Tag Archives: New in Chess

Structures, Plans and Ideas

This review has been printed in the July 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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Hickl, Jörg. The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916312. PB 192pp. List $19.95, currently ~$14.00 at Amazon.

Originally published in 2008 to positive reviews, Jörg Hickl’s Die Macht der Bauern: Strukturen, Pläne und Ideen für Vereinsspieler is out in translation from New in Chess as The Power of Pawns: Chess Structure Fundamentals for Post-beginners. Why now, after eight years and when other books have been published on similar themes?

The short answer is that Hickl’s book is rather good and deserves to be exposed to the English speaking chess world. There are multiple titles available that deal with typical pawn structures and how to play them, but The Power of Pawns is among the best for club players (a better translation for Vereinsspieler) looking to boost their general chess sense.

Hickl describes the impetus for his book in its Introduction.

In the middle of the 90s, when in addition to top-level sport I focussed more of my chess activity on the organisation of chess holidays and chess training, the needs of the majority of club players were foreign to me. … In more than ten years of intensive work and communication with the participants in my holidays, the same questions about structures and evaluation of positions kept coming up. I became aware that club players have to struggle with a similar approach and similar problems.

These reflections led among others to the following questions: ‘Can I do some­thing to improve this situation? Where can my experience help to make learning easier for chess players? And how can they make progress?’ (7)

What Hickl discovered was that club players, generally speaking, were not linking their in-game planning to the pawn structures on their boards. Certain structures – hanging pawns, the isolani, doubled pawns, etc. – required working knowledge of typical plans and ideas (Pläne und Ideen as in the German sub-title) if they were to be successfully navigated. An examination of those structures, plans and ideas is the project of The Power of Pawns.

Hickl’s book proceeds in two parts. The first and slighter section deals with the pieces most affected by pawn structure: knights, bishops and rooks. In three successive chapters he explains why some ‘bad’ bishops can be good, where knights are better than bishops (and vice versa), and why rooks love open files.

The majority of the book treats seven ‘basic’ pawn structures or features of pawn structures, one per chapter: hanging pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, passed pawns, doubled pawns, weak squares and pawn chains. There is some disconnect between the generic chapter titles and their contents. The chapter on isolated pawns, for instance, deals solely with the isolated queen’s pawn, and it is primarily structures coming from the Nimzo-Indian (pawns on c3/c4/d4) and Sicilian (f7/f6/e6/d6) under scrutiny in the chapter on doubled pawns.

Chapters share a common format. Hickl begins with a pawn skeleton and sketches the key plans and ideas that arise from it. Model games are presented thematically and with wordy analysis. Instructive supplemental games are recommended. Along the way Hickl asks questions of his readers and inserts helpful hints for the improving player. The result is a compact, eminently useful guide to key positional themes and structures.

Many chess players now study chess books on tablets or computers, and in a wise marketing move, Hickl provides the raw scores of all the games for his readers to download. Curiously, however, the link given in the book – www.joerg-hickl.de – has not been operational since 2011. The URL redirects to another site where the games are available, but it does lead one to wonder why the editors kept the reference to an outdated link, and why an English language reader has to navigate a German page to find the promised downloads.

Other quirks point to an inconsistent editorial touch. The title is given as “The power of the pawns” on the first page of the Introduction. Analytical updates to the 2008 edition are haphazard. Old (and incorrect) engine analysis is left to stand on one page (99) and reference is made to the newest Komodo two pages later (101). The translation is clunky in places; see the block quote above for a typical example. And why have the German co-authors (Erik Zude and Uwe Schupp) been demoted to mere acknowledgees?

The German book website suggests that The Power of Pawns is suitable for players rated from 1300-2200. This range seems a little wide to me on both ends. All the same, Hickl has a knack for clearly explaining complex matters, and the club player looking to improve her knowledge of typical structures would find this book quite instructive.

The Great Dane

This review has been printed in the December 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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Larsen, Bent. Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. Translated from Todas Las Piezas Atacan (volumes 1 and 2) by Freddie Poggio and John Saunders. ISBN 978-9056914684. 336pp. PB $34.95; currently (12/2) $25ish on Amazon.

