Category Archives: Openings

Rage, rage…

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Chess for Life. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093832. PB 224pp. List $24.95, currently $18.63 at Amazon.

When a non-chess player sees a 10 year old playing an adult they feel sympathy for the child. When a chess player sees the same thing he feels sympathy for the adult.

– Brian Karen

Aging is, if we’re lucky, an inevitable element of human existence. On the whole we trade rapidity of thought for wisdom, but the hard fact of aging for chess players is that the trade is never equal. While we can play chess until we the day we die, the competitive nature of the game means that after a certain age, our results and ratings will begin to slip.

This is particularly true in the age of the machines. The concrete nature of modern chess practice tilts the playing field towards youth and their silicon-sharpened calculative abilities. Adult players could work harder to keep up, try to hone our dwindling skills as well as we can, but with jobs and children and all those responsibilities, this is an arms race that we cannot hope to win.

What’s a rapidly-approaching-middle-age guy to do? (Remember – research is me-search, folks.)

The subtitle of Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s Chess for Life is “understanding how chess skills develop and change with the passage of time.” It is also fairly illustrative of the book as a whole. In a series of interviews with, and case studies of, ‘older’ chess players, Sadler and Regan have written a thought-provoking and useful book for players of all ages. ‘Mature’ players will find it particularly helpful, however, as much of the material focuses on specific challenges faced by aging competitors.

Sadler and Regan are listed as co-authors of Chess for Life, but the preface makes clear that the division of labor was not equal. Sadler is responsible for the chess content and analytical work, while Regan crunched some of the data and worked over the prose. Both co-authors were involved in the ten interviews published in the book. You can see a table of contents, and therefore a list of interviewees, in this sample provided by Gambit.

The interviews are generally well done, and I can recommend most of them, excepting those with Judit Polgar, Ingrid Lauterbach and Sergei Tiviakov. These interviews are too cursory to do anything but scratch the surface of questions raised, although Tiviakov’s is partially redeemed by the case study that follows it.

Indeed, it is in the case studies, and in the manner in certain case studies augment the interviews, that this book shines. Sadler is a superlative chess writer – his book on the Queen’s Gambit is still among the finest available on the opening – and his analytical powers are on full display in Chess for Life. The study of Pia Cramling’s openings, for example, is a clear, concise dissection of how one builds a 1.d4 repertoire and how one tweaks it over time. The analysis of Tiviakov’s 3…Qd6 Scandinavian is painstakingly thorough. The discussion of Capablanca’s games – sadly the third World Champion could not be conjured for an interview – is as inspirational for us as Capablanca’s games were for Sadler.

The real star of Chess for Life is Keith Arkell; or, better put, Arkell as seen through the lens of Matthew Sadler. The interview is admittedly slight, but the two case studies that follow are outstanding. Sadler sifts through hundreds of Arkell’s games and teases out two key themes: his mastery of the Carlsbad Structure and his love of rook and pawn endings. In both cases Sadler does a superlative job of distilling the fundamentals of Arkell’s play and rendering them comprehensible for his non-GM readers.

If Chess for Life lacks anything, it is a concrete program for training or improvement by mature players. Most of the interviews are inspirational in nature, and while some of the case studies illustrate the building of opening repertoires, there are only two places in the book that we get anything resembling training tips or a list of best practices.

The first of these is in the interview with Terry Chapman, an amateur who took up chess with vigor in his retirement. Chapman is candid about the difficulties he faces as an older player – the errors in calculation, the blunders, etc. – and forthcoming with the training techniques he has developed to blunt them. Sadler and Regan compare Chapman’s account of his thought processes with that of Speelman, and I wish this aside had been a bit longer.

The second of these is the five page Conclusion that summarizes the author’s findings. The recapitulation of training strategies and tips on opening is useful, if brief. Sadler’s advice to play against engines on a mobile phone, however, left me cold. It might be good practice for a GM, but it would do nothing but demoralize an amateur player.

There are few books written specifically for the mature chess player, and even fewer that focus on the competitive challenges we face as we age. Chess for Life is a wonderful read for those of us who rage against the dying of our chess lights. Anyone who finds themselves dreading yet another game against ‘that hotshot kid’ would do well to check it out.

Enter the Dragon

This review has been printed in the March 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.

—–

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 1. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830076. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 2. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830090. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Children love playing it. It appears as a plot point in the soapiest of Spanish telenovelas period dramas. The Chinese have even gone so far as to try to make it their own.

It’s gotta be the name, right?

Bobby Fischer famously claimed that he’d worked its defeat out to a science (“…pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!”) but the theory and practice of the Sicilian Dragon have come a long way in recent years. Not only are there new sub-variations to try – the Chinese Dragon, the Topalov Variation, the Dragadorf – but the traditional main lines have undergone extensive analysis and empirical testing. How can the Dragoneer hope to keep up?

Older one-volume introductions by Chris Ward and Mikhail Golubev are now dated. David Vigorito’s Chess Developments: The Sicilian Dragon (2011) is fairly current, but it does not cover every line. For a complete, cutting-edge repertoire, Dragon players should consider the new Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon 1 and 2 by Gawain Jones.

In theory few are better suited to cover this opening than Jones, a lifelong Dragon enthusiast with a rating in the mid-2600s. Of course Elo and experience are no guarantee of authorial talent, but after wrestling with the books for a few weeks now, I’m glad to report that Jones was up to the task.

The most critical lines in the Dragon emerge from this position:

image

White’s three main tries here are 9.Bc4, 9.g4 and 9.0-0-0. Jones treats the first two in Volume 1, and the third in Volume 2. He recommends 9…Be6 against 9.g4, and more than half of Volume 2 is devoted to sidelines. The bulk of the work focuses on 9.Bc4 and 9.0-0-0.

Against 9.Bc4, the traditional main line, Jones has two recommendations. His primary repertoire choice is the Topalov Variation (9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5), and I take it as a good sign that Jones has continued to play the line post-publication. White can dodge the Topalov with 10.h4, leading Jones to also include coverage of the Soltis (10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5) and Burnett (12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5 15.b3 b4!) Variations. Readers are thus presented with two options against the Yugoslav.

9.0-0-0 is perhaps the more critical variation in modern practice, and just under half of Volume 2 is devoted to it. After 9.0–0–0 d5 Jones analyzes 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 (the current main line of the Dragon; if 12.Nxd5 Jones recommends 12…cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7) 12…Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 when two repertoire choices are offered: the slightly offbeat 14…Qa5 15.b3 Be6!? and 14…Qc7. After 10.Kb1 Black should play 10… Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6!, and in case of 10.Qe1, Jones plumps for 10… e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.exd5 Nxd5.

[Here is a summary of these lines in replayable format.]

The repertoire presented in the two volumes of The Dragon resembles that of Peter Heine Nielsen on his recent two DVD set for ChessBase (The Sicilian Dragon for the Tournament Player), although they are not identical. Nielsen’s videos are very good in terms of explanation, but they cannot begin to match the density of information presented in Jones’ books.

And make no mistake – these are dense books. The analysis is comprehensive almost to the point of pedantry, as is typical for Quality Chess titles. Given the nature of the opening in question, such obsessive detail is perhaps warranted.

Some bones are thrown to those of us unburdened with photographic memories. There is a useful twenty page section on typical Dragon themes in Volume 1, and Jones is careful to point out standard motifs as they arise in his analysis. His notes are surprisingly verbose given how much ground he has to cover.

The two volumes of Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon provide a thorough and tested repertoire for the hardcore Dragoneer. You don’t need to be a Grandmaster to read them, but stronger players will surely derive more benefit from the sophisticated analysis. Players new to the Dragon might want to start with Nielsen’s DVDs.

Dealing with 1.d4?

This review has been printed in the December 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Schandorff, Lars. Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982941. PB 264pp. List 29.95.

Sielecki, Christof. Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781941096. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Svidler, Peter. The Grünfeld According to Svidler (ebook). Available for $19.99 as a standalone product at chess24.com or as part of their Premium membership package.

In May I reviewed six books on the Sicilian, thus helping to put 1.e4 effectively out of business. (Ha.) But what about 1.d4? How can Black hope to respond to such a move? Fear not, dear reader: this month I look at three recent books which aim to help us with that very problem.

Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav is Lars Schandorff’s latest book with Quality Chess. Taking the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 as a starting point, Schandorff offers a complete repertoire in just 264 pages. This is no mean feat, as he covers both the Botvinnik and Moscow variations along with the 8…Bb7 Meran and assorted sidelines.

Strong players are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their opening research. Schandorff’s coverage of the Botvinnik variation is inspired, at least in part, by the games of the ICCF GM Alexandr Efremov, and he uses some of Efremov’s innovations in blazing a path to safety for Black. His analysis runs well past move thirty in key lines. While he does not skirt the need for memory work, Schandorff offers readers sufficient and welcome signposts to assist in the task.

Because Schandorff is so concise in his analysis, a few details are missing. Some move order technicalities in the Botvinnik are glossed over, and readers must supplement the book with study of the Exchange Slav, Queen’s Gambit Exchange variation, or the Marshall Gambit depending on how they choose to get to his tabiya. Neither issue detracts greatly from the book, which lives up to the heady promise of its title.

Christof Sielecki is new to the chess publishing world, but he’s very well known to his twenty thousand subscribers on YouTube as ‘chessexplained.’ With his new book from Everyman, titled Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian, readers are presented with a complete repertoire after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6.

In his introduction to the book, Sielecki explains his rationale for what follows. Most Nimzo repertoires have followed what he calls a ‘light-squared’ approach, where play in the center with …d7-d5 and fianchettoing the bishop with …b7-b6 are standard motifs. One might think of Karpov’s trademark approach to combatting the 4.e3 Nimzo as emblematic in this regard.

Sielecki, in contrast, tends to recommend lines that follow a ‘dark-squared’ approach, placing central pawns on dark squares. While not all of his repertoire choices follow this path to the letter – see the anti-Hübner lines (chapters 6 and 7) in the 4.e3 Nimzo as examples – many variations share strategic themes, making them easier to learn. The Bogo and ‘Catalan-Bogo’ lines share the same general philosophy.

My silicon friends and I spent some time checking Sielecki’s analysis in the two lines for White that I know best (4.Qc2 and 4.f3). I found his analysis to be comprehensive, well sourced and well explained. The variations occasionally become heavily nested, making things hard to follow, and I abhor the ‘French flaps’ that have become standard for Everyman paperbacks. Here again, the overall quality of Sielecki’s book greatly outweighs these small defects.

The final book under review this month isn’t really a book at all. For months after the 2014 appearance of Peter Svidler’s magisterial series on the Grünfeld for chess24.com, anxious viewers longed for the set of analysis files promised by Svidler. They were published earlier this year as an eBook, and they were worth the wait.

The eBook version of The Grünfeld according to Svidler contains all of the analysis presented in the video series along with much, much more. Take the very sharp position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 c6 7.e4, for example. In the videos Svidler proposes the novelty 7…Bg7 while also briefly analyzing three alternatives for Black. The eBook contains a dramatically fuller account of 7…Bg7 along with complete analysis of the three alternatives.

There is no better guide to the Grünfeld than Svidler, and his analysis in this eBook borders on the astounding. The eBook can only be accessed in your browser, and – perhaps due to concerns over piracy – there is no easy way to save the text other than to copy it manually into your database. The effort, however, is entirely worth it.

Of the three books reviewed this month, Sielecki’s is probably the ‘simplest,’ suitable for the ambitious club player. Schandorff and Svidler present very sophisticated repertoires that require good memories and, in the most critical lines, very strong nerves. All three can be warmly recommended, but as always, readers should heed the Delphic oracle and know themselves when buying.

Six Sicilians

This review has been printed in the May 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Amatov, Zhanibek and Kostya Kavutskiy. Modernized: The Open Sicilian. Los Angeleis: Metropolitan Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-0985628116. PB 568pp. List $34.95; currently around $31 on Amazon.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982927. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Kozul, Zdenko, and Ajojzije Jankovic. The Richter Rauzer Reborn. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-9082256604. PB 316pp. List $30.99; currently around $25 on Amazon.

Negi, Parimarjan. Grandmaster Repertoire: 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1906552398. PB 360pp. List $29.95.

Rotella, Tony. The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov. London: Everyman, 2014. ISBN 978-1857446654. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Sveshnikov, Evgeny. Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056915452. PB 272pp. List $28.95; currently around $21 on Amazon.

More than 20% of all chess games begin as some form of a Sicilian Defense, if my math and MegaBase are to be trusted. It’s no wonder, then, that so many books have been written about this opening. This month I look at six books on the Sicilian that have recently appeared in my mailbox.

The Richter Rauzer Reborn is the first title from Thinkers Publishing, a new chess publishing house headed by GM Ivan Sokolov and not to be confused with Bob Long’s longtime imprint Thinker’s Press. Written by GMs Zdenko Kozul and Alojzije Jankovic, the book consists of a Black repertoire after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to what Alex Yermolinsky once called the ‘Kozul Suicide variation,’ which appears after 9.f4 b5 10.Bxf6 gxf6.

