Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen

Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen

By Adrian Mikhalchishin and Oleg Stetsko

Translated and edited by Ken Neat

Edition Olms, 2011

ISBN: 9783283010201

Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, is the best thing to come out of Norway since Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.

This book collects together 64 of his best games, played mainly against top-class opposition. His opponents include Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, Adams and Morozevich. He’s not always victorious, a fair proportion of the games being draws. However, this shows off one of Carlsen’s strengths as a player: he’s adept at defence, and consequently very difficult to beat. In game 45, for example, he is bested by Beliavsky (this is their encounter at the 2008 Olympiad) but, still, he hangs in there. And when the older man tires, giving Carlsen an opportunity to bail out, he leaps free. They share the point.

Despite the ‘fighting chess’ phrase in the title, Carlsen’s classical style is closer to Capablanca or even Karpov than the all-out aggression of (say) Kasparov in his prime. Naturally, he can carry out a kingside attack if it’s warranted, but he’s more likely to win through positional or even technical means. It is high quality stuff, mind, just a mite boring sometimes.

It was said once that Capablanca played like a machine. In the introductory chapter where the authors trace Carlsen’s development as a player, they describe him similarly as the ‘Hero of the Computer Era’; and actually there is something silicon-like about his style. Perhaps it is something to do with the almost complete objectivity of his decision-making.

Still only in his 20s, Carlsen can only get better and stronger. That’s what is difficult to comprehend fully: the best is yet to come.
For an appreciation of Magnus Carlsen as a chessplayer, this fine collection of deeply annotated games fits the bill perfectly. The publisher’s description of Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen can be read here.

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My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black

My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black

By Vincent Moret

New in Chess, 2017

ISBN: 9789056917463
 My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black

This thoroughly thought-out book presents a black opening repertoire for novice chessplayers keen to chalk up attacking victories.

When meeting 1.e4, the author’s recommendation is that you should play the Scandinavian with 2…Nf6 (so 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6), leading in due course to the Icelandic Gambit (3.c4 e6) or the Portuguese Variation (3.d4 Bg4), which can become a gambit too, of course, after say 4.f3 Bf5 5.c4 e6.

The Albin Counter-gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5), a line played on occasion by the young Boris Spassky, is the author’s remedy to the Queen’s Gambit. Against the other queen’s pawn games (all of them!), as well as against the Reti (1.Nf3 d5), the author recommends a Stonewall set-up (pawns at …d5, …f5, …c6, …e6; knight at …f6 and bishop at …d6: you castle, play …Ne4, …Rf6-h6, …Qh4 and mate! Simple as.).

On 1.c4, the English Opening, Black plays 1…e5 and a sort of Grand Prix Counter-attack (…f5, Nf6, Nc6, Bc5 or …b4 or …e7, etc.). Offbeat and irregular openings are well covered too (e.g. From’s Gambit against Bird’s Opening, naturally enough) and I particularly liked one of the author’s three (!) sensible suggestions against the Sokolsky: 1.b4 d5 2.Bb2 Qd6!? 3.a3 (3.b5 Qb4 picks up a pawn) e5: Black develops his pieces on sensible squares while supporting his pawn centre. Uhlmann essayed these moves in a game played in 1980; Black can hardly fail to get a playable game.

All in all, this ‘ready-to-go package for ambitious beginners’ creates a positive impression. Take up the gambit lines and you will have active piece play for the price of a pawn, while the attacking set-ups (the Stonewall and the Grand Prix) are aggressive and not at all easy to defend against. These openings are principled and lively and exciting to play, requiring also that you learn how to develop an initiative and plan an attack, how to spot a combination and calculate accurately. So they will develop you as a players too. They will yield victories against lower-rated players and valuable learning experiences against higher-rated players as well – because to win your opponent will, equally, need to show imagination, positional play, strategic skills and accuracy.

One could quibble and say that, objectively, the Scandinavian with 2…Nf6 is probably less good than 2…Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qd6, a line made fashionable by Tiviakov. Indeed, Sergey Kasparov in his recent Understanding the Scandinavian (2015) states that ‘2…Nf6 definitely doesn’t lead to equality’. But this is beside the point: the openings that strong grandmasters play are sometimes not appropriate for beginners, and vice versa. This is a terrific repertoire book for beginners.

The publisher’s description of My First Chess Opening Repertoire for Black by Vincent Moret can be read here.

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


The English: Move by Move

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Just because you may have been raised on 1.e4 (or 1.P-K4), it doesn’t mean that other openings must remain forever foreign to you.

Rather than offer a detailed repertoire based around 1.c4, Steve Giddins aims instead to explain the most important positional and strategic ideas underpinning the English Opening: the key one being to pressurize the central light squares, in particular d5. And in this respect he succeeds admirably.

Like other books in the Move by Move series, this one uses a Question and Answer format. The register of the prose is more conversational than usual, I’d say, in keeping with the author’s style.  Yet even so, it’s a concentrated conversation: the discussion is always pertinent and to the point. You learn a lot.

All the main variations are covered in a mere five chapters and, although not a necessary component of Giddins’ remit, there’s plenty of detailed and up-to-date theory, notably in chapter 3, whose topic is the Mikenas System (1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4).  There are 26 illustrative games in total, with a fair few more in the notes.

At the end, in a final sixth chapter, Giddins gives some advice about constructing an English Opening repertoire.  Here, it is undoubtedly useful to be familiar with some 1.d4 lines, to use 1.c4 in part as a transpositional tool: purely English lines are not especially effective against e.g. a King’s Indian set-up.  Quite a dilemma apparently arises after 1.c4 e5 (or 1…Nf6): should White play 2.Nc3 or 2.g3?  Giddins explores this question in some (some might say unhealthy) detail, without coming to any definite conclusion.  OK, it’s not a moral dilemma along the lines discussed by Julian Nida-Rumelin at a recent Wittgenstein conference, but it is important if you intend to take up 1.c4.

Those for whom English is not their native tongue will find in Giddins’ book an accessible and indeed quite excellent introduction to the opening. It is an ESOL primer par excellence, and will set you on the road to fluency in no time at all.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.


Book Details

The English: Move by Move

By Steve Giddins

Everyman Chess, 2012

ISBN: 9781857446999


Profession: Chessplayer

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Take a close interest in Tukmakov’s play and you’ll receive a liberal chess education in return.

The Ukrainian, former Soviet grandmaster was one of the players profiled in Andrew Soltis’s classic book Younger School of Soviet Chess (1977) and while he has never shone like Karpov, nor has he faded like Kuzmin. Strong and steadfast, and comparable in many respects to his fellow compatriot Beliavsky, he has played many fine games in his long career, including an exquisite gem of a game against Panno at Buenos Aires in 1970.

Although the 41 games in the second part of the book could have been better presented – the layout is rather cluttered, to put it mildly – both the games and the author’s annotations are terrific. He is always pertinent and on the ball, full of insights, ablaze with flashes of humour, forensic in his analysis of errors. As an annotator, Tukmakov possesses a hoard of virtues.

The first part of the book (just over 100 pages) is wholly prose and is a little bit of everything. It’s a biography, sometimes written in the third person, perhaps to lend it distance. Objectivity, or an approximation of it, seems to be Tukmakov’s aim: he’s describing a person he no longer is. He grew up in Odessa, the city of Isaac Babel, and pursued a career in the military. He gives an account of his chess career and a scattering of reflections on chess itself: how it was in the Soviet era, how it is now that it has been largely colonised by the computer. One can discern a definite ambivalence about the role of the computer in chess. There are plenty of impressions of players he has met (Tal, Fischer, Karpov, Kortschnoi…) and his appraisal of Karpov in particular, in terms of the 12th world champion’s chess style and character, has to be one of the most astute on record.

The book is a good read and contains some great games: an enthusiastic thumb- up.

You can read the publisher’s description of the book here.


Book Details

Profession: Chessplayer

By Vladimir Tukmakov

Russell Enterprises, 2012

ISBN: 9781936490288


My Best Games by Victor Korchnoi

My Best Games by Victor Korchnoi“ width=

This is a very fine book by perhaps the strongest player never to have become world champion.

In this book the late Victor Korchnoi (1931-2016) annotates 110 of his best games, half played with the white pieces, half with the black. Such has been Korchnoi’s strength and creativity, in a career spanning over half a century, that you could easily choose another hundred-odd games of similar quality. Be that as it may, among the opponents Korchnoi has bested here are Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov… and those are just the world champions. It has to be said that Kasparov is conspicuous by his absence, though Korchnoi has defeated him too in his time, of course.

There’s the odd walkover here (e.g. game 20, a 19 move win against Karpov) but virtually all of these games are fierce struggles, decent scraps. For Korchnoi, it seems as though the value of a victory is greater if the opponent kicks back, gets in his tuppence worth of aggression and resistance. He also has a relaxed attitude towards errors – and from both sides – an acceptance that inaccuracies will inevitably occur; they are all part of the game. Indeed, in an actual game, with limited time for thinking, the difficult-to-refute error may actually turn out to be stronger than the strictly correct move; it sets a vexing problem and if the opponent consumes time in trying to solve it, but can’t… well, so much the better! A small lesson one can learn from Korchnoi.

Few of these games are perfect in the sense of being free of mistakes on the victor’s side. But all are fiercely competitive, creative, profound and individual, the player’s own. Korchnoi writes here that ‘Chess is my life and these games are fragments of this life’; and you can well believe him. His annotations have integrity, insight and veracity, while remaining for the most part conversational in tone. The notes include his thoughts on many general chess topics, as well as the concrete situations arising in the specific games themselves. One recurring theme: he’ll often confess to an uncertainty concerning the essential soundness of his position, a feeling of doubt that many players, and not just world-class grandmasters, will be familiar with.

You can read the publisher’s description of the book here.


Book Details

My Best Games: Updated and revised anniversary edition

By Victor Korchnoi

Translated and edited by Ken Neat

Edition Olms, 2011

ISBN: 9783283010195


The Modern Philidor Defence

The Modern Philidor Defence

Barsky’s book is an excellent study of the Hanham Variation of the Philidor Defence in its modern guise.

When it is reached, in other words, via the Pirc move order: 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 (the author considers other moves as well, such as 3.Bd3 and 3.f3) e5. Although the opening is sound and easy to learn, it gives rise to a fair range of complicated and interesting positions.

There is the queenless middlegame that occurs after 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8; both players are still able to set problems for their opponent here. There are the various double-edged options for White, such as Shirov’s bayonet thrust (4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.g4!?) and the lines involving a bishop sacrifice on f7 and the king’s knight landing on e6 (two ways in which this can happen are 5.Bc4 Be7 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Ng5+ and 6.Ng5 0-0 7.Bxf7+ Rxf7 8.Ne6). Black can equalise here, rest assured, but only if he defends (and in time counterattacks) accurately. Finally, there is the complex and strategically rich middlegame that arises in the mainline of the opening (that is, after 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.Re1 or 7.Qe2, etc.). The best player, assuming preparations are equal, is certain to come out on top.

Alekhine used to play the Hanham Philidor in his early days and some grandmasters who essay the opening now are Ivanchuk, Morozevich and in particular Bologan: 6 of the 50 illustrative games in this book see Bologan taking the black pieces.

To end, it might be helpful to compare The Modern Philidor Defence to The Black Lion, a book which I will review shortly on this site. Naturally, there is some overlap of material between the two books and in many key lines (involving Bxf7+, say) similar conclusions are reached. The Black Lion gives Black the further option of 3…Nbd7, so avoiding the exchange of queens after 3…e5 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8; however, Black need not fear this simplifying line. But The Black Lion focuses on Marco’s antiquated and, to my mind, not very sensible plan of …Nd7-f8-g6–f4, whereas The Modern Philidor Defence presents mainlines that are more positionally based, sounder and (in my view) more mature. On a bare body count, the Hanham lines in Barsky’s book have more grandmaster adherents. And the ubiquitous ‘branding’ of The Black Lion (it is the Philidor!), an irritating feature of the book, is wholly absent from The Modern Philidor Defence.

Barsky’s fine study ably allows you to add the Hanham Philidor to your repertoire of defences against 1.e4.

You can read a pdf sample from the book here.


Book Details

The Modern Philidor Defence

By Vladimir Barsky

Chess Stars, 2010

ISBN: 9789548782777