Category Archives: Endings

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.

Eat your Oatmeal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to know something?

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

image

61. …f6??

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

62.gxf6+ Kxf6 63.Rf8+ 1–0

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

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

NARRATOR: There is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Rook Endings?

This review has been printed in the June 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  Note that there are slight differences between the printed text and this version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Müller, Karsten, and Yakov Konoval. Understanding Rook Endgames. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093818. PB 288pp. List $26.95, currently ~$19.60 at Amazon.

There is something of a consensus among top authors and teachers about how to study the endgame. First, there are key technical positions that must be memorized. The precise number of these positions varies – for Dvoretsky, it is about 220, while for de la Villa and Smith it is 100 – but the idea is that players should know certain terminal positions and aim for them in their analysis. This is to be coupled with a study of endgame strategy or typical endgame themes, with Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy typically recommended for this purpose.

What comes of such a plan for improvement? Ask Jeffery Xiong, who – as I was writing this review – used his knowledge of rook endings both typical and theoretical in this round one draw with Alexander Onischuk from the 2016 US Chess Championship.

image

30…b3+! 31.Kc1 Ra6 32.Rd8+ Kh7 33.Kd2 Rxa4 34.Kc3 Ra1 35.Rd2 a5!? 36.Kxb3 a4+ 37.Kc4 a3!

Heading for a theoretically drawn rook endgame with 3 pawns versus 2 on the kingside.

38.bxa3 Rxa3 39.Kxc5 h5! 40.Kd4 Ra5 41.Ke4 g6 42.f4 Kg7 43.h3 Kf7 44.Rd6 Ra2 45.g4 hxg4 46.hxg4=

This position is drawn according to the Lomosonov tablebases.

46…Ra7 47.g5 Rb7 48.Ke5 Ra7 49.Rf6+ Kg7 50.Rc6 Re7+ 51.Kd6 Re4 52.Rc7+ Kg8 53.Rc8+ ½–½

With Understanding Rook Endgames, just out from Gambit, Karsten Müller and co-author Yakov Konoval aim to offer readers both elements of a proper education in rook endings. The first four chapters (p.11-222) are an encyclopedic study of positions with up to 7 men: R&P vs R (ch 1), R&2P vs R (ch 2), R&P vs R&P (ch 3), and R&2P vs R&P (ch 4). The final four chapters (p.223-244) treat broader themes, including basic principles of rook endings and theoretical positions with more than 7 men.

The stark differential in page count between the two ‘halves’ of the book is not incidental. On the whole, this is a book devoted to 5-, 6- and 7-man rook endings. More than half of its pages focus on R&2P vs R&P, with each and every position fully checked with new 7-man tablebases. The analysis in the first four chapters is thus entirely correct, and this features prominently in the book’s advertising.

Is analytical certainty important for the average reader? Perhaps. It is nice to know that what appears on the page can be trusted completely, but an excessive authorial fascination with the machines is not without certain risks.

Müller and Konoval present immense amounts of computer-driven analysis throughout the book. There are long strings of analysis derived from the tablebases that lack sufficient explanation. Some positions are given with raw output from the tablebases – see §4.15, “Longest Wins” – and no effort is made to unpack the logic of the moves for the human player.

Chapters 5-8 might leaven the narrow focus of the first four chapters were they not so brief. There are a total of 33 positions analyzed in these chapters, while there are 271 (and 58 section headings!) just in chapter 4. There are also precious few principles and guidelines to be found here. Instead of another abbreviated account of the famous Kantorovich / Steckner position (6.04), why not include a more typical example of the 4 vs 3 with a-pawn ending and use it to explain key plans or ideas?

Müller and Konoval write in the introduction to Understanding Rook Endgames that they adhere to the “dual philosophy” (p.6) sketched at the beginning of this review. I don’t believe that they succeed in this task, as they lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. Chapters 1-4 – 73% of the book – contain too many theoretical positions and too much analysis to remember. Chapters 5-8 – a mere 8% of the book! – feel bolted on, added solely to justify the book’s title.

There is plenty of fascinating material to be found in Understanding Rook Endgames, but it is an encyclopedia of theoretical positions and not an instructional work. Non-masters hoping to understand rook endings should instead look to Emms’ The Survival Guide to Rook Endings or Mednis’ Practical Rook Endings.

Staying Relevant

This review has been printed in the January 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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Tadic, Branko, and Josip Asik, eds. Chess Informant 125: Enigma Edition. Belgrade: Sahovski Informator, 2015. ISBN 9788672970791. PB 344p.  List $39.99 (book), $29.99 (cd / download), $49.99 (book & cd).

Sometime after the first few issues were published beginning in 1966, Tigran Petrosian famously derided the upcoming generation of players as mere “children of the Informant.” He believed that the explosive popularity of the Chess Informant series of books, which featured theoretically important games analyzed by top players, was stripping his beloved game of creativity and reducing it to a contest of memory.

If the Informant was the first paradigm shift in chess informatics, the arrival of the Internet, chess engines and databases effected the second. Few sectors of the chess world have been as disrupted dramatically by this shift as have periodicals.

When the Informants – and Chess Life, for that matter – were first published, it was standard for weeks or months to pass between a game’s being played and published. Today games from even minor tournaments are available on the Internet the day they’re played. How can something like the Informant stay relevant in the age of the machines?

The latest issue, Informant #125, is an attempt to answer that question.

My first Informant was #51, published in 1991. It was fairly representative of the series as a whole. The book began with the announcement of the best games and novelties from the previous issue, followed by 637 games densely annotated in the trademark Informant languageless commenting system. It concluded with game and annotator indices, lists of FIDE rated events and player ratings, and a selection of interesting combinations and endings played in the previous six months. (The series was then bi-annual. It now appears quarterly.)

Compare this with Informant #125, published this past October. The first thing you notice is that half the book is written in full, flowing English prose! This is the culmination of a series of editorial decisions that began with issue #113 and reach their zenith here. Some of the traditional apparatus – the best game and novelty, the list of major rated tournaments, the combinations and endings sections – have been retained. The languageless annotated games section also remains, and just over 200 games appear in #125.

The bulk of the book consists of English-language articles, and this is where the Informant brand makes its stand for relevancy. There are plenty of places to find raw game scores and even annotated games on the web, including The Week in Chess, chessbase.com, chess24.com, and uschess.org. An ambitious amateur, armed with an engine and a database, might even do a passable job in answering most of her own questions about specific moves.

What is missing from most of the reporting found on the Internet is perspective, and that’s exactly what the English-language articles in Informant #125 bring to the table. It’s one thing to let an engine show you ‘better’ moves and numerical evaluations, and entirely another to have a Grandmaster explain thought processes and key decisions. Periodicals remain relevant when they do what engines can’t – they provide color and context that only human expertise can deliver.

Typical of this ‘color and context’ is the coverage of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup in #125. Three Grandmasters treat the tournament in some detail, with seven games from the event receiving comprehensive annotations. Karsten Müller’s endgame column, here dealing with rook against bishop endings, is always worth reading, and Mauricio Flores Rios’ piece on Carlsen’s problems in the 2015 Stavanger tournament is a gem.

Not every one of the articles in #125 is a hit. While it is interesting to see how a Super-GM like Morozevich picks apart a line in the Rubinstein French, the piece feels rather impressionistic despite its length. I also wonder about the overlap between Kotronias’ 2.c3 Sicilian repertoire, the 7th(!) and final installment of which appears in this issue, and his forthcoming book on the Anti-Sicilians with Quality Chess.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the book can be found in its list of annotators. Very few top players now annotate their games for the Informant, with the bulk of the work having been farmed out to in-house analysts. This used to be the main strength of the series – the list of annotators in #51 is a Who’s Who of chess at that time – and while the in-house staff does fine work, there is no substitute for notes provided by the combatants themselves.

Informant #125 goes some distance in proving that there is still room for periodicals in the Internet age. If they manage to bring more top annotators back into the fold, they may well reclaim their place as the preeminent series in the chess world.

For the kids?

This review has been printed in the October 2015 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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Hertan, Charles. Basic Chess Openings for Kids: Play Like a Winner from Move One. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915971. HB 160pp. List $18.95.

