Category Archives: Instructional

Decisions, Decisions

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

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Ramesh, R.B. Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making. Los Angeles: Metropolitan Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-0985628161. PB 288pp.

Since winning the World Junior Championship in 1987 and becoming the first Indian Grandmaster in 1988, Viswanathan Anand has almost single-handedly defined chess in India. His rise to the World Championship was eagerly followed by his countrymen, chess fans and lay-people alike, and his 2013 match in Chennai was, despite Anand’s loss to Magnus Carlsen, a huge boon to Indian chess.

Anand’s example served as an inspiration for an entire generation of Indian chess players, including Grandmaster Ramachandran Ramesh – “R.B. Ramesh” as he is widely known – who served as a commentator for the 2013 match. He was the first Indian to win the British Open Championship in 2002, earning his Grandmaster title a year later. In 2014 Ramesh captained an Indian Olympiad team that won its first medal (bronze, open section) in that nation’s history, and he currently coaches the Indian U16 and Olympiad teams.

Having retired from active competition in 2008, today Ramesh is one of India’s leading chess trainers. Among his students are R. Praggnanandha, the youngest International Master in history at 12 years old, and the 18 year old Grandmaster Aravindh Chithambaram. He has also launched an online chess academy at chessgurukul.com and at nurtr.com, with the ultimate aim of offering chess training to all comers, regardless of ability to pay. If Anand is responsible for the current popularity of chess in India, it will be trainers like Ramesh who will shape its future.

Now Ramesh has written a fine new book, Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making, published by Metropolitan Chess Publishing out of Los Angeles. As its title suggests, the book offers readers a thoughtful, didactic account of over-the-board decision making. I enjoyed it immensely.

At its root, chess is all about decisions. We use various tools – principles, logic, calculation – to make the best choices we can in the time we have available to us. If we make better decisions than our opponent, we win. If not, well…

Chess training, on Ramesh’s telling, is designed to teach us to use all of the tools available to us in the decision making process. His emphasis is practical – after all, as he notes, “knowing is NOT doing!” (25) – and in this, he echoes the philosophy of Mark Dvoretsky, whom he mentions in the Introduction (6-7) as an important influence on his teaching and playing.

Ramesh cites a rather famous game between Carlsen and Aronian from the Bilbao Grand Prix in 2008 to begin to unpack his point.

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Here Carlsen played the amazing 15.d5!!, and Ramesh writes:

I remember checking this position with an engine and 15.d5 was its 31st choice! Does this make d5 good or bad? … Carlsen came up with the surreal move 15.d5!! to open up the dark-squared bishop and to create attacking chances against the Black king, temporarily stuck in the center of the board. It is not unusual for strong players to give up a pawn for the initiative. But would the mere knowledge of this principle convince us to play this move in an actual game? I think not. (11)

[For the record, the game continued: 15. …Nxd5 (if (a) 15…cxd5? 16.Bb5+ Nd7 17.Ne5 Bc8 18.Qh5 g6 19.Qf3 and White should win; (b) 15. …exd5 is met with 16.Nd4 where White has ideas of Qa4 and Nf5 with full compensation; and (c) 15. …Qxd5 is answered by 16.Ne5 Bb4 (16. …Bd6 17.e4 Qc5 18.Rc1 with initiative) 17.Qa4 0–0 18.Rfd1 and White has the initiative)

16.Ne5 Nf6 (after 16. …Be7 17.Qh5 g6 18.Qh6 Bf6 19.e4 Nb6 20.Rab1 and White has the initiative) 17.Qa4 Bb4 18.Nxc6 Bxc6 19.Qxc6+ Ke7 20.Rfd1 and White has good compensation for the pawn. Aronian resigned after the 36th move.]

How did Carlsen decide to play such a move? There are, I think, some terminological difficulties in Ramesh’s account, but he seems to argue something along these lines. Neither brute calculation nor intuition – defined as “the output of our knowledge, experience, and confidence at that point in time” (16) – alone could have guided Carlsen’s choice. Both are required to accurate assess a nebulous concept like compensation, and particularly in such a complex position.

Ramesh contends that “young players” will often depend heavily on either calculation or intuition when they should harmoniously consult both. In the course of his discussion, however, he appears to argue that there is a tendency today towards the calculative pole of this dialectic, especially among the young, and that the training of “logical, intuitive thinking” is a necessary counterbalance. Such training is achieved through “accumulating more knowledge and experience in various types of positions.” (16)

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is clearly constructed with this goal in mind. In Part I (“Logical Reasoning”) Ramesh tries to unpack the nature of our thought processes, and Chapter Two, entitled “The Problem of Choices,” is perhaps the core of the book. We are faced with the necessity of choosing between multiple reasonable moves in most non-critical positions, and most of us, I suspect, would admit that this can be the source of no small angst over the board!

Ramesh offers general advice for such situations: we use a ‘scanning technique’ to make a broad list of possible moves, which we prune by process of elimination. We analyze forcing continuations to see if any tactics exist, and we try to remain practical in our decision-making. Ultimately, as he puts it, “[c]ontradictory principles occur all over the board… We need to choose the principle appropriate to the position at hand in order to find the best move or a decent plan.” (68) To me this sounds like an argument for training intuition in a more traditional sense.

Part I is largely a series of annotated examples that unpack elements of our decision making and thought processes. Part II (“Practical Chess Play”) turns to more practical applications of logical reasoning, again through the use of illustrative examples. Chapters are devoted to topics like the initiative, conversion of advantages, and prophylaxis, but I was most interested in Chapter 9, “Playing on Colors.”

Talk of color complexes and weaknesses has always been somewhat opaque to me, and good explanations of what is meant by a “dark-square weakness” are lacking in books on chess strategy. Here we get a ‘teacherly’ exposition of how to approach the topic, focusing mostly on the bishops, and I want to quote Ramesh’s summary at some length before turning to one of his examples. (Thanks to Metropolitan Chess for granting permission to use these passages in this review.)

Here is a general guide for knowing which color to play on, depending on the situation:

1. Same colored bishops for both sides: Only the bishops should focus on their colors. All the other pieces should play on opposite colors. For example: if both sides have dark colored bishops, we should put all our other pieces on light squares.

2. Two bishops versus bishop and knight: The side with the two bishops should play on the colors where the opponent does not have a bishop. The side with the bishop and knight should play on the color of the bishop.

3. Opposite colored bishops: Both sides should play on the colors of their bishops.

4. One bishop versus one knight: The side with the knight should play on the opposite color of the opponent’s bishop. The side with the bishop should utilize his other pieces on the opposite color of the bishop.

5. Both sides have both bishops: When the central pawns are fixed on a particular color, we should play on the opposite color of our opponent’s centralized pawns, and try to exchange the opponent’s bishop of that same color. For example: if the opponent’s center pawns are fixed on light squares, then we should exchange the dark colored bishops and fight for the dark colors with other pieces. (208-209)

Ramesh follows this with eight examples, each demonstrating some element of this general framework. The discussion of the first position, taken from Polzin-Motylev (Bundesliga, 2008), is typical of both Ramesh’s style and analysis:

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14. …Nc4 Both sides have dark-squared bishops, so they should try to put their other pieces on light squares.

15.Qe2 b5 White at some point could kick the c4-knight with b2-b3, so Black aims to put his pawn on a4 to stabilize the c4-square for his knight. Moreover, if Black castles on the kingside, where he does not have as many defenders, it is possible that White could launch a direct attack with f2-f4, g2-g4 and f4-f5. Hence Black wants to secure adequate counterplay on the queenside before he makes the decision to castle short. If things get too hot on the kingside, then he could consider keeping his king in the center or even sending it to the queenside if necessary.

16.axb5 cxb5 17.f4 Qb6 18.Nd2 If White tried to launch an attack immediately with 18.g4 then Black would have adequate resources: 18. …a4 19.Nd2 Qc6 20.f5 gxf5 21.gxf5 exf5 and Black is much better … [note that] 22.Rxf5 is impossible in view of 22…Qg6+.

18. …Qc6 19.Nf3 a4 With a small advantage, Black went on to win from here. In this example, Black not only used his pieces but also his pawns to gain control over the light squares on the queenside.

Part III (“Fundamentals of Chess Training”) is devoted to general training advice – how to study the opening, how to prepare for tournaments, how to understand the endgame, etc. – and what I would call Ramesh’s ‘philosophy of improvement.’ Many teachers warn their students not to worry about their ratings. Borrowing from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and classical Indian philosophy, Ramesh persuasively argues that such worry has deleterious effects on our results and, more importantly, our enjoyment of the game.

Parts I and II are very concrete in nature, offering readers dozens of examples to illustrate key teaching points. Part III is, in contrast, almost all text. There is a lot of interesting and inspirational material here, to be sure, and Ramesh’s trademark optimism is especially apparent in these pages. Still, the book feels somewhat disjointed, and Part III feels in some ways like an afterthought or appendix to the main part of the book.

This is particularly true in Chapters 11 and 17, where Ramesh discusses the proper use of the computer in opening study. ChessBase is not an intuitive piece of software to use, and instruction should involve specific how-to’s and illustrative screenshots. Instead we get text-only renderings of database screens and opening trees. It’s an opportunity missed, and one that would have been very easy for the editors to fix.

Fundamental Chess: Logical Decision Making is a vastly ambitious book, covering wide swaths of chess philosophy and practice. Such enthusiasm makes its small flaws rather forgivable. Its target audience – “younger players,” or, in Ramesh’s system, those rated 1500-2400 (!?) – is very wide, and one could argue that the book tries to cover too much ground. But I would much rather read an enterprising work than a limited, modest one, and at the end of the day, the author has given us a book that will reward multiple rereadings. Well done, “Ramesh sir.”

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A Russian Revival?

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

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Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Opening and Middlegame. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916824. PB 368pp.

Sakaev, Konstantin, and Konstantin Landa. The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0 – Middlegame Structures and Dynamics. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917425. PB 368pp.

Shereshevsky, Mikhail. The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess: From Club Player to Master. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917647. PB 352pp.

One of the many virtues of Andy Soltis’ Soviet Chess 1917-1991 is the concise manner in which it describes how Soviet chess suffered as the country fell. Leading players and promising talents left the USSR, spreading across the globe in search of opportunity. Many nations, including ours, were great beneficiaries of a sudden Soviet diaspora. From Kamsky to Kaidanov to the beloved “Uncle Yermo,” American chess was much enriched with this influx of talent.

It seems to me, however, that it was the dispersion of the machinery of Soviet chess – the coaches, trainers, and infrastructure – that was of greatest consequence. Soltis quotes Evgeny Vasiukov as saying in 1997 that “…the structure is destroyed and I fear that we will have to give up our position” (Soviet Chess, 419), and we see some evidence of this if we look at the history of the Chess Olympiad.

From 1952 through 2002, the Soviet Union / Russia failed to win gold at the Olympiad only twice: in 1976, when they boycotted the event’s being held in Israel, and in 1978, where Hungary shocked the world by taking the gold, leaving the Soviets with the indignity of the silver. In the years since 2002, four countries – Ukraine, Armenia, China, and the United States – have won gold, and Russia has had to reckon with its fall from Caïssa’s grace.

The Russian Chess Federation (RCF) has taken concrete steps in this decade to restoring Russian chess to its former glory, increasing funding for chess schools and renovating the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The 2014 election of Russian billionaire Andrey Filatov to the RCF Presidency dramatically accelerated this process.

Filatov, much like our own Rex Sinquefield, has contributed vast sums from his personal fortune to chess. Current RCF Director Mark Glukhovsky recently stated that more than half of the RCF budget comes directly from Filatov. With this funding the RCF has extended support to numerous constituencies, but none so important (on Glukhovsky’s telling) as children’s chess and the opening of the Chess Department at Sirius.

The brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who remains chairman of its Board of Trustees, Sirius is a Sochi-based school for gifted children in academics, arts, and sports. The Chess Department is nominally headed by Vladimir Kramnik, but the day to day operations are led by a staff that includes GM Konstantin Sakaev and, more recently, IM Mikhail Shereshevsky. Russia’s most promising juniors attend training camps at Sirius throughout the year.

One corollary to this educational initiative is the addition of a publishing arm to RCF activities, with Russian language books by Sakaev and Shereshevsky among the most prominent new titles in the “RCF Library.” New in Chess has translated three of these books into English, and this month we’ll take a look at them.

Konstantin Sakaev is largely known in the West as an opening theorist, having seconded Kramnik and penned titles on the Grünfeld and Slav. Here, in the two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0, we discover Sakaev’s estimable chess knowledge and erudition. Mikhail Shereshevsky, to whom we will turn shortly, likens him to the famed Soviet player and coach Isaac Boleslavsky, only “armed with a modern computer.” This is high praise indeed, but on the basis of these books, it might be warranted.

Co-written with GM Konstantin Landa, The Complete Manual of Positional Chess (hereafter CMPC) is an advanced training manual centered on the middlegame. In the first volume, subtitled Opening and Middlegame, Sakaev and Landa offers a short section on typical opening problems and then take up topics related to thought processes and static features of positional play. Chapters on “[c]alculation of variations and methods of taking decisions” (#7) and “Prophylaxis, strengthening one’s own position” (#14) are of particular interest.

The book consists of a series of positions for study and solving. Here’s a quick example from chapter 17, titled “[t]he problem of exchanges. Simplifying positions.” Note that on a scale of one to three stars, with one star denoting an “easily understood, simple example” and three stars denoting “especially complicated” cases, this problem is rated at two stars. It’s White to play. How should you proceed?

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Sakaev and Landa write: “White has more space, a strong pawn on e5 and the two bishops. He has the advantage. However, Black has organised a blockade in the centre, and it is not easy to open lines on the queenside. Therefore, White voluntarily surrenders his two bishops, obtaining in return new objects of attack:

19.Bxd5! Rxd5 20.Qxd5 cxd5 21.Rac1 Black has to deal not only with a possible entry down the c-file, but also with the defense of the pawn a5 – this is impossible.

21. …b6 22.Rxc7+ Kxc7 23.Rc1+ Kd7 24.e6+! Kxe6 25.Rc6+ Kd7 26.Rxb6 The a5–pawn is lost, and White is close to winning.” (CPMC 1, 184)

The second volume, subtitled Middlegame Structures and Dynamics, reads more like a traditional middlegame text. Its first part, roughly a third of the book, focuses on pawns and pawn structures, including typical pawn play in attacking play. The remainder deals with tactical themes and attacking ideas, with particular emphasis on attacking the king. Here again, a short example is illustrative. This is a one-star problem from chapter 43, “The king in a mating net.” It’s Black to move:

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“It is obvious that Black has a fine concentration of pieces around the white king. But where is the mate? Players with a sharp tactical vision will have no trouble spotting the finish.”

1. …Bg2+ 2.Rxg2 Qf1+ 3.Rg1 Ng3+! “The key idea.” 4.hxg3 Qh3# (CPMC 2, 245)

The two volumes of The Complete Manual of Positional Chess are not easy reads by any stretch of the imagination. Sakaev and Landa say in their Introduction – common to both volumes, a terrific read for players of all strengths, and available as part of the pdf sample at the New in Chess website – that the target audience is the “first-category” or 2000+ player, and this seems accurate to me. But for those hardy self-learners who work through these excellent and demanding books, I can’t help but believe that their efforts will be richly rewarded.

