Tag Archives: Andy Soltis

Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 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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Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

Soltis, Andy. 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take One a Day to be a Better Chess Player. London: Batsford, 2017. ISBN 9781849944342. PB 384 pp.

Sosonko, Genna. Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2018. ISBN 978-5950043383. PB 314pp.

Sosonko, Genna. The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2017. ISBN 978-5950043314. PB 272pp.

Tkachenko, Sergei. One (Bishop, King, Knight, Pawn, Rook, Queen) Saves the Day: A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (series)

I had a real E.F. Hutton moment a few weeks ago.

E.F Hutton, you may recall, was the eponymous founder of a New York brokerage of whom it was said, “when E.F Hutton talks, people listen.” Or so the commercial went, anyway.

Such was my reaction when I read a post-Candidates Tournament interview with Fabiano Caruana at chess.com. Peter Doggers asked Caruana about his pre-event preparation, which, as one might expect, involved a lot of opening study. How that preparation looked in practice, however, might seem rather surprising. Here’s what Caruana had to say:

The other guys [Chirila, Dominguez, Ramirez, and Kasimdzhanov – jh] worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don’t like doing, because it’s hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it’s fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work.

It makes sense that Caruana would brush up on his endgame theory via Dvoretsky, and that he’d play training games against his seconds in openings he expected to encounter. But… studies? I have to admit that my ears perked up, proverbially speaking, when I read this.

Part of my attention to Caruana’s comment came from a long-standing interest in endgame studies, the solving of which I find perversely pleasurable. (Turns out I’m terrible at it.) Perhaps more relevant were the confluence of strong Grandmaster endorsements for this training strategy. I’d seen GM Peter Leko and GM Melikset Khachiyan independently recommend studies for calculation training in a span of just a few weeks. It makes sense: because studies, by definition, try to create new and interesting twists on known tactical motifs, players can’t just ‘recall’ the right answer. They have to do the work to find it.

There is no shortage of good sources for studies. Harald van der Heijden’s HHdBV database is the gold standard, containing over 85,000 studies that span the full history of the genre. Journals like EG bring new studies to your mailbox quarterly. And there are of course books, including the canonical Domination in 2,545 Endgame Studies by Kasparian, The Art of the Endgame by Timman, and Studies for Practical Players by Dvoretsky and Pervakov.

A key difficulty faced by many new solvers, and common to most of the titles listed above, is that most studies are not suitable for the novice. The solutions are too long to calculate, and the positions are too cluttered and artificial. Here is where an innovative series of pocket-sized titles from Elk and Ruby, a new Russian/English publisher, might be of interest.

In these six books, one devoted to each of the six different chessmen, the Ukranian composer Sergei Tkachenko offers 100 studies with solutions no longer than six moves deep. Consider a typical example (49-50) from One Knight Saves the Day – A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (Note that each of the six books bears the same title, with the only change being the thematic piece featured therein.) It’s White to play and draw in this study by Rusinek, and the notes are Tkachenko’s unless otherwise noted.

image

White has an unenviable position – his king is dancing with checkmate… For example: 1.Qf6+? Qxf6+ 2.Nxf6 Nf7#

1.Rh6+!! Kxh6 2.Qf8+!

2.Qh2+? Kg6 3.Qc2+ Nf5–+; if 2.Qh4+? Kg6 3.Qh5+ Kxh5 4.Ng7+ Kg6 5.Nxe6 Nf7# (not given in the book)

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

3. …Kh5 4.Nf6+ Kh4 5.Qh6+ and Black loses a knight.

At first glance it looks like white has used up all of his defensive resources… And yet:

4.Qf6+!! Qxf6+ 5.Ng7+!

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

A few points are worth mentioning here. The position above appears only after Black’s seventh move in Rusinek’s original. By truncating the study, Tkachenko removes some interesting tactics, but he also makes it much more reasonable a task for mortal solvers.

There is also a typo in the text. (You thought Chess Life was asleep at the wheel, didn’t you?) 6. …Ke5 is erroneous, and 5. …Ke5 (or Rusinek’s …Ke4) are the correct final moves. It may seem nit-picky to mention this – it’s rare that any book, chess or otherwise, is completely typo-free – but it’s worth mentioning in light of Elk and Ruby’s innovative publishing model.

