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John Watson Book Review (1)

Three World-Class Games Collections

Three World-Class Games Collections Vishy Anand: My Best Games of Chess; Vishy Anand; 238 pages; Gambit Publications 1998 Jon Speelman's Best Games; Jon Speelman; 240 pages; BT Batsford 1997 Fire on the Board: Shirov's Best Games; Alexei Shirov; 252 pages; Cadogan Chess 1997.

Vishy Anand: My Best Games of Chess; Vishy Anand; 238 pages; Gambit Publications 1998

Jon Speelman's Best Games; Jon Speelman; 240 pages; BT Batsford 1997

Fire on the Board: Shirov's Best Games; Alexei Shirov; 252 pages; Cadogan Chess 1997

For my first set of mini-reviews, since I have yet to receive some of the most current books from publishers, I'd like to indulge myself in a retrospective look at what I consider the best biographical games collections which have appeared within the last year. The fact that there are three such books is in itself remarkable. Whyÿ Because for many years, we have had so few biographical books written by leading contemporary players, and still fewer good ones. Suddenly, chess publishers are doing us a wonderful service in this regard. Let me briefly talk about what I liked about each these books, thus beginning this column on a positive note (soon I'll have enough people mad at me; why speed up the processÿ).

Vishy Anand is currently the world's number two player and there are suggestions afoot that, with Kasparov playing so little, he may be in fact the world's best player. At any rate, he now has a better games collection book than Kasparov! "Produced in collaboration with John Nunn" (the nature of the collaboration is not made clear), Vishy Anand: My Best Games has two sterling qualities: great games and the fact that they are explained with clarity. This is a prime example of a book which is almost pure substance: the play's the thing. There is a perfunctory 'biography' in the introduction, consisting entirely of chess results; moreover, there are almost no stories (apart from a few about preparing for the next game or next match), despite the back cover's claim of 'anecdotes from top-level chess'. Normally, I like some 'color' in these books, but here the lack of it redounds to our benefit. Anand's selection of games is so superb, with one exciting game after another, that you wouldn't want to miss out on even one of them for the sake of a mere anecdote! If you love a collection of well-annotated, dynamic modern chess games, you can't go wrong here, and I would think that anyone from 1500 to Grandmaster might learn from it.

Anand's style of annotation is balanced and civilized: he seldom goes crazy with extremely lengthy variations, but does get to the essence of most positions. The verbal notes are not compellingly written (perhaps the one slight criticism I would level concerns this stylistic dullness), but they are to-the-point and often revealing. He repeatedly makes clear, for example, at which points he had to improvise over the board and which moves he played on instinct, as opposed to those he had to work out in detail. It turns out that he was on his own surprisingly early in many of the openings, particularly in Open Sicilians which I had assumed (having previously seen the games) were worked out well into the middlegame. Most of these games are brilliant (and usually sound) attacking efforts; but there are also purely positional struggles. In his amazing 1992 match game versus Ivanchuk (#17), he leaves himself with backward, doubled pawns and a horrible bishop in a greatly simplified position; but has foreseen, astonishingly, that he will be able to create passed pawns 12 moves later! Two other particularly fine positional efforts come from his second (and successful) 1995 match versus Kamsky (#s 30 and 31). Great attacking efforts are the rule rather than the exception; the reader might want to check out three beauties from 1996 versus Gelfland (#35), Topalov (#37), and Ivanchuk (#38) for examples of sophisticated devastation.

Jon Speelman is one of the strongest players to emerge from the English Chess Explosion (arguably, only Short and now Adams have been more successful against the top competition). He has produced a beautifully-written collection of his games quite different in style and presentation from Anand's. However, readers looking for entertaining stories and interesting incidents away from the board will again be disappointed. Apart from a humorous description of his childhood (in a section called 'Juvenilia'), Speelman's stories are also largely confined to how he prepared for the next game. Once again, that's just fine with me. As the book goes on, his true interest becomes obvious--chess, chess, and more chess--and as I see it, there's not the slightest reason to artificially embellish that. Jon Speelman's Best Games is divided into thematic sections with titles such as 'Skirting the Precipice' (for games with surprise moves in shaky situations), and 'Blood on the Board' (for what he calls 'serious hackery'!).

