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Chess Scotland

The home of Chess in Scotland

Chess Scotland

The home of Chess in Scotland

Reviews

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Book Reviews

18th November 2020

New in Chess
Everyman Chess
Chessable

*****

THE COMPLETE CHESS SWINDLER by David Smerdon, New in Chess, 361 pp., publ. 2020.

Now this one’s different, a whole book devoted to the fine yet somehow maligned art of swindling! Swindling is as much a part of the game as anything else, but is largely ignored in chess literature, perhaps because it is mired in murkiness, unworthy of noble antagonists. However chess, like life, can kick us in the teeth when we least expect it, and if we’re prepared, then we’re better placed to do something about it. That’s where the Aussie GM comes in, treating swindling like any other part of the game, looking at the elements and how chessplayers can train – yes, train – them.

He divides his material into twenty-three chapters over six large parts. Swindles are a bit like combinations in that we all know one when we see one, but trying to define one is another matter, so Part I discusses what a swindle consists of. With the way paved, Part II deals with the psychology of swindles, Part III the swindler’s toolbox, Part IV core skills, Part V looks at swindles in practice and Part VI is a collection of exercises. To take just one part to give you an idea of what’s involved, Part II discusses, inter alia, impatience, hubris, fear, the urge to be in control, the swindler’s mind and optimism. Clearly, as this part (the longest, with eight chapters) suggests, psychology plays a huge role in the swindling scenario, and if you’re not aware of the psychological factors, you are going to be (a) swindled and (b) unprepared to play for a swindle yourself should the occasion/need arise. The hundreds of examples feature players from world champions down, which has the effect of making this a very human book, after all, when it comes to blundering or being swindled, the top players are down here with the rest of us.

The style is light, chatty and often humorous, but, as I’ve said in other reviews, humour is often a more effective instructional tool than gravitas, so if you’re thinking that this is just a light-hearted romp through the subject, you’re mistaken.

The production is excellent, but I spotted a curious double blooper in exercise 41, Keres-Eliskases, Noordwijk 1938, where the author refers to the ‘Estonian legend who would later win the World Championship’ (he didn’t) and ‘his Argentinian opponent’, who wasn’t. Eliskases was Austrian and after the Anschluss in early 1938 played under the German flag. He only finished up in Argentina after the Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1939.  It’s always strange that things like this slip through the editing process.

My other, admittedly tiny, gripe is that ‘Swindler’ is printed throughout with upper case at the start. I understand why, but every time I saw it I read it as ‘Svidler’. I had my eyes tested not so long ago, so maybe it’s just my stupidity showing through.

This witty, thought-provoking and highly readable book should help you pick up (wonderfully undeserved!?) half and full points when you find yourself in one of those lousy positions that we all end up in at one time or another. Definitely one you should consider.

***

ATTACKING WITH g2-g4 by Dmitry Kryavkin, New in Chess, 288 pp., publ. 2019.

Even before AlphaZero came along to push the limits of what is and isn’t possible on the chessboard, an early g2-g4 was already starting to crop up in all sorts of unusual places. As the Keres Attack it was already part and parcel of the Sicilian, but when it started to appear in Queen’s Gambits and Slavs, people began to wonder.

As the author points out in his preface, his objective in this book is to illustrate the role of an early g2-g4 in closed openings. Thus, while the Sicilian is conspicuous by its absence, he covers the thrust in the Dutch, Queen’s Gambit, Nimzo, the anti-Nimzo English, Slav, King’s Indian and Grünfeld. He doesn’t leap straight into the 21st century, though. In Part I, ‘Botvinnik’s Heritage’, he pays tribute to the Patriarch’s pioneering work with an early g2-g4 – decades before computers were ever thought of – in the likes of the Nimzo, QGD and English, where some of his games with the move have become classics.

Parts II-VIII are devoted to the openings mentioned above. Some early g2-g4s have now become more or less mainstream (e.g. 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Qc2 Bd6 7 g4), but in other instances it is still regarded as a bit dodgy, e.g. 1 d4 f5 2 g4!?. (In case you’re wondering, the author also takes a look at more ‘respectable’ g2-g4 ideas against Stonewall formations.)

Kryavkin covers the g2-g4 idea in open-minded fashion, explaining the concrete pros and cons of the move in given situations and stressing that it is neither necessarily a winner nor a loser; it has to be weighed up on its merits. (The sub-title of the book refers to ‘getting the upper hand’, not ‘winning’.) Given that the situations and positions arising from an early/unexpected g2-g4 can be unusual, and the play might often seem confusing, the author uses plenty of text to clarify and explain what’s going on. With the idea still in its infancy, the majority of the eighty-four illustrative games are of recent vintage with most of the current luminaries being represented.

Steve Giddins’s translation reads smoothly, and the format is easy-on-the-eye double column. The bibliography draws heavily on 21st century sources, mainly Kasparov, and there is a detailed index of variations. Only blemish on the index front is that there’s no games index, just an index of players’ names, so if you’re wanting to track down a particular game, you’re going to have to do a bit of cross-checking. Maybe not a huge issue with single references, but when a player has multiple references (e.g. Kramnik twenty, Carlsen thirteen) then you’re gonna need extra hands while you thumb the pages.

This is an interesting book on a relatively unusual and novel topic. If you think that g2-g4 is just crude caveman stuff, then it offers plenty of material to convince you otherwise (and besides, crude caveman stuff was never Botvinnik’s forte).

A good one if you’re looking for something a bit different.

Ian Marks

November 2020

*****

https://www.chessable.com/the-principled-queens-gambit-part-1/course/35735/

The Principled Queen’s Gambit: Part 1

This course was very interesting to review...so much so it has taken me several months to get through it.

The idea is to be 'principled' and play the best chess, the most forcing chess, the chess that will win you games and improve your game!

The explanations are great and the author really does make an effort to ensure you understand the reason behind the moves. The Plans, Structures and Pawn Breaks section is simply amazing – why hasn’t anyone else attempted this before!!

The reader also gets the feeling that the author invested a lot of time preparing and updating it (more of that later!). The core repertoire, like many other 1.d4 repertoires, is based around the super solid Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. What sets this one apart is the quality of instruction presented here. I know many books recommend the Exchange Variation with Nge2 but this course is the first time the f3/e4 break has been explained in such a lucid way – pointing out when and why you need to play e4 - as well as when it’s preparation with h3 is needed.

What else is recommended in this repertoire?

Here is the full list of chapters with my notes on which lines he has chosen to recommend:

  • Introduction
  • Quickstarter guide Summary of the whole repertoire (Video version is over 2Hrs long)
  • Plans, Structures and pawn breaks A great new idea (Video is 1Hr 25 mins long)
  • Queen's Gambit Accepted  1.d4 d5  2.c4 dxc4  3.e4
  • Queen's Gambit Declined  3...Be7 and others – exchange then Bf4
  • Queen's Gambit Declined  3...Nf6 – main line exchange variation with Nge2 (see later below)
  • Tarrasch & Semi-Tarrasch  1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6  3.Nc3 c5  4.cxd5 exd5  5.Nf3 Nc6  6.dxc5 d4  7.Na4 Bxc5  8.Nxc5 Qa5+  9.Bd2 Qxc5  10.Rc1
  • The Exchange Slav (Backup Weapon) 1.d4 d5  2.c4 c6  3.cxd5 cxd5  4.Bf4 Nc6  5.e3 Nf6  6.Nc3 a6
  • The Slav 1.d4 d5  2.c4 c6  3.Nc3 dxc4  4.e3 and in a recent addition, the Marshall Gambit 4.e4 against Triangle variation
  • The Semi-Slav Main line Qc2 lines - 1.d4 d5  2.c4 c6  3.Nc3 Nf6  4.e3 e6  5.Nf3 Nbd7  6.Qc2 Be7  7.b3 O-O
  • The Dutch Defence 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 – The Chessable Movie Trainer comes into its own here!
  • 1...e6 Lines including Dutch, 1…e6 with …b6 system, etc
  • 1...d5 Miscellaneous Baltic Defence 2…Bf5, Von Hennig-Schara Gambit, Albin Countergambit, Chigorin’s Defence
  • Miscellaneous First Moves 1…d6, 1…c5, 1…b6, 1…e5, etc
  • Model Games 15x annotated model games which illustrate plans in middlegames and endgames which can arise from the opening repertoire
  • Sample Games 50x unannotated games to study
  • Puzzles 32x Puzzles from the repertoire for you to play out

The author has committed to updating this repertoire every three months, at least for the first year after its release. This is quite a task and the author welcomes suggestions and potential improvements – quoting his readers for their suggestions as he updates the course!

Examples of the type of updates are:

- Added 4 lines on the Marshall Gambit for White as an alternative. This was prompted by the fact that I realised players who chose to play the Exchange Slav exclusively (I recommend learning both options) could get move-ordered by …d5, …e6 and …c6. Adding the additional option of 4.e4 will solve that issue now.

- Added two lines in the 3…e5 Winawer Countergambit in the Slav, which was originally omitted. Thanks to Thomas_Logan_Ritchie for pointing this out.

 - Adding a line covering GM Kotronias’ recommendation in his book on the Tarrasch, 16…Be6 in the mainline. It’s certainly a good recommendation and Black isn’t doing too badly here at all, but I’m not entirely convinced that it equalises. Black can hold the endgame with good defence of course, but White is pushing for a win relatively risk-free there.

 - Added a line covering 13…Nh5 in the QGA which was recommended for Black in Burgess’ “An Idiot-Proof Chess Opening Repertoire”. Thanks to starbreeze and Stigma for mentioning this. It’s a solid line, and probably Black’s best bet – but I still favour White’s chances.

There is even a section on ‘Repertoire Clashes’ a guide to how this course matches up against some of the best Black repertoires available.

All in all – a fabulous course with fantastic explanations – a really great piece of work!

William Hulme

November 2020

***

 

 

The Principled Queen’s Gambit: Part 2: The companion volume to Part 1 continues by covering lines where Black answers 1 d4 with 1…Nf6.

https://www.chessable.com/the-principled-queens-gambit-part-2/course/37576/

White’s general strategy in these lines is to:

  1. Take over the centre. Play f2-f3 and e2-e4 to build the ideal e4-d4 pawn duo
  2. Develop pieces. Maximize activity while keeping the centre solid
  3. Advance pawns. Gain space. Push the enemy back. Take over the game!

KID or Grunfeld – attempt to blow your opponent off the board 3.f3 (in particular, the standard KID plan with ...e5 and ...Nc6 could well be in trouble here).

The standard course comes with almost 2Hrs of instruction video but the full version has over 17Hrs of video included.

 

  • Introduction
  • Quickstarter guide Summary of the whole repertoire
  • Plans, Structures and pawn breaks
  • Nimzo-Indian Backup Weapon 4.e3 O-O  5.Bd2
  • Nimzo-Indian with 4.f3 Introduction 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 e6  3.Nc3 Bb4  4.f3 d5 and others
  • Nimzo-Indian with 4.f3 c5 the main line 
  • Miscellaneous Benoni Czech Benoni, Snake, 1.d4 c5, delayed Benoni
  • Modern Benoni Knight’s Tour (main line) 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 c5  3.d5 e6  4.Nc3 exd5  5.cxd5 d6  6.Nf3 g6  7.Nd2 Bg7  8.e4 O-O  9.Be2 Re8  10.O-O
  • Benko Gambit Accepted then 5.e3 - 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 c5  3.d5 b5  4.cxb5 a6  5.e3
  • Grunfeld with 3.f3 introduction
  • Grunfeld with 3.f3 d5
  • Update #2 Grunfeld Alternative 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 g6  3.Nc3 d5  4.f3 Bg7  5.h4 
  • King’s Indian introduction 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 g6  3.f3 Bg7  4.e4 d6  5.Nc3 into a Samisch
  • King’s Indian …c5 lines 
  • 1…Nf6 Miscellaneous Budapest Gambit, Black Knights Tango, Accelerated QID
  • 1…d6, Old Indian and Philidor 1.d4 Nf6  2.c4 d6  3.Nc3 Nbd7  4.e4 e5  5.Nf3 Be7  or 1.d4 d6  2.e4 Nf6  3.Nc3 Nbd7  4.Nf3
  • 1…g6, Pirc & Modern 1.d4 d6  2.e4 Nf6  3.Nc3 g6 or 1.d4 g6  2.e4 Bg7  3.c4

 

  • Model Games 15x annotated model games which illustrate plans in middlegames and endgames which can arise from the opening repertoire
  • Sample Games 50x unannotated games to study
  • Puzzles 28x Puzzles from the repertoire for you to play out

An extract from the plans section:
Nimzo-Indian with 4.e3

White Plans

  • If Black doesn't play ...0-0 and ...d5, develop with Nge2, intending to kick Black's bishop away from b4 with a3 without allowing the double of the c3 pawns after ...Bxc3+
  • In the event of ...0-0 and ...d5, we develop with Bd2, followed by natural moves like Nf3cxd5Rc1Bd3 and 0-0
  • In the ensuing QID-like structure with ...b6, White has two main plans. The first of these is Ne5, followed by securing the knight on e5 with f4
  • The second plan, and my preferred one, is to play against the hanging pawn structure with pawns on c5 and d5. After dxc5 ...bxc5, we intend to break up the 'hanging pawns' with e4, which should leave Black with a weak pawn on c5

Black Plans

  • Develop naturally with ...0-0, ...d5, ...b6, ...Bb7 etc
  • Aim for counterplay with ...c5
  • Sometimes ...Ne4 is another idea, intending to grab the bishop pair since our bishop is on d2

Once again, the (optional) video part of the course is exceptional here with 17.5 Hrs in the full version and almost 2Hrs in the smaller version.

The idea to provide a comprehensive repertoire incorporating the move f3 is very ambitious! I really welcomed author’s work giving alternatives like Nimzo-Indian 4.e3 with 5.Bd2 and the Grunfeld alternative (perhaps too committal / aggressive for some?) as they are excellent for adding some variety to the repertoire when needed.

To be honest, I found this part of the repertoire a bit heavy going. There’s a wealth of material here and it will take a lot of time to master it all. I am sure, however, anyone who manages to work their way through this repertoire, will find their chess abilities stronger than before they started it!

I’ll leave you with the words from the author:

"We will be playing f3 whenever it is decent, in order to prepare to get that 'perfect centre' of e4 and d4. Compared to g3 lines, which are obviously very good but often require subtle play and strategic understanding to play optimally, f3 variations I think are more direct, forcing and maybe even more ambitious" - FM Daniel Barrish on his repertoire.

William Hulme

November 2020

*****

 

 

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT by Damian Lemos, Everyman Chess, 252 pp., publ. 2019

In this addition to Everyman’s ‘Opening Repertoire’ series, the Argentinian GM looks at one of the game’s oldest and most enduring openings. The seven chapters cover the QGD, Tarrasch, Slav, QGA, Chigorin, Albin and Others, the first four deservedly getting about two-thirds of the page allocation (although amusingly if you go by the page headings from pp. 88-206, you’d believe they were all devoted to Chigorin’s Defence). He uses a games-based format, with over forty of his sixty games drawn from the present century. Only one sticks out by its vintage, a 1920 demolition by Tarrasch of Tartakower’s Albin Counter-Gambit (a game I remember first seeing as a junior longer ago now than I’m prepared to admit 🙂).

The book is not a heavy theoretical introduction to the QG. The author describes his goal in his preface: “…to create a repertoire that allows us to reach the middlegame with a solid foundation while not depending too much on ‘exact theory’”. As such, he provides plenty of moves in his annotations, but couched within easily understandable explanatory prose.

This book would be of interest to players up to and beyond Elo 2000, but particularly to lower-rated players looking for a grounding in the QG, or more casual players who maybe only play a handful of league games or the odd tournament a year. I mention the latter category for a couple of specific reasons. Every year I see games which begin with something like 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 c5, presumably with the laudable intention of stopping Black from developing his bishop ‘actively’ on d6, but ignoring every other positional consideration in the opening. (Even more surprising is the number of Blacks who fail to hit the c5-pawn with …b6.) Equally common are the guys who defend the QGD but fail to get in the standard breaks, so finish up with their light-squared bishop battering its head off pawns on c6 and e6. If you recognise yourself here, consider investing in this book!

Although he book is primarily written from White’s point of view (Black only scores two draws and a rather jammy win from the sixty games), Lemos offers plenty of suggestions as to where Black could have improved, or at least played a reasonable alternative, so even prospective defenders from the black side might find it useful.

The Queen’s Gambit is never going to be refuted, and it’s always worth a fresh look at the opening every so often. Lemos’s book is a worthwhile review of where it’s presently at.

***

YOUR CHESS BATTLE PLAN by Neil McDonald, Everyman Chess, 318 pp., publ. 2020

This is another training/improvement manual from the English GM in which he looks at strategy. Strategy is often defined as knowing what to do when there’s nothing to do, which essentially defines the author’s aim – to show you how to play when “there is nothing to attack and no threat to deal with”.

