Category Archives: biography

World Championship Fever

This review has been printed in the November 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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Butler, Brin-Jonathan. The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501172601. HC 224pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918132. PB 208pp.

Karolyi, Tibor. Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen: His Extraordinary Skills Uncovered and Explained. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917760. PB 249pp.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Caruana: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1781944790. PB 368pp.

It’s almost here.

By the time you read these words, and barring some unforeseen event, the 2018 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will just about be upon us. If you’re anything like me, the coming days will be long ones indeed. I can hardly wait for the match to get started, and I’d ask all of you to avoid making any demands of me while the contest is ongoing. My attention will be squarely on London.

The publishing world appears to have taken note of this match as well, with four books about Carlsen or Caruana being released right around the start of the match. This month we’ll take a look at all of them, but much of our focus will be on a real novelty – a trade book from a Big Five publisher about our beloved game.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer known mainly for his work on boxing and Cuba. His 2015 The Domino Diaries is a critically lauded memoir of his time studying the sweet science in Havana, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is memorably described in a 2012 article for salon.com. Here, in The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again, he investigates a more subtle, if no less violent, form of combat.

This was not a book that Butler, on his own admission, was looking to write. He received a cold-call from a Simon & Schuster editor one week before the opening ceremonies in New York, and the editor asked if he’d be willing to write about about Magnus Carlsen. There were three questions to be answered in the process:

One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history – higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer – not Carlsen – were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everyone was still taking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on tip affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown? (7)

I include this long passage from The Grandmaster for two reasons. First, it gives a sense of Butler’s prose, which is taut and provocative. This is a book that will, I suspect, sell relatively well, and from the outside, it appears that Simon and Schuster is going to put some muscle behind its publicity.

It also shows that Butler wrote the book that his editor wanted. It presupposes the validity of the third question; in point of fact, I’d go further and say that the assumed link between genius and madness in chess defines The Grandmaster. What’s worse, I don’t think that Butler begins to answer the second question, and he makes very little effort to even attempt the first.

Writing a serious book about chess or genius requires research. Optimally the author would talk to recognized experts, both in the chess world and beyond it. There is very little evidence in The Grandmaster that Butler did any pre-match research on Carlsen beyond reading the D.T. Max New Yorker piece from 2011 and watching the 2012 60 Minutes segment. He seems to have spent most of his time at the match talking to random people in the VIP area, and much of the book involves him chasing down whatever leads they gave him.

This might not have been a problem were the leads useful. Interviews with the the likes of Harry Benson, Frank Brady, Dick Cavett, and friends of the late Peter Winston might help us understand Fischer and his aftermath, but they they shed precious little light on Carlsen or the 2016 World Championship in broader context. Nor does the recounting of tales of mental illness among chess masters (131-5) help us to understand Carlsen’s psyche during the match. Carlsen is not Fischer, and the comparisons are, frankly, insulting.

The result is that The Grandmaster is salacious and ‘sexy,’ but terribly uninformed. It trades in tired cliches about players and fans. The general admission audience in New York is said to be old, crumpled, and hygienically challenged. (52-3) The Grandmasters in attendance are largely grifters. (58-60) While Butler gets the highly moneyed, oily, Russified feel of New York right, there’s little else in his recollections of the match that match up to my own.

George Plimpton strapped on a pair of shoulder pads while writing Paper Lion, and David Foster Wallace played a lifetime of tennis before coming to worship at the altar of Roger Federer. It’s clear, despite his description of a youthful dalliance with chess, one soaked with machismo and street hustling, that Butler is not a student of our game. The Grandmaster suffers for that lack of intimate knowledge. What could have been a bridge to a public looking to understand the world of chess is, alas, an opportunity missed.

Those looking for a more successful book about Carlsen would do well to check out IM Tibor Karoyli’s Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen. Karolyi is one of the most serious writers and analysts in chess today, with dense titles on Karpov and Tal to his credit. Here he turns his attention to Carlsen’s legendary endgame prowess, analyzing 91 positions that span his full career. The following example, “the first game in the book that Carlsen played at the level of an all-time great player,” (88) is both typical and delightful, and the uncited analysis is based on Karolyi’s.

image

SIMPLY A PLEASURE
GM Magnus Carlsen (FIDE 2698)
GM Zbynek Hracek (FIDE 2614)
Bundesliga 0607 (14.4), 31.03.2007

33.Ra6! Bb7 Heading for a pawn down endgame with an active rook. 34.Rxa7 Rxd6 35.Rxb7 Rd1+ 36.Kf2 Rd2+ 37.Kf1 Kg6 38.g4! Kf6

38. …f5! should be enough to draw.

