Tag Archives: Cyrus Lakdawala

World Championship Fever

This review has been printed in the November 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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Butler, Brin-Jonathan. The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501172601. HC 224pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918132. PB 208pp.

Karolyi, Tibor. Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen: His Extraordinary Skills Uncovered and Explained. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917760. PB 249pp.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Caruana: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1781944790. PB 368pp.

It’s almost here.

By the time you read these words, and barring some unforeseen event, the 2018 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will just about be upon us. If you’re anything like me, the coming days will be long ones indeed. I can hardly wait for the match to get started, and I’d ask all of you to avoid making any demands of me while the contest is ongoing. My attention will be squarely on London.

The publishing world appears to have taken note of this match as well, with four books about Carlsen or Caruana being released right around the start of the match. This month we’ll take a look at all of them, but much of our focus will be on a real novelty – a trade book from a Big Five publisher about our beloved game.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer known mainly for his work on boxing and Cuba. His 2015 The Domino Diaries is a critically lauded memoir of his time studying the sweet science in Havana, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is memorably described in a 2012 article for salon.com. Here, in The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again, he investigates a more subtle, if no less violent, form of combat.

This was not a book that Butler, on his own admission, was looking to write. He received a cold-call from a Simon & Schuster editor one week before the opening ceremonies in New York, and the editor asked if he’d be willing to write about about Magnus Carlsen. There were three questions to be answered in the process:

One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history – higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer – not Carlsen – were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everyone was still taking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on tip affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown? (7)

I include this long passage from The Grandmaster for two reasons. First, it gives a sense of Butler’s prose, which is taut and provocative. This is a book that will, I suspect, sell relatively well, and from the outside, it appears that Simon and Schuster is going to put some muscle behind its publicity.

It also shows that Butler wrote the book that his editor wanted. It presupposes the validity of the third question; in point of fact, I’d go further and say that the assumed link between genius and madness in chess defines The Grandmaster. What’s worse, I don’t think that Butler begins to answer the second question, and he makes very little effort to even attempt the first.

Writing a serious book about chess or genius requires research. Optimally the author would talk to recognized experts, both in the chess world and beyond it. There is very little evidence in The Grandmaster that Butler did any pre-match research on Carlsen beyond reading the D.T. Max New Yorker piece from 2011 and watching the 2012 60 Minutes segment. He seems to have spent most of his time at the match talking to random people in the VIP area, and much of the book involves him chasing down whatever leads they gave him.

This might not have been a problem were the leads useful. Interviews with the the likes of Harry Benson, Frank Brady, Dick Cavett, and friends of the late Peter Winston might help us understand Fischer and his aftermath, but they they shed precious little light on Carlsen or the 2016 World Championship in broader context. Nor does the recounting of tales of mental illness among chess masters (131-5) help us to understand Carlsen’s psyche during the match. Carlsen is not Fischer, and the comparisons are, frankly, insulting.

The result is that The Grandmaster is salacious and ‘sexy,’ but terribly uninformed. It trades in tired cliches about players and fans. The general admission audience in New York is said to be old, crumpled, and hygienically challenged. (52-3) The Grandmasters in attendance are largely grifters. (58-60) While Butler gets the highly moneyed, oily, Russified feel of New York right, there’s little else in his recollections of the match that match up to my own.

George Plimpton strapped on a pair of shoulder pads while writing Paper Lion, and David Foster Wallace played a lifetime of tennis before coming to worship at the altar of Roger Federer. It’s clear, despite his description of a youthful dalliance with chess, one soaked with machismo and street hustling, that Butler is not a student of our game. The Grandmaster suffers for that lack of intimate knowledge. What could have been a bridge to a public looking to understand the world of chess is, alas, an opportunity missed.

Those looking for a more successful book about Carlsen would do well to check out IM Tibor Karoyli’s Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen. Karolyi is one of the most serious writers and analysts in chess today, with dense titles on Karpov and Tal to his credit. Here he turns his attention to Carlsen’s legendary endgame prowess, analyzing 91 positions that span his full career. The following example, “the first game in the book that Carlsen played at the level of an all-time great player,” (88) is both typical and delightful, and the uncited analysis is based on Karolyi’s.

