Review of Hein Donner by Alexander Munninghoff

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Hein Donner: The Biography Alexander Munninghoff New in Chess 2020 272pp

A few weeks ago I checked my mail and was quite delighted to find a copy of Alexander Munninghoff’s biography on legendary Dutch,  um, chess personality (?!) Jan Hein Donner.

I say chess personality because in many ways it’s hard to categorize the man. He was a GM, and as such in some ways was the successor to the former Dutch  world champion Max Euwe. (I qualify that with “in some ways” because for a time Lodewijk Prins was included in that discussion.) However, he wasn’t nearly as strong a GM as his predecessor Euwe, nor his successor Timman. Mostly, though, Donner was a journalist.

Like many I mostly know Donner from the amazing collection of his essays The King which were pieces written by Hein over the years. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I sat down to learn about the man himself.

Before embarking on the main journey of this review, I would like to state for the record that this biography is indeed about the man himself much more than it is about any one facet of his chess career. If you are looking for a volume on how a chess player developed his skills to the point that he was ready to earn the grandmaster title and win major events, then you will not find that which you are seeking. If you would like to know the inner workings of the day to day life of a professional chess journalist then again you may leave feeling a bit empty. However, if you want to know about Hein Donner, the man who happened to be a GM and chess journalist then you will not be disappointed.

Born in 1927 to a well-off family, Donner spent much of his youth annoying his father to no end by challenging his authority. This changed abruptly during the early part of WWII when Donner saw his father hauled off to prison by the occupying Nazi’s on more than one occasion. The final time this happened, Father Donner was in prison for well over a year.

It was during this period of his life that young Hein discovered what would become his life long obsession…chess. Like most budding chess players, the first battles fought were mainly with friends. While not much is known about how Donner was improving early on, one thing that is known is that the first book read by him was a book of Euwe’s called Uncle Jan Teaches His Nephew to Play Chess.

After the war Hein did attend university, but it seems clear that by this time he was so fully in the grip of the chess bug that there was little chance he would make a career out of anything else.

Here Munninghoff does a good job of capturing the dance between a budding Western chess professional and society as a whole. The emphasis on Western is quite important since during this time in history most chess professionals were from the USSR, where there was ample state support. There was nowhere near enough financial remuneration from someone to hope to make an honest living from the game.

Donner had the good fortune to be from a well-off family where such considerations were not needed. Thus, he was able to ignore the financial implications of choosing chess as a career.

It would be wrong to be completely dismissive of Hein as a player. Not only did he win Hoogovens (now Tata Steel) three times, he also won the Dutch Championship three times, along with playing on 11 Olympiad Teams. Munninghoff captures the essence of the player, along with the inner battle that many chess player fight to accept the limits of their own abilities.

This is done in a manner that also doesn’t fail to point out that while, yes, Donner won Hoogovens, it was at a point in time when it was not nearly so strong a tournament as we think of now.

The author also hints at the complexity  of Donner’s home life. Donner the husband. Donner the father. Donner the absent husband. Donner the absent father. Not much appears to be known about this aspect of Hein’s life, but what little there is, Munninghoff captures.

The latter part of Donner’s life was marred by ill health, eventually leading him to be moved into a nursing home. His health continued to fade until November 27th, 1988, when the staff found him dead in his bed. Munninghoff succeeds in taking the reader along for the journey of Donner’s descent from declining health to untimely death.

While reading about this portion of Donner’s life I could almost feel the walls psychologically closing around Donner. As his health worsened, his world shrunk until at the end the aftereffects of  declining health stole his ability to walk and needing to re-learn to speak. I’ve read elsewhere that towards the very end Hein could type with only one finger, and in reading Munninghoff’s pages on this period it was not difficult for me to imagine Hein fighting back the darkness with his lone finger slowly, methodically, pecking out the next word; and the next; and the next. Until finally even that lone remaining finger deserted him.

As this book is the translation of a volume that was published in Dutch in 1994 the author was able include additional material which was not in the original version of the book.

Among those inclusions is a 2008 interview between New in Chess editor Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam and Hein’s friend Harry Mulisch. This interview spans the time frame from the beginning of their friendship in 1957 and takes us through the end of Donner’s life and beyond.

Lastly, the games included in the “Games and Annotations” section of the book have been computer checked and a couple of additional games were added. While I wasn’t all that interested in Hein the player, I of course enjoyed to playing through his win over Fischer from the Varna 1962 Olympiad.

All in all I highly recommend this book. I found it interesting to read a book written by an author who seemed determined to uncover the man who happened to be a chess player rather than the approach many take which is to uncover the chess player who happened to be a man.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of the On the Origin of Good Moves by Willy Hendriks

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On The Origin of Good Moves by Willy Hendriks, New in Chess 2020 432 pp

Eight years ago IM Willy Hendriks released his semi-controversial book Move First, Think Later which won the ECF 2012 Book of the Year Award.  Now the long awaited follow up has arrived!

In his new work, On The Origin of Good Moves the author is once again challenging some long-held conventional wisdom.

The premise of the book is that the evolution of an individual chess player follows the evolution of the game itself. To this end we are taken on a journey through chess history, starting with Greco and ending more or less with Steinitz.

Of course there are snippets of more modern games sprinkled in here and there, including many of the author’s own, but the focus of the book is to get us from the start of recorded chess history (Greco) to the start of modern chess history (Steinitz.)

The book records the evolution of the game, from it’s earliest recorded roots, to the rise of coffeehouse chess, then on to serious matches, and finally to the origin of true chess professionals.

Each chapter is precluded by a set of exercises consisting of positions found within the chapter. With so much research showing active learning being far superior to passive learning I always find this to be a useful feature and enjoy how prevalent it is becoming in modern chess literature.

In terms of usefulness for immediate chess improvement, I think that the exercises are most of what this book offers, but I don’t see that as a negative mark. Mainly this is due to the fact that there is an acknowledged mission to familiarize the reader with chess history with the end goal of them becoming stronger through the use of these building blocks.

To put it another way, this book doesn’t set out to make you a better player by exposing you to a carefully cultivated set of exercises designed to hone a particular skill, but rather the goal seems to be to expose the reader to particular ways of thinking that evolved over the course of chess history. Essentially it’s a different approach to the proverb about teaching someone to fish versus giving them a fish.

Along this journey there are some quite interesting challenges to widely held viewpoints. For example, in Chapter 5: The Start of Serious Competition the matches between La Bourdonnais and McDonnell are discussed. The author starts out by acknowledging that there are some spectacular fragments from some of the games which are quite well known, but then quotes Harry Golombek talking about how he had analyzed all of the games with the intent of writing about them, only to be “appalled by the low quality of the play in general.”

This position is the well-known final position from the 16th game of the fourth match is the conclusion of a spectacular sacrificial idea by Black:

This position, however, is not covered in the book. Instead, Hendrik’s chooses positions such as this one:

If asked to describe White’s position here, modern players of even extremely weak strength would likely say that it looks like White has suffered a disaster in the opening and is in extreme trouble due to the lack of king safety.

Yet the standards of play were such back in that day that McDonnell repeated this opening in his next White game!

Another maxim which Hendriks challenges is the notion that Steinitz is the person who worked out the concepts of positional chess. In Chapter 19 he discusses Cecil Purdy’s theory called “The Great Steinitz Hoax.” The concept is that the theories of positional play which are generally attributed to Steinitz were in fact worked out by Lasker. That chapter, while short, is interestingly compelling.

Probably my favorite chapter of this book is Chapter 32: Study Openings. In this chapter the author states that he knows of no better way to improve at chess than to study openings. He points out that what are thought of as classic books, from Greco to Philidor to Staunton to Steinitz are essentially opening works.

Here Hendriks simply challenges the classic wisdom that openings should be studied rarely, if at all, by improving players. In fact, he calls the study of openings “one of the main motors of improvement” and backs his claim up with compelling examples.

All in all I recommend this book. Not as a textbook, but as a historical tome. The subject matter is fascinating, and IM Hendrik’s continued insistence on turning standard logic on it’s ear makes for compelling reading.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Spassky-Larsen 1/2 (USSR vs World)

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The 50th anniversary of the USSR vs The Rest of the World Match just passed a couple of months ago. I have been playing through some of the games and thought I’d post some here and I go through them.

For those who may not know, this event took place as a 10 board team match with each board playing a four game match.

You can (and should!) read more about the event here.

Here is some raw film footage. No sound, but still pretty cool stuff.

Here is the opening game of board one between world champion Boris Spassky and Bent Larsen.

As I get to some of the more famous games I’ll link to videos analyzing the games, etc.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of New in Chess Yearbook 133

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Ask club players today if they subscribe to any opening periodicals or purchase opening books and you’ll often get a response from some of them that goes something like this “Why would I do that? I can just look stuff up in my database.”

Yes, this is undoubtedly true. Anyone can absolutely look up all of the games played in any line they like and get results. For titled players this may be enough. What about the rest of us though? How can we tell if the games we’re reviewing in a line are the critical last word in that line right now? The truth is, we can’t.

Sure, sure…you can run an engine to and accept it’s word full stop, but again, if you don’t understand what you’re looking at, the engine won’t help you. No less a luminary than Hikaru Nakamura said something to this effect after defeating Wesley So on the Black side of the King’s Indian in their 2015 Sinquefield Cup game. In his post game interview Naka said something along the lines of Wesley was probably too trusting of the computer eval coming out of the opening which gives White something like +1, but as Hikaru said, the computer simply doesn’t understand the position.

So again, how can WE know which games are critical to review when learning a new line or brushing up on new theory in one we already play?

Well, one way is to read the New in Chess Yearbook.

Each Yearbook comes packed with opening surveys in which strong, sometimes world class, players give their opinions on various openings. Some topical, some better used as surprises, and some that are just new takes on old ideas.

Included in Yearbook 133 are a “Trends & Opinions” section, which features vignettes of interesting games along with fascinating tidbits from within the chess world.

Next comes the heart of the book, which is the opening surveys section. Yearbook 133 sees 26 surveys including lines such as the 10.Qd3 Winawer (used a couple of weeks ago by great effect by Naka in his win over Nepo in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational), the topical 6.Nb3 Najdorf, the 5.d4 line in the Italian, the 6…dxc4 Open Catalan, several variations of the Exchange Grunfeld, and much more.

Finally the volume finishes with a section including book reviews by English GM Glenn Flear, along with solutions to the exercises presented throughout the book.

So is this worth the expense? A quick glance at my own bookshelf shows that I have 12 copies of the Yearbook which were not provided as review copies, so to me the answer is a qualified yes.

Why qualified? Well, the truth is that I generally buy them one by one and have never subscribed. The reason I don’t subscribe is that I tend to only pick up issues which have openings that are a serious part of my repertoire.

Some of the surveys included in the various Yearbooks are marked as “SOS” variations, which are the types of variations found in the Secrets of Opening Surprises series. This is to say that while they may be playable, they are neither common nor good.

An example from Yearbook 133 is the survey on 3.h4 in the KID/Grunfeld. 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.h4, etc. While I play the KID every chance I get, and consider it my favorite opening, this is not something I’m going to book up against as I don’t consider it something I’m likely to face often, if at all.

So normally when I purchase a copy of one of the Yearbook’s it’s because there are surveys which I consider to be highly useful.

These last few paragraphs may read like I’m not overly enthusiastic about the book, but that’s not the case. I just want readers of this review to know that caveat emptor is in full effect here.

So let’s talk about the material that makes up the bulk of this periodical and why I feel like this issues is particularly worthwhile.

First of all, the survey on the 10.Qd3 Winawer was something I found to be informative. I had switched from 3.Nc3 to 3.Nd2 against the French a while back because it seemed like my results were always terrible against it. This survey, written by Robert Ris, has given me food for thought about returning to 3.Nc3.

Based on some ideas given new life by Alpha Zero, this survey includes five annotated games in various lines and concludes with three exercises.

Another survey I very much enjoyed was the one written by Mickey Adams. This one is on the 5.d4 Italian, and contains nine annotated games, again followed by three exercises.

I also very much enjoyed Glenn Flear’s review of The King’s Indian According to Petrosian, which is a book that I myself read and loved. It was clear in reading his recap that GM Flear had dove deeply into this book and his enthusiasm came shining through.

So who should read the New in Chess Yearbooks? Honestly, these books are for everyone. They’ll have something for any reader at almost any level. Whether you choose to subscribe or to purchase them ala carte is completely up to you, but whichever direction you go you will find something that you enjoy.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Missed a Shot Here

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I just finished playing in an online tournament hosted by my friend GM Elshan Moradiabadi, and in round one I had this position with Black (me) to move.

Here I saw that I was going to have a fork on d3 after exchanging twice on h3, so as a result I missed the crushing 22…Rf2. White can’t save the queen with a move such as 23.Qg1 as that allows a mate in one with 23…Nd3#

Therefore White would have to trade the queen for the rook.

Ah well. I did win the game after playing horribly early on. In fact, I played poorly all tournament long, but still won all four of my games and took third.

Here is the entire game.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Smothered Mate!

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Yesterday I played in a rapid event and this position occurred in one of my games:

My opponent plays 20…Qh4 and I see the glimmer of a trap. So I play 21.Qd7 and my opponent falls right into the trap by snapping off the “free” bishop with 21…Qxf4??