Elk and Ruby makes use of print-on-demand (POD) technology across its list. There are serious advantages to this approach, as argued by its owner, managing editor, translator, and general ‘hype man’ Ilan Rubin in his manifesto “Who Needs Chess Book Publishers?” If you don’t need to worry about inventory or delivery – the POD provider handles it for you – you can keep staffing very lean, leading to greater profitability for both author and publisher.

There are, as Rubin admits, also downsides to this hybrid model. We see one in the example above.[1] Because Rubin wears so many hats, and because he does most of the work himself, errors can creep in. Three of Tkachenko’s six study books had problems with their diagrams in their first ‘printings;’ because the titles were POD, however, the errors were quickly corrected.

Tkachenko’s study collections are wonderful for those looking to train their calculation, and also for those who just want to enjoy the beauty of endgame studies in a digestible format. They are also perfectly sized at 4” by 6” for travel or beach reading. And who among us doesn’t like to solve studies at the beach?

Elk and Ruby is home to a growing list of Russian and Soviet themed historical works as well, including two new books from Genna Sosonko, one of chess’ leading writers and memoirists. With The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein and Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi, Sosonko offers his readers intimate pictures of two of the chess world’s most complicated men, and with equally complicated results.

Sosonko’s portrait of Bronstein is very hard to read. Not because it’s poorly written, but because Bronstein was a deeply unpleasant man, and Sosonko pulls no punches here. Bronstein saw his failure in the 1951 World Championship match as the defining moment of his life, and he never got past his hatred for Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet ‘favored son.’ Whether he was forced to throw the match remains unclear, and Sosonko catalogues the different explanations given by Bronstein across the years.

Why would Sosonko, Bronstein’s friend of fifty years, write such an ugly book? Why puncture the myth of the happy-go-lucky defender of human creativity against computer onslaught – his battles in the Ageon tournaments are the stuff of legend! – and show the world how narcissistic and petty Bronstein could be? It’s not as if Sosonko was unaware of what he was doing with his ‘warts and all’ approach to the matter. (269)

Bronstein is quoted from a conversation towards the very end of his life, talking about books written ‘in his name’ – one of the highlights of Sosonko’s book is the story of Boris Vainshtein (126-140), powerful apparatchik and the true author of Bronstein’s famous book on Zurich 1953 – where he says “what [do they] understand about our life? I’m sorry about my life. About my entire life.” (251)

It occurs to me that part of Sosonko’s goal, in these books and elsewhere, is to try and explain “our life,” or the stark realities of daily life in the Soviet Union. He says as much in the book’s first chapter:

[h]ow can I enliven the dead letters of a text with the winds of those times, with meaning to the contemporary reader without detailed explanations? How can I convey a whole set of prejudices and beliefs without relying on the words everyone once understood? You see, many aspects of the distinct atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s in the USSR are now gone. (17)

Born a Jew to a father banished to the gulag, and coming of age during the horrors of the Second World War, Sosonko’s Bronstein in The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein was deeply stunted by the banal violence of Soviet bureaucracy and unofficial state racism. He does not excuse Bronstein’s behavior, not exactly, but he does seem to offer reasons that might mitigate our passing judgment on him. It’s hard to read, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. Still, I think (?!) I’m glad I did.

Sosonko’s portrayal of Viktor Korchnoi in Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi is more positive, and more much palatable. His book covers the whole of Korchnoi’s life and career, focusing on his 1976 defection from the Soviet Union, the Karpov matches, parapsychology, and his life in Switzerland with Petra Leeuwerik. What shines through the text, however, is Korchnoi’s absolute love for chess, his indefatigable energy and drive to explore every element of the game. Sosonko does not shy away from Korchnoi’s character flaws, but the treatment is even-handed and enjoyable.

Elk and Ruby are not the only chess writers / publishers using POD technology. I wrote about GM Lars Bo Hansen’s pioneering efforts in this area back in 2013. His seven Master Chess pamphlets are available on Amazon and worth your attention. More recently, FM Carsten Hansen has made extensive use of POD with some of his recent titles.

Hansen has three series currently in print: Chess Miniatures, published by Russell Enterprises; Winning Quickly at Chess, which is self-published; and Specialized Chess Tactics, also self-published. Here I’ll discuss books from the first two series. I have not seen titles from the third.

