Publishers and Diagrams

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One thing that I really wish chess book publishers would take into account more is the placement of diagrams.

One of the harder things for me to learn when I came back to chess in 2011 after an absence of almost 20 years was how to hold a position in my head so that I could reset it after playing through a line of analysis. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

Yes, I’ve read the musings of those who say they play through games with two boards, making the move on both boards, then using one to keep the position while they play through the analysis on the other board. I personally don’t find that to be an appealing thought at all.

I was drawn to the idea, both then and now, that learning to hold positions in my head would ultimately make me a stronger player. I believe this to be as true today as I did a decade ago when I was struggling to do this at all. If it’s relevant to anyone, my rating then was about 1600, whereas today I’m generally in the high 1700’s with a peak of 1896. Not exactly a strong player, but certainly not weak.

With that said, publisher’s do include diagrams for a reason. For some, it’s clear that they are trying to give readers a visual anchor in order to read through the book without needing a board. I am nowhere near that level, though I do often try to play through the analysis in my head without moving the pieces and have found that this has helped me visualize better. At first, I could hold the position well enough, but didn’t understand things like “why …Qd6 there” until I’d eventually realize that a pawn was unprotected on g3 or something like that.

That takes me to today’s quibble. Books which don’t have diagrams in places they clearly should.

Let’s take a look at this page from Enqvist’s 300 Most Important Chess Positions

We are given a diagram before Black’s 19th move, which is followed by a good explanation of why that move was played, but we are not given a diagram either after Black’s 20th move, where it would be much more useful. As you can see, the analysis runs to the next page and contains parentheses and brackets.

I’d really like to know the reasoning behind the placement of diagrams. This one makes no sense to me.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of From Ukraine With Love for Chess

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From Ukraine With Love for Chess by New in Chess 2022 208pp

This compilation, recently published by New in Chess, is both a triumph and a tragedy. A triumph because it encapsulates the strong tradition of chess in Ukraine, starting with their earliest players from the Soviet days, and continuing on through their World Champions, Ponomariov and Ushenina. Also included are their victories in the Olympiad during the first decade of the new millennium. A tragedy because of the circumstances that caused it to be published.

The idea behind this book is to generate revenue for Ukraine charities which are helping the victims of the unprovoked and unacceptable Russian invasion of Ukraine. All proceeds are going to charities according to the book.

The layout of the book is divided into eight chapters.

Chapter I – The pioneers

Chapter II – Oleg Romanishin’s matches with Mikhail Tal

Chapter III – We are Ukrainian

Chapter IV – Heroic Ivanchuk leads Ukraine to victory at the Calvia Olympiad in 2004

Chapter V – Unstoppable Ukraine – The Women’s Team wins the Turin Olympiad in 2006

Chapter VI – A fully deserved win by Ukraine at the Olympiad in 2010.

Chapter VII – What’s your superpower? I’m Ukrainian!

Chapter VIII – Ukrainian nuggets

The games contained within each chapter are annotated by Ukrainian players, often the player of the game itself. In cases where the annotations are not by the players of the games, the notes are from Ukrainian legends, such as Ivanchuk and Moiseenko.

Although the book itself was somewhat “rushed” in order to get it out the world, in many cases the annotations themselves were not, as they have been published previously.

Prior to the games, there is a short biographical blurb on the Ukrainian player featured. Contained within these are all sorts of interesting tidbits. For instance, while I knew that one of my favorite players, Eljanov, was a second for Gelfand in 2012, I did not realize that he was the son of an IM.

There are also some nicely written sections of prose, including one by Romanishin in which he not only discusses his friendship with Tal and his secret training matches with him, but also his upbringing. He tells a nice story about going to a 1962 friendly match between teams from Yugoslavia and the USSR and collecting autographs while being far too shy to actually talk to the players.

Also included is a republished interview with Tukmakov by Dirk Jan, about the Ukrainian Olympic victory in 2004. Tukmakov was the captain of that team. This is then followed by some of the best games played by the Ukrainian team during that event. Those games are quite deeply annotated and instructive. Of historical interest is the fact that Sergey Karjakin was on that Ukraine team in 2004. For those who may not be aware, Karjakin was born in Ukraine and represented them until 2009 when he switched federations. Somewhere along the way he also lost his damn mind.