That this is a first effort from a new publisher is obvious. The cover features a chessboard that is set up incorrectly. The chapter structure and typesetting is confusing and hard to read, and the inconsistent editing does little to mitigate that fact. Still, those who hazard the Kozul variation will want this book because of the stellar analysis. Here’s hoping that future Thinkers Publishing titles feature the technical improvements necessary to do justice to the wonderful content their upcoming titles promise.

The Sveshnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5) is among the most popular variations of the Sicilian today, having been essayed with Black by some of the world’s strongest players. With Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov, GM Vassilios Kotronias has written a complete and comprehensive repertoire book in the Sveshnikov, and brilliantly so.

Kotronias does not cover every variation in the Sveshnikov, skipping (for instance) 10…Bg7 in favor of 10…f5 after 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5. What he does do is offer a response to every one of White’s key moves after move five. His analysis runs past move thirty in many instances, but I never found myself overwhelmed by it. The book is very well structured, as is typical for Quality Chess titles, and the conclusions at the end of each chapter function as useful summaries. Anyone who plays the Sveshnikov with either color needs to study this book.

Some potential buyers of The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov might dismiss the book because of its author. Tony Rotella does not have an international title. He’s not even a master, but a ‘mere’ expert in over-the-board and correspondence play. (Who does this guy think he is, anyway?!) Prejudice is never to be recommended, but it would be especially unfortunate here. Rotella has written an unusually fine book.

Much like the Sveshnikov, the Kalashnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5) admits of varying treatments. Some variations are calm and strategic in nature, while others are of immense tactical complexity. In many cases Rotella offers his readers the choice of two continuations, one tactical and one more positional in nature. The analysis is excellent indeed, but what sets the book apart is its explanations. Rotella’s prose is clear and insightful, and each chapter ends with a set of “Key Takeaways” that sum up important positional ideas.

It should be noted that Rotella’s book also contains a complete repertoire against the Anti-Sicilians. His recommendations include: 3…Nf6 against the Rossolimo, 7…Nb6 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin mainlines, and the …g6 / …e5 / …Nge7 lines of the Closed Sicilian. Against 3.Nc3 – a problematic move-order for Kalashnikov players – Rotella recommends 3…e5.

If Anti-Sicilians concern you such that you desire a ‘second opinion,’ consider Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. This is the first title in a series of three from GM Evgeny Sveshnikov, the second being devoted to the Rossolimo and the third to the Kalashnikov. Sveshnikov is a pugnacious and self-assured writer, not in the least afraid of courting controversy. In Chapter One he claims to correct no less than Botvinnik and Dvoretsky, and in the Conclusion he argues that the Polugaevsky and Dragon variations will soon be unplayable!

Sveshnikov’s book, the bombast notwithstanding, is an interesting (if idiosyncratic) set of responses to some key Anti-Sicilian lines. It uses annotated games, unlike the other books discussed thus far, to impart Sveshnikov’s recommendations, and about half of the games are from Sveshnikov’s practice. Like Rotella, he advises 3…e5 against the 3.Nc3 lines, although they differ on move orders later on. Other recommendations include …g6 / …Nf6 / …e5 lines against the Closed Sicilian, three ideas (including transposing back to the Alapin) against the Smith-Morra, and 7…dxe5 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin.

Not all books on the Sicilian are written from Black’s perspective. Recently I’ve received two books designed for those of us who have to face the Sicilian with the White pieces. Both are very good, albeit for somewhat different audiences.

Modernized: The Open Sicilian is the second title from Metropolitan Chess Publishing. The complete repertoire proposed by IM Zhanibek Amanov and FM Kostya Kavutskiy tends to favor slightly more positional (and less all-or-nothing) recipes for fighting the Sicilian. Among them: 6.h3 against the Najdorf, 6.g3 against the Kan and Taimanov, and 9.0-0-0 against the Dragon. They offer lines against minor Sicilian variations as well, including the Grivas, the Nimzowitsch, and the O’Kelly. Using densely annotated games to carry the analysis, the book is well researched and the repertoire choices make sense for the practical player.

Grandmaster Repertoire 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I is a clunky title for a fantastic book. This is the second entry in GM Parimarjan Negi’s 1.e4 series, the first of which (1.e4 vs The French, Caro-Kann and Philidor) deservedly won the 2014 ChessPub.com Book of the Year award. In his new book Negi turns 6.Bg5 into a fearsome weapon against the Najdorf suitable even for his Grandmaster readers. This is a serious book for advanced players, one that will drive the theoretical discussion on the Najdorf for the foreseeable future.

I find it useful to study points of convergence between opening books, particularly those that advocate for different sides of the same positions. There are three such intersections among the books reviewed this month, coming from Modernized: The Open Sicilian for White and The Killer Sicilian and Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov for Black. I’ll close this column by looking briefly at each of them.

In Modernized… Amanov and Kavutskiy advocate the trendy 11.c4 against the Sveshnikov, with their main line being 11…b4 12.Nc2 0-0 13. 13.g3 0–0 14.h4. Here Kotronias advocates the pawn sacrifice 14…a4!?, and while his mainline is 15.Ncxb4 Nxb4 16.Nxb4 Qb6 17.a3 Bd8, he also discusses 15.Bg2 and 15.Bh3.

With the benefit of seeing Kotronias’ book before theirs went to press, Amanov and Kavutskiy recommend 15.Bg2 Be6 16.0–0 b3 and attempt to better Kotronias’ 17.Nce3 with the ‘novelty’ 17.axb3!. Their analysis proceeds: 17…axb3 18.Rxa8 Qxa8 19.Nxf6+ gxf6 20.Ne3 Nd4 21.f4! and White has the initiative. 17.axb3 does seem to improve on Kotronias, but unfortunately, it is not a novelty. Amanov and Kavutskiy do not refer to correspondence games in their book; if they did, they might have found Schramm-Jordan (corr. 2010) which anticipated their line in full.

There is more sustained overlap between Modernized… and The Killer Sicilian. Amanov and Kavutskiy propose that White play 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.c4 Be7 7.N1c3 a6 8.Na3 against the Kalashnikov, and Rotella analyzes both 8…Be6 and 8…f5. Their disagreement after 8…Be6 9.Be2 Nd4 10.0–0 Nf6 11.Be3 Nxe2+ 12.Qxe2 0–0 13.f3 Rc8 14.Rac1 Nh5 15.Qd2 f5 16.exf5 Rxf5 17.g4 Rg5 18.Kh1 Nf4 is minor. Rotella thinks that Black has fine counterplay after 19.Rce1, while Amanov and Kavutskiy assess 19.Rfe1 as +/=.

