For Christmas, I decided to buy myself a stack of chess books with my winnings from the recent Kenya National Chess Championships. It took a few weeks for the Amazon order to arrive. A portion of the bill went towards paying the KRA duty, something I was not happy with as it made no sense to me why duty is imposed on books. Anyways, once I had them in my hands it was a holiday season well spent with things I love most.
During my 7 month lay off from local competitive chess (May-Dec 2014), I took a good look at the chess reasons for my 2014 Olympiad qualifier debacle. My play in sharp positions was wanting, my endgame skills were pretty shitty and my general approach to playing was rather mechanical. So my choice of books was aimed at targeting these areas, with a couple chosen simply for entertainment value. Having lightly browsed through them over the last couple of weeks, these are my initial impressions:
KASPAROV ON KASPAROV – PARTS II & III (1985-1993 & 1993-2005)
I had Part I of this trilogy (covering the period 1975-1985). Now my collection is complete. It’s the greatest player of all time explaining the intricacies of his play. And the politics and stories surrounding the various events he took part in. And some autobiographical sketches of life away from the chess board. Kasparov lets his emotions shine through, especially when he talks about his closest rivals. The passion with which he plays comes out in his annotations. The books are meaty.
But what I find most useful is the way Kasparov annotates and analyses. He explains the small and subtle GM moves…the reasoning behind them. The variations he selects to back up the verbal commentary (and there are tons of verbal commentary to the moves) are to the point and thorough. He is not afraid to point out his own bad moves. Whatsmore, it’s incredible to see the vast range of positions he can play. Kasparov has been stereotyped as an opening “Theory Henri” and a flamboyant attacking player. But the games in this trilogy also showcase his fantastic positional understanding, feel for prophylaxis (especially tactical prophylaxis) and endgame technique.
Some random excerpts:
Here is what Kasparov says at this point:
After this simple reply I came to my senses and began cursing myself: White has no useful moves and not even a hint of compensation for the pawn. I felt an almost irresistible desire to resign, and it was only with difficulty that I forced myself into the mood for a tenacious resistance…
Incidentally, when after the round the journalists asked Kramnik: “Why did you so quickly agree to a draw with Black?”, he replied: “But I could not imagine that Kasparov would play like that with White!”. And, indeed, in such an important game with Polgar, against whom before I had a 4-0 score in ‘classical’ games, a defeat seemed almost unimaginable.
The remainder of the game is an electrifying experience to play through, and an object lesson in the art of being resourceful in a bad position (from the diagrammed position, Kasparov continued 22.c3 with the idea of setting up a Bc2, Qd3 battery with something like Rxf6 in the offing), what with the interesting variations and notes. Kasparov managed to turn the tables and win.
Kasparov peppers his accounts with tidbits from other grandmasters and chess journalists. This gives his trilogy the effect of having been written in a frenzied post-mortem atmosphere, with many voices speaking out their thoughts and a dozen hands flying across the board. It adds to the drama. Here are Evegeny Bareev’s thoughts spliced in when Kasparov discusses the end of the 1999 Sarjevo tournament:
“The participants had the feeling that Kasparov was playing at roughly 25% of his desire. When it was needed, he would develop additional momentum. Eye-witnesses reckon that his mood here was very different from that in Linares and Wijk aan Zee. There he was an angry, hungry wolf, whereas here the wolf was good-natured, as in a cartoon film. But even so the good-natured wolf devoured quite a number of sheep.”
Different events are seperated into different sections, and before going onto the games, Kasparov lets us have a behind the scenes look at his preparation style. Here is a paragraph from the section where he talks about his preparations for the World Championship match versus Anand in 1995:
In July and August, I prepared intensively for the match on the Adriatic Sea, in blessed Croatia. It was a long time since I had felt so well, in the physical, as well as the chess and the psychological sense. I swam a great deal and went canoeing. I established my own personal record: I swam three and a half kilometers in the open sea in one hour, forty minutes. Almost every day I paddled up to seven kilometres in the canoe and at the chess board I spent two hundred and fifty hours.
