“Almost as fascinating as chess is the community of chess players. In every major city in the world, you are guaranteed to meet interesting people when you walk into a local chess club or chess cafe. This book pays tribute to one of those characters who gave colour to the chess world, the Russian grandmaster Alexey Vyzhmanavin.
The best chance to bump into Vyzhmanavin in the 1980s and early 1990s was in Sokolniki park in Moscow, playing blitz. You could meet him at the 1992 Chess Olympiad as a member of the winning Russian team. Or in the finals of the PCA rapid events of the 1990s, frequently outplaying his illustrious opponents with his fluent and enterprising style. In Moscow in 1994, he reached the semi-final, narrowly losing out to Vladimir Kramnik, having already beaten Alexei Shirov and Viktor Korchnoi. Commentating at a PCA event, Maurice Ashley described Vyzhmanavin in predatory terms: ‘He’s a dangerous one, looking like a cat, ready to pounce’.
For this book, grandmaster Dmitry Kryakvin has talked to dozens of people, enabling him to give a complete picture of Vyzhmanavin’s life. The result is a mix of fascinating chess, wonderful anecdotes, and some heartbreaking episodes. The stories are complemented by the memories of Vyzmanavin’s ex-wife Lyudmila. They revive his successes but also reveal the dark side of this forgotten chess genius who battled with depression and the ‘green serpent’, a Russian euphemism for alcoholism. He died in January 2000 at the age of forty, in circumstances that remain unclear. The stories and games in this book are his legacy.
Dmitry Kryakvin is an International Grandmaster from Russia and an experienced chess trainer and author. For New In Chess he wrote Attacking with g2-g4: The Modern Way to Get the Upper Hand in Chess”
There’s always a demand for biographical works and games collections concerning lesser known players. Here we have a book about Alexey Vyzhmanavin, who, for a short time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of the leading Soviet/Russian grandmasters.
Viorel Bologan provides the Foreword.
(Vyzhmanavin) was a very inventive and enterprising chess player, with deep and precise calculation skills. His best games featured in this book constitute great learning material. I must add that I rather liked the style of the book: it’s not a simple collection of best games – it’s a history of his life, bright and tragic. The narration of the author, Dmitry Kryakvin, is complemented by the memories of Vyzhmanavin’s ex-wife Lyudmila and stories from his friends.
Bright and tragic. This sums up Vyzhmanavin’s short life, with its highs and lows. A player of exceptional natural talent, particularly at speed chess, but his life blighted by his mental health problems and addictions to gambling and alcohol.
A fascinating book with an important story to tell – and some great chess along the way as well.
Right at the start, though, I should explain that I have one issue. Not, I suspect, to do with the book itself, but to do with what I assume was an editorial decision made by the publishers.
If I’m reading a Best Games collection I really want to see the complete games. Here, in the majority of cases, we don’t get all the moves, but only join the game after the opening, or, in some cases, at the start of the ending. This is something I find very frustrating: while it’s good to see how the winner exploited his advantage, I’d also like to know how he obtained that advantage in the first place, which might teach me something about the opening.
I appreciate that this is their house style, and that the decision was no doubt made for economic reasons, but for me it rather spoils what is otherwise an excellent book.
Vyzhmanavin had a difficult family background, with an alcoholic father. His mother was a kindergarten teacher, and he didn’t discover chess until his teens, when, accompanying his mother and her pupils to a summer camp, he chanced upon a chess book.
He had to start his playing career against much younger children, but, supported by Lyudmila Belavenets (daughter of pre-war Soviet master Sergey), he won books as prizes and rapidly became addicted to chess. As she later wrote: I am completely sure that it’s not necessary to start studying chess at the age of 4 or 6. When a teenager comes to the chess section, this means that it was his own choice.
I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments.
We are all products of our childhood, and what we discuss here and now is very important in understanding what happened to Alexey Vyzhmanavin later. Alexey didn’t have any of the things that we love so much and sometimes value so little at home: warmth, loving and caring family members.
For him, much more than for most players, his childhood is the key to understanding both why and how he played chess.
He soon discovered the chess pavilion in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, where he honed his exceptional talent for blitz chess. By 1981, at the age of 20, he was beating players like Bronstein and Vaganian: you can see the games here.
By this time he had been conscripted into the armed forces. joining the sports unit, where he could pursue chess rather than military training. After his two year conscription period ended he signed up for another six years, winning the Armed Forces championship on seven occasions.
By 1985 he was approaching GM strength, winning this fine attacking game. Click on any move for a pop-up window.
By the late 1980s he was, like his father before him, experiencing problems with alcoholism and mental health, but in 1988 his life changed when he married a fellow chess player, Lyudmila Didenko, as she is now known. Soon after their marriage a daughter was born. Lyudmila’s moving recollections of Alexey play an important part in this book.
There was more good news in 1989 when Vyzhmanavin, now with a 2555 rating, finally attained the grandmaster title.
Here’s an example of his play from the following year.
He continued to progress, playing for the successful Russian Olympiad and European Championship teams in 1992, and reaching a peak rating of 2620 in 1993.
But, by the mid 1990s his problems with the ‘green serpent’ were getting worse. His results started to decline, and his marriage broke up, Lyudmila filing for divorce in 1996. He played little chess that year, and, despite sharing first place at Cappelle-la-Grande the following year, soon gave up completely.
By now his life had spiralled out of control, and, in January 2000, at the age of only 39, he was found dead in his Moscow flat.
A tragic story, then, of a talented but troubled man who was unable to control his demons.
As usual from this publisher, the book is well produced. The translation is excellent and the game annotations serve their purpose well. As is usual with New in Chess books, active learning is promoted by questions inviting readers to find the best continuation. Given that Vyzhmanavin excelled in positional chess, most of the questions involve planning rather than calculation. If you feel the purpose of this book is to inform rather than instruct, they’re not necessary, but they don’t do any harm.
If you’re interested in the human side of chess you’ll certainly want to read this book. If you’re interested in chess life in the last days of the Soviet Union, this is also a book for you. If you enjoy powerful positional chess, particularly in queen’s pawn games, you’ll learn something from this book. I’d suspect you’d have learnt rather more, though, if you’d been able to see the complete games rather than, in the majority, just the conclusion.
Dmitry Kryakvin has done an outstanding job in producing a fine tribute to Alexey Vyzhmanavin, a man who deserves to be remembered for both his life and his games.
Before I leave you, I have one further question prompted by reading this book. Should international and national chess organisations do more to help members of their community suffering from problems in the areas of mental health and addictions? I consider this an important topic which isn’t being discussed enough. Of course it’s quite possible that Vyzhmanavin might have turned down offers of help anyway, but what do you think?
“Boris Zlotnik is an extraordinary trainer and coach. He was the director of a legendary chess school in Moscow before he emigrated to Spain in 1993. Ten years later, the super talent Fabiano Caruana moved to Madrid with his entire family to live near his trainer Zlotnik.
As a former coach of U.S. Champion Caruana, Zlotnik knows how top players work on their chess improvement. And his experience with club players allows him to translate that understanding into practical lessons for amateurs about highly original subjects like creativity or ‘putting up resistance’ – topics seldom touched on in other chess manuals.
Zlotnik covers a wide variety of topics and uses a wealth of material. Readers will love this new book, as they did his first book, Zlotnik’s Middlegame Manual. ‘A brilliant, important and extraordinarily instructive book’, said Florian Jacobs, the book reviewer for the Max Euwe Center in Amsterdam. ‘This is how probing, rich and motivating studying chess can be.'”
A slightly strange title, and perhaps a contradictory subtitle. I’m not sure that Zlotnik is exactly a household name, and therefore one that would sell more copies by its appearance on the cover. Dvoretsky’s books certainly sold by virtue of having his name in the title, but will Zlotnik do the same? If you thought more chess trainers should be household names, I wouldn’t disagree with you.
Treasure Trove? Buried treasure. According to Wiki:
The term is also often used metaphorically. Collections of articles published as a book are often titled Treasure Trove, as in A Treasure Trove of Science. This was especially fashionable for titles of children’s books in the early- and mid-20th century.
So perhaps that’s what we have here: a collection of articles about chess training. A lucky dip. A grab bag. But given Zlotnik’s reputation one that will undoubtedly be worth reading.
But then Enjoyable Chess Training for Amateurs sounds like something rather more formal and structured. Kudos to the publishers, though, for highlighting the target market (1600-2200 Elo). Regular readers of my reviews will know that I’m frequently critical of publishers who claim books are suitable for much wider target markets and much lower rated players than they really are.
I was also wondering whether anyone would buy a book promising ‘unenjoyable’ or ‘boring’ chess training. But never mind: let’s look inside.
In his preface, Zlotnik describes the book’s contents. He appreciates that most amateur chess players have other demands on their time: there are books available for ambitious young players prepared to devote several hours a day to improving their chess, but this isn’t one of them.
He concludes like this:
I share the following opinion with the sixth World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik: ‘It is not possible to teach someone to play chess well, but this is something that can be achieved through ones own efforts.’ This book is a book of reflections on chess, rather than an attempt to teach how to play well, and its aim is to demonstrate the richness and at the same time the difficulty of chess and the possible ways to get better at this game.
I also agree with Botvinnik. Many parents seem to think that if their children spend an hour a week with a strong player they’ll learn by osmosis, and that the stronger the player the more they’ll learn. You, I’m sure, will realise that this is nonsense. But that’s something for another time and place.
In Chapter 1, Zlotnik talks about the difference between amateurs and professionals, about the nature of chess talent, and about chess itself. An interesting read, but you won’t find any chess training there.
Chapter 2 is Factors which determine success in chess. We look at the different thought processes required for tactical and positional play. What they have in common is calculation: in tactical play you calculate forced variations while in positional play you calculate unforced variations.
In this position (Groningen 2013) IM Sergio Estremera Panos (2365) miscalculated against Jasel Lopez (2179). Rb7! would have won, but instead he blundered with Qe5?, when Ng7 gave the lower rated player a winning attack.
Chapter 3 provides advice on Training in tactical play. Like many chess coaches today, Zlotnik is very keen on training visualisation skills through blindfold play and other exercises. He also looks at Kotov’s views on tactical training outlined in Think Like a Grandmaster.
Here’s Zlotnik with another recommendation:
It is beyond doubt that chess problems and studies, by their very nature, present us with many more possibilities of encountering something original and are useful for us in training our combinative vision. … I think that a good criterion is to assess the ability to solve ‘mate in two’ problems, although exceptionally some of them are difficult even for GMs. Among especially creative puzzle composers, Samuel Loyd stands out, well-known above all for his mathematical puzzles.
Again, solving compositions of this nature is something now recommended by most leading chess coaches.
If you’re a tactical star (and that’s a big hint) you’ll be able to solve this mate in two composed by Sam Loyd in 1891.
Zlotnik also recommends, again following in Kotov’s footsteps, playing through a complex game, stopping at interesting points to analyse the position, and then comparing your analysis with that of the annotator or your computer. He then offers you Kramnik – Topalov (Skopje 2015), with ten questions for you to answer.
After training in tactical play, we have, naturally enough, Training in positional play in Chapter 4. Inevitably, given the nature of the subject, the advice here is of a rather more nebulous nature.
Something I don’t recall seeing before is this:
… usually you should attack your opponent’s most advanced piece or pawn, and if you cannot do so directly, then you should attack its base of support. Curiously, and in my experience, this very simple piece of advice is valid in many cases.
The next two chapters are what makes this book unusual. Chapter 5 tackles Creativity in chess. Zlotnik shows us some endgame studies, along with some games by Nezhmetdinov and the less well-known Konstantin Chernyshov. Click on any move for a pop-up window.
The exercises at the end of the chapter include some Proof Game puzzles, which are always fun. I used one of them here.
Chapter 6 then tells us how to put up Maximum resistance in practical situations.
If you’re in the target market for this book you’ll reach a bad position at some point in about half your games, so you might think this is an important subject which should be discussed more than it is. In 1967 Zlotnik asked Bronstein about the difference between masters and non-masters. He was surprised by the reply: a master knows how to fight against another human being!
In this extract, a dangerous tactician turns the tables on her strong opponent in a time scramble.
We then have 20 pages, plus two pages of exercises, on Studying the opening.
In this game the amateur playing white, unlike his opponent, was aware of a sharp tactical variation, but Black’s superior practical skill soon told.
Zlotnik concludes the chapter:
The main advice I can give to an amateur player is to seek a balance between specific knowledge of opening lines and typical ideas. Also, whatever the opening being studied, it is useful to have as a model an active high-level player who is an expert in the variation/opening we plan to play. From their games we can receive specific answers to any questions we might have and also learn a number of typical methods for this variation in the middlegame and perhaps also in the endgame.
Finally, the book wouldn’t be complete without Zlotnik’s ideas on Studying the endgame, which take up 18 pages along with three pages of exercises. As an example of what an amateur needs to know he devotes seven pages to some theory in the important ending of rook and pawn against rook.
The endgame is a difficult science and it requires the investment of a great deal of work to master this aspect of the game.
This is a rather unusual coaching book, then, and I’m not sure whether either the title or subtitle does it justice. ‘Reflections of a Chess Coach” might give the prospective purchaser a better idea of what to expect. If you’re in the target market, an amateur rated between about 1600 and 2000 with a limited amount of time to spend on the game, it might be just what you’re looking for to help you put on another 100 points or so. But, while the examples and exercises have been chosen with exemplary care, this relatively slim volume will serve more as a guide to the sort of work you should be doing to make that improvement rather than something which will, in itself, bring it about.
For anyone with any interest at all in chess coaching, whether as an instructor or as a student, the opinions of one of the world’s most experienced and distinguished chess teachers will undoubtedly be both fascinating and inspiring. The book is produced to this publisher’s customary high standards and, if you’ve enjoyed the examples demonstrated in this review, it deserves a warm recommendation.
“Have you ever wondered why strong chess players immediately grasp what is happening in complex positions? The secret is pawn structures. The pawn structure dictates the game’s flow, and different structures require distinct approaches. You can improve your game by studying a large variety of pawn structures and the Hidden Laws of Chess.
IM Nick Maatman invented the Hidden Laws of Chess as an instructional tool to help his students bridge the gap between the basic understanding of a club player and the next level of knowledge of Masters and Grandmasters. A grandmaster knows from experience what pieces to exchange when facing an isolated pawn, while a club player wonders if he should keep his rooks on the board – or not.
The Hidden Laws go one level deeper than the basic laws on piece development, king safety or material balance. The Hidden Laws will uncover elements such as space, the quality of a pawn structure, and a doubled pawn’s strength or weakness. Maatman will answer questions like: Are backward pawns the worst in chess? What is the value of a space advantage? Could doubled pawns be an asset? How can I win symmetrical positions?
Using his coaching experience and writing with a touch of science and philosophy, Maatman will guide any ambitious chess player to the next level. His book contains dozens of actionable tips, instructive games and carefully selected exercises.
“Nick Maatman (1995) is an International Master, experienced chess coach, and training partner of Super-GM Jorden van Foreest. Maatman has won the Dutch U20 Championship and has beaten many strong grandmasters in tournament games. The Hidden Laws of Chess is his first book, but he expects many more to follow. He graduated from Groningen University in both Business and Philosophy.”
From the author’s introduction:
What is a Hidden Law in chess? With a ‘Hidden Law’, I refer to the deeper structures that spring from a mere contingency of the rules of chess. This might sound like a mouthful of gibberish to you. What I mean is that there are certain patterns that underlie good play. Had the rules of chess been different, these hidden structures would have been different as well. On a surface level, there are Laws that comprise the comparative value of the pieces. On a deeper level there are Hidden Laws that encompass elements such as the importance of space, the quality of a pawn structure, the strength or weakness of an isolated pawn, the importance of a key square, etc.
… and …
.. the Hidden Laws are context dependent. Good chess strategy may vary immensely in different types of positions. That’s why this book is divided into eight chapters featuring eight different types or aspects of pawn structures.
In this book, my objective is to explore these Hidden Laws of Chess. My goal is … to provide actionable tips and ideas that you can apply to elevate your game. Ideas that form the foundation for a solid positional understanding. A mastery of the Hidden Laws of Chess contributes to sound judgment – and sound judgment leads to good moves, which ultimately leads to better results.
So what we have here is, according to the author, essentially a positional book covering eight different types of pawn formation. He suggests that combining reading this book with tactics training will enable you to make progress with your chess.
The eight chapters cover in turn: space advantage, doubled pawns, backward pawn, isolani, hanging pawns, mobile pawn centre, locked pawn centre, symmetry.
Each chapter is, as with many books from this publisher, preceded by some puzzles (Preview Exercises) taken from games analysed within the chapter, and followed by a Quiz reinforcing the lessons learnt in the chapter. The difficulty of the puzzles is indicated using a star system: one star for the easiest through to five stars for the hardest. The solutions to the quiz questions are to be found at the end of the book. Helpfully, important sentences are highlighted throughout, and each chapter concludes with the author’s Hidden Laws concerning that particular pawn formation.
Of course it’s a lot harder to set meaningful position exercises than tactical exercises. I was interested to see how Maatman dealt with this.
As this is a relatively slim volume, the chapters themselves are fairly short, mostly 20-25 pages excluding the puzzles, although the chapter on isolani is slightly longer.
The main question I always have with instructional books such as this concerns the target market. There is, or should be, an enormous difference between books written for 1500s and books written for 2000s, and again between books written for 2000s and books written for 2500s. Books written for, say, 1750s or 2250s will, or again should be, rather different again. The danger for authors and publishers is that if your book is too specific you’ll limit your target market, while if you try to offer something for everyone you’ll and up pleasing nobody.
Again, I was interested to see how this book approached these issues. Neither the publisher’s blurb nor the author’s introduction give any indication as to the approximate rating range of the book.
I turned to Chapter 2, as my view for many years has been that doubled pawns are, by and large, not dealt with very well in chess literature. Have there been any books specifically devoted to this subject? If not, someone, perhaps Nick Maatman, should certainly write one.
Maatman does a good job, given that he only has twenty pages, in explaining the potential advantages, as well as the disadvantages of doubled pawns. We get a few classic examples, for example the 1938 Botvinnik – Chekover game, which made a big impression on me when I first came across it in about 1970. We also get some recent games, for example Caruana – Carlsen (Wijk aan Zee 2015), in which the doubled pawns were only on the board for a few moves. I can’t help thinking the game was selected for the fascinating tactical possibilities both in the game and in the notes, rather than because it was particularly instructive in helping the reader to understand the subject. I’m not sure how games like this fit it with the author’s claim that the book is more of a positional manual.
The Hidden Laws of Doubled Pawns at the end of the chapter include, amongst others:
Having fewer pawn islands is favourable
Isolated doubled pawns are particularly vulnerable
A doubled pawn can create a semi-open file.
Could these rules really be considered Hidden? While they’re all very useful, I’d have thought that most club standard players, even 1500 standard players, would be aware of them.
The pattern is repeated through all the chapters. You’ll find some classic games which will be very familiar to most 2000 strength players, but new to less experienced players, along with more complex contemporary games often featuring interesting tactics. Of course there’s a generational issue. While I’m very familiar with many of the older games and less familiar with the 21st century examples, younger readers may well have the opposite experience.
As well as questions at the beginning and end of the chapter, there are questions in the text as well.
Take this example from Chapter 3 (Backward Pawns), where the author’s friend Jorden van Foreest is facing Nigel Short at Malmo in 2021, about to play his 12th move.
Try to put yourself in White’s shoes for a moment. You have prepared the game all the way to move 10. Now, you realise that your opponent played a move that wasn’t in your notes, suggesting it may be inferior. How would you try to take advantage.
I was truly impressed when I witnessed this move. In Chapter 2, we learned about the weaknesses of doubled pawns and how they can be especially problematic if their presence creates multiple pawn islands. Furthermore, you probably knew something about the value of the bishop pair already. Here, Van Foreest throws all conventional wisdom out of the window. He voluntarily gives up a great bishop for a shabby-looking knight on b6, and on top of that he repairs the black pawn structure. What did Van Foreest notice that made him commit to this decision?
It’s all about the pawn that’s left behind on d7 and the gaping hole this creates on d6, Van Foreest accurately assesses that the creation of a backward pawn outweighs all other factors in this position.
Well, you might perhaps have guessed the answer given that the chapter features backward rather than doubled pawns, but active learning, forcing you to think for yourself, is always good.
It’s all about trading advantages, isn’t it? A complex and difficult topic which could do with a book to itself. Here, a vastly experienced former World Championship Candidate misjudged the position. If it was too hard for Nigel, what hope do the rest of us have?
There’s always a danger when you demonstrate advanced material to your students that they will fail to contextualise the information and go round randomly trading great bishops for shabby-looking knights or straightening out their opponents’ pawn structure. On the other hand, seeing how top GMs make decisions might inspire us to become better players. What do you think?
I think Maasman’s introduction to the chapter on Isolani will be instructive to many readers. He offers two positions, both with White to move, and asks which you’d prefer.
Which position would you prefer?