The divergence after 8…f5 is perhaps more interesting. After 9.exf5 Bxf5 10.Nc2 Nf6 11.Ne3 Be6 12.g3 Nd4 13.Bg2 b5 14.cxb5 axb5 15.Ncd5 Rc8 16.0–0 0–0 17.b3 Kh8 18.Nxe7 Qxe7 19.Bb2 Nf5 20.Nxf5 Bxf5 21.Rc1 we reach a position that deserves a diagram.

image

Both books argue that 21.Rc1 improves on an old Smirnov-Radjabov game, but they disagree on their assessment of the ensuing position. Rotella writes that “[a] better try for White might be 21.Rc1 Qd7 22.Qe2, though 22…Bg4 23.Rxc8 Rxc8 24.Qd2 Bh3 seems about equal too.” Amanov and Kavutskiy think White has “…a noticeable plus. The two bishops are clearly felt here, and the b-pawn remains a chronic weakness.” I think this is a little optimistic, and that Black is just fine here. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise! Readers?

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

image

As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

image

The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!

Putting a Second in your Corner

This review has been printed in the April 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

There was a curious moment at the opening press conference for the 2013 World Championship Match. A local reporter asked the players to name their “seconds.” Anand answered first, cheerfully disclosing the makeup of his four person team. After thanking Anand for his “openness,” Carlsen said that he would not return the favor.

Why the secrecy? Why wouldn’t Carlsen reveal who he’d been working with?

And what’s a second anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a second was originally an assistant in dueling. If he could not negotiate a satisfactory means of regaining honor, your chosen second – usually a friend or family member – helped you in your preparation for battle and saw that the agreed conditions of the duel were met.

In chess, a second is something like a research assistant, a sparring partner, and a confidant all rolled into one. Because adjournments no longer exist, and because the opening has become so important in the post-Kasparov era, the modern second works primarily on openings.

Perhaps this was why Carlsen was so reluctant to name the members of his team. Knowing who your opponent employs as an opening analyst might give you some insight into their match preparation.

Carlsen must have known he’d face the same question in the run-up to the 2014 rematch with Anand, because, when asked, he had a prepared answer: “there’s the Dane [Peter Heine Nielsen], and there’s the Hammer [Jon Ludvig Hammer], and that’s about it.” But this was only half-true. Among Carlsen’s other, ‘secret’ assistants was Mickey Adams. Had Anand known this, he might well have predicted some of Carlsen’s openings in Sochi.

The wide availability of databases and powerful engines would seem to obviate the need for a second, but many world-class grandmasters still retain them. Garry Kasparov had Yuri Dokhoian as his second for many years; after Kasparov’s retirement, Dokhoian was hired by Sergey Karjakin. Elizbar Ubilava worked for Anand for about ten years before he was replaced by Peter Heine Nielsen. Nielsen was then poached by Team Carlsen before the 2013 Anand match, but he recused himself from that contest in the interest of fairness.

Right now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I might be a mere B player, but I also employ a second. In fact, I employ twelve of them, and for a price that is a true pittance, you can too.

ChessPublishing.com is a subscription-based opening analysis website owned and operated by Grandmaster Tony Kosten. The concept is simple. Recent games with opening innovations are annotated every month by leading theoreticians and sorted into sections. Each section update consists of approximately five to ten games. Subscribers can purchase access to one or more sections, and they can view both the monthly updates and archived data while their subscriptions remain active. They can also access their subscriptions through the Forward Chess app.

ChessPublishing.com divides its data into twelve sections. Because the way in which the sections are constructed is slightly idiosyncratic, let me list each section with its contents and its current author, and in the order that they appears on the website.

  • 1.e4 e5 (ECO C20-C99): GM Victor Mikhalevski covers the full range of the Open Games.
  • French (ECO C00-C19): No one knows the French better than IM John Watson, and he is your guide through the thickets of French theory.
  • Dragons (ECO B27, B34-39 & B70-79): The ever-popular Sicilian Dragon gets its own section, and GM Chris Ward is its long-time editor.
  • Open Sicilians (ECO B32-33, B40-49, B54-69 & B80-99): GM Michael Roiz is (at the time of writing) the highest rated section chief, and his updates cover all the non-Dragon Open Sicilians.
  • Anti-Sicilians (ECO B20-31 & B50-55): GM David Smerdon analyzes all of White’s attempts to avoid the Open Sicilian. He is a particular expert in the 2.c3 lines.
  • 1.e4… (ECO B01-B19): The remaining defenses to 1.e4 – Alekhine’s Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Pirc/Modern and the Scandinavian – are all found here, with new ideas carefully scrutinized by GM Neil McDonald.
  • 1.d4 d5 (ECO D06-66 & E01-09): IM Max Illingworth analyzes innovations in the Queen’s Gambit (Accepted and Declined), the Slav, the Semi-Slav, and the Catalan.
  • d-Pawn Specials (ECO A45-49 & D00-05): For the fanatics! Openings like the Colle, the London, the Torre and the Trompowsky are scrutinized by IM Richard Palliser. There is extensive coverage of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit in the archives.
  • King’s Indian (ECO A41-42, A53-55, A68-69 & E60-99): IM David Vigorito covers all the latest trends in the King’s Indian Defense. The Old Indian also appears here.
  • Nimzo & Benoni (ECO A40, A43-44, A50, A56, A60-79 & E10-59): Many players pair the Nimzo-Indian with the Benoni in their repertoire, in part to avoid the Taimanov Benoni. GM John Emms covers both openings in this section, throwing in the newest ideas in the Queen’s Indian and the Bogo-Indian to boot.
  • Daring Defenses (ECO A40, A50-52, A57-59, A80-99, B00, D08-09, D70-99 & E10): GM Glenn Flear treats some of the most dynamic defenses to 1.d4 in this section, including the Albin, the Benko, the Budapest, the Dutch and the Grunfeld.
  • Flank Openings (A00-39): Site owner GM Tony Kosten covers all of the Flank Openings. 1.c4 and the Reti are the main subjects of inquiry, but the King’s Indian Attack, the Bird and Larsen’s 1.b3 are also analyzed here.

Let’s take a closer look at one update and see what ChessPublishing.com has to offer. Chess Life readers can examine Richard Palliser’s February update of the d-Pawn Specials section at this link, courtesy of Tony Kosten.

Suppose, just for argument’s sake, that I play the Trompowsky. It is becoming popular again – there are two new books about it and a video series on chess24.com – and I want to keep tabs on its theory. How to proceed?

Mark Crowther releases game and news updates for The Week in Chess every Monday night. So perhaps I might download the new database each week, search for games in the Tromp, and try to discern what’s new or important. This is not a simple task for a class player, even for someone well equipped with books, databases and engines.

In Palliser’s February update I find four Trompowskys, although two transpose to other lines. The games are well-annotated, and new ideas are put in the context of existing theory. Some of the games are of real theoretical relevance, while others, like Popov-Mozharov (Parsvnath Open 2015), are just plain fun to study.

I know that some will see this as wish fulfillment – and they might not be wrong! – but I can’t help but see each section editor as my own virtual second, lending me their theoretical expertise each month. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. There are multiple IMs and GMs who subscribe, with former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov being the most well-known among them.

Palliser’s updates are among the best on the site, but there are others of note. John Watson, who used to handle the Flank Openings and 1.e4… sections, does a bang-up job with the French Defense. David Vigorito and Glenn Flear are excellent as well. I had worried about the 1.d4 d5 section when GM Ruslan Scherbakov was forced to take a leave of absence, but the young Australian Max Illingworth is proving himself up to the task.

Among the other benefits for subscribers, a few stand out. Opening summary files (“ChessPub Guides”) are updated each month and made available in .pgn format. Some sections also have ebooks in .pdf and ChessBase formats, although these are not updated as regularly. At the time of writing there are 940 ChessPub Guides available, along with over 22,000 annotated games in the complete ChessPublishing .pgn archives.

There are four levels of paid membership. Access to one section is $19.50/year. Any three are available for $39, while six cost $69. A subscription to all twelve sections is $99 for the year. If updates are late, as sometimes happens, I have seen subscriptions be extended so that members receive twelve full updates.

I find ChessPublishing.com to be an indispensible resource, and not just as a tournament player. Elizabeth Spiegel (formerly Vicary) noted its value for chess teaching in her 2007 CLO article on “E. Vicary’s Top 10 Teaching Books.” As she wrote, you can quickly find annotated examples of most any opening variation in its archives. It has saved the bacon of this chess coach more than once.

If you remain unconvinced or uninterested, let me suggest one more website to visit. ChessPub.com, owned and operated by ChessPublishing.com, is a free forum devoted primarily to analysis and discussion. While the site was originally conceived as a kind of advertisment for its subscription-only sibling, ChessPub.com has taken on a life of its own. There is a lot of high-quality material there, mostly about opening theory, but the Endgames section is also of particular interest. No less an authority than Mark Dvoretsky has cited some of its posts in his books!

Sabotage!

This review has been published online at the website for the British Chess Magazine, and it will appear in their January 2015 issue. A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to James Pratt for allowing me to do so.

—–

Kaufman, Larry. Sabotage the Grunfeld: A Cutting-Edge Repertoire for White based on 3.f3. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056914400. PB 176pp. List $24.95.

Sabotage the Grunfeld takes as its tabiya the position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.f3. 3.f3 has been a popular anti-Grunfeld weapon in recent years, but Black also retains the possibility of transposing into a Samisch King’s Indian. Kaufman covers both eventualities in this book.

Chapter One is an overview of important games in the history of 3.f3 from both Grunfeld and KID persepctives. The chronological ordering of the games, while entirely logical from a historical perspective, tends to obscure the theoretical value (if any) of the games in question. Black players might mine these games for ideas that are no longer trendy, but ultimately I find the chapter to be superfluous, perhaps serving to fill out what might otherwise be a thin volume indeed.

Chapter Two covers what Kaufman calls “Third Move Offshoots,” or those responses to 3.f3 that are neither 3…d5 nor 3…Bg7 (heading for the Samisch). 3…e5, 3…Nc6, 3…e6 and 3…c5 are all discussed. Kaufman’s analysis of 3…Nc6 is of particular interest, as it is the move he recommended in the Grunfeld part of his 2012 Kaufman Repertoire for Black and White. There he thinks that the move leads to equality; here, he hedges his bets a bit, saying that “the line remains quite playable for Black, if not fully equal.” (49)

The ‘mainline’ of the 3.f3 Grunfeld is discussed in Chapter Three. After 3…d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.0-0-0 we reach something of a theoretical crossroads. Avrukh recommends 9…f5, while Svidler prefers 9…Qd6 in his chess24 video series. I spent some time comparing Kaufman’s analysis with Svidler’s, and I found – keeping in mind that Svidler’s full analysis remains unavailable from chess24 – that Kaufman’s work was not inferior to Svidler’s. While they recommended different moves at various points, there was no notable disagreement save one case where Kaufman refuted, in a manner of speaking, one of Svidler’s variations. (Note that Svidler’s videos went live after Kaufman went to press.)

What if Black chooses to transpose to a King’s Indian? Chapter Four covers Samisch systems where Black plays …c7-c5. The ‘Dzindzichashvili Gambit’ (6.Be3 c5 7.dxc5) is not recommended for White, as Kaufman believes that Black can always achieve full equality if the gambit is accepted. (117) He includes analysis of the line in case readers might try the line with Black, and champions the very rare 10.Be3 after 7.dxc5 dxc5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.Bxc5 Nc6. I suspect that it is not coincidental that Komodo also prefers 10.Be3 in this position; more on this shortly.

White should therefore refrain from accepting the Dzindzi Gambit and rather play 7.Nge2 after 6.Be3 c5; or, better, she should consider playing 6.Nge2 if she wants to avoid simplifying lines. After 6.Be3 c5 7.Nge2 Nc6 8.d5 Black can (following Bojkov’s new book) play 8…Qa5, transposing to drawish positions that resemble the Accelerated Dragon. 6.Nge2 c5 7.d5 is to be preferred.

Black’s other options in the Samisch are discussed in Chapter 5. While 6.Be3 and 6.Nge2 seem to transpose to one another (as the two moves will be played one after another in most games) Kaufman seems to give something of an argument for the latter order here. Against the Byrne, White should play c4-c5, following Schandorff. Against the Panno, Kaufman recommends 9.Rc1, a move he analysed at length in NIC Yearbook 91 and that Schandorff also promoted. The slight argument for playing 6.Nge2 first comes into play when Black counters with 6…e5, as this allows White the option of both 7.Bg5 and 7.Be3. The chapter concludes with a recent (February 2014) game where Kaufman won against 6.Be3 Nc6 7.Nge2 e5?!, where “White should be better off here than in the Classical with his pawn already on f3.” (160).

Sabotage the Grunfeld is one of the first chess books to fully and publicly integrate computer analysis into its text. All responsible authors check their analysis with chess engines, of course, but Kaufman – one of the authors of Komodo – takes this a step further by citing specific numerical engine evaluations in the text. As he explains it in the Introduction to the book,

Virtually everything in this book has been checked by the two strongest engines at the time of writing, Houdini 3 and (at a later stage) 4, and Komodo, for at least 15 minutes per position, usually more. […] I tend to favor Komodo’s analysis over Houdini both because I better understand where the scores are coming from, and because I believe that Komodo’s evaluations are on average a bit more realistic in human terms. […] Komodo seems to ‘like’ the white side of most of the recommended lines in this book more than Houdini, correctly so in my opinion as the lines in question do score well for White in human practice. (8-9)

Setting aside the danger of confirmation bias, I worry that the inclusion of bare numerical evaluations is more marketing fodder than it is useful information. Kaufman does not tell us which version of Komodo has spit out the evaluation in question, nor does he mention the ply depth of the analysis or the hardware used. (He cites Komodo TCEC in the bibliography, but nowhere else.) There is also the remote possibility that Komodo might not always be right.

As I played through the analysis in the book, Komodo and Houdini churning away, I was struck by how many times Kaufman recommended Komodo’s first move. At times I wondered whether some of the differences in Kaufman and Svidler’s analysis came down to the engine they were using as they worked.

Readers can feel confident that Kaufman’s work in Sabotage the Grunfeld is both thorough and accurate. He wrangles with most of the literature in the variation, although – curiously – he cites Avrukh in the Bibliography but not in the text, and Schandorff’s books are not cited. The analysis is unbiased and comprehensive, and Kaufman tends to provide enough verbal guidance to assist his non-master readers. Players looking for a new weapon against the Indian Defenses would do well to consider buying this book.

The author is an American Grandmaster.

The Cult of Tamburro

This review has been printed in the October 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Tamburro, Pete. Openings for Amateurs. Newton Highlands: Mongoose Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1936277506. PB 360 pp. List $24.95. Currently $19ish at Amazon.

Consider the following situation: it’s the last round of an important tournament. You spent weeks before the event preparing your openings, having just purchased the hot new book on the XYZ variation, and your mind is crammed full with analysis. The game begins; miracle of miracles, the XYZ variation appears on the board, and you come to the end of your preparation. And then… you have no idea as to how to continue.

Sound familiar? Anyone?

There is a reason that chess teachers will trot out the hackneyed truism about focusing on ideas and not variations for amateur players. For the vast majority of us – we who lack photographic memories and unlimited time for study – it’s just not practical to play the uber-theoretical lines that dominate super-GM practice. We would do better to skip the search for novelties at move 30 and instead try to understand the ideas behind moves 5, 10 and 15.

There have been a few books over the years written according to this philosophy. Reuben Fine’s The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings is the most famous of these. How to Open a Chess Game, by Evans et al, is another good book along these lines, while Sam Collins’ Understanding the Chess Openings is a more recent rendering. The four volumes of John Watson’s Mastering the Chess Openings, while decidedly more advanced and analytical, also embody something of this ideal.

Pete Tamburro has been advocating the ‘ideas over variations’ approach to the openings for some time now. Tamburro, a USCF-rated expert, has worn many chess hats. He writes a chess newspaper column, has served as the President of the Chess Journalists of America, and is a frequent contributor to these very pages. But it was his opening videos for chess.fm in the mid-00s, along with his posts at the New Jersey State Chess Association website, that made him something of a cult figure among chess fans. With his new book, Openings for Amateurs, I expect that the cult of Tamburro will grow.

Written for players between 1100-1900 (11), the two halves of Openings for Amateurs attempt to address two facets of opening instruction. The first half, “[t]he Primer,” is a series of sketches or mini-lessons on various opening topics. There are short essays devoted to topics like “be[ing] ever vigilant for Bxf7+” (69) and much longer ones on gambits and countergambits (73-95), offbeat openings (116-123), and defending against ‘preplanned’ variations like the Colle (123-136). While much of the advice is general in nature, a few lessons reappear throughout, including: Don’t waste time in the opening. Don’t neglect tactics. Don’t be an opening ‘robot’ (26-27) who whips out moves without understanding.

The second half of the book, also called “Openings for Amateurs,” is a distillation of many of Tamburro’s chess.fm videos and messageboard posts. Here the reader is presented with a possible opening repertoire that minimizes memorization while maximizes strategic comfort and clarity. Some of the details of the repertoire appear in the first part of the book – there is quite a bit of overlap – so readers are advised not to skip it.

For White, Tamburro follows Fischer and proposes that we play 1.e4. The Sicilian is met with a hodge-podge of anti-Sicilians (4.Qxd4 vs 2…d6, the c3 Sicilian, the Rossolimo and the Closed). The French is met with the Tarrasch variation (3.Nd2) while the Caro-Kann gets the ‘Fantasy’ treatment (3.f3). The Four Knights and the g3 Vienna are suggested against 1…e5, and Alekhine’s Defense, the Pirc/Modern, and the Scandinavian are countered with solid, if slightly irregular, variations.

Tamburro offers two systems for playing Black against 1.e4 and 1.d4. He suggests that we play 1…e5 (Two Knights, 4…Nf6 vs Scotch, the Ruy Lopez) against 1.e4; if that is not to the reader’s liking, the Dragon is offered as an alternative. Against the d-pawn, Tamburro argues for our adopting the Nimzo-Indian, with the Dutch standing as our alternative. A section on Botvinnik’s treatment of the English rounds out the repertoire.

No book is perfect, and Openings for Amateurs is no exception. Tamburro’s proposed variation (241) in the Two Knights – the Fritz/Ulvestad – is busted after 8.cxd4 Qxg5 9.Bxb5+ Kd8 10.0-0! (his punctuation) Bb7 11. Qf3 Rb8! 12.dxe5 Ne3! 13.Qh3 Qxg2+ 14.Qxg2 Nxg2 15.d4, when Black has no route to equality. I also found it somewhat strange that Tamburro recommends the Dragon, one of the most theoretical openings around, as part of a repertoire designed to minimize memory work. But these are both minor complaints set against the book as a whole, which I think succeeds admirably at fulfilling its stated goals. If you’re a club player looking to improve both the theory and practice of their openings, Openings for Amateurs might be the book for you.

Learning Openings with Online Videos

This review essay has been printed in the August 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

——

Frank Brady, friend and biographer of Bobby Fischer, tells a story about his asking the future world champion for chess lessons in 1964. “For the first lesson,” Fischer told him, “I want you to play over every column of Modern Chess Openings, including footnotes.” Brady, understandably shocked, asked Fischer what they’d cover next. “And for the next lesson,” came the reply, “I want you to do it again.”[1]

Was Fischer serious? Probably not. Still, the severity of his proposed methods makes clear the import he placed on the opening, on its study, and on the value of Modern Chess Openings in the pre-computer age.

There is, of course, still a place for the one-volume encyclopedia in 21st Century chess, but today we have more options for learning our openings. New monographs continue to be published at a steady clip and on increasingly esoteric topics. The Informant series and the New in Chess Yearbooks are locked in a battle for superiority and market-share. Those slightly ahead of the curve subscribe to ChessPublishing.com, which provides monthly theoretical updates in twelve opening sub-fields.

But most popular, especially with the younger crowd, are videos. I realized this when a local junior recently ventured the Colorado Counter-Gambit (1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 f5?!?) against me in a club game. Not knowing this particular pawn-push – it wasn’t in MCO! – I asked where he’d learned it. The answer, naturally, was an online video.

In this essay I’ll review five of the paid video sites in alphabetical order, focusing specifically on their offerings in the opening. Each site has content worthy of your time and money. The goal of this review is to point you in the right direction to begin your studies.

Chess.com

Chess.com, along with its sister site chesskid.com, is probably the largest chess website in the world by userbase. While many of its diverse features are free to all users, only Diamond members ($99/yr, $14/mo) can watch videos. The videos consist of a 2D chessboard with voiceover, and they stream in your browser or inside a chess.com mobile app. A few of the videos come with pgns for future study, but none are available for individual purchase or download.

There are many IMs and GMs among the chess.com stable of authors, and more than a few have produced video series on their pet systems – Keaton Kiewra on the Dragon, for instance, or Eugene Perelshteyn on the King’s Indian. Fans of Roman Dzindzichashvili will note his prolific output for the site, with many of his videos devoted to diverse topics in the opening. Ben Finegold, currently on the chess.com and chesskid.com staff, is equally busy with opening videos.

Searching for specific opening tabiya or series is a bit clunky, as tagging is haphazard, but time poring through the archives is well spent. Sam Shankland’s 2009 series on the Najdorf is worth your attention, and Gregory Kaidanov’s videos on a 1.e4 repertoire for White are great for class players.

Chess24.com

Chess24 is the newest of the sites under review, and while it remains a work in progress, its early days have been quite promising. The site is the home for the web coverage of the Tromso Chess Olympiad, and the Norway Chess 2014 event was broadcast there. Chess24 has also lured a number of top players to their studios to produce videos, including two former world champions (Kasimdzhanov and Anand) and multiple 2600+ players.

Much of the early advertising for Chess24 featured a video series by Peter Svidler on the Grunfeld, and with good reason: the videos are fantastic. Over the course of 12+ hours, Svidler gives viewers an in-depth look at his approach to the Grunfeld, and he holds nothing back in his analysis. All of White’s tries are covered, and lines against 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 are included. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Videos stream in your browser, but not in the Chess24 mobile app. The presenter appears to the right of a 2D board, with the moves appearing on the 2D board in synchronicity with her words. The board and pieces are slightly jarring on first glance, but you get used to them quickly enough. Links to an opening database and an analytical engine appear beneath the board, and you can pause the video to try a move on the board and see the engine’s analysis. No pgns are available, but e-books for some videos may appear by the time of the Olympiad.

All videos are available to Premium members ($135.99/yr), or they can be purchased individually. Svidler’s series is available for $39.99. Other opening series of note include Jan Gustafsson on building a 1.d4 repertoire ($15.99), Sopiko Guramishvili on the Najdorf ($15.99), and Robin van Kampen on the King’s Indian ($24.99).

ChessBase

ChessBase is a behemoth in the world of chess software. They sell ChessBase 12, the database used by most every titled player in the world, along with analytical engines like Houdini and Fritz. ChessBase has turned increasing attention to chess videos, and given their prominence in the chess world, many strong European players record videos for ChessBase when they pass through Hamburg.

Videos from ChessBase can only be viewed from within ChessBase, the Fritz/Houdini programs, or the free ChessBase Reader. All are Windows only, leaving non-savvy Linux and Mac users out in the cold. Moves appear on the chessboard in synchronicity with the presenter video, and all of the features of the ChessBase interface are available to the user. You can check a move with your engine of choice while the video runs, and the analysis given in each video is nearly always provided for future study.

Most of the ChessBase videos are available to purchase via download. Prices range from €9.90 for the ’60 Minutes’ series of videos to €29.90 for current full-length DVDs. There is value at both ends of the spectrum. Super-GMs like Shirov and van Wely have made engaging videos in the ’60 Minutes’ series on the Winawer and the Najdorf, respectively, and I have given Henrik Danielsen’s video on the London System a positive review on my blog (chessbookreviews.wordpress.com).

Among full-length DVDs, Peter Heine Nielsen, former assistant to Anand and current Carlsen second, has recorded an impressive twopart series on the Dragon, with some of his analysis reaching into the endgame. I have also found the ‘ChessBase Tutorials’ series on the openings to be quite useful. Between the five DVDs in the series, nearly every major opening system or variation is summarized in about fifteen minutes time, making them handy for your next game against the local Grob fanatic.

Chessclub.com

I’ve been a member of chessclub.com – which I still call by its old name, ICC, or the Internet Chess Club – since it went commercial in 1995, and I still tend to think of it in terms of all-night blitz binges from college. In recent years, however, ICC has put a lot of time and effort into its video offerings, and it now competes on a fairly even playing field with all the other sites discussed in this piece.

There are multiple types of membership at ICC, ranging from the month-to-month ($9.95/mo) to the yearly ($69.95/yr), but all paid members are able to view all video content on the site. Three series are of particular interest as regards the opening: Ronen Har-Zvi’s opening videos, Boris Alterman’s ‘Gambit Guides,’ and – especially – John Watson’s ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ series. (Disclosure: I have taken lessons from John and consider him a friend.)

In ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense,’ Watson offers viewers opening repertoires specifically designed for club players, and for both colors. Recent series have focused on the Queen’s Gambit, the French, and 1.e4, among others. The videos are a deft mix of ideas and analysis, and players of all temperaments can find something to suit their needs.

While ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ is still in production, you’ll have to dig into the archives to find videos on the opening from Ronen Har-Zvi and Boris Alterman. Alterman’s videos focused on opening gambits, and they served as the basis for his two books from Quality Chess on the same subject. Har-Zvi’s videos covered a broad swath of opening lines with his trademark enthusiasm.

Non-members are now able to purchase and download many of these videos, with prices usually running about $2.99 per video. Oddly there is no discount when buying a multi-video series. Some videos come with pgns, but the detail contained in the files varies greatly. All videos are viewable in ICC’s app for iOS and in your browser.

ChessLecture.com

Chesslecture.com is not the fanciest website around, but what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in content. There are 2300+ videos available as I write these words, giving Chesslecture.com one of the deepest archives of material around. Many of the leading video authors have recorded for Chesslecture or do so now. It is currently the exclusive home for two of the best video authors around: Dennis Monokroussos and David Vigorito.

The website is mainly text driven, but the search options are plentiful once you learn where to look. You can sort videos by author or broad category on the left side of the screen, and there is a search box at the top right that allows queries by title, keyword, ECO code or author. The indexing and tagging of specific videos leaves something to be desired, but you can generally find what you want without excessive difficulty.

There are a lot of gems hidden in the back catalogue. David Vigorito’s videos are consistently excellent. His early series on the Bb5 Sicilian and the Tarrasch Defense remain useful and, generally speaking, theoretically valid. Any of Vigorito’s series, quite frankly, can be recommended without hesitation.

Membership at Chesslecture.com begins at $99.99/yr or $12.95/mo; if you want to download videos, you must be a Gold member ($229.99/yr or $24.95/mo). Some videos come with pgns, but again, detail varies greatly. Members can buy custom DVDs with their choice of video content, and non-members can purchase some Chesslecture.com content in DVD format at onlinechesslessons.net. [Correction: You can also buy ChessLecture videos on DVD at dvd.chesslecture.com directly from ChessLecture.]

YouTube

Some readers might be looking at all the dollar signs in this review and wondering about free alternatives. They do exist, although – as is always the case with ‘amateur’ content – quality can vary greatly. Let me point out six YouTube users to whom you might want to subscribe.

Chessexplained: Christof Sielecki, a German IM, offers his blitz games, tournament recaps, and a number of series on opening repertoires.

GregShahadechess: These videos by Greg Shahade usually involve his talking through his thoughts as he plays online games or solves puzzles. Very educational, but the language can get a little rough for sensitive viewers.

GJ_Chess: Gunjan Jani is the source for the videos on the Colorado Counter-Gambit mentioned above. What he lacks in playing strength he makes up for in enthusiasm and self-promotion!

kingscrusher: Tryfon Gavriel is a prolific producer of video, with 5000+ videos on YouTube. Gavriel analyzes games and talks through his online blitz games.

STLChessClub: All lectures from the St Louis Chess Club are recorded and appear here. The lectures are by GMs and IMs who visit the club.

Zibbit: Icelandic FM Ingvar Johannesson focuses on game analysis in his videos.


[1] This story has been told by Brady in a few forms, the most widely known of which can be found in his classic Bobby Fischer: Profiles of a Prodigy (260). He dates the exchange in a speech in Dallas in November 2011.

Bojkov on the KID

This review has been printed in the June 2014 issue of the British Chess Magazine.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at BCM for allowing me to do so.

—–

Bojkov, Dejan.  Modernized: The King’s Indian Defense.  Los Angeles: Metropolitan Chess Publishing, 2014. 365pp. ISBN 978-0985628109. PB $24.99; currently slightly less on Amazon.

The King’s Indian Defense spent a few years in the wilderness after Kasparov famously gave it up in the late 1990s. It has recently found new champions in Nakamura and Radjabov, and analysts like Dejan Bojkov – like Vigorito and Kotronias before him – are assisting with its resurgence.

This the first book from Metropolitan Chess Publishing, the publishing arm of a group of Los Angeles organisers and teachers. Dejan Bojkov is a well-known grandmaster and author of chess videos for chess.com and ChessBase. This is his second book, having previously co-written A Course in Chess Tactics for Gambit. Modernized… is his second analytical foray into the King’s Indian Defense, as he made the DVD, A Modern Way to Play the King’s Indian for ChessBase in 2011. Some readers might be concerned about the potential overlap between this new book and the DVD, and indeed, some of the repertoire recommendations are the same.

Modernized… (book) A Modern Way (DVD)
Classical 6 Be2 e5 7 0-0 exd4 6…Na6
Samisch 6 Be3 c5; 6 Bg5 a6 6.Be3 c5; 6.Bg5 a6
Four Pawns 5…0-0 6 Nf3 e5 (also 6…Na6 followed by …e5) 5…0-0 6 Nf3 Na6 and 7 Be2 e5, 7 Bd3 Bg4
‘Averbakh’ (Be2 + Bg5) 5 Be2 0-0 6 Bg5 Na6 5 Be2 0-0 6.Bg5 Na6
‘Bagirov’ (Nf3 + h3) 5 Nf3 0-0 6 h3 Na6 5 Nf3 0-0 6.h3 Na6
Fianchetto Kavalek (…c6, …Qa5) Kavalek (…c6, …Qa5)
Other N/A Seirawan variation (5 Bd3, 6 Nge2)

It’s clear that Bojkov’s ‘modernized’ King’s Indian is not the classic, ‘civilized’ (Shelby Lyman) race of pawn storms on opposing flanks. Bojkov’s repertoire choices attempt to keep piece play fluid while maximizing flexibility.

The analysis in Modernized… is given as a series of complete games. This has advantages and drawbacks, the most notable of which is that the analysis often continues long past the point of relevance to the opening. Where the recommendations are the same as that of the DVD, Bojkov has updated and augmented his analysis. In the Kavalek variation, for instance, Bojkov patches a hole from the DVD by grappling with an Avrukh suggestion. Still, attentive readers will note that few (if any) references are given to post-2012 practice, leading one to rightfully wonder when and how the updating took place.

Bojkov is a skilled analyst, and the density allowed by the print medium is a boon to his readers. There is a lot of analysis packed into these pages, and a judicious mix of prose and moves makes for a comfortable read. Also included are a series of ‘memory markers,’ or key positions re-iterated after each chapter, along with a number of exercises designed to test what the reader has learned. Both add to the text, although some of the ‘memory markers’ come from positions too deep in the game to be of much use.

Bojkov’s book is a practical and well-executed take on a King’s Indian repertoire. Players looking to avoid a memorization contest in the ultra-main lines would do well to look here for inspiration. It can be recommended to club players and above, but I suspect that even the FIDE titled readers of BCM would find Modernized useful. The author is a Bulgarian grandmaster.