Tag Archives: Quality Chess

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.

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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.

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Gelfand’s Lofty Standard

This review has been printed in the February 2017 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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Gelfand, Boris (with Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830137. HB 288pp. List $34.95.

Positional Decision Making in Chess, the first volume in Boris Gelfand’s ‘Decision Making’ series, was published by Quality Chess in 2015 to critical acclaim. (See the September 2015 issue of Chess Life for my rapturous review.) Now Gelfand’s second book, Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, is available. Does it live up to the lofty standard set by its predecessor?

The title of Gelfand’s new book accurately describes its contents. His main theme is decision making, with a particular focus on (a) how Gelfand makes practical decisions over the board and (b) his handling of dynamic positions. While Gelfand’s articulation of his thought processes is clear and mainly successful, the lens he uses (dynamical play) makes its complete exploration very difficult.

Gelfand describes the “core” of his books as follows:

I want to explain the thinking that has led to my reasonable success as a chess player, and not ‘cheat’ in the process. It is quite easy to analyze a variation with the engine and then explain why it works. And this certainly has its uses, but to me it is more interesting to talk about how we find the moves in the first place. This is the key to playing better chess. (260)

The goal of the books in this series thus far is to offer an honest accounting of how a super GM like Gelfand decides on his moves. The analysis tries to follow Gelfand’s in-game stream of consciousness, and because he cuts no corners, it can be incredibly complex. A recurring theme of the book is Gelfand’s warnings about overreliance on the computer.

It is a mistake to assume that Grandmasters think like engines. Because humans cannot begin to match the machine in terms of calculation, because we can’t see everything like the computer does, at some point we have to “guess.” (8, 86) Decision making on the basis of limited information (guessing) relies on intuition, evaluation, and judgment. (160, 218, 226).

Gelfand’s point seems to be this: humans cannot calculate their way to good decisions. We must rely on “general considerations” (15) while we play, and we must use our intuition to take decisions that we cannot fully calculate. How do we train intuition, and in this case, how do we train our sense of dynamics?

There’s the rub.

It’s important to be clear about what we’re talking about. Dynamics involves the ephemeral in chess. Some temporary feature of the position must be converted into an lasting advantage before it dissipates. (8) Dynamic chess involves intuition and calculation for Gelfand, but devolves to neither. (9). It is not strictly tactical or strategic in nature, the very distinction being somewhat artificial in his view. (61)

For all of the analysis in Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, and for all of the exquisitely careful explanation of decisions and thought processes, there is nothing to my eye that explains how Gelfand senses dynamism in a position. He just does, and more than that is hard to explain.

This is not a knock on Gelfand (or his co-author Jacob Aagaard). Dynamic Decision Making in Chess is a wonderful book, one of the best of its kind, but like every book on dynamics, there comes a point where analysis and explanation fail and we must simply bear witness to genius.

Again, let me be clear. I am not claiming that the great moves of the masters are somehow ineffable or beyond reason. Instead, what I am arguing follows from the block quote above.

It is easy, as Gelfand notes, to retroactively explain the logic of a brilliant move. What is more difficult is clearly articulating the move’s genesis without falling prey to what John Dewey called the ‘philosopher’s fallacy,’ where the results of analysis are taken to accurately represent what was experienced before analysis began.

Studies of dynamic play are, in my experience, particularly susceptible to this kind of fallacy. While Gelfand works diligently to break down the logic of his best moves – his 11…Ra6!! against Karjakin from the 2009 World Cup, for instance (227-239) – there is a level of analysis beyond which he cannot go. It took him 40 years of study and solving (54, 134) to find such moves, and their intuitive, unconscious origins are not easily excavated.

Does this mean that Dynamic Decision Making in Chess fails in its project? Absolutely not. It may lack the clarity and focus of Positional Decision Making in Chess, but this is due to Gelfand’s ambitious handling of a very difficult subject and his refusal to simplify his thought processes for the sake of expediency. The analysis is best suited for experts and above, but players of all strengths can’t help but learn from this book.

Resolved: Stick with it!

This review has been printed in the January 2017 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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Edouard, Romain. The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9789082256642. PB 152pp.

Yusupov, Artur. Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830212. PB 208pp.

The gym is full of people you’ve never seen, and won’t see again after February. All of the ‘healthy’ food is on sale. November’s onslaught of political ads have been replaced with commercials for weight loss services and plastic surgeons.

Happy New Year, everyone!

We chess players are not immune to the spirit of the season. We’d all like to see our results improve, and a new year marks a new chance to make some changes and get things right. But how?

For my part, I’m resolving to make solving a bigger part of my improvement strategy. Here I refer not simply to the solving of tactical problems, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improvement. A strict focus on tactics can make a player myopic, narrowing our thinking so that we treat every position we encounter like a tactical puzzle.

What I have in mind are books with a wide variety of positions for solving, each requiring (and training) different facets of chess knowledge, and with the aim of honing my intuition and practical skills. Those of you who read last month’s column might recognize the influence of Mark Dvoretsky’s philosophy in this, albeit on a much simpler level.

Here you might try your hand at this kind of work. Set a clock for 15-20 minutes and find the winning move for White in this position. Write down your analysis, and compare it to the answer that appears at the end of this article.

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Until recently there were relatively few books that provided this type of training material. Hort and Jansa’s The Best Move is the most famous book of this kind, but it is out of print and hard to find. (As always, avoid dodgy reprints.) Perfect Your Chess by Volokitin and Grabinsky is excellent but fiendishly difficult. And while both Dvoretsky and Jacob Aagaard have published books with training problems in the last few years, they too are perhaps too complex for most non-masters.

Two collections of exercises have crossed my desk in recent months, both of which are eminently suitable for the kind of work I’m hoping to undertake this year. Together, the two offer a broad swath of exercises for the improving player to grapple with, and I’d recommend both, if to players of slightly different strengths.

Artur Yusupov’s nine-volume training series from Quality Chess is, along with the Dutch Stappenmethode books, one of the best chess training systems in print. His newest title, Revision & Exam 1: The Fundamentals, is a collection of exercises designed to complement the first three books in that series, but it can equally well serve as a stand-alone set of problems for solving.

Revision & Exam 1 consists of 432 positions broken down into 72 chapters, each corresponding to a lesson in the first level of his training books. The problems are well chosen and tremendously varied, the answers are mini-lessons in themselves, and the production values are high. Players rated above 1600 would do well to make this book part of their training regimen.

The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2, Test Yourself! is Romain Edouard’s second book from Thinkers Publishing. His first book, which shares the same title, was a thought-provoking work marred by poor editing and translation. Test Yourself! manages to avoid both of these flaws, in part because it is largely languageless, and it provides readers 280 meaty positions for solving.

I have spent some time with Edouard’s book, from which our exercise above is drawn, and the more I work with it, the more I like it. The exercises appear in random order, and beyond the short stipulation given via chapter headings, readers must use their full range of chess knowledge to correctly solve the problems.

Test Yourself! is slightly more taxing than is Revision & Exam 1; as such, it’s best suited for A players and above. Resolute effort in solving will be rewarded in both cases… provided, of course, you stick with it!

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ANSWER to diagrammed problem:

(1) Radjabov,T (2726) – Karjakin,Sergey (2767) [C26]
Tashkent (analysis) (1.6), 21.10.2014
[Hartmann,John]

Problem #17 in Edouard. Your task is to “find the winning move.” 17.Kf2!

[17.Be3 Qf6 18.Bd4 Qg6+ 19.Qxg6 fxg6 20.Nxd6 cxd6 21.Rbe1= 1/2–1/2 (45) Radjabov,T (2726)-Karjakin,S (2767) Tashkent 2014]

17…Bd7 [17…Bc5+ 18.d4!; 17…Qf6 18.Rg1 Bc5+ (18…Kh8 19.Be3!? (19.Rxg7 Rg8 20.Rxf7 Qg6 21.Qxg6 Rxg6±) 19…Qxc3? 20.Rbd1 Qxc2+ 21.Rd2 Qc3 22.Nxh6+–) 19.d4+–; 17…Kh8 18.Nxh6 g6 19.Nxf7+ Kg7 20.Nxd8 gxh5 21.Ne6++–] 18.Nxh6+ gxh6 19.Qxh6+–

Enter the Dragon

This review has been printed in the March 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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Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 1. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830076. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 2. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830090. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Children love playing it. It appears as a plot point in the soapiest of Spanish telenovelas period dramas. The Chinese have even gone so far as to try to make it their own.

It’s gotta be the name, right?

Bobby Fischer famously claimed that he’d worked its defeat out to a science (“…pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!”) but the theory and practice of the Sicilian Dragon have come a long way in recent years. Not only are there new sub-variations to try – the Chinese Dragon, the Topalov Variation, the Dragadorf – but the traditional main lines have undergone extensive analysis and empirical testing. How can the Dragoneer hope to keep up?

Older one-volume introductions by Chris Ward and Mikhail Golubev are now dated. David Vigorito’s Chess Developments: The Sicilian Dragon (2011) is fairly current, but it does not cover every line. For a complete, cutting-edge repertoire, Dragon players should consider the new Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon 1 and 2 by Gawain Jones.

In theory few are better suited to cover this opening than Jones, a lifelong Dragon enthusiast with a rating in the mid-2600s. Of course Elo and experience are no guarantee of authorial talent, but after wrestling with the books for a few weeks now, I’m glad to report that Jones was up to the task.

The most critical lines in the Dragon emerge from this position:

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White’s three main tries here are 9.Bc4, 9.g4 and 9.0-0-0. Jones treats the first two in Volume 1, and the third in Volume 2. He recommends 9…Be6 against 9.g4, and more than half of Volume 2 is devoted to sidelines. The bulk of the work focuses on 9.Bc4 and 9.0-0-0.

Against 9.Bc4, the traditional main line, Jones has two recommendations. His primary repertoire choice is the Topalov Variation (9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5), and I take it as a good sign that Jones has continued to play the line post-publication. White can dodge the Topalov with 10.h4, leading Jones to also include coverage of the Soltis (10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5) and Burnett (12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5 15.b3 b4!) Variations. Readers are thus presented with two options against the Yugoslav.

9.0-0-0 is perhaps the more critical variation in modern practice, and just under half of Volume 2 is devoted to it. After 9.0–0–0 d5 Jones analyzes 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 (the current main line of the Dragon; if 12.Nxd5 Jones recommends 12…cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7) 12…Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 when two repertoire choices are offered: the slightly offbeat 14…Qa5 15.b3 Be6!? and 14…Qc7. After 10.Kb1 Black should play 10… Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6!, and in case of 10.Qe1, Jones plumps for 10… e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.exd5 Nxd5.

[Here is a summary of these lines in replayable format.]

The repertoire presented in the two volumes of The Dragon resembles that of Peter Heine Nielsen on his recent two DVD set for ChessBase (The Sicilian Dragon for the Tournament Player), although they are not identical. Nielsen’s videos are very good in terms of explanation, but they cannot begin to match the density of information presented in Jones’ books.

And make no mistake – these are dense books. The analysis is comprehensive almost to the point of pedantry, as is typical for Quality Chess titles. Given the nature of the opening in question, such obsessive detail is perhaps warranted.

Some bones are thrown to those of us unburdened with photographic memories. There is a useful twenty page section on typical Dragon themes in Volume 1, and Jones is careful to point out standard motifs as they arise in his analysis. His notes are surprisingly verbose given how much ground he has to cover.

The two volumes of Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon provide a thorough and tested repertoire for the hardcore Dragoneer. You don’t need to be a Grandmaster to read them, but stronger players will surely derive more benefit from the sophisticated analysis. Players new to the Dragon might want to start with Nielsen’s DVDs.

Learning from Gelfand

This review has been printed in the September 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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Gelfand, Boris, and Jacob Aagaard. Positional Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78483-006-9. 288pp. HB $34.95. [Note that Quality Chess has only released the hard cover version to specialized chess retailers, and a paperback should be on Amazon in the nearish future.]

Positional Decision Making in Chess is Boris Gelfand’s second book, the first being his 2005 My Most Memorable Games. Were it simply another batch of his annotated games, it would well be worth our attention. Very few of the world’s elite put pen to paper (fingers to keys?) while they are still active players.

Most of Kasparov’s many books emerged only after his retirement. Books by Anand and Kramnik predate their World Championship reigns, while the bulk of Shirov’s output now comes in DVD form. Recent works by Giri and Polgar are excellent, but Giri’s best years are ahead of him while Polgar has retired from tournament play.

So when a player like Boris Gelfand – a six-time Candidate, the 2012 Challenger for the World Championship and the 13th ranked active player in the world – writes [1] a book about his games, we chess bibliophiles tend to take notice. And all the more in this case, for Gelfand has given us a superlative book.

My Most Memorable Games is, on the whole, a traditional ‘best games’ collection. It is evident from even the first pages of Positional Decision Making in Chess that Gelfand has something else in mind with his new book. As he writes in the Preface,

…the intention of this book is not to focus on the accuracy of the moves I made at the board… but on the thought process that led me to finding them in the first place. … [T]hroughout we have focused on the reasons for the decisions and plans I made, and also the limitations of my thinking during the game. (8)

While (sometimes copious) analysis of Gelfand’s games is provided, the real focus of the book is how Gelfand takes decisions over the board, with positional decisions front and center. The games of Akiba Rubinstein – Gelfand’s favorite player – are enlisted in this effort, and special emphasis is placed on Rubinstein’s influence on Gelfand along with his relevance for contemporary chess theory.

There is much to like here. It’s good to see Rubinstein get his due as player and theoretician, especially as there are very few legitimate books about him in print. Gelfand’s annotations are clear, and his descriptions of his opponents are both respectful and revealing. The book’s surprisingly personal feel is amplified by the photographs strewn throughout its pages.

For me, however, the central theme of the book only appears between the lines of the text: Gelfand’s relationship to the computer. No one can dispute the changes wrought on chess and its play by our silicon friends. Nor, if we are honest, can we overlook the way in which most players trust engine evaluations blindly, almost outsourcing their thinking to the computer. (Look at Twitter or the ICC chat during the next big tournament if you doubt this.)

What is most interesting to me about Positional Decision Making in Chess is seeing how Gelfand, a member of the last generation to come of age before the rise of the machines, thinks about engines and their limitations. Gelfand trusts his intuition – this word appears repeatedly in the text – and prefers to view engines as tools for understanding rather than as infallible oracles. Rarely have I seen such honest and practical discussion of the topic. For instance:

…I am a strong believer in the value of a chess education built on thorough knowledge of the classics [like Rubinstein – JH]. Any attempt to emulate the engines and their 2,000,000 moves a second is doomed to fail. We need to supplement calculation with all other weapons available. And one of these is intuition, which is strongly rooted in pattern recognition. (58)

Extremely often the computer will suggest moves that no human would consider. And when we do not feel it delivers us a clear understanding of why this move is good, I cannot see that it makes sense to follow its recommendations. (199)

If only those kibitzers on ICC would heed Gelfand’s warning!

By providing us a window into his decision making, and by showing us – warts and all – both the limits and triumphs of his thought, Boris Gelfand does much more than merely offer us edifying games to study. The author of Positional Decision Making in Chess is an exemplar for all of us who struggle to learn from the computer without succumbing to its siren call. This might well be the book of the year, and serious students of modern chess practice should not miss out on its lessons.


[1] I would be remiss if I did not mention the role of Gelfand’s ‘helper,’ Jacob Aagaard, in the construction of this book. Aagaard, himself a very well regarded author and pedagogue, recorded extensive discussions with Gelfand and used them as the basis for the written text. It appears that most of the conceptual content should be attributed to Gelfand, while the style, structure, and some of the pedagogy are Aagaard’s.

The Soviet Chess Primer

This review has been printed in the June 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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Maizelis, Ilya. The Soviet Chess Primer. trans. John Sugden. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982996. PB 400pp. List $24.95, currently $19ish on Amazon.

Until very recently it was hard to imagine Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov agreeing on much of anything. That changed when each man ran unsuccessfully to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as President of FIDE. Nevertheless, as someone who remembers the white-hot rivalry of their world championship matches, I was startled when I received the new translation of Ilya Maizelis’ The Soviet Chess Primer from Quality Chess. Both Karpov and Kasparov are quoted on the cover, and they both love this book.

And it’s not just the two K’s who are fans. In his Foreword to this edition, Mark Dvoretsky describes his youthful encounter with Maizelis’ book, calling it “dear to me” and recounting how his personal copies were often ‘lost’ after being lent out. Tigran Petrosian (as Andy Soltis tells it) preferred the book to breakfast, saving his meal money up and buying a copy instead.

Such high regard may be surprising for an American audience, for whom Ilya Maizelis is something of a mystery. If his name is recognized at all, it is as a co-author of the classic Pawn Endings with Yuri Averbakh, although in truth Maizelis was its primary author. The few references to Maizelis that exist in English describe him as a translator and endgame analyst, with special expertise in pawn endings and technical rook endings. Sixty-three of his endgame studies appear in Harold van der Heijden’s definitive study database.

The Soviet Chess Primer is a partial translation of the 1960 edition of Maizelis’ Shakhmaty osnovy teorii (Шахматы основы теории / Chess: Fundamental Theory). Approximately 60% of the Russian text appears in The Soviet Chess Primer; although I cannot read the Cyrillic lettering, it appears that some detailed opening analysis and sections on the history of chess were excised. The translation by John Sugden reads well, and – as one expects from Quality Chess – the production values are high.

A quick glance at the table of contents would suggest that the English title is apt. After Chapter One, “The Game Explained,” readers are taught the “Aim of the Game” (ch 2) and “Tactics and Strategy” (ch 3). More advanced topics, including further elucidations of combination and positional play, follow. Each chapter concludes with a whimsical set of “Entertainment Pages,” where miniatures and ‘fun exercises’ appear, and some of the original drawings are brought over from the Russian.

So far, so good. Closer scrutiny of The Soviet Chess Primer, however, leads me to question the title chosen by Quality Chess for this new translation. Maizelis’ book is fascinating, especially for the reader interested in chess culture and history, but it is not a primer by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that the knight’s tour is used (18) to help illustrate how the knight moves. Maizelis includes outrageously difficult mate problems in the ‘fun’ section of chapter one, and his account of the theory of corresponding squares (152) belongs in an endgame tome and not here. The breakneck pace of the book and the complex examples preclude me from thinking it appropriate for the beginner.

Take, for instance, this ‘ancient puzzle’ (72) used to illustrate the restriction of piece mobility. White mates in three moves.

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Solution: 1.Ne6! Bh6-any 2.Ne6xBishop Ba2 3.Nxc2#.

Yes, Black is in zugzwang, but surely there are much clearer and Elo-appropriate ways to illustrate the point than this?

Despite my reservations about the title, The Soviet Chess Primer is a fine book and its acclaim is deserved. I suspect, however, that the particular affection felt for it by former Soviets may have another source. Chess books were hard to come by in the Soviet Union as demand was high and paper was often scarce. It should not surprise us that youthful attachment to cherished books would persist, and in this case the attachment is justified. There are certainly better primers in print today, but few books are more interesting than is The Soviet Chess Primer.

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

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As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

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The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!