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SIMPLY A PLEASURE
GM Magnus Carlsen (FIDE 2698)
GM Zbynek Hracek (FIDE 2614)
Bundesliga 0607 (14.4), 31.03.2007

33.Ra6! Bb7 Heading for a pawn down endgame with an active rook. 34.Rxa7 Rxd6 35.Rxb7 Rd1+ 36.Kf2 Rd2+ 37.Kf1 Kg6 38.g4! Kf6

38. …f5! should be enough to draw.

39.b4 Rb2 40.b5 Rb1+ 41.Kf2 Rb2+ 42.Kg3 e5 43.b6 g6 44.Rb8 Kg7 45.Kh2 Kf6

If 45. …Rb1 46.b7 Kh7 47.g3 Kg7 48.Kg2 and White wins, but the computer suggests that Black might be able to draw after 47. …Rb2+.

46.Kg1 Ke6

Here 46. …Rb1+ (C.D. Meyer) may draw as well.

47.b7! Kf6 48.g3 g5 49.Kf1 Rb1+

49. …Ke7 50.f4! and “White clears the seventh rank in a few moves.” But what about 49. …Kg7?

50.Ke2

“The King continues its journey towards Black’s position. To spot its final destination and see the threat it will create requires imagination and the touch of a specially talented player.” (87)

50…Rb2+ 51.Kd3 Rb3+ 52.Kc4 Rb1 53.Kc5 Rc1+ 54.Kd6 Rd1+ 55.Kc6 Rc1+ 56.Kd7 Rb1 57.Ke8 Kg7

After 57…Rb2 58.Kf8 Rb3 59.Rc8!! threatens mate!

58.Ke7 Rb2 59.Kd6 Kf6 60.f4!! exf4 61.gxf4 gxf4 62.Rg8!!

“It is hard to find words to describe this! It would be a great thing if Magnus had found this tremendous idea somewhere around here, but I think he likely spotted it at move 47 (if not earlier at move 38). It would have been fabulous for him to find this in an adjourned game, but he did it over the board. It is simply a pleasure for the author to show you ideas like this.” (88)

62. …Rb6+

62. …Rxb7?? 63.e5#

63.Kc7 Rxb7+ 64.Kxb7 f3 65.Kc6 Ke5 66.Re8+ Kf4 67.Kd5 f6 68.Rf8 1–0

There is some attention to biography in Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen, and Karolyi makes an particular effort to describe Carlsen’s early style and opening choices. Still, this is a book about endgames, so if they’re not your cup of tea, it might not be the book for you. That, however, would be a shame. Endgame Virtuoso is another excellent effort from Tibor Karolyi, and I enjoyed it immensely.

There are other titles around devoted to Carlsen, of course, including Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein and Carlsen: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala. (The latter was reviewed here in February 2015.) Until very recently, there were none that featured Carlsen’s challenger. Now there are two: Caruana: Move by Move, also by Cyrus Lakdawala, and Alexander Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. The books are similar, as I’ll explain, but there are reasons one might choose between them for pre-match reading.

Caruana: Move by Move is a typical offering from Lakdawala, and I mean this in two respects. First, the book follows his usual schema for a player-focused Move by Move title, with six broad sections – the Attack, Defense and Counterattack, the Dynamic Element, Exploiting Imbalances, Accumulating Advantages, and the Endgame – dividing his 60 analyzed games.

There is also the issue of Lakdawala’s style, which is on full display in Caruana: Move by Move. If you have read any of his dozens of other titles, you know just what I’m talking about: the lack of authorial self-control, the metaphors that stretch on and reveal little, the strange nicknames. (Caruana becomes “Caru” here. No one calls him Caru.) Some readers absolutely love Lakdawala for this, while others – including me – are less enamoured.

Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games is a more traditional games collection, and it is organized in two parts. Part I, “The Rise of an American chess star,” sketches the trajectory of Caruana’s career with 25 games, archival interview material, etc. Part II, “Learn from Fabiano’s best games,” contains 37 games largely focused on the middlegame.

The analysis in both books is of a good standard, and both are surprisingly current in their coverage, including games through May of this year. I took a serious look at Lakdawala and Kalinin’s coverage of Carlsen-Caruana from the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in 2014 – an exciting Caruana victory ably covered by Ian Rogers in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life – and found both treatments entirely serviceable.

The choice between these two titles might come down to a decision between Lakdawala’s polarizing prose and Kalinin’s restraint and sobriety. If you like Lakdawala in general, you’ll like Caruana: Move by Move too. If not, Kalinin’s book would be a fine choice. For the record, I preferred the latter, but found the former pleasant as well.

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Eat your Oatmeal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to know something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

61. …f6??

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

62.gxf6+ Kxf6 63.Rf8+ 1–0

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

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

NARRATOR: There is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyman Roundup

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

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Collins, Sam. Karpov: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781942291. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Engqvist, Thomas. Stein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942697. PB 496pp. List $34.95.

Franco, Zenón. Rubinstein: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943144. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Franco, Zenón. Spassky: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942666. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Giddens, Steve. Alekhine: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943175. PB 304pp. List $27.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Fischer: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942727. PB 400pp. List $29.95.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Tal: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781943236. PB 400pp. List $29.95

Pritchett, Craig. Steinitz: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1781942543. PB 288pp. List $27.95.

Some years ago I gave a talk at a university in New York about how we might use the technology of chess to better understand the nature of technology. I argued that modern chess players were, for all intents and purposes, cyborgs, and I meant this fairly literally. The dividing line between man and machine is blurred in contemporary chess, with top young players internalizing the lessons taught by Komodo and Stockfish so deeply that they begin to play like computers themselves.

The rise of the machines has wrought many changes in our beloved game, and none so lamentable as the slackening of historical memory among its players. There are many GMs today who proudly gained their titles without studying the classics of chess literature. And it kind of makes sense: if chess today has mutated, becoming intensely concrete and pragmatic, why study Alekhine’s games when (a) they no longer resemble modern practice and (b) the computer tears apart his analysis?

As a chess teacher and a fan of chess history, this gives me the sads. The majority of chess players would benefit greatly from a grounding in the classics; as John Watson puts it, “classic games by the old masters make particularly good teaching material, because the strategic ideas in them are relatively simpler to understand and more clearly expressed than in modern games.” Such study can also be pleasurable, something I find difficult with modern and inscrutable super-GM contests.

This month I take a look at eight recent biographies / individual game collections from Everyman, one of the most prolific publishers of such books today. All eight appear in their Move by Move (hereafter, MBM) series. Most current Everyman books are presented in this way, using a question and answer format to mimic a private lesson and functioning as a kind of Greek chorus for the proceedings.

Let’s begin with Steinitz: MBM, written by Craig Pritchett. It consists of thirty-five well-annotated games ordered chronologically and with historical context. Pritchett views his book as a “traditional games collection and biography” (8) and it succeeds in this, giving readers a solid overview of Steinitz’s career and contributions to the game. There is a heavy emphasis on the 1886 match with Zukertort, and Pritchett does a nice job of sketching the basics of Steinitz’s revolutionary positional theories. (174-6)

Steve Giddens’ Alekhine: MBM is, in contrast, almost wholly a games collection. Giddens analyzes thirty-five of Alekhine’s games and includes twenty positions from Alekhine’s play for the reader to solve. He tends to use more words and less concrete analysis in explaining Alekhine’s moves, making this book excellent for the lower-rated player. I did find it curious that Giddens relied on a seven year old engine (Fritz 12) to check his lines, and I also would have appreciated some biographical content – there is almost none in the book.

Stein: MBM is the largest book on review here at 496 pages, and this is made all the more impressive by the fact that it uses a smaller font than the others! Thomas Engqvist does an impressive job of contextualizing each of the sixty thoroughly annotated games in Stein: MBM, explaining who the opponents were and incorporating extensive research into the notes. He carefully traces Stein’s progression from “new Tal” to complete player, attributing some of the shift to Petrosian’s influence. All of this makes for a wonderful book, and it should become the standard work on Stein’s life and games.

Sam Collins’ Karpov: MBM is, by the author’s own admission, neither a biography nor a collection of Karpov’s best games. Collins chose to “select a number of aspects of Karpov’s play which could be helpful to club players.” (7) He uses Karpov’s games to illustrate typical middlegame themes – prophylaxis, the IQP, etc. – and supplements this with sketches of his opening play and a selection of games from his famous Linares 1994 tournament victory. This is a novel approach, but unless you’re particularly interested in Karpov’s games under these exact parameters, I think this is a title you can safely skip.

This leaves us with two books each by two of Everyman’s most prolific Move by Move authors, Zenón Franco and Cyrus Lakdawala. Attentive readers will recall that I have already reviewed books by Franco (Anand: MBM) and Lakdawala (Carlsen: MBM) in the February 2015 issue, and that I was decidedly less impressed with Lakdawala than I was with Franco. That opinion has not changed, and in the remainder of this month’s column, I’ll explain why.

