Tag Archives: Move by Move

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.


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 .

Capablanca in the Age of Chessbase

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Capablanca: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2012.
Paperback ISBN 978-1857446982.  List $29.95. | Kindle ASIN B008M7VR46.  List $22.95. | Chessbase and PGN formats available at the Everyman Chess website and in-app in IOS.

Nota bene: My e-copy of this book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’m not a digital native.  I grew up with 14.4k baud modems and BBSs.  My first experience with what would become the modern Internet came in 1992 or 1993, when I tried to play chess without a graphical interface on one of the original chess servers, and when Mosaic was the end-all, be-all of browsers.  I don’t – much to my family’s disgust – put much stock in texting, and I can only read pulpy fiction on e-readers.  Try as I might, I’m analog to the bone.

Nor am I a digital chess native.  This might seem strange; after all, I play chess against people from all over the world via the intertubes, and I take lessons by means of Skype and Paypal.  I depend heavily on Chessbase and its many wonders to try and better my chess.  I even penned (analog again!) a book chapter where, after sketching the contours of a philosophy of technology using Chessbase as a case study, I declared Garry Kasparov to be a cyborg.  I grew up with chess books and chess boards, and when I really want to learn something, paper and pieces seem to work best.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that I’m in the minority of media consumers these days, and that my ‘side,’ as it were, is losing ground with each passing day.  E-books and e-readers are where the book industry is headed, and the chess book industry is no exception.  And the venerable Everyman Chess is undoubtedly leading the way into this brave future.

Everyman is trying to meet its readers wherever they might be.  They sell some books in epub format on their own site and in Amazon Kindle format at Amazon.  They sell some books in .pgn format, readable in Chessbase or their IOS app, at their website or through in-app purchasing.  They sell some books in native Chessbase format.  Oh, and they still sell tree-killing paper books too. Smile  (Thank goodness!)

Capablanca: Move by Move, the book under consideration in this review, is available in paperback, in Chessbase / PGN format, and as a e-book.  I have seen it briefly in paper, but I’m basing this review solely on my experience with it as an electronic entity.  On the whole, I enjoyed it, and I think it fills a void in the extant literature.  It is not without its problems, however, and I’ll point a few of them out in short order.

There are precious few collections of annotated Capablanca games currently in print.  I own two: Reinfeld’s Immortal Games of Capablanca and Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings. Both are quite useful.  Reinfeld’s fine book is a cut above his usual standard, and Chernev’s is among the best of his career.  But Reinfeld is in descriptive notation, which few young players can read, and Chernev is solely (and understandably) focused on Capablanca’s endgames.  Neither seems fully suitable as the ‘go-to Capablanca book’ for the contemporary player.

Enter Cyrus Lakdawala, who is churning out books for Everyman at a Reinfeldian pace.  In Capablanca: Move by Move Lakdawala analyzes 59 of Capablanca’s games.  Instead of following a strict historical chronology, he groups them according to broad themes of Attack, Defense, ‘Exploiting Imbalances,’ ‘Accumulating Advantages,’ and Endgames.  (Lakdawala uses a similar thematic structure in his contemporaneous book on Kramnik.)  After an Introduction where Capablanca’s biography is lightly sketched, we get to the games.

Capablanca: Move by Move is part of the Move by Move series.  As such, it follows the standard series format.  Games are annotated with a mixture of traditional notes, answers to ‘questions’ from hypothetical students, and a sprinkling of ‘exercises’ that ask the reader to find the next move. 

This has its advantages and disadvantages.  I’ve always thought that formats like these, with problems posed and answers given, tend to present problems in paper format.  Either you have to magically avert your eyes, cover the answers with an index card, or flip to the back of the book for the solution.  (Quality Chess books are notable exceptions in this regard.)  Have a look at the sample pdf provided on the Everyman website to see what I mean.