39.b4 Rb2 40.b5 Rb1+ 41.Kf2 Rb2+ 42.Kg3 e5 43.b6 g6 44.Rb8 Kg7 45.Kh2 Kf6

If 45. …Rb1 46.b7 Kh7 47.g3 Kg7 48.Kg2 and White wins, but the computer suggests that Black might be able to draw after 47. …Rb2+.

46.Kg1 Ke6

Here 46. …Rb1+ (C.D. Meyer) may draw as well.

47.b7! Kf6 48.g3 g5 49.Kf1 Rb1+

49. …Ke7 50.f4! and “White clears the seventh rank in a few moves.” But what about 49. …Kg7?

50.Ke2

“The King continues its journey towards Black’s position. To spot its final destination and see the threat it will create requires imagination and the touch of a specially talented player.” (87)

50…Rb2+ 51.Kd3 Rb3+ 52.Kc4 Rb1 53.Kc5 Rc1+ 54.Kd6 Rd1+ 55.Kc6 Rc1+ 56.Kd7 Rb1 57.Ke8 Kg7

After 57…Rb2 58.Kf8 Rb3 59.Rc8!! threatens mate!

58.Ke7 Rb2 59.Kd6 Kf6 60.f4!! exf4 61.gxf4 gxf4 62.Rg8!!

“It is hard to find words to describe this! It would be a great thing if Magnus had found this tremendous idea somewhere around here, but I think he likely spotted it at move 47 (if not earlier at move 38). It would have been fabulous for him to find this in an adjourned game, but he did it over the board. It is simply a pleasure for the author to show you ideas like this.” (88)

62. …Rb6+

62. …Rxb7?? 63.e5#

63.Kc7 Rxb7+ 64.Kxb7 f3 65.Kc6 Ke5 66.Re8+ Kf4 67.Kd5 f6 68.Rf8 1–0

There is some attention to biography in Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen, and Karolyi makes an particular effort to describe Carlsen’s early style and opening choices. Still, this is a book about endgames, so if they’re not your cup of tea, it might not be the book for you. That, however, would be a shame. Endgame Virtuoso is another excellent effort from Tibor Karolyi, and I enjoyed it immensely.

There are other titles around devoted to Carlsen, of course, including Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein and Carlsen: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala. (The latter was reviewed here in February 2015.) Until very recently, there were none that featured Carlsen’s challenger. Now there are two: Caruana: Move by Move, also by Cyrus Lakdawala, and Alexander Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. The books are similar, as I’ll explain, but there are reasons one might choose between them for pre-match reading.

Caruana: Move by Move is a typical offering from Lakdawala, and I mean this in two respects. First, the book follows his usual schema for a player-focused Move by Move title, with six broad sections – the Attack, Defense and Counterattack, the Dynamic Element, Exploiting Imbalances, Accumulating Advantages, and the Endgame – dividing his 60 analyzed games.

There is also the issue of Lakdawala’s style, which is on full display in Caruana: Move by Move. If you have read any of his dozens of other titles, you know just what I’m talking about: the lack of authorial self-control, the metaphors that stretch on and reveal little, the strange nicknames. (Caruana becomes “Caru” here. No one calls him Caru.) Some readers absolutely love Lakdawala for this, while others – including me – are less enamoured.

Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games is a more traditional games collection, and it is organized in two parts. Part I, “The Rise of an American chess star,” sketches the trajectory of Caruana’s career with 25 games, archival interview material, etc. Part II, “Learn from Fabiano’s best games,” contains 37 games largely focused on the middlegame.

The analysis in both books is of a good standard, and both are surprisingly current in their coverage, including games through May of this year. I took a serious look at Lakdawala and Kalinin’s coverage of Carlsen-Caruana from the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in 2014 – an exciting Caruana victory ably covered by Ian Rogers in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life – and found both treatments entirely serviceable.

