John Watson Book Review (48)
One Good, One Bad [Part One]
IM John Watson - Sunday 22nd December 2002
64 Great Chess Games: Masterpieces of Postal and Email Chess
304 pages; Chess Mail, 2002
The Method in Chess
Iossif Dorfman ;
208 pages; Game Mind 2001
After having neglected this column for many months, I naturally have a host of books at hand from a wide assortment of publishers. My intention is to write a few medium-length (or longer) reviews in the next few weeks, and then to turn to briefer descriptions of products that I feel readers may be interested in combined with the occasional lengthy review. In the first two columns beginning with this one I have chosen two products that I am thoroughly happy with, each coupled with one that I cannot recommend. In both cases, the books that I don't like have been singled out for praise by other reviewers, so I felt that a contrary opinion was desirable.
Going over a well-annotated games collection is not only one of the best ways to learn more about chess, it is also one of the most entertaining. Tim Harding's '64 Great Chess Games', subtitled 'Masterpieces of Postal and Email Chess', is an exciting look into the world of correspondence chess. It features 64 games that Harding feels are among the best played by mail or email. These stretch from 1872 to 2002 and are chosen with a stress on variety, e.g., 'a good spread of openings, players from many countries, many types of game...' and so forth. He does explicitly point out that these are not the '64 Greatest Correspondence Games' but rather a 'showcase of the best in correspondence chess'. Among the nice features of the book are the historical tidbits about the players and overviews of the game. Games from the likes of Steinitz, Chigorin, Ragozin, Keres and Ulf Andersson supplement those of famous correspondence specialists and add flavour to the book. Even relatively obscure players are accorded brief biographical sketches if there is sufficient information about them. Harding himself is represented in the final game; he is a strong correspondence player and author of more than 20 chess books. Granting that I have read a fairly modest subset of the latter, I would say that this is the very best work I've seen from him. For information about his magazine, books, and products, see his website http://www.chessmail.com.
Harding presents mostly games of a tactical and dynamic nature; indeed, this book would be a very good way for a student to practice tactics that arise in real-world situations. Positional elements are present, as in most games, but they tend to provide only sketchy background for the many attacks, counterattacks and activity that permeate the book. There are exceptions, of course, as in largely strategic games such as Maroczy-Cipskes, Hungarian Ch 1893 and Zagarovsky-Arnlind, 8th CC World Ch Final 1975. But by and large he presents slugfests; and the attacks in numerous games are just wonderful, featuring spectacular sacrifices supplemented by unplayed variations that are equally attractive.
Harding's notes, whether borrowed from others or not, are in most cases detailed and meticulous. He utilizes annotations from not only the players' notes but from those of others who have been written articles or letters about the game. I used one of this book's games in some recent work of my own and was impressed by both the author's and the players' search for the exact truth in positions. One might even say that this attitude is necessary in order to win in correspondence chess, whereas it is somewhat of a luxury and often a disadvantage for over-the-board players under pressure from the clock. Perhaps the only criticism that I have is that I found Harding's and other annotators' assessments of some quieter and/or unbalanced positions questionable. That may be inevitable given the enormous amount of time one has to devote to the most directly dangerous continuations, especially in these super-sharp contests. In any case the exceptionally high quality of these games and notes arises in the area of moves that lead by force to certain consequences, often with elaborate and captivating analysis to demonstrate that. The notes to a number of games may be too detailed for some readers, especially for those who haven't reached expert or master strength. Of course, that is true of most games collections and should not deter readers, since the games are exciting and instructive in their own right.
'64 Great Chess Games' is bound to be treasured by correspondence players and should be rated highly by most other fans of the game. It is a repository of sparkling attacking games and a look into the world of postal chess. I very much recommend it.
I have looked forward to Iossif Dorfman's 'The Method in Chess' for some time. Dorfman is considered a leading trainer, most famously for his stewardship of Etienne Bacrot. I had heard that many in Europe consider him superior in that field to super-trainer Mark Dvoretsky; given that high praise, reading about his chess philosophy and insights was an intriguing prospect. In particular, this work got favourable marks from many reviewers, and is even listed among the 5 finalists for the Chess Café book of the year award.
What a surprise I was in for: this book is a hodgepodge of assertions that are either too broadly interpretable or simply banal. I see little actual content to the purported method, mostly because Dorfman doesn't establish enough limits or uses for the loose generalities it seems to consist of. Worse still, the great bulk of the book is merely a collection of Dorfman's games, and amazingly, the notes to most of the games consist primarily of variations with no reference to Dorfman's theories whatsoever!
In the foreword, Dorfman announces that he has created a 'new theory', adding that 'the reader will see a number of rules being formulated for the first time, generalizing the processes taking place during play. Rules enabling certain well-known postulates to be explained, and others to be looked at more critically.' A fair enough 'resume' (as he calls it), although he concludes with the obscure (and boldfaced) quote: 'I regard chess as being an equivalent (adequate) exchange' (Botvinnik). Hmmm. Anyway, in the Theoretical Section Dorfman defines 'dynamism' as variations [changes] in 'the hierarchy of strategic factors', so that 'plans and ideas are transformed'. 'To foresee the modification of the hierarchy of strategic factors is nothing other than being able to define critical positions.' Crucially, he proposes 'analysing critical positions on the basis of their static state. This aim is served by the proposed static balance.' This shifting status of static [enduring] and dynamic factors is the main theme. The player needs to find a critical position (a turning point in the play). Then he or she makes an assessment of the static balance. 'If for one of the players the static balance is negative, he must without hesitation employ dynamic means, and be ready to go in for extreme measures.'
This is all quite reasonable-sounding, and clear enough if one concentrates; but as one might expect, such an abstract and indefinite approach leaves an awful lot up to the player's judgment. It also handily preserves plenty of room for post-facto theoretical justification. One might assess the static balance as negative, go dynamic, and later find that it was much better not to do so (if only to pursue the lesser evil). Is that supposed to be impossible? Dorfman bravely tries to help us by defining 'critical positions' as those in which a decision must be made about (a) possible exchanges or (b) possible changes in pawn formations; he also includes (c) 'the end of a series of forced moves'. As he says, 'To sense that a position is critical is already a great success', which is not encouraging to someone trying to think in this manner. I don't think he ever adequately addresses how to do this, especially because the topic almost never comes up in his own exemplary games! This idea - that developing a sense for critical positions is essential - has been taught by Dvoretsky and presumably numerous others for many years, and I'm not sure that Dorfman has added much with his above list, since the delicacy of the required recognition is so obviously more subtle than the list indicates.
Dorfman also provides a method for 'drawing up the static balance'. He 'suggests' (I think that 'proposes' might have been a better translation at several points) 'a regressive scale of static factors, arranged in order of their importance.' This word 'regressive' is used repeatedly, but as someone who experienced the word in a scientific and problem-solving context over many years, I can't see how any facet of Dorfman's static evaluation, much less his method as a whole, is 'regressive'. At any rate, he then turns to more traditional elements of positions such as king position, material, pawn formation, good and bad pieces, weak squares, etc. The breakdown of these elements into categories is, as far as I can see, absolutely standard and thus can be found in any number of instructional books.
So the theoretical edifice is a little shaky, but let's poke around and see how he fleshes it out. Right away I have problems with dogmatic statements such as 'Rule: the exchange of a bishop for a knight can only be justified when the pawn formation is fixed' (this is repeated at least twice, and much more strongly than as a mere guideline). Finding exceptions to this rule is of course easy - imagine if Bacrot, or Dorfman himself, took it seriously. In fact, this rule doesn't even apply to Dorfman's own examples that he uses to illustrate it, unless one misses easy improvements for the side yielding the bishop. Then we have oddball characterizations such as that of an 'outpost', which turns out to be 'a square on a half-open file in front of an enemy pawn, situated on the 6th (for White on the 3rd) rank.' That is bizarre enough, but the steps for exploiting its advantages are also strange: (a) create the outpost; (b) place a piece on it ('usually a knight'); (c) 'in the event of the exchange of this piece, recapture with a pawn, exposing an enemy backward pawn'; (d) 'create pressure on the backward pawn'; (e) 'force its advance and attack the resulting weaknesses'. When you think about it, this only applies to specialised cases, and extremely often such a procedure would give the owner of the 'outpost' (so defined) a distinctly inferior game. On top of that, step 'c' seems to assume that, say, Black's adjacent pawns are on the second rank, e.g., that in the case of a knight on d5, they are not on c5 and e5 so that White would suffer from a 'dead spot' on d5. Even when a pawn is on the second rank, say on e7 or c7, a pawn recapture on d5 may well allow Black the opportunity an advantageous for ...f5 or ...b5.
I find myself quite often disagreeing with the variations that Dorfman supplies; he tends to skip the opponent's favourable opportunities, sometimes obvious ones. Then there are the irritating editorial mistakes such as misnumbering of moves and move typos. It's not that difficult to do move-checking these days.
Revealingly, the section on the 'Practical Application' of the method consists solely of 64 games by Dorfman. One might be more convinced if it turned out that other top players' games reflected use of the method. Or if his games were linked to his text and theories, rather than limited for the most part to comments about the players, opening theory, and wordless variations. Then, as if those contests weren't enough, he has an 'Appendix' of 'several games'; this turns out to be 29 more almost noteless Dorfman games. And in all these 93 games, amazingly, I can't find a single negative comment about Dorfman's play! Seriously. Perhaps a few exist somewhere, but the point should be obvious.
I have no doubt that Dorfman is a good teacher/trainer, but people with a particular skill do not always write good books. Unless you're looking for 'The Lightly Annotated Games of Dorfman With His Mostly Inapplicable Pedagogical Observations', you should stay away from this book. Perhaps his recently-released followup will be better, but for that to be true he would have had to bring himself down to earth, and to have widened his base of examples.
There is a list of new chess books sold by the London Chess Centre including many of those review here.