Three invigorating chess books
My previous review, in which I discussed three recent chess puzzle books, was admittedly somewhat grumpy and pessimistic about the future of this particular genre, and some readers took offence at this. So this time round I'm going to look at three completely different books which I read during my holiday. I'm very enthusiastic about all three of them, and they make me very optimistic about the future of chess books in general.
The first of the three books I'd like to discuss was written by Jurgen Kaufeld and Guido Kern, two authors I'd never heard of before who've captured my heart with Grandmaster Chess Strategy, published by New in Chess, a book on chess strategy entirely dedicated to the positional masterpieces of Swedish Grandmaster Ulf Andersson. Say what? Well, as the authors themselves declare:
As you play through the games it is fascinating to recognize the facility and precision with which Andersson achieves his goals. Chess players of varying strengths and styles will enormously improve their abilities and simultaneously increase their positional sense as a result of careful study of the annotated games, which have been classified according to various middlegame and endgame themes.
In the same introduction, I was immediately charmed by the way the authors talk in a straightforward manner about Andersson's reputation as a "draw king":
Because Andersson's play was marked by practical and technical considerations, it is certain that many of his games ended as draws. The justification for this is that for many years he was in contention with the very top players in the world and at that level positional and technical capabilities are extraordinarily high. Nevertheless, as we have already emphasised, his games are of great instructional value for ambitious players who want to achieve a higher level of competence in strategy and endgame technique.
Eat that, die-hard fans of the so-called Sofia Rules! There is just as much beauty in teeth-gritting and a difficult defence as there is in flashy attacks, as this excerpt from the chapter on Prophylaxis shows:
25.g4 Here we have a typical Hedgehog formation, which White has noticeably weakened by his rash proceedings on the queenside with a4 and b5. It is instructive to follow the way Ulf Andersson reacts in prophylactic fashion to all of White's options.
25...h6 Black is planning an interesting regrouping in order to take the wind out of the sails of White's attacking efforts.
Black finds an extremely imaginative defensive set-up which draws the teeth from Black's [sic] attempts to attack. How does he proceed?
26...Kh7! Black is planning to play the rook to h8 in order to counter White's opening of the h-file by means of g4-g5. At the same time he is preparing the profound regrouping of ...Rc7 and ...Qd8, after which White will have problems with his pawn on h4.
27.Bh3 Rc7! 28.Re3 Rh8! A beautiful prophylactic move.
29.Kg1 Qd8 A dangerous response to the advance with pawns on the kingside. This example shows how advantage in space does not always bring about the desired result if the hinterland is not well organised. (...)
Here's a great example of Andersson's famous endgame expertise. I must admit that I couldn't find the answer to this question (note that it's not a puzzle, as in the book only entire games are analysed) myself:
Black's position is excellent. How can the rook and the knight be even better deployed?
42...Nb7! The plan consists of ...Ra1-c1-c3 and ...Na5 and White is completely paralysed.
Reading Grandmaster Chess Strategy is an invigorating experience which will stimulate your positional vision and make you appreciate the subtle features of chess that are too often ignored these days.
Another inspiring book is Vladimir Popov's Chess Lessons, published by Quality Chess. Popov is best known for his pupils, Nadezhda and Tatiana Kosintseva. His book, with a foreword by Nadezhda, draws heavily from their games, and is a typical high-quality chess improvement book. Each chapter is introduced by a "mysterious" diagram taken from a "classical" game, in which a typical mistake was made by a famous grandmaster. Thus, the chapter on Obvious Moves and Reflex Answers is illustrated by the following well-chosen example:
Moscow m (11) 1985
1...Rcd8? after which Popov shows the finish of the game, starting with the pseudo-sacrifice 2.Qxd7! and Black is immediately lost. (Kasparov, in his book on the match, even gives the moves two question marks).
From the same chapter comes this fragment from one of Tatiana's games:
Russian u18 Championship, Dagomys 2002
The enemy kingside is somewhat weakened, so Tatiana automatically played 1.h4? without probing into the nature of the position. Her opponent then carried out what he was threatening: 1...Nc6! 2.h5 Bxe2 3.Bxe2 Qxd4+ 4.Qxd4 Nxd4 5.Bd3 Rc5 -+
Tania immediately lost the chief support of her position - the pawn on d4. A different line - 1.a4!? - was a better try, for instance: 1...Bxe2 2.Bxe2 Qxb2 3.Bg4!? with compensation. In fact, Black can improve with 1...Bd3! and keep his advantage. However, the point still stands - White would have had more of a fighting chance by avoiding the obvious first move.
As this example shows, Chess Lessons is not at all about praising the Kosintseva sisters no end, and Popov makes a candid attempt to show both the strengths and weaknesses of his pupils. In fact, the emphasis, if anything, is on uncovering those weaknesses in order to improve, and this is, of course, as it should be. Here's another illustration of this from the chapter Too Much Calculation:
World Girls' u14 Championship, Oropesa 1998
It is Black's move. The Ukrainian girl has just played 1.Rc2. What is the best square for the knight to retreat to?
The thirteen-year-old Nadia played: 1...Nb6? I found the following comment on this move in an old notebook of mine: "enthusiasm for forced play at the expense of positional considerations". In the diagram position Nadia presumably expended a great deal of time and energy working out the variations arising from the knight's attack on the pawn. But this labour was to no avail; things turned out badly for Black after 2.a5 Na4 3.Rc4 Nb2 4.Bxb2 Bxb2 5.Rb1 Bf6 6.Rbc1 Rd7 7.b6 axb6 8.axb6 c6 9.Ra4 +/-
In her search for the right move Nadia needed to apply some logic. If she had been thinking not only in terms of variations but also of concepts, she could have spotted the excellent outpost square on e4 for her knight and dispense with the tedious work of calculation. The correct decision was 1...Nd6! 2.Ba3 Ne4 3.Rfc1 Rd7 =
Most of the recommendations and themes in Chess Lessons aren't really new, but then hardly anything ever is in chess. Most of the games in this book were unknown to me (refreshingly, many are taken from top women's games) and the commentary, such as the above, contains enough food for thought to rethink your our faults and shortcomings. For instance, the "too much calculation" phenomenon seems to me typical of a particular group of club players who are very good at calculation but have little notion of strategic concepts. If only they would all read this book!
Arguably the most ambitious of the three books discussed in this review, is GM Danny Gormally's Calculate Like A Grandmaster, published by Batsford. Unlike the previously discussed books, this one does contain a lot of well-known games, which makes Gormally's task as an annotator considerably more tricky. As the title suggests, Gormally focuses on games of a rather more tactical nature, and he doesn't shy away from taking on the big guys.
Thus, there are lengthy chapters on Tal, Shirov, Topalov, Morozevich and Anand, and all of them contain high-quality games which have been analysed many times before, often by the players themselves. A logical question, then, would be: what does Gormally have to contribute to all this?
Let's take, for example, one of my favourite Shirov games of all time: Shirov-Chernin, Groningen 1993. This game is also analysed by Shirov himself in his famous book Fire on Board, so it makes for an easy comparison. Let's first see what Gormally has to say about it:
PCA World Championship, Groningen 1993
19.h6! Bxh6? Quite simply Chernin didn't want the pawn hanging over his head on h6 for the rest of the game, and who can blame him? Any check then by White might be mate but I still would have preferred the humble retreat 19...Bh8 20.Ne4 bxc4 21.bxc4 Rad8 +- (21...Nxe4!? 22.Bxe4 Rac8 +=). I guess Black's problem is that he doesn't have room for manoeuvre since any pawn break with ...c5 or ...e5 is likely to open up the game for White's two bishops.
20.d5! Now Alexey is happy - tactics are imminent!
20...cxd5 21.Bxf6 bxc4 22.Bb2
Unlike in the previous game [Korchnoi-Shirov, Biel 1992 - AWM] where Black had two pawns for the piece (in this case Black has three pawns), White's extra piece is likely to prove very useful, as his forces are aimed menacingly at Black's kingside. (...)
Now over to Shirov himself (see the previous diagram):
19.h6? The right idea but in the wrong move order. Correct was 19.Bd2!, intending 20.h6! Bh8 21.Bg5 with a clear advantage. (...)
19...Bxh6! I had imagined that this was impossible, and only now realized that Chernin would get three pawns for the piece.
20.d5 cxd5 21.Bxf6 bxc4? Chernin misses his only opportunity to equalize. After 21...Nxf6 22.Qxf6 bxc4 23.Qh4 Bf4! (...) White has no advantage. Trying to take things easy suddenly allows White a powerful attack. (...)
To me, this comparison initially showed just two things:
1. Gormally didn't look up Shirov's own analysis in his book Fire on Board (incidentally, one of the greatest chess books of recent years).
2. Gormally analysed the game all by himself.
While the first conclusion definitely made me wonder, the second is, in itself, a good thing. Actually, the entire book is highly original and therein may also lie a third explanation:
3. Gormally showed this particular game for other than purely chess-related reasons.
Shirov-Chernin was played at the PCA Qualification tournament, and in the chapter on Shirov, Gormally devotes a great deal of space to the rise and fall of the Professional Chess Association and the evolution of (grandmaster) 'conditions' in chess in general and the UK in particular. In that light, the above-mentioned game is simply a useful and entertaining illustration of this theme:
Tournament prize money in England hasn't risen in line with inflation - in the seventies the top prize would be about 300 pounds as well, but that would be worth several thousands today. As far as I can see the only good thing about playing weekenders is that the venues tend to be easy to find - you just follow the slightly awkward social outcast shuffling along carrying a shopping bag.
Given that it's almost impossible in this country to make a living from playing chess, you tend to have a few stark alternatives - join the real world and get a proper job (no chance), do lots of soul destroying junior coaching, or simply move abroad, to somewhere like Spain where there are far more tournaments and chess isn't looked down upon like it is in this country.
Which I guess brings us to back to Shirov, who after all moved to Spain himself in the nineties. (And speaking of the nineties, I found it interesting that many if not most games analysed in this book stem from this period. Why? Perhaps because this is the period when Gormally, who was born in 1976, discovered chess as a junior and fell in love with it?) It also illustrates Gormally's slightly anarchistic approach: lots of asides, "rants" and digressions without ever becoming boring.
Throughout the book I also noted a pleasantly critical attitude towards FIDE and some unconventional opinions on some of the world's best players. For instance, I'd never heard anyone dare call Magnus Carlsen "primarily a grinder", but it immediately struck me as a very adequate (if not entirely flattering) description of the Norwegian prodigy. (Of course, Gormally realizes that Carlsen is much, much more than that, but his characterization rings intuitively true - at least to me.)
In fact, despite his extensive descriptions and analysis of (former) top level players' games, I liked the chapter about Gormally's own games best. I also thought it was the funniest section.
Manchester Open 1997
11.h4!? Right, let's get on with it then. Patience was never my strongest point... White creates the threat of Bxh7 followed by Ng5 - a motif that is only possible with the rook still on h1 and another example of how it can pay to delay castling!
11...h6 (...) 12.g4!? Less Neanderthal types may have been tempted into a more sedate continuation such as 12.Nf1 or 12.Bb1!? - an interesting idea, envisaging Qc2 and an attack on the king - but it was far too late for such conventional schemes. I think this was an old weakness of mine - whenever my opponent had a vulnerable point in his castled position (in this case the pawn on h6) I always felt I had to attack it directly, whereas in most cases it would have been better to rely on the general weaknesses created by a move like ...h6 to promote my attack in the future. (...)
I'm not sure if Calculate Like a Grandmaster really is about the art of calculation - but to be honest I don't really care. The book, like Chess Lessons and Grandmaster Chess Strategy, is written with so much enthusiasm and such an abundance of original ideas that it's simply a great read from beginning to end. These are three perfect ways to get in the right mood for your summer chess holiday.
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