Review: Improve Your Chess
No matter how much criticism Vladimir Nabokov's posthumously published The Orginal of Laura recently received, I instantly bought the book - and liked it all the same. Some writers are just always worth reading. In contemporary chess literature, apart from the big stars such as Kasparov and Shirov, authors that are always worth buying and reading include Jonathan Rowson, John Watson and, as I discovered only a year ago, Lars Bo Hansen - I positively reviewed his book How Chess Games are Won and Lost last year. Now, Hansen has written an even more ambitious book.
My first impression of Improve your Chess, subtitled by Learning from the Champions (published by Gambit), was rather mixed. (By the way, I think it's always a good sign if your first impression is mixed: it forces you to think harder about the book. The same happened to me in Nabokov's case.) The chapter titles of Hansen's latest work suggested to me a textbook concept that's not exactly original: 'The Romantic Era', 'The Scientific Era', The Hypermodern Era', etc. This is a way of looking at chess history that's been tried numerous times. Even the final chapters of the book, on 'universality' and 'creative concreteness', suggested essays on chess development in the style of Watson's modern classics Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (1998) and Chess Strategy in Action (2003). Even some of Watson's and Hansen's basic viewpoints on modern chess development seemed rather similiar. In 2003, Watson wrote on the evolution of chess thought:
Probably the most important distinction that I should make is between (a) the belief that valid rules exist and (b) the idea that there are specific generalities that are losing relevance in today's game because players don't think in terms of them. (...) Of course, I am only describing an evolution of thought, not saying that older generations played largely by rules or that modern ones have abandoned them outright. (...) This and other evidence indicates to me that players are much more tolerant of ideas that used to be rejected 'on principle'. Such openness has been increasing throughout the last century; but recently it has accelerated, in part due to the availability of computer analysis.
I remember being fascinated by Watson's ideas at the time, enabling a view into an entirely different chess universe, and I had no doubt he was right with regards to top grandmaster games - but at the same time I felt completely disconnected with his theories in my own games and the games of the people I saw around me, which seemed to be decided not so much because of this 'openness' of ideas but because of a lack of knowledge of these very 'principles' that modern chess players, according to Watson, tended to reject! In other words, I found it difficult to apply Watson's ideas in my own practice. Browsing through Lars Bo Hansen's new book, it seemed to me I could expect roughly the same stuff, reading first about the old dogmas and then about the new 'concreteness' and 'the era of transformation'. But I was in for a surprise.
In what almost seems like a direct answer to Watson, Hansen starts his introduction by saying that:
Some experts claim that nowadays the rules and principles formulated by former giants like Steinitz, Nimzowitsch or Capablanca are no longer useful - chess has evolved into a concrete, contextual game where each position must be evaluated in its own right. Even the best player of all time, Garry Kasparov, has hinted in this direction. In How Life Imitates Chess, he writes 'the stringest ideological dogmas are behind us and so are many of the antiquated doctrines of the chessboard. Trends still come and go, but now the only real rule is the absence of rules.'
However, I don't believe this is true. I agree that the old rules and principles are hidden and difficult to dissect when looking at complex grandmaster games (...). However, 'hidden' is not the same as 'absent'. The old rules and principles are still present, but under the radar - they are implicit. Rather than being the lever that distinguishes strong players from less strong ones, they are now everyone's property. Tarrasch, Alekhine and Capablanca could win games - even against strong opposition - mainly through a better grasp of the emerging strategic principles. That is rarely possible today, as all strong players (must) know and understand the principles. That's why chess has become so concrete and complex - it's the only way to play for a win at grandmaster level. It does not mean that the rules an principles have decreased in importance - on the contrary.
As we shall see, in most contemporary grandmaster games, the old rules and principles still form the basis from which the concrete action flows. Few top games are completely 'random'. Knowing these principles may not lead to a 'competitive advantage' over the opponent, but it is necessary to maintain 'competitive parity'. And you cannot hope to learn how to break the rules if you don't know them. I like to say that you cannot win games only by following Steinitz's or Nimzowitsch's principles, but you will certainly lose games if you don't know these principles!
This promises a completely different book that Watson's. Most importantly, Hansen's point of view is more practical and less philosophically-inclined. To be fair to Watson, his intention isn't (I assume) to make his readers better practical players so comparing the two authors is like comparing apples and pears. But Hansen also suggests to me that he thinks Watson and Kasparov are wrong in principle: the advance in complexity and the increase of rule-independency isn't so much a theoretical development as it is a practical 'trick' by strong players to get a competitive edge over their opponents. In general, I agree Watson's look on chess is a bit too theoretical: he seems to think chess develops by philosphical ideas, almost in the Platonic sense of the word, whereas Hansen seems to regard chess development more like a 'survival of the fittest' kind of principle: whatever works comes out on top.