He divides his work into ten chapters of 20-30 pages each, covering a whole range of well-known strategic themes including piece activity, exploiting holes and pawn promotion, but the ones which caught my eye were those which, arguably, feature least in the ‘average’ (or casual) player’s armoury, viz. stopping your opponent playing good moves and sacrificing for the initiative. The former contains many striking examples of the need to be alert to what your opponent is up to, while the latter discusses something that less experienced players – often bound by the ‘points’ value of the pieces we learn as beginners – are reluctant to do, viz. give up material in return for time or some other advantage.

Another interesting chapter is devoted to what he calls ‘Full Grovel Mode’ (a Magnusism), i.e. the fine art of hustling in bad positions and using any legal means to save the game. I mention this one because it is a fact of chess life that, the lower down the leagues you go, the more players just roll over and toss in the towel when they’re losing. I’ve never really understood this. If you’re losing anyway, what’s the worst that can happen to you? That’s the time to hunker down, look for banana skins and open manhole covers to put as much distance between the other guy and the full point as you can. Therein lies the way to saving half, or even full, points. And besides, everybody likes a good swindle.

All but one of the seventy-seven illustrative games are from this century, with an impressive twenty-nine from 2019, so what you get is how contemporary players are handling these topics. It’s always a good idea to look at modern examples, rather than rely on games played decades ago (as the author himself says). He also stresses that the games were chosen not just for instructional value, but for aesthetic appeal, and what struck me about many of them was the way in which the clash between the players trying to impose their will/plans/ideas often comes through. Sometimes textbooks make a player’s ideas look like one-way traffic, and we all know that ain’t true, and striking examples stick in the mind.

McDonald writes with his usual clarity in a style which shows empathy with the reader (unlike some writers). “I remember sitting helplessly at the board, knowing that something disastrous was going to happen but with no idea of how to prevent it. That is often the case when players learn theory but don’t understand the plans and motivations behind it.” If that sounds familiar, then you really should check out his last chapter, ‘Deciding the Character of the Game in the Opening’.

As I’ve said in many other reviews, you get out of a book what you put into it. There is much in this book that will benefit players who still view the game as develop-attack-mate; working through it steadily and absorbing its lessons should certainly put a few points on to the old rating.

Ian Marks
September 2020

*****

 

 

MENTAL TOUGHNESS IN CHESS by Werner Schweitzer, New in Chess, 143 pp., publ. 2020.
This little volume covers an important but rather neglected part of the game, as the sub-title explains: Practical Tips to Strengthen Your Mindset at the Board. The author is, amongst other things, a mental coach, in which capacity he has worked for several years with the Austrian national team.
The book is divided into four large parts: Mental Toughness, Preparation, Playing Successfully and More Practical Tips. Within these we find topics such as knowing yourself, fear, decision making, tension, concentration, luck, fighting spirit and confidence, in other words pretty much everything that might go through a player’s mind – for good or ill – before, during and after a game.

The author doesn’t do the work for you, but provides plenty of tips and advice. Much of it is basically common sense (however you choose to define common sense), and applying it would go a long way, but a lot is really only relevant to tournaments, and one-round-a-day tournaments at that. To take an example, if you’re heading straight from work to a league match in the evening, you are unlikely to be able to (a) have a nap before the game, (b) partake of an optimally balanced meal or (c) arrive at the board in a relaxed frame of mind if you’ve just spent twenty minutes fretting in a traffic jam or unable to find a parking space (although arguably relaxation techniques would help). OK, I’m stating the obvious, but you have to be aware that some of the subject matter is not immediately applicable to the sort of bread-and-butter chess that tends to constitute the average club player’s agenda.

One thing which caught my eye was chapter 24, Beating Your ‘Angstgegner’. Plenty of German words have crept into English (and chess!), one of them being angst, but Angstgegner doesn’t seem to have slipped into everyday parlance (at least it’s not in my fat 2,000-page dictionary). Perhaps the inverted commas – usually a reliable indicator – suggest that translator and publisher thought the German word looked or sounded classier than ‘bogey opponent’.

Back at the start I called this a little volume. It is based on a series of articles that first appeared in the Austrian magazine Schach Aktiv, thus lots of pages are only half pages of text, while those introducing a chapter carry a drawing, so it’s not 143 pages of full text. I mention this just to point it out, not criticise. It is well produced with key paragraphs, clear text and illustrations. There is no index, but there is a detailed bibliography amongst which I noticed Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, one of the classic (and forerunner) texts on improving at anything, not just the sport of the title.

The book is a quick read (no moves or diagrams), but not a quick fix. You could easily get through it in one sitting, but the issues raised demand much more time, thought and dedication. You will truly get out of it what you put into it.

Ian Marks
August 2020

*****

 

THE RUY LOPEZ by Joshua Doknjas, Everyman Chess, 287 pp., publ. 2019

In this book the Canadian FM presents a very detailed repertoire for White in the Ruy. He splits his material into three broad sections – Classical Systems (Zaitsev, Chigorin and Breyer), Fashionable Lines (4 d3 v the Berlin, the Open and the 8 a4 Anti-Marshall) and Sharp Tries and Sidelines (pretty much everything else).

He does so by means of forty illustrative games which are impressively up-to-date, including ten from 2019. The oldest is from 2006, and only because it illustrates a relatively rare sideline. His notes are immensely detailed, right down to the dreaded-but-unavoidable b3221) type variations, and while he communicates clearly, using plenty of words, a certain level of understanding is clearly assumed.

