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27th June 2019
GAME CHANGER by Matthew Sadler & Natasha Regan, New in Chess, 415 pp., publ. 2019.
The subtitle - AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI - sums it up, a look at the all-conquering AlphaZero in five broad sections: a history of AlphaZero/computer chess/AI, how AlphaZero thinks, themes in its play, its opening repertoire, and a conclusion.
It’s fascinating stuff. AlphaZero wasn’t ‘taught’ how to play chess; using only the rules of the game it taught itself by playing against itself until it had figured out the ‘best’ way of doing things. As an example, while preparing for its match against Stockfish, it played forty-four million (44,000,000!) games against itself over a nine-hour period, or more than 1,000 games a second. To put that into perspective, an active human GM will play around 3,000 games in his entire career. Some of its early ‘games’ must have been pretty random, but the important thing was that the machine was ‘learning’ from them. What emerged was a chess-playing entity of awesome power unfettered by the emotions and preconceptions which blight human players. Unburdened by such human foibles, AlphaZero has produced chess which really is pushing the boundaries of what we have traditionally considered possible on the chessboard.
AlphaZero’s style is classical, but from those classical beginnings it shows itself to be a ruthless attacking machine which has produced some breathtaking creative ideas. On the other hand, it’s not just a high-class crusher. It is also capable of squeezes that Petrosian or Karpov would have been proud of. In short, it has synthesised, to an extent, all that goes to make up a modern, flexible, top GM, albeit at superhuman level. In Part III on Themes in AlphaZero’s Play, the authors home in on many of these ingredients, in particular its handling of the pieces and attacks on the king. In the latter category they concentrate on rook’s pawns, colour complexes, sacs, opposite-side castling and defence. The labels may be familiar, but the uninhibited way in which the machine introduces new ideas and handles familiar settings provides plenty of food for thought, not to mention lots of sheer entertainment.
Its opening repertoire is interesting. As a classical player, it meets 1 e4 exclusively with 1 … e5 (and the Berlin Defence!), and 1 d4 with …Nf6/…e6 lines. As White, it favours 1 d4, with the occasional 1 Nf3 thrown in, usually transposing to normal 1 d4 lines. (Given its adherence to what it considers ‘best’ in other areas of the game, might we infer that these represent the acme of opening perfection? Well, probably not, since we humans are emotional collections of atoms who can find any excuse or reason to ‘justify’ our opening choices, preferences and biases.) How it interprets the positions arising from these classical lines is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, though, especially as Black in the traditional open games. Again, there is a lot of food for thought here.
Earlier on I used the word ‘fascinating’, and that is the word which sticks in my mind after reading Game Changer: a fascinating glimpse into the world of AI and its implications, not just for chess, but for other fields too, and a fascinating (not to say refreshing) look at the directions in which chess might go in the future. It is a well put-together tome which makes for an easy read, although it takes a bit of digesting, and you’ll want to go through it again the better to absorb it and spend more time on the more detailed games and fragments. It is a real eye-opener and insight on where computer chess is going and its implications for the game (and humans!?). If a non-technical guy like me can think Wow!, so can you.
One small quibble - there’s no openings index, so if you’re trying to locate, say, that killer line in the Queen’s Indian, you’re going to have to do a bit of flicking.
ELECTRONIC BOOK REVIEW - Chess Structures - A Grandmaster Guide
I should start by saying I already had the printed version of this book from Quality Chess and it is one of my favourite chess books!
It is essentially a middlegame book with 140 carefully selected model games explaining plans and ideas grouped into common ‘structures’ like
• Isolated Pawn Structure / Hanging Pawns
• Caro-Kann Formation / Slav Formation / Carlsbad Formation
• Stonewall Structure / Grünfeld Centre
• Najdorf Type / Hedgehog / Maroczy Bind
• Benoni Structures / King's Indian Structures
• French Structures
• 3-3 vs 4-2 Structure
• Panov Structure / Dragon Formation
• Scheveningen Structure / Benko Structure
• Ruy Lopez Structures
The book goes on to explain various strategic patterns to observe and typical pitfalls to avoid. There are 50 test exercises with detailed solutions which are really rewarding to play through.
About four years ago (!) I worked my way through the first few chapters of this book. My bookmark is still inside p.68 waiting to start the Slav formations. Although I do remember thoroughly enjoying the read, I don’t think I was able to remember much of it six months down the line.
So if, like me, you find yourself buying a great chess book and reading a chapter or two then not getting round to coming back and completing the book (or having the time to!), ChessAble might just be the answer you didn’t know you needed!
I started with the ChessAble version of the book back in April and I have found it difficult not to look at it almost every day since! According the ChessAble app on my phone I now have ‘a 60 day streak’ running!
You simply log into www.chessable.com from your mobile or web browser and it remembers where you left off. I felt this works particularly well on an iPad or laptop web browser because you can see the board and the text side by side. On a mobile you need to flick between the two but it’s easy enough to get the hang of.
There are various free ChessAble books you can download and play with. The tactics trainer on last year’s Olympiad was particularly enjoyable but there are loads of online tactics trainers out there.
You do need to purchase this book but the Chessable team offer a no quibble 30 day money back deal if you are not completely satisfied.
So what is the difference using this software instead of a printed book?
The key difference is the ability to quickly practise what you read from both sides of the board and set it back to the reference position instantly. This concept perhaps leaves you more time to digest the material rather than setting up the board over and over again! There are also 600 additional exercises which are only really noticeable using the ChessAble version. These are the mini lines referenced in the book which you get to try out using what they call ‘Movie Trainer’, a board on the screen which allows you to point and click moves on the screen to ‘play’ the position. A great feature I haven’t seen on other software is that it recognises an alternative decent move if you don’t play in the same way the tutor is advocating. It's very annoying with other software which tells you a perfectly good alternative move is ‘incorrect’.
Another incredibly helpful feature is that this software shows the board from the appropriate (B or W) side when you are required to make a move during the training exercises. For example, when you are trying to defend a position from the other side, and the book says “not hxg5 as White has winning attack”, we can now play this out and see the winning attack - can’t get this training from a printed book!
Another strong example from the first chapter on isolated pawns. Say you are the style of player who likes playing against an isolated d-pawn and tries to avoid accepting one yourself. This software allows you to ‘see it from the other side’ and practise using the space for fluid attacking piece play. In books, I often skip that part thinking ‘I’ll not get those types of positions’ anyway, so this software has big advantages in this area too.
The MovieTrainer system allows you to ‘practise’ not only playing the main line moves but tests you on the little sub lines too, thus hammering home the points often missed unless you spend a lot of time referencing the printed version of the book! By means of playing the positions out on screen and by repetition we are forced to learn the ideas.
All in all, I feel this particular electronic version of the material works really well – so welcome to the 21st century learning chess! Does this mean I won't buy another book? Of course not, I will almost certainly take the book on holiday and see how much I have retained by playing it out with a real board but I really think this course works well with Chessable’s MoveTrainer in helping us remember the important plans and ideas. I am certainly looking forward to finishing the Structures book then starting another Chessable electronic book, so watch this space.
LASKER MOVE BY MOVE by Zenón Franco, Everyman Chess, 448 pp., publ. 2018
As I’ve said before, I like games collections. They’re timeless. Reason enough to think there should be more of them, but nobody gets rich writing chess books, and writers of games collections get even less rich than those pumping out openings books, ergo…
I assume you’ve heard of Lasker, a polymath good enough at chess to become world champion. Franco examines forty-six of Lasker’s games in five broad periods from 1889 to 1936, a career of almost half a century. In recent history only Korchnoi could boast such long (and successful) longevity.
Lasker was one of the great practical players. He was never a great openings researcher (although he did enough to have a number of systems named after him and was a spiritual forefather of the currently all-the-rage London System), but was probably the first great player to explore and espouse the role of psychology in the game. And he was one of the great defenders. Sound familiar? Think Magnus.
Franco does a good job of dissecting the games, drawing together comments and analysis from both contemporaries of Lasker such as Tarrasch and Capablanca and modern commentators such as Kasparov and Nunn. These comments are always illuminating and it is interesting to note the shifts in emphasis between the two, for example nowadays more stress is placed on dynamics than in days of yore. The openings, of course, are not quite contemporary fare, but so what? What counts is the middlegame and endgame meat, and there’s plenty of that.
