John Watson Book Review (66)
Strategy and Practice
IM John Watson - Thursday 7th April 2005
Decision-Making at the Chessboard; Viacheslav Eingorn; 208 pages; Gambit 2003
Understanding Your Chess; James Rizzitano; 192 pages; Gambit 2004
Creative Chess Strategy; Alfonso Romero; 221 pages; Gambit 2003
Power Chess with Pieces: The Ultimate Guide to the Bishop Pair & Strong Knights; Jan Timman; 229 pages; New in Chess 2004
HiArcs 9; CD-ROM, ChessBase, 2003
Mega Database 2004; DVD-ROM, ChessBase 2004
ChessBase Magazine #100; CD-ROM, ChessBase 2004,
The Best of ChessBase; DVD-ROM, ChessBase 2004
For this column I've picked a few books about strategy and a few electronic products. Since I've allowed so many books to pile up on my shelves over the past months, I can afford the luxury of choosing a set of them that are particularly good and easy to recommend.
Gambit Publications continues to produce first-rate chess books, and has increasingly turned towards books on more general subjects such as strategy, chess thinking, attack, and defence. They also continue to find excellent first-time authors (or those whose work has not appeared in English until now). Viacheslav Eingorn's Decision-Making at the Chessboard is a difficult but extraordinarily interesting work, mainly because of the way that Eingorn looks at the development of games with a view towards their critical positions and decisions. Most of the games are Eingorn's own, although he includes a number of classics to re-analyse in the light of their critical decisions. I wouldn't call most of the material sprightly, but it's far more useful and instructive than the standard 'How to Play Positional Chess' stuff that has been appearing of late.
Reti-Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925 26...Re3!
The first chapter is worth talking about: We know that this is a different sort of book when Eingorn dares to part from historical stereotypes. In the vary first game in the book, he presents the ultra-famous Reti-Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925 with the shot 26...Re3! . Eingorn discusses the positional course of the game, describing Reti's advantageous alternatives at several points. He comments that '[Alekhine's] tactics are remarkable, but his strategy occupies a worthy second place; it was Reti's play that determined the unfolding of events...'. Of course that isn't the usual interpretation that books give, since they are swayed by the power and beauty of Black's buildup and attack. Alekhine's own simplistic summary of the game is that White first has c-file pressure, Black counterattacks, and then his move 26...Re3! gains the advantage. Eingorn shows that this isn't the case and says 'this commentary also shows a certain limitation of thought belonging to a player with a pronounced individuality.' Whether that's generally true or not, the same has been said of Tal and Petrosian, for example, whose pronounced styles could legitimately be argued to reflect their 'limitations of thought' (although 'prejudices' might be a more accurate term).
Petrosian-Bannik, USSR Ch 1958. After 16. ...Raxc8
In fact, Eingorn takes the well-known game Petrosian-Bannik, USSR Ch 1958, a positional masterpiece by White, and points out that in the diagrammed position Petrosian lets Bannik off the hook by an inferior move, 17.b3, that 'shies away from immediate action'. His extremely lengthy analysis shows that a much superior move would have been 17.Bc5!, exchanging his good bishop for Black's bad one. Eingorn attributes this to Petrosian's unhurried style. After Bannik's actual 17...Rcd8?, Petrosian played 18.Bc5! anyway and had a winning game. Instead, Bannik should have played 17...Nd7! to stop this idea. As has been pointed out by others, 17.Bc5! with its assessment has been overlooked by the many annotators of this game. Eingorn adds: 'The issue tends to be confused by formal considerations about 'good' and 'bad' bishops. Repudiating the baneful influence of terminology, we should observe that in principle a piece fulfilling a useful function cannot be bad.' [jw: In this case, as Suba says, the 'bad' bishop was defending a good pawn.] But since Bannik's mistake on the next move allows Petrosian to play precisely the same move with the same idea, one wonders if so much detailed analysis was necessary to get the point across.
Several reviewers have quoted Eingorn's original thoughts about Lasker: 'People basically associate Lasker's achievements with questions of chess psychology - quite misguidedly, it seems to me. His manner of play (like that of Petrosian at a later date) simply didn't fit into the customary framework of standard chess thought: attack, defense, playing for position.' Eingorn backs this up by analysing two famous Lasker games. The portrait of Lasker as master psychologist has always struck me as extremely limited and missing the essence of his play. Yet it is constantly perpetuated in books, for example, in Kasparov's Predecessors.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.d4 d6 5.Nc4 fxe4 has seen 6.Ne3 and 6.Be2
Incidentally, Eingorn also talks about the position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.d4 d6 5.Nc4 fxe4, where in a famous game against Behting in 1919, Nimzowitsch chose 6.Ne3, leading to 6...c6 7.Bc4 d5 8.Bb3 followed by c4. This game was widely annotated through the years, most famously by the participants. In 1941 in the same position, Bronstein played 6.Be2, which Eingorn describes as reflecting his style and his philosophic desire to prevent his opponent's plans, i.e., the move prevents 6...Qg6 due to 7.Bh5. He apparently doesn't realise that Behting himself had analysed 6.Be2 in his notes. Quite possibly Bronstein was aware of the move, and in any case we see that it doesn't take a genius to come up with the idea.
Chapter 2 continues with the idea of a player's style influencing his decisions, again emphasising the importance of concrete lines and calculations to support such decisions. This is probably the most important theme throughout the book. He begins with a game by Tal (against Eingorn himself), saying of Tal's most critical decision that it reflects his style but that 'there are always concrete features of the position that no one can ignore'. He shows that precise calculations would have revealed a much superior move than the one produced by Tal's intuition. As in so many modern books, the emphasis is on concrete calculations, but Eingorn gladly limits his truly messy analysis to critical points and emphasises the role of judgment and intuition in deciding when to go in particular directions. He applies his ideas to attack, defence, and even to what you should do when no idea occurs to you.
The bulk of the games are Eingorn's own. His games with White usually begin with 1.d4 (there are 16 Queen's Gambits) or less often, 1.c4. So you can imagine that positional struggles dominate the early parts of the game, although tactics and positions requiring serious calculations are important at the decisive junctures. As Black, similarly, he often plays slow lines with 1...e5 versus 1.e4, and when he plays 1...e6 he interprets it extremely positionally (playing, for example, ...b6 and ...Ba6). Eingorn is often self-critical, presenting his mistakes as object lessons. In one game, after 1.d4 d6 2.c4 e5 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng1 f5 5.Nc3, he plays 5...Nd7, appending the amusing remark: 'an amazingly inept idea'.
Naturally there's much more here to discuss, but I'll leave it at that. I highly recommend the book for those willing to bite into some complex and eye-opening material. For casual readers, be warned that it is less an entertaining book than an instructive one.
Understanding Your Chess by James Rizzitano is a games collection with the rare quality that each chapter directly addresses common problems in the context of actual games. Rizzitano is an International Master who was very successful in United States tournaments and then retired to join the world of software. Along with deep and remarkably instructive analysis of 84 games and associated positions, American readers will be delighted by a trip back to the exciting times of the late 1970s and 1980s on the U.S. chess circuit. There's even a game by Bill Goichberg, the best and most famous organizer/director of U.S. chess tournaments over the years (and certainly the world's leader in the number of Swiss System events that anyone has run).
The book consists of thoroughly annotated games, most of them played by Rizzitano himself. But there are also references to 19 other game fragments by leading players through which he learned lessons similar to those arising in his own games. In fact, an important feature of the book is that the material Rizzitano discusses is almost always relevant to things that at one time increased his own understanding of the game. A concluding set of 20 endgames that he contested covers nearly every common type of ending and shows both complex and simplified positions that could appear in our own games.
The author's main goal is to answer the question 'What should I study to improve my game?' His first answer is the traditional one: study your own games, and in particular don't rest until you have discovered why you lost a game. The book's chapters are organised according to theme. For example, Chapter 1 has sections on 'Opening Selection Against Stronger Opponents' and 'Gambit Play'. Then there are chapters on 'tactical skirmishes', the initiative, small advantages, 'runaway tactics', and 'endgame adventures'. Openings are given special attention, in particular how to develop an opening repertoire. Rizzitano tended to play cutting edge theory for his times, a practice that requires much more time and effort today.
Every game ends with 'Game Lessons' that usually describe what alternatives existed at critical junctures and what concrete mistakes were made in terms of moves. Perhaps there could have been more general advice and guidance here. Elsewhere, quite a lot is said about decisions based upon the sporting elements of the game and situational thinking. Overall, I would say that Rizzitano's style reflects his tendency to embrace complications. Regarding intuition he calls it the 'weapon of last resort' or the 'tiebreaker' when a position cannot be resolved by sheer calculation. He describes the various types and positive uses of intuition, but states nevertheless that 'I have often seen an intuitive assessment refuted by a concrete variation, but I have never seen a concrete variation refuted by intuition.' [emphasis his]. This is in one sense true by definition, yet reflects the priorities inherent in Rizzitano's approach to the game. Thankfully, he explains where to find the variations that require calculation, and how to get the most out of positional factors. While the depth of analysis may turn some readers off, I don't think that one need follow it in order to understand the ideas and flow of the game.
In conclusion, this book is far more instructive than most of the games collections by grandmasters. The balance of material reflects what a student needs to know in the important aspects of the game. I wholeheartedly recommend Understanding Your Chess to all players of average strength and above. In particular this is an excellent book for players who are either stuck at one level or improving too slowly and want ideas about how to better their play.
Grandmaster Alfonso Romero's Creative Chess Strategy is a games collection of top players past and present, sometimes deeply annotated by variations but generally including more verbal explanation than the average games collection. The chapters are organised by themes, which at first look standard and dull: pawn structure, space advantage, centre, bishop pair, positional exchange sacrifices, the isolated queen's pawn (surely the most over-discussed positional theme in all of chess literature and rarely treated with originality), etc. Later, however, we get to see unique topics such as positional sacrifices of two pawns, coordination of rook and knight, communication among the pieces and such unusual topics as the case of apparently unjustified attacks that work. It's interesting the Romero, a player known for his sharp play, covers a wide range of positional subjects, often using games that never turn particularly tactical. In fact, he starts the book with a 7-page annotation of the same game Petrosian-Bannik, USSR Ch 1958 that Eingorn looks at. Whereas at least 50% of Eingorn's notes to this fully positional struggle are variations, roughly 20% of Romero's are. He gives an insightful flow of comments that are accompanied by discussions of pawn structure and particular options for the endgame.
The game selection is superb. I was excited by numerous brilliantly played top-level games that I'd never seen. Romero's commentary should satisfy anyone, particularly his audience who he describes as 'intermediate and high-ranking players who wish to understand the difference between ordinary players and masters.' I think that any 'ordinary' player will appreciate the lively descriptions of moves and players. Romero writes with refreshing enthusiasm and keeps the reader involved. His highest praise is given to tactical masterpieces, for example, Chapter 15 devotes 7 pages to the mutually brilliant game Shirov-Topalov, Linares 1998 and another 3 to the terrific fight Shirov-Polgar, Merida 2000, both won by Shirov. Nevertheless, most of this book deals with positional aspects of the game, as described above. The difference between his and other discussions of such themes is that Romero backs up his exposition on an almost move-by-move basis. For the most part he does so with words. When he does switch to variations, on the other hand, the density of analysis can be outrageous. In a game Hort-Wirthensohn, Biel 1981, for example, Romero emphasises simple positional themes with occasional supporting analysis until he reaches a late middlegame (or ending) with 3 pieces on each side. Suddenly he provides 2 large pages of small-type analysis to examine a single non-tactical move. I had fun playing over some of this (until I became tired!); the position was in fact extremely interesting. As the book continues we see a little more of this, but not so much as to turn off the average reader.
I wish that I could describe the book in more detail but space and time forbid. To me, this is the most entertaining and absorbing of recent books that deal with strategy and I can recommend it without reservation.
Three days ago I received in the mail Power Chess with Pieces: The Ultimate Guide to the Bishop Pair & Strong Knights by Jan Timman. A cursory examination shows it to be a typically well-written Timman piece about a subject we don't see very often: the treatment of minor pieces in the middlegame. His subject is somewhat different than a 'complete' exposition of minor piece tradeoffs. Rather, Timman tackles a set of practical high-level examples which give rise to various types of minor piece configurations. He gives unusually lengthy coverage to good knights versus bad bishops, apparently because this was the subject of some 1996 lectures that he gave on the subject. The contents reveal this choice of material: Chapter 1 'The Power of the Knight – Games', which consists of 12 games and 76 pages; Chapter 2 - The Power of the Knight – Endgame (excerpts covering 23 pages); Chapter 3 - Domination of the Pair of Bishops (10 games and 73 pages); Chapter 4 - Domination of the Pair of Knights (3 games and 24 pages); Chapter 5 - Domination of Bishop and Knight (3 games and 21 pages). Since the wording is awkward, I should clarify that in these cases 'domination of' means 'domination by'.
As always, Timman chooses complex positions in which nothing is immediately clear. In the examples that I've browsed through, the exploitation of an advantage can only be achieved, if at all, by the most precise play. From what I can tell, plans for the defender are treated with the same respect as those available to the player who holds the advantage. In general the book is more descriptive and less analytical than one might expect from Timman, although there appears to be sufficient analysis when necessary. I personally find minor piece play of great interest and I look forward to reading this book.
Finally, for those who are taking advantage of electronic formats, I highly recommend four of the latest ChessBase products on CD and DVD: (a) HiArcs 9 (my favourite engine); (b) Mega Database 2004 (the world's best database for ChessBase users, although Chess Assistant users will want their corresponding version); (c) the recent double set ChessBase Magazine #100 and "The Best of ChessBase". The latter contains, among other things, a look back at selected CBMs from #56 onwards, with a great number of multimedia clips, e.g., of Kasparov (many), Anand, Leko, Kramnik, Ilyumzhinov, Kosteniuk, and many others. I just received these discs and look forward to a plethora of new annotated games and articles.