The name Bent Larsen is, for many Americans, inextricably linked with that of Bobby Fischer. It was Larsen, not Fischer, who played first board in the 1970 USSR vs the World match, with Bobby – returning to chess after a three year absence – graciously giving way to the Dane. And it was Larsen who was Fischer’s second victim in his miraculous march to the World Championship, the score of the Candidates Semi-Final in Denver standing 6-0 in the American’s favor.

Such myopia is perhaps understandable, given the Fischer-colored lens that colors American understanding of chess history. It is also lamentable. Bent Larsen was not merely a bit player in the great Fischer drama. He was, for at least a decade, the only Western player (besides Fischer) to seriously trouble the Soviets, the winner of dozens of tournaments and three Interzonals, and a prolific writer to boot.

For years the English-speaking world has had to make due with just one games collection from Larsen: his 1970 Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess 1948-1969, now out of print and relatively hard to find. New in Chess has seized upon this fact and published Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. And not a moment too soon.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games is a translation of two recent Spanish collections. Games #1-74 are an extended and revised version of the material in Larsen’s Selected Games, with games through 1973. Games #75-124 come from Larsen’s 1973-77 journalistic efforts, so the notes have a slightly breezier feel than the earlier ones.

Larsen is not quite in the class of Botvinnik or Smyslov as an annotator, but he is very close. His notes are deeply instructive, judiciously mixing variations with prose. We get a real sense of Larsen the player and strategist in these pages, and the influence of his hero Aron Nimzowitsch is clearly felt.

Here is Larsen’s account of a ‘mysterious rook move’ that would have pleased the Stormy Petrel. White is to play.

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18.Rb2!!

… the advantages of 18.Rb2 can be summarized as follows: (1) it leads to a direct threat, with a gain of tempo; (2) it prepares for a doubling of rooks on the d-file; for example, 18…Qc7 19.Na4, with the idea of 20.Qc4 and 21.Rbd2; (3) it is important to retain the c-pawn to support the knight on a4. That is to say, with the c-pawn solidly protected and the a-file blocked, White can concentrate his forces on exploiting the open d-file. Then White will be able to strengthen his position with Nd2 and Nc4, Bf1 and Bc4, or h3–h4 and Bh3. (43)

Here we see the profundity of Larsen’s play as well as his explanatory prowess. Modern engines may prefer the ‘dogmatic’ (Kmoch) 18.b4, but they do not contradict the validity of Larsen’s move. If we look at the text a bit closer, we might also see something else.

The same game – Larsen-Perez, Gijon 1956 – appears in Larsen’s Selected Games. There Larsen says that “it is really important to keep the pawn on QKt3, to protect the knight on QR4. With the pawn on QB5 solidly protected and the QR file blocked, White is able to concentrate upon the exploitation of the Queen’s file.” This earlier rendering makes more sense, and I suspect – although I cannot say definitively – that the new translation is mistaken.

There are other small errors sprinkled through the text. Impossible moves are given (11…Kf5, 153). Openings are incorrectly named (35) and evaluations are flipped (287). It may seem pedantic to note such issues, but Larsen’s writing deserves much better.

Still, this is a fantastic book. Bent Larsen was a world-class player and writer. His games remain vital, entertaining and educational. So do yourself a favor: put down that opening book for a few days and let Houdini rest for a while. Get out your set and pieces and spend some time with Bent Larsen’s Best Games. You might just remember why you started playing chess in the first place.

Polishing the Gem

Moskalenko, Victor.  The Diamond Dutch: Strategic Ideas & Powerful Weapons.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. 300pp. ISBN 978-9056914417. PB $29.95; currently about $21 at Amazon.

Victor Moskalenko is one of our most consistently – with one misstep – engaging and creative chess authors.  His two books on the French – The Wonderful Winawer and The Flexible French (sadly out-of-print) – are both original and erudite.  When I was putting together my French repertoire, in fact, I found that Moskalenko’s French books walk that very fine line between not enough detail and entirely too much.  His analysis is clear, if sometimes idiosyncratic, and he explains the key ideas and themes well.  Moskalenko has also penned books on the Budapest and the Pirc-Modern.  Now he takes on the Dutch, an opening that is growing in popularity as it appears more and more at the Grandmaster level.

The Diamond Dutch is a complete book on the Dutch.  It covers all the major Dutch and anti-Dutch lines without favoring White or Black in the process, as sometimes happens in repertoire books.  While the Stonewall, Classical and Leningrad variations are all treated here, the Stonewall and Leningrad receive a slightly larger share of Moskalenko’s attention; those interested in the Classical or the ‘Dutch Nimzo-Indian’ should note this.

This book follows Moskalenko’s usual format in that it uses complete games to anchor the analysis.  There is quite a bit of prose, and Moskalenko makes use of a number of symbols (or emojis?!) to make certain ideas or analytical bits prominent.  You can get a sense of how this plays out in the text by looking at the sample pdf on the New in Chess website.  There is a key on p.4 of the pdf (p.8 in the book) and some of the symbols appear in the sample text that follows.

It’s always interesting to see how new opening books stack up to their peers.  In his review, for example, Dennis Monokroussos compared Moskalenko’s analysis of 2.Nc3 with that offered by John Watson in his recent (and excellent, by the way!) A Strategic Opening Repertoire for White. He also compares Moskalenko’s coverage of 2.Bg5 with with Larry Kaufman’s analysis in his Kaufman Repertoire.

Having reviewed Richard Pert’s book on the Trompowsky, which contains analysis of 2.Bg5 vs the Dutch, I had thought that I might undertake a similar comparison for my review.  Moskalenko does not cite Pert – his bibliography is surprisingly slight – so perhaps such a comparison might be both illustrative and illuminating.  What I found was interesting, although perhaps not in the way I had expected.

Pert’s analysis, on first blush, seemed to anticipate a lot of Moskalenko’s, and with good reason!  Pert cites NIC Yearbook surveys by Moskalenko in the introduction to his analysis.  When I went back to the two surveys in NIC Yearbooks 94 and 95, I was in for a bit of a shock.  There is a tremendous amount of overlap between the surveys and the 2.Bg5 chapter in The Diamond Dutch.  Indeed, it is as if the 2.Bg5 chapter is a condensed version of these two surveys.  The games are much the same, the analysis is quite similar, and great swathes of prose appear verbatim in both places.

There is more.  Chapters 4 and 5 in The Diamond Dutch are ‘broader update[s]’ (87) of two chapters from Revolutionize Your Chess.  Moskalenko acknowledges this in the introduction to chapter 4, and while there are improvements and updates in the text – most notably, the hamfisted ‘touchstones’ from Revolutionize are omitted here – Moskalenko paraphrases his previous analysis and text when not simply reprinting it.

Some of these updates are found in other NIC Yearbooks.  HIs attempt to outfox Avrukh (ch4, pp.128-138) is anticipated by a survey in NIC YB 101, albeit with a number of updates and refinements new toThe Diamond Dutch.  Pages 123-128 find a very near relative in a survey from NIC YB 102.  Finally, the notes to some other games – Van Wely-Moskalenko, Ciudad Real 2004, for instance – have clear antecedents in the notes in surveys for Chessbase Magazine 120 and 121.

Let me be clear.  I’m not opposed to an author reworking previously published material, especially if the material is as good as that in The Diamond Dutch.  I’d simply like to see some kind of acknowledgement of that repackaging and reworking somewhere in the book.

That said, all of this reworking and updating finds its end in a finely polished analytical effort.  In my survey of Moskalenko’s analysis of 2.Bg5, for instance, I thought that the chapter was a broad and representative survey of all the main lines for both sides.  Whereas Pert gives a tight repertoire for White, Moskalenko provides enough material for both White and Black to navigate the variation.  I did, however, note a curious omission. After 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.h4 Moskalenko analyzes 4…h6 and 4…Nh6, omitting 4…Nf6.  This, to me, is like leaving the punch line off the joke, since the whole point of the h4 push is (a la Pert and Schandorff) to sacrifice the exchange on h5 if Black plays …Nf6!

Fans of Simon Williams and his ‘Killer Dutch’ will be glad to know that Moskalenko addresses one of the current difficulties in the Classical Dutch.  He confirms Williams’ idea (given here in the essential ChessPub forums by Williams himself!) that after the critical line 1.Nf3 f5 2.d4 e6 3.c4 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.Nc3 Ne4!? 8.Nxe4!? Black should continue 8…fxe4 9.Nd2 d5 10.f3!? Nc6!? with decent prospects.

Dutch aficionados will find in The Diamond Dutch a ‘refined’ and reliable guide to all major variations.  Those who play closed positions with White will find much here to inspire the next assault on Black’s f-pawn.  I do not think there is a better guide to the Dutch – for either color – currently in print.