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24th March 2020
The sub-title of SIDE-STEPPING MAINLINE THEORY by Gerard Welling & Steve Giddins (New in Chess, publ. 2019, 269 pp.) offers a clue as to what it’s about: Cut Down on Chess Opening Study and Get a Middlegame You are (sic) Familiar With (sic). The idea is to provide ‘average’ players with comprehensive coverage of a particular middlegame structure to enable them to get playable positions without having to spend hours on theory. The authors advocate a Philidor/Old Indian set-up, perhaps not the most exciting of openings, but which is reliable, not susceptible to constant change, and can be played with both colours. This is an eminently sensible idea; the issue is, of course, that you have to be happy/comfortable with such structures, so user beware! Cynics might also argue that a defence is a defence, so you shouldn’t be playing one with White, but that is a philosophical issue beyond the scope of a review.
The book starts with a useful chapter on the keys to successful opening play, and covers do’s (sic) and don’ts (somebody wasn’t sure how to apostrophise that and still got it wrong! ), typical plans and ideas and understanding move orders (mysteriously hyphenated). Of the openings themselves, the Old Indian gets eighty pages, the Philidor nearly fifty, and the system as White forty-odd. Each chapter is broken down into strategy, move orders, pawn play, illustrative games (ninety-two in total) etc. The final chapter is forty-plus pages of variations in tabular form, a handy reference if you’re looking for a particular move or line.
You may well be thinking that there are two possible objections to this sort of repertoire: (i) Old Indian/Philidor structures are cramped/passive, and (ii) shouldn’t White really be more adventurous? The authors admit as much in their introduction and address the practical considerations, so it is something they have taken into account when putting the repertoire together. It is a repertoire that requires a degree of patience to handle correctly; if you’re an attacking player with eyes only for the enemy king, then you really should be playing something else. However, the structure is a sturdy one, and, with their guidance, you certainly won’t lose because you played the Philidor or OI (or at least you’ll be less likely to get mugged compared to playing Black in a wild Sicilian). Such a book requires plenty of explanations, and it is noticeable that there is more helpful explanatory prose than reams of variations. Such variations as there are are relatively short.
There is an extensive bibliography, not only indicating that the authors have cast their net far and wide, but enabling the interested reader to do further research of his/her own. If Philidor/Old Indian structures appeal to your style or chess worldview, or if you are looking for something to stand you in good stead without lots of chopping and changing, this one is well worth a look.
THE HIPPOPOTAMUS DEFENCE by Alessio De Santis, New in Chess, 320 pp., publ. 2019.
More people are killed by hippos every year than by more traditional dangerous animals such as lions, crocs, snakes, charging elephants etc. Maybe it’s something to do with their sedate, laid-back appearance, just sort of chilling there in the water. A bit like the eponymous defence, in fact, a harmless ten-move arrangement of pawns on a6, b6, d6, e6, g6 and h6, bishops on b7 and g7 and knights on d7 and e7. Harmless? Well, seemingly. As the Italian FM sets out to demonstrate, the Hippo and its relatives can be dangerous creatures for the unwary.
In sixteen chapters he covers everything the curious mind could want to know about his favourite opening, such as its development, strategic elements, structures, pawn centres, transitions, use of pawns etc. etc. His discussion of pawn centres is crucial; the wisdom of the crowd seems to suggest that White can question the Hippo’s viability with the creation of a three-pawn centre, be it c4, d4 and e4, or d4, e4 and f4, in fact this latter, the Austrian Attack, is often touted as a ‘refutation’ of the beast. The author addresses these and similar issues in convincing fashion and shows that Black can render this claim hyperbolic if he knows how to handle the arising structures correctly.
Another charge levelled at the Hippo is that it is cramped, but as the author points out, Black tends to spend the early stages of other, more mainstream, openings like the French and Sicilian operating within his back three ranks, so the Hippo is no different in that respect.
He also devotes a lot of attention to move order nuances. This is a major issue. The Hippo is not a theoretical opening like, say, the Dragon, susceptible to column after column of rigorous analysis. It is a system which can be reached via a wide range of move orders, each with their own implications. A very basic one is whether to start with 1…g6 (usual), or 1…b6 (more esoteric). Both are valid, but can lead to subtle changes in structure which an adept could exploit to jump an unsuspecting opponent.
In addition to showing the reader what to do, the author also shows him what not to do. It can be all too easy to play the first ten Hippo moves on auto-pilot. Therein lies the road to perdition. Black has to be ready to adjust his move order, or indeed structure, in response to how White sets up. This leads us to the semi-Hippo, where some Hippo features are retained, but not all. Thus Black can end up with, for example, a sort of Hippo-Sicilian, Hippo-Nimzo and so on, depending on what features from other openings creep in. I’m sure I even saw something that looked like a Hippo-Hedgehog, and if you think the Hippo is cool, wait till you make the acquaintance of the Super-Hippo. Much of this may seem a tad abstract, but there are loads of illustrative games to illuminate the way.
Lest you think the Hippo is junk, bear in mind that Spassky considered it good enough to play twice in the 1966 world championship match (amongst other occasions). Other big names seen on the black side include Ponomariov, Radjabov and McShane (and Roddy McKay!). These guys are not fish, nor is the former long-time Women’s World Champion, Nona Gaprindashvili, in whose repertoire it was a mainstay for many a year (in fact she’s still playing it in Seniors’ events). Carlsen and Caruana have both lost trying to beat it. It is an opening for the open-minded and, as the author points out, scores a highly respectable 48%, well in keeping with any ‘proper’ black defence.
This interesting and thought-provoking book is well produced in easy-on-the-eye double column format with crystal-clear text and diagrams, alphabetical player index and bibliography. Just one thing niggles me. Since the material is clearly presented from Black’s point of view, why do the diagrams have White at the bottom? It’s not as though it’s NiC in-house policy (unlike some publishers); Black was at the bottom in Adorjan’s Black Is Back!. There’s nothing sacrosanct about the White-at-the-bottom convention; in a ‘black’ book it jars. Guys, adapt as necessary, please!
That niggle apart, The Hippopotamus Defence is, above all, a fun book. Openings books can be dry and technical. Not this one. I highly recommend it as a great read, whether you’re interested in pachyderms or not (and I mean read; there are lots and lots of words and diagrams to get you through it without a board). The author’s enthusiasm shines through on every page; it is obvious that he is in love with his subject matter. If just a little of his enthusiasm rubs off, hey, you might find yourself with a new pet opening.
A pet hippo?
COACH YOURSELF A Complete Guide to Self Improvement at Chess by Neil McDonald, Everyman Chess, 304 pp., publ. 2019
I sometimes wonder to what extent the average player (whoever that is) is able to study the game. By the time he or she has put in a day’s work, commuted, eaten, done more work at home, attended to odd jobs around the house, taken the dog to the vet, gone to a parents’ night, shared quality time with his/her spouse/kids, then plopped exhausted in front of the television, I suspect it’s either not much or haphazard. Whatever ‘study’ is done probably consists of a quick look at some opening line that’ll never see the light of day or maybe a few tactical puzzles. And so to bed.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to schedule that sacred, golden, interruption-free hour every night to actually be able to address those issues that would help us improve? Of course. Even if you can’t, Coach Yourself might give you a few ideas on how best to use whatever time you can scrape for the game we love. McDonald divides his book into thirteen chapters of about 20-30 pages each covering, inter alia, calculation, the initiative, positional mistakes, pawn structure and the endgame. It might be no coincidence that his first chapter is devoted to blunders and their avoidance, given that in the hurly-burly of club and league chess they are probably the most common way of losing (or winning!) a game. Each chapter is sub-divided into relevant features of the topic under discussion, e.g. chapter two, Training Your Tactical Imagination, is split up into trapping pieces, skewers, overloading, pins, back rank mates, line clearance etc. The examples are pertinent and designed to stick in the mind. (There is some tremendous positional stuff in here.) The vast majority are recent and feature more or less the entire who’s who of contemporary chess, although it was nice to find an example featuring a couple of Scottish lads!
The explanatory side apart, the examples (often given in full) are designed to make the reader think about what’s happening (plenty of questions), presumably so that he/she can think all the better about what’s happening in his/her own games.
McDonald writes clearly and can generally be relied upon not to leave potential questions in his readers’ minds unanswered. (Nor is he slow to criticise himself if the occasion warrants it, a good self-improvement method in itself.) There are lots of pieces of good advice scattered throughout the text, one of which – as he stresses – is the importance of studying classic games. If that’s the only thing you take from the book, it’ll have been worth it.
If you recognised yourself in my introductory paragraph, and/or have been wondering how exactly to go about ‘working on your game’ (sounds like golf) in the time you have available, Coach Yourself could provide the scheme of work you’ve been looking for. It’s well thought-out and put together; my only gripe is that there are no indexes of openings, themes or players, an absolute scunner if you’re trying to track down that game or sac that caught your eye.
As Christmas thunders ever closer, here are some gift suggestions for those of you who haven’t shouted up the lum to Santa yet.
First up, a trio from New in Chess, all published this year.
FORCING CHESS MOVES by Charles Hertan (432 pp.) is the fourth edition of the award-winning work.
It’s essentially a guide to looking for Big Moves, moves which finish the game. Big Moves can be unusual, weird, surprises, shots, sacs, anything at all in fact, and Hertan’s book is full of them. It’s a sort of Rolls-Royce tactics book, with lots and lots of combinations illustrating how to finish the other guy off – and how to find the moves to do so. His main premise is to try to look at positions through ‘computer eyes’, i.e. to cast aside our innate biases and inhibitions and think outside the human box. It might sound strange, but it can undoubtedly pay dividends.
Besides the examples there are lots of exercises, but it’s far from being just a puzzle book; the author takes great care to get his philosophy across and ensure his readers understand what he’s getting at. I recall hearing lots of good things about this book when it first appeared in 2008 (offhand I can only remember one moaner; some people are never happy), and when you go through it you can see why it was so well received. It is a real eye-opener, full of surprising ideas and often beautiful chess.
Davorin Kuljasevic’s BEYOND MATERIAL (336 p.) deals with an often-ignored aspect of the game, especially amongst amateurs, viz. the importance of non-material factors such as time, space and psychology.
His six chapters discuss attachment to and the relative value of material, how time and space can beat material, greed, and the psychology of non-materialism, and encompass things like attacking, sacs, poisoned pawns, risk, space, time, harmony etc. These can often be abstract concepts, and it certainly sounds like heavy-duty stuff, but it makes for an interesting read which, as the author says, will make the reader better understand and look again at the values of the pieces as they fluctuate during a game. There are over a hundred illustrative extracts, all explained not just with moves but, given the subject matter, lots of words. The author’s relaxed, conversational style makes what could be heavy going an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, quite different from more ‘normal’ chess book fare. It’s a super piece of work, and an excellent take on a neglected area of the game. I certainly wouldn’t put it into the hands of a beginner, but for experienced players looking for something a bit different, highly recommended.
From the indefatigable Cyrus Lakdawala comes WINNING UGLY IN CHESS (336 pp.), subtitled Playing Badly Is No Excuse for Losing.
This is not a book of perfect games and silky smooth chess; it is full of messy positions, errors, cheapos, oversights, swindles, luck and fluky wins and draws. If this sounds like normal league chess, you’re not wrong, and you’re bound to identify with some of the atrocities the author presents. Been there, done that. Lakdawala looks at topics such as boldness, grabbing material, rational and irrational decisions, traps and messing with the opponent’s mind. His examples are often weird and wonderful, where backs are to the wall and miracles are born of desperation. There is a very nice chapter on the psychology of provocative opening play and its often disorientating effect on the ‘victim’. (Amongst the gems you will find Carlsen-Dreev, 1 Nh3!?. Yes, he won.) Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember the unique genius of Duncan Suttles will have an idea of what to expect.
In many ways, this is a fun book, but, as is often the case, the fun conceals serious points and learning opportunities. The bottom line is that winning is what matters, and a dip into this one could inspire you to score undeserved points or half points, and will remind you that, as the saying goes, it ain’t over till it’s over.
Each of these is produced to NiC’s usual high standards with clear text and diagrams, indexes and (except the last one) bibliographies.
Zenón Franco’s PLANNING MOVE BY MOVE (Everyman Chess 2019, 414 pp.) is the author’s attempt to help fill a surprisingly sparse field in chess literature. He divides his book into five large chapters which give you an idea of what exactly it’s about: Typical Structures, Space Advantage, The Manoeuvring Game, Simplification and Attack and Defence. In this way he systematically covers five key areas of the middlegame where players are beset with the question of what to do (and how to do it). Each chapter contains many examples of the topic under discussion, the majority from contemporary practice, but quite rightly also featuring the classics and players such as Lasker, Capablanca, Petrosian and Karpov, in short if you want to learn, why not learn from the best? The examples all feature questions and exercises to involve the reader to the max.
As the author points out in his introduction, notes which feature prose and few variations are not overly helpful, while the opposite, more common in these computer-assisted days, is also inadequate, thus he ensures that his own annotations are a healthy mix of words and moves. In this respect he succeeds admirably; explaining a complex idea effectively requires simple, lucid prose, and the author does this very well.
If you find yourself wondering what to do (and that’s all of us), then this could be one for you. It’s not a beginner’s text, but for anyone with some knowledge and experience of the game it could prove a helpful and beneficial read.
A totally different sort of chess book is EMANUEL LASKER A READER, edited by Taylor Kingston, publ. Russell Enterprises Inc. 2019, 400 pp. This labour of love really is one for chess historians or anyone interested in the great players of the past. The sub-title tells you exactly what to expect (and could probably save me writing any further!): A Compendium of Writings on Chess, Philosophy, Science, Sociology, Mathematics and Other Subjects by the Great World Chess Champion, Scholar and Polymath Emanuel Lasker (1861-1941). Phew! From a purely chess perspective it covers three world championship matches, several tournaments, and annotations galore by Lasker to contemporary games which give a wonderful feeling for both his style of writing and the style of annotation of the time. Many of the literary extracts are printed as facsimiles, which likewise give a neat glimpse into the styles and presentations of the past.
Unlike many great players both past and present who are focused solely on chess, Lasker’s intellect was deep and wide-ranging, and while it is interesting to have a glimpse into some of the other areas which absorbed his attention, there will inevitably be those which some readers will find less than gripping.
Emanuel Lasker A Reader contains a vast amount of material, the bulk of it probably unknown or little-known, and all credit is due to both editor and publisher for collating and bringing it to the public. You could get lost in it for ages, reading it or dipping into it a chapter or section at a time. It is a huge book, overall well produced, but spoilt by the presentation – the small font and tight spacing favoured by Russell Enterprises make for a very dense and unattractive production, not at all easy on the eye. As I typed that, the book happened to be open at pp. 194-5: a solid body of text, broken only by four diagrams, and the moves in bold an unappealing mass of black type. These pages are by no means untypical. Such a wealth of interesting material deserved a little more space and light, in fact a little more TLC. There are extensive indexes and a two-page bibliography.
If my last two Chessable reviews seemed like hard work - then please read on! This time, I am reviewing a repertoire for White based around the King’s Indian Attack.
I really liked the author’s honesty when describing some lines as objectively level but with plenty of play in the position to enable the stronger player to outplay their opponent. There are several lines which look fine for both sides and the author makes no attempt to convince you that ‘every line leads to advantage’ for White. This opening is based more on plans and understanding than precise calculations or forced variations so the Chessable system really does make it both fun and easy to learn for any player rated 1200 strength upwards. There are 12 chapters in total and it’s all presented in a very easy to digest format.
• 2x vs French
• 3x vs Sicilian
• 3x vs Caro-Kann
• 1x vs e5 and others
• Model games
• Authors games
I found the chapters (and videos) on the vs French lines particularly enjoyable as well as the model games. The only chapter I wasn’t so convinced with was that on 1…e5 and others. The lines given don’t seem to present the same challenges for the Black player – for example 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d3 and no mention of Bologan’s recommended 3…d5! move order here although it is likely to transpose to later lines. This is where the more experienced White player may need to change ideas and look for an alternative against these lines as the KIA doesn’t appear to be effective against 1…e5 or 1..d5, etc. The author needed to include something as it’s a complete repertoire so what he has given does fulfil that task.
The (optional extra) video tutorials are again high quality and total move than 15Hrs instruction. If you have tried the free Chessable books and like the idea of KIA, then I would suggest this one is a great place to start – but be warned - you could get hooked for hours! There are several practical advantages to learning this way including: no need to pack a load of books for a tournament (everything available online in one place); the software saves where you left off in each book including where you last watched a video. This one in particular is not available in traditional book form so there is no alternative to Chessable here.
You may also have heard in the news recently that Magnus Carlsen has invested in Chessable, so this version of online books software is likely to be around for many years to come! Chessable are planning both an iOS and Android App (hopefully with some download / offline functionality) and I noticed Chessable leaflets at the SNCL last weekend, so watch out for this format growing in 2020!