Category Archives: Studies

You little stinkers…

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

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Roycroft, John. Stinking Bishops. self-published. ISBN 978-1-869874-20-9. PB, 84 + xiv pp. Available from USCF Sales ($19.95) and Chess4Less ($10.00).

No one writes chess books to get rich. Sales figures for even the most famous of chess writers pale in comparison to the Franzens and Grishams of the publishing world. Still, most authors expect to make at least a little money on their books. Chess publishing remains a for-profit enterprise, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Cash, as the Wu-Tang Clan said, rules everything around me, and this is why there are always new opening and improvement books being published. They might sell!

Imagine my delight, then, when I read John Roycroft’s Stinking Bishops, an eminently uncommercial work if ever there were one! Stinking Bishops – named after a fetid English cheese that, when cut, resembles a Bishop’s mitre – is an 84 page self-published book devoted to just two endgame positions. Both are presented here, and White is to move in both cases.

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‘Unlike bishops’

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‘Like bishops’

[Notice anything strange about the second diagram? The double check appears to be impossible, right? Not if (Black was to move) there was a black pawn on e2 that captured a White piece on d1 and promoted to a rook! Odd indeed… but not impossible.]

What’s so interesting about these two positions that they merit such attention? Each one represents the maximum length win for rook, bishop and pawn vs. rook and bishop according to 7-man tablebases (exhaustive databases of endgame positions). It’s White to move and win in 184 moves in the ‘like bishops’ diagram, and a ‘mere’ 159 moves to victory in the ‘unlike bishops’ position.

I know what you’re thinking: “watching paint dry would be more fun than reading this book.” Were this book written by just anyone, you might be right. But John Roycroft is not just anyone, and this is not just any book. Roycroft is the former editor of EG, the world’s definitive endgame and study magazine, and an International Judge of Chess Compositions. He is also familiar with the world of computing, having worked for IBM for many years.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of the ‘oracle’ – Roycroft’s honorific for the tablebase – from a practical perspective. What good is winning in 159 (or 184) moves when over-the-board endgames can be drawn in 50? (USCF Rule 14F, ‘The Fifty-Move Rule’) What’s the point of studying such endgames when no human can possibly remember the exact sequence of moves needed to win?

Roycroft pulls off a very neat trick in Stinking Bishops. He takes the arcane moves given by the tablebase and goes some distance in discerning the hidden logic beneath them. Each position is first presented with a raw list of moves that lead to the forced win, and then Roycroft investigates dozens of the key moves and positions. His notes are witty and wordy, often addressed to an imagined interlocutor, and they effectively assist the reader in grasping the necessity of certain moves as White marches to victory.

In his foreword to the book, Chess Life’s own Daniel Naroditsky congratulates Roycroft for his ability to explain the esoteric moves of the computer in very human ways, saying that he “was unable to put the book down” until he’d finished it! Not all of us are endgame columnists, of course, but Stinking Bishops really is a delightful romp through two (sometimes mind-numbingly complex) endings.

I can’t imagine that this book will sell well, given its topic and that there is no publisher to promote it. Still, I don’t think Roycroft will mind. This was a book written for love of the game, and it will – perhaps with the help of this review – find its way into the hands of those who will appreciate its many, many charms.

The Soviet Chess Primer

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

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Maizelis, Ilya. The Soviet Chess Primer. trans. John Sugden. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982996. PB 400pp. List $24.95, currently $19ish on Amazon.

Until very recently it was hard to imagine Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov agreeing on much of anything. That changed when each man ran unsuccessfully to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as President of FIDE. Nevertheless, as someone who remembers the white-hot rivalry of their world championship matches, I was startled when I received the new translation of Ilya Maizelis’ The Soviet Chess Primer from Quality Chess. Both Karpov and Kasparov are quoted on the cover, and they both love this book.

And it’s not just the two K’s who are fans. In his Foreword to this edition, Mark Dvoretsky describes his youthful encounter with Maizelis’ book, calling it “dear to me” and recounting how his personal copies were often ‘lost’ after being lent out. Tigran Petrosian (as Andy Soltis tells it) preferred the book to breakfast, saving his meal money up and buying a copy instead.

Such high regard may be surprising for an American audience, for whom Ilya Maizelis is something of a mystery. If his name is recognized at all, it is as a co-author of the classic Pawn Endings with Yuri Averbakh, although in truth Maizelis was its primary author. The few references to Maizelis that exist in English describe him as a translator and endgame analyst, with special expertise in pawn endings and technical rook endings. Sixty-three of his endgame studies appear in Harold van der Heijden’s definitive study database.

The Soviet Chess Primer is a partial translation of the 1960 edition of Maizelis’ Shakhmaty osnovy teorii (Шахматы основы теории / Chess: Fundamental Theory). Approximately 60% of the Russian text appears in The Soviet Chess Primer; although I cannot read the Cyrillic lettering, it appears that some detailed opening analysis and sections on the history of chess were excised. The translation by John Sugden reads well, and – as one expects from Quality Chess – the production values are high.

