Review: The Giants of Power Play
Do 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:
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
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.
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