Monthly Archives: April 2014

“The Soviet Chess Patriarch”

This review has been printed in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Soltis, Andy.  Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0786473373. HB $49.95; currently $39.96 at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Botvinnik: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2013.  400 pp.  ISBN 978-1781941027.  PB $29.95; currently $22ish at Amazon.

The Dover edition of Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hundred Selected Games was my first ‘real’ (non-primer) chess book, and it made quite an impression on me. Some of the Patriarch’s moves seemed other-worldly, as if they were made by a superior alien intelligence. While I was too young to fully grasp the propaganda embedded within the introductory essays, I tried to follow his advice for improvement – without, sadly, much success.

Now two new books – Andrew Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion and Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move – have been published. With their release, a new generation of chess fans will, I hope, be introduced to the life and games of the Sixth World Champion.

Soltis’ book is a sober and scholarly biographical study. Here was someone who was as feared as he was respected among his Soviet peers, who spent nearly thirty years in a futile attempt to create an ‘intelligent’ computer program, and who defended Stalin until his death. Botvinnik portrayed himself in his writings as a kind of Communist superman, and his self-assurance and iron-cast beliefs were legendary. He remains something of an enigma, especially to a post-1989 reader.

Soltis’ Botvinnik is a man who was thoroughly of his time and place. The internal logic and teleology of Marxism may be hard to grasp today, but for Botvinnik, it was simply a given that the revolution begun in 1917 would inevitably lead to global Communism. This was not a wish or hope; this was science. Botvinnik tried to bring a similar rigor and logic to the chessboard and to his life more broadly.

In the 30s and 40s, as Soltis suggests (174), Botvinnik’s dominance was in no small part due to his superior training and opening preparation. Afterwards, it was his technical dominance, and his skill in adjourned positions, that allowed him to remain as first among equals.

This is not to say that Botvinnik’s success was restricted to the chessboard. Again and again Botvinnik used his influence with important Party leaders to advance his career and sidetrack his opponents. Soltis does an excellent job of tracing the numerous threads of patronage and influence that aided Botvinnik throughout his career.

One hundred and nineteen games and positions are included in Soltis’ book. The notes tend to follow the general contours of Botvinnik’s own, and Soltis also references Alexander Khalifman’s analysis. While the games are not the main focus of the book, they represent a sizeable chunk of the text, covering a decent cross-section of Botvinnik’s career.

Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Soltis’ book. Lakdawala has written four books in the Move by Move series on specific players – the others being Capablanca, Kramnik and Korchnoi – and this book follows the usual template. Botvinnik’s games are the star of the show, and Lakdawala uses them to illustrate the Patriarch’s skill in six areas: attack, defense, dynamics, exploiting imbalances, accumulating advantages, and the endgame.

Lakdawala offers copious notes to the sixty games, and as is standard for the Move by Move series, he intersperses questions and answers in the analysis. Lakdawala is obviously trying to inject humor and vitality into his prose. The text is full of bombast: the Velimirovic Attack is “psychotic” (107) and one of Tal’s moves is “insane” (230). There are a lot of ten-dollar words in Botvinnik: Move by Move, and at times they obscure the otherwise excellent analysis in the book.

Style, of course, is a very personal thing. I don’t think that Botvinnik, who (on Soltis’ account) modeled his annotations on Stalin’s ‘terse’ manner of speech, would be thrilled with Lakdawala’s excesses, but plenty of readers seem to like it just fine. Of more concern are the faulty generalizations and factual inaccuracies. It’s not true, for example, that Botvinnik was “faithful to his beloved Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian his entire life” (50), and there is no statistical evidence for the repeated claim that Botvinnik was nearly invincible in games with opposite-side castling.

The games in the two books don’t overlap dramatically. Nineteen are common to both on my count. Both books are physically attractive and generally free from typographical errors.[1] I suspect that different readers will gravitate to one book or the other, and given their marked stylistic variance, this should not surprise. Those who want to enjoy Botvinnik’s best games with a enthusiastic guide should consider Lakdawala’s, and those more interested in a careful study of Botvinnik as person and player might turn to Soltis. Both can be recommended, but readers should consider their own preferences in choosing one or both books.

[1] I found two typos in Soltis (Botvinnik-Sorokin was played in 1931 and not 1951 on p.47, and the ECO code for Botvinnik-Stahlberg should be D32 and not D22 on p.83) and one in Lakdawala (an ellipse was not closed, but the page number eludes me). This does not include the questionable grammatical constructions in Lakdawala, the most grating of which was “I conjecture: …” (165).


Polishing the Gem

Moskalenko, Victor.  The Diamond Dutch: Strategic Ideas & Powerful Weapons.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. 300pp. ISBN 978-9056914417. PB $29.95; currently about $21 at Amazon.

Victor Moskalenko is one of our most consistently – with one misstep – engaging and creative chess authors.  His two books on the French – The Wonderful Winawer and The Flexible French (sadly out-of-print) – are both original and erudite.  When I was putting together my French repertoire, in fact, I found that Moskalenko’s French books walk that very fine line between not enough detail and entirely too much.  His analysis is clear, if sometimes idiosyncratic, and he explains the key ideas and themes well.  Moskalenko has also penned books on the Budapest and the Pirc-Modern.  Now he takes on the Dutch, an opening that is growing in popularity as it appears more and more at the Grandmaster level.

The Diamond Dutch is a complete book on the Dutch.  It covers all the major Dutch and anti-Dutch lines without favoring White or Black in the process, as sometimes happens in repertoire books.  While the Stonewall, Classical and Leningrad variations are all treated here, the Stonewall and Leningrad receive a slightly larger share of Moskalenko’s attention; those interested in the Classical or the ‘Dutch Nimzo-Indian’ should note this.

This book follows Moskalenko’s usual format in that it uses complete games to anchor the analysis.  There is quite a bit of prose, and Moskalenko makes use of a number of symbols (or emojis?!) to make certain ideas or analytical bits prominent.  You can get a sense of how this plays out in the text by looking at the sample pdf on the New in Chess website.  There is a key on p.4 of the pdf (p.8 in the book) and some of the symbols appear in the sample text that follows.

It’s always interesting to see how new opening books stack up to their peers.  In his review, for example, Dennis Monokroussos compared Moskalenko’s analysis of 2.Nc3 with that offered by John Watson in his recent (and excellent, by the way!) A Strategic Opening Repertoire for White. He also compares Moskalenko’s coverage of 2.Bg5 with with Larry Kaufman’s analysis in his Kaufman Repertoire.

Having reviewed Richard Pert’s book on the Trompowsky, which contains analysis of 2.Bg5 vs the Dutch, I had thought that I might undertake a similar comparison for my review.  Moskalenko does not cite Pert – his bibliography is surprisingly slight – so perhaps such a comparison might be both illustrative and illuminating.  What I found was interesting, although perhaps not in the way I had expected.

Pert’s analysis, on first blush, seemed to anticipate a lot of Moskalenko’s, and with good reason!  Pert cites NIC Yearbook surveys by Moskalenko in the introduction to his analysis.  When I went back to the two surveys in NIC Yearbooks 94 and 95, I was in for a bit of a shock.  There is a tremendous amount of overlap between the surveys and the 2.Bg5 chapter in The Diamond Dutch.  Indeed, it is as if the 2.Bg5 chapter is a condensed version of these two surveys.  The games are much the same, the analysis is quite similar, and great swathes of prose appear verbatim in both places.

There is more.  Chapters 4 and 5 in The Diamond Dutch are ‘broader update[s]’ (87) of two chapters from Revolutionize Your Chess.  Moskalenko acknowledges this in the introduction to chapter 4, and while there are improvements and updates in the text – most notably, the hamfisted ‘touchstones’ from Revolutionize are omitted here – Moskalenko paraphrases his previous analysis and text when not simply reprinting it.

Some of these updates are found in other NIC Yearbooks.  HIs attempt to outfox Avrukh (ch4, pp.128-138) is anticipated by a survey in NIC YB 101, albeit with a number of updates and refinements new toThe Diamond Dutch.  Pages 123-128 find a very near relative in a survey from NIC YB 102.  Finally, the notes to some other games – Van Wely-Moskalenko, Ciudad Real 2004, for instance – have clear antecedents in the notes in surveys for Chessbase Magazine 120 and 121.

Let me be clear.  I’m not opposed to an author reworking previously published material, especially if the material is as good as that in The Diamond Dutch.  I’d simply like to see some kind of acknowledgement of that repackaging and reworking somewhere in the book.

That said, all of this reworking and updating finds its end in a finely polished analytical effort.  In my survey of Moskalenko’s analysis of 2.Bg5, for instance, I thought that the chapter was a broad and representative survey of all the main lines for both sides.  Whereas Pert gives a tight repertoire for White, Moskalenko provides enough material for both White and Black to navigate the variation.  I did, however, note a curious omission. After 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.h4 Moskalenko analyzes 4…h6 and 4…Nh6, omitting 4…Nf6.  This, to me, is like leaving the punch line off the joke, since the whole point of the h4 push is (a la Pert and Schandorff) to sacrifice the exchange on h5 if Black plays …Nf6!

Fans of Simon Williams and his ‘Killer Dutch’ will be glad to know that Moskalenko addresses one of the current difficulties in the Classical Dutch.  He confirms Williams’ idea (given here in the essential ChessPub forums by Williams himself!) that after the critical line 1.Nf3 f5 2.d4 e6 3.c4 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.Nc3 Ne4!? 8.Nxe4!? Black should continue 8…fxe4 9.Nd2 d5 10.f3!? Nc6!? with decent prospects.

Dutch aficionados will find in The Diamond Dutch a ‘refined’ and reliable guide to all major variations.  Those who play closed positions with White will find much here to inspire the next assault on Black’s f-pawn.  I do not think there is a better guide to the Dutch – for either color – currently in print.

Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.


(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).


Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.

An Encyclopedia for the 21st Century

Petronijevic, Zoran, and Branko Tadic, ed.  Encyclopedia of Chess Endings: Volume II – Rook Endings, 1st Part.  2nd ed.  Belgrade: Šahovski Informator, 2014.  HB 511pp.  ISBN 978-8672970692.  Approximately $45-50 on Amazon.  Also available at the publisher’s website.

You could, when I was a child, buy individual volumes of an encyclopedia – not World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica, but some sad impostor – at the grocery store.  A new volume would show up a few weeks later, and if you had the cash, you’d add the next volume to your burgeoning collection.  Eventually the sum total of collective knowledge would reside on your shelf, there to sit unread for years and years to come.  (Really – how many of you got past A or B?)

The age of the print encyclopedia has come and gone with the advent of the Internet and, in particular, Wikipedia.  Hard-earned expertise has been replaced with crowd-sourced wisdom, and given the breadth and speed of the web, there’s something almost quaint about the printing of a brief of what we know in book form.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are still some corners of human knowledge that lend themselves to summary.  Chess just might be one of those corners.  The publishers of the Šahovski Informator have revised and republished two volumes in the Encyclopedia of Chess Endings series, and the second of those, on pure rook endings, is under consideration in this review.  It is a book that every strong player, and every player looking to improve their understanding of rook endings, should consider for their library.

The first edition of ECE II (1985) was out of print for some time, as was ECE I (1982), which was devoted to pawn endings.  Both were hard to find; this was, presumably, because rook and pawn endings are among the most important for the practical player to master.  With this new edition of ECE II, over two hundred examples (1930 in v2 compared with 1727 in v1) have been added to the book and analysis has been updated / corrected.  Such updates are critical given the emergence of strong analytical engines and the contributions of tablebases to endgame knowledge.

One of my go-to tests for assessing any endgame materials is to compare them with the analysis being done in the Chesspub forums.  Did the writer / editor do their due diligence and scour the globe for new ideas and discoveries?  Immediately I checked the player index in ECE II and looked for Adrian Hollis, scholar of the classics, grandmaster of correspondence chess, and holder of the White pieces in the 1972 postal game Hollis v. Florian.   This is #1357 and 1358 in ECE II.

ChessPub forum members Micawber and Poghosyan have published numerous corrections to older analysis of this game along with other similar (a-pawn or b-pawn 4-3 rook endings) positions, many of which have found their way into the works of Dvoretsky and Muller.  Their analysis is properly cited in the appropriate positions (1357-1376), and I confirmed that IM Petronijevic had in fact monitored the ChessPub forum to keep tabs on discoveries there.  (There is unfortunately no bibliography of sources in ECE II.  After my e-mail inquiry, Petronijevic mentioned that he’d collected approximately 5000 positions for possible inclusion in the book, and that he’d used most of the major reference books and magazine articles in its writing.)

Before my recent and ill-fated entry in the 2014 Nebraska State Closed Championship, I spent quite a bit of time playing out rook endings against both human and silicon opponents.  I would choose a position from ECE II at semi-random, play it out, and then compare the results with the published analysis.  What I found was not explanations of the ideas – the analysis is wordless, as is standard for Informant publications – but compact, dense analysis of most of the major tries and key lines.  Some of my faulty moves in the training games were anticipated in the analysis, and it was interesting to see how long I (or the weaker engines I played) could hold out before making mistakes.

Because the book is without explanatory prose, this is not an ideal book for the beginner who wants to learn about rook endings.  I can recommend for such players Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings, Minev’s A Practical Guide to Rook Endings, or Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings.  The classics one volume guides by Dvoretsky and Muller are also very good, if perhaps for a slightly advanced player.

ECE II is not perfect.  No chess book is.  The aformentioned Vardan Poghosyan has found one oversight in #1736, where – despite a number of revisions to the the original example – John Nunn’s 2009 improvement on Portisch-Petrosian 1974 is not included.  (Here is the analysis for the endgame junkies among you.)  Still, having checked through a number of examples using comically powerful engines and tablebases via the Chessbase Engine Cloud, the errors are few and far between.  The analysis is both terse and fairly complete.  That’s not easy; my hat is off to the editor. The book is also physically sturdy, its binding typical (in my experience) for good Eastern European hardbacks.

If you’re interested in rook endgames and looking for study material, it’s hard to think of a better buy than ECE II.  The book is just a brick of well-analyzed rook endings, and it provides great bang for your buck.  There’s no getting around the need to master rook endgames if you want to advance in chess.  For the player looking to improve, and for lovers of the endgame, ECE II is well worth the investment.

Note: ECE II is only currently available at Amazon via third-party sellers.  You may want to buy directly from the publisher – they ship worldwide from Belgrade via DHL, and I’ve found the process to be shockingly quick.