The choice between these two titles might come down to a decision between Lakdawala’s polarizing prose and Kalinin’s restraint and sobriety. If you like Lakdawala in general, you’ll like Caruana: Move by Move too. If not, Kalinin’s book would be a fine choice. For the record, I preferred the latter, but found the former pleasant as well.

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Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 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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Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

Soltis, Andy. 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take One a Day to be a Better Chess Player. London: Batsford, 2017. ISBN 9781849944342. PB 384 pp.

Sosonko, Genna. Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2018. ISBN 978-5950043383. PB 314pp.

Sosonko, Genna. The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2017. ISBN 978-5950043314. PB 272pp.

Tkachenko, Sergei. One (Bishop, King, Knight, Pawn, Rook, Queen) Saves the Day: A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (series)

I had a real E.F. Hutton moment a few weeks ago.

E.F Hutton, you may recall, was the eponymous founder of a New York brokerage of whom it was said, “when E.F Hutton talks, people listen.” Or so the commercial went, anyway.

Such was my reaction when I read a post-Candidates Tournament interview with Fabiano Caruana at chess.com. Peter Doggers asked Caruana about his pre-event preparation, which, as one might expect, involved a lot of opening study. How that preparation looked in practice, however, might seem rather surprising. Here’s what Caruana had to say:

The other guys [Chirila, Dominguez, Ramirez, and Kasimdzhanov – jh] worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don’t like doing, because it’s hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it’s fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work.

It makes sense that Caruana would brush up on his endgame theory via Dvoretsky, and that he’d play training games against his seconds in openings he expected to encounter. But… studies? I have to admit that my ears perked up, proverbially speaking, when I read this.

Part of my attention to Caruana’s comment came from a long-standing interest in endgame studies, the solving of which I find perversely pleasurable. (Turns out I’m terrible at it.) Perhaps more relevant were the confluence of strong Grandmaster endorsements for this training strategy. I’d seen GM Peter Leko and GM Melikset Khachiyan independently recommend studies for calculation training in a span of just a few weeks. It makes sense: because studies, by definition, try to create new and interesting twists on known tactical motifs, players can’t just ‘recall’ the right answer. They have to do the work to find it.

There is no shortage of good sources for studies. Harald van der Heijden’s HHdBV database is the gold standard, containing over 85,000 studies that span the full history of the genre. Journals like EG bring new studies to your mailbox quarterly. And there are of course books, including the canonical Domination in 2,545 Endgame Studies by Kasparian, The Art of the Endgame by Timman, and Studies for Practical Players by Dvoretsky and Pervakov.

A key difficulty faced by many new solvers, and common to most of the titles listed above, is that most studies are not suitable for the novice. The solutions are too long to calculate, and the positions are too cluttered and artificial. Here is where an innovative series of pocket-sized titles from Elk and Ruby, a new Russian/English publisher, might be of interest.

In these six books, one devoted to each of the six different chessmen, the Ukranian composer Sergei Tkachenko offers 100 studies with solutions no longer than six moves deep. Consider a typical example (49-50) from One Knight Saves the Day – A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (Note that each of the six books bears the same title, with the only change being the thematic piece featured therein.) It’s White to play and draw in this study by Rusinek, and the notes are Tkachenko’s unless otherwise noted.

image

White has an unenviable position – his king is dancing with checkmate… For example: 1.Qf6+? Qxf6+ 2.Nxf6 Nf7#

1.Rh6+!! Kxh6 2.Qf8+!

2.Qh2+? Kg6 3.Qc2+ Nf5–+; if 2.Qh4+? Kg6 3.Qh5+ Kxh5 4.Ng7+ Kg6 5.Nxe6 Nf7# (not given in the book)

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

3. …Kh5 4.Nf6+ Kh4 5.Qh6+ and Black loses a knight.

At first glance it looks like white has used up all of his defensive resources… And yet:

4.Qf6+!! Qxf6+ 5.Ng7+!

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

A few points are worth mentioning here. The position above appears only after Black’s seventh move in Rusinek’s original. By truncating the study, Tkachenko removes some interesting tactics, but he also makes it much more reasonable a task for mortal solvers.

