Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess

Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess

The books that have successfully combined chess and humour are few in number.

Offhand, I can recall only three outstanding examples: The Twelve Chairs, a satiric Russian novel of 1928 by Ilf and Petrov, and a couple of more recent efforts, How To Cheat at Chess and Soft Pawn, both from the adept pen of William Hartston. Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin’s book is a creditable addition to their number.

Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess is probably best described as a spoof. The authors adopt the voice and persona of ‘Gary Kasparov’, or rather an imaginary version of the great world champion. Their Kasparov is a little wimpy and whiney at times, and he is prone to blame his mistakes on past champions.

There are twelve chapters, with each one devoted to a prior world champion, from Steinitz to Karpov. Every chapter has more or less the same format. Typically, we see a given world champion making use of a particular tactical motif or strategic device (e.g. Tigran Petrosian’s use of the positional exchange sacrifice) or playing a particular kind of position (say, a rook ending) – and, crucially, succeeding. We then see a game or three where Kasparov makes use of the same stratagem, or finds himself in a similar sort of position, but matters do not turn out so well. The joke (there is just the one) is that Kasparov has simply been aping or superficially emulating the great player’s approach without understanding it fully.

It is a neat conceit, but it does become a bit wearing after a while, and it simply cannot be sustained in a book just shy of three hundred pages. Eventually, one just wants the authors to show the games. Also, some of the analogies drawn between the past champions’ and Kasparov’s games can be misleading, or not awfully enlightening, as to the nature of the chess. A firefly is ‘like’ a fire, but phosphorescence and combustion are quite different processes.

The great virtue of the book is, however, the chess. All of the games involve at least one world-class player, so they are of a very high standard indeed. Generally, the annotations are erudite and enjoyable; the analyses are deep when necessary and seem accurate. There are a number of heavyweight ‘K. versus K.’ encounters, with Kasparov taking on Karpov and later Kramnik.

One overriding message to glean and take home: chess is a concrete game. It is the details, even the quirks of a position, which determine whether a certain approach is appropriate and likely to prevail. Therefore, it is never wise to simply parrot or ape an aspect of a great champion’s play (not that the actual Kasparov has ever done this, mind). Context is all!

Overall, Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess is fun and instructive, though as indicated the humour is a trifle laboured. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Book Details

Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess

By Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin

Batsford, 2009

ISBN: 9781906388263

Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion

Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion

Andrew Soltis has written another fine book.

There are about a hundred annotated games taken from all stages of Botvinnik’s career, but Soltis devotes just as much space to his life and a consideration of his personality. We learn some things about him that we did not know but might well have guessed. For example, that he did his own ironing and was a demon declutterer.  He had no qualms about throwing things away if he hadn’t used them for a period of years, reasoning that he didn’t really need them. ‘He couldn’t abide disorder,’ says his daughter. ‘His home had to be clean and everything in its place.’

One of Botvinnik’s chief characteristics, we learn, was a habit of creating rules for himself, in chess and in life. Soltis sees at least some of these rules as narrow-minded or misguided, maybe even authoritarian. For example, he believed that children should learn to play chess at 12; that was the best age because that’s when he learnt the game. This clashed with the considered opinion of Vladimir Zak, an experienced junior chess coach, who settled on 8 or 9 as the ideal age. Granted, certain of his rules were limiting. Others, though, were highly effective, allowing him to act with a focus and clarity of purpose that other, perhaps more talented players – Keres, Bronstein, Smyslov – lacked. And, certainly, his achievements – world champion for 13 years or so; founder of a chess school that produced Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik, amongst others; a prolific, first-class author and analyst; a pioneer of computer chess – dwarf theirs. I would compare Botvinnik’s ‘rules’ with Gerd Gigerenzer’s heuristic-based approach to decision making (e.g. as set out in his recent book Risk Savvy); they’re one of the secrets of his success.

There is one story in the book which shows Botvinnik at his best, a man of iron integrity. During the Terror, Sergei Kaminer, an endgame composer and a friend of Botvinnik’s from their schooldays, suspected (quite rightly) that he would soon be arrested. So he entrusted a folder of his studies to Botvinnik, who kept it safe for over 40 years. They were eventually published in 1981.

Andrew Soltis’s book makes you aware of Botvinnik’s many achievements and gives you a good sense of his life and times. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Book Details

Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion

By Andrew Soltis

McFarland, 2014

ISBN: 9780786473373

Dynamic Chess Strategy

Dynamic Chess Strategy

Suba’s book is at once a memoir, a games collection and an innovative and intriguing re-engineering of chess strategy.

The author writes about his life as a chess professional, and in particular about living and surviving in Romania during the communist period. It makes for a fascinating read, does this aspect of the book. There is also chess and among the 36 games there are victories over Kortchnoi, Larsen, Portisch and others. In general these are strategic games with lots of flank openings on show, not least Suba’s beloved Hedgehog. One of my favourite quotes from the book concerns the wily woodland creature:

I like to play it from both sides; as White you must always introduce some new tricks because over the years the Hedgehog has proved to be rock-solid. Playing it as Black gives more satisfaction – it’s like defending truth, justice and the poor simultaneously.

When tactics do occur in Suba’s games, they are quite often strikingly original – as, for example, the rook sacrifice in one of the two victories over Timman (game 15) and the move 19…Bh3!! in the brilliant win against Ward (game 36). Perhaps this is a consequence of his unique approach to strategy and, taken on their own, some may find Suba’s thoughts on strategy to be abstract and even arid. Chapter 4, for example, consists of 13 pages of solid prose with only three chess diagrams in sight. But link these thoughts with the given games and they come alive. Also, the strategic reflections in the notes are unfailingly interesting. One admirable aspect of the book, to my mind, is the way Suba links strategy to psychology: the objective (or ‘inter-subjective’?) with the subjective. I think this is necessary in a game like chess: both strategy and psychology impact on decision-making, ours and our opponent’s, and so influence the outcome of a game.

As well as the games, there are 17 or so quiz positions with solutions and explanations.

All in all, Dynamic Chess Strategy is a thought-provoking read. It radiates intelligence, humour and integrity.

The author recommends his book for players with an ELO rating of above 1900, but lower rated players could likely get a lot out of it as well, I feel. Very highly recommended indeed.

Book Details

Dynamic Chess Strategy: An Extended & Updated Edition

By Mihai Suba

New In Chess, 2010

ISBN: 9789056913250

The Colle-Koltanowski System

The Colle-Koltanowski System: Deceptive Peace behind the Stonework

This book is an essential reference work if you play the Colle-Koltanowski System.

To be clear, it is a monograph on the Colle-Koltanowski System (1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3), which should not, of course, be confused with the Colle-Zukertort System (1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 c5 5.b3) – as though anyone would be silly enough to do that.  The very idea is absurd! The Colle-Koltanowski is a ‘plain bloke speaking on a radio phone-in’ kind of opening: it makes a sensible argument, initially at any rate. White plumbs for quiet, straightforward development and will only later turn his (or her) attention to active operations in the centre, typically with e3-e4 or Nf3-e5. Even so, the opening has more than a drop of poison and has produced its fair share of sparkling miniatures.

There are five chapters in total and the format is to present most of the detailed analysis within a series of annotated games, and then to end with a summary of variations, findings and evaluations.  In chapter 1, Bronznik devotes close to 100 pages to lines involving …Nbd7.  Play goes 5…Nbd7 6.Nbd2 and now the king’s bishop can go to …d6 (which is covered in games 1-14) or …e7 (games 15-21), or Black can take a different tack entirely and play 6…Qc7 in order to forestall Nf3-e5 at the earliest opportunity.  If Black goes 6…Be7, White will have quite a difficult job to get an advantage out of the opening.

Bronznik considers the other knight development, 5…Nc6, in the second chapter.  Against this, White usually takes on c5 and pushes e3-e4, so it seems immaterial whether the bishop is developed on …d6 or …e7 initially (for example: 6.0-0 Bd6 [or 6…Be7] 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.e4, etc.).  Yet 6…Be7 would allow an early Nf3-e5, while 6…Bd6 may well leave the bishop exposed to 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.Qe2!? and an immediate e3-e4 advance; without an exchange on c5 first, that is.  As with the more mainstream openings, there are subtleties here too: there always are.

These first two chapters are quite substantial, clocking in at 93 pages and 73 pages respectively, and the theory of both lines seems to be well-developed.  Later chapters, however, are slighter. Chapter 3 (13 pages) examines lines where Black plays an early …b6, followed by …Bb7 or perhaps …Ba6, the latter move made possible with the queen’s knight on its home square.  Chapter 4 (8 pages) looks at an early …c4 for Black, including the line 5.0-0 c4 6.Be2.  An important variation, for it raises the question of whether White can defer the choice of c3 or b3 for a further move.  Finally, Chapter 5 (17 pages) considers several ways by which Black can avoid the Colle (of either variety).  Let us be clear: it is not advisable to play the Colle-Koltanowski against all set-ups (such as the KID or the QID); you need more than one gun in your arsenal.

Bronznik provides plenty of original analysis and suggested improvements throughout in his notes to the games.  He also discusses certain common strategic and tactical motifs arising out of the opening, such as the queenside pawn majority, the isolated queen’s pawn, the Pillsbury Attack and the Bxh7+ sacrifice.  It is all very interesting, useful and insightful.  His book ends with a bibliography and a comprehensive index of variations: efficient organisation, you’d expect no less from a German publisher.

Speaking of which, the Schachverlag Kania website seems to be down at moment, but a description of The Colle-Koltanowski System: Deceptive Peace behind the Stonework can be found at the New in Chess website here.

Book Details

The Colle-Koltanowski System: Deceptive Peace behind the Stonework

By Valerij Bronznik

Schachverlag Kania, 2004

ISBN: 3931192253