Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, DVDs, Video and other media

The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era

From the publisher:

“Genna Sosonko is widely acclaimed as the most prominent chronicler of a unique era in chess history. In the Soviet Union chess was developed into an ideological weapon that was actively promoted by the country’s leadership during the Cold War. Starting with Mikhail Botvinnik, their best chess players grew into symbols of socialist excellence. Sosonko writes from a privileged dual perspective, combining an insider’s nostalgia with the detachment of a critical observer. He grew up with legendary champions such as Mikhail Tal and Viktor Korchnoi and spent countless hours with most of the other greats and lesser chess mortals he portrays.

In the late 1980s he began to write about the champions he knew and their remarkable lives in New In Chess magazine. First, he wrote primarily about Soviet players and personalities, and later, he also began to portray other chess celebrities with whom he had crossed paths. They all vividly come to life as the reader is transported to their time and world. Once you’ve read Sosonko, you will feel you know Capablanca, Max Euwe and Tony Miles. And you will never forget Sergey Nikolaev.

This monumental book is a collection of the portraits and profiles Genna Sosonko wrote for New in Chess magazine. The stories have been published in his books: Russian Silhouettes, The Reliable Past, Smart Chip From St. Petersburg and The World Champions I Knew. They are supplemented with further writings on legends such as David Bronstein, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. They paint an enthralling and unforgettable picture of a largely vanished age and, indirectly, a portrait of one of the greatest writers on the world of chess.

Genna Sosonko (1943) was born in Leningrad, where he was a leading chess trainer. Following his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1972, he settled in The Netherlands. He won numerous tournaments, including Wijk aan Zee in 1977 (with Geller) and 1981 (with Timman) and an individual gold medal at the Olympiad in Haifa 1976. After his active career, Sosonko discovered a passion for writing.

GM Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
GM Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

‘Each new story of Genna Sosonko is the preservation of grains of our chess life’ — from the foreword by Garry Kasparov”

Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

 

If you’re a lover of chess culture and literature you’ll be familiar with the writings of Genna Sosonko, whose essays chronicle, in particular, chess life in the former Soviet Union in the post-war period.

What we have here is a compendium of his biographical essays: 58 of them plus a short foreword by Kasparov. Most of them have appeared twice before, in New in Chess magazine, and in previous collections of his essays. In addition to the books mentioned above, some of them appeared, in some cases with different titles, in Genna Remembers, published by Thinkers Publishing and previously reviewed here. One of the essays is based on extracts from Sosonko’s book on Bronstein, published by Elk and Ruby. But, in the case of the books, you only get the biographies, not everything.

If you’re a Sosonko fan you’ll have read it all before. If not, and you’re attracted to the subject matter, this might be a good place to start.

You don’t just get Soviet players, though. English readers will be drawn to the chapter on Tony Miles, billed as The Cat That Walked By Himself, whose mental health problems are treated sympathetically.

But, for me, the lesser known figures are of the most interest. Take, for instance, the stories of two players whose lives both ended in tragic circumstances in 1997.

The brilliant Latvian theorist and tactician Alvis Vitolins was born in 1946. ‘Naïve, unusual and absorbed in himself’, had he been born a few decades later, he would undoubtedly have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, or, today, with ASD, and later developed schizophrenia. “He did not have any close friends. He avoided other people, especially strangers, especially those who were not chess players.” He never fulfilled his potential, his mental health declined and, in 1997, he threw himself from a railway bridge onto the ice of a frozen river.

Then there was Evgeny Ruban, from what is now Belarus, born in 1941. A positional player with a classical style who excelled with the white pieces, but another man with his own demons. Ruban was an alcoholic, permanently broke, and also gay, living in a small apartment with his elderly mother. Like Vitolins he also had problems with his mental health. In autumn 1997, in a state of inebriation, he was hit by a car, dying as a result of his injuries. His mother couldn’t afford the cost of his funeral, which was paid for by the car driver.

Two poignant stories which serve as a salutary reminder that, as well as the grandmasters and champions, we need to hear about those who had the talent but not the good fortune, those who fell through the cracks. You might wonder whether chess was a cause of their problems or provided solace in difficult times. It would have been good if their chapters had included a few of their games, but this wouldn’t have fitted into the format of the book.

On the other hand you may well be inspired by the life of Abram Khasin ((1923-2022): he played at Hastings in 1963-64), who lost both legs in the Battle of Stalingrad, but lived to within ten days of his 99th birthday, playing chess right until the end.

There’s also the exotically named Lidia Barbot-de-Marny (1930-2021), born in Shanghai but with French, German and Russian family roots. She eventually settled in Estonia, where she became one of their leading woman players. “Chess has given me a colossal amount of good things, everything you could say.” Although she never became a master, she was a much loved chess teacher, working with young children in the Tallinn House of Chess.

There are always stories, some happy, others sad, all of which need to be told. The stories of the failures are as important as those of the successes, the stories of the lesser players as important as those of the world champions.

Much of the book is, as you’d expect, concerned with the great Soviet players of that era, but, for me, the real value of Sosonko’s work is in his writing about those you don’t read about elsewhere.

He writes beautifully as well, and the translations, mostly by Ken Neat, Steve Giddins and Sarah Hurst, are exemplary. But at some point you start to realise that Sosonko is, up to a point, playing on your emotions. There are no sources or references, just his memory, which is undoubtedly extraordinary, but perhaps, like everyone’s, fallible. At the start of his essay on Ludek Pachman, he writes about visiting London for the first time to play in the 1972 Islington Congress. He took the ferry from Hook of Holland and then, apparently, had his papers checked in Brighton. If you take the ferry from Hook of Holland now you’d end up in Harwich, on the east coast, nowhere near Brighton, on the south coast, and, as far as I can tell, it was the same in 1972. Once I find something I don’t believe, I start to question everything else.

If you’re looking for a book which will improve your rating, this isn’t for you as there are no games at all. But, if you’re attracted to human interest stories, Sosonko is essential reading. You might want to invest in all his essay collections, and, if you do so, you probably won’t need this volume. If your interest is mostly in his biographical essays, and you haven’t read them elsewhere, this will be the book for you.

As a hefty 840-page hardback it’s more suited for weight training than for putting in your pocket to read between rounds of your next tournament, so you might opt for the eBook instead. I’d have liked some games, and ideally more photographs than the 32 glossy pages we get here, but this would clearly have been impractical.

A strong recommendation, then, for anyone who’s interested in this aspect of chess and hasn’t read it all before. You can find out more and read sample pages on the publisher’s website here.

 

Richard James, Twickenham 12th April 2024

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Hardcover: 840 pages
  • Publisher: New In Chess (31 May 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9083311287
  • ISBN-13:978-9083311289
  • Product Dimensions: 18.06 x 6.32 x 23.5 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era, Genna Sosonko, New in Chess, June 17th 2023, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9083311287
The Essential Sosonko: Collected Portraits and Tales of a Bygone Chess Era, Genna Sosonko, New in Chess, June 17th 2023, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9083311287
 Save as PDF

Dragon Masters – The Life and Times of The Fiercest Opening in Chess Volume 1

From the Publisher, Thinkers Publishing:

DragonMasters volume 1 charts the history of the most exciting and dangerous opening known to chess – the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense.

Unlike almost all other books on the Dragon, the focus is not purely on theoretical development. Instead, the author has combined the most historically important games, the famous players who chose to fight either side (sometimes both sides!) of the opening, and the most unexpected and interesting stories featuring the Dragon. World Champions, contenders of the crown, code-breakers, revolutionaries in every sense of the world – all feature in this remarkable and entirely unique look into the history of an opening variation. as the ancient may say: Here be Dragons!

About the Author:

Andrew Burnett is a Scottish FM who represented his country on several occasions. He is the author of cult classic Streetfighting Chess and his love of the Dragon opening stretches back to his teenage years when he was looking to escape 1.e4 e5! He is currently working on the second volume of DragonMasters.

This book is volume 1 of a labour of love devoted to the history, praxis, and famous players who have unleashed the fury of the Dragon Variation or fought to quench the fire of the wyvern.

Volume 1 covers the origin of the Dragon to 1973.

The front and back cover is an engaging, colourful picture.

This publication is not a theoretical treatise on the latest developments in the Sicilian Dragon, although it does give theoretical analyses in relation to historical variations and famous clashes with some references to modern variations and theory.

Many great players have had the Dragon in their regular repertoire, although the reviewer was surprised to find a game of Mikhail Tal’s on the black side, as I had the impression that Tal always preferred the white side.  Perhaps the result of the game in this book influenced Tal’s choice: he got crushed. The reviewer will show this amusing brevity later.

The author, Andrew Burnett has a sub-variation in the Modern Variation 12.Kb1 named after him viz:

  1. e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Ne5 12. Kb1! Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4! b5 15.b3! b4!?
Burnett_Variation
Burnett Variation

The work is divided into fifteen chapters:

Chapter 1 – In the beginning
Chapter 2 – Bird’s Folly
Chapter 3 – The World’s Finest Discover The Dragon
Chapter 4 – DragonMasters and DragonAmateurs
Chapter 5 – Hypermodernism and beyond
Chapter 6 – Botvinnik’s Trilogy
Chapter 7 – The War Years
Chapter 8 – The Post-War Years
Chapter 9 – When Giants take sides
Chapter 10 – Revolution in the 60s?
Chapter 11 – The Yugoslav Attack
Chapter 12 – DragonMasters and DragonWriters
Chapter 13 – Candidates and Contenders
Chapter 14 – The English Connection
Chapter 15 – The Dragon is Dead! Long Live the Dragon?

In the preface, Andrew Burnett shows a famous Dragon game which inspired the author to take up the Dragon; it also happens to be one of my favourites viz. Plaskett – Watson from Brighton 1983:

  1. e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.g4 Be6 10.O-O-O Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Qa5 12. a3 Rfc8 13.h4 Rab8 14.h5 b5 15.h6  b4! 16. hxg7 bxa3 17. Qh6 axb2+ 18.Kd2 reaching this super sharp scenario:
Plaskett - Watson Brighton 1983
Plaskett – Watson Brighton 1983

This position had been included in some theoretical treatises of the time with the +- symbol as White’s threat of Bxf6 and Qxh7# looks unstoppable. Jonathon Mestel had looked further and spotted 18…Bxg4! which muddies the waters. (As an aside, Stockfish 16 gives 18…Bxg4! as a draw and 18…Nh5! as a draw. This just shows the richness of chess and amazing hidden resources.)

19.Bxf6 Bh5!  Simply blocking the h-file, giving Black time to continue with his attack. Jim Plaskett now goes wrong which is unsurprising as he must have been shocked by Black’s revelation.

20. Bd4? losing but only 20.Rxh5! equalises

Plaskett-Watson20.Rxh5
Plaskett-Watson 20.Rxh5!

Best play after 20.Rxh5! leads to an unexpected repetition draw viz:

20…gxh5 21. Bh3 exf6 22. Bxc8 (22.Bf5? Qxc3+ 23.Ke2 Qxc2!+ 24. Rd2 Qc4+ 25.Kf2 Qc5+ 26. Kg2 Qxf5 27. exf5 b1=Q winning for Black). 22…Rxc8 23.Qxf6 Qb4! 24.Rb1 a5 threatening a4-a3-a2 25.Kd3 (threatening Nd5) Qc4+ 26.Kd2 Qb4 27.Kd3 with a draw!

Plaskett-Watson Variation
Plaskett-Watson Variation

As is so often the case in these double edged lines, the game fizzles out to an exciting draw. Brilliant stuff.

The game continuation was a massacre 20…e5! 21.Rxh5 gxh5 22. Qg5 Qb4 23.Bd3 Qxd4 24. Nd5 Qf2+ 25. Be2 Rxc2+ 26.Kxc2 Qxe2+ 27.Kc3 Qxf3+ 28.Kc4 Qb3#

Plaskett-Watson End
Plaskett-Watson End

Chapter 1 introduces the first games featuring a Sicilian with a black, kingside fianchetto.

The reviewer was under the false impression that Louis Paulsen was the first to play a Sicilian with a kingside fianchetto. Although Paulsen did play some Dragons including beating Steinitz in London in 1862, it was Marmaduke Wyvill who played the first recorded “high-level Dragon” in 1851 at the celebrated London International tournament. We all remember Adolf Anderssen winning that tournament but do we recall whom he defeated in the final? It was Wyvill.

Some of these first Sicilian fianchetto games don’t resemble the modern Sicilian Dragon move orders and are full of basic strategic mistakes but do give insights into the development of the variation and the Sicilian defence in general. Game 3 of the book demonstrates Paulsen’s win over Steinitz with an hyper accelerated Dragon although he was lost out of the opening!

Louis Paulsen was one of the great pioneers of the Sicilian Defence, not just developing the variation named after him.

Chapter 2 concentrates on Henry Bird’s contribution to early Dragon Praxis.

He was the first player to play the modern Dragon move order:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6

As the author points out, his score with the Dragon was 16 losses, 10 wins and 9 draws which is not brilliant, but taking into account he was playing against the world’s best, it is a respectable Dragon legacy.

Game 7 shows a titanic struggle with Joseph Blackburne. This is the position after the opening:

Blackburne-Bird
Blackburne-Bird

This could be a modern game with white playing a fairly inept Classical Variation, but making sensible developing moves leaving the main struggle to the middlegame. Bird played the somewhat dubious 14…Qh5?! (better is the natural 14…Nd7 which is clearly equal). Blackburne responded with the impatient move 15.Bxf6 (Simply 15.Qf2 or 15.Rd3 leaves white with a slightly more comfortable position) 15…Bxf5 16.Nd5 Qe5 is equal. The players fought out a exciting draw to move 77. Buy the book to the see the game.

Chapter 3 introduces some of the first games with top players riding the Dragon such as Emmanuel Lasker.

This chapter features some greats such as Tarrasch, Pillsbury and Emmanuel Lasker playing the Dragon at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The game below shows a typical Dragon trap.

Brody – Pillsbury Paris 1900

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 d6 6.Be2  g6 7.Be3 Bg7 8.0-0 Bd7 9. h3 Qa5

Brody-Pillsbury
Brody-Pillsbury

White now played a natural looking move  that loses 10.Qd2?? Ne4! 11.Nc6 Qxc3! (Easy to overlook) 12.Qxc3 Nxc3 13. bxc3 Bxc6 (Black is completely winning, a pawn up with a much better pawn structure)

Brody-Pillsbury-11...Qxc3
Brody-Pillsbury-11…Qxc3

Chapter 4 shows some early games with masters v amateurs.

The first game in this chapter is famous tussle Lasker – Napier at Cambridge Springs 1904. This game is an extremely tactical queenless middlegame and is well worth a look.

Another game covered is a loss by Lasker to a modern idea of an exchange sacrifice on c3 in a simultaneous display. This idea had been seen before but this version is so thematic, it must be shown:

Emmanuel Lasker – Donald MacKay Hampstead 1908

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 d6 7.Be2 Nf6 8.h3 0-0 9.0-0 Bd7 10.f4 a6 11.g4 Rc8 12.f5 Ne5 13.g5

Lasker-MacKay
Lasker-MacKay

13…Rxc3! (Winning as White’s position falls apart) 14. bxc3 Nxe4 15.Bd3 Nxc3 16.Qe1 Nxd3 17.Qd3 Nc5 18.f6!? (A desperate try)

Lasker-MacKay-18.f6
Lasker-MacKay-18.f6

18…exf6 19.gxf6 Ne4 (19…Bxf6 wins as well) and Black won on move 34.

Chapter 5 features the introduction of two major Dragon lines.

They are 10…Qc8 in the Classical Variation and the DragonDorf played by another great Sicilian pioneer Miguel Najdorf.

The first variation is shown with a famous game Reti -Tartakower

Dragon-Classical-Tartakower-Var
Dragon-Classical-Tartakower-Var

The game continued 11.h3 Ne8 ?! (A modern master would shudder at this move, the natural 11…Rd8 is better, Reti won a good positional game)

The game Reissner – Najdorf from Warsaw 1934 introduces the Dragadorf which Simon Williams reintroduced many decades later.

The game began 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 a6? (Black cannot play this slowly after castling, if Black wishes to play this way, he must not castle early).

Dragadorf-Castle-Too-Early
Dragadorf Castling too early

Stockfish already gives White a big advantage. Najdorf did win this game as White did not play incisively enough. See the book to look at these two interesting games.

Chapter 6 features the famous Alekhine-Botvinnik melee from Nottingham 1936 resulting in an exciting short draw.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be2 Bg7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Nb3 0-0 9.f4 Be6 10.g4!? (The Rabinovich Attack)

Rabinovich-Attack
Rabinovich-Attack

10…d5!? (The modern preference is for 10…Rc8 when Black may already be better) 11.f5 Bc8 12.exd5 Nb4

Rabinovich-Attack-12.Nb4
Rabinovich-Attack-12…Nb4

A critical position 13.d6!? (13.Bf3! is much stronger leading to a significant White advantage) 13…Qxd6 (leading to a forced perpetual) 14. Bc5 Qf4! 15.Rf1 Qxh2 16.Bxb4 Nxg4 17.Bxg4 Qg3+ 18. Rf2 (Any winning attempt is suicidal) Qg1+ 19.Rf1 Qg3+ 20.Rf2 Qg1+ Draw agreed

Chapter 7 introduces the Levenfish Variation with Mikhail Tal falling victim.

Game 31 showcases the game that introduced the Levenfish Variation at the highest level: Levenfish – Rabinovich Leningrad 1939. The author’s commentary on this game is full of excellent analysis showing many of the traps in the Levenfish and some brilliant white victories. Two of the greatest attacking players have games in this variation  including  a crushing win by Nezhmetdinov and a crushing loss for Tal. First the Tal miniature:

Janis Klavins – Mikhail Tal Riga 1954

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4

Levenfish-Variation
Levenfish-Variation

6…Nc6! (6…Bg7!? is dangerous for Black, but just about playable with care, but 6…Nc6 equalises easily, so why play an inferior risky move?)

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8. e5 (This looks dangerous but is a paper tiger) Nd7! 9.exd6 exd6 10.Be3

Levenfish-Variation-10.Be3
Levenfish-Variation-10.Be3

10…Qe7?! (10…Be7 is slightly better for black already, the pawn on f4 weakens White’s position) 11.Qd4! Nf6?! (11…Bg7 is hardly better: 12.Qxg7 Qxe3+ 13.Be2 Rf8 14.Rf1 Nb6 15.Rd1 is better for white despite white’s king on e1 as Black is behind in development and has a weaker pawn structure with black squared weaknesses.) 12.0-0-0 Bg7

Levenfish-Variation-Start-of-Crushing-Attack
Levenfish-Variation-Start-of-Crushing-Attack

White has a significant lead in development which he exploits ruthlessly in the style of his opponent:

13.Qxd6! (sacrificing a piece with check) Qxe3+ 14.Kb1 Bd7? (14…Qb6! makes it harder for White but his attack is just too strong) 15.Bb5! (A classic clearance: 15…cxb5 16.Rhe1 wins the queen and although Black has a rook and two bishops for the queen and pawn, his lack of development is fatal) 15…Qb6 16.Rhe1+ Kd8 17.Bxc6 Rb8 (threatening mate but too late) 18. Qe7+ Kc7 19.Rxd7+ Kc8

Mate-in-4
Mate-in-4

20.Bb5 (20.Nb5! is quicker mating in four moves, Klavins chooses a prosaic win going into a trivially won endgame) Rb7 21.Rxb7 Qxb7 22.Qxb7+ 1-0

Now the Nezhmetdinov game:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4 Bg7?! (Risky) 7.e5!  dxe5? (The only decent move here is the surprising 7…Nh5 with the idea 8.g4? Nxf4 9.Bxf4 dxe5 regaining the piece with interest, better for White is 8.Bb5+ Bd7 9.Qe2! with an edge as Black still has to solve the problem of the h5 knight, 9.e6!? looks good but 9…fxe6 10.Nxe6 Bxc3+ 11.bxc3 Qc8! is a mess but dynamically equal) 8.fxe5 (This is a very dangerous position for the unwary)

Levenfish Danger
Levenfish after 8.fxe5

8…Nd5? (8…Ng4?? 9.Bb5+ wins 9…Bd7 10.Qxg4 wins a piece or 9…Kf8 10.Ne6+ wins the queen. 8…Nfd7 is relatively best 9.e6! Ne5! 10.exf7+ gives a White a pleasant edge but Black can fight) 9.Bb5+ Kf8 10. 0-0 (Black is totally lost) Bxe5 (accelerating the inevitable defeat, and allowing an attractive finish, 10…Nc6 lasts longer) 11.Bh6+ Kg8 12. Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Nf5! Qc5+ 14.Be3 Qc7 15.Nh6+ 1-0

Levenfish-13.Nf5
Levenfish-13.Nf5!

Chapter 8 features a famous victory by a British player, William Winter over David Bronstein in the England – USSR radio match in 1946.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0 9.Nb3!? (Not the most challenging line) 9…Be6 10.Nd5 Bxe6 (Stockfish also likes 10…Rc8 with both moves giving Black a slight edge, but removing the pesky knight now is understandable) 11.exd5 Ne5

Bronstein-Winter-11...Ne5
Bronstein-Winter-11…Ne5

12. Be2? (12.0-0-0 is better but Black is at least equal) Qc7 13.0-0 (13…a5! is also good but the move played is an obvious thematic Sicilian move) Nc4 14.Bxc4 Qxc4 15. Rad1?! (The wrong rook, White needs the queen’s rook on the queenside for defence, showing how badly the game is going)  15…Rfc8! 16.Rf2 Nd7 (16…a5! increases Black’s advantage to decisive proportions) 17.Bg5!? (Trying to mix things up, but 17.c3 is better, then Black has 17…a5 with a typical Sicilian initiative and advantage) 17..Bxb2 18.Bxe7 Nb6? (Bronstein’s gamble with Bg5 has paid off as Black goes wrong, much better is 18…Bc3! 19.Qd3 Qb4 maintains a big Black advantage) 19.Bxd6 Rd8

Bronstein-Winter-20.Na5
Bronstein-Winter-20.Na5

20. Na5?? (A horrible move losing the game, 20.Qb4 or 20.Qf4 holds the balance) 20…Qa6! 21.Qf4 Rxd6 22.c4 Bg7 23.Rfd2 Bh6 24. Rd3 Rad8 25.a4 Bf6 26.Qb5 Qxb5 27.axb5 R6d7 0-1

Chapter 9 introduces some giants into the mix with players such as the great Soviet theoretician Efim Geller who played the Dragon with both colours, and the great Bobby Fischer who was a veritable St George. Fischer famously lost against Cesar Munoz, a Ecuadorean National Master: this game is definitely worth a look.

This chapter also includes the famous Fischer – Larsen clash from Portoroz 1958.  The game is in a line that has become topical recently:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Nxd4 10.Bxd4 Be6 11.Bb3 Qa5 12.0-0-0 b5 13.Kb1 b4 14.Nd5 14…Bxd5

Fischer-Larsen-Portoroz
Fischer-Larsen Portoroz 1958

15.Bxd5 (Not best, better is15.exd5! Qb5 16.Rhe1 a5 17.Qe2! Tal, M-Larsen, B Zürich 1959)

Tal-Larsen-Zurich-1959
Tal-Larsen 17.Qe2 Zurich-1959

This position used to be thought to be slightly better for White with the bishop pair and pressure along the e-file. Modern engines dispute this and reckon Black is more or less equal viz:

17… Qxe2 18.Rxe2 a4 19.Bc4 Rfc8 20.b3 (20Bb5?! Ra5=) Rc7= 21.Bb5 axb3 22.cxb3 Ra5 23.Bc4 Rb7 = (Stockfish gives White a tiny advantage)

Now back to the main game.

15…Rac8?! (Much better is 15…Nxd5 16.Bxg7 Nc3!!+ 17.Bxc3 bxc3 18.Qxc3 Qxc3 19.bxc3 Rfc8 20.Rd3 Rc5 =, or 17.bxc3 Rab8! 18.cxb4 Qxb4+ 19.Qxb4 Rxb4+ 20.Bb2 Rfb8=)

16.Bb3! and Fischer won a great game.

Chapter 10 introduces the famous Soltis Variation.

It may not be widely known, but in 1963  Heikki Westerinen introduced the Dragon Soltis Variation to the world, 8 years before Andrew Soltis popularised the variation named after him. This is the stem position:

Soltis-Variation
Soltis-Variation

Westerinen played this line against Bent Larsen, who was one of the protagonists who played the Dragon with both colours. He lost the game, but his opening and early middlegame were fine as he achieved a winning position by move 20: he was outplayed later by a world class player. Buy the book to see analysis of this ground breaking game.

Chapter 11 introduces  Geller on the Black side and Anatoly Karpov as a chief Dragon slayer. His game against Gik in the Moscow University championship in 1968 is one of Karpov’s best games.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Bc4 Nc6 9.Qd2 Qa5 10.0-0-0 Bd7 11.h4 Ne5 12.Bb3 Rfc8 13.h5 Nxh5 14.Bh6 Bxh6 15.Qxh6 Rxc3 16.bxc3

Karpov-Gik-Moscow-1968
Karpov-Gik-Moscow-1968

In this position below Gik made a fatal mistake: 16…Qxc3 no doubt expecting 17.Kb1, so 17.Ne2 came as a rude awakening gaining a crucial tempo, both 16…Nf6 and 16…Rc8 equalise comfortably.

The book analyses this theoretical scuffle in detail.

Chapter 12 is devoted mainly to famous Dragon writers: David Levy and Andrew Soltis.

David Levy, the Scottish IM famously wrote two editions of the Batsford books The Sicilian Dragon. Here Levy faces the former World Champion, Boris Spassky who is in devastating form:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Qb8?! (A trendy line at the time, which is almost certainly unsound, Stockfish does not rate it.)

Spassky-Levy
Spassky-Levy

11.h4! a5? (This is a horrible move, it loses quickly, Stockfish recommends 11..Ne5 12.Bb3 h5 trying to slow down the attack in Soltis style, but Black’s misplaced queen renders this fruitless) 12.Bh6!? (Not the very best, the simple 12.h5 is even stronger winning quickly) 12…Nxe4? (Black pushes his luck with a flawed combination, better was 12…Nxd4 13.h5! Be6 14.Bxg7 Kxg7 14.Qxd4 with a big plus for White) 13. Nxe4 Bxd4 14.h5! (With a huge winning attack)

Spassky-Levy-14.h5
Spassky-Levy-14.h5

14…d5 (Desperation, trying to get the queen into the defence) 15.Bxd5 Qxe5 16.Bxf8! (Simple and effective) 16…Qxd5 17.Qh6! Nb4 18.Rxd4! (Removing the last defender) Qxd4 19.Bxe7 1-0

An opening experiment crushed by an attacking great!

Chapter 13 is mainly devoted to two fascinating clashes between Efim Geller and Viktor Korchnoi in their Candidates match in 1971 in Moscow. It also reintroduces Anatoly Karpov who is undoubtedly one of the greatest Dragon slayers, shown in action in a famous tussle with Juergen Dueball at Skopje in 1972.  It was Karpov’s endgame skill that won him that game.

The first Geller – Korchnoi shows the good old exchange sacrifice on c3 in all its glory.

Geller-Korchnoi-Moscow-1971
Geller-Korchnoi-Moscow-1971

White played the poor 12.Bh6?! provoking Black. 12…Bxh6! 13.Qxh6 Rxc3! 14.bxc3  a5! (14…Qc7 is fine as well)

Black is equal here and has a position that is easier and more fun to play. The game was eventually drawn, but Black achieved a winning game but threw it away in mutual time trouble.

Chapter 14 introduces one of the great Dragon specialists, the late and great Tony Miles.

Here is a exciting scrap with another future GM, Michael Stean.

Michael Stean – Tony Miles Hastings 73/74

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Bc4 Nc6 9.Qd2 Bd7 10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5 13.Kb1 Nc4 14.Bxc4 Rxc4 15.Nde2 Qc7 !? (An attempt to avoid the main line theory, 15…b5 is the main line which equalises comfortably as played by Kasparov against Anand 16.Bh6 Qa5 =)

Stean-Miles-15.Qc7
Stean-Miles-15.Qc7

16.Bh6 Be6 17.Bxg7 Kxg7 18.Nf4 Qa5 (This position is equal, but Stean comes up with a faulty plan) 19.Nxe6+ (19.Nce2 is equal) fxe6 20.Rh3?! (20.Ne2 is still equal) Rfc8 21.Rg3?

Rxc3! (Now Black is better) 22.bxc3 Rc6 23.Rg5 e5! (Cutting the rook off)

Stean-Miles-23...e5
Stean-Miles-23…e5

Now Black is slightly better, somehow Miles contrived to lose this game.

Chapter 15 is devoted to one of the most famous gladiatorial contests in the Sicilian Dragon: Anatoly Karpov v Viktor Korchnoi Moscow 1974 game 2 of the Candidates final. The winner was to play Bobby Fischer.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.h4 Rc8 11.Bb3 Ne5 12.0-0-0 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.h5 Nxh5 15.g4 Nf6 16.Nde2 !?

Karpov-Korchnoi-16.Nde2
Karpov-Korchnoi-16.Nde2

At the time, the position before 16.Nde2 was a topical Dragon tabiya. Korchnoi played the natural reply which is already a mistake.

16…Qa5 (16…Re8 is much better and about equal) 17.Bh6 Bxh6 (17…Bh8 18.Bxf8 Kxf8 19.Qe3 is clearly better for White) 18.Qxh6 Rfc8 19.Rd3 R4c5? (The final mistake, 19…Be6 20. 20.g5 Nxh5 21. Nf4 Qe5 22.Nxh5 gxh5 23. Qxh5 Qg7 24.f4 with a clear advantage to White) 20.g5! (Winning) Rxg5 21.Rd5! Rxd5 22.Nxd5 Re8 23.Nef4 Bc6 24.e5!+- Bxd5 25.exf6 exf6 26.Qxh7+ Kf8 27.Qh8+ 1-0 (27… Ke7 28.Nxd5+ Qxd5 29.Re1+)

It is quite possible that the whole game was prepared analysis.

This game really knocked the Dragon for six, but the Dragoneers soon came up with an antidote 16…Re8.

In summary, this is a well thought out book and an enjoyable read with plenty of exciting, fighting chess. Although it is a history of the Dragon, that story is really a microcosm of the development of modern chess from 1850 onwards.

FM Richard Webb, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1st April 2024

FM Richard Webb
FM Richard Webb

Book Details :

  • Hardcover : 385 pages
  • Publisher:Thinkers Publishing; 1st edition (5 Mar. 2024)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9464201959
  • ISBN-13:  978-9464201956
  • Product Dimensions: 17.78 x 3.18 x 24.77 cm

Official web site of Thinkers Publishing

Dragon Masters - The Life and Times of The Fiercest Opening in Chess Volume 1, Andrew Burnett, Thinkers Publishing, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9464201959
Dragon Masters – The Life and Times of The Fiercest Opening in Chess Volume 1, Andrew Burnett, Thinkers Publishing, ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9464201959
 Save as PDF

Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach

From the Batsford web site:

Lessons, motivation and coaching to make you a better chess player.

In an ideal world, any aspiring chess player, at almost any level, would get better with a coach. If that’s not possible, having chess champion coach Thomas Engqvist’s book at your side is the next best thing.

In his series of lessons, Engqvist guides you through not only the most important elements of chess to master but also the psychology, how to marry knowledge with imagination, and how to stay motivated.

Suitable for older children through to adults, the lessons are drawn from chess games through history, from the 16th century to Magnus Carlsen and latest Alpha Zero computer chess. (Reviewer’s note: it doesn’t actually include Alpha Zero, stopping at Carlsen.) It features a range of key players, including Steinitz, Lasker, Nimzowistch, Botvinnik (Soviet chess school), and Fischer. With clear and accessible annotations to give clarity, the games highlight the most important lessons to learn and, just as importantly, how to ‘practise’ chess.

International Master Thomas Engqvist has travelled the world teaching and coaching chess to a very high level for decades – and with this book, he can be your coach too.”

About the Author (updated from the publisher’s website):

“Thomas Engqvist is an International Master from Sweden. He has 45 years’ experience as a chess coach and teacher. He has worked with players at world championship level in both junior and correspondence chess. He is the author of 300 Most Important Chess Positions, 300 Most Important Tactical Chess Positions and 300 Most Important Chess Exercises, all published by Batsford.

 

From the back cover:

Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach gives you the opportunity to assimilate the most important chess principles and concepts by following a study plan based on key encounters by over 30 great players.

With lessons from more than 60 instructive games in chronologically arranged chapters, this is the perfect guide for players who want to gain a broad knowledge of chess history and its evolution, but don’t have time to spend hours in what can be unproductive reading.

Featured in each chapter is a highly influential grandmaster who has played his part in developing chess into what it is today. There can be no more enjoyable way to improve your own play than to absorb your personal coach’s explanatory commentaries to exemplary games of past and present chess heroes, including Magnus Carlsen. In this way centuries of accumulated understanding of chess can be learned in just a few weeks.

By adopting the same tactics and strategies as demonstrated by these champions, you can also keep track of your own chess development by comparing it with the overall historical development of chess – and climb the ladder to success.

Swedish International Master Thomas Engqvist has approximately 45 years experience as a chess coach, teacher, writer and player. He has successfully worked with players at world championship level in both junior and correspondence chess.

 

What we have here is a book covering the history of chess ideas in chronological fashion, starting with Ruy Lopez and finishing with Magnus Carlsen. It’s hardly an original idea: the first book of this type was Richard Réti’s Masters of the Chessboard, and there have been quite a few others since then: off the top of my head I’ve reviewed a couple of them here myself. The second Chess Heroes: Games book will take a similar approach (using some of the games from Move Two!), but pitched at a much lower level.

I’d say from the outset is that if you’re knowledgeable about the subject, and have read similar books before, you’re probably already familiar with many of the games displayed by Engqvist here.

But if you’re a club standard player with little knowledge of the history of your favourite game you should certainly read on.

Most of the subjects are represented by just one game, so we quickly whizz through the likes of Greco (‘the first tactical player’), Philidor (‘the first positional player’) and even Morphy until we reach Steinitz (‘the scientific player’), the first of four players to be considered in rather more detail.

