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John Watson Book Review (57)

Newish Books, Part 2


How to Use Computers to Improve Your Chess; Christian Kongsted; 192 pages; Gambit 2003

Secrets of Chess Defence; Mihail Marin; 176 pages; Gambit 2003

Secrets of Positional Chess; Drazen Marovic; 224 pages; Gambit 2003

It seems as though everyone today uses either a chessplaying program or an analytical engine or both. If you're like me, you don't understand much about what goes on behind the interface of these programs, and you may not know 'How to Use Computers to Improve Your Chess', which is the title of Christian Kongsted's book.

Typical programs that Kongsted tests are Shredder, Fritz, Nimzo, Chess Tiger, Hiarcs, Chessmaster, and Junior. The very first page that I turned to had an interesting exercise for the computers: an endgame position with a White having a rook versus knight, but Black having a pawn for the exchange with an advanced b-pawn on the seventh rank. Kongsted explains why, although the rook is going to help in creating a zugzwang to eventually force the win of a Black pawn (or the shattering of his structure), these powerful programs are at first unable to come up with the right assessment (i.e., that White has a winning advantage). 8 programs assessed Black as having an advantage (in one case by almost a full pawn), and 2 gave White an advantage. I was happy to see that a favorite program of mine, HiArcs, gave White a 0.55 pawn advantage (Shredder was the other, giving +0.23). Kongsted points out that although these are just 'first impressions' by the computer they are important because, while calculating a longer sequence, they could be decisive for whether the program goes into a superior or inferior endgame.

Encouraged by this informative beginning, I wandered through the book and read something from each chapter. Their titles explain most of what's in the book:

Part 1 'How the Computer Works':

1. The History of Computer Chess

2. Inside the Machine (search methods, evaluation functions, etc.)

3. The Blind Spots of the Computer (there are surprisingly many of these, e.g., fortresses, positional draws with unbalanced material, materialism, endgame knowledge, calculating long lines that include sacrifices, and closed positions)

4. How to Beat Your Computer. This is a great chapter, based upon the author's experience. Not surprisingly, he recommends a lot of closed and slow positions. Thus he likes Stonewall positions, English Openings with c4/d3/e4, the King's Indian Attack and Defence, the Schmid and Czech Benonis, the Gurgenidze, French Defence and Berlin Defence! He has no less than 12 tips for beating computers (or drawing if need be), and it may be that some readers will buy the book for that reason alone.

Part 2 is called 'Improving with the Computer'. It's mainly about how to about set up databases, optimize your playing programs, and study and analyse with computers:

5. Hardware, Software, and Databases

6. Computer-Assisted Analysis

7. Improving Your Opening Play

8. Improve Your Tactics

9. Improve Your Endgame Technique

10. Playing Chess on the Internet

I didn't read as much of this material because I already know how to handle most of this. A final chapter is called 'Computer Chess in the Future'. There are also 4 pages of Websites about related chess subjects, e.g., Database programs (both commercial and free), News, Chessplaying programs, both commercial and free, electronic chessboards, Internet chess clubs, and so forth.

I think that most players will like this book, if only because it has so much relevant material in one volume. I should mention that there's a strong emphasis on ChessBase and its playing programs in this book. So although the theoretical sections are unbiased, the practical ones are probably most useful to those who work with ChessBase.

It's fortunate that I stuck with Mihail Marin's Secrets of Chess Defence beyond some rocky points in the first 30 pages or so. It turns out to have some good qualities that are missing from previous tomes on this subject. Of course, as with any book on defence (or even a part of one on that subject) we are told that people don't write about it much; this is a predictable claim but fair enough. Marin tries to explain this in cosmic terms. His first paragraph consists of the majestic pronouncement: 'We live in a world marked by aggression at all levels'. He then attributes the prejudice against defence to the entire history of humanity's aggression, mirrored by that of individuals. Chess itself was regarded 'as another form of medieval dual', leading to our association of cowardice with those who refuse to pick up the gauntlet. All very elevated, yet it may be that such biases of human culture needn't be invoked. After all, if we are such naturally aggressive folk then maybe it's just more fun to attack than defend!

Be that as it may, the author returns to the world of moving pieces by contrasting an early and famous attacking game by Steinitz (in which his opponent misses a key defensive move and gets slaughtered) with 'a similar situation' in one of Marin's own 1994 games. In the latter contest White defends brilliantly and neutralises Marin's attack. The positions are hardly similar (one is wide open with immediate confrontation and no particular positional features and the other is a cramped Hedgehog), but the idea expressed about the differing levels of defence is valid. He follows this with an exaggerated description of Steinitz' 'road to Damascus' and 'radical' change in philosophy after a single tournament (Paris 1867). Unfortunately he then gives as examples only two much later games by Steinitz against Chigorin, from their 1889 and 1892 matches. One game is an Evan's Gambit with a defence that Steinitz himself called an 'experiment', complaining that his 'experiments' cost him 5 out of the 7 lost games of the match (see Kasparov's book reviewed in the next column). Such a game is perhaps not the best example of the evolution of defence, although it does show the increasingly defensive style of Steinitz' own play. In my opinion, the latter style only fully manifested itself towards the end of his career. Chigorin himself is described by Marin as a 'totally opposed chess personality' and 'an unconditioned [sic] devotee of the combinative school'. Several other writers (including myself) disagree with this too strong characterization, finding in some of his games both unassuming positional ideas and the use of slow manoeuvring in closed positions (e.g., several of his Chigorin Defences and various e-pawn games as Black). Marin's general descriptions have merit but they are often too strongly stated.

In this section several of the examples are very good, especially the one on pages 11-12 and the remarkable Lasker-Steinitz game where Black's pieces go backwards to defend and ultimately prepare a counterattack. But Marin is unconvincing when he pontificates or philosophises (e.g. biblical quotes adorn many chapters, some with no apparent relationship to the material). On page 13 he says: 'Most modern authors tend to ignore (or publicly deny) the instructional value of old games.' That would be very strange indeed, since the many contemporary instructional, strategic, and endgame books that I regularly receive are full of classical games; and I can't think of a single example of someone denying, much less 'publicly' denying, the instructional value of older games. I believe that most of my generation (which probably includes most current authors) grew up and learned largely from tournament books, games collections and instructional books featuring the likes of Morphy, Steinitz, Tarrasch, Lasker and their opponents, as well as Rubinstein, Capablanca, Alekhine etc. In fact there was little choice given the literature available; if there were no instructional value in these games, a substantial part of a generation would have been in a bad way indeed.

Perhaps because the first chapter is so much more abstract than the others (see below), Marin sometimes seems to lose his focus. On page 23, for example, we have a standard attack by Black in the King's Indian Defence via ...f4/...g3, with Black's pieces poised to attack a king on h1. What's worse for White, it's a blitz game and when he doesn't find his only difficult-to-see resource and allows a beautiful combination (Marin even uses the combination as an exercise), he uses this as an example of 'superficial treatment' in defence! Then on pages 27-9, Marin gives two examples with the theme 'Black's threats are only an optical illusion'. But in the first one White has a nice positional advantage, he is the only one attacking, and he wins smoothly. At no time do I see Black conjuring up the slightest threat, nor does Marin claim that he does so! In the second example White has terrific development and controls key squares. Black tries a tricky one-pawn advance that manages to use up two more moves still without developing any of his queenside. Not surprisingly, White refutes it. Hardly an example of defence!

Furthermore, Marin's presentation often contains what seem to be overstatements, although some of them are more dramatic than truly inaccurate. Here's a position from Marin-Svidler, Elista 1998:

Marin,M (2530) - Svidler,P (2710) [A20]
ol (men) Elista RUS (3), 01.10.1998

1.c4 e5 2.g3 g6 3.d4 d6 4.Nc3 Nd7 5.Nf3 Bg7 6.Bg2 Ne7 7.0-0 exd4 8.Nxd4 0-0 9.e3 Nb6 10.b3 d5 11.cxd5 Nbxd5 12.Nxd5 Nxd5 13.Ba3 Re8 14.Rc1 c6 15.Qd2 Nc7 16.Bb2 Nb5 17.Rfd1 Bg4 18.f3 Nxd4 19.fxg4 Ne6 20.Bxg7 Nxg7 21.Qxd8 Raxd8 22.Kf2 Ne6 23.h4 h6 24.b4 Rxd1 25.Rxd1 Rd8 26.Rxd8+ Nxd8 27.Ke2 Kf8 28.Kd3 Ke7 29.Kd4 Kd6 30.Bf1 Ne6+ 31.Ke4 b5 32.h5 Ng5+ 33.Kf4 Ne6+ 34.Ke4 a6