I had high hopes for the translation of Mikhail Shereshevsky’s The Shereshevsky Method to Improve in Chess. Shereshevsky is widely known as the author of Endgame Strategy, one of the finest books on the endgame in print, and his 1994 The Soviet Chess Conveyor is a cult classic among chess bibliophiles. Shereshevsky was largely forced out of chess in 1992 by the economic turmoil of the post-Communist era, and I was anxious to see his long-awaited return.

This book, put simply, is not what I was hoping for. The Shereshevsky Method is deeply problematic from both structural and editorial perspectives, and as I will explain, I cannot recommend it to Chess Life readers.

The Shereshevsky Method is a work in three parts. Part I is a selection of texts related to The Soviet Chess Conveyor. Part II is a condensed and updated version of Endgame Strategy. Part III, solicited explicitly by the RCF for use at the Sirius School, discusses chess books, calculation, chess intuition, and best training practices.

Parts I and II are largely, but not wholly, unobjectionable. The second chapter, “Studying the Chess Classics,” is itself a classic of chess literature. Shereshevsky’s concern is to argue that improving players must study the great masters of the past to learn planning and train intuition.

This is of particular relevance in the age of the computer – a recurring concern in the book – insofar knowledge of the classics helps mitigate the dangers of overreliance on the engine. Humans think in principles and concepts, not brute-force analysis, and knowledge gained from of the games of Alekhine, Capablanca, and Rubinstein shapes and guides what we calculate.

The text of “Studying the Chess Classics” is based on a lecture given at Mark Dvoretsky’s school and published in Secrets of Chess Training: School of Future Champions 1. The updates to that lecture consist largely of quotations inserted into the text, some of which are shockingly long. Two and four page passages from Isaac Lipnitsky appear without warning, and while the practice is largely absent from Part II, it becomes endemic in Part III.

Let me preface what I am about to say by making clear that I am not a lawyer. I have not seen the relevant publishing contracts, and I am not making any authoritative legal arguments. That said: having spent years in the academy, where I had to constantly worry about fair use and copyright law, I was astounded by what I found in The Shereshevsky Method.

Russia, like the Netherlands and the United States, is a signatory to international copyright laws. Authors cannot take the work of other authors and use it for commercial purposes without the express permission of the copyright holders. Exemptions are carved out for educational or review purposes – what we call ‘fair use’ and what Russians call ‘free use’ – but this is limited to short passages, perhaps four to six lines of text.

I can see no possible manner in which Shereshevsky’s extensive copying of other author’s works can be said to fall under fair use, and at least one publisher has confirmed to me that no such permission was granted for English language use of their intellectual property. (I have no knowledge about Russian language permissions.)

The borrowing of huge chunks of text – multiple pages at a time! – from other authors is brazen in The Shereshevsky Method, with Chapter 13 being a particularly egregious example. Shereshevsky begins the chapter with three lines that introduce a 300 word quote from John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess. He then inserts about 150 of his own words before reprinting (244-250) six pages, well over two thousand words, of Nunn’s copyrighted text, and then wraps things up with a 100 word conclusion.

The title of the chapter? “Laziness.” You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Nunn is not Shereshevsky’s only victim. Large passages are repeatedly taken from Beim, Dvoretsky, and Gelfand, among others, and to make matters worse, Shereshevsky fails to adequately cite the passages he takes. He even congratulates the RCF for their publication (337) of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision-Making in Chess, ignoring the fact that the book was written in English for Quality Chess and only appeared in the “RCF Library” by contractual agreement.

There is more. Instead of referring to the original English language texts in these extensive quotations, and against standard practice, the translator re-translated the (already once-translated) Russian back into English. Nunn’s words are no longer Nunn’s words, but the product of a two-fold translatory transmogrification. I cannot for the life of me understand how this passed editorial muster.

The Shereshevsky Method, particularly in its third and final Part, reads like a freshman’s plagiarized term paper. Most of the interesting material in Part III is taken from other authors, while Shereshevsky’s original contributions tend to devolve to banalities or gossip. I have never seen anything like it from a major publishing house, chess or otherwise, and I’m at a loss to understand how a publisher with a deservedly sterling reptuation like New in Chess let it come to print.

Opening Lines

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

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Collins, Sam. A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093825. PB 160pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917463. PB 272pp.

Moret, Vincent. My First Chess Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go-Package for Ambitious Beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916336. PB 208pp.

Most chess players like very little more than to talk about their openings. (The only thing that might top it is the cosmic unfairness of their last tournament losses.) They talk about what they’re playing, what they want to play, and opening trends among the chess elite. But when it comes to the question of which openings they should play, there’s rather less discussion.

Here I should forestall some criticism. In what follows, I am not arguing that any specific opening or opening system is intrinsically better than any other. Modern computer analysis shows us that, for the vast majority of players, most mainstream openings are entirely playable. But it may well be the case that some openings are better than others if improvement – understood both in terms of over-the-board results and playing strength – is our goal.