In fact, it’s the first position that offers White more winning chances: Rd4! gives a clear advantage. The second position is optically very good for White but Black can hold comfortably as long as he finds 1. Bd1 Bd7!.
Maatman proposes two Hidden Laws:
When playing against an isolated queen’s pawn, the preservation of major pieces increases winning chances
When playing against an isolated queen’s pawn, the exchange of minor pieces increases winning chances.
According to the author: These laws are very specific and there is a good chance that you haven’t heard them before.
Actually, I had heard them before, in a book written for children published in the 1980s (I prefer not to name the title and author), which demonstrated the 9th game of the 1981 Karpov – Korchnoi World Championship Match – the same game which, in this book, provides three of the quiz questions at the end of this chapter.
I’d guess, though, that this will be new to most players of, say, 1500 strength, but might well be known to many 2000 strength players.
If you play the King’s Indian Defence or anything similar with either colour, you’ll certainly enjoy Chapter 7 on Locked Pawn Centres, but if you prefer the French Defence, for example, you might be disappointed.
One of the games demonstrated here is a 2022 computer game between versions of Stockfish and Scorpio.
In this position Stockfish has to choose it’s 23rd move. What would your plan be here?
Stockfish found 23. c5!!, with the idea of meeting bxc5 with Nc1, with a later Bb5 to follow, trading off White’s bad bishop for Black’s good bishop.
Maatman comments after the game:
An enthralling concept by Stockfish. The move 23. c5!! is just so captivating. Extraordinary imagination is needed to even consider such an idea. White’s only path forward appears to be on the dark squares, but the machine completely forfeits the dark squares. Instead it contests the light squares at the cost of a pawn. Eventually, the black a-pawn was lost, and its White counterpart promoted. Outstanding foresight by the machine.
The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked: ‘Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the World Chess Championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility.’ The times that humans were able to compete with computers have long gone, but the above game showcases that computers now have our number in any position.
I found the idea of puzzles both before and after each chapter rather confusing. Yes, like all good teachers, Maatman likes to offer his students a way of testing their understanding of the contents of the lesson. And yes, it’s this publisher’s house style to include preview puzzles at the start of each chapter to draw you in. I’m not convinced, though, that having both types of puzzle works. In an instructional book you’re assuming the reader isn’t very familiar with the study material, which makes me rather sceptical of the value of the preview puzzles here.
You also have to be careful that your quizzes at the end of the lesson are testing genuine understanding rather than just memory. To give you an example, one of the Hidden Laws in Chapter 1 states that, if you’re playing against a Hedgehog formation you should consider a2-a4-a5. (I don’t think I’ve ever played against a pure Hedgehog in my very long chess career, but that’s another issue.) In the quiz there’s a position from a Hedgehog in which White has a pawn on a4. It’s given four stars for difficulty, but once you’re read the chapter you’ll play the move automatically.
You’ll find a lot of useful instruction throughout this book, and I found the highlighted sentences an excellent way of getting the most important points across. Maatman is an engaging writer and a great communicator with a friendly style, occasionally digressing into football or philosophy, but never overdoing the jollity. He’s chosen an important and underestimated topic: many club players would do well to study pawn formations rather than just memorising openings. Players of all standards will enjoy and learn something here.
While I appreciate that publishers want to aim their books at as wide a readership as possible, I can’t help feeling that less experienced players would benefit from more concrete examples rather than games decided by complex tactics, while more experienced players would value more detail and depth, more pages and even more volumes, along with some less familiar examples.
As is to be expected from this publisher, the book is attractively produced. If you like the idea you won’t be disappointed, but while everyone will learn something, many would learn more from a book focussed on their specific needs.
Richard James, Twickenham 30th June 2023
Softcover: 256 pages
Publisher: New in Chess; 1st edition (31 Jan. 2023)
“The rivalry between William Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort, the world’s strongest chess players in the late nineteenth century, became so fierce that it was eventually named The Ink War. They fought their battle on the chessboard and in various chess magazines and columns. It was not only about who was the strongest player but also about who had the best ideas on how to play the game. In 1872, Johannes Zukertort moved from Berlin to London to continue his chess career.
Ten years earlier, William Steinitz had moved from Vienna to London for the same purpose; meanwhile, he had become the uncrowned champion of the chess world. Their verbal war culminated in the first match for the World Championship in 1886. Zukertort is certainly the tragic protagonist of this book, but is he also a romantic hero? He has often been depicted as a representative of romantic chess, solely focusing on attacking the king. Steinitz is said to have put an end to this lopsided chess style with his modern scientific school. This compelling story shakes up the traditional version of chess history and answers the question which of them can claim to be the captain of the modern school. With his first book, Move First, Think Later, International Master Willy Hendriks caused a minor revolution in the general view on chess improvement.
His second book, On the Origin of Good Moves, presented a refreshing new outlook on chess history. In The Ink War, Hendriks once again offers his unique perspective in a well-researched story that continues to captivate until the tragic outcome. It gives a wonderful impression of the 19th-century chess world and the birth of modern chess. Hendriks invites the reader to actively think along with the beautiful, instructive and entertaining chess fragments with many chess exercises.”
“Willy Hendriks (1966) is an International Master who has been working as a chess trainer for over thirty years. His bestseller Move First, Think Later won the English Chess Federation Book of the Year Award in 2012. In his much-acclaimed second book, On the Origin of Good Moves, he presented a provocative new view on chess history.”
There are always dichotomies, aren’t there? You only have to look at any news website or paper to see them playing out before your eyes. Passionate people on either side of an argument taking extreme views and unwilling to listen to the other side.
In the world of education, for example, there’s the dichotomy between ‘trad’ and ‘prog’, traditional or progressive values, which has been going on, in one form or another, since the days of Rousseau. (Sensible teachers, of course, know that you need some of both.) The same terms are also used in music: perhaps you’re a fan of prog rock, or a devotee of trad jazz.
Let me take you back now to the musical world of the 1850s and 1860s, specifically to central Europe and, in particular, Germany. There were two groups of composers in opposition in what would later become known as the War of the Romantics. Both groups, in very different ways, saw themselves as heirs to Beethoven. The conservative, traditionalist camp was led by the likes of Brahms and Clara Schumann, while, in the opposite corner, were the progressive modernists such as Wagner and Liszt. Nowadays we have no problems listening to the music of both groups with equal pleasure.
Moving forward a couple of decades we come to a very similar war, which, although the camps were led by Central Europeans, took place mostly in London. The Ink War: Romanticism and Modernity in Chess, the subject of Dutch IM Willy Hendriks’ latest book, features Johannes Zukertort flying the romantic flag while William Steinitz sports the colours of Modernity. Two men with, at least if you believe their writings, very different views about how chess should best be played.
This is a successor to the author’s previous book which I reviewed enthusiastically here. Whereas the previous book took a wide-ranging view of 19th century chess history, here we look in more detail at a period of fourteen years: between Zukertort’s arrival in London in 1872 and the first official world championship match, between Steinitz and Zukertort, in 1886.
In the course of 468 pages we meet not just our two protagonists, but a whole host of colourful characters who enlivened the 19th century London chess scene. While we’re given an in depth look at the games of Steinitz and Zukertort, there are many other games included to put their moves in context. A lot of fascinating history, and also a lot of fascinating chess.
At the time there were very few players making a living out of chess, and, if you wanted to be a professional player, the place to go was London. Steinitz had moved there in 1862, and, not the most likeable of men, soon made enemies. The British Chess Association wanted to put him in his place, and, invited Zukertort, who had just won a match against Anderssen, to London.
As Hendriks relates in his prologue:
This book tells the story of this struggle, which was fought on the chessboard, but also, to a significant extent, in chess magazines and in columns in newspapers. First and foremost, this battle was about who was the strongest, and who could eventually call himself the first World Champion. But there was more at stake. Chess and chess theory were in full development and the ideas about how the game should be played were quite divergent. Steinitz had a very outspoken position and saw himself as the foreman of a scientific modern school. For our story it would be nice if Zukertort represented the other pole, the romantic attacking school, but things are not that simple. The larger public, however, understood the rivalry between the two for the greater part along these lines. Thus, the struggle on and around the chessboard was closely linked to the societal developments of the time, such as the rise of science and technology and the romantic resistance to them.
After introductions to Steinitz and Zukertort, in Chapter 3 Hendriks tackles the question of chess style. This ‘primitive dichotomy’, between tactics and strategy, ‘plays a major role in (traditional) chess history writing.’ ‘The danger of this is that it can easily lead to caricatures’.
Of course these caricatures can be seen in later rivalries as well: Alekhine v Capablanca, Tal v Petrosian, Kasparov v Karpov. The tactician against the strategist.
But, in reality, we’re all just trying to find the best moves.
As you’ll know if you’ve read his previous book, Hendriks takes a different approach, looking at ‘the quantitative changes that led to an increase in chess knowledge and to a higher level of skill’. He’s contextualising the games he demonstrates by looking at what the players would have known from previous experience about the positions on the board.
Here, for example, is Zukertort, just having arrived in London in 1872, playing White against the archetypal tragic/romantic hero Cecil de Vere.
You’ll recognise this as a Sicilian Taimanov, which, almost a century later, would become very popular, but this would have been virgin territory to both players. It’s quite understandable, given what he would have known at the time, that de Vere now blundered with 7… Nge7? (you can play this in similar positions but not here), and likewise impressive that Zukertort found the refutation, Ndb5!, over the board.
In the same event Steinitz and Zukertort met for the first time. Steinitz, playing White, essayed his favourite gambit, based on his belief that the king was a strong piece which could take care of itself.
Here’s the game. Click on any move for a pop-up window.
A strong defensive performance by Steinitz, according to Hendriks, who, understandably, only gives us the first 24 moves. A triumph for materialism over romanticism, you might think. Or equally that Zukertort’s second piece sacrifice on move 12 was tempting but unsound.
Hendriks is at his best discussing the development of both positional and tactical ideas. His contextualisation is both informative and instructive.
In those days the French Defence was considered a dull and even cowardly opening, an opinion which continued well into the 20th century. The justification at the time was that the lines where White plays e5 were considered favourable for Black, so the first player usually chose the Exchange Variation.
In 1875 Zukertort played a match against (the very interesting) William Norwood Potter. In the 10th game they reached this position.
A stark contrast to the Steinitz game above. Zukertort, playing White, saw nothing wrong with winning a pawn: 9. Bxf6 Qxf6 10. Nxd5, but after 10… Qh6 11. h3? Nxd4! he was losing material. The Nxd4 idea is very familiar to most club players today, but back in 1875 it would have been unknown: they would have had to discover it for themselves.
Another idea in this sort of position was for one player to swing the queen’s knight over to the kingside, allowing doubled pawns after a trade on f6. In exchange you get the two bishops and a possible attack down the g-file.
It didn’t work in this game from Paris 1878.
You’ll observe that by no means all the games in this book feature Steinitz or Zukertort.
Chapter 11 is intriguingly titled The discovery of the queenside. In his 1880 match against Samuel Rosenthal, Zukertort switched from his usual Ruy Lopez to the Queen’s Gambit. This was by no means a new opening: it dates back to Greco and de Labourdonnais played it on many occasions against McDonnell. In those days the Queen’s Gambit, like the King’s Gambit was usually accepted: after all accepting gambits was the chivalrous thing to do. Rosenthal preferred to decline Zukertort’s gambit, and, in the 9th match game White was able to carry out his favourite plan of a queenside pawn roller, playing an early c5 followed by advancing his a- and b-pawns.
In the 9th game of the match he reached this position, with White to play.
Any strong player will start by considering Rb6, having seen the idea many times before in games played by the likes of Botvinnik and Petrosian. Stockfish agrees that it’s the best move here. Zukertort saw it but, not having had the advantages we have, mistakenly rejected it, eventually drawing a favourable ending. As Hendriks demonstrates, 12 years later, in a very similar position against Chigorin, Steinitz, who had learnt from this example, did indeed play Rb6 with success.
Again and again, throughout the book, we see examples of ideas which are familiar to us now, but would have been new at the time.
By 1881, as Hendriks relates, Steinitz and Zukertort were engaged in a war of words over the analysis of recent chess games: the Ink War. The war was not just about the rights and wrongs of particular moves, but about how games should be annotated: a debate which is still continuing today. Zukertort tended to publish long variations while Steinitz took a more scientific approach.
It was generally understood that Steinitz was, following Morphy’s retirement, the strongest player in the world (EdoChess ranks him top from 1868 onwards) but he hadn’t been active since his 1876 match against Blackburne, and his last tournament had been Vienna 1873. Questions were now being asked as to whether Zukertort was now stronger, so Steinitz decided to return to the fray in 1882, again in Vienna.
This was the strongest tournament yet held, and resulted in a very exciting finish. Steinitz and Winawer shared first place, a point ahead of Mason, with Zukertort and Mackenzie another half point behind, but Zukertort scored 1½/2 against his arch rival.
Another strong tournament took place in London in 1883, and again Steinitz and Zukertort took part.
Here’s Zukertort’s exciting Round 3 encounter with Mason.
White had the draw in hand before blundering on move 57. Curiously, Mason lost the return encounter with Zukertort through a very similar oversight.
Hendriks comments: Such small tactics were often missed in those days, as back then the possibilities for training your tactics were minimal. Today’s diligent student solves more tactical puzzles in a day than the old masters did in their entire lives.
This is one of the themes of both this and his previous book. We might assume that the 19th century greats didn’t have today’s opening knowledge but were equally good at tactics. Hendriks’ view, reinforced by many examples here, is that they weren’t – and unsurprisingly so, as they didn’t have the opportunities for practice and training. Zukertort himself was particularly prone to blunders which would have shamed your club’s third team players.
It was in Round 6 of this game when Zukertort played his Most Famous Game, to which Hendriks develops a whole chapter.
With three rounds to go, Zukertort had reached the extraordinary score of 22/23, losing only to Steinitz in the first cycle, but he then lost his last three games, two of them to the tournament tail-enders. Was this due to problems with his health, or with the medication he was using to treat his health problems, or just a random occurrence? Hendriks considers the evidence here.
Finally, we move onto the 1886 World Championship match. By that point Steinitz had moved to America, and Zukertort was also spending time there, so the contest took place in New York, St Louis and New Orleans. Most of the twenty games are full of interest, and Hendriks contextualises and analyses them in depth.
Ironically, the ‘modernist’ Steinitz opened with the king’s pawn in all his white games, while the ‘tactical’ Zukertort, in all but one of his white games, chose the supposedly more modern and positional Queen’s Gambit. This demonstrates, I suppose, that the dichotomy between them was more about a personality clash than anything else, although, by this point, the two men seemed to have been on tolerably friendly terms.
Several of Zukertort’s white games reached IQP positions, which were, at the time, very little understood, so are of some historical interest.
Here’s the 9th game.
Hendriks has some interesting things to say about the hanging pawns position after Black’s 22nd move, which will give you some idea of his annotation style.
The exchange of pieces in the past few moves did not help White, but Zukertort apparently had a lot of confidence in his attacking chances in this position. However the beautiful knight on e5 can be chased away, and White does not have that many pieces to strengthen his attack either, so he no longer has the better chances. Therefore, this was a good moment for the quiet move 23. h3. Many contemporary players would play this way, but in those days such a prophylactic move was not a matter of course. The idea of prophylaxis would only be introduced a quarter of a century later by Aron Nimzowitsch. This strategy consists of improving one’s position and protected potential weaknesses even before they are threatened.
Steinitz won the first game in brilliant style, but Zukertort then won four in a row. After that, with Zukertort’s health problems worsening, it was mostly one-way traffic, with Steinitz emerging a convincing winner by 12½ to 7½, becoming the first official world champion.
The end of the story is rather sad: Zukertort’s standard of play and health both declined rapidly, and he died in London two years later.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, just as I did its predecessor. Willy Hendriks is a born storyteller: the book is grippingly written. You’ll always want to turn over the page to see what happens next. If you thought chess history was boring this book may persuade you to think again. It’s beautifully produced and copiously illustrated. I suppose more serious chess historians than me might regret that it’s not as fully referenced as you’d expect from an academic history book, but it’s quite understandable that the author and publisher would take the approach they chose. The English is fluent and highly readable, if not always totally idiomatic. I found one or two minor mistakes, but they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. If you’re interested in improving your rating, the book is there to help you as well. As with many books from this publisher, most chapters are preceded by puzzles based on games discussed within: if you feel inclined you can attempt to solve them before reading on. If you love, as I do, 19th century chess history, you won’t want to miss this book. You don’t just get the games: there’s a lot of engrossing information about the leading personalities of the day and the way top level chess was organised as well.
You might want to start, if you haven’t read it already, with On the Origin of Good Moves, which is more general and wide-ranging, before continuing with this book. You may not agree with all the author’s opinions and conclusions, but you’ll find something thought-provoking on every page. This is the ideal chess book for me and goes straight into my list of all-time favourites. I can’t wait to see what Willy Hendriks writes about next.
“When the Icelandic Chess Federation made a bid to host the 1972 world title match between Soviet icon Boris Spassky and American challenger Bobby Fischer, many Icelanders were rightly shaking their heads in disbelief. How could their small island country in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a population of less than 300 thousand people stage such a prestigious event in the first place?
“Undeterred and naively optimistic, the young President of the Icelandic Chess Federation, Gudmundur Thorarinsson, set to work and to everyone’s astonishment theirs was the winning bid. But that was only the beginning of one of the most amazing stories in chess history… Bobby Fischer’s demands and whims constantly jeopardised the match. First the American chose not to board his plane in New York, and then he came late for the first game. That game he lost after a silly blunder and the second game he lost because he didn’t turn up in a fight about noisy cameras. But next he won the third game, that was played in a back room, and the rest…. is history.
“Fifty years on, Gudmundur Thorarinsson has written a tell-all book about ‘The Match of the Century’, crammed with behind-the-scenes stories and improbable twists and turns. Reading his gripping account of probably the most iconic sports contest during the Cold War, you will understand why he prefers to call it ‘The Match of All Time’. And why reliving this most unlikely adventure he comes to the conclusion: ‘It was not possible to organise this match, nor was it possible to rescue it…but still it was done!'”
“Gudmundur Thorarinsson is a chess organizer and businessman from Iceland. In 1972, as the chairman of the Icelandic Chess Federation he organized the Match of All Time, the World Championship Match between the Russian incumbent champion Boris Spassky and the American challenger Bobby Fischer.”
Half a century on from the legendary Fischer – Spassky World Championship match, and still the books keep on coming.
From Chapter 1 (Prologue):
Why write another book about the World Chess Championship match in 1972? Approximately 140 books have been published about the match already, plus films, TV and radio programs, newspapers and magazine articles. To add another book to this list seemed too much to me. But many people have been encouraging me to write about the match, people working for radio and television, chess players and friends. But many have simply said: ‘We still do not have a book written by someone who was working behind the scenes, where the bombs were falling.
One thing is certain: a long time ago this match acquired a life of its own. Nowadays people tend to look at the course of events from a different perspective. Looking at the match from afar enables the observer to put the whole saga into another context, broadening the horizon, so to speak. It may be true that the viewpoint and experiences of those of us who were on the frontline during the planning and execution of the event have not been widely documented. Those who wrote about the match in the following months, or even years after it happened, did so mostly by annotating the games, explaining the battle from the perspective of the chess players or the audience.
If you’re looking for the games of the match you’ll be disappointed: but of course they are readily available elsewhere.
What you have instead is a source document telling the story of what was going on in the background, written by someone who was there and very closely involved at the time.
The book is designed to be interesting to the general reader as well as the chess specialist. Chapter 2, therefore, looks at the origins of chess, including a contribution from GM Fridrik Olafsson, an expert in this field, and, specifically, the early history of chess in Iceland.
Chapter 3 relates the history of the world chess championship prior to Spassky, starting with Stamma and Philidor, and taking us as far as Petrosian. There is little here that will be new to readers familiar with chess history.
Chapter 4, on the prelude to the 1972 match, is where things start getting interesting. We read about Fischer’s wins in his Candidates Matches against Taimanov, Larsen and Petrosian before being introduced to the two protagonists, with background information about their family, upbringing and chess career. Then the bidding process for the match venue is discussed, with Iceland, a small country in the Atlantic Ocean, but with a proud chess history, unexpectedly being selected.
The author of this book had, as a young man, been appointed President of the Icelandic Chess Federation in 1969. He had been proposed in his absence by his brother and not wanting to cause embarrassment, felt he had no choice but to accept. As a result, he found himself in the middle of negotiations which would have a dramatic effect on the history of chess.
Chapter 5, the longest in the book, covers the match itself in fascinating and engrossing detail. Everyone who was interested in chess at the time will have vivid memories of Fischer’s demands and conditions, and of the problems and arguments these caused. Thorarinsson was at the heart of everything that was happening, and it was to no small extent due to his diplomatic skills, often described here in a self-deprecating way, that the match eventually started and, more or less successfully, concluded with Bobby as the new World Champion. There’s a lot of documentary material here which will be new to many readers.
Chapter 6 describes the aftermath of the match. Fischer’s life over the next three and a half decades is related, including his return match with Spassky in 1992. Bobby spent the last few years of his life in Iceland, and Thorarinsson was again very much involved with expediting his journey from a Japanese detention centre, and with helping him settle in for what would be his rather sad endgame.
This and the final section, the author’s tribute to his friend, which he delivered at Fischer’s memorial service, are both intensely moving.
If you’re looking for chess moves, this won’t be the book for you. But if you want to know more about Fischer, and about the background to the 1972 match, it will be an essential purchase.
The book is, like everything from this publisher, beautifully produced and copiously illustrated with photographs and cartoons. There are many entertaining and enlightening anecdotes to keep you amused as well. It’s a great story, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, and well told here from the author’s unique perspective. Whether or not you’re familiar with what happened half a century ago, you’ll find it a gripping read.
Do bear in mind, though, that while it may be an important source document for future historians (and we really need a fully sourced and referenced biography of Fischer) it’s a memoir with its fair share of uncertainty and speculation. You read that ‘Harry Golombek states in one of his books…’: yes, but which one? Or, to take another example, ‘According to some sources…’. Which ones?
I have a few other issues, just as I do with many New in Chess books, essentially coming down to the fact that it could have benefitted from a firmer editorial hand and a final read-through from a native English speaker. There are odd words and sentences that are not quite idiomatic. There’s also a certain amount of repetition (Fischer’s parentage is discussed on page 82, and again on pages 90-92) and one or two places where I felt continuity might have been improved.
Nevertheless, this book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Fischer as a person, or in the 1972 Fischer – Spassky match. If the subject matter appeals to you, and, if you have any interest at all in chess culture and history, it undoubtedly will, don’t hesitate.
You’ll find pricing and other details here and sample pages here.
“The Dragon Sicilian is the perfect choice for club players searching for chaotic and imbalanced positions. This opening manual shows how Black can turn up the heat against 1.e4, and enjoy dynamic winning chances game after game. Top-10 player Anish Giri is the best tutor to bring this complicated opening across to ‘everyday’ club players. Anish serves up his super-GM lines and clearly explains the ideas and strategies behind the moves. So when game time comes, you know exactly which moves to play, at what moment, and how to deliver the knockout blow. Make no mistake: This repertoire’s take-no-prisoners-strategy means you will sometimes reach razor-sharp positions, where both sides must play ‘only moves’. But that’s why you’ll love having Anish Giri as your opening coach. Giri delivers just the right mix of cutting-edge analysis and practical guidance for players of all levels with his trademark witty and down-to-earth teaching style. The Dragon Sicilian also covers all other major systems Black could face, including what to play against Anti-Sicilians such as the Rossolimo, the 2.c3 Alapin, and the Grand-Prix Attack.”
“Anish Giri became a chess Grandmaster at the age of 14 years, 7 months and 2 days. At the time, in 2009, that meant he was the youngest grandmaster in the World. Starting from the January 2013 list, the Dutch grandmaster was the leading junior player in the FIDE World Rankings. In June 2014 he turned twenty, which ended his junior years. Giri is a top-GM with a 2700-plus ELO rating.”
I am impressed with this colourful book, which is an accessible, lucid introduction to the Sicilian Dragon. The repertoire guide is a well- produced hardback book with an attractive vibrant front cover, good quality paper and many large diagrams, typically two per page and sometimes three making the work pleasant to browse and study.
The back cover blurb on the volume states that the opening manual work is aimed as an introduction for everyday club players, and it succeeds admirably in this respect. This title does not purport to be a major theoretical treatise or a “latest developments” style of publication, however, there is some cutting-edge theory and new ideas, some of which are new to the reviewer, who is a life-long Dragon addict.
The reviewer is not going to do a detailed theoretical critique the lines chosen by Giri for several reasons: time; my knowledge of some of the lines recommended is not sufficiently well-developed yet and thirdly these surveys can often come down to a thicket of engine analysis which can be off putting for less experienced players and does not always enhance understanding: it is important to understand the typical ideas, so when your opponent deviates from the book main lines/engine main lines, you can work out a solution at the board.
Despite my comments above, it is important for any reader of an opening tome, to not blindly follow the lines and take everything as gospel: check with an engine and use other sources.
The book has a short, didactic introduction to the Sicilian Dragon introducing the ideas, and nineteen chapters.
The book is effectively divided into four sections:
Move orders, Accelerated Dragon and Drago(n)Dorf (two chapters)
Anti-Sicilians (seven chapters)
Yugoslav Attack Section
The first chapter gives a useful overview of the Yugoslav Attack main line 9.Bc4 variation.
This introductory part briefly surveys the other main systems, other than the recommended repertoire, that occur such as the Chinese Dragon, Soltis Variation, Modern Variation, Topalov Variation. This is a useful pointer for the reader to the myriad of Dragon systems.
Chapter 2 Yugoslav Attack 9.Bc4 Nxd4
This part covers the book’s suggestion against 9.Bc4 which is the rare system 9…Nxd4.
This system was popular in the late 1950s/early 1960s but fell into disuse after some high-profile white victories, such as Fischer-Larsen Portoroz 1958 and Tal-Portisch European Team Championship 1961.
The idea of the line is to reduce white’s attacking potential by exchanging some pieces. I can see the logic of recommending this line as it is a straightforward system which is not popular, so many white players won’t know how to meet it: white must be accurate to even get a small advantage. The disadvantage is that it could be regarded as passive as black defends a slightly inferior, but defensive ending in the main line.
Black’s move order in this variation is critical as Giri points out: black has just played 12…b5!
Giri offers a new twist on this ancient line with an intriguing positional pawn sacrifice in a main line, which has been played successfully in a correspondence game. Buy the book to find out.
Chapter 3 Dragon Main Line Konstantinov’s pawn sacrifice sidelines
This chapter covers the sidelines in the main line after 9.0-0-0 d5
White has a fair number of alternatives to the main line of 10.exd5 which are:
The last two are definitely the most important with Giri covering these with main-line recommendations which are well known and fine for black.
After 10.Kb1 Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6 13.Bc5 d4! 14.Bxf8 Qxf8, this position is reached:
Black has sacrificed the exchange for active play: Magnus Carlsen has played this way; a host of games has vindicated black’s approach including Short-Carlsen London 2009 which was drawn after a serious of adventures.
Chapter 4 Dragon main line 9.0-0-0 d5 10.exd5
This chapter is divided into two sections covering the greedy pawn grab and what is probably the main line of the entire Dragon at top level.
The (in)famous pawn grab leads to this position:
This position has been well known since the 1950s, black now plays 13…Qc7! with equality. White has to be accurate to hold on: as a youngster, I won many quick games in this line with black. The author covers this line well with respected well-known variations for black.
The main, main line occurs after 12.Bd4:
Here Giri offers the old main line 12…e5 which has been under pressure in recent years. He offers an interesting, rare approach which if it holds up is very important for Dragon theory. Buy the book to find out.
Chapter 5 The early 9.g4
The idea behind this line is to prevent 9…d5 whilst avoiding one of the main lines 9.Bc4. the author recommends the well-rehearsed response 9…Be6 which is fine for black.
The second section of the book, chapters 6 to 10 cover the following variations:
Fianchetto System 6.g3
Sixth move sidelines
These lines are perfectly respectable but do not threaten to extinguish the Dragon’s breath. Giri covers these with well-known antidotes. For example, in the Levenfish Variation:
Black has just played 6…Nc6! which neutralises white’s main idea to get in e5 to disrupt black’s development.
The third section has a couple of short chapters on the Accelerated Dragon and the Drago(n)dorf. These are really supplementary chapters which are interesting but do not detract from the main book.
The fourth section has seven chapters on the Anti-Sicilians and covers over half the book which is excellent. These systems are very popular at all levels particularly at club level with the obvious intention to avoid reams of theory: we have all got stuffed on the white side of the Sicilian facing an opponent bristling with theoretical barbs. This part is divided as follows:
The Prins system 5.f3
The Hungarian system 4.Qxd4
Moscow Variation 3.Bb5+
Various 3rd moves
Other second moves
I particularly like the chapter on the Moscow Variation, which introduced the reviewer to some new lines. As well as that, the author covers some excellent points about the importance of move order in the Maroczy system.
FM Richard Webb, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 27th November 2022
Book Details :
Hardcover : 248 pages
Publisher:ChessAble / New in Chess (27 Sept. 2022)
“Calculation is key to winning chess games. Converting your chess knowledge into concrete moves requires calculation and precise visualisation. The bad news: calculation is hard work. You cannot rely on feeling or intuition — you will have to turn on your brainpower.
The good news: you can improve your calculation skills by training. Set up a position on a chessboard and try to solve exercises without moving the pieces! Grandmaster Ramesh RB is the perfect coach to awaken your chess brain and feed you precisely the right exercises. ‘After only a month of intensive training with Ramesh, I could sense a seismic shift in both the precision of my calculation as well as my general level of sharpness’, says GM Daniel Naroditsky.
“GM Ramesh is one of the world’s most successful coaches. He has trained many of India’s top talents at all stages of their development on their journey to become International Masters and Grandmasters. Ramesh understands what mistakes players can make while calculating. He knows that the best move in a specific position may be the opposite of what your intuition is urging you to play. And he serves you the exercises to correct these misconceptions and start finding the right solutions. Every chess player will benefit from the hundreds of exercises in this book. Coach Ramesh will take your calculation skills from a club players level to grandmaster level.”
This is the first of what promises to be a multi-volume series of coaching books under the title of The Ramesh Chess Course. As Ramesh is perhaps the world’s most successful chess coach this promises to be a treat for all ambitious players. As calculation is the single most important skill in chess, there’s no better place to start.
Ramesh starts off by telling us how to use the book. Here are his first two paragraphs.
Have a good look at every position and try to understand what is going on behind the scenes. Compare the king positions, piece placements, pawn structure, material parity, etc., before beginning your analysis.
Before we start analysing any move, we should make a list of reasonable looking moves and only then begin analysing them.
Good advice, although 2. is Kotov’s Candidate Moves idea, which not everyone finds useful in every position. Always useful when tackling the tasks set in this book, though.
The most important paragraph here is the final one, number 10.
I have divided the material into five categories: Level 1 = Elo Rating 1200-1600 Level 2 = Elo Rating 1600-2000 Level 3 = Elo Rating 2000-2400 Level 4 = Elo Rating 2400-2600 Level 5 = Elo Rating 2600 & above
It’s always a problem for authors and publishers of multi-volume coaching courses whether to structure the material horizontally (by topic) or vertically (by difficulty of material). Ramesh and New in Chess have chosen the former rather than the latter route.
If you’re anywhere between 1200 and 2800 strength, then, you’ll find exercises pitched at the right level for you, but you’ll also find much which is either too hard or too easy. If you’re a coach working with students anywhere between 1200 and 2800 strength, likewise you’ll find plenty of great coaching material.
As you’ll see, quite a lot of the book is taken up with Level 5 exercises, which, by their nature, often involve several pages of detailed analysis.
Each exercise is labelled with the appropriate level, with the more complex exercises comprising a number of ‘tasks’. In each case we are told the amount of time the student should be allowed.
The first chapter considers the difference between dynamic and static positions: it’s the former which are the subject of this book. There are two critical areas to study: Calculation and Attack.
The first task is set at Level 1: you have 2 minutes to solve it.
This is Carlsen – Vachier-Lagrave, from a 2021 speed game. Magnus played 34. Bd4+ Rxd4 35. cxd4 Bxd4, which really should have been a draw, but he later managed to win it.
He missed the move I hope you found, 34. Rc8!, which would have forced immediate resignation as after 34… Rxc8 there’s 35. Bd4#. Ramesh points out the 34… Ra8 35. Rxa8 Rxa8 36. Bd4#. I don’t know about you, but I’d have preferred the immediate 35. Bd4# here. A slightly unfortunate start, but I guess it doesn’t really matter.
In Chapter 2 Ramesh shares with us some games and positions he’s used to train his students, aiming to recreate his training sessions and demonstrate typical mistakes. He expects you to look deeply into each position, calculate multiple variations without making mistakes and evaluate the position correctly at the end. I hope readers will find this instructive and exciting.
The first example is an endgame study (there are a lot of studies in this book) composed by Alexandr Grin in 1989.
His student gave the solution as 1. Nb5 a2 2. Na7+? Kc7 3. c6 a1Q with stalemate, overlooking that Black could win in this variation by playing 3… Kb6 instead.
As Ramesh explains over 2½ columns, it’s very easy to get over-excited when you see a beautiful idea and fail to check it through thoroughly.
The correct solution to the study is 2. c6! a1Q+ 3. Na7+ Kd8 4. c7+ Kxc7, again with stalemate. His student had the right idea but failed to execute it correctly.
Chapter 3, The Analytical Process, is the heart of the book. Ramesh explains in detail how to calculate and how to analyse, taking into account psychological as well as purely chess factors.
The advice in this chapter will be of great interest and benefit both to chess coaches and to ambitious players at all levels.
Most of the examples here are extremely complex positions, usually Level 5 (suitable for 2600+ players).
Take, for example, this complex position (Smyslov – Rubinetti Palma de Mallorca Interzonal 1970).
Here, we have 16 pages of detailed analysis, broken down into 27 tasks, with nested variations given labels such as B3113242). You may well, like me, find it hard to follow, even with the copious diagrams provided.
Ramesh comments at the end:
In my training with young players for over a decade, I have seen that analysing very complicated positions without the help of moving pieces on the board is not only possible, but even essential for quicker and long-lasting improvement in a player’s analytical capabilities. This will require the coach to be patient and believe in the capabilities of his student in the long run. From the players’ part, they must put in a genuine effort to try to analyse the positions without giving in to self-defeating doubts. In my academy, even 1800-level players can follow all the analysis like this with some effort and without a chessboard. It is simply a question of patience and perseverance.
If you’re interested in the complete game, here it is. Click on any move for a pop-up window. Black’s last move was a losing blunder: the only way to draw was 44. a1Q.
It’s clear from this book that chess tuition has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so. (60 years ago, when I was learning chess, if you wanted to improve you had no choice but to read a book.) Visualisation exercises and solving endgame studies (recommended by Judit Polgar as well as Ramesh) are now common.
Later in the chapter, Ramesh has this to say.
Even though humans can probably never analyse at the level of engines anymore, it is possible to take the help and inspiration from engines to further our capabilities to previously unknown levels. I have personally trained players with ratings in the range of 1400-1800 to analyse variations that players of previous generations with a rating range of 2200-2400 were unable to do. This is one of the reasons my students in the 9 to 14 age group can quickly become International Masters or grandmasters.
Chapter 4 provides more examples of Forcing Moves. Judit Polgar, like me, uses the acronym CCTV: in her case Checks, Captures, Threats and Variations. Ramesh adds pawn breaks into his definition of Forcing Moves. If you still want to use CCTV you might try Checks, Captures, Threats and pawn leVers perhaps.
Black won this game by using a series of forcing moves: captures and threats: 20… f3 21. Nxf3 Rxf3 22. Bxf3 Nxb4 23. Bxb7 Nxc2 24. Be4 Nxa3 25. Rb3 Qa4 0-1
Ramesh mentions that 20… f3 wasn’t Black’s only strong move here: 20… Nd4 was another way to play for the win.
In Chapter 5 we learn about typical mistakes made while calculating variations.
Ramesh lists 14 types of mistake, starting with not being able to visualise the position in the mind, not seeing forcing moves and not making a list of candidate moves, giving examples and possible solutions.
In this world championship game from 2008 Kramnik, playing White, made a fatal error.
29. Nd4? was a blunder, missing 29… Qxd4 30. Rd1 Nf6! 31. Rxd4 Nxg4 32. Rd7+ Kf6 33. Rxb7 Rc1+ 34. Bf1 Ne3!, when Anand had a winning advantage.
I guess it’s debatable whether Kramnik’s error was one of calculation or evaluation, and whether he’d missed Anand’s 30th or 34th move.
Chapter 6 is devoted entirely to endgame studies.
Whenever I feel my student’s calculation skills are not up to the mark, I will make them solve studies for three to four hours a day for around three to five days in a row. Usually, the students will show significant improvement in their calculation skills.
You might like to try your hand at solving this Level 2 study, composed by the great Leonid Kubbel and published in 1911. It’s White to play and draw.
Finally, Chapter 7 offers some more general suggestions for chess improvement. As with the suggestions throughout the book, these cover many aspects of chess psychology as well as practical advice which will be beneficial for all players and teachers.
While there’s an enormous amount of helpful advice both here and elsewhere in the book, there’s also some repetition which might have been better avoided.
For instance, returning for a moment to Chapter 6, we’re told on both p258 and p260 that solving a study might take anywhere between 5 and 40 minutes. I think this might have been picked up by the publishers at editing or proofing stage.
How to summarise?
This is an important book, and, by the look of it, part of an important series. The author is arguably the most successful high level chess teacher in the world, and, reading the book, you can understand why. The positions are all well chosen and the explanations throughout the book display profound insight into the minds of chess players. Although you might think it’s aimed at stronger or at least more ambitious players, it will, for the general advice, in particular that of a psychological nature, be a great read for many players of all levels. Even though not everyone will find the book’s structure particularly helpful, it’s also esssential reading for anyone who teaches chess to students rated 1200+.
Speaking as a retired 1900-2000 strength player, the Level 4 and Level 5 examples, which take up a lot of the book, were way beyond me and not always easy to follow. At one level, it was interesting to see how deeply highly complex positions can be analysed, and how talented young players who are prepared to put in the necessary time and effort can learn to perform these tasks, but at another level I found it rather disspiriting to work through so many pages of dense analysis. To be fair, though, I’m not really part of the target market for this book.
At the same time, the market for books aimed at 2400-2600 strength players must be very limited. What I’d like to see would be a book taking a more structured approach, with, for example, 100 pages each of exercises at Levels 1, 2 and 3 (which is anyone from 1200 to 2400 strength), along with some general advice at either the beginning or the end of the book.
Instead, what we have is a book which is more about how to teach calculation and how to improve your calculation rather than one where you can start at page 1 and work your way through in sequential fashion. Ramesh also expects his students to have seriousness of purpose and a strong work ethic, as well as plenty of time to spend on chess improvement. If you’re just a hobby player looking to have fun and make a bit of progress, you might well find this rather scary.
The approach recommended here certainly isn’t for everyone, but even so, any reader who is prepared to work hard will gain a lot from this book.
I couldn’t really imagine Ramesh exclaiming ‘Awesome move!!’ and ‘Kaboom!!’ like Judit Polgar. If you’d prefer something that also covers calculation skills, but is an easier read taking a more ‘fun’ approach I’d recommend this book instead. They certainly have points in common: teaching you to look for Checks, Captures and Threats, and using endgame studies.
You can find more details here and read some sample pages here.
I’d also, by the way, recommend reading an excellent interview with Ramesh which appeared in New in Chess 2022#3, which puts his methods into context.
I look forward very much to seeing future volumes in this series.
“Judit Polgar was the best female chess player in the world for a record 26 years. In this book she reveals some of the secrets of her success. Together with prize-winning coach, International Master Andras Toth, she has created a course based on the training she received as a young player. It feels like private lessons from one of the best players in the world.
You will learn how to punish the three most common openings mistakes. And how to spot hidden tactical opportunities and how to force your opponent to play weakening moves. You will be taught how to master one of the most difficult skills in chess: seizing the initiative. And you will find the tools to turn yourself into a lean, mean, attacking machine. Master Your Chess with Judit Polgar covers all aspects of the game: from the opening to the endgame. The manual is accessible both for ambitious beginners wanting to build their chess development on a strong foundation and for intermediate players who have hit a plateau and need new insights to leap forward.”
Judit Polgar has been ranked 1st on the Women’s rating list from 1989 to this day. In 2005 she became the only woman in chess history to participate in the World Championship final.
What we have here is an online course from chessable.com converted into a book.
Here’s Judit Polgar in the preface:
As an attempt to provide a rock-solid foundation to your game, we are going to cover all aspects of the game from the opening to the endgame. Again, we will do this in a unique and very focused fashion. Instead of wading through masses of opening theory, we are going to examine the main culprits that allow positions to break down.
We are going to look at the foundations of tactical play and will begin to delve into the most common positional themes. Last but not least, we are going to learn about endgame techniques and use endgame studies, not only to establish solid theoretical knowledge but to greatly enhance our calculation skills!
All this is going to be presented to you through a selection of games played by me and other experts of our royal game.
It’s described by Judit as a ‘starter kit’ and on the back cover as for ‘ambitious beginners’. It all depends on what you mean by ‘starter’ and ‘beginner’.
There’s an assumption that the reader is familiar with basic tactical ideas, opening principles and endgame theory, and is able to look ahead and calculate with reasonable proficiency.
For this reason, I’d consider this a book suitable for readers rated in the region of 1500-2000, although ambitious readers of, say, 1250 upwards would also benefit if they were prepared to work hard.
You can read some sample pages on the publisher’s website here.
You’ll observe from the contents that the book covers a wide range of themes across all areas of the game: openings, strategy, tactics and endings. Some of the chapter headings suggest material that wouldn’t be suitable for beginners: for example, Positional Queen Sacrifices, Openings that Thrive on Initiative or Complex Endings. Each chapter is introduced by a page in which the reader is invited to find the best continuation in four diagrammed positions. The diagrams are repeated over the page with the correct answer underneath: these positions are then explained in detail within the chapter.
Judit Polgar is second to none at both playing and selecting games and positions which are at the same time instructive and aesthetically pleasing. Together with her co-author Andras Toth she does an excellent job at explaining the examples, asking questions to the reader where appropriate, avoiding too many variations, and providing short and pertinent nuggets of advice.
Here’s a short game from the second chapter which Judit describes as ‘a particularly educational game to model the dangers of bringing the queen out too soon and neglecting development!’, adding that 12… Nxc3 13. Bxc3 Qb5 14. Nd6+ wins the queen.
Click on any move for a pop-up window.
It’s good to see in Chapter 4 that Polgar, like me, uses the acronym CCTV when teaching tactics, although she refers to Checks, Captures and Threats Variations, while I prefer Checks, Captures, Threats and Violent moves (or looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory).
Of course, tactics and strategy always go hand in hand, and, as a brilliant tactician who was brought up on a diet of solving tactical puzzles, even her chapters on strategy include examples with sparkling conclusions. Take this example from Chapter 7 on Misplaced Pieces, where another Hungarian demonstrates his skills.
You’ll find a number of endgame studies scattered throughout the book. Here, from the chapter on Unexpected Tactics, is the conclusion of an extraordinary study composed by Yuri Dorogov (Targoviste 1982).
Black is two queens up, with a pawn seemingly about to promote, but an inspection of the position reveals that there’s no way that 6. b3 can be prevented. Amazing! Who’d have thought it?
Chapter 21, Openings that Thrive on Initiative, includes the Botvinnik Semi-Slav, according to Polgar and Toth a super-exciting opening branch with vast theory and super-complicated games! Here’s an example, described by the authors as a remarkable victory and creative effort by Kaidanov.
This review wouldn’t be complete without an example of Judit Polgar’s play. There are many of her brilliant tactical finishes in the book, but, like all great players, she also excelled in the ending.
This example comes from Chapter 28: Complex Endings. Judit explains: This endgame was a particularly satisfying one as I managed to execute a wide range of strategic and tactical themes within one game, including some awesome king maneuvers…
As you can see, you get 500 pages of terrific chess in this book, with 287 ‘games’. Some of the positions were familiar to me, but most weren’t.
The book is a sturdy, good-looking hardback: a very welcome from the usual rather flimsy softback books. The presentation is rather unusual, and much more colourful than most chess books, as a result of its being produced from an interactive course. The diagrams are graphic rather than character based, in tasteful two-tone brown. I quite like them myself, but perhaps some readers will prefer something more traditional. Some of the diagrams are enhanced with shaded squares and arrows, which, for me, are more appropriate for a screen than a book, where they don’t display especially well. The book uses a wide sans serif font which is perfect for screen display, but again you might prefer a more traditional serif font. I think it looks rather attractive as there isn’t a lot of heavy text in the book, but you might disagree. Questions are asked in blue, which makes them stand out from the rest of the text. On the whole, I thought the book looked really good: much more appealing than many chess books and excellent value for money: you can get it for under £30 if you shop around.
Then there’s the writing style, which tends towards the hyperbolic. The other day I was teaching a 7-year-old beginner. Whenever he found a checkmate in a puzzle I set him he exclaimed ‘Boom’!. In this book you sometimes get ‘Kaboom!’ instead. Moves are often described as ‘awesome’, ‘super-exciting’ or similar epithets. You might find that this enhances your reading experience, making it more like a personal lesson. On the other hand, you might consider it more suitable for a primary school classroom than for a book written for intelligent adults.
One further minor complaint: as with many books from this publisher, it would have benefited from additional proofreading by a native English speaker.
The quality of the material is outstanding throughout – ‘awesome’ if you prefer. The book covers a wide range of important topics suitable for club standard players. The examples are both educational and inspirational, with clear and helpful annotations. You’ll learn a lot about calculation and tactics, about positional play and strategy, but, more than that, you’ll encounter a lot of excitement, creativity and beauty. Studying this course will undoubtedly improve your chess as well as giving you a greater appreciation of the aesthetics of the game. It’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic and inspiring guide and role model than the world’s strongest ever woman player. If you prefer, you can purchase the online course instead, but if you favour more traditional media, this book will grace your library.
As long as you’re happy with the presentation and writing style, this book deserves a very strong recommendation for all club players, with the caveat that, despite the suggestion on the back cover, it’s not suitable for complete beginners.
You might also want to visit Chessable to hear Judit talking further about the course.
“Rashid Nezhmetdinov (1912-1974) played fearless attacking chess. With his dazzling style, the Soviet master already was a legend during his lifetime, but international fame largely eluded him. Only once did he get permission to show his exceptional talent in a tournament abroad. Five times Nezhmetdinov was chess champion of the Russian Federation. In the 1961 Soviet Championship, he won the ‘Best Game’ prize for a spectacular win against Mikhail Tal who praised his opponent for his ‘amazing creativity.’ Other stars that ‘Nezh’ defeated in grand style included Spassky, Polugaevsky, Bronstein, and Geller.
His games, full of tactical pyrotechnics, are his legacy and have reached an ever-growing audience. Nezhmetdinov’s shocking strategic queen sacrifice, in 1962 against Chernikov, as shown on Agadmator’s YouTube channel, has become the best-watched chess video of all time with millions of views. In this book, Cyrus Lakdawala pays tribute to the genius of the enigmatic Nezhmetdinov, a Tatar who grew up as an orphan in the part of the Soviet Union that is now Kazakhstan.
In more than one hundred impressive and instructive games and positions, Lakdawala shows how Nezhmetdinov fought for the initiative, how he bluffed and sacrificed, and how he kept his cool to out-calculate his opponents. Lakdawala’s lucid writing perfectly matches the power of ‘Nezh’s’ moves. This wonderful collection celebrates Nezhmetdinov as the Greatest Attacker in Chess.”
Cyrus Lakdawala is an International Master who lives in San Diego, CA. He has been teaching chess for four decades and is a prolific and widely read author. Much acclaimed books of his are How Ulf Beats Black, Clinch It! and Winning Ugly in Chess. He twice won the Best Instructional Book Award of the Chess Journalists of America (CJA), in 2017 for Chess for Hawks and in 2020 for In the Zone: The Greatest Winning Streaks in Chess History.
We all know and love the games of the great world champions, but there are also a few players who, while not reaching the summit, have become cult figures amongst chess fans for their creativity, imagination and brilliance.
Albin Planinc is one, and another is Rashid Nezhmetdinov, the subject of this book. He has been the subject of several books over the years, and now the prolific Cyrus Lakdawala adds his name to the lists.
Here’s Lakdawala in his Preface:
If you asked the question ‘Who do you believe was the most tactically creative player of the 20th century?’ then I’m guessing that most chess players would pick either Alekhine, Bronstein, Tal or Kasparov. Now we have a new potential entry for the top spot: Rashid Nezhmetdinov. Why are so many people irrestistibly drawn to Mikhail Tal’s chess games? The spirit of Nezhmetdinov the pirate lived on in his friend’s games. Tal was merely a more powerful extension of Nezhmetdinov. Nezhmetdinov was Tal’s trainer and muse in his successful 1960 bid to dethrone Botvinnik as World Champion. Tal explained that Nezhmetdinov taught him ‘paradox’, taking risk-taking to previously unheard-of levels. Then Tal, his stylistic offspring, displayed to the world the power of this radical new style, when in 1960 he defeated the great Mikhail Botvinnik in a match for the World Championship. If you love Tal’s games, then by default you will automatically love Nezhmetdinov’s.
Who doesn’t love Tal’s games? Book collectors who enjoy brilliant tactics and sacrifices will surely have several collections of Tal’s games on their shelves. They’ll really need a collection of Nezhmetdinov’s games as well. Is this the right one for you?
If you’ve read other books by Cyrus Lakdawala, you’ll know what to expect. His, shall we say, picturesque style of writing divides the critics. There are those who find his friendly approach and sometimes outrageous metaphors draw them in, and others who find this distracts them from the chess. You pay your money, or not, as the case may be, and take your choice.
The annotations, as is customary with this author, feature Moments of Contemplation, where you’re encouraged to think about the position, and Exercises, split into Planning, Combination Alert and Critical Decisions, inviting you to guess the next move. There are also Principles (in italics) offering you nuggets of general advice. All this will help less experienced readers navigate their way through the book and gain tangible benefits which they’ll be able to employ in their own games.
Here’s an early game. Click on any move for a pop-up window.
This is one of his most famous victories – against a formidable opponent. If you haven’t seen it before, do take a look.
The ChessBase score concludes here. Lakdawala adds the moves 34. Ka6 Ndb4#, commenting, in typical style: This is an overkill on par with Rasputin’s murder, where the unlucky monk was stabbed, shot, poisoned, bludgeoned, and then, for good measure, drowned.
Your opinion of the book will depend on how you react to this sort of thing. Here are another couple of examples.
Everyone knows that the Dragon, much the same as a Bond villain babe, is simultaneously beautiful and dangerous.
You are on trial for your life for a murder you committed in front of a police station and 30 witnesses, most of whom recorded you with their cell phone video cameras. Your victim fought back and your blood was found on her and on the knife you used to stab her. I just described Aronin’s position’s chance of being found Not Guilty by the jury.
You might enjoy them. You might be prepared to live with them even though you think they’re both irrelevant and bordering on tasteless, and that the publisher might have made more use of the Delete key. Or you might decide there’s no way you’d buy a book written like that. Me, I’m in the middle camp, as I am with most things.
In this game from towards the end of his career he defeats a future world champion.
Even if you don’t care for Lakdawala’s prose, you should admire his hard work and enthusiasm. He knows his audience, knows exactly what he’s doing and has perfected his art over many years. You may well think that his colourful annotations are a perfect match for Nezhmetdinov’s colourful chess.
For many readers, this will be a hugely enjoyable read, and one which may also take their play to new levels of creativity. You’ll find 116 ‘games’ (about half complete games – not all won by Nezhmetdinov – and the others just conclusions) against many of the Soviet greats of the time: Bronstein, Tal, Korchnoi and others. As you’ve seen, the book is a cornucopia of daring attacks and sacrifices, not all of which are completely sound. The book is produced to New in Chess’s customary high standards and can be highly recommended to anyone not put off by the author’s writing style.
You can read some sample pages on the publisher’s website here.
Here is the publishers blurb from the rear cover :
“Every chess player, from club level up, can improve their game by using engines. That is the message of Matthew Sadler’s thought-provoking new book, based on many years of experience with the world’s best chess software.
You may not be able to replicate their dazzling-deep calculations, but there is so much more your engine can do for you than just checking variations! Matthew Sadler, co-author of the ground-breaking bestseller Game Changer, presents some unique methods to improve by using your engine. He explains how in your opening preparation, instead of sifting through masses of computer analysis you should play training games against your engine. He also shows how to train your early middlegame play, the conversion of advantages, your positional play, and your defensive skills. And, of course: how to analyse your own games.
These generic training methods Sadler supplements with concrete techniques. He explains how the top engines tackle crucial middlegame themes such as entrenched pieces, whole board play, ‘attacking rhythm’, exchanging pieces, the march of the Rook’s pawn, queen versus pieces, and many others. He also opens your eyes to typical strategies that the engines found and fine-tuned in popular openings such as the King’s Indian, the Grünfeld, the Slav, the French and the Sicilian. Sadler illustrates his lessons with a collection of fantastic games, explained with his trademark enthusiasm. For the first time, the superhuman powers of the chess engine have been decoded to the benefit of all players, in a rich and highly instructive book.”
About the author :
Matthew Sadler (1974) is a Grandmaster and a former British Champion. He has been writing the famous ‘Sadler on Books’ column for New In Chess magazine for many years. With his co-author Natasha Regan, Sadler twice won the prestigious English Chess Federation Book of the Year Award. In 2016 for ‘Chess for Life’ and in 2019 for their worldwide bestseller Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Ground-breaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI.
This is the latest book by acclaimed author and 2 time British Champion Matthew Sadler. His previous book Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI (co-authored with Natasha Reagan) won both the 2019 ECF Book of the Year and FIDE Book of the Year. Following the publication of Game Changer the authors gave many talks around the country about Alpha Zero. They were frequently asked the same two questions “what could be learnt from AlphaZero’s games and were they too advanced for us mere mortals?” This book sets out to show that there is a considerable amount that can be learnt from these computer engine games as well as discovering many new ideas that can be extracted and applied in one’s own games. The author also sets out to demonstrate that every chess player from Club level upwards can improve with the help of chess engines as the engines can do much more than just calculate variations. Chess engines can be used to enhance opening preparation and to improve your skills in the middlegame. This book can be thought of as a sequel to Game Changer but it can also be read independently as it showcases the games played by all the top computer engines rather than focusing on the radical changes brought about by AlphaZero.
The book is split into two parts. The first part provides an overview of todays top chess engines and the associated training methods recommended by the author. This covers the methods that the author has employed as a professional player as well as some new and innovative ways to using chess engines. Part 2 contains the meat of the book, 18 chapters & 484 pages analysing a wide range of opening and middlegame themes. To assist the reader, there is also some supporting Supplementary Material available to download. This includes a PGN file containing all the games included in the book together with instructions on how to set up and configure the chess engines. Having downloaded everything I found the instructions easy to follow and anyone with a moderate level of IT skills should to be able to do the same. The author has also recently created a YouTube channel: SiliconRoadChess which contains over 250 videos showing how to use chess engines and showcasing the best engine games. As well as covering topics such as Engine Openings (92 Videos) and Great Engine Games (74 videos) there are many other interesting videos to watch from TCEC events and analysis of some of the games from the recent Carlsen Nepomniachtchi match. As well as the videos there is also a PGN database available providing additional material for the channel. Currently there are over 2.21 K subscribers to Silicon Road but I am sure that this number will increase. After watching a few of these videos it is clear that Matthew’s has a passion and enthusiasm for engine chess and I shall be watching many more of these in the weeks to come.
The first two chapters in part 1 are an introduction into the world of computer chess and the Top Chess Engine Competition (TCEC) which is the source for most of the games in this book, the remainder were generated by the author himself. We are introduced to the top engines (our heroes) together with a description of their playing styles, strengths, weaknesses and associated technical notes.
In chapter 3 the author lays out the methods that he has used himself to study with chess engines during his career along with a couple of new and innovative approaches. These are as follows:
Playing Rapid Games – Good for opening and early middlegame play.
Playing against Leela Zero restricted to a one-node search. – Good for openings, positional play and conversion of winning positions.
Playing out positions with a rapid time control. – Good for conversion of advantages and developing defensive skills
Playing ‘correspondence chess’ against your engine. – Good for developing analytical skills and conversion of advantages.
Running engine matches from key opening positions. – Good for developing a feel for openings and related middlegames.
Letting your engines analyse an opening position for X hours (deep analysis). – Good for analysing a single position in great depth.
Periodic checking of your analysis against a live engine – Develops a real-time insight into a position
Like most players I have used computer engines in the past for analysing my own games and as a sparring partner, mainly using Fritz on only the lower handicap levels. Up until now I have not used the methods described above apart from the first and the last one. So I decided to try out a couple of other methods for myself. I began with method 5, playing engine matches from key positions and get an overview of specific openings. I won’t go into too much detail here as it would give away how the author has used this method but I tried out the approach on two types of openings. Firstly I used it on some lesser known gambits. The rationale being that firstly I have never played these openings and that they are difficult to learn. Not only are there are a many variations to memorise but also there are a lot of critical positions to evaluate. Secondly I chose selection of positional openings to see how the engines would get on. I used a number of different engines (Stockfish 15, Deep Fritz 13, Fat Fritz & Leela v22) running on an i5 Laptop and a time control of M20 + 5 second increments. The matches were set up to play 6 games in each opening. (I did run a number of matches with Blitz time controls but the results were not as good) Running these matches with Cloud Engines or longer time controls would of course produce better quality games. I chose the following three gambits:
The Henning-Schara Gambit (1 d4 d5, 2 c4 e6, 3 Nc3 c5. 4 cd cd )
The Marshall Gambit in the Semi Slav (1 d4 d5, 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 e6 4 e4)
The Portsmouth Gambit (1e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 b4)
And for the ‘positional’ openings I used:
The Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation and the Berlin Defence
Queens Gambit Accepted and Exchange variations.
Italian Game with c3 & d3
The Ruy Lopez Berlin Defence (aka Berlin Wall) has proved to be a very efficient drawing weapon since it was made ‘popular’ by Vladimir Kramnik back in 2000. It is also an opening that engines consider as best play with both colours. (For a more detailed explanation see: Engine Openings Understanding the Ruy Lopez Berlin which also includes the author demonstrating how to take on Leela Zero in the 1-node mode described above.) Once all the engine matches were completed I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much I learnt by just by playing through the engine games. This approach will not make you an instant expert and would only be a prelude to more detailed study but it will be something that I will definitely use in the future. I will also use this approach in conjunction with method 6 to examine some of the critical positions in more detail. I have not included the results of the matches are they are not important as I was not trying to determine which engine was the strongest but only interested in the games that the engines produced.
To give you some idea of the quality of the games here is an example game from the Portsmouth Gambit match played between Stockfish 15 and Leela 0 v22.
Stockfish 15 – Lc0 v0.22.0 cpu [B30] Rapid 20.0min+5.0sec
A fascinating combination beginning with the bishop sacrifice on h6 immediately followed by pawn sacrifice on a3 then finally 21 Qd2 with a double attack on h6 & a5. There is a whole chapter in the book devoted to the concept of whole board play and this game is an excellent demonstration of this theme.
I also tried out method 2, playing some games against Leela Zero in 1-Node mode. This approach restricts Leela Zero to a single node (looking one move ahead) instead of the usual millions of nodes per move. Leela Zero is so good that its first choice move is usually good enough for high level of play. Also, when playing in 1-node mode the engine moves are made instantly. The only weakness that I found with this approach was that is that the engine does not see any tactics. However this is a blessing in disguise as it replicates ‘human’ play as the engine plays a series of good moves followed by the occasional blunder. Having played a number of games against Leela Zero in this mode I can see the benefits of using this approach. I was really impressed with the quality of play considering the engine is only looking one move ahead. You can try playing against Fritz in one of the ‘handicap’ modes and get similar results but the Leela Zero engine and Nibbler GUI are both available as free open source alternatives.
Part 2 is devoted to the author’s research into chess engine games. This covers the identification of the recurring middlegame themes and highlighting the exceptional games that contain these ideas. Sixteen different themes are covered. The games in this section have been analysed very deeply and the author explains his approach which is as follows:
An initial analysis of each game without any engine assistance.
Checking the analysis with live engine help
Identifying interesting points in the game to be investigated further (typically between 10 -15)
Run an engine match on all the positions of interest (anything from 40 -120 games)
Pick out the key games and add to the original analysis
Iterate until all above questions have been resolved
Distil and summarise all the above information into the game annotations
Also at the beginning of Part 2 there is a chapter covering the typical opening scenarios covered in the book from the following openings: Kings Indian Defence, Grunfeld, Slav & Semi Slav, English and the French Defence.
One chapter is devoted to a specific middlegame theme and each theme is discussed with a selection of annotated engine games followed by a deeply annotated illustrative game. The analysis of these illustrative games is incredibly deep and several run to over 20 pages! Amongst the topics covered here are exchanging active pieces to leave the opponent with passive ones, the march of the rooks pawn (one of the major discoveries from Alpha Zeros games), Engine Sacrifices, Whole Board Play and the Kings Indian Opposite Wing Pawn Storm. The final chapter discusses how best to apply the themes in your own games. The author also describes one of the most memorable moment in his chess career was when he first had an opportunity to play through hundreds of AlphaZero Stockfish games. Specifically the number of high quality games that were produced. He thought that this was more memorable than any of his OTB achievements (which included winning the British championship and representing England in the Olympiads).
This has been a fascinating book to review. Previously I had not paid a great deal of attention to computer chess in the past, either because I didn’t think it was relevant to OTB play or the games were far too difficult to understand. The author clearly has a very deep understanding of computer chess and has done a tremendous amount of research analysing engine games, identifying and classifying the recurring patterns contained therein, then showing how this knowledge can be applied taken to your own games. As well as reading the book I took the opportunity to watch many of the videos on the associated YouTube channel. The majority of which have been produced since the book was first published in 2021. No doubt many more videos produced in the future. Although this is a large book (560 pages) it is not ‘heavy’ book to read. Some of the topics in part 2 are very complex but the author explains them all in a clear and concise manner. The more that I find out about this subject the more interesting it becomes. So if you have ever wanted to find out more about the fascinating world of computer chess and how to use the engines to improve your own game then this is a good place to start. I highly recommend buying this book.
Tony Williams, Newport, Isle of Wight, 21st September 2022
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