Reviews | February 28, 2009 20:54

Review: Kasparov - How his predecessors misled him about chess

Kasparov: How his predecessors misled him about chessEvery chess player grows up learning combinations that work. As a kid, you learn to 'spot the combo' quickly and you're told that you will profit from this knowledge ever after. There's hundreds of books that are written according to this method. But in real life, sadly, combinations often do not work at all. Where are the books written about this phenomenon? Now, we have one.

A friend of mine is doing research on pattern recognition in chess. His team of the University of Amsterdam has developed a test that basically asks players to 'find the best move' in a number of increasingly difficult positions. Many of these positions are (derived from) famous combinations and motifs from historical games. Of course, most strong players have no trouble finding these combinations within seconds. No surprise there. But I've often wondered what would happen if the test included positions that only looked like famous combinations, but were in fact slightly different positions where the well-known combo does not win at all. Would the top players spot the difference?

In my opinion, the book Kasparov: How his predecessors misled him about chess by Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin is based on this idea: chess combinations and motifs don't always work out well. But the book is much more: it's a good joke - albeit a joke with a moral. Finally, it's very serious book about important chess themes. The authors explain how they got the idea in the preface:

After writing two books on Kasparov's astonishing career [...] we realised that there were similarities between Garry's games and some of his predecessors - and this opened the door for a little bit of friendly leg-pulling! [...] The temptation is also there to look at some of Kasparov's losses - which are in fact well worth analysing.

The rest of the book is a virtual monologue by Garry Kasparov about how ideas of his World Champion predecessors are to blame for his losses. A 270 page joke - isn't that a bit corny? Well, perhaps, but as I said, the joke has a moral that's so important, it's worth reading the book even if you happen to think the joke has become boring.

Here's a position from one of my own games. OK, I played it when I was still young, but it sure doesn't excuse the following:

The Hague 1990

31...Nf6?? 32.Rxa8 Nh7 33.Nxd6 Ng5 34.Nf5 1-0

What the hell was that all about? Well, it's not that I didn't see my rook was hanging on a8... I was simply under the illusion that I was following in the footsteps of my hero Kasparov! Sacrifice the rook and deliver mate on the kingside... just as in the following game, played a few months before:

Tilburg 1989

20...g3!! 21.Nxa8 Nh5! 22.Kh1 gxf2 23.Rxf2 Ng3+ 24.Kg1 Qxa8
25.Bc4 a6 26.Qd3 Qa7 27.b5 axb5 28.Bxb5 Nh1! 0-1

You may laugh now, but I hope you get the point. Karolyi and Aplin's book is about this kind of mistakes - or should we say misunderstandings? So let's move on to some more sophisticated examples from Kasparov: How his predecessors misled him about chess.

Z?ºrich 1953


This must be one of Petrosian's most famous diagrams. As 'Kasparov' notes in the book, Petrosian was known for his exchange sacrifices. Here he played the fantastic

25...Re6!! The authors explain: 'Black blocks the e6-thrust, and at the same time Petrosian clears the e7-square'. A truly inspiring move indeed! But - and here's the moral - not all positional exchange sacrifices are correct: not even when they're played by Kasparov himself. Have you ever noticed how most textbooks fail to mention this tiny detail? Take this position:

Tilburg 1981


"I got excited when I read about exchange sacrifices in a chapter in Petrosian's book. What advantages does Black accrue with this exchange? The position is closed so the rooks do not work well. In addition the c5-square is firmly under Black's control and he has an outside passed pawn. I did not pay attention to the interesting fact that Petrosian himself had opted for this position [with White]."

The authors go on to show in great detail that the sacrifice is not entirely correct. Their point is not to make fun of Kasparov or even to elaborate on the joke, but to show that you should not just follow blindly what others have done before. I guess 'standing on the shoulders of giants' is not always the right strategy - sometimes, it makes you fall on the ground. This point - even though in Kasparov's case, it's mostly fictional! - completely overshadows any thoughts we might have about the 'joke' of this book. It is full of wonderful games and positions, often from lesser known games by Kasparov or his predecessors, illustrating themes that you won't find so often in textbooks. Here a few examples:

  • When to undermine the Maroczy setup with b6-b5 (Aaron-Fischer, Stockholm 1962 and Romanishin-Kasparov, Moscow 1981)
  • The advantages and disadvantages of doubled f-pawns (Gurgenidze-Petrosian, USSR 1967 and Cheskovsky-Kasparov, Tbilisi 1978)
  • The power of a queenside majority with a White pawn on c5 (Smyslov-Schmidt, Warsaw 1980 and Kasparov-Yermolinsky, Vilnius 1975)
  • Taking the central e5-pawn in typical Sicilians:

Denver m (6) 1971

USSR 1976


Of course, not all examples are equally good. And especially towards the end, the authors seem to have run a bit out of inspiration. It's obvious to me that Karolyi, who has trained Peter Leko and Judit Polgar and has in fact worked with Kasparov himself, knows most about the recent world champions. Still, these are minor trifles, and Karolyi and Aplin have the highest respect for Kasparov, as becomes clear in the - rather surprising - last chapter.

Kasparov: How his predecessors misled him about chess is a funny, useful and unique book about Kasparov (as you've never seen him!), about his predecessors and about how things are not always what they appear to be. The book definitely deserves a place among the most serious study books. Its message will long outlive its joke.


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Dimitri's picture

Based on the first 50 pages of the book, I disagree with Arne. The examples are often far-fetched (as Arne's example of two completely different Sicialian positions shows actually), or just wrong (Kasparov's game being played before the predecessor's). Arne is wright that the book is a joke, but it's not funny at all, and the 'virtual monologue' by Kasparov is just childish. Unless it gets any better in the rest of the book, serious students can use their money better than spending money of this book, and the same goes for people that just want to be entertained. Use your money for good books, not for this one!

Arne Moll's picture

Dimitri, I admit the 'joke' is probably a matter of taste, but you seem to have missed the true point of the example from Fischer's game: indeed the Sicilians are completely different, and on a superficial level the example may therefore look far-fetched, but in fact that is precisely the point, because the idea of sacrificing (and taking) a pawn on e5 with White is a very important motif in the Sicilian in general. Wouldn't you agree?

Dimitri's picture

Yes, there are hunderds of examples of Nxe5 in the Sicilian. So it is not very likely that Kasparov was influenced by one example in which almost all the pieces are on different positions...

Arne Moll's picture

You're right, of course he was not. That is the joke, like it or not. But surely making a joke doesn't mean that there can't be a more serious point the authors are trying to make?

Thomas's picture

I am just an amateur, but after a rather casual look at the book at the Corus bookstands (indeed roughly the first 50 pages) I had the same impression as Dimitri: interesting-yes, funny-yes, worth buying-not really ... after all, both the amount of money to spend on books and the time to actually read them is limited. But Arne Moll read the entire book (so I assume ...) and for me it may now be worth a second look - at least to check what's in the "rather surprising last chapter".
BTW: "How top grandmasters misled ME ...": At a recent club game, I let my clock run down to 3 seconds for the final move before the time control - inspired by what I saw at Corus, but I needed maybe 3.2 seconds for the next move ... . A clubmate (nickname "praatjeskampioen") commented: "Wat dacht jij? Wat Ivanchuk kan dat kan ik ook!!?".

sjoerd's picture

Good that at least someone sees the true meaning of the text, deeper then the superficial that got Dimitri confused. Surely, a rhetorical question at the end will convince everyone of my view?

noyb's picture

I think this book is definitely worth purchasing. It is very instructive and displays remarkable vision by the authors. It's just too bad that most authors aren't as creative in teaching players! High quality production and well planned and thought out.

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