There is also a typo in the text. (You thought Chess Life was asleep at the wheel, didn’t you?) 6. …Ke5 is erroneous, and 5. …Ke5 (or Rusinek’s …Ke4) are the correct final moves. It may seem nit-picky to mention this – it’s rare that any book, chess or otherwise, is completely typo-free – but it’s worth mentioning in light of Elk and Ruby’s innovative publishing model.

Elk and Ruby makes use of print-on-demand (POD) technology across its list. There are serious advantages to this approach, as argued by its owner, managing editor, translator, and general ‘hype man’ Ilan Rubin in his manifesto “Who Needs Chess Book Publishers?” If you don’t need to worry about inventory or delivery – the POD provider handles it for you – you can keep staffing very lean, leading to greater profitability for both author and publisher.

There are, as Rubin admits, also downsides to this hybrid model. We see one in the example above.[1] Because Rubin wears so many hats, and because he does most of the work himself, errors can creep in. Three of Tkachenko’s six study books had problems with their diagrams in their first ‘printings;’ because the titles were POD, however, the errors were quickly corrected.

Tkachenko’s study collections are wonderful for those looking to train their calculation, and also for those who just want to enjoy the beauty of endgame studies in a digestible format. They are also perfectly sized at 4” by 6” for travel or beach reading. And who among us doesn’t like to solve studies at the beach?

Elk and Ruby is home to a growing list of Russian and Soviet themed historical works as well, including two new books from Genna Sosonko, one of chess’ leading writers and memoirists. With The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein and Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi, Sosonko offers his readers intimate pictures of two of the chess world’s most complicated men, and with equally complicated results.

Sosonko’s portrait of Bronstein is very hard to read. Not because it’s poorly written, but because Bronstein was a deeply unpleasant man, and Sosonko pulls no punches here. Bronstein saw his failure in the 1951 World Championship match as the defining moment of his life, and he never got past his hatred for Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet ‘favored son.’ Whether he was forced to throw the match remains unclear, and Sosonko catalogues the different explanations given by Bronstein across the years.

Why would Sosonko, Bronstein’s friend of fifty years, write such an ugly book? Why puncture the myth of the happy-go-lucky defender of human creativity against computer onslaught – his battles in the Ageon tournaments are the stuff of legend! – and show the world how narcissistic and petty Bronstein could be? It’s not as if Sosonko was unaware of what he was doing with his ‘warts and all’ approach to the matter. (269)

Bronstein is quoted from a conversation towards the very end of his life, talking about books written ‘in his name’ – one of the highlights of Sosonko’s book is the story of Boris Vainshtein (126-140), powerful apparatchik and the true author of Bronstein’s famous book on Zurich 1953 – where he says “what [do they] understand about our life? I’m sorry about my life. About my entire life.” (251)

It occurs to me that part of Sosonko’s goal, in these books and elsewhere, is to try and explain “our life,” or the stark realities of daily life in the Soviet Union. He says as much in the book’s first chapter:

[h]ow can I enliven the dead letters of a text with the winds of those times, with meaning to the contemporary reader without detailed explanations? How can I convey a whole set of prejudices and beliefs without relying on the words everyone once understood? You see, many aspects of the distinct atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s in the USSR are now gone. (17)

Born a Jew to a father banished to the gulag, and coming of age during the horrors of the Second World War, Sosonko’s Bronstein in The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein was deeply stunted by the banal violence of Soviet bureaucracy and unofficial state racism. He does not excuse Bronstein’s behavior, not exactly, but he does seem to offer reasons that might mitigate our passing judgment on him. It’s hard to read, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. Still, I think (?!) I’m glad I did.

Sosonko’s portrayal of Viktor Korchnoi in Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi is more positive, and more much palatable. His book covers the whole of Korchnoi’s life and career, focusing on his 1976 defection from the Soviet Union, the Karpov matches, parapsychology, and his life in Switzerland with Petra Leeuwerik. What shines through the text, however, is Korchnoi’s absolute love for chess, his indefatigable energy and drive to explore every element of the game. Sosonko does not shy away from Korchnoi’s character flaws, but the treatment is even-handed and enjoyable.

