Category Archives: biography

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

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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.

Everyman Roundup

This review has been printed in the October 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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Collins, Sam. Karpov: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781942291. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Engqvist, Thomas. Stein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942697. PB 496pp. List $34.95.

Franco, Zenón. Rubinstein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943144. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Franco, Zenón. Spassky: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942666. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Giddens, Steve. Alekhine: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943175. PB 304pp. List $27.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Fischer: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942727. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Tal: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943236. PB 400pp. List $29.95

Pritchett, Craig. Steinitz: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942543. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Some years ago I gave a talk at a university in New York about how we might use the technology of chess to better understand the nature of technology. I argued that modern chess players were, for all intents and purposes, cyborgs, and I meant this fairly literally. The dividing line between man and machine is blurred in contemporary chess, with top young players internalizing the lessons taught by Komodo and Stockfish so deeply that they begin to play like computers themselves.

The rise of the machines has wrought many changes in our beloved game, and none so lamentable as the slackening of historical memory among its players. There are many GMs today who proudly gained their titles without studying the classics of chess literature. And it kind of makes sense: if chess today has mutated, becoming intensely concrete and pragmatic, why study Alekhine’s games when (a) they no longer resemble modern practice and (b) the computer tears apart his analysis?

As a chess teacher and a fan of chess history, this gives me the sads. The majority of chess players would benefit greatly from a grounding in the classics; as John Watson puts it, “classic games by the old masters make particularly good teaching material, because the strategic ideas in them are relatively simpler to understand and more clearly expressed than in modern games.” Such study can also be pleasurable, something I find difficult with modern and inscrutable super-GM contests.

This month I take a look at eight recent biographies / individual game collections from Everyman, one of the most prolific publishers of such books today. All eight appear in their Move by Move (hereafter, MBM) series. Most current Everyman books are presented in this way, using a question and answer format to mimic a private lesson and functioning as a kind of Greek chorus for the proceedings.

Let’s begin with Steinitz: MBM, written by Craig Pritchett. It consists of thirty-five well-annotated games ordered chronologically and with historical context. Pritchett views his book as a “traditional games collection and biography” (8) and it succeeds in this, giving readers a solid overview of Steinitz’s career and contributions to the game. There is a heavy emphasis on the 1886 match with Zukertort, and Pritchett does a nice job of sketching the basics of Steinitz’s revolutionary positional theories. (174-6)

Steve Giddens’ Alekhine: MBM is, in contrast, almost wholly a games collection. Giddens analyzes thirty-five of Alekhine’s games and includes twenty positions from Alekhine’s play for the reader to solve. He tends to use more words and less concrete analysis in explaining Alekhine’s moves, making this book excellent for the lower-rated player. I did find it curious that Giddens relied on a seven year old engine (Fritz 12) to check his lines, and I also would have appreciated some biographical content – there is almost none in the book.

Stein: MBM is the largest book on review here at 496 pages, and this is made all the more impressive by the fact that it uses a smaller font than the others! Thomas Engqvist does an impressive job of contextualizing each of the sixty thoroughly annotated games in Stein: MBM, explaining who the opponents were and incorporating extensive research into the notes. He carefully traces Stein’s progression from “new Tal” to complete player, attributing some of the shift to Petrosian’s influence. All of this makes for a wonderful book, and it should become the standard work on Stein’s life and games.

Sam Collins’ Karpov: MBM is, by the author’s own admission, neither a biography nor a collection of Karpov’s best games. Collins chose to “select a number of aspects of Karpov’s play which could be helpful to club players.” (7) He uses Karpov’s games to illustrate typical middlegame themes – prophylaxis, the IQP, etc. – and supplements this with sketches of his opening play and a selection of games from his famous Linares 1994 tournament victory. This is a novel approach, but unless you’re particularly interested in Karpov’s games under these exact parameters, I think this is a title you can safely skip.

This leaves us with two books each by two of Everyman’s most prolific Move by Move authors, Zenón Franco and Cyrus Lakdawala. Attentive readers will recall that I have already reviewed books by Franco (Anand: MBM) and Lakdawala (Carlsen: MBM) in the February 2015 issue, and that I was decidedly less impressed with Lakdawala than I was with Franco. That opinion has not changed, and in the remainder of this month’s column, I’ll explain why.

Franco’s books – Rubinstein: MBM and Spassky: MBM – are both thematically structured works that focus on the player’s games and not on their biographies. Both books are scrupulously sourced and work to expose the reader to the specific strengths of the player in question.

With Rubinstein, for example, Franco analyzes thirty-four games that center on Rubinstein’s positional play (§1) and endgames, with special emphasis on his rook endings (§3,4). The forty games in Spassky: MBM revolve around Spassky’s handling of the initiative and his special expertise in favored opening systems. Both titles begin with studies of each player’s style, both are well-researched, and the analysis in each is absolutely top-shelf. Indeed, Franco often improves on the published analysis of others, and particularly in the Rubinstein book.

Having reviewed three of Lakdawala’s books, I have hesitated to review more for fear of being seen as too harsh. My views on Lakdawala’s style are well known by now, something Lakdawala might be pointing out in Fischer: MBM when he decries “the misguided readers who hate my writing style and punish my books with a hateful review.” (49)

There are some who absolutely adore Lakdawala’s color, wit, and total lack of restraint. There are others – count me among them – who find it all just too cute by half. The good news is that some of the worst of Lakdawala’s excesses seem to have been tempered in his two newest books, Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM. The bad news is that they haven’t been tempered enough.

Fischer: MBM consists of fifty six games, and like most of Lakdawala’s other biographical titles, it is structured thematically.[1] The fifty-three games in Tal: MBM are ordered chronologically, making it unique in Lakdawala’s oeuvre. So what is it about Tal that prompts Lakdawala to abandon his standard book format?

Part of what drives the shift is Lakdawala’s almost cartoonish caricature of Tal. His Tal is a tactical wizard, a “con-artist” with an “aversion to swaps of any kind,” an alchemist whose guiding principle in chess was “[w]hat would Satan do?” (153-4) and whose sacrifices were rarely sound. (246) If Tal was indeed this one-dimensional, it wouldn’t make sense to waste time on endgames or defensive motifs.

The problem is that more recent and sober studies expose the fallacies of this interpretation. Tukmakov, for instance, shows in Risk and Bluff in Chess that Tal’s sacrifices were often correct, even by modern standards. And Karolyi – who is cited in Lakdawala’s bibliography – takes care to point out Tal’s “skill in quieter positions and endgames” (8) in his Mikhail Tal’s Best Games, Volume 1.

People of good faith can disagree about a writer’s style. The real problem with both Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM is a lack of rigor and serious research. Bibliographies for both books are slight, and Lakdawala’s failure to engage other analysts and biographers undermines his own work.

Example #1: in analyzing the 19th (not the 18th, as appears in Fischer: MBM) game of the 1972 World Championship, Lakdawala has this note after 24.exd5: “White’s only chance for the win lay in 24.Rc7! Nxd4,” and he gives a line of Houdini-inspired analysis to justify his claim. (Fischer, 203) But as early as 1972 Olafsson and Timman both correctly saw that 24…dxe4! holds the balance. This move is also found in Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors IV, a book that appears in Lakdawala’s bibliography.

Example #2: Consider Tal-Smyslov, Candidates 1959, round 8. After 1. e4 c6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 e5 4. Ngf3 Nd7 5. d4 dxe4 6. Nxe4 exd4 7. Qxd4 Ngf6 8.Bg5 Be7, why did Tal avoid the superior 9.Nd6+ in favor of 9. O-O-O? For Lakdawala, this is evidence of Tal’s emotional irrationalism (Tal, 148-9) – he was ‘bored’ by endgames so he avoided them! Kasparov and Karolyi have a simpler explanation: Tal thought that Smyslov would be more comfortable in a worse endgame than an unclear middlegame.

Example #3: Lakdawala laments the fact that he could not present a student’s lost simul game with Tal. (Tal, 123) I remember seeing this game – Tal-Miller, Los Angeles, 1988 – years ago, and it’s as good as advertised. It’s also in MegaBase, and it has been since 2012. (A quick Google would have turned it up too.)

What’s maddening about Lakdawala is that he can, when he chooses, produce excellent work. There is less nonsense in Fischer: MGM and Tal: MBM than in previous efforts, and there is more clear explanation of ideas. But there are no new insights in either book; instead, we get questionable psychologizing and a lot of stream-of-consciousness fluff. If you like Lakdawala’s other books, you’ll like these; if not, you won’t. Caveat emptor.


[1] That seven books on widely disparate players have a more-or-less identical structure – sections on attack, defense, dynamism, imbalances, accumulating advantages and the endgame – is disconcerting. Surely books on, say, Kramnik and Kortchnoi should not be identically structured .

“Year” books

This review has been printed in the August 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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Gormally, Danny. Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-934656-9-9. PB 248pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $31ish at Amazon.

Zhdanov, Peter. Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-83-937009-7-4. PB 376pp. List 24.99 euros, currently $23ish at Amazon.

What would you give to become a grandmaster? Years of travel and heartbreak? The lack of a proper social life? Perhaps your pinky toe?

Whatever your answer, you may rethink it after reading Daniel Gormally’s Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World, one of a number of new books from the Polish publishing house Chess Evolution.

Gormally is an English Grandmaster rated 2494 FIDE as of June 2016. He’s not a guy who gets invites to the top events, and at age 40, there’s little hope of his suddenly ascending the Elo list. Gormally is a working-class GM, one who has to scramble to find teaching and writing gigs to supplement his tournament winnings and support himself.

The problem, as Gormally describes it, is that he is too lazy for teaching, writing is hard work, and age, lack of study and increasingly solid competition make tournaments a risky source of income.

Still want to be a Grandmaster?

A Year Inside the Chess World is, on first blush, an awfully bleak book, and Gormally pulls no punches in its telling. He berates himself for his inability to beat untitled players, for his lack of luck with women, for his being overweight. We eavesdrop on many nights spent drinking with floundering colleagues. There is more than a whiff of a sexism that is all too typical in the chess world. And there are pages where Gormally veers dangerously close to TMI territory with references to thwarted onanism and dodgy Hamburg strip clubs.

In its brutal honesty, however, there is something admirable and perhaps even triumphant about A Year Inside the Chess World. As the book progresses, we see Gormally start to reckon with his limitations. He considers leaving chess and taking up a straight job, but at the same time, we see him begin to take steps to make chess a viable profession once more.

So what changes? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was authoring a DVD on the English Attack for ChessBase that gave him confidence. Perhaps it was working seriously with modern engines or analyzing with strong GMs that stoked his analytical fire. Ultimately I suspect that the writing of the book itself, and the self-examination it required, played a therapeutic role.

There is much more to A Year Inside the Chess World than suggested above. Gormally includes excellent analysis of his games and those of others, and there are many asides and essays on chess personalities and the current state of the game. Still, this is largely a book about Gormally himself, and in pulling back the curtain on his life, warts and all, he has given us something truly fascinating.

Some of the inspiration for Gormally’s book came from blog posts he wrote for pogonina.com, the online home of WGM Natalia Pogonina and her husband / manager Peter Zhdanov. Zhdanov has also recently published a book with Chess Evolution called Yearbook of Chess Wisdom. Unfortunately for Zhdanov and for his publisher, it is not a particularly good one.

The conceit underlying Yearbook of Chess Wisdom is fairly clear. There are 366 short essays on various themes, one for each day of the calendar year. The topics covered follow no discernible pattern or order. In truth it is nothing more than a compendium of Zhdanov’s meandering thoughts on the chess world.

It’s not that there’s anything objectionable in the essays per se – well, actually, there is, and I’ll get to that shortly. The problem is that most of Zhdanov’s book is banal or uninteresting, and the few interesting ideas are usually borrowed from others. So the useful essay on studying the opening (9/7) is basically cribbed from GM Roman Ovechkin, while the numerous listicles, the musings on Zodiac signs (1/11), and the gross elitism (9/30) are all Zhdanov.

There is also the issue of Zhdanov’s sexism. There are multiple essays (7/11, 7/16, 7/26, 8/25, 12/15) that are laughably sexist. There is an essay devoted to “pick-up lines for Caissa” (9/8) wherein the goddess is said to prefer guys who – surprise! – seem very similar to Zhdanov. He even offers bizarre advice about sex at tournaments based on “extensive research” (3/23) – his “Chess Kama Sutra” book from a few years back.

I have no doubt that untitled players like Zhdanov can write important chess books. This is not one of them. Zhdanov is long on platitudes, short on insight, and drops far too many names. His Yearbook of Chess Wisdom hardly lives up to its title, and you’d be wise to pass on it.

Biographies from McFarland

This review has been printed in the April 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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Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

Harding, Tim. Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786474738. HB 592pp. List $75.00.

Sanchez, Miguel A. José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786470044. HB 277pp. List $55.00.

Zavatarelli, Fabrizio. Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786496907. HB 376pp. List $75.00

Most of the biggest publishing houses leave chess to their smaller brethren, with a few notable exceptions. Batsford and its valuable backlist have changed hands a few times, now resting with Pavilion Books out of London. The US Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess was for many years published by McKay, and is now in its 6th edition with McKay’s successor, Random House.

There is an American house that is publishing some very interesting studies of chess history as part of its wide and varied list, and chances are, unless you work in the industry, that you’ve never heard of them.

Until now, that is.

McFarland & Company is an independent publisher from North Carolina. Focused on the library market, they specialize in fields like military history, baseball and popular culture. Somewhere along the way they added chess to their purview, and today McFarland puts out more scholarly chess books than any other publisher.

Some of these titles – compilations of hard-to-find crosstables, bibliographies, etc. – are of limited popular interest, but the biographical works have potential cross-over appeal. I gave the 2014 McFarland release of Andy Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion a favorable review in these pages (May 2014), and the book went on to win the Book of the Year prize awarded by the Chess Journalists of America.

Four McFarland chess biographies have crossed my desk in recent months. Two – Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career by Fabrizio Zavatarelli and Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess by Stephen Davies – are first rate works on fine but lesser-known players. Zavatarelli’s book in particular is worth a look. The tale of Kolisch’s rise to fame and fortune, made possible in part through his chess contacts, is dramatically told.

Of possibly greater interest are the titles on José Raúl Capablanca and Joseph Henry Blackburne. The legendary Capablanca was the third official world champion, holding the title from 1921-1927, and Blackburne was one of the top tournament players of the later nineteenth century. Both books bear an identical subtitle – “A Chess Biography” – but as we shall see, it reads rather differently depending on the author.

In José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography, Miguel A. Sanchez paints his portrait of Capablanca against a broad backdrop of time and country, economy and politics. The first chapter, for example, describes the history of Cuban chess, showing how the sugar boom allowed aficionados to bring players like Morphy, Steinitz, Blackburne and Chigorin to the island. It also gives face and personality to many of Capablanca’s early supporters and rivals.

There is much that is familiar in Sanchez’s account. The general outlines of Capablanca’s life are well known and there are no shocking revelations to be found here. Still, I suspect that even the most ardent Capa fan will learn something new from Sanchez’s very readable book. Of particular, if morbid, interest is the discussion of Capablanca’s high blood pressure and health problems, the deleterious effects of which Sanchez locates much earlier in Capablanca’s career than commonly thought.

There are 192 competently annotated games in José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Because Sanchez emphasizes biography over chess, contextualizing Capablanca’s chess career within his life more broadly, this number feels appropriate. Contrast it with the 1184 games and 55 compositions in Tim Harding’s Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography, and you begin to get a sense of a stark difference in authorial attitude towards the biographical task.

Blackburne was the best British player before the rise of Miles, Short and Adams in the late twentieth century. He was a great popularizer of the game and one of its first professionals, making annual exhibition tours through the ‘provinces’ for nearly sixty years (1861-1921) and specializing in simultaneous blindfold exhibitions for fifty of them.

Most of Harding’s work has gone into excavating the details of Blackburne’s chess career. He has recovered unknown games, corrected errors in published games, and created detailed travelogues for his tours and travels. Many details of his family life are documented and dozens of pictures are provided, but make no mistake – this is a chess biography.

Harding’s book feels definitive. Of course new material will continue to be discovered, but so much work went into its writing, so much material is presented, that it almost overwhelms the general reader. Historians will find Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography to be an indispensable resource, but casual fans may want to start with the chapter on Blackburne in Harding’s more approachable Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

Book Note: Karolyi on Tal

Because there are just too many books coming out to keep up with, I’ll be doing some brief book notes along with my longer, in-depth reviews and essays. This is the second of those notes. – JH

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 1: 1949-1959, The Magic of Youth. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982774. PB 448pp. List $29.95, currently $23.70 on Amazon.

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2: 1960-1971, The World Champion. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982798. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently $21.74 on Amazon.

In the course of researching the games of Mikhail Tal for a forthcoming Chess Life review, I had the opportunity – and the pleasure – to spend some time with Tibor Karolyi’s two volumes on Tal. (A third, covering the remainder of Tal’s playing career, is in press.) Excluding Tal’s own efforts, there are no finer books on Tal in print.

Karolyi follows a recipe in these two books that he first cooked up in his two books on Karpov for Quality Chess. (Those books, Karpov’s Strategic Wins 1: The Making of a Champion and Karpov’s Strategic Wins 2: The Prime Years, can also be recommended.) He breaks Tal’s career down by year, interspersing deeply annotated games with discussion of tournament situation, personalities, and Tal’s personal life. Summaries of each year’s results conclude chapters, and indexes by player and page number are included along with a rough index of themes found in Tal’s games.

While Karolyi includes many of Tal’s most famous sacrificial efforts, he also analyses more ‘workman-like’ games, including no small number of his endgames. Karolyi is a diligent analyst, and while he (like many of his Quality Chess brethren) can sometimes present more analysis than can be easily digested, this is surely preferable to offering too little. The image of Tal we get through these books is of a much more well-rounded player than commonly thought.

Karolyi also spends a lot of time, and obviously spent a lot of effort, contextualizing each game. In some cases he sheds light on the identity of Tal’s opponent, while in others he sketches the situation Tal found himself in while playing the game. Many personal anecdotes are relayed, and the book is much richer for it.

69 fully annotated games are found in Volume 1, while Volume 2 contains 66 complete scores. Dozens of fragments and game citations (some with notes) are given as well. When the third volume is released, Karolyi will have given the chess world a comprehensive and compelling account of Tal the player and Tal the man. It will only further burnish the legend that is Mikhail Tal.