Tag Archives: prophylaxis

Mark Dvoretsky: A Retrospective

This article has been printed in the December 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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After learning of the death of Mark Dvoretsky on September 26th via Twitter, I found myself standing in front of my bookshelf, thumbing through one of his many titles. Suddenly I found myself hurled back in time, much like Proust after biting into his madeleine, and in unpacking that involuntary memory, I came to understand why the news of his death had affected me so.

I am old enough to remember a time before the ‘disenchantment’ (to borrow a phrase from the sociology of religion) of the modern chess world, a time before everyone had a Grandmaster in their cell phone and the Internet brought tournaments from around the world into our homes. In the days before the computer, master-level play had yet to be demystified. Amateurs had almost no access to the thought processes of masters and Grandmasters, and without the false security provided by the engine, we rarely understood their moves.

All of this changed when Mark Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Training was published in 1991.

Standing there in my basement, I was 15 years old again, wandering through the local Waldenbooks and discovering a pink book that promised to teach me the secrets of chess. I remember struggling to make sense of the analysis within, and how I persisted in doing so, even when it was evident that I lacked the ability to understand any of what I was reading. Others may not have shared my fruitless dedication, for legend has it that USCFSales stopped stocking the book after too many frustrated returns.

Mark Dvoretsky will be remembered for many reasons. He worked with three World Junior Champions, a Women’s World Championship Challenger, and a myriad of masters and Grandmasters, earning him the unofficial title of “World’s Best Trainer.” He was a very strong player in his own right, winning the Moscow Championship in 1973, the Wijk aan Zee B tournament in 1974, and finishing =5th-7th in the 42nd Soviet Championship. Dvoretsky’s rating peaked at 2540 in January 1976, making him the 35th ranked player in the world at the time. He was also, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

For all of these accomplishments, I think Dvoretsky’s true legacy lies in his writings. Very few authors contribute something radically new to chess theory, and Dvoretsky, with the possible exception of his concept of the ‘superfluous piece,’ was not an iconoclast. (Pieces, and particularly knights, become superfluous when two or more aim at one square.) Instead, he took the best elements of the Soviet training system, added his own twist – the solving of problems from his famed collection of positions – and shared the fruits of his labor with the world.

It’s not simply that his books are well written, although of course, they are. There is something about Dvoretsky’s style, something intimate – ‘here is what Yusupov saw… here is what Dreev missed’ – that remains powerful, even in the age of the silicon beasts. We are not merely allowed to peek inside Dvoretsky’s chess laboratory. We are invited to join in the search for truth, and in his writings, this task feels as important and vital as anything in the world.

There are two ‘halves,’ as it were, to Dvoretsky’s authorial career. His nine books (seven of which are revised and extended versions of books originally published with Batsford) and two series with Edition Olms made him famous. We will examine them first before turning to more recent titles published with Russell Enterprises.

The School of Chess Excellence (SCE) series consists of four titles published from 2001-2004: Endgame Analysis (SCE 1), Tactical Play (SCE 2), Strategic Play (SCE 3), and Opening Developments (SCE 4). In his recent video series for Chess24 – which I highly recommend for the newcomer to Dvoretsky’s work, and to which I will return shortly – Dvoretsky says that these four books are best understood as “one big book,” covering a wide array of ideas in essay form.

The School for Future Champions (SFC) series takes its name from the chess school run by Dvoretsky and Yusupov from 1990-1992. The five books in the series – Secrets of Chess Training (SFC 1; not the same as the 1991 title, now SCE 1), Secrets of Opening Preparation (SFC 2), Secrets of Endgame Technique (SFC 3), Secrets of Positional Play (SFC 4), and Secrets of Creative Thinking (SFC 5) – were published from 2006-2009 and based on lectures for talented children. While Dvoretsky and Yusupov wrote the bulk of them, guest lecturers like Kaidanov, Kramnik, and Shereshevsky also contributed.

Taken together, these nine titles represent a fairly systematic curriculum for chess mastery. What does that curriculum look like? Interestingly we find the clearest accounts of Dvoretsky’s ‘philosophy’ in his writings on the endgame, including chapters in SCE 1 (“The Benefit of Abstract Knowledge”) and SFC 3 (“How to Study the Endgame”). A particularly cogent articulation also appears in his “Endgames with Dvoretsky” video series for Chess24, released mere weeks before his death.

In a video entitled, appropriately enough, “Philosophy,” Dvoretsky makes a few interrelated claims about his approach to chess training. First, he argues that it is essential to develop intuition, or what he describes in SFC 5 as “the ability easily and quickly… to grasp the essence of the position, the most important ideas… and to assess the promise of particular continuations.” (41)

How do we do this? Through the conjoined tasks of study and solving. Dvoretsky offers a vision of how this might work in SFC 1, a book that IM Greg Shahade has called “the best instructional chess book of all time.” Players should increase their knowledge of general principles and ideas through the study of chess classics and rigorous self-analysis. Solving carefully chosen exercises reinforces what has been learned and boosts calculative, evaluative and imaginative skills. Enriching intuition in this way allows players to correctly apply relevant rules or principles in novel situations.

We can see the value of this training method in this adjourned position (SCE 1, 64-7; also, Chess24, “Endgames with Dvoretsky”), taken from the 1980 Candidates Match between Nana Alexandria and Marta Litinskaya.

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What should White play after the sealed 41…Rf8?

One idea would be use the opposite-colored bishops to construct a fortress. Initial analysis showed that this was difficult: if 42.Rd2 then Black plays 42…Rf4! and White has multiple weaknesses while Black’s pieces are active.

Dvoretsky, who was Alexandria’s second, quickly intuited that another rule – positions with rooks and opposite-color bishops favor the attacker – was more applicable here. Activating the rook was necessary. But how? 42.Ke1?! seemed a likely choice, but after 42…Rf4! 43.Rc1 (if 43.a5 Rxg4; Modern engines prefer 43.Rd3!? Rxg4 44.Rg3 Rxg3 45.fxg3 and the endgame is probably drawn) 43…Bxf2+ 44.Kd1 Bb6 Black kept the advantage.

Only 42.Kg1! was sufficient to save the game.

Black’s best chance lay with 42…Rf4 43.a5! (stopping Bb6; 43.Rd3!? is possible here too) 43…Rxg4 (if 43…Kc7 44.Kh1! Rxg4 45.Rb1! (with the idea of Rb7+) 45…e4 46.Rb4 Rh4+ 47.Kg1 Bxf2+ 48.Kf1! and White draws after exchanging rooks) 44.Rc1 Kc7 45.Rb1 e4 46.Rb4 Bxf2+ 47.Kf1! Be1! 48.Ra4!! and analysis shows that White can draw.

Litinskaya played the inferior 42…Kc7?! allowing Alexandria to draw easily after 43.Rb1 Bxf2+ 44.Kh1 Rb8 45.Rd1 Rd8 46.Rb1 Rb8 47.Rd1 Rd8 ½–½

Had Dvoretsky’s authorial career ended with those nine titles, his position in chess history would have been secure. Luckily for us, he kept writing. His books with Russell Enterprises are some of his best, extending his earlier work and opening up new avenues of inquiry.

Unfortunately I cannot discuss all of Dvoretsky’s books with Russell for lack of space, but merely touch on the highlights. In particular I want to thematize two signature features of Dvoretsky’s work – prophylaxis and the use of endgame studies – as they appear in his later books.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (DEM) was published in 2003 to tremendous and deserved acclaim, and is now in its 4th edition. It consists of 1100+ examples and exercises, using novel textual devices to demarcate 220 ‘precise positions’ for memorization (blue print) and dozens of typical endgame schemata (bold italics). DEM is perhaps Dvoretsky’s best book, and certainly his best known. It is widely recommended by top teachers to those looking to learn endgame theory.

Although he did not invent it, Dvoretsky is often associated with the concept of prophylaxis or prophylactic thinking. Prophylaxis requires that players consider what the opponent wants to play were she on move, find an answer to that question, and then use that answer to help guide analysis.

This idea is discussed in SCE 3 (“Don’t Forget about Prophylaxis!”) and SFC 4 (“Prophylactic Thinking”), but I think Dvoretsky’s clearest rendering comes in Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources (2015). The book is the Platonic ideal of Dvoretsky’s training philosophy, containing hundreds of exercises for solving and clear examples to orient intuition.

Endgame studies are also a key component of Dvoretsky’s methodology, and in two ways. Solving studies can be useful in training imagination and calculation, and they can also be used as set pieces for ‘two-handed play’ between training partners. (SCE 1, 207, 200) His interest in studies spans his publishing career, with a full book – Studies for Practical Players (2009, co-authored with Oleg Pervakov) – devoted to the topic.

Dvoretsky described solving studies in SCE 1 as “pleasant, but useful.” Much the same can be said for the study of his books. So long as chess is played, Mark Dvoretsky’s books will be certainly be read, both for pleasure and for improvement.

A Dvoretsky Duo

Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues: Volume II, Reflections on My Profession. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270035. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently list price on Amazon.

Dvoretsky, Mark. Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270004. PB 360pp. List $24.95, currently $20ish on Amazon.

Reflections on My Profession is the second volume in Mark Dvoretsky’s autobiographical diptych. In my review of the first book in the series, titled Profession: Chess Coach, I described it as a “memoir of his life in chess.” Reflections on My Profession is a true companion volume to Profession: Chess Coach. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining – sometimes polemically – what Dvoretsky takes to be best practices for chess coaching and improvement. Reading the two together, we get a more holistic picture of Dvoretsky as a man and as a trainer than we would by reading either by themselves.

Reflections on My Profession consists of a series of essays, with most having been published elsewhere and reprinted here in updated form. There are three main divisions: “Competitions,” dealing with over-the-board play by him or his students; “Chess Literature: What and How to Read,” where Dvoretsky investigates (and in some cases, castigates) recent articles and books of interest; and “Training Mastery,” the bulk of the book, where Dvoretsky lays out the basic tenets of his training methods.

The first section of the book is mildly interesting, but mainly for the analysis. The second and the third sections are, in my opinion, of much greater value. Accordingly I will devote some lines to these two sections before moving on.

In his discussion of chess literature, Dvoretsky points us towards good annotators (Matthew Sadler and Grigory Sanakoev) and calls out charlatans (Hans Berliner). His preface to the Russian edition of John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess is basically a list of book recommendations, and aspiring masters would do well to work their way through his choices.

In an aside, Dvoretsky argues (144) that classic books should be brought back into print, but with a twist. He describes the need for introducing a contemporary co-author who would correct analytical errors and introduce additional material. I suspect that it is not a coincidence that one of his recommended books, Spielmann’s The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, has just been republished by Russell with Karsten Müller playing the co-author’s role. Müller’s additions appear in blue, and he has also added what amounts to another book’s worth of material to the text. It looks promising.

The third section of Reflections on My Profession, devoted to chess training, consists of two main types of chapters. There are ‘practical’ chapters, where Dvoretsky offers readers problems to solve from his famed card index, and there are ‘theoretical’ chapters where he explains the role of the trainer and best practices for improvement.

Perhaps the clearest statement of his vision for chess training comes in the first chapter of this section, “Philosophy of Training Work.” Trainers must work to develop player’s strengths while overcoming their weaknesses. They do so by offering their pupils clear examples or ‘chess images’ for study, and also by providing them problems to solve. Dvoretsky is clear in his belief that chess improvement comes through practice. A good trainer provides her pupils the kinds of exercises that will burnish their strengths and mend their flaws, and it is only through consistent solving of problems that players can hope to obtain better results.

Dvoretsky describes the selection of appropriate problems for solving in “Solve for Yourself!” Most of his discussion, while interesting on an intellectual level, is of little use for the majority of readers. We aren’t strong enough to discern our own weaknesses, and our understanding limits our ability to create material for self-training. The problems used as examples can, however, be salvaged for training purposes. Recently I used five of them to good effect in a session with our Denker representative. Here’s one of them.

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“White is up a rook and a pawn, but how can he defend himself from being mated?”

Dvoretsky’s path to chess improvement is not easy. If we leave aside the fact that most of us recoil from the kind of active learning he prescribes, there is still the matter of finding (a) appropriate and (b) sufficient positions. In a previous review I had lamented the fact that for all of his output, Dvoretsky had yet to publish a book of problems specifically for solving. An ambitious reader could mine Reflections on My Profession for suitable positions, as I did with our Denker rep, or she could turn to the second book under review in this essay.

Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking is a translation of three books that have appeared in German (Aufmerksamkeit gegenüber gegnerischen Möglichkeiten: Trainingshandbuch, Band 1; Ausschlussmethode & Falenspiel: Trainingshandbuch, Band 2; Prophylaktisches Denken: Trainingshandbuch, Band 3). This book, however, appears to have been translated from the original Russian, something that the bibliography (slight as it is) fails to make clear.

If Dvoretsky is known for one concept or insight, it is certainly that of prophylaxis. As he defines it in Secrets of Positional Play, prophylactic thinking is “the habit of constantly asking yourself what the opponent wants to do, what he would play if it were him to move, the ability to find an answer to this question and to take account of it in the process of coming to a decision.” (28) Recognizing Your Opponents Resources is, in a nutshell, a collection of problems for solving that all revolve around prophylaxis.

There are four chapters in this book. Each begins with a small lesson on the chapter’s theme, and this is followed by a batch of positions for solving along with their solutions. “Pay Attention to Your Opponent’s Resources” has 180 problems. “The Process of Elimination” has 106. “Traps” has 36, and “Prophylactic Thinking” has 154. (The polyglots among you will note that the chapter titles correspond rather well with the German titles listed above.) It is basically the puzzle book that Dvoretsky never published, until now.

In each chapter the problems tend to run from easier to harder, where ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ should be understood as being relative to Dvoretsky’s very high standards. Here are two from the chapter on “Prophylatic Thinking.” The first is the 7th in the problem set, while the second is the 152nd. White is to move in both cases.

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(Solutions for both problems)

For Friends and Colleagues: Reflections on My Profession is something of a niche publication, and coaches, trainers and Dvoretsky acolytes will make up its main readership. Every 2000+ player looking for training material should pick up Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources. It’s hard to think of a book that provides the strong player more bang for his improvement buck, and it’s hard to think of another book that treats its topic so well.