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

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