Monthly Archives: June 2016

Rage, rage…

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Chess for Life. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093832. PB 224pp. List $24.95, currently $18.63 at Amazon.

When a non-chess player sees a 10 year old playing an adult they feel sympathy for the child. When a chess player sees the same thing he feels sympathy for the adult.

– Brian Karen

Aging is, if we’re lucky, an inevitable element of human existence. On the whole we trade rapidity of thought for wisdom, but the hard fact of aging for chess players is that the trade is never equal. While we can play chess until we the day we die, the competitive nature of the game means that after a certain age, our results and ratings will begin to slip.

This is particularly true in the age of the machines. The concrete nature of modern chess practice tilts the playing field towards youth and their silicon-sharpened calculative abilities. Adult players could work harder to keep up, try to hone our dwindling skills as well as we can, but with jobs and children and all those responsibilities, this is an arms race that we cannot hope to win.

What’s a rapidly-approaching-middle-age guy to do? (Remember – research is me-search, folks.)

The subtitle of Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s Chess for Life is “understanding how chess skills develop and change with the passage of time.” It is also fairly illustrative of the book as a whole. In a series of interviews with, and case studies of, ‘older’ chess players, Sadler and Regan have written a thought-provoking and useful book for players of all ages. ‘Mature’ players will find it particularly helpful, however, as much of the material focuses on specific challenges faced by aging competitors.

Sadler and Regan are listed as co-authors of Chess for Life, but the preface makes clear that the division of labor was not equal. Sadler is responsible for the chess content and analytical work, while Regan crunched some of the data and worked over the prose. Both co-authors were involved in the ten interviews published in the book. You can see a table of contents, and therefore a list of interviewees, in this sample provided by Gambit.

The interviews are generally well done, and I can recommend most of them, excepting those with Judit Polgar, Ingrid Lauterbach and Sergei Tiviakov. These interviews are too cursory to do anything but scratch the surface of questions raised, although Tiviakov’s is partially redeemed by the case study that follows it.

Indeed, it is in the case studies, and in the manner in certain case studies augment the interviews, that this book shines. Sadler is a superlative chess writer – his book on the Queen’s Gambit is still among the finest available on the opening – and his analytical powers are on full display in Chess for Life. The study of Pia Cramling’s openings, for example, is a clear, concise dissection of how one builds a 1.d4 repertoire and how one tweaks it over time. The analysis of Tiviakov’s 3…Qd6 Scandinavian is painstakingly thorough. The discussion of Capablanca’s games – sadly the third World Champion could not be conjured for an interview – is as inspirational for us as Capablanca’s games were for Sadler.

The real star of Chess for Life is Keith Arkell; or, better put, Arkell as seen through the lens of Matthew Sadler. The interview is admittedly slight, but the two case studies that follow are outstanding. Sadler sifts through hundreds of Arkell’s games and teases out two key themes: his mastery of the Carlsbad Structure and his love of rook and pawn endings. In both cases Sadler does a superlative job of distilling the fundamentals of Arkell’s play and rendering them comprehensible for his non-GM readers.

If Chess for Life lacks anything, it is a concrete program for training or improvement by mature players. Most of the interviews are inspirational in nature, and while some of the case studies illustrate the building of opening repertoires, there are only two places in the book that we get anything resembling training tips or a list of best practices.

The first of these is in the interview with Terry Chapman, an amateur who took up chess with vigor in his retirement. Chapman is candid about the difficulties he faces as an older player – the errors in calculation, the blunders, etc. – and forthcoming with the training techniques he has developed to blunt them. Sadler and Regan compare Chapman’s account of his thought processes with that of Speelman, and I wish this aside had been a bit longer.

The second of these is the five page Conclusion that summarizes the author’s findings. The recapitulation of training strategies and tips on opening is useful, if brief. Sadler’s advice to play against engines on a mobile phone, however, left me cold. It might be good practice for a GM, but it would do nothing but demoralize an amateur player.

There are few books written specifically for the mature chess player, and even fewer that focus on the competitive challenges we face as we age. Chess for Life is a wonderful read for those of us who rage against the dying of our chess lights. Anyone who finds themselves dreading yet another game against ‘that hotshot kid’ would do well to check it out.

