‘Tis the Season

This review has been printed in the December 2018 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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Abrahamyan, Tatev, et al. The Sinquefield Cup: Celebrating Five Years 2013-2017. Privately printed. Available at qboutique.com

Alekhine, Alexander. Chess Duels 1893-1920: 260 Games Annotated by Alexander Alekhine. Prague: Moravian Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-8071890126. HB 452pp.

Donaldson, John, and Nikolay Minev. The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 1: The Uncrowned King. 2nd edition. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2018 (2006). ISBN 978-1941270882. PB 402pp.

Dvoretsky, Mark. Chess Lessons: Solving Problems & Avoiding Mistakes. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2018. ISBN 978-1941270707. PB 274pp.

Llada, David. The Thinkers. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830335. HB 208pp.

Ris, Robert. Crucial Chess Skills for the Club Player, Volume 1. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-9492510228. PB 239pp.

Chess players are an ecumenical lot. While we all worship at the altar of Caïssa, the goddess of chess first described by the Renaissance poet Hieronymous Vida in 1527, many of us also prostrate before other deities. With the holidays fast approaching, let me be the first to wish you a joyous season, however you may choose to celebrate it.

It’s a good thing that we chess players are so open minded, since the only thing better than getting chess-related gifts this time of year is giving them! This month I want to look back at the year in books, picking out a few worthy titles that didn’t make their way into my column. (My favorites among those reviewed in the past year, for what it’s worth, are Timman’s Titans by Timman and Applying Logic in Chess by Kislik.) Perhaps you’ll find a gift idea for a chess friend here, or you can circle a title and leave this issue open somewhere for a loved one to find.

We’ll begin with a rare beast in the world of chess publishing, the coffee-table book. And not just one, but two!

David Llada’s The Thinkers is a sumptuous collection of more than 170 photographs of players from around the world. His subjects range from World Champions to street hustlers, but the real focus of the work is the game itself, the struggle and the agon. Anyone who loves our game will see themselves in this book, and non-initiates will come away with something of what it means to play it.

Llada includes a few mandatory shots: an intense, glaring Kasparov, a gaunt and haunted Grischuk, an Ivanchuk fully absorbed in the position in front of him. For me, however, it’s the photos of the lesser known personalities, many taken at Olympiads and the ill-fated Millionaire Chess, that are most evocative. We encounter in Llada’s portraits a chess world that is far more globalized and diverse than we might expect, and through his lens, perhaps we chess players might better understand our community and ourselves. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

The Thinkers is a quintessential coffee-table book. Despite its heft and lavish production, I would argue that The Sinquefield Cup: Celebrating Five Years: 2013-2017 is not a coffee-table book, not precisely. It is that, of course, with its dozens of documentary photographs and stunning layout. But more to the point, The Sinquefield Cup is a fitting documentary tribute to a tournament and a patron that together have fundamentally reshaped American chess.

This eponymous book tells the story of the origins of the Sinquefield Cup. Rex Sinquefield explains how he had to be talked into lending his name to the tournament, and Sunil Weeramantry describes his early diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Saint Louis Chess Club. STLCC broadcasters Yasser Seirawan (2013), Jennifer Shahade (2014), Alejandro Ramirez (2015), Tatev Abrahamyan (2016), and Maurice Ashley (2017) report on each of the tournament’s first five years, including in-depth analysis and notes on key positions. An appendix contains player bios, crosstables and complete sets of games for each tournament.

The Sinquefield Cup is a well-crafted homage to the elite chess on display in the Sinquefield Cup, and a worthy testament to the great work done by Sinquefield and the Saint Louis Chess Club. This is a book that deserves to be read by all fans of American chess. Perhaps its only drawback is its size – you need a very big coffee-table to lay this book flat alongside a set and board!

Games collections always make good gifts for chess players, and more than a few notable titles have made their way to me in the past year. One of the most interesting is Chess Duels 1893-1920: 260 Games Annotated by Alexander Alekhine, out last year from the Czech publisher Moravian Chess. The book is, as one would expect from its title, a collection of games annotated by the 4th World Champion.

Chess Duels uses multiple sources for Alekhine’s annotations, including newspapers and chess journals in Russian and French. Many are from his own praxis, while more than a few are by other, lesser known players. And that’s where the exceptional value of this book lies. A good number of the games in Chess Duels can be found elsewhere, most notably in Alekhine’s own My Best Games 1908-1920. There are also dozens of gems played by half-forgotten masters of the past, many of which do not appear in MegaBase or other standard sources.

Here is one such game from the ill-fated Mannheim 1914 tournament, contested right as the first shots of World War I rang out. It features the noted Russian player and theoretician Peter Romanovsky in a wonderful tactical display.

