Category Archives: Game Collections

Analyzing the 2016 World Chess Championship

This review has been printed in the December 2017 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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Alburt, Lev, and Jon Crumiller. Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship, New York 2016. New York: Chess Information & Research Institute, 2017. ISBN 978-1889323299. PB 336pp.

Looking back at my time at the World Chess Championship in New York last year, and looking through the hundreds of pictures I took, one image clearly stands out. It’s not of Magnus or Sergey. It’s not of the crowds of casual spectators and hardcore fans. And it’s certainly not of the VIP section, fully one-quarter of the event floor space and totally off limits to the hoi polloi like me.

I attended the third game of the match as a “credentialed journalist,” giving me access to the Press Room. It was a small space, crammed with laptops and cameras, extension cords and water bottles. There I tried not to gawk as the famous Spanish chess journalist Leonxto Garcia wrote and filed his report, and with NRK’s Ole Rolfsrud interviewing many of the journalists for Norwegian television, I suspect I’m in more than a bit of their B-roll.

Game 3 was a long one, more than six hours in all, and there was a palpable sense of relief when it concluded in a hard-fought draw. With a train to catch, and with the press conference dragging on, I returned to the Press Room to gather my things.

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The room was nearly deserted, despite the arrival of the long-rumored pizza. Only two people remained. One rested her head on the narrow table and slept. The other – Chess Life columnist GM Robert Hess – sat typing, earbuds in and oblivious to the emptiness around him, racing to complete his rapid game analysis for Chess.com.

In some ways, what I saw Hess and his colleagues from Chess.com doing that day was nothing new. Baseball writers, for example, are often are forced to rework their articles after late inning heroics. But I had never really considered what it took to produce the near-instant news articles and expert analysis we have come to expect in the digital age.

It was fascinating to watch FM Mike Klein, Chess.com Director of Content and frequent Chess Life contributor, write and rewrite his reporting, changing its title as Carlsen’s winning chances ebbed and flowed. Hess had multiple chess websites open on two laptops as he wrote, cross-checking his ideas with those of engines, the Agon announcing team, and analysts from around the world.

There is no doubt that the chess world is greatly enriched by these kinds of efforts. It was awesome (in the original sense of the word) to play through Hess’ analysis on my smartphone on the train home, and I was glued to the competing livestreams as the match unfolded.

For all of this, it seems to me that something is lost in the dromological arms race endemic to contemporary mass media. Fast – and this is by no means a slight on Hess or Klein – may not always be definitive. Some of the games in the Carlsen-Karjakin match, like game three, were incredibly complex, requiring analytical depth and distance hard to muster in real-time. And this, traditionally, has been the role of the match book.

The match book, like the tournament book (see my April 2017 column), is increasingly an anachronism in modern chess literature. Sure, there are always the “instabooks” published as soon as the match ends, but serious, learned studies of World Championship matches seem to be a thing of the past.

Or maybe they’re not.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin: World Chess Championship 2016, written by GM Lev Alburt and NM Jon Crumiller, is a readable and rigorous analysis of all sixteen match games. Alburt, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, is a three-time winner of the US Championship, the author of numerous instructional books, and – as a recent Bloomberg Businessweek profile makes clear – the chess teacher of choice for Manhattan’s financial elite. Crumiller is a long-time Alburt student and a master in his own right, having earned the title in over-the-board and correspondence play. He is also one of America’s leading chess collectors.

With both authors living in the New York area, and with their strong connections to FIDE (Alburt) and Agon (Crumiller, who was a major contributor to the Agon published Masterworks: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World), Alburt and Crumiller attended most of the games at the Fulton Market playing venue. The roots of this book, as Crumiller explains it (7), can be found in their mutual attempts to understand each day’s games.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is not written as a holistic historical record of the match. Rather, as the above suggests, it largely focuses on the games themselves, combining in-depth analysis with more basic instructional elements. There is for this reason something of an internal tension to the book, and this tension is only intensified when we consider the contributions to Carlsen vs. Karjakin by former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik does more than just offer “round-by-round game analysis,” as the cover art describes it. He’s really the book’s third author, providing serious and provocative commentary for each game along with two lengthy interviews. Because he competes against both Carlsen and Karjakin on a regular basis, and because he knows all too well the pressures of playing for the World Championship, Kramnik is an ideal match commentator, and his insights here are invaluable.

The structure and layout of Carlsen vs. Karjakin will be familiar to anyone who has read one of Alburt’s previous books. Each of the twelve regulation and four tiebreak games receive their own chapters, prefaced with three “key position” color diagrams, a brief introduction, and a picture. The great bulk of the book lies in the analysis, with Alburt and Crumiller providing the main notes and Kramnik’s contributions appearing in blue text boxes.

There is a kind of productive dialectic between these two narrative voices when Carlsen vs. Karjakin is at its best. Kramnik helps readers understand how a super-GM approaches specific positions and decisions from a first-person perspective, and his discussions of match psychology are particularly illuminating. Alburt and Crumiller write in a more objective, third person voice, making extensive use of strong engines to try and reach the truth of key positions. Their account of Karjakin’s Game 10 blunder (56. …Rhh7?) is a case in point: the notes run for four dense pages, and they improve on Giri’s analysis in New in Chess.

When Alburt and Crumiller reference Kramnik’s contributions and refine them, adding analytic heft and clarity to his ideas, the book really hums. There are places, however, where this interplay breaks down and readers are left stranded. Consider this position from Game 4, where Karjakin has just played 45.Nd1.

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After Carlsen’s 45. …f4?, Karjakin was able to build a fortress and, after nearly fifty more moves, hold the draw. 45. …Be6 is a clear improvement that should lead to victory. But how?

Calling the win “trivial” and “even easier… than [he] had thought,” Kramnik states:

“When you have the two bishops, you need to open up the position. That’s just basic logic. The winning plan in general is:

I. After …Be6, White’s knight eventually needs to come to f2, so Black can put a pawn on a4, bishop on d5, bishop on c7 (White will probably have his bishop on d4).

II. Then Black plays …fxg4 and after Nxg4, …Kf4. If the knight goes back to f2, then the pawn travels through g4 to g3, and eventually promotes. And if Ne3+, then …Ke4, because the bishop endgame is completely lost. Black can just invade with the king and then push the g-pawn.” (77)

This is a very advanced example of what Mikhail Shereshevsky calls schematic thinking. Not surprisingly, I struggled to understand it, “basic logic” or not, and I suspect that most class players would have similar difficulties.

If Kramnik overshoots his audience here, Alburt and Crumiller miss in the opposite direction. Rather than expanding on Kramnik’s plan with illustrative variations, they write: “45. …Be6 keeps all options open for Black, in the form of three different plans: [1] play on the kingside, [2] penetrate with the king in the center, and [3] penetrate with the king via a long walk to the queenside. … A similar concept can be found in the strategy of ‘playing against two weaknesses.'” (78) This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help me understand how to actually win after 45. …Be6.

[Interested readers can click here to see just how Carlsen could have won. I draw on published analysis from Chirila, Giri, Lund and Svidler.]

I do not want to overstate the case, because in general I think Carlsen vs. Karjakin to be a very fine work indeed. Still, there are times when the various commentary tracks – Kramnik’s deep, “pull no punches” insights, Alburt’s pedagogical bon mots, and Crumiller’s engine verified analysis – don’t quite sync up, leaving the book slightly at odds with itself and unclear on what it wants to be. For an ambitious work like this one, the sin is small and forgivable.

Many books are described as “labors of love” by their authors. Carlsen vs. Karjakin is the real McCoy. Alburt and Crumiller could have written a perfectly serviceable book on their own, but by bringing Kramnik on board, they have produced something special. Certainly there are some downsides to this level of authorial investiture – there is no reason to include pictures of Crumiller’s sets and books, and the repeated mention of other Alburt titles is tacky – but here again, such minor lapses in objectivity are justified by the end result.

Carlsen vs. Karjakin is a definitive study of the 2016 World Chess Championship. Its authors invested a lot of time, effort, and (I suspect) money in the book. The layout is attractive, the book lies flat, and dozens of color pictures from the match are included. Ultimately, though, this is a book whose raison d’être is its game analysis, and it’s on that basis that it really shines.

Nota bene: Chess Life Editor Dan Lucas served as editor for the book under review this month, and he wrote its Introduction and Epilogue. The opinions and conclusions above are fully mine, and with the exception of minor grammatical or stylistic changes, it is identical to what I originally submitted. – JH

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Doing Jay justice?

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

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Bonin, Jay, and Greg Keener. Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player. Newton Highlands: Mongoose, 2017. ISBN 9781936277766. PB 256pp.

Among Caïssa’s many servants, few are as devoted as is Jay Bonin. The International Master has been a fixture on the New York chess scene for over 40 years, and hardly a day goes by that Bonin is not playing at one of the Metro Area’s many tournaments. He has contested an astounding 16,885 rated games (as of 4/2/17, and across all time controls) since US Chess started keeping electronic records in 1991.

I came of age playing chess around New York, and I vividly remember encountering Bonin at one of my first tournaments at the Nassau Chess Club. That a titled player, someone one step away from being a Grandmaster, was right there in the flesh… it was astounding. Somehow I worked up the courage to walk up and ask him if he could recommend a book on bishop endings – how random! – and, looking back, the adult me can recognize the weary smirk with which he answered that gawky, sweaty teen.

It is not hyperbole to say that Jay Bonin is a legend of New York chess. So when I heard that there would be a book about Bonin, I was excited. There are so many great American players (particularly of Bonin’s generation) whose stories are never told, whose best games never make it to the databases. At least one of them would be spared that fate.

Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player is an annotated collection of 130 of Bonin’s games. While the stories and ideas are Bonin’s, the words themselves belong to co-author Greg Keener. This is Keener’s second such effort, having co-written The Czech Benoni in Action with another New York stalwart, FM Asa Hoffman.

Much of Bonin’s style seems to derive from the rigors of incessant tournament play. He is primarily a grinder, someone comfortable playing dry, technical positions to the bitter end against weaker opponents. We see this most clearly in chapters 4-7. Chapter 4 consists of games in Bonin’s pet openings, which often lead to quick queen trades and deceptively quiet situations. Chapters 5-6 show us how he handles sterile positions, using small imbalances to maximize winning chances. And Chapter 7 contains multiple examples of his counterpunching skills.

One of the very nice things about Active Pieces is the sparse, stream-of-consciousness nature of some of the annotations. It’s rare that we get something approaching unfiltered access to a strong player’s in-game thoughts, and I think there’s great value in seeing how Bonin goes about conjuring victories from equal positions.

Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed by the multiple analytical errors I found when playing through the games. I’m not talking about a swing from +0.4 to -0.3 pawns, which would be forgivable. The text glides over major blunders without comment, and there are notes containing deeply flawed evaluations and analysis. Here’s one particularly egregious example.

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In Bonin-Shchukin (Philadelphia, 2000) White has just played 38.Ne6, and Bonin and Keener write: “Decisive. The f-pawn will also have a say in matters.” (112) Black is indeed lost after 38. ..h5, but 38. ..Rb5+ is drawn. Some might argue that the draw is difficult, that it might be hard to see over-the-board, and I’ll willingly grant both claims. The fact remains that the annotation is fundamentally wrong.

Active Pieces is sloppy in other ways. The proofreading appears to have been lax, as there are incorrect move numbers in notes and inconsistent attribution of place in game headers (100). Bonin-Remlinger took place in Chicago, not New York, in 1992 (108), and Foxwoods is not in New York but in Connecticut (179). I also thought that the frequent repetition of games from chapters 1-8 in chapter 9, a set of 100 tactics to solve from Bonin’s games, deserved at least some kind of explanation.

Active Pieces could have been a fitting tribute to a man who has given much of his life to our game. Instead it feels like a first draft of that book. New York players will love it, but those concerned with accuracy may want to wait for a second and corrected edition.

Keres’ Magnum Opus?

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

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Keres, Paul. World Chess Championship 1948. trans. Jan Verendel. Gothenberg: Verendel Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-9198366501. HB 540pp.

One of the curious features of modern chess publishing is the lack of commercial interest in new tournament books. (World championship matches are something of an exception to this rule.) With games available in real-time via the web, and with the rise of livestreamed video commentary and flash annotations, who needs a book that appears months after a big event ends, and when our attention has already shifted thrice-fold to the shiny and new?

For all of this, there is also a countervailing trend to be found, where some older, heralded tournament books are being translated and brought back into print. First among these are two titles from Russell Enterprises. Miguel Najdorf’s Zurich 1953: 15 Contenders for the World Chess Championship compares favorably with David Bronstein’s canonical work on that tournament, and Max Euwe’s The Hague-Moscow 1948: Match / Tournament for the World Chess Championship is erudite and engaging.

Now the young Swede Jan Verendel has done the English speaking world a great service with his translation and publication of Paul Keres’ World Chess Championship 1948. Keres was, of course, a tremendous chess talent, the runner-up at four Candidates’ Tournaments and a stalwart of Soviet Olympic play. While he is remembered as perhaps the greatest player never to become World Champion, Keres’ contributions to chess literature are often undervalued. This new translation should help to remedy that slight.

Originally published in Estonian in 1949 and in Russian shortly thereafter, World Chess Championship 1948 is often cited by Garry Kasparov as one of his favorite books. Boris Gelfand lauded it at the 2016 Keres Memorial and lamented its relative obscurity among chess fans. I concur with both of these assessments. Keres’ book is a masterpiece that has been neglected for far too long.

World Chess Championship 1948 is a sturdy hardcover of almost 550 single column pages. While the dust jacket is a bit amateurish, the text itself is attractive and well designed, reminiscent of some early titles from Quality Chess. Such similarity should not surprise us once we note that Ari Ziegler, who helped launch Quality Chess, served as Verendel’s typesetter. I was amused to find that the colophon in World Chess Championship 1948 was structurally identical – fonts and all – to early Quality Chess efforts.

Keres is a brilliant annotator, certainly on a par with Botvinnik or Smyslov, and his powers are on full display in this book. He does an excellent job of explaining the critical features of positions, often in painstaking detail, and most of his analysis holds up when checked with an engine. When errors do occur, they usually pop up a few ply deep, meaning that his overall assessment still checks out.

Consider this position, taken from the fourth round game between Max Euwe and Vassily Smyslov.

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Replayable link to the following analysis:
http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/4/4/Game51003890.html

Here Euwe famously played the “beautiful sacrifice” 33.Nexg6 fxg6 34.Nxg6?! (34.Qg4 should still win) 34..Kxg6 but after 35.e5? Kf7 36.Qh5+ Kf8 37.f4 Bb6 38.Qf5+ Ke7 39.Qh7+ Kd8 40.Bxb6+ Qxb6+ 41.Kh2 Qe3 42.Qf5 Nc6 he was forced to resign.

With 35.Qf3! Keres correctly notes that Euwe would have kept some “saving chances.” The line goes 35. ..Be6 36.Qf8 Kh7! 37.Qxd8 Nc6 38.Bf6! (38.Qd5 Qd7 39.Qxb5 Nxd4 40.Qxd7+ Bxd7 41.cxd4 Ne7 gives White three pawns for the piece but a worse position according to Keres, while Stockfish offers 38. ..Qc8 as an improvement) 38. ..Bf5. Here Keres gives 39.Qd6 Bg6 40.f4? Nxf6 41.Qxf6 and the computer thinks Black’s material advantage should prevail. After 39.Qd5, however, the position remains very unclear.

Verendel’s translation is solid and quite readable, although I have no way of knowing how close it is to the original Estonian. His aim seems to be maximum fidelity to Keres’ own words. Perhaps that is why – rather strangely, I thought – there are no editorial apparatus included.

Some kind of translator’s introduction would have added depth to the book, and if you’re interested in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ view of each day’s events, Euwe’s book is a valuable supplement. All the same, in an age where every new release is immediately deemed to be a classic, Keres’ book actually fits the bill. It belongs on the bookshelf of every serious chess fan.

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WEB EXTRA:
I looked at quite a few of the games from the 1948 tournament in some detail for this review, and the famous Keres-Botvinnik endgame from round 15 was particularly interesting. For print space limitations I could not mention this game, but it seems shameful to let the work go to waste when I could put it up on the web and let folks enjoy it.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/4/4/Game51511625.html

Gelfand’s Lofty Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyman Roundup

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

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Collins, Sam. Karpov: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781942291. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“The Reader’s Road to Chess”

This review has been printed in the 70th Anniversary (September 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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Chess Life began its life in 1946 as a four page newspaper, focused primarily on promoting USCF activities and reporting the news in American chess. The Nebraskan in me was thrilled to discover the coverage of Nebraskan chess and chess personalities in those early years, including the profiles of Rev. Howard Ohman and Delmar Saxton in issue I.7. The bibliophile, however, was initially left cold.

The first mentions of chess books in Chess Life appear in advertisements in issue I.5. The tournament book for the 1946 US Open was offered by the USCF on page 3, while famed New York bookseller Albrecht Buschke advertised works by Nimzovich and Reti alongside new titles by Chernev and Reinfeld on page 4. The announcement of a new “service department” appeared in issue I.10, marking the USCF’s entry into selling books and equipment to its members.

The inaugural installment of “The Reader’s Road To Chess,” the first review column in Chess Life, was published in issue I.15. Chess Life editor Montgomery Major read Learn Chess Fast by Reshevsky and Reinfeld and found it “so adequate” that “this reviewer has no critical comments to make.” Among the other books to be favorably reviewed in those early issues were Chess by Yourself (I.17), Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess (II.9), Nimzovich the Hypermodern (II.13), and Botvinnik, the Invincible (II.18), all of which were written by Fred Reinfeld.

Some readers may be wondering if I’ve lost the plot. Fred Reinfeld? Wasn’t he the guy who wrote all those antiquated beginners books, the ones that every chess snob makes fun of? What gives?

While modern prejudice has swung against him, the truth is that Fred Reinfeld was a fine author, an important Chess Life columnist, and one of the strongest American players of his day. The winner of the New York State Championship (twice) and champion of both the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs, Reinfeld was ranked sixth on the first USCF rating list. An example of his playing ability can be found in this 1932 victory over Reshevsky:

Reinfeld,Fred – Reshevsky,Samuel [E16]

Western Championship Minneapolis, 08.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 c5 6.d5 exd5 7.Nh4 g6 8.Nc3 h6 9.0–0 a6 10.cxd5 d6 11.e4 Bg7 12.f4 Nfd7 13.a4 0–0 14.Be3 Kh7 15.Qc2 Nf6 16.h3 Nbd7 17.Rae1 Re8 18.Bf2 Ng8 19.e5 dxe5 20.f5 Nf8 21.fxg6+ fxg6 22.Be4 Qd6 23.Be3 Ne7 24.Rf7 Kg8 25.Ref1 Nxd5 26.Rxb7 Nxe3 27.Qf2 Nf5 28.Nxf5 gxf5 29.Qxf5 Kh8 30.Rf7 Ng6

1–0

A honest assessment of Reinfeld’s authorial career is made difficult by his conscious choice to write for a popular audience. This decision, like that to retire from active tournament play in 1942, was driven by economic circumstance. Reinfeld had a family to support, and Walter Korn quotes him as saying that “…I played and wrote seriously – and got nothing for it. When I pour out mass-produced trash, the royalties come rolling in.”

In this light it is possible to forgive the numerous ‘potboilers’ that appear under Reinfeld’s name and that re-appear under different titles. It should not, however, blind us to the many quality works that span his œuvre. We generally find the more serious analytical efforts early in Reinfeld’s career, while later titles are mainly popular in nature. Let me conclude this month’s column by mentioning the best of both types.

Almost all of Reinfeld’s serious games collections remain worthwhile for the majority of readers. Besides the three mentioned above, I can recommend his books on Capablanca (The Immortal Games of Capablanca), Keres (Keres’ Best Games of Chess 1931-1948), and Lasker (Lasker’s Greatest Chess Games; written with Fine). Stick with the original editions and avoid the dodgy reprints.

Some will harp on the errors in Reinfeld’s analysis. Of course they exist, but Reinfeld’s notes are generally trustworthy upon inspection, and he writes with a brevity that today’s silicon-enhanced authors often lack. I compared his analysis of Rauzer-Botvinnik (ch-USSR, 1933) in Botvinnik, the Invincible with that of Kasparov in My Great Predecessors II; if I am honest, I found Reinfeld’s version more digestible and edifying.

For the best of his later works, have a look at the “Fred Reinfeld Chess Classics” from Russell Enterprises. Reinfeld’s books are translated into algebraic notation in this series, making classics like 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate and 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations available to those who never bothered to learned descriptive. Generations of American players cut their teeth on these two books, and they remain useful for players looking to improve their tactics.

“Year” books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still want to be a Grandmaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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