John Watson Book Review (51)
By Publisher, Part 1
IM John Watson - Thursday 23rd January 2003
I Play Against the Pieces
288 pages; Batsford 2002
King's Indian Defence, Mar del Plata Variation
160 pages; Batsford 2002
The Chinese Book of Chess
288 pages; Batsford 2002
Ideas Behind Modern Chess Openings
176 pages; Batsford 2002
With this column I will begin to examine some recent chess books (in English) sorted by publisher. In the last few sets of reviews I haven't dealt with books put out by some of the most prolific firms. The next few columns will do so. As always, I can't do justice to every book; I have read some fairly thoroughly but only scanned others. Keep in mind that I sometimes just want to let people know what's out there.
Batsford Chess Books (a subdivision of Chrysalis Books) was the first of the British publishers to put out advanced modern-style books by the leading authors. Players of my generation simply had to have as many of Batsford's books as possible, and when I got the chance to write for them it was an exciting experience. But for various reasons Batsford practically ceased publishing new chess books some years back and thus lost most of their best authors. As I have noted when reviewing their books here, the company has made a definite comeback after becoming part of Chrysalis. For the most part they have not tried to compete in the realm of more advanced books, preferring to tap other markets. One project that Batsford has engaged upon is to reprint their older books, in some cases mildly updated. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and several of their out-of-print works are well worth having, including ones that we grew up learning from and holding dear. But I'm much less likely to review such books than contemporary ones. Batsford is also involved with instructional books. Examples of newer books in this category include Tony Gillam's Starting Out in Chess, his Simple Chess Tactics and Checkmates, which are aimed at beginners, and Neil McDonald's Mastering Checkmates. Here I will look at four Batsford books that should be of interest to club and advanced players. Their broader selection can be seen at http://www.chrysalisbooks.co.uk/books/publisher/batsford .
One of last year's most interesting books was Batsford's I Play Against the Pieces by Svetozar Gligoric, the great Yugoslavian grandmaster. This is a chess autobiography taken from a 1981 Russian version and updated in 1989 in Serbo-Croat. The latter version had 120 games while this new translation and update has 130 games spanning from 1939 all the way through 2001. Thus Gligoric's games cover 60+ years and include encounters with many well-known names over several generations. Oddly enough, the games are organized by openings, and ordering by date played is used only within an opening section. A unique approach, as far as I know, and one which emphasises conceptual links over chronological/biographical progression. Obviously the player interested in theory will be happy with this decision, others perhaps less so. The book concludes with a section on Gligoric's theoretical contributions to the openings. Most of these are older -- the important ones, anyway -- but it's interesting to see games included since the last edition in a number of d-pawn openings such as the Nimzo-Indian, Catalan, and Slav Defence. In general, Gligoric has tended to make rather technical improvements, often deep into the opening, rather than radical conceptual ones. An exception to this has been the King's Indian, where several of his ideas have fundamentally changed the opening.
It's strange to admit it, but having grown up while Gligoric was a major figure of the chess world -- certainly one of the very top non-Soviet payers and a prolific journalist as well -- I had somehow already begun to forget about him. There are so many top players now whose games and tournaments are constantly before one, that the older stars tend to fade from ones consciousness. I would be surprised if most younger up-and-coming masters, especially in a country like the U.S., are remotely aware of his games and contributions. So it's a boon to have this permanent record in English if only as a reminder and for the historical record. In my opinion there are many other prominent older players that deserve a similar treatment; just for example, I would love to see books on the lives of Najdorf and Larsen, to name two more Western greats.
I do have to admit, as others have noted, that Gligoric's book is almost completely about chess and all too short on biographical material, discussions with and about other great players, and insider portrayals of events. In six pages called 'Age Makes it Time to Talk: A Chess Autobiography', there are only the sketchiest descriptions of real life events, e.g., a few sentences about being a partisan during World War II (with no context) and an excruciatingly brief and formal description of his wife, who apparently did little of interest during their 47-year-long marriage. The rest is a catalogue of chess tournaments, results, and a few awards. Imagine the stories he could have told about his great contemporaries (all of whom he beat and usually more than once); these are sadly lacking. Thus as with so many chess autobiographies we see very little about the man away from the board and learn little about the history of the game and its players.
Gligoric was the champion of Yugoslavia many times, a participant in seven Interzonals, and a Candidate for the world championship three times. His style, as he himself states from time to time, is a classical one, with an emphasis on space and centralization. In the opening phase he was a specialist, using 1.e4 in his youth but very seldom straying from 1.d4 thereafter (using mostly the same variations). He played mostly 1.e4 e5 as Black, with some Sicilians, and the King's Indian versus 1.d4 throughout the peak years of his career. The latter he credits with sharpening his repertoire and opening up his game to a modern and more dynamic style of play. Nevertheless, the book contains far more games of the technical variety than most collections, and can be used as a general study guide for the treatment of middlegames arising from those openings as well as a balanced presentation of other phases of the game. Gligoric is famous for his play on the White side of the Nimzo-Indian, Benoni, and Gruenfeld. With all of his innovations, it's interesting that (as he points out) he did not introduce (and seldom played) the so-called 'Gligoric Variation' of the Orthodox King's Indian (with 7.Be3 instead of 7.0-0).
I have played over quite a few of the games in this book and found them enjoyable and often challenging. They include a few miniatures, many protracted middlegame struggles, and some very interesting endgames. His notes tend to have few lengthy variations (by recent standards, anyway; the analysis was fairly dense for the time in which he wrote), with unexceptional but sufficient verbal guidance. Only occasionally does he go off into a deeper discussion of the nature of a position. It is a conservative approach which is redeemed by truly excellent and instructive games. I would therefore recommend I Play Against the Pieces very much for the chess content, but not for the historical material. Surely all collectors will want a copy. I'm glad that I have mine.
Given how informative Gligoric's book is regarding opening theory, it's strange that he also authored Batsford's recent book King's Indian Defence, Mar del Plata Variation. I can only say that, having worked with players rather extensively on this line, I can't recommend the book to opening fans. There seems to be only a half-hearted attempt to put work into the analytical section (it's mostly a listing of games) or even to keep up with lines that don't interest the author. I strongly suspect that this analytical part was put together primarily by someone other than Gligoric with his help, although of course I have no evidence for that. The lack of theoretical accuracy is a major problem in a book about a theory-laden variation that only begins on move 13 or so!
King's Indian Defence, Mar del Plata Variation (or at least the historically-oriented part of the book with the annotated games – it's not clear) is based upon a long lecture that Gligoric gave in 1999. The lecture section concerns the development of the variation in top-level chess and is the best part of the book. He claims and insists several times that he is the sole inventor of the 'Mar del Plata Variation', which is essentially a plan in the main line of the Classical King's Indian rather than a specific innovation. I must say that this plan is rather obvious and would have been found in short order anyway. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 e5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.Ne1 Nd7, Najdorf-Gligoric, Mar del Plata 1953 went 10.Nd3 (the main move then; today 10.Be3 move is more common, with Gligoric's piece setup applying to it as well) 10...f5 11.f3 f4 12.Bd2 Nf6 (12...g5 was the later, more accurate move order) 13.b4 (13.c5!) 13...g5 14.c5 h5 15.Nf2 Ng6. Gligoric's point is that the Soviet players had tried the plan ...Rf6-h6 in this kind of position (i.e., after ...g5, but without ...Nf6 and ...h5), but not ...Nf6, ...h5, and ...Ng6. I think that he is a bit too excited by this fact, but the sequence of his games makes good reading until, as I say, we enter the main theoretical discussion.
King's Indian Defence, Mar del Plata Variation might be a good introduction to the variation for those who prefer books to databases and have a strong theoretical bent. One can always absorb the ideas and relevant theory and then update the information later. Fairly new King's Indian players could use it to delve into the opening's structures and themes, although they could do the same with many other works. Otherwise it's not clear to what audience this book is addressed and I can't recommend it.
Batsford has also come out with the odd but entertaining training book The Chinese Book of Chess, by Liu Wenzhe. He is a strong player of chess (an IM) and expert in several other mind games. The Introduction describes various intellectual and philosophic achievements; it also talks in the briefest possible manner about his political persecution. Liu Wenzhe is also a trainer of the Chinese Olympiad teams that have done so well in recent years.
At the very least one must grant that this book original: the author fills it with elevated philosophic speculations, non-Western theories of thinking, and other out-of-the-ordinary ideas. On a chart near the beginning of the book he lays out the major schools of chess with their 'theory', 'goal', and 'contribution'. We have the Italian School, the Classical School, the Hypermodern School, the Soviet/Russian School, and of course the Chinese School, the latter having the goal of 'thought and sensibility' and the contribution of 'non-logical domain, strategy of competition'. We learn about 'the origin and nature of chess' (from Chinese 'precursors', of course), the defining role of 'The Book of Changes' and other exotica. It's all rather hard to take too seriously, but I think that one can still find some broader insights worth considering. Anyway, for many chessplayers The Chinese Book of Chess will stand or fall based upon the appeal of the games by the new generation of Chinese stars. I enjoyed them and admired the eccentric but also ultra-logical way in which the players and the author annotated the games. The question is whether one might want to get a more conventional games collection instead by, say, Kramnik, Khalifman, or Anand. I'm not sure, and I don't know whether to recommend this book or not. A traditionalist will probably find it absurd and even irritating, whereas a tolerant reader with some Eastern philosophic leanings would probably love it. The rest of us are very likely somewhere in the middle. I happen to like the games selection and notes and think that The Chinese Book of Chess makes good reading. But you might want to try to look this one over first before making a decision.
Gary Lane's Ideas Behind Modern Chess Openings has an extremely deceptive title. Titles are always bent towards the publisher's wishes, and most have some kind of commercial twist, but the author signs the contract and can veto anything that is wildly inaccurate. Ideas Behind Modern Chess Openings is in fact a repertoire book for White, with the main idea of using the London System (Bf4 and e3) against every defence! Not only is this something that one would never expect from a general title so similar to Fine's Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, but the opening proposed is the antithesis of 'modern', as the author himself makes clear in his introduction referring to London 1922. Even if one is at the bookstore (rather than trying to order it sight unseen), you may be fooled by the back cover, which is not exactly forthright. It begins "A repertoire of easy-to-learn openings based upon Garry Kasparov's favourite move 1.d4, which is a good way to play and win." ! Kasparov has played mainly 1.e4 for many years (the book is dated 2002; is this yet another reprint that is not marked as such?). We also learn that White can play just about the same moves against most openings (fair enough), but this is held to include the Nimzo-Indian, although White never plays c4 or Nc3! Inside, Lane tells the story of how Garry Kasparov, 'when a teenage' (sic), played 2.Nf3 and 3.Bf4 for the second time in his life (I believe that he was 14 at the time). The section is entitled 'Overnight Sensation'! Lane says that the London System has 'real possibilities for a kingside attack which has attracted players such as Hodgson, Kasparov, and Yusupov.' I doubt that Yusupov is primarily thinking about attack when he plays Bf4, although one might arise later; and these references to Kasparov are blatantly commercial. Many average players can be manipulated by such a title and by claims like those above; I think that publishers should be careful with this sort of thing.
That's all pretty negative stuff, but I think deserved. The book itself has some useful features. It includes a bonus section on the Barry Attack versus 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Nc3 (with the idea Bf4), and covers lines against less-played openings. Versus the Dutch, Lane suggests variations of g3 systems, which shows a flexible attitude, although 25 pages seems a lot to devote to it (even the Chigorin Defence gets 12 pages). The basic London System repertoire is, as claimed, a relatively easy one to absorb for lower players, and is potentially useful for those with very little time to study and play. Also, many players have found London System lines useful for starting out in chess. I would only add that its infrequent use in mid-to-upper level chess has to do with the ease with which Black can grab a share of the centre and equalise. This often leads to rather sterile play. In conclusion, this book has nothing to do with its title, but offers a repertoire that may appeal to certain types of beginning and developing players.