Scotch Game (C45)
Hallgarten,A
Romanovsky,Peter
Mannheim B, 1914

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.Bd3 d5 7.exd5 cxd5 8.0–0 Be7 9.Nc3 0–0 10.b3 Bb7 11.Bb2 d4 12.Ne2 c5 13.Ng3 Qd5 14.f3 Bd6 15.Nf5 Rfe8 16.Nxd6 Qxd6 17.Qd2

image

17. …Nd5!

“The start of a combination, amazing for its depth and length of calculation, in which already Black had to work out the consequences of his 24th move.” (Alekhine)

18.Be4 Nf4! 19.Bxb7

19.Rae1 Bxe4 20.Rxe4 Rxe4 21.fxe4 Ne6 with “good winning chances.”

19. …Re2 20.Qxf4

20.Qd1? Rxg2+ 21.Kh1 Qh6 and Black is winning.

20. …Qxf4 21.Bxa8 d3! 22.Bc3

Romanovsky recommended 22.Kh1 but Alekhine writes that after 22. …d2 White will have trouble defending against …Qe3 and …Re1. Modern engines show us that Romanovsky was probably right, with the amazing line (per Fiala) 23.Be4 Qe3 24.Bd3 Re1 25.Bc3 Rc1 and neither side can make any progress! Better is 22. …Rxc2.

22. …Qe3+ 23.Kh1 d2! 24.Ba5 c4!! 25.bxc4

If 25.Bxd2 Rxd2 (25. …Qxd2 26.Rad1 c3? 27.f4!) 26.bxc4 Rxc2 27.Bd5 (27.Rae1 Re2) 27. …Qd2 28.f4 Rxa2 and Black is better.

25. …Qg5 26.g3? Qxa5

26. …Qh5 is mate in eight.

27.f4 Re1 28.Bf3 Qc3 0–1

This year also saw the second printing of a games collection that had become very hard to find. The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 1: Uncrowned King is the definitive treatment of the most important years (1882-1920) of Rubinstein’s legendary career, but due to scarcity or the vagaries of unseen algorithms, it was only available on the Internet at exorbitant prices.

Now, with this re-release, readers can once again enjoy the 492 Rubinstein games included in the book, many with notes collected by the editors John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev. Rubinstein is often cited as a player whose study will improve one’s chess, and Boris Gelfand has repeatedly discussed the value of playing through his games. This new printing is great news for all chess fans, save those collectors who had hoped to fund their retirements through the sale of the first edition!

Improvement books are always welcome gifts, at least in the Hartmann house, and Robert Ris’ Crucial Chess Skills for the Club Player: Volume 1 was one of the year’s best. Ris does an excellent job of focusing on three areas where most sub-2200 players might improve: endgames (chapters 1-4), tactics (chapters 5-6), and middlegame strategy (chapters 7-9). The three chapters on rook endgames are especially good.

Readers are not burdened with extensive analysis in Crucial Chess Skills. Instead they are treated to an appropriate and instructive mix of words and moves. Readers should also be aware, however, that much of the material in Crucial Chess Skills is recycled from his columns for the defunct ChessVibes Magazine – all the endgame examples, save one, are found there – and from his various video products. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, but if you have other Ris titles on your shelf, you might want to ask Santa for something different.

Our final title this month, Mark Dvoretsky’s Chess Lessons: Solving Problems & Avoiding Mistakes, is a sequel of sorts to Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual, sharing much of its DNA. The analysis is intense, and Dvoretsky holds nothing back in his presentation, turning the firehose on full blast. But the real goal of Chess Lessons, as was the case with Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual, is education. All of the analysis works to illustrate how the best players think about chess and also about their thought processes.

Take the discussion of the game Oll-Hodgson (Groningen, 1993). The notes stretch on for ten pages (68-78), but there is method to Dvoretsky’s apparent madness, with helpful asides on candidate moves, opening analysis after Carlsen, and the principle of the worst piece working as signposts to lead us through the analytical thickets. Dvoretsky’s study of Fine-Shainswit (US Championship, 1944) is excellent in its discussion (112-118) of the psychology of sacrifice, and his use of the position after Black’s 28th move in training games with his students helps us understand how different players can approach the same problem to be solved.

Chess Lessons is not for the faint of heart, and it’s probably best suited for experts and above who don’t mind a little hard work. I’m an A player, and while I struggled to stay afloat in the depths of Dvoretsky’s analysis, I do feel as if I learned something in the process. (Whether this is real or epiphenomenal, only time will tell.) My only complaint about the book is its size. There is so much text crammed into its 6×9 inch pages that it can be hard to read, and I suspect that making it oversized like Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual would have made the layout much clearer.

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World Championship Fever

This review has been printed in the November 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Butler, Brin-Jonathan. The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501172601. HC 224pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918132. PB 208pp.

Karolyi, Tibor. Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen: His Extraordinary Skills Uncovered and Explained. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917760. PB 249pp.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Caruana: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1781944790. PB 368pp.

It’s almost here.

By the time you read these words, and barring some unforeseen event, the 2018 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will just about be upon us. If you’re anything like me, the coming days will be long ones indeed. I can hardly wait for the match to get started, and I’d ask all of you to avoid making any demands of me while the contest is ongoing. My attention will be squarely on London.

The publishing world appears to have taken note of this match as well, with four books about Carlsen or Caruana being released right around the start of the match. This month we’ll take a look at all of them, but much of our focus will be on a real novelty – a trade book from a Big Five publisher about our beloved game.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer known mainly for his work on boxing and Cuba. His 2015 The Domino Diaries is a critically lauded memoir of his time studying the sweet science in Havana, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is memorably described in a 2012 article for salon.com. Here, in The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again, he investigates a more subtle, if no less violent, form of combat.

This was not a book that Butler, on his own admission, was looking to write. He received a cold-call from a Simon & Schuster editor one week before the opening ceremonies in New York, and the editor asked if he’d be willing to write about about Magnus Carlsen. There were three questions to be answered in the process:

One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history – higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer – not Carlsen – were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everyone was still taking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on tip affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown? (7)

I include this long passage from The Grandmaster for two reasons. First, it gives a sense of Butler’s prose, which is taut and provocative. This is a book that will, I suspect, sell relatively well, and from the outside, it appears that Simon and Schuster is going to put some muscle behind its publicity.

It also shows that Butler wrote the book that his editor wanted. It presupposes the validity of the third question; in point of fact, I’d go further and say that the assumed link between genius and madness in chess defines The Grandmaster. What’s worse, I don’t think that Butler begins to answer the second question, and he makes very little effort to even attempt the first.

Writing a serious book about chess or genius requires research. Optimally the author would talk to recognized experts, both in the chess world and beyond it. There is very little evidence in The Grandmaster that Butler did any pre-match research on Carlsen beyond reading the D.T. Max New Yorker piece from 2011 and watching the 2012 60 Minutes segment. He seems to have spent most of his time at the match talking to random people in the VIP area, and much of the book involves him chasing down whatever leads they gave him.

This might not have been a problem were the leads useful. Interviews with the the likes of Harry Benson, Frank Brady, Dick Cavett, and friends of the late Peter Winston might help us understand Fischer and his aftermath, but they they shed precious little light on Carlsen or the 2016 World Championship in broader context. Nor does the recounting of tales of mental illness among chess masters (131-5) help us to understand Carlsen’s psyche during the match. Carlsen is not Fischer, and the comparisons are, frankly, insulting.

The result is that The Grandmaster is salacious and ‘sexy,’ but terribly uninformed. It trades in tired cliches about players and fans. The general admission audience in New York is said to be old, crumpled, and hygienically challenged. (52-3) The Grandmasters in attendance are largely grifters. (58-60) While Butler gets the highly moneyed, oily, Russified feel of New York right, there’s little else in his recollections of the match that match up to my own.

George Plimpton strapped on a pair of shoulder pads while writing Paper Lion, and David Foster Wallace played a lifetime of tennis before coming to worship at the altar of Roger Federer. It’s clear, despite his description of a youthful dalliance with chess, one soaked with machismo and street hustling, that Butler is not a student of our game. The Grandmaster suffers for that lack of intimate knowledge. What could have been a bridge to a public looking to understand the world of chess is, alas, an opportunity missed.

Those looking for a more successful book about Carlsen would do well to check out IM Tibor Karoyli’s Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen. Karolyi is one of the most serious writers and analysts in chess today, with dense titles on Karpov and Tal to his credit. Here he turns his attention to Carlsen’s legendary endgame prowess, analyzing 91 positions that span his full career. The following example, “the first game in the book that Carlsen played at the level of an all-time great player,” (88) is both typical and delightful, and the uncited analysis is based on Karolyi’s.

image

SIMPLY A PLEASURE
GM Magnus Carlsen (FIDE 2698)
GM Zbynek Hracek (FIDE 2614)
Bundesliga 0607 (14.4), 31.03.2007

33.Ra6! Bb7 Heading for a pawn down endgame with an active rook. 34.Rxa7 Rxd6 35.Rxb7 Rd1+ 36.Kf2 Rd2+ 37.Kf1 Kg6 38.g4! Kf6

38. …f5! should be enough to draw.

39.b4 Rb2 40.b5 Rb1+ 41.Kf2 Rb2+ 42.Kg3 e5 43.b6 g6 44.Rb8 Kg7 45.Kh2 Kf6

If 45. …Rb1 46.b7 Kh7 47.g3 Kg7 48.Kg2 and White wins, but the computer suggests that Black might be able to draw after 47. …Rb2+.

46.Kg1 Ke6

Here 46. …Rb1+ (C.D. Meyer) may draw as well.

47.b7! Kf6 48.g3 g5 49.Kf1 Rb1+

49. …Ke7 50.f4! and “White clears the seventh rank in a few moves.” But what about 49. …Kg7?

50.Ke2

“The King continues its journey towards Black’s position. To spot its final destination and see the threat it will create requires imagination and the touch of a specially talented player.” (87)

50…Rb2+ 51.Kd3 Rb3+ 52.Kc4 Rb1 53.Kc5 Rc1+ 54.Kd6 Rd1+ 55.Kc6 Rc1+ 56.Kd7 Rb1 57.Ke8 Kg7

After 57…Rb2 58.Kf8 Rb3 59.Rc8!! threatens mate!

58.Ke7 Rb2 59.Kd6 Kf6 60.f4!! exf4 61.gxf4 gxf4 62.Rg8!!

“It is hard to find words to describe this! It would be a great thing if Magnus had found this tremendous idea somewhere around here, but I think he likely spotted it at move 47 (if not earlier at move 38). It would have been fabulous for him to find this in an adjourned game, but he did it over the board. It is simply a pleasure for the author to show you ideas like this.” (88)

62. …Rb6+

62. …Rxb7?? 63.e5#

63.Kc7 Rxb7+ 64.Kxb7 f3 65.Kc6 Ke5 66.Re8+ Kf4 67.Kd5 f6 68.Rf8 1–0

There is some attention to biography in Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen, and Karolyi makes an particular effort to describe Carlsen’s early style and opening choices. Still, this is a book about endgames, so if they’re not your cup of tea, it might not be the book for you. That, however, would be a shame. Endgame Virtuoso is another excellent effort from Tibor Karolyi, and I enjoyed it immensely.

There are other titles around devoted to Carlsen, of course, including Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein and Carlsen: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala. (The latter was reviewed here in February 2015.) Until very recently, there were none that featured Carlsen’s challenger. Now there are two: Caruana: Move by Move, also by Cyrus Lakdawala, and Alexander Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. The books are similar, as I’ll explain, but there are reasons one might choose between them for pre-match reading.

Caruana: Move by Move is a typical offering from Lakdawala, and I mean this in two respects. First, the book follows his usual schema for a player-focused Move by Move title, with six broad sections – the Attack, Defense and Counterattack, the Dynamic Element, Exploiting Imbalances, Accumulating Advantages, and the Endgame – dividing his 60 analyzed games.

There is also the issue of Lakdawala’s style, which is on full display in Caruana: Move by Move. If you have read any of his dozens of other titles, you know just what I’m talking about: the lack of authorial self-control, the metaphors that stretch on and reveal little, the strange nicknames. (Caruana becomes “Caru” here. No one calls him Caru.) Some readers absolutely love Lakdawala for this, while others – including me – are less enamoured.

Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games is a more traditional games collection, and it is organized in two parts. Part I, “The Rise of an American chess star,” sketches the trajectory of Caruana’s career with 25 games, archival interview material, etc. Part II, “Learn from Fabiano’s best games,” contains 37 games largely focused on the middlegame.

The analysis in both books is of a good standard, and both are surprisingly current in their coverage, including games through May of this year. I took a serious look at Lakdawala and Kalinin’s coverage of Carlsen-Caruana from the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in 2014 – an exciting Caruana victory ably covered by Ian Rogers in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life – and found both treatments entirely serviceable.

The choice between these two titles might come down to a decision between Lakdawala’s polarizing prose and Kalinin’s restraint and sobriety. If you like Lakdawala in general, you’ll like Caruana: Move by Move too. If not, Kalinin’s book would be a fine choice. For the record, I preferred the latter, but found the former pleasant as well.

In Your Faaaaaaaaaace!

This review has been printed in the October 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Stallings, Jay. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy. Series of six lesson books and six workbooks. Available at https://coachjayschessacademy.com/

There is a great democratization of access to chess teaching and wisdom afoot in today’s always-on, interconnected world. While there are economic barriers to grapple with – not everyone can afford a tablet, laptop, or smartphone, of course! – it remains the case that with the free streamers and lectures on YouTube and Twitch, alongside daily news on leading chess portals, today’s players have a world of chess knowledge available at their fingertips. The only problem is finding the time to consume it all.

For all of this free / freemium content, however, there are still precious few coherent teaching programs or courses available to the general public. It’s one thing to watch a few videos and feel as if one has learned something. It’s entirely another to work through a tried and tested, Elo-appropriate training system. To my knowledge there are only two or three such programs currently in print.

Chess Life Columnist and ‘teacher to the stars’ Lev Alburt was one of the first to offer this kind of series with his Comprehensive Chess Course. Volumes I and II were general works, offering to bring beginners to “tournament level,” while each of the remaining five volumes covered more specific areas of improvement. It’s hard to give an appropriate rating range for each of these titles, but early advertising[1] said that Volumes III (Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player) and IV (The King in Jeopardy) were “ideal for anyone rated 1400 to 2400+.”

The Stappenmethode, or Steps Method, is a more recent training system. Created by IM Cor van Wijgerden and Rob Brunia, the Steps are designed to bring a player from rank beginner to master-level strength over the course of seven levels or ‘steps,’ ideally under the tutelage of an experienced coach. While the Steps are widely used in Europe, they have (to my eye) only gained recognition here in the States in the past few years. I incorporate the Steps in my own teaching and training, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.[2]

One might also consider in this context Artur Yusupov’s nine-book series with Quality Chess. In this triple triptych – three three-volume series originally aimed at 1500+, 1800+, and 2100+ players – readers will certainly gain knowledge and skills to inch towards master, but the advertised target audiences are decidedly too low, and the books presuppose quite a bit of learning on the part of its readers.

Now there is a new series of training materials from Jay “Coach Jay” Stallings, a leading scholastic coach in California and a member of the US Chess Scholastic Council. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, as the set of fourteen books is collectively known, is immensely promising, and I can see it becoming popular both with those learning to play chess and (especially) those who teach it.

Coach Jay’s Chess Academy takes a page from the martial arts and is divided into seven levels or ‘Belts.’ Each of the Belts – White (for players rated roughly 0-300), Yellow ( 300-600), Orange (600-900), Green (900-1200), Purple (1200-1500), Blue (1500-1800) and Black (1700-2000) – includes a lesson book, a puzzle book, and a Chess Passport with stickers to celebrate accomplishments and milestones. The books are extremely well designed, full of color and fun drawings to draw in young minds, and the ‘gamification’ of progress via the Passport and stickers is a master stroke.

I recently had the chance to test-drive Stallings’ books at two weeklong, half-day chess camps here in Omaha. The morning group, consisting mainly of complete and near-beginners, was largely structured around the White Belt lessons and puzzle book. In the afternoon, with campers who were more advanced, we focused on attacking play, and I used pages from the Green and Purple books as part of those sessions.

The White Belt books do a very good job of imparting the basics, including all of the rules needed to play a complete game except en passant. Because I began with a standard lesson on the pieces and the “three weird moves” of chess – castling, promotion, and en passant – this wasn’t a serious problem, but it does seem slightly odd to not cover it at the outset.

Stallings follows his initial lesson on the pieces with a wonderful rendering of “Farmer and Pigs,” which I have always known (with slightly different rules) as the Anteater. White begins with eight pawns on the 2nd rank, while Black has only her queen on d8. White wins if a ‘pig’ gets to the 8th rank, while the ‘farmer’ (Black’s queen) wins by capturing all the pigs. The game seems simple, but it gets the kids moving the pieces very early in the learning process, and Stallings models basic strategy in the examples. Most importantly, it’s fun!

The discussion of mates is also worth mention. Stallings uses a number of neologism, including the ‘rook roller’ and the ‘in-your-face’ (helper mate), to teach basic mate patterns. The kids quickly grasped these basic mates, and had little trouble extending their knowledge – “that’s just like the rook roller!” – to similar positions. They also, in a plot twist no one could have foreseen, loved bellowing “in your faaaace!” when mating their opponents.

In the afternoon sessions, I focused on typical attacking ideas and motifs, including opening lines to attack a king trapped in the center, breaching castled positions, and knowing key checkmate patterns. We spent quite a bit of time on ‘attacking ratio’ or preponderance of attacking force, and I used Stallings’ pages on the Greek Gift from the Green Belt book to illustrate the ‘three piece rule’ popularized by Jacob Aagaard.[3]

The idea behind this rule is simple. A successful king hunt generally needs three pieces to succeed: one to give itself up for access, and two to deliver mate. (More generally, you can’t just attack because you want to. Your position must allow it!) The Greek Gift pattern, as Aagaard notes, is the clearest exemplar of this rule, and Stallings does an excellent job of explaining the key mechanisms. He shows two versions of the pattern, one with bishop-knight-queen and one with bishop-rook-queen, and importantly, he offers positions where the sacrifice is unsuccessful.

One of the campers came to me the day after this lesson, proudly telling me that she’d pulled off the sacrifice in an online game. We retrieved the game from chesskid.com and looked at it as a group. True, she did win the game, and the final mate followed the typical pattern, but there were at least three junctures where her opponent could have diverged with easily winning positions.

