Reviews | July 21, 2011 19:15

Review: A Summer Selection

The ChessVibes editors are enjoying their summer holiday in various ways. While Peter and Robert played an open in Ikaria, Greece, and Merijn participated in the annual Wine tournament in Naujac sur Mer, France, I'm on parental leave in my home town, changing diapers and reading several new chess books whenever I don't feel too sleepy. In this review, I'll have a look at quite a few good chess books and magazines that have recently appeared.

This review will be considerably more 'light' than some of the reviews I've written on this site before. I hope the reader will forgive me for not having read all books 'cover to back'. I did, however, read a more than substantial portion of all of them, and I feel I got a clear flavour and impression of all of them, enabling me to convey to you at least my general thoughts on the books at hand. Review: A Summer's SelectionThe first one of the pile I want to mention is the eagerly anticipated sequel to the book I discussed in my previous review, Karpov's Strategic Wins 2 - The Prime Years 1986-2010 by Tibor Karolyi, published by Quality Chess. Even more expansive and elaborate than part 1, Karolyi's second volume is again a real treasure trove of magnificent strategic masterpieces. The book's more than 550 pages are crammed with high-level analysis of Karpov's best games in the period after he lost the World Championship title to Kasparov, the highlight being his supernatural victory in Linares in 1994. I well remember the impression his victory over Vladimir Kramnik in that tournament made on me, especially Karpov's treatment of the queenless middlegame.

Karpov-Kramnik Linares 1994 22.h3!! This is a great idea - White prepares g4 followed by a general expansion on the kingside. This move was played in several other games in 1994; the database does not give any precise dates, but it is likely that Karpov played it first and other players followed his example. Despite the ingenuity of White's concept, Black should be okay and over the years he has scored more than fifty percent from his position. But of course it is much harder to deal with an idea when it comes as a surprise, even for such a gifted player as Kramnik.

Note Karolyi's enthusiastic yet very objective commentary - the entire analysis of the game stretches over 8 pages which is just one indication of the book's completeness. A great read for both the serious chess student and the casual enthusiast. Review: A Summer's SelectionAn equally thorough (and keenly anticipated) sequel is Sergey Shipov's The Complete Hedgehog Volume 2, published by Mongoose Press, and again topping 550 pages. One surprising and striking feature is that the book actually contains colour pictures. Another is that Shipov, even more so than in the first volume, which I reviewed in 2009, has centered his chapters around concepts rather than concrete variations. Thus, we get chapters with titles such as 'The c1-Bishop's Wandering' and 'An Early Raid by the a2-pawn'. I think this works excellently - especially for people, like me, who are bad at (not to mention uninterested in) memorizing variations. Again, Shipov's good humour, common sense and feeling for the importance of psychology pervades throughout the book. Here's an example from the chapter 'Ljubojevic's Plan':

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 b6 3.Nc3 Bb7 4.e4 d6 5.d4 cxd4 6.Nxd4 Nf6 7.f3 e6 8.Be3 Be7 9.Qa4+ Here I am forced to make an open enquiry. This cunning check is summoned up to bring disharmony into Black's position. The idea is that on 9...Nbd7 White can play 10.Nc6, eliminating one of the black bishops. Black almost always replies 9...Nfd7 out of meanness. You get an exchange of inconveniences for the players. The queen isn't good on a4, of course, but it quickly escapes via c2 and f2. The tempting prospect for hedgehog catchers is that if Black then establishes the canonical piece set-up, he loses a whole tempo! (...) But it is not worth getting upset. Everything I have said about is just my debt to history. Theory from bygone days, whose rightful place is in the trash bin! As became clear in the analysis, White's whole idea is itself fruitless. On 9.Qa4+ Black can coolly play 9...Nbd7!. Consider the main line: 10.Nc6 Bxc6 11.Qxc6 0-0 - and it's not hard to see that Black is significantly ahead of White in development, which means that he can allow himself a sharp counterattack - even with sacrifices.

