Tag Archives: Russell Enterprises

The Goldilocks Problem

This review has been printed in the November 2017 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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Fishbein, Alex. The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2017. ISBN 978-1941270745. PB 128pp.

Astronomers and astrophysicists often speak of a “Goldilocks Problem” when discussing the origins of life in the universe and the search for life beyond our own Solar System.

There seems to be a fairly narrow “habitable zone” – neither too hot nor too cold, neither too close to their home stars nor too far away – if planets are to be able to support life. Lucky for us, the Earth is juuuust right in its relation to the Sun!

Chess authors have their own version of the “Goldilocks Problem,” and we see it most clearly when we consider the competing difficulties in writing an opening book.

It’s a tricky balancing project. Authors have to include enough analysis to make their case, but not so much that they overwhelm their readers. The analysis should be objective, but a bit of advocacy is necessary too. Why should a reader spend time learning your lines if it’s clear that you don’t really believe in them?

There have to be enough words to explain the rationale for repertoire choices, but not so many that the book seems flip or frivolous. The variations should be solid and sound, containing enough poison to play for a win without shading into too much speculation. The book should be concise without sacrificing coverage, and it (ideally) should teach you something about chess beyond any specific opening system.

Now, no book is perfect. But some are better than others at searching out this sweet spot and trying to inhabit it. One of the best books I’ve seen in recent months, and one that checks most of the boxes listed above, is Grandmaster Alex Fishbein’s The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White, newly published by Russell Enterprises.

Fishbein, the author of two previous books (King and Pawn Endings in 1993 and Fischer! in 1996), was a very active player in the early 1990s, but he put aside his professional chess career and entered the world of high finance. Never fully giving up the ghost, Fishbein has in recent years dipped his toes back into competitive play with greater and greater regularity.

The Scotch Gambit offers its readers a complete repertoire for White after 1.e4 e5. The final chapter deals with the Petroff and Philidor Defenses along with the Latvian and Elephant Gambits, but by and large, this is a book about how to answer 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6.

This is no small problem for 1.e4 players right now. 1. …e5 is hugely popular at elite levels, as we saw in my May column, and this trend trickles down through to the amateur ranks. Difficulties in cracking the Berlin and Marshall have driven White players towards the hoary Giuoco Piano, which (if we’re honest) is hardly inspiring stuff.

Fishbein’s answer is to bypass all of this by playing 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4, entering into positions where White offers a pawn to gain attacking chances. There is theory here to learn, of course, but the field is delimited and White can try to channel the game into positions he knows better than his opponents.

At just 128 pages, The Scotch Gambit is a surprisingly dense book. Each of its ten chapters begins with a theoretical overview of critical variations, followed by a set of supplementary games that expand and unpack that analysis. Not all of the illustrative games show victories for White, which to my mind is rather useful. Sometimes a ‘cautionary tale’ can prove more enlightening than a dozen typical miniatures.

The heart of The Scotch Gambit lies in Fishbein’s analysis and repertoire choices, but equally as important is his effort to continually leaven that analysis with clear positional explanations. Fishbein repeatedly stops and explains to his readers how he evaluates specific positions, even (and especially) when the computer disagrees. As he puts it in chapter 5,

You study the opening not just to prepare for all different moves that your opponent can play, but, more importantly, to gain intuition about evaluating the position. … You will need general understanding and the skills to evaluate positions to deal with [new moves]. If any game that I annotate in this book does not teach you something about how to evaluate positions, something that you can use in other games or variations, then I have not done my job. (64)

There is plenty of analysis for even master-level players in The Scotch Gambit, but for me, the emphasis on explanation is what distinguishes Fishbein’s book from its competitors.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Black has two main options: 4. …Nf6 and 4. …Bc5. Chapters 1-5 of The Scotch Gambit deal with 4. …Nf6, while Chapters 5-9 explore responses to 4. …Bc5. We’ll take each in turn.

The first two chapters of the book deal with what Fishbein calls the Modern Attack: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4 Bd7. There are two points here worth mentioning.

(1) White often chooses between two 5th move options in this variation: 5.e5 and 5.0-0. Fishbein makes a cogent case for the superiority of 5.e5, and in chapter 5, he shows why this is the case. Recent analysis by Lokander and Ntirlis prove that Black is fully equal, if not potentially slightly better, after 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!