Müller, Karsten. Chess Endgames for Kids. London: Gambit Publications, 2015. ISBN 978-1910093610. HB 128pp. List $16.95; currently $13.56 at Amazon.

The number of children playing chess continues to grow, but there remains relatively few good books for them to study. Part of this involves a generational shift away from paper and towards the world of apps, but I suspect that it also has to do with the difficulty of actually writing for children. There are precious few instructional works that manage to entertain and enlighten without sliding into farce.

Two books explicitly aimed at kids – Basic Chess Openings for Kids by Charles Hertan, and Chess Endgames for Kids by Karsten Müller – have recently been published. Both authors have impressive track records, but do these new efforts really work as books for children?

Basic Chess Openings for Kids is Charles Hertan’s fourth book with New in Chess, and his third written for children. The new book has much in common with its predecessors (Power Chess for Kids and Power Chess for Kids 2), including its terminology and the four helpful characters who ask questions along the way. For those unfamiliar with Hertan’s earlier works, a brief chapter on piece value and counting attackers / defenders is included, as are a glossary of terms and twenty quiz positions.

Hertan believes that the main goal of the opening can be summarized as follows: “get your pieces into action quickly and effectively!” (10) He argues that development or mobility is thus key to good opening play, and to that end, he devotes full chapters (2-5) to developing knights, bishops, rooks and queens. Chapter 6 focuses on the relation between pawn and piece play, analyzing two pairs of opening ‘schemes’ to make his points. The book concludes with an outline of five typical opening mistakes in Chapter 7.

Hertan’s basic strategy – investigating what each piece ‘likes’ to unpack good piece play – is solid, and his ideas-based approach to the opening is good for beginners. The reading level is not simple, so it might vex young readers, and I do worry a bit about the wide variance in the level of ideas presented. It’s one thing for beginners to see why knights like to be on c3 and f3, and another entirely for them to grasp the concept of outposts or knight maneuvers in the Ruy Lopez. I suspect that this is a book that would reward re-reading as players climb the ratings list.

Karsten Müller is, with apologies to our own Daniel Naroditsky, the world’s leading authority on the endgame. Having authored three classic books and fourteen DVDs on the topic, Chess Endgames for Kids is his work aimed at the youth market. The book is very good indeed, but I’m not convinced that it’s really designed for kids.

Chess Endgames for Kids consists of 50 distinct lessons or mini-chapters. Some of the initial lessons cover very basic endgames, including king and queen versus king and king and rook versus king. The complexity ramps up dramatically, however, and it does so very quickly.

Just about half the book is devoted to king and pawn endings and rook and pawn endings. The king and pawn coverage begins with the rule of the square, key squares and the opposition. I’m not convinced that most juniors need to know more than this before they reach Class C. Reti’s famous study (Lesson 12) is more aesthetically pleasing than educational for the beginner, and Bahr’s Rule (Lesson 15) is simply overkill.

We find much the same in the lessons on rook and pawn endings. The analysis of basic positions like Philidor and Lucena (Lessons 34-36) is useful and appropriate for novice players, but even Hikaru Nakamura lacked knowledge – or so he claimed on Twitter, anyway – of the Vančura position (Lesson 38) in his draw against Radjabov at the Gashimov Memorial in 2014.

Knowing Vančura is obviously important, as is the concept of the bodycheck in rook versus pawn endings (Lesson 32). The question is: for whom? Beginners would do probably do better with Winning Chess Endings by Seirawan or Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, and younger novices might best served by starting with Ten Ways to Succeed in the Endgame by Onions and Regis.

Chess Endgames for Kids is best seen as a terse endgame primer, slightly less complex than similar efforts by de la Villa (100 Endgames You Must Know) and Nunn (Understanding Chess Endgames). It is excellent for players with some experience who need to learn key theoretical endings, and it’s a steal at $16.95 in hardcover.

A Dvoretsky Duo

Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues: Volume II, Reflections on My Profession. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270035. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently list price on Amazon.

Dvoretsky, Mark. Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270004. PB 360pp. List $24.95, currently $20ish on Amazon.

Reflections on My Profession is the second volume in Mark Dvoretsky’s autobiographical diptych. In my review of the first book in the series, titled Profession: Chess Coach, I described it as a “memoir of his life in chess.” Reflections on My Profession is a true companion volume to Profession: Chess Coach. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining – sometimes polemically – what Dvoretsky takes to be best practices for chess coaching and improvement. Reading the two together, we get a more holistic picture of Dvoretsky as a man and as a trainer than we would by reading either by themselves.

Reflections on My Profession consists of a series of essays, with most having been published elsewhere and reprinted here in updated form. There are three main divisions: “Competitions,” dealing with over-the-board play by him or his students; “Chess Literature: What and How to Read,” where Dvoretsky investigates (and in some cases, castigates) recent articles and books of interest; and “Training Mastery,” the bulk of the book, where Dvoretsky lays out the basic tenets of his training methods.

The first section of the book is mildly interesting, but mainly for the analysis. The second and the third sections are, in my opinion, of much greater value. Accordingly I will devote some lines to these two sections before moving on.

In his discussion of chess literature, Dvoretsky points us towards good annotators (Matthew Sadler and Grigory Sanakoev) and calls out charlatans (Hans Berliner). His preface to the Russian edition of John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess is basically a list of book recommendations, and aspiring masters would do well to work their way through his choices.

In an aside, Dvoretsky argues (144) that classic books should be brought back into print, but with a twist. He describes the need for introducing a contemporary co-author who would correct analytical errors and introduce additional material. I suspect that it is not a coincidence that one of his recommended books, Spielmann’s The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, has just been republished by Russell with Karsten Müller playing the co-author’s role. Müller’s additions appear in blue, and he has also added what amounts to another book’s worth of material to the text. It looks promising.

The third section of Reflections on My Profession, devoted to chess training, consists of two main types of chapters. There are ‘practical’ chapters, where Dvoretsky offers readers problems to solve from his famed card index, and there are ‘theoretical’ chapters where he explains the role of the trainer and best practices for improvement.

Perhaps the clearest statement of his vision for chess training comes in the first chapter of this section, “Philosophy of Training Work.” Trainers must work to develop player’s strengths while overcoming their weaknesses. They do so by offering their pupils clear examples or ‘chess images’ for study, and also by providing them problems to solve. Dvoretsky is clear in his belief that chess improvement comes through practice. A good trainer provides her pupils the kinds of exercises that will burnish their strengths and mend their flaws, and it is only through consistent solving of problems that players can hope to obtain better results.

Dvoretsky describes the selection of appropriate problems for solving in “Solve for Yourself!” Most of his discussion, while interesting on an intellectual level, is of little use for the majority of readers. We aren’t strong enough to discern our own weaknesses, and our understanding limits our ability to create material for self-training. The problems used as examples can, however, be salvaged for training purposes. Recently I used five of them to good effect in a session with our Denker representative. Here’s one of them.

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“White is up a rook and a pawn, but how can he defend himself from being mated?”

Dvoretsky’s path to chess improvement is not easy. If we leave aside the fact that most of us recoil from the kind of active learning he prescribes, there is still the matter of finding (a) appropriate and (b) sufficient positions. In a previous review I had lamented the fact that for all of his output, Dvoretsky had yet to publish a book of problems specifically for solving. An ambitious reader could mine Reflections on My Profession for suitable positions, as I did with our Denker rep, or she could turn to the second book under review in this essay.

Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking is a translation of three books that have appeared in German (Aufmerksamkeit gegenüber gegnerischen Möglichkeiten: Trainingshandbuch, Band 1; Ausschlussmethode & Falenspiel: Trainingshandbuch, Band 2; Prophylaktisches Denken: Trainingshandbuch, Band 3). This book, however, appears to have been translated from the original Russian, something that the bibliography (slight as it is) fails to make clear.

If Dvoretsky is known for one concept or insight, it is certainly that of prophylaxis. As he defines it in Secrets of Positional Play, prophylactic thinking is “the habit of constantly asking yourself what the opponent wants to do, what he would play if it were him to move, the ability to find an answer to this question and to take account of it in the process of coming to a decision.” (28) Recognizing Your Opponents Resources is, in a nutshell, a collection of problems for solving that all revolve around prophylaxis.