The late Ken Smith believed that lower-rated players should play simple “forcing systems” like the Bird, Colle, or King’s Indian Attack for White, and complementary systems like the Caro-Kann and Slav for Black. The idea is clear: if you know your opening’s ideas and typical structures better than your opponent, and you get a position you understand on the board, your chances of winning are increased.

Another typical recommendation, and one that Smith – who wrote in “Improving Your Chess” that “[u]ntil you are at least a high Class A player… [y]our first name is ‘Tactics,’ your middle name is ‘Tactics,’ and your last name is ‘Tactics’” – would applaud, is the use of gambits to force the game into tactical channels. Here again, the idea is clear: improving players need to hone their tactics, and gambit openings require those players to play sharply from the very first moves of the game. The Smith-Morra Gambit, named in part for Ken Smith, would be a good choice in this vein, as would the Blackmar-Diemer or Latvian Gambits.

The ‘Markovich Doctrine’ represents something of a median between these two (apparent) extremes. Named for its author, the late Ohio master Mark Morss (’Markovich’ in the chesspub.com forums), the idea here is that “open positions are fundamental… you must know how to play open positions well in order to play chess well.” Because all positions can potentially become open, an emphasis on tactics and active piece play is critical for long-term success.

Towards this end, Morss argued – passionately, if somewhat dogmatically – that improving players needed to play 1.e4 e5 with Black, particularly the Two Knights Defense and the Classical Ruy Lopez, along with the Tarrasch Defense against closed openings. This emphasis on open games and Isolated Queen’s Pawn (‘IQP’) positions also colored his choices with the White pieces, with the ‘Waitzkin variation’ of the Exchange French (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd4 4.c4) being a typical Morss recommendation. Players learn how to handle both sides of the IQP, but in doing so, they also learn how to play active, tactical chess.

Sam Collins, who recently scored his 3rd and final Grandmaster norm, presents something of a hybrid between the first and third approaches described above in his A Simple Chess Opening Repertoire for White. Borrowing in part from some of his earlier works, including An Attacking Repertoire for White and the ChessBase DVD 1.e4 Repertoire: Grandmaster Lines Explained for Club Players, the emphasis here is on the IQP.

Collins justifies this decision (6-7) with three claims. (a) The IQP and its constellation of related structures can emerge from a wide range of openings, so it is important for players of all strengths to learn and understand it. (b) IQP positions are playable for both sides. Those with the IQP get some space and activity, while those playing against it usually have a defined weakness to play against and chances for a better endgame. Finally, in light of (a) and (b), Collins rightly argues (c) that it is possible to reach IQP positions in a healthy number of your games, making their study rapid and practical.

What does Collins’ repertoire involve? Here are the highlights:

1.e4 e5 – 7.Nbd2 Giuoco Piano and the Scotch Gambit against the Two Knights
1.e4 c5 – the c3 Sicilian (almost 1/3 of the book)
1.e4 e6 – 3.Nd2, aiming for Yevseev-style IQP positions
1.e4 c6 – Panov-Botvinnik via 2.c4
Pirc / Modern – setups with c3 / Bd3
Scandinavian – Bc4 and d2-d3 lines

While some of Collins’ choices are perhaps underrated by mainstream theory – Lawrence Trent used 7.Nbd2 in the Giuoco Piano to draw Kramnik in the Isle of Man tournament last September –his goal is not necessarily a clear opening advantage. Instead, I’d argue that these repertoire choices are designed to leave White in familiar, active-ish positions from which he can outplay his opponent.

This helps to explain a shift in a key line in his c3 Sicilian recommendation. Collins gave 1.e4 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.Nf3 d6 5.d4 cxd4 6.cxd4 Nc6 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb3 dxe5 9.d5 in both the book and DVD listed above; here, however, he shifts to 8.Bb5, which he had previously described as “safe for both sides” and here as “much less risky… [leading] to pleasant IQP positions for White.” (56)

His recommendation against the French is perhaps more anodyne. Following a path popularized by Yevseev, Collins proposes that White try to get an IQP after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3 cxd4 6.cxd4 dxe4 7.Nxe4 when Black is at a crossroads. He can try 7…Bd7!? but after 8.Nc3 (after 8.Nf3?! Nxe4 9.Bxe4 Bc6 Black is probably already better) 9.Nf3 Nbd7 10.0–0 Be7 11.Qe2 (11.Be3 is another option; as is 11.Re1 0–0 12.Bc2 Qb6! via Aagaard & Ntirlis) 11…0–0 “[t]his is just a balanced position with no opening advantage for White.” (122)

7. …Nxe4 is the other option, trying to advantageously simplify the position. After 8.Bxe4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 Nd7 11.Ne2 (11.Nf3?! is a well known error: 11. …Nf6 12.Bc2 0–0 13.0–0 b6! per Watson, Play the French 4) 11. …Nf6 12.Bf3 Qb6 13.0–0 0–0 14.Rac1 Rd8 we reach this position:

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White has some compensation for his long-term weakness, the IQP, with his active pieces and better development. But Black has already exchanged two minor pieces, and once he solves his development problems with …Bd7 or …e5, he should be at least equal. While this variation does take Black out of standard French-style positions, it’s hardly something to worry a prepared player.

If Collins’ book aims for similar types of positions whenever possible, the repertoires proposed for White and Black by the French youth trainer Vincent Moret take a very different tact. In My First Opening Repertoire for White: A Ready-to-go Package for Ambitious Players and its companion volume, My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black, Moret offers readers a set of recommendations that can be summarized as follows:

White:

1.e4 e5 – Giuoco Piano, Möller Attack
1.e4 c5 – Grand Prix Attack
1.e4 e6 – King’s Indian Attack
1.e4 c6 – ‘Night Attack’ (thematic pawn sac e5-e6) via 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4
Pirc / Modern – St. George Attack (f3, Be3, Qd2, h2-h4-h5)
Scandinavian – traditional mainlines

Black:

vs. 1.e4 – Scandinavian Portuguese Variation
vs. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 – Albin Counter-Gambit
vs. 1.d4 without 2.c4 – Stonewall
vs. 1.c4 – Reversed Grand Prix
vs 1.b4, 1.g4, 1.f4 – sharp mainlines

I have to admit my difficulties in grasping the inner logic of Moret’s choices on a first read. There is no ‘typical position’ to be found a la Collins, and the repertoire does not fit neatly into any of the three types listed above. With more careful study, I slowly came to realize that, despite the widely disparate set of recommendations, there was indeed an intended common thread. Moret aims for positions with clear themes and ideas, often involving direct kingside attacks, and where knowledge of plans trumps memorized theory.

Moret says as much in the introduction to his Black repertoire.

[T]he aim of this book… [is] to offer ideas and points of reference to players – young and less young alike! – who engage in competitions and are not sure where to start studying openings. … Rather than being able to recite the first ten moves of an opening by heart, it is far more important to know the typical middlegame plans that result from an opening, and above all the most common combinations and tactical themes. (For Black, 8)

Moret’s book is structured according to this philosophy. The Grand Prix Attack and the King’s Indian Attack clearly involve typical moves and maneuvers, as do the Scandinavian, Albin, and Stonewall. Each recommendation is introduced with copious structural and strategic instructions, in contrast to Collins’ fairly traditional analytical style, and newly acquired knowledge is tested with exercises at the end of each chapter.

For all of this, I remain skeptical about parts of Moret’s recommendations. Some of the proposals, like the Möller Attack, require rather more theoretical knowledge than Moret would have us believe, and the sharpest lines of the Scandinavian Portuguese require extensive study if Black is to survive the opening. Other suggestions, like the King’s Indian Attack agains the French, seem too strategically complex for most juniors. It may be the case that Moret’s talented students, many of whom compete in World Junior Championships, can handle these kind of complexities, but I suspect that most chess mortals would do better with simpler openings.

There are also some important omissions. The Fritz Variation (5. …Nd4) in the Two Knights is not addressed, for example, and a 2011 Avrukh innovation in the Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 exd5 7.Qe2 f6!) does not appear in the text. White’s difficulties in this last line, and more broadly where Black plays …e6 and …d5 against the Grand Prix, are somewhat glossed over.

So where do we stand after all of this? Ultimately I think that while both Collins and Moret provide responsible, interesting repertoires, and while I particularly applaud Collins for the amount of useful information he managed to distill into the 160 pages of his book, I am not convinced that either author makes things ‘simple’ enough for most people’s ‘first’ repertoires.

This is, admittedly, a big ask, and I’ve yet to find a book pitched to precisely that market. The closest thing I’ve found is a public e-book by the English chess coach David Regis. His Four Opening Systems to Start With follows the spirit of the Markovich Doctrine but keeps things very simple and light. I consider it a good prolegomena to serious opening work, and it might be a decent stepping-stool to the more complex repertoires of Collins and Moret.


Eat your Oatmeal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to know something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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61. …f6??

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

62.gxf6+ Kxf6 63.Rf8+ 1–0

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

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

NARRATOR: There is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lombardy–In Memoriam

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

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Introducing his 1924 lecture course on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger famously said:

Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died. The character of the philosopher, and issues of that sort, will not be addressed here.[1]

Building this month’s column, I thought about, and dwelt with, this passage for many days. I consider Heidegger to be one of the most important, if personally flawed, philosophers in the whole of the Western tradition. Here, however, I cannot help but disagree with the “Hidden King” of Marburg.

Any interpretation of a thinker or writer’s legacy must focus on the written word, but not exclusively and rigidly so. Biography can often help explain the influences and shifts outside of the text that, all the same, weave themselves invisibly within it.

This is certainly true of Heidegger himself, and it is just as true of Grandmaster William (“Bill”) Lombardy, whose life and books are under our lens in this month’s issue. Lombardy was a brilliant chess player who, for better or worse, became best known for his supporting role in Bobby Fischer’s ascension to the World Championship. This fact, this constant and perhaps chafing association, may help to explain the advent of his productive authorial career and its tragic, final chapter.

To my knowledge Lombardy wrote or co-wrote seven books, six of which will be discussed here. (The seventh – a tournament book for the 6th Interpolis Chess Tournament, released in 1983 – is only available in Dutch.) Modern Chess Opening Traps was the first, published in 1972 right before the Iceland match and appearing in England as Snatched Opportunities on the Chessboard: Quick Victories in 200 Recent Master Games.

Both titles are slightly misleading. The book is largely, as the latter suggests, a collection of miniatures from the late 60s and early 70s, although only the English edition attributes the games’ players, and then only in an index. But Lombardy also includes a number of opening ‘traps’ or typical blunders in standard openings systems.

Of particular contemporary interest is game #193, where we see how quickly Black can lose in the London if White gets a free hand on the kingside. The evaluations and quotes are Lombardy’s, and I have translated his Descriptive Notation into Algebraic.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4!

Lombardy curiously labels this a “Modern Colle” due to the placement of the bishop outside of the c3–d4–e3 pawn chain.

3…e6 4.Nbd2 Nbd7 5.e3 Be7

Current practice shows Black’s move order and setup to be somewhat suspect. Today’s theory prefers 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 (the ‘Modern’ London) Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 (more popular than …Be7) 7.Bg3 0–0.

6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 0–0?! “Better is …b6 and …Bb7.” 8.h4! b6 9.g4 Nxg4? 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Kg8 12.Qxg4 Nf6?

Lombardy: “Carelessness is a great extravagance in a tight game. …f7–f5 helps close the gaps.” Still, White seems much better here. After 12…f5 13.Qg2 Nf6 (defending e6) 14.Rg1 White’s attack is hard to meet without major concession.

The computer thinks Black can hold after 12. …cxd4! 13.cxd4 (13.Be5 Nxe5 14.Qh5 Bxg5 15.hxg5 f5 16.g6 Nxg6 17.Qxg6 and Black should survive this.) 13…e5! (13. …Nf6!? is unclear) 14.Rg1 Nc5 (14. …exf4? 15.Ne6) 15.Qh5 and now a typical silicon drawing variation follows: 15. …Bf5 16.Bxe5 f6 17.Ne6 Bxe6 18.Rxg7+ Kxg7 19.Qg5+ Kf7 20.Qh5+ Kg7 21.Qg5+ Kh8 22.Qh5+=.

13.Qe2 g6 “Helpmate!” If 13. …Bd6 14.Be5! and Black cannot take the bishop: after 14. …Bxe5 15.dxe5 Black must lose the knight or abandon h5 to the Queen.

14.h5! Nxh5 15.Rxh5! gxh5 16.Qxh5 Bxg5 17.Bxg5 f6 18.Qg6+ Kh8 19.0–0–0 “Black resigns before mate.”

While Lombardy did not play in the 1973 U.S. Championship, the first to be played after Fischer’s victory, he did write its tournament book. The bulk of U.S. Championship Chess: A History of the Highest American Chess Title, with the 1973 Matches Annotated (1975) features Lombardy’s fine annotations, but of greater note is the presence of the book’s co-author, David Daniels.

Daniels, who wrote the historical section of the 1973 tournament book, was a New York master who ‘pinch-hit’ for Fischer in his December 1967 Boys’ Life column, and who (according to Andy Soltis) may have been one of the ghostwriters for I.A. Horowitz’ column in the New York Times. True or not, Daniels was a chess writer and historian of some repute, and his association with Lombardy bore excellent fruit.

Two of Lombardy’s most interesting works – Chess Panorama (1975) and Guide to Tournament Chess (1978) – were co-written with Daniels. In contrast to the 1973 tournament book, where each man took clear responsibility for specific portions of the text, these two titles are largely (but not wholly) written in one voice. The effect is laudatory.

Chess Panorama is a light-hearted anecdotal look into the world of chess, touching on topics like the clock, “chess scandals,” endings and final rounds. I rather enjoyed the discussion of the opening, where the authors – in 1975, years before ChessBase! – lament the explosion of opening theory, and the chapter on blunders is of particular interest.

Guide to Tournament Chess is a comprehensive introduction to rated chess. Part I describes the logistics of the tournament circuit along with rules and etiquette. Part II, “A Guide to Better Play,” offers practical advice. Among the topics covered are playing against stronger opponents and the ‘strategy of the draw.’ The skeleton of an opening repertoire is sketched in six pages, and a thoughtful bibliography of recommended books – one comparatively heavy on endgames and game collections – rounds things out.

Daniels was not Lombardy’s only writing partner. Chess for Children: Step by Step (1977), an introduction to chess using photographs and color diagrams, was co-written with Betty Marshall, the wife of Fischer’s lawyer Paul Marshall. While the book appears dated today – the quality of both print graphics and chess primers having increased dramatically in the intervening years – its use of ‘mini-games’ to focus on specific pawn and piece play was an interesting pedagogical experiment.

Lombardy did not publish between 1983 and 2011. He returned to print with his autobiographical Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life, produced by Russell Enterprises but appearing under Lombardy’s own imprimatur. The book strikes a very different tone than is found in his previous titles, and this requires some consideration.

I first met Bill Lombardy at the 2013 U.S. Open. We crossed paths a few times more, most recently at the 2017 Iowa Open mere weeks before he died. The older Lombardy was, in my experience, a deeply bitter man who felt that his genius and his tutelage of Fischer had gone unappreciated, and that he had been systematically shortchanged by the chess world. While he could be charming and cordial, particularly in one-on-one settings, Lombardy did not hesitate to vent his spleen loudly and publicly.

Whether and to what degree this bitterness was justified, I leave to the reader. But it must be said that the Janus-faced nature of Understanding Chess – a work that veers between erudite games collection and pure score-settling – only makes sense in this context. His analysis and explanation of his game against Hans Ree at the 1976 Olympiad is emblematic of the book’s dual polarity. We pick it up (with Lombardy’s notes) at move 50, where the players adjourned.

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50.d4! The following rook endgame is quite instructive for any player… 50. …Rf6? … Hans in fact missed a golden opportunity to activate his rook, an opportunity which he will denied for the remainder of the ending. He should have played for the active rook, the basis of all rook endgames and which in this case seems to hold the draw: 50. …Rg7! 51.dxc5 Rg2+ 52.Kf3 Ra2 53.cxb6 Rxa3+ 54.Ke2 axb6 55.Rxb6 Rc3=. 51.Rh7+ Trading rooks leads to a quick draw, even though White achieves a protected passed pawn. 51. …Rf7 52.Rh5! In this case, the fact that White’s pawns are split is to his advantage from the perspective of creating a supported passed pawn. Again we are reminded of the active rook. 52. …cxd4 53.Kd3 Kd6 54.Kxd4 Rf6 55.Rg5 a6 56.Rh5 Ke6 57.Rh8 Kd6 58.Rd8+ Kc7 59.Rd5! White is clearly better, but this is also the critical moment for Black since his next move will define the defensive task to come… 59. …a5? This eases White’s task… 60.a4! Now Black’s queenside is fixed and White’s a-pawn, which in many lines could be captured on a3, is further out of range of the black rook. The impending simplification of pawns following c5, followed by the invasion of the white king, easily decide the game. 60…Kc6 The active rook concept is no longer enough. 61.c5! bxc5+ 62.Rxc5+ Kb6 63.Rb5+ Ka6 64.Ke5 Rc6 65.Rd5 Rc4 66.Rd6+ Kb7 67.Rd4 Rc1 68.Kxf5 Kc6 69.Ke5 Kc5 70.Re4 1–0

While there are some additional resources for Black – most notably on move 61, where Ree could have played 61. …b5! or 61. …Re6! 62.Rxf5 b5! to hold the draw – Lombardy does an excellent job of explaining the practical difficulties in Black’s defense and the underlying positional principles. He also played the ending pretty darned well.

Less savory is the introduction to the game, where Lombardy claims that Ree shirked his adjournment analysis in favor of a night at the hotel bar. This, according to Ree himself in his monthly column at the Russell Enterprises website, lacks any basis in reality. The Dutch team did not even stay at the hotel in question.

Understanding Chess is filled with similar sideswipes. In its first pages he offers a novel account of basic chess principles and ‘eidetic imagery,’ but not before he has taken shots at multiple chess personages for “thwarting” his chess teaching and denying him lucrative opportunities. Perhaps his rawest vitriol is reserved for Jack Collins, the founder of the famous Hawthorne Chess Club and lauded mentor to both Fischer and Lombardy.

Lombardy’s claim in Understanding Chess can be summed up simply: Jack Collins was never Fischer’s teacher. His lack of playing strength meant that he could only offer “trivial knowledge” to the Byrnes, Fischer, and Lombardy, all of whom were “superior masters” to Collins. It was Lombardy himself who was guided Fischer. “…I was Bobby’s only chess teacher from [age eleven] and right through Reykjavik. Some may not like hearing this surprising news, but I assume they will get over the shock… Thus Spake Zarathustra!” (14)

This is a very different tune than was sung by Lombardy in his earlier books. Chess for Children is dedicated to “John (Jack) W. Collins, the teacher of Grandmasters and World Champions, who made chess a truly happy experience for me and so many others.” Lombardy’s 1974 forward to Collins’ My Seven Chess Prodigies is effusive in its praise, and he goes so far as to write that “Jack is the chess teacher.”

Bracketing some of the factual problems in Lombardy’s claim – it’s hard to see how he could have met Fischer before 1956, when Fischer was already thirteen – what could explain this radical break? Lombardy decries his being left out of Collins’ will in Understanding Chess, but in the final analysis, I cannot help but wonder if the rift comes from somewhere deeper.

William Lombardy was a highly educated man and, by any standard, a true chess great. His perfect score in the 1957 World Junior Championship is a ridiculous feat, unequaled to this day, and his fifteen medals in twenty years of international team play are astounding. But he came of age in a time where two greater players – Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer – sucked up all of the oxygen in American chess, leaving almost no support for anyone else.

What, then, was left for a man so close and so far from the top of our game? To me, the invocation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the prophet who proclaimed the coming of the übermensch, is telling. Lombardy saw Fischer as the overman, born in part of Lombardy’s own unheralded efforts, and we – the mediocre ‘last men’ of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – were incapable of appreciating either of them. The outpouring of love and remembrance after his death is evidence that, at least in this respect, Lombardy might have been mistaken.

** My thanks to my good friend Bob Woodworth for allowing me to raid his extensive library in researching this piece.


[1] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 4.

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

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