(2) Black sometimes (following Ntirlis, among others) tries to offer a pawn sacrifice with 7. …Bc5. Fishbein explains in chapter 3 that White should decline the pawn with 8.Be3 0–0 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Bxc5 Nxc5 11.Bxc6 Rb8 12.Qxd5

“Unusual” is 12.0–0 Ba6! (12…Rxb2 was seen in Nakamura-Onischuk, Saint Louis 2015) 13.Re1 Rxb2 14.Qd4 Rxc2 15.Na3 Nb3 16.axb3 Rxc6=.

12…Qe7

12. …Qxd5 13.Bxd5 Rxb2 14.Na3! with the idea 15.0–0–0.

13.0–0 Rxb2 and here, instead of 14.Nc3, Fishbein proposes 14.Na3!? as “a good practical try.” (40)

While there are a lot of move orders issues to consider, as is true throughout the book, the key position of the Modern Attack appears after 7. …Bd7 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.0–0 Bc5 10.f3 Ng5 11.Be3 Bb6 12.f4 Ne4 13.Nd2 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 c5 15.Nf3! d4 16.Bf2 and now Black has a choice of moves.

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After 16. …Bc6 (keeping the option of castling queenside alive) Fishbein persuasively argues that White should play 17.f5! as in Stopa-Schneider (Richardson, 2007). Other moves are imprecise: 17.Bh4 allows 17. …Qd7, fighting for the f5 square, and in the case of 17.a4 a5 18.f5 Qd5 19.Qg5?! (better is 19.Bh4) 19. …h6! 20.Qxg7 0–0–0! Black is for choice. The main line runs 17. …Bxf3 (if 17. …Qd7? 18.e6!, and after 17. …Qd5 18.Bh4!) 18.gxf3 Qd5 19.Qg5 when the White king is safe enough and Black has trouble castling.

Less common is 16. …0-0, which is on Fishbein’s account “[t]he most solid and … best move.” (11) White usually plays 17.Qd3 in this position, with the idea of f4-f5, but Fishbein thinks that after 17. …Qc8 White has no chance for an advantage. Instead he recommends the very rare 17.b3!?, and after 17. …Qc8 18.a4 a5 19.Nh4 Re8 20.Rae1 Fishbein writes “White’s plan is clear: f4-f5 and, with any luck, an attack on the king. White’s next moves may be Qd3 and Bg3. Black has his trumps: a good light-squared bishop and a flexible position. If Black can time a central advance well, White’s attack can backfire. However, White’s position seems easier to play.” (13)

What about 4. …Bc5? Here Fishbein provides two alternatives for readers to consider. White can play 5.0-0!?, leading into the Max Lange Attack (Chapter 6) after 5. …Nf6 and the “von der Lasa” variation (Chapters 7-8) after 5. …d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3. Alternatively, if White desires a quieter game, he can try the Jobava variation – 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 (6.cxd4 Bb4+ is the Giuoco Piano) 6…d5 7.Be2 – recently popularized by GM Baadur Jobava and analyzed in Chapter 9.

I think the choice between these two moves comes down to whether you believe in Fishbein’s rehabilitation of the von der Lasa. This is a very old variation, analyzed years ago by Steinitz and Cordel, and more recently by Lev Gutman in Kaissiber. While Black can vary with 6. …dxc3, 6. …Nf6, and 7. …Qd7, the key line runs 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0–0 d6 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

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Here White has avoided the faulty 9.Bxg8? Rxg8 10.gxf3 g5!, but is faced with a multitude of decent choices for Black, including 9. …d3, 9. …dxc3, 9. …Bb6, and the most popular move, 9. …Nf6.

Fishbein tries to show through creative analysis that the von der Lasa is ultimately unclear, with neither side able to truly claim an advantage. I think this is slightly optimistic. For example, if Black tries the untested 9. …d3!? 10.Be3 Ne5 11.Bxg8 Rxg8 12.Nd2 Qh4, White is under pressure but probably should hold.

