John Watson Book Review (43)
Books of Many Flavours
IM John Watson - Friday 28th December 2001
My Best Games of Chess
334 pages; Gambit 2001
Winning with the Sicilian Dragon 2;
224 pages; Batsford 2001
Chess: The Search for the Mona Lisa
(based upon earlier book);
254 pages; Batsford 2001
Exploiting Small Advantages;
(Oleg Stetsko as 'co-author'?!);
144 pages; Batsford 2001
The Latvian Gambit Lives!;
224 pages; Batsford 2001
Dynamic Pawn Play;
256 pages; Gambit 2001
Edmars Zengalis: Grandmaster without a Title;
160 pages; Pomeranian Publishing 2001
Opening for White According to Kramnik,
239 pages; Chess Stars 2001
Opening for Black According to Karpov;
191 pages; Chess Stars 2001
In the last two reviews I've dealt with chess works that appear upon non-traditional media (CDs and videotape), and in this column I'm going to return to recent books of interest. I say 'recent' when I really should say 'recently received', because review copies of some chess books from Europe (and in this case Russia as well) can often take many months to get to my address in the United States, often arriving well after they go on sale in the bookstores here. Hence the increasingly dated impression my reviews must make. The advantage of course is that I get to see what other reviewers have said, a situation that I sometimes try to make use of. As usual, I will treat some books in detail and simply try to give a few comments about others.
There's nothing like a great games collection. Vishy Anand's 'My Best Games of Chess' was one of the first three books that I reviewed for this column. I and just about everyone else praised the book for both presentation and contents, and it subsequently won the BCF Book of the Year Award. This edition has been expanded sufficiently to tempt those who own the first edition to reinvest; those who didn't get around to reading the original have a real treat in store.
As I begin to look through this edition, I do think that it needs a longer introduction to, for example, explain what material has been added (if only to specify which game number), how his career has developed, what his thoughts are as he looks back, what his expectations are, and so forth. Either he or his collaborator John Nunn could have bragged a bit about the addition of 100 new pages, discussed whether the notes to the earlier games have been revised, talked about what Nunn's role was, and so forth. Quite apart from any introduction, it might have been nice for Anand to occasionally give us a story about his life away from the board; although to be fair, this was not a feature of the first edition either.
The essence of Anand's book resides in the games and annotations. The original version's great appeal rested largely with its clear and relatively simple commentary, and of course its outstanding games. I think that the extra 17 games in this edition are equally attractive; and that for the most part, Anand retains the balance between verbal explanation and analysis that is pretty or essential for our understanding. Many of the notes have appeared elsewhere, e.g., in Informant or New in Chess Magazine. Perhaps for that reason, there is an occasional tendency to analyse positions in tremendous detail, e.g., the analytical note to move 17 in Game#42 goes on for 2.5 pages; and both Games#53 and #56 have one note of about 1.5 pages with two others approaching a page in length. There is an awfully 'Fritzy' feel to such analyses, and one wonders how many readers will bother to work their way through them. Of course, one needn't do so to enjoy the play. My own feeling is that this was never meant to be a technical book along the lines of, say, Igor Stohl's wonderful ' Instructive Chess Masterpieces'; and its games don't require such intensive scrutiny.
'My Best Games' is obviously an improved version of the original in that one gets even more high-quality material. It's also nice to have a single source at hand which covers the whole of Anand's chess career. I played through every added game (on a real board with real pieces, something I don't get around to much theses days), rediscovering how strong a player Anand is and what complicated struggles take place on the top levels. For those who learn from and enjoy games collections (most of us) and who don't already own the first edition, this book is almost a compulsory purchase. For those who do have the original, it comes down to whether you find enough of value here to justify a new purchase. Then factors may enter into the decision such as your budget for chess books or interest in contemporary players. At any rate, this was a first-class book when it appeared and is now even better.
Batsford has released a number of new titles since my last set of book reviews. One that I like very much is Chris Ward's 'Winning with the Sicilian Dragon 2'. This is based upon his earlier 1994 'Winning with the Dragon', a fact admitted to and referred to repeatedly by the author. What a pleasant change! The book is so thoroughly rewritten that he could almost be forgiven for claiming to have written a separate work. Dragon theory has expanded greatly, and Ward is particularly on top of things as the man in charge of the Dragon site at ChessPublishing.com.
I already have considerable experience using this book since a student of mine plays the Dragon. We have found it very instructive and easy to work with. Ward has a refreshing approach in many respects: revealing his own home analysis, showing a willingness to switch systems for the reader, exhibiting a pleasant and never obnoxious sense of humour, and giving extensive positional explanations. He offers two full systems versus the critical 9.0-0-0; and it would have been nice to see something similar, however short, versus the 9.Bc4 lines and perhaps against 6.Bc4 and the Classical Dragon; but that is asking a lot, and in any case might have required an extra 30 pages or more.
The chapters on all the lines just mentioned are particularly efficiently and tightly presented, with detailed and original analysis based upon Ward's own extensive experiences. It's hard to say more about such analysis without presenting examples. I haven't time for that and can only say that I would be surprised if any Dragon player wouldn't benefit greatly from it. Ward offers instructive commentary on general themes throughout the book, as well as in his introductory chapter.
Other reviewers have complained about the short last chapter of the book called 'Tips in the Anti-Sicilian', apparently added to justify the subtitle 'A Complete Repertoire against 1.e4 for Attacking Players'. I agree wholeheartedly with them: better to eliminate the subtitle and chapter, or in any case the chapter. Ward's 'tips' are absurdly abbreviated and often even his snippets are oddly irrelevant, points I don't want to waste space demonstrating but with which I strongly suspect that Ward himself would agree.
Bottom line: a high-quality and enjoyable book that reflects Ward's hard work and obvious enthusiasm. Any Dragon fan should definitely get this book, whether they have the older edition or not.
Another Batsford title that I can recommend (this time with reservations) is Eduard Gufeld's 'Chess: The Search for the Mona Lisa'. Yes, I'll have to eat a little crow here, in view of my earlier reviews, and admit that Gufeld offers any reader who is not familiar with the older version of the book (as I wasn't, and I suspect that most TWIC readers aren't) both entertainment and a great deal of substance. The core of 'Chess: The Search...' is a collection of Gufeld's articles from his early years up to recently. To me, this collection is by far the best work he has done. The book covers his life in chess, one that has spanned several generations and involved some great players. His annotated games include both quick kills and real slugfests; they are rich with tactics and a good number show inventive play by both sides. Gufeld's annotations also include quite a bit of older opening theory, interesting to read about if not terribly relevant today. In general, the notes are thorough, easygoing and instructive. One disclaimer: the reader looking for specific help on the King's Indian or Sicilian Dragon should be warned that many of these games and much of the material here has been published in his books on those subjects.
Finally, there is a great deal of storytelling, some of it anecdotal and some of inflating Gufeld's own status. Whether one likes this sort of thing is a subjective matter-I guess I'd just say that I found parts quite amusing and other parts offputting. My guess is that most readers will enjoy the genial tone that pervades the book. I wish that Gufeld had supplied more particulars about the great players of his generation, although that might not have been realistic given the fact that many of these articles were written at the time of his acquaintance with them.
I have a minor complaint and an important one here. Neither will likely prevent you from enjoying the book, but I feel that I should mention them. The minor one is that, once again, there is no mention of the book's original version, 'My Life in Chess: The Search for La Gioconda' (ICE 1994). Taylor Kingston, in a rather critical review in ChessCafe, did the dirty work of comparing the two books closely, concluding that 'this is in effect a second edition', and that it is 'quite similar'. This fact is nowhere revealed, even by the author in the book's preface, despite the proud display of Tal's quote about this 'fine collection' at the beginning of the book! Also, I am appalled that Gufeld would criticize the behavior and ethics of other players. In a relatively short time in the U.S., he has been involved in arguments and rude behavior a number of times (apart from the better known stories, his dancing around at the board when Joel Benjamin blundered against him was repulsive to see). I was the personal victim of an attempt to steal a game (that I won against him) by means of a purely dishonest claim, one that he was well aware was not true. Again, this book is definitely worth reading and I think that most players will enjoy it; but such hypocrisy should be noted.
I can't recommend Gufeld's 'Exploiting Small Advantages' because I don't think that it's well-written or useful to the average player. There are also a number of technical problems and poor analyses. Normally I would just forego comment upon it, but certain things about the book relate to my objections above. By all accounts this is a revision of his 1985 (Batsford) work of the same title, with many chapter titles and quotes in common (I should add that I do not have a copy of the earlier book). This fact is not mentioned in the new version, just as with his book above. Is this just the publisher's fault? I don't think so; as an author, I can't imagine omitting the fact that I was revising an earlier work, nor do I think that other writers would do so! Such an omission is (to put it mildly) deceptive. And on a much more serious note, the question of Gufeld's plagiarism in this book has been brought up by more than one reviewer. Writing for Chess Horizons magazine, one of the best if not the best state magazines in the United States (Chess Horizons Website) is the home page, email at ChessHorizons@MassChess.org), Editor Mark Donlan points out two examples in which Gufeld blatantly lifts ChessBase textual commentary by both Daniel King and Alexander Baburin and inserts it in the book as his own writing, in one case with only a change of tense and in the other with a mere rearrangement of some of the sentences. This should not be acceptable. Without even having the redeeming factor of good chess material, I don't think that 'Exploiting Small Advantages' deserves your consideration.
Tony Kosten's 'The Latvian Gambit Lives!' is a very extensive revision of his 'The Latvian Gambit' of 1994; and yes, this is made crystal clear in Kosten's Introduction! That Introduction is revealing in other respects. In spite of the back cover copy, which is understandably sales-driven and claims that the book 'prove[s] the validity of the gambit', Kosten emphasizes that 'There is no subjective bias, this is no "Winning with the ..." book—when a line is good for White, I say so.' I will give a practical example of this below. Kosten also claims that his book is a 'labour of love', and that is impossible to gainsay. The Latvian Gambit has always had a great many adherents among correspondence players (and Latvians! I remember both Latvian Gambit Magazines and Latvian-organized correspondence tournaments with the gambit when I was growing up). Even with all the attention the gambit gets in that realm, and with all the tournaments, books, and magazine articles that have been devoted it, I would be amazed if there existed a Latvian Gambit devotee out there who didn't instantly scarf up a copy of Kosten's book. He has clearly redefined the territory. As is the case with any author who puts this kind of effort into such a specialized and probably dubious opening, the monetary rewards will fall far short of what he deserves. I am reminded of Gutman's 'Scotch 4...Qh4' book reviewed earlier, although I have to admit that 4...Qh4 strikes me as ultimately sounder than the Latvian.
By coincidence, this book arrived about a month after I'd finished a section on the Latvian Gambit for a forthcoming book. This made it easy for me to check my recommendations, which were made from White's point of view. Incidentally, one of the books I used a lot (not in Kosten's Bibliography) was 'Latvian Gambit: A Grandmaster View' by Lein and Pickard ('L&P'). This is quite a good source for looking into all those strange and irregular early deviations that Black can try. Anyway, I had proposed that White employ one of two lines. The first was the well-known 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.Nc4 dxe4 5.Nc3, and now Kosten agrees that of Black's 3 reasonable choices, 5...Qg6 6.d3 ultimately doesn't hold up for Black. The same may be said for 5...Qe6 6.Ne3 (Kosten doesn't give 6.Bd2, a move cited in L&P, which I tried to show gives White the better game, the first idea being 6...exd3?! 7.Ne3 dxc2 8.Qxc2); and now, since the main line 6...Nf6 7.Bc4 Qe5 8.d3 (8.d4) 8...exd3 9.0-0 Kd8 10.Bxd3 favours White (I give 10.cxd3! as even better), Kosten turns our attention to 6...c6 7.d3 Bb4, when I like the line 8.Bd2 exd3 9.Bxd3 Nf6 10.0-0 0-0, and here instead of 11.Bc4!?, just 11.Re1. Thus 5...Qe6 is pretty dicey. Kosten's favourite is 5...Qf7'!' 6.Ne3'!' c6 ('!', and it is indeed the best chance) 7.d3'!' exd3 8.Bxd3 d5 (Kosten talks hopefully about 8...Bb4 9.0-0 Nf6, but Elburg's suggestion 10.Ng4! is not taken further-I think that it is quite strong) 9.0-0. Now Kosten turns to either 9...Be6 or 9...Bd6. After 9...Be6 10.Re1 Ne7, he doesn't mention 11.Ng4 (threatening Ne5) 11...Nd7 12.Qe2 (followed by Bg5), which is depressing for Black, and I also analysed 10.f4! intending f5, Ng4, and Bg5 as resulting in White's favour. Thus the most often played move is 9...Bd6. The reason that I chose this whole variation for White was an article by Stefan Buecker in Kaissiber Magazine with both analysis and research that seemed to indicate a clear White advantage after 10.Re1 Ne7 11.Nexd5! cxd5 12.Nb5. That is a position that Kosten had both analysed in his first edition and had game experience with. Now there is far too much analysis to cite here (to move 32!), but the long and short of it is that Kosten exhibits admirable honesty and eventually concludes 'Again Black is in serious trouble. Black desperately needs an improvement here'. This is theoretical writing at its best: as a Latvian advocate, Kosten could easily claim that one of the many dubious deviations from the main line is unclear or 'deserves analysis', but he avoids the temptation to do so. In fact, the whole 4.Nc4 variation strikes me as a real threat to the Gambit as a whole.
Well, this is going on too long, or I would go through some of the 3.exf5 e4 4.Ng1 lines, which I also think give White an advantage, albeit a smaller one. Kosten doesn't come to that conclusion, and I had to take into account several continuations and suggestions for Black from his book. I seriously doubt that there is a system in this opening to which he hasn't devoted many hours. It's easy to recommend this book as essential material for those involved with this gambit on either side of the board.
Drazen Marovic's 'Dynamic Pawn Play' is the successor to his 'Understanding Pawn Play in Chess'. I didn't find that earlier work of exceptional interest, since it seemed to be mostly a restatement of the standard thoughts on pawn structures. Worth getting and of high-quality, but not groundbreaking. 'Dynamic Pawn Play' is a more advanced book than that and contains some unique and original theoretical thinking. I wish that I could say that I have read more of it; for example, the back cover talks about discussion of the positional exchange sacrifice, a subject I have great interest in, but I haven't found it yet! I do think that the general structure of the book is very interesting: it is arranged 'historically' from the 'open centre' to the 'closed centre' to 'the dynamic centre'. As Marovic explains, the last section was never meant to be as large as the first two combined, but 'it is simply indicative of its frequent occurrence in master practice, the practical importance...and its general relevance to the state of theory of our times.'
Marovic claims that the open centre was well understood by the early part of this century, and that the closed centre was 'absorbed more slowly' but was broadly understood by the 1960s and, while the understanding has been much refined since, 'strong players perceived and understood its underlying mechanisms years ago.' But, he continues, 'We could hardly say that of the dynamic pawn centre', explaining that we are in a time of the 'spirit of experimentation, readiness to enter the unknown and take risks, but first and foremost to a new attitude borne out of the conviction that all is possible if supported by concrete calculation...' My impression of the book is that it broadly supports this thesis by concentrating on annotated examples that tend to be, but are not limited to, well-known games from chess history.
This leads me to the most confusing thing about this book. 'Pawn play' per se doesn't always seem to be its subject. In the 'Open Centre' section, there are a number of games that are to even an extreme degree illustrations of pure piece play without the influence of pawns! (Just for example, Tal-Smyslov on page 50). The idea is presumably that the central pawns have been swept away and then piece play decides, but it's still a bit strange to have so little pawn play in such an important section of the book. Furthermore, various games in the book are annotated into the late middlegame and endgame in cases where dynamic pawn play is not really the subject. Overall, I think that Marovic's succession of examples through the book does indeed demonstrate his overall point regarding the nature of change in the game and the use of pawns. In that context, I should mention that the examples are organized by general subject such as 'Central Counterblow', 'The Wing Attack Countered on the Same Wing' and the like. I also think that you could hardly find a better set of intelligently and mostly non-technically commented upon games. But I would warn the prospective reader that the book's value (to me) consists of those games and their relation to an overarching view of pawn play. If you're looking for concrete instruction about pawn play, or even a systematic approach to understanding pawn play, I don't think that you'll find it here. The point that Marovic would perhaps make is that the way to acquire practical knowledge is by example and guidance, and this is what he provides. His first volume is as close as one will probably get to working with specific, defined structures. Here he tries to provide some understanding of what kind of thinking is required to advance beyond that point. I view this book as an original and philosophic look at chess (and pawns) which is also a very good games collection.
Next, I just want to direct your attention to the existence of a new book by John Donaldson called 'Edmars Zengalis: Grandmaster without a Title'. Donaldson is a prolific writer who has the rare distinction of being a very strong IM, an author of theoretical works, and a leading chess historian. This book, which I have only glanced through, is his latest in a line of original historical pieces. Edmars Zengalis was born in Riga, played consistently in the 1940s and early 1950s, and retired from international play when he moved to the U.S. and became a professor of mathematics. Donaldson makes the case that Zengalis could have been given a grandmaster title with more justification than others who have been awarded them. Zengalis' games are annotated and his career is summarized. This is primarily a book for chess historians and collectors, but anyone can enjoy it. [John Donaldson is the Chess Director of the Mechanics Institute Chess Club (http://www.chessclub.org/)]
Chess Stars has published two more books involving opening repertoires. One, 'Opening for White According to Kramnik, vol 2' is Alexander Khalifman's successor to the Kramnik 1.Nf3 work that I reviewed previously in this column. Here Khalifman discusses a broad variety of systems beginning with 1.Nf3 and 2.c4. This includes a repertoire against Nimzo-Indian and Queen's Indian setups by Black, a large section on Hedgehog systems, and a Symmetrical English section on 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.g3. As before Khalifman supplies a great deal of verbal explanation, and I think that he has an excellent treatment of those difficult sidelines one runs into in practice but that aren't covered in popular books.
'Opening for Black According to Karpov' by Khalifman exhibits the same qualities. In this case we have Karpov favorites like the Caro-Kann and Nimzo-Indian recommended and analysed. The Caro-Kann main line is 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7, so one must want to play that rather than 4...Bf5 (or 4...Nf6). Karpov has played is opening lines (such as 4...Nd7) more consistently than other leading players, e.g., his treatment of the Catalan and his use of 1.c4 e5 as Black are backed up by plenty of examples. Thus there doesn't seem to be as many junctures requiring an 'outside' variation to fill the gaps, as sometimes occurs in the Kramnik series. These books provide a way for the practical player to pick up a time-tested repertoire in fairly modest detail and with verbal guidance. They are moderately difficult, and may be characterized as somewhere between the 'Complete Repertoire' books that we have become used to and more technical single-opening tomes. You will have to put some serious study into them in order to come to the board well armed; but as is to be expected, the rewards will tend to correspond to the effort invested.