A quick glance at the table of contents would suggest that the English title is apt. After Chapter One, “The Game Explained,” readers are taught the “Aim of the Game” (ch 2) and “Tactics and Strategy” (ch 3). More advanced topics, including further elucidations of combination and positional play, follow. Each chapter concludes with a whimsical set of “Entertainment Pages,” where miniatures and ‘fun exercises’ appear, and some of the original drawings are brought over from the Russian.

So far, so good. Closer scrutiny of The Soviet Chess Primer, however, leads me to question the title chosen by Quality Chess for this new translation. Maizelis’ book is fascinating, especially for the reader interested in chess culture and history, but it is not a primer by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that the knight’s tour is used (18) to help illustrate how the knight moves. Maizelis includes outrageously difficult mate problems in the ‘fun’ section of chapter one, and his account of the theory of corresponding squares (152) belongs in an endgame tome and not here. The breakneck pace of the book and the complex examples preclude me from thinking it appropriate for the beginner.

Take, for instance, this ‘ancient puzzle’ (72) used to illustrate the restriction of piece mobility. White mates in three moves.

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Solution: 1.Ne6! Bh6-any 2.Ne6xBishop Ba2 3.Nxc2#.

Yes, Black is in zugzwang, but surely there are much clearer and Elo-appropriate ways to illustrate the point than this?

Despite my reservations about the title, The Soviet Chess Primer is a fine book and its acclaim is deserved. I suspect, however, that the particular affection felt for it by former Soviets may have another source. Chess books were hard to come by in the Soviet Union as demand was high and paper was often scarce. It should not surprise us that youthful attachment to cherished books would persist, and in this case the attachment is justified. There are certainly better primers in print today, but few books are more interesting than is The Soviet Chess Primer.

Pleasant and useful!

EG Magazine.  Published by ARVES (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Endgame Study). Subscriptions are €25/yr. Pay via Paypal to <arves@skynet.be> or inquire with Marcel Van Herck, treasurer, at the same e-mail address. The ARVES website is <www.arves.org>.

Many players like solving studies. It is pleasant to try one’s strength and to look for the single, non-obvious and beautiful way of winning. Not only pleasant, but also useful!

The epigraph comes from Mark Dvoretsky’s first book in English, Secrets of Chess Training, published way back in 1990.  This book was famously not about training per se, but rather it focused on three key aspects of analytical excellence: the endgame, adjournments (which no longer exist in the age of the silicon monster) and endgame studies.  This third section was perhaps the most surprising of the three.  Endgames studies are composed positions with specific stipulations – White is to win or draw.  Unlike problems, the number of moves to complete the stipulation is not specified.  And besides being difficult to solve, good studies are usually quite beautiful.

Dvoretsky believes that studies are very good training fodder for players looking to improve.  His trademark idea, explained in that early book, was to have two of his students play a study out against each other as if it were a real game and without knowing the stipulation.  No small number of cooks (errors) were found in this way.  You find a handful of studies in most of Dvoretsky’s more recent works, including his Endgame Manual and the new 2nd edition of his Analytical Manual.  He also co-authored a dramatically underrated book specifically about studies – Studies for the Practical Player: Improving Calculation and Resourcefuless in the Endgame – with Oleg Pervakov, one of the leading study authors in the world today.

Dvoretsky is not alone.  It would seem that Magnus Carlsen trained for the recent World Championship by solving endgame studies.  Check out the position he showed on Twitter in August as an example of how he was preparing for Anand.  White is to move and win.

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(Here’s the answer, by the way.  Note that this position was an award winner in a composition tournament dedicated to Dvoretsky’s 60th birthday!)

There are many books on studies available if you look hard enough.  Kasparian’s two books – Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies and the newer 888 Miniature Studies – are among the best, and Jan Timman’s The Art of the Endgame is a wonderful book that seems to have fallen stillborn from New in Chess’ press.  There is also a quarterly magazine devoted specifically to the endgame study.

This magazine is EG, published in the Netherlands by a Dutch study association.  Its editor is Harold van der Heijden, the mastermind behind the essential study database HHDB.  The magazine is the periodical of record for the world of studies, and I can hardly think of a better specialized magazine in chess or any other topic for that matter.  Each issue is a labor of love for its authors and editors, and this love shows on every page.

What’s in EG?  Each mailing consists of the magazine proper along with (in most cases) a ‘supplement’ that contains summaries of awards given in study competitions from around the world.  The magazine contains a few standard elements:

  • ‘Originals,’ with new studies submitted to EG;
  • ‘Spotlight,’ which is a hodge-podge of cooks, news, and opinions;
  • various contributions by Emil Vlasak on issues related to chess and computers;
  • obituaries of leading figures in the study world
  • summaries of the most important awards or solving tournaments
  • original articles about historical OTB and study tournaments, specific themes in studies, historical personalites, etc.

In the April 2014 issue there are 63 studies (along with 103 in the supplement) given as diagrams with full answers.  They are scattered amidst three obituaries, an article on pawn endings in the studies of Vitaly Kovalenko, and a fascinating piece on news in the world of endgames and tablebases by Vlasak.  Yochanan Afek’s study from the Timman 60 JT – also named 2012 Study of the Year – is one of the highlights of the issue.  White is to move and win; the answer is here (and it’s well worth your time).

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Endgame studies are not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes they have an artificial taste about them, and sometimes they’re just too complicated for mortals like me to solve.  If, however, you are interested in beauty in chess, you might consider having a look at some studies.  If you want to improve your analytical skills and your imagination, you should definitely consider solving some studies and perhaps even start solving.  And if you get into studies, you should absolutely consider subscribing to EG.  It’s a fantastic magazine, a great value for the price, and it opens up a little corner of the chess world that you just might start to call home.

Half-Baked Hesse

Hesse, Christian.  The Joys of Chess: Heroes, Battles & Brilliancies.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2011.  ISBN 978-9056913557.  PB $24.95; currently (8/23/13) $22.46 on Amazon.

I have struggled with this review, because – at least in principle – I should really like this book.  Have a look at the advertising slug from the New in Chess website, which is bolstered with laudatory quotes from the likes of Soltis and Anand:

The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.
The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

This is just the kind of thing that should entice someone like me.  I’m a well-educated person.  I enjoy the aesthetic dimension of chess and its history.  Although I am terrible at solving, I am slowly learning to appreciate chess problems and studies, of which there are many in Hesse’s book.  An “unforgettable intellectual expedition” is right up my alley.  And still, for all of that, the book leaves me cold.  Why?

It’s not for lack of effort on Hesse’s part.  The Joys of Chess is chock-full of interesting positions and problems.  Hesse consulted a vast swath of chess literature in the construction of his book, and it’s obvious that the work is a labor of love for him.  There are 597 diagrams in The Joys of Chess, and were a reader to simply choose one at random for study or replay, she could feel quite confident that she would land on something entirely worth her time.

The prose, however, is another matter entirely.  The quality varies greatly by chapter.  Some, like “The Value of the Pieces” and “Smothered Mate,” are unobjectionable and actually quite interesting.  Others, like “Miscellaneous, worth mentioning” and “The theory of relative beauty” contain small factual errors.  In the first case, as Edward Winter notes, Rubinstein did not play 1700 rook endgames.  In the second, Hesse quotes Kant on aesthetics but completely misunderstands him.  (Hesse’s philosophic musings are generally sophomoric.  See the chapter entitled “Determinism” which, sad to say, begins rather like a sophomore’s philosophy exam.)

Hesse begins most every chapter with at least one quotation or aphorism.  The link between the quotation and the chapter is sometimes tenuous.  Take, for example, “Zen and the art of confronting superior forces.”  Hesse quotes a well-known koan, presumably to shed some light on the positions that follow.  No such link is apparent.  He namechecks the Daoist notion of wu-wei, but there’s nothing about Zen until the final paragraph, where Hesse makes a half-hearted attempt to tie the koan to a position where White is in a sort of zugzwang despite being up an unseemly amount of material.  On my count, he discusses Zen in at least two other places, neither of which succeed in illustrating anything about the positions at hand.

Then there are chapters like “The geometry of the chessboard.”  It begins well enough but soon swerves into esoteric talk of ‘CP-invariance’ and antiparticles, all of which is supposed to light on Reti’s famous study from 1921.  I just don’t get it.  The chapter is loaded with fascinating positions for study, and Hesse’s analysis seems quite informative.  Why muddy things up with the pseudo-intellectual chatter?

This pattern repeats itself in more than a few places.  Hesse tries to tease out some obscure connection between high theory and chess theory, and then completely fails to draw the connection out for the reader.  This is not uncommon in contemporary discourse, where our pundits and politicians offer us slogans instead of solutions.  They string together smart-sounding words in the hopes of tricking us into believing their pap.  While Hesse’s prose is certainly smarter than most, it fails to come together at the most critical points.

The Joys of Chess is not the first of its genre.  Most notable are Fred Reinfeld’s The Fireside Book of Chess and Tim Krabbé’s Open Chess Diary.  Krabbé’s website, in particular, can be recommended.  It’s free, and it’s free of the faux-intellectualism that stunts Hesse’s book; when compared to Krabbé, Hesse’s work certainly suffers.

This is a decent, if not essential book.  Readers will find many games and problems they have likely not seen, and all are curious or entertaining.  It is, however, marred by its prose.  It is at once too much and too little.  It can be too verbose, too wordy, too smart for its own good, and yet it feels half-baked, premature.  A little tying in of loose ends would have done this work a world of good.

6/10.  +1 or +2 if you’re not as troubled by loose prose as I am.