9. …Nf6, played by Steinitz and recommended by Bologan, might be a tougher nut to crack. Fishbein’s main line runs 10.Bc4 Qd7 11.Kg2 (improving on Bologan’s 11.Be6 Qe8 12.Bh3 g5!) Na5 12.Qb5 Nxc4 13.Qxc4 Re8 14.Re1 1Qf7 15.Qd3 Qg6+ 16.Kf1 d5 17.cxd4 Bd6 18.Nc3 Bxh2 19.Qe3 where he claims that ” [i]n this double-edged position, White’s central pawns cover the king and also offer good prospects in the ending… Neither king is completely safe (always the case in this variation).” (79)

Fair enough. But what about 11. …Re8, with the idea of Re8–e5–h5? Fishbein gives 12.Qd1 (12.Bf4? g5) 12. …Re5 13.Kh1 (13.h4!?) 13. …Rh5 14.Rg1 as “an unclear position in which Black can easily get overextended.” (78) To me this sounds like a tacit admission of Black’s superiority, and I’d much rather play Black in this position.

That Fishbein is slightly overly optimistic for White, here and elsewhere, is not surprising. He plays these lines himself, so I’d hope that he believes in them! From my perspective, this is the only drawback to the book, and it’s a slight one indeed. There are a couple of minor editorial lapses – three moves are missing on page 101 – and small analytical improvements found by the computer, but on the whole, this is a work of very high quality.

The Scotch Gambit is an excellent book, filled with interesting ideas and sharp analysis. What makes it special is the clarity of Fishbein’s positional sketches and descriptions. It avoids all the extremes of the opening book genre, and in so neatly tying together analysis and exposition, Fishbein has written the rare book suitable for both amateurs and masters.

Replayable analysis references:
Modern Attack ML
Von der Lasa

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Sac’ing the Exchange

This review has been printed in the May 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.

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.

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As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.

The Missing Manual

Edwards, Jon. ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. 350 pp. ISBN 978-1936490547. PB List $34.95.

In my previous review, which focused on the top three chess engines currently available, I said that ChessBase 12 is a nearly mandatory purchase for improving players.  In this review I continue in that vein by reviewing a new book about ChessBase 12, a book that fills a real need in the literature.

Fun fact: I proofread and edited the English help files for ChessBase 8 way back in 2000. Even then, the manual for the ChessBase program seemed something of an afterthought, something that the authors of ChessBase put together out of necessity and nothing more. The ChessBase program has been, and continues to be, difficult to master, and the manual has never been particularly helpful to the neophyte. Some third parties, most notably Steve Lopez with his T-Notes column, tried to remedy this situation, but on the whole there has never been a truly comprehensive, user-friendly introduction to the ChessBase GUI. Until now, that is.

Jon Edwards is an ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation) Senior International Master, a USCF OTB expert, a chess teacher and an author with multiple chess related titles to his name. He is is a long-time ChessBase power user, having used the program to research his books and his openings for correspondence games. Edwards also created very early e-books for the ChessBase platform.

Edwards’ new book, ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age, is a careful and systematic introduction to the ChessBase 12 GUI and its capabilities. Over the course of 14 chapters or ‘scenarios,’ Edwards clearly explains to his readers how to use ChessBase, how to manipulate and maintain data, how to play on the Playchess server, and much more. I reproduce the chapter list from the book below:

SCENARIO 1 The Future of Chess Books (And some very simple searching)
SCENARIO 2 Maintaining Quality Data (Garbage in, Garbage out)
SCENARIO 3 Working well with ChessBase (Organizing and viewing your chess information)
SCENARIO 4 Preparing for an opponent (Because they’re preparing for you)
SCENARIO 5 Playing (At any time of the day or night)
SCENARIO 6 Playchess Tournaments (Competing for fun and profit)
SCENARIO 7 Preserving and annotating your games (Because you must)
SCENARIO 8 Honed opening preparation (No more surprises)
SCENARIO 9 Engines and Kibitzers (Subjecting your games to unbiased scrutiny)
SCENARIO 10 A Grandmaster by your Side (Complex searching made easy)
SCENARIO 11 Watching Grandmaster Chess (It’s better than baseball)
SCENARIO 12 Training and Teaching (Lighting up the board)
SCENARIO 13 Competing at Correspondence Chess (It’s not dead yet)
SCENARIO 14 Writing about Chess (With tips on printing)

Five Appendices are included, including a summary of all the features available via the GUI and – very usefully – a list of all the keyboard shortcuts used in ChessBase.

