Category Archives: biography

Lessons Learned

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


Geller, Efim. The Nemesis:  Geller’s Greatest Games. Edinburgh: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830618. HB 480pp.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

Anniversaries are a time for celebration, for looking at the great accomplishments of the past, and for understanding how they might weave their way into the

So it is with the 80th Anniversary of the US Chess Federation, an organization that has grown from a membership base of 533 in the middle of World War II (1943) to the nearly 100,000 members we boast today. Chess Life, along with its predecessor Chess Review, stands as a chronicle of  American chess in those eighty years, and the digitization project announced at the 2019 Delegates Meeting is the best anniversary present that US Chess could possibly have given its members.

I have spent more than a few hours perusing this archive, which should soon be available to US Chess members (if it is not already). And I am struck by the tremendous variety of materials found there, and how they differ from what we find in today’s chess magazines.

While the analysis itself cannot be expected to stand the test of time, there is much in these issues that retains value. The contemporaneous reporting of big events have not lost their vitality. Endgame columns by Edmar Mednis and Pal Benko are still vital sources of knowledge, even if some of the particulars are wrong. And the annotations… one finds a treasure trove of analysis from some of the world’s leading players, now free for anyone to download.

Take, for instance, the May 1974 issue of Chess Life. Svetovar Gligoric analyzes the famous Karpov-Uhlmann “a-file game” (Nice, 1974) over three pages, including a massive opening theoretical. Paul Keres annotates games from the Karpov-Spassky match. Bent Larsen writes about Las Palmas 1974, Reshevsky discusses two of his games, and Laszlo Szabo turns his eye to three games from recent competitions. Couple this with Mednis’ excellent work on the endgame and “Benko’s Bafflers,” and you begin to see what a massive resource US Chess has given the world.

Why am I taking so much time to talk about magazines? Aren’t they obsolete in the perpetual now of YouTube and Stockfish? Absolutely not. While the chess media landscape has changed in the Internet age, with constant livestreams of big events, and websites like Chess Life Online providing quick, solid reporting, perspective and context can be hard to pin down in real-time. That’s where publications like Chess Life are so valuable. They distill and memorialize the ephemeral, standing as a publication of record for future generations.

More: besides being a pleasant diversion, serious study of chess history and analysis is essential to ongoing improvement. When someone works through well-annotated games as found in Chess Life, she learns how openings evolved, how initiative moves into attack and how mini-plans are woven into long-term advantages. All of this is precisely what an engine or tactics trainer cannot teach you.

I was reminded of this when listening to GM Ramesh RB talk about his life and career on the Perpetual Chess Podcast. He laments the obsession of young players with engines and databases, and argues that it is critical for his students to study books, particularly games collections of great players. In doing so, they learn the history of the game, but also pick up key ideas about strategy and technique.

And it’s not just coaches who understand this. Fabiano Caruana showed his historical knowledge at the recent FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, dredging up an antiquated opening idea in the Rossolimo Sicilian to defeat Vladimir Fedoseev. Awonder Liang described the Yermolinsky-Ehlvest game at the 2019 US Senior Championship as “90s era chess”[1] where play is less concrete but more thematic, thereby exhibiting his grounding in chess history… and perhaps a bit of the impudence of youth!

The new Chess Life digital archive is one source for this kind of material. Another is the tried and true chess book. Amidst the avalanche of opening books and self-help tomes, publishers have also put out some excellent historical and biographical titles in recent years. When I look back at the best books that have passed through my mailbox, many are of this variety, but I was particularly impressed with one in particular.

The “Chess Classics” series at Quality Chess has included some important titles, including Python Strategy, an annotated collection of Petrosian’s games, and The Science of Strategy, a textbook of sorts from Alexander Kotov. The newest book in the lineup is The Nemesis: Geller’s Greatest Games, a translation of a 2017 Russian collection of Efim Geller’s annotated games. It is excellent.

Geller was one of those players who, while not quite at the level of the World Champions, wasn’t far off their standard. Tactically gifted and technically skilled, Geller was particularly valued by the Soviets as an opening theoretician. He created numerous ideas in the Sicilian and King’s Indian – Botvinnik famously said that “before Geller, we did not understand the King’s Indian” – and seconded Spassky, Karpov, and Kasparov in World Championship play. Perhaps his only weaknesses were perfectionism, leading to time trouble, and a (relative) propensity for blunders.

The Nemesis contains 135 games annotated by Geller’s own hand, organized chronologically with the exception of two appendices featuring his brilliancy prizes and best adjourned endings. 86 of the games have previously appeared in English in The Application of Chess Theory (Cadogan, 1984), but the new edition has a number of advantages over its predecessor.[2] Two are worth mentioning.