A junior’s making a mistake is not surprising, even when they are as dedicated and talented as this young lady. But here it raises the issue of good pedagogy. What does a player rated 1000 need to know to advance in chess? What is too much, or too advanced? Stallings’ lesson continues with discussion of Alekhine’s Block (using Alekhine-Sterk, 1921 as an example), and it concludes with a brilliancy that combines the two motifs.

image

Here Miles played

13. …Bxh2+! The Greek Gift!

14.Kxh2 Qh4+ 15.Kg1 Bf3!! Alekhine’s Block!

16.Nd2 If 16.gxf3 Rf6 then Black must play 17.Rfe1 Qh3! before 18. …Rg6 or White’s king escapes.

16. …Bxg2! 17.f3 Rf6 18.Nc4 Bh3 0–1

Keep in mind that this is a lesson in the Green Belt book, aimed at players rated 900-1200. Does it help them to see these complex patterns, or do they apply them inappropriately, sacrificing when the position does not justify it? I certainly don’t have a clear answer here, but my impression, for what it’s worth, is that Stallings tends to introduce material early relative to rating, while the Steps Method tends to introduce it later.[4]

This is not the only difference between Coach Jay’s Chess Academy and the Steps Method, but it is illustrative. Further discussion of those differences seems appropriate here, if for no other reason than the Steps are the closest analogue to Stallings’ books currently on the market.

Stallings’ books are designed to get a player ready to play in a tournament quickly. Any player who can “complete a game without needing to be reminded of any rules” is, he says, ready for tournament play.[5] This is reflected in the initial Belts, which are paced fairly aggressively (per the included Lesson Plans). The Steps, in contrast, are designed to be traversed very slowly, with tournament play being postponed for as long as possible. I don’t have a definite idea as to which is preferable, but I will say that in my experience, holding off from tournament play is a tough sell with American parents.

Stallings’ books introduce material and concepts faster than in the Steps, as mentioned above, but with vastly fewer puzzles for practice and reinforcement. (Some Steps have over 2000 positions to complete over four or five workbooks.) This is, in part, due to the relative ages of both systems. Coach Jay’s Chess Academy has just been released after a successful Kickstarter campaign, while the Steps Method has been around for over thirty years. But it also may reflect a philosophical difference, again related to speed of progress.

There is a much more prominent stress on chess history and stories in Stallings’ books, and there are more nicknames given to typical motifs – the ‘in your ear’ and ‘in your cheek’ mates as variants of the helper mate, the ‘buddy system’ and ‘give and go’ in the endgame – compared to the Steps. I can see how this might be useful when talking with students about important ideas, providing an easy shorthand for quick discussion. But it is idiosyncratic, and the neologisms do not always translate outside of a “Coach Jay group.”

One key difference is the availability of support materials in each system. Each Step has a thick manual for trainers, containing model teaching materials, discussion of the psychology of learning, etc. The Coaches Guides for Coach Jay’s Chess Academy are slight by comparison. Again, this is something that I assume will be remedied over time, but for newer learners and teachers, having a fully-fleshed out ‘philosophy’ as in the Steps may be of no small benefit.

I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far in Coach Jay’s Chess Academy, and I have already begun to think about how I can incorporate his materials into both my teaching and my self-training. (Those Black Belt positions are hard, folks!) The books are well-designed and attractive, and the gamification features are a neat innovation. I’m especially pleased to see the emphasis on chess history and culture. While I’m not ready to abandon my beloved Steps just yet, I think that chess teachers and learners would benefit by earning some Belts with “Coach Jay.”

Nota bene: I was a Kickstarter supporter for this series of books. I have never met Jay Stallings, and I have no financial stake in the success or failure of these books.


[1] See Chess Life, April 1997, page 25.

[2] You can read my full review of the Steps at my blog, which also contains ‘off-prints’ of all of my columns for Chess Life: https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-chess-steps/

[3] See Aagaard, Jacob. Attacking Manual 2. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2010. 25.

[4] The Greek Gift first appears in Step 5, Lesson 14 (“Attacking the King”) of the Steps Method. Thanks to Rob Lazorchak for the reference.

[5] Stallings, Jay. “How to Teach Your Kid Chess.” Page 52. PDF available online at http://teachyourkidchess.com

Fascinating and Frustrating

This review has been printed in the September 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Kislik, Erik. Applying Logic in Chess. London: Gambit Publications, 2018. ISBN 978-1911465249. PB 320pp.

Looking back at recent month’s columns, I have noticed a rather evident bias towards ‘serious’ titles and topics, often devoted to calculation, solving, or improvement. Such an emphasis is not too surprising – after all, research is me-search, as the old saying goes – but it also completely neglects huge swaths of chess literature. Last month’s column was a first step in redressing this bias, and I hope to broaden my scope in the months to come.

So why, then, am I reviewing another serious tome here?

Let me put it simply. IM Erik Kislik’s Applying Logic in Chess is one of the most interesting titles to appear in recent years, but it is also one of the most maddening. Rarely have I been at once so fascinated and utterly frustrated by one and the same book. Surely something that can prompt such a visceral reaction deserves discussion.

Erik Kislik is an American International Master currently living in Hungary. He works as a trainer for IMs and GMs like Spanish Super-GM Paco Vallejo, and he bills himself as “an expert in computer chess and one of the most in-demand chess trainers on ICC [chessclub.com].” Applying Logic in Chess is his first book, and it is a vastly ambitious effort, offering readers a comprehensive, no-holds-barred rendering of his ideas about chess improvement and training.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing Kislik’s book is a direct result of this ambition. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the vast terrain he tries to cover over the course of the text, and it’s very hard to synthesize his ideas succinctly. One hand-hold, as it were, can be carved through a consideration of the meaning of the book’s title, and an exploration of what Kislik means by logic.

Consider this example, taken from Chapter 7 (“Is Chess a Logical Game?”) of Applying Logic in Chess. Kislik employs it to show how the employment of “simple logic in complex positions” can allow us to penetrate “right to the heart of a position.” (178) The text and notes are his.

image

Here is a study that was used during the world solving championship of 2015 and stumped some of the best solvers in the world. One might assume that the position is illogical and has an irrational solution because some elite chess solvers struggled with it. This position is actually not as random as you might imagine. The way I arrived at the correct solution was by realizing that Black has two unique threats: taking on g2 and playing …c2. There is actually only one move that stops both of those threats:

1.Be4!! White gives up a bishop, but uses the tempo effectively to trade off a bunch of pawns.

1. …Rxe4+ 2.Kd3 White hits the black rook with tempo and attempts to capture the two remaining pawns as quickly as possible.

2. …Ra4! After 2. …Rc4, 3.dxc3 draws.

3.Rxa4 Bxb5+ 4.Rc4+! This distracts the bishop. 4.Kxc3?? Bxa4 leaves the white king cut off because it cannot come to c2 to get in front of the a-pawn.

4. …Bxc4+ If 4. …Kb7 5.Kxc3 Bxc4 6.Kc2.

5.Kxc3 Kd7 After 5. …a2 6.Kb2 White draws by giving up the d-pawn.

6.Kc2 Kc6 6. …Ba2 7.Kc3 , intending Kb4, is an important point.

7.Kb1 White gives up the d-pawn to achieve a simple theoretically drawn position in which Black can never make progress if White just keeps the king in the corner behind the a-pawn.

The logic behind the solution to this study is clear: by discerning Black’s threats, White was able to figure out the only ways to stop them that would allow favourable simplification. (178)

What is the nature of this ‘logic behind the solution?’ Clearly, and despite Kislik’s talk of ‘first principles’ (15) and informal fallacies (11, 78, 103), we are not dealing with any sort of formal logical system that might undergird all of our thinking. Here we must also note how misleading the book’s cover is. There is nothing in the text that resembles a flowchart for thought.

Instead, Kislik has a more modest, if equivocal, understanding of logic and reason in chess. In an important passage that appears just before the above example, he writes:

…sometimes the logic of a position is very simple and allows us to play 20 perfect moves in a row if we simply grasp the main point of the position. This is one of many reasons to hone your chess logic and your logical skills in chess. … The fact that there is always a clear explanation for every single error you have ever made in a game is powerful evidence that chess is a rational game. When a position does not make sense to you, it is simply because you have no experience or knowledge in that type of position. Building experience and knowledge in different types of positions is one of the most valuable skills to work on improving as a result. (177)

I’m reminded here of a Boris Pasternak poem, where the great Russian bard writes of his desire to reach “[t]o the essence of the passing days / To their cause / To the bases, to the roots, / To the very core.”[1] We can say that chess is logical and rational because it is a game of perfect information, subject to comprehensive study with databases and engines. More than that, however, we need to undertake structured, intensive study of the game to build our skill in discerning the key features of different positions and uncovering their ‘logic.’

[An aside: it occurs to me that playing for counterplay / mate with 1.Bd5!? is no less logical than Kislik and Minski’s solution, if we understand ‘logical’ to mean responsive to the key features of the position. After 1. …c2! 2.b6 (with the idea of Ra8#) 2. …Kd8 3.Rc5 appears to save the bishop and stop the c-pawn. Only intensive analysis exposes the flaw in this plan. The key points (drawn from Minski’s solution) also appear in the downloadable pgn file at uschess.org.]

Here is where Kislik’s book absolutely shines. Applying Logic in Chess is filled to the brim with advice for improvement, and I cannot begin to hope to discuss it all here. What follows is a paltry, partial list of some of the highlights.

  • Following Larry Kaufman’s work, Kislik argues (14-26) that we need to more precisely value the pieces. The familiar 1-3-3-5-10 scale is replaced with 1 (pawn), 3.45 (knight), 3.55 (bishop), 5.25 (rook) and 10 (queen). The bishop pair is worth half a pawn, while a tempo is equivalent to about a quarter of a pawn.
  • Kislik’s ideal playing style, especially in light of modern time controls, is to play simple, healthy, ‘logical’ moves, and reserve complexity and calculation for critical moments. (38-9) Here he follows Carlsen and eschews the dreaded ‘Tal Syndrome.’
  • Playing is most important for improvement, followed by game analysis, and only then training. (Chapter 3)
  • Kislik uses an extended version of Jacob Aagaard’s ‘three questions’ (45) to orient thought during games. He adds two to the list: Dorfman’s “Who benefits from the exchange of queens?,” and “what are the pawn-breaks?”
  • Training should be divided into temporary and permanent tasks. It should be ‘task-oriented’ instead of ‘result- or ego-oriented.’ This could be read alongside Aagaard’s discussion of growth mindsets.
  • Kislik differentiates between six facets of chess strength (chapter 4): concrete knowledge, pattern recognition, calculation, candidate moves, positional understanding, and logic. He offers specific training advice for each element.
  • He favors CT-ART over online tactical trainers for achieving basic tactical competence. (106) Once a week he runs through an already-solved tactics book to reinforce key patterns. (86)
  • One of the most important elements in Kislik’s vision for improvement is the accumulation of ‘chess culture’ through the study of master games. This can be broken down into three parts. (a) Players should study every game from World Championship matches after 1930. (b) They should scan through relevant games each week in TWIC. (c) They should especially study annotated games collections by the players themselves.
  • There is an extensive discussion of, and heavy emphasis on, the proper use of engines and chess databases in analysis and opening study. (Chapters 8-10) Kislik’s expertise is evident in these pages, and for me, this is perhaps the best part of the book.
  • Chapter 10, devoted to ‘metagame strategy,’ is immensely thoughtful. Here he treats questions related to opening choice, how to prepare and maintain a repertoire, and his methods for building opening files.

This list barely scratches the surface of what appears in Applying Logic in Chess. Hardly a page is turned without readers encountering something thought-provoking. Still, we might sum it up as follows: work very, very hard; use computers to study; and use our cultivated chess ‘logic’ to play quick, solid moves.

There is a lot that is new, or new to me, in this book, including discussion of conditional equality (154-160), the ‘burden of proof’ (239) and the ‘most obvious move’ principle (128). But Kislik also overstates the originality of much of what he proposes, and fails to engage / recognize key literature. De la Maza and Tikkanen have independently argued for a form of spaced repetition in tactical study. (86) Shereshevsky and Silman both prescribed extensive study of historical games (117-8). And Jacob Aagaard offers an influential account of critical moments, which Kislik would have done well to engage. (285)

Worse, when he is not crowing about the novelty of his ideas, Kislik tends to set up straw men to demolish. The first pages of the chapter on logic (ch 7) are a prime example of this tendency. He presents ‘common arguments’ and ‘common beliefs’ in order to punch them down, but the ‘arguments’ (note – they are not arguments but bald assertions) are so asinine that they barely merit attention. Phrases like “I’ve never seen anyone write about X” and “I’ve never met anyone who did Y” appear throughout the text. It’s pure bluster, and the ideas in the book are more than strong enough to stand without such puffery.

In the end I think Applying Logic in Chess is an excellent book, but one that should have gone through (at least) another round of developmental editing. I love the fact that there are multi-page stretches unsullied by diagrams or analysis – there is plenty of analysis too, of course – and I cannot think of another book with so many pearls of wisdom strewn, if somewhat randomly, through its pages. It is frustrating that that you have to do a lot of sifting to find them, but rest assured that the process is entirely worthwhile.

Nota Bene: In the interest of full disclosure, I took a one-time lesson with Erik Kislik in 2015, mainly focused on his understanding of best practices for ChessBase and engine use. I have had no other substantial contact with him since then.


[1] Pasternak, Boris. “Во всем мне хочется дойти…” translator unknown. Taken from Dvoretsky, Mark. Secrets of Chess Training. London: Batsford, 2001. iv.

CJA Awards 2018

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

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

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

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

Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

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

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

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

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

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

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.0–0 Nh6

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

9.e5! Nf5?

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

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

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

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

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

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

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

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


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

One Small Step

This review has been printed in the July 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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7.h3?

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

7. …Rg8!

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

8.Kh1

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

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

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

1. Pawns can become vulnerable as they advance.

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

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

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

5. Advancing pawns can become a hook.

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

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

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

2. They can easily fall prey to attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. …b4? 21.Bxg6! hxg6

21. …fxg6? 22.Qe6+ is crushing.

22.Qh4!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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