A more than expectable sense of historical perspective, a healthy anti-conservative attitude and a great deal of realism make The Complete Hedgehog Volume 2 a truly enjoyable read. The only criticism I can think of is that it's such a lot of information! Who can remember all Shipov's explaining, let alone use it in practical games? It seems to me Shipov's books on the Hedgehog will, of course, receive their rightful place in history as the two most complete and instructive books on the opening written to date, but I have my doubt about the number of players actually perusing all of its contents and being able to really use it in practice. But who knows? I recently anayzed what seemed to me a completely random Hedgehog-like position with a friend, when he suddenly exclaimed happily: "this position was analysed by Shipov too!" Review: A Summer's SelectionAfter discussing these massive tomes, I can't avoid mentioning a recent, affordable paperback reprint of chess historian Edward Winter's 1989 classic Capablanca, published by McFarland & Company. Winter needs no introduction and his rigorous, often even sarcastic way of approaching established historical chess literature is famous and feared at the same time. This book is no exception:

(...) [I]t is difficult to understand why some subsequent writers have embellished Capablanca's academic achievements. On page 88 of Kings of Chess (London, 1954) William Winter wrote: "... he completed his course at Colombia University, where he graduated with high honours in mathematics." Including the misspelling of the University, that gives three mistakes in one sentence.

Winter's book was a landmark in historical chess research and uncovered many hitherto unknown evidence and facts about Capablanca and about the matches and tournaments that he played. It has become a classic and a source of reference for all subsequent Capablanca biographies. It is slightly outdated typographically, and obviously computer analysis could have improved or completed some open questions on certain critical game positions, but its contents is just as acute and urgent as it was 22 years ago. One thing I noticed to my surprise while reading Winter's book - which isn't so much a traditional biography as a critical compendium of writings and observations by and about the great Cuban - is that Capablanca himself, especially the young Capablanca, wasn't an altogether 'gentlemanly' and pleasant person, at least judging him from much of what he wrote and said. Here he is discussing Marshall's win in the 1913 Havana tournament:

"In the tournament which has just been concluded Marshall had luck on a scale that has never been seen before, for having played badly, and not deserving more than fourth place, he finished first. (...) I had less luck than anyone, for I may say that only on two occasions was I lost, and in both cases I did lose; and on at least two occasions I did not win games I would generally win with my eyes closed."

This just sounds to me like one patzer complaining he lost to another patzer. In that same year, he writes the following about Lasker:

"Lasker has appeared with another of his tricks; the distinguished and never very prudent Chess God (so he believes) is claiming that so much mathematical calculation is being applied to chess that it will soon lose it natural attractiveness. (...) The distinguished teacher must explain the matter a little; for my part these are declarations more to be expected from a child than from a forty-five-year-old man."

Well, at least nobody can accuse these modern chess grandmasters of using different rhetoric tactics than a century ago! Review: A Summer's SelectionA recent publication I would love to read Edward Winter´s opinion on, is Christian Hesse's The Joys of Chess, published by New in Chess. This book, a translation of the German original, aims at an audience of chess players of all styles, ages and levels. Loosely based on books such as The Oxford Companion to Chess and Tim Krabbé's Chess Curiosities, Hesse's book takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the rich history of chess and chess literature in all its appearances. Kicking off with some useful - though hardly surprising - historical information on the royal game´s origins and more recent past, the book embarks on an ambitious exploration of common themes chess ('The Value of the Pieces', 'The Geometry of the Chess Board', 'Time and Time Forfeits'), and more creative ones ('Ockham's Razor and Chess-hindogu', 'E=mc^2 in Chess') illustrated by well-known and lesser-known examples. Hesse appears to be somewhat preoccupied with chance and fate in chess - ad admittedly fascinating subject - and quite a few chapters centre around that particular concept. For instance, in a chapter titled The Butterfly Effect, he quotes E.Lorenz' famous question whether "the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas" and then proposes:

The positions which succeed each other during a game of chess can be described as a dynamic system, which is made up of many inter-connected subsystems. each moves alters the relationships between the pieces and because of the linkage due to the inter-connectivity it also changes the total configuration. In the search for a move we are confronted with complicated feedback looks and we have to exert control over processes which either react upon the other or run in parallel. It is no wonder that a tiny modification of the overall configuration in the branching of the tree of variations can finally result in a position with a significantly different evaluation.