The Application of Chess Theory is organized by opening, while games in The Nemesis occur in the order they were played. I prefer the latter, as it allows readers to get a sense of Geller’s growth from tactical hacker to all-around player. This may simply be personal preference, but it is not hard to see Geller’s stylistic progression as one works chronologically through his games.

I had not seen much of Geller’s writing before I began reading The Nemesis, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. His annotations are matter-of-fact and sometimes a bit sharp, and he does a fine job explaining the key features of positions without droning on. The analysis is also well-tuned, with lines going deeply enough when it is necessary, but without overwhelming readers.

The games themselves are fantastic. Genna Sosenko’s comment in Russian Silhouettes –  “a lot of what seems obvious and straightforward in present-day chess is based on positions and principles which were developed by the best players and analysts of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And one of the most significant of these was Efim Geller.”[3] – is lent credence in these pages, and I suspect that readers will find much in Geller’s games that can be applied in their own

The Nemesis also properly handles the problem of how to introduce computer analysis into pre-computer annotations. Engine-assisted improvements by IM Max Notkin, the editor of the Russian edition, appear in italics in the text tastefully and

Case in point: consider this critical position from Fischer-Geller, Monte Carlo 1967.

Here, after more than twenty minutes thought, Fischer played the incorrect 20.Bg4. Geller writes: “Condemning him for it is easy; avoiding the error is much more difficult. Objectively speaking, Black’s king should hardly be able to survive under fire from four white pieces, but finding the route to victory over-the-board is not so simple: there are too many continuations to analyse.”[4] (225) Play continued 20. … dxc4 21. Bxe6 Qd3 22. Qe1 Be4! and Black won shortly thereafter.

Geller spends two full pages unpacking the three alternatives Fischer had to consider – 20.Rf3, 20.Bd1, and 20.Qc2 – deciding that White’s attack would only work with the final two moves. The computer shows that just 20. Qc2 gives an advantage, as Black survives after 20. Bd1 Kd7 21. Rf7+ Kc6. But what about 20. Bf3, putting more pressure on the center and asking Black to make a productive

I stumbled upon this idea when checking Geller and Notkin’s notes with a prototype of the new Fat Fritz neural-net engine. Fat Fritz, in contrast to both Stockfish and Leela, thinks that 20. Bf3 is the best move in the position by a large margin. Together we worked out the following ideas, a much fuller version of which appears in this issue’s accompanying pgn file at uschess.org.

20. Bf3!? Be7

20th move alternatives: (a) 20. … Qb4 21. Qc2! (with the ideas of Rb1 and Qxh7) 21. … Be7 22. Rb1 Qxc4 23. Qxc4 dxc4 24. Bxb7 Rd8 25. Be3; (b) 20. … g6 21. Rb1 Rb8 22. cxd5 Bd4 (22. … exd5 23. Bxd5) 23. Qd1; (c) 20. … Rc8 21. cxd5 Qb4 22. Qd3. All give White a significant advantage.

21. Rb1 (21. cxd5!? Rd8 22. Bxe7 Qxe7 23. Qc2 with the initiative) 21. … Ra7

21st move alternatives: (a) 21. … Bxg5 22. Qxg5 Qd3 23. Rc1 Kf7 24. Qxe5 Re8 25. Bh5+ g6 26. Bg4 and the attack continues; (b) 21. … Rb8 22. cxd5 exd5 23. Bxd5 Bxg5 24. Qxg5 (24. Bc6+ Kf7 25. Qxg5 Qd3 26. Qc1 and White wins the exchange) 24. … Qd6 25. Bb3 and White continues to press.

22. cxd5 exd5 23. Qe2 Qd6 (23. … e4 24. Qf2; 23. … Bd6 24. Qc2) 24. Be3 d4 25. Bxb7 dxe3 26. Qxe3 Rxb7 (26. … Qd4 27. Bc6+) 27. Rxb7 Qd1+ 28. Qg1 Qd5 29. Rb8+ Kf7 30. Qf1+. White should win this easily.

Purdy once said that the best way to improve was to “play against champions”[5] by studying their games and testing our ideas against their moves and analysis. In doing so we renew the conversation with the past, conjuring the spirits of the game’s greats and bringing them into discussion with the present and future.

The Nemesis provides a model for how we might understand that dialogue today, including silicon-enhanced insights without harming or undermining Geller’s particular genius. That dialogue extends indefinitely, as Fat Fritz and I learned in the lines above. Perhaps some of my readers will investigate the new Chess Life digital archive to see what kind of conversations they might find there.


[1] See the STLCC live coverage of the 7th Round of the U.S. Senior and Junior Championships (at about 2:41). Thanks to Jeremy Kane and Tatev Abrahamyan for helping me find this via Twitter! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWRkUiYTTO8

[2] The inverse of the in-text statement is that 14 games in The Application of Chess Theory are not to be found in The Nemesis. The explanation, per the publishers at their blog, is that only Russian-language sources were included in the 2017 Russian edition, thereby undercutting IM Notkin’s claims in the Preface to this being Geller’s “complete works.”

