Reviews | November 14, 2009 22:49

Review: The Giants of Power Play

The Giants of Power PlayDo you like to watch porn? Sorry, different question. Do you like feel-good movies? Many people don’t like to admit this, perhaps because they know the world is really a very cruel place, but I think there can’t be much wrong with feeling good about life from time to time. Similary, it can’t hurt occasionally reading a chess book that makes you feel that chess is a really simple game, full of great opportunities and combinations waiting to be executed, rather than a frustratingly difficult enterprise full of failures and broken careers.

Neil McDonald’s recent book The Giants of Power Play, published by Everyman, is exactly such a feel-good chess book. In it, the author shows basic chess themes and motifs from games by five great ‘power players’: Paul Morphy, Alexander Alekhine, Efim Geller, David Bronstein and Veselin Topalov. Some of these players are obvious choices, but personally I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Geller, of whom I hadn’t seen too many games until now.

Such a selection of players always tends to be a bit forced: I’m sure you could find plenty of examples from, say, Kramnik or Karpov’s games to show that they, too, are great ‘power players’, or that you could pick games from Bronstein and Topalov to prove they were subtle strategists. But that’s not the point. McDonald wants his readers to enjoy chess to the max and I think his selection of players is highly suitable for this purpose, whether or not his selection is ‘fair’ or not. Take, for instance, the following example:

Sofia 2006

The situation in the diagram above looks absolutely hopeless for White: he is the exchange and two pawns down, his knight is hanging and his bishop on a2 is pinned against his rook. However, Topalov defied materialistic considerations in a manner that would have delighted Alekhine.

32.Nxf6!! Bxg6 33.d4!!

You only need control one square to win a game of chess, and here that square is h7. White threatens 34.Bb1 with unstoppable mate. Black can defend with 33..Rg8 34.Bb1 Rg7, but then 35.Rxa5 grabs the queen. The fact that there is a discovered attack on the black queen with 34.Bb1 is integral to the combination. Well, so much for a spirit of self-sacrifice when we end up nabbing the queen. In fact the conflict between materialism and sacrifice makes chess a rich and exciting game, even when materialism triumphs!

Here, McDonald not only shows entertaining chess, but also makes good valid general observations - just like in a good feel-good movie. Admittedly, after about a hundred pages of such great examples, I found myself completely convinced that chess really was an easy game and that if you just put your mind to it, you could win any game with a cunning trick, a combiation or a postional sacrifice, such as, for instance:

New York open 1990



Petropolis 1973


Or even:

New Orleans 1858


In reality, sadly, chess (and life) just doesn’t work like that, not even for the likes of Bronstein and Topalov (most of the time, anyway), and I must say McDonald’s accumulation of example after example of such successful combos executed skilfully by our five heroes - however clearly explained - sometimes reminded me more of a porn movie rather than a feel-good film: the difference being, of course, that porn is just a one-sided fantasy, while the feel-good movie genre at least attempts to show life from different angles.

Fortunately, McDonald does have just enough eye for the flip side of the coin. Here’s an example where his hero Alekhine actually loses a game:

The Netherlands (2) 1935

42.Qh1! Menacing a discovered check and then Rf7+.

42...Rb2 Alekhine stalemates the white king to prevent the threat, but now his rook is no longer fighting the passed pawn.

43.Rf7 Qe8 44.c7 The intention is 45.Qd5 and 46.Qe6, forcing the pawn home.

44...Rc2 45.Qb7!! 1-0

White wins after 45...Rxc4 46.Rxh7+ (but not 46.c8Q, threatening mate on h7, as Black escapes with 46...Qxf7! 47.Qxf7 Rxc8) 46...Kxh7 47.c8Q+ Qe7 48.Qxe7+ Bxe7 49.Qxc4. The paradoxical threat of 42.Qh1! followed by the 'ambush' 45.Qb7! would have greatly appealed to the 'maverick' chess mentality of Bronstein.

In the end, however, McDonald is just so enthusiastic that it’s easy to forgive him for not paying too much attention to what I would call the downside of chess: the flawed combination, the would-be masterpiece lost on time, the breakdown of nerves at the crucial moment. Rather, in this book McDonald proves to be a master in showing the energizing potential of chess, even though he sometimes does this by showing fragments that are so well-known even players who barely know the rules will recognize them. But this the lasting impression I got from reading this book really is this: chess is a great game, with wonderful possibilities, and they’re waiting to be realized!

As said, I found it especially refreshing to become more familiar with the games of Efim Geller, who I feel is a bit underrated in the West. (Geller, by the way, was praised several times by Kasparov in his DVD on the Queen’s Gambit Declined, and he was one of the few players with a positive score against Fischer.). But it was also nice to see how well Morphy was aware of modern problems of chess (and how little his opponents, including the great Anderssen, knew of them), and how strong the young Topalov already was. (McDonald gives several Topalov examples from his early youth.) Here's an example of McDonalds often personal style of writing, from the chapter 'The Goldilocks Queen':

Alexander Alekhine was particularly adept at finding secure but powerful posts for his queen on the third rank. From such a vantage point she could survey the whole board, and conduct an attack without being in any great danger. I have always been impressed by his subtle handing of the queen in the two games that follow. In both examples a single manoeuvre led to a massive shift in the energy balance between the two armies.

There's also an interesting and original chapter called 'The Psychology of Preparation' about some of the matches our five heroes have played. After Morphy lost the first two games of his match with Harrwitz in Paris, 1858, McDonald  imagines himself to be Morphy, resulting in the following monologue intérieur:

"As Black, it's obvious I should avoid a fixed centre pawn structure like that in the Queen's Gambit. Harrwitz mustn't be allowed a clear plan. He should be engaged in a complex battle over the whole board, which means combining threats to his king and his pawns. As White, I should build up in the centre in my usual style. But once I have gained a positional advantage, I need to target more than just his king. The struggle must be as wide as possible, to wrong-foot his pieces. I should only sacrifice when the outcome  is entirely clear."

In all, this book is great for anyone who wants to learn more about some of the greatest players in chess history, or wants to learn about some of the basic principles of chess, or just wants to enjoy the good side of chess. Feel good, and your chess will feel good too.


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Joe's picture

Chess pawn is my favourite pastime...I have a few gigabytes of it on my computer.

Will some pawn come with the next edition of Rybka or Fritz?

Bert de Bruut's picture

Actually this is more like porn then feel-good chess to me, but that's off course in the eye of the beholder...

Bert de Bruut's picture

Just like you said, that is :)

Arne Moll's picture

Polger, I share your sentiments about the need for a good book about Spassky's games. I'm sure that if it wasn't for Fischer, he would have been recognized as the indisputably strongest player of his age.
As for Spielmann, I think McDonald makes it clear that a player like Morphy, who died a year after Spielmann was born, understood so much more of chess that later generations really seem to have forgotten most of his ideas. Perhaps only Chigorin can be compared to Morphy in this respect, but unfortunately he had other problems. Anyway, Spielmann's play was sometimes brilliant, but it has always made a very naive, old-fashioned impression on me even in the light of some of his contemporaries (such as Rubinstein.) He reminds me of the Dutch writer Karel van het Reve, one of the greatest writers and thinkers in Holland of the 20th century, who nevertheless had totally old-fashioned and silly ideas about music and science. Oh well. You can't have it all!

PolGer's picture

My remarks are a little bit off-topic.
I do not have read the book but I read McDonalds “Rudolf Spielmann-Master of Invention” which has a similar characteristics. McDonald is a talented writer on chess. His book “Matering the French” written together with Harley was and still is remarkable. McDonald mentions true to Spielmanns own chess reception looses and defeats. As far as I know only Capablanca, Tal, Fischer and Kasparov (only against Karpov?) did this. When ordinary chessfanatics like me see looses we feel a little bit disappointed about our “heroes” but on the other hand we realises how complicated it is to achieve positive results day in and day out. Its not about gambling but sometimes you have to take some risks. Ask old Kramnik or Kramnik 3.0. So it is definitely no chess porn (I can barely understand why you used that word!).
When I recently read the book on Spielmann (who was beside Tal my chess idol in my younger days) it strikes me how much chess has progressed since those days even if you can see some topalovlike exchange sacrifices in his games. And believe me before that I read some thing or two about Suetins, Watsons and Nunns receptions of modern chess.
But in the end - chess is all about excitement. Everybody who plays chess more serious knows about the complexity of the game but some concepts from the great master of the past are still worth to remember whether you are an expert or just a chess addict.
For most of us there is surely much to learn form Geller, Stein, Boleslavsky and many of their contemporaries even in more simple-made lectures.
And just by way still we are waiting for a good and fair book about Boris Spasskij and his great games.

PolGer's picture

Arne, I agree with most parts of your statement especially concerning Cigorin and finally about the cake. Yesterday I read an interview with Boris Gulko in Schach´s December issue (it’s a good feeling for a chessplayer to be ahead of their time, isn’t it!). I am not sure if he got the whole story about this problem … but anyway. Maybe it is pleasant for chessvibes to hear his words. I quote a rough translation:
“Underestimated are player who not had a whole country as support beyond them and who not had been a symbol of national pride: For example Rudolf Spielmann or Salo Flohr. Compare them with Euwe. All these tree players had been approximately the same strength. But Euwe played matches with Alekine. If Spielmann or Flohr had been Dutchmen … “
One might add if Bronstein, Geller, Stein and Boleslavsky had been Russians. Silly talking…they all had been great players- the champions and their contenders and these times had been gone …luckily.

PS: I frankly admit that I never had heard a word from or about that man: Karol van het Reve. But he surely was an interesting character. I will prick up my ears and eyes ;) if I see his name written somewhere else again.

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