Tukmakov and Browne – a tale of two worlds
Recently two auto-biographies have seen the light, both by grandmasters of world class who were close to, but did not make it to the absolute world top. This is very interesting in itself, because of course there are more players than just the world elite who have a story to tell. Moreover, here you might detect more new or revealing facts than in yet another biography on a super player.
The first autobiography is The Stress of Chess (and its Infinite Finesse) by Walter Browne (New In Chess), the other is Profession: Chessplayer Grandmaster at Work by Vladimir Tukmakov (Russell Enterprises). Remarkably, around the same time New In Chess published another book by Tukmakov: Modern Chess Preparation, which I will also touch on here.
Both grandmasters are from the same generation: Tukmakov is from 1946, Browne from 1949. Both reached the prestigious interzonal tournaments, in their time the last step to the Candidates’ matches, in the fight for the highest title. Both also represented their country at team events several times.
About here, the similarity ends. Where Browne lived in the United States, Tukmakov’s roots lie in the USSR, the Ukraine. Two different worlds, also with a completely different chess history. As Danny Kopec writes in his foreword to Browne’s book:
The more I read about Bobby Fischer (e.g. Frank Brady’s recent Endgame), and then about Walter’s biography, and knowing him for many years, the more I’m convinced that our country is not ready to appreciate chess – never had been and possibly never will be.
You might want to argue his point of view, but compare this to the status of chess in the former Soviet Union! Not surprisingly the two autobiographies differ much in content. Apart from that, they also have a different set-up.
Browne: Textual Part
The Stress of Chess has five chronological chapters, each of these finishing with a number of annotated games (101 in total). The textual parts read like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, i.e. they are written 'up tempo', but in my opinion they are lacking the tension. Often they contain a summing up of rounds, opponents and results, just like a report on a team match where you don’t know the actual moves of the game and you will have to do with generalities. Still, sometimes you’ll find something is lacking. For example in his report on the La Palma Interzonal Browne, having shortly described a lot of his games, fails to mention his final – and disastrous – score. Another thing that might bother you is that Browne regularly utters complaints. On the Manila Interzonal his conclusion is:
My main problem was that the air-conditioning was insufficient as the locals did not want it too cool, (…).
And a couple of pages later Browne tells about his reasons to withdraw from the US Championships:
When the first round started there was little room between the tables on the theatre stage and I realized there were coming colored lights from different directions.
On the positive side, the text oozes energy, also due to the pace with which you will read it. And there is lots of amusing stuff about his usual time-trouble, his memories of Fischer (including encounters from 1981) or how he accepted an absolutely last minute invitation to Puerto Rico and managed to get there in time in order to obtain his final GM norm with a minimum of book support and preparation. (Back then titles were scarce, and the only other player to obtain the title the following year, 1970, was Anatoly Karpov.) Or his report about the earth quake during the last round of the mass tournament in Indonesia in 1982, when his opponent appeared to be the only one who had remained behind the board fully concentrated.
Browne, Karpov and Tal at La Palma 1977
In the fifth and last chapter ('Blitz, Opens and Poker') Browne, semi-retired from chess in 1984, and receiving no more interesting invitations after his win in Naestved 1985, also devotes space to his poker adventures. This may be justified, as many chessplayers are known to be into poker. However, as I’m not, this was not interesting to me, and I suppose I will not be the only one. I guess the editors also incorporated the poker part, because it is an important part of Browne’s life analogous and next to his chess activities from his early life onwards.
Browne: the games
While critical remarks on the autobiographical text can be made, the game sections in each chapter are just wonderfully inspiring. If you want to get into a fighting mood, these will really boost your combativeness. Also, Browne generally played in an active and aggressive style.
Every game starts with a small comment often on his impressions of his adversary. They're sometimes quite informative on "the little things of life", like in his game against Smyslov:
He was a real gentleman, well dressed and quite calm, and all his moves were played very slowly, deliberately as was his custom, and he screwed the pieces into the squares for effect.
