Review: Genius in the Background
Sometimes, I get a little tired of reading about the big names in chess all the time. Another super tournament with seven players out of the top 10; another huge open featuring dozens of well-known GMs fighting hard for serious money prizes; another great exhibition rapid match between two former World Championship candidates. In such cases, reading something from Genius in the Background, is the perfect remedy for me.
Genius in the Background by Tibor Károlyi and Nick Aplin (published by Quality Chess) is a book about, well, geniuses in the background. As Károlyi writes in the preface:
Most of the people featured in this book have recorded significant achievements, yet they remain virtually anonymous to the great majority of chess fans. A few of them are known amongst certain segments of the chess world, but none are known widely as I believe they deserve to be. (...) Your author, who is first of all a junior trainer who desires to pass on knowledge, believes that getting acquainted with these remarkable chess personalities will deepen anyone's understanding of our game.
In other words, the presentation of these unknown heroes is not only interesting, but also useful. For me, they shed some special light on the development and choices of such great players as Topalov and Kasparov that have in my view so far not been emphasized. In the chapter about Topalov's former coach, Petko Atanasov, the choice of openings for the young Veselin is discussed. It turns out that Atanasov, rather surprisingly, taught Topalov the Old Indian Defence against 1.d4 and the French against 1.e4. Atanatov adds that at some point Topalov "refused to play it and started to play the Sicilian Defence instead." Quite telling if you ask me.
Karolyi gives some interesting, excellently annotated examples from Atanasov's own games, showing how his preference for exchange sacrifices influenced Topalov:
27.Rd5!! This is another lovely exchange sacrifice. White needs to play like this in order to invade.
27...Bxd5 In the long term Black cannot avoid taking the rook. For instance: 27...Qb4 28.Kc2 (White is also better after 28.Qc2 Bb8 29.Ne1) 28...Bb8 (28...a4 29.bxa4) 29.Ra1 Black cannot avoid the type of position he gets in the game.
28.Rxd5! Taking back this way really chokes Black.
28...Qc6 29.Ne1! Atanasov improves all his pieces.
29...Bb6 30.Qd1 Ke7 31.Rb5 Forcing Black to decide where to put the bishop. (...)
Despite the obvious achievements of these geniuses in the background, there's often more than a touch of melancholy in the words of the former trainers. Asked about his current relationship with Topalov, Atanasov embarks on a somewhat bitter personal story:
"In 1991 there were big changes in Bulgaria and in my life too. Sport societies were cleared away and I was thrown out of work. At the same time I built my own appartment and the problems grew every day. Exactly at this critical moment Silvio Danailov made an offer to Vesko [Topalov] to leave for Spain. From this moment it was clear that there was no future for our partnership. (...) Unfortunately, I have not been a coach for a long time. In 1993 the sport society 'Dunav' was closed. Since that I have had many jobs of various types in different places. Now I'm unemployed." (...)
Do they invest money into junior chess or just the big Sofia event?
"No one gives money for junior chess in Bulgaria! Only some people with bigger financial opportunities try to support chess, but this is unprofitable for them and they give up very soon. (...) I personally evaluate the big changes - economical and political - as negative. Thousands of Bulgarians, most of them young people, left the country. There is widespread unemployment, small salaries, corruption and criminality. This is what we have after the changes up to now. (...) I'm already 61 years old. Looking back and considering my life, I see that there are many things to regret. But most tragic is that my future promises to be very hard."
Such extreme honesty, almost painful to read, makes for fascinating background information on both Topalov's chess career and his country's current efforts to promote chess and is a valuable contribution to chess literature. However, not all of the book's interviews with former trainers, are quite so compelling. In the chapter on Alexander Shakarov, one of Kasparov's earliest trainers, questions are often answered in such a brief way that they one raise more questions than they answer:
What does chess mean to you?
"Chess for a long time was the most important thing for me. I was a fanatic, then it became my profession."
Can you recall when you first met Garry?
"The first time was in January 1972 when he played at the schoolboys' championship where I was an arbiter."
When did you start training him and how long did you train him?
"Officially in September 1976, unofficially from 1973."
Obviously not satisfied with these short answers, the interviewer tries again, but Shakarov prefers to stay on the surface:
Could you explain it in a more detailed way?
"In the years 1973-1975 I worked with Garry unofficially, and it was not that regular. There were even some weeks when we did not do anything. There were two groups and Garry officially was in the other one. The trainer of the other section was Oleg Privorotsky who was his first trainer. However, from 1973 onwards Garry was selected for the national teams of Azerbaijan. I was senior trainer of these national teams."
Did you follow any plan when you trained him?
"The main plan was constructed by Botvinnik."
Once again, the interviewer feels there must be more to it than this, but he's in for another disappointment:
Could you please say a few words about what a session was like?
"I no longer remember well what themes we worked on - you know, three decades have passed. In our sessions we usually followed Botvinnik's and Alexander Nikitin's plan. And in addition sometimes we analysed very tough and complicated opening positions. I recognized the 'tracks' of our work in Garry's play only in the openings."
Reading this interview, I'm left with the feeling that Shakarov didn't exactly have a huge role in this period, and I wonder how important he actually was to Kasparov's development. How close was he to Kasparov, anyway? According to Károlyi, he and Kasparov analysed and annotated about two dozens of games together, but I can't help wondering whether this was perhaps Botvinnik or Nikitin delegating the analyses and Kasparov doing most of the work? When asked if he was present during the final game of the 1985 World Championship match against Karpov, Shakarov only says "No, I was not in the tournament hall during that game." It's all a little puzzling, if you ask me.
On the other hand, the book convincingly shows that Alexander Shakarov was a truly great chess player himself, and the games section of the chapter dedicated to him is one of the highlights of the book. Here's an example of what Károlyi calls Shakarov's influence on Kasparov's ability to "execute brilliant attacking ideas on the edge of the board".
18...Rd2!! It is thematic to get to the opponent's second rank; however, it is extraordinary to achieve it so early, especially with Black. The text also creates a strong aesthetic impression by placing the rook en prise.
19.e4 The rook is immune because of 19.Qxd2 Ne4!, with terrible mating threats along the g-file. And if 19.Rad1 Rxe2 20.Rxe2 Qxf3 Black forces mate. (...)
19...Rfd8! 20.Kh1 Nh5 21.Rab1 There are many alternatives, but Black prevails in all lines (...).
22...Rxe2! Black keeps playing on the second rank. The loss of the queen is a small price to pay for the wonderful attack he obtains.
23.Rxg6 hxg6 24.f4 After 24.Rg1 Rdd2 25.Bc1 Rc2 26.Qe5 Rxf2 27.Be3 Bg2+ 28.Rxg2 Rxg2 29.Bxc5 Rgd2 White's king is caught. (...) Finally, in the event of 24.Qb3 Rxf2 25.Be5 b6 26.a4 Rdd2 27.a5 Bg2+ 28.Kg1 Rxf3 Black simply has too many pieces surrounding the enemy king.
24...Red2! This clever switchback with the rook was tough to anticipate; it looks more natural to look for a way to double on the second rank. However, upon closer inspection, White's position is bleeding as the back rank is so weak. The damage is irreparable. It takes a little preparation but Black invariably succeeds in every variation. (...)
In this fragment, Károlyi shows his great annotation skills (the analyses are much more elaborate than they are reproduced here) and his ability to see patterns in games and player's qualities. Károlyi is always looking for comparisons between teacher and pupil, trying to make connections between past and present and linking skills and sometimes lack thereof.
Genius in the Background isn't about chess trainers only. It's a much more ambitious project than that. There's a chapter on the development of chess culture in Singapore. It features elaborate and loving portraits of endgame study composers Yochanan Afek and Karsten Müller. And indeed much, much more. One of the most fascinating chapters is about the remarkable Laszlo Lindner (1916-2004), a Hungarian chess player and endgame composer who survived the Nazi concentration camp Bor, now part of Serbia. Lindner actually recorded some chess games he played in the camp against the later Hungarian chess champion Tibor Florian.
The games were played on a small chess set Florian managed to bring inside the camp. The player hid behind their barracks and the moves were scribbled in a notebook by Lindner, a picture of which is reproduced in the book. I can't help quoting one game in full.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 b6 6.f3 d5 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Bg5 Nbd7 9.e3 0-0 10.Bd3 h6 11.Bh4 Re8 12.Bf2 c5
13.Ne2 The early moves tell us that the two players were quite well educated in opening theory.
13...c4 14.Bc2 Nf8 15.g4! This is a modern approach. Even today world-class grandmasters use the same idea, although nowadays Black will usually have exchanged the light-squared bishops on a6. The most famous game involving this central structure was the immortal encounter Botvinnik-Capablanca, Avro 1938.
15...Qc7 16.Ng3 Ng6 17.h4 Nh7
18.Qb1?? The presence of such a blunder indicates that our heroes were already in very bad shape.
18...Nhf8? 18...Rxe3+! wins instantly.
19.Nh5 Rb8 20.Kf1! On the other hand this is a subtle move.
20...b5? 21.e421...dxe4 22.Bxe4
22...Bxg4?? This is a bluff, but it does the trick.
23.Nxg7? After the simple 23.fxg4 Qd7 24.Bf3 Black is a piece down with no compensation.
23...Kxg7 24.fxg4 Qf4 0-1 Though White has a reasonable position, he resigned. Probably his physical state no longer allowed him to see things clearly.
Replaying these games, knowing in which circumstances they must have been played, is a weird sensation. Who knows what might have caused Florian to resign in this position? And this is only the beginning of an utterly haunting chapter on a truly extraordinary character in 20th century chess history.
Genius in the Background is a unique book, a one-of-a-kind experience in chess literature. It's beautifully published and extremely well-researched and annotated. Sure, some chapters are more interesting than others, but the overall concept is so gripping that that's easily forgiven. If you are interested in more than - or from time to time even a bit bored by - the constant stream of daily chess news, then this is the right book for you. Personally, I think everyone should read it.
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