Books read in Chessbase format overcome this problem.  If you open Capablanca: Move by Move in Chessbase or Fritz and view a game in the ‘Training’ view, you can only see one move at a time, therefore doing away with the need for the index card, etc.   Each of Lakdawala’s exercises appears in this view as a task for the reader to solve, fulfilling the original aim of the format.  (The questions and answers are not similarly formatted; this might be something for Everyman to reconsider in the future.)  Going through the games in a manner akin to ‘solitaire chess’ was quite enjoyable and perhaps even educational.  I certainly found this mode of access more amenable than I did the e-book.

And why was that?  I viewed the e-book (in epub format) on both my Nook and my Ipad.  In both cases I sat down with the e-book/e-reader, my board and my pieces.  The mismash never really worked for me.  The screen on the Ipad would timeout and go dark while I was studying the position on the board, and the screen on the Nook was small enough to be engulfed by diagrams.  For me – and others may well disagree – chess books don’t span the gap between the physical and the cyber particularly well.  They need to be one or the other, either paper and plastic or fully electronic.  Maybe those lucky few who can play over complete games in their heads might have a different experience.   I wouldn’t know.

I was also provided a .pgn file to test in the Everyman Chess app for IOS.  Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the riches of the Chessbase interface, but the app suffers terribly in comparison.  It’s hard to navigate between variations and sub-variations, and here again the screen times out if you neglect it for more than a minute or two.  It is certainly handy to have the ability to read chess books on my phone or while traveling on my Ipad, but I don’t think it’s robust enough to serve as a primary interface for study.

Those readers who have stuck with me to this point are surely muttering to themselves, “enough with the technology reviews!  What about the games and notes?”  On the whole, Lakdawala does a fairly good job with the analysis.  He tends to favor words over variations, keeping the thickets of analysis to a pruned minimum.  If you compare his analysis of the famous Capablanca-Tartakower endgame (New York, 1924) to that of Dvoretsky in DEM, for example, you see quite quickly that Lakdawala is writing for a broader audience.  He’s not trying to conclusively discover the inner truths of a position; rather, he’s trying to teach his reader something about Capablanca and about chess.  I suspect the market for this kind of project is bigger than that for Dvoretsky’s.

At times, and to his book’s great detriment, Lakdawala is entirely too fond of words.  His verbosity sometimes crosses from the florid to the fetid; put differently, Lakdawala desperately needs an editor who will ruthlessly cut the worst excesses of his prose.  In the sample pdf on the Everyman site, we can find, just in the first game, a few of his lesser affronts: “[w]hite fires a bullet into the wall to test the forensics of the position” (16), “[t]he white king’s fevered dreams conjure very real phantoms, as he tosses in his sweat-soaked bed” (17), etc.  What, pray tell, is a “mindblower fact?” (17)  Things go from bad to worse in game two, where Lakdawala describes the flaws of a move with this gem: “[n]ow light-squared punctures dot White’s position, as on a pox-scarred face.” (21)  The rest of the book is filled with similar sins against the English language.  There might be some who find this kind of thing cute… but I find it cloying, distracting, and an unfortunate blight on an otherwise respectable work.

While I’m at it, I should say that (1) I was slightly annoyed by Lakdawala’s continued use of the nickname ‘Capa’ for Capablanca.  It might save six characters hundreds of times over, thus reducing page count, but it’s a little disrespectful.  (2) I really wish that Lakdawala had chosen not to insert contemporary game references into his notes.  It hardly seems fair to hold Capablanca responsible for not knowing opening theory from fifty or sixty years after his death.

On the whole, however, I think Capablanca: Move by Move fulfills a need in the chess marketplace.  While it is not the ‘scholarly,’ comprehensive treatment I’d hoped it would be, it’s certainly good enough to serve as the go-to Capablanca book for all those young chess players who are so sadly ignorant of chess history.  Those who can read descriptive might consider Reinfeld instead, but both books would be worth your time and money.

Recommended for players of all ratings, despite my reservations.  7/10.  (And please, Everyman, let your editors run free on Lakdawala’s future efforts!)