Monthly Archives: November 2016

Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

This article has been printed in the December 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.

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After learning of the death of Mark Dvoretsky on September 26th via Twitter, I found myself standing in front of my bookshelf, thumbing through one of his many titles. Suddenly I found myself hurled back in time, much like Proust after biting into his madeleine, and in unpacking that involuntary memory, I came to understand why the news of his death had affected me so.

I am old enough to remember a time before the ‘disenchantment’ (to borrow a phrase from the sociology of religion) of the modern chess world, a time before everyone had a Grandmaster in their cell phone and the Internet brought tournaments from around the world into our homes. In the days before the computer, master-level play had yet to be demystified. Amateurs had almost no access to the thought processes of masters and Grandmasters, and without the false security provided by the engine, we rarely understood their moves.

All of this changed when Mark Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Training was published in 1991.

Standing there in my basement, I was 15 years old again, wandering through the local Waldenbooks and discovering a pink book that promised to teach me the secrets of chess. I remember struggling to make sense of the analysis within, and how I persisted in doing so, even when it was evident that I lacked the ability to understand any of what I was reading. Others may not have shared my fruitless dedication, for legend has it that USCFSales stopped stocking the book after too many frustrated returns.

Mark Dvoretsky will be remembered for many reasons. He worked with three World Junior Champions, a Women’s World Championship Challenger, and a myriad of masters and Grandmasters, earning him the unofficial title of “World’s Best Trainer.” He was a very strong player in his own right, winning the Moscow Championship in 1973, the Wijk aan Zee B tournament in 1974, and finishing =5th-7th in the 42nd Soviet Championship. Dvoretsky’s rating peaked at 2540 in January 1976, making him the 35th ranked player in the world at the time. He was also, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

For all of these accomplishments, I think Dvoretsky’s true legacy lies in his writings. Very few authors contribute something radically new to chess theory, and Dvoretsky, with the possible exception of his concept of the ‘superfluous piece,’ was not an iconoclast. (Pieces, and particularly knights, become superfluous when two or more aim at one square.) Instead, he took the best elements of the Soviet training system, added his own twist – the solving of problems from his famed collection of positions – and shared the fruits of his labor with the world.

It’s not simply that his books are well written, although of course, they are. There is something about Dvoretsky’s style, something intimate – ‘here is what Yusupov saw… here is what Dreev missed’ – that remains powerful, even in the age of the silicon beasts. We are not merely allowed to peek inside Dvoretsky’s chess laboratory. We are invited to join in the search for truth, and in his writings, this task feels as important and vital as anything in the world.

There are two ‘halves,’ as it were, to Dvoretsky’s authorial career. His nine books (seven of which are revised and extended versions of books originally published with Batsford) and two series with Edition Olms made him famous. We will examine them first before turning to more recent titles published with Russell Enterprises.

The School of Chess Excellence (SCE) series consists of four titles published from 2001-2004: Endgame Analysis (SCE 1), Tactical Play (SCE 2), Strategic Play (SCE 3), and Opening Developments (SCE 4). In his recent video series for Chess24 – which I highly recommend for the newcomer to Dvoretsky’s work, and to which I will return shortly – Dvoretsky says that these four books are best understood as “one big book,” covering a wide array of ideas in essay form.

The School for Future Champions (SFC) series takes its name from the chess school run by Dvoretsky and Yusupov from 1990-1992. The five books in the series – Secrets of Chess Training (SFC 1; not the same as the 1991 title, now SCE 1), Secrets of Opening Preparation (SFC 2), Secrets of Endgame Technique (SFC 3), Secrets of Positional Play (SFC 4), and Secrets of Creative Thinking (SFC 5) – were published from 2006-2009 and based on lectures for talented children. While Dvoretsky and Yusupov wrote the bulk of them, guest lecturers like Kaidanov, Kramnik, and Shereshevsky also contributed.

Taken together, these nine titles represent a fairly systematic curriculum for chess mastery. What does that curriculum look like? Interestingly we find the clearest accounts of Dvoretsky’s ‘philosophy’ in his writings on the endgame, including chapters in SCE 1 (“The Benefit of Abstract Knowledge”) and SFC 3 (“How to Study the Endgame”). A particularly cogent articulation also appears in his “Endgames with Dvoretsky” video series for Chess24, released mere weeks before his death.