His introduction to his game with Tal in Milan 1975 reveals his heroes as well as his fighting mood:
Bobby Fischer and Tal were my greatest inspirers with their super aggressive and combative styles. As a result I took upon the Benoni, King’s Indian and Najdorf, thanks to their influence. It was a magical moment to play one of my heroes, in perhaps the premier event of 1975. Perhaps the most exciting and feared attacking player of the last two decades, Misha was out for blood in round 2 after losing to Unzicker in round 1. I had been close to winning vs Gligoric in round , so I was quite ready to cross swords.
As said the games are a treat in itself. One of my personal favourites is the game against Bisguier, Chicago 1974, and especially this move:
Lots of other games from top tournaments against elite players are to be enjoyed.
Browne - Karpov, with Euwe making the first move (Amsterdam 1976)
I would have liked to see an overview of all Browne’s tournament’s results in the book, in order to obtain a clearer picture of the course of his career. The book does have numerous portrait and action photos, including two where Browne is posing with Frank Sinatra and Kenny Rogers respectively. Only in America! In short: this book may not be a literary piece of art, but sure enough lives and inspires!
Tukmakov - Textual part
Profession: Chessplayer is simply divided in two parts. In the first, more than 100 pages cover the story of Tukmakov's life while the second part is reserved for games. Tukmakov’s style of writing is completely different from Browne’s. In the initial part he seems to keep a distance and addresses himself in the third person as subsequently Vova, Vovik and Volodya. Only later he starts to use the first person form “I”.
Tukmakov talks candidly about his struggles in the various strong tournaments. Especially as a western reader you are once more reminded how different chess life was in the USSR. The importance of getting international invitations, the immensely strong competition in the preliminaries for the national championship (in fact Tukmakov never became Soviet Champion, but did reach second place no less than three times – behind Korchnoi, Tal and Karpov respectively. A fine achievement though!). And later the impact of the perestroika on chess life.
What makes the book a great read for me is that it is filled with short stories and anecdotes on the countless strong chessplayers in the former Soviet Union. Tukmakov really painted a picture of his time here. He has stories on top players like Karpov, Fischer, Geller and Vaganian. He also tells about players who are more or less well-known in the west, like Dzindzichashvili, Stein, Kholmov, while other names he talks about, like the twin brothers Karen and Levon Grigorian, will be unfamiliar to many of us. For instance, Tukmakov relates extensively about the latter two:
(…) usually accompanied by their mother, at the time something unusual, they stood out not only because of their obvious talent, but also because their family was conspicuously well off. (….) The boys were different not only in their appearances, but also in their personalities. Hypochondriac and reflective Karen bore little resemblance to an open and carefree Levon. Karen became one of the strongest masters of the country, while Levon started finding himself in questionable settings.
Finally Tukmakov also informs us about their tragic deaths.
Tukmakov also tells us about drinking habits of other players or players with an otherwise bad style of life, which naturally interfered with their chess careers. There are also stories about his relationships and friendships with other players. Furthermore, in between the chronological stories about the tournaments he played he shares his observations on other players:
Yuri’s appearance and playing style projected a sense of tranquility, security and maturity. Brilliant memory, chess sophistication, excellent physical fitness and nerves of steel suggested a long chess career. It is hard to say why this did not happen.
Or on Fischer (Buenos Aires 1970):
Not only his play but also his behavior on stage was unusual. He hardly got ever up from the board, which was not common at the time. Now and then he would turn away from the game, however not so much to rest or to take a look at the positions of competitors, but only to refill his glass of milk, which he consumed in large quantities.
Tukmakov continues to muse a lot more on Fischer, and also tells about the special circumstances of their personal encounter. (In the Buenos Aires tournament Tukmakov was the first to play Fischer, who had not appeared for the first two rounds, but later came to an agreement with the organization and decided to play, which subsequently messed up the schedule).