According to Engqvist:

The basis of Steinitz’s teachings is to construct a plan which is in accordance with the requirements of the position. These requirements could be an advantage in development, a strong centre, open files etc. One should gather such advantages, one by one, as preparation for an attack. This is the so-called theory of accumulation.

This theory is demonstrated by the following game. As always, click on any move for a pop-up window.

Engqvist adds after the game:

This is why such classic games are much more instructive than modern games. Steinitz’s opponents didn’t realise or didn’t want to realise what he was doing, whereas today’s more knowledgeable players do know – because they have studied such “one-sided” but very instructive classic games.

You might disagree – but I don’t.

Lasker (‘pragmatism and psychology’), the star of the next chapter, also receives special treatment.

In this instructive game, where he defeats Rubinstein’s IQP, he uses the ‘pivot square’ d5 in a variety of ways.

It is indeed a game to be understood in depth and learned by heart, because the idea of a pivot being a source of energy can be used in an untold number of situations.

Engqvist quotes Nimzowitsch’s comments on this game with approval, and makes it very clear throughout the  book that Nimzo is one of his chess heroes.

Although he only gets one game (yes, it’s the Immortal Zugzwang game), the author has this to say:

Nimzowitsch is just as important as Steinitz, since his principles do complement those of his predecessor, However, to appreciate Nimzowitsch’s precepts in depth one needs to also properly understand Steinitz’s classical principles, otherwise the true meaning of Nimzowitsch’s theories will be lost.

and:

In my opinion (reading Nimzowitsch) is much more important than learning from computers, which are very bad teachers indeed, and sometimes incomprehensible. Nimzowitsch must be regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever, teachers…

Controversial, perhaps, and you might well think he’s overstating his case.

The other two subjects awarded more extensive treatment are, predictably, Capablanca (‘The Chess Machine’) and Alekhine (‘The Complete Chess Artist’).

From then on it’s just one game each, even for giants such as Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. right the way through to Carlsen.

Here’s the game used to illustrate Fischer (‘The Aggressive Classical Player’).

Engqvist:

This game is one of Fischer’s best and it is remarkable that he was only 16 years old when it was played. It proves that he was a genius. The good news is that Fischer’s style is possible to emulate,  because it it largely based on positional technique à la Capablanca,  which to a high degree can be learned.

It’s clear from this book, as well as from the author’s earlier volumes, that Thomas Engqvist is an exceptional writer, teacher and annotator. He has also made extensive use of a wide range of secondary sources (but, sadly, he fails the Yates test: he was Fred (Dewhirst), not Frederick Dewhurst). Each chapter is prefaced by a series of quotes by or about its subject, which in itself makes fascinating reading. Computer analysis has been used to correct analytical errors made by earlier authors, but this is done judiciously: he doesn’t go over the top in providing reams of engine generated variations. You might, I suppose, disagree with some of his views, especially on Nimzowitsch, but that’s part of the enjoyment you’ll get from the book. You might also think there’s some simplification and generalisation, but that’s inevitable in a book of this nature.

The production values are, of their type, excellent. The book, like others from this publisher, has a reassuringly old-fashioned look about it. While younger readers may well prefer something glossier and glitzier, it’s not likely to be a problem for those, like me, of the Batsford generation.

Many publishers these days prefer more interactivity, with puzzles at the start of each chapter, or, with annotated games, stopping every few moves to ask you a question. There’s none of that here, just solid, accurate and instructive comments. Different readers will prefer different styles of annotation. The one concession to interactivity is a couple of quizzes with questions like What was Ponziani’s opinion of the theories of Philidor and del Rio?, which I could really do without as they’re testing memory rather than understanding.

I had two other thoughts when reading this book. I often wonder whether chess authors are writing the book they wanted to write or the book the publishers thought would sell. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my impression was that Engqvist really wanted to write something like The 60 Most Instructive Positional Games rather than a book with a historical perspective offering, for the most part, one game per star player.

I also wonder what exactly the market is for this book. Younger readers, if they want a book at all, might prefer something with a more modern feel, while older readers might have seen many of the games before.

But, if you’re, say, 1500-2000 strength, you’re serious about improving your chess and you’re happy with the style and contents, you won’t go wrong with this excellent book from one of the best authors and teachers around.

Richard James, Twickenham 14th February 2024

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Batsford; 1st edition (13 April 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:1849947511
  • ISBN-13:978-1849948043
  • Product Dimensions: 15.04 x 2.01 x 23.04 cm

Official web site of Batsford

Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach, Thomas Engqvist, Batsford, 13th April 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1849948043
Chess Lessons from a Champion Coach, Thomas Engqvist, Batsford, 13th April 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1849948043
 Save as PDF

The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston

From the publishers’ blurb:

“This is what’s new in this edition: More accurate and more extensive annotations, computer-assisted. Every game has been examined under Stockfish 14, probably the best analytical engine available for home computers at this time. For the first edition we had only Fritz 4 and 5, which compare to Stockfish like a Model T Ford to a Ferrari, and many games were given no computer examination at all. Thus owners of the first edition will find most annotations here substantially different (and substantially better). However, many general assessments and heuristic notes proved valid and have been retained. ·

Torre’s own annotations to several games have been unearthed and added. These come from several sources: the American Chess Bulletin, his book of the 1926 Mexican Championship tournament, and his instructional booklet Development of Chess Ability. ·

Several games have been added. Some, frankly, are Torre losses, which we give in the interest of presenting a more complete, balanced picture of his play. The first edition, to some extent, looked at Torre through rose-colored glasses; here we aim only for untinted clarity. Also added are the six games between players other than Torre that he annotated for the Mexican Championship tournament book (see Chapter VIII). ·

There are many more diagrams and photographs than in the first edition. Also more thumbnail bios of Torre’s opponents. ·

More ancillary material about Torre’s life and career: pictures, anecdotes, interesting facts, opinions, bits of trivia etc., drawn from the ACB, the Wiener Schachzeitung, the film Torre x Torre, and other sources. ·

A 1927 interview with Torre, published in the Yucatán magazine Anahuac, in Chapter III. ·

Chapter IV, excerpts from the book 64 Variaciones Sobre un Tema de Torre by his friend Germán de la Cruz.”

About the Authors

Taylor Kingston (born 1949) has been a chess enthusiast since his teens. He holds a Class A over-the-board USCF rating, and was a correspondence master in the 1980s, but his greatest love is the game’s history. His historical articles have appeared in Chess Life, New In Chess, Inside Chess, Kingpin, and the web-site www.ChessCafe.com. He has edited and/or co-authored dozens of chess books, and translated three from Spanish, including the original Mexican edition of Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre. He lives with his wife Emily in Paso Robles, California.

Taylor Kingston
Taylor Kingston

Gabriel Velasco (born 1949 in Mexico City) is a a professor of mathematics and author of over twenty books on mathematics. He has been a chess enthusiast since age 15. Besides Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre, he is the author of Masterpieces of Attack (Chess Digest, 1990), presenting the best games of the late GM Marcel Sisniega Campbell. Velasco lived in Kiev 1985-1987 and shared 1st-3rd prize in a tournament of Candidate Masters and First Category players, earning thereby a norm of Candidate Master of the Soviet Union. Back in Mexico, he won the championship of the state of Guanajuato. He is now retired and lives in Mexico City with his wife and his son Richard, who was was given that name in honor of Richard Réti.

 

You probably know a few things about Carlos Torre. (In the interests of cultural sensitivity we now refer to people from some Spanish speaking countries by their first name, father’s surname and mother’s surname, so he’s now Carlos Torre Repetto, although I’ll refer to him just as Torre in the rest of this review.)

You may know he lost a Famous Game against the otherwise unknown EZ Adams. As always, click on any move for a pop-up window.

A beautiful game, to be sure, and one which is great if you want to teach combinations based on back rank mates. But it almost certainly wasn’t lost by Torre. As explained here on pp484-485, it was quite likely to be analysis which Torre published as a loss against his first teacher, Edwin Ziegler Adams, for whom he had great affection.

The next thing you probably know about Torre is that he won a Famous Game against the not at all unknown Emanuel Lasker.

Again, the finish is a great example of a windmill combination which everyone should know. But it wasn’t, as is demonstrated here (pp356-361) a very good game. Lasker, perhaps distracted by the receipt of a telegram, could have won material with 22… f6 and 23… Qd5 was a losing error.

The third thing you might know about Torre is that he invented the Torre Attack (1. d4, 2. Nf3, 3. Bg5), as he played in this game. The opening bears his name because of his usage here and in other games, but it had been played many times before.

Carlos Torre Repetto played some much better games than this in his very short international career. If you’re eager to find out more, you’ll want to read this book.

Vida y Partidas de Carlos Torre, written by Gabriel Velasco, was published in 1993. Taylor Kingston, working with Velasco, translated and expanded this book, which was then published in 2000. I think I may have a copy somewhere, so perhaps you do as well.

Now we have a Second Edition, expanded further by Kingston.

All the games have been re-annotated using Stockfish 14, some more games have been added, we have more diagrams, photographs and biographical details of Torre’s opponents, as well as a wealth of fascinating supplementary material.

Carlos Torre Repetto was born in the Yucatán province of Mexico on 29 November 1904, and, in 1916, the family moved to New Orleans where, under the mentorship of Edwin Ziegler Adams, he made rapid progress in chess.

In 1924 he travelled to New York in search of stronger opposition. After achieving some local successes he travelled to Detroit, representing New York in the Western Chess Association Championship. Here he scored a spectacular success, finishing unbeaten on 14/16, 2½ points ahead of his nearest rivals and 3 points ahead of the even younger Sammy Reshevsky.

The following spring, Torre crossed the Atlantic to take part in the Baden-Baden congress, where, crossing swords with the likes of Alekhine and Rubinstein, he scored a creditable 10½/20. The authors comment that Carlos Torre played somewhat nervously in his international debut. While attaining a respectable 10th place (out of 21), he clearly was more concerned with not losing rather than trying to win.

He then continued, with only a few days in between the two events, to Marienbad, where he played with more confidence, sharing third place with Marshall on 10/15, half a point behind the winners Nimzovich and Rubinstein.

That autumn he took part in his third international tournament of the year, in Moscow. A score of 12/20 left him sharing 5th-6th places with Tartakower, behind Bogoljubow (his greatest tournament result), Lasker (whom he beat in the above game), Capablanca and Marshall. Here, he started strongly but faded in the last few rounds.

However, his game from the penultimate round was one of his best: a delightful minor masterpiece, according to the authors.

He stayed on in the Soviet Union over the New Year, playing in a small quadrangular tournament in Leningrad, where, still tired from his exertions in Moscow, he only managed 50%.

He then returned to Mexico for the first time in more than a decade, winning their national championship with a 100% score. His next tournament was the Western Masters in Chicago, which, as well as most of the top American players, was given an international flavour by the participation of Maroczy. With one round to go, Torre was half a point ahead of the field, facing Edward Lasker, who was in the bottom half of the field, with white in the last round. He was unable to cope with the pressure, played badly and lost. Marshall came out on top with 8½/12, half a point ahead of Torre and Maroczy.

The final thing you might know about Torre is that he once took his clothes off on a bus. Sadly, it’s true. After this tournament he returned to New York where he suffered a psychotic episode which put an end to his brief tournament chess career. He was also suffering from some sort of eating disorder, perhaps brought on by anxiety. He had always had an immoderate fondness for sweets, sometimes eating a dozen pineapple sundaes in a day, but those who knew him in New York at this time report that he was eating almost nothing but candies and fudge. He then returned to Mexico, living there quietly until his death in 1978 at the age of 73, and retaining his interest in chess to the end.

A sad story, then. Here was a young player of exceptional talent who lacked the temperament for competitive chess. Torre comes across as a sensitive soul who, on the one hand was more interested in the beauty of his games than the result, but, on the other hand, was hampered by anxiety which caused him on some occasions to play too cautiously, and, on other occasions, to tire easily and make mistakes.

If you’re interested in chess in the 1920s you’ll certainly want to read this excellent book. You won’t be disappointed with the production qualities either: it’s a good-looking hardback (also available in paperback) of 588 pages. The Games Section covers most of the book: here you have 110 games annotated using the latest (at the time of writing) engines to ensure accuracy.

One of Torre’s most impressive performances was his draw with the black pieces against Capablanca (Moscow 1925). Not many players were able to hold an inferior ending against the World Champion, but he was able (with one exception which Capa failed to take advantage of) to find a string of ‘only moves’.

The annotations to this game demonstrate the improvements from the first edition.

The first edition of the book offered analysis claiming that White could still win if Black played 37… b6! here, but, with the help of Stockfish, this edition demonstrates that Torre could have drawn by following a very narrow path. After the game continuation 37… Kf5?? 38. Nxb7 Ke6 39. Kd3? (Nc5+ was winning), Torre was – just about – holding.

A few moves later, this position was reached.

The game continued 41. Na6+ Kb6 with an eventual draw. Capablanca claimed after the game that 41. Kc3 was winning, but Bogoljubov, writing in the tournament book, disagreed. The first edition sided with Capa, but now, in the second edition, we learn that it was Bogo who was correct.

Here’s the complete game.

The last 100 pages or so offer a wealth of other material including articles and annotations  by Torre himself. The games included here bring the total up to 128. Anyone with an interest in chess history will relish this part of the book.

If you already have the first English language edition, then, you’ll want to know whether or not to buy this version. If you want more accurate annotations, the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If you want the fascinating additional material, the answer is again ‘yes’. If you just want Torre’s best games, or if you’re of the opinion that historical games shouldn’t be subjected to computer analysis, the answer may well be ‘no’.

Instead of the familiar Informator symbols you instead get assessments such as (+0.61/25), indicating that Stockfish 14, at 25 ply, considers that White has an advantage of .61 of a pawn. I find this interesting, but I’m sure there will be those who disagree.

There are other production issues which might divide opinion. If you’re a completist you’d expect every traceable game played by Torre, which isn’t what you get here. White spaces in the book are filled with cute little cartoons. You might like this, but here I think I prefer the white space.

If you have any interest at all in chess history, chess culture or the psychology of chess players, you shouldn’t hesitate.

Gabriel Velasco, Taylor Kingston and the team at Thinkers Publishing should be congratulated on doing an outstanding job to preserve the memory of Carlos Torre Repetto’s life and all too short chess career.

Richard James, Twickenham 12th January 2024

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details :

  • Softcover: 588 pages
  • Publisher: Thinkers Publishing; 2nd edition (21 Mar. 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:‎ 9464201762
  • ISBN-13:978-9464201765
  • Product Dimensions: 23.88 x 4.06 x 17.27 cm

Official web site of Thinkers Publishing

The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston, Thinkers Publishing, March 21st 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9464201765
The Life and Games of Carlos Torre – 2nd revised and extended edition- Gabriel Velasco & Taylor Kingston, Thinkers Publishing, March 21st 2023, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9464201765
 Save as PDF

Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin

From the publisher:

“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.

Kryakvin writes:

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?

Richard James, Twickenham 30th November 2023

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Softcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: New In Chess (31 January 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9493257819
  • ISBN-13:978-9493257818
  • Product Dimensions: 17.15 x 1.19 x 23.09 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin, Dmitry Kryakvin, New in Chess, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9493257818
Speed Demon: The Fascinating Games and Tragic Life of Alexey Vyzhmanavin, Dmitry Kryakvin, New in Chess, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9493257818
 Save as PDF

The Chess Memory Palace

Blurb from the publisher, Amazon:

Chess players spend hours and hours trying to memorize openings, but even Grandmasters forget their preparation.

Meanwhile, memory competitors routinely memorize thousands of facts and random digits, using special techniques that anyone can learn.

This book explains how to use these memory techniques for chess.

  • Teaches advanced memory techniques from scratch.
  • Contains full worked examples in the Ruy Lopez Exchange and Schliemann Gambit.
  • Ideal for tournament players who want to recall their opening repertoire perfectly.

CONTENTS:
Introduction
1. Picture Notation
2. Essential Memory Techniques
3. Memory Palace Architecture
4. Example Palace: The Schliemann Transit Line
5. Example Palace: The Spanish Exchange Airport
6. Bonus: Memorising Endgames
7. Miscellanea
Notes
Appendix: Picture Words for all 64 Squares

About the Author:

Author of The Chess Memory Palace (2022) and A Curious Letter from Nebuchadnezzar (2021)

 

I don’t know about you, but I like to know something about the author before I read a book. John Holden seems remarkably coy. It’s clear from the book that he’s a memory expert,  but what are his chess credentials?

He tells us in the book that he lives in London, which is a start. His website is johnden.org, and there’s a chess.com user named John Holden whose username is NEDNHOJ (johnden reversed) with a blitz rating round about 900.

There was also a Kent junior on the grading list between 2007 and 2013, when he’d reached 160 (about 1900), who played a few rapidplay tournaments last year, giving him a 1755 rating. Are these the same person? You’d expect someone of that strength to have a higher chess.com rating than 900, especially if he’d put his memory training to good effect.

Is the author, then, either, both or neither?

If you’ve read anything about memory training in the past you’ll be aware of the Memory Palace technique which top competitive memory people use to learn the digits of pi or memorise the order of a shuffled deck of cards.

Here’s the start of the introduction. I have a few questions.

Modern chess requires its players to memorise more and more. “That’s probably the number one thing,” said top grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, “For becoming a really strong grandmaster today you have to have a really good memory because there’s so much to memorise.”

Yes, if you want to become a really strong grandmaster like Nakamura you need a really good memory. But to what extent is this necessary if you’re a 900 online rapid player like NEDNHOJ or a 1755 rapid player like Kent’s John Holden? From my own experience, playing at that level is probably not about that sort of memory at all, and learning openings in that way might even confuse you.

Most of this effort goes on the opening moves, because you have to survive the opening to demonstrate your middlegame and endgame prowess. Although chess players have a good memory for moves, even elite players can struggle to remember their preparation at the board. And it is a constant source of frustration for all of us to spend so much time rehearsing openings.

There are some (teachers as well as players) who recommend that club level players should concentrate on opening study, while others prefer the 20-40-40 rule: 20% of your time on openings, 40% on middlegames and 40% on endings. Some even think that 20% is too high: you’re better off just playing simple openings leading to playable middlegames. One of the examples here is playing White against the Ruy Lopez Schliemann (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 f5). How often are you going to reach this variation?

Meanwhile, a new sport of competitive memory has sprung up, which reaches new heights every year. The record for most numbers memorised in five minutes stands at over 540. In 15 minutes, 1300. A man from India has recited 70,000 digits of pi.

How is this possible? Is it a special photographic memory? Actually no, it’s the disciplined application of memory techniques – and the techniques are surprisingly simple! They tap into our brains’ natural ability to remember places, images and stories. We can all remember our route to work, and we can all understand a story, even when it’s told to us quite fast. The trick is to convert non-memorable information, like a number, into memorable images.

‘… our brains’ natural ability to remember places, images and stories’. You brain might well work like that but not everyone’s does. You might want to look at conditions such as aphantasia (the inability to form mental pictures) which would make techniques like this difficult, or perhaps impossible.

It’s like everything else: some people are very good at this sort of thing, others fairly average and others again will find it very difficult.

Here’s how it works.

We have eight consonant sounds representing the numbers 1 to 8. Therefore, each square can be associated with a word including the sound representing the file (a-h becomes 1-8) followed by the sound representing the rank (1-8). If more than one piece can move to the same square we deal with this through the number of consonants in the word. If more than one piece can move to the same square you use words with different numbers of syllables to determine which piece you should move.

You might possibly recognise this as a position from one of the main lines of the Schliemann.

Just out of interest, looking at some lichess stats (filtered on games with an average rating of 1400+:

  1. e4 e5 (35% in this position)
  2. Nf3 Nc6 (64% in this position)
  3. Bb5 f5 (2% in this position)
  4. Nc3 fxe4 (54% in this position)
  5. Nxe4 d5 (46% in this position: the other main line, Nf6 is slightly more popular)
  6. Nxe5 dxe4 (95% in this position)
  7. Nxg6 Qg5 (62% in this position)
  8. Qe2 Nf6 (93% in this position)
  9. f4 Qxf4 (73% in this position)

Realistically, even if you play the Lopez at every opportunity you won’t get the Schliemann very often, and, even then, many of your opponents will choose alternatives at moves 4 or 5. If you’re just a club standard player I’d advise you to play something sensible like 4. d3 instead and get on with the rest of your life.

Anyway, let’s continue. Your opponent has gone down this line and you have to dig into your memory to remember what happens next.

Black’s last move was Qxf4: your word for f4 is ‘shark’ (f/6 is represented by ch/j/tch/sh, d/4 is represented by r, so you choose a monosyllabic word including these two sounds.)

It’s a sharp variation and you want to remember what to do next so you look into your Memory Palace. There you find a shark biting a jester; a match catching fire and burning a lion’s nose, making the lion roar; and a frog chewing gum. The jester gives you lol (laugh out loud, your word for e5), telling you that you now play 10. Ne5+. Well, hang on a minute. Stockfish slightly prefers Nxa7+, and d4 is by far the most popular choice on lichess, but Ne5+ is also fine, so we’ll let it pass. Then we have the match, indicating c6, so we expect our opponent to evade the check by playing 10… c6 – the only good move. Now the lion’s roar tells us to play 11. d4, again clearly best. Then the frog chewing gum gives you 11… Qh4+ 12. g3. It’s still a complicated position so you may need to extend your story a bit.

(If you’re interested in this variation, I’d add that, although 9. f4 is usually played, Stockfish flags 9. Nxa7+ as a significant improvement.)

You see how it works, then, and if you want to play this variation with either colour it’s a sharp line which you need to know well, so, in this case, memory is important.

You should by now have some idea of whether or not this technique will work for you (if you have a strong visual memory it may well do, but if you don’t, it won’t), and whether or not you’re prepared to spend the time to develop your memory in this way and apply it to improving your chess.

The second and third chapters, if you’re still undecided, explain more about memory techniques. The author has helpfully made the first three chapters available for free here.

The next two chapters provide worked examples. Chapter 4 returns to the variation of the Schliemann we looked at earlier, looking at it in more detail, including other variations that Black might choose. John Holden sees this as resembling a train journey: he’s very familiar with the journey on the London Underground from Waterloo to West Ham,

Chapter 5 takes a very different variation of the Lopez: the exchange variation, which is considered from Black’s perspective.

We’re most likely to reach this position, where White usually retreats the knight to either b3 or e2. In either case, Black will trade queens.

This time, Holden’s setting is an airport, where Ne2 is a journey through security to a connecting flight, while Nb3 takes you through immigration to leave the airport.

Again, I have a question. Yes, I can understand you need to memorise the moves in a tactical variation like the Schliemann line discussed earlier, but in this quiet line with an early queen exchange, understanding positional ideas might be more helpful.

Chapter 6 is a bonus chapter explaining how you can use the Memory Palace idea to learn theoretical endings such as KQ v KR. Chapter 7 is a miscellany, answering some of the questions you may have and tying up some loose ends. Holden mentions other learning techniques such as flashcards and spaced repetition, which I’m aware other improvers have used with success.

I notice that this book has been one of the best selling chess books on Amazon since its publication. The book is well written, well produced and well researched, and is being strongly promoted by its author, including sending a review copy to British Chess News. I’m all in favour of supporting authors who are self-publishing on Amazon if their books have something worthwhile to say (and I hope you’ll support my Chess Heroes books as well). John Holden is clearly very knowledgeable on the subject of memory training and, if you’re interested, you’ll want to read this book. However, I remain to be convinced that his chess knowledge is sufficient to make a good case for his methods.

You might have read other chess self-help books in which authors explain the methods they used to improve their rating. If the author had been able to relate how he had improved his rating as a result of using these techniques I might have been impressed, but, as far as I can tell, his rating appears to be modest and perhaps lower than when he was a junior.

Perhaps at some point I’ll write more about the place of memory in chess and how different peoples’ memory works in different ways. I know I’m not alone in thinking very much in words rather than pictures: I have a good memory for words, facts and connections but very little visual imagination and a relatively poor memory for images (which is why I can’t play blindfold chess). For this reason the method outlined here wouldn’t work for me. But, if your brain works in a different way to mine, it might be just the book to help you improve your opening knowledge and endgame techniques. I’d certainly be very interested to hear from anyone who has made a dramatic rating gain by using the Memory Palace method. But until I’ve seen some evidence I’ll remain sceptical.

Richard James, Twickenham 17th October 2023

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Hardcover : 206 pages
  • Publisher:  Amazon (15 July 2021)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13:979-8370251146
  • Product Dimensions: 15.24 x 1.19 x 22.86 cm

Official web site of Amazon Purchase location

The Chess Memory Palace, John Holden, Amazon, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 979-8370251146
The Chess Memory Palace, John Holden, Amazon, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 979-8370251146
 Save as PDF

Zlotnik’s Treasure Trove: Enjoyable Chess Training for Amateurs (1600-2200 Elo)

From the publisher:

“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.'”

The publisher have provided sample pages

 

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.

His conclusion:

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.

Richard James, Twickenham 19th September 2023

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Softcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: New In Chess (31 Mar. 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9493257894
  • ISBN-13:978-9493257894
  • Product Dimensions: 17.25 x 1.6 x 22.91 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

You can read some sample pages here.

Zlotnik's Treasure Trove: Enjoyable Chess Training for Amateurs (1600-2200 Elo) , Boris Zlotnik, New In Chess (31 Mar. 2023), ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257894
Zlotnik’s Treasure Trove: Enjoyable Chess Training for Amateurs (1600-2200 Elo) , Boris Zlotnik, New In Chess (31 Mar. 2023), ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257894
 Save as PDF

Irrational Chess

Here is the publishers blurb from the rear cover:

“The vast majority of chess games witness familiar strategies and well known tactical motifs. These are the games that you will find in the anthologies and opening repertoires. Sometimes however, games appear that seem to have been played on a different planet.

Conventional strategies go out of the window. Familiar tactical themes are nowhere to be seen. Chaos has broken out. The pieces appear to be in open rebellion and are steadfastly refusing to do the natural jobs that they were designed for.

Having to navigate a path in such a game can be a nightmare. Do you rely purely on calculation? Is it better to trust your instincts? Can you assess the position using “normal” criteria?

In order to answer these questions, prolific chess author and coach Cyrus Lakdawala has assembled a collection of brilliantly unconventional and irrational games. The positions in these games appear almost random. Kings have gone walkabout, pieces are on bizarre squares, huge pawn rollers are sweeping all before them.

Irrational chess is like nothing you’ve seen before. As well as being highly instructive this is a hugely entertaining book.

Do not adjust your set. It’s chess, Jim, but not as we know it.”

and about the author:

Cyrus Lakdawala is an International Master, a former National Open and American Open Champion, and a six-time State Champion. He has been teaching chess for over 30 years, and coaches some of the top junior players in the U.S.

As with every recent Everyman Chess publication high quality paper is used and the printing is clear. Each diagram is clear as is the instructional text. Figurine algebraic notation is used throughout and the diagrams are placed adjacent to the relevant text.

 

Here we have another title from the ever prolific keyboard of Cyrus Lakdawala. Irrational Chess seems like a good match for this author’s sometimes irrational writing style.

But my first question is: what makes a game irrational? If you watch two beginners playing, their moves will mostly be irrational because they have little or no idea what they’re doing. We’re really talking about games between strong players where no one really knows what’s going on. Games where pieces end up on unlikely squares, where there are unusual material imbalances, where one player has decided to take a risk, or to confuse his or her opponent.

As  Mikhail Tal, the Patron Saint of Irrational Chess said, “You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where 2+2=5 and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”

That, for the most part, is what you’ll find here. We all enjoy playing through and studying games of this nature. Some of us enjoy playing games like this ourselves as well.

In his rather rambling introduction, Lakdawala tells us how to identify positions of disorder/irrationality.

He offers 12 pointers, for example:

1. A lack of continuity, in that one thing doesn’t necessarily logically lead to what we expected. In this book we try to decode the “without words” positions, which cannot be accessed logically/verbally broken town and explained easily. In such positions the logical mind tends to transform atavistically into a kind of animal consciousness, where nothing is fixed and we are engulfed in a deep realization of terrifying impermanence, where all which matters is our survival.

2. You are lost in the woods and hungry. Then you come upon a patch of unfamiliar berries and mushrooms which could be edible or could be poisonous. The question is: are you going to risk eating them? This book examines the mechanics of risk. Go too far and you overextend; play too safely with too strong a self-preservatory instinct and you may suppress opportunity.

and…

10. While the Sesame Street Muppets taught us that learning can be fun, in this book we look at games so irrationally complex that it is actually difficult to learn from many of them. Nonetheless, in a position’s confusion, just because we lose our faculty of sight, doesn’t also mean we also lose our power of reason. The idea behind this book is: any position, no matter how complex, can still be broken down (at least to some degree!) into points of data, from which we hope to come up with the correct idea. So before most of the examples, I try my best to “explain” that which is often unexplainable. In such positions when we think: “I have a strong intuition on the matter”, it won’t be code for “I’m taking a wild guess!”

If you’re at all familiar with this author’s work you won’t be surprised by all this chattering about Muppets and mushrooms. Cyrus has a devoted fanbase who will lap this up, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Reading on, what we have here is eight chapters: four relatively long chapters, covering Attack, Defence and Counterattack, The Dynamic Element (I’m not sure how exactly this differs from Attack, but never mind) and Exploiting Imbalances, followed by four shorter chapters, on Irrational Endings, Opening Shockers, Crazy Draws and Promotion Races. We have 89 games or extracts, copiously illustrated with many diagrams.

Cyrus, quite rightly, is a devotee of active learning, sprinkling his annotations, as he always does, with exercises (Planning, Combination Alert or Critical Decision). You might like to cover up the page and try to solve them before reading on. The author is a highly experienced annotator who knows his market well. He’s always thorough, but without going over the top with long computer generated variations, and makes ample use of the latest engines to ensure accuracy. Once you get past the verbiage, he does an excellent job of explaining complex ideas and tactics in a way that is understandable to his readership.

You’ll find most of the greats featured within the 400 pages, from Morphy and earlier through to Carlsen and AlphaZero. You might consider the likes of Capablanca, Euwe and Smyslov to be supremely rational players, but they’re there as well. Tal, unsurprisingly, features on several occasions, but there’s no sign of Alekhine.

If you’re knowledgeable about chess history and literature you’ll encounter a lot of old friends, but they will always be new to some readers. There were quite a few games that were new to me – and I much enjoyed discovering them for the first time.

I wouldn’t dispute the irrationality of most of them, but there were one or two, especially in the first chapter, which you might consider were just very well played attacking games. How would you judge this much anthologised game? (Click on any move for a pop-up window.)

On the other hand, there’s no argument about the irrationality of games like this, described by Lakdawala as one of the most crazy, head-spinning games in the book.

My heart is thudding, as if watching a Quentin Tarantino movie while on the treadmill is how Lakdawala introduces the following encounter.

A small historical point – the game Van der Loo – Hesseling (Game 75 here) is known to be a fake, with White’s name usually given as Van de Loo, but the author is apparently unaware of this.

Irrational Chess is produced to this publisher’s customary high standards: well laid out with many large diagrams.  This book will appeal to players of all standards, and will undoubtedly bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of readers, demonstrating, to anyone who might doubt it, the excitement and richness of chess. Lakdawala’s obvious enthusiasm and love of chess shine through everything he writes, but his eccentricities will always divide the critics.

If you’re easily offended you should perhaps steer clear. If you’re on the religious right you’ll find some of the words blasphemous, while elements of the woke left will consider other words to be mental health slurs.

Then you read something like this:

Black’s position pulls him down, like our demanding, emotional, high-maintenance college ex-girlfriend.

Or this:

If Fischer’s pawns are an athlete’s body, then his rook represents the love handles.

Sexist? Inappropriate? It’s your decision. A sensitivity reader would have a field day with his/her red pen. You might think, and I might well agree with you, that a lot of people these days are over-sensitive, but we are where we are. The author’s many devoted admirers don’t seem to have a problem.

If you’re a Lakdawala fan, and there are many around, or if his writing style appeals to you, you’ll really enjoy this book, and the often extraordinary and thrilling games featured within. The games are certainly a lot of fun, especially if you haven’t seen them before. If you find Cyrus’s writing fun as well, there’s no reason to hesitate.

Richard James, Twickenham 28th August 2023

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher:  Everyman Chess (20 Feb. 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1781946485
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781946480
  • Product Dimensions: 17.4 x 2.29 x 23.52 cm

Official web site of Everyman Chess

Irrational Chess, Cyrus Lakdawala, Everyman Chess (20 Feb. 2023), ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1781946480
Irrational Chess, Cyrus Lakdawala, Everyman Chess (20 Feb. 2023), ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1781946480
 Save as PDF

The Hidden Laws of Chess: Mastering Pawn Structures: 1

From the publisher:

“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.

12. Bxb6!!

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.

and

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

and

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

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Softcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: New in Chess; 1st edition (31 Jan. 2023)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9493257622
  • ISBN-13:978-9493257627
  • Product Dimensions: ‎17.15 x 1.73 x 22.99 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

You can read some sample pages here.

The Hidden Laws of Chess: Mastering Pawn Structures: 1, Nick Maatman, New in Chess; 1st edition (31 Jan. 2023),ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257622
The Hidden Laws of Chess: Mastering Pawn Structures: 1, Nick Maatman, New in Chess; 1st edition (31 Jan. 2023),ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257622
 Save as PDF

The Ink War: Romanticism versus Modernity in Chess

From the publisher:

“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.

Richard James, Twickenham 5th June 2023

Richard James
. Richard James

Book Details:

  • Softcover: 468 pages
  • Publisher: New in Chess (30 Nov. 2022)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10:9493257649
  • ISBN-13: 978-9493257641
  • Product Dimensions: ‎17.22 x 1.52 x 23.65 cm

Official web site of New in Chess.

You can read some sample pages here.

The Ink War: Romanticism versus Modernity in Chess, Willy Hendriks, New in Chess (30 Nov 2022), ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257649
The Ink War: Romanticism versus Modernity in Chess, Willy Hendriks, New in Chess (30 Nov 2022), ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9493257649
 Save as PDF