White to play and win.

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If you found the smothered mate with 22.Qe6+ Kh8 23.Nf7+ Kg8 24.Nh6++ Kh8 25.Qg8+ Rxg8 26.Nf7# then give yourself a round of applause!

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Opening Blunder

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Believe it or not I’ve actually been working extremely hard on my openings. Mostly as Black, however.

So yesterday in an online rapid tournament organized by my friend GM Elshan Moradiabadi I found myself navigating through the opening by playing on autopilot.

In doing so we reached this position. Black to move and win a piece. I saw it instantly after my move and was just waiting to hit resign. Luckily my opponent didn’t see it.

My opponent was also playing on autopilot and so just played the automatic looking 7…Bb4

However, Black can win a piece with the simple 7…d4. If White moves the knight away then Black plays 8…Bb4 winning the queen.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Solid Planning Topalov-Sasikiran 1-0

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Here is an example in modern GM praxis where a long term plan presents itself. Granted, when the opportunity arises, Topalov turns the game into a bloodbath, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was running with a long term plan out of the gate.

Let’s look at this position first:

White has a nice space advantage and a target on c7. Black has counterplay only on the kingside. So what move would you play as White here?

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If you chose 15.Ba3 then congrats, you’re on the same track as Topalov was! The idea is to simply exchange off Black’s useful bishop on d6 for White’s worst placed piece. This is an example in using Aagaard’s three questions. Here all three questions sort of combine into one as White will be increasing Black’s weakness (question one) while interfering with Black’s plan of kingside counterplay (question two) while improving his worst placed piece by trading it (question three.)

Now after 15…Rc8 16.Bxd6 Black choses to recapture with 16…cxd6 as it’s really a “six of one, half a dozen of the other” type of position. Black’s options are to either create a permanently weak target on c7 by playing 16…Rxd6 or to play the move he did which will come with long term structural weaknesses of its own.

This takes us here:

Here is where Topalov says his plan is to exchange off the rooks, then put pressure on the d5 pawn with his light squared bishop and knights. Eventually on move 32 he sacs a knight to cause havoc in Sasikiran’s time pressure, but that’s just vintage Topalov at work.

Here is the entire game:

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Nice Way to Open the Center

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I was looking at this game from the 10th Soviet Championship and this position was reached between Makagonov and Kasparian with White to move.

It’s White to move, and in a position like this where Black seems determined to close down all the pawn breaks White needs to be active. Here, Makagonov finds a nice way to open the center and get his pieces active.

He plays 16.Bxc5 dxc5 17.d6!

With this he is able to gain activity and break through.

Here is the entire game:

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

When to Transition Janowski-Nimzovitch 1/2-1/2

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One of the keys to playing strength at any level is understanding when to transition from one idea to another.

Let’s take this game between David Janowski and Aron Nimzovich which was played in the St. Petersburg tournament of 1914.

For those who are fans of chess history you may recognize this as the tournament in which the title of Grandmaster was supposedly first conferred.

The tournament was held as a preliminary event with eleven players participating. The five top finishers in the prelim would then play a double round robin to determine the champion. In an interesting twist the results from the preliminary event would carry over into the final.

The prelims finished as such:

Here the five top finishers, Capablanca, Lasker, Tarrasch, Alekhine, and Marshall were supposedly awarded the title of Grandmaster by Tsar Nicolas II.

I say “supposedly” since this was completely debunked by chess historian Edward Winter. If you would like to read more about that please visit https://www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/grandmasters.html

The final finished with Lasker scoring an impressive seven points from eight, dropping half points only to Capablanca and Tarrasch.

Here are the final standings. It’s interesting to note that due to the carry over of the prelim scores, had Lasker finished the final with an only slightly less impressive six points from eight he would have finished behind Capa.

OK, now on the game that this post is about.

First, the entire game:

For some reason my pgn viewer isn’t working, so here is a link to the game on Chessgames.

As you can see, this was a hard fought draw.

Now, let’s get to the position at hand:

Here Janowski played 64.Rg1+ but as Kotov points out in his excellent book The Science of Strategy Janowski can win this. Take some time and think it through. We’ll then get back to it.

OK, scroll down for the answer…

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Had Janowski played 64.Kxb6 Kxe4 65.Kxc5 Kxf5 66.Kd6 then his pawns are much faster than Nizovich’s.

Have fun analyzing this ending. It’s fascinating!

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott