Category Archives: Instructional

The Goldilocks Problem

This review has been printed in the November 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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Fishbein, Alex. The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2017. ISBN 978-1941270745. PB 128pp.

Astronomers and astrophysicists often speak of a “Goldilocks Problem” when discussing the origins of life in the universe and the search for life beyond our own Solar System.

There seems to be a fairly narrow “habitable zone” – neither too hot nor too cold, neither too close to their home stars nor too far away – if planets are to be able to support life. Lucky for us, the Earth is juuuust right in its relation to the Sun!

Chess authors have their own version of the “Goldilocks Problem,” and we see it most clearly when we consider the competing difficulties in writing an opening book.

It’s a tricky balancing project. Authors have to include enough analysis to make their case, but not so much that they overwhelm their readers. The analysis should be objective, but a bit of advocacy is necessary too. Why should a reader spend time learning your lines if it’s clear that you don’t really believe in them?

There have to be enough words to explain the rationale for repertoire choices, but not so many that the book seems flip or frivolous. The variations should be solid and sound, containing enough poison to play for a win without shading into too much speculation. The book should be concise without sacrificing coverage, and it (ideally) should teach you something about chess beyond any specific opening system.

Now, no book is perfect. But some are better than others at searching out this sweet spot and trying to inhabit it. One of the best books I’ve seen in recent months, and one that checks most of the boxes listed above, is Grandmaster Alex Fishbein’s The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White, newly published by Russell Enterprises.

Fishbein, the author of two previous books (King and Pawn Endings in 1993 and Fischer! in 1996), was a very active player in the early 1990s, but he put aside his professional chess career and entered the world of high finance. Never fully giving up the ghost, Fishbein has in recent years dipped his toes back into competitive play with greater and greater regularity.

The Scotch Gambit offers its readers a complete repertoire for White after 1.e4 e5. The final chapter deals with the Petroff and Philidor Defenses along with the Latvian and Elephant Gambits, but by and large, this is a book about how to answer 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6.

This is no small problem for 1.e4 players right now. 1. …e5 is hugely popular at elite levels, as we saw in my May column, and this trend trickles down through to the amateur ranks. Difficulties in cracking the Berlin and Marshall have driven White players towards the hoary Giuoco Piano, which (if we’re honest) is hardly inspiring stuff.

Fishbein’s answer is to bypass all of this by playing 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4, entering into positions where White offers a pawn to gain attacking chances. There is theory here to learn, of course, but the field is delimited and White can try to channel the game into positions he knows better than his opponents.

At just 128 pages, The Scotch Gambit is a surprisingly dense book. Each of its ten chapters begins with a theoretical overview of critical variations, followed by a set of supplementary games that expand and unpack that analysis. Not all of the illustrative games show victories for White, which to my mind is rather useful. Sometimes a ‘cautionary tale’ can prove more enlightening than a dozen typical miniatures.

The heart of The Scotch Gambit lies in Fishbein’s analysis and repertoire choices, but equally as important is his effort to continually leaven that analysis with clear positional explanations. Fishbein repeatedly stops and explains to his readers how he evaluates specific positions, even (and especially) when the computer disagrees. As he puts it in chapter 5,

You study the opening not just to prepare for all different moves that your opponent can play, but, more importantly, to gain intuition about evaluating the position. … You will need general understanding and the skills to evaluate positions to deal with [new moves]. If any game that I annotate in this book does not teach you something about how to evaluate positions, something that you can use in other games or variations, then I have not done my job. (64)

There is plenty of analysis for even master-level players in The Scotch Gambit, but for me, the emphasis on explanation is what distinguishes Fishbein’s book from its competitors.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Black has two main options: 4. …Nf6 and 4. …Bc5. Chapters 1-5 of The Scotch Gambit deal with 4. …Nf6, while Chapters 5-9 explore responses to 4. …Bc5. We’ll take each in turn.

The first two chapters of the book deal with what Fishbein calls the Modern Attack: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4 Bd7. There are two points here worth mentioning.

(1) White often chooses between two 5th move options in this variation: 5.e5 and 5.0-0. Fishbein makes a cogent case for the superiority of 5.e5, and in chapter 5, he shows why this is the case. Recent analysis by Lokander and Ntirlis prove that Black is fully equal, if not potentially slightly better, after 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!

(2) Black sometimes (following Ntirlis, among others) tries to offer a pawn sacrifice with 7. …Bc5. Fishbein explains in chapter 3 that White should decline the pawn with 8.Be3 0–0 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Bxc5 Nxc5 11.Bxc6 Rb8 12.Qxd5

“Unusual” is 12.0–0 Ba6! (12…Rxb2 was seen in Nakamura-Onischuk, Saint Louis 2015) 13.Re1 Rxb2 14.Qd4 Rxc2 15.Na3 Nb3 16.axb3 Rxc6=.

12…Qe7

12. …Qxd5 13.Bxd5 Rxb2 14.Na3! with the idea 15.0–0–0.

13.0–0 Rxb2 and here, instead of 14.Nc3, Fishbein proposes 14.Na3!? as “a good practical try.” (40)

While there are a lot of move orders issues to consider, as is true throughout the book, the key position of the Modern Attack appears after 7. …Bd7 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.0–0 Bc5 10.f3 Ng5 11.Be3 Bb6 12.f4 Ne4 13.Nd2 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 c5 15.Nf3! d4 16.Bf2 and now Black has a choice of moves.

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After 16. …Bc6 (keeping the option of castling queenside alive) Fishbein persuasively argues that White should play 17.f5! as in Stopa-Schneider (Richardson, 2007). Other moves are imprecise: 17.Bh4 allows 17. …Qd7, fighting for the f5 square, and in the case of 17.a4 a5 18.f5 Qd5 19.Qg5?! (better is 19.Bh4) 19. …h6! 20.Qxg7 0–0–0! Black is for choice. The main line runs 17. …Bxf3 (if 17. …Qd7? 18.e6!, and after 17. …Qd5 18.Bh4!) 18.gxf3 Qd5 19.Qg5 when the White king is safe enough and Black has trouble castling.

Less common is 16. …0-0, which is on Fishbein’s account “[t]he most solid and … best move.” (11) White usually plays 17.Qd3 in this position, with the idea of f4-f5, but Fishbein thinks that after 17. …Qc8 White has no chance for an advantage. Instead he recommends the very rare 17.b3!?, and after 17. …Qc8 18.a4 a5 19.Nh4 Re8 20.Rae1 Fishbein writes “White’s plan is clear: f4-f5 and, with any luck, an attack on the king. White’s next moves may be Qd3 and Bg3. Black has his trumps: a good light-squared bishop and a flexible position. If Black can time a central advance well, White’s attack can backfire. However, White’s position seems easier to play.” (13)

What about 4. …Bc5? Here Fishbein provides two alternatives for readers to consider. White can play 5.0-0!?, leading into the Max Lange Attack (Chapter 6) after 5. …Nf6 and the “von der Lasa” variation (Chapters 7-8) after 5. …d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3. Alternatively, if White desires a quieter game, he can try the Jobava variation – 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 (6.cxd4 Bb4+ is the Giuoco Piano) 6…d5 7.Be2 – recently popularized by GM Baadur Jobava and analyzed in Chapter 9.

I think the choice between these two moves comes down to whether you believe in Fishbein’s rehabilitation of the von der Lasa. This is a very old variation, analyzed years ago by Steinitz and Cordel, and more recently by Lev Gutman in Kaissiber. While Black can vary with 6. …dxc3, 6. …Nf6, and 7. …Qd7, the key line runs 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0–0 d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

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Here White has avoided the faulty 9.Bxg8? Rxg8 10.gxf3 g5!, but is faced with a multitude of decent choices for Black, including 9. …d3, 9. …dxc3, 9. …Bb6, and the most popular move, 9. …Nf6.

Fishbein tries to show through creative analysis that the von der Lasa is ultimately unclear, with neither side able to truly claim an advantage. I think this is slightly optimistic. For example, if Black tries the untested 9. …d3!? 10.Be3 Ne5 11.Bxg8 Rxg8 12.Nd2 Qh4, White is under pressure but probably should hold.

9. …Nf6, played by Steinitz and recommended by Bologan, might be a tougher nut to crack. Fishbein’s main line runs 10.Bc4 Qd7 11.Kg2 (improving on Bologan’s 11.Be6 Qe8 12.Bh3 g5!) Na5 12.Qb5 Nxc4 13.Qxc4 Re8 14.Re1 1Qf7 15.Qd3 Qg6+ 16.Kf1 d5 17.cxd4 Bd6 18.Nc3 Bxh2 19.Qe3 where he claims that ” [i]n this double-edged position, White’s central pawns cover the king and also offer good prospects in the ending… Neither king is completely safe (always the case in this variation).” (79)

Fair enough. But what about 11. …Re8, with the idea of Re8–e5–h5? Fishbein gives 12.Qd1 (12.Bf4? g5) 12. …Re5 13.Kh1 (13.h4!?) 13. …Rh5 14.Rg1 as “an unclear position in which Black can easily get overextended.” (78) To me this sounds like a tacit admission of Black’s superiority, and I’d much rather play Black in this position.

That Fishbein is slightly overly optimistic for White, here and elsewhere, is not surprising. He plays these lines himself, so I’d hope that he believes in them! From my perspective, this is the only drawback to the book, and it’s a slight one indeed. There are a couple of minor editorial lapses – three moves are missing on page 101 – and small analytical improvements found by the computer, but on the whole, this is a work of very high quality.

The Scotch Gambit is an excellent book, filled with interesting ideas and sharp analysis. What makes it special is the clarity of Fishbein’s positional sketches and descriptions. It avoids all the extremes of the opening book genre, and in so neatly tying together analysis and exposition, Fishbein has written the rare book suitable for both amateurs and masters.

Replayable analysis references:
Modern Attack ML
Von der Lasa

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Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 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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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

Trend Hopping

This review has been printed in the August 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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Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9789492510037. PB 250pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917159. PB 208pp.

Moskalenko, Viktor. Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises – Tactics, Strategy, Endgames. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916763. PB 336pp.

Every year it’s the same.

Someone stumbles upon an unlikely hit – think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Whatever – and others, desperate to get in on the riches, commission analogous titles. Similar books and movies appear in waves, and publishers try to surf those waves until they peter out, leaving their riders high and dry.

The chess world is not immune from such trend-hopping. Opening books are always in style and in print, but recently (and much to my liking) a spate of titles devoted to training have come to press. We looked at a few earlier this year, and we’ll check out three more in this month’s column.

Both the title and subtitle of Alexander Kalinin’s book – Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself – are evocative of the book as a whole. Kalinin implores his readers to think for themselves and resist the colonization of their thought by the engines. True mastery, he argues, can be achieved if four training principles are followed.

Players must form “a relationship with chess as an art,” strive for analytical mastery and precision, study the classics, and cultivate interpersonal relationships with teachers and exemplars. This last point is particularly important, as Kalinin’s book is filled with bon mots and other insights from Soviet trainers both famous and forgotten. My favorite comes from IM Oleg Averkin: “Tactics have a greater significance in the endgame than in the middlegame!” (65)

Kalinin is a persuasive writer, and the book is chock full of interesting and little-known illustrative examples. Most players would do well to heed his admonitions and turn off Stockfish most of the time. Still, I do wonder if there’s not a slight luddism in play here.

It is true that there is no small danger in our overreliance on the computer and its inhuman evaluations. But it is false that “we have stopped thinking and analyzing for ourselves.” (11) There are far too many computer-trained GMs and young phenoms for this to be true. If anything, the computer has, when handled judiciously, expanded our thinking about what is possible with 32 pieces on 64 squares.

I’m always happy to receive a new book by Viktor Moskalenko. His work is enthusiastic, inspirational and consistently worth reading. In his newest effort, Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises: Tactics, Strategy, Endgames, Moskalenko offers readers a wide range of positions for solving and training purposes. Each of the three main sections described in the subtitle contain multiple subsections with instructional elements and problems to solve.

Training with Moska lacks a substantive table of contents, making the book rather difficult to use. There’s no way to know what’s in each section without looking at each page, the book has no thematic index, and scanning the text for specific topics is difficult due to the cramped layout. This makes focused training very difficult.

It’s also not clear to me that the positions on offer here are practical, as the subtitle claims. Many of them are engrossing, even spectacular, but practical training might require more sedate, everyday moves and problems. I suspect that ultimately Training with Moska is best suited for pleasure reading and not for hardcore training workouts.

Our last book this month, Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames, is a much more austere training manual than Moskalenko’s. It is Romain Edouard’s second effort in this vein, with the first (Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2: Test Yourself!) being reviewed here this past January.

Chess Calculation Training consists of 496 positions from recent games separated into ten broad sections. Some of the tasks are typical of the genre, where readers must find winning tactical or positional moves. Others, like “Find the missed move!” (chapter 8) or “Evaluate the opportunity!” (chapter 9), are less common.

This is a rather Spartan book, especially when compared with Moskalenko’s. Edouard’s book is a set of difficult problems and sparse solutions, and that’s pretty much it. True, occasional hints are provided, but they are completely optional and appear on pages separate from the problems. You’ll need to work hard to find the answers in Chess Calculation Training, and that seems to be exactly Edouard’s point in writing it.

I’d suggest that readers consider their goals in chess before deciding to buy one of these books. Kalinin is fantastic for someone looking for a broad overview of training techniques, and Edouard is an advanced workbook for the ambitious improver. Moskalenko, I’d argue, is more appropriate for someone looking for interesting examples that might also impart some wisdom. Chess is supposed to be pleasurable, even when we’re trying to improve, and despite the warts, Training with Moska is a pretty enjoyable read.

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.

Resolved: Stick with it!

This review has been printed in the January 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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Edouard, Romain. The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9789082256642. PB 152pp.

Yusupov, Artur. Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830212. PB 208pp.

The gym is full of people you’ve never seen, and won’t see again after February. All of the ‘healthy’ food is on sale. November’s onslaught of political ads have been replaced with commercials for weight loss services and plastic surgeons.

Happy New Year, everyone!

We chess players are not immune to the spirit of the season. We’d all like to see our results improve, and a new year marks a new chance to make some changes and get things right. But how?

For my part, I’m resolving to make solving a bigger part of my improvement strategy. Here I refer not simply to the solving of tactical problems, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improvement. A strict focus on tactics can make a player myopic, narrowing our thinking so that we treat every position we encounter like a tactical puzzle.

What I have in mind are books with a wide variety of positions for solving, each requiring (and training) different facets of chess knowledge, and with the aim of honing my intuition and practical skills. Those of you who read last month’s column might recognize the influence of Mark Dvoretsky’s philosophy in this, albeit on a much simpler level.

Here you might try your hand at this kind of work. Set a clock for 15-20 minutes and find the winning move for White in this position. Write down your analysis, and compare it to the answer that appears at the end of this article.

image

Until recently there were relatively few books that provided this type of training material. Hort and Jansa’s The Best Move is the most famous book of this kind, but it is out of print and hard to find. (As always, avoid dodgy reprints.) Perfect Your Chess by Volokitin and Grabinsky is excellent but fiendishly difficult. And while both Dvoretsky and Jacob Aagaard have published books with training problems in the last few years, they too are perhaps too complex for most non-masters.

