Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sac’ing the Exchange

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

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.


As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.