THE WORLD CHAMPIONS I KNEW by Genna Sosonko
At the time Botvinik was the personification of chess in the Soviet Union – river: Volga, poet:Mayakovsky, goalkeeper:Yashin, chessplayer: Botvinik. And suddenly – a kid with a name as short as a gunshot: Tal!
Over the last decade or so, many important texts written by ex-Soviet era players, dealing with chess matters off the board, have come out. Busting many myths and stereotypes about chess life behind the Iron Curtain. The best of the bunch by far is Genna Sosonko. His books are a must have for any chess lover. “World Champions I Knew” is his latest offering.
The book has no chess diagrams. No chess analysis. It is pure prose. It has analysis of human behaviour – that of World Champions Genna Sosonko knew personally.
Botvinik, Smyslov, Petrosian and especially Tal, are talked about in depth. The life they lived. What sort of family men they were. How they dealt with the politics of Soviet sports. How they dealt with the KGB. Their personal weaknesses. What they did after games. How they related with other Soviet era players. Their thoughts on Bobby Fischer.
The chapter on Tal has to be one of the greatest chapters in Chess literature. It’s extraordinary. Not only is Tal shown in a way you have never seen him before, the style in which the prose is written is also breathtaking. Being a ficiton writer, I found this to be a stunning example of how to create a vivid character. I read the chapter thrice and I am sure I will be re-reading it many more times in the coming months.
And Tal went to Vnukovo at night for Vodka reinforcement.
And sat around more than once in the cabin gatherings with the captain and officers of a boat over bottles of rum and other drinks that were rarely seen at the time.
And Tal, usually in a tipsy condition, started stubbornly shaking his head and grinding his teeth.
And Tal often found himself without his internal passport.
And Tal might not leave a hotel room for days, with day flowing smoothly into night and again into day.
And Tal, after inhaling a few times, would put a cigarette out so that he could start a new one almost immediately.
And there were always all kinds of chess groupies and semi-bohemians kicking their heels around Tal, sometimes also openly dubious characters. And he was drawn to the dregs for inexplicable reasons, too.
And an ambulance came for Tal on more than one occasion, because “only an immediate injection could save him.”
CHESS EVOLUTION (STAGE 3 OF SERIES) by Artur Yusupov
Chess is a complicated sport, which has to be studied for many years. It is hard to imagine any other sport without coaches. (Is there a single atheletics club or football club that does not have a trainer?). This manual is intended for the many club players who unfortunately recieve no support in attempting to master our complicated sport. In this way it is intended as a substitute for a trainer for those that have none (and a support for trainers), but not an equal replacement for a trainer.
I stumbled across Stage 2 of this series back in October last year. I went through it Oct-Nov and I was damn impressed. I believe it helped me become National Champion. So I decided I had to buy the three volumes of Stage 3.
I think this might be the best training series ever published for the 1500-2300 range crowd. At first sight, it looks so bland. You open the page to a chapter and there is are a few simple examples followed by test positions. You ask yourself: “Why would I waste my money on this?” But as you go through the test positions and examples step by step, you gradually realise you are learning alot. A hell lot.
You might think you know the stuff the books go on about. But you start realizing how much you actually don’t know about the basics. This series gives you a thorough grounding in all the basics you need to know.
Stage 1 is geared to get 1500 guys up to 1800. Stage 2 is for the jump from 1800 to 2100 and Stage 3 2100 to 2300. Especially for a country like Kenya that does not have access to good coaches, this series is vital. Each stage has three volumes (Build, Boost and Evolve).
I will simply list the chapters in one of the volumes in Stage 3 so that you get an idea:
2. Static advantages
3. The comparison method
4. Rook against two minor pieces
5. Open games
6. The minority attack
7. Complicated combinations
9. Complex positions
10. The transition to the middlegame
11. The bishop pair
12. Shutting out a piece
13. Playing against pieces
14. Principles of rook endings
15. Playing for traps
16. Castling opposite sides
17. Pawn chains
18. Transition from opening to ending
19. Exchanging queens – the transition to the ending
20. Outposts for knights
21. Having a plan
22. Pirc and Modern defences
23. Complex positions 2
24. Queen endings
GRANDMASTER PREPARATION: CALCULATION & POSITIONAL PLAY by Jacob Aagard
These are workbooks. And they expect you to be a workhorse to get the most out of them. I haven’t used them much so far. Special time will have to be allocated for them. But the few examples and exercises I have gone through, it appears the books are quite direct and goes straight to the point. My positional play sucks and my calculations skills are primitive. I hope these two books help me out. It’s too early for me to say whether they are any good. I have gone on recommendations of various reviews on the big chess forums. So perhaps a real review from me laters.
LEARN FROM THE LEGENDS by Mihail Marin
I had read ‘Secrets of Attacking Chess’ by Marin. That was a very good book. Marin has a unique style of dissecting positions. He goes deep in and deliberately gets lost in the variations. You learn a lot by following him into no-mans land.
This book focuses on endgames. He picks on 6 outstanding exponents of this phase of the game (Rubinstein, Alekhine, Petrosian, Fischer, Karpov and Korchnoi) and highlights a specific area they are the best at. It doesn’t look at theoretical sort of endgames (that would be the Dvoretsky Endgame Manual book, for example) but at the practical aspects of endgame play. Certainly for Kenyan players like me, the endgame is still a big big mystery.
Marin is not interested in trotting out a large quantity of examples. Instead, he picks a few positions and does in-depth and quality analysis. To really show the reader what’s going on and what he can learn. Rook endgames are something I especially struggle with, especially the practical nature of them. The first chapter of the book (and the one I have gone through so far) is on Rubinstein’s handling of Rook Endgames. The annotations are simply superb and besides concrete variations, Marin also verbally explains at length what is going on. One goes through it slowly, sipping in Marin’s notes. And that’s a good way of learning. Marin makes one develop endgame skills rather than just absorbing knowledge.
To finish with a random example from the Rubinstein chapter:
This is just a snapshot from the endgame Marin analyses for over 11 pages. Rubinstein here played the dubious 38. Rxf6?! and this is what Marin says about it:
Rubinstein’s intuition seems to have betrayed him at this moment. He might have more or less foreseen the further evolution of the game but must have overlooked Black’s possibility on the 41st move.
However, attributing Akiba’s error to this excusable error of calculation would be rather simplistic description of the situation. In fact, his decision is in complete opposition to his usual way of thinking, something we are already familiar with. Maybe this was just not his best day.
Let us try to imagine how Rubinstein would have judged this position in the other nine times out of ten.
The ending with one pair of rooks is obviously better for white but no human would be able to foresee the ultimate consequences. It certainly offers practical chances and would be an acceptable way to play for a win if there is no better alternative available.
However, it is not difficult to establish that keeping all the rooks on the board would increase White’s advantage. The fact is that Black does not have time to block the f-pawn with the king and so one of his rook will remain passive. At the same time the white rooks will display their habitual activity, due to White’s spatial advantage.
After 38. gxf6 play might have continued:
38…Rd4+ (38…Rff7 would lose the c-pawn since after 39.Rxc5 Rxf6? 40. Rc6+ white would win a rook.) 39.Kc3 Rd6 (39…Rd5 40.Rxd5 Kxd5 is just hopeless. Black will fall into succesive zugzwangs since the rook cannot move. For instance 41.f7 Ke6 42.Kc4 Kd6 43.Rf3 Kc6 44.Rf6+ Kd7 45.Kxc5 etc.) 40.f7 Rd7 41.R1f3 followed by Kc4 and Black can hardly resist.