Review of Man vs Machine by Karsten Muller & Jonathan Schaeffer

Man vs Machine: Challenging Human Supremacy at Chess by GM Karsten Muller and Professor Jonathan Schaeffer 2018 Russell Enterprises 480pp

One of the latest offerings by REI is this volume covering the history of man versus “machine” in the world of chess.  I put machine in quotes there since the earliest incarnations of this competition featured automatons such as The Turk that actually operated via humans hidden inside of them.

While I expect that German GM Karsten Muller is probably familiar to a number of readers here, I am less certain that you will have heard of Professor Jonathan Schaeffer.  Professor Schaeffer has spent the last 35 years researching the world of AI through the competitions between humans and machines.

He was the author of the 2007 paper “Checkers is Solved” (note for readers, while 8×8 checkers is now known to be a draw, I do not believe that 10×10 has been solved at this point – so ask for a 10×10 board for Christmas this year!)

The mission of this book is to cover the entire history of the struggle for chessic superiority between people and mechanical devices.

The material is laid out in an interesting way, using an Elo for the machines.  The book is split into three parts (Openin, Middlegame, and Endgame) comprised of nine chapters.

They are:

Opening

1. 0000 (1770-1956)

2. 1600 (1957-1969)

Middlegame

3. 2000 (1970-1978)

4. 2200 (1979-1983)

5. 2500 (1984-1989)

6. 2650 (1990-1996)

7. 2750 (1996-1997)

Endgame

8. 2850 (1998-2003)

9. 3000+ (2004-present)

During each of the chapters there are games played by the computers in question during those era’s, but then after the chapters there is a reference section which contains games from many of the famous matches over the years.

Featured among them are Fischer – MacHack 1977, some of David Levy’s matches (Levy, an IM, famously put up a bet in 1968 that he would pay  £1,250 to anyone who could design a computer program to defeat him by 1978), Bent Larsen – Deep Blue 1993, and several others featuring Kasparov, Kramnik, Hubner, and more.

As for the book itself, it should be pointed out right out of the gate that this is not a book who’s main purpose is to help the reader improve in any way.  Yes, since there are chess games which have been analyzed, playing through them can have a beneficial effect if done right, but let’s be clear that this is a book about the history of the royal game more than anything else.

While the majority of those reading this review may barely ever have known a time in which computers weren’t considered superior to humans, for some of us this revolution remains indelibly scared in our brains.

When I first started playing tournaments in the late 80’s you could quite easily purchase a computer with a playing strength of 2200+, on up to about 2350 tops.  Less than a decade later Deep Blue defeated Kasparov 3.5-2.5 in their return match and that was the end of human superiority in this field.

At the time it seemed like the world had changed for the worse, but as time went by it became obvious that much good could come from this development.  Computers taught us more about openings, defense, and endings that many of us imagined they could.  Soon the term “computer move” crept into the lexicon of chess players everywhere.

From the earliest efforts of IBM to develop a chess-playing program, to the pioneering work of Richard Greenblatt (developer of MacHack, which Fischer played in an exhibition match in 1977 – five years after his last serious game, and 15 more until his next serious ones) the early days of computer chess unfold before your eyes complete with games which will show you the styles of those early machines.  Early on, computers were notoriously awful in closed positions and in positional play, and you can see that as you play through games by programs such as MacHack and the Soviet program Kaissa.

From there you’ll see the gradual development of endgame tablebases with Belle, the incredible work that World Correspondence Champion (and OTB IM) Hans Berliner did with HiTech to get the machine from a rating of around 2100 to 2300+, and the ever closer creep of the silicon beasts to GM strength.

In 1988 it became obvious that humans were losing ground as Deep Thought (the precursor to Deep Blue) began racking up wins against titled players.  Included in this book is the first win by a computer against a GM in a tournament game when Deep Thought defeated legendary Danish GM Bent Larson in the Software Toolworks tournament.

Of course we all know how the story ended.  These days computers have to give fantastic odds against humans in order for the humans to even make it competitive.

The main chapters of the book end on the Kramnik – Deep Fritz 10 match of 2006, pointing out that if anything was proven by humans in these matches, it’s that it takes a machine with a 3000 Elo to defeat a human world champion.

All in all I highly recommend this book as it is both informative and entertaining.  If you are under the age of 20 you’ll be fascinated to see the era in which machines were so beatable by strong humans.  If you’re my age (45) or older you’ll be delighted to rediscover some of the computers you forgot existed, such as ChipTest, WChess, Cray Blitz, and more.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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Review of Chess Pattern Recognition for Beginners by Van de Oudeweetering

Chess Pattern Recognition for Beginners by Arthur Van de Oudeweetering published by New in Chess 2018 240pp

If you followed my last blog on the late Sevan Muradian’s Chess IQ site then you know that I was a big fan of Dutch IM Arthur Van de Oudeweetering’s first two books, Improve Your Chess Pattern Recognition and Train Your Chess Pattern Recognition.  I’d link to those reviews, but sadly with the passing of Sevan and the subsequent shuttering of the Chess IQ site they have been lose to time.

Now comes the renowned Dutch Trainer’s third book in the series, Chess Pattern Recognition for Beginners.  When it first arrived in the mail I thought “Well, OK.” since “for beginners” was right there in the title.  Since I do some coaching, I do have some use for beginner level materials, but it’s rather limited.  However, when I actually opened the book and began to glance through it I realized that “for beginners” was somewhat misleading.

Perhaps it’s the pedantry of no one who’s been playing for any length of time, especially in tournaments, wanting to associate the word beginner with themselves, but this book is clearly not just for beginners, which for the sake of argument let’s say the word would typically indicate those with sub 1000 Elo’s.

Yes, there are the normal beginner level chapters covering things like rooks on the seventh, or getting the king to safety, or the Greek Bishop Sacrifice, but those chapters contain excellent examples which should be of a high level of value for players all the way up to my level (peak rating 1896) or at least close to it.

As I became more engrossed in glancing through the pages I quickly found myself heading downstairs to my basement chess laboratory to sit down at a table with a board and set.

The book is comprised of four parts containing a total of 25 chapters.  They are:

Part I – Typical pawns and pieces

Chapter 1 The lingering king

Chapter 2 Queen in trouble

Chapter 3 Rook(s) on the seventh rank

Chapter 4 Botvinnik’s fearsome bishop

Chapter 5 Kasparov’s favorite

Chapter 6 Fischer’s knight

Chapter 7 Opposites are not equal

Chapter 8 Cousins from a distance

Chapter 9 IDP: Isolated Doubled Pawn

Chapter 10 A central striker

Chapter 11 Central supremacy

Exercises Part I

Part II When pawns meet

Chapter 12 Reaching for the hook

Chapter 13 When Harry meets g6

Chapter 14 Deceptive symmetry after the IQP

Chapter 15 Breaking free

Chapter 16 Flank attack!

Part III When to exchange and when not to

Chapter 17 King of all exchanges

Chapter 18 Along the open file

Chapter 19 What remains: toward and good knight versus a bad bishop

Chapter 20 The ace of space

Part IV Sacrifices – the classics

Chapter 21 Bishop takes h7

Chapter 22 The Soviet sac

Chapter 23 The silent knight sac

Chapter 24 From Morphy to Magnus

Chapter 25 Capa’s bishop sac

Exercises Parts II, III, and IV

As you can see by the titles of the chapters alone, the material is not exactly that of the beginner level.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is Chapter 22, which is on the “Soviet sac.”  I’ve never heard that used as a term before, so I’m assuming it might have been created for this book, but the concept is one I am certainly familiar with.

The Soviet sac is the sacking of the exchange on c3 in the Sicilian.  This is a common concept.  Take this well known position which is in the book.  This is Boleslavsky-Geller from Zurich 1953.

Here Geller uncorks 15…Rxc3 16.bxc3 Qa5 17.Qe3 Qa3 18.h5 b4

From here Geller won a nice game, which is covered in it’s entirety in this book.

The exercises are also quite valuable.  Take for example this one from Part I.  The game is Stripunsky-Shimanov 2018

The question asked of readers is “How would you judge the position after 25…Nd4+ 26.Bxd4 Bxd4?”

Take your time and try to answer that question.  The solution is at the bottom of the page.

All in all this book is valuable far beyond the expectation given in the title.  I think it would have been better had the word “beginners” been replaced with “club players.”

I recommend this book as well as the earlier works by IM Van de Oudeweetering.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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The solution to Stripunsky-Shimanov is:

“Black is clearly better: he has the attack with opposite-coloured bishop, with White’s king in the middle (not able to run away via g1). White’s bishop is almost a mere pawn, while Black’s is a superb Botvinnik bishop (see Chapter 4).”

Review of The Full English Opening by FM Carsten Hansen

The Full English Opening by FM Carsten Hansen, New in Chess, 2018 464pp

First I’ll start with a confession.  I don’t normally like to review opening books.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, like everyone else I read opening books, or at least tend to use them as a reference, but that doesn’t translate into enjoying reviewing them.

The main reason that I don’t typically like reviewing them is that I’m not a strong enough player to have a deep base of opening knowledge that shows me instinctively when something is missing.

I’ve read reviews on Amazon and the sites of other reviewers where the reviewer, typically someone around 2300+ will point out that some obscure but useful line is missing from the book or has been misevaluated, and therefore, even though the rest of the content may be valuable, the book itself loses value due to the fact that something that I would never have known about was overlooked.

So when I review an opening book I generally do so with the philosophy of caveat emptor.  Also, I don’t dig deeply into the lines.  Instead my goal is to give the book an overview and inform a reader who either already plays the opening or has been thinking about adopting it as to whether or not I feel it would be worth their time and money to purchase the book.

However, from time to time a book comes along where it doesn’t matter if there is a line or two missing because the author points out that their main goal is to teach the underlying themes, and that the reader will then be able to use that as a starting point to dig as deeply as they may care to.

This book is exactly such as work.  In the foreword FM Hansen tells us that the book is not meant to be a theoretical work, nor is it designed to be a one size fits all repertoire.

Instead the idea behind this book it to teach the reader the underlying concepts which form the backbone of the English.

Having said that, it should be noted that this doesn’t mean that the book is free from theory.  It is not.  In fact, there is quite a bit of theoretical knowledge contained within the volume, and as long as the reader understands that this is a foundation rather than a move in ready house they will be well served.

My own journey with the English began when I realized a few years ago that if I was truly to push towards my goals as a player then I needed to move away from playing 1.e4 exclusively.  I needed to branch out and explore other structures and get a feel for many more types of positions.

During this journey I naturally found myself playing the English for a time.  I learned that my preconceived notions of the English as “slow” or “boring” were simply incorrect.  The English is actually much deeper and more intricate than I had imagined it could be.

Although I have moved on from the English as my main choice with White, it was with great delight that I opened this book to read it since I do still use it from time to time.

To illustrate my earlier point of just how broad the English is, the book runs 464 pages, and as mentioned previously this is not a deeply theoretical work.  This should give the reader of this review an idea of the depth of this work.

The book is broken down into three parts.  Part I comprised the 1.c4 e5 lines, Part II the symmetrical lines with 1.c4 c5, and Part III the Indian, Slav, and Dutch lines.

Each of those sections is then broken down into several chapters, which are laid out according to the variation being looked at.

Included are a number of reversed Sicilians, fianchetto KID lines, Hedgehog, and others.

Also, unlike other works on this opening in the past, this is not a dogmatic 1.c4 2.g3 set of systems.  In fact, the author includes a chapter at the end of Part I which outlines why 2.g3 makes sense (and why it doesn’t always…)

It should be noted that while there are deep variations when needed, the author also gives a lot of prosaic explanations which communicate the ideas.  Speaking for myself I find that to be a very useful way of conveying information.  While I like to see analytical proof of claims that authors make, often if they don’t clearly spell out what they are tying to prove I don’t get as much value from a book as I otherwise would have.

I know that last point varies greatly amongst different playing strengths, and a person who’s 2400 won’t need the same plain language explanations as someone who is 1400 might.  However, I don’t think that a 2400 will feel that a book that contains text as well as variations is a problem, whereas a 1400 would very likely feel that a book that contains variations with no text is a big problem.

Another feature that I really enjoyed about this book is that in many cases multiple options are given for the White player.  Rather than falling into the trap where only one option is given, FM Hansen ensures that readers will have a variety to choose from depending on their personal preferences.

Not to be overlooked are the included exercises designed to help the reader to gain an understanding of the underlying themes  There are more than 60 of these given, and in solving them the reader is almost guaranteed to deepen their knowledge of the English.

I spent much more time going through this book than I normally would.  The deeper I dug the more clear it became that the information contained within was greatly assisting me in understanding not only the English, but pawn structures which appear in  other openings as well.

I recommend this book not only to anyone who plays or is considering playing the English, but also to anyone who wants to better learn closed and semi-closed pawn structures.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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Review of Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen by Tibor Karolyi

Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen by Tibor Karolyi; New in Chess 2018 272pp

Hungarian IM Tibor Karolyi has proven himself to be one of the better chess authors out there today.  Not only is he prolific, producing several volumes a year, but he is also instructive and thorough.  There is nothing in his books that screams “potboiler” – unlike so many other prolific authors through the history of chess.

But when I saw the title of his new book I thought “Wait, what’s going on here?”  After all, Magnus is still in his prime.  Isn’t it a little early to be comparing him to someone like Karpov?  (A few years back Karolyi wrote Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov.)

However, my “fears” were quickly allayed when IM Karolyi made reference to that fact in the Introduction.

While it’s true that the Magnus of today will likely be eclipsed by the Magnus of whenever he decides to stop playing it’s also true that while it may be a bit early to consider him the greatest of all time, it’s certainly an undeniable fact that Magnus is the greatest active player in the world right now.

Anyone who closely follows modern chess understands that the higher up the food chain you go the more important endgame knowledge becomes.  After all, while at the club level it’s common to see a game decided when one player or the other hangs a piece, at the Super GM level that just doesn’t happen too often.  Therefore endgame play is often the decider.

This endgame book does not set out to teach the reader anything about theoretical endgames, which of course are the foundation of endgame knowledge.  However, it serves one very important purpose which in my opinion is a close second to theoretical knowledge when it comes to becoming a strong endgame player.  It shows the concepts of schematic thinking.

Schematic thinking is the skill of being able to conceptualize a position and understand that “If piece X were on Y square this would be a win/draw for me.”  While during the middle game precise calculation often rules the day, in the endgame a lot of precise calculation is preceded by schematic thinking.

The book is broken down into five chapters.  They are

  1. The junior years
  2. The young superstar rises to the top
  3. The world-class player
  4. World number one
  5. The World Champion

The chapters are broken out by year, and a couple of neat features of the book are that starting in 2000 at the end of the year Carlsen’s main results are listed and starting in 2001 his strength is given in the form of rating and world ranking.

As for the positions themselves, the majority of the notes are verbal in nature.

Let’s take a look at a position from Chapter Two.  The analysis is an example of what is contained in the book.

“19.Rac1

Occupying the c-file is natural and strong.

19…Ra7

Vescovi’s approach of not doing anything with his pawn structure is wrong.  He should have played 19…f6! 20.exf6+ Kd6 when Black would be only slightly worse.

20.b4 Bb7?!

Developing the bishop to b7 does not go well with the rook on a7.  After 20…Nb8 21.Nc5 Bd7 White’s advantage would be smaller than in the game.”

The remainder of the game takes another page or so.  I just wanted to give an example of what the reader can expect.

This isn’t to say that the analysis isn’t in depth at times.  When it needs to be, it is.  There are times when the better part of an entire column is dedicated to the dense analysis of a single position.  However, the main focus of this book is to walk the reader through the thought process of the decision making, rather than simply dense, comparative analysis.

In fact, one of the issues I have taken with many books in the past is when they overly rely on dense analysis with no verbal explanation of the different lines.  That tends to be too difficult for many (most?) club players to follow.  With some verbal explanation combined with analysis I think that most players, down to even 1200-1300 can follow along well enough and get use out of the book.  So kudos to IM Karolyi for focusing on this aspect.

As for the quality of the book itself…I think that New in Chess did a wonderful job.  The spine is soft and so the book lays flat rather easily which is very important for ease of reading.  As that is not always the case for books released by NiC I certainly hope that this is the start of a new trend!

I think that this book would be useful to just about any chess player.  If you are serious about improving, then this book is an excellent way to better your endgame skills.  If you are simply a fan of Magnus Carlsen or of well played chess, then this book is also for you!

I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

Review of The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster by Brin-Jonathan Butler – Simon & Schuster pp210 On Sale Date 11/06/2018

*Please note that an earlier version of this review contained some information on factual inaccuracies which I have since learned have been corrected.  Therefore I have slightly altered the review, though the main thrust remains unchanged.

This book is the story of the match and contains no games or analysis.

Every few years it seems that there is an effort by the mainstream to engage in some sort of crossover with chess.

Often it’s in the form of a movie, such as Pawn Sacrifice, The Queen of Katwe, The Luzhin Defense, and many others.

Occasionally it is a TV show such as Endgame which makes the effort, and from time to time this happens in the form of a book, such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, or this latest effort from Simon and Schuster, The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again.

In the opening pages of the book we learn that the author was tasked by Simon & Schuster to write a book about the upcoming (at that time) match between World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the challenger Sergey Karjakin.

His editor wanted the book to contain the answers to three questions.

  1. Why is Magnus Carlsen not more of a household name?
  2. What is the secret to his greatness?
  3. How can he continue to do it?

The publishing house wasn’t looking to have a chess writer take the lead on this since they were looking for a more mainstream approach to the story.  However, what the editor at Simon & Schuster didn’t know at the time was that the author was an enthusiastic casual player.

From the standpoint of the reader this last fact is important, at least in my mind, because it saves us from the often awkward attempts at describing chess that non-players tend to make.

Anyone who has ever read an article in their local paper where a journalist is trying to describe what happened at a tournament or exhibition knows what I mean.

That said, as both an amateur historian of the game, as well as an avid tournament player and journalist I find myself going through a mental checklist during the consumption of mainstream content where I constantly remind myself not to judge the author’s lack of chess knowledge too harshly.

After all, these crossover pieces are meant not just for the hard core initiate of the royal game, but for the “chessless” as well.

So if a director or an author doesn’t have the most nuanced approach to rendering their tale, I try to let that go as much as I can because I find that the overall mission of making chess exciting and accessible to those who don’t understand it at even a lower tier club player level can be a herculean task.

I found the title of the book to be clunky.  It’s nothing more than a forced attempt at word play with the “Made Chess Great Again” subtitle.  The match of course started just a few days after the election of Donald Trump.  Since the book isn’t finalized I’ll hold out the sliver of hope that the name will be changed prior to the first run of publication!

By this point you may be thinking that I don’t seem to like the book very much.  However, the main reason that I wanted to get those items out of the way quickly is to ensure that the rest of the review can focus on the book itself, which I actually thought was quite good.

One thing that I noticed early on in my reading is that the author seems to be a practiced interviewer.  He’s a long time sports journalist, so possessing this skill makes a lot of sense.  As a result there are a number of excellent exchanges that take place with various chess personalities through the course of the match.

At the end of the first chapter the author is attending the gala that opened the match, and he’s having a conversation with Robert Hess.  During the conversation he asks Hess if Magnus is the best player of all time and the answer that comes back is priceless as Hess points out that while according to ratings Magnus is the best, the fact is that his [Hess’s] high school physics teacher certainly knew more about physics than Isaac Newton ever did, but that doesn’t mean they were more talented than Newton.

Later on when he’s speaking with Judit Polgar she compares high level chess to bungee jumping, drawing a parallel between the thrill combined with the stress.

What I love about these conversations, and many just like them, is that the author, not possessing a perfect understanding of competitive chess himself, seems to seek out metaphorical comparisons with which to assist the casual reader.  While at the same time, I, the farthest thing from a casual reader, thoroughly enjoyed the new approach.  This was so much different from the normal repetitive questions that have become so common when reading chess content produced by chess-specific authors.  I found this to be a much needed breath of fresh air.

I also found Mr. Butler to have several quite interesting turns of phrase.  Granted, I wasn’t reading the final version of the book.  What I read and am reviewing are uncorrected proofs, so there are some occasionally clunky language issues which should be corrected in final editing, but that didn’t take away in the slightest from Mr. Butler’s ability to turn a phrase.

We’ve all read mainstream journalists take on Kirsan and his story of alien abduction.  Often that is used to marginalize chess players as a whole, but  Mr. Butler clearly states that it is Kirsan himself who may have some issues rather than the chess community at large.

That brings me to an extremely important point that I want to touch on in this review.  Yes, the author mentions that chess players have been known from time to time to descend into madness.  Fischer coming unhinged is mentioned, along with others such as Paul Morphy, Carlos Torre and Akiba Rubinstein.  However, he doesn’t overly emphasize this for the shock value factor.

I have lost track of the times that a content creator from outside the chess world has sensationalized Fischer’s mental illness or Kirsan’s claim of alien abduction and made that the central focus of whatever they were trying to do.  In this case those things are mentioned, and then fold into the background of the story where the belong.

Keep in mind that in his “The Mozart of Chess” profile on 60 Minutes Magnus was asked if he ever feared losing his mind the way Fischer did and he very honestly answered that while he didn’t think it was likely to happen to him, he did keep that thought in the back of his mind.

While the main focus of the book is to recap the 2016 match, Mr. Butler also includes a number of other interesting chess information, including discussing various other chess personalities, as well as his own family history with the game.

So with all of this said I can’t help but enthusiastically recommend this book.

Again, from the point of view of a chess person it’s important to our community when the mainstream makes an effort to put out chess content that we not judge them too harshly for their lack of specialized knowledge.

So does the author manage to answer the three questions?  He does!  Read the book to discover how!

Finally, I will close with this…when I first saw that this book was going to be published I saw an awful lot of comments from the chess world along the lines of “Ugh…why?  That match was so boring.”  In fact, I myself said on the Chess Book Collectors Facebook group that if not for the Queen sac in the final tiebreak that this match would have been confined to the dustbin of history.

But when I sat down to read this book I went back and I looked at those games again.  Yes, there were some relatively quick and bloodless draws.  But most of the draws were fights, including some where one side or the other was dancing on the razer’s edge of defeat.

I would urge anyone who is going to read this book to do the same.  Revisit the games with the fresh eyes of someone two years removed from this time in history and see how hard fought those games were.

I hope you all buy this book and support the efforts of publishers who want to make chess more accessible to the general public!

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

Review of One Rook Saves the Day

Ever since hearing Andrzej Krzywda on Perpetual Chess I have been making much more of an effort to include solving studies a part of my training routine.

I have long been a firm believer in solving, but most of what I have solved is tactical puzzles, and generally I’ve gravitated towards the simpler ones at that.

However, for pure calculation training I have been told by numerous people that it’s hard to top the effectiveness of endgame studies.

Elk a Ruby,  a quite welcome recent addition to publishing chess books in English has published a collection of thematic study collections call “One ____ Saves the Day” where the ____ can be Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight, etc.

The studies were compiled by Sergei Tkachenko, who was a member of the Ukrainian team which won the 5th World Chess Composition Tournament in 1997.

What’s particularly nice about these studies is the (relative) ease of solving them.

This is not to imply that they are simple to solve…certainly they are not!  However, compared to the level of most endgame study collections such as Kasparyan, they are much more manageable for those at the club player level.

The concept is that at the end of the solution, White will be left with just one of the titular pieces.  So in this case, a rook.

The book is comprised of 100 studies, and almost all solutions run six moves or less, which again speaks to the fact that most are solvable with varying degrees of difficulty at the club level.  Contrast this with studies I’ve been shown by various GM’s with solutions running 12-15 moves, almost none of which I could solve on my best day.

Let’s take a look at the first position, where it’s White to play and draw.

Take a few minutes to calculate if you like, and then let’s look at the solution…

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The main point to take home from this puzzle/solution, whether you took the time to solve this one or not,  is that this is certainly a puzzle that most club level players should be able to solve given the right amount of effort.

I’d like to speak a bit more to that point actually.  When it comes to certain elements of the game, such as tactics puzzles, it seems to be well understood by authors and publishers alike that material should be broken out by level.  This is why it’s relatively easy to find tactics books for players of all levels.

Want something basic?  There are hundreds of books to choose from?  Want something intermediate?  Hundreds more.  Advanced?  Still a few dozen of those as well!

Unfortunately I’ve had a much harder time finding books on studies broken out like this over the years.  Which is why this series of books comes as such a wonderful addition to the cannon of chess literature.

I sincerely hope that Sergei will continue to collect studies at this level, even if Ilan Rubin has to pester him until he does!  If there are already more collections out there waiting to be translated, then by all means, let’s keep them coming!

I should also point out that I read this book on the Forward Chess app, which is a great way to get practice on the go using your phone.  Forward Chess has a nice pop up feature where you can expand the board for easier viewing.  In addition, you can review the studies in quiz mode so that the solution isn’t visible until you want it to be.

I highly recommend the two volumes I have read in this series, which are this one and One Bishop Saves the Day.  While I have not read the others, I can certainly say that if they are anywhere near as good as these two then they are well worth reading.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

 

 

Review of Strike Like Judit! by Charles Hertan

Strike Like Judit! – Published by New in Chess – 2018 – 256pp

Like many people I was already familiar with FM Charles Hertan through two prior endeavors.  One was his former tactics column in New in Chess, and the other was his incredible book Forcing Chess Moves which was recommended to me by several strong players who pretty much universally agreed that it revolutionized the approach to searching for tactics in games.

So it was with great delight that I sat down to his latest offering, also published by New in Chess, Strike Like Judit!: The Winning Tactics of Chess Legend Judit Polgar. I have been a fan of Judit for almost as long as I have been playing in tournaments.  I distinctly recall her bursting onto the international scene as a pre teen girl, and began following her career almost immediately.

This book is broken down into six chapters.  They are:

  1. Geometry lessons
  2. Sicilian Slayer
  3. The art of calculation
  4. Endgame Empress
  5. Shots!
  6. The classics

Unlike FM Hertan’s previous book this is not just a puzzle books with positions for solving where the reader is looking for the final shot.  Instead, the positions given are tactically rich, and then analyzed in some depth by the author.

One really nice feature of this is that instead of just a diagram with a “White to move and win” style, each position is given multiple diagrams, in many cases there are both game position diagrams and analysis diagrams.  This makes it possible to read this book without the use of the board for most players of even moderate strength like my own (my peak Elo is 1896) which is useful for developing visualization skills.

In a few (albeit rare) cases complete games are given, but most positions are more like this one, which is taken from the Sicilian Slayer chapter.

The game is Polgar – Kientzler-Guerlain from the 1986 U16 World Youth Championship.  It is White to move.

19. f6 Her signaure lever! 19…gxf6
20. gxf6 Bxf6 21. Qxd6 Like Fischer, JP had no qualms about carrying the
initiative into an ending or a queenless middlegame – an objective approach
almost unheard of in a 10 year old attacker. 21…Bg7 White has a small but
pleasant advantage after 21… Qxd6 22. Rxd6 Rc6 23. Rhd1 Bg4 24. Rxc6 bxc6 25. Rd6

analysis diagram

22. Ng5

22…Bc6 Forced was 22… Be8 but White keeps a nice
attack with the paradoxical 23. Qd3 Bh6 24. Qe3 23. Rhf1 Qxd6 Now 23…
Be8 24. Nxf7+ Bxf7 25. Rxf7 Rxf7 26. Bxf7 Qxf7 27. Qxb6 is practically
winning. 24. Rxd6

f7 is indefensible, and the massacre is on. 24…h6 25. Nxf7+ Kh7 26. Be6 Rc7 27. Bf5+ Kg8 28. Nxh6+ Kh8 29. Ng4 Nc4 30. Rd3 Be8 31. Rh3+ Kg8 32. Nd5 Rd7 33. Be6+ Rdf7 34. Ne7# 1-0

This book manages to achieve something that I don’t find that often in books in that it is more or less accessible to everyone, while at the same time being of value to stronger players.  Especially within the calculation chapter, which contains many examples annotated at quite some depth.

Therefore I feel comfortable recommending this book to everyone and giving it a solid four out of five stars.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

Review of Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi

It should be well known to readers by now that I am a pretty serious fan of the Soviet School of Chess.  As such I have always enjoyed the writings of chess author Genna Sosonko.

As Genna was born in Leningrad and grew up there before emigrating to the West just shy of 30 years of age he has always been uniquely suited to cover the Soviet era for a Western audience.  However, this was mostly done in the form of his articles for New in Chess magazine, which from time to time would be collected into book length compendiums.  In order to get a fuller picture of someone you had to hope that another story would be written in the future.

Then a few years ago I heard that he had written a book about David Bronstein which was out only in Russian at the time.  I was really looking forward to the release of that book in English.  When it came out it did not disappoint (and you will see a review of that book in the future on this blog!) and so I was hopeful that Genna had more in him.

Imagine my delight when just a few months later the book Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi was released!

Much has been written about “Viktor the Terrible” including quite a bit by Viktor Lvovich himself.  Of course I recommend to everyone reading this to seek out those works.  Included would be My Life in Chess, his autobiography; Persona Non Grata, (formerly known as Anti-Chess) his book about the 1978 World Championship match with Karpov; and his lengthy Afterword for The KGB Plays Chess written by Gulko, Popov, and Felshtinsky.

While those works are great, and are highly recommended by me, the picture of a person is never completely accurate when it is told only by them.

Enter Genna Sosonko. The “Half a Century” portion of the subtitle could refer to two lengths of time.  The first is from 1957, when the two first played in a simul given by Viktor, through 2008 when they played their last game (both of those games were drawn, though between them were numerous other games, including wins for both, though Korchnoi managed a strong plus score) and the second is from 1969 when the two began a professional relationship which lasted until Viktor’s death in 2016.

Sosonko approaches this book in the same way that he has approached the various pen portraits which he has become so known for – brutal honesty.  However, underlying all of that is what comes across as a very deep respect.

Korchnoi was a rather late bloomer for someone who would become a world championship contender.  While he began playing chess at an early age, he didn’t begin playing seriously until he was around 12 and started going to the Leningrad Pioneer Palace.  There, one of his trainers was the legendary Vladimir Zak who also trained luminaries such as Spassky, Kamsky, Salov, and Yermolinsky.

Even with all of the resources now available to him it was not until age 20 when Viktor achieved his master title.  After achieving this title it was still another nine years until he won his first of four Soviet chess championships in 1960.

By December 1969 when Sosonko first came to work for Korchnoi as a second Viktor had two appearances in the Candidates cycle under his belt.  He would then spend the next 20+ years as a regular fixture in the world championship cycles.

It’s at this point in Korchnoi’s life that the narrative of this book really takes off.

For the next two years Genna and Viktor spent quite a lot of time working together, but during that period Sosonko felt himself growing apart from the Soviet Union and he began to seriously consider emigrating to the West.

In March of 1972 Sosonko visited Korchnoi at his flat and said that he had taken the decision to give up chess and emigrate.

At this time in the Soviet Union chess players received a decent stipend and chess was a well-respected pursuit.  So to walk away from this was a truly monumental decision which was not to be taken lightly.  Once someone emigrated the odds that they would ever see their friends or family again were very slight.

For these reasons Korchnoi tried to talk him out of this decision, but there was no persuading Genna.  His mind was made up.  In August 1972 he left the Soviet Union and headed to Israel, from where he shortly made his way to his long time home in the Netherlands.

While it seems that Korchnoi at first thought the decision to be an incorrect one, it was only a short couple of years later that Viktor began having the same thoughts.

Leading up to the 1974 Candidates Matches a campaign was undertaken in the USSR in which the direction that was being promoted by many, including former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, was one of youth over experience.  As the former generation had lost the title to Fischer, it was Petrosian’s contention that the generation of Karpov should be the one to pursue reacquiring it.

After some public back and forth, Korchnoi was thrown off of the Soviet National Team for the period of one year, ostensibly to teach him his place.  As this precluded Viktor from travelling, and as he understood that his career was fully at the whim of Soviet officials, Viktor decided that it was time for him to leave too.

Unlike Sosonko, who was able to obtain an exit visa and emigrate legally, Korchnoi knew that the only way for him to leave would be to defect.  There was no scenario in which Soviet officials would allow an elite level grandmaster to leave on a voluntary basis.

So it was in July 1976 when Korchnoi learned the phrase “political asylum” from English GM Tony Miles and defected after playing in a tournament in Amsterdam.

With the restrictions of the Soviet Union behind him Viktor was now free to travel and play as he pleased and it was here that his career really took off.  He played in the next two world title matches in 1978 and 1981, and then continued to play in every candidates cycle until 1991.

Once they were both residents of Western nations Korchnoi and Sosonko were able to resume their lifelong friendship, as well as some professional work together as well.

What I have written above is quite well known to me.  What was not so well known to me was the period of Korchnoi’s life after 1991.  Mostly this is due to the fact that I myself stopped playing and following chess from 1992-2011.  However, even since my return details about Korchnoi were always a bit in the background.

Sure, I knew some of the major details, such as Korchnoi’s World Senior title, his win over Caruana in 2011 at Gibraltar when Fabi was 61 years Viktor’s junior and already rated over 2700, and the fact that Viktor became the oldest national champion recorded when he won the 2011 Swiss Championship at the age of 80.  The day to day details though…those I had no idea about.

Genna covers this period of Viktor’s life in great detail.  He discusses how as Viktor aged he cut more and more out of his life until he was only interested in chess.  Gone were former loves for things such as poetry, music, etc.  All were pushed to the side for Caissa.

This single minded focus allowed Viktor to maintain an extremely high level of play.  In fact, at age 75 he was still number 85 on the Top 100 list.  By far the oldest player to be so.  For comparison, today the oldest player on the list is Nigel Short, who at age 53 finds himself in 88th place.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Whether you are like me and consider yourself a student of Soviet Chess history, or if you have no idea at all about the Soviets, but are just a fan of chess and a good narrative, this book will keep you glued to the page.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

 

Let Andrzej Show You The Way – With Chessable!

Long time readers of this blog have probably heard me mention Ben Johnson’s podcast Perpetual Chess.

I really enjoy the podcast, and I typically get a lot of interesting tidbits out of the interviews.  There have been interviews with people I have been friends with for years where I still learn all kinds of cool information.

This week’s episode was a bit different from the normal interview of either a titled player or someone running a chess business.  This week Ben kicked off his Adult Improver series where he will conduct interviews from time to time with adults who are working to improve as players.

For the inaugural episode he chose Polish CM Andrzej Krzywda.  Andrzej is an interesting case study.  He’s 38 with a wife and two young kids and spent around 20 years being rated 2100 FIDE.  Three years or so ago he decided to pursue the IM title.

Recently he made an IM norm with a 2579 TPR in a strong round robin event.

He wrote about the experience in this Reddit post.

Here is the interview itself.  Listen to it as you will be amazed by Andrzej and his work ethic and dedication.  I know I was!

One of the things that Andrzej mentions several times in his interview is the site https://www.chessable.com/ 

I started using this site a few days ago for openings work, and oh wow has it already made a massive difference.

I’ve never been one to enjoy studying openings.  I used to have a phenomenal memory, but these days it’s maybe slightly above average at best, so I just never felt like putting in the work I felt it would take to learn lines cold.

Since I also tend to play really sharp stuff at times this was leading to some truly avoidable issues where I was getting terrible positions making basic mistakes.

So I started using chessable to build a repertoire.  I can tell you that the process will be slow going because it does take a bit of work to add your lines to the site (unless you have pgn files which you can just import) but I can already tell it will be well worth it.

After only four days I have an extremely sharp line I play as White memorized 22 moves deep – and it’s sticking in my memory!

Once I get all of the sharp stuff I play into chessable and get in the habit of drilling it daily until it’s a part of my chessic DNA I’m expecting to finally perform at or above my rating in the openings.

Naturally I don’t plan on suddenly spending all of my time working on openings.  That would be an anathema to the way I work on chess.  However, with chessable it seems like I won’t have to.  Because of the way it drills you on your lines and then repeatedly has you go over moves that you missed it doesn’t take much time to be able to solidify the ideas in your head.

Of course you can also use chessable for endgames, tactics, books, etc.

I heartily recommend that everyone try it out.  Just join and grab one of their free opening books and go through it.  Right away you’ll have a great feel of how the site works and how they will do the repetitive drilling to help with memorization.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

An Embarrassment of Podcast Riches

A couple of years ago I stumbled across the chess podcast The Full English Breakfast.  I think I was reading an interview or a profile of Lawrence Trent and it mentioned the FEB in some regard.

So I searched it out and found to my dismay that the last episode was a way back in the past.  This was sometime maybe around late 2015 or so and they hadn’t done anything since Jan 2014.  Even so their last regular episode had been all the way back in 2012.

Nevertheless I devoured those 27 episodes.  I must have listened to them 3-4 times each.  I found them to be enjoyable and insightful even if they were all from a few years earlier.  Events I had forgotten about suddenly seemed contemporary again.

But every time I came to that final episode I was sad to hear it end.

Then, on January 14th of this year the producer of The FEB Macauley Peterson, posted on their Facebook Page “What was your favorite all time FEB episode?  Or favorite individual segment? (BTW…Not just navel gazing here.)”

My immediate thought was “They’re bringing it back!” which was of course instantly followed by “But for how long?”

One of the things that seemed to plague the show was that it was always an on again off again affair.  The show premiered with a pilot episode, then was immediately on hiatus for around a year, then came back and was very intermittent.  Then, at times they tried to get into a regular rhythm but would go off the tracks just when they seemed to be right in the pocket.

We’ll get back to our good friends at The FEB shortly…and now for something completely different.

Flash forward to perhaps a month after Macauley’s semi-cryptic tweet.  The protest of Nazi Paikidze against the FIDE Women’s World Championship event is in full swing.

On one of her posts on either Twitter or Facebook (I don’t recall which) I see this guy named Ben Johnson say some words of support followed by something like “It was great having you on the Perpetual Chess podcast.”

“Woah woah woah!” I told myself.  There’s another chess podcast? Indeed there was!  NM, chess teacher, and former professional poker player Ben Johnson had started a weekly interview podcast.

From what I gather Ben had no former experience in the field of journalistic interviews, but he clearly has a lot of natural talent, which has grown as the show has gotten deeper in to its run.

Ben did the thing that really more of us should do.  He was stunned that there were no chess podcasts since The FEB had gone offline so he started one.  He saw a need and he took steps to fill it.  So kudos to him!

The format of the Perpetual Chess podcast is essentially the same as you would expect on a sports interview show.  Ben has a conversation with the guests on topics crossing many spectrums, those maintaining a chess centric theme.

So you very well may hear about poker, investing, Hearthstone, cooking, and fitness, but all the while never straying too far from the chess.

Back to our good friends at The FEB.  The format of their show has changed somewhat over the years, but the overall structure is relatively similar.  Generally it’s Macauley, Lawrence Trent, and another English player chatting about a topical chess item.

In the original incarnation of the show GM Stevie G (Stephen Gordon) held down the spot quite nicely.  However, he has apparently done the unthinkable and gotten himself a real job 🙂

In the current incarnation GM Simon Williams has been holding the chair and doing so rather well.  It would be nice, however, to hear his name in the introduction!

They now do one show each week.  The trade off is that the shows are much shorter than they used to be, but that’s fine since they are producing regular content!

So far The FEB has had 16 new episodes since their re-launch (although they are talking about a hiatus this Summer), and Perpetual Chess is on episode 29 and counting.

I urge everyone reading this to support both of these efforts.

For The FEB you can become a patron for as little as $1 a month!  I personally do the $5 a month donation and I really wish that more people would.

For Perpetual Chess you can purchase books from Amazon using the links from the Perpetual Chess Books page.  These are books either written or recommended by guests of the show.

Someday, when Ben adds a donate button I’ll become a patron of that show too 🙂

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott