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Quest or Obsession?

This review has been printed in the October 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves (Doubleday, 2019) is, on first blush, a fairly conventional tale of a young man’s obsession with chess. Chapin first approached the board as a troubled teen, and in the book’s early chapters, he recounts his early dalliances with the game on his school’s chess team.

Already in these initial pages we find the two competing elements of Chapin’s life in chess. He describes the “ecstatic flight from [him]self” that he discovered in the game, and the growing importance it held in his day-to-day living:

… I lost interest in all of my other typical activities. The brief thrills of breaking the law or almost breaking a condom felt like shallow flutters compared to the sustained joy of playing over one of Bobby Fischer’s masterpieces. (24)

But for all of the pleasure that chess provides him, Chapin also discovers that he’s not a very good player. While he can deal with losing to other “chess nerds,” a series of ego-crushing defeats by his older brother is a step too far. Chapin swears the game off (33), assuming that it’s “just one of those things I liked when I was a kid, like cartoons, or Sartre, or weed…” (Here, as above, we see Chapin’s repeated sensationalism in action.)

Chapin’s “remission” ends when, during a hastily arranged reporting trip to Nepal, he encounters street hustlers in Katmandu. Predictably he loses, but the obsession returns, and while Chapin wonders if it’s not due to the effect the heat is having on his mood stabilizers (45-6), soon he is passing up the pleasures of the flesh to play chess on the Internet.

The bulk of All the Wrong Moves is devoted to Chapin’s abandoning himself, sometimes against the advice of his better angels, to chess. He starts with a local club in Bangkok, followed by a painful loss at the Bangkok Open that prompts him to withdraw from the tournament. He heads to New York and then Toronto, intending to exile himself from the game, but instead falling deeper and deeper under its spell.

Here the story takes a turn. Chapin meets a woman and comes to make a bold decision. Instead of fleeing from chess, and in an effort to overcome the shame he felt in his divided attention, Chapin rips off the band-aid. He effectively “goes pro,” trying to improve seriously over the course of a year, and with the goal of defeating a player rated 2000.[1]

This quest – and it’s clear that Chapin has shaped his tale as a quest – takes the author to Saint Louis for a month, where he hates everything about the city save the Chess Club and his lessons with Ben Finegold. He plays rated games in Toronto, New York, Hyderabad, and finally Los Angeles, where a win over an A player and a draw with an expert brings the journey to its completion.

Quest narratives like Chapin’s are not only about actions and deeds, but also meaning and growth. The hero is supposed to have learned something, become different and wiser, in his travels. What is the net result for Sasha Chapin after his sojourn in the chess world, and what should we take from it?

There is no small difficulty in reviewing a memoir. Any criticism runs the risk of reading like bad psychoanalyzing, and as someone who writes about chess for a living, it’s tricky to avoid expecting too much from a trade book aimed at non-specialists. Still, with these admonitions firmly in mind, we might hazard the following reading.

There is a chasm in Chapin’s tale between the descriptions of the joy he finds in chess, and the agony losing brings him. On the one hand, he senses and articulates quite well the beauty of the game (25, 52, 88-90), but the pleasure he finds pales in comparison to the self-loathing wrought by defeat.

For much of the book Chapin simply cannot abide the blows to his ego brought on by losses. After a child beats him, he says “I feel nothing but rage, and I am its only object.” Later he decides that perhaps “the essential ingredient to good chess play was self-hatred… I made sure to be as sad and uncomfortable as possible.” (103, 107)

It is odd that of all the methods Chapin employs to try and win more games, the most logical – study – never appears in the book. In 224 pages there is no mention of chess books or videos, no effort expended in showing readers the day-to-day work of chess improvement. Instead we get tales of days-long Internet blitz benders, which are fun, but which do little to improve his play.

And it’s not as if Chapin is unaware of chess literature and culture. He name-checks Aron Nimzowitsch, Jonathan Rowson, and Peter Svidler during his August 13th appearance on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess Podcast. He ominously cites “the Database” (47) as something that the best players have to master. So why doesn’t any of the hard work of improvement appear in the book?

Part of this omission may have to do with his audience. A memoir that details weeks analyzing the Sveshnikov probably won’t tear up the best-seller list, and Chapin admits on the Podcast that he made an authorial decision to “compress” the technical content.

But I suspect that the lack of focus on training has more to do with the almost Manichean framework of Chapin’s tale. Chapin is a believer in talent – you either have it, or you don’t. He incorrectly thinks that Magnus Carlsen is “infamous for not needing to study quite as hard as other high-level players” (77) due to his innate talent, while he laments his personal lack of any such gift.

The upshot, on this account, is that you can’t hate yourself for not being great. (77) Hard work and deliberate practice, the kind originally championed by Anders Ericsson can only paper over a lack of talent. So it’s not Chapin’s fault he’s bad at chess – it’s his inability to create mental images (43), his lack of God-given ability, or his opponent’s odorous distractions (153), but never the fact that, at least in the book, he doesn’t seem to actually try to improve.

There is more than a bit of magical thinking on Chapin’s part. Is it rational to move to Saint Louis for a month to take lessons with a GM? Certainly it’s good for the book. The pages on Finegold are delightful, and the koan-like lessons he recounts are memorable. But it also may be the case that the bitter truths Finegold tries to impart – have less fun! never sacrifice! don’t lose all your pieces! marriage is ok! – are self-fulfilling for Chapin’s understanding of the game’s value, and his along with it, as wholly measured in wins and losses.

Stranger still is the decision Chapin makes to travel to Hyderabad, taken as part of a desire to find “some way to speed things up a bit – some way to sell my soul to chess itself – some great and costly hero’s errand [he] could embark on, with epiphany as its reward.” (142) So he decides to play a tournament in India to “find Caïssa,” the goddess of chess, in the place where chess was born. Nevermind that Caïssa is a Greek dryad, or tree nymph, in William Jones’ poem!

Chapin’s “pilgrimage” makes for good reading, but what effect does it have on his chess career? He plays a few games with poor results, gets violently ill, and is forfeited out of the tournament. Something shatters in him; as he writes in a key passage,

I looked myself in the eyes. I was greenish, tired, and covered with a grimy residue of boomtown pollution commingled with sweat. … How would the rest of this go? I wondered. Like, the rest of my life? Probably like this, because this was it. How cute. Running from one distraction to another. Finding any defined life unbefitting of a never-ending sense of grandiosity. Neglecting a good woman in favor of a form of comfortable self-imprisonment. Just like a few girlfriends prior, whom you’d abandoned so you could experience mental episodes in peace. This is how you are. You know all this stuff. And now you’re spending all of your time learning it all over again. Super, super cute. Welcome to Hyderabad. (167)

The final pages on the Los Angeles tournament are almost anti-climactic after his Hyderabad revelation. While Chapin is happy to draw a player rated 2040, he seems almost relieved to tragicomically lose his last over-the-board game. Why? Are Finegold’s teachings, and in particular, his koan-like “secret to chess” – the capstone to the book which I will not spoil here – a mantra to bring peace to patzers everywhere?

It’s clear that the final pages of the book are meant as a grand denouement, a big reveal. Chapin achieves some kind of equanimity where everything – wins, losses, brilliancies and blunders – are all “mostly fine,” but the side effect is that the passion drains from Chapin and from his chess. Is this indeed enlightenment, or is it resignation?

I am of two minds here, and so I leave it to the reader to decide which is more true. (Perhaps both are?) But the second possibility raises a troubling question for chess players. Is it possible to love chess without excelling at it? Is it ok to be obsessed with a game that, for all of its pleasures, will break your heart again and again and again?

For Chapin, the answer seems to be no. But if we shift our thinking a bit, and understand the object of our infatuation with chess less in terms of wins and losses, and more in terms of beauty and meaning, the answer (even on Chapin’s own account) may be yes.

There are pages where Chapin hints in this direction (54, 84-89), towards viewing chess as “the most human thing you can do,” as violence made beautiful through abstraction and sublimation. But he never gets to the key point, namely, that to be human is to be a creature in search of meaning.

Tarrasch was right when he said that chess, like music and art, has the power to make us happy. But more to the point, chess, like its more respected cousins, can orient a world. It doesn’t happen automatically or for everyone – an act of apprenticeship is required, as Deleuze said of Proust’s apprenticeship to signs in his Search for Lost Time – but I would bet good money that more than a few of my readers understand what I mean.

I will not speculate on why Chapin does not make this final connection, but it may explain why he misunderstands the example of Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicates a full chapter of All the Wrong Moves. Chapin takes Duchamp’s self-abandonment to the game as the model for his own quest, but ultimately deems him a failure who wasted his creative powers.

I think Chapin underestimates Duchamp’s achievements. Far from being “never excellent, as Chapin claims (69), Duchamp was of master-level strength, a member of the French national team and the winner of both over-the-board and correspondence tournaments… none of which, it turns out, is relevant to the question at hand.

Duchamp’s “gambit,” his abandoning the art world in favor of chess, can only be understood as a personal quest for meaning. Because chess could not be commercialized, because it was beautiful like art but without economic value, outside “social position,” as he told Time in 1952, it took hold of him, giving him an axis mundi around which to build a life. Even if he had never won a game, that would be enough reason to give himself to Caïssa and become her servant.

We are now far afield of the typical “book report” review some may have expected. My trip into the weeds has been an effort to take Chapin’s book seriously, and to do it justice. It is a raw, intimate, unvarnished look at one man’s journey through the chess world, and it’s a good read to boot. Many of us, myself included, will see more of ourselves in it than we might want to admit.

I found the end of All the Wrong Moves unsatisfactory and unfinished. That may be more about me than about Chapin’s book; in any event, my feeling was meliorated in no small part by Chapin’s appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where his eventual return to chess is left open. For his sake, I hope he finds a way to give it a go.


[1] Note that there’s slightly more to the story here than the book lets on. Chapin was supporting himself as a feature writer during these months, publishing pieces on Eric Hansen and the 2016 World Championship Match among others, and on the basis of a feature that eventually became Chapter 3 of All the Wrong Moves, he had already secured a publishing contract for the book under review.

Multi-Tasking to the Max

This review has been printed in the September 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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. My Magic Years with Topalov. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510440. PB 310pp.

Edouard, Romain. “Play the French.” video series at chess24.com.

The immortal James Brown is often said to have been the “hardest working man in show business.” Recently I found myself wondering who would hold the same title in the chess world.

One way to answer the question would be to look at the new Leader Boards page at uschess.org. For the year running from June 2018 through May 2019, New York’s “chess ironman” Jay Bonin has played a whopping 578 regular and dual rated games, good for second place in the games count. The leader is a 7 year old girl from California, Dada Cabrales-Goldstein, who has an amazing 655 games to her credit.

If we take a broader view, including chess labor that is not strictly ‘at the board,’ the candidate pool broadens. Seconds for the world’s elite, such as Peter Heine Nielsen (second to Magnus Carlsen) or Rustam Kazimdzhanov (Fabiano Caruana’s trainer), are logical choices, as are top streamers like Agadmator or ChessNetwork.

My pick, however, might be GM Romain Edouard. Currently rated 2647 and a recent member of the +2700 club, Edouard is an active player, playing on multiple club teams around Europe. He is the editor-in-chief of Thinkers Publishing, and the author of six titles for his imprint, including his newest, My Magic Years with Topalov, which we’ll look at this month.

Edouard has also begun to move into chess streaming and videos, having recently worked as a French commentator for the Grand Chess Tour livestreams. He has also released two video series for Chess24: “Veselin Topalov: The Initiative in Chess,” derived from his Topalov book, and “Play the French,” which will occupy the bulk of this month’s column. A third, titled “10 Endgame Principles You Should Know,” should be out by the time you read these words.

My Magic Years with Topalov tells the story of Edouard’s time (2010-2014) as Veselin Topalov’s second. A second, for those unfamiliar with the term, functions as a “chess assistant” for an elite player, helping them with opening analysis, serving as a sparring partner in training games, and sometimes playing the role of confidant and psychologist.

Edouard worked as Topalov’s second during the later part of Topalov’s years in the elite, including the 2012-13 Grand Prix cycle and the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, where Topalov finished in a disappointing eighth place. Here he spills the beans on his work for Topalov, offering readers an intimate, unvarnished account of his role as second, of Topalov’s games in that period, and of Topalov ‘the person.’

In his Preface to the book, Topalov lauds his former assistant, saying that he “believe[s] chess fans will like the honesty of the stories as nothing is hidden.” (7) Edouard’s candor does both players a service: we obtain important insights into his work with Topalov, and we also get a sympathetic portrait of Topalov himself that, in part, erodes the damage done to his reputation by the ‘Toiletgate’ episode in 2006.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Edouard’s book lay out the nature of his job as Topalov’s second. He explains how the second must merge silicon insights with human intuition to produce useable analysis, and how organizational skills – presenting the material in a succinct, digestable manner – are critical to the task. And even then, players have to read their emails, lest they overlook important novelties cooked up by their team! See Edouard’s account of the Gelfand-Topalov and Giri-Topalov games at the 2012 London Grand Prix for this tale that turned out well. (86-89, 104-108)

The great bulk of My Magic Years with Topalov consists of tournament recaps and dense game analysis. Here Edouard shines. Without shying away from sometimes necessarily deep analytical dives into key positions, Edouard largely manages to keep things comprehensible for the amateur reader, and he is very generous in providing ‘unexploded’ opening ideas along the way. As a collection of Topalov’s games, this book is a standout, but when combined with the behind-the-scenes stories and insights, My Magic Years with Topalov becomes one of the year’s best works.

“Play the French” is a set of 13 videos, running 5 hours and 13 minutes in all, presenting a repertoire in the French Defense. The stated goal of the series is “[t]o provide the viewer with a complete Black repertoire after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5.” In this Edouard largely succeeds, offering a set of fighting variations for Black to play for a win. There are some key omissions, which we will note along the way, but Edouard manages to pack an impressive amount of material into five hours of video.

After a short introduction, and a 44 minute video on the Exchange Variation where … Nc6 lines are largely avoided, Edouard spends 74 minutes over two videos proposing 5. … Bd7 against the Advance Variation. Against White’s three main choices, he recommends 6. Be2 f6!?, 6. a3 c4, and heading into the main lines of the Milner-Barry with 6. Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Qb6 8.0–0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6 11.Qe2 Rc8!, following Sulskis-Giri, Batumi 2018.

Edouard’s analysis is solid, and he does a good job of explaining the ideas in the video, if perhaps a bit too quickly at times. He also omits coverage of important sidelines, particularly in the Milner-Barry. The dangerous 9. Nbd2, or the ‘Nun’ variation, is not included in the video. Nor is 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3 a6 11. Re1, which is the second most popular continuation in the database.

Edouard needs five videos, and 90 minutes, to unpack his recommendations against the Tarrasch. Here he analyzes the trendy 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Ngf3 cxd4 6. Bc4 Qd7!? as his main line, along with 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. dxc5 Bxc5 6. Ngf3 Nf6 7. Bc4 Qc6 and 4. Ngf3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 (note that 5. exd5 transposes to the main line above) 5. … Nf6 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Nb5 Na6 8.Nc3 Qd6. I found the coverage to be convincing and comprehensive, with no major omissions to note.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Edouard’s repertoire is his recommendation against 3. Nc3. Across three videos, running 89 minutes in length, Edouard proposes that readers play 3. … Nf6 and aim for two intensely aggressive variations.

If White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5, Edouard recommends the “neo-Morozevich” variation (per Larry Kaufman in NIC Yearbook 90): 4. … dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6 7.Nf3 f5. Play is sharp in all variations, but the key line, where White sacrifices a piece for the attack – 8. Nc3 a6 9. g3 b5 10. Bg2 Bb7 11. 0–0 c5! 12. d5 b4 13.dxe6 bxc3 14.exf7+ Kf8 – is analyzed to equality by Edouard, following Kosten-Bluebaum, Brest 2018.

If, instead, White plays 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5, Edouard proposes we play a new line in the Steinitz: 4. … Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. dxc5 0–0! 9. Qd2 Qa5 and after 10. 0-0-0 b6 11. Bb5 we try 11. … Nb4!? This is a recent idea, offering to sacrifice a piece for a serious attack, and it was seen in one of the most brilliant games of recent months:

FRENCH DEFENSE STEINITZ VARIATION (C11)

GM Alireza Firouzja (2669)
GM Constantin Lupulescu (2634)
Reykjavik Open (7.1), 14.04.2019

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0–0 9.dxc5 Qa5 10.0–0–0 b6 11.Bb5 Nb4 12.a3 bxc5 13.Bxd7 Bxd7 14.axb4 cxb4 15.Nb1 Rfc8 16.Nd4 Qa2 17.f5 exf5 18.Rhf1 a5 19.Nxf5 Bxf5 20.Rxf5 a4 21.Bd4 a3 22.e6 f6 23.Qd3 b3 24.Rf2 Ra4 25.c3 Rxd4 26.Qxd4 Bc5 27.Qd2 Bxf2 28.Qxf2 Qa1 29.e7 a2 30.e8Q+ Rxe8 31.Qf5 d4 0–1

White can vary at a number of places – 10. a3, 13. Kb1! (which may be best), etc. – or can avoid taking the c-pawn entirely. After 8. Qd2 0-0 9.Be2, Edouard looks at 9. … b6 10. 0-0 f5!? and assess the resulting lines as unclear. While this recommendation will require some memory work, Edouard does a fine job of synthesizing and summarizing his analysis, and I think viewers would feel comfortable playing the variation after watching the video. That Edouard, a long-time French player, has played this exact line with Black (Santos Ruiz-Edouard, Skopje 2019) is a good sign that he believes in what he’s offering here.

In “French Toast: How Harikrishna fries 1. … e6,” his new Anti-French repertoire just out from Chessable, GM Pentala Harikrishna recommends that White avoid the mainline Steinitz by varying with 5.Nce2 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Nf3.

Steinitz 5.Nce2 7.Nf3

Here Edouard first offers 7. … Qb6, when both he and Harikrishna follow the same path: 8. a3 f6 9. exf6 Nxf6 10. g3 cxd4 11. cxd4 and now the novelty 11. … e5!?. (Note: this has now been tested in Jacobson,A-Shetty, Philadelphia, 2019). Edouard analyzes out to move 22, finding that White gets a slight advantage in sharp play, while Harikrishna extends Edouard’s line two moves and concludes that “White is still pushing.”

It’s not clear to me that Black is that much worse after 11. … e5, and I’m not sure why both analysts reject the natural 11. … Bd6 12. Bg2 0–0 13. 0–0 Bd7 14. Bf4 Bxf4 15. Nxf4 (Bologan-Svane, Berlin 2015) and now 15. … Ne4. Still, despite deeming 7. … Qb6 and 11. … e5 playable, Edouard offers 7. … a5 as an alternative.

After 7. … a5 Harikrishna likes 8. a4, and Edouard analyzes 8. … Qb6 9. g3 Be7 10. Bh3 0–0 11. 0–0 Qa6 12. Nf4 b5 as “unclear.” This line is not forced, as we see when we compare Harikrishna’s main variation: 8. … Qb6 9. g3 cxd4 10. cxd4 f6 11. exf6 Nxf6 12. Nc3 e5!?, leading to a slight advantage for White. Suffice to say that there is room for creativity and debate here.

At least four important lines are missing from Edouard’s Steinitz coverage. After 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 White can play 5.Qg4, 5.Qh5 (the “Haldane Hack”) and 5. Nf3 c5 6. dxc5 Nc6 7. Bf4. He also overlooks 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. Qd2 0-0 9. h4, an idea covered in Chessbase Magazine 188 and played by the likes of Wang Hao and Ray Robson.

Because it omits sidelines like these, and because the final video, covering “odds and ends,” is relatively slight, new French players will have to supplement the series with another resource. Of the standard titles – Berg’s three volumes from Quality Chess, Moskalenko’s Even More Flexible French, and Watson’s Play the French 4 – none completely matches Edouard’s choices, with Moskalenko’s being the relatively best fit.

Perhaps it is too much to ask Edouard to analyze everything in just over five hours of video. What is covered in “Play the French” is outstanding, providing the framework for a master or even Grandmaster-level French repertoire. Any French player looking to add some new ideas to their arsenal would do well to check it out.

Data-Driven Chess

This review has been printed in the August 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Erwich, Frank. 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players: The Tactics Workbook that Also Explains All Key Concepts. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918194. PB 160pp.

Luther, Thomas, et al. Chess Coaching for Kids: The U-10 Project. Nevele: Thinkers Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-3944710358. HC 255pp.

Zaninotto, Franco. Learning from the Mistakes of Others. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019. ISBN 978-3959209823.

Zaninotto, Franco. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions! Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917746. PB 144pp.

Professional sport is becoming increasingly data-driven at the highest levels. Baseball teams obsess over exit velocity, spin rate, and advanced sabermetrics, while basketball analysts chart shot selection and work to quantify defensive abilities. All this is done in the interest of efficiency and improved results.

Chess players are no exception to this trend. Data-driven players use engines and immense databases to study their opponents and hone their intuition. Some rely on off-the-shelf databases like MegaBase or TWIC (The Week in Chess). Others “roll their own,” searching out correspondence games and engine matches to increase their data trove.

One interesting effect of this “data arms race” is the availability of amateur and junior games – not just players rated under 2000, but under 1400 or even 1000 – for analysis and study. This presents some intriguing possibilities for both players and coaches.

If we want to understand typical errors made by amateurs and juniors, it might make sense to undertake a study of their games. And while showing a 800 player a Morphy brilliancy might inspire them, it would arguably be more useful to feature mistakes from players of their level, and then help them to avoid them.

Italian FM Franco Zaninotto has published two books that aim to do just that. Super Chess Kids: Win Like the World’s Young Champions (New in Chess, 2018) and Learning from the Mistakes of Others (Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2019) are twin titles that draw their content from games by lower-rated players.

Super Chess Kids focuses on “strategy” (Part I) and “tactics” (Part II), using games from youth championships from around the world as examples. Learning from the Mistakes of Others takes a broader view, with positions from amateur games employed as “teachable moments” in all three phases of the game. Because both books are structurally similar, we will treat them together.

The main sections of Zaninotto’s books consist of concise thematic chapters followed by a series of positions to solve with their solutions. The “Calculation” chapter (Super Chess Kids, 78-84) is typical, offering advice for improving one’s calculation along with illustrative examples. His advice (78-9) is based on Kotov, but it boils down to (a) finding sensible candidate moves, and (b) choosing the strongest one. All five examples in this chapter include this dual admonition, and each can be solved by doing as Zaninotto asks. Here’s an example where White played 13.Qe3 – what did he miss?

image

There are a number of plausible candidate moves (13.Ng6, 13.Bf4, 13.Bb5), but by following Zaninotto’s model, and by focusing first on forcing moves, White might have found 13.Nxf7! Rxf7 14.Qxe6 (14.Bxe6? Nf8 15.Bxf7+ Kxf7) 14. … Qe8 15.Qxe7 Qxe7 16.Rxe7 with a tremendous advantage.

But White didn’t play the best move. Why? Because he took seven minutes to play 13.Qe3, Zaninotto speculates that White analyzed 13.Nxf7 but missed the pin on the rook on f7, which might suggest a problem of visualization. How to improve this? Zaninotto offers seven bits of advice or “exercises”, all of which can be reasonably enacted by chess mortals.

Super Chess Kids is focused on strategy and tactics writ large, covering weaknesses, piece play, positional evaluation, calculation, attack, and defense. Learning from the Mistakes of Others has sections on theoretical and “strategic” endings, broad middlegame themes like “chess culture” and developing a plan, and a short coda on the opening. The chapter on “Mistakes and Mindsets” is particularly good, and could be used effectively as a stand-alone lesson with a student.

Zaninotto describes his work (Learning, 6-7) as being aimed at players roughly 1400-1800 FIDE, with some wiggle room on both ends, and that seems accurate. There’s nothing earth-shattering in his prescriptions, but I suspect that’s the point – what Zaninotto has done here is collect solid, time-tested advice for improving players, and he imparts that advice through use of well-chosen practical examples. The numerous exercises and didactic elegance common to both titles make them suitable for coaches and ambitious juniors alike.

Moving on: it’s rare that a new book appear on my doorstep completely unexpectedly, but such was the case with Chess Coaching for Kids: The U10-Project (JugendSchachVerlag / Thinkers Publishing, 2018). It does not seem to be getting a real advertising push, and that’s a shame. This is a very interesting book.

Edited by GM Thomas Luther and written by a team including Heinz Brunthaler and Martin Weteschnik, Chess Coaching for Kids takes a more directly data-driven approach to coaching and improvement. The theoretical heart of Chess Coaching for Kids is a statistical analysis of over 1400 games taken from national and international under-8 and under-10 tournaments.

Part I, “Analysis of Mistakes in u8 and u10 Tournaments,” articulates a “points system” (8) to quantify mistakes. “Soft moves,” or “small inaccuracies which… deteriorate the position long term,” are not accounted for in this schema, as Brunthaler (the author of Part I) argues that most players are incapable of taking advantage of such nuances at this level.

What did they learn? The older players, not surprisingly, made fewer and less severe mistakes than did the younger ones, and tournament medalists make fewer “hard” and “soft” mistakes than do tail-enders, playing “purposeful” chess (26) that induced errors by their opponents. Gender also plays a role: girls tend to make more mistakes than boys in this age range, and they do not advance as quickly. (They do not speculate on why this is the case.)

From this, Brunthaler concludes that coaching should focus on remedying both “clear mistakes,” like those described above, and the “soft moves” that rot a position. (26) “[T]he strategic principles should be shown to kids as early as possible, even in the first months of training. Highlighting these principles (especially the violation of them)… should enable the kids to fully grasp their importance.” (35) He also argues that girls should avoid all-girl events as they “stagnate” (34) their chess, and instead play in mixed events.

Part II of Chess Coaching for Kids, written by the authorial collective, presents “practical examples” drawn from the u8 and u10 games. Topics include “openings and opening deficits,” the pin in junior games, positional themes like weak squares and the 7th rank, and “fighting spirit.” Here’s a typical example, drawn from a game played between a D and an E player in a German girls event:

image

“Sometimes, tactical chances are missed for fear of running into the opponent’s trap (which, by the way, mostly was not the case). Here, Black presumably thought that her opponent would win back the piece and, therefore, abstained from the pawn fork. However, she should have calculated a little longer:

19. … e4 20.Qe3 exf3 21.Qxe7

Probably White had only seen 21. … Qxe7 22.Rxe7 but even then Black is clearly better, for instance 22. … fxg2 23.Rxb7 and Black is much better.

Still better is 21 … Qc6 e.g. 22.Bb2 (otherwise the devastating 22. … Rfe8 will follow, skewering the queen and the mating square e1) 22. … Rfe8 23.Qg5 f6 24.Qg4 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 fxg2+ 26.Qxg2 Qxg2+ 27.Kxg2–+.

And the best move is 21. … Ne2+! 22.Rxe2 fxe2 23.Qxe2 Rac8 with good winning chances for Black.” (81)

Here we can see the utility of the work done in Chess Coaching for Kids. The example clearly illustrates a common mistake at this age and rating, and the authors use it to move into a discussion of the importance of visualization and how to train it. The advice is perhaps not as dense as in Zaninotto, but this makes sense if we consider audience. Chess Coaching for Kids is written entirely for coaches.

The bulk of the remainder of the book comes in Part III, which features five lengthy “tests” of increasing difficulty that can be given to students whole-cloth or mined for teaching material. Three short sections (Parts IV, V, and VI) wrap things up, with discussion of the nature of talent, best coaching practices, and a study of u12 games and training needs.

Chess Coaching for Kids is one of the first serious attempts to quantify success in high level junior chess. As such, I think it offers readers a useful lens to re-examine their ideas about coaching and improvement, both for their students and for themselves. It will be interesting to see if Luther et al continue their work with studies of more advanced / older players.

By way of conclusion, let me briefly mention a new tactics book that, while not directly “data-driven” in orientation, is rooted in a well-tested teaching philosophy. Frank Erwich’s excellent 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players (New in Chess, 2019) takes its vocabulary and structure from the “Steps Method” or Stappenmethode.

Created by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden, the Steps Method is a structured instructional program wheres students are taught to discern key features of positions using ‘search strategies’ and by solving exercises. Each of the six ‘Steps’ builds upon previous ones, with the result being that learners get level-appropriate instruction, taking them from beginner (Step 1) through expert or low master (Step 6).

Erwich’s book is a collection of tactical problems taxonomically organized as in the Steps. This is a boon for Steps teachers and users, of course, but Erwich does a good job of explaining the key motifs through illustrative examples for non-initiates. The problems themselves are relatively advanced – usually at least five ply, requiring one or more ‘preparatory moves’ – but not impossible, and many diagrams have hints underneath them.

1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players is best suited for players over 1700 USCF, or those who have finished Step 3 of the Steps Method. It’s a very good intermediate tactics book, and with its availability on Chessable, I think it might work very well for a Woodpecker-style study using spaced repetition.

Trainer to the Stars

This review has been printed in the July 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Coaching the Chess Stars. Ghent: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510501. PB 352pp.

Anyone can teach a beginner the rules of chess, but it is a rare individual who can mould raw talents into Grandmasters. It is perhaps rarer to be the person who polishes Grandmasters and helps them grow into one of the world’s elite. This month we look at a book by and about just such a person: Vladimir Tukmakov’s Coaching the Chess Stars.

Tukmakov’s name may be familiar to regular readers of this column. He is the author of three previous books – Profession: Chessplayer, Grandmaster at Work (2012), Modern Chess Preparation (2012), and Risk and Bluff in Chess (2016). A vastly strong player in his day, Tukmakov has been the captain of numerous medal-winning teams in both club and international competitions, and most recently, he has served as the trainer for Anish Giri and Wesley So.

Coaching the Chess Stars is a memoir of Tukmakov’s time as captain and coach. About 40 percent of the book revolves around his work with the national teams of the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the Netherlands, along with his captaining the powerful Azeri SOCAR club team. There is much that is interesting here, including discussion of the psychology of team selection, and his memories of the late Vugar Gashimov. Still, I suspect most people will read it for the stories about his individual students, and in particular, Anish Giri.

While Tukmakov was part of Karpov’s team from in the 90s and worked with Geller, Tseshkovsky, and Korchnoi, among others, it was Anish Giri who first brought Tukmakov into full-time coaching in 2014. His initial impressions of the 19 year old (and already 19th in the rating list) Giri appeared logical enough: “I expected to work with a gifted tactician who would simply have to learn the deeper layers of positional chess.” (210) The truth, however, was more complicated.

Anish really felt at home in sharp dynamic positions – but only if he had the initiative. However, when his own king was threatened, he often switched to defence at the slightest hint of danger. … In general, I had to work with a very talented and well-educated chess player who had certain weaknesses. We managed to fix certain things at the training camp, but given the lack of time, our preparation was mainly devoted to the upcoming competition. (210)

We get a sense here of the promise of, and problems with, Tukmakov’s book. There is a clear diagnosis of Giri’s strengths and weaknesses, but precious little concrete discussion of exactly how they went about fixing “certain” things.

Certainly this seems reasonable. The relationship between coach and pupil is, after all, sacrosanct, and there is an implicit taboo against revealing too many details of the training without permission. But if you’re writing a book about coaching two of the world’s top players, surely you should satisfy your audience’s curiosity about how to help a 2730 player improve?

This is the irresolvable tension of Coaching the Chess Stars. On the one hand, Tukmakov gives readers a clear and thoughtful account of his two years with Giri. His dissection of their preparation for Alexey Shirov (217-226) is a fascinating bit of psychological acumen, and his notes to Giri’s games are refreshingly succinct and “human.”

As an example, here’s what Tukmakov had to say about two key moments in Giri’s win over Topalov from the 2015 Norway Chess tournament. The quoted comments and evaluation symbols are his.

CATALAN OPENING [E11]

GM Anish Giri (2773)
GM Veselin Topalov (2798)
Norway Chess (8) Stavanger, 06.24.2015

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 0–0 7. 0–0 c6 8. Qc2 Nbd7 9. Rd1 b6 10. b3 a5 11. Bc3 Bb7 12. Nbd2 c5 13. Ne5 cxd4 14. Bxd4 Nxe5 15. Bxe5 Qc8 16. Rac1 dxc4 17. Bxf6!?

“In this line of the Catalan, as in most of the others, White can, at the most, count on a minimal advantage. Implementing it is problematical and depends on numerous nuances. The unobvious exchange of his beautiful black-squared bishop for a seemingly nondescript knight is one such.” (Here we also get a sense of the occasionally stilted translation in Coaching the Chess Stars.)

17. … Bxf6 18. Qxc4 Bxg2 19. Kxg2 Qb7+ 20. Qe4! Rfb8 21. Rc6 Qd7 22. Rcc1! Qb7 23. Qxb7! Rxb7 24. Ne4 Be7 25. Nd6 Rd7

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“Such positions seem worse but appear quite defensible. The problem is that up to a certain moment there appear to be no real threats, so the weaker side doesn’t need to look for only moves, but then, when they suddenly find themselves in such a situation, the necessary concentration has already been lost.” I should add that today’s leading engines, including Stockfish and Leela, struggle to properly evaluate this kind of position, thinking Black to be absolutely fine.

26. Nc4 Rxd1 27. Rxd1 b5 28. Ne5 Bf6 29. Nd7 a4 30. Rc1! axb3 31. axb3 Be7 32. Rc7 Rd8 33. Rb7 Bd6 34. g4! h5?! 35. gxh5 Kh7 36. b4! Bxb4 37. Ne5 Rd5 38. Nxf7 Rxh5 39. f4! Kg6 40. Ne5+ Kh7 41. Nf7 Kg6 42. Ne5+ Kh7 43. Nf3! Rf5? 44. Ng5+ Kh6 45. Kf3 Bd2 46. e3 b4 47. Nxe6 Rh5 48. Nxg7! Rxh2 49. Nf5+ Kg6 50. Ne7+ Kf6 51. Nd5+ Ke6 52. Ke4 Rh3 53. Rb6+ Kd7 54. Kd3 Bc1 55. Rxb4 Kd6 56. Kd4 1–0

“This victory was achieved in Giri’s trademark style.”

For all of this, there remains a frustrating lack of particulars in Tukmakov’s presentation of his actual work with Giri. Perhaps the most detailed assessment comes in an interlude entitled “Anand and Giri,” where Tukmakov (reprinting his response to Giri’s question) describes the “undeniable genius” of Anand’s continual “self-tuning” throughout his career, and especially in the context of the rise of the machines. (232)

The role of the computer in modern chess is a persistent theme in Tukmakov’s books. Here, as in Modern Chess Preparation, Tukmakov writes from the perspective of someone who grew up with a classical Soviet education, and before the ubiquity of the computer. Having worked to incorporate the insights of our metal friends into his Grandmasterly understanding of the game, especially as it relates to coaching and training, Tukmakov is well equipped to help us think through what best practices for the human-engine relationship might look like.

Tukmakov’s central idea, in both Modern Chess Preparation and Coaching the Chess Stars, is that players have to achieve some kind of harmony – a key word for Tukmakov – between modeling our play on the machine’s superior skills and losing our individual style or creativity in doing so. He advises his readers in Modern Chess Preparation to study the classics (123f) with the aim of internalizing essential rules and patterns, and to limit our time with, and dependance on, the engine. (199f)

This problem is seen from a different angle in Coaching the Chess Stars. The computer, Tukmakov writes, is the conductor of the “world chess orchestra.” It is authoritative, hegemonic, and equally available (at least in principle) to everyone. What, then, is left to the coach when Stockfish on a cell phone is stronger than any carbon based lifeform?

The answer for Tukmakov is harmony. The coach’s job is to help their student achieve their “unique ‘sound’ and distinct technique,” to jointly develop the student’s “unique creative side to the maximum” and induce a harmony between their personality, their talents, and the rigors of modern chess. (8)

In contrast to Anand, whose growth paralleled that of our metal friends, resulting in a stylistic synergy or “harmony,” Tukmakov diagnoses (233-4, 268-9) a disconnect between Giri’s opening preparation and the moves that follow. “Your moves are mostly good,” Tukmakov writes, “but now you are playing by ear; these moves are not backed up by long computer-generated variations and they do not claim to be the strongest. As a result, harmony collapses and your play fades.”

Tukmakov proposes two paths forward. Giri could simplify his openings and aim for greater harmony (the Carlsen option) or he could increase his tolerance for risk and complexity (the Caruana option). (234) But how precisely to do this? What kind of concrete training could help one of the world’s elite improve? Here Tukmakov is largely silent, which is unfortunate given how universal Giri’s “disconnect” would seem to be for today’s players.

The tension between prescription and privacy, between detailed narrative and the breaking of confidences, runs through Coaching the Chess Stars. To his credit, I think Tukmakov tends to err on the side of caution and respect for his former charges. There is nothing salacious in this book, no gossip mongering or settling of scores. One gets the sense that, even after being terminated, Tukmakov still holds Giri in very high regards.

The same is largely true of Tukmakov’s chapter on his time with Wesley So. So is portrayed as immensely talented but poorly educated, such that the coaching relationship was less about specific game preparation and more about the transmission of high-level chess knowledge. Here again, however, little is shared about what their work consisted of, beyond the mention of “tactics” (293) and work on “the great players of the past.” (295)

Coaching the Chess Stars is a fascinating view “behind the curtains” of chess at the highest levels. Tukmakov is a good writer and a better annotator, and the fact that the book is successful despite the near impossibility of his task, having to respect privacy while revealing the nature of elite coaching, speaks to the difficulty of the project as well as his skill in executing it.

End of an Era

This review has been printed in the June 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Readers may also be interested in an interview I did with Avrukh for Chess Life Online, where we talk about the book, his writing process, and look at a recent game of his from the 2019 Chicago Open.

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Avrukh, Boris. Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830465. PB 529pp.

With the publication of Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems, the fourth and final volume in his revised White 1.d4 repertoire and his tenth title published with Quality Chess, GM Boris Avrukh has announced that he is taking “a break” from book publishing. It is, at least for now, the end of an era.

When Avrukh published the first edition of his 1.d4 repertoire in 2008 and 2010, the effect was nothing short of revolutionary. He coupled astute opening choices with World Championship level analysis – Avrukh seconded Gelfand in the 2012 World Championship match with Anand – to create a professional, poisonous two volume repertoire that anyone could buy for $65.

Opening theory never stops moving, of course, and with the appearance of GM Repertoire 2B, Avrukh has completed the revision and expansion of his repertoire. What was two volumes is now four. Two – 1A (2015) and 1B (2016) – focus on 1.d4 d5, including the Catalan, Queen’s Gambit Accepted, the Slav, the Tarrasch, etc. Two more – 2A (2018) and 2B (2019) – treat everything else, including the King’s Indian, Grunfeld, Dutch, Benko, and so forth.

While statistics show that Catalan was already in ascendence when GM Repertoire 1 was published, Avrukh’s influence on the popularization of the opening cannot be overstated, and I would argue that it was his treatment of the Catalan that made his name in the chess publishing world. His analysis in GM Repertoire 1 reshaped both the theory and practice of the system, and again, we can see his influence in database statistics.

Avrukh’s original recommendation in the Open Catalan – 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 and now 8.Qxc4 instead of 8.a4 – took a somewhat neglected move and reinvigorated it. The relative popularity of 8.Qxc4 spiked after GM Repertoire 1 was published in 2008, and then waned after Avrukh argued for 8.a4 in 1A.

Correlation is not causation, and Black improvements after 8.Qxc4 no doubt contributed to this shift. But the fact remains that Avrukh’s books have had a palpable effect on opening theory at even the highest levels. The same can be said for his Anti-Slav ideas. His move order against Meran-style setups – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5. b3!? – was little known before he wrote about it, and today it is one of the main ways that White tries to eke out an advantage against the Slav.

While Avrukh tweaks his recommendations in 1A and 1B, he does not fundamentally alter his repertoire. There is the shift to 8.a4 in the Open Catalan, as discussed above, a move from 3.e3 to 3.e4 in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, and the replacement of 10.Nd2 in the mainline Fianchetto Benoni with 10.Bf4. The basic contours of his 1.d4 Nf6 and 1.d4 “varia” repertoires also remain the same in the revised GM Repertoires 2A and 2B.

Fianchetto setups are integral to Avrukh’s repertoire against the Grunfeld and King’s Indian in 2A. Against the “Solid Grunfeld” he offers 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 c6 4.Bg2 d5 5.Qa4!?, hoping to prevent Black from recapturing on d5 with a pawn. The “Dynamic Grunfeld” builds upon his GM Repertoire 2 analysis, and the bulk of the book (nearly 80%) is a revised and extended treatment of his ideas in the Fianchetto King’s Indian.

This leaves the sundry defences that many 1.d4 players dread – the Dutch, the Benko, and the Budapest, along with the odd sidelines that strong players trot out from time to time. GM Repertoire 2B offers remedies for all of these, and it’s worth spending some time looking at three specific prescriptions to get a sense of Avrukh’s style and analysis.

(1) One of Avrukh’s more prominent ideas in GM Repertoire 2 came in the Classical Dutch. After 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 Be7 5.Nf3 0–0 6.0–0 d6 7.Nc3 Ne4 8.Nxe4 fxe4 9.Nd2 d5 10.f3 Nc6 and here Avrukh recommended 11.fxe4 Rxf1+ 12.Nxf1 dxc4 13.Be3 in GM Repertoire 2, but Simon Williams’ improvement 13. …Bd7! (Sen-Williams, Uxbridge 2010) led Avrukh to search for another path forward.

image

His new idea is 11.e3!? exf3 12.Nxf3, when “[t]he position resembles a Catalan, except that the f-pawns have been removed.” (2B, 78) This seems a canny choice, fitting with the larger contours of Avrukh’s repertoire: playing for a positional advantage and limiting the opponent’s dynamism. That Stockfish 10 approves it also doesn’t hurt! Avrukh analyzes two continuations.

[A] 12. …b6 is seen in a correspondence game: 13.Bd2 Bb7 14.Rc1 Qd6 15.Qc2 Rac8 16.cxd5 exd5 17.b4! (Oppermann,P-Prystenski,A, ICCF email 2016)

[B] 12. …Bf6 13.Bd2 a5 14.Rc1 Kh8 and now instead of 15.Ne1 (Schmid-Halkias, Wunsiedel 2014) Avrukh analyzes the novelty 15.Rf2!? with good prospects for White.

(2) The Benko Gambit is often dreaded by club players. Black sacs a pawn for what appears to be solid compensation and plays on ‘auto-pilot,’ making typical moves while White sweats her way through the middlegame, frantically clutching her extra pawn. Avrukh shifts in 2B from his earlier recommendation of the Fianchetto Variation to the now-trendy 12.a4 ‘King-Walk,’ and he also gives White a weapon against a new sideline in the Benko.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6!?

Postponing the pawn capture is a new idea, and the subject of Milos Perunovic’s very interesting The Modernized Benko Gambit. Benko players have flocked to it, largely because of the current problems in the Benko proper.

Avrukh follows current theoretical trends in the ‘old’ Benko by recommending 5. …Bxa6 6.Nc3 g6 7.e4 Bxf1 8.Kxf1 d6 9.Nf3 Bg7 10.g3 0–0 11.Kg2 Nbd7 12.a4!. White is currently scoring very well in this line championed by none other than Magnus Carlsen (via transposition). See Carlsen-Bologan, Biel 2012.

6.Nc3 Bg7 7.e4 0–0 (7. …Qa5 8.a7!) 8.a7!

“The most dangerous idea for Black. White’s idea is clear: with Black’s rook on a7, he can always win a tempo with Nb5. Now we can’t play …Qa5 because after Bd2, White has the threat Nb5.” (Perunovic, 109)

Avrukh notes that we can’t play 8.Nf3 because of 8. …Qa5! when the pin and attack on e4 forces us to choose between 9.Bd2 and 9.Nd2.

8. …Rxa7 9.Nf3 e6

Perunovic’s recommendation. Black has a few alternatives: 9. …d6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0; 9. …Qa5 10.Bd2!; and 9. …Qb6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0.

10.Be2 exd5 11.exd5 d6 12.0–0 Na6

If 12. …Ba6 Avrukh likes 13.Re1, which provides “a [simple] route to an edge.”

13.Nb5 Rd7 14.Bc4 Bb7 15.Bg5

Perunovic analyzes this position out to move 18, saying that Black has compensation for the pawn. Avrukh extends that analysis to move 23 and thinks that White gets the better end of things.

(3) After recommending 4.Nf3 against the Budapest in GM Repertoire 2, Avrukh turns to a little-known sideline to justify his new selection, 4.Bf4.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.Bf4 g5

Avrukh had avoided this line in GM Repertoire 2, feeling that 5.Bg3 Bg7 was “quite reliable for Black.” He revises his opinion in 2B, having found a “powerful antidote… [that is] both easier to learn and objectively stronger, in my opinion.” (339, 340)

Note that White is said to get an advantage after the alternative 4. …Nc6 5.Nf3 Bb4+ 6.Nbd2 Qe7 7.e3 Ngxe5 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.Be2 0–0 10.0–0 Bxd2 11.Qxd2 d6 12.b4, preparing c4–c5.

5.Bd2!? Nxe5 6.Nf3 Bg7

6. …Nbc6 7.Nc3 d6 8.Qc2 Bg7 9.0–0–0 and Avrukh’s analysis runs to move 16, giving White a strong edge.

7.Nxe5 Bxe5 8.Nc3! d6 9.g3 Nc6 10.Bg2 Be6 11.Nd5 g4 (Dreev-Zwardon, Warsaw 2013) and now 12.Bf4 h5 13.Qd2 “with a clear positional advantage.”

What do these examples teach us about Avrukh’s work in 2B, and about his repertoire more broadly? Keeping in mind the impossibility of summarizing nearly 1800 pages of analysis, we can perhaps draw a few conclusions.

It’s clear that Avrukh has done his due diligence in these books. He cites all the relevant sources, and attempts to improve on each of them. Avrukh makes extensive use of correspondence games in his research, and he’s not ashamed to mention the (heavy) influence of the computer in his recommendations. Very few authors meet the standard of excellence Avrukh sets in these books.

What about the repertoire itself? My sense is that Avrukh’s recommendations tend to follow the Quality Chess shibboleth to “try the main lines.” There are no dodgy gambits here, but mainly concrete, positionally oriented variations that allow White to aim for a two-result game. This explains, in part, the use of the kingside fianchetto against the King’s Indian (and Grunfeld). His recommended lines minimize Black’s attacking chances, and force the game into more controlled channels.

Who should adopt Avrukh’s repertoire? Because it is concrete and positionally oriented, some of the key positions require serious technique to convert the small edge he claims. (I’m particularly thinking of his recommendations in the Catalan.) This is high-level chess, and it’s probably best suited for experts at minimum. That’s not to say that class players can’t learn something here, but the kinds of advantages that Avrukh aims for with White – sometimes just a “space advantage and bishop pair,” as he says in GM Repertoire 1 (11) – often barely register as advantages on the amateur level.

Because Avrukh’s analysis is so vast and detailed, some kind of “executive summary” of key recommendations would have been welcome. Some Quality Chess opening books – I’m thinking of Kotronias’ GM Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov in particular – have summaries after each chapter that, in themselves, could function as a first repertoire. The chapter summaries here are perfunctory at best, and it’s an opportunity missed.

As Avrukh steps back from book publishing, it remains to be seen what is next for the Chicago-based Grandmaster. One of his web projects, Chess Openings 24-7, discontinued its services as of April 2nd. He has authored an opening file for modern-chess.com as recently as March 16th of this year; see our May 2017 issue for a review of a similar effort. Will he continue in this vein? Will he keep writing at all? Like many fans of chess literature, I’ll be interested to find out.

Join the Club

This review has been printed in the May 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Soltis, Andy. Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1476671468. HB 394pp.

Tanner, Robert. Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0786496020. HB 328pp.

It will not be news that women are underrepresented in chess, both historically and in the current day, to readers of Chess Life. We know all too well that there are not enough women playing our game, and whatever the reasons for the disparity might be, the new US Chess initiative is both welcome and overdue.

Nor will it be news to fans of chess literature that women are underrepresented in chess books and literature. There are precious few women authors – Judit and Susan Polgar, Alexey Root, and US Chess Women’s Program Director Jennifer Shahade are among the few that come to mind – and even fewer titles devoted to women’s chess or leading female players.

So I, like many interested in chess history, was excited to get my hands on Robert Tanner’s Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games, published by McFarland in late 2016. Tanner’s is the first serious biography of Menchik in English, although Jennifer Shahade has written extensively about Menchik in her 2005 Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.

The basics of Menchik’s life and career are described in Part I.3, “A Biographical Sketch.” Here Tanner rehearses much of what is already known. Born in 1906, Menchik’s family left the Soviet Union after the revolution and she ended up in England by 1923. Her mother was English; her father was absent after the early 20s, although Menchik did not break relations.

Menchik joined the Hastings Chess Club, studed with Maróczy, and rapidly improved. She won the Women’s World Championship in 1927, which she defended six times, and was the first woman to compete in both Carlsbad and Hastings in 1929 after a banner year in international play. Perhaps her most important tournament was Moscow 1935, won by Botvinnik and Flohr. Menchik finished in last place. She married in 1937, and was killed in London during the Blitz in 1944.

Menchik was largely seen by her peers as a curiousity at best. Albert Becker demeaningly called for the creation of a “Vera Menchik Club” at Carlsbad 1929, membership in which would be awarded to anyone who lost to her. (Draws counted as half- or candidate membership.) What irony, then, that Becker was the club’s inaugural member!

DUTCH DEFENSE (A85)
Vera Menchik
Albert Becker
Karlsbad (3), 02.08.1929

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Ne4 6.Bd3 f5 7.Ne5 Qh4 8.0–0 Nd7 9.f4 Be7 10.Bd2 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Bc5 12.Bxe4 fxe4 13.Qb3 Qd8 14.Na4 Be7 15.Bb4 b6 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.cxd5 exd5 18.Rac1 Bb7 19.Nc3 Qf7 20.Qb4 Rd8 21.Rfd1 Ba8 22.h3 Qe7 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.b4 Rd7 25.Rd2 Rhd8 26.Ne2 Rc8 27.Rdc2 Rdc7 28.Nd4 g6 29.Nb5 Rd7 30.Kf2 h6 31.g4 a6 32.Nd4 Rdc7 33.f5 g5 34.Kg3 Bb7 35.h4 gxh4+ 36.Kxh4 Kf7 37.Kh5 a5 38.bxa5 bxa5 39.Nb5 Rd7 40.e6+, Black resigned.

Tanner explains how prejudice against Menchik still exists. Her “restrained and positional” style (23) has been called “dull” by Internet dullards, who evaluate her playing strength as that of a US Chess expert, and who pooh-pooh her ongoing choice to live a “well rounded life” instead of “eating and breathing chess.” (ibid.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone would criticise a man for such imagined sins.

To his credit, and in agreement with the likes of Leonard Barden and John Saunders, Tanner pegs Menchik as being of International Master strength. He also paints a fuller picture of Menchik’s style in Part II, “Her Games, Events and Crosstables.” Among the 350 games in the book is her most famous combination, played in the fourteenth game of the 1937 match for the Women’s World Championship against Sonja Graf, and this delightful knight sacrifice against Sir George Thomas from 1932.

KINGS INDIAN DEFENSE (E85)
Vera Menchik
Sir George Thomas
London (4), 04.02.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 e5 7.Nge2 b6 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.d5 Ne7 10.g4 Nd7 11.Rg1 a5 12.0–0–0 Nc5 13.Ng3 Bd7 14.h4 a4 15.h5 Qb8 16.Bh6 Qa7 17.Bxg7 Kxg7

Menchik-Thomas

18.Nf5+! Nxf5 19.gxf5 a3 20.f6+ Kh8 21.Qh6 axb2+ 22.Kb1 Rg8 23.hxg6 fxg6 24.Qxh7+!, Black resigned.

There are also problems with Tanner’s work. The first is the presence of numerous typos and unremoved editorial markings. Names and words are repeatedly misspelled, sometimes lines away from correct spellings, and the remnants of a writer’s placeholding trick (multiple x’s, a sign to come back and fill in later) were never removed. (24, 166) Such carelessness is surprising for a McFarland title, especially one that is described in the colophon as a second printing with corrections.

Other critics, notably Vlastimil Fiala [1] and Edward Winter [2], have taken Tanner to task, both for the typos and for a relative lack of historical research. Fiala’s concerns have more than a whiff of sour grapes – he admits that he had once aspired to write his own biography of Menchik – and his judgment that the book “should never have gone to print” is very harsh.

Still, there is a kernel of truth in their critiques. Tanner’s bibliography is comparatively slight, and Fiala notes multiple chess journals and columns that Tanner could have reasonably been expected to consult. Such research is vastly easier in the modern day, especially with new databases available in English libraries. See Tim Harding’s essential British Chess Literature to 1914: A Handbook for Historians, particularly Chapter 8 (“On Doing Chess History Today”), for more on this key topic.

Let me also mention one last concern, and a personal peeve. Tanner uses internet sources (chessgames.com, 365chess.com) to cite multiple game references. This is substandard. No game database, not even MegaBase, is free from errors, and chessgames.com even allows users to upload data without an apparent quality check. It’s the chess equivalent of citing Wikipedia, and it’s out of place in a book that aspires to typical McFarland quality.

To sum up: Vera Menchik is, despite its very real flaws, a welcome addition to the literature. It shows that there is space for scholarship on women’s chess, and it gives readers unfamiliar with Menchik a competent overview of her life and career. Unfortunately it also feels like a book that, in its publication, shirks the hard historical work that would complete it. One can hope for a second edition that is actually corrected and somewhat expanded.

One book does not change an entire field. There remains a palpable Whiggish tendency in contemporary chess historiography, one that presents the history of chess as a progression of great men and their great ideas. (Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors is a paradigm of this tendency.) In doing so, it passes over traditional underclasses like minorities and women, and undermines the role of artifacts and technology.

Andy Soltis’ Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games can be read in this way. The criticism is, in part, correct, but one of the many things I like about the book is the way that Soltis focuses on the contributions of women in the success of their famous partners.

Soltis says in the Preface that Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi was a book he wanted to write as he researched his canonical Soviet Chess 1917-1991, but could not at that point (2000) for a lack of original source documents. His idea was to show the intertwined lives, both professionally and personally, of these great champions – and show it warts and all. In this he succeeds, and anyone interested in any of these players or chess in the Soviet era would do well to pick up Soltis’ book.

There is a lot of tea spilt in Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi. There are plenty of beautiful, well-annotated games, of course. The real interest, at least for me, is found in the unveiling of private lives.

No man is an island, and there is value in seeing how biography and influence shaped the ‘great men’ of chess history. We learn about Korchnoi’s horrific childhood in a decimated Leningrad, and how it haunted him. We are there when Spassky meets his ‘fater’ Bondarevsky, and we see the effect that it had on an undisciplined youth’s life and career. Soltis’ telling includes the influence of friends and lovers, trainers and government apparachiks, and it makes for a richer picture of these tremendous players than is commonly known.

Soltis makes special mention of two women in the book. Sally Landau met Mikhail Tal in 1959, marrying him the next year. Landau, a powerful personality in her own right, was an actress and singer of regional repute, Her ten years of marriage to Tal were tempestuous, but she bore him his son Gera, and her 2003 biography of Tal is a primary (if contested) source of knowledge of Tal’s life.[3]

Even more interesting is Rona Petrosian, the power behind Tigran Petrosian’s throne. Soltis makes a convincing case for the pivotal role Rona played in Tigran’s success, pushing and goading him to press and win, making and using connections with the vlasti (Soviet officials and bureaucracy) to benefit her husband. She “completed” him (50); without Rona, there would not be Tigran as we know him today.

There is a movement in public history towards the reconfiguration of what counts as history. History is moving beyond the retelling of facts from above, from the perspective of the victor or powerful. Soltis’ book does some of that – how could a book on three World Champions not? – but it also attends to the stories of those left out by the traditional narrative. Read it for those stories, and stick around for the beautiful games.


[1] Fiala, Vlastimil. “Chess Review: Vera Menchik Biography.” Quarterly for Chess History (5:20: Spring 2019), 563-581.

[2] See (1) http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter148.html (2) and http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter175.html

[3] A translation of Landau’s book has been announced by the English / Russian publisher Elk & Ruby.

Game Changer?

This review has been printed in the April 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences 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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Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918187. PB 416pp.

Sigmund Freud once described the “three severe blows” suffered by human narcissism in the course of Western history.[1] The cosmological blow, struck by Copernicus, expelled us from our supposed place at the center of the universe. Darwin’s biological blow denied us the comfort of our separation from, and superiority over, the animal kingdom. And Freud himself landed the final, psychological blow, exposing the irrational unconscious forces beneath even the greatest achievements of human rationality.

To these three psychic wounds chess players can add a fourth: Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue in 1997. Deep Blue’s victory was portrayed in the mass media as a referendum on human intelligence, a ‘canary in the coalmine’ moment in which the inevitable overtaking of human creativity by machine intelligence was made manifest.

Curious thing, though. What was imagined as an antagonistic relationship between man and machine has instead proven to be a constructive one. Sure, humans have given up trying to beat Stockfish or Komodo, even at odds, but our ‘metal friends’ (Tukmakov’s delightful turn of phrase) are now our trusted analytical partners and teachers.

Far from killing our game, chess in the e-sport era now depends on the presence of engines, which play the role of the hole-cam in the poker boom. They give the illusion of prescience, allowing amateurs the heady feeling that they know more than the players themselves.

So imagine the shock when a scientific pre-print appeared on the Internet in December 2017. Its title, “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm,” was anodyne enough, but the paper announced a seismic shift in artificial intelligence and chess. AlphaZero, a program created by a Google subsidiary known as DeepMind, trounced Stockfish in head-to-head play. In doing so it forced us to rethink everything we know about computer chess.

The principles governing Stockfish’s play are not fundamentally different than those guiding Deep Blue, although they have been profoundly refined in the intervening years. Stockfish uses human-tuned criteria to evaluate each position in its search tree, and through “alpha-beta” search methods it is able to focus on promising continuations while pruning away inferior moves. Each move and each decision are the result of precise mathematical calculations, and human users can extract exact numerical evaluations for any given position.

AlphaZero is different, as Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan lucidly explain in their new book, Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Pre-programmed with only the basic rules of chess, and using general (non-specific) self-training algorithm, AlphaZero trained itself to play chess over the course of nine hours and 44 million self-play games. Periodically the program would refine its neural network, promoting tunable weights and network ‘layers’ that led to favorable outcomes, and demoting those that didn’t.

AlphaZero functions by combining these self-taught evaluative values with a Monte Carlo style tree search, where possible future game positions are spun out, evaluated, and ranked probabilistically. We don’t know exactly how AlphaZero decides what to play. The algorithm is a ‘black box’ in the Latourian sense, where inputs and outputs are known but (in contrast to Stockfish) its internal mechanisms remain opaque, even to DeepMind. What we do know is that AlphaZero is immensely, improbably strong, exhibiting an attractive attacking style reminiscent of Kasparov.

Perhaps this is what makes AlphaZero so remarkable – its style. What we see in its victories over Stockfish should, given all we know about computer chess, be impossible. Stockfish is typically seen as a calculative god and defensive wizard, able to soak up pressure, induce errors, and grind down its opponents. AlphaZero defeated it by playing the kinds of attacking, sacrificial ideas that, played by humans, would inevitably be refuted by the machine.

Sadler and Regan spend two chapters of Game Changer describing the technical aspects of AlphaZero’s self-training regiment, the way it “thinks,” and what its evaluations and expected scores mean. Their extensive access to the DeepMind team and the algorithm allow them to craft accessible explanations of difficult subjects, and the mini-interviews with DeepMind team members are helpful.

The meat of the book, however, focuses squarely on AlphaZero’s style. What makes it so good? How can we reverse-engineer the logic of its moves and apply that knowledge to our own games? By studying the roughly 230 publicly available AlphaZero games, along with approxmiately 2100 additional games provided by DeepMind, Sadler and Regan distill a number of tantalizing traits in AlphaZero’s play.

An example is useful. Consider this game, which Sadler describes as “perhaps AlphaZero’s most beautiful game of all.”[2]

NIMZO-ENGLISH (A17)
AlphaZero
Stockfish 8
AlphaZero v. Stockfish Match, 2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 a5 7.b4 d6 8.e3 Ne4 9.Qc2 Ng5 10.b5 Nxf3+ 11.gxf3 Qf6 12.d4!?

Sadler and Regan expected 12.Bb2 Qxf3 13.Rg1 but AlphaZero instead plays for long-term compensation.

12. … Qxf3 13.Rg1 Nd7 14.Be2 Qf6 15.Bb2 Qh4 16.Rg4!?

Giving up the h-pawn to open the file. Stockfish sees this position as better for Black, while AlphaZero thought that White had a slight advantage.

16. … Qxh2 17.Rg3 f5 18.0–0–0

Offering pawn number three!

18. … Rf7

After 18. … Qxf2 19.Rdg1 Rf7 20.R1g2 Qe1+ 21.Bd1 White’s compensation is undeniable.

19.Bf3 Qh4 20.Rh1 Qf6

image

What does AlphaZero have for the two pawns? Two half-open files and massively superior mobility. This is a key idea for Sadler and Regan. As they explained in a conference call for chess journalists – the first such promotional call I’ve been on for a chess book! – the concept of mobility is fundamental for understanding how AlphaZero plays. It works to maximize the mobility of its pieces and minimize the mobility of its opponent’s. One of AlphaZero’s most striking tendencies, the pushing of its rook pawns to restrict the opponent’s king, is emblematic in this regard. Here, having opened lines for its rooks, AlphaZero now proceeds to open diagonals and further increase its mobility.

21.Kb1 g6 22.Rgg1!? a4 23.Ka1 Rg7 24.e4 f4 25.c5 Qe7 26.Rc1 Nf6 27.e5 dxe5 28.Rhe1 e4 29.Bxe4 Qf8

This is a key position in both the game and the book. Sadler and Regan use it to illustrate AlphaZero’s “thought processes” in Chapter 4.

30.d5!

AlphaZero sacrifices another pawn to open the a1–h8 diagonal!

30. … exd5 31.Bd3! Bg4 32.f3 Bd7

White’s initative grows after 32. … Bxf3? 33.Rf1 Be4 34.Rxf4.

33.Qc3 Nh5 34.Re5

AlphaZero rates its winning chances at 80.3% here. (It evaluates positions by win percentage in Monte Carlo game rollouts.) Stockfish 8 thinks White is significantly better, but newer versions of the engine more clearly understand the danger.

34. … c6 35.Rce1 Nf6 36.Qd4 cxb5 37.Bb1 Bc6 38.Re6 Rf7

Stockfish hopes to return some of its material advantage and weather the storm. AlphaZero does not oblige.

39.Rg1 Qg7 40.Qxf4 Re8 41.Rd6 Nd7 42.Qc1 Rf6 43.f4! Qe7 44.Rxf6 Nxf6 45.f5 Qe3 46.fxg6 Qxc1 47.gxh7+ Kf7 48.Rxc1 Nxh7 49.Bxh7 Re3 50.Rd1 Ke8 51.Ka2 Bd7 52.Bd4 Rh3 53.Bc2 Be6 54.Re1 Kd7 55.Kb2 Rf3 56.Re5 Rg3 57.Re3 Rg2 58.Kc3 Rg4 59.Rf3 Ke8 60.Rf2 Rg3+ 61.Kb4 Rg4 62.Rd2 Bd7 63.Ka5 Rf4 64.Be5 Rf3 65.Rd3 Rf2 66.Bd1 Bc6 67.Kb6 1–0

One can’t help but feel as if a superior, alien intelligence has taken the White pieces and opened a new vista on to our beloved game.

Part III of Game Changer brilliantly distills some of the key features of AlphaZero’s attacking prowess. We see, through detailed analysis and clear explanation, how AlphaZero values outposts, why it rams ‘Harry the h-pawn’ forward, how it plays on color complexes and sacrifices for what Kasparov called quality. Part IV, devoted to AlphaZero’s opening choices, is less successful. The authors laud AlphaZero’s novel handling of the White side of the Carlsbad structure, for instance, but the game they cite departs from theory on the sixth move, rendering much of the fine preparatory explanation useless.

Game Changer is an excellent book, fully deserving of the critical praise it has received. Sadler and Regan patiently explain the technical minutia for a non-technical audience, and their attempts to divine the essence of AlphaZero’s style are clear and convincing. Until DeepMind succeeds in “recovering back” AlphaZero’s implicit heuristics through some secondary algorithm, this treatment is as good it gets.

What remains less settled, at least in my mind, is the issue of the book’s title. Is AlphaZero really a game changer? Does its advent herald a revolution in chess?

DeepMind’s novel computational solution – AlphaZero’s self-learned strength and style – is as disruptive today as Deep Blue’s brute force approach was in 1997. Both reconfigured our understanding the possibilities of computer chess and, truth be told, of chess itself.

This, unfortunately, does not exhaust the two project’s similarities. AlphaZero seems doomed to a life behind corporate bars much like its august predecessor, hidden away from the public in the interest of protecting trade secrets. And as with Deep Blue, AlphaZero’s influence on chess will be as a consequence be limited.

I suspect that the real game changer will be Leela Chess, an open-source project that mimics AlphaZero’s self-learning algorithm. Because it is open-source, like the now ubiquitous Stockfish, Leela can be used by anyone without cost. Players can train with Leela, use it to analyze their games, and test their ideas against it. The democratization of chess information that began with Robert Hyatt’s Crafty, Mark Crowther’s The Week in Chess, and Stockfish continues with Leela, and the chess world will be much the richer for it.


[1] See Freud’s Compete Psychological Works (Standard edition, ed. Strachey), volume 17, p.139-141.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RuIHfNcPO0