Elk and Ruby are not the only chess writers / publishers using POD technology. I wrote about GM Lars Bo Hansen’s pioneering efforts in this area back in 2013. His seven Master Chess pamphlets are available on Amazon and worth your attention. More recently, FM Carsten Hansen has made extensive use of POD with some of his recent titles.

Hansen has three series currently in print: Chess Miniatures, published by Russell Enterprises; Winning Quickly at Chess, which is self-published; and Specialized Chess Tactics, also self-published. Here I’ll discuss books from the first two series. I have not seen titles from the third.

All of Hansen’s books are essentially collections of miniatures organized by opening. In Chess Miniatures, the games are no longer than 25 moves long, while in Winning Quickly at Chess, games are limited to 15 moves. All combatants are rated at least 2350 in both cases. So readers can expect master-level games in specific openings where one side wins quickly, and the idea is that some knowledge of typical traps and tactics can be discerned by playing through them.

In principle, this sounds wonderful. In practice, however, I have my doubts. Many of the defining errors in Hansen’s games occur when a player leaves opening theory, and because Hansen includes a LOT of game references in his notes, there’s often very little room for original analysis. Consider Game #78 in Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening Volume 3: Flank Openings, a title in the Winning Quickly series.

English Opening [A21]
Alexander Belezky (2381)
Vladimir Moskvin (2691)
Ilyumzhinov Cup Internet, 06.05.2006

1.Nf3 g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 d6 4.d3 e5 5.c4 f5 6.Nc3 c6 7.0–0 Nf6 8.Bg5

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

This is a new move, and a mistake. Hansen gives 13 lines of game citations in the notes, including some verbal discussion of key alternatives.

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

12.dxe4 Qxc3 13.exf5 Bxf5 14.Rb3 Qf6 0–1

Most of the action (and spilt ink) takes place in the citation of opening alternatives, and not in the analysis of the actual games under discussion. This is especially true in the self-published volumes, which may be partially attributable to the games being shorter, and the errors occurring with divergences from theory. I can see the value in Hansen’s publishing concept in these series, but for me, the execution is lacking.

Those looking for a miniatures collection will be happier with Andy Soltis’ latest book, 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take one a day to be a better chess player. Readers are advised in the preface to take the book as a series of 365 lessons, one per day, where a miniature of 20 moves or less is analyzed, one or more questions are asked, and a supplementary game wraps things up. The unspoken conceit is that this will lead to real improvement after a year’s time.

For me, this last bit is rather artificial, but the book stands on its own as an outstanding games collection. Soltis is as reliable an author as it gets, and his analysis here is concise and to the point. Many of the games are uncommon or unknown, and more than a few are missing from my nearly 10 million game database.

This is one of those missing games, starring former US Chess President Leroy Dubeck in a pretty win from 1958. The notes are Soltis’, and the theme of the ‘chapter’ (Day 181) is “[b]acktracking. To get from a bad opening to a playable middlegame may require some backtracking.”

Smith Morra Gambit [B21]
Leroy Dubeck
Raymond Weinstein
New Jersey Open, 1958

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 Na5? 7.Qd4! f6?!

Black now sees 7. …Nf6 8.e5. But 8. …Nh5 9.e6 f6 and …Nc6 looks worse than it is.

8.0–0 Nh6

White allowed 8. …Nxc4 9.Qxc4 because he would threaten 10.Nb5 or 10.Nd5 followed by Nc7+.

9.e5! Nf5?

Black would have to admit his sixth and seventh moves were bad if he continued 9. …Nc6! 10.Qf4 f5 . But then would get to play a middlegame.

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

Better than 12.Qxf6 because 12. …Nxd4 13.Nxf6+ Kf8 14.Bh6#

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

No, 14. …Kg8 15.Nxf6#, and 14. …Nxh6 15.Nxe7 is hopeless.

15.Qc3 Qd6 16.Re1+ Kd8 17.Bf4 Qc6 18.Qxf6+! 1–0

Black resigned before 18.Qxf6+ Qxf6 19.Bc7#.

365 Chess Master Lessons is excellent, and players of almost any rating and ability would find something of value in it. Some might find it old-fashioned, coming from a traditional press like Batsford, but I’ve long believed that old-fashioned never really goes out of style.


[1] Publicity is also difficult for POD publishers. Without dedicated marketing teams, advertising falls to Twitter, Facebook groups, and “earned media” like reviews. Such efforts can feel artificial and astro-turfed.

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.

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.

image

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.

Bisguier’s Books (and beyond)

This review has been printed in the July 2017 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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With the death of Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier on April 5th of this year, one of the last giants of post-World War II American chess has left us. The bulk of his chess legacy lies in his games and in the tremendous amount of publicity work done on behalf of US Chess over the years. Bisguier played simultaneous exhibitions across the country while in the employ of the Federation, giving players in remote places the chance to challenge a Grandmaster.

Bisguier’s contributions to chess literature are lesser known. He was a contributor to Chess Review, one of Chess Life‘s progenitors, for many years, and even took a turn as its Managing Editor. Towards the end of his life Bisguier also wrote two books: The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1: The Early Years (1945-1960) and The Art of Bisguier, Selected Games 1961-2003. (There is a third book bearing Bisguier’s name – the 1974 American Chess Masters from Morphy to Fischer, co-written with Andy Soltis – but it appears that Soltis did the vast majority of the work.)

Published in 2003, The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1 is an oversized (8.5″ by 11″) volume covering Bisguier’s early chess career. The book, co-written with Newton Berry and self-published, is primarily a games collection organized by year. Each ‘chapter’ leads with a brief account of what was happening in the chess world at large, and each game is prefaced with Bisguier’s thoughts about his opponent. The result is a fascinating, if somewhat idiosyncratic, read.

Some of Bisguier’s opponents, like Albert Pinkus and Alburt Simonson, are sketched in detail in the pre-game notes, while others (generally the more famous ones) receive a more cursory treatment. There is wide variance in these introductions, and this variance extends to the way in which different events are covered in the book.

Only one game from the 1959 US Open, for instance, is given in The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1. This is surprising as (a) Bisguier won the event outright and (b) he famously brought his new bride to Omaha as part of their honeymoon! Bisguier’s round 4 victory against legendary Minnesota master Curt Brasket is not in the book, but it provides a glimpse into his fearsome tactical talents at the time.

Brasket,Curt – Bisguier,Arthur [B43]

US Open Omaha (4), 23.07.1959

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 b5 6.Bd3 Bb7 7.0–0 b4 8.Nce2 Nf6 9.Ng3 h5 10.e5 h4 11.Ngf5 Nd5 12.Nd6+ Bxd6 13.exd6 Qb6 14.Qg4 Nc6 15.Nf3 0–0–0 16.c4 f5 17.Qg6 Nf6 18.Be3 Qa5 19.a3 h3 20.g3 Ng4 21.axb4 Qxb4 22.Qxg7 Qxd6 23.Rfd1 Rhg8 24.Qc3

image

24. ..Nxe3! 25.fxe3 Rxg3+! 26.hxg3 Qxg3+ 27.Kf1 Qxf3+ 28.Ke1 h2 29.Kd2 Qg2+ 30.Be2 d5! Tearing open the center to get to the King! 31.Qc2 Nb4 32.Qc1 dxc4+ 33.Kc3 Qxe2 0–1

Bisguier’s second book, The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003, was published in 2008 by Russell Enterprises. This sequel, also co-written with Newton Berry, is a more polished work than its predecessor, and the introductory sketches seem more expansive here. Structurally, however, the two are very similar. In this later work we witness Bisguier’s transition from tactical dynamo to strategic grinder, and special attention is paid to Bisguier’s favorite openings (2.f4 in the Sicilian, the Berlin Defense in the Ruy Lopez) and his best endings.

Bisguier’s two books received little attention, even among chess literati, and for all of their unevenness, that is a shame. But his written legacy goes far beyond his books, and at the end of the day, Art Bisguier might be one of the most widely read authors in American chess history.

If you are ‘of a certain age,’ you almost certainly saw Bisguier’s “Ten Tips to Winning Chess” in pamphlet form at some point in your playing career. It was available to organizers from US Chess headquarters, where Bisguier worked for two decades as a Grandmaster on Staff and Technical Advisor, and many a young player received a copy at their first tournaments. The document is still available at uschess.org in .html and .pdf formats, and dozens of websites still link to it.

Bisguier’s tips are pithy and well-chosen. We can feel his natural optimism in the text, something familiar to anyone who has played over his games. The tips may seem self-evident to experienced players, but a beginner who follows his advice – ‘have a plan,’ ‘control the center,’ ‘think about the endgame,’ etc. – will certainly benefit from doing so. As a first introduction to the deeper world of chess strategy, Bisguier’s pamphlet is outstanding, and it stands as a fine monument to one of the greatest promoters of American chess.

Gelfand’s Lofty Standard

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

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Gelfand, Boris (with Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830137. HB 288pp. List $34.95.

Positional Decision Making in Chess, the first volume in Boris Gelfand’s ‘Decision Making’ series, was published by Quality Chess in 2015 to critical acclaim. (See the September 2015 issue of Chess Life for my rapturous review.) Now Gelfand’s second book, Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, is available. Does it live up to the lofty standard set by its predecessor?

The title of Gelfand’s new book accurately describes its contents. His main theme is decision making, with a particular focus on (a) how Gelfand makes practical decisions over the board and (b) his handling of dynamic positions. While Gelfand’s articulation of his thought processes is clear and mainly successful, the lens he uses (dynamical play) makes its complete exploration very difficult.

Gelfand describes the “core” of his books as follows:

I want to explain the thinking that has led to my reasonable success as a chess player, and not ‘cheat’ in the process. It is quite easy to analyze a variation with the engine and then explain why it works. And this certainly has its uses, but to me it is more interesting to talk about how we find the moves in the first place. This is the key to playing better chess. (260)

The goal of the books in this series thus far is to offer an honest accounting of how a super GM like Gelfand decides on his moves. The analysis tries to follow Gelfand’s in-game stream of consciousness, and because he cuts no corners, it can be incredibly complex. A recurring theme of the book is Gelfand’s warnings about overreliance on the computer.

It is a mistake to assume that Grandmasters think like engines. Because humans cannot begin to match the machine in terms of calculation, because we can’t see everything like the computer does, at some point we have to “guess.” (8, 86) Decision making on the basis of limited information (guessing) relies on intuition, evaluation, and judgment. (160, 218, 226).

Gelfand’s point seems to be this: humans cannot calculate their way to good decisions. We must rely on “general considerations” (15) while we play, and we must use our intuition to take decisions that we cannot fully calculate. How do we train intuition, and in this case, how do we train our sense of dynamics?

There’s the rub.

It’s important to be clear about what we’re talking about. Dynamics involves the ephemeral in chess. Some temporary feature of the position must be converted into an lasting advantage before it dissipates. (8) Dynamic chess involves intuition and calculation for Gelfand, but devolves to neither. (9). It is not strictly tactical or strategic in nature, the very distinction being somewhat artificial in his view. (61)

For all of the analysis in Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, and for all of the exquisitely careful explanation of decisions and thought processes, there is nothing to my eye that explains how Gelfand senses dynamism in a position. He just does, and more than that is hard to explain.

This is not a knock on Gelfand (or his co-author Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess is a wonderful book, one of the best of its kind, but like every book on dynamics, there comes a point where analysis and explanation fail and we must simply bear witness to genius.

Again, let me be clear. I am not claiming that the great moves of the masters are somehow ineffable or beyond reason. Instead, what I am arguing follows from the block quote above.

It is easy, as Gelfand notes, to retroactively explain the logic of a brilliant move. What is more difficult is clearly articulating the move’s genesis without falling prey to what John Dewey called the ‘philosopher’s fallacy,’ where the results of analysis are taken to accurately represent what was experienced before analysis began.

Studies of dynamic play are, in my experience, particularly susceptible to this kind of fallacy. While Gelfand works diligently to break down the logic of his best moves – his 11…Ra6!! against Karjakin from the 2009 World Cup, for instance (227-239) – there is a level of analysis beyond which he cannot go. It took him 40 years of study and solving (54, 134) to find such moves, and their intuitive, unconscious origins are not easily excavated.

Does this mean that Dynamic Decision Making in Chess fails in its project? Absolutely not. It may lack the clarity and focus of Positional Decision Making in Chess, but this is due to Gelfand’s ambitious handling of a very difficult subject and his refusal to simplify his thought processes for the sake of expediency. The analysis is best suited for experts and above, but players of all strengths can’t help but learn from this book.

Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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