All of Hansen’s books are essentially collections of miniatures organized by opening. In Chess Miniatures, the games are no longer than 25 moves long, while in Winning Quickly at Chess, games are limited to 15 moves. All combatants are rated at least 2350 in both cases. So readers can expect master-level games in specific openings where one side wins quickly, and the idea is that some knowledge of typical traps and tactics can be discerned by playing through them.

In principle, this sounds wonderful. In practice, however, I have my doubts. Many of the defining errors in Hansen’s games occur when a player leaves opening theory, and because Hansen includes a LOT of game references in his notes, there’s often very little room for original analysis. Consider Game #78 in Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening Volume 3: Flank Openings, a title in the Winning Quickly series.

English Opening [A21]
Alexander Belezky (2381)
Vladimir Moskvin (2691)
Ilyumzhinov Cup Internet, 06.05.2006

1.Nf3 g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 d6 4.d3 e5 5.c4 f5 6.Nc3 c6 7.0–0 Nf6 8.Bg5

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

This is a new move, and a mistake. Hansen gives 13 lines of game citations in the notes, including some verbal discussion of key alternatives.

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

12.dxe4 Qxc3 13.exf5 Bxf5 14.Rb3 Qf6 0–1

Most of the action (and spilt ink) takes place in the citation of opening alternatives, and not in the analysis of the actual games under discussion. This is especially true in the self-published volumes, which may be partially attributable to the games being shorter, and the errors occurring with divergences from theory. I can see the value in Hansen’s publishing concept in these series, but for me, the execution is lacking.

Those looking for a miniatures collection will be happier with Andy Soltis’ latest book, 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take one a day to be a better chess player. Readers are advised in the preface to take the book as a series of 365 lessons, one per day, where a miniature of 20 moves or less is analyzed, one or more questions are asked, and a supplementary game wraps things up. The unspoken conceit is that this will lead to real improvement after a year’s time.

For me, this last bit is rather artificial, but the book stands on its own as an outstanding games collection. Soltis is as reliable an author as it gets, and his analysis here is concise and to the point. Many of the games are uncommon or unknown, and more than a few are missing from my nearly 10 million game database.

This is one of those missing games, starring former US Chess President Leroy Dubeck in a pretty win from 1958. The notes are Soltis’, and the theme of the ‘chapter’ (Day 181) is “[b]acktracking. To get from a bad opening to a playable middlegame may require some backtracking.”

Smith Morra Gambit [B21]
Leroy Dubeck
Raymond Weinstein
New Jersey Open, 1958

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 Na5? 7.Qd4! f6?!

Black now sees 7. …Nf6 8.e5. But 8. …Nh5 9.e6 f6 and …Nc6 looks worse than it is.

8.0–0 Nh6

White allowed 8. …Nxc4 9.Qxc4 because he would threaten 10.Nb5 or 10.Nd5 followed by Nc7+.

9.e5! Nf5?

Black would have to admit his sixth and seventh moves were bad if he continued 9. …Nc6! 10.Qf4 f5 . But then would get to play a middlegame.

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

Better than 12.Qxf6 because 12. …Nxd4 13.Nxf6+ Kf8 14.Bh6#

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

No, 14. …Kg8 15.Nxf6#, and 14. …Nxh6 15.Nxe7 is hopeless.

15.Qc3 Qd6 16.Re1+ Kd8 17.Bf4 Qc6 18.Qxf6+! 1–0

Black resigned before 18.Qxf6+ Qxf6 19.Bc7#.

365 Chess Master Lessons is excellent, and players of almost any rating and ability would find something of value in it. Some might find it old-fashioned, coming from a traditional press like Batsford, but I’ve long believed that old-fashioned never really goes out of style.


[1] Publicity is also difficult for POD publishers. Without dedicated marketing teams, advertising falls to Twitter, Facebook groups, and “earned media” like reviews. Such efforts can feel artificial and astro-turfed.

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Chernev and Soltis

This review has been printed in the March 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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Chernev, Irving. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-1849941617. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win. Revised edition. Newton Highlands: Mongoose Press, 2014. PB 328pp. ISBN 978-1936277605. List $19.95, currently around $15 at Amazon.

Soltis, Andy. The New Art of Defence in Chess. London: Batsford, 2014. PB 232pp. ISBN 978-1849941600. List $23.95, currently around $18 at Amazon.

This month we look at three books that have recently returned to the marketplace. Two hew closely to their previous incarnations, while the third is an update and reworking of a classic. Each one would make a worthy addition to your collection.

Irving Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Every Played was one of my first chess books. Chernev, a witty author and master-level player, originally published this book in 1965. It contains sixty-two well analyzed games, each one possessing both artistic and educational value. Now Batsford has republished Chernev’s book in algebraic format, retaining all the text and features of the original save nine photographs.

What John Collins wrote in his 1966 Chess Review survey – “[i]t is a great book and should be read over and over” – remains true today. Chernev’s annotations are pedagogically precise, eminently readable, and his choice of games is inspired. The errors in analysis, and the computer reveals a few, do not detract greatly from the reading experience.

Most chess teachers will recommend that their students study the great games of the past as part of their training. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played is ideal for those looking to study beautiful games with clear strategic lessons. If you haven’t already worn out your old, Descriptive copy, you should pick up this new edition.

Andy Soltis’ 1994 The Inner Game of Chess: How to Calculate and Win is also newly republished, this time by Mongoose Press. Here Soltis has included minor revisions of the text, updating / replacing some examples and references, but the basic structure of the book and most of the prose remains the same.

The Inner Game of Chess is a thorough treatment of a thorny topic. Very rarely do we examine the nature and structure of our thought processes. Soltis does not prescribe a specific method of calculation in this book; rather, he is content to break our calculative process into its constitutive parts so that we can see how it might work.

So we get chapters on candidate moves, Kotovian trees, force and forcing moves, and analytical monkey-wrenches (or why we miscalculate). The chapter on ‘counting out’ reckons with topics like compensation, move orders, bailouts and calculative ‘chunking.’ I, naturally, found Soltis’ discussion of typical causes of analytic oversight particularly pertinent.

There have been a few works on calculation since The Inner Game of Chess was first published. Tisdall treats the theme well in Improve Your Chess Now. Aagaard has two advanced books on the topic (Excelling at Chess Calculation and Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation), and Axel Smith’s discussion in Pump Up Your Rating is stellar. Soltis’ effort hangs in with the best of them, and is particularly good for the sub-2000 player.

Another Soltis title, also from Batsford, has returned to the shelves, but this one involves a dramatic revision of one of his first books. In the 1975 The Art of Defense in Chess Soltis described defense mainly in terms of stubborn resistance. Much has changed since then. The New Art of Defense in Chess aims to explain how these changes affect how we defend.

Some of the chapter structure and prose of the 1975 edition is retained here, and some of the analysis, translated into algebraic notation, makes its way over as well. On the whole, however, The New Art of Defense in Chess should be seen as a fundamentally new book. This is because Soltis recognizes the way in which dynamism and activity have become fundamental to modern defensive techniques.

Modern players are, as Soltis explains, less risk-aversive, more open to ‘ugly’ moves, and more reliant on counterplay and activity in defending. He claims that the “New Defenders” realized the limitations of passive defense when challenged by Mikhail Tal’s speculative attacks in the 60s and 70s.

While this might be true, I would argue (following Müller in The ChessCafe Puzzle Book #3 and Aagaard in Practical Chess Defense) that the decisive shift towards New Defense comes later. Top-level chess has become very pragmatic and concrete since the 90s, mostly due to the influence of the computer. I would have preferred to see more discussion of this influence in Soltis’ book, but this is a minor quibble.

Defending is one of the hardest skills in chess, and one of the least written about. The New Art of Defense in Chess is a lucid explanation of modern defensive practice, and players of most all strengths would learn something from it.

So many good chess books have been allowed to fall into obscurity over the years. Sometimes this is because the books have gone out of print, while in other cases, it is because today’s players cannot decipher the older descriptive notation. Kudos to publishers like Batsford and Mongoose for bringing some of them, like the three discussed in this review, back into the spotlight.

“The Soviet Chess Patriarch”

This review has been printed in the May 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.

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Soltis, Andy.  Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0786473373. HB $49.95; currently $39.96 at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Botvinnik: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2013.  400 pp.  ISBN 978-1781941027.  PB $29.95; currently $22ish at Amazon.

The Dover edition of Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hundred Selected Games was my first ‘real’ (non-primer) chess book, and it made quite an impression on me. Some of the Patriarch’s moves seemed other-worldly, as if they were made by a superior alien intelligence. While I was too young to fully grasp the propaganda embedded within the introductory essays, I tried to follow his advice for improvement – without, sadly, much success.

Now two new books – Andrew Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion and Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move – have been published. With their release, a new generation of chess fans will, I hope, be introduced to the life and games of the Sixth World Champion.

Soltis’ book is a sober and scholarly biographical study. Here was someone who was as feared as he was respected among his Soviet peers, who spent nearly thirty years in a futile attempt to create an ‘intelligent’ computer program, and who defended Stalin until his death. Botvinnik portrayed himself in his writings as a kind of Communist superman, and his self-assurance and iron-cast beliefs were legendary. He remains something of an enigma, especially to a post-1989 reader.

Soltis’ Botvinnik is a man who was thoroughly of his time and place. The internal logic and teleology of Marxism may be hard to grasp today, but for Botvinnik, it was simply a given that the revolution begun in 1917 would inevitably lead to global Communism. This was not a wish or hope; this was science. Botvinnik tried to bring a similar rigor and logic to the chessboard and to his life more broadly.

In the 30s and 40s, as Soltis suggests (174), Botvinnik’s dominance was in no small part due to his superior training and opening preparation. Afterwards, it was his technical dominance, and his skill in adjourned positions, that allowed him to remain as first among equals.

This is not to say that Botvinnik’s success was restricted to the chessboard. Again and again Botvinnik used his influence with important Party leaders to advance his career and sidetrack his opponents. Soltis does an excellent job of tracing the numerous threads of patronage and influence that aided Botvinnik throughout his career.

One hundred and nineteen games and positions are included in Soltis’ book. The notes tend to follow the general contours of Botvinnik’s own, and Soltis also references Alexander Khalifman’s analysis. While the games are not the main focus of the book, they represent a sizeable chunk of the text, covering a decent cross-section of Botvinnik’s career.

Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Soltis’ book. Lakdawala has written four books in the Move by Move series on specific players – the others being Capablanca, Kramnik and Korchnoi – and this book follows the usual template. Botvinnik’s games are the star of the show, and Lakdawala uses them to illustrate the Patriarch’s skill in six areas: attack, defense, dynamics, exploiting imbalances, accumulating advantages, and the endgame.

Lakdawala offers copious notes to the sixty games, and as is standard for the Move by Move series, he intersperses questions and answers in the analysis. Lakdawala is obviously trying to inject humor and vitality into his prose. The text is full of bombast: the Velimirovic Attack is “psychotic” (107) and one of Tal’s moves is “insane” (230). There are a lot of ten-dollar words in Botvinnik: Move by Move, and at times they obscure the otherwise excellent analysis in the book.

Style, of course, is a very personal thing. I don’t think that Botvinnik, who (on Soltis’ account) modeled his annotations on Stalin’s ‘terse’ manner of speech, would be thrilled with Lakdawala’s excesses, but plenty of readers seem to like it just fine. Of more concern are the faulty generalizations and factual inaccuracies. It’s not true, for example, that Botvinnik was “faithful to his beloved Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian his entire life” (50), and there is no statistical evidence for the repeated claim that Botvinnik was nearly invincible in games with opposite-side castling.

The games in the two books don’t overlap dramatically. Nineteen are common to both on my count. Both books are physically attractive and generally free from typographical errors.[1] I suspect that different readers will gravitate to one book or the other, and given their marked stylistic variance, this should not surprise. Those who want to enjoy Botvinnik’s best games with a enthusiastic guide should consider Lakdawala’s, and those more interested in a careful study of Botvinnik as person and player might turn to Soltis. Both can be recommended, but readers should consider their own preferences in choosing one or both books.


[1] I found two typos in Soltis (Botvinnik-Sorokin was played in 1931 and not 1951 on p.47, and the ECO code for Botvinnik-Stahlberg should be D32 and not D22 on p.83) and one in Lakdawala (an ellipse was not closed, but the page number eludes me). This does not include the questionable grammatical constructions in Lakdawala, the most grating of which was “I conjecture: …” (165).