Chess Scotland

The home of Chess in Scotland

Chess Scotland

The home of Chess in Scotland

Chess Scotland

The home of Chess in Scotland

Reviews

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Book Reviews

1st May 2021

New in Chess
Everyman Chess
Chessable

The Elk and Ruby Publishing House is a relative newcomer to chess publishing. Let’s take a look at a couple of their 2020 titles.

SERGEY KARJAKIN: BEST GAMES OF THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE by Alexander Kalinin, 230 pp., is a retrospective of Karjakin’s career so far, from prodigy in 2000 to top pro in 2019, via 75 games and fragments. The games are not ordered chronologically, but by theme or content, e.g. attack, positional sacs, defence and counterattack and endgames, and showcase some of his finest achievements in those fields.

Given the level at which Karjakin operates, the opposition includes most of the contemporary elite, thus the play is of a very high order, but the author’s notes do a tremendous job of explaining what’s going on, being an ideal blend of variations and explanatory prose. As Karjakin says in his foreword, “…the author provides practical explanations so that the reader can use this games collection to study all three stages of the chess game”. The inclusion of Karjakin’s own comments in several of the games makes it all the more interesting.

Karjakin is essentially a classical player, and his best games here show a healthy respect for classical precepts, the centre and clarity of calculation, but “Anyone who wants to achieve serious success should be a universal player, able to do it all”. Thus his style has become more positional; he has evolved into one of the game’s top defenders, and one thing which comes through in many of the games is his composure and resourcefulness when under pressure. If some of that rubs off on the reader, that alone would make the book worthwhile!

Needless to say, the author devotes a chapter to the pinnacle of Karjakin’s career so far, the 2016 World Championship match, analysing what went right – and wrong. Even only a few years after the event it seems to have slipped the collective mind just how close he came to dethroning Carlsen.

The book also provides numerous insights into the life of a prodigy and top professional, for example when Karjakin was ten his family upped sticks and relocated to enhance his chess development: “The decision to move to Kramatorsk was a tough one…I had to leave my childhood home, my parents had to leave their jobs…”, however “our family was given a government apartment, I received a scholarship…I studied a lot with professional coaches”. A scholarship at the age of ten to study chess! What were you doing with chess when you were ten!?

The pay-off wasn’t long in coming – Karjakin still holds the record as the youngest-ever grandmaster at 12 years and 7 months.

Overall an enjoyable, well-produced book, well written and smoothly translated. The format is easy-on-the-eye double column, and there is a selection of photos. The only thing missing is page numbers to locate the games. Games numbers are all very well, but involve a lot of thumbing to find what you’re looking for.

***

PETROSIAN YEAR BY YEAR Volume 1 (1942-1962) by Tibor Karolyi and Tigran Gyozalyan, 484 pp.

One of the first chess books I bought was Peter Clarke’s Petrosian’s Best Games of Chess 1946-1963, one of those lovely Bell hardbacks that were a joy to hold and just made you want to play chess. I bought it in the incomparable Grant’s book shop in Union Street in Glasgow, a favourite haunt, now sadly long gone, which always boasted a well-stocked chess section. As a kid you have little idea of style; to me, Petrosian was world champion, so must have been pretty good, and the classy wins in Clarke’s book confirmed this.

This latest work on the man covers Petrosian’s life and career from his days as a junior to his triumph at the Curaçao Candidates in 1962, the last step on the road to the world championship match with Botvinnik. The IM and FM authors present 111 games and fragments, plus another 37 on Petrosian’s handling of exchanges and test positions. Most of the years are illustrated by around half a dozen games, some more, some fewer, depending on how active Petrosian was at the time. The authors do an excellent job of dissecting the games, which are annotated with lots of words and not overburdened with variations, although they do not hesitate to dive deep if necessary, e.g. the well-known R+P ending of Petrosian-Fischer, Portoroz Interzonal 1958, gets twelve and a half pages, and the similar ending of Petrosian-Tal, Curaçao Candidates, gets six. Many of the games are new and those which are better known are given a modern once-over. They illustrate everything from Petrosian’s trademark solid positional style to fighting games and sacrificial attacks. A lovely quote from Averbakh sums up Petrosian’s approach as well as any: “He conducts the fight in a manner that guarantees him total safety, even though playing for complications might have been the quickest way to the goal.” Many of the games are of historical interest, e.g. no. 17 is the very first Petrosian-Korchnoi encounter, played in the Soviet U-18 Ch. in 1946, a rout in which Petrosian made the Stonewall look like a forced loss.

The games are interwoven with a biographical narrative and lots of background on the likes of tournaments and the influence of other players such as Ebralidze, Petrosian’s early trainer, Lilienthal and Boleslavsky. The background material conveys the image of an amiable, good-humoured family man, an exceptional player ready to advise and support lesser colleagues, whose drive to the top was not that of, for example, Fischer or Kasparov, but more an inner resolve deriving perhaps from his difficult childhood. The overall impression is of someone for whom not sweating the small stuff paid off.

(The contrast between Petrosian’s and Karjakin’s upbringings could hardly be starker. While the latter enjoyed the encouragement of a stable family background and generous state sponsorship, Petrosian was orphaned at the age of thirteen, taken in by an aunt who was a cleaner, and eked out an existence in a Soviet Union ravaged by the effects of war. Clearly there is more than one way to reach the top.)

Book production is a team effort; a huge amount of work has gone into this sumptuous hardback and a wide range of people have been involved, e.g. Levon Aronian wrote a very generous foreword, Petrosian’s son Vartan provided photos and background, and amongst the Georgians acknowledged (Petrosian was born in Tbilisi) is someone weel-kent to us in Scotland.  The text is highly readable and sprinkled with insights and trivia (did you know that Keres kept all his scoresheets?), and, while it generally reads smoothly, the occasional niggly mistake has slipped through, e.g. “his talent shined through”.

The format is double column, with pages of pure text in single. There are sixteen pages of photos, an afterword and an index of themes, but no bibliography or page numbers for the games.

The most annoying omission, however, given the nature of the text, is that of a biographical index. It is impossible to track down anything concerning either Petrosian himself or any of the other major characters, of whom there are plenty. Ditto tournaments, matches and key occasions, the more so since the contents are based on years. Thus if you want to look up, say, the Soviet Union’s matches against other countries, you’re stymied unless you know the relevant years.

That apart, this is the sort of book you could lose yourself in for hours, a great games collection, fascinating text and real page-turner. If you’re a Petrosian fan, find a space for it on your bookshelf. If you’re a junior, get your hands on a copy; you’ll learn a thing or two. Roll on vol. 2.

(These reviews appeared previously in the February SCM)

 

Ian Marks

May 2021

*****

 

HOW TO BECOME A CANDIDATE MASTER by Alex Dunne, New in Chess, 269 pp., publ. 2020.

This is a new and updated version of the work first published in 1985 in which the American FM and Correspondence Master set himself the task of helping players reach CM level. Not every player, of course. No-one’s going to go from 1200 to >2000 just by reading a book. Dunne’s target readership is players around 1800 (“ambitious club players”) who might benefit from a gentle shove in the right direction.

His book consists of fifty-two games played between players rated mainly in the 1800s v. players of CM level. These are not GM games, so they are far from error-free (by both sides!), but that is the author’s point: being games played at a lower level, it is much easier for the reader to identify with them and with the issues they throw up, and they make excellent teaching material in that their flaws show the difference in understanding within even a small rating range. Dunne’s philosophy is very much along the lines of give a person a fish/teach a person to fish; he gives the reader the tools with which to improve. It is up to the reader to decide what to do with them.

Dunne’s main vehicle of instruction is – quite rightly – the written word. Variations are minimal. He uses them to illustrate only that which absolutely needs to be demonstrated. He dispenses, and repeats, lots of good, solid advice; amongst the topics he draws the reader’s attention to are the two bishops, keeping your position sound, activity, self-belief, nerves, ‘digging in’ etc. etc. – in other words the everyday things which crop up during a game of chess. All of this is presented in clear and effective prose. Here’s an example which caught my eye, about draws and draw offers, a topic to which the author returns several times throughout the book. An 1800 has just accepted a CM’s bail-out draw offer in a position in which he had good winning chances:“…the 1800 player who expects to make progress must learn to beat – or at least try to beat – his CM opponent…Taking a draw in such positions is a good way to remain an 1800 player.”  Telt!

However, the author doesn’t spoon-feed his readers. Each game has points where the reader is invited to pause and analyse a position, with the answers at the end of the game. It all adds up to a nice blend of explanation and the good ol’ Socratic method.

In recent reviews I’ve taken a pop at NiC for their indexes. This book doesn’t have one (!) – but it hardly needs it. It’s neither an openings nor an endgame book, so no particular need to index those areas. It’s a middlegame book, and, while you could argue that an index of, say, themes might have been useful, the games and the lessons to be absorbed from them are the thing. The absence of an index hardly hurts.