[3] Sosonko, Genna. Russian Silhouettes. 3rd edition. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2009 (2001). p.81.

[4] As an aside, Geller includes a fascinating observation. “The characterization of Fischer that I rightly relied on was borne out at this very juncture: in unfamiliar sharp positions he loses his bearings.” (ibid.)

[5] Purdy, C.J.S., and Ralph Tykodi, editor. C.J.S. Purdy’s Fine Art of Annotation and Other Thoughts, Volume 1. 2nd edition. Davenport: Thinker’s Publishing, 2004. viii.

A Legend Never Dies

They didn’t tell me I’d be writing obituaries when I signed on as US Chess Digital Editor.

So when I saw that Pal Benko had died on August 26th, I slumped back in my chair and began to think. What could I possibly write about a legend like Benko, especially as I had never had the pleasure to meet the man?

And then these lines floated through the years back to me, lines I read years ago in Fred Waitzkin’s masterful book on Garry Kasparov. Here, Waitzkin encounters a dejected Kasparov packing up his hotel suite in New York after a difficult first half of the 1990 World Championship match.

“The last two or three times I had visited, I had brought with me an autographed copy of Grandmaster Pal Benko’s endgame book, a volume that Benko had published himself and which he had asked me to give Kasparov. I believe there were a hundred copies or so in this new edition. Each time I came, I forgot to give it to Garry, or his mood was so bad that I thought that he wouldn’t notice it. …

When Garry came back in the room to sit among the boxes, I handed him Benko’s self-published book, half-expecting him to drop it at his feet. But instead, he started reading. “This is very important,” he said, as he slowly turned a page. Garry’s face softened. He moved his lips and smiled as he calculated a witty move. For the next hour or so, he lost himself in Benko’s book, which contained interesting and instructive endings culled from numerous games, along with Benko’s sharp analysis. Garry was enjoying chess for the first time since the start of the match.”[1]

Pal Benko was an outstanding chess player, an important opening theoretician, and one of the world’s leading authorities on chess problems and studies. But his true legacy may lie in his writing. Benko wrote six books and countless columns published right here in Chess Life. (He also revised and algrebratized Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings, one of the most important books in chess history.) This month we celebrate the words and works of Pal Benko.

Benko’s first book, The Benko Gambit (1973), was one of my first chess books. Or, to be more precise, it was one of the first that I devoured as a young player, scouring the shelves of Long Island libraries in a search for knowledge. I recall how mystified I was by Black’s effortless activity, and at the cost of just one pawn! A notebook, filled with lines cribbed from Benko’s book, is lost to time. Just as well – one wonders what holes the engines would punch in the analysis…

Winning with Chess Psychology (1991), written in conjunction with long-time Chess Life editor Burt Hochberg, is an interesting book with a slightly misleading title. It is not an academic study of chess from a psychological perspective, as one might find in de Groot’s Thought and Choice in Chess, or Krogius’ Psychology in Chess. Instead, readers are given practical advice rooted in Benko’s knowledge of chess history and culture.

The first part of the book, five chapters in all, sketches “the development of the psychological method” with reference to the World Champion, viewing chess alternatively through the lenses of fight, art, sport, life, and war. The remainder of the book offers Benko’s ideas about “chess psychology” in all facets of the game, including openings and endings, draw offers, final rounds, and time pressure. The chapter on women and computers is at once ahead of its time (regarding women) and badly dated (regarding engines).

While both of these titles were good for their time, neither can begin to compare to Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions, co-written with and edited by Jeremy Silman, and featuring an extensive opening survey by John Watson.

At 668 pages My Life, Games, and Compositions is exactly what its title suggests: a comprehensive look at Benko’s life, 135 of his self-annotated games, and 300 of his problems and studies. But without Benko’s incredible life story, those 668 pages would “thin soup” indeed. Very few have led lives as rich, for better and for worse, as did Pal Benko, and I cannot think of a chess biography as good as this one.

Benko takes us through his early life in Hungary, his suffering during the Second World War and under Russian occupation. Playing tournaments (literally) to eat, Benko built a reputation for himself, becoming a master in 1945 and an International Master in 1950.

Never a member of the Communist Party, Benko was jailed in 1952 by Hungarian authorities for attempting to defect, and for more than a year and a half he was held in a squalid work camp. Released in October 1953, Benko kept playing chess and looking to the West. He finally managed to defect in 1957 at the World Student Championships in Iceland, and after a few years working in the financial field, he became a “chess professional,” with Fischer (on his telling) being his only colleague.

Gripping as it is, Benko’s tale is told in service to the presentation of his games. And for those of us who only knew Benko as “the endings theoretician” or “the guy who gave Fischer his Interzonal spot,” it may come as a shock to play through Benko’s games and realize just how good he was. A positional player by nature, and of course known for his endgame acumen, he could also mix it up tactically, as his 1951 brilliancy against Korody shows. While Benko says that this is his most published game (55), it does not appear in MegaBase.

Semi-Slav Meran [D47]
Korody
Pal Benko
Budapest, 1951

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0–0 b4 10.Ne4 c5 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.Qe2 Qb6 13.a3 Bd6 14.axb4 cxd4 15.exd4 Rg8 16.b5? Qxd4!! 17.h3  

17.Nxd4 loses to 17. … Rxg2+ 18.Kh1 Rxh2+ 19.Kg1 Rh1 mate.

17…Ne5! 18.Nxd4 Rxg2+ 19.Kh1 Rh2+  

The forced mate runs 19. … Rh2+ 20.Kxh2 (20.Kg1 Rh1#) 20. … Ng4+ 21.Kg1 Bh2 mate.

0–1

My Life, Games, and Compositions also illustrates the depth and scope of Benko’s compositional efforts. Few auteurs work across the whole of the problem world – mate problems, endgame studies, helpmates, serials and retros – and Benko shows us the full span of his artistry. Here is one of his “Bafflers,” published in these pages in 1994, and while Benko himself preferred more complex compositions, his “lightweight” (620) efforts are both pleasing and practical for we mortal solvers.

(For the answer, in best “Baffler” fashion, please check the bottom of this post.)

This study featured in Benko’s longest running Chess Life column, “Benko’s Bafflers,” which appeared monthly from 1967 through Benko’s retirement in December 2013. But that was not his first foray into chess journalism. Benko’s words first appeared in Chess Life’s September 1963 issue as annotations to Benko-Gligoric from the 13th round of the First Piatgorsky Cup.

Beginning in December 1963, when “Two Wins from Chicago” was published, Benko’s name graced the Chess Life masthead with increasing regularity. “Benko’s Bafflers” helped introduce problems and studies to a broad readership. He took over the “In the Arena” column beginning in 1971, analyzing games (often his own) from important events around the world.

In January 1981 Benko switched gears, inaugurating his “Endgame Laboratory.” It was not Chess Life’s first endgame serial – Edmar Mednis’s “The Practical Endgame” had ended 18 months earlier – but Benko’s work here raised the bar, with a remarkable depth of analysis and clarity of explanation.

Benko always kept his focus squarely on the practical needs of the over-the-board player, and he was ahead of the technological curve, citing endgame databases and computers before it was popular to do so. With examples current and classic, and through his engagement with readers through contests and published letters, Benko made the endgame accessible to generations of Chess Life readers.

Benko’s two self-published collections of his endgame columns, both named Chess Endgame Lessons (1989, 1999), together cover two decades of his work. Both are widely sought after by aficionados.[2] Jeremy Silman once called the first volume “the best endgame book ever written,” and the aformentioned John Watson wrote that it was “one of [his] favorite endgame books.”[3] For my part, the two volumes of Chess Endgame Lessons were on a very short list of titles that, once acquired, gave me the sense that I was a real collector.

Today these books hard to find, and neither I nor (presumably) Kasparov are looking to sell ours anytime soon. But there is good news for those who might want to dip into the vast store of Benko’s Chess Life writings.

It was announced at the 2019 Delegates Meetings in Orlando that, in the interest of our 501(c)3 educational initiatives, back issues of Chess Life were being digitized and released to the general public for free download with a one-year paywall. When this project is completed, all of Benko’s writings for US Chess will be available to anyone with an internet connection. The files are big, so be patient when downloading. I assure you that it will be entirely worth it.

Answer to diagrammed Baffler:

1.Nf7+ Kh7 2.Bh3! Qb5 [2. … Qd5 3.Bg4 Qb5 4.Ng5+ Kh8 5.a3 Qd3 6.Nf7+ Kh7 7.Bf3!] 3.Ng5+ Kh6 4.Bg4 Qxb4+ [4. … Qd3 5.Nf7+ Kh7 6.Bf3!] 5.Kg8 Qxf4 6.Nf7+ 1–0


[1] Waitzkin, Fred. Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov. New York: Putnam, 1993. 186-7.

[2] There is a separate collection, Pal Benko’s Endgame Laboratory published by Ishi Press in 2007, that also contains the first six years of the column.

[3] Both quotes are from reviews at Jeremy Silman’s old website, obtained via archive.org.

Quest or Obsession?

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

——-

Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Trainer to the Stars

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

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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Coaching the Chess Stars. Ghent: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510501. PB 352pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CATALAN OPENING [E11]

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the Club

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

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Soltis, Andy. Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1476671468. HB 394pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menchik-Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.

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.