Review of Zlotnik’s Middlegame Manual

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Zlotnik’s Middlegame Manual by Boris Zlotnik 2020 New in Chess 400pp

When I was first learning to play chess seriously (1987ish) and when I came back to chess after a nearly 20 year layoff (2011) the subject of pawn structure was a tough nut to crack.

Sure, we had Pawn Structure Chess by Soltis, and the quirky Pawn Power in Chess by Kmoch, but other than those two and a few scattered bits here and there, the subject of pawn structure was largely uncovered.

Lately, that has started to change. With amazing books covering the various structures and their plans, it’s a whole new world.

New in Chess has delivered yet another entry into the fray with this offering by Boris Zlotnik. That was a name I wasn’t familiar with, but I quickly accepted IM Zlotnik’s bona fides when I read the forward by Fabiano Caruana and learned that Zlotnik served as his trainer for three years from 2004-2007. During that time frame Fabi went from around 2200 to 2500.

This book breaks down material into digestible chunks, which include typical middlegame structures, along with typical methods of play.

To see the table of contents simply click the links below.

TOC 1

TOC 2

The topics covered are both typical (i.e. what you need to know) and wide-ranging. For club players like myself who are looking to take the next step towards improvement these are very necessary lessons and techniques to learn.

So let’s talk about who this book is for. Well, that’s always a pretty arbitrary thing, really, but it’s something of a “necessary evil” when talking about chess books. The book claims to be for a “wide range of post beginners and club players” but that’s a bit lacking in my mind.

Mostly I would say that is due to the way in which this book is written. The formula is one which has become tried and true – deeply annotated games in the theme being presented. So in the IQP chapter you have a bunch of annotated games featuring IQP’s and the typical plans involved for both sides of those positions.

When I said “deeply” above, I do indeed mean deeply. And not just “database dump” annotations. The analysis is very well done and quite instructive. But there is something that I feel is missing. Namely, prose annotations.

In one of his Perpetual Chess Podcast appearances, IM Cyrus Lakdawala said that he feels that the verbal analysis is the most important part of the analytical work done on books these days. To paraphrase the reasoning he gave, it’s because as engines grow stronger the variational analysis will change over time, but the verbal explanations remain correct.

To see this in action, take a look at any online forum and watch how club players sometimes talk about how terrible older books are because engines now offer different lines than the ones given by the authors. I’ve seen such players bash writers such as Alekhine and Euwe because the latest Stockfish now offers different moves. The problem is that there will continue to be a stronger engine tomorrow that will refute the engine of today for the foreseeable future.

What the complainants often fail to understand here is that if the move that Grandmaster X gives is +1.8, but the latest Stockfish gives a different move that is +1.95 the reason for both moves may still be the same. e.g. restricting certain pieces or pawns or taking control of an outpost, etc.

So why the long digression above? Well, because this book, while heavy on variations, is light on prose. Too light in my opinion. For that reason alone I think that the “wide range” of players is perhaps less than the author would like. This isn’t to say that someone around the rating range of say 1200-1400 wouldn’t get anything from this book, after all, it’s well annotated, but perhaps their understanding of structures wouldn’t be as well served as it would be with more verbal explanations.

After all of that you may think that I don’t like this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I found the book to be very instructional and well worth the read.

In fact, the chapter on the Carlsbad Structure was incredible. Prior to reading this book, if you would have said “Carlsbad Structure” to me I would have immediately responded “Minority Attack” but this book shows not only that, but also plans focusing on e3-e4, attacking on the kingside with both players castled on that side, attacking on the kingside in opposite sided castled positions, and play with both sides castled long.

I also very much loved the chapter covering whether or not to exchange the fianchettoed bishop. This chapter discussed not only the KID, but also the Dragon and Accelerated Dragon.

I also believe that for anyone who  is working on improving their positional play, the chapter on Symmetrical Pawn Structures in this book should be required reading. After all, those positions rely on the accumulation of small advantages, which is one of the hallmark’s of positional play.

Lastly I’d like to talk about something that is becoming more of a feature in chess books than it ever used to be, and rightfully so, and that’s the inclusion of exercises. Including exercises is a great way to turn what would otherwise be a passive learning experience into an active one.

This book gives 162 exercises and solutions. Some of the exercises just give you the side to move, and others ask you to evaluate a certain move or give the ideas for one side. Overall the exercises were both challenging and balanced.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone rated from around 1200 and up, but with the caveat that the stronger the player, the more understanding about the subject matter you will gain. For those below maybe 1500 this will serve as a well-annotated collection of games and some detailed exercises.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of Mastering Positional Sacrifices

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Mastering Positional Sacrifices by Merijn van Delft New in Chess 2020 320pp

I wasn’t kidding in my last post when I said that I was doing a lot of reading both pre COVID contraction and post COVID recovery. 

One gem of a book that made it’s way to me is this work by the Dutch trainer and IM Merijn van Delft.

While I had never heard of van Delft, I didn’t let that stop me from being absolutely excited about the possibilities that lay within this volume. While books on positional chess have certainly become much more common over the years, books on positional sacrifices are still relatively scarce, yet this topic is incredibly rich and rewarding.

As the author notes in the introduction “As opposed to tactical sacrifices, positional sacrifices are of a more abstract, non-forcing nature.” When I read that my first thought was “Truer words were never spoken.”

Tactical sacrifices are easy to understand. They tend to mirror the “sac, sac, mate” formula that Fischer mentioned about facing Larsen in the Dragon. Calculation ability is really all it takes to become successful at making those types of sacrifices.

On the other hand, positional sacrifices are another animal entirely. Now the vague and mysterious (to non-titled players) word “compensation” comes in to play.

When speaking of positional sacrifices, the example that springs to the front of mind for myself, and probably many others, is this one:

Here Petrosian uncorks 25…Re6! The idea is to free the e7 square for the knight. If the exchange is accepted then the knight reroutes to d5 to complete the blockade. If the exchange is not accepted the same happens, but White also isn’t even up material for the fact. Sure enough, a few moves later this position was reached:

Of course this game makes it into this book since it’s probably the most famous example of an exchange sac that exists, although the way it makes it in is quite unique.

The book is broken down into four parts, Fundamental themes, Typical positional sacrifices, Testing the limits, and Training material. Each of these sections is further broken down into chapters covering items such as opening files, pawn structure, color complexes, pawn and exchange sacs which arise from particular openings, etc.

One nice thing about this book is that it’s new enough to include examples from Leela and AlphaZero. Another excellent feature is the inclusion of 48 positions used as exercises. 

The topic is fascinating, but what about the content? Well, let’s look…

Here’s an example from Viktor Korchnoi against Nijboer in 1993.

Here Viktor plays 18.Nxc5! 

“A fantastic positional piece sacrifice, breaking down Black’s carefully constructed blockade. White gets two mighty connected pawns that give him the upper hand!”

18…dxc5 19.Bxc5 Ng6

(diagram added by me for emphasis)

“Trying to tempt White with a positional sacrifice of his own.”

20.Bb6!

“White is not  interested and focuses on keeping the initiative and setting the pawn steamroller in motion.

20.Bxf8 Bxf8 would be a positional blunder, giving Black full control of the dark squares and, with it, control over the entire position. In the next chapter we will return to this theme.”

20…Qf6 21.c5

(diagram once again added by me for emphasis)

Of course the idea here, once revealed, is easy for players of all levels to understand and appreciate.

The book is filled with many such examples covering all manner of topics, including the endgame.

Here we have a position from Bronstein – Olafsson Portoroz 1958

It’s hard to imagine how White is planning to make progress here until you see Bronstein uncork 36.Rxe5!

“Even with limited material on the board, such a positional exchange sacrifice can be highly effective.”

36…dxe5+ 37.Kxe5 Re8+ 38.Kf6!

(diagram added by me for emphasis)

“This is the highly instructive point: the king can be a very powerful piece in the endgame.”

38…Re3

“It will take Black a few moves to actually take a pawn.”

39.Kxf7 Rb3 40.Nxg6 Rxb4 41.Ne5+ Kc8 42.d6

“Probably, Bronstein had basically calculated everything until the end, when he sacrificed the exchange.”

42…Rb2

43.Ke8

Once more, the remarkable role of the king. The passed pawn cannot be stopped.”

43…Rd2 44.Ng6 Kb8

“On 44…Re2+, 45.Ne7+ wins.”

(diagram added by me for emphasis)

45.g3

“Accuracy until the very end. 45.d7 Kc7 would completely spoil the win, and 45.Ne7 f4 would complicate the win.”

45…Rd1 46.Ne7 1-0

So who is this book for? Well, that’s a bit trickier of a question than with most books I feel. While I think that pretty much anyone can play through and enjoy the examples, I do feel that the better grasp a player has a positional concepts such as weak color complexes, outposts, blockades, etc. the more useful they will find this book.

After all, it’s not very useful to completely control the light squares if you have no idea what that means or how to apply it.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book and want to see more like it!

Til Next Time, 

Chris Wainscott

Using One of Vishy’s Ideas

I was listening to last week’s interview with Viswanathan Anand on Perpetual Chess and something that Vishy said he used to do during his youth was to write down his thoughts following a game.

Not analysis, which of course also happens, but general impressions of what happened along with thoughts of what can be done differently next time.

So I decided to appropriate this idea since it seems awfully sensible.

I am currently playing in the US Amateur Team North in Schaumburg and I have done this for the first three rounds. Here are my notes along with some clarification of what I was driving at.

Game One – The Notes

  • Terrible opening. Learn the lines or simplify the repertoire. Off the cuff is dumb.
  • Keep fighting. Just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean it won’t work.
  • Work on rook endings. No excuse for not knowing if the R+P vs R ending was drawn or not.
  • Need to spend at least one hour on the opening during analysis later for every game.
  • Time to create a full set of deep pgn files.

Game One – The Explanation

In this game I faced the French. I haven’t been getting good positions against the Winawer so I decided to play 3.Nd2 off the cuff. I quickly wound up in a terrible position and was lucky to claw my way back into some semblance of a fighting chance. Eventually I was ground down in the ending.

I kept trying to  fight my way back into the game and my opponent helped greatly by missing some simplification ideas which would have made the win trivial. When all was said and done it was for naught, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing. It’s always worth doing.

The game concluded in a R+P vs R ending where I was *pretty sure* I was lost but I wasn’t 100% sure. There’s no excuse for this. I should be 99% sure or better. This will require a lot of work, but I believe it’s vital.

During analysis I need to spend at least one hour going over the opening. In this way I’ll eventually completely learn the ideas in the openings I play. I’m getting better, but it’s not good enough.

To that end, when spending that time on the opening I’ll eventually create a set of very deep pgn files for every opening I play with either color. I’ll be able to regularly review them and I will get strong here. It will happen.

Game Two – The Notes

  • Opening repertoire totally exposed. To not play lines out of fear is just dumb.
  • Sicilian worked out, but seriously…what is that?
  • Again, deep pgn files are needed.
  • Candidate moves.
  • Sleep is important. No point in going to a tournament if you’re not going to take it seriously.
  • One move blunders happen on four hours sleep.

Game Two – The Explanation

My opponent played 1.e4. Lately I have been playing 1…e5 but I play the Two Knights against 3.Bc4. However, there have been too many times where my understanding of the position has been less than ideal. So at the board I sat there for a minute or two essentially saying to myself “Kids play the Italian a lot. Do I really want to be down a pawn against an expert in a position I don’t truly understand?”

Of course this is wrong thinking. Play your prep. If it sucks, make it better, but to not play it out of fear is wrong. OK, it’s not like I’m drifting aimlessly in the Sicilian since I played it for years, but seriously?

As for the Sicilian, of course this is another opening that shouldn’t be played off the cuff, which is exactly what I did. In the end it worked out since I was completely out of the opening and into the late middle game.

Again this is where deep pgn files will help.

Candidate moves are vital. I have played many moves lately where I only considered one move, not multiple moves. That happened in this game several times as well.

Sleep is important. I was up until after 2:00am even though I knew I had to get up at 6:00am. Not smart.

After being completely equal I threw the game away on a one move blunder by overlooking a simple tactic. Had I gotten more sleep the odds would have been less likely that I would blunder like this. More importantly had I selected at least two candidate moves and compared them the odds I would have blundered in this fashion would have been even less.

Game Three – The Notes

  • For reals, let’s work deeper on openings. I just need a feel for positions.
  • Keep fighting. It works.
  • Learn to stay objective. It felt like I was much worse though it turned out I was fine.
  • Candidate moves were my friend. Bigly.
  • There’s no substitute for focus.

Game Three – The Explanation

Again I felt lost in the opening. I decided to stick with 1.e4 but after 1…g6 I transposed into the White side of the King’s Indian. I wound up overlooking some positional ideas for my opponent and before you knew it I felt like I was far worse.

However, I did  keep fighting and fighting. After getting past what felt like the worst of the trouble my opponent repeated and offered me a draw.

After the game, when I was entering it in ChessBase I turned on the engine at a couple of points to quickly check the eval. I wasn’t looking at lines or analyzing moves, just checking to see if I was really as bad as I thought I was. Turns out that at none of the points I checked was I as bad as I thought.

This time I made sure to have at least two moves to choose from. It kept me from going astray and I was able to hold on to the thread.

I stayed focus and just put everything I had into holding on and not getting steamrolled. That effort paid off when my opponent offered me a draw.

So there you have it. I feel like I got something out of this exercise so I plan on keeping it going.

Listen to the interview with Vishy on Perptual Chess:

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.

Gelfand – Svidler Game Three

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.

Another Nice Blitz Mate

Every once in a while I play the reverse GP against the English.  This was one of those times.  My opponent missed some stuff which made my job easier, but the mate was nice.

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.

My First Smothered Mate!

I’ve been playing chess for at least 30 years since I first saw the concept of the smothered mate.

Today I delivered my first one in a blitz game.

Here I thought I was in trouble as I thought my knight was just trapped:

Then I realized my position was really good and I saw the idea.  I started with 22.Rxe6 and he feel right into it.  See the entire game below.

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.

Shameless Request for Donations

It’s not often that I make an actual shameless request for donations.  Sure, I have the Patreon thing at the bottom of each post, but this is not that.

It costs me around $170 a year to maintain this blog, and the truth is that I really enjoy doing it.

I pay for three years at a time, and it’s coming due in a few days.  If you read this content and feel that you get something out of it, and if you can spare a few bucks I’d sincerely appreciate a PayPal donation.  $1, $2, $10, whatever.

It all adds up and it’s all extremely helpful.

So if you can’t afford to donate, please don’t.  But if you can, then this would be the time to do so.

All help is gratefully appreciated.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,

Chris Wainscott

Right Idea, Wrong Execution

Today in a game I had this position as White:

I came up with the correct idea of sacking the exchange with 15.Rb4. Then after 15…Nxb4 16.axb4 Qb5 17.Rxa7 Nc6 18.Ra3 my opponent played 18…fxe5

Here I misplayed the position by taking back on e5 with 19.dxe5. However, had I played 19.Qa1! instead I would have had a sizeable advantage.

19…Kb7 20.Nxe5 Nxe5 21.Ra7+ Kc6 and now the nice shot 22.Bf4.

White is clearly better here.

Having said all that, I’m ok with this game since I correctly sacked the exchange.

Now if I can just get my strategic thinking and calculation up to par I’ll convert these as well.

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.

Fun Facts About the Steinitz – Zukertort Match

Something that I think I will be doing going forward is providing some historical overviews of the matches for the game of the day feature.

Since the first two of this match have already been published, let’s kick that off here, then I can add this stuff to the posts with the games going forward.

Prior to Steinitz – Zukertort 1886 the title of “World Champion” had been completely unofficial.

Wilhelm Steinitz had long been considered the strongest player of his day, having defeated his top rival Adolf Anderssen 20 years prior +8-6=0.  However, it wasn’t until this match with Zukertort that talk of an official world championship began.

Three years prior, in the London 1883 tournament, which had been a 14 player double round robin, Zukertort had finished at the top of the table with +18 (22/26) compared to Steinitz’s +12 (19/26).

With the death of Paul Morphy in 1884 there was no longer anyone who could reasonably claim the title of the strongest player (and keep in mind that Morphy’s last serious game had been much earlier in 1859) the path was clear to hold a match between the two.

The terms of the match were the same as Bobby Fischer would propose 89 years later – first player to ten wins, draws not counting.

The time control was to be 30 moves in two hours, then 15 moves per hour thereafter.

Although Steinitz would not become a US Citizen until 1888, he insisted on playing this match under the flag of the USA as he had been living in New York for a few years by then.

In 1888 he officially became a US citizen and changed his name to William.

The championship itself saw three different cities, with the first five games coming in New York, the next four in Saint Louis, and the concluding games in New Orleans.

Here is the table from Wikipedia showing the match results.

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.