John Watson Book Review (56)
Newish Books, Part 1
IM John Watson - Monday 3rd February 2003
#56 Newish Books, Part 1
Tony Miles: 'It's Only Me'; compiled by Geoff Lawton; 288 pages; Batsford 2003
Bobby Fischer Rediscovered; Andrew Soltis; 287 pages; Batsford 2003
Der Linksspringer 1.Sc3; Harald Keilhack; 399 pages; Kania 2003
First, a message to all chess fans. The Internet publication Chess Today, bravely created and published by GM Alexander Baburin, is in need of new subscribers to make its publication a more profitable endeavour. As mentioned before, Chess Today passed the 1000-issue mark just recently and has appeared consistently since its inception. It is delivered every day by e-mail and has 3 attachments. One is the .pdf file (to be read with Acrobat Reader, a free download; it can also be printed out). This has the text version, which contains news, a daily quiz, and most importantly, thoroughly annotated games from current tournaments. An issue may also include features such as problems, book reviews, instruction, and interviews (e.g., interviews with Anand and Svidler were recently featured). The other two attachments are in .pgn and .cbv format, giving one a downloadable copy of the games for your database program (ChessBase, Chess Assistant, etc.). One can also simply play these over on, for example, a Fritz or Shredder board. Over time, you can collect an impressive set of game annotations unavailable in any other database.
For basic information about Chess Today, I will quote from their site: 'How does CT subscription work? You send us your name, e-mail address and payment - then you join CT subscribers list at the Yahoo groups. Please tell your chess friends about our paper. You can either send them a few issues or refer them to http://www.chesstoday.net/sample_issues.html. In the next 2 weeks you can introduce a friend to Chess Today at a special rate - 10 euro for 2 months. You can simply send us name and e-mail address of that (those) person(s) and we will charge you accordingly. You can give away CT subs as little chess presents or get refunded by your friend(s). For each new reader introduced, you will automatically receive 1-month extension to your CT subscription. This offer applies only to new subscribers and valid till 22 August. If you have any questions or suggestions, please don't hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.'
On the subject of subscriber services, the very best online source for up-to-date opening information is still http://www.chesspublishing.com . With at least part of every general opening complex in chess covered monthly by grandmasters and a few international masters, there is more and better-organised opening coverage than even in the Informant series! Naturally they are not directly comparable, since latter has deeply annotated games by many of the world's top players and functions as much more than a source for opening theory. Still, ChessPublishing offers more current opening theory based upon games played right up through the preceding month. It operates in conjunction with the free program ChessPub, which allows one to play over and download literally every game on the site going back to its inception (most of these games are annotated and placed in the context of the overall theory of the opening). There are also e-books summarizing the main lines and referencing games in ChessPub; they are in .pdf format and thus printable. One can select a particular opening or the entire package. For example, I used Neil McDonald's French section extensively in my latest work on the French, and one may wish to subscribe to only one or two sections dealing with your favourite openings. This is amazing service that has also established itself as a reliable product over many years now. Check it out at the web address above.
This column and the next two address books that I've read quite a bit of; they are either recent or in some cases not so new but at least 'newish'. I want to start out my reviews by discussing some very good ones. To begin with, a few words about the book Tony Miles: 'It's Only Me'. Miles was England's first grandmaster and one of its most successful players ever. He died unexpectedly in 2001 from diabetes. The book is mainly a collection of games annotated by Miles, but also includes articles by him and tributes from Leonard Barden, Mike Fox, Malcolm Hunt, and Geoff Lawton (the book's compiler). A particularly personal and fascinating article is his 'diary' from Tilburg 1985, a tournament that Miles played most of while lying on a stretcher! This was due to a back condition, and such a mode of play led to considerable controversy. Miles tied for first in the tournament. The article was published in New in Chess and probably hasn't been read by a majority of TWIC readers; they should have fun doing so.
This is simply a great, entertaining book, full of Miles' sharp wit and sarcasm. His annotations tend to be impressionistic and funny. The games reflect what came to be known as Miles' style: tremendous skill in irrational positions and an incredible tenacity. Reading his annotations over the years, I became used to the pattern: time and again Miles would achieve lost or bad positions and then create so much chaos that his adversary would collapse. This happened so much so that I remember rooting against Miles as I played over the game, already knowing that he had won, out of sheer pity for his opponent! His fighting qualities and dogged determination are mentioned in this book and have been noted by several reviewers. This characterisation is of course true, but I also have the impression that the competitive qualities didn't always come out until Miles was in trouble or at least surprised by an unexpectedly strong move.
One thing that I wasn't aware of is what a strong endgame player Miles was, something that accounted for much of his success. There are many instructive examples to demonstrate this. For those looking for more detail, Matthew Sadler has written a marvelous review of the book in the recent New in Chess (#5, 2003). The reader should understand that Tony Miles: 'It's Only Me' is not a biography (something that might prove fascinating), but a tribute. I very much like and recommend this entertaining work.
I was a little surprised to find myself enjoying Andy Soltis' Bobby Fischer Rediscovered so much. After all, I have been exposed to Fischer's games far more than to any other world champion's. And one can hardly credit the idea expressed by more than one writer that Fischer is a 'forgotten' champion with little written about his chess. For starters, this ignores the countless books that use his games and positions as examples, e.g., histories, manuals and world championship collections. And how many books in English alone deal with his games? A look at my shelf and my book index (I don't own some of these) reveals: Bobby Fischer--the Greatest? by Euwe; Bobby Fischer: His Approach by Agur; Bobby Fischer by Hays; How Fischer Plays Chess by Levy; Bobby Fischer: Chess Genius to Chess Legend by Gufeld, Kristjansson, and Thorarinsson; How to Beat Bobby Fischer by Mednis, Fischer! by Fishbein; The Complete Games of Bobby Fischer by Wade and O'Connell; The Chess of Bobby Fischer by Burger, The Unknown Bobby Fischer by Donaldson and Tangborn; a truckload of books on the first Spassky match, many annotated by well-known grandmasters; several books on the return match; and of course My 60 Memorable Games. And there are doubtless many others I am ignorant of.
What people forget is how much less has been written about some other champions. Are there really many books in English about Steinitz' games and play, for example, or even about the games of giants such as Capablanca, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Spassky, Petrosian or Karpov?
Thus Soltis' contribution isn't his 'rediscovery' as much as a combination of insights into Fischer's play and the original, unintimidating analysis of his games. The latter is aided by computers and by Soltis' obvious enthusiasm. His own thoughts about Fischer's play are noteworthy. Soltis makes the case for the too-rarely stated view that Fischer was a great materialist: he was loathe to sacrifice material and would grab just about anything in sight if he didn't see a refutation. Needless to say, this requires tremendous confidence in oneself and one's judgment. Soltis also points out Fischer's special skill in conversion of one advantage to another, which made his technique in pursuing an advantage unmatched. He speculates that Fischer's development as a player was shaped by one goal: to beat the Soviets, adopting their own weapons. This is a very plausible thesis and Soltis finds support for it in Fischer's games. Soltis also contends that 'Fischer played great sacrificial games but almost all of them occurred before he was 21.' I think that this might be slightly exaggerated but it is close enough to the truth and reflects another interesting aspect of his play. Arguably, Fischer's only weakness was in complicated double-edged middlegames, as indicated, for example, by his losses to Geller in such positions (and to several others, e.g. the early Tal before his health failed). Even his most famous earlier combinations such as 21.Rf6! versus Benko in the US Championship of 1963-4 tend to be linear and directly calculable (despite the '!!' once again attached to this move, my promising students have found it rather easily); and the justifiably praised Donald Byrne game is almost all forced (and when the forcing moves stopped Fischer played less than optimally).
But the really exceptional thing about Fischer was his play in partially simplified and seemingly clearcut positions, and his magnificent technique in late middlegame and endgame. These were in my opinion the clearest marks of his genius. If you get this book, look at the stunning Game#28 versus Portisch. He initially plays extraordinarily accurately in what seems to be a completely equal rook and bishop ending, using simple but subtle moves. Then in a rook ending lasting 37 moves he plays a staggering series of ultra-precise and difficult moves (only one slightly inaccurately). A couple of these moves are ingenious, but even more impressively they are linked with short unexpected sequences that ultimately break down the near-perfect defence by the great Hungarian. Soltis is generous in presenting this kind of less flashy game and in pointing out its uniqueness and subtlety. Other combinations of exquisite technique in simplified middlegames and endings can be seen in Game#42 (Berliner), #35 (Tal), Game#98 (the famous 3rd game of the 1972 Spassky match, flawed but superb), Game#90 (the famous bishop-versus-knight ending versus Taimanov), Game#76 (Ghitescu), Game#61 (Forintos), and Game#60 (Bisguier). From early on, Fischer exhibited this skill which is characteristic of all great players. In a different vein, I might also point out the middlegame in #81 versus Schweber, in which the move 18.Rg3(!!, in my opinion) is a superb example of deep prophylactic play in the middlegame.
The reader should be aware that this is by no means a biographical work and includes almost nothing about Fischer's behaviour or the many controversies associated with him. Instead, one finds the points of interest limited to the realm of chess, e.g., the flawed Russian adjournment analysis (in spite of the stereotypes, this was a common phenomenon that one could write a small book about). In all, 100 games are presented. Along with a share of the obvious games from 'My 60 Memorable Games', Soltis selects lesser-known contests that include examples of Fischer at his best. Soltis' annotations are only dense (perhaps too dense) at some critical moments that he feels are of special interest; so one is not bogged down in analysis and can read for enjoyment. He is not afraid to criticize Fischer's play and has fun with a variety of positions that contain special if not entirely relevant possibilities. On a pickier note, I might point out that Soltis repeats the exaggerated praise that Fischer has received for the move 11...Nh5 in the third match game versus Spassky in 1972 (found by Boleslavsky and a standard idea that in fact I myself had played!). Then there are a few cases in which I think that he gets too excited about some move that just about any strong master might make; since there are plenty of examples of great moves in Fischer's play, it's perhaps misleading to assign both types of move an '!' . Most importantly, I believe that he very much underestimates the power of Fischer's opening preparation at the peak of his career, which was far ahead of his contemporaries (one can only compare Botvinnik and Kasparov to him in this respect). Of course, these are not matters that affect the essential quality of the work.
I should emphasise that Bobby Fischer Rediscovered is a quite readable book, as so many Soltis books are. It has simple, accessible notes for the average player, and includes a nostalgic Introduction about Soltis' personal interactions with Fischer. The short introductions to games contain relevant tidbits that give the feeling that one game connects to the next. This may well be the best book written in English about Fischer's play, and it will remain a good read even after there (inevitably) appears another book that has incredibly dense analysis and approaches the abstract truth about his games. I definitely recommend this book for all fans, and especially for lovers of games collections.
I won't be discussing openings for several columns, but I simply have to discuss Harald Keilhack's Der Linksspringer 1.Sc3, a marvelous investigation of the eccentric (so far!) development of the queen's knight on the first move. Keilhack also wrote a large tome on 1...Nc6 with Rainer Schlenker, so he has put a lot of thought into the associated ideas. 1.Nc3 is written in German but without taking anything away from Keilhack's excellent text explanations (including a 16-page discussion of themes), one can get most of what's essential (including all games and analysis) without any knowledge of German. The word 'Linksspringer', by the way, means 'the knight to the left', contrasting with Khalifman's use of 'Rechtspringer' ('the knight to the right') to characterise the analogous 1.Nf3. The move Keilhack investigates (1.Nc3) is also called the 'van Geet Opening' and occasionally the 'Dunst Opening'. It strikes me as sound (most first moves for White are, after all), and arguably as productive of challenging and complex play as most other moves (the exceptions being 1.e4 and 1.d4 and probably 1.c4 and 1.Nf3). Obviously there's an initial disinclination to feel too excited about a move that allows both 1...e5 and 1...d5 (and even 1...c5). But the relevant issue is whether White's first-move advantage suffices to create difficulties by confronting the opponent's centre or otherwise creating play. Keilhack spends 399 pages and 46 Sections to show that such is the case.
The author naturally devotes somewhat more energy to White's ideas than Black's, but there a surprising number of games and enough analysis out there to form a good basis for looking at both sides' play. Apart from correspondence grandmasters such as Ove Ekebjaerg and van Geet himself (who drew Spassky in an over-the-board game with it), several other leading correspondence figures have investigated 1.Nc3 and the book makes it clear that they have contributed a great deal of independent analysis to this opening. We also find 1.Nc3 employed over-the-board by some well-known players such as Bellon, Ermenkov, Hector, Horvath, Rashkovsky, Rogers, and others.
1.Nc3 has many ideas associated with it. Before getting on to the interesting ones, it can be used as a transpositional tool, e.g., if the opponent replies 1...c5, White can enter a Closed Sicilian by 2.e4 and 3.g3 (or try for an open Sicilian following 2.e4, 3.Nge2 and 4.d4). The sequence 1...c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 and 5.e4 will often transpose to an Open Sicilian. If 1...e5, White can try out a Vienna Game by 2.e4, or some sort of Three or Four Knights Game after 2.Nf3 and 3.e4. As another example, 1...e6 2.e4 d5 3.d4 or 1...d5 2.e4 e6 3.d4 is a French Defence, and in that case the book offers several options for both White and Black. For most opponents, one would employ such a transposition only if that particular player might be made uncomfortable by it, and use the pure 1.Nc3 lines otherwise.
Keilhack divides the book into 46 sections with 99 thoroughly annotated games (i.e., each game containing many of the most important subvariations). Rather than talk abstractly about the 1.Nc3, let me point out a few of the lines that can arise, to give a flavour of the book:
(a) 1...e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 (2...d6 3.d4) 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 with lines such as 4...Nf6 5.Bg5 Bb4 (alternatives are of course covered, e.g., 5...h6? 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.Ndb5! and 5...Be7? 6.Nf5!) 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Qd4 Be7 8.e4;
(b) 1...c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 (2...e6 3.d4 d5 4.e4!? cxd4 5.Qxd4 is a typical sideline, or perhaps main line!) 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Bg5,
one of several anti-Sicilian ideas;
(c) 1...d5 2.e4 (not the only move but it leads to the largest section of games and analysis) 2...d4 (2...dxe4 3.Nxe4 covers 50 pages – this is a particularly interesting line; 2...c6, 2...Nf6, and 2...e6 are also handled) 3.Nce2 e5 4.Ng3. This a main line with countless ramifications, similar to the Knight's Tango 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nc3 e5 4.d5 Nce7 5.e4 Ng6. Instead of 4.Ng3, 4.d3 is also played with King's Indian/Modern Defence themes;
(d) 1...d5 2.e3 e5 3.Qh5!.
This can be surprisingly effective, because after a defence of the e-pawn such as 3...Qd6 (or 3...Nc6 4.Bb5 Qd6), White plays d4 and in many cases the move Qe5(+) will give him some advantage!
(e) 1...f5 2.e4! fxe4 3.d3, etc.
(f) 1...g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 (transposing to 1.g3 g6 etc., from which this normally arises), for example, 3...c5 4.d3 Nc6 5.f4 (Larsen also played 5.a3!? here) 5...e6 6.Nf3 Nge7 7.0-0 0-0 8.a3!? intending Rb1 and, say, Ne4-f2 or b4, Larsen-Gheorghiu, Havana 1966.
And that's just the beginning! Notice that all these lines are extremely double-edged (no symmetry here) and most if not all of them result in non-standard positions that force both players onto their own resources. Keilhack showed his interest in and feel for reversed positions in an earlier book on the Tarrasch Defence to the Queen's Gambit, and that is also in evidence here, e.g., 1.Nc3 d5 2.e4 d4 3.Nce2 e5 4.d3 c5 5.f4 f6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.g3 Bd6 8.Bg2 Nge7 is a position from the Modern Defence reversed (1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 d6 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.Be3 e5 6.d5 Nce7 etc.). There are many more examples, e.g., from the Dutch Defence and King's Indian.
As with other Kania books, the layout and diagrams are excellent. This is a hardback edition with a funny and dazzling cover picture by the graphic artist/caricaturist Frank Stiefel. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to get off the beaten path, but at the same time avoid openings in which one simply plays a set number of safe and relatively uninteresting moves (e.g., the King's Indian Attack or Reti Opening). If nothing else, this opening can be used as a fresh alternative system to your usual first move. I suspect that even top players will eventually come around to taking 1.Nc3 seriously and exploring its ramifications. For information on how to order, see http://www.kaniaverlag.de/ .