Book review: Chess Board Options by Larry Kaufman

Book review: Chess Board Options by Larry Kaufman

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Larry Kaufman, now 73, has written a memoir about his life: Chess Board Options. Kaufman excelled in 3 areas: chess, chess programming and Shogi. At the age of 60, he became a grandmaster by winning the senior world chess championships. His latest chess engine, Komodo Dragon, is ranked third in the world just behind Stockfisch and Leela Chess Zero.  In an earlier blog, I reviewed Kaufman's New Repertoire for Black and White.

I really enjoyed reading his latest book. Stories are the fabric of our lives and Kaufman's rich experience provides him with a lot of material. He writes like a man, who has nothing left to prove, unpretentious. He is just sharing his wisdom and most memorable moments of his life. 

There are 5 chapters in the book:

  • 20th-century champions I have known
  • My non-chess career: options, shogi and other games
  • My chess career and my students including his son IM Raymond
  • Computer chess (chess engines, man vs machine, NNUE)
  • Various chess-related topics (ratings, openings, material values, value of time etc.)

The first chapter is the longest (70 pages of 220 pages) and includes anecdotes about Fisher, Korchnoi,  Spassky, Kasparov and many others. It also includes Kaufman's theory about the inspiration for Beth Harmon's character in the Netflix series The Queens Gambit.

Through his work developing top chess engines, he obviously learned a lot about chess.  He is famous for the estimation of the correct material values of the pieces. Most players work with the following values: 

  • pawn =1;
  • knight=3;
  • bishop=3,
  • rook=5
  • queen= 9 to 10
  • bonus for the bishop pair = 0.5.

These values depend of course a lot on the activity of the pieces. Kasparov taught us that a stable knight on the 6th rank, a so-called Octopus, is worth at least a rook!

Kaufman concluded that the value of the pieces is not stable during the different phases of the game (opening, middlegame and endgame) and that pawns and rooks, in particular, are worth less in the opening. That is logical as a rook on a1 or h1 is not active and a passed pawn in the endgame can be a queen shortly! After extensive research, he concluded that the correct piece values for the pieces in the middlegame (with two queens still on the board) are:

  • pawn = 0.8;
  • knight = 3.2;
  • bishop = 3.3;
  • first rook = 4.7;
  • second rook = 4.5
  • bonus for a bishop pair = 0.3

In the book, you can also read how the absence of one or both queens influences the value of the pieces. In Chapter 29, What is a won game? Kaufman writes about the value of time and space in chess. As an example, in a match between top-level chess engines, Black is lost after 1. e4 Nc6 2. d4 Nb8, that is 2.5 tempi. It highlights the importance (especially for Black!) to develop your pieces efficiently in the opening.

I found this to be a very pleasant book to read. It is as if Kaufman is just telling you about what he experienced and learned in life. The style is light and non-technical. This makes it suitable fow a wide audience. Personally, I would have preferred some more technical depth when he explains NNUE and other recent chess engine developments.

The book is available now on chess e-book reader Forward Chess for $18,- and will be available in paperback in the USA from Amazon for $25,- as of September 15.

Ben Johnson, from the Perpetual Chess Podcast, interviewed Larry Kaufman at the end of 2019 about his previous book and his life in general. You can listen to this interview here.