There are four chapters in this book. Each begins with a small lesson on the chapter’s theme, and this is followed by a batch of positions for solving along with their solutions. “Pay Attention to Your Opponent’s Resources” has 180 problems. “The Process of Elimination” has 106. “Traps” has 36, and “Prophylactic Thinking” has 154. (The polyglots among you will note that the chapter titles correspond rather well with the German titles listed above.) It is basically the puzzle book that Dvoretsky never published, until now.

In each chapter the problems tend to run from easier to harder, where ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ should be understood as being relative to Dvoretsky’s very high standards. Here are two from the chapter on “Prophylatic Thinking.” The first is the 7th in the problem set, while the second is the 152nd. White is to move in both cases.

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(Solutions for both problems)

For Friends and Colleagues: Reflections on My Profession is something of a niche publication, and coaches, trainers and Dvoretsky acolytes will make up its main readership. Every 2000+ player looking for training material should pick up Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources. It’s hard to think of a book that provides the strong player more bang for his improvement buck, and it’s hard to think of another book that treats its topic so well.

You little stinkers…

This review has been printed in the July 2015 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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Roycroft, John. Stinking Bishops. self-published. ISBN 978-1-869874-20-9. PB, 84 + xiv pp. Available from USCF Sales ($19.95) and Chess4Less ($10.00).

No one writes chess books to get rich. Sales figures for even the most famous of chess writers pale in comparison to the Franzens and Grishams of the publishing world. Still, most authors expect to make at least a little money on their books. Chess publishing remains a for-profit enterprise, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Cash, as the Wu-Tang Clan said, rules everything around me, and this is why there are always new opening and improvement books being published. They might sell!

Imagine my delight, then, when I read John Roycroft’s Stinking Bishops, an eminently uncommercial work if ever there were one! Stinking Bishops – named after a fetid English cheese that, when cut, resembles a Bishop’s mitre – is an 84 page self-published book devoted to just two endgame positions. Both are presented here, and White is to move in both cases.

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‘Unlike bishops’

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‘Like bishops’

[Notice anything strange about the second diagram? The double check appears to be impossible, right? Not if (Black was to move) there was a black pawn on e2 that captured a White piece on d1 and promoted to a rook! Odd indeed… but not impossible.]

What’s so interesting about these two positions that they merit such attention? Each one represents the maximum length win for rook, bishop and pawn vs. rook and bishop according to 7-man tablebases (exhaustive databases of endgame positions). It’s White to move and win in 184 moves in the ‘like bishops’ diagram, and a ‘mere’ 159 moves to victory in the ‘unlike bishops’ position.

I know what you’re thinking: “watching paint dry would be more fun than reading this book.” Were this book written by just anyone, you might be right. But John Roycroft is not just anyone, and this is not just any book. Roycroft is the former editor of EG, the world’s definitive endgame and study magazine, and an International Judge of Chess Compositions. He is also familiar with the world of computing, having worked for IBM for many years.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of the ‘oracle’ – Roycroft’s honorific for the tablebase – from a practical perspective. What good is winning in 159 (or 184) moves when over-the-board endgames can be drawn in 50? (USCF Rule 14F, ‘The Fifty-Move Rule’) What’s the point of studying such endgames when no human can possibly remember the exact sequence of moves needed to win?

Roycroft pulls off a very neat trick in Stinking Bishops. He takes the arcane moves given by the tablebase and goes some distance in discerning the hidden logic beneath them. Each position is first presented with a raw list of moves that lead to the forced win, and then Roycroft investigates dozens of the key moves and positions. His notes are witty and wordy, often addressed to an imagined interlocutor, and they effectively assist the reader in grasping the necessity of certain moves as White marches to victory.

In his foreword to the book, Chess Life’s own Daniel Naroditsky congratulates Roycroft for his ability to explain the esoteric moves of the computer in very human ways, saying that he “was unable to put the book down” until he’d finished it! Not all of us are endgame columnists, of course, but Stinking Bishops really is a delightful romp through two (sometimes mind-numbingly complex) endings.

I can’t imagine that this book will sell well, given its topic and that there is no publisher to promote it. Still, I don’t think Roycroft will mind. This was a book written for love of the game, and it will – perhaps with the help of this review – find its way into the hands of those who will appreciate its many, many charms.