The Spice of (Chess) Life

This review has been printed in the November 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915957. PB 240pp. List $26.95.

Chess, unlike poker, is a game of complete information. All of the pieces are on the board, and none are hidden from sight. Each player has access to the same information when deciding on their moves, but what is done with that knowledge will naturally vary from person to person.

In poker, players lack knowledge of one or more cards belonging to other players or the community. This lack of complete knowledge allows players to bluff, to act as if they have hands that depart dramatically from what they actually possess. One of the reasons that televised poker became such a fad in the ‘aughts’ was the introduction of the hole cam, giving viewers more information than the players themselves and exposing the logic (or lack thereof) of betting actions.

On the face of it, it would seem impossible to bluff in a game of complete information like chess. Once a move is played, it is what it is, and a player cannot dissimulate its strength or weakness. And yet, as Vladimir Tukmakov shows us in Risk and Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks, carefully modulated risk and the well-timed bluff can be powerful tools when used judiciously.

Tukmakov, who moonlights as the personal second of Anish Giri, is the author of two previous books. In the first, Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Tukmakov tells the story of his chess career, rising from promising junior to member of the Soviet Olympic team and top-fifty player for nearly two decades. In the second, Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, he sketches the history of chess preparation and treats in fascinating detail the role of the computer in contemporary preparation.

This theme – the centrality of the ‘silicon friend’ (SF) in modern chess – recurs in Risk and Bluff in Chess. Risky moves are quickly debunked by even the casual fan armed with the latest engine. Brilliant bluffs are ridiculed. What is forgotten is that chess remains a game played between two humans, each of whom is fallible, subject to emotion and fatigue. Tukmakov’s book reminds us that it is still possible, and in some cases necessary, to risk and bluff our way to victory in the age of the machines.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is less a how-to manual than it is a series of inspirational vignettes. We meet the hero of the tale in its first chapter. While Tukmakov sees historical antecedents in Lasker and Alekhine, and contemporaries in Larsen, Spassky and Stein, it is in the games of Mikhail Tal that he identifies a mutation in how we assess risk in chess.

Tal possessed the unique ability to steer games towards unbalanced positions where his “remaining pieces acquired a completely different value, and operated with a harmony that only he could achieve.” (45) This is not to say that he played incorrectly. The computer, as Tukmakov notes, reveals that in many cases Tal’s sacrifices were entirely sound. He brought an “unrepeatable magic” (47) to the game, and that magic brought him to the world championship.

In the remainder of the book, we see how risk and bluff function in various situations, including the opening (chapter 2), defense (chapter 6), and must-win games (chapter 8). Of particular interest for the practical player is the fourth chapter, titled “The Logic of the Irrational.”

Granting, as Tukmakov does, that not everyone can play like Tal, what might a reader take from this chapter? In discussing positions where the board seems to have been constructed almost at random, Tukmakov offers two pointers. One must rely on one’s intuition as “one cannot calculate the incalculable.” (124) There is also a rule that Tukmakov finds useful: “non-standard positions require non-standard decisions.” Examples are drawn from the games of Larsen, Gelfand, Kortchnoi and Tukmakov himself (among others) to illustrate these ideas, and the chapter wraps up with a ‘Conclusion’ that reads like a coach’s pep talk.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is a fascinating study of two often misunderstood themes in chess. It is not an instructional work in the usual sense of the term, but it might inspire readers to add a bit of spice to their play. Tukmakov’s analysis tends towards the comprehensive, so some sophistication is required to take its full measure. All the same, I suspect that most players who have a taste for complication in chess would enjoy this book.

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One thought on “The Spice of (Chess) Life

  1. Pingback: Everyman Roundup | Chess Book Reviews

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