Category Archives: Game Collections

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.

Biographies from McFarland

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

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Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

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

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

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

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

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

Until now, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Spice of (Chess) Life

This review has been printed in the November 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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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915957. PB 240pp. List $26.95.

Chess, unlike poker, is a game of complete information. All of the pieces are on the board, and none are hidden from sight. Each player has access to the same information when deciding on their moves, but what is done with that knowledge will naturally vary from person to person.

In poker, players lack knowledge of one or more cards belonging to other players or the community. This lack of complete knowledge allows players to bluff, to act as if they have hands that depart dramatically from what they actually possess. One of the reasons that televised poker became such a fad in the ‘aughts’ was the introduction of the hole cam, giving viewers more information than the players themselves and exposing the logic (or lack thereof) of betting actions.

On the face of it, it would seem impossible to bluff in a game of complete information like chess. Once a move is played, it is what it is, and a player cannot dissimulate its strength or weakness. And yet, as Vladimir Tukmakov shows us in Risk and Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks, carefully modulated risk and the well-timed bluff can be powerful tools when used judiciously.

Tukmakov, who moonlights as the personal second of Anish Giri, is the author of two previous books. In the first, Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Tukmakov tells the story of his chess career, rising from promising junior to member of the Soviet Olympic team and top-fifty player for nearly two decades. In the second, Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, he sketches the history of chess preparation and treats in fascinating detail the role of the computer in contemporary preparation.

This theme – the centrality of the ‘silicon friend’ (SF) in modern chess – recurs in Risk and Bluff in Chess. Risky moves are quickly debunked by even the casual fan armed with the latest engine. Brilliant bluffs are ridiculed. What is forgotten is that chess remains a game played between two humans, each of whom is fallible, subject to emotion and fatigue. Tukmakov’s book reminds us that it is still possible, and in some cases necessary, to risk and bluff our way to victory in the age of the machines.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is less a how-to manual than it is a series of inspirational vignettes. We meet the hero of the tale in its first chapter. While Tukmakov sees historical antecedents in Lasker and Alekhine, and contemporaries in Larsen, Spassky and Stein, it is in the games of Mikhail Tal that he identifies a mutation in how we assess risk in chess.

Tal possessed the unique ability to steer games towards unbalanced positions where his “remaining pieces acquired a completely different value, and operated with a harmony that only he could achieve.” (45) This is not to say that he played incorrectly. The computer, as Tukmakov notes, reveals that in many cases Tal’s sacrifices were entirely sound. He brought an “unrepeatable magic” (47) to the game, and that magic brought him to the world championship.

In the remainder of the book, we see how risk and bluff function in various situations, including the opening (chapter 2), defense (chapter 6), and must-win games (chapter 8). Of particular interest for the practical player is the fourth chapter, titled “The Logic of the Irrational.”

Granting, as Tukmakov does, that not everyone can play like Tal, what might a reader take from this chapter? In discussing positions where the board seems to have been constructed almost at random, Tukmakov offers two pointers. One must rely on one’s intuition as “one cannot calculate the incalculable.” (124) There is also a rule that Tukmakov finds useful: “non-standard positions require non-standard decisions.” Examples are drawn from the games of Larsen, Gelfand, Kortchnoi and Tukmakov himself (among others) to illustrate these ideas, and the chapter wraps up with a ‘Conclusion’ that reads like a coach’s pep talk.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is a fascinating study of two often misunderstood themes in chess. It is not an instructional work in the usual sense of the term, but it might inspire readers to add a bit of spice to their play. Tukmakov’s analysis tends towards the comprehensive, so some sophistication is required to take its full measure. All the same, I suspect that most players who have a taste for complication in chess would enjoy this book.