Franco’s books – Rubinstein: MBM and Spassky: MBM – are both thematically structured works that focus on the player’s games and not on their biographies. Both books are scrupulously sourced and work to expose the reader to the specific strengths of the player in question.

With Rubinstein, for example, Franco analyzes thirty-four games that center on Rubinstein’s positional play (§1) and endgames, with special emphasis on his rook endings (§3,4). The forty games in Spassky: MBM revolve around Spassky’s handling of the initiative and his special expertise in favored opening systems. Both titles begin with studies of each player’s style, both are well-researched, and the analysis in each is absolutely top-shelf. Indeed, Franco often improves on the published analysis of others, and particularly in the Rubinstein book.

Having reviewed three of Lakdawala’s books, I have hesitated to review more for fear of being seen as too harsh. My views on Lakdawala’s style are well known by now, something Lakdawala might be pointing out in Fischer: MBM when he decries “the misguided readers who hate my writing style and punish my books with a hateful review.” (49)

There are some who absolutely adore Lakdawala’s color, wit, and total lack of restraint. There are others – count me among them – who find it all just too cute by half. The good news is that some of the worst of Lakdawala’s excesses seem to have been tempered in his two newest books, Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM. The bad news is that they haven’t been tempered enough.

Fischer: MBM consists of fifty six games, and like most of Lakdawala’s other biographical titles, it is structured thematically.[1] The fifty-three games in Tal: MBM are ordered chronologically, making it unique in Lakdawala’s oeuvre. So what is it about Tal that prompts Lakdawala to abandon his standard book format?

Part of what drives the shift is Lakdawala’s almost cartoonish caricature of Tal. His Tal is a tactical wizard, a “con-artist” with an “aversion to swaps of any kind,” an alchemist whose guiding principle in chess was “[w]hat would Satan do?” (153-4) and whose sacrifices were rarely sound. (246) If Tal was indeed this one-dimensional, it wouldn’t make sense to waste time on endgames or defensive motifs.

The problem is that more recent and sober studies expose the fallacies of this interpretation. Tukmakov, for instance, shows in Risk and Bluff in Chess that Tal’s sacrifices were often correct, even by modern standards. And Karolyi – who is cited in Lakdawala’s bibliography – takes care to point out Tal’s “skill in quieter positions and endgames” (8) in his Mikhail Tal’s Best Games, Volume 1.

People of good faith can disagree about a writer’s style. The real problem with both Fischer: MBM and Tal: MBM is a lack of rigor and serious research. Bibliographies for both books are slight, and Lakdawala’s failure to engage other analysts and biographers undermines his own work.

Example #1: in analyzing the 19th (not the 18th, as appears in Fischer: MBM) game of the 1972 World Championship, Lakdawala has this note after 24.exd5: “White’s only chance for the win lay in 24.Rc7! Nxd4,” and he gives a line of Houdini-inspired analysis to justify his claim. (Fischer, 203) But as early as 1972 Olafsson and Timman both correctly saw that 24…dxe4! holds the balance. This move is also found in Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors IV, a book that appears in Lakdawala’s bibliography.

Example #2: Consider Tal-Smyslov, Candidates 1959, round 8. After 1. e4 c6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 e5 4. Ngf3 Nd7 5. d4 dxe4 6. Nxe4 exd4 7. Qxd4 Ngf6 8.Bg5 Be7, why did Tal avoid the superior 9.Nd6+ in favor of 9. O-O-O? For Lakdawala, this is evidence of Tal’s emotional irrationalism (Tal, 148-9) – he was ‘bored’ by endgames so he avoided them! Kasparov and Karolyi have a simpler explanation: Tal thought that Smyslov would be more comfortable in a worse endgame than an unclear middlegame.

Example #3: Lakdawala laments the fact that he could not present a student’s lost simul game with Tal. (Tal, 123) I remember seeing this game – Tal-Miller, Los Angeles, 1988 – years ago, and it’s as good as advertised. It’s also in MegaBase, and it has been since 2012. (A quick Google would have turned it up too.)

What’s maddening about Lakdawala is that he can, when he chooses, produce excellent work. There is less nonsense in Fischer: MGM and Tal: MBM than in previous efforts, and there is more clear explanation of ideas. But there are no new insights in either book; instead, we get questionable psychologizing and a lot of stream-of-consciousness fluff. If you like Lakdawala’s other books, you’ll like these; if not, you won’t. Caveat emptor.


[1] That seven books on widely disparate players have a more-or-less identical structure – sections on attack, defense, dynamism, imbalances, accumulating advantages and the endgame – is disconcerting. Surely books on, say, Kramnik and Kortchnoi should not be identically structured .

Rematch by Proxy

This review has been printed in the February 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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Franco, Zenón. Anand: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 376pp. ISBN 978-1781941867. List $29.95; currently $23ish at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Carlsen: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 432pp. ISBN 978-1781942079. List $29.95; currently $25ish at Amazon.

You’ve got to hand it to the guys at Everyman Chess. They know an opportunity when they see one.

With the 2014 World Championship fast approaching, and with no titles on the combatants in their catalogue, Everyman asked two authors – one of their most prolific, and one of their newest – to remedy this most unfortunate situation.[1] The books under review this month, out just in time for the match, are the fruit of those labors. Both should also be available in e-book format by the time this review goes to press.

For Carlsen: Move by Move, Everyman turned to its most indefatigable author. International Master Cyrus Lakdawala has penned 21 titles (including forthcoming books) with Everyman since 2010, six of which are focused on a specific player. Carlsen: Move by Move is structured like most of Lakdawala’s biographical works for Everyman, with 54 annotated games divided into six thematic chapters.

I have reviewed two of Lakdawala’s books – Capablanca: Move by Move on my blog, and Botvinnik: Move by Move in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life – in the past. In those reviews I noted a troubling trend, one that continues unabated in Carlsen: Move by Move. With each new book he seems to cram more and more cutesy, cloying commentary into his analysis, and his work is beginning to suffer from it. For instance:

  • “[t]he black queen emits an odd, adenoidal grunting sound in response to her sister’s intrusion.” (259)
  • “[t]he rook staggers from the sudden unveiling of the truth. He sneaks out, the way a chastised third grader creeps out from the principal’s office.” (262)
  • “Annoying white pieces stick to Black’s hanging knight like discarded gum on a shoe. … [t]he g-pawn’s attempts to intimidate remind us of a Chihuahua, mimicking the Pitbull’s fury…” (ibid.)

This personification of pieces is relentless and tiresome. What’s worse, some of Lakdawala’s ‘metaphors’ seem confused or nonsensical. In Carlsen-Caruana (Biel, 2011) – game #32 in the book, from which all the above is taken – we encounter a typical example of this shtick gone awry.

image

Carlsen has just played 25.f4?!. Caruana might have responded 25…Ne3!, of which Lakdawala writes: “the knight inserts his head into the lion’s mouth, hoping he has been well fed.” If the hungry rook takes the bishop with 26.Rxe3 (White’s only move), Black has 26…Bxf4 with compensation. Caruana blundered in the game with 25…Re6??, allowing White to trap the knight by placing “calming hands” (???) on the rook and bishop with 26.Bd5.

Lakdawala’s analysis is decent enough, although he, like many authors, seems to lean on engines a bit too much. He can clearly break down the essentials of a position when he so chooses. But what is valuable in Carlsen: Move by Move gets lost amidst the avalanche of bad jokes and vapid prose.

Zenón Franco has done a much better job with Anand: Move by Move. The Paraguayan Grandmaster, having already published on Anand (Viswanathan Anand – Quíntuple Campeón del Mundo, 2013), has written a relatively straightforward biographical work. Anand: Move by Move begins with a twenty-five page assessment of Anand’s style. Franco lauds Anand’s flexibility, noting his ability to change his playing style to defeat Kramnik (236) and Topalov (264) in World Championship matches. He goes so far as to compare Anand’s universality with that of Fischer (11) – no small compliment!

The bulk of the book is 32 annotated games from 1991-2014, representing a decent cross-section of Anand’s career. Franco takes pains to situate each game both in terms of its tournament situation and its broader place in Anand’s oeuvre.

The inclusion of a strong biographical narrative in Anand: Move by Move is most welcome. Unlike Lakdawala, who actually points to an unsourced Wikipedia quote to prove a point (Carlsen, 9), Franco references multiple sources in his text, citing Anand’s own words whenever possible. The analysis is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Houdini’s presence is not onerous.

Were this a competition between the two titles, a rematch by proxy, Anand would certainly have his revenge here. Poor Carlsen will just have to console himself with his champion’s crown.


[1] That the books are aimed at those interested in the match is obvious: see Carlsen: Move by Move, 9, and Anand: Move by Move, 368.

“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).