Understanding Rook Endings?

This review has been printed in the June 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  Note that there are slight differences between the printed text and this version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Müller, Karsten, and Yakov Konoval. Understanding Rook Endgames. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093818. PB 288pp. List $26.95, currently ~$19.60 at Amazon.

There is something of a consensus among top authors and teachers about how to study the endgame. First, there are key technical positions that must be memorized. The precise number of these positions varies – for Dvoretsky, it is about 220, while for de la Villa and Smith it is 100 – but the idea is that players should know certain terminal positions and aim for them in their analysis. This is to be coupled with a study of endgame strategy or typical endgame themes, with Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy typically recommended for this purpose.

What comes of such a plan for improvement? Ask Jeffery Xiong, who – as I was writing this review – used his knowledge of rook endings both typical and theoretical in this round one draw with Alexander Onischuk from the 2016 US Chess Championship.

image

30…b3+! 31.Kc1 Ra6 32.Rd8+ Kh7 33.Kd2 Rxa4 34.Kc3 Ra1 35.Rd2 a5!? 36.Kxb3 a4+ 37.Kc4 a3!

Heading for a theoretically drawn rook endgame with 3 pawns versus 2 on the kingside.

38.bxa3 Rxa3 39.Kxc5 h5! 40.Kd4 Ra5 41.Ke4 g6 42.f4 Kg7 43.h3 Kf7 44.Rd6 Ra2 45.g4 hxg4 46.hxg4=

This position is drawn according to the Lomosonov tablebases.

46…Ra7 47.g5 Rb7 48.Ke5 Ra7 49.Rf6+ Kg7 50.Rc6 Re7+ 51.Kd6 Re4 52.Rc7+ Kg8 53.Rc8+ ½–½

With Understanding Rook Endgames, just out from Gambit, Karsten Müller and co-author Yakov Konoval aim to offer readers both elements of a proper education in rook endings. The first four chapters (p.11-222) are an encyclopedic study of positions with up to 7 men: R&P vs R (ch 1), R&2P vs R (ch 2), R&P vs R&P (ch 3), and R&2P vs R&P (ch 4). The final four chapters (p.223-244) treat broader themes, including basic principles of rook endings and theoretical positions with more than 7 men.

The stark differential in page count between the two ‘halves’ of the book is not incidental. On the whole, this is a book devoted to 5-, 6- and 7-man rook endings. More than half of its pages focus on R&2P vs R&P, with each and every position fully checked with new 7-man tablebases. The analysis in the first four chapters is thus entirely correct, and this features prominently in the book’s advertising.

Is analytical certainty important for the average reader? Perhaps. It is nice to know that what appears on the page can be trusted completely, but an excessive authorial fascination with the machines is not without certain risks.

Müller and Konoval present immense amounts of computer-driven analysis throughout the book. There are long strings of analysis derived from the tablebases that lack sufficient explanation. Some positions are given with raw output from the tablebases – see §4.15, “Longest Wins” – and no effort is made to unpack the logic of the moves for the human player.

Chapters 5-8 might leaven the narrow focus of the first four chapters were they not so brief. There are a total of 33 positions analyzed in these chapters, while there are 271 (and 58 section headings!) just in chapter 4. There are also precious few principles and guidelines to be found here. Instead of another abbreviated account of the famous Kantorovich / Steckner position (6.04), why not include a more typical example of the 4 vs 3 with a-pawn ending and use it to explain key plans or ideas?

Müller and Konoval write in the introduction to Understanding Rook Endgames that they adhere to the “dual philosophy” (p.6) sketched at the beginning of this review. I don’t believe that they succeed in this task, as they lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. Chapters 1-4 – 73% of the book – contain too many theoretical positions and too much analysis to remember. Chapters 5-8 – a mere 8% of the book! – feel bolted on, added solely to justify the book’s title.

There is plenty of fascinating material to be found in Understanding Rook Endgames, but it is an encyclopedia of theoretical positions and not an instructional work. Non-masters hoping to understand rook endings should instead look to Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings or Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings.