John Watson Book Review (32)
Testifying for the Defence
IM John Watson - Wednesday 20th December 2000
How to Defend in Chess (Learn from the World Champions); Colin Crouch; 224 pages; Everyman 2000
How to Defend in Chess (Learn from the World Champions); Colin Crouch; 224 pages; Everyman 2000
I again follow my new policy of reviewing books that I like by examining Colin Crouch's book above. I have been hoping to talk about this unique book for some months now, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it in any depth. Even now, I have only played through every note of two games, but I have played through some analysis and read all of his commentary in the others
Crouch does not take the obvious course of presenting great defensive games and defensive ideas from all of chess history. Rather, his original concept is to center the discussion around the play of two world champions, Lasker and Petrosian. Crouch believes that these two players have fundamentally different defensive styles. Lasker's defence tended to be active and opportunistic. Crouch claims that 'Lasker's greatest skill in defence was his ability to render a normal (inferior) position chaotic'. By contrast, he characterizes Petrosian's play by its key features: (a) patience: 'he...was free of the moral obligation to be doing something'; (b) he had a 'positionally defensive style rather than an initiative-seeking positional style'; (c) prophylaxis: 'concentrating on ensuring that, as far as possible, no opponent is allowed any meaningful advantage on any contested part of the board...The prophylactic player would be thinking in terms of complexes of squares here, and not just single squares.' Crouch's concise, eloquent description of balance in chess (which partially applies to both players, I think): 'For peace of mind, one needs to ensure that pieces have, both actually and potentially, both attacking and defensive roles.'
'How to Defend in Chess' is an analytical book that reevaluates games by these greats, ones which are often familiar or very famous. Crouch presents several very interesting games, however, that are neglected in the anthologies and books on strategy. Apart from research and analysis, each game has a great deal of absorbing discussion in and around it, beginning with its background (e.g., competitive and biographical), and involving positional, tactical and strategic ideas, quite apart from those relating directly to defence.
Before continuing, I think that I'd better emphasize how much I enjoy and admire this effort. Crouch is obviously fully engaged in and excited by his material. The examples are brilliantly chosen, and the annotations are well thought out, as is his approach and philosophy. One needs to have a little discipline to fully appreciate and learn from this book. But even a casual reader can pick up a lot just by playing through the main moves and reading the author's comments.
A couple of preliminary reservations follow. This book really needs a bibliography. The game notes draw heavily from the annotations and comments of others, including every world champion except Karpov, Khalifman, and Kramnik, as well as those of many of the leading players and commentators of the century. Even if footnotes are impractical, at least the sources should be listed.
I also take issue with the title (probably imposed upon the author, or at least negotiated). 'How to Defend in Chess' doesn't teach one how to defend so much as it discusses defence in general terms and shows brilliant examples of defence. One might study this book in detail and not know how to defend any better, although one would certainly appreciate defence more. Crouch's work is a tribute to chessplayers and their ideas, but not a 'How to' book at all.
Actually, in my opinion, the part of the book devoted to Lasker is only partly concerned with Lasker's defensive prowess. Instead, it is a (brilliant) critique and reexamination of Lasker's style and skills in both attack and defence, and sometimes, even his weakness in defence. Lasker 'creates chaos', to be sure, but if he does so in a position that is equal or better for him, is that defensiveÿ Apart from those cases, there are instances in this section of back-and-forth struggles in which the chaos did not arise out of defensive necessity. Of course, many if not most games here are true examples of defensive resourcefulness, i.e., when Lasker stands worse or lost and poses his opponent such complex problems as to salvage the game. But there are many exceptions.
Couch's introduction about Lasker's 'Manual of Chess' is revealing. Lasker discusses games of Labourdonnais, Morphy, and Steinitz, and in three of them he suggests defensive improvements. His suggestion in the first game is an inferior move that Crouch refutes. Then Crouch's editor Graham Burgess finds a fatal flaw with Lasker's improvement to the Morphy games, and in the final example, Crouch finds that Lasker's 'improvement' for Black (Steinitz) gives White 'a massive advantage'. This is not an advertisement for Lasker's defensive intuition. Of course, these are interesting positions to examine, so the book still benefits by their inclusion.
But okay, that's Lasker as an annotator, not as a player. Crouch presents 10 main Lasker games and 9 lightly annotated supplemental games involving him. After playing through these games, I separated these games into 3 categories: (a) Strong Defensive Play ('SDP') by Lasker, even if some poor defence is mixed in; (b) Attack throughout the game ('A') by Lasker; (c) No real Defense needed ('ND') for Lasker to win. For the main 10 games, I found 5 SDPs, 2 As, and 3 NDs. For the supplemental games, I found 4 SDPs, and 5 games with either no defence needed or weak defence by Lasker leading to a loss.
My point with all of this is that Crouch doesn't show Lasker just as a great defender, but also as an occasionally weak defender, and he shows games in which Lasker wins, several brilliantly, without having to play much defence at all. He even includes two games in which Lasker is a pure aggressor throughout-I don't know why, exactly, but I'm very glad that he did so. (Game 3, Steinitz-Lasker, features Lasker attacking on the kingside for the whole game while giving up the queenside without resistance, because he realizes that his attack is decisive. The attack triumphs brilliantly. Crouch calls this 'a delicate balance between attack and defence on both flanks', perhaps referring to Lasker's attack on one flank and LACK of defence on the other, but this is quite a reach and I suspect that he just wanted to show this truly beautiful game).
Games of note in the Lasker section (they are all worthwhile) include the famous Napier-Lasker, Cambridge Springs 1904 epic. Interestingly, Napier himself makes the great defensive moves, but Lasker stubbornly and ingeniously maintains the initiative (he looks like Tal in this game). After a wild melee with mistakes, Lasker triumphs. You'd think that this widely-annotated game would be all worked out, but Crouch adds some new analysis, adding his own discoveries to the win that John Nunn found for Napier on move 20.
Game 5 is a fantastically complex fight, Schlechter-Lasker, Berlin (7) 1910. Crouch devotes 14 pages to it; this time Lasker defends with incredible resourcefulness against his normally sedate opponent's aggressive attack. Lasker's 'throw-obstacles-in-the-way' approach finally succeeds, Schlechter falters, and the game ends in a draw. A real masterpiece. Crouch peppers the game with both strategic and analytical notes that indicate both the insights and mistakes of the players.
Game 6, Lasker-Nimzowitsch, St Petersburg 1914 (the names are reversed in the book, by the way), features an interesting struggle in which Lasker is clearly worse and in a very defensive stance. Instead of lashing out to create complications, Lasker essentially waits around doing nothing for quite a long time while Nimzowitsch gets confused about how to proceed. Then, at the right moment, Lasker mixes things up and manages to force a drawing trick. Very Petrosian-like!
Game 7, Capablanca-Lasker, St Petersburg 1914, has an early exchange of queens with a moderate initiative for White. Lasker cleverly trades into a B+N (for White) versus R ending, with 3 pawns on each side opposing each other on the kingside. An instructive draw ensues, with Lasker cleverly putting all his pawns on the same colour as the bishop instead of following the old axiom that advises the opposite procedure.
Game 9, Euwe-Lasker, is one of the best examples of Lasker defence. By a serious of slow and seemingly passive moves, Lasker magically achieves equality from a miserable-looking position. He then tricks his opponent in the late middlegame. Crouch's notes about when material imbalances favour one side or the other are extremely interesting, as is his discussion of how many mistakes the attacker must make to lose.
The Petrosian section is very different that the Lasker one. Here, with the exception of the first game (see below), every game is characterized by brilliant defence on Petrosian's part, or in one case, by an unexpected prophylactic idea followed by attack.
The first game, Petrosian-Smyslov, USSR Ch 1957, is the only one in which Petrosian is White! Furthermore, he plays an attacking gambit (4 Nc3 dxc4 5 e4 b5 6 e5 in the Slav Defence), then sacrifices another pawn (still with the worse game) to rip open Black's defences, and finally, with some good fortune, breaks through to a technically won ending. There isn't a trace of defence here, but it is a highly entertaining game and Crouch's notes are quite good.
In a revealing moment, however, Crouch uses up almost a whole page to assert that in the main line of the Geller Gambit, the move 11.Qd7'!' is better than 11...g6, as played in the game. He says that 11...Qd7 is 'in the spirit of Steinitz and Lasker' and with ...Bd5 and ...Nc6 to follow, is 'in accord with all the canons of classical defensive theory' (for 5 reasons!). Then he claims that 'the whole variation has been more or less abandoned in top-level chess' because of 11...Qd7 (and 'not because of [11...g6]'), and that 'positional logic as well as current theory favours 11...Qd7'. Finally, he says that with hindsight, '11...g6 may now be seen as a nervous reaction'. I quote all this to show how buried we all become in our own ideas, and how suspect thinking according to 'principle' and dogma can be, instead of just examining the reality on the board. In fact, despite his outpouring of abstract reasoning, Crouch is just wrong here. I know from years of experience writing about and playing and following the theory of this line (Crouch's most recent example is 1988) that 11...Qd7 is now what White hopes for (indeed, even Crouch's analysis in one note ends in a position that White is very happy with), and that 11...g6!, weaknesses and all, is currently (and I think permanently) White's real problem. The latter move is the reason no one plays the Geller Gambit these days. One can refer to Silman and Donaldson's 1993 'Gambits in the Slav' for the main details, supplemented by later games and one's own analysis when necessary. For the record, 11...g6 12 Qg4 Be7 13 Be2 Bd5 and 13...h5 14 Qg3 Bd5 lead to positions in which Black stands well (if you want a 'reason', 11...g6 wins an important tempo and keeps the queen well-placed on d8, but that's hindsight at best). The only important point here is that, as great defensive players like Lasker and Petrosian knew, the specifics of a proposed defence outweigh its abstract qualities.
But that's about the only time in the entire book that I take exception to a specific claim by Crouch, and that is the only main game included in which Petrosian doesn't defend like the genius he was. Indeed, I have to say that every game in this section is worth playing over for both its intrinsic merit and Crouch's elucidation. He gives astonishingly deep and original notes to some famous games (ones that everyone who hasn't seen them will be well rewarded by), e.g., Reshevsky-Petrosian, Zurich 1953 (the 25...Re6!! game; Crouch contributes some highly original ideas); Duckstein-Petrosian, Varna 1962 (Crouch comes to some very new conclusions about this one); Botvinnik-Petrosian, Moscow (18) 1963 (superb analysis, perhaps the best example of ongoing prophylaxis with fantastic explanatory notes, and finally, a terrific game); and Spassky-Petrosian, Moscow (7) 1966 (wonderful observations and annotations on this well-known classic). Crouch gives two other games that aren't quite as famous but will be familiar to many. One is Fischer-Petrosian, Santa Monica 1966, in which Petrosian looks totally lost from the opening, but somehow survives brilliantly, eventually drawing, although Crouch thinks that he had the advantage in the final position. This game is a tribute to Petrosian's calculating powers. Then there is Kasparov-Petrosian, Tilburg 1981, which you might remember for the twin brilliancy of 30...b5!! and 35...Kc6!! The exquisite notes suggest that Black was actually never lost (Petrosian in fact won the game). Looking over that list, one can truly say: Now THERE'S defence! And the other Petrosian games are worth a look as well.
There's always more to say about such an original book. I don't necessarily agree with all of Crouch's philosophic points, but to me, the essence of this work is the meticulous care he gives to presenting every aspect of games that he obviously loves. His choice of examples is brilliant, his analysis thorough, and his comments at least stimulating and often more. I very much recommend this effort and I think it ranks among the very best books of the last few years.