In a video entitled, appropriately enough, “Philosophy,” Dvoretsky makes a few interrelated claims about his approach to chess training. First, he argues that it is essential to develop intuition, or what he describes in SFC 5 as “the ability easily and quickly… to grasp the essence of the position, the most important ideas… and to assess the promise of particular continuations.” (41)

How do we do this? Through the conjoined tasks of study and solving. Dvoretsky offers a vision of how this might work in SFC 1, a book that IM Greg Shahade has called “the best instructional chess book of all time.” Players should increase their knowledge of general principles and ideas through the study of chess classics and rigorous self-analysis. Solving carefully chosen exercises reinforces what has been learned and boosts calculative, evaluative and imaginative skills. Enriching intuition in this way allows players to correctly apply relevant rules or principles in novel situations.

We can see the value of this training method in this adjourned position (SCE 1, 64-7; also, Chess24, “Endgames with Dvoretsky”), taken from the 1980 Candidates Match between Nana Alexandria and Marta Litinskaya.

image

What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

One idea would be use the opposite-colored bishops to construct a fortress. Initial analysis showed that this was difficult: if 42.Rd2 then Black plays 42…Rf4! and White has multiple weaknesses while Black’s pieces are active.

Dvoretsky, who was Alexandria’s second, quickly intuited that another rule – positions with rooks and opposite-color bishops favor the attacker – was more applicable here. Activating the rook was necessary. But how? 42.Ke1?! seemed a likely choice, but after 42…Rf4! 43.Rc1 (if 43.a5 Rxg4; Modern engines prefer 43.Rd3!? Rxg4 44.Rg3 Rxg3 45.fxg3 and the endgame is probably drawn) 43…Bxf2+ 44.Kd1 Bb6 Black kept the advantage.

Only 42.Kg1! was sufficient to save the game.

Black’s best chance lay with 42…Rf4 43.a5! (stopping Bb6; 43.Rd3!? is possible here too) 43…Rxg4 (if 43…Kc7 44.Kh1! Rxg4 45.Rb1! (with the idea of Rb7+) 45…e4 46.Rb4 Rh4+ 47.Kg1 Bxf2+ 48.Kf1! and White draws after exchanging rooks) 44.Rc1 Kc7 45.Rb1 e4 46.Rb4 Bxf2+ 47.Kf1! Be1! 48.Ra4!! and analysis shows that White can draw.

Litinskaya played the inferior 42…Kc7?! allowing Alexandria to draw easily after 43.Rb1 Bxf2+ 44.Kh1 Rb8 45.Rd1 Rd8 46.Rb1 Rb8 47.Rd1 Rd8 ½–½

Had Dvoretsky’s authorial career ended with those nine titles, his position in chess history would have been secure. Luckily for us, he kept writing. His books with Russell Enterprises are some of his best, extending his earlier work and opening up new avenues of inquiry.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss all of Dvoretsky’s books with Russell for lack of space, but merely touch on the highlights. In particular I want to thematize two signature features of Dvoretsky’s work – prophylaxis and the use of endgame studies – as they appear in his later books.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) was published in 2003 to tremendous and deserved acclaim, and is now in its 4th edition. It consists of 1100+ examples and exercises, using novel textual devices to demarcate 220 ‘precise positions’ for memorization (blue print) and dozens of typical endgame schemata (bold italics). DEM is perhaps Dvoretsky’s best book, and certainly his best known. It is widely recommended by top teachers to those looking to learn endgame theory.

Although he did not invent it, Dvoretsky is often associated with the concept of prophylaxis or prophylactic thinking. Prophylaxis requires that players consider what the opponent wants to play were she on move, find an answer to that question, and then use that answer to help guide analysis.

This idea is discussed in SCE 3 (“Don’t Forget about Prophylaxis!”) and SFC 4 (“Prophylactic Thinking”), but I think Dvoretsky’s clearest rendering comes in Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources (2015). The book is the Platonic ideal of Dvoretsky’s training philosophy, containing hundreds of exercises for solving and clear examples to orient intuition.

Endgame studies are also a key component of Dvoretsky’s methodology, and in two ways. Solving studies can be useful in training imagination and calculation, and they can also be used as set pieces for ‘two-handed play’ between training partners. (SCE 1, 207, 200) His interest in studies spans his publishing career, with a full book – Studies for Practical Players (2009, co-authored with Oleg Pervakov) – devoted to the topic.

Dvoretsky described solving studies in SCE 1 as “pleasant, but useful.” Much the same can be said for the study of his books. So long as chess is played, Mark Dvoretsky’s books will be certainly be read, both for pleasure and for improvement.