Edwards is a clear and engaging writer. He makes use of copious screenshots to assist with his tutorials, and numerous ‘tips’ are strewn through the text to remind readers of essential points. Readers are often asked to ‘learn by doing,’ and Edwards carefully leads his pupils through the tasks described in the book. And he takes the time to explain opaque terms and titles, like the ranks of players on the Playchess server.

I have been using ChessBase since the days of DOS, so most of what Edwards had to say wasn’t entirely new to me. Still, I found his discussion of constructing one’s own keys instructive, and as I’ve never played correspondence chess via ICCF, Scenario 13 was rather interesting.

Relatively few typos made it into the final text, although I did find one or two along with the occasional verbal oddity, i.e., “…an inexorable quality to [Morphy’s] games…” (210).  The ChessBase one-click web publishing service is not a joint venture with Facebook (243), and it was surprising to see that Edwards only allocated 1 to 2mb to the tablebases in his screenshots (318). For a book of this length and with this many technical details, I do not find these shortcomings unacceptable.

Players new to ChessBase 12 (or, soon, ChessBase 13) should seriously consider buying a copy of ChessBase Complete, and long-time users might want to as well. It is a sturdy tutorial to the various features of the program, and it doubles as a user-friendly reference guide. I suspect that about 90% of what you need to know about ChessBase can be found in these pages. For that last 10% I would recommend Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating, which has the finest discussion of professional level ChessBase use in print. See my review of Smith’s book for more.

Reinfeld Reissued!

This review has been printed in the August 2014 issue of the British Chess Magazine.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at BCM for allowing me to do so.

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Reinfeld, Fred. 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate: 21st Century Edition. Translated into algebraic notation by Bruce Alberston. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (1955). PB, 224pp. ISBN 978-1936490820. List $19.95, currently $16ish at Amazon.

Reinfeld, Fred. 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations: 21st Century Edition. Translated into algebraic notation by Bruce Alberston. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (1955). PB, 240pp. ISBN 978-1936490875. List $19.95, currently $16ish at Amazon.

Fred Reinfeld (1910-1964) was also one of the most prolific authors in history, having written hundreds of books on topics ranging from numismatics to philately to science. He was best known, however, for his many books on chess. Reinfeld wrote fine biographical works on many of the major players of his day alongside dozens of elementary texts and primers. His two most famous books are the two currently under review, with new algebraic editions of these classics just out from Russell Enterprises.

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate and 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations are, as their titles suggest, collections of tactical problems for solving. These books were fantastically popular with American players of a certain age, and both titles went through dozens of printings over the years. Now Bruce Alberston has converted both books from descriptive notation to algebraic, making them available once more for a new generation who never learned to read descriptive.

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate consists of eight chapters of problems, beginning with queen sacrifices, moving through some typical mating attacks, and ending with a selection of mate-in-n compositions. 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations is (literally) the prototypical tactics workbook, with puzzles broken down by tactical motif into twenty chapters. Both books tend to put easier problems towards the beginning of a section, but the difficulty can range dramatically from problem to problem.

Unlike other authors in the Russell Enterprises stable, Alberston has resisted the temptation to ‘correct’ Reinfeld’s analysis with the help of the modern computer. This decision has both pros and cons attached to it. On the one hand, the books are rather faithful renderings of classic works; on the other, some of Reinfeld’s solutions are less than accurate. The design of these new editions resembles the originals, but all the text and diagrams have been reset in modern fonts, improving the books immensely.

If pressed, I would say that 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations is the better book of the two. The sorting of problems by motif is useful for the player learning the basic grammar of chess tactics. Both, however, can be recommended to players rated from 1200-2000, with 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate skewing slightly to the lower end of that range.

The author was an American master.

Focusing on Checkmate

Renaud, Georges, and Victor Kahn.  The Art of Checkmate, 21st Century Edition.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  160pp.  ISBN 978-1936490844.  Paper list $19.95.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014 (2004).   184pp.  ISBN 978-1936490943. Paper list $19.95, Kindle $9.99.

MacEnulty, David.  My First Book of Checkmate Workbook.  Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014.  96pp.  ISBN 978-1888690163.  Paper list $9.95.

Russell Enterprises continues its streak of quality releases with these three new titles, each focusing on the most critical aspect of the game: checkmate.

Renaud and Kahn’s The Art of Checkmate is a classic of chess literature.  Originally published in 1953, the book takes readers through fundamental mating patterns and classic attacking games.  Renaud and Kahn sprinkle bits of chess wisdom and lore throughout the text, and attentive readers can’t help but be entertained while they learn.

This 21st Century Edition has been ‘translated’ from the old Descriptive Notation and into Algebraic, thus making it accessible to a generation of young players who have never had the ‘pleasure’ of mastering Descriptive.  (They really should, though.  So many wonderful books are only in DN!)  The book is, as is usual for Russell, well edited and laid out.

I recently read that IM Emory Tate, the attacking wizard beloved by so many in the chess world, attributes much of his prowess to an early encounter with The Art of Checkmate.  And indeed, a better attacking primer can hardly be found.  This is a book that can be read by players of most all ages and abilities; some will read for enjoyment, and some will read for tactical inspiration, but all will find this new edition of The Art of Checkmate a worthy addition to their library.

David MacEnulty’s work, in contrast, is sadly unknown by most chess players.  They might know his story, as it was made famous by Ted Danson in the 2005 movie “Knights of the South Bronx.”  His books, however, haven’t received nearly the attention they deserve.  With the publication of My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook, perhaps they will. 

My First Book of Checkmate is, as the title suggests, a book for the chess novice.  It works slowly and programmatically to lead the novice to an adequate knowledge of mating procedures and patterns.  MacEnulty leaves nothing to chance.  After explaining chess notation and defining his terms, MacEnulty begins his book by walking the reader through a series of lessons that each focus on a specific piece and characteristic mates.  Some mate in ones follow in Part II, and Part III offers readers examples of some standard mating patterns not unlike those in The Art of Checkmate.  The book concludes with a short section on mating attacks and a set of problems for the reader to solve.

MacEnulty was a teacher by profession, and his educational background shows in this book.  As I argued in my previous review, real tactical improvement involves two elements: (1) pattern recognition and (2) practice in calculation and imagination.  MacEnulty’s book is one of the better primers for learning basic tactical patterns currently in print.  It succeeds in no small part because of its programmed style of learning, where ideas are built upon and augmented as the text progresses.  The reader is led from the most elementary elements of mating attacks to fairly complex concepts, each step following from what came before it.

There are plenty of problems to solve in My First Book of Checkmate.  Still, there could be more; for the player hungering for more puzzles, MacEnulty has written a companion volume called My First Book of Checkmate Workbook. The structure of the book roughly mirrors that of My First Book of Checkmate, but it ends with some mate problems that would tax many a class player.  At $9.95 list price, this workbook is great value for the money.  I am, in fact, considering adopting it for use at a chess camp this summer.

Both My First Book of Checkmate and My First Book of Checkmate Workbook are well worth consideration for the novice player looking to improve.  Younger readers might require some help with My First Book of Checkmate, but the workbook could be read by even six and seven year olds.  I’d also suggest that adult readers in need of a book on basic mates check them out, as its progressive movement from the simple to the complex might provide the basic orientation needed to profitably solve more difficult mate problems.

One of the Classics… but better

Alekhine, Alexander.  My Best Games of Chess: 1908-1937 (21st Century Edition).  USA: Russell Enterprises, 2013.  ISBN 978-1936490653.  List $34.95.

Nota bene: I was provided a review copy of this book by the publisher.


Some reviews are easier to write than others.

It seems to be a nearly universal recommendation for improvement.  Study the classics.  Study the games and ideas of the great masters of the past, and your game will improve.  Choose a chess ‘hero’ – preferably from before the Second World War – and play through all of their games to ‘get in their skin.’  (What a shame, by the way, that Jeremy Silman has removed so much content from his website.)  Soviet trainers used to tell their pupils that the study of Rubinstein’s games would add 100 points to their ratings; if this is true, surely the same can be said for a deep, intensive study of the annotated games of Alexander Alekhine.

Today’s youth don’t know the classics, and I think this is the case for a couple of reasons.  First, young chess players generally get their chess via the Interwebs.  This leads to something like a lingering presentism in their chess psyches.  Why study Alekhine when you can watch Nakamura play 1-minute on ICC?  Hell, why study annotated games at all when you can just play endless blitz for free at chess.com?

For those lucky few who have listened to their elders and chosen to study the classics, there is a second problem.  Most of the recommended game collections were originally published in descriptive notation.  All of Reinfeld’s game collections – on Keres, Lasker, Capablanca, and especially Tarrasch – are in descriptive.  Kmoch’s book on Rubinstein is in descriptive.  Alekhine’s game collection is in descriptive.  And none of today’s youth can read descriptive.

Hanon Russell has, after selling ChessCafe, turned his attention to the remedy of this deplorable situation, publishing ‘21st Century’ Editions’ of older books.  These ‘21st Century Editions’ involve, at base, the translation of these books into algebraic notation, bringing them back into the chess vernacular of our day.  Russell Enterprises has brought Lasker and Reti back into print, translated the semi-legendary Najdorf book on Zurich 1953 into English, and republished (in algebraic) the tournament books of important historical events.  Now Russell has done the chess world another great service by printing a new algebraic edition of Alexander Alekhine’s Best Games.

Alekhine was, in my humble estimation, one of the top five players ever to play our beloved game, and he was certainly among its greatest annotators.  Annotations before Alekhine (or perhaps Tartakower) tended to be fluffy, light on substance.  Alekhine’s annotations, while perhaps sometimes overly influenced by self-regard and game outcomes, are dense and educational, seeking to divulge the inner truths of positions.  His play tended towards the attacking and combinative, loading his game collection with sparkling brilliances and astonishing moves.  There are few game collections worthy of study more than Alekhine’s, and this new edition actually improves on the original Bell & Sons books through the considered inclusion of pictures and crosstables.  The layout feels more natural for the modern eye, and of course, the translation into algebraic renders the book readable once again for the chess masses.

The decision to render diagrams in Alekhine’s games with black ‘upside-down’ is, as Dennis Monokroussos points out, controversial.  Dennis considers this a ‘con;’ I, however, think it to be unproblematic.  Most of the people who are replaying these games will be doing so from Alekhine’s perspective, so for them, the ‘upside-down’ diagrams seem right-side up.  Modern players are also much more used to 2D representations of board with black on the bottom than are their elders.  Half of their games on the Internet, after all, appear in just this way.

I’m also appreciative for the restraint shown by Russell and Taylor Kingston, who did the conversion into algebraic, in their decision to exclude computer-assisted corrections from the text, preferring instead to publish them separately online.  One of the great advantages of playing over older game collections consists in the more ‘human’ or logical nature of the annotations.  I think you learn more from Alekhine’s annotations than, say, Kasparov’s annotations of the same games in MGP.  They might not be as analytically precise, but they tend to get to the essence of the position much more quickly and clearly than do the computer-assisted notes.  Too much analysis can overwhelm even the most attentive reader.

There remain a few editorial oversights in the text.  Some, it would seem, are unfortunate remainders from the conversion from Chessbase files to Word files to formatted text.  A few moves appear twice or are missing, for example. and this generally has to do with the placement or removal of diagrams in the text.  Such slips are, however, rare, and the book is on the whole free from error.

The price ($34.95) is a bit steep, but here I think we see the facts of the modern book market at work.  Russell is surely aware that most of these books will sell via Amazon, which discounts heavily.  The brick and mortar sellers don’t seem to stock chess books anymore, so why not set prices that reflect this reality?  My Best Games of Chess: 1908-1937 (21st Century Edition) is currently (as of 5/16) available on Amazon for $23.07, while the older descriptive edition from Dover lists for $19.95 and is discounted to $17.77.  $23 for this book is entirely reasonable, and I think that the pictures, crosstables and algebraic notation render the extra cost against the Dover edition worth your consideration.  Perhaps the only thing the Dover book has going for it is its slightly sturdier spine and paper.

If you have the old descriptive notation and you’re comfortable reading DN, you might skip the upgrade.  But if you don’t, or if you’re shaky in your descriptive reading skills, this book is entirely worth the purchase price.  I can warmly recommend it to players of all ratings; in fact, I will be recommending it to my students and to the chess team I coach.

10/10.

PS: Hanon… translate Kmoch’s Rubinstein book next, ok?