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

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