From the publisher:
“Street Smart Chess is an expert guide to scoring more points at the chessboard. When does it pay off to play hard for a win? Or safe for a draw? And how do you adapt your playing style accordingly?
GM Axel Smith answers these questions, and more, by using a world-class player as a model for each chapter. Learn how Magnus Carlsen grinds out wins from level positions; how David Navara beats lower-rated opponents, and how Baskaran Adhiban beats higher-rated ones! Or serve-and-volley in the opening like Peter Heine Nielsen.
Playing well is a good start in chess, but you also need to be Street Smart.”
“Axel Smith is the award-winning author of The Woodpecker Method, Pump Up Your Rating and e3 Poison, which were all enthusiastically received by readers and reviewers. Using the Woodpecker as part of his training, as an adult he improved from a rating of 2100 to becoming a Grandmaster.”
End of blurb…
Quality Chess live up to their name by being one of the few publishers who offer a hardback as well as softback version of all of their titles.
The production values are superb with a “McFarland-like” feel. Of course, you could save a few pence and go for the paperback version but we would definitely treat ourselves with an early Christmas present and savour the hardback. In addition, high quality paper is used and the printing is clear: excellent glossy paper has been used. The weight of this paper gives the book an even better feel to it!
The book can easily be laid flat next to the board and does not require weights to prevent it from “self-closing” (a particular bugbear of ours). Each diagram is clear and the instructional text is typeset in two column format, which, we find, enables the reader to maintain their place easily. Figurine algebraic notation is used throughout and the diagrams are placed adjacent to the relevant text. (JEU)
There have been a number of books over the years where the author either asks his friends to contribute or interviews them. The advantage is that you get to look at chess from the perspective of different players with different styles. The disadvantage is that the chapters may vary in quality, in interest or in relevance.
In this book we have eight chapters, all featuring a different player. At the end of each chapter there are a couple of quiz questions using positions from the author’s games but relating to the previous content. Seven of the players were interviewed by the author. The eighth, Magnus Carlsen, wasn’t, but I guess there was no real need.
In his Preface, Axel Smith divides his chapters into two, suggesting how you should play against lower-rated and higher-rated opponents. Unless your name is Magnus Carlsen you’ll often find yourself encountering higher rated players, and unless you’re a complete beginner you’ll likewise often meet lower rated players, so we should all find this useful.
Learning to beat lower-rated opponents the way David Navara does, to play positionally like Ulf Andersson, to turn water into wine like Magnus Carlsen and to get rich positions from the opening like his second Laurent Fressinet – that will certainly broaden your playing style. All those chapters are useful when playing against lower-rated opponents.
When playing against higher-rated opponents you can have a serve & volley repertoire like Peter Heine Nielsen, go for the kill like Baskaran Adhiban, play safe like Aryan Tari, or even for the draw like Bu Xiangzhi.
Is it worthwhile to imitate the style of the world’s best even though we don’t reach the same level? I think I have used the metaphor before, but I don’t remember where, so I will do so again: junior and amateur soccer teams play 4-4-2 (or any other established set-up) not only to prepare for a senior career, but also because it gives the best results.
We copy the professional players’ openings, so why not copy their attitude?
Well, yes, but chess is not football. Do we copy the professional players’ openings? Should we do so? Does it make sense for an amateur with a job, a family and other interests to play the same openings as grandmasters? Does it make sense for amateurs to play the same openings as grandmasters rated 1000, or even 500 points higher than them? In my view, it doesn’t, and my criticism of many of the instructional books I’m asked to review is that many authors, especially those of a younger generation, teach from the perspective of a grandmaster, not of an amateur.
Having said that, there’s much, in general, to be said in favour of amateurs learning to copy the attitude, the mindset of grandmasters. It’s here that this book might come in useful.
Let’s take a look inside and see what we find.
Our first chess hero is GM Baskaran Adhiban, a creative attacker who specialises in beating higher rated opponents? What can we learn from his games?
Here, first, is Axel Smith again, quoting another of our heroes:
Playing safe against stronger opponents prolongs the game, but normally decreases the probability of obtaining points. Magnus Carlsen is one of many who recommend an aggressive attitude against stronger opponents. To Chess24 he said: “There’s this thing called ‘sudden death aversion’, that I think affects a lot of people. You make decisions that give you a lesser chance of winning overall, but decisions that at least extend the game or the match, because you feel like, ‘as long as I’m in it I have a chance, and losing it right now because I did something risky would be very unpleasant.’ I very much understand that, but you’re not always going to maximize your chances this way. The strategy that’s almost always correct is: if you’re down, complicate; if you’re winning, simplify! If you believe that you’re weaker you should always try and complicate as much as possible.”
Some of you will recall that the late Simon Webb offered very similar advice in his wonderful Chess for Tigers.
The first game we see is this one: admittedly his opponent had only a slightly higher rating.
Throughout the book, our heroes’ advice is summarised using helpful bullet or numbered points. Here’s Adhiban’s advice on how to play the ideal attacking game.
- Strive for a pawn structure where it’s possible to throw pawns at the opponent’s king at a later stage.
- Invite all the pieces to the party – advice valuable for a beginner as well as for a super-GM.
- Remove the defenders – sometimes by sacrificing, but exchanges can do the job as well.
- Calculate well when it’s time to finish it off.
I found this chapter enjoyable and inspirational, with Adhiban demonstrating some great attacking play.
This might be very helpful for a player like me who always struggles against higher rated opponents. These, though, are games in which a highly rated GM beats slightly higher rated opponents. Not what you’d consider upset victories. Not, as Simon Webb would have put it, tigers beating heffalumps.
But some of our other heroes propose a very different way of tackling a higher rated opponent.
The first four chapters of this book deal with the subject of winning, while the last two chapters are about opening preparation. Chapters 5 and 6 take on something close to my heart: avoiding defeat.
If we jump forward to Chapter 5 we’ll find the games of Bu Xiangzhi being used to explain how to draw against a higher rated opponent.
Well, I guess sometimes you’d be happy with a draw against a higher rated opponent. If you’re like me you’ll always be happy with a draw. Yes, it’s rather contradictory, but I guess that’s one of the points of the book.
Here’s how to play with White:
- Play normal moves, develop all your pieces to good squares and get your king to safety.
- Allow exchanges, but don’t spend time or damage your pawn structure to exchange pieces.
Sounds to me like good advice, whoever you’re playing.
If you’re Black:
- Have a good opening repertoire that you know well, preferably with symmetrical pawn structures.
- Play the move you think is best, even if you are not sure – there are no margins for passive moves, so you can’t be afraid with Black.
- Avoid time trouble.
Again, sounds pretty sensible: the controversial bit is whether you should play for symmetrical pawn structures.
I guess it’s a matter of temperament, personality and style, but this isn’t really discussed in the book.
Bu, who became a GM in 1999 at the age of 13 (at the time the youngest ever) might be considered a player who didn’t quite fulfil his promise. Perhaps he was too eager to play for draws against higher rated opponents.
As well as getting results against higher rated opponents, whether by going for the win like Adhiban or playing safe for the draw like Bu, we also need to know how to beat lower rated opponents.
Returning to Chapter 2, our hero here is David Navara. You may not be surprised to discover that this is the longest chapter in the book.
Navara plays a lot in national leagues where he’s often faced with significantly lower rated opponents, and usually racks up a large plus score.
Here’s the first game he demonstrates for us, against an opponent rated about 150 points below him. In the book it’s annotated, like the other games in this chapter, with Navara’s customary attention to detail.
The lessons we can learn from this game:
- Choose an unbalanced opening.
- Avoid long theoretical variations.
- Play moves that highlight the drawback of the opponent’s previous move.
- Be careful and use your time when you get some chances.
- However, when the opponent is in time trouble, it might be a good idea to calculate several moves in advance to be able to play them quickly.
Another excellent chapter, I think, which will be of interest to most players of club standard and above.
Magnus Carlsen, the hero of Chapter 3, has spent many years playing lower-rated opponents. Here, we look at some examples of how he plays on and on in seemingly drawn positions, waiting for his opponent to crack. Unlike the other subjects of this book, he wasn’t interviewed, but has written a lot elsewhere.
Here’s what he said to New in Chess in 2014.
My thought process is basically that I will be able to agree a draw in such positions when I am 40 or 50, but that right now I should try and find every little chance of winning. And as long as there is no risk and a two percent chance of winning, I think it’s worth the two hours of extra effort.
One of the examples of Carlsen turning water into wine you’ll find here is this ending against Nakamura.
Another useful and inspirational chapter, although those of us well past 40 or 50 will be only to happy to agree a draw and spend the next two hours in the pub rather than playing on with a 2% chance of victory. At my level, anyway, there’s rather more than a 2% chance that I’ll blunder and lose.
Chapter 4 features young Norwegian GM Aryan Tari. The chapter was originally going to be about playing for two results, but once Axel Smith got talking to him it changed to a chapter about forcing yourself to play for a win, even if your mindset wants the opposite.
Yes, I know the feeling.
This is one of the shorter chapters in the book, and is in part about how he’s trying to deal with being over-cautious. His advice for someone who wants to increase his courage is to study the games of Richard Rapport. Come to think of it, Rapport might have been a better subject for a chapter of this book.
I got the impression that Tari is a young player who is still developing and has not yet matured enough to make a really meaningful contribution to a book of this nature.
We do, however, get a chapter about playing for two results elsewhere. This is Chapter 6, featuring the games of the legendary Ulf Andersson, who has been the sole subject of a few other recent books.
To play like Andersson you must avoid playing anti-positional moves.
- Don’t weaken your pawn structure.
- Don’t lose coordination: no knights on the rim and no bishops without a future – unless the reward is clear enough.
- Keep the king safe.
So in Chapters 3-6, then, we have, broadly speaking, four technicians, although there are differences between them. While Andersson avoids anti-positional moves, Carlsen is happy to make moves which might make his opponent uncomfortable. Bu prefers to play safe, especially with the black pieces, while Tari is trying to force himself to take risks and become less cautious.
Chapters 7 and 8 look at the subject of opening preparation.
Laurent Fressinet is the subject of Chapter 7, where we learn about his approach to preparing with Black. He recommends playing different openings to keep your opponents guessing, avoiding main line theory and also avoiding symmetrical pawn structures. This is exactly the opposite of Bu’s approach: meeting e4 with e5 and d4 with d5, heading for symmetry to increase your chances of drawing with a higher rated opponent.
You pay your money and you make your choice.
Finally, in Chapter 8, Peter Heine Nielsen recommends a ‘serve & volley’ approach to preparing with White, using heavy theoretical lines which you’ve studied in depth.
This is fine if you have the time and the study skills, but it’s not really appropriate for many of us. If you’re young and ambitious to reach master standard you’ll find this chapter helpful. But if you have a limited amount of time for chess, and if you’re mostly playing in league or weekend chess where you don’t usually know in advance who you’ll be playing, it’s not really relevant.
My feelings about this book are mixed, then: perhaps only to be expected from a book of this nature where each chapter features a different player. From my perspective as a club player I enjoyed the first three chapters (Adhiban, Navara and Carlsen) but found less of interest in the remainder of the book.
If you’re, say 2200+, or perhaps 1800+ and ambitious to reach that level, you’ll probably find this book very helpful. If you’re a club player hoping for a stimulating read that will perhaps gain you a few rating points, you’ll certainly find much to interest, educate and entertain you, although you might not find all the chapters equally valuable.
I should add that, as always from Quality Chess, the production values are excellent and put other publishers to shame.
Richard James, Twickenham 4th November 2021
Book Details :
- Paperback : 248 pages
- Publisher: Quality Chess UK LLP (17 Mar 2021)
- Language: English
- Product Dimensions: 17 x 2 x 24 cm
Official web site of Quality Chess
2 thoughts on “Street Smart Chess”
Another clear, informative review. Than you for your thoughtful conversation.
That was the game which had Naka more or less weeping at the board – available on youtube.
I’ve never understood this stuff about what openings amateurs *should* play. It’s a game; you *should* play the openings you enjoy playing.