compositions also illustrates the depth and scope of Benko’s compositional efforts. Few auteurs work across the whole of the problem world – mate problems, endgame studies, helpmates, serials and retros – and Benko shows us the full span of his artistry. Here is one of his “Bafflers,” published in these pages in 1994, and while Benko himself preferred more complex compositions, his “lightweight” (620) efforts are both pleasing and practical for we mortal solvers.

(For the answer, in best “Baffler” fashion, please check the bottom of this post.)

This study featured in Benko’s longest running Chess Life column, “Benko’s Bafflers,” which appeared monthly from 1967 through Benko’s retirement in December 2013. But that was not his first foray into chess journalism. Benko’s words first appeared in Chess Life’s September 1963 issue as annotations to Benko-Gligoric from the 13th round of the First Piatgorsky Cup.

Beginning in December 1963, when “Two Wins from Chicago” was published, Benko’s name graced the Chess Life masthead with increasing regularity. “Benko’s Bafflers” helped introduce problems and studies to a broad readership. He took over the “In the Arena” column beginning in 1971, analyzing games (often his own) from important events around the world.

In January 1981 Benko switched gears, inaugurating his “Endgame Laboratory.” It was not Chess Life’s first endgame serial – Edmar Mednis’s “The Practical Endgame” had ended 18 months earlier – but Benko’s work here raised the bar, with a remarkable depth of analysis and clarity of explanation.

Benko always kept his focus squarely on the practical needs of the over-the-board player, and he was ahead of the technological curve, citing endgame databases and computers before it was popular to do so. With examples current and classic, and through his engagement with readers through contests and published letters, Benko made the endgame accessible to generations of Chess Life readers.

Benko’s two self-published collections of his endgame columns, both named Chess Endgame Lessons (1989, 1999), together cover two decades of his work. Both are widely sought after by aficionados.[2] Jeremy Silman once called the first volume “the best endgame book ever written,” and the aformentioned John Watson wrote that it was “one of [his] favorite endgame books.”[3] For my part, the two volumes of Chess Endgame Lessons were on a very short list of titles that, once acquired, gave me the sense that I was a real collector.

Today these books hard to find, and neither I nor (presumably) Kasparov are looking to sell ours anytime soon. But there is good news for those who might want to dip into the vast store of Benko’s Chess Life writings.

It was announced at the 2019 Delegates Meetings in Orlando that, in the interest of our 501(c)3 educational initiatives, back issues of Chess Life were being digitized and released to the general public for free download with a one-year paywall. When this project is completed, all of Benko’s writings for US Chess will be available to anyone with an internet connection. The files are big, so be patient when downloading. I assure you that it will be entirely worth it.

Answer to diagrammed Baffler:

1.Nf7+ Kh7 2.Bh3! Qb5 [2. … Qd5 3.Bg4 Qb5 4.Ng5+ Kh8 5.a3 Qd3 6.Nf7+ Kh7 7.Bf3!] 3.Ng5+ Kh6 4.Bg4 Qxb4+ [4. … Qd3 5.Nf7+ Kh7 6.Bf3!] 5.Kg8 Qxf4 6.Nf7+ 1–0


[1] Waitzkin, Fred. Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov. New York: Putnam, 1993. 186-7.

[2] There is a separate collection, Pal Benko’s Endgame Laboratory published by Ishi Press in 2007, that also contains the first six years of the column.

[3] Both quotes are from reviews at Jeremy Silman’s old website, obtained via archive.org.

Quest or Obsession?

This review has been printed in the October 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves (Doubleday, 2019) is, on first blush, a fairly conventional tale of a young man’s obsession with chess. Chapin first approached the board as a troubled teen, and in the book’s early chapters, he recounts his early dalliances with the game on his school’s chess team.

Already in these initial pages we find the two competing elements of Chapin’s life in chess. He describes the “ecstatic flight from [him]self” that he discovered in the game, and the growing importance it held in his day-to-day living:

… I lost interest in all of my other typical activities. The brief thrills of breaking the law or almost breaking a condom felt like shallow flutters compared to the sustained joy of playing over one of Bobby Fischer’s masterpieces. (24)

But for all of the pleasure that chess provides him, Chapin also discovers that he’s not a very good player. While he can deal with losing to other “chess nerds,” a series of ego-crushing defeats by his older brother is a step too far. Chapin swears the game off (33), assuming that it’s “just one of those things I liked when I was a kid, like cartoons, or Sartre, or weed…” (Here, as above, we see Chapin’s repeated sensationalism in action.)

Chapin’s “remission” ends when, during a hastily arranged reporting trip to Nepal, he encounters street hustlers in Katmandu. Predictably he loses, but the obsession returns, and while Chapin wonders if it’s not due to the effect the heat is having on his mood stabilizers (45-6), soon he is passing up the pleasures of the flesh to play chess on the Internet.

The bulk of All the Wrong Moves is devoted to Chapin’s abandoning himself, sometimes against the advice of his better angels, to chess. He starts with a local club in Bangkok, followed by a painful loss at the Bangkok Open that prompts him to withdraw from the tournament. He heads to New York and then Toronto, intending to exile himself from the game, but instead falling deeper and deeper under its spell.

Here the story takes a turn. Chapin meets a woman and comes to make a bold decision. Instead of fleeing from chess, and in an effort to overcome the shame he felt in his divided attention, Chapin rips off the band-aid. He effectively “goes pro,” trying to improve seriously over the course of a year, and with the goal of defeating a player rated 2000.[1]

This quest – and it’s clear that Chapin has shaped his tale as a quest – takes the author to Saint Louis for a month, where he hates everything about the city save the Chess Club and his lessons with Ben Finegold. He plays rated games in Toronto, New York, Hyderabad, and finally Los Angeles, where a win over an A player and a draw with an expert brings the journey to its completion.

Quest narratives like Chapin’s are not only about actions and deeds, but also meaning and growth. The hero is supposed to have learned something, become different and wiser, in his travels. What is the net result for Sasha Chapin after his sojourn in the chess world, and what should we take from it?

There is no small difficulty in reviewing a memoir. Any criticism runs the risk of reading like bad psychoanalyzing, and as someone who writes about chess for a living, it’s tricky to avoid expecting too much from a trade book aimed at non-specialists. Still, with these admonitions firmly in mind, we might hazard the following reading.

There is a chasm in Chapin’s tale between the descriptions of the joy he finds in chess, and the agony losing brings him. On the one hand, he senses and articulates quite well the beauty of the game (25, 52, 88-90), but the pleasure he finds pales in comparison to the self-loathing wrought by defeat.

For much of the book Chapin simply cannot abide the blows to his ego brought on by losses. After a child beats him, he says “I feel nothing but rage, and I am its only object.” Later he decides that perhaps “the essential ingredient to good chess play was self-hatred… I made sure to be as sad and uncomfortable as possible.” (103, 107)

It is odd that of all the methods Chapin employs to try and win more games, the most logical – study – never appears in the book. In 224 pages there is no mention of chess books or videos, no effort expended in showing readers the day-to-day work of chess improvement. Instead we get tales of days-long Internet blitz benders, which are fun, but which do little to improve his play.

And it’s not as if Chapin is unaware of chess literature and culture. He name-checks Aron Nimzowitsch, Jonathan Rowson, and Peter Svidler during his August 13th appearance on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess Podcast. He ominously cites “the Database” (47) as something that the best players have to master. So why doesn’t any of the hard work of improvement appear in the book?

Part of this omission may have to do with his audience. A memoir that details weeks analyzing the Sveshnikov probably won’t tear up the best-seller list, and Chapin admits on the Podcast that he made an authorial decision to “compress” the technical content.

But I suspect that the lack of focus on training has more to do with the almost Manichean framework of Chapin’s tale. Chapin is a believer in talent – you either have it, or you don’t. He incorrectly thinks that Magnus Carlsen is “infamous for not needing to study quite as hard as other high-level players” (77) due to his innate talent, while he laments his personal lack of any such gift.

The upshot, on this account, is that you can’t hate yourself for not being great. (77) Hard work and deliberate practice, the kind originally championed by Anders Ericsson can only paper over a lack of talent. So it’s not Chapin’s fault he’s bad at chess – it’s his inability to create mental images (43), his lack of God-given ability, or his opponent’s odorous distractions (153), but never the fact that, at least in the book, he doesn’t seem to actually try to improve.

There is more than a bit of magical thinking on Chapin’s part. Is it rational to move to Saint Louis for a month to take lessons with a GM? Certainly it’s good for the book. The pages on Finegold are delightful, and the koan-like lessons he recounts are memorable. But it also may be the case that the bitter truths Finegold tries to impart – have less fun! never sacrifice! don’t lose all your pieces! marriage is ok! – are self-fulfilling for Chapin’s understanding of the game’s value, and his along with it, as wholly measured in wins and losses.

Stranger still is the decision Chapin makes to travel to Hyderabad, taken as part of a desire to find “some way to speed things up a bit – some way to sell my soul to chess itself – some great and costly hero’s errand [he] could embark on, with epiphany as its reward.” (142) So he decides to play a tournament in India to “find Caïssa,” the goddess of chess, in the place where chess was born. Nevermind that Caïssa is a Greek dryad, or tree nymph, in William Jones’ poem!

Chapin’s “pilgrimage” makes for good reading, but what effect does it have on his chess career? He plays a few games with poor results, gets violently ill, and is forfeited out of the tournament. Something shatters in him; as he writes in a key passage,

I looked myself in the eyes. I was greenish, tired, and covered with a grimy residue of boomtown pollution commingled with sweat. … How would the rest of this go? I wondered. Like, the rest of my life? Probably like this, because this was it. How cute. Running from one distraction to another. Finding any defined life unbefitting of a never-ending sense of grandiosity. Neglecting a good woman in favor of a form of comfortable self-imprisonment. Just like a few girlfriends prior, whom you’d abandoned so you could experience mental episodes in peace. This is how you are. You know all this stuff. And now you’re spending all of your time learning it all over again. Super, super cute. Welcome to Hyderabad. (167)

The final pages on the Los Angeles tournament are almost anti-climactic after his Hyderabad revelation. While Chapin is happy to draw a player rated 2040, he seems almost relieved to tragicomically lose his last over-the-board game. Why? Are Finegold’s teachings, and in particular, his koan-like “secret to chess” – the capstone to the book which I will not spoil here – a mantra to bring peace to patzers everywhere?

It’s clear that the final pages of the book are meant as a grand denouement, a big reveal. Chapin achieves some kind of equanimity where everything – wins, losses, brilliancies and blunders – are all “mostly fine,” but the side effect is that the passion drains from Chapin and from his chess. Is this indeed enlightenment, or is it resignation?

I am of two minds here, and so I leave it to the reader to decide which is more true. (Perhaps both are?) But the second possibility raises a troubling question for chess players. Is it possible to love chess without excelling at it? Is it ok to be obsessed with a game that, for all of its pleasures, will break your heart again and again and again?

For Chapin, the answer seems to be no. But if we shift our thinking a bit, and understand the object of our infatuation with chess less in terms of wins and losses, and more in terms of beauty and meaning, the answer (even on Chapin’s own account) may be yes.

There are pages where Chapin hints in this direction (54, 84-89), towards viewing chess as “the most human thing you can do,” as violence made beautiful through abstraction and sublimation. But he never gets to the key point, namely, that to be human is to be a creature in search of meaning.

Tarrasch was right when he said that chess, like music and art, has the power to make us happy. But more to the point, chess, like its more respected cousins, can orient a world. It doesn’t happen automatically or for everyone – an act of apprenticeship is required, as Deleuze said of Proust’s apprenticeship to signs in his Search for Lost Time – but I would bet good money that more than a few of my readers understand what I mean.

I will not speculate on why Chapin does not make this final connection, but it may explain why he misunderstands the example of Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicates a full chapter of All the Wrong Moves. Chapin takes Duchamp’s self-abandonment to the game as the model for his own quest, but ultimately deems him a failure who wasted his creative powers.

I think Chapin underestimates Duchamp’s achievements. Far from being “never excellent, as Chapin claims (69), Duchamp was of master-level strength, a member of the French national team and the winner of both over-the-board and correspondence tournaments… none of which, it turns out, is relevant to the question at hand.

Duchamp’s “gambit,” his abandoning the art world in favor of chess, can only be understood as a personal quest for meaning. Because chess could not be commercialized, because it was beautiful like art but without economic value, outside “social position,” as he told Time in 1952, it took hold of him, giving him an axis mundi around which to build a life. Even if he had never won a game, that would be enough reason to give himself to Caïssa and become her servant.

We are now far afield of the typical “book report” review some may have expected. My trip into the weeds has been an effort to take Chapin’s book seriously, and to do it justice. It is a raw, intimate, unvarnished look at one man’s journey through the chess world, and it’s a good read to boot. Many of us, myself included, will see more of ourselves in it than we might want to admit.

I found the end of All the Wrong Moves unsatisfactory and unfinished. That may be more about me than about Chapin’s book; in any event, my feeling was meliorated in no small part by Chapin’s appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where his eventual return to chess is left open. For his sake, I hope he finds a way to give it a go.


[1] Note that there’s slightly more to the story here than the book lets on. Chapin was supporting himself as a feature writer during these months, publishing pieces on Eric Hansen and the 2016 World Championship Match among others, and on the basis of a feature that eventually became Chapter 3 of All the Wrong Moves, he had already secured a publishing contract for the book under review.

Multi-Tasking to the Max

This review has been printed in the September 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Edouard, Romain. My Magic Years with Topalov. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510440. PB 310pp.

Edouard, Romain. “Play the French.” video series at chess24.com.

The immortal James Brown is often said to have been the “hardest working man in show business.” Recently I found myself wondering who would hold the same title in the chess world.

One way to answer the question would be to look at the new Leader Boards page at uschess.org. For the year running from June 2018 through May 2019, New York’s “chess ironman” Jay Bonin has played a whopping 578 regular and dual rated games, good for second place in the games count. The leader is a 7 year old girl from California, Dada Cabrales-Goldstein, who has an amazing 655 games to her credit.

If we take a broader view, including chess labor that is not strictly ‘at the board,’ the candidate pool broadens. Seconds for the world’s elite, such as Peter Heine Nielsen (second to Magnus Carlsen) or Rustam Kazimdzhanov (Fabiano Caruana’s trainer), are logical choices, as are top streamers like Agadmator or ChessNetwork.

My pick, however, might be GM Romain Edouard. Currently rated 2647 and a recent member of the +2700 club, Edouard is an active player, playing on multiple club teams around Europe. He is the editor-in-chief of Thinkers Publishing, and the author of six titles for his imprint, including his newest, My Magic Years with Topalov, which we’ll look at this month.

Edouard has also begun to move into chess streaming and videos, having recently worked as a French commentator for the Grand Chess Tour livestreams. He has also released two video series for Chess24: “Veselin Topalov: The Initiative in Chess,” derived from his Topalov book, and “Play the French,” which will occupy the bulk of this month’s column. A third, titled “10 Endgame Principles You Should Know,” should be out by the time you read these words.

My Magic Years with Topalov tells the story of Edouard’s time (2010-2014) as Veselin Topalov’s second. A second, for those unfamiliar with the term, functions as a “chess assistant” for an elite player, helping them with opening analysis, serving as a sparring partner in training games, and sometimes playing the role of confidant and psychologist.

Edouard worked as Topalov’s second during the later part of Topalov’s years in the elite, including the 2012-13 Grand Prix cycle and the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, where Topalov finished in a disappointing eighth place. Here he spills the beans on his work for Topalov, offering readers an intimate, unvarnished account of his role as second, of Topalov’s games in that period, and of Topalov ‘the person.’

In his Preface to the book, Topalov lauds his former assistant, saying that he “believe[s] chess fans will like the honesty of the stories as nothing is hidden.” (7) Edouard’s candor does both players a service: we obtain important insights into his work with Topalov, and we also get a sympathetic portrait of Topalov himself that, in part, erodes the damage done to his reputation by the ‘Toiletgate’ episode in 2006.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Edouard’s book lay out the nature of his job as Topalov’s second. He explains how the second must merge silicon insights with human intuition to produce useable analysis, and how organizational skills – presenting the material in a succinct, digestable manner – are critical to the task. And even then, players have to read their emails, lest they overlook important novelties cooked up by their team! See Edouard’s account of the Gelfand-Topalov and Giri-Topalov games at the 2012 London Grand Prix for this tale that turned out well. (86-89, 104-108)

The great bulk of My Magic Years with Topalov consists of tournament recaps and dense game analysis. Here Edouard shines. Without shying away from sometimes necessarily deep analytical dives into key positions, Edouard largely manages to keep things comprehensible for the amateur reader, and he is very generous in providing ‘unexploded’ opening ideas along the way. As a collection of Topalov’s games, this book is a standout, but when combined with the behind-the-scenes stories and insights, My Magic Years with Topalov becomes one of the year’s best works.

“Play the French” is a set of 13 videos, running 5 hours and 13 minutes in all, presenting a repertoire in the French Defense. The stated goal of the series is “[t]o provide the viewer with a complete Black repertoire after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5.” In this Edouard largely succeeds, offering a set of fighting variations for Black to play for a win. There are some key omissions, which we will note along the way, but Edouard manages to pack an impressive amount of material into five hours of video.

After a short introduction, and a 44 minute video on the Exchange Variation where … Nc6 lines are largely avoided, Edouard spends 74 minutes over two videos proposing 5. … Bd7 against the Advance Variation. Against White’s three main choices, he recommends 6. Be2 f6!?, 6. a3 c4, and heading into the main lines of the Milner-Barry with 6. Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Qb6 8.0–0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6 11.Qe2 Rc8!, following Sulskis-Giri, Batumi 2018.

Edouard’s analysis is solid, and he does a good job of explaining the ideas in the video, if perhaps a bit too quickly at times. He also omits coverage of important sidelines, particularly in the Milner-Barry. The dangerous 9. Nbd2, or the ‘Nun’ variation, is not included in the video. Nor is 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3 a6 11. Re1, which is the second most popular continuation in the database.

Edouard needs five videos, and 90 minutes, to unpack his recommendations against the Tarrasch. Here he analyzes the trendy 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Ngf3 cxd4 6. Bc4 Qd7!? as his main line, along with 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. dxc5 Bxc5 6. Ngf3 Nf6 7. Bc4 Qc6 and 4. Ngf3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 (note that 5. exd5 transposes to the main line above) 5. … Nf6 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Nb5 Na6 8.Nc3 Qd6. I found the coverage to be convincing and comprehensive, with no major omissions to note.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Edouard’s repertoire is his recommendation against 3. Nc3. Across three videos, running 89 minutes in length, Edouard proposes that readers play 3. … Nf6 and aim for two intensely aggressive variations.

If White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5, Edouard recommends the “neo-Morozevich” variation (per Larry Kaufman in NIC Yearbook 90): 4. … dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6 7.Nf3 f5. Play is sharp in all variations, but the key line, where White sacrifices a piece for the attack – 8. Nc3 a6 9. g3 b5 10. Bg2 Bb7 11. 0–0 c5! 12. d5 b4 13.dxe6 bxc3 14.exf7+ Kf8 – is analyzed to equality by Edouard, following Kosten-Bluebaum, Brest 2018.

If, instead, White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5, Edouard proposes we play a new line in the Steinitz: 4. … Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. dxc5 0–0! 9. Qd2 Qa5 and after 10. 0-0-0 b6 11. Bb5 we try 11. … Nb4!? This is a recent idea, offering to sacrifice a piece for a serious attack, and it was seen in one of the most brilliant games of recent months:

FRENCH DEFENSE STEINITZ VARIATION (C11)

GM Alireza Firouzja (2669)
GM Constantin Lupulescu (2634)
Reykjavik Open (7.1), 14.04.2019

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0–0 9.dxc5 Qa5 10.0–0–0 b6 11.Bb5 Nb4 12.a3 bxc5 13.Bxd7 Bxd7 14.axb4 cxb4 15.Nb1 Rfc8 16.Nd4 Qa2 17.f5 exf5 18.Rhf1 a5 19.Nxf5 Bxf5 20.Rxf5 a4 21.Bd4 a3 22.e6 f6 23.Qd3 b3 24.Rf2 Ra4 25.c3 Rxd4 26.Qxd4 Bc5 27.Qd2 Bxf2 28.Qxf2 Qa1 29.e7 a2 30.e8Q+ Rxe8 31.Qf5 d4 0–1

White can vary at a number of places – 10. a3, 13. Kb1! (which may be best), etc. – or can avoid taking the c-pawn entirely. After 8. Qd2 0-0 9.Be2, Edouard looks at 9. … b6 10. 0-0 f5!? and assess the resulting lines as unclear. While this recommendation will require some memory work, Edouard does a fine job of synthesizing and summarizing his analysis, and I think viewers would feel comfortable playing the variation after watching the video. That Edouard, a long-time French player, has played this exact line with Black (Santos Ruiz-Edouard, Skopje 2019) is a good sign that he believes in what he’s offering here.

In “French Toast: How Harikrishna fries 1. … e6,” his new Anti-French repertoire just out from Chessable, GM Pentala Harikrishna recommends that White avoid the mainline Steinitz by varying with 5.Nce2 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Nf3.

Steinitz 5.Nce2 7.Nf3

Here Edouard first offers 7. … Qb6, when both he and Harikrishna follow the same path: 8. a3 f6 9. exf6 Nxf6 10. g3 cxd4 11. cxd4 and now the novelty 11. … e5!?. (Note: this has now been tested in Jacobson,A-Shetty, Philadelphia, 2019). Edouard analyzes out to move 22, finding that White gets a slight advantage in sharp play, while Harikrishna extends Edouard’s line two moves and concludes that “White is still pushing.”

It’s not clear to me that Black is that much worse after 11. … e5, and I’m not sure why both analysts reject the natural 11. … Bd6 12. Bg2 0–0 13. 0–0 Bd7 14. Bf4 Bxf4 15. Nxf4 (Bologan-Svane, Berlin 2015) and now 15. … Ne4. Still, despite deeming 7. … Qb6 and 11. … e5 playable, Edouard offers 7. … a5 as an alternative.

After 7. … a5 Harikrishna likes 8. a4, and Edouard analyzes 8. … Qb6 9. g3 Be7 10. Bh3 0–0 11. 0–0 Qa6 12. Nf4 b5 as “unclear.” This line is not forced, as we see when we compare Harikrishna’s main variation: 8. … Qb6 9. g3 cxd4 10. cxd4 f6 11. exf6 Nxf6 12. Nc3 e5!?, leading to a slight advantage for White. Suffice to say that there is room for creativity and debate here.

At least four important lines are missing from Edouard’s Steinitz coverage. After 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 White can play 5.Qg4, 5.Qh5 (the “Haldane Hack”) and 5. Nf3 c5 6. dxc5 Nc6 7. Bf4. He also overlooks 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. Qd2 0-0 9. h4, an idea covered in Chessbase Magazine 188 and played by the likes of Wang Hao and Ray Robson.

Because it omits sidelines like these, and because the final video, covering “odds and ends,” is relatively slight, new French players will have to supplement the series with another resource. Of the standard titles – Berg’s three volumes from Quality Chess, Moskalenko’s Even More Flexible French, and Watson’s Play the French 4 – none completely matches Edouard’s choices, with Moskalenko’s being the relatively best fit.

Perhaps it is too much to ask Edouard to analyze everything in just over five hours of video. What is covered in “Play the French” is outstanding, providing the framework for a master or even Grandmaster-level French repertoire. Any French player looking to add some new ideas to their arsenal would do well to check it out.