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John Watson Book Review (27)

Coping With the Flood, Part 1

Queen's Gambit Declined; Matthew Sadler; 176 pages; Everyman, 2000

Queen's Gambit Declined, Bg5 Systems; Bogdan Lalic; 208 pages; Everyman, 2000

The Meran System; Steffen Pedersen; 224 pages; Gambit 2000

The Most Amazing Moves of All Time; John Emms; 192 pages; Gambit, 2000

Storming the Barricades; Larry Christiansen; 176 pages; Gambit, 2000

Action Chess; C.J.S. Purdy; 192 pages; Chessco, 2000

The Mammoth Book of Chess, 2nd Edition; Graham Burgess; 537 pages; Robinson, 2000

Queen's Gambit Declined; Matthew Sadler; 176 pages; Everyman, 2000

Queen's Gambit Declined, Bg5 Systems; Bogdan Lalic; 208 pages; Everyman, 2000

The Meran System; Steffen Pedersen; 224 pages; Gambit 2000

The Most Amazing Moves of All Time; John Emms; 192 pages; Gambit, 2000

Storming the Barricades; Larry Christiansen; 176 pages; Gambit, 2000

Action Chess; C.J.S. Purdy; 192 pages; Chessco, 2000

The Mammoth Book of Chess, 2nd Edition; Graham Burgess; 537 pages; Robinson, 2000

In this review, I start trying to cope with the flood of books that I have received over the last few months. My next review deals with the new edition of MCO, and the review after that (Flood, Part 2), if I ever get to it, will examine the remaining books and CDs of recent vintage or of special interest.

First, some catch-up notes. Reader Gerard O'Reilly sent me an email about various errors in or problems with Bill Robertie's endgame book reviewed in #26. If Bill wants to contact Mr. O'Reilly, perhaps with a mind to a future edition, please email me and I will pass on the address.

Quite a number of readers asked me why Pal Benko's name wasn't in my 'World's Best' category in review #26, since he played in two Candidates tournaments. Good point and my apologies; consider him added to that category. That division was quickly done and arbitrary, so please forgive me any further errors.

Lastly, in review#21, I complained about the lack of a conversion program from NIC-format games to PGN-games. Because my old Nic2pgn.exe program had failed, I assumed that NIC's format had somehow changed. But this turned out to be a quirk of my computer, not the utility. That conversion problem is widely available on the Web.

On to chess books. Everyman has two new books on the Queen's Gambit Declined ('QGD'), by Matthew Sadler and Bogdan Lalic, the last dealing only with Bg5 lines. This is a very good choice of subject by Everyman, as this has probably been the most neglected of the major openings (at least in English) throughout the past decade or more. I will review these books together, concentrating on their drawbacks first, and then turning to their positive features.

To really be prepared to play this opening, alas, it is advisable to get both books (I can hear the sighs of dismay). Why is thisÿ Because once again, the 'Complete Games' format, so easy for authors and editors, has led both of these authors to neglect important variations which fall within the alleged scope of their subjects. Sadler has already committed this error in his Semi-Slav book, and now he continues the pattern with the QGD. He covers many of the main lines like the Lasker Defence, the Orthodox Defence, the Exchange Variation (including 3...Be7 4,cxd5 exd5), and 5.Bf4. But readers will search in vain for critical systems which one is certainly likely to encounter as White or wish to play as Black, e.g., the Cambridge Springs (20 pages in Lalic), the Ragozin Defence, and the Vienna (another 22 pages in Lalic), a variation both popular and deeply investigated at the top levels. Some of the lesser lines which Lalic covers (e.g., the Peruvian Gambit) are also not to be found in Sadler.

Lalic and Sadler often overlap, but Lalic's 'Complete Games' format allows him, incredibly, to avoid analysis of the Orthodox Variation with ...Nbd7, ...Be7, ...c6 answering Rc1 and Bd3 by ...dxc4 and ...Nd5. This was once considered the main line of the entire QGD, and is still playable and important (Sadler devotes two chapters to the Orthodox Variation). Including one almost unannotated historical game in the Introduction, Lalic takes care of the problem by 'recommending' one of the 7.Rc1 dxc4 8.Bxc4 b5. Since when is this a repertoire bookÿ And anyway, that is almost certainly a poor line for Black, which Lalic does little to rehabilitate. Then, while Lalic has two chapters on the Exchange Variation, he neglects the hugely popular line with Nge2, Bd3, f3, and 0-0 or 0-0-0, intending to expand in the centre. Finally, Lalic has 11 pages on 3...Be7 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bf4, which isn't a Bg5 system at all. I guess the moral of all this is that I would like authors of books on broad subjects like this to return to the 'variation tree' format. Under that system, you can quickly find what you want, and the authors are very unlikely to skip whole variations that are not to their taste.

Now for the good news. The Lalic and Sadler books are almost perfect complements to each other. While a good deal of the material is duplicated, the two books together cover the entire opening. More importantly, their styles are complementary. These are two very strong and creative players who have chosen entirely different paths, both legitimate. Sadler uses a detailed question-and-answer format to explain nearly every noteworthy position of all variations, and the same Socratic method for many individual games. In the first games of the book, this explanation applies to even the very early moves of the opening. Sadler's is arguably the most user-friendly book on a complex opening ever written by a strong player. And his clear, never-condescending style perfectly fits the bill. Thus, this is pretty much the ultimate book for those who want a moderate dose of theory mixed with lots and lots of explanation and guidance.

Lalic, by contrast, covers individual lines in more detail, and applies his considerable knowledge to organize a larger mass of material than Sadler deals with. He probes more deeply, but still manages to find space for a reasonable amount of written explanation. Of the two, I would rather have the extra material that Lalic provides. I didn't find any original analysis in either book, by the way, although a small amount may exist.

At any rate, combining the two books would offer a healthy mix of theory and instruction. If that option is too expensive, mid-level club and tournament players (perhaps in a 1200-1800 range) might prefer Sadler, whereas higher-rated tournament players (perhaps 1700-2300) might like Lalic. But those are arbitrary guesses, and any player might benefit from either book according to his or her tastes.

Again, we need to ask why, despite unending complaints about their dryness and complexity, people continue to buy opening books and to prefer them to databases. Painting with a broad brush, a high quality 'explanatory' book like Sadler's gives the reader both general and specific guidance on why the moves are played. A 'serious' book like Lalic's gives the reader specific variations which the reader can directly compare to his and other games. Both authors are depended upon to organize material for the reader and, hopefully, to give clear and frequent assessments of which lines are better. Finally, the reader wants to see new ideas, suggestions, and analysis which can only be found in that book.

'The Meran System', like most of Steffen Pedersen's books, has all the desired qualities in a 'serious' book with the exception, generally, of the last one. His is a well-organized and intelligent approach to a very complex and complicated variation of the Slav Defence. Because of his competence and up-to-date examples, this certainly is the best book to own on the Meran. In conjunction with his Botvinnik Semi-Slav book, both White and Black will have all the information and recommendations they can handle in the Semi-Slav. I didn't want to write a long review about a subject I have little expertise in, but I went over the book looking for general features and then took a close look at three 6.Qc2 variations in which I have quite a bit of experience (7.g4, 7.Bd2, and 7.Bd3).

A few observations: This is no mere database dump, despite Pedersen's obviously adequate database. The book has clearly benefited from an excellent library, and Pedersen quotes liberally from previous books. On the other hand, my overall impression is that the book lacks the passion and enthusiasm that Pedersen brought to his Botvinnik Semi-Slav project. Of course, that book is almost impossible to live up to-indeed, I called it 'brilliant', and Pedersen obviously drew upon years of his own analysis to write it. Nevertheless, although Pedersen covers just about all existing theory in this book, he didn't seem to look hard for improvements, even ones not too difficult to find, in the lines I knew. The general overview showed me a few spots of extended analysis at the end of lines, perhaps computer-inspired; but based upon limited evidence, I wouldn't expect much original material.

Of course, Pedersen's books are consistently excellent, and it's obvious that any serious player of the Semi-Slav with White or Black will want this book. Oh yes: I should remember to point out that the lines in this book are much easier to learn than those in the Botvinnik volume.

John Emms' 'The Most Amazing Moves of All Time' (henceforth 'Amazing Moves') is a collection of 'amazing moves' chosen from existing lists, consultation with strong players, and the author's own search. The positions are presented as quizzes, which is a nice feature. And sometimes embarrassing: I wasn't even close to correctly calculating the consequences of many of them. Emms' method was to take a list of 400 such moves (presumably narrowed down from more candidates), from which he chose 200, based upon a point system. That system accorded 10 points for 'surprise value', and 5 points apiece for 'soundness', 'only move', 'importance of game' (correlating to the amount of pressure on the players), and 'aesthetic value'. I guess I'd tend to factor in sheer ingenuity, brilliance, and originality, all of which can go beyond surprise or aesthetic value in contributing to 'amazing-ness'. Also, it seems to me that a move could rack up 15 points by being the only move, sound, and played in an important game without being remotely amazing. Then the move could be surprising (say, an unusual positional move) and moderately aesthetic, and end up with an awful lot of points.

Eligibility criteria aside, 'Amazing Moves' certainly has absolutely astonishing and beautiful moves aplenty. But there are quite a few which are relatively mundane, and some other reasons I find this book disappointing. Probably none of these should influence your decision to get a copy of it, but as a reviewer I think I should bring them up. Anybody who has been reading this column knows what I think of John Emms' books (thumbs up on all of them), as well as his terrific work on NCO. But this book looks rushed and superficial, unlike his other recent books. This may be a result of writing too many books in a short time.

Now I don't normally object to titles-it's understood that most publishers will insist upon a dramatic title with a few buzzwords, and that's okay by me. But the subtitle on 'Amazing Moves' refers to 'the most astonishing and instructive moves in the history of chess', although instructive quality isn't even a consideration by the author! I don't think Emms made enough effort to explain what his real criteria were, clearly including, for one, the degree of fame of the player and of the particular example. In a book full of incredible moves requiring astonishing foresight and mind-boggling calculation, for example, what is Fischer's Rf6 move against Benko (position #5) doing thereÿ This is a famous position (included in nearly every elementary tactics book), but it is essentially a two-mover, and some of my young students have solved it reasonably quickly without having previously seen it. Sure, it's not elementary, but would it be top-200 material without the White player's nameÿ Or what about Capablanca's simple one-move deflection (...Qb2) against Bernstein (#70)ÿ Famous, but not even competitive with the great bank-rank themes of chess history. Or Fischer's ...Nh5 opening move against Spassky (#105), a known idea at that time which, just to illustrate the point, I myself had played a year earlier. Without the slightest ingenuity, of course, since I had lifted the idea from a recent Russian publication, one which Fischer had surely read. At any rate, hardly a top-1000, much less a top-200 move, and the 5 given for pressure should have been cancelled out by a 0 for soundness. But famousÿ Absolutely. I should add that there are plenty of other examples of this type (#s 32, 117, 142, 143, 146, and 150 deserve at least a skeptical look in that regard), so I'm not trying to single out Fischer, who is deservedly represented by other brilliant moves.

And how can British players be so heavily representedÿ Were 3 moves played in Emms' own games (all losses, reflecting his customary modesty) really among the top 200 in chess historyÿ Or 3 in Miles' games, 4 in Short's, and 5 in Hodgson'sÿ [thanks to Taylor Kingston for those counts-the book has no indices]]. I also noticed games involving the contemporary British players Chandler, Speelman (2), Gallagher(2, I think), Sadler, Ward, W Watson, Nunn, Howell, Motwani, Levitt, McNab, Arkell, Lee(ÿ) and Hollis(ÿ). These may all be great moves, but that brings up a problem. My guess is that a perusal of Soviet magazines between, say, 1960 and 1980 would have yielded just as many examples, even if you included only players most of us have never heard of! The result might be similar if you did even a very narrow search of games by Americans, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, or many other countries and areas of the world. Furthermore, Emms includes one correspondence game that I saw, but if those are allowed, can we truthfully say that at least 20 of such games wouldn't replace existing choicesÿ In general, then, I would say that Emms hasn't put enough effort into his search. That's not so bad in and of itself, but he should have admitted to the limited and understandably skewed approach he took, and perhaps made a little fun of the book's title as well.

Note that none of this criticism involves quibbles about my favourite moves that 'should' have been included, but rather, the philosophy and methods used. Of course, one can also view my comments as missing the point, i.e., this is just a fun book for enjoyment, hardly serious research. That's probably true. After all, I'm glad that I have a copy! So I can hardly discourage anyone from getting this book, but I still find it a misleading and even flawed effort by one of our finest writers.

'Storming the Barricades' by Larry Christiansen has been met with well-deserved praise. It functions mainly as a book which teaches about tactics and combinations-when and how to look for them and vital considerations relating to various types of attacks. Chapter titles include 'Ripping Apart the King Position', 'How Not to Attack', 'Creating and Exploiting Weaknesses' and the like. But Christiansen's introductory remarks describe the essence of his work: 'I consider this book as mainly inspirational in goal is to instill the sense of adventure and spirit that is important that is important to successful warfare on the chessboard.'

How better to describe this panoply of fighting games with sacrifices, king hunts, and general mayhemÿ For my money, this book provides a better way to learn tactics than any 'structured' book I've seen, including Vukovic's 'Art of Attack', because it is so tied to the practical world of chess. Although the essence of the book comes before the end, I especially like the last section on Christiansen's favorite attacking games of the 1990s. Kasparov-Topalov, Wijk aan Zee 1999 will be included in the very greatest games in history (Christiansen duly ranks it #1). But the intricate details of the other choices will amaze you. I was completely unfamiliar with #6, Serper-Nikolaidis, St Petersburg 1993, a fantastic display of sacrifices in which, at every juncture, one could find move after defensive move that seemed to refute the attack. Needless to say, they are met by another spectacular idea. I might have ranked this #2. Take a look.

I would like to add something that is not evident in this book. I have been watching Christiansen's games on and off for 25 years, and I think only players who have seen him throughout that time truly realize what an attacking genius he himself is. It's sad that we have no record of weekend tournaments and even national events here in the U.S., quite apart from invitationals and such, because of the incredible attacking games Christiansen has consistently produced in such events. At least in this country, I have never seen anyone who approaches him in the ability to wander around the room in the middle of a tough game and come up with such amazing ideas on other boards. Furthermore, in the post-mortems of games by IMs and GMs, Christiansen will come by and, after a short think, suggest a move which neither player has considered, and which looks laughable and refutable by 3 or 4 moves. Yet after lengthy analysis the move proves to be best, or at least unclear. While Christiansen's preparation and positional mastery does not match those of the very best, I think that a strong case could be made that he is the best attacking player in U.S. history. Not by reason of a quick eye alone (see Fischer) or of a natural style (see Morphy, Fine, Reshevsky, and again, Fischer); but by his daring, imaginativeness, and his willingness to speculate, in the tradition of Tal.

Okay, at least that claim serves to spice up this article. May we have more such players, and more such books.

On a completely different and more nostalgic note, C.J.S. Purdy's 'Action Chess' is the latest volume in the Purdy series published by Chessco. I discussed a book from this series in review #3; 'Action Chess' is different in several respects. First, it is explicitly a repertoire book, taken from a series of Purdy's articles (the dates of these specific articles are not clear-I think between 1951 and 1960). Purdy suggests lines for both White and Black, with the goal of presenting material that the reader can absorb in a minimum of time. Second, U.S. master Ron Wiecks supplies a much-needed and useful 'commentary', which largely updates the theory on the lines Purdy presents, and occasionally corrects some of his misconceptions. Even with Wieck's commentary, Purdy's repertoire is not systematic; rather, with many detailed explanations, he gives sample games and general concepts aplenty. The goal is a simple and easy-to-learn repertoire (as indicated by White's Colle System), which the book claims can be learned in '24 hours', a forgivable overstatement.

Also, two of the suggested lines are surprisingly modern. He recommends the Tartakower Defence to the Queen's Gambit, and 3...dxe4 in the French versus 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2, which is all the rage. And of course, as Purdy suggests, one can also always play ...d5, ...e6, ...Nf6 and ...Be7 against the Flank Openings.

Even with Wieck's additions, this is a relatively sparse and somewhat passive repertoire. Thus the main audience will be those who don't have as much time as they'd like to study openings, as well as collectors and any player who like Purdy's writing style and explanations. Active developing players may well be able to incorporate some of this repertoire into their own, perhaps in addition to their preferred main lines.

Finally, 'The Mammoth Book of Chess' is a revised and updated version of Graham Burgess' popular 1997 work. This book won the 1997 British Chess Federation Book of the Year award, a good indication of its high quality and relevance. I would characterize this book as 'popular', and certainly low-priced for its 535 pages. Admittedly, this is not a collector's book (poor paper quality and small print), but that's not the point. 'The Mammoth Book of Chess' deserves its title, covering everything from the rules, notation, frequently-asked questions, mates and tactics, for the novice; and a glossary, a 200+ page overview of openings, sections on computer chess and online chess (both updated), endgame studies, and more.

To me, this book is exactly what I would have wanted as a beginner or player with up to 3-4 years of frequent play. Putting all this material in one volume would have greatly simplified my chess upbringing and saved loads of money. 'Mammoth' can also be a useful encyclopaedia for intermediate players, especially those who want to understand the world of computer chess and online chess. Teachers should especially take note: this book contains everything from the rules to advanced concepts; it spans a very wide rating range.

I can't see this s something the experienced player would need. Sure, there are some nice studies and games, but these are probably available in greater quantity in a couple of books on their shelves. Anyway, I'm sure that this book was reviewed at length upon its first appearance. I just wanted to make new players and teachers aware of it and to bring to notice the updated sections.

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