There might be players outside the target readership wondering if the book’s for them. Hard to say. Sure, improving players in the 1600-1700s would find it of interest, as would rapidly-rising juniors, but I wouldn’t recommend it to players around 1300-1400 or so. For them it would be much more beneficial to get a firmer grasp of the positional and tactical nuts and bolts which the author discusses in the present work. But once they’ve got their rating up a bit, sure, go for it. Alternatively, a lower-rated player could consider going through it with a higher-rated friend who could go over any unclear points.

By way of summary, this is a thoughtful and well written book which would surely benefit anyone taking the time and trouble to absorb its contents, the sort of book you could profitably spend some quality time with during this covid-enforced hiatus from OTB play. One reading won’t turn you into a 2000+ player, but it will set you on the right path. The rest is up to you.

Ian Marks

April 2021

*****

QUEEN’S GAMBIT DECLINED: VIENNA by Jacek Ilczuk and Krzysztof Pańczyk, Everyman Chess, 336 pp., publ. 2018

When I first saw this one, my initial thought was, “Who’s gonna buy it?”. A monograph on a specific line which can only arise from a specific move order and which rarely appears in the London-infested waters of club chess doesn’t seem destined for the bestseller lists.

For dinosaurs like me who associate ‘Vienna’ with 1 e4 e5 2 Nc3, I’d better point out that this one deals with 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 dxc4 5 Bg5 Bb4, a sort of QG/Nimzo/Ragozin mongrel. The in-depth coverage (chapter one begins at move fifteen) is based on seventy-one illustrative games divided into eleven chapters, with countless other game references in the notes. Moves dominate; there is little explanatory text, and such that there is is along the lines of “looks interesting”, “a complicated ending with mutual chances”, “with an excellent position”, “seems more logical” etc. Nor is there much evidence of analytical creativity, bar the odd unattributed brief line. Although the Polish theoretician authors hope the reader will enjoy “a fascinating journey through the rich and sometimes fairly* theoretical lines of the Vienna variation”, he/she will have to do a lot of figuring out for him/herself.

(*For ‘fairly’ read ‘massively’.)

Although the book was published in 2018, the vintage of the most recent illustrative games – 2012 (four) and 2013 (two) – indicates that the cut-off point for collation of material was five years prior to publication, with only a smattering of references up to 2017 inserted later in the notes. It’s clear that any potential reader will have a fair bit of updating on his/her hands before venturing such a sharp and complicated line.

The presentation is more or less one diagram per page amongst dollops of moves and game references. It is not particularly appealing. As I mentioned above, moves and analysis are the order of the day; there is very little prose to lighten the fare. There is a seven-page index of variations and an index of games, but no bibliography, so the reader has no way of knowing which works the authors consulted or which engines they used, a huge omission for a complex line like this. An example which caught my eye was illustrative game six, an exhibition game played in Warsaw in 1941 between Alekhine and Frank on the white side and Bogoljubow and Pfaffenroth on the other. It’s a fairly well-known game, rumours that it was concocted or just an analysis session notwithstanding. I mention it because although the authors comment in the theoretical section that “12…Bd7!? was condemned by Alekhine”, they fail to cite the source, either here or later. (It could have been his annotations in the Deutsche Schachblätter, December 1941, or his 107 Great Chess Battles, amongst others.) Simply put, knowing a source provides the reader with a starting point for further research.

Another thing the authors don’t mention in their bland introduction to the game on p.13 (maybe they didn’t think it was relevant, but some historical background is always nice) is that Alekhine’s partner was Hans Frank, Hitler’s Governor-General of Poland during the war, who, besides being a nasty piece of work, was a serious chess buff. As overseer of the Holocaust and other atrocities in that country, he was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death at Nürnberg in 1946. Bogoljubow’s mucker was SS Major Helmuth Pfaffenroth, Frank’s adjutant, who later served time in prison for his wartime activities. I found myself wondering if it’s the only game by a leading Nazi to appear in a theoretical work.

To answer the question I posed at the start, the book will likely be of interest to strong players involved in the line with either colour, or hard-core correspondence players looking for in-depth, albeit dated, coverage. I can’t see the chess public at large storming the bookstalls to panic buy a copy.

Ian Marks

April 2021

 

*****

ON THE ORIGIN OF GOOD MOVES by Willy Hendriks, New in Chess, 429 pp., publ. 2020

Eight years after the Dutch IM and trainer’s first book, Move First, Think Later, comes his second, a thoroughly and extensively researched look at the development of chess. Hendriks is not the first to try to get to grips with the evolution of the game. Réti and Euwe did so in their time, and more recently Kasparov got on board with his Predecessors series. Big names, but Hendriks has no qualms about calling them out or disagreeing with them when he feels it is warranted.

Writers on the history of the game usually start with Morphy, or perhaps Philidor, but Hendriks goes back to Greco in an interesting first chapter which makes a number of observations which set the style and tone of the book (e.g.“If you play over all the games by Greco you cannot but be amazed by the enormous strength of this player and the importance and variety of his ideas.”).

Hendriks divides his work into thirty-six chapters, in which he considers topics as diverse as

  • How good/strong were the top players of yore?
  • How positionally savvy were players like Morphy and Anderssen?
  • Doubled c-pawn formations
  • The early days of chess magazines
  • The evolution of tournaments
  • Stereotypes
  • Was Steinitz the father of positional chess?

and many more besides. Some of his findings will raise an eyebrow. To take the first topic above, he takes “a wild guess” on p.318 that the top players of the earlyish 19th century were around 2000, rising to around 2400 at the end – and were prone to the most incredible blunders, e.g. in the 23rd game of his 1892 World Championship match v Steinitz, Chigorin – under no time pressure – blundered a mate in two which would have embarrassed even your club bottom board.

Based on the ‘evidence’ of the book, there is little doubt that a professional from 2020 would slaughter most of these guys if he could travel back in time. In fact Carlsen could probably have given a simul to a random dozen masters of the day.

There are lots of interesting insights along the way, e.g. in the late 19th century the noble way to settle a difference of chess opinion was through the pages of a magazine. Compared to a humorous exchange of tweets nowadays between, say, Magnus and Anish, some of the stuff which the likes of Steinitz and Zukertort launched at each other is weapons-grade vitriol. We likewise learn of the fluke which gave the Winawer variation of the French its name (coincidentally answering a question I posed in a review back in 2013!).

Hendriks stops his research somewhere around the end of the 19th/start of the 20th century. I suppose he had to draw conclusions somewhere, but it kind of leaves us wondering how he might have continued. Lasker is a sort of bridge over that period, so I surmise it’s because the players who followed suddenly ‘got good’ (to use Fischer’s phrase), with geniuses like Capablanca, Rubinstein and Alekhine synthesising what had gone before. On the other hand, thinkers like Réti, Breyer and Nimzowitsch continued to challenge and refine previous thinking and/or push the boat out further. Chess didn’t stop developing!

Perhaps the chapter which will cause most tut-tutting is no. 32, Study Openings. It is exactly that. When Hendriks says “There is no better way to improve in chess than by studying openings” I can imagine other coaches the world over reaching for the smelling salts, but when you read what he has to say, you can see his point. It reminded me of a pre-covid, pre-Hendriks interview I read earlier this year with an IM rated around 2400 (yes, a 2400!) – I forget who, I wish I had taken a note of it – who was asked the standard question “What do you recommend in order to improve?”. Quick as a flash he replied “Study openings”, and went on to explain that all the usual things we are advised to do – study the classics, work on tactics, endings etc. – had taken him to around 2100, at which point he had stalled. Deciding that drastic action was necessary, he spent a summer working exclusively on openings. Within two seasons he put on 300 points and gained a title. This proves nothing, of course, but having read Hendriks’s chapter it struck a chord. There is more to studying openings than, well, studying openings.

The text reads smoothly overall, and, since no translator is credited, we have to assume that Hendriks wrote it in English, which is both impressive and makes the occasional linguistic wrinkle excusable. However a few things slipped through the net, e.g. on p.85 the reference to La Bourdonnais’s magazine Le Palamède manages to get the definite article both right and wrong within the space of four lines, and while Hendriks might well have consulted Kmoch’s Die Kunst der Bauernführung in the original German, it would have been a good idea to mention its English title, Pawn Power in Chess.

Instances of German word order (and resulting appalling English) also pepper the text, e.g. “Strong would have been 32.Rxb7”, “No good either was 14…g6 15.Rad1” and the breathtakingly egregious“Equally attractive looks 19…Nf3+ first”.  It’s the sort of stuff that could have come from the pen of Yoda. Clumsy it is, and easily remedied can it be, indeed things like this appear ‘normally’ elsewhere, which makes examples like these grate all the more.