The book concludes with a chapter on Ukrainian study composers presented by Jan Timman. While largely unknown to the chess world, their work is worth presenting.

All in all I highly recommend this book. I would like to point out that with this book there seems to be a switch in the paper used by NiC. The paper is not as bright or heavy as most books of recent memory. I assumed that this was a supply issue, but it would appear per a response on a Facebook post that this is going to be the new normal.

As a collector, I do not like this since the book is not as aesthetically pleasing. As a reader though, it is much softer on the eyes. Perhaps I am resisting change solely for the sake of resisting change.

In any case, go buy this book and support Ukraine.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Attacking Strategies for Club Players

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Attacking Strategies for Club Players by Michael Prusikin 2021 New in Chess 192pp

It seems these days that there is no shortage of treatises on attacking, including ones directed specifically at club players. Therefore, I always have some trepidation when picking up a new one to read. Often it seems that the themes and material overlap. With the themes, that’s mostly to be expected, but with the materials it can often be a sign of laziness.

For instance, we’re often treated to Fischer – Benko 1963 with 19.Rf6, or we see the “Marshall Swindle” of Levitsky – Marshall 1912 with 23…Qg3, concluding the alleged “Gold Coin Game.”

Thus, it was refreshing when I opened this book, flipped through it, and saw that there were new themes and that the games were mostly games I had never seen.

The book is broken up into 18 chapters. They are as follows:

  1. Prerequisites and rules for attacking the king
  2. King in the centre
  3. Obstruction sacrifices
  4. Attacking the king without the queen
  5. Pawn storm with opposite-side castling
  6. Pawn storm with same-side castling
  7. The Steinitz ‘battering ram’ – using the h pawn against a finachetto
  8. The Alekhine ‘battering ram’ – using the g pawn to destroy your opponent’s king protection
  9. The nail in the coffin
  10. Doubled g-pawns
  11. Using pieces to attack the castled position
  12. The Grand Prix Attack
  13. The Chigorin ‘outrider’ – the knight on f5
  14. Long bishop on b2
  15. Interference
  16. Breakthrough on the strong point
  17. Test your attacking skills
  18. Solutions

As you would expect, many of these chapters cover themes that we’re all familiar with, such as a king stuck in the center or pawn storms, or sacrificial breakthroughs. However, when was the last time you saw an explanation of doubled g-pawns being used for attack?

By doubled g pawns the author is referring to positions with pawns on f2/g2/g3 or f7/g7/g6. Examples of when those positions can be a weakness are given, including this example from the game Oll – Chernin 1993

Here white plays 27.Qg4 Rfd8

Now White wins with 28.Nxe6 Rxd3 29.Nxc5 Rxc5 30.e6 and White goes on to convert.

As you can see from this example, these aren’t all straightforward wins, but rather positions where one side is simply better. My first instinct was some mild disappointment, but after some reflection I decided that tactics books are really the place for the straightforward wins to reside. It’s OK for attacking manuals to focus on the process of creating the attacking chances.

That doesn’t mean that none of the games feature brutal breakthroughs and firework finishes. Take Spassky – Geller 1968, for instance. Here we see the position after 22…Rc8

Here Spassky decisively crashes through with 23.Rxf6! exf6 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Nxf7!! Rxc2 26.Bh6! Rxc1+ 27.Nxc1 Kxf7 28.Qxg7+ Ke8 29.g5! f5 30.Qxg6+ Kd7 31.Qf7+ Kc6 32.exf5+

(diagram mine for emphasis)

All in all I found this book to be a pleasant surprise. Most of the examples I had not seen prior, and I enjoyed the new twists on attacking themes.

I will say that I did find the first chapter of the book, “Prerequisites and rules for attacking the king” to be a bit overly dogmatic and pedantic. The author tries to give some specific rules, along with some tips, but they feel a little forced.

The rules:

  1. Lead in development/uncastled opposing king
  2. Space advantage on the side of the board where the opposing king is located
  3. Few defensive pieces around our opponent’s king
  4. Lack of/weakened pawn protection for the king

The tips:

  1. Everyone must be invited to the party
  2. Open lines
  3. Have the courage to sacrifice
  4. Time is key

While some of those points are clearly applicable and prudent, it felt too much to me like an effort at forcing a list, ala those types of “Five Simple Rules for ___” articles about almost any subject.

Having said that, I did get a lot of enjoyment out of the book overall. It felt like a nice solution for either someone looking to improve their own game through a better understanding of attacking play, and also is something that can be enjoyed by those simply seeking to play over enjoyable games for pleasure.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Magnus Carlsen: A Life in Pictures

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Magnus Carlsen: A Life in Pictures New in Chess 2021 162pp

Until the past few years, as I became more acquainted with the photography of David Llada, Lennart Ootes, Alina L’Ami, and others, I never really appreciated the concept of chess photos as art. Of course, David Llada’s excellent book The Thinkers, published by Quality Chess in 2018, got me on board with the artistry of chess and chess players.

With this newfound love of chess photos as art, I was excited to receive this book which covers one subject: five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Presented in chronological order, the book takes the reader (viewer) from Magnus’s pre chess childhood through the beginning of the pandemic.

Some of the photos are fairly well known, such as young Magnus lying on the grass holding a king, or 2013 Magnus with his arms raised in triumph after getting thrown in the swimming pool after dethroning Vishy. Most of the material was new to me though, and it was a pleasure working my way through the pages.

The book doesn’t just focus on Magnus the Chess Player, which I found to be a breath of fresh air. Instead, focus is given to all aspects of Magnus’s life. Magnus as part of an interconnected family. Magnus the sportsman. Magnus the sports fan. Magnus the celebrity.

In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to Magnus as a celebrity. From his G Star Raw modeling career, to his games against Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to his ceremonial opening kickoff on the pitch for Real Madrid, focus is given to the side of Magnus that has drawn some more mainstream attention to the chess world.

The layout of the book is mostly just visual, but there are some chapter introductions as well as captions. Overall, the material is beautifully presented.

My one quibble with this book is relatively minor. I would prefer that the book be larger. It’s the size of a regular book instead of coffee table book size. I would much prefer the larger size, which is more common when displaying something as art.

All in all, I recommend the book to any fans of Magnus, or lovers of chess or photography.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Chess Board Options by Larry Kaufman

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Chess Board Options by Larry Kaufman, New in Chess 2021 224pp

Larry Kaufman is an interesting character in the world of chess. He’s known as someone who has long worn several hats. Player, Computer Guru, Opening Theoretician, and on top of that, a high level shogi player. In addition to his work in chess, Kaufman spent years on a career in the world of finance.

As a result of this varied life, this book takes on the task of covering these phases of his career without seeming overly disjointed. 

Kaufman manages this for the most part, using the technique of splitting the book into sections which cover his many roles. The book is split into five parts:

  1. 20th century champions I have known
  2. My non-chess career: options, shogi, and other games
  3. My chess career and my students
  4. Computer chess
  5. Various chess-related topics

One random and fun thing about this book is that both it, and the prior book I reviewed, Timman’s The Unstoppable American, contain the game Browne – Fischer from Zagreb 1970. 

Getting on to the book itself, let’s start with what I perceive and the main defect here. The final section, “various chess-related topics” struck me as mostly filler. It’s not that the chapters aren’t interesting at times, as some of them most certainly are. Rather the issue is that these are pieces that are more appropriate as stand-alone articles in magazines or blogs. They did not fit harmoniously into this book.

Topics in this part include things like Kaufman’s take on chess ratings, Armageddon games, games played at odds, etc.

As for the rest of the book, I found it to be quite interesting. 

In the first part of the book Kaufman covers champions that he knew. These range from local to national to world champions. The pen portraits delivered by Kaufman were enlightening and thoughtful. Sure, he covers famous champions he knew like Fischer, Korchnoi, Gligoric, etc., but he also has a chapter on Steve Brandwein.

Like many in the chess world, Kaufman found work in the world of finance. Specifically running an options trading company. The nice thing about the chapters on topics like this is that they’re long enough to go into relevant detail while also being short enough as to not bog the reader down. The overall effect serves to keep the narrative flowing.

As for the chess, the book contain 64 games. Naturally many involve computers. The annotations are well done, though at times I feel they’re a bit too “Informant like” in nature. I suppose that for a computer guy that makes sense, but I would have preferred a bit more prose.

In the chapter on Kaufman’s three students who became IM’s I learned that his son, Raymond, is one of them. I didn’t know that the Kaufman’s are one of the rare parent/child titled player combinations. I can’t think of another others off the top of my head, though I feel that there is at least one more. So if you know of any, please say so in the comments.

All in all, this book is a solid effort and worthy of reading. It should be pointed out that this is very much not a book on chess improvement. Yes, it contains annotations by a title player, so there are some lessons to be learned, but this book is not designed in and of itself to help you become a stronger player.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

 

Review of the Unstoppable American by Jan Timman

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The Unstoppable American – Bobby Fischer’s Road to Reykjavic by Jan Timman 2021 New in Chess 256pp

Much has been written on the “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which took place in Reykjavic, Iceland in 1972. However, much less has been detailed about how Fischer got there in the first place. At least not in English. With the 50 year anniversary coming up next year it stands to reason that this gap in chess lore stands to be filled nicely.

One entry into that cannon is this new offering by former top player turned current top writer, Jan Timman. As someone who very much watched a large part of his career unfold over the board, it’s been a great pleasure to watch this second career unfold over the page.

This effort does not disappoint. It covers the time in Fischer’s career from his return to play at the 1970 USSR vs The World event through his Candidates Final in 1971. Interestingly both his match in the first event and in the latter were against former World Champion, Tigran Petrosian.

One things that struck me immediately as I started to go through the games was the way that Timman was using a lot of prosaic analysis of positions rather than just variations. I’ve touched on this before, but I find it to be very important since overly relying on engine heavy analysis tends to mean that the book will appear “useless” and/or “refuted” when the next version of Stockfish is released. After all, that version will see that on move 27 of Game X there is an improvement of .01 for White on ply 47 of some variation, and now the move that was given as best in the previous version is no more. This leads a lot of people to discount entirely the analytical work that has come before.

This means that verbal explanations will drive the point home better since they will very likely still apply even with small variances to the deeper parts of the analysis over time due to stronger engines. Having said that, Timman does include variations as well in order to properly demonstrate the ideas he is conveying.

As an example of this type of analysis, let’s take this position from Game Two of the 1970 match against Petrosian.

Here Petrosian seals 41.Rd1

After resumption, this position is reached after White’s 43rd move.

Fischer goes on to play 43…Nf6 and Timman goes on to state:

“It looks as if Fischer hadn’t paid much attention to the sealed move in his analysis of the adjourned position; otherwise he would have surely opted for 43…Nc7! here.

analysis diagram

Just like after the text move, the d5-square is inaccessible for the white bishop, but it is even more important that White cannot place his rook behind the black a-pawn. White’s situation is hopeless; for example, 44.Rd3 a4 45.Ra3 Rc4 46.Ra1 Nb5 47.Bb7 Nb4, and the a=pawn will decide.”

What stands out to me about that type of writing is that it will be useful forever more. Even if some tiny improvements are found which change the engine choices to other moves, the educational idea of why 43…Nc7! would have been a better move will remain.

The book itself is broken out into five chapter. They are

      1. The Road to Palma
      2. Palma de Mallorca
      3. The Match Against Mark Taimanov
      4. The Match Against Bent Larsen
      5. The Match Against Tigran Petrosian

While the final four chapters need little explanation as they cover the Interzonal at Palma, along with the three Candidates Matches, the first chapter could use a bit of an introduction. Covered in it are the event mentioned prior of the USSR vs The World Match, along with some descriptions (though no games) of the famous Herceg Novi blitz event where Fischer finished 4.5 points clear of the field. From there games are given from tournaments in Rovinj/Zagreb, Yugoslavia and Buenos Aires, Argentina, which both were held in 1970. Finally, from Argentina, Fischer rushed to Siegen, Germany to play in the Olympiad.

After all of the top level chess activity it was clear that Fischer was still the strongest player in the world. Looking at the games, it seems as though he was almost predetermined to become world champion. It’s easy to forget in hindsight that a special exemption had to be granted by FIDE to even allow him to participate in the Interzonal as he had not qualified through the usual means of playing in a Zonal tournament.

Throughout the descriptions of the various events Timman does a good job of detailing some of the roadblocks that Fischer continually set for himself, such as last minute demands for more money or better conditions, without going too far down the rabbit hole. As a reader I very much appreciated this since many authors in the past have allowed these issues to almost obscure the games themselves. There are no attempts to either psychoanalyze the reasons, nor to defend Fischer for his antics. The incidents are simply presented as fact and then moved past.

It should also be noted that Timman does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information about the events themselves. There are some great descriptions of the venues, players, conditions, and overall culture of the tournaments and matches.

All in all this book was a real treat. I very much enjoyed it and think that it’s accessible to just about anyone who knows the rules and loves the game. There is no rating minimum to get something from this book. While it’s not instructional in nature, it’s very informative, and there are definitely some lessons to be learned, per the analytical example given above.

Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of this book today.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Defend Like Petrosian by Alexey Bezgodov

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Defend Like Petrosian by Alexey Bezgodov New in Chess 2020 272pp

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’re aware of the fact that I am a big fan of the Soviet era of chess. So any time I get a chance to read a book about a Soviet World Champion I take it.

For a long time it felt to me like the ninth world champion, Tigran Petrosian, was quite overlooked by chess literature. He would often be referred to as “dry” or “boring” in conversations I’ve had with various chess players over the years. Lately, however, it seems like chess authors and publishers are giving Petrosian his due.

This book is one of many which have come out over the past few years covering the life and games of the late champion.

The book is presented in two parts. Part I is called “Descent and Evolution” and starts essentially at the beginning of Tigran’s career and runs through the end of his life. In this section you see the growth of “Iron Tigran,” a nickname which was bestowed on him due to the incredible difficulty of claiming a victory against him.

In Part I games are given headers which describe the main takeaways from the game to come. Examples include: Exchange sacrifice, the first well known example; What is meant by weak squares and diagonals?; An inappropriate pawn thrust; and A light-square thriller.

Part II is called “Tigran against the titans” and breaks down his performances against several of the all time greats from his era. This section is split into 14 chapters and covers matchup against Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Fischer, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi, Keres, Larsen, Gligoric, Geller, Bronstein, and Portisch.

Part II contains the same sort of pre-game headers mentioned above. Again these often serve as a guidepost of what’s to come.

Annotations are a very balanced combination of verbal and variation analysis.

Here is nice example of that from the first part of the book. The game is Olafsson – Petrosian Bled 1959. Here is the position after 16.a4

Here Petrosian plays 16…Nc6

“A clear tactical illusion. Only taking into account the weakening of b4, TP momentarily forgot about the centre. Black is fine after the logical 16…c5! 17.a5 c4 18.axb6 Rxb6 19.e4 Bf4 20.Rc2 Rab8=”

Another example, this time from Part II’s chapter on Petrosian vs Kasparov. This is from the game Kasparov – Petrosian Moscow 1981. Here White has just played 35.Qf6+??

“White could win after the automatic pawn push 35.f6! After at least winning the pawn on e5, White’s numerous pawns would overwhelm the enemy defences.”

As I have written about multiple times in the past, the verbal parts of game analysis are more important than the variations. Variations will change over time as computers gain strength, but the verbal explanations will always be instructional for years to come.

This book is very instructive and will make a welcome addition to the library of any player who is either looking to improve or who is a fan of Petrosian himself.

Til next time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual 5th Edition

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First let me apologize for the extremely long delay in publishing anything. While I was on a semi-sabbatical from writing, I contracted COVID which then caused me to spend almost a month getting back in the right frame of mind. 

During my illness I couldn’t even read, but leading up to that, and coming out of it I have read a lot. So expect some additional upcoming reviews in the very near future!

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual 5th Edition Russell Enterprises 2020 440pp

Historically when an existing work has a new edition out, that hasn’t been a sign that you need to rush out to buy it. After all, the updates are normally just to a few things and due to the fact that engines are now stronger. 

However, in the Age of Leela, there are many good reasons to do so. After all, it’s one thing to say “I’ll just download the new Stockfish and do the work myself.” Neural Networks, however, are another thing entirely.

Not to mention the слон (elephant) in the room, which in this case was the untimely passing of Mark Dvoretsky in September of 2016. This means, of course, that while *some* of the revisions were overseen by the famed Russian trainer himself, the bulk of them were handled by others. In this case noted endgame experts, German GM Karsten Muller and Alex Fishbein from the USA.

Perhaps to mark the fact that there are others working on this manual, the color of the cover was changed. It now seems almost like a cross between the blue color for DEM that we’ve grown accustomed to, and the green of Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual. I personally don’t find the color to be visually appealing, but you know what they say about judging books thusly.

So let’s open ‘er up.

Two new forwards are in this book. One by the aforementioned GM Muller, discussing many of the details as to how this volume was assembled, and one by 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik discussing the importance of the project since it’s inception with the first edition.

The other main visual change is that the former sections printed in blue ink have been replaced by highlighted gray text.

Perhaps this is me being overly critical, but I find that the completely filled box is much much easier to read. I do, however, seriously applaud the move away from the blue because it was certainly true that depending on which print run your copy was from, sometimes the blue would be so faint you couldn’t read it.

This addition comes with many new diagrams added, as well as some that have been omitted. For pedants like myself this is a nice feature. I don’t know why my mind works this way, but it does. I like knowing what has changed!

The content is, of course, pure gold. After hearing John Hartmann mention that he’s “woodshedding” all of the gray positions I decided to set for myself a similar goal, but I’m only focusing on the rook endgames. There are more than fifty of these, so my work is cut out for me!

One thing I have always loved about the various version of DEM is the level of detail that is covered, even on examples the reader may already be somewhat familiar with.

Take, for example, the game Gligoric – Smyslov from the Chigorin Memorial in 1947. This is often cited as an example of a how a rook can defend against rook + f&h pawns. In fact, Smyslov himself covered this ending in his book Endgame Virtuoso.

However, in DEM the level of detail show is much greater, both in analytical detail, as well as verbal explanations. So while the first instinct by many might be to think “Meh, I’ve seen this before.” the truth is that you may very well not have seen it at the level of detail you are about to.

One of my favorite chapters, in this and in preceding editions, in the one on General Endgame Ideas. While the chapters on specific material relationships, especially the parts highlighted in gray, focus on concise precision, the chapter on general ideas is more a dive into what Shereshevsky would call “schematic thinking.”

In this chapter many concepts are discussed which may be applicable to numerous situations. Here’s a quick example of what is referred to as “widening the beachhead.” This position was composed by Artur Yusupov.

The idea is that there are two main plans for White to proceed. One would involve the idea of playing f4-g5 in order to create a passer, while the other would be to “widen the beachhead” by playing a well-timed g5 which will then allow the White king more room to maneuver.

Of course there is a precise explanation that is given for this precise position, but the concept itself is one that will be applicable to many positions, pawn endgame and otherwise.

So if you own a previous edition of this book do you need the new one? if you are in any way serious about improving I would say yes since it’s been several years since the 4th edition was released, and with the advances in tablebases and pure engine and neural network power it just makes sense to stay reasonably up to date.

Let’s discuss one last thing before we go…the talk about the relationship between one’s rating and the usefulness of this book.

I have often heard it said that “Unless you are rating 2XXX you shouldn’t even bother with this book. You should focus on ____ instead.” I don’t buy that. Not for a minute. There probably is a level at which this book is not for someone, but that level is likely a mid-three digit rating.

There’s no way to pretend that a 1500 will get as much from this book as a 2500. But the idea that the 1500 who is willing and able to work diligently will absolutely learn from this book. I know that because I was one of those 1500’s. While my endgame play still needs to improve vastly from where it is in order for me to make a real run at my life goal of 2200, the truth is that I learned many concepts from this book.

The Lucena, Vancura, and Philidor positions in rook endings – all of which I have used in my own games are things I learned from earlier editions of DEM. I once drew an expert in a rapid game with knight against pawn on the 7th because I had recently read that portion of this book.

So yes, if you are serious about chess in any way, this book is for you.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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