Reviews | June 01, 2012 13:50

Review: Grandmaster versus Amateur | From Rocky Balboa to Ulysses

Review: Grandmaster versus Amateur | From Rocky Balboa to Ulysses

Quality Chess has launched a new book titled Grandmaster versus Amateur, which interestingly enough uses the same successful concept as two earlier publications (Experts on The Sicilian and Experts on the Anti-Sicilian): the book is a collection of essays by various grandmasters. Obviously, this time the grandmasters are no evident experts on a specific variation, but sure enough entertaining writers with ample experience on the subject: grandmaster against amateur.

Contrary to the two earlier publications with the same concept there is no consistent set-up throughout the book. The seven authors have been granted a lot of freedom how to deal with the title, which has resulted in different approaches. Accordingly you should rather consider the book as a collection of master classes than, which you also might easily expect from the title, a handy manual for the amateur. Still, many interesting observations and instructive fragments can be found in book, as well as various recommendations. For instance, in the first chapter Jacob Aagaard points out several typical differences between grandmasters and amateurs, the first one being ‘”Grandmasters handle the pieces better”. He illustrates this with some of his own games. One fragment I quite like is the following:

Walter Burnett-Jacob Aagaard
Cumbernauld 2007

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This makes no sense to me. The knight could be headed for e3, bVut as the d5-square is unattractive, the knight would not be seriously better placed than on d2. The knight move also frees tje d-2 square for the bishop, but this is not much of an improvement.

As we will shortly see, the true purpose of White’s last move is actually to prepare an attack on the kingside. However, the pawn formation and the piece distribution do not favour this strategy.

To me the most logical move would ne 10.a3 with the idea of meetings 10…a5?! With 11.a4! to get the c4-square for the knight. I would have chosen 10..f5 or 10…Be6, but after 11.b4 White at least has some active prospects on the queenside.

After yet another fragment and another game Aagaard concludes:

If you are an amateur and want to improve your game, I would advise you to look at “simple” grandmaster games (avoid the most complex and confusing ones) and try to figure out why the GM puts his pieces where he does. The change to your thinking will be seismic.

Here you can wonder how exactly to put this piece of advice into practice, but in general I find all this thought provoking and constructive.

Another valid point that Aagaard makes is that “grandmasters keep on going”. He supplies two examples in which the amateur after decent play eventually still ends up in a lost position. This sounded very familiar to me, and the examples reminded me – for instance – of my own game against Alexey Kuzmin:

Arthur van de Oudeweetering-Alexey Kuzmin
Amsterdam 2004

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I had built up a good position from a Spanish exchange, but eventually lost after 83 moves. In the diagram position things started to go wrong: 34.Rd6? (34.Bd6! with a big advantage) a3 35.bxa3 bxa3? (35…Ra4! equalizes) 36.Rxa6 Kxa6 37.Be5? (37.f6 Ng6 38.Nc2 is comfortable enough for White) a2 38.Kf4?? Bxf5 and obviously 39.Nxf5 fails to 39…Ng6+. White duly lost.

In the same chapter, highlighting another difference between grandmaster and amateur, Aagaard now puts himself in the position of amateur, taking the game Aagaard-Eingorn, Berlin 1997. Again the fragment is clearly proving the point, but this time the amateur Aagaard was rated 2435, where Walter Burnett from the game above was rated around 2000. This is something which slightly disturbs me throughout the book: a clear (rating) profile of the amateur is lacking. You would expect, besides the similarities, some essential differences between an amateur of 2000 and a player of master level above 2400.

Aagaard has also accounted for the final and eighth chapter of the book. Here he focusses on how the amateur can succeed, again taking examples from his own practice, though now things often go the way of the underdog. One of the three pieces of advice he offers is “be ready once you get your chance”. This again struck me as very much to the point. I for myself know that on numerous occasions I missed the right mental attitude to grab my chances, just like in the following example that Aagaard supplies:

Copenhagen 2010

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Being on course for an IM-norm White repeated moves with 38.Qe7+ Kh8 39.Qe5+ ½-½

As Aagaard points out with 38.Qxc7+ Kh8 39.Qe5+ Kh7 40.Qe7+ Kh8 White would still have retained the possibility of drawing by repetition, but could also have reached the time-control and subsequently White could have found the trivial win 41.Qxf8+! Bxf8 42.Rh2. Aagaard ends his discussion of this fragment with

in the above fragment my opponent did not need to be an especially great player – he just had to be ready to win.

The other chapters are successively taken up by Peter Heine Nielsen, Peter Eljanov, John Shaw, Boris Avrukh, Tiger Hillarp Persson and Mihail Marin. All these contributions have a more narrative character.

Eljanov and Shaw give personal stories revealing their own road to the grandmaster title. Shaw does so in a light self-critical style, mentioning his insufficient opening repertoire and general avoidance of tactics. Eljanov, together with the insights in his own development, also supplies us with some solid game analysis illustrating his points in case. Both authors touch more lightly on the subject of grandmaster against amateur. Eljanov summarizes his learning points as follows:

Knowing when to break the rules. Opening preparation. Devising a good plan, and recognizing the need to change one’s plan as required. These are just a few of the skills that define one’s overall chess ability, and each of them had a certain significance for me as I was climbing the ranks from amateur towards professional play.” In his essay discussing his first point (anti-stereotyped thinking), Eljanov – like Aagaard – also mentions determination: “Determination and fighting spirit are essential qualities for chess players of all levels. It is a given that any successful player – let alone a grandmaster over 2700 – will possess those attitudes in spades.

When it comes down to these qualities I always come to think of Tony Miles. Here are two examples which have made a big impression on me.

Sigeman & Co 1996

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Here Miles blundered with 18...Re7 19.Rxe5! but then coolly proceeded with 19…Kf7 (!!) and still went on to win: 20.Ree1 a6 21.Rad1 axb5 22.cxb5 Nce5 23.Qxf6+ Kxf6 24.Be3 Nf7 25.Bc4 Rh8 26.g3 Nd6 27.Ba2 Bf3 28.h4 Nxh4 29.Nd5+ Kf7 30.Bd4 Rh6 31.Rd3 exd5 32.Rxe7+ Kxe7 33.Re3+ Kd7 34.gxh4 Rxh4 35.Rxf3 gxf3 36.Bf6 Rg4+ 37.Kf1 Ke6 38.Bd8 Nxb5 0–1

Bad Lauterberg 1977

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Here Miles refused a draw, which probably also severely confused his opponent’s state of mind. Miles reached his goal after 41… h5 42.h4 Kf5 43.Rb7 f6 44.Rb6 e4 45.Kg2 g5 46.hxg5 fxg5 47.Kh3 Rb2 48.Rb5+ Kf6 49.Rb6+ Ke5 50.Rb5+ Kd4 51.Rxg5? Rxf2 52.Rxh5 e3 53.Rh8 e2 54.Re8 Kd3 55.Rd8+ Kc3 56.Re8 Kd2 57.Rd8+ Ke1 58.g4 Kf1 59.Re8 e1Q 60.Rxe1+ Kxe1 61.g5 Ke2 62.Kg4 Ke3 63.g6 Ke4 64.Kg5 Ke5 65.g7 Rg2+ 0–1

In the book Eljanov sets Wang Yue as another example of a great fighter and elaborates a bit on his qualities, having shown an endgame where Wang Yue displays fine non-stereotyped endgame technique. An inspiring read altogether.

Two other contributors Nielsen (with "A tale of three stories") and Avrukh ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") both highlight the several different courses a game between grandmaster and amateur can take. Nielsen discusses three of his own games: a smooth win (against “amateur” Magnus Carlsen!) , a victory after a difficult fight and a loss. Avrukh does not discuss the difficult win, but does introduce the Rocky Balboa effect. Like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a player is outclassed but still manages to last the entire game. Avrukh analyses an apt example, attributing the result (a draw) to “an incredible amount of motivation” of the amateur, caused by the excitement of meeting a strong grandmaster. Both essays carry entertaining stories and thorough analysis. As a general observation you can say that it is always valuable to study the variations of a well annotated game by a grandmaster. In this case however you can also argue that it does not contribute anything special to the general theme of the book, rather than being an instructive read. 

Personally I found the contributions of Hillarp Persson and Mihail Marin most revealing. Hillarp Persson makes a convincing plea for studying in depth, starting with a quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of gods.

He argues that it is academic whether you start studying the endgame or the opening, but that the main thing is studying in depth.

I believe that studying a topic for one hour is generally worth around four hours half-heartedly. It is better to be excellent in one area than decent in two and developing your skills in this way will make you much more dangerous to professional players.

Hillarp Persson illustrates his view with two convincing wins against grandmasters (when he himself had not yet reached 2400) in a complicated line which he had thoroughly studied. He also elaborates on a psychological aspect:

I continued to identify particular opening lines that I thoroughly liked playing, and resolved to become the best of the world at them. (…) the important point is that I adopted the mind-set whereby I would push back boundaries (…)

Inspiring stuff! He continues to prove his point by supplying a loss, now as a grandmaster, against Bo Jacobson in a game that featured the Dutch opening. As it became clear only after the game the latter had been specialized in this opening already twenty years before, which is illustrated by Jacobsen’s win against Karpov back in 1968. Hillarp Persson concludes that if you seriously want to improve you constantly have to renew your specializations. He adds:

Often this will mean giving up your old favourite opening variations or position types and learning new ideas.

Of course amateurs often can find an excuse not to start adopting a new opening variation (like “I have not found the time to study this new line”). But reading Hillarp Persson’s conclusion I again seriously regretted not to have dropped my worn-out Alapin Sicilian a long time ago.

Marin’s essay has a completely different perspective. He portrays two amateurs he personally got to know and also has played more than once: the Rumanian Dr Tacu and the Spaniard Jose Miguel Ridameya Tatche. The latter started playing again at the age of 72(!), and very actively as well. Of course, considering the subject of Grandmaster versus Amateur, it would be interesting to hear the amateur too talk about his own shortcomings, his mood and thoughts during a game against a grandmaster. Marin paves the way for this: his essay is the only one which supplies more games from one and the same amateur. In the games both featured amateur players are able to play their specializations (Hromadka variation of the Kings’Indian and the Stonewall respectively) and prove the value of Hillarp Persson’s recommendation of specializing.

Here us one example from the essay where Marin points out a logical shortcoming of the amateur. You can still see the remains of the Stonewall structure, and now the essence of other capabilities comes to the fore:

Marin-Ridameya Tatche
Seville 1992

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For as long as Ridameya was able to rely on his general chess culture, his play was impeccable. But finally, when having to choose from several tempting continuations, he made a wrong decision. Quite logically so, since the correct evaluation of them required accurate calculation of relatively long variations. 

As could be expected from Marin, the entire essay contains fine analysis and provides an excellent read.

All in all Grandmaster versus Amateur does not have Euwe’s methodical approach in Chess Master versus Chess Amateur, a title which was brought to the editors attention when the project was already up and running. Yet the book has become a highly entertaining compilation, with lots of interesting stuff to learn and to think about, suited for all kinds of chess players. Like Marin says:

I’m well aware there is no such thing as a prototype for the amateur player”.

Or, also quoted by Marin, as Tal said:

We are all amateurs. 


Arthur van de Oudeweetering's picture

Arthur van de Oudeweetering is an International Master and professional trainer. He is one of the editors of ChessVibes Training and from time to time also writes book reviews.


S3's picture

Nf1 makes no sense to Aagaard, but does that mean it's a weak move??

Niima's picture

I felt conflicted about Aagaard comment on Nf1 as well.

Cesar's picture

Does Marin state that Ridameya started playing at the age of 72? Don't think so. This is completely wrong!!
In fact, Jose Miguel Ridameya Tatche is a National Master. Not only that, he was indeed a member of the Spanish team at the Varna 1962 Olympiad! Later, he give up chess and resumed playing more or less in 1989-90, at 60. Now it is 82 and still active.

S3's picture

"The latter started playing again at the age of 72(!) "
note the word again.

Anonymous's picture

Euwe had two books by the same name that were outstanding...they analyzed whole games of Masters vs Amateurs.

Anonymous's picture

In Marin-Ridameya Tatche I don't see why 26…Nh3+ is classified as an 'amateur' mistake. I have seen plenty of games in which grandmasters have made speculative sacrifices that don't pan out. It WOULD be an amateur mistake if he really believed that Marin would go for 27.Kh1??

Anonymous's picture

I think Arthur van de Oudeweetering's reviews should be less like summaries and more like critiques.

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