With eight years between books you expect something a bit special, and that is what you get. On the Origin of Good Moves is the antithesis of the conveyor-belt style of chess writing. It is an impressive piece of research (check the bibliography!) covering nearly 300 years of chess history, well structured and thoughtfully argued, an intelligent and ambitious piece of work which is not only full of great and often little-known chess, but introduces us to a number of hitherto walk-on characters on the chess stage such as Gustav Neumann, Elijah Williams and Marmaduke Wyvill. I wouldn’t say it deliberately sets out to be polemic, but it casts many new lights on the history of the game, and forces the reader to rethink traditionally accepted views. In essence it is a very human book into which Hendriks has poured a lot of himself.

However, paradoxically and unfortunately, given the sheer amount and depth of research on display, the book’s strength turns out to be its weakness: it has the inescapable air of an academic text. ‘Gripping’ is not a word I would use to describe it, and, I will admit, there were times when I found it hard to get back into it and pick up from where I’d left off. Hendriks’s style reminded me of that lecturer you had whose stuff was good, but in whose lectures you sometimes found yourself drifting, so that you finished up doodling instead of taking notes. It is not an easy text to get through; you will need a generous infusion of staying power and a well-filled coffee pot.

On the Origin of Good Moves would probably be of most interest to chess historians, and for readers who already have some knowledge of the great names and their place in the chess firmament. I doubt if you’d get much from it if you’d never heard of, say, Tarrasch or Lasker or where they were coming from. On the other hand, I still remember the buzz I got as a kid when I discovered Réti’s Masters of the Chessboard and Modern Ideas in Chess (still two of my favourite chess books), so it would be nice to think that readers might enjoy a similar reaction to Hendriks’s opus.

Given the book’s subtext that a player’s development mirrors that of the game itself, will it help you improve? I’m not convinced. There are other books out there better designed to achieve that.

Before I go, I’d like to mention two things in particular. First, the creative, highly original cover echoing the play on Darwin. I loved it. If it’s not in the running for the Chess Book Cover of the Year award, there ain’t no justice. Second, NiC’s currently-favoured names-only index, which requires more considered comment.

There are books where a names-only index might suffice. On the Origin of Good Moves is not one of them. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but its four-page, names-only index is hopelessly inadequate for a work of this nature and scope. Some specific examples.

Steinitz gets fifty-eight references across twenty columnar lines. There is no indication of what any of them refer to, nor is it necessarily the case with multiple pages (e.g. 181-185) that they refer specifically to Steinitz. (In fact, Steinitz only gets a few mentions on those pages. Neither of the two games references is his, while the photo on p.183 is of…Max Euwe. And, when you check ‘Euwe’ in the index, there’s no mention of him on p.183!) There is no way of telling which page numbers are games references, tournament references, references to positional ideas, debates with other players – nothing.

There is no tournament index (the only overt reference to a tournament is in the contents, chapter seven – London 1851) or crosstables and, incredibly, no openings index. The Evans and King’s Gambits, to name but two, are discussed at length and in not inconsiderable depth in various chapters, but there is absolutely no way to find them. On one occasion when I went back to check a Sicilian by Anderssen I had no alternative but to flick back and forth around where I thought I had first seen it. It took me several minutes.

Nor, in a book which discusses the historical handling and development of a wide range of positional and tactical features, e.g. the centre, pawn structures, various sacrificial ideas etc. etc., is there an index of themes.

I’m currently reading a (non-chess) book which deals with the development of various societal issues, so comparable in its own area. It’s about half the length, but has an index twice the size, eight pages, listing names, topics, themes, places etc., many complete with sub- and cross-references. It is a model of what would have done justice to On the Origin of Good Moves. NiC really need to address the matter of how they index their publications.

 

Ian Marks

March 2021

*****

WINNING QUICKLY WITH 1.b3 AND 1…b6 by Ilya Odessky, New in Chess, 463 pp., publ. 2020.

Twelve years after his last work on 1.b3, the Russian IM returns with a bigger offering which looks at his pet set-ups from both sides of the board.

“I left chess in 2012. I did not touch it for several years. Having accidentally learned about chess.com, I decided to test my strength in Internet blitz...My opponents – among them lots of players with big names, strong, solid professionals – played chess better than me. Surprisingly, though, I knew more…I was better equipped…In all games, I opened with the moves 1.b3 and 1…b6.”

As his new book shows, he has not been lazy.

It’s not specifically about the title’s ‘winning quickly’, or about crushing people, as per the back cover blurb (“Crush your opponents in the opening, with both White and Black”). While it’s full of games, diagrams and analysis, it’s more than just an opening, or even chess, book. Sometimes it has the air of a confessional, sometimes it reads like a novel about a tempestuous relationship between the author and his beloved openings, and at others it reads like a collection of essays and philosophical musings on chess, the universe and everything.

(more…)