Author Archives: fullcityplus

Opening Lines

This review has been printed in the April 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Collins, Sam. A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093825. PB 160pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917463. PB 272pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916336. PB 208pp.

Most chess players like very little more than to talk about their openings. (The only thing that might top it is the cosmic unfairness of their last tournament losses.) They talk about what they’re playing, what they want to play, and opening trends among the chess elite. But when it comes to the question of which openings they should play, there’s rather less discussion.

Here I should forestall some criticism. In what follows, I am not arguing that any specific opening or opening system is intrinsically better than any other. Modern computer analysis shows us that, for the vast majority of players, most mainstream openings are entirely playable. But it may well be the case that some openings are better than others if improvement – understood both in terms of over-the-board results and playing strength – is our goal.

The late Ken Smith believed that lower-rated players should play simple “forcing systems” like the Bird, Colle, or King’s Indian Attack for White, and complementary systems like the Caro-Kann and Slav for Black. The idea is clear: if you know your opening’s ideas and typical structures better than your opponent, and you get a position you understand on the board, your chances of winning are increased.

Another typical recommendation, and one that Smith – who wrote in “Improving Your Chess” that “[u]ntil you are at least a high Class A player… [y]our first name is ‘Tactics,’ your middle name is ‘Tactics,’ and your last name is ‘Tactics’” – would applaud, is the use of gambits to force the game into tactical channels. Here again, the idea is clear: improving players need to hone their tactics, and gambit openings require those players to play sharply from the very first moves of the game. The Smith-Morra Gambit, named in part for Ken Smith, would be a good choice in this vein, as would the Blackmar-Diemer or Latvian Gambits.

The ‘Markovich Doctrine’ represents something of a median between these two (apparent) extremes. Named for its author, the late Ohio master Mark Morss (’Markovich’ in the chesspub.com forums), the idea here is that “open positions are fundamental… you must know how to play open positions well in order to play chess well.” Because all positions can potentially become open, an emphasis on tactics and active piece play is critical for long-term success.

Towards this end, Morss argued – passionately, if somewhat dogmatically – that improving players needed to play 1.e4 e5 with Black, particularly the Two Knights Defense and the Classical Ruy Lopez, along with the Tarrasch Defense against closed openings. This emphasis on open games and Isolated Queen’s Pawn (‘IQP’) positions also colored his choices with the White pieces, with the ‘Waitzkin variation’ of the Exchange French (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd4 4.c4) being a typical Morss recommendation. Players learn how to handle both sides of the IQP, but in doing so, they also learn how to play active, tactical chess.

Sam Collins, who recently scored his 3rd and final Grandmaster norm, presents something of a hybrid between the first and third approaches described above in his A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. Borrowing in part from some of his earlier works, including An Attacking Repertoire for White and the ChessBase DVD 1.e4 Repertoire: Grandmaster Lines Explained for Club Players, the emphasis here is on the IQP.

Collins justifies this decision (6-7) with three claims. (a) The IQP and its constellation of related structures can emerge from a wide range of openings, so it is important for players of all strengths to learn and understand it. (b) IQP positions are playable for both sides. Those with the IQP get some space and activity, while those playing against it usually have a defined weakness to play against and chances for a better endgame. Finally, in light of (a) and (b), Collins rightly argues (c) that it is possible to reach IQP positions in a healthy number of your games, making their study rapid and practical.

What does Collins’ repertoire involve? Here are the highlights:

1.e4 e5 – 7.Nbd2 Giuoco Piano and the Scotch Gambit against the Two Knights
1.e4 c5 – the c3 Sicilian (almost 1/3 of the book)
1.e4 e6 – 3.Nd2, aiming for Yevseev-style IQP positions
1.e4 c6 – Panov-Botvinnik via 2.c4
Pirc / Modern – setups with c3 / Bd3
Scandinavian – Bc4 and d2-d3 lines

While some of Collins’ choices are perhaps underrated by mainstream theory – Lawrence Trent used 7.Nbd2 in the Giuoco Piano to draw Kramnik in the Isle of Man tournament last September –his goal is not necessarily a clear opening advantage. Instead, I’d argue that these repertoire choices are designed to leave White in familiar, active-ish positions from which he can outplay his opponent.

This helps to explain a shift in a key line in his c3 Sicilian recommendation. Collins gave 1.e4 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.Nf3 d6 5.d4 cxd4 6.cxd4 Nc6 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb3 dxe5 9.d5 in both the book and DVD listed above; here, however, he shifts to 8.Bb5, which he had previously described as “safe for both sides” and here as “much less risky… [leading] to pleasant IQP positions for White.” (56)

His recommendation against the French is perhaps more anodyne. Following a path popularized by Yevseev, Collins proposes that White try to get an IQP after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3 cxd4 6.cxd4 dxe4 7.Nxe4 when Black is at a crossroads. He can try 7…Bd7!? but after 8.Nc3 (after 8.Nf3?! Nxe4 9.Bxe4 Bc6 Black is probably already better) 9.Nf3 Nbd7 10.0–0 Be7 11.Qe2 (11.Be3 is another option; as is 11.Re1 0–0 12.Bc2 Qb6! via Aagaard & Ntirlis) 11…0–0 “[t]his is just a balanced position with no opening advantage for White.” (122)

7. …Nxe4 is the other option, trying to advantageously simplify the position. After 8.Bxe4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 Nd7 11.Ne2 (11.Nf3?! is a well known error: 11. …Nf6 12.Bc2 0–0 13.0–0 b6! per Watson, Play the French 4) 11. …Nf6 12.Bf3 Qb6 13.0–0 0–0 14.Rac1 Rd8 we reach this position:

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White has some compensation for his long-term weakness, the IQP, with his active pieces and better development. But Black has already exchanged two minor pieces, and once he solves his development problems with …Bd7 or …e5, he should be at least equal. While this variation does take Black out of standard French-style positions, it’s hardly something to worry a prepared player.

If Collins’ book aims for similar types of positions whenever possible, the repertoires proposed for White and Black by the French youth trainer Vincent Moret take a very different tact. In My First Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go Package for Ambitious Players and its companion volume, My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black, Moret offers readers a set of recommendations that can be summarized as follows:

White:

1.e4 e5 – Giuoco Piano, Möller Attack
1.e4 c5 – Grand Prix Attack
1.e4 e6 – King’s Indian Attack
1.e4 c6 – ‘Night Attack’ (thematic pawn sac e5-e6) via 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4
Pirc / Modern – St. George Attack (f3, Be3, Qd2, h2-h4-h5)
Scandinavian – traditional mainlines

Black:

vs. 1.e4 – Scandinavian Portuguese Variation
vs. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 – Albin Counter-Gambit
vs. 1.d4 without 2.c4 – Stonewall
vs. 1.c4 – Reversed Grand Prix
vs 1.b4, 1.g4, 1.f4 – sharp mainlines

I have to admit my difficulties in grasping the inner logic of Moret’s choices on a first read. There is no ‘typical position’ to be found a la Collins, and the repertoire does not fit neatly into any of the three types listed above. With more careful study, I slowly came to realize that, despite the widely disparate set of recommendations, there was indeed an intended common thread. Moret aims for positions with clear themes and ideas, often involving direct kingside attacks, and where knowledge of plans trumps memorized theory.

Moret says as much in the introduction to his Black repertoire.

[T]he aim of this book… [is] to offer ideas and points of reference to players – young and less young alike! – who engage in competitions and are not sure where to start studying openings. … Rather than being able to recite the first ten moves of an opening by heart, it is far more important to know the typical middlegame plans that result from an opening, and above all the most common combinations and tactical themes. (For Black, 8)

Moret’s book is structured according to this philosophy. The Grand Prix Attack and the King’s Indian Attack clearly involve typical moves and maneuvers, as do the Scandinavian, Albin, and Stonewall. Each recommendation is introduced with copious structural and strategic instructions, in contrast to Collins’ fairly traditional analytical style, and newly acquired knowledge is tested with exercises at the end of each chapter.

For all of this, I remain skeptical about parts of Moret’s recommendations. Some of the proposals, like the Möller Attack, require rather more theoretical knowledge than Moret would have us believe, and the sharpest lines of the Scandinavian Portuguese require extensive study if Black is to survive the opening. Other suggestions, like the King’s Indian Attack agains the French, seem too strategically complex for most juniors. It may be the case that Moret’s talented students, many of whom compete in World Junior Championships, can handle these kind of complexities, but I suspect that most chess mortals would do better with simpler openings.

There are also some important omissions. The Fritz Variation (5. …Nd4) in the Two Knights is not addressed, for example, and a 2011 Avrukh innovation in the Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 exd5 7.Qe2 f6!) does not appear in the text. White’s difficulties in this last line, and more broadly where Black plays …e6 and …d5 against the Grand Prix, are somewhat glossed over.

So where do we stand after all of this? Ultimately I think that while both Collins and Moret provide responsible, interesting repertoires, and while I particularly applaud Collins for the amount of useful information he managed to distill into the 160 pages of his book, I am not convinced that either author makes things ‘simple’ enough for most people’s ‘first’ repertoires.

This is, admittedly, a big ask, and I’ve yet to find a book pitched to precisely that market. The closest thing I’ve found is a public e-book by the English chess coach David Regis. His Four Opening Systems to Start With follows the spirit of the Markovich Doctrine but keeps things very simple and light. I consider it a good prolegomena to serious opening work, and it might be a decent stepping-stool to the more complex repertoires of Collins and Moret.


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Get off my lawn!

This review has been printed in the March 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Timman, Jan. Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-9056916725.

Once a haven for the geeks and oddballs among us, chess has taken on a new and more positive valence in the modern social imaginary. Chess is marketed to parents as a propaedeutic to academic achievement for their children, and as a source of important non-cognitive skills like ‘grit.’ The current US Chess mission statement – “empowering people through chess one move at a time” – highlights the benefits of playing more than it does the game itself.

Today’s leading players also bear the signs of this shift. Top tournaments are broadcast live across the world via YouTube and Twitch, and the competitors explain their wins and losses with sage-like equanimity, their sponsorship deals prominently featured on their blazers. ‘Lesser’ Grandmasters and Masters are riding the e-sport wave towards exclusive streaming deals and video series. Scholastic chess has become a growth industry: coaches and camps proliferate, and it seems like half the players at big tournaments are juniors.

Surely this newfound respectability is beneficial for American chess. But is it an unalloyed good? Is nothing lost when the chess world is transformed into a wholesome, family-friendly environment?

I think back to my first steps in the chess world, back to evenings at the public library in Merrick, NY, where I was the only person in the room under 40, and where I lost game after game to old Russian men who regaled me with wonderful, unprintable jokes. It was a space where the teenaged me wasn’t quite supposed to be, but I was there anyway, and I was learning to fit in.

You might think about your experiences at large tournaments like the US Open. The reputable players play their games, go back to their rooms, and get ready for the next round on their computers. Gone are the days of all-night blitz benders in the skittles room. Gone are the days of the pub crawl and the hangovers destroying the next day’s play. Worst of all, the postmortem is a relic, an antiquity, offered only by the aged and accepted even less frequently. Those that do occur are haunted by a third party – the ubiquitous Stockfish app, lurking, correcting, standing as the ultimate authority.

(Is this the part where I tell the kids to get off my lawn?)

Jan Timman’s newest book, Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions, is many things at once: a set of sketches of ten world champions, a study of their styles and games, a catalogue of Timman’s own dreams and memories. At its heart, however, I think Timman’s Titans is an elegy for what has been lost, for better and for worse, in modern chess, and a deeply personal remembrance of a world that no longer exists. As with most elegies, and here I follow Coleridge, it reveals equally the greatness of its subjects and its author. This is Timman’s best book to date.

Timman’s Titans consists of (a) personal remembrances of each of the world champions from Alekhine through Kasparov, (b) a discussion of their games and careers, and (c) highlights of Timman’s own games against the champion in question. The analysis is insightful and extremely well done, but the real reason to buy this book is for Timman’s memories and memorials.

Timman knew all of the champions he discusses save Alekhine, and he played against six of them in serious competition. The chapter on Alekhine, despite the handicap of never meeting him, is a particular highlight. We journey with Timman to Lisbon, Portugal, where Alekhine spent his final years. We accompany him on his wanderings through the snowy town, and we are present as he stumbles upon one of Alekhine’s own chess sets in a tiny junk shop. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, we get a sense of Timman the flâneur, and the writing is evocative of no less than W.G. Sebald or Teju Cole.

Of the nine remaining champions, Karpov is the subject of the largest chapter, at just over 50 pages. This is not terribly unexpected, as Timman faced Karpov more than anyone else in his career – some 115 games, according to my database. The chapter on Smyslov reveals a shared love of studies and justifies Genna Sosonko’s claim of a stylistic affinity between the two men. For me, however, the most interesting sections are those on Euwe and Tal.

Max Euwe was a friend of Timman’s parents, having taught Timman’s mother mathematics in her youth. It was, however, through a book of Euwe’s games – “a plain-looking book with a hard dark-blue cover. … The paper was thick, the letters were large. Euwe was the hero.” (33) – that Timman first studied “real, serious chess.”

Books are a constant reference in Timman’s Titans. We learn that a book on Botvinnik (Botvinnik Teaches Chess by Müller) was an early influence, and Euwe’s Judgment and Planning in Chess was an introduction to “strategic planning.” Later books by Alekhine (My Best Chess Games 1924-1937) and Smyslov (Selected Games) were of great importance.

Euwe, whom Timman could never bring himself to address by his first name, is described as bearing a “colossal authority,” as indefatigably hard-working and (despite the odd over-the-board blunder) eminently logical. For his part, Euwe tried to help Timman where he could, setting up contacts for an early tour of the Soviet Union, and quietly contributing rather large sums of money to the “Timman Committee” that aimed to support an assault on the World Championship.

It is clear that that Timman greatly admired Euwe, despite some sharp differences in personality between the two men.Where Euwe was solid and respectability, the young Timman was a bon vivant, someone who “hung around in shabby cafes… surrounded by shady types” (55) and who used a threadbare fur coat as a makeshift sleeping bag. Discipline and sobriety were not in his nature. Indeed, as Timman tells us, his attempts to emulate Botvinnik’s “spartan” training methods before his first Grandmaster tournament failed horribly, and it was only after he returned to his “trusted, unhealthy” lifestyle that he began to win.

Perhaps Timman’s admiration for Mikhail Tal, “a type of romantic player that has disappeared,” (111) can be traced to their similar outlook on life. He seems to take delight in describing his first encounters with the Seventh World Champion, how he succumbed to the famed “hypnotizing power of Tal’s eye” (110) in their first game in 1971, and how he spent a drunken evening getting the better of Tal in a 1973 blitz match.

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening at one of today’s leading tournaments. Sure, the Chessbrahs like to have a little fun while streaming, and there are videos on YouTube of bughouse games after big events at the St. Louis Chess Club, but as Timman correctly notes, “[t]oday’s top player is a teetotaller… It is unthinkable that he would mingle in the social circles around the tournament the way Tal did. The top grandmasters of yesteryear sat at the bar like all the other visitors. Young players who invited them to play a blitz game would never be turned down.” (111)

For all of this, Timman was not blind to Tal’s very real flaws, and in particular, his alcoholism. He tells a story of one of the first times he saw Tal “knocked out by alcoholic excess:”

Ischa Meijer (a well-known TV journalist at the time in the Netherlands – translator’s note) had come to Hastings to interview me. … Meijer described how Tal interrupted our conversation, saying: ‘Jan, don’t tell them about our lives.’ The interviewer reported: ‘A while later, he has to be carried off.’ My father, who had great respect for top chess players, was upset by this short sentence. How did the interviewer dare to write something like that?

But however painful this short sentence may have been, it was the truth. To me it was more interesting what Tal said before that. I remember the look in his eyes – a touch of despair was visible when he testified to our solidarity. (114)

I have to admit that I find the pathos of this passage almost unbearable. It is testament to the strength of Tal’s demons and the challenges of living under the Soviet regime, but more than that, it is emblematic of broader societal changes in the intervening years. Our knowledge of public health (rightly) stigmatizes smoking, an activity that permeates Timman’s Titans, and the ‘romance’ of addiction is much withered. Luckily for Timman and for us, he seems to have learned to moderate his vices, allowing him to write this book, and us to enjoy it.

This review was originally meant to have included discussion of two other books, but Timman’s Titans is so rich, so packed with stories and insights, that twice my allotted page space would not have done it justice. I do not think it controversial to say that this is one of the best chess books published in recent years, and players of all strengths would find it of great interest.

What may be more controversial are my concerns – mild as they may be – over the direction of modern chess. I offer this olive branch to those who disagree with me: you can, barring the unforeseen, find me in the bar after the evening rounds at this year’s US Open in Madison. Come visit. I’ll buy you a drink, and we can shoot the breeze while we play some blitz or eavesdrop on someone’s postmortem.

Do me a favor, though – don’t come too late. I can’t stay out all night like I used to, and I’ll have meetings and another round to get ready for in the morning.

Big Friend of the Pod

Of all the unexpected benefits and opportunities that have come through book reviewing, surely the most humbling has been my appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast. Ben Johnson has interviewed giants of modern chess like Bartholomew, Nakamura, Polgar, Watson, Yermolinsky, and the Shahades. And now he’s gone and ruined it all by talking to me.

You should listen to the episode in its entirety to bask in the glory (haha) of my genius, but I did want to take the opportunity to make a few notes here about the experience and the things I forgot to say.

1. For new readers and visitors – welcome! Glad you liked what you heard enough to click the link and join us. These reviews appear in the outstanding Chess Life magazine, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you subscribe to the print edition of Chess Life, either as part of your membership with the US Chess Federation or as a stand-alone product.

2. Ben is located in Pittsburgh and I’m in Omaha, so we did the interview over Skype. The sound quality is excellent, my ‘ums’ notwithstanding, and very few edits to the conversation were made.

3. As soon as the EP was over, I was horrified that I’d not mentioned Boris Gelfand’s two books from Quality Chess, Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess. Both are among the finest chess books in print, mainly for advanced players but with ideas and lessons accessible to any serious student of the game. John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action also went unmentioned, and that omission is scandalous.

4. I was surprised to find that I didn’t include Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors or GK on GK series in my book list. I suspect that this is because I ultimately find them to be rather overrated. There’s entirely too much computer analysis for my taste, and the history is not earth shattering enough to make up for it. Revolution in the 70s is the only exception to this – it’s an excellent work, and the interviews are priceless.

5. The way I describe chess in Nebraska makes it sound as if there are no strong players in the state. That’s patently false, as we have a lot of talent here in Omaha and in Lincoln. The problem is that our pool of players is small, and so we’re always fighting each other for the same circulating rating points.

6. My wife is at least as powerful as Petrosian’s, if not quite so conniving.

There was a day a couple of years ago when my wife said that chess was becoming something of a career for me, or, perhaps better, a vocation. In saying this – and she’ll never admit it, but I think she knew exactly what she was doing – she was giving me license to view it as such. It gave me license to mourn my slow-motion exit from the academy, and also to look forward towards an identity that did not wrap itself up in my aborted PhD studies.

Most of us, if we’re honest, know deep down that we’ve ‘married up.’ I really married up. Thank you, Anna, for everything.

7. Last week’s guest Mark Crowther is a true hero of contemporary chess and you should donate to his efforts with The Week in Chess at his website.

8. It’s hilarious that I worked the phrase “big friend of the Pod” into the conversation. Thanks to the Gilmore Guys and Pod Save America for adding it to my vocabulary. (And yes, I do have a very interesting range of listening habits.)

My thanks to Ben for asking me to be on the Pod, and my very deep thanks to you for (a) listening and (b) reading.

Eat your Oatmeal!

This column has been printed in the February 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training: Volume 2, Endgames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510150. PB

Grivas, Efstratios. TP Endgame Academy: Bishop Endings, an Innovative Course. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510174. PB.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. First Steps: Fundamental Endings. London: Everyman Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1781944516. PB 272pp.

Lund, Esben. Sharp Endgames. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1784830397. PB 312pp.

Mikhalchishin, Adrian, and Oleg Stetsko. Mastering Complex Endgames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510112. PB 414pp.

What does it mean to know something?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all epistemological on you, hard as it may be for this former philosophy teacher to restrain himself. There’s no exam at the end of your reading, and I’ll try to keep the ten dollar words to a minimum.

Still, in writing this month’s column, I kept circling back to the question. We say we ‘know’ lots of things, but what does it mean to really know them? How can we verify that our beliefs are true and justified?

The occasion for these musings was my most recent tournament outing, one of my worst in recent years. I should have recognized the ominous clouds on the horizon after my first game, where I self-immolated in spectacular fashion.

[A replayable version of this analysis will be linked after the Chessbase website returns to functionality.]

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After pressing a bit too hard with Black, I found myself in this position, a pawn down but with good drawing chances. The placement of White’s rook in front of his a-pawn seemed a particularly auspicious omen. Having studied similar rook endgames in the recent past, I decided to “allow” White’s trick with 44. …Bd4!? as I guessed that my opponent would not know the winning technique. This gamble was justified after

45.Ne6+ Kf6 46.Nxd4 Rxd4 47.g4 Rb4 48.a5 Ra4 49.Kg3 Ke6 50.a6 h5 51.h3 Kf6 52.Ra8 hxg4 53.hxg4 Kg5 54.f3 Kf6 55.a7

when the position is dead equal. The White rook is trapped on a8 and if the Black king stays on g7 or h7, White cannot make progress. The White king cannot assist with promotion as the Black rook will never run out of checks. Play continued

55. …Kg7 56.g5 Ra5 57.f4 Ra3+ 58.Kg4 Ra4 59.Kf3 Ra3+ 60.Ke4 Ra4+ 61.Kd5

And here, with plenty of time on the clock, I inexplicably lost my head.

image

61. …f6??

61. …Ra1 62.Kc5 Rc1+ 63.Kb4 Rb1+ 64.Ka3 Ra1+ 65.Kb2 Ra6 and White has nothing more than a draw.

62.gxf6+ Kxf6 63.Rf8+ 1–0

Did I “know” how to draw the game? It would appear not. But I had studied that exact ending – single rook, four pawns vs three, extra a-pawn – and, despite its being theoretically unclear, gotten a drawn position on the board. It was my practical knowledge, for lack of a better word, that was deficient.

If only there was something that could help me improve my concrete endgame play.

NARRATOR: There is.

Endgame books have traditionally come in three main types. There are (a) theoretical encyclopedias (Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, for example) (b) manuals dealing with specific material configurations (Secrets of Pawn Endings by Müller & Lamprecht), and (c) books that aim to teach technique instead of theory (Endgame Strategy by Shereshevsky).

To these we can add a fourth: the “workbook.” The widespread influence of Mark Dvoretsky’s training techniques have created something of a niche market for collections of difficult positions. Their purpose is to provide useful fodder for solving or ‘two-handed’ play, giving players a chance to put their theoretical knowledge into practice without risking rating points. Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation: Endgame Play is a fine example of the genre.

An avalanche of new endgame books have appeared in recent months, and we’ll take a look at five of them here. We begin with yet another book by one of America’s most prolific authors, and – stop the presses? – I kind of like it.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been fairly tough on Cyrus Lakdawala, taking him to task for what I see as excessive and often useless verbosity. He has curbed some of these tendencies in his latest effort, First Steps: Fundamental Endings, and the result is a much tighter and satisfying read.

Lakdawala’s book is part of the new “First Steps” series from Everyman, which (per the back cover) emphasizes “the basic principles, the basic strategies, [and] the key tricks and traps.” His explanatory skill shines in this book, but while the basics are well-treated in Fundamental Endings, I’m less convinced that he covers all the fundamental positions. The section on rook endings is typical of this difficulty, where some standard situations are underbaked or left untreated.

Capablanca-Yates (Hastings, 1930) is a famous example where White manages to win with rook and three pawns versus rook and two pawns, all on the kingside. Lakdawala’s analysis is adequate, but improvements found in Averbakh – whom he cites – are missing.

There is, moreover, no coverage of rook and four pawns against rook and three pawns on the kingside, an ending Mickey Adams had to defend twice at the 2017 London Chess Classic, nor the ending I botched at the beginning of this article: rook and four pawns against rook and three where one side has a passed pawn on the queenside. Both are extremely common, and both should qualify as “fundamental.”

While it would have been strengthened by a more judicious choice of examples, First Steps: Fundamental Endings remains a very friendly introduction to the whole of endgame theory. With Bishop Endings: An Innovative Course, Efstratios Grivas takes a different tact, dedicating an entire book to the theory and practice of same-colored bishop endings.

More precisely, Bishop Endings also covers endings with bishops against pawns, and bishops and pawns against pawns, but in terms of bishop and pawn(s) against bishop and pawn(s), only same-colored bishop positions are treated. This fact is nowhere to be found in the book or promotional materials. I discovered it by playing through the examples and wondering where the opposite colored bishops were!

By narrowing his field of study, Grivas is able to bring great analytical focus to bear on these endings, and readers will certainly learn a lot about them. Those interested in endings with bishops of opposite colors, however, will just have to wait for a second book in the series.

In contrast to the two titles just discussed, Mastering Complex Endgames by Adrian Mikhalchishin and Oleg Stetsko is a broad study of endgame technique. By “complex endgames,” the authors seem to mean those kind of positions that can straddle the line between late middlegames and multi-piece endgames. The book, whose closest read-alike is How to Play Chess Endgames by Müller and Pajeken, consists of eleven chapters that cover broad piece configurations (“Opposite Colored Bishops,” “Rook against Two Minor Pieces”) and typical endgame situations (“Structural Concessions,” “The Technique of Defending”).

Mastering Complex Endgames was first published in Russian in 2012, and I suspect that this edition is a direct translation of that text. Very few post-2012 examples are included, and some of the older analysis seems not to have been engine checked. Indeed, as a rule I found that the older the position, the more likely I was to encounter analytical problems, with well-trodden classics being something of an exception.

I have to admit that I was surprised by this finding. Mikhalchishin is a very well-known trainer and author with an excellent reputation. Perhaps part of the problem comes from his public distain for computer and tablebase analysis, both of which are essential in this day and age for analytical accuracy. As it stands Mastering Complex Endgames is a rich source for study material, but a healthy skepticism is warranted with some of the older positions.

Silas Esben Lund’s Sharp Endgames is a very high-level example of the modern endgame “workbook” described above. About half of Sharp Endgames is wrapped up in its third chapter, “Introduction to Endgames.” This material – covering theoretical knight (3.1), rook (3.2), bishop versus knight (3.3), rook against minor piece (3.4), and queen endings (3.5) – is of the highest quality, and it prepares readers for the real work of Lund’s book.

Each of the 64 exercises in Sharp Endgames – readers are also encouraged to ‘solve’ the 33 examples in chapter three – are designed to be played out against another person or against the computer. Each exercise is coded with a suggested level and time control, and borrowing from the literature surrounding “deliberative practice,” Lund embeds a novel account of 16 subjective features of “critical moments” in his exercise solutions.

Having written on the role of the computer in chess training myself – see US Chess Online for those articles – I cannot speak highly enough of Lund’s work here. Sharp Endgames is the first major title I have seen that outlines a thoughtful strategy for training against an engine, and Lund makes a persuasive case for the practical importance of such activity.

The book is not perfect, of course. The 16 parameters can feel unwieldy and intimidating, and Lund wrongly attributes the theory of “deliberative practice” to Geoff Colvin. (It was Anders Ericsson who popularized it.) I also think it makes little sense to train against a modern engine at full strength when other, ‘lesser’ programs are available. But none of this should detract from what is a deeply original effort, and every player over 2000 should strongly consider the ideas in Sharp Endgames for their own training.

Our final book this month, one perhaps better suited to the techno-phobic, is another endgame workbook: Chess Calculation Training Volume 2: Endgames, by Romain Edouard. This is actually Edouard’s third collection of problems, the above title notwithstanding, and the second in his current series.

Volume 2: Endgames contains 424 problems across ten sections that are divided by task (“Find the Technical Win!,” “Find the Missed Move!”) and not by material. The positions run the full range of endgames, from multi-piece through tablebase territory, and the solutions are thorough and often mini-lessons in themselves. Many of the examples could be used in training sessions against the computer, although it is certainly not required, and class players will find Edouard’s problems perhaps more palatable than Lund’s.

One of my old teachers once described reading the great American philosopher John Dewey as being akin to eating a bowl of oatmeal. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but it’s nourishing and will hold you in good stead for the rest of the day. Endgame study is, to my mind, much the same. While I am especially convinced that practical sparring a la Lund is of particular benefit, the best endgame books are those that you actually read. I hope that some of those listed above will be of assistance in your search for endgame knowledge… except, of course, in your games against me.

Lombardy–In Memoriam

This column has been printed in the January 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Introducing his 1924 lecture course on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger famously said:

Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died. The character of the philosopher, and issues of that sort, will not be addressed here.[1]

Building this month’s column, I thought about, and dwelt with, this passage for many days. I consider Heidegger to be one of the most important, if personally flawed, philosophers in the whole of the Western tradition. Here, however, I cannot help but disagree with the “Hidden King” of Marburg.

Any interpretation of a thinker or writer’s legacy must focus on the written word, but not exclusively and rigidly so. Biography can often help explain the influences and shifts outside of the text that, all the same, weave themselves invisibly within it.

This is certainly true of Heidegger himself, and it is just as true of Grandmaster William (“Bill”) Lombardy, whose life and books are under our lens in this month’s issue. Lombardy was a brilliant chess player who, for better or worse, became best known for his supporting role in Bobby Fischer’s ascension to the World Championship. This fact, this constant and perhaps chafing association, may help to explain the advent of his productive authorial career and its tragic, final chapter.

To my knowledge Lombardy wrote or co-wrote seven books, six of which will be discussed here. (The seventh – a tournament book for the 6th Interpolis Chess Tournament, released in 1983 – is only available in Dutch.) Modern Chess Opening Traps was the first, published in 1972 right before the Iceland match and appearing in England as Snatched Opportunities on the Chessboard: Quick Victories in 200 Recent Master Games.

Both titles are slightly misleading. The book is largely, as the latter suggests, a collection of miniatures from the late 60s and early 70s, although only the English edition attributes the games’ players, and then only in an index. But Lombardy also includes a number of opening ‘traps’ or typical blunders in standard openings systems.

Of particular contemporary interest is game #193, where we see how quickly Black can lose in the London if White gets a free hand on the kingside. The evaluations and quotes are Lombardy’s, and I have translated his Descriptive Notation into Algebraic.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4!

Lombardy curiously labels this a “Modern Colle” due to the placement of the bishop outside of the c3–d4–e3 pawn chain.

3…e6 4.Nbd2 Nbd7 5.e3 Be7

Current practice shows Black’s move order and setup to be somewhat suspect. Today’s theory prefers 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 (the ‘Modern’ London) Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 (more popular than …Be7) 7.Bg3 0–0.

6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 0–0?! “Better is …b6 and …Bb7.” 8.h4! b6 9.g4 Nxg4? 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Kg8 12.Qxg4 Nf6?

Lombardy: “Carelessness is a great extravagance in a tight game. …f7–f5 helps close the gaps.” Still, White seems much better here. After 12…f5 13.Qg2 Nf6 (defending e6) 14.Rg1 White’s attack is hard to meet without major concession.

The computer thinks Black can hold after 12. …cxd4! 13.cxd4 (13.Be5 Nxe5 14.Qh5 Bxg5 15.hxg5 f5 16.g6 Nxg6 17.Qxg6 and Black should survive this.) 13…e5! (13. …Nf6!? is unclear) 14.Rg1 Nc5 (14. …exf4? 15.Ne6) 15.Qh5 and now a typical silicon drawing variation follows: 15. …Bf5 16.Bxe5 f6 17.Ne6 Bxe6 18.Rxg7+ Kxg7 19.Qg5+ Kf7 20.Qh5+ Kg7 21.Qg5+ Kh8 22.Qh5+=.

13.Qe2 g6 “Helpmate!” If 13. …Bd6 14.Be5! and Black cannot take the bishop: after 14. …Bxe5 15.dxe5 Black must lose the knight or abandon h5 to the Queen.

14.h5! Nxh5 15.Rxh5! gxh5 16.Qxh5 Bxg5 17.Bxg5 f6 18.Qg6+ Kh8 19.0–0–0 “Black resigns before mate.”

While Lombardy did not play in the 1973 U.S. Championship, the first to be played after Fischer’s victory, he did write its tournament book. The bulk of U.S. Championship Chess: A History of the Highest American Chess Title, with the 1973 Matches Annotated (1975) features Lombardy’s fine annotations, but of greater note is the presence of the book’s co-author, David Daniels.

Daniels, who wrote the historical section of the 1973 tournament book, was a New York master who ‘pinch-hit’ for Fischer in his December 1967 Boys’ Life column, and who (according to Andy Soltis) may have been one of the ghostwriters for I.A. Horowitz’ column in the New York Times. True or not, Daniels was a chess writer and historian of some repute, and his association with Lombardy bore excellent fruit.

Two of Lombardy’s most interesting works – Chess Panorama (1975) and Guide to Tournament Chess (1978) – were co-written with Daniels. In contrast to the 1973 tournament book, where each man took clear responsibility for specific portions of the text, these two titles are largely (but not wholly) written in one voice. The effect is laudatory.

Chess Panorama is a light-hearted anecdotal look into the world of chess, touching on topics like the clock, “chess scandals,” endings and final rounds. I rather enjoyed the discussion of the opening, where the authors – in 1975, years before ChessBase! – lament the explosion of opening theory, and the chapter on blunders is of particular interest.

Guide to Tournament Chess is a comprehensive introduction to rated chess. Part I describes the logistics of the tournament circuit along with rules and etiquette. Part II, “A Guide to Better Play,” offers practical advice. Among the topics covered are playing against stronger opponents and the ‘strategy of the draw.’ The skeleton of an opening repertoire is sketched in six pages, and a thoughtful bibliography of recommended books – one comparatively heavy on endgames and game collections – rounds things out.

Daniels was not Lombardy’s only writing partner. Chess for Children: Step by Step (1977), an introduction to chess using photographs and color diagrams, was co-written with Betty Marshall, the wife of Fischer’s lawyer Paul Marshall. While the book appears dated today – the quality of both print graphics and chess primers having increased dramatically in the intervening years – its use of ‘mini-games’ to focus on specific pawn and piece play was an interesting pedagogical experiment.

Lombardy did not publish between 1983 and 2011. He returned to print with his autobiographical Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life, produced by Russell Enterprises but appearing under Lombardy’s own imprimatur. The book strikes a very different tone than is found in his previous titles, and this requires some consideration.

I first met Bill Lombardy at the 2013 U.S. Open. We crossed paths a few times more, most recently at the 2017 Iowa Open mere weeks before he died. The older Lombardy was, in my experience, a deeply bitter man who felt that his genius and his tutelage of Fischer had gone unappreciated, and that he had been systematically shortchanged by the chess world. While he could be charming and cordial, particularly in one-on-one settings, Lombardy did not hesitate to vent his spleen loudly and publicly.

Whether and to what degree this bitterness was justified, I leave to the reader. But it must be said that the Janus-faced nature of Understanding Chess – a work that veers between erudite games collection and pure score-settling – only makes sense in this context. His analysis and explanation of his game against Hans Ree at the 1976 Olympiad is emblematic of the book’s dual polarity. We pick it up (with Lombardy’s notes) at move 50, where the players adjourned.

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50.d4! The following rook endgame is quite instructive for any player… 50. …Rf6? … Hans in fact missed a golden opportunity to activate his rook, an opportunity which he will denied for the remainder of the ending. He should have played for the active rook, the basis of all rook endgames and which in this case seems to hold the draw: 50. …Rg7! 51.dxc5 Rg2+ 52.Kf3 Ra2 53.cxb6 Rxa3+ 54.Ke2 axb6 55.Rxb6 Rc3=. 51.Rh7+ Trading rooks leads to a quick draw, even though White achieves a protected passed pawn. 51. …Rf7 52.Rh5! In this case, the fact that White’s pawns are split is to his advantage from the perspective of creating a supported passed pawn. Again we are reminded of the active rook. 52. …cxd4 53.Kd3 Kd6 54.Kxd4 Rf6 55.Rg5 a6 56.Rh5 Ke6 57.Rh8 Kd6 58.Rd8+ Kc7 59.Rd5! White is clearly better, but this is also the critical moment for Black since his next move will define the defensive task to come… 59. …a5? This eases White’s task… 60.a4! Now Black’s queenside is fixed and White’s a-pawn, which in many lines could be captured on a3, is further out of range of the black rook. The impending simplification of pawns following c5, followed by the invasion of the white king, easily decide the game. 60…Kc6 The active rook concept is no longer enough. 61.c5! bxc5+ 62.Rxc5+ Kb6 63.Rb5+ Ka6 64.Ke5 Rc6 65.Rd5 Rc4 66.Rd6+ Kb7 67.Rd4 Rc1 68.Kxf5 Kc6 69.Ke5 Kc5 70.Re4 1–0

While there are some additional resources for Black – most notably on move 61, where Ree could have played 61. …b5! or 61. …Re6! 62.Rxf5 b5! to hold the draw – Lombardy does an excellent job of explaining the practical difficulties in Black’s defense and the underlying positional principles. He also played the ending pretty darned well.

Less savory is the introduction to the game, where Lombardy claims that Ree shirked his adjournment analysis in favor of a night at the hotel bar. This, according to Ree himself in his monthly column at the Russell Enterprises website, lacks any basis in reality. The Dutch team did not even stay at the hotel in question.

Understanding Chess is filled with similar sideswipes. In its first pages he offers a novel account of basic chess principles and ‘eidetic imagery,’ but not before he has taken shots at multiple chess personages for “thwarting” his chess teaching and denying him lucrative opportunities. Perhaps his rawest vitriol is reserved for Jack Collins, the founder of the famous Hawthorne Chess Club and lauded mentor to both Fischer and Lombardy.

Lombardy’s claim in Understanding Chess can be summed up simply: Jack Collins was never Fischer’s teacher. His lack of playing strength meant that he could only offer “trivial knowledge” to the Byrnes, Fischer, and Lombardy, all of whom were “superior masters” to Collins. It was Lombardy himself who was guided Fischer. “…I was Bobby’s only chess teacher from [age eleven] and right through Reykjavik. Some may not like hearing this surprising news, but I assume they will get over the shock… Thus Spake Zarathustra!” (14)

This is a very different tune than was sung by Lombardy in his earlier books. Chess for Children is dedicated to “John (Jack) W. Collins, the teacher of Grandmasters and World Champions, who made chess a truly happy experience for me and so many others.” Lombardy’s 1974 forward to Collins’ My Seven Chess Prodigies is effusive in its praise, and he goes so far as to write that “Jack is the chess teacher.”

Bracketing some of the factual problems in Lombardy’s claim – it’s hard to see how he could have met Fischer before 1956, when Fischer was already thirteen – what could explain this radical break? Lombardy decries his being left out of Collins’ will in Understanding Chess, but in the final analysis, I cannot help but wonder if the rift comes from somewhere deeper.

William Lombardy was a highly educated man and, by any standard, a true chess great. His perfect score in the 1957 World Junior Championship is a ridiculous feat, unequaled to this day, and his fifteen medals in twenty years of international team play are astounding. But he came of age in a time where two greater players – Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer – sucked up all of the oxygen in American chess, leaving almost no support for anyone else.

What, then, was left for a man so close and so far from the top of our game? To me, the invocation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the prophet who proclaimed the coming of the übermensch, is telling. Lombardy saw Fischer as the overman, born in part of Lombardy’s own unheralded efforts, and we – the mediocre ‘last men’ of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – were incapable of appreciating either of them. The outpouring of love and remembrance after his death is evidence that, at least in this respect, Lombardy might have been mistaken.

** My thanks to my good friend Bob Woodworth for allowing me to raid his extensive library in researching this piece.


[1] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 4.

Analyzing the 2016 World Chess Championship

This review has been printed in the December 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Alburt, Lev, and Jon Crumiller. Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship, New York 2016. New York: Chess Information & Research Institute, 2017. ISBN 978-1889323299. PB 336pp.

Looking back at my time at the World Chess Championship in New York last year, and looking through the hundreds of pictures I took, one image clearly stands out. It’s not of Magnus or Sergey. It’s not of the crowds of casual spectators and hardcore fans. And it’s certainly not of the VIP section, fully one-quarter of the event floor space and totally off limits to the hoi polloi like me.

I attended the third game of the match as a “credentialed journalist,” giving me access to the Press Room. It was a small space, crammed with laptops and cameras, extension cords and water bottles. There I tried not to gawk as the famous Spanish chess journalist Leonxto Garcia wrote and filed his report, and with NRK’s Ole Rolfsrud interviewing many of the journalists for Norwegian television, I suspect I’m in more than a bit of their B-roll.

Game 3 was a long one, more than six hours in all, and there was a palpable sense of relief when it concluded in a hard-fought draw. With a train to catch, and with the press conference dragging on, I returned to the Press Room to gather my things.

2016-11-14 20.57.39

The room was nearly deserted, despite the arrival of the long-rumored pizza. Only two people remained. One rested her head on the narrow table and slept. The other – Chess Life columnist GM Robert Hess – sat typing, earbuds in and oblivious to the emptiness around him, racing to complete his rapid game analysis for Chess.com.

In some ways, what I saw Hess and his colleagues from Chess.com doing that day was nothing new. Baseball writers, for example, are often are forced to rework their articles after late inning heroics. But I had never really considered what it took to produce the near-instant news articles and expert analysis we have come to expect in the digital age.

It was fascinating to watch FM Mike Klein, Chess.com Director of Content and frequent Chess Life contributor, write and rewrite his reporting, changing its title as Carlsen’s winning chances ebbed and flowed. Hess had multiple chess websites open on two laptops as he wrote, cross-checking his ideas with those of engines, the Agon announcing team, and analysts from around the world.

There is no doubt that the chess world is greatly enriched by these kinds of efforts. It was awesome (in the original sense of the word) to play through Hess’ analysis on my smartphone on the train home, and I was glued to the competing livestreams as the match unfolded.

For all of this, it seems to me that something is lost in the dromological arms race endemic to contemporary mass media. Fast – and this is by no means a slight on Hess or Klein – may not always be definitive. Some of the games in the Carlsen-Karjakin match, like game three, were incredibly complex, requiring analytical depth and distance hard to muster in real-time. And this, traditionally, has been the role of the match book.

The match book, like the tournament book (see my April 2017 column), is increasingly an anachronism in modern chess literature. Sure, there are always the “instabooks” published as soon as the match ends, but serious, learned studies of World Championship matches seem to be a thing of the past.

Or maybe they’re not.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship 2016, written by GM Lev Alburt and NM Jon Crumiller, is a readable and rigorous analysis of all sixteen match games. Alburt, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, is a three-time winner of the US Championship, the author of numerous instructional books, and – as a recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile makes clear – the chess teacher of choice for Manhattan’s financial elite. Crumiller is a long-time Alburt student and a master in his own right, having earned the title in over-the-board and correspondence play. He is also one of America’s leading chess collectors.

With both authors living in the New York area, and with their strong connections to FIDE (Alburt) and Agon (Crumiller, who was a major contributor to the Agon published Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World), Alburt and Crumiller attended most of the games at the Fulton Market playing venue. The roots of this book, as Crumiller explains it (7), can be found in their mutual attempts to understand each day’s games.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is not written as a holistic historical record of the match. Rather, as the above suggests, it largely focuses on the games themselves, combining in-depth analysis with more basic instructional elements. There is for this reason something of an internal tension to the book, and this tension is only intensified when we consider the contributions to Carlsen vs. Karjakin by former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik does more than just offer “round-by-round game analysis,” as the cover art describes it. He’s really the book’s third author, providing serious and provocative commentary for each game along with two lengthy interviews. Because he competes against both Carlsen and Karjakin on a regular basis, and because he knows all too well the pressures of playing for the World Championship, Kramnik is an ideal match commentator, and his insights here are invaluable.

The structure and layout of Carlsen vs. Karjakin will be familiar to anyone who has read one of Alburt’s previous books. Each of the twelve regulation and four tiebreak games receive their own chapters, prefaced with three “key position” color diagrams, a brief introduction, and a picture. The great bulk of the book lies in the analysis, with Alburt and Crumiller providing the main notes and Kramnik’s contributions appearing in blue text boxes.

There is a kind of productive dialectic between these two narrative voices when Carlsen vs. Karjakin is at its best. Kramnik helps readers understand how a super-GM approaches specific positions and decisions from a first-person perspective, and his discussions of match psychology are particularly illuminating. Alburt and Crumiller write in a more objective, third person voice, making extensive use of strong engines to try and reach the truth of key positions. Their account of Karjakin’s Game 10 blunder (56. …Rhh7?) is a case in point: the notes run for four dense pages, and they improve on Giri’s analysis in New in Chess.

When Alburt and Crumiller reference Kramnik’s contributions and refine them, adding analytic heft and clarity to his ideas, the book really hums. There are places, however, where this interplay breaks down and readers are left stranded. Consider this position from Game 4, where Karjakin has just played 45.Nd1.

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After Carlsen’s 45. …f4?, Karjakin was able to build a fortress and, after nearly fifty more moves, hold the draw. 45. …Be6 is a clear improvement that should lead to victory. But how?

Calling the win “trivial” and “even easier… than [he] had thought,” Kramnik states:

“When you have the two bishops, you need to open up the position. That’s just basic logic. The winning plan in general is:

I. After …Be6, White’s knight eventually needs to come to f2, so Black can put a pawn on a4, bishop on d5, bishop on c7 (White will probably have his bishop on d4).

II. Then Black plays …fxg4 and after Nxg4, …Kf4. If the knight goes back to f2, then the pawn travels through g4 to g3, and eventually promotes. And if Ne3+, then …Ke4, because the bishop endgame is completely lost. Black can just invade with the king and then push the g-pawn.” (77)

This is a very advanced example of what Mikhail Shereshevsky calls schematic thinking. Not surprisingly, I struggled to understand it, “basic logic” or not, and I suspect that most class players would have similar difficulties.

If Kramnik overshoots his audience here, Alburt and Crumiller miss in the opposite direction. Rather than expanding on Kramnik’s plan with illustrative variations, they write: “45. …Be6 keeps all options open for Black, in the form of three different plans: [1] play on the kingside, [2] penetrate with the king in the center, and [3] penetrate with the king via a long walk to the queenside. … A similar concept can be found in the strategy of ‘playing against two weaknesses.'” (78) This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help me understand how to actually win after 45. …Be6.

[Interested readers can click here to see just how Carlsen could have won. I draw on published analysis from Chirila, Giri, Lund and Svidler.]

I do not want to overstate the case, because in general I think Carlsen vs. Karjakin to be a very fine work indeed. Still, there are times when the various commentary tracks – Kramnik’s deep, “pull no punches” insights, Alburt’s pedagogical bon mots, and Crumiller’s engine verified analysis – don’t quite sync up, leaving the book slightly at odds with itself and unclear on what it wants to be. For an ambitious work like this one, the sin is small and forgivable.

Many books are described as “labors of love” by their authors. Carlsen vs. Karjakin is the real McCoy. Alburt and Crumiller could have written a perfectly serviceable book on their own, but by bringing Kramnik on board, they have produced something special. Certainly there are some downsides to this level of authorial investiture – there is no reason to include pictures of Crumiller’s sets and books, and the repeated mention of other Alburt titles is tacky – but here again, such minor lapses in objectivity are justified by the end result.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is a definitive study of the 2016 World Chess Championship. Its authors invested a lot of time, effort, and (I suspect) money in the book. The layout is attractive, the book lies flat, and dozens of color pictures from the match are included. Ultimately, though, this is a book whose raison d’être is its game analysis, and it’s on that basis that it really shines.

Nota bene: Chess Life Editor Dan Lucas served as editor for the book under review this month, and he wrote its Introduction and Epilogue. The opinions and conclusions above are fully mine, and with the exception of minor grammatical or stylistic changes, it is identical to what I originally submitted. – JH

The Goldilocks Problem

This review has been printed in the November 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Fishbein, Alex. The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2017. ISBN 978-1941270745. PB 128pp.

Astronomers and astrophysicists often speak of a “Goldilocks Problem” when discussing the origins of life in the universe and the search for life beyond our own Solar System.

There seems to be a fairly narrow “habitable zone” – neither too hot nor too cold, neither too close to their home stars nor too far away – if planets are to be able to support life. Lucky for us, the Earth is juuuust right in its relation to the Sun!

Chess authors have their own version of the “Goldilocks Problem,” and we see it most clearly when we consider the competing difficulties in writing an opening book.

It’s a tricky balancing project. Authors have to include enough analysis to make their case, but not so much that they overwhelm their readers. The analysis should be objective, but a bit of advocacy is necessary too. Why should a reader spend time learning your lines if it’s clear that you don’t really believe in them?

There have to be enough words to explain the rationale for repertoire choices, but not so many that the book seems flip or frivolous. The variations should be solid and sound, containing enough poison to play for a win without shading into too much speculation. The book should be concise without sacrificing coverage, and it (ideally) should teach you something about chess beyond any specific opening system.

Now, no book is perfect. But some are better than others at searching out this sweet spot and trying to inhabit it. One of the best books I’ve seen in recent months, and one that checks most of the boxes listed above, is Grandmaster Alex Fishbein’s The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White, newly published by Russell Enterprises.

Fishbein, the author of two previous books (King and Pawn Endings in 1993 and Fischer! in 1996), was a very active player in the early 1990s, but he put aside his professional chess career and entered the world of high finance. Never fully giving up the ghost, Fishbein has in recent years dipped his toes back into competitive play with greater and greater regularity.

The Scotch Gambit offers its readers a complete repertoire for White after 1.e4 e5. The final chapter deals with the Petroff and Philidor Defenses along with the Latvian and Elephant Gambits, but by and large, this is a book about how to answer 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6.

This is no small problem for 1.e4 players right now. 1. …e5 is hugely popular at elite levels, as we saw in my May column, and this trend trickles down through to the amateur ranks. Difficulties in cracking the Berlin and Marshall have driven White players towards the hoary Giuoco Piano, which (if we’re honest) is hardly inspiring stuff.

Fishbein’s answer is to bypass all of this by playing 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4, entering into positions where White offers a pawn to gain attacking chances. There is theory here to learn, of course, but the field is delimited and White can try to channel the game into positions he knows better than his opponents.

At just 128 pages, The Scotch Gambit is a surprisingly dense book. Each of its ten chapters begins with a theoretical overview of critical variations, followed by a set of supplementary games that expand and unpack that analysis. Not all of the illustrative games show victories for White, which to my mind is rather useful. Sometimes a ‘cautionary tale’ can prove more enlightening than a dozen typical miniatures.

The heart of The Scotch Gambit lies in Fishbein’s analysis and repertoire choices, but equally as important is his effort to continually leaven that analysis with clear positional explanations. Fishbein repeatedly stops and explains to his readers how he evaluates specific positions, even (and especially) when the computer disagrees. As he puts it in chapter 5,

You study the opening not just to prepare for all different moves that your opponent can play, but, more importantly, to gain intuition about evaluating the position. … You will need general understanding and the skills to evaluate positions to deal with [new moves]. If any game that I annotate in this book does not teach you something about how to evaluate positions, something that you can use in other games or variations, then I have not done my job. (64)

There is plenty of analysis for even master-level players in The Scotch Gambit, but for me, the emphasis on explanation is what distinguishes Fishbein’s book from its competitors.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Black has two main options: 4. …Nf6 and 4. …Bc5. Chapters 1-5 of The Scotch Gambit deal with 4. …Nf6, while Chapters 5-9 explore responses to 4. …Bc5. We’ll take each in turn.

The first two chapters of the book deal with what Fishbein calls the Modern Attack: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4 Bd7. There are two points here worth mentioning.

(1) White often chooses between two 5th move options in this variation: 5.e5 and 5.0-0. Fishbein makes a cogent case for the superiority of 5.e5, and in chapter 5, he shows why this is the case. Recent analysis by Lokander and Ntirlis prove that Black is fully equal, if not potentially slightly better, after 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!

(2) Black sometimes (following Ntirlis, among others) tries to offer a pawn sacrifice with 7. …Bc5. Fishbein explains in chapter 3 that White should decline the pawn with 8.Be3 0–0 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Bxc5 Nxc5 11.Bxc6 Rb8 12.Qxd5

“Unusual” is 12.0–0 Ba6! (12…Rxb2 was seen in Nakamura-Onischuk, Saint Louis 2015) 13.Re1 Rxb2 14.Qd4 Rxc2 15.Na3 Nb3 16.axb3 Rxc6=.

12…Qe7

12. …Qxd5 13.Bxd5 Rxb2 14.Na3! with the idea 15.0–0–0.

13.0–0 Rxb2 and here, instead of 14.Nc3, Fishbein proposes 14.Na3!? as “a good practical try.” (40)

While there are a lot of move orders issues to consider, as is true throughout the book, the key position of the Modern Attack appears after 7. …Bd7 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.0–0 Bc5 10.f3 Ng5 11.Be3 Bb6 12.f4 Ne4 13.Nd2 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 c5 15.Nf3! d4 16.Bf2 and now Black has a choice of moves.

image

After 16. …Bc6 (keeping the option of castling queenside alive) Fishbein persuasively argues that White should play 17.f5! as in Stopa-Schneider (Richardson, 2007). Other moves are imprecise: 17.Bh4 allows 17. …Qd7, fighting for the f5 square, and in the case of 17.a4 a5 18.f5 Qd5 19.Qg5?! (better is 19.Bh4) 19. …h6! 20.Qxg7 0–0–0! Black is for choice. The main line runs 17. …Bxf3 (if 17. …Qd7? 18.e6!, and after 17. …Qd5 18.Bh4!) 18.gxf3 Qd5 19.Qg5 when the White king is safe enough and Black has trouble castling.

Less common is 16. …0-0, which is on Fishbein’s account “[t]he most solid and … best move.” (11) White usually plays 17.Qd3 in this position, with the idea of f4-f5, but Fishbein thinks that after 17. …Qc8 White has no chance for an advantage. Instead he recommends the very rare 17.b3!?, and after 17. …Qc8 18.a4 a5 19.Nh4 Re8 20.Rae1 Fishbein writes “White’s plan is clear: f4-f5 and, with any luck, an attack on the king. White’s next moves may be Qd3 and Bg3. Black has his trumps: a good light-squared bishop and a flexible position. If Black can time a central advance well, White’s attack can backfire. However, White’s position seems easier to play.” (13)

What about 4. …Bc5? Here Fishbein provides two alternatives for readers to consider. White can play 5.0-0!?, leading into the Max Lange Attack (Chapter 6) after 5. …Nf6 and the “von der Lasa” variation (Chapters 7-8) after 5. …d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3. Alternatively, if White desires a quieter game, he can try the Jobava variation – 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 (6.cxd4 Bb4+ is the Giuoco Piano) 6…d5 7.Be2 – recently popularized by GM Baadur Jobava and analyzed in Chapter 9.

I think the choice between these two moves comes down to whether you believe in Fishbein’s rehabilitation of the von der Lasa. This is a very old variation, analyzed years ago by Steinitz and Cordel, and more recently by Lev Gutman in Kaissiber. While Black can vary with 6. …dxc3, 6. …Nf6, and 7. …Qd7, the key line runs 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0–0 d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

image

Here White has avoided the faulty 9.Bxg8? Rxg8 10.gxf3 g5!, but is faced with a multitude of decent choices for Black, including 9. …d3, 9. …dxc3, 9. …Bb6, and the most popular move, 9. …Nf6.

Fishbein tries to show through creative analysis that the von der Lasa is ultimately unclear, with neither side able to truly claim an advantage. I think this is slightly optimistic. For example, if Black tries the untested 9. …d3!? 10.Be3 Ne5 11.Bxg8 Rxg8 12.Nd2 Qh4, White is under pressure but probably should hold.

9. …Nf6, played by Steinitz and recommended by Bologan, might be a tougher nut to crack. Fishbein’s main line runs 10.Bc4 Qd7 11.Kg2 (improving on Bologan’s 11.Be6 Qe8 12.Bh3 g5!) Na5 12.Qb5 Nxc4 13.Qxc4 Re8 14.Re1 1Qf7 15.Qd3 Qg6+ 16.Kf1 d5 17.cxd4 Bd6 18.Nc3 Bxh2 19.Qe3 where he claims that ” [i]n this double-edged position, White’s central pawns cover the king and also offer good prospects in the ending… Neither king is completely safe (always the case in this variation).” (79)

Fair enough. But what about 11. …Re8, with the idea of Re8–e5–h5? Fishbein gives 12.Qd1 (12.Bf4? g5) 12. …Re5 13.Kh1 (13.h4!?) 13. …Rh5 14.Rg1 as “an unclear position in which Black can easily get overextended.” (78) To me this sounds like a tacit admission of Black’s superiority, and I’d much rather play Black in this position.

That Fishbein is slightly overly optimistic for White, here and elsewhere, is not surprising. He plays these lines himself, so I’d hope that he believes in them! From my perspective, this is the only drawback to the book, and it’s a slight one indeed. There are a couple of minor editorial lapses – three moves are missing on page 101 – and small analytical improvements found by the computer, but on the whole, this is a work of very high quality.

The Scotch Gambit is an excellent book, filled with interesting ideas and sharp analysis. What makes it special is the clarity of Fishbein’s positional sketches and descriptions. It avoids all the extremes of the opening book genre, and in so neatly tying together analysis and exposition, Fishbein has written the rare book suitable for both amateurs and masters.

Replayable analysis references:
Modern Attack ML
Von der Lasa