By the way, Fischer opened that game with 1.b3, perhaps for the same reasons as for Browne’s puzzling description of Tukmakov: (Madrid 1973): “the young theoretical Soviet”.
For your information, at his turn, Tukmakov said this about Browne at the Madrid tournament:
The American Walter Bowne attracted attention with his play and extravagant behavior.
So these autobiographies may reveal a lot, but also leave some things open. Anyway, I would say this part of the book is a must-read for anyone who is only slightly interested in (soviet) chess history and in the people who played a role there.
Tukmakov - games
Tukmakov’s style of analyzing also differs from Browne’s. Generally the Ukrainian is more down to earth. Moreover, he has subdivided 41 annotated games (or “more than 40 games” as the back cover says) in 8 categories. I doubt whether this gives extra value to the collection, but the games are pleasantly and extensively analyzed and also checked with modern day engines.
The section contains, among others, an almost win against Kasparov and a strangely unfinished game (after adjournment) against Tal at the USSR championship in Moscow 1983, when Tal later had to withdraw from the tournament. Tukmakov’s favorite move can be found in the section: 'The Decisive Move' in his game against Panno:
The photos in the book are unfortunately not at a large format, and sometimes not clear either (a sign of the times), but do add to the historical picture. In general, this book is recommended!
Modern Chess Preparation
Contrary to Walter Browne, Vladimir Tukmakov has stayed in touch with the chess world. He coached the Ukrainian team that won gold at the Olympiad in Calvia 2004 and nowadays he is training the team from Azerbaijan. Very recently his team SOCAR won the European Club Championship in Eilat. These successful coaching activities, as well as Tukmakov’s career as an active top-player, gives ample reason to make one curious about his view on modern preparation.
Vladimir Tukmakov watching SOCAR's Topalov playing Laznicka in Eilat this year
With this expectation in mind, the title of the book appears to be somewhat misleading, since about (the first) half is devoted to the pre-computer era. (Chapter I, 'The evolution of preparation'). If the book was meant to be about the information age, as the subtitle suggests, this would be a rather long introduction!
If we let the unfortunate title for what it is, Chapter 1 is a chronological overview of preparation in top-level games from Steinitz at the end the 19th century up to Kasparov in the 1980’s. The main topic being preparation, a lot of space is taken up by the games and their background information. Besides, many of these games are (very) well-known games.
This might be an understandable choice, simply because on these games most historical background information will be available. Still, at first sight I’m always disappointed when I notice a large number of games that have been quoted time and time again (another example here is Beim’s recent book on intuition).
Luckily Tukmakov’s stories, which can be read in between the games, make up for a lot. A couple of diverse examples: Tukmakov relates about the impact of two of Euwe’s wins in the 1935 match against Alekhine; Euwe won with White and subsequently with Black in the very same line, which was a severe psychological blow for Alekhine. He dwells on physical fitness and produces an anecdote on Kholmov who supposedly would have said
I have played the Grünfeld a lot, but I never ended up in such a bad position
after the moves 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 b6 3.Nf3 e5 4.dxe5. :-)
Needless to say, Kholmov had drunk more than the occasional glass.
Tukmakov discusses the term Soviet Chess School, arguing that instead of “school” the word organization would be more apt. He gives a couple of examples from practice when the so-called ZIGZAG method was adopted, a radical change of preparation during a tournament. One of these is from Tukmakov’s own experience in the Karpov-Anand match in 1998, just before the rapid tie-breaks.
In the Epilogue to this chapter Tukmakov concludes:
No one starts to learn the rules of grammar from exceptions, no matter how beautiful and paradoxical they are, and today’s chess at the highest level is simply woven from paradoxes and exceptions. The basic rules were largely formulated in the first half of the twentieth century. (…)The rules should be learned from simple and logical examples. Therefore I’d recommend the games of Capablanca not Alekhine, Botvinnik not Bronstein, and Karpov not Kasparov.
A clear, though doubtlessly also debatable recommendation.
The next two chapters deal with the computer era, though the third and last chapter ('Deciding Games') also features examples from the period before. You will not find a manual here how to use a database, pick your openings, study your opponent, let your engines work for you, etc. Again the main part is filled by the games, but in between you can find Tukmakov’s thoughts on preparation. As said he can speak from a lot of experience, and as a result you will also find many inside stories on the well-known top level Ukrainian players. As Kasparov wrote on Tukmakov:
without his name it is impossible to imagine modern Ukrainian chess,
so Tukmakov indeed seems the best man to inform us here! Among others, more than once he discusses games by Ivanchuk, about whom he states:
He’s helped by his constant work on chess and his unique opening erudition. In recent years he has not disdained the help of the MF, but he doesn’t have excessive trust in its evaluations.
(MF stands for Metal Friend, which is how Tukmakov refers to the computer throughout the book.) It's a relief to read there are top players who don’t put all their faith in the modern engines!
Sometimes Tukmakov himself is also critical of the computer, and points out the defects of the engines. For example, on the Berlin Wall he says:
the MF is an ineffectual assistant in this type of position.
Or he points out some other drawback:
The appearance of the MF severely reduced the people’s sense of danger.
He also mentions a phenomenon which certainly struck me as familiar, and is not confined to the compute era:
Strangely enough it can be easier to an extent for the player who gets caught out by a variation (…) In contrast the player who is leading can’t immediately adapt to the new mode, and during the time for him to readjust the fruits of months of work are ruined.
Indeed, I myself experienced that when your theoretical knowledge has stopped during a game, you have to readjust and think for yourself. At the same time your opponent might have been on his own for a couple of moves already, and as a result he can be more into the flow of the game.
Of course Tukmakov also talks about the benefits through the use of the computer. His favorite example of an original and fruitful cooperation between man and machine is this game by Feller:
So basically here the same thing goes as for the first part: along the way, in between the games, Tukmakov shares his thoughts and gives some advice on (the effects of) preparation.
Two more examples from the last chapter, ‘Deciding Games’:
First of all it is essential to remain true to yourself
meaning to should hang on to your usual favorite kind of play. This is also something I remember from a session with Khalifman at his chess school in St Petersburg, though the aforementioned ZIGZAG method already suggests there is room for exceptions. And, discussing FIDE’s KO matches he quotes Anand:
The difference between a good performance and an extraordinary achievement should often be sought not in the technical part of play but in sporting qualities like will power and resistance under pressure.
This made me think that it would be a good addition to this book to watch back Anand’s lecture after his match against Gelfand (which I did!).
The book also features some games from Tukmakov’s own practice. There is a very small overlap with his autobiography, which also features his win against Topalov, though the analysis differ somewhat. It is interesting to read Tukmakov’s comments to his game against Kasparov in the final round of the USSR championship in 1981. Kasparov could become champion and Tukmakov writes amongst other things:
My confidence that I’d succeed increased even more when I saw my opponent. He clearly couldn’t handle the tension.
Garry Kasparov, in Kasparov on Kasparov, also tells in detail about the preparation for the game from his side and writes after the 12th move:
But at the time, sitting opposite Tukmakov, I was radiating composure and confidence.
Surely this was an interesting clash, which Tukmakov ultimately lost! Here is the game:
So it is clear there is a lot of thought provoking stuff in the book. Still, it is no revolutionary book on preparation. Entertaining as it is, it could have been put together in a more coherent way. Furthermore, Tukmakov could have revealed something more in detail about his own methods of preparation (with and without the computer), for instance as a team captain of a successful Ukrainian team.
As it is, the book is a compilation of games, stories, advice and observations, all centered around the theme of preparation. It's still a fine and informative compilation, and a very pleasant read!
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