Book Review: Re-engineering the Chess Classics by GM Matthew Sadler and FM Steve Giddins

Book Review: Re-engineering the Chess Classics by GM Matthew Sadler and FM Steve Giddins

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Matthew Sadler is a very strong grandmaster (2694 at age 49) and one of the leading computer chess experts. In 2019 he wrote the award-winning Game Changer with Natasha Regan about AlphaZero, and in 2021 he published The Silicon Road to Chess Improvement on how to use chess engines to improve your own game. In addition, Matthew kept the world appraised of the latest engine developments through his tweets and recaps of the Top Engine Chess Championships.

For this latest book Re-engineering the Chess Classics, he teamed up with Steve Giddins to evaluate 40 classical games through the eyes of Stockfish, Leela Chess Zero, and Komodo Dragon. The games are from the period 1852 to 1998 and include games from all the World Champions of that period.

Over the last five years, chess has been revolutionized by the research of AlphaZero, the subsequent implementation of their concepts in Leela Chess Zero, and finally, including neural network technology in Stockfish NNUE. The development of chess engines has been so strong that any opening analysis from before 2020 has lost much of its value. Can the classics stand the test of time?

The themes that emerge from analyzing the forty classics game will not surprise you:

  1. Activity: avoid passive pieces
  2. Space: grab space

Consider the position after 1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.d4 Bd7 5. Nc3 Nge7 6.d5. The engine assessment after 6.d5 is over +2.5 for White, a decisive advantage.  

The preference of engines for space has also led to some openings, like the Kings-Indian being hardly playable at the engine level.

  1. Use the rook’s pawns!

Let’s assume White moves up his h-pawn. For three tempi (h4-h5-h6), White creates dark square weaknesses on the kingside. The advanced h-pawn restricts the opponent’s king (mate on g7 but also mate on the back rank). Furthermore, White adds an attacker to his existing attack that might assist other attackers and tie down defenders. Finally, in the endgame, the h7-pawn might become a target.

The advance of the rook’s pawn has also impacted the opening theory. For example:  1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.h4 is now a popular Grünfeld Defence variation.

  1. Tenacious defense: small advantages don’t always win.

Mistakes come easily in bad positions, but not when you are an engine!

  1. Use the whole board.

Humans tend to concentrate on one area of the board and devote all their efforts to breaking through on that side, whereas engines are masters at switching plans and creating threats over the whole board.

  1. Be an absolute tactical genius who never misses anything!

This was the traditional strength of chess engines and still is.

Interestingly, we play less well than engines because humans play with ‘baggage.’   In bad positions, we stress out and cannot find the most stubborn defence. When we attack, we focus on breaking through and lack the agility to see the whole board and switch strategy when necessary. Engines play without memory or ego and look with objectivity at every position.

The development of the strongest engines has led to a reevaluation of the relative importance of material, activity, and space. If you want to see how the latest chess concepts impact 40 classics, this book is for you!

The book is currently on introductory offer at ForwardChess for $23.79 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon in hardcover for $34.95.