"Dynamics of Chess Strategy" by Vlastimil Jansa

"Dynamics of Chess Strategy" by Vlastimil Jansa

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My first review in the "My Bookshelf" column was "Dynamic Chess Strategy" by Mihai Suba. The title of the book I am reviewing this week is almost identical. Yet the books are completely different. Both books are modern middlegame books, and both focus on the "dynamic" approach to chess. The Czech grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa's book examines the middlegame through the context of the opening, paying particular attention to decision-making at key points of the transition between the opening and middlegame.

The book consists of three chapters: one on the Spanish Opening, from White's point of view; one on the Grunfeld Defense, from Black's point of view; and a third chapter which deals with various openings - the Caro-kann, Scandinavian, Sveshnikov, and Pirc openings from White's point of view, a way to play against ...Qb6 in various Sicilians, and then finally a relatively long section on the Scheveningen Sicilian from both sides' points of view.

But despite that all the sections focus on a different opening, this is primarily a middlegame book - why is that? If you look at it, you will see that most investigations deal with middlegame positions which result from these particular openings. Some of them are theoretical positions - even if it is Jansa's own theory - but the main point is not to show theory, but to teach the reader to solve problems on their own, to get the feel of the type of middlegames which result from each of these openings. Certainly a player needs to "know" some moves, but the real point of "learning" an opening is to understand the kind of position which results from it.

The book was published in 2003, originally in Czech, and translated to English by Karel Kopicka. Throughout the book there are problems for the reader to solve, with points awarded that can be tabulated at the end of each chapter. 

Where I got it

I got this book with a gift certificate I won from the 2009 U.S. Grand Prix, in May 2010. I was rather annoyed that one grand prix tournament I won didn't count because the organizer made a mistake in the advertisement or something like that, which meant I got a gift certificate instead of a cash prize. But the upside was that as a result I had no choice but to get a bunch of chess books, which I hadn't bought in years. This book caught my eye - I knew that Jansa was a respected older grandmaster who probably has a lot of knowledge, so I chose this as one of the books.

What's good about it

Jansa's understanding of chess is superb. Yet he doesn't really deal with generalities - everything in the book is very specific. He gets deep into all of the nuances of the lines he analyzes, both strategic and tactical. Usually he refers to his own experience in games or analysis, and gives personal accounts of how he solved the various problems. The book shows how to conduct your own analysis of openings and solve the problems yourself, beginning with a superficial understanding of the position and delving deeper and deeper to find hidden resources. Jansa often spends a lot of time looking at moves which turn out not to be the best, in order to show the line of reasoning in the development of an opening line.

This book is naturally best for those players who play these particular lines. However, even if you don't play these openings, you can benefit from the book. I myself have never played the Grunfeld (except after White fianchettos the bishop) but have read that section. Also I frequently think about taking it up now, although I haven't done it yet.

This book is ideal for high-rated players, maybe 2100 and up. However, as always I think that anyone can benefit from a book which is above their level - particularly if you are someone who likes to challenge himself and doesn't get frustrated.

How it impacted me

2010 - particularly the first half of the year - was pretty good for me, in chess and otherwise. But sometime around April I had a slight downturn, with two bad tournaments back-to-back, and generally felt that my chess was lacking a real understanding. During those times and the months that followed I was real critical of myself. I begin to try to gain a higher understanding of chess in general, and one way I did that was through this book. In May and June I started playing well again, and at the end of June I got what should have been my first GM norm (at least it was my first 2600+ performance in a 9-round tournament).

I never studied this book very seriously, nor did I ever try to solve the problems which Jansa gives - but that is not usually the way I do things. Nowadays I am too busy with other things in life (such as work - even if it usually involves chess) to seriously study.

An Excerpt

Here is an excerpt, starting from page 92 in the chapter on the Grunfeld:

Personally, I have not considered Kramnik's 13.d5 Rd8 14.Ke1

a dangerous continuation either. The retreat of the white king, closing in the Rh1, must be enough for Black to launch sufficient counterplay, regardless of the white pawn power in the center, which may be, by the way, considered a sign of both strength and weakness. Or am I mistaken? I as very curious how this position would be handled by the contemporary world ace Kramnik and his opponents. However, I have to state that the most important line is still full of mystery. Kramnik played both games excellently but each of his otherwise strong opponents put up a poor show as if they only borrowed this opening for a single game... In any case they missed the imaginary and continuously moving strategic target by many centimetres. Leko was given a hard time after the pre-prepared but passive 14...Ne5?! 15.Nxe5 Bxe5 16. f4 Bd6 17. Kf2 e5 18.Bc5 exf4 19. Bxd6 Rxd6 20.Kf3 with advantage to White in the centre, Van Wely played the more frequently employed 14...Na5 15.Bg5 Bd7 16.Bd3 Rdc8 17.Ke2 e6 but after 18.Be3!? exd5 19.exd5

19...b6 20.Ba6 Rd8 21.Rhd1 Bc8? he also stood worse.

Popular openings of the top world players usually attract attention quickly but in this case I can only uncomprehendingly shake my head. The only epicenter remaining is the surprising 14...Na5 with various minor improvements for both sides mostly with a minimum edge for White, the most prestigious climax probably being a Kramnik - Kasparov game, Astana 2001, which ended in a draw after 30 moves. Both White and Black have tried, after 14...Na5, various moves: 21...Ba4, 19...a6 or 19...b5, possibly 15.Bd3 Bd7 16.Ke2 e6 17.Rc5 or even 15.Bd2 b6 16.Bb4...Only an interesting idea of Emil Sutovsky, 14...Na5 15.Bg5 Bd7 16.Bd3 f5!?, generates some excitement...           

            An undisputed problem for Black lies in the 'offside' position of the Na5, even if this might only be temporary. The passive Na5 undoubtedly gives White chances for the advantage in the future struggle. I dare to say, however, that Black has no need to play like this! As far back as twenty years ago, in a game Keene - Jansa, Esbjerg 1981, I continued, in my opinion, more promisingly and actively


            Since then I have considered this move, involving the black knight in an immediate operation, to be the most appropriate continuation in this position. Black should not have the slightest problems then! But why has nobody played this move against Kramnik so far? I really do not know...

And now we will skip ahead a little later in Jansa's discussion of the 14...Nb4 move:

            What then should White play after 14...Nb4, then? 15.Bc4? cannot be considered since 15...b5! 16.Bxb5 Nxa2 is clearly advantageous for Black. As the most appropriate seems to be the well-known 15.Bd2 Na6 and now 16.Bg5!?

            the same foray used by Kramnik after 14...Na5. What do you think, which position is more active for the black knight? Black does not have much trouble with the Na5, besides he may, after 14...Na5 15.Bg5, continue 15...Bd7 without taking any notice of the pawn on e7...Nevertheless such reasoning seems to be much more complex since the knight can reach the center by 'a single jump', i.e. Nc5 after the preparatory b6 or Nb4, and thus have the potential to endanger the white king and his entourage. White, for his part, can exchange the knight Bxa6, however, this move not only weakens the opponent's pawns but also completely surrenders the white squares. On the other hand, the only role of the knight placed on the a5-square lies in the comfortable monitoring of events in the center, isn't that too small? What is more important, after all? Make a calculation and sum everything up! Will you prefer dynamics, i.e. certain danger of rushing water, to the safety of stagnant water? If this is the case, try to flow through some dangerous channels of the variation with me!

Any Downsides?

The fact that Jansa focuses on specific openings could be a downside for some. Those who don't play any of the specific openings that Jansa discusses might not be as interested in the book. However, as I said, I think anyone could benefit from seeing how to solve specific opening problems, even if it is not their opening.

The other thing I could say is that sometimes there is a bit of an arrogant tone to the writing. It doesn't really impact the reader too much though. I would prefer to read a book with personality and a little arrogance rather than a dry book with no personality.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Dumplings with beef and cranberry sauce. 

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