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


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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


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

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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 Complete Hedgehog, Volume 1

The Complete Hedgehog, Volume 1

In this book, the first of two volumes, Sergey Shipov examines the Hedgehog when it is used as a defence against the English Opening.

On 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.0-0 Be7, he mainly looks at 7.d4 cxd4 8.Qxd4 (8.Nxd4 gives Black a comfortable position and easy equality after 8…Bxg2) and 7.Re1 (with the plan of playing e4 and only then d4 and of meeting …cxd4 with Nxd4: the pawn on e4 making it impossible for Black to now exchange bishops); and he touches very briefly on 7.b3. His coverage can fairly be described as exhaustive, for over 250 pages are devoted to 7.d4 (which is Part 1 of the book) and just a little less than that number is allocated to 7.Re1 (Part 2).

It is clear that Shipov is an advocate, or perhaps more accurately still a zealot, when it comes to the Hedgehog; but he gives White a fair shout. His analyses and evaluations have integrity and approach objectivity. As he writes, ‘I love the Hedgehog dearly, but the truth means more to me.’ The story is told through a slue of deeply annotated games, where he looks at the genesis and history of each variation and not just its current theoretical status. This approach aids strategic understanding and it adds as well an intellectual excitement to the work, as though one were alongside these pioneers (Uhlmann, Andersson, Ljubojevic and others) as they grappled with the problems of playing the opening as White and/or Black.

Shipov demands much of his readers. He doesn’t simplify matters unnecessarily, and in fact he seems sometimes to delight in making things even more problematical than they need to be. You’d like to urge, on occasion: Give it a rest, Sergey lad, don’t think too deeply! But he gives a lot to the reader. His writing has wit and candour, and he clearly has a deep understanding of the opening and an enthusiasm for it. Along the way, Shipov acquaints us with the philosophy behind the Hedgehog, an inkling of which can be garnered from Sergey Makarichev’s musings on the origin of the opening, as quoted on page 39 of Revolution in the ‘70s by Garry Kasparov:

There is also another version of how the legendary system [the Hedgehog] was born. Long, long ago, back in the 1960s, one of the future grandmasters – perhaps the young Ljubomir Ljubojevic – was so captivated by the play of Inter Milan under the management of Helenio Hererra, that he firmly decided: ‘When I grow up, I will think up something similar in chess. My pieces, just like the Italian footballers, will completely concede space, but at the same time, when standing in defence, they will be constantly pressing, and when my opponent hesitates, even for an instant, they will punish him with a deadly counterattack.’

Shipov makes the point that, to play the Hedgehog well, you need to play purposefully and accurately, paying close attention to the smallest detail. You need always to be aware of your opponent’s possibilities as well as your own. Of course, you need to do this anyway in chess, but with the Hedgehog these qualities are accentuated because there is such constricted space in which to operate and manoeuvre. He concludes that the opening breeds good habits and makes you a better chess player and, no doubt, a nobler person.

As a final comment, let me praise the terrific translation by James Marfia; he has done much to make this such a lively and vibrant book and to give Sergey Shipov an English, albeit an American English, voice. It is impossible to recommend the book too highly.

If the Hedgehog has a poster boy, it is the game Polugaevsky-Ftacnik, Lucerne 1982. It is the subject of a lecture by Mato Jelic which can be seen here.


Book Details

The Complete Hedgehog, Volume 1

By Sergey Shipov

Mongoose Press, 2009

ISBN: 9780979148217


William Steinitz, Chess Champion

William Steinitz, Chess Champion: A Biography of the Bohemian Caesar

Imagine a time when the headline, ‘Great Discovery in Chess’, could appear in a daily newspaper, as in fact happened in the New York Sun for 2 June 1895.

And what was the nature of this ‘great discovery’? Wilhelm Steinitz had just announced that he had discovered a perfect defence to the Evan’s Gambit. It was a different age.

This is an enthralling biography of William (or Wilhelm) Steinitz, the first world chess champion and the father of modern chess. Steinitz was the player and theorist who laid the foundation for our current understanding of chess, and he was probably the game’s deepest thinker. His only other rival for this honour is Nimzowitsch, who reacted to Tarrasch’s simplified codification of Steinitz’s thought.

Many years of research have gone into the writing of this book, which is clearly a labour of love. Landsberger traces the trajectory of Steinitz’s life from his childhood in the Prague ghetto, about which relatively little is known, to his short time in Vienna as a young man and his later emigration to London, where he stayed for 20 years. It was in London that Steinitz came to prominence, most notably by defeating Adolf Anderssen in a match in 1866. From that point on, he was regarded as the
world’s best player until his defeat by Lasker in 1894. By that time, he had settled in America.

There were elements of tragedy to Steinitz’s life, and the author does not shy away from these. As is generally known, he had mental health problems in the last years of his life and he had difficulty in eking out a living as a chess player and journalist. In sum, though, his life was one of immense intellectual achievement; he revolutionized our understanding of chess.

Some excellent extras enhance the text. Andy Soltis provides deep annotations to 15 of Steinitz’s best games and two other games, played by correspondence between London and Vienna in 1872-1974, are annotated by Steinitz and Potter: they were significant as a test of Steinitz’s ideas. David Hooper’s perspicacious article on Steinitz’s theory of chess is reprinted from the British Chess Magazine, September 1984; and there are 46 black and white plates, which include photographs of the great man and his contemporaries, some facsimiles of his letters and an array of stamps issued in his honour.

The author includes many contemporary accounts and profiles of Steinitz, as well as excerpts from his letters and writings, and those with an interest in chess history will find this deeply-researched book engrossing.


Book Details

William Steinitz, Chess Champion: A Biography of the Bohemian Caesar

By Kurt Landsberger

McFarland & Company, 2006

ISBN: 9780786428465


You can read a description of William Steinitz, Chess Champion: A Biography of the Bohemian Caesar by Kurt Landsberger at the publisher’s website here.

Carlsbad International Chess Tournament 1929

Carlsbad International Chess Tournament 1929

Nimzowitsch took first place at Carlsbad 1929, ahead of a strong field that included Capablanca and Rubinstein, but it did not earn him a shot at the World Championship.

Instead, Alekhine’s challenger later that year was Bogoljubow, who came eighth at Carlsbad, some 3.5 points behind the winner. This clearly rankled with Nimzowitsch, and undoubtedly provided one of the motives for writing the book, which was originally published in Russia in 1931. In it, he makes a forceful pitch for being the most deserving challenger to Alekhine’s crown.

It should be noted also that Nimzowitsch beat Bogoljubow at Carlsbad, their encounter yielding a fine strategic victory that shared the prize for the best played game (Euwe’s flawed win against Thomas was the other game, incidentally: about which, see below). If anything, this must have added petrol to the fire, rubbed salt into the wounds… choose your metaphor. He was not a happy bunny.

Of the 231 games played at Carlsbad , Nimzowitsch has selected 30 and arranged them by player. One would have liked to see more, but the games as given are top-notch. Nimzowitsch, as the winner, has 7 games; Capablanca and Spielmann, equal second, have 5 games apiece; Rubinstein, who finished in fourth place, has been given 3  games; the other prizewinners have 6 games between them; and, to end, there are 4 games to represent the non-prizewinners (those placed ninth to twenty-second). Among this last quartet of games is a win by Samisch (against Grunfeld) which picked up the First Brilliancy Prize.

Nimzowitsch’s annotations are lively and entertaining, appreciative and instructive; yet also abrasive at times. And it seems appropriate at this point to praise Jim Marfia’s terrific translation, which manages to bring the author’s personality fully to life.

One especially fascinating feature of the book lies in Nimzowitsch’s impressions of his contemporaries. His introductory remarks in the chapter on Rubinstein are heartfelt and genuinely moving, and bear comparison with Reti’s portrait of the same player in Modern Ideas in Chess. While his description of Vidmar’s style, a player for whom he apparently had a high regard, is insightful and eye-opening (see pages 108 and 111-112). He describes Vidmar’s chess as a blend of method and naiveté. Spielmann had publicly expressed his admiration for My System and Nimzowitsch writes of this established master and colleague almost as though he were his student. That is to say, he is just a little bit patronising. There is a sense, also, in which Nimzowitsch seems to feel as though he can appropriate some of Spielmann’s victories as his own, because they were achieved using his ideas (prophylaxis, blockade, centralization). Granted, the man wanted to promote his strategic vision of chess, but this was maybe the wrong way to go about it. Anyway, it is easy to see how Nimzowitsch could rub people the wrong way!

In his notes to the aforementioned Thomas–Euwe game, Nimzowitsch overlooks that after 22.Qxa2 axb3 White has the resource 23.Rxc5! turning the tables (see page 123). But this looks to be his only error in analysis. The move is mentioned by Euwe himself, incidentally, in From My Games 1920-1937 and so is not a ‘find’. Few would consider Euwe’s effort one of the two best played games in the tournament, anyway: Capablanca-Treybal, for one, was a much better game, pretty much a masterpiece.

Anything by Nimzowitsch is worth reading and, as I hope I have made plain, this is a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons.

The publisher’s description of Carlsbad International Chess Tournament 1929 can be read here.


Book Details

Carlsbad International Chess Tournament 1929

By Aron Nimzovich

Translated by Jim Marfia

Dover Publications, 2009

ISBN: 9780486439426


Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament

Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament

It has taken well nigh a century for this classic tournament book to be translated into English. Much too long, of course, but it has been well worth the wait.

Karlsbad 1907 was a fairly strong tournament. Although it lacked the presence of Lasker and Tarrasch, the rest of the best players of the day participated. Rubinstein, then in his prime, came first and was closely followed by Maroczy. Other participants included Chigorin, Janowsky, Marshall, Duras and Nimzowitsch. The future author of My System was 20 years old at the time and shared fourth and fifth place with Schlechter. We are told by one contemporary commentator (in a newspaper account of the tournament that is given in the book) that he was ‘a young, upcoming talent, whose supporters will have to help curb his temperament if he is to attain successes at the chessboard and in the intercourse of society’. What the latter comment refers to is left unsaid.

All of the 210 games are annotated, about three quarters of them by Marco and the rest by Schlechter. The translator, Robert Sherwood, has added to these annotations: expanding, correcting and validating the authors’ analysis as appropriate. As an aid, Sherwood has made use of both his faithful Rybka and notes from a few other sources (such as Kmoch’s book on Rubinstein). From the many splendid games on show, here my favourite five:

  • Maroczy-Marshall
  • Janowsky-Rubinstein
  • Vidmar-Dus-Chotimirsky
  • Leonhardt-Maroczy
  • Tartakower-Maroczy

Marco has a high reputation as an annotator, and he more than lives up to it here. The breadth of his mind is everywhere evident; his notes are by turns poetic and methodical and rigorous. He has the knack of identifying critical moments and turning points in a game. Indeed, his annotations are often of greater interest than the games themselves. Or rather, the annotations are so penetrating and instructive that they make even pedestrian games seem interesting, so adept is Marco at showing a game’s internal logic. One modest example: Mieses-Maroczy, a bishop and pawn ending, was agreed drawn after 46 moves. Does this sound appealing? Well, perhaps not. Yet Marco’s note to Black’s 37th move, which extends over two pages and is full of detailed analyses and intricate explanations, compels you to look at this game with renewed appreciation. And this is by no means a solitary example; e.g. the note to move 48 in Salwe-Cohn is of a similar length and depth.

Often, Marco’s notes are of a more general nature. Recurring themes are the role of  risk, uncertainty and chance in chess and the ineluctable nature of human fallibility and folly (‘It is remarkable how often, in the realization of its aims, the human mind uses the most impractical methods,’ begins one such exasperated meditation). His note to the fourth move of Marshall-Cohn is a reflection on why paradigms are so slow to change, in science, religion and chess, and it anticipates the thought of Thomas Kuhn. (Well, perhaps I am exaggerating  a little here.)

Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament is, without a doubt, a classic of chess literature and this beautifully produced edition, bound in red cloth, is commensurate with its worth. Ideally, it should be read in a wood-paneled library with a glass of port by your side and your faithful bulldog napping by the fire. It is an absolute pleasure for all who love chess.

The best online summary of Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament is at the  New in Chess website – read it here.


Book Details

Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament

By George Marco and Carl Schlechter

Translated by Robert Sherwood

Caissa Editions, 2007

ISBN: ?


The Love of Wood

The Love of Wood is probably the best film ever made about chess – if there is a better film, I’d like to hear about it. It is a Dutch film and we get to hear from Donner, Timman and Ree. Look hard and you can see Ulf Andersson in there as well. Donner is the star, mind, he has a kingly presence.

Here is the film: