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John Watson Book Review (35)

Email, Addenda, Reviews

In this column I will look back, dealing with some reconsiderations and then some general thoughts about reviewing. I have been receiving a lot of interesting email from readers over the last few months. My last four columns have elicited more commentary than usual, with readers supplying specific complaints, examples and analysis related to the books under review. I would like to include some of their observations here.

While I am on the subject of emails I have a lamentable but important request. Over the past few years, the email that I most frequently receive has to do with soliciting my advice regarding how to improve, e.g., what facets of the game to study, what method do I recommend for learning (say) endings, and of course what books to use for this or that purpose, including my opinion about the benefits of particular books the correspondent is reading. These emails are almost always polite and genuine—the writers often inform me about their ratings, how long they have played and where, what teachers they have had, what books they have read, and the like. I think they would agree that I have always done my best to answer such questions as well as I could. But this is properly a teaching function and I find it time- and energy-consuming to respond to such emails, particularly as this column is a volunteer effort. Therefore, reluctantly, I would ask readers to please limit their emails to matters addressed in the reviews.

I’ve been a bit carefree about the technical and stylistic aspects of a few of the books that I have recently reviewed. I admit to playing over games for fun, without the use of a computer and with my critical faculties happily asleep. Thus, I did not anticipate the difficulties readers of various playing strengths have had with these books, nor paid enough attention to their thoroughness or analytical drawbacks. I’ll start with some of the problems readers found.

With regard to McDonald and Speelman’s Modern Defence, a book which I admire for finally tackling that very important defensive system, reader David Epstein noted the rather amazing omission of the variation 1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.e4 (this can obviously arise by various move orders) 4...Nc6 5.d5 Nd4 6.Nge2. There is a great deal of theory and history behind this line, and it is one that players of the Black side would certainly have to be familiar with. A well-known idea, for example, is 6...c5 7.Nxd4 cxd4 8.Nb5 Qb6 9.c5! (or ‘!?’). Epstein also points out that the ‘anti-Modern’ setup with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Be2, leaving c3 in reserve, is not mentioned at all. In fact, I don’t see any of several independent 3.Nf3 lines. Finally, Epstein points out that the popular idea of 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Nf3 a6 is given in one lightly annotated game with 5.Be2, whereas the important 5.Bc4 is ignored.

Even when this was all pointed out to me, I had great difficulties confirming it. To quote from my own review: ‘ [I] can't judge whether the book is truly comprehensive (that exemplary game technique again!). But I'm immediately annoyed by the lack of even a simple index for this most transpositional of openings. The authors' facile advice is that 'if you don't see the move or idea you want to study, look at the nearest variation you can to find it'. Given the past record of such books, I am suspicious...’ Rightfully so, it turns out. Let’s hope that the editors at Everyman finally junk their system of exemplary games and end-of-chapter mini-indices. In almost every opening book that I have reviewed (many!), this system has led to the omission of crucial variations. Having made all of these criticisms, however, I should say that I still look forward to studying this book for myself.

On the subject of Batsford and Gufeld, a couple of readers offered their criticism of Gufeld and Stesko’s (‘G&S’) new book ‘The Ultimate Dragon’. Santhosh Matthew Paul, a columnist at Correspondence Chess News (http://ccn.correspondencechess.com), points out that ideas and games from databases and readily available sources were not incorporated in their book. In particular, Golubev’s important and popular book ‘Easy Guide to the Dragon’ doesn’t seem to have been consulted at all. On page 158, for example, in the line with 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Qa5 11.Bb3 Rfc8 12.Kb1 Ne5 13.Bg5 Nc4 14.Bxc4 Rxc4 15.Nb3 Qe5, G&S repeat the line from their 1997 book: 16.Bf4 Qe6 17.Nd4 Rxd4’!’, which leads to a complex and hard-to-assess position, when Golubev had already refuted this with the simple 17...Nxe4!. In the same line, 16.Rhe1 Rxc3 17.bxc3 Be6 18.Be3 Qb5 19.Ka1 a5 20.Rb1 Qc4 21.Bd4 b5 22.e5 dxe5 23.Bxe5 b4 of Blackstock-Hollis, Marlow 1971 repeats G&S’ 1997 assessment of ‘sufficient counterplay for Black’, whereas Golubev decides to look at the position and gives 24.Qd4 with a clear advantage to White. In the line above up to 11...Rfc8, continuing with the critical 12.h4 h5 13.Bg5 Rc5 14.Kb1 b5 15.g4 a5 16.gxh5 Nxh5 17.Nd5 Re8 18.a3 Nc4, G&S fail to mention 19.Qf2, although there is a game leading to a clear White advantage in Golubev, and their 19.Qd3 Be6 20.Ne3 Bxd4 21.Qxd4 ‘leading to a strong attack’ neglects Golubev’s own 20...Qc8!, tested in the game Dalvi-Bergman, corres 2000, when after 21.f4, S.M. Paul points out that 21...a4! 22.Ba2 (22.Bxc4 bxc4) 22...Rxg5! wins. To diversify the input, I should mention Tim Harding’s review of ‘The Ultimate Dragon’ [http://www.chessmail.com/reviews.html], which discusses both 13.Bg5 Rc5 14.g4 and 13.Kb1 in the above line. It concludes that ‘once more it was apparent that Gufeld and Stetsko had neither updated their coverage since 1997 nor taken account of some important correspondence and OTB games cited by Golubev.’

Another lifetime Dragon player points to the key variation 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Ne5 12.h4 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 and G&S’s failure in both editions to give Black’s most important move 14...b4, nor the transpositions arising from 14...h5.

There is also the matter of accreditation: Graham Burgess noted many real improvements in editorial notes in the 1977 book, but his name disappears from the same analysis in this edition (see, for example, both lines in ‘3’ under 16.Nd5 on page 201).

And so forth. The obvious conclusion is to buy Golubev’s much less expensive book and/or wait for Ward’s forthcoming Dragon work.

Two readers took me to task for criticizing Gufeld’s books. I don’t feel any regret in that regard; but I did feel very hesitant about criticizing a productive and quality chess publisher, one that is still undergoing a transition (and which, incidentally, has always been prompt and cordial in responding to my requests as a reviewer). Unfortunately, I thought that it was only fair to raise the issue of Gufeld’s books, since it seemed that there might be no end to this depressing situation. Regarding the recycling of material, the point was made that many authors do it. But there are at least two answers to this: (a) I don’t believe that good authors do recycle to any significant extent if at all, e.g., the ones I respect like Nunn, Silman, Burgess, Gallagher, Emms, and the many others I have indicated in this column (I tend not to review anything by the most infamous recyclers); (b) The nature of the recycling is critical. Near-simultaneous submission of the same material to two publishers and a magazine, with at least one of the publishing parties remaining uninformed, is something I object to. I also disapprove of leaving the distinction ambiguous (or unstated) between reprints, books with minimal revisions, those with moderate revisions, and new editions. For example, many readers purchase by mail and may not be aware that what they are receiving is not really a 2001 book, but actually a 1992 book, especially when it comes to theory. One reader, for example, wondered whether ‘The Giuoco Piano’ was a reprint of Gufeld’s 1996 work. I don’t know—this wasn’t stated in the announcement I read.

Since my review of it, I have been using Carsten Hansen’s ‘Symmetrical English’ book to check upon theory from some grandmaster games, and a few things have become clear to me. Most importantly, I underestimated how truly impossible it is to cover this variation (or 1...e5) thoroughly in 256 pages. If 1.c4 were as popular at lower levels as 1.e4 or 1.d4, each subsystem would have its own book. As it stands, Hansen has made a valiant effort to give each variation its due. I also failed to mention that his ‘Anti-Benoni’ lines are particularly important to both Benoni and Benko Gambit players (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nf3, but also 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.Nc3 and others), whereas many 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 move orders also lead there. Regarding the analysis, Hansen seems to be conservative about unproven pawn sacrifices, a reluctance which can be either good or bad. I ran into 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.e3 e5 6.Nge2 Nge7 7.0-0 0-0 8.a3 d6 9.b4 cxb4 10.axb4 Nxb4 11.Ba3 Nec6 12.d4 a5, for example, when Hansen says ‘and White has yet to prove what compensation he has for the pawn.’ Yet after 13.d5 Na7 14.Qb3, White should be well on top, e.g., 14...Qb6 15.Na4 and Bxb4, 14...Na6 15.Ne4, or 14...Bf5 15.Bxb4 axb4 16.Qxb4 Qc7 17.Ra3!. But in the excellent Anti-Benoni chapters, Hansen’s caution leads to important improvements upon some theory that has been around for a while. For example, 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.g3 Qc7 6.Bg2 Bb4+! 7.Nc3, and now Hansen turns the theory of 7...Qxc4! on its head, showing Black’s advantage in a position ECO calls clearly better for White. Similarly, Hansen finds ideas for Black after 5.Nc3 a6 6.g3 Qc7, in both of the continuations 7.Bg5 Qxc4! and 7.Bg2 Qxc4! (most top players have been scared to grab like this).

I didn’t get any analytical input for Rowson’s book, but some general commentary instead. Before I get to that, at least two reviewers pointed out that this is a book for experienced players, something that I should have made clear. The always interesting Randy Bauer stated this as follows: ‘This is not an easy book and will primarily benefit a reasonably advanced audience. The ‘chess sins’ are problems that confront the player who has already achieved a fairly high level of play - for the beginner who frequently leaves pieces en prise, the lack of attention to non-material factors may be essentially irrelevant’. Okay, I would put it that the advanced way in which Rowson presents his material renders its usefulness questionable for lower players, but the thought is the same.

Three readers complained that the book was difficult to read (one was completely alienated), but two had no such problem, one disagreeing with my characterization of Rowson’s New Age pontifications and finding them stimulating. I believe that many readers will best maintain their interest by skipping parts that they perceive to be too difficult or unproductive. This is a great book for browsing - I have in fact used that approach, to my great delight.

Matthew Sadler’s review in ‘New In Chess’, which shared much of my enthusiasm for the book, noted similarly that ‘some of the language is a little heavy going’. He also brought up the question of whether the book would actually improve one’s chess. Sadler summarized: ‘Bottom line – should you buy this book? Of course – there is masses of stuff in it. But be careful as well – it’s the chess you should be thinking about during the game, not the thoughts behind your thoughts!’ I agree, but I’m not sure about the question of improvement– perhaps the fact that you can gain insight into the fundamental thinking processes of the typical chess player will itself lead to some improvement, provided that it increases your subconscious monitoring(?) of affairs without actually overloading your thought process. (Did anyone follow that? I’m not sure that I did). In any case, the overriding factors for me are the book’s originality and superb characterization of chessplayers’ non-analytical thinking. For fairly experienced players, it should provide hours of stimulation and enjoyment.

I wanted to talk about reviews and reviewers, but it’s getting late. Maybe a few columns into the future? I’ll try to get back to new books next time.

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