Book Review: Streetfighting Chess
I have to admit that when I first cracked the spine of Streetfighting Chess I winced. At first blush, this book appears to be a survey of the author's games and in my noggin alarm bells did ring. Digging into the book, my fears were quickly allayed; let me explain.
I've read a fair number of chess books, and with few exceptions these books have included complete games as examples of the book's subject. In theory this is fine, but in practice it often doesn't work out very well. Too often only parts of the example games illuminate the point of the book, with the extraneous parts of the games being at best irrelevant, and at worst confusing.
I'm happy to report that Streetfighting Chess doesn't suffer from this malady. The annotated games are on topic and to the point from start to finish.
That rather begs the question, though, doesn't it? What is the topic and the point of Streetfighting Chess? It's not entirely obvious from the title, although it does hint at the contents of the book. The author, Andrew Burnett, plays a chess game like it was a slugfest, and for him there is only one goal at any given point in the game. Kill the King!
This might seem obvious to you, but think about what happens in your chess games, think how much of it is pushing wood around trying to get into position to attack the King. Burnett throws all of that nonsense out the window and shoots straight for the monarch as quickly and efficiently as possible. Watching Burnett's pieces almost congeal around the opponent's King is a joy to behold. It sounds a bit lofty of me to say it, but it reminds me of the first time I worked through the Immortal Game, seeing Anderssen jettison material with abandon while heading directly at his target. Streetfighting Chess is chock full of this style of play, and the annotation is great.
Speaking of annotated games, There are a few games from the masters included, again with great annotation. The highlight is probably the Mikhail Tal game which is indeed aligned with Burnett's style and message. I would like to have seen a Paul Morphy game included, but I guess ya gotta draw the line somewhere, right?
You now have a general feel for the book, so let's get a bit more particular. There is a big difference between a boxer and streetfighter. The former joists in a ring with regulation gloves, rules of conduct and a referee, while the latter uses whatever tools and tricks are at hand, wherever he might be. Would a boxer throw dirt in the face of his opponent? No. Would a streetfighter? Yes. Would a boxer try to trip his opponent? Nope. How about a streetfighter? Hell, yes! About the only common tactic which both would use is the head-fake and the streetfighter definitely uses that.
In more chess-like terms, Burnett is advocating we use any means at our disposal to trip up our opponent, to make life easier for us while torturing our opponent with head-fakes and frenzied attacks. For instance, let's say you are up against a guy who you know has a deep knowledge of a particular opening, and you have neither the time nor the inclination to gain similar knowledge. What to do? A good strategy might be to throw in a relevant but non-theoretical move at an opportune time, thereby chucking the rest of the opening's theory into the bin. Now your opponent will have to think just as hard about the opening as you do, setting him off balance and chewing up time on his clock!
Along the same line, the author reads and collects old chess articles. The idea here is that he can find useful but less popular ideas from them with which he can foil his enemies, particularly those opponents that focus on the latest and greatest and so are less familiar with moves that were once popular but have lost the limelight.
Sound fun, doesn't? It sure is, and that is something special about this book that few other chess books can boast: the author is clearly having fun with his chess and it shows in the writing. In fact, the couple of sections about "swindling" actually made me chuckle aloud. I won't spoil the fun by saying any more about those sections.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I should point out that Burnett is not saying that we should turf all the tried and true advice about chess play. He emphasizes, in particular, the learning of tactics. Tactics, tactics, tactics. High-level combinations and low level tactics and everything in between. Not only does he impress upon the readers that we should work many tactical problems and do it often, there are some very nice tactical problems and solutions in the text.
Speaking of tests, any of you that have read my previous book reviews knows that I'm a sucker for tests, quizzes, exercises, problems et al. To me, they are the best way to reinforce my comprehension of the information learned from the text, and really good tests enhance the book's teachings. Unfortunately, Streetfighting Chess only contains 10 tests, but they are good, and the solutions are insightful and well written, as is the rest of the book.
Streetfighting Chess barely pays lip service to the endgame. Burnett tells us that learning the art of the endgame is important, but isn't within the purview of the text as the book is about strong attacking, and the style of play this book emphasizes tends to produce victory or defeat well before an endgames is reached. If the example games in the text are a good representation of the author's games, I'd say that punting on the endgame is understandable. There are plenty of good endgame books and adding any amount of endgame detail into Streetfighting Chess would be inconsistent with the book's premise.
In the past few months I have hitched my chess trailer to the practicality horse, inspired by the likes of Silman, Heismann, and Pandolfini. Streetfighting Chess is an excellent addition to that collection of writing and I'm sure I'll be coming back to it for some time to come. By now it should be readily apparent that I think this book should be in your chess library, but I'll add a bit of a caveat. My previous study prepared me reasonably well for Streetfighting Chess, with Winning Chess Tactics, Novice Nook, and How To Reassess Your Chess probably being the most relevant. At any rate, this isn't your first or second chess book. You've been warned.
So snap up a copy of Streetfighting Chess, fire up your favourite Killswitch Engage album, and let's rumble!
As always, I'm Stick, your resident wordslinger, and I'll see y'all out there on the gridiron!