Two collections of exercises have crossed my desk in recent months, both of which are eminently suitable for the kind of work I’m hoping to undertake this year. Together, the two offer a broad swath of exercises for the improving player to grapple with, and I’d recommend both, if to players of slightly different strengths.

Artur Yusupov’s nine-volume training series from Quality Chess is, along with the Dutch Stappenmethode books, one of the best chess training systems in print. His newest title, Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals, is a collection of exercises designed to complement the first three books in that series, but it can equally well serve as a stand-alone set of problems for solving.

Revision & Exam 1 consists of 432 positions broken down into 72 chapters, each corresponding to a lesson in the first level of his training books. The problems are well chosen and tremendously varied, the answers are mini-lessons in themselves, and the production values are high. Players rated above 1600 would do well to make this book part of their training regimen.

The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! is Romain Edouard’s second book from Thinkers Publishing. His first book, which shares the same title, was a thought-provoking work marred by poor editing and translation. Test Yourself! manages to avoid both of these flaws, in part because it is largely languageless, and it provides readers 280 meaty positions for solving.

I have spent some time with Edouard’s book, from which our exercise above is drawn, and the more I work with it, the more I like it. The exercises appear in random order, and beyond the short stipulation given via chapter headings, readers must use their full range of chess knowledge to correctly solve the problems.

Test Yourself! is slightly more taxing than is Revision & Exam 1; as such, it’s best suited for A players and above. Resolute effort in solving will be rewarded in both cases… provided, of course, you stick with it!

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ANSWER to diagrammed problem:

(1) Radjabov,T (2726) – Karjakin,Sergey (2767) [C26]
Tashkent (analysis) (1.6), 21.10.2014
[Hartmann,John]

Problem #17 in Edouard. Your task is to “find the winning move.” 17.Kf2!

[17.Be3 Qf6 18.Bd4 Qg6+ 19.Qxg6 fxg6 20.Nxd6 cxd6 21.Rbe1= 1/2–1/2 (45) Radjabov,T (2726)-Karjakin,S (2767) Tashkent 2014]

17…Bd7 [17…Bc5+ 18.d4!; 17…Qf6 18.Rg1 Bc5+ (18…Kh8 19.Be3!? (19.Rxg7 Rg8 20.Rxf7 Qg6 21.Qxg6 Rxg6±) 19…Qxc3? 20.Rbd1 Qxc2+ 21.Rd2 Qc3 22.Nxh6+–) 19.d4+–; 17…Kh8 18.Nxh6 g6 19.Nxf7+ Kg7 20.Nxd8 gxh5 21.Ne6++–] 18.Nxh6+ gxh6 19.Qxh6+–

Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

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

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After learning of the death of Mark Dvoretsky on September 26th via Twitter, I found myself standing in front of my bookshelf, thumbing through one of his many titles. Suddenly I found myself hurled back in time, much like Proust after biting into his madeleine, and in unpacking that involuntary memory, I came to understand why the news of his death had affected me so.

I am old enough to remember a time before the ‘disenchantment’ (to borrow a phrase from the sociology of religion) of the modern chess world, a time before everyone had a Grandmaster in their cell phone and the Internet brought tournaments from around the world into our homes. In the days before the computer, master-level play had yet to be demystified. Amateurs had almost no access to the thought processes of masters and Grandmasters, and without the false security provided by the engine, we rarely understood their moves.

All of this changed when Mark Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Training was published in 1991.

Standing there in my basement, I was 15 years old again, wandering through the local Waldenbooks and discovering a pink book that promised to teach me the secrets of chess. I remember struggling to make sense of the analysis within, and how I persisted in doing so, even when it was evident that I lacked the ability to understand any of what I was reading. Others may not have shared my fruitless dedication, for legend has it that USCFSales stopped stocking the book after too many frustrated returns.

Mark Dvoretsky will be remembered for many reasons. He worked with three World Junior Champions, a Women’s World Championship Challenger, and a myriad of masters and Grandmasters, earning him the unofficial title of “World’s Best Trainer.” He was a very strong player in his own right, winning the Moscow Championship in 1973, the Wijk aan Zee B tournament in 1974, and finishing =5th-7th in the 42nd Soviet Championship. Dvoretsky’s rating peaked at 2540 in January 1976, making him the 35th ranked player in the world at the time. He was also, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

For all of these accomplishments, I think Dvoretsky’s true legacy lies in his writings. Very few authors contribute something radically new to chess theory, and Dvoretsky, with the possible exception of his concept of the ‘superfluous piece,’ was not an iconoclast. (Pieces, and particularly knights, become superfluous when two or more aim at one square.) Instead, he took the best elements of the Soviet training system, added his own twist – the solving of problems from his famed collection of positions – and shared the fruits of his labor with the world.

It’s not simply that his books are well written, although of course, they are. There is something about Dvoretsky’s style, something intimate – ‘here is what Yusupov saw… here is what Dreev missed’ – that remains powerful, even in the age of the silicon beasts. We are not merely allowed to peek inside Dvoretsky’s chess laboratory. We are invited to join in the search for truth, and in his writings, this task feels as important and vital as anything in the world.

There are two ‘halves,’ as it were, to Dvoretsky’s authorial career. His nine books (seven of which are revised and extended versions of books originally published with Batsford) and two series with Edition Olms made him famous. We will examine them first before turning to more recent titles published with Russell Enterprises.

The School of Chess Excellence (SCE) series consists of four titles published from 2001-2004: Endgame Analysis (SCE 1), Tactical Play (SCE 2), Strategic Play (SCE 3), and Opening Developments (SCE 4). In his recent video series for Chess24 – which I highly recommend for the newcomer to Dvoretsky’s work, and to which I will return shortly – Dvoretsky says that these four books are best understood as “one big book,” covering a wide array of ideas in essay form.

The School for Future Champions (SFC) series takes its name from the chess school run by Dvoretsky and Yusupov from 1990-1992. The five books in the series – Secrets of Chess Training (SFC 1; not the same as the 1991 title, now SCE 1), Secrets of Opening Preparation (SFC 2), Secrets of Endgame Technique (SFC 3), Secrets of Positional Play (SFC 4), and Secrets of Creative Thinking (SFC 5) – were published from 2006-2009 and based on lectures for talented children. While Dvoretsky and Yusupov wrote the bulk of them, guest lecturers like Kaidanov, Kramnik, and Shereshevsky also contributed.

Taken together, these nine titles represent a fairly systematic curriculum for chess mastery. What does that curriculum look like? Interestingly we find the clearest accounts of Dvoretsky’s ‘philosophy’ in his writings on the endgame, including chapters in SCE 1 (“The Benefit of Abstract Knowledge”) and SFC 3 (“How to Study the Endgame”). A particularly cogent articulation also appears in his “Endgames with Dvoretsky” video series for Chess24, released mere weeks before his death.

In a video entitled, appropriately enough, “Philosophy,” Dvoretsky makes a few interrelated claims about his approach to chess training. First, he argues that it is essential to develop intuition, or what he describes in SFC 5 as “the ability easily and quickly… to grasp the essence of the position, the most important ideas… and to assess the promise of particular continuations.” (41)

How do we do this? Through the conjoined tasks of study and solving. Dvoretsky offers a vision of how this might work in SFC 1, a book that IM Greg Shahade has called “the best instructional chess book of all time.” Players should increase their knowledge of general principles and ideas through the study of chess classics and rigorous self-analysis. Solving carefully chosen exercises reinforces what has been learned and boosts calculative, evaluative and imaginative skills. Enriching intuition in this way allows players to correctly apply relevant rules or principles in novel situations.

We can see the value of this training method in this adjourned position (SCE 1, 64-7; also, Chess24, “Endgames with Dvoretsky”), taken from the 1980 Candidates Match between Nana Alexandria and Marta Litinskaya.

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What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

One idea would be use the opposite-colored bishops to construct a fortress. Initial analysis showed that this was difficult: if 42.Rd2 then Black plays 42…Rf4! and White has multiple weaknesses while Black’s pieces are active.

Dvoretsky, who was Alexandria’s second, quickly intuited that another rule – positions with rooks and opposite-color bishops favor the attacker – was more applicable here. Activating the rook was necessary. But how? 42.Ke1?! seemed a likely choice, but after 42…Rf4! 43.Rc1 (if 43.a5 Rxg4; Modern engines prefer 43.Rd3!? Rxg4 44.Rg3 Rxg3 45.fxg3 and the endgame is probably drawn) 43…Bxf2+ 44.Kd1 Bb6 Black kept the advantage.

Only 42.Kg1! was sufficient to save the game.

Black’s best chance lay with 42…Rf4 43.a5! (stopping Bb6; 43.Rd3!? is possible here too) 43…Rxg4 (if 43…Kc7 44.Kh1! Rxg4 45.Rb1! (with the idea of Rb7+) 45…e4 46.Rb4 Rh4+ 47.Kg1 Bxf2+ 48.Kf1! and White draws after exchanging rooks) 44.Rc1 Kc7 45.Rb1 e4 46.Rb4 Bxf2+ 47.Kf1! Be1! 48.Ra4!! and analysis shows that White can draw.

Litinskaya played the inferior 42…Kc7?! allowing Alexandria to draw easily after 43.Rb1 Bxf2+ 44.Kh1 Rb8 45.Rd1 Rd8 46.Rb1 Rb8 47.Rd1 Rd8 ½–½

Had Dvoretsky’s authorial career ended with those nine titles, his position in chess history would have been secure. Luckily for us, he kept writing. His books with Russell Enterprises are some of his best, extending his earlier work and opening up new avenues of inquiry.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss all of Dvoretsky’s books with Russell for lack of space, but merely touch on the highlights. In particular I want to thematize two signature features of Dvoretsky’s work – prophylaxis and the use of endgame studies – as they appear in his later books.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) was published in 2003 to tremendous and deserved acclaim, and is now in its 4th edition. It consists of 1100+ examples and exercises, using novel textual devices to demarcate 220 ‘precise positions’ for memorization (blue print) and dozens of typical endgame schemata (bold italics). DEM is perhaps Dvoretsky’s best book, and certainly his best known. It is widely recommended by top teachers to those looking to learn endgame theory.

Although he did not invent it, Dvoretsky is often associated with the concept of prophylaxis or prophylactic thinking. Prophylaxis requires that players consider what the opponent wants to play were she on move, find an answer to that question, and then use that answer to help guide analysis.

This idea is discussed in SCE 3 (“Don’t Forget about Prophylaxis!”) and SFC 4 (“Prophylactic Thinking”), but I think Dvoretsky’s clearest rendering comes in Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources (2015). The book is the Platonic ideal of Dvoretsky’s training philosophy, containing hundreds of exercises for solving and clear examples to orient intuition.

Endgame studies are also a key component of Dvoretsky’s methodology, and in two ways. Solving studies can be useful in training imagination and calculation, and they can also be used as set pieces for ‘two-handed play’ between training partners. (SCE 1, 207, 200) His interest in studies spans his publishing career, with a full book – Studies for Practical Players (2009, co-authored with Oleg Pervakov) – devoted to the topic.

Dvoretsky described solving studies in SCE 1 as “pleasant, but useful.” Much the same can be said for the study of his books. So long as chess is played, Mark Dvoretsky’s books will be certainly be read, both for pleasure and for improvement.