Okay, I do not want to delve too deeply into this matter, and I'm sure all sorts of objections can be raised against the above characterizations. All this philosophizing is very interesting, but the good thing about Hansen's book is that it contains a lot of great chess - from historical games, from modern super grandmasters, and from Hansen's own practice. This last element again confirms the author's down-to-earth approach: he constantly links theory to practice in a very insightful way. After explaining Nimzowitsch concept of 'overprotection' in the chapter 'The Hypermodern Era' at some length, here's how he illustrates it:
Now White faces a tough choice. Black is close to destroy the white centre, and initially I was pessimistic about my position. However, then I came up with an idea based on overprotection. Since Black has succesfully managed to undermine the chain's base pawn - exactly as Nimzowitsch prescribes - White's attention shifts to e5, which must be overprotected. Therefore I played...
If White can hold on to the e5-pawn for a few moves, he has time to build up play on the kingside. In the game this plan works wonderfully.
Hansen's way of writing is not only down-to-earth, it's also very personal and honest. After showing the great game Topalov-Kramnik, Wijk aan Zee 2008 (remember 12.Nxf7!!), he makes the following confesstion:
A brilliant game. That is how top chess is played these days: detailed computer-aided home preparation followed by forceful creative play over the board. Looking back at my career, I cannot help wondering whether my natural reluctance towards the nitty-gritty work of finding novelties in the midst of complicated opening variations was one of the reasons why I never managed to break the 2600 Elo barrier (2586 being my highest). I guess we shall never know, as I have always preferred the conceptual over the detailed, and thus have never been inclined to drive opening theory forward. That I leave to others. In that respect I am more of a follower than a researcher, to use the distinction made decades ago by Botvinnik. Only once in my career did I (intentionally) prepare a novelty with analysis running to move 30.
Elsewhere, he writes of his own changing preferences, suggesting that in the end, despite all the philosophical and scientific progress, chess is often also a game of simple taste:
At this point in my career I was very fond of the Hedgehog structure - pawns on a6, b6, d6 and e6. Its flexibility and dynamic counterattacking prospecs - ...b5 and ...d5 - appealed to me. In recent years, however, I have come to appreciate White's superior space more, and so I have tended to prefer the white side of such positions. This is an interesting scenario: that over time a player may alter his understanding and evaluation of certain type of positions. It has nothing to do with specific variations in the Hedgehog: rather the change is grounded in general considerations regarding space vs dynamism. I have noticed a similar development in my perception of positions with an isolated d-pawn but here the trend is opposite. (...) I guess that as your experience grows, your perception of chess changes.
Hansen has a remarkable ability to make connections and switches between past and present, practical and theoretical, personal and objective without ever losing the thread of his story. And he manages to make surprising choices in achieving his goals: the chapter on the Steinitz era of scientific chess, for example, contains mostly modern games rather than ancient ones. The chapter 'Steinitz versus Lasker' starts out rather scholarly, but then makes a surprise turn towards the most recent era in chess: instead of quoting one of the classic encounters from the First and the Second world champions, Hansen gives us the current champ:
One of the points where Lasker differed from Steinitz was in the perception of weaknesses vs targets. The Scientific School was very concerned not to create any 'weaknesses' in its own camp, and for some (weaker) players from that school it almost became an obsession not to weaken the position, so that they ended up playing too passively. However, Steinitz's notion of weaknesses was rather abstract and general. In contrast, Lasker looked for specific targets in the concrete position. If a weakness could not be targeted, Lasker didn't care much about it. This battle between the general strategic characteristics (Steinitz) and the specific features (Lasker) of a position is an ongoing debate even in contemporary top-level chess. A very good example is this one, which in a sense decided the World Championship in 2007:
Mexico City 2007
Here we go. Black has a backward pawn on d6 and consequently White has a great square on d5, so I am sure the Scientific School would on general grounds prefer White here. However, as we shall see, things are far from clear.
17.Nd5 Forcing Black to give up one of his bishops.
17...Bxd5 18.Rxd5 f5! Black seeks counterplay down the f-file.