Marin says: 'For a moment I was tempted to resign. Try to imagine my feeling: on the other side of the board was sitting a player who had a positive score against Kasparov; wouldn't it show a lack of respect to continue defending such ruins?' [At this point some friends then come over to watch his game and he is embarrassed by his position]. But then, 'just when resignation seemed the only way out of my situation...', Marin finds inspiration from the fact that the rest of his team has a chance for a great result against the Russians and he continues to play. Of course he ends up drawing the game, and without a single mistake on Black's part! This all seems a bit melodramatic. What player from Kasparov down to the average player would resign in such a position, and yet a strong grandmaster like Marin would? In a situation with reduced material, Black has no clear threats and White has the opportunity to centralise his pieces. Still, whether or not Marin is slightly exaggerating his feelings, the example reveals how tense and confused any player can become when involved in a high-level struggle. Haven't we all experienced something similar? A position that we would normally see clearly appears hopeless under pressure. This kind of personal story contributes positively to the book, as does Marin's use of his own wins and losses in the context of defensive play.

35.hxg6 fxg6 36.Bd3 c5 37.a3 Ng5+ 38.Kf4 Ne6+ 39.Ke4 c4 40.Bc2 Nc7 41.Kd4 Ne6+ 42.Ke4 Nd8 43.Kf4 g5+ 44.Kf5 Nc6 45.Bd1 Ne5 46.e4 c3 47.Bc2 Nc4 48.Kf6 Ne5 49.Kf5 Nc6 50.Kf6 Ne5 1/2-1/2

In the end, however, I decided to review this work for quite a different reason: I think that it makes a real contribution to instructional literature. Specifically, once the introductory chapter is over, Secrets of Chess Defence discusses standard defensive ideas in logical and systematic order according to type. This is an organizational method that is very often used in books on attack, the endgame, and strategy, but one that I haven't seen used successfully in books on defence. The particular techniques of defence are clearly illustrated and grouped together, as illustrated by chapter titles, e.g., the King as Fighting Unit, Fortresses (a great chapter), Stalemate (also fun), Perpetual Check, the Soul of Chess (which presents a few ideas that I disagree with but is quite original), Queen Sacrifices, Exchange Sacrifices, Minor-Piece Sacrifices, Two Minor Pieces for a Rook (extremely interesting, and barely covered elsewhere in a defensive context), Simplification, Defending Difficult Endings (very useful and practical), and Premature Resignation. Marin sticks to these subjects as tightly as possible and provides thought-provoking material. This must be the best way to study defence if one is properly motivated. I have previously mentioned Soltis' Art of Defence and reviewed Crouch's How to Defend in Chess, both wonderful and perhaps better books, but they don't present material as usefully for the student. A tight categorization of themes like this has to be welcomed by the developing player, who has probably been told often enough to fight hard and look for resources, but hasn't necessarily been able to sort out and learn specific defensive (and drawing) techniques. Thus, despite some reservations about its style, I can freely recommend this book to students from club level on up.

Drazen Marovic's book Understanding Pawn Play in Chess was a solid if rather standard exposition of various pawn structures and schemes. His Dynamic Pawn Play in Chess took a new approach to the centre and to some difficult-to-describe active strategies that arise from various pawn configurations. I found the book enlightening and original, with plenty for the master as well as the less advanced player to chew on. Marovic's new book Secrets of Positional Chess is competent and well enough written, yet seems to me less instructive on a few accounts. Like Understanding Pawn Play, it sticks with well-known themes; however, the presentation switches between things that are standard fare (probably even dull for some experienced readers) and those that are very complex and entertaining but only indirectly related to the subject at hand. So although the book will be of use to those needing a refresher on basic positional ideas, which seems to be the goal, it might also intimidate or confuse them.

In Part 1, Marovic discusses weak and strong squares, files and diagonals, weaknesses on the first two ranks, and outposts. Part 2, much longer, takes each piece individually and discusses their strengths and weaknesses. He uses a good mix of games ranging from the very famous to the lesser known; most of the latter from modern contests. To me, too many of the examples are either obvious or so tactically dependent that I'm not convinced they demonstrate much about positional play. Admittedly this wasn't my impression throughout, but I did find problems as I jumped around in the book. Looking at the chapter about queens, for example, I couldn't quite see why several of the examples concerned issues related to the queen more than the other pieces. By way of example, look at:

Kramnik,V (2590) - Lputian,S (2560) [D37]
EU-chT (Men) Debrecen (6), 1992

1.d4 e6 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3 c6 7.Qc2 Nbd7 8.h3 a6 9.Rd1 h6 10.a3 dxc4 11.Bxc4 Nd5 12.0-0 Nxf4 13.exf4 Qc7 14.Ne5 Nf6 15.Ba2 Bd7 16.Bb1 Be8

Play continued 17.d5! Rd8 18.Rfe1 Kh8 19.dxe6 Rxd1 20.Rxd1 fxe6 21.Ne4 g6 22.Nc5 Bxc5 23.Qxc5 Rg8 24.Ba2 Kg7 25.Bxe6 Rf8 26.Nd7 1-0

Marovic explains that 'The d5 square, an apparently impregnable post, turns out to be vulnerable because tactical circumstances make it so.' The only queen-related point that Marovic makes is that the bishop-queen battery on the b1-h7 diagonal is the 'key element' that makes this work. So what's the positional lesson: to line up your queen and bishop against the opposing king? To look for tactical tricks? It's not clear.

A game Leko-Khalifman, New Dehli FIDE 2000 (page 121) is a further example in the 'queen' chapter in which rooks play by far the most important role:

44.Rb1? Marovic talks about relative king safety and then says: 'Forcing the black king into the open by 44.Rxg5 Rbxb2 45.Rg8+ Kxh7 does not seem to promise anything because the doubled rooks can protect the king on the second rank.' The game continued: 44...a3 45.Qxa3 Qxa3 46.bxa3 Rxb1+ 47.Kxb1 Rc4 48.Rxg5 Kxh7 49.Rg4 eventually leading to a draw.

Then Marovic says:'However, in spite of appearances, analysis demonstrates that 44.Rxg5! Rbxb2 45.Rg8+ Kxh7 would not have been in vain, but one crucial move had to be found - 46.Rb8!!...' He goes on to describe how 46...Rxb8 47.Qxe6+ wins and (remarkably) 46...Rxa2+ 47.Kb1 Rh2 loses to 48.Rf3!. Does this illustrate any positional (or other) quality regarding queens? The example is wonderful and I love things like this; but it shows what I mean about entertaining complexity taking precedence over positional lessons.

On the positive side, many traditional middlegame themes are well presented, including things like the exploitation of doubled pawns, the roles of the minor pieces including good and bad bishops, active rooks in endgames, outposts, how to attack weaknesses, and more. Although there are some advanced and entertainingly complex examples sprinkled throughout, I think that the greater part of the book is most appropriate for lower players and only wish that it was more consistently clear in its presentation of examples.

Now a personal essay (not a review) based upon Jacob Aagaard's Excelling at Positional Chess. Given no other forum to do so, I'd like to address the continuing mischaracterization of my own work that he started in Excelling in Chess. This time he doesn't cast any personal aspersions, so at least that's progress. But he manages to pack a lot of incomprehensible statements about my work into a page and a half. For example, Aagaard says 'I believe that John is mistaken in his view on Tarrasch and the others as dogmatic people who did not think.' This is sheer nonsense. There isn't the slightest connection between what I actually wrote (or believe) and the idea that Tarrasch and some mysterious 'others' didn't think. (Presumably he refers to old masters such as Lasker and Capablanca whom I included in my discussion). Naturally I wouldn't say that some of the greatest players of history weren't also great thinkers. Or that they were 'dogmatic people': I only make the as yet undisputed and almost trivial point that they sometimes were dogmatic about certain positions or subjects, hardly a shocking claim. I go on to identify those particular areas without attributing sweepingly negative personal characteristics to any of them. Along with that, Aagaard makes the odd statement that 'Some commentators, like John Watson, [I'd like to know who these other error-ridden folks are, by the way] have made the 'misassumption' that this [the increasing role of the initiative and computer analysis] has made the lessons of yesterday to some extent irrelevant.' I don't discuss the lessons of either today or yesterday or their 'relevance' (in fact I think that older games have enormous relevance), but rather question whether certain general ideas are losing their relevance. I emphasise several times that mine is a description of modern play with no claims about the instructional or educational worth of my examples (i.e., the lessons to be gleaned from them). Finally, according to Aagaard, I'm supposed to have 'gone too far' by 'claim[ing] that the paradigm of thinking has completely changed'. A more open-minded and less rule-oriented attitude in specific areas, however important, is not a paradigm change' ['shift' is the usual word], at least not in the sense that Kuhn used the term. At any rate I didn't in fact make exaggerated claim that Aagaard attributes to me.

It might be nice to actually quote me once in a while rather than present interpretations or even caricatures of what I've said. Particularly in an effectively permanent medium such as a book (in this case two serious books), one should be careful about saying negative things about another author's work either without reading the work (which Aagaard presumably did) or lacking the linguistic skills to understand it or write about it (as is indicated by Aagaard's other work). The latter is understandable when one is using a foreign language, but all the more reason to take a modicum of care when criticizing others.

Aagaard is on better ground when he takes on a real example that actually appears in my book. That's fair game. Still, I find his objections completely unconvincing. He uses the game Yusupov-Christiansen which begins:

Jussupow,A (2645) - Christiansen,L (2620) [B07]
Las Palmas Las Palmas (3), 1993

1.d4 d6 2.e4 Nf6 3.f3 e5 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.Bc4 Be6 7.Bxe6 fxe6 (Aagaard skips these context-setting moves) 8.Nh3 (intending Nf2-d3)

8...Bc5 9.Nf2 Bxf2+ 10.Kxf2 Nc6 11.Be3 Ke7 12.Na3! with the idea Nc2-e1-d3 (which in fact occurs). An absorbing game follows, ultimately won by White.

After 8.Nh3, I say: 'Don't put your knights on the rim! Well, knights are living on the edge these days (see Chapter 5). But the case before us is really simple. Neither side is about to make any dramatic pawn breaks, so there is plenty of time to manoeuvre pieces to their best posts...' [emphasis mine]. I then give a description of White's basic strategy (to reposition the knights in the centre and attack e5) with which Aagaard fully agrees.

Discussing the position after Nh3 (he skips all other moves before and after, including the important Na3-c2-e1-d3 idea), Aagaard then says: 'The problem is this thing about knights on the rim. In his chapter 5, where the knights live on the rim, they only do so as long as there is a concrete advantage. When the advantage disappears the knights race towards the centre. The same goes for this example. The knight in no way lives on the rim - it is going towards the centre. I am sure that Tarrasch, who was not an idiot [in the next paragraph he helpfully adds that 'Tarrasch was not stupid'], would have no problems with this.'

What to say? Regarding the statement about concrete advantages (which can justify leaving knights on the rim for very many moves, as seen in a number of standard openings and middlegames), the same thing is of course also trivially true for other pieces, including knights in the centre, e.g., in some cases their effectiveness there disappears and they logically move to the flank. In general pieces ought to be moved if possible when the advantage of having them at their current position disappears. (As an aside, I think that it is also noteworthy that in so many openings knights are now being developed to the edge only temporarily, particularly when that development escaped notice over many years and games).

Next, Aagaard says that the knight on h3 doesn't live on the rim. Of course not; indeed I made the opposite point. To be clear, I used the word 'but' (i.e., by contrast) to indicate that the knight in this example doesn't live on the edge - i.e., things are more simple: they merely go to the edge and then are repositioned. This is odd criticism indeed! Finally, Aagaard uses the loaded characterisation that 'the knights race to the centre'. But surely a race to the centre would involve the two natural moves Ne2 and Nd2, whereas White instead aims for Nh3-f2-d3 and then Na3-c2-e1-d3, which is seven moves, a loss of 5 tempi! In fact it is because the knights use up so much time that with accurate play Black could probably have equalised out of the opening. In that case he would have justified his own counterintuitive decision to double pawns even after the exchange of queens. Rightly or wrongly I feel that the game contains valid ideas that I think are typical of modern play, and that you'd be hard-pressed to find examples of this kind of play in older times. I agree that Tarrasch probably wouldn't object to the knight moves post facto, but I doubt that he would have hit upon them in a practical game in 1890, despite his being a relatively stronger player for his time than Yusupov for his. I do think that he'd shudder at 6...Be6. But this sort of thing is merely speculation on both of our parts and not very helpful.

At the end of his exposition Aagaard tells us that he has 'continuously praised Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy as a great piece of work.' To whom he has continuously done so is of course not stated, nor the reason why in two books he has yet to find anything tangibly positive about it. Perhaps he feels that this detached statement exempts him from being held to task for careless assertions. It would be easier to dispense with the latter instead.

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