Target readership? This is heavy duty fare, clearly not for dilettantes. Such depth is obviously aimed at higher-rated players looking for lots of contemporary material. I’m talking around 2200 and upwards, or those taking part in strong(er) events where ignorance is likely to be punished, and those players would have to invest a huge amount of time to derive maximum benefit from the material. Players inhabiting the lower echelons of the rating list can easily survive without it. Even if you get the first three Spanish moves on the board, the chances of reaching the key line you’ve prepared for at move 18 are slim to non-existent. You could argue that you could derive benefit from playing over such high-level GM games – many of the ideas can be applied in other, similar types of positions – but there are other books specifically designed for that.

Given the vast amount of material contained in the book, the bibliography is surprisingly short, only four books, one of which is Everyman’s own volume on the Schliemann (which gets twenty-one pages here). I can only assume that the author drew most of his material from the online and database sources cited.

Presentation is Everyman’s usual clear text and diagrams, although the single-column format creates quite a dense impression.

Overall, a work which can be recommended to stronger players wanting to keep au fait with current developments in the Ruy, and with the time (= lack of other commitments!) to devote to it, but I imagine that 90% of the readers of this review could easily survive without it.

Ian Marks

August 2020

*****

 

Chess biographies are rare, perhaps because chess players don’t feature in the public eye, although the biography stacks in any bookstore are full of books about people you’ve never heard of, so there’s no particular reason why chess bios should be so thin on the ground.

Anyway, New in Chess have recently brought out two biographies, so let’s take a look at them.

HEIN DONNER The Biography by Alexander Münninghoff (272 pp.) looks at the strongest Dutch player of the mid-‘50s to the mid-‘70s. Münninghoff is an award-winning Dutch writer and it shows in his style and handling of language and vocabulary. Like all good biographers he brings to life not only his subject, but also his background and times, thus besides Donner’s chess career, the book digs into things like his upbringing in The Hague, the German occupation, his law studies, family life and artistic leanings. Donner had a life-long interest in literature and writing; it is said that he started out as a chess player who wrote and finished up as a writer who played chess. There’s an element of truth in this, in fact he spent his final post-stroke years in a nursing home typing with one finger.

He was also politically engaged, involved in the social upheavals of the ‘60s and demonstrating against American involvement in Vietnam.

What of his chess? As a young man he was on friendly terms with Euwe, who was something of a father figure to the new arrival in Amsterdam, and later enjoyed good relations with Timman, but he could be blunt and cantankerous, and his relationship with other Dutch players and the powers that be was often tetchy.

Although a strong grandmaster, he lacked the necessary discipline and dedication to make it to the very top (too many other interests?), and was never world championship candidate material. In his only Interzonal, Gothenburg 1955, he finished a disastrous last equal with 5½/20. The Soviets of course clocked this and marked his card as a ‘non-serious practitioner of chess’. He had a ‘thing’ about the USSR which didn’t help, and never played in the Soviet Union; it is reasonable to assume that if he had, their GMs would have hung him out to dry. His career score of only three wins against Soviet players certainly did not augur well. His preparation, or lack thereof, was the stuff of legend. What other strong player could lose to the same opponent twice with the same colour in the same variation in fourteen and thirteen moves, with the same first eleven moves each time!?

The narrative also allows us glimpses into the lives of many of Donner’s contemporaries, e.g. he was good friends with Larsen and got on well with Fischer. In his later years it became evident that the latter was suffering from mental health issues, but an intriguing passage here reveals that the teenage Bobby was already embarrassing people with his anti-Semitic comments and referring to documentaries about the Holocaust as ‘sentimental crap’ (a view from which Donner himself did not demur at the time).

There is a selection of lightly-annotated games and nine pages of photographs, but the best one is on the cover, a study worthy of the great portrait photographer Karsh.

It is fascinating stuff, hard to put down, but not without its blemishes. In many instances the English is not up to NiC’s trademark excellent standard. The text is peppered with errors, on a scale of trivial to hefty, which should have been picked up somewhere in the production process. The Dutch writer Harry Mulisch’s egregious reference to David Livingstone as an Englishman goes unremarked. (Or maybe it was Stanley… but he was Welsh.) Granted, this one isn’t NiC’s fault, but a little acknowledgement of the error wouldn’t have gone amiss.

A word also has to be said about the names-only index. A biography needs something more detailed, and since it’s people’s names only there’s no way of cross-referencing, say, Fischer – Holocaust, views on, or Donner – attitude to Soviets, or any means of finding places, tournaments or events. And some entries don’t appear by surname.

Overall an engrossing account of a colourful character which would have benefited from more TLC.

***

Danny King’s SULTAN KHAN, 384 pp., chronicles the life of one of the most enigmatic (and, as it turns out, interesting) chess players of the twentieth century.

Sultan Khan (henceforth referred to as SK) was a humble villager from the Punjab employed as a servant in the household of the Indian nobleman Sir Umar Hayat Khan, a keen chess enthusiast and regular visitor to Britain. Between 1929 and 1933 he took up residence several times in London to attend – as a loyal pro-British politician – conferences on Indian independence. Naturally he was accompanied by his retinue and faithful servant.

SK’s background was in Indian chess, the rules of which differed slightly from the western version of the game, (e.g. pawns could only move one square on the first move, hence ‘Indian defence’), but he had some experience of the western version and had won the All-India Championship in 1928. Sir Umar recognised his talent, and saw these visits to London as the perfect opportunity for SK to test himself against strong European opposition. What happened next was extraordinary.

Despite having little experience of the game as we know it, and, since his English was almost non-existent, no access to manuals or theoretical works, within a few months of his arrival in 1929, SK won the British championship, in fact he won it three times in four years. He regularly took part in strong tournaments across Europe, generally finishing amongst the prize-winners and holding his own against the leading players of the day. He played on board one for ‘England’ at three Olympiads. In reality this was still the British Chess Federation team, hastily relabelled the ‘British Empire’ in order to accommodate SK (and producing an interesting clash at Folkestone in 1933 when the ‘British Empire’ played… Scotland).

Amongst this hectic international activity, SK turned out regularly in the London league, generally shredding the opposition.

What makes this so remarkable is that, although SK received some coaching from Yates and Winter, he was otherwise on his own and had another job, so time for study and preparation must have been extremely limited.

It showed. His openings were often unsophisticated to the point of naive, e.g. as Black in the Caro-Kann 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 (or 3 e5) e6; on the other hand, he was something of a pioneer, e.g. playing the ‘Indian’ pawn move a3 against the Queen’s Indian long before Petrosian or Kasparov made it their own. He was a positional player and tough defender, and no slouch when the tactics started. A typical SK game might consist of an indifferent opening, then, once he got himself sorted out, a steady positional build-up leading to either a big squeeze or winning endgame.

Then in 1933 it all finished as quickly as it had started. Sir Umar returned to India for the last time, and SK went back to his village, his career over. The loss of such a talent is tinged with sadness, but for SK, returning to India must have been an escape from difficult circumstances. For Sir Umar, SK was a means of demonstrating that Indians were not intellectually inferior, and his profile represented an entrée into London society (Sir Umar was a bit of a party animal). I’m trying to avoid saying he was a pawn in a bigger game, but can’t. At the chessboard he enjoyed freedom away from the stifling atmosphere of Sir Umar’s household, yet he had to do well to please his master. Playing under this additional pressure and scrutiny makes his achievements all the more amazing.

How good was SK? According to chessmetrics.com he was in the world’s top ten for at least a couple of years, peaking at no. 6. As a career achievement that would be outstanding; for someone with little prior experience of the game, no easy access to theoretical material, and who was holding down a day job in an alien environment, to achieve it within four and a bit years is beyond remarkable.

King also does a great job of setting SK’s career within the context of the times. Contemporary sources and reports give the reader a vivid feel for the background to Sir Umar’s visits: political and religious tension and unrest, the air of Establishment and imperial superiority, the notion that Britain could not afford to ‘lose’ India, and the pervasive undercurrent of racism (SK was a ‘subject’, not a citizen, and can you imagine a tournament report nowadays mentioning the colour of a player’s skin?). This all happened a long time ago, but it crosses your mind that some things have changed little in ninety years. (King points out that SK has never been awarded the GM title retrospectively. The BCF could have applied on his behalf… but didn’t.)

This wonderful book is enjoyable in so many ways – as an account of a meteoric chess career, a chronicle of the times, or a games collection. There is an extensive bibliography, eleven pages of endnotes (some of them interesting reading in themselves), crosstables and a selection of photographs. My only gripe is that, like the Donner book, the people’s-names-only index is of little use. There is no way to find or cross-reference places, tournaments, news events, topics etc. Sir Umar Hayat Khan appears under ‘Sir’ and, unless I’m missing something, there’s no entry for Sultan Khan – incredibly, there is no way of tracking down anything relating to the subject of the book. Nor is there a games index. Given that the book presents lots of SK’s games, I’d have thought a games index would have gone without saying.

Having got that off my chest, Sultan Khan is an excellent biography and one of the best chess books I've read in recent years. Highly recommended.

Ian Marks

July 2020

*****

THE CLUB PLAYER’S MODERN GUIDE TO GAMBITS by Nikolai Kalinichenko, Russell Enterprises Inc., 255 pp., publ. 2019.

This book looks at the current status of a wide range of gambits, either pure gambits where one side gives up material early on, or lines which involve a later sacrifice of material, such as the Poisoned Pawn, Botvinnik Variation etc. It is divided into sections on the open, semi-open and closed games, each represented by white and black gambits, and each gambit is illustrated by a handful of games lightly analysed and with explanatory text.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there are gambits and there are gambits. Openings such as the Benko and Marshall have become respectable and mainstream. Some, such as the King’s Gambit and Budapest, tend to be met with a raised eyebrow nowadays, but are still considered, well, sort of OK if you fancy a punt. Going to extremes you have stuff like the Englund (1 d4 e5) and Latvian (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 f5) which usually elicit a disapproving tsk-tsk and are pretty much regarded as coffeehouse. All of these types feature, but the emphasis is by far on the ‘saner’, more respectable, gambits.

The main objective is to illustrate that typical gambit themes such as rapid development, use of open lines, king safety, time etc. etc. are still as viable as ever despite the rise of the machines, indeed amongst the games, most of which are from the present century, including many from the teens, there are a couple of Leela/Stockfish/AlphaZero efforts from 2018-19. There are also plenty of games involving current big names, illustrating that gambits or gambit-type play is not just the preserve of the club hacker.

Overall the book is well produced, although, as often the case with Russell publications, there seems to have been no proofreader, as evidenced, for example, by the uncertainty over how many games it contains. The blurb says ‘Almost 140 games…’, while the author’s intro claims ‘Almost 135 games…’. It’s 138, so I guess they’re both right, depending on your point of view.

More irksomely, only the gambits are page numbered in the table of contents, so if you want to find an individual game, you’ve to do a bit of thumbing. And there’s no index of player’s names; you have to hunt for them in the contents.

This is the type of book which could provide inspiration for youngsters, providing they don’t make the same mistake as I did. I recall finding a similar sort of effort in my local library back in the days when I was starting out as a kid. It was full of gambits and quickies, and made me think that chess was easy and I’d win all my games in about twenty moves. You could say I missed the point!

Ian Marks

June 2020

*****

CHESS TESTS by Mark Dvoretsky, Russell Enterprises Inc., 208 pp., publ. 2019.

This posthumous work by the great Russian trainer is what it says on the cover – a collection of test positions designed to train seven areas of the game: combinational vision, candidate moves, calculation, attack and defence, positional play, realising an advantage and the endgame. The exercises are designed not only to instruct, but to provide pleasure in the solving process.  Each chapter generally starts with a few easier, warm-up puzzles before moving on to meatier examples which, as the author warns, are often demanding enough to test the strongest of players.

This caveat more or less defines the target readership. This is not a book for inexperienced or casual players, but is aimed at more ambitious or stronger players looking for challenging material. The implication is that you’re not going to get everything right, but, equally, it is fair to assume that revisiting difficult exercises will bring its rewards.

The solutions are very detailed and provide deep insights into the topic under discussion and amount to virtually a mini-textbook in their own right.

It’s not a big book in terms of pages, but it is a big and absorbing book (easy to get drawn into the positions!) in terms of content and potential benefits for the diligent reader. It is well produced with clear diagrams and text; I only have one gripe – there is no index of either players or themes addressed in the solutions.

Ian Marks

June 2020

*****

CHESSBASE COMPLETE by Jon Edwards, Russell Enterprises Inc., 93 pp., publ. 2019.

This 2019 supplement of the author’s original work covers all that’s new in ChessBase 13, 14 and 15. If you want to know about, for example, the Cloud or ChessBase on the web, this is the place to look. The author, a CCIM, guides you through these and more and discusses their uses and implications. There are plenty of screenshots to illustrate what he has to say, always a good idea in a field where a picture really does often paint a thousand words, and a comprehensive index of all the features covered. If you’re looking for a handy one-stop guide to what’s new in ChessBase, this is it.

Ian Marks

June 2020

*****

 

Lifetime Repertoires - The Nimzo Ragozin by Chessable.com

https://www.chessable.com/lifetime-repertoires-the-nimzo-ragozin/course/17354/

This book is not available in any paper format – it’s completely online www.chessable.com
It uses the ChessAble ‘Movie Trainer’ technology to teach you the concepts and there is an optional 13+ Hrs of Video lecture which you can purchase to compliment the training. Like other ChessAble courses, the video parts could be considered expensive but the quality of training provided here is very high. ChessAble also offer an unconditional ‘money back if not completely satisfied’ guarantee and if you keep an eye on promotions - special offers and discounts come up frequently. For what exactly ChessAble is and the differences using this software instead of a printed book, please see my previous review Chess Structures - A Grandmaster Guide, May 2019 (below).

Lines that knit together well:
At the heart of this book is the Nimzo-Indian defence 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 which has been combined with the Ragozin to deal with 3.Nf3 via d5 4.Nc3 Bb4.

The ever popular Catalan 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 is tackled alongside the London, Veresov, Trompowsky, Torre, Colle and all the deviations you need are covered in surprisingly good detail.

I say ‘surprisingly’ because usually book repertoires that attempt to encompass everything fall short on the sidelines. I checked what it suggested against the London system and the authors go straight down one of the theoretically best main lines with ease (early Bd6) explaining the equalising plans so lucidly that I understand this better now than when I looked at it from the white side some years ago! I found equally excellent explanations for the mainline 4.e3 Nimzo and particularly clear explanations as to when Black’s Bishop is better placed on a6 rather than it’s natural home on b7.

I don’t think anyone can doubt the soundness of the Nimzo-Indian Defence itself (almost all top players have played it – often with both colours) so I’m not going to comment on that.
The Ragozin’s strengths seem to lie in the combination of classical Queen’s Gambit ideas (a solid d5 pawn in the centre) with the dynamics of the Nimzo-Indian (Bb4 pin) and after moves like c5 and Qa5 can put real pressure on White’s position.

The given Ragozin line against the ever popular Catalan 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.Qc2 Nbd7 is also very interesting. This is the real starting position of this variation, which can be reached via a variety of move orders. The author goes into some details explaining the concepts and plans for both sides! e.g. the White plans

• Note Bd2 - usually in the Closed Catalan, White plays Nbd2 then e4 with a good position but here this isn't possible because of Bd2
• White may try to make use of Bd2 or move it to Bf4 (or sometimes Bc1)
• Often, White wants to see what black is doing with Bb7 or Ba6 before committing his queenside knight e.g. with Ba6 pressurising c4 - then Nc3 is not good
• So, in most cases we will be developing our light bishop to a6 so that it can pressurise c4, as this limits White's options
• White’s main waiting/improving moves are Bf4, Rd1 and b3 - the order of these can be swapped around quite easily

The same points also contribute to what some may call the weaknesses of the Ragozin in that drawish or equal positions with 3-fold repetition can be reached in a few of the recommended lines. If White is not inclined to play aggressively, you could easily get an equal (some may say slightly boring) position and need to be patient to outplay your opponent later in the game. In my opinion this is hardly ever a problem at club level so I think most players will like the mix of solidness and active piece play that make up these lines.
The Chapters in this book are:

• Overview
• Nimzo-Indian with 4.e3
• Nimzo-Indian with 4.Qc2
• Nimzo-Indian with 4.a3 and 4.f3
• Nimzo-Indian Deviations
• Ragozin with 5.Bg5
• Ragozin with 5.cxd5
• Ragozin with 5.Qa4+
• Ragozin Deviations
• Catalan (Bb4+ then Be7)
• 1.d4 Deviations (Colle, London, Trompowski, etc)
• 1.Nf3
• Model Games

PROS:
Complete Repertoire for Black against 1.d4
Core Solid lines unlikely to be refuted
Clear and straightforward explanations
The course works well with Move-Trainer and helps us understand the ideas
IM Christof Sielecki does another excellent job with the (optional) videos!

CONS:
Some Ragozin lines tend to be drawish or ‘too equal’ and some players may prefer more exciting or dynamic play early on.

SUMMARY:
I have completed this course from start to finish and I am now running through it for the second time in review mode – it’s that good!
Highly recommended.

William Hulme

May 2020

*****

 

THE PETROFF DEFENCE by Cyrus Lakdawala, Everyman Chess, 320 pp., publ. 2019

This is Lakdawala’s second book on the Petroff. A lot has happened since his first one published back in 2015, not least Caruana making it his go-to weapon in elite events and in the 2018 World Championship match. (Six of his games from 2018 appear amongst the illustrative games.)

Lakdawala examines 58 illustrative games (all new, bar one reannotated) in six large (or large-ish) chapters covering the Cochrane Gambit (4 Nxf7!?), the Scotch Petroff (3 d4), the Main Line (3 Nxe5), Main Line Sidelines, the New Main Line (5 Nc3) and the Three Knights Petroff (3 Nc3). The Petroff is not a wham-bam opening and although Black scores his fair share of quick points, longer games are often the order of the day, and fourteen of the games are of 60 moves or more. Lakdawala reminds the reader that “The Petroff isn’t one of those instant gratification lines. Our reward often comes after long plodding and toil. So don’t expect the joyous surge of an attack by move 15.” Sage words, and fair comment, but is it really necessary to follow some of them to the very end of their 97, 98 and 104 moves? I guess if you didn’t, they wouldn’t be complete games. Having said that, the games are good examples of the lines in question, twenty-four of them from 2015 or later, and despite the opening’s dull reputation, there is plenty of fighting chess.

Lakdawala’s trademark style is much more under control in this one. There are far fewer rambling digressions, and the writing is all the better for it, although ‘When your stocks are quoted at ten times their actual worth, then every good broker will tell you not to delay and sell, since a market crash is coming and you may find yourself selling pencils on the street corner.’ suggests that he’s not going down without a fight. His notes and explanations are generally short, sweet and relevant, and he relies more on words than tons of variations.

The bibliography raises some interesting questions. It consists of four (!) books, all published by this publisher, only two of which are Petroff-specific. One of those was published in 2005 and the other is Lakdawala’s own previous Petroff work from 2015. The others are general 1 e4 books, one a ‘Starting Out’ title. Conspicuous by its absence is Cohen’s detailed work of 2014, which, even apart from the depth of its coverage, you’d have thought might have been worth a shufti, given that it’s more recent than 75% of anything else on the author’s list.

It also seems that no online or digital sources were consulted, which I find hard to believe, nor is there any mention of which engines were used in the writing process. In short, the reader has next to no way of doing any independent checking of his or her own, and knows not where to continue further research. In short, as bibliographies go, it’s disappointingly threadbare.

If you glance back at the contents in paragraph two, you’ll see that everything’s pure Petroff. It crosses my mind that one thing worth including would have been the author’s advice for those occasions when inconsiderate Whites punt a second move which renders these 320 pages irrelevant (as Cohen does in his book). A few ideas versus the Bishop’s Opening or King’s Gambit would surely not have gone amiss, the more so since many Whites, even (or especially) strong players, tacitly acknowledge the qualities of the Petroff by playing 2 Bc4. You could argue that it says ‘Petroff’ on the cover, but you don’t want to ‘study the living daylights’ out of the Main Line, only to get suckered by 2 Bc4. Perhaps the prodigious author will devote a future volume to non-2 Nf3 open games.

Despite these reservations, overall this is a very nice work on the Petroff, with enough material in it to get the reader up and playing the opening, and probably playing it well.

Ian Marks

May 2020

*****

May 2020: We are currently living in strange and difficult times which affect us all in some way or to some degree. Like all other businesses, chess publishers are feeling the pinch.

No tournaments or congresses means no bookstalls; along with closed bookshops this means no live sales. Books lying in a warehouse are not generating revenue and returns only add to their number. Any books that are shipped are at the mercy of issues in the logistics business. Schedules are subject to revision since no-one wants to add to existing stockpiles, and falling sales mean authors’ royalties are affected (and nobody gets rich writing chess books in the first place).

And this is only week six of lockdown. Nobody knows how long it will last, or what form the exit strategy will take. All that is certain is that we have a long way to go and that it will take a long time for things to get back to normal – whatever ‘normal’ might be.

What has this got to do with CS book reviews? Chess publishing is a small cog in the global economy. Chess publishers are doing their best for us and we can all do our bit to help. Whether or not I gave the books reviewed here a thumbs up, they will be of interest to someone somewhere and somebody will enjoy them. The authors all invested a great deal of time and effort in them, as did the editorial and production teams who helped turn the manuscripts into the finished product. Why not buy a couple? Why not buy a couple that don’t appear here? Be your own reviewer! Chess players are good at buying books; in these unprecedented times something as simple as doing so might make the difference between a chess publisher (or dealer) staying in business or sinking. Our support could save people’s livelihoods.

And if publishers do go out of business, there ain’t gonna be no new chess books when this is all over.

Stay safe, folks.

Ian Marks,

May 2020

***

KAUFMAN’S NEW REPERTOIRE FOR BLACK AND WHITE by Larry Kaufman, New in Chess, 457 pp., publ. 2019.
If ever a book title needed no further elucidation, it’s this one! But I’ll elucidate anyway. This is Kaufman’s third black and white rep book. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, he avoids theory-laden mega main lines, opting instead for reliable safe lines with a proven track record that will provide a modest edge going into the middlegame, which is really all you can expect from any mainstream opening anyway. This he does in a genuinely accessible fashion without battering you to death with endless variations. In short, you get something that will stand you in long-term good stead without massive time investment.

For this volume he has reverted to 1 e4. He advocates lines with an early d3 against the Ruy Lopez, 3 Bb5 v the Sicilian (with some 2 Nc3 lines as variety) and the French Tarrasch. It’s hard to argue with these; they are all sturdily reliable, enjoy the patronage of leading players and are not going to be refuted tomorrow. He also covers less common lines and gambits so you know how to deal with those pesky southpaws down at the club. (more…)