London Calling

This review has been printed in the November 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.

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Romero Holmes, Alfonso, and Oscar de Prado. The Agile London System: A Solid but Dynamic Opening Choice for White. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916893. PB 336pp. List $29.95.

Sedlak, Nikola. Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White after 1.d4 d5. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-8394429096. PB 224pp. List $27.95.

The opening theory arms race never ends. It used to be that a novelty played one day could be used for weeks; now, with the transmission of games via the Internet, today’s hot new move is almost instantly in tomorrow’s databases. So increasingly we find even super-GMs ‘opting-out,’ preferring to play less studied variations instead.

Nowhere do we see this phenomenon more clearly than with the explosion of interest in the London System. Once considered suitable only for amateurs with little time to study, today the London is being played at the highest levels, with Carlsen, Kramnik, and Kamsky (among many others) championing its cause.

That the world’s elite are playing the London has not escaped the notice of chess publishers. No less than three books and one DVD devoted to the London have appeared in recent months, leading one sly wag at chesspub.com to win the Internet when he proclaimed:

…I can no longer keep up with the deluge of dense theoretical material published on the London System on a weekly or monthly basis. … I have decided to cut my theoretical workload by switching to the Ruy Lopez.

This month we look at two of these new London titles: The Agile London: A Solid but Dynamic Chess Opening Choice for White by GM Alfonso Romero Holmes and Oscar de Prado, and GM Nikola Sedlak’s Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White against 1.d4 d5.

Some might wonder how the stodgy old London could rightly be described as agile or modern. The answer lies in the move order. Following pioneering work by Eric Prié at ChessPublishing.com and Johnson and Kovačević in Winning with the London System, today’s Londoneers play 2.Bf4 first, keeping Ng1-f3 in reserve. This allows them to avoid a few problematic lines, but it does not solve the problem of what to do against the King’s Indian, a traditional bugbear for London players.

Sedlak so fears the King’s Indian that, in his Preface, he explains he can only recommend the London after 1.d4 d5. This seems slightly overwrought to me. The standard London setup is no worse against the King’s Indian than other variations, and changing plans with an early Nc3 could transpose to the Barry Attack or the Pirc. Both options are covered in The Agile London, along with heterodox lines like the Jobava and Pereyra Attacks.

Here we see one of the main differences between the two books. The Agile London is encyclopedic in scope, offering readers a complete London-style repertoire, and often with multiple options. It consists of 71 densely annotated games leavened with both game and chapter summaries, making the intimidating-looking analysis slightly less frightful. 60 tactical and strategic puzzles are also included.

Winning with the Modern London System is a breezier, more personal book. Sedlak plays the London regularly and advocates for it here, using many of his own games along the way. Each chapter begins with a summary of repertoire choices, and the analysis is presented through complete games that are followed by ‘lessons to be learned.’

While I think both books good and useful, I suspect that different players might gravitate towards one or the other. Romero Holmes and de Prado have written an objective book that maps out numerous paths forward for the Londoneer. Sedlak’s book is an optimistic call to arms, quite suitable for new London players.

It might be argued that the only drawback to Sedlak’s book is his optimism. Sometimes he sees advantages for White where none exist. Take, for instance, one of the current main lines of the London – and one recommended by Boris Avrukh in Grandmaster Repertoire 11: Beating 1.d4 Sidelines.

[Note that an extended version of this analysis is available in replayable format.] 

After 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 7.Bg3 0–0 8.Bd3 b6 (the key tabiya) 9.Ne5 Bb7 10.f4 Ne7 11.Qb1

Sedlak says this is White’s only chance for an advantage, but there are options. Most notably, White can play 11.Qf3 Nf5 12.Bf2 Be7 when Romero Holmes improves on Sedlak’s 13.g4 with 13.0–0!? Nd6 14.dxc5N (Avrukh only gives 14.Rad1) 14…bxc5 15.Qh3 Qc7 and the position is equal.

11…g6 12.Bf2 cxd4

12…Nf5!? looks reasonable, and Romero Holmes says 12…a5 13.0–0 Ba6 is equal, while Sedlak prefers White.

13.exd4 Nh5 14.g3 f6 15.Nef3

Following Grischuk-Wang Hao, Beijing, 2014. This position is evaluated as equal in The Agile London; Sedlak gives the moves but no evaluation. Either way, it’s hard to see how 11.Qb1 leads to an advantage.