Inevitably some of Lasker’s classics feature, but that detracts from neither the games in question nor the book. A great game is always worth revisiting.
The book is well produced and once again smoothly translated by Phil Adams. Translators often (if ever) get due credit, yet can make or break a text, so kudos to him. The text is easy on the eye with lots clear diagrams and a pretty comprehensive bibliography. One detail that snuck under the proofreader’s radar is the insistence on calling the Danish player From (inventor of the eponymous gambit) ‘Fromm’. Wonder where the extra ‘m’ came from?
I said above that you’ve probably heard of Lasker. If you haven’t, or are unfamiliar with his legacy, this would be a good place to start.
BETTER THINKING, BETTER CHESS by Joel Benjamin, New in Chess, 223 pp., publ. 2018.
The subtitle, How a Grandmaster Finds His Moves, is a clue to the contents. Benjamin analyses 118 games, many his own, including 76 ‘challenges’, where the reader is asked to find candidate moves, a winning continuation, a defensive idea etc. His basic aim is to improve the reader’s thinking process, hence find better moves. Maybe you’re thinking that you’re not a grandmaster, so what relevance has this for you? The answer is: a lot. By working on the flaws in your own thinking, you should (in theory anyway) be able to improve your performances and results, which is exactly what GMs have to do to earn a living. Also, numerous examples are by the author’s own students, so (a) it’s not all stratospheric stuff and (b) he knows exactly what they, i.e. players closer to you and me, were thinking or not thinking.
The up-to-date material, drawn mainly from the 2000s or late 20th century, is divided into ten chapters. Openings, endgames and tactics get a dedicated chapter each, while others (in fact probably my three favourites) include calculation (and its problems), winning a won game, and swindling. Chapter nine is called ‘Words of wisdom: tips for better chess thinking’ and contains forty assorted pieces of solid advice which alone would make a handy little vade mecum for less experienced (or even experienced!) players. There are also lots of hints and insights scattered throughout the main body of the text. A couple which caught my eye: ‘The fundamental goal is to be in a position where good moves are easier to find for you than for your opponent’ and ‘You can’t find what you don’t look for…Players often find tactics because they are more motivated to make them work than their opponents are to spot and prevent them’. Even just letting things like that sink in would improve many players’ results.
Since the author’s objective is to assist with the reader’s thinking processes, there’s lots of lucid, easy-to-follow prose. Benjamin’s writing is tight and focused; there’s no flannel. Throughout the book he homes in on the topic at hand, explains what’s going on and gets his point across. There are also lots of anecdotes to lighten the fare and enough diagrams for less experienced players to practise visualising their way through the book sans board.
Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable book, just a little bit different, and a good old-fashioned read.
CHESS PATTERN RECOGNITION FOR BEGINNERS by Arthur van de Oudeweetering, New in Chess, 240 pp., publ. 2018
It might be an idea to start this review by saying what this book isn’t about. It’s not about standard tactical patterns, e.g. mates, pins, skewers etc.; it’s more about the middlegame and focuses on strategic patterns, e.g. planting a minor piece on a strong square, attacking …g6 with h4 (or g3 with …h5), rooks on open files, sacrificial patterns etc. And, despite the title, the material is a bit advanced and abstract for raw beginners. (The author – a Dutch IM and trainer – says that the book is ‘designed for beginners’, after previously warning that it ‘could hardly be for absolute beginners’.) Bottom line: you’ll need some experience under your belt to get anywhere with it.
The work is divided into four broad parts –
• Typical pawns and pieces
• When pawns meet
• When to exchange and when not to
• Sacrifices – the classics
and each of these into chapters on a particular theme or topic, e.g. in the last one we find a discussion of standard sacs such as Bxf7+, Bxh7+, …Rxc3 and various attacking knight sacs. You might think that this contradicts the claim that the book is about strategic, not tactical, patterns, but remember that sacs are generally based on sound positional considerations. Each chapter contains well-selected material, good explanations and summary, and each of the four main sections concludes with a set of exercises. Although the chapters are not particularly long (around seven pages on average), the concise repetition should help the particular topic sink in. There is also plenty of good advice sprinkled throughout, e.g. from the chapter on opposite-coloured bishops: ‘Control the squares that you can’t control with your bishop with your pawns’ and, from the chapter on isolated doubled pawns: ‘the structural weakness of the IDP comes to the fore in the endgame’. The material covers a healthy time span from the McDonnell-De Labourdonnais match of 1834 (!) to the present day, and features examples from the creative output of most of the greats.
I sometimes wonder about the wisdom or necessity of including the whole game when you could easily discuss the topic from a starting diagram, but in this case I think it is a good idea; it allows the reader, especially the less experienced player, to see how the position came about and gives him/her an idea of how to handle similar lead-in play him-/herself. When we get to the meat of the diagrams the emphasis is on explanatory prose rather than variations, also a sound idea given the nature of the book and the target readership.
One thing I found interesting is how the author handled what I would call more amorphous patterns. Most players with some experience can sniff out a Bxh7+ sac; trying to clarify the right circumstances for a favourable exchange is much more difficult. Where there is no pattern, the human mind instinctively seeks one (which is why people see the face of Elvis in a slice of toast, or teapots in the clouds). The author tackles this head-on in part III, which should prove beneficial to anyone who thinks, for example, that only wusses exchange queens ‘cos it’s boring. (How long had you been playing chess before you realised that that was a load of codswallop?)
The author writes with a lightness of touch. His style is sympatico and not without a dash of humour (I liked the nod to Motörhead in chapter 20) and his simple and concise explanations show that he obviously wants his readers to understand and benefit from his work. Another key element in the teaching/learning process lies in anticipating the pupil’s questions, and van de Oudeweetering does a good job of this too.
I certainly wouldn’t place the book in the hands of anyone who has just learnt the moves, but players with some experience of the game, rated say ≥1300/1400, would find a lot of useful material in it. I can also imagine it being useful for rapidly-improving juniors or their coaches.
(That was going to be my concluding sentence, but I’ve decided to go out on something which niggles the living daylights out of me: why do English-language texts often insist on Kortchnoi and Jussupow, when the accepted English versions are Korchnoi and Yusupov? You could argue that J-u-s-s-u-p-o-w is how Artur spells his surname in his adoptive Germany, but given that his own English-language works use the English transliteration, I just don’t get it. Rant over. Thank you for listening.)
CLINCH IT! By Cyrus Lakdawala, New in Chess, 253 pp., publ. 2018 The latest offering from the Lakdawala production line takes a look at (as the sub-title says) how to convert an advantage into a win via five large chapters – Exploiting a development lead, Exploiting the attack, Defense and counterattack, Accumulating advantages and Converting favourable imbalances. As always when you read a Lakdawala book, the first thing that hits you is the waffle. Bearing in mind the adage that every word has to justify its place in a sentence, ask yourself what stuff like this doing in the text:
‘Karpov’s move is like a sluggish man who has just consumed a 3,000 calorie Christmas dinner, to the manic junkie who has just scored a hit of angel dust.’
‘I played the KID for about a decade, all through the 1980’s, but gave it up when the thought arose: ”How can I remember such long lines when I can’t even remember the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven in the shower?”’
‘In truth, this is a boy-who-called-wolf situation, the way North Korea threatens to “drown the United States in a sea of nuclear ash” on a weekly basis.’
‘…anomaly tends to follow orthodoxy like a hungry hyena’ (this one’s actually quite neat, once you’ve paused to figure out what he’s talking about)
Another Lakdawala trademark is his frequent references to popular culture. Nothing wrong with that. Good to keep up. But there are a couple of problems with committing references to popular culture to print: (i) they become dated, and (ii) they convey nothing to anyone not au fait with the reference. If you haven’t read the books or watched the series, the convoluted ‘The thing I learned from the Dothraki in Game of Thrones (although GOT wasn’t even there in book form when this game was played)…’ is meaningless. (I love the way he feels it necessary to explain that the thing he’s referring to didn’t exist at the time.)
A friend recently commented to me that he was 'reluctant to suffer Lakdawala’s prose again'. You can understand why.
What highlights this sort of verbiage even more is that, once you’ve macheted your way through it, you find gentle prose with a lightness of touch which is both easy to read and conveys what the author wants to convey. Compare the following little pieces of advice to the stuff above.
‘Sometimes obvious moves are the wrong ones.’
‘Even a few indifferent moves can turn a relatively easy win into a potential draw for the opponent.’
‘Be constantly aware of the question: is my initiative expanding or contracting?’
All things worth remembering during the heat of battle, expressed clearly and succinctly. Could be a different person writing. When he trims the prose, Lakdawala is a more enjoyable read than many other authors. He comes across as genuinely interested in imparting information and helping his readers derive benefit from his work. He is the antithesis of those overtly didactic textbook-style writers and, dare I say it, those whose writing barely conceals their superciliousness.
Overall, Clinch It! is a pleasant book on a somewhat neglected topic and I can imagine many players, say in the under 2000 range, would benefit from it. Just be prepared to skim over large chunks of waffle.
THE LONGEST GAME by Jan Timman, New in Chess, 365 pp., publ. 2019 The longest game of the title isn’t one game at all, but the 144 games contested by Karpov and Kasparov in their world championship matches between 1984 and 1990 which, Timman argues, can be regarded as one long game. Timman doesn’t analyse every game, but has selected fifty of the most significant, with seventeen fragments, and annotated them in detail. Timman’s detail, however, is much lighter than the analytical jungle which Kasparov devoted to the matches in his own work, thus it is reader-friendlier and besides shows us the games through the eyes of a third party. His notes (computer-backed, of course) and insights are of a standard one would expect from a former world no. 2, but while strong players often seem to exist in a world out of touch with lesser mortals, Timman is blessed with the gift of being able to explain things in a clarity of prose accessible to everyone. In addition to the games, Timman weaves a highly readable narrative replete with lots of background, insight and anecdote, with lengthy discussion of the key moments and factors surrounding the games. All the major characters in the chess world of the time are brought to life, some in starring, some in walk-on roles, and an interesting cast they make. Given the nature and intensity of chess at this level, paranoia is never far from the surface, political intrigue is rife and, of course, who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory, be it the abrupt termination of the first match or the bizarre conclusion to game nineteen in 1990. Timman’s taut, focused writing, smoothly translated, often lends the narrative the air of a thriller rather than a chess text, and its robustness is worthy of note. In this day and age, when some people have elevated being offended to a breach of their human rights, it is refreshing to read a passage like this (from the London leg of the 1986 match): ‘Karpov did not have a clear delegation leader, but he did have a press attaché: the Yugoslav Dmitri Bjelica. That was a strange choice, as Bjelica was known as a gutter journalist who wrote books that were full of printing errors and plagiarisms’.
A minor disappointment in this otherwise super book is the relative absence of photographs, of which there are very few; most are of the two Ks in action, and one is of… a stamp. A little more illumination of settings and characters would have been welcome.
For some of us, the K-K battles are a large part of our chess lives, for others they will represent a life span, while for yet others they will be a chunk of history that took place before they were born, thus it occurs to me that, besides being an excellent retrospective on a great rivalry, Timman’s book is also something of a historical document; it is hard to separate the chess from the times.
Jan Timman has established a reputation as a fine writer whose books have something to say. His one-volume coverage of one of the greatest rivalries in chess is no exception. Highly enjoyable and highly recommended.
KURT RICHTER A Chess Biography with 499 Games by Alan McGowan, McFarland & Company Inc., 368 + xii pp., publ. 2018.
When one thinks of the great players of the first half of the twentieth century, one instinctively thinks of the World Champions – Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine – or their illustrious peers such as Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch or Spielmann, to name but three. It is easy to forget that, while these stellar names were the elite of their day, and have had books written about them, there were many other strong, talented masters who have been unjustly neglected in chess literature. I remember former World Champion Max Euwe talking about the composer Mattison (or Matisons in his native Latvian) and saying, “He was a strong player”, (strong enough, in fact, to have beaten the likes of Alekhine, Capablanca, Rubinstein and Vidmar, but virtually unknown nowadays). To this group belongs the subject of this work, the German master Kurt Richter.