While this is a very promising start, after a handful of - in itself interesting - examples from endgame studies and practical games, the chapter suddenly ends and I feel his 'Butterfly Effect' theory is never worked out properly. This is the case with many of Hesse's ideas - they start off brilliantly, but are never worked out, like the imaginary books Jorge Luis Borges didn't write, but only wrote about. Hesse, who is a Harvard professor in mathematics, is clearly well at home in the field of exact science, but in some other areas I found his ideas somewhat bleaker. For example, in the chapter 'Poems and Problems', titled after Vladimir Nabokov's identically titled collection of poems and chess problems, published in 1971, he calls Luzhin's Defence "after Lolita, probably his most famous novel: neither before nor since has the possible tragedy of a professional chess player been more poignantly portrayed." In my opinion this statement betrays a clear bias towards a chess-player oriented (literary) perspective, for I doubt many non-chess playing critics, or indeed ordinary readers, regard Luzhin's Defence as one of the highlights of Nabokov's oeuvre. Moreover, if we would be in a particular 'Edward Winter' kind of mood, we might add that it's a bit of a cliché to single out Nabokov's classic as the most 'poignant' chess novel without mentioning why. If we ignore these criticisms or, more relevantly, if we ignore the obvious overlap with many similar works published before The Joys of Chess (most clearly illustrated by a striking lack of recent examples or studies), the book will undoubtedly energize and amuse almost all chess players. As Vishy Anand writes in the Foreword, this is mainly a "bedside book", beautifully published in a format where the short chapters and brief fragments with diagrams are in perfect harmony to divert and tickle any reader's mind. Review: A Summer's SelectionBefore moving on to the highlight, in my opinion, of this summer's chess collection, let me briefly mention a couple of other interesting books. The first is the second volume of Wojo's Weapons, an original tribute to the late Alexander Wojtkiewicz's opening legacy, written by Dean Ippolito and Jonathan Hilton, published by Mongoose Press. This volume mainly treats Fianchetto (g2-g3) King's Indian systems from White's perspective and the authors analyze many Wojtkiewicz games showing how White can use this variation to his advantage. Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about this system myself, nor can I say I became overly excited after reading the book's first chapters, so I'll leave it to more experiences reviewers to cast a verdict on this volume. Review: A Summer's SelectionA somewhat unusual tactical puzzle book is Glenn Flear's Tactimania, published by Quality Chess. Flear makes sure the reader is unfamiliar with the exercises presented in this book by selecting them only from his own games or from games played by his wife, Christine. The comical illustrations were created digitally by Flear's eldest son, James, making this book a real family project. Charming, entertaining, and useful if you like to solve tactical puzzles. Review: A Summer's SelectionAnother nice little book is Emmanuel Neiman and Yochanan Afek's Invisible Chess Moves, published by New in Chess. (Afek is, of course, well-known to ChessVibes readers for his weekly endgame study column as well.) In their introduction, the authors ask:

How can it be that players who are capable of calculating ten moves ahead for hours on end, fail to see a one-move win? More remarkably, in many cases both players make these oversights. (...) Our hypothesis is as follows: in chess, certain moves are harder to spot for human beings than other moves. For a beginning human player, clearly knight moves are more difficult to envisage than rook moves. (...) A lot of elements in the games of experienced players are mechanical. (...) The stronger the player, the better he will be able to break such automatic rules if that is necessary.

