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9th March 2019
CLINCH IT! By Cyrus Lakdawala, New in Chess, 253 pp., publ. 2018 The latest offering from the Lakdawala production line takes a look at (as the sub-title says) how to convert an advantage into a win via five large chapters – Exploiting a development lead, Exploiting the attack, Defense and counterattack, Accumulating advantages and Converting favourable imbalances. As always when you read a Lakdawala book, the first thing that hits you is the waffle. Bearing in mind the adage that every word has to justify its place in a sentence, ask yourself what stuff like this doing in the text:
‘Karpov’s move is like a sluggish man who has just consumed a 3,000 calorie Christmas dinner, to the manic junkie who has just scored a hit of angel dust.’
‘I played the KID for about a decade, all through the 1980’s, but gave it up when the thought arose: ”How can I remember such long lines when I can’t even remember the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven in the shower?”’
‘In truth, this is a boy-who-called-wolf situation, the way North Korea threatens to “drown the United States in a sea of nuclear ash” on a weekly basis.’
‘…anomaly tends to follow orthodoxy like a hungry hyena’ (this one’s actually quite neat, once you’ve paused to figure out what he’s talking about)
Another Lakdawala trademark is his frequent references to popular culture. Nothing wrong with that. Good to keep up. But there are a couple of problems with committing references to popular culture to print: (i) they become dated, and (ii) they convey nothing to anyone not au fait with the reference. If you haven’t read the books or watched the series, the convoluted ‘The thing I learned from the Dothraki in Game of Thrones (although GOT wasn’t even there in book form when this game was played)…’ is meaningless. (I love the way he feels it necessary to explain that the thing he’s referring to didn’t exist at the time.)
A friend recently commented to me that he was 'reluctant to suffer Lakdawala’s prose again'. You can understand why.
What highlights this sort of verbiage even more is that, once you’ve macheted your way through it, you find gentle prose with a lightness of touch which is both easy to read and conveys what the author wants to convey. Compare the following little pieces of advice to the stuff above.
‘Sometimes obvious moves are the wrong ones.’
‘Even a few indifferent moves can turn a relatively easy win into a potential draw for the opponent.’
‘Be constantly aware of the question: is my initiative expanding or contracting?’
All things worth remembering during the heat of battle, expressed clearly and succinctly. Could be a different person writing. When he trims the prose, Lakdawala is a more enjoyable read than many other authors. He comes across as genuinely interested in imparting information and helping his readers derive benefit from his work. He is the antithesis of those overtly didactic textbook-style writers and, dare I say it, those whose writing barely conceals their superciliousness.
Overall, Clinch It! is a pleasant book on a somewhat neglected topic and I can imagine many players, say in the under 2000 range, would benefit from it. Just be prepared to skim over large chunks of waffle.
THE LONGEST GAME by Jan Timman, New in Chess, 365 pp., publ. 2019 The longest game of the title isn’t one game at all, but the 144 games contested by Karpov and Kasparov in their world championship matches between 1984 and 1990 which, Timman argues, can be regarded as one long game. Timman doesn’t analyse every game, but has selected fifty of the most significant, with seventeen fragments, and annotated them in detail. Timman’s detail, however, is much lighter than the analytical jungle which Kasparov devoted to the matches in his own work, thus it is reader-friendlier and besides shows us the games through the eyes of a third party. His notes (computer-backed, of course) and insights are of a standard one would expect from a former world no. 2, but while strong players often seem to exist in a world out of touch with lesser mortals, Timman is blessed with the gift of being able to explain things in a clarity of prose accessible to everyone. In addition to the games, Timman weaves a highly readable narrative replete with lots of background, insight and anecdote, with lengthy discussion of the key moments and factors surrounding the games. All the major characters in the chess world of the time are brought to life, some in starring, some in walk-on roles, and an interesting cast they make. Given the nature and intensity of chess at this level, paranoia is never far from the surface, political intrigue is rife and, of course, who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory, be it the abrupt termination of the first match or the bizarre conclusion to game nineteen in 1990. Timman’s taut, focused writing, smoothly translated, often lends the narrative the air of a thriller rather than a chess text, and its robustness is worthy of note. In this day and age, when some people have elevated being offended to a breach of their human rights, it is refreshing to read a passage like this (from the London leg of the 1986 match): ‘Karpov did not have a clear delegation leader, but he did have a press attaché: the Yugoslav Dmitri Bjelica. That was a strange choice, as Bjelica was known as a gutter journalist who wrote books that were full of printing errors and plagiarisms’.
A minor disappointment in this otherwise super book is the relative absence of photographs, of which there are very few; most are of the two Ks in action, and one is of… a stamp. A little more illumination of settings and characters would have been welcome.
For some of us, the K-K battles are a large part of our chess lives, for others they will represent a life span, while for yet others they will be a chunk of history that took place before they were born, thus it occurs to me that, besides being an excellent retrospective on a great rivalry, Timman’s book is also something of a historical document; it is hard to separate the chess from the times.
Jan Timman has established a reputation as a fine writer whose books have something to say. His one-volume coverage of one of the greatest rivalries in chess is no exception. Highly enjoyable and highly recommended.
KURT RICHTER A Chess Biography with 499 Games by Alan McGowan, McFarland & Company Inc., 368 + xii pp., publ. 2018.
When one thinks of the great players of the first half of the twentieth century, one instinctively thinks of the World Champions – Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine – or their illustrious peers such as Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch or Spielmann, to name but three. It is easy to forget that, while these stellar names were the elite of their day, and have had books written about them, there were many other strong, talented masters who have been unjustly neglected in chess literature. I remember former World Champion Max Euwe talking about the composer Mattison (or Matisons in his native Latvian) and saying, “He was a strong player”, (strong enough, in fact, to have beaten the likes of Alekhine, Capablanca, Rubinstein and Vidmar, but virtually unknown nowadays). To this group belongs the subject of this work, the German master Kurt Richter.