Throughout, Speelman's annotations are the outstanding and controversial feature of the book. For one thing, his verbal notes are marvelous; Speelman's mastery of the language is evident, and he has a very pleasant sense of humor. In fact, his is probably the most literary style of any modern player's that I am aware of. Still, it's the analytical notes which most distinguish this work. The phrase 'imaginatively obsessive' suggests itself. Lengthy, intriguing digressions are the norm, with some of truly heroic proportions. In both games #16 and #31, for example, a single (apparently innocent) move provokes a four-page-long note, and we're talking about small-print, almost word-free analysis here! This same game #31 also contains 2-page and 2.5-page notes for other moves, as Speelman begins to threaten Huebner for the world's championship in this regard. At one point, he promises to be more 'relaxed' (and not to exhibit the 'oppressive rectitude' of the previous chapter), which comment leads into a game with 9 pages of notes for the first 25 moves! How libertine! But here's the point: his rectitude isn't really oppressive at all: Speelman's analysis is full of zany and imaginative ideas in wonderfully tactical positions, along with some beautifully-annotated endgames. It just a book which the reader has to take seriously to truly appreciate (and thus is probably best recommended to players 1900 and above). Fortunately for the lazy, the games themselves are also tremendously entertaining.

Whereas Speelman in his prime has been a less tactical player than, say, Anand, this particular selection of games is a compendium of exciting, double-edged struggles which are more reflective of the madman's style he burst upon the scene with. In the end, this is simply a terrific effort, recommended to any player willing to invest some time in it.

As much as the I liked the last two books, my pick for the very best recent biographical collection will surprise no one familiar with it: Alexei Shirov's Fire on the Board (Foreword by Jon Speelman, by the way). With Shirov now playing for (some sort of) world championship, we are lucky to have this stunning collection of: (a) 82 densely-annotated tournament games; (b) 16 additional slugfests in a separate section devoted to the wild Botvinnik Variation of the Slav Defense; and (c) 13 heavily-annotated endgames which would by themselves make a very nice little book.

Cadogan's decision to used oversize pages in order not to miss out on any of this proved to be wise indeed. All three sections are brilliant. Shirov's book is not as demanding as Speelman's, but is still rather dense. Although anyone can have fun with the games themselves, it's quite possible that readers under 1800 may feel disoriented by the lack of elementary instructive support from the author. We should realize that Shirov, like Anand but more so, is a primary representative of the ultra-dynamic modern style. He calls his own style 'very concrete', which is consistent with his now-renowned powers of calculation; and makes this fascinating comment: "I have always tried to be not just a tactician--working with a positional player such as Bagirov and studying hard has helped me to develop my own strategic understanding, although chess is nowadays so concrete that pure strategy practically doesn't exist for me." An amazing statement which pretty much sums up what's been happening in chess, beginning with Kasparov. One could easily imagine Anand, Topalov, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Polgar or any number of other top-class players saying the same thing. Pure strategy may not be dead; but it's been missing in action for 20 years or so, which is not auspicious! The fact is, Shirov's 'concrete style' has allowed him to break the old rules seemingly at will, unleashing a torrent of creativity which is evident in practically every one of these games.

When I first read this book last fall, I felt like I was being treated to a long display of stunning fireworks. If you like complex tactics, this book is a gold mine. But more importantly, you will get typical examples of prolonged dynamic play which never seems to clearly resolve in one side's favor despite hammer blow after hammer blow. Sometime it seems as though Shirov is involved in a Lasker-Napier sort of game every few rounds! Furthermore, remarkably, many of his most complex battles resolve into intriguing endgames, the area of the game Shirov believes he's best at. This may well be true, since pure calculation pays off most in endings; at any rate, there are certainly some wonderful ones sprinkled throughout the book as well as in their own section at its end. There is simply too much to praise in this work to fit into a short review. If you don't already have it, get it!

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