Here's a cool (and very recognizable) 'blind spot' example, related to chess psychology:

Gelfand-Lautier Belgrade 1997 (5) This position has been reached after a brilliant demonstration by Gelfand in all phases of the game (...) - in short, a model game by White! In order to deepen our understanding of this theme, we must consider a few psychological factors: Gelfand had an impressive score against Lautier, a superior rating, and he is playing with white. Throughout the game he has been in a commanding position, and he has dominated his opponent quite easily. At the end of the game, it is as if Lautier is continuing mechanically, by inertia. One player is certain of the win, the other is convinced that he will lose. (...) What do you play here? 39.Rc5?? When asked about this game, Gelfand acknowledged that he relaxed, thinking the game was over: 'I thought that the position was totally won and missed an easy tactic.' 39.Kd2 is the simplest win, with the idea Kc3-b2 and Rxb3, for example 39...b2 40.Kc2. Or first 39.Kc1. 39...Bc4?? The fantastic 39...b4! would have won for Black (...). 40.Kd2 1-0

This is an engaging fragment (and who doesn't recognize the phenomenon from his own game practice?), quite illustrative of the rest of the book. It is tempting to believe that studying the material presented in Invisible Chess Moves makes you less vulnerable for such incidents, but ... the authors don't actually provide evidence for this. Of course, it's great to know about the types of 'blind spots' that occur in chess from time to time, but does studying the book really, as the back cover claims, "improve your results dramatically because your brain will stop blocking winning ideas"? To me this sounds a bit naive. In fact, there is considerable psychological evidence that such 'weak spots' are, in fact, deeply embedded in human neurology and biology and are, therefore, quite unpredictable and, sadly, often unavoidable. This is especially because the situations in which they occur are always rare and are, even after reading Neiman and Afek's book, hard to foresee in practical games. The inattentional blindness phenomenon, brilliantly illustrated by the so-called 'Invisible Gorilla' experiment devised by psychologists (and chess players!) Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, seems to be something the authors are to a certain extent unaware of. Then again, this is probably a good thing after all, as we might otherwise not be able to enjoy Invisible Chess Moves! Review: A Summer's SelectionWe now come to my favourite publication of the summer of 2011: the 41st issue of the legendary chess magazine Kingpin. In Kingpin, nothing is sacred, and this makes Kingpin such a hit - this issue, the first in over two years, is no exception. Kingpin makes for delightful reading about the closed and often suffocatingly little world that we chess players live in. Thus, Kingpin not only ridicules 'usual suspect' Kirsan Ilyumzhinov for the dangerous clown that he is, or describes Mecking's religious fanaticism in embarrassing detail, but also makes fun of Magnus Carlsen's G-Star commercials, noting that "it's not every day you see a face like the back of a bus on the side of one." Now there's a remark you're not likely to see on ChessBase or in New in Chess magazine! Fortunately, there's also a lot of plain old chess in Kingpin. Luke McShane has a great article on "industrial-strength grinders", in which he argues with well-chosen and often hilarious examples that the Fischer clock has contributed to the rise of long games where the opponent is slowly crushed to death. Typical for the magazine, the authors do not spare themselves and McShane, too, notes how he, himself, is "a tragic product of his time". More seriously, GMs like Rafael Leitao, Emanuel Berg and Ivan Sokolov offer high level analysis of crucial recent games they played. Of course, not all articles are of equal quality. Being a chess reviewer myself, I felt uncomfortable reading Justin Horton's book review of ten titles, including the 'worst chess book he's ever read'. Having reviewed quite a few of these books myself over the years, I can see Horton often makes valid points and brings them with lots of sarcasm and wit, but in my opinion he simply overdoes it and thus buries many of his own arguments. Moreover, he's often not being funny at all. His take-down of Andres Hortillosa's Improve Your Chess At Any Age - a book I, too, had mixed feelings about when I reviewed it on ChessVibes last year, though I didn't find it "the single most tedious chess book I have ever tried to read" - is a textbook example of how not to demolish a book without making yourself look pathetic in the process, too. After a lengthy quote of the book's Introduction, there follows this rant:

Christ. This is a man complaining about pretentiousness while using the term 'ethereal', a word he also uses without apparently understanding what it means. This is a man who complains that people question his credentials to write a book and then immediately shows that does not know [sic] when to use 'a' instead of 'the'. This is a man who cannot apparently write a coherent sentence and can barely muster a intelligible phrase. (...) This is a man who doesn't understand that 'rating mark' is a tautology, nor that the word 'achieved' adds nothing to the word 'titles'. (...)

Horton could have left it at that and made a strong, funny and perfectly valid point. But he doesn't. Instead, he goes on (and on and on) for another three pages complaining about nothing else than Hortillosa's use of language and the way he comes across, repeating himself numerous times without saying a single word on the book's chess contents. That's not a witty and clever review - that's a boring and childish review. A much better review job was done by Sarah Hurst, who discusses The KGB Plays Chess (also reviewed on this site some time ago) intelligently and concisely. In similar vein, there are good and amusing columns by Emil Sutovsky and Gary Lane and a great report of the 25th Bermuda Open by Nick de Firmian. Kingpin 41 is a must-read for everyone who doesn't take chess too seriously; it's especially a must-read for everyone who does take chess seriously! Review: A Summer's SelectionFinally, I'd like to mention another magazine that recently appeared, the Dutch magazine Matten - Schaakverhalen, published by New in Chess, which contains chess stories, photographs and other observations. The latest issue, number 9, contains lots of good stuff again. The cover story features Magnus Carlsen who turns out to be something of an Ajax Amsterdam soccer fan. I liked Jan Timman's hommage to Swedish GM Ulf Andersson and David Llada's piece about Luis Rentero, the infamous "Linares man". For Dutch chess players, surely the most intriguing chapter is Robert-Jan Friele's story about the mysterious and elusive Dutch chess player Chris de Ronde and what became of him. Highly recommended.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll

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ejh's picture

I felt uncomfortable reading Justin Horton’s book review of the ten ‘worst chess books he’s ever read’.

It's not a review of the ten worst chess books I've ever read., Arne. Nor does it say that it is, nor is such a thing implied.

So why say that it is? And what does that say about your own reviewing technique?

Arne Moll's picture

You're right, I now see I simply misread the subtitle of your piece above the ten titles that you review, which reads 'Justin Horton reviews the worst chess BOOK he's ever read', instead of 'books'. I corrected the text. Apparently the subtitle only refers to Hortillosa's book, not the rest of the titles.

That said, you do write about all of them that, for instance, 'none is really good, none is produced to the standard it should be'. You can see where my confusion came from, although I still shouldn't have written that.

ejh's picture

That said, you do write about all of them that, for instance, ‘none is really good, none is produced to the standard it should be’. You can see where my confusion came from

Well, not really, no: there's a very large difference between saying "none of these books is really good" and "these are the ten worst chess books I've ever read". Given that only four of the ten titles were considered to be poor, it shouldn't be possible even to imagine I was reviewing the ten worst chess books I'd ever read. The Di Felice project, for instance, is referred to as "this monumental work" and the De La Villa "admirable". So how did you come to conclusion that these were what I considered the ten worst books I'd ever read, unless you were skim-reading badly enough to miss much of the piece?

Arne Moll's picture

As said, I misread the subheader of the article. That's all.

ejh's picture

And you didn't think "well, that's strange, because the sub-heading doesn't seem to match the review"?

Joeri's picture

I though Tom Chivers from your chess club disapproves of critical book reviews?
Calling those people parasites and the like.
See the whole "Revolutionize your Chess" review drama on chessvibes.

Arne Moll's picture

Yes, ejh, I did think that for a second. But then I thought again of what you wrote about those books in general and I thought it must be correct after all and because I was in a hurry, I didn't double-check it. Sloppy.

ejh's picture

Yep.

chessrabbit's picture

That's nothing compared to ejh's Ray Keen rants... .

RdC's picture

Not the graph you want if you have just written a book about how to improve your chess

http://ratings.fide.com/id.phtml?event=2038749

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks, marlowe77, I didn't know about that. Will have a look if I get a chance.

marlowe77's picture

Not wise to review Winter without. . .reading Winter. His opinion on Hesse's book was briefly stated in CN 7083 (Duped) in May 2011, nearly two months before your review appeared here.

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