19.gxf6 Rxf6 20.Qe2
An excellent position to illustrate the difference between a general Steinitzian and a specific Laskerian approach to chess. When I followed this game live on the Internet, I instinctively thought that White was better and that Black's next move was a mistake. Trained as I am in the Scientific and Hypermodern traditions, I envisaged a white knight on d5, a bad black bishop and a weak backward pawn on d6. However, this (Steinitzian) evaluation is superficial. This line of thought is too general. While White certainly does dream of repositioning the knight to d5 (and eventually actually manages to do it), the d6-pawn is currently securely defended by the 'bad' bishop on e7. It is only a weakness in the long-term abstract sense, not in the short-term concrete sense. Black, on the other hand, has a specific and easily accessible target at f3. He simply intends to batter up against White's f3-pawn, which in the short run - as long as White has not has time to execute his knight manoeuvre to d5 - is at least as vulnerable as the d6-pawn. A more balanced evaluation of the position is therefore that both sides have their plans and trumps, and the position is close to a dynamic equilibrium.
Hansen concludes his detailed analysis of this great game, which was won in the end by White, with the following sympathetic remark: 'In 1894 and 1896 Lasker beat Steinitz in matches for the World Championship. In a way the present game can provide Steinitz some comfort - here 'his approach' turned out victorious!'
Apart from showing entertaining and instructive chess, Hansen also has interesting things to say about chess psychology. Again, he manages to combine insightful remarks with attractive present-day examples to bring home his points:
First and foremost, competitive chess is about defeating the opponent, and to do that you sometimes have to 'play the man' - exploit your strengths and pound on your opponent's weaknesses. (...) The matches Kasparov-Kramnik and Anand-Kramnik are testimony that the objective approach sometimes succumbs to the subjective approach even at the highest level. (...) One young player who exhibited shrewd psychological alertness from an early age is Magnus Carlsen. (...) Just take a look at how easily he disposes of one of the strongest and best-prepared players in the world, Veselin Topalov.
Alekhine's Defence - a rare guest on the highest level. However, it is a clever choice by Magnus against Topalov. The Bulgarian is one of the best-prepared players in the world (...) but Magnus had noticed that he mainly focuses on the most fashionable and topical variations. It is probably a while ago that he last seriously analysed the old Alekhine! While Carlsen had occasionally played this opening in the past, I am sure that it was a surprise for Topalov. (...)
11.Re1?! Black's opening gamble pays off! Topalov drops his guard and plays an unfortunate 'natural move' without delving sufficiently into the position. With the immediate 11.c3 White could claim an edge - now he has to fight for equality.
11...Bg4! Suddenly White has problems with his d4-pawn.
Oops - it was probably only here that Topalov noticed the small trick 13.dxc5 Nxc3! 14.bxc3 Bxc3. Now we see why 11.Re1 was inaccurate: the rook is hanging on this square. Still, White should have entered this line - he could bail out to a draw by 15.Bh6! (...) I am sure that a more defensively inclined player would have chosen this option. However, here we see a minor psychological weakness of activists: the willingness to take risks sometimes backfires. Even when he has been tricked in the opening, Topalov prefers to keep the game going. A reflector, on the other hand, would presumably have chosen to bail out with a draw. As I pointed out in Foundations of Chess Strategy, reflectors are sometimes accused of playing too many draws, but these draws sometimes occur because reflectors possess a keenly developed sense of danger, which helps them sense when it is time to bail out.
As you've probably noticed, I like this book so much that I can't help quoting more and more from it. What I perhaps like best of the above description is that it's completely recognizable to me: on my local club, too, there are players who are typical 'activists', prone to mistakes as the one Hansen describes. It's such a delight to read about Topalov as someone who plays like the local dudes at my club! However, while I was copying this quote I also noticed a minor flaw: Hansen sometimes has a tendency to repeat himself a bit. The phrase 'to bail out', for instance, occurs no less than three times in this last paragraph, and if you scroll up to the fragment and Lasker and Steinitz, perhaps you'll see what I mean if you pay attention to the words 'weakness' and 'target'. Well, to be honest these were about the only points of criticism I could find in his book, so you know I had to mention them...
With Improve Your Chess, Lars Bo Hansen has produced yet another wonderful book which is both extremely valuable to the practical player and very interesting for the philosophers among us. By explaining relevant chess games and theories from the classics, his own practice and recent super grandmaster tournaments, without ever sounding pompous or over-ambitious, the Danish grandmaster has stumbled upon the winning (if not entirely original) formula of modern chess books which is sure to inspire more works in the future - all of which will be worth your attention.
This was the last book review of 2009. I hope you enjoy your Christmas holidays with some good chess books and I wish you a very successful 2010!
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