"200 Open Games" by David Bronstein

"200 Open Games" by David Bronstein

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This week I will be reviewing a unique book - 200 Open Games, by the former "Vice-World Champion", David Bronstein. Rather than fully annotated games, this book presents 200 short vignettes, each followed by an un-annotated game, with one diagram. In most cases, the introductory text tells some story associated with the game and sets a mood. Usually the text only includes commentary on a few specific moments of the game.

This book is as much literature as it is a chess book. The games and stories mostly take up one page each; all games were played by Bronstein and the book contains plenty of draws and losses by him as well. As one would expect, each game begins with the moves 1.e4 e5 (an "open game"). The games are divided into chapters of each specific opening, i.e. The Vienna Game, The Italian Game, Philidor's Defence, etc.; and each chapter includes an introduction to the opening in general. As could be expected, the chapter on the Spanish (aka Ruy Lopez) is by far the longest, followed by the chapter on the King's Gambit, of which Bronstein was an advocate. The book was first published in Russian and translated by Philip Booth.

Where I got it

When I first created this column, I thought I would be able to figure out where I got most of my books, but it turned out not to be true. This is another book which I don't know where I bought it. I believe I had it since I was about sixteen years old.

What's good about it

Personally this is one of my favorite books, mainly because of the wonderful evocative atmosphere Bronstein creates and the poetic way he relates chess games to real life. The introductory stories bring to mind far-off places and times and often include strange allegories where the pieces assume human thoughts. On the surface this book is not aimed at instruction, but rather entertainment. My favorite books are like that. I think - if you are not a professional player - then the purpose of chess should be enjoyment. Even if you are a professional, it should still be that way. Some people would disagree though - there are all too many chess players who see chess as a complex puzzle where they try to prove how smart they are, which is unfortunate.

However, the book definitely has its instructive value. If you want to learn how to play, for instance, the Spanish Opening, this book is great. You get to see one grandmaster's practice in the variation - not just deeply analyzed "great games" but the day-to-day practice, including draws and losses. Within each chapter the games are also arranged systematically; so, for instance in the chapter on the Spanish, you have games in the Steinitz variation grouped together, the Chigorin variation together, the Berlin variation, and so on. I am sure that playing over the games in this book will teach you many typical themes and structures of the various open games. Even the introductory stories help - would you be more likely to remember dry analysis, or something attached to a memorable story? And ultimately, I think this book will make you enjoy chess much more, and I firmly believe that being devoted to chess is responsible for 99% of improvement.

How it impacted me

This book certainly made me like chess more. Also I am sure I learned a lot about the open games from it. In fact, it probably led me to see the Spanish as an interesting opening (in the past I played the King's Gambit almost exclusively).

An Excerpt

I will present two of the games from the book. First, here is one from the chapter "The Ancient Spanish Game - Ruy Lopez's Opening" on page 222:


Black: L.Winiwarter - Krems 1967, International Tournament

The international tournament at the Austrian town of Krems coincided with an international congress of correspondence chess-players also taking place there.

            The day of my encounter with Dr. Winiwarter was a free day for the congress and the correspondence-players hurried across to the tournament. For them a game where more than one move a day is played is a wonder. As is for a mathematician-programmer friend of mine 'the crocodile pear' (a perfectly edible fruit, something like a coconut which grows in some region of South America) which he read about somewhere and now secretly dreams of...

            Sometimes I would tear myself away from the play and, contrary to normal competition rules, would go into the rows set out for the public to get to know the correspondence grandmasters' opinions. We, the practical players, calculate to a considerable degree on swiftness of reaction and the opponent's fear, whilst everything with them is based on a scientific assessment of the position. The controller did not object.

            And then when I played d4-d5 our vice-president of the Institute of Geological Research, Yakov Stanslavovich Eventov asked shyly:

            'Are you sure you won't want d5 for a piece?'

            I did not have time to reply as I had to go back to my board. I came back again and he then asked me, this time anxiously:

            'Why did you play a4-a5? Are you really counting only on breaking through on the K-side?'

            'How do you mean, Yakov Stanislavovich? I don't want to break through on the K-side at all! Oh, excuse me, it's my move.'

            I went away, played h4-h5, and came back again to the vice-president - I felt I had not answered all his questions yet. And I was not mistaken.

            'I can't understand. What, have you decided to play for a draw as White?!'

            'Why for a draw? I'm beginning to win now...'

            'Would you kindly stop pulling my leg? said Professor Eventov angrily and he was about to walk off.

            'Forgive me, but you, I remember, have said that you have already looked seven kilometres below the earth's surface and you can see everything there?'

            'Yes, I can, but what are you looking for in this blocked position?'

            'I am not looking for anything! It is there to be seen. Listen now.

            I played a4-a5 to take b6 away from the black knight, and then h4-h5 so that this same knight should not leap onto g6.

            That means its fate is clear: to travel the route from f8-h7-f8-d7 and back again, just like an express taxi.

            But since I have played d4-d5 even earlier, life is not too easy for Black's second knight either: his destiny is to walk from b7-d8-f7 and back to b7. The pawn on d5 keeps both knights in.'

            'Interesting!' said the Professor in a conciliatory tone. 'But what then?'

            'Then? If Black has two knights out of action, White has only to open up the position a little bit, and...'

            'You're not going to sacrifice, surely; besides, your opponent won't allow you to. He's probably already guessed what you're planning.'

            'Therein lies the secret of the plan with a4-a5, d4-d5, and h4-h5, that my opponent is incapable of preventing the breakthrough I'm preparing! I shall sacrifice on c4, and I have rather more means of breaking through than Black has of defending this pawn.

            But besides that...are you quite sure my opponent has guessed my plan?

            Look how serenely his bishops are shuffling about. He is clearly waiting for the beginnings of negotiations for a draw!'

            When the game was over, Yakov Stanislavovich looked with pride at the chain of White pawns, associating them, obviously, with some geological deposits of various mysterious rocks - and finally he brought himself to offer a word of praise:

            'If you, grandmaster, were working in my Institute, I would entrust the exploration of the riches of the mountains to you. I think in chess you can see deeper than seven kilometres down!'

            'Thank you, but I do not deserve this myself: knowledge helped me, and previous games...For how many times have I sacrificed in exactly the same way and lost!'

And here is the final game from the book - a very lighthearted one, and different than the others in format, because the moves are interspersed with comments:


White: B. S. Queenabber - Kiev 1938, Friendly Game

An editor always has a part to play in the creation of a book: his task is to ensure harmony, order and fine proportions, as well as to review the manuscript with a critical eye.

            When I had submitted the manuscript of the book my editor condemned me for lack of self-criticism ('there were too few lost games') and incompleteness ('there was no Alapin's opening'). Moreover, I had promised 200 games, and there were only 199. But the most serious failing was that there was no metion of grandmaster B. S. Queenabber. 'Although,' he added, 'I am absolutely convinced that this personage is fictitious - on one has ever seen him fact to face.'

            'That's an excellent idea!' I exclaimed. 'But I must disappoint you: not only have I heard of Queenabber, I have even played against hi.'

            And I told the editor of how, in the spring of 1938 in Kiev, when I was only 14, I came across my chess teacher, A. M. Konstantinopolsky, talking to a tall gentleman outside the conservatory where the next round of the semi-finals of the national championship was due to be played.

            'I have to go now and play', said Konstantinopolsky to the stranger, 'but you have a game with this little chappy here,' and he pointed to me.

            My opponent took White, removed his a1-rook from the board and put his a-pawn on a3.

            'I never play young fellows without giving odds,' he said.

1.e4 e5 2.Ne2

            'What's this?' I asked. 'I wanted to get into a Ruy Lopez.'

            'You'll have your wish some time, but not now,' the stranger answered. 'Anyone who wants to nab the other person's queen (here he was, Queenabber himself, talking about 'nabbing queens'!) mustn't move his queen before the middle of the game; so I am playing Alapin's opening.'

2...Nf6 3.d4 Nxe4 4.Ng3 Nxg3 5.hxg3 Nc6

            Having been brought up in the strict positional-logical style, I was perfectly content with my game. I had one piece developed, my opponent had none.

6.Nc3 exd4 7.Nd5 Be7

            'In such positions Alapin used to shout "Allora!" - which means "Forward!", said my opponent and played 8. Qg4!

            A terrible thought flashed through my mind. If Alapin used to bring his queen out in the middle of the game, then how many moves would the whole game last.

            So before moving again, I asked:

            'Did you, er, know Alapin?'

            'I even knew B. Lapin. He wrote stylized oriental verse: 'Where now is the glory of Darya, Rustam? Who remembers the name of Steinitz Wilhelm?'

            'I remember the name of Steinitz Wilhelm,' I replied.

8...g6 9.Bc4 f5 10.Rxh7 fxg4

            'Queenabber!' I shouted. I wanted the mysterious stranger to realize that his secret was well known to me.

11.Nxc7+ Qxc7 12.Bf7+ Kd8 13.Rxh8+ Bf8 14.Bg5+ Ne7 15.Rxf8 mate

            'In the present circumstances, it is not Queenabber but Kingnabber,' said the stranger...

            'This incident took place more than thirty years ago in Kiev, I said to the editor as I cam to the end of my story. 'Since that time Queenabber and I have become friends. Could I put this tale about him in the book?'

            'Oh, okay,' muttered the editor with a sigh, though thinking to himself that it was all sheer hyperbole.

            But having thought a little more, he added:

            'Now the book has 200 games, there is a solid dose of losses, we have Alapin's opening, and we have B. S. Queenabber.'

Any Downsides?

Every game includes only one diagram, and the book is in descriptive notation. So if you want to see the whole game, you pretty much have to break out the chess board and play it over - it is really hard to read a whole game in your head when it is written in descriptive notation. Of course, the Russian version is in algebraic, so if you can read Russian then that would work for you.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

A cappuccino.

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