Book Reviews - Chess Books for Improving Adults
I've just returned from a summer chess trip and even though I did not manage to accomplish my primary goal (painfully missing the final GM norm by half a point at De Sants 2017, being the highlight of this trip), I did at least achieve other forms of successes such as learning more about chess and getting to play some good games against very strong players. The other positive aspect is that I received several good books/DVDs during the trip and I managed to enjoy some of these during and in-between the events. This and the subsequent post is a compilation of some of my favourite ones.
Thinkers Publishing is still a relatively new kid on the block but I have been impressed by some of their recent works. I first heard of this publishing company in 2015 when I bought Romain Edouard's The Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes Volumes 1 & 2, Thinkers Publishing at the monthly Kecskemet GM tournament and I was immediately hooked on the lively and engaging style of the very strong French Grandmaster. Indeed, I had written a mini-book review on Volume 1 here and I was eagerly awaiting new titles from Romain.
GM Romain Eduourd. Thanks to Romain for allowing me to swipe and feature this picture from his Facebook
The book in question is yet another exercise product on the extremely important theme of calculation. When I first saw this book, my immediate question was probably the same as everyone else's - given the huge number of puzzle/problem solving books out there in the market (Aagaard's GM Preparation series springs to mind), is there really a need for yet another puzzle book, and what will this bring to the table? In short yes, and I will explain briefly why.
The books are broken up into various catchily named chapters such as "Play the right move under pressure!", "Play the killer positional move!" and "Evaluate the opportunity!" with the exclaims adding oomph to the titles. There is a warm-up chapter which players of Master level should find pretty straightforward but the main point of this chapter was to serve as a, well, warm up! I kind of like this feature and in fact, while preparing for the RTU Open, I had set aside 5 mins each day to solve some positions from this chapter just to get my juices started. A plus point is that virtually all the games are recent which significantly reduces the risk of solving the same examples from other materials. The positions are well selected and the final chapter in particular will be especially useful for players of master level. For example, I took 30 minutes today and attempted the following positions:
White to play. What is the best way to handle this mess?
Can Black save the day playing 48...Nxe4 49.Qxe4 Qf2?
Find an excellent move, granting Black a great advantage
Black to play. Find the winning move!
Which move is winning: 50.Qxh6, 50.Re2, 50.Nb5 or 50.Nh2?
From the above, one can easily tell that this book is not for the faint hearted, and that the author has made it more interesting with well-thought questions for you to ponder while attempting to solve the positions. I find the book great fun to work through and its slim design makes it easy to bring along for training during tournaments.
For some reason, the price of the book is not stated anywhere that I can find, but since it is priced at SGD$26 on Forward Chess, I am guessing its hardcopy retail price to be approximately US$20. With 496 positions taken from recent praxis, I think it is well worth the money and is a recommended buy. Oh, and it even contains a game of mine!
Puzzle 77 of the warm-up chapter - coincidentally, my birthday is 7th July. White to play and win
Final Rating: 5* out of 6
In Singapore, a large number of chess players tend to turn less competitive or active around the age of 18 or so. Mandatory National Service means that many Singaporean male players had to stop playing for a period of approximately 2 years and after NS, these players will start thinking about life in Universities followed by getting a job. As all of us know, Chess is an immensely difficult game to master and there are very few out there who are able to achieve true success in a game that requires large amounts of time and focus in training.
Locally, we tend to call this group of players (mid 30s and above, ex-national players, love the game but find it hard to keep pace) "Uncles", or Old Birds" (we have very few female adult players) While I often wish I have the energy and capacity that I had a decade ago, I am still proud to be part of this group and I try to maintain my strength by making practical decisions on and off the board. Internationally, Nigel Short is probably the most well-known "Uncle" around, and one can also see that his style of play has gradually shifted over time.
After reading the preface of Chess for Life, my immediate reaction was that this book is truly for the Uncles! Here is an extract from the Preface:
"Chess is accessible to all ages and it brings generations together. However, there can be a perception that in competitive chess, younger players have the advantage, perhaps through being better versed in the latest opening theory, or having superior calculating abilities."
Yup, we have all heard or thought of that one before.
"Through our study of how players develop and change throughout their careers, we have compiled a wealth of ideas for experienced players to continue developing their game."
Sounds like something for former competitive players interested to make a comeback into the game? Definitely!
Most chess players have probably heard of GM Matthew Sadler but may be less familiar with Natasha Regan, who is a WIM from England and whom specialised in actuary in the insurance industry. I imagine that Mattew wrote the majority if not, all of the prose in the book while Natasha was responsible for the data crunching and analysis.
The format of the book is in the form of interviews with "role models", or players who have experienced success at a high level for a sustained period of time, sometimes followed by a review of something unique about these players. Some of the chapters that I will like to highlight are the ones on the following role models:
1) Pia Cramling: A short profile was provided, followed by a detailed interview and an analysis of Cramling's White repertoire. As the first chapter, it served as an excellent introduction of what we can expect;
2) Jose Raul Capablanca: Obviously there wasn't an interview here, but Sadler explained that the 3rd World Champion was an inspiration to him during his preparation for the 2013 London Chess Classic and gave examples of the ideas that he learnt from studying Capablanca's games;
3) Sergei Tiviakov: A short profile plus interview, followed by a systematic and an incredibly breakdown of Sergei's use of the 3...Qd6 Scandinavian;
4) Keith Arkell: A short profile, interview followed by a thesis on the Arkell variation of the QGD and Arkell's favourite rook endings. As a spoiler, I have to say that this chapter is an absolute gem and you will soon see why.
GM Matthew Sadler looking mean and grim over the board. Photo credit @ https://www.facebook.com/gmmatthew.sadler
Matthew Sadler is an extremely strong Grandmaster, with a peak rating of 2687 which he very recently attained in July this year. At the age of 43, this is truly remarkable especially for the fact that he does not seem to play all that often, with the odd open tournament and he mainly participates in 4NCL. As far as I can remember, I cannot recall the last chess book that was written by a near 2700 player, which is a good enough reason for anyone to sit up and take notice!
As such, for the purposes of this review, I will not be covering any of the interviews (I will elaborate more later) but will instead focus more on the chess content.
In the first chapter, Matthew spends 5 pages to explain why it is more practical to prepare a 1.d4 repertoire with Nf3. He broke the repertoire choice into 3 factors:
1) Your desired level of aggression against the Queen's Gambit Declined;
2) Whether you want to allow the Nimzo-Indian or force Black into the Queen's Indian;
3) Your desired level of aggression against the Modern Benoni.
Matthew explained that these systems allows a lot more flexibility as compared to systems with 3.Nc3, which were his initial set of opening 1.d4 systems. Here is what he has to say:
"My choice of systems was very inflexible. My first move has to be 1.d4, my second move has to be 2.c4, and my third move is 3.Nc3. I need to keep my knight on g1 at home for as long as possible, so I have to make the other three moves first in that order. If you don't care about keeping the knight on g1 flexible, then you have lots of move order options. For example, you can play 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 or even 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.d4. It may not sound like much, but I can promise you that Black players go crazy trying to workout how to still get their preferred lines against d4+c4 systems via these move orders...."
Matthew went on by giving an example from the Queen's Indian and I can add that starting a game with 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 does avoid annoying lines such as the Budapest Gambit or Albin Counter Gambit. Not that these lines are anything to shout about but if you are facing someone who is extremely tactically inclined and plays commital openings like these, it sometimes makes sense to simply sidestep from territory that your opponents might be more familiar with.
The rest of the chapter constitutes an in-depth analysis of Pia Cramling's opening choices across various periods, and the games that were examined were clear illustrations of Matthew's claims of Nf3-systems being more practical than Nc3-lines.
Pia and her daughter Anna @ the Baku Olympiad 2016. Photo credit @ David Llada
In my opinion, Matthew saved the best material from an educational perspective to the very last chapter. In the chapter "Keith Arkell: Finding a Style You Love", Matthew has this to say:
"Keith Arkell's style is naturally well-suited to playing as a senior. It is based on keeping the king safe, aiming for specific pawn-structures and using his deep understanding of the resulting positions, honed over time, to steer the game safely into the types of endings he prefers."
While preparing a line in the Semi-Slav for an important training game about half a year ago, I suddenly realised that after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 c6, White could simplify matters with 5.cd5. I never really paid much attention to this move and only knew that almost all major publications on the Semi-Slav or the Queen's Gambit Declined had branded this move order as harmless, in view of the ability for Black to develop his light square bishop efficiently. Going through some basic moves on the database, I was surprised to see Arkell's name popping up very often on the White side of this particular set-up such as the following:
Matthew proceeded to invest 16 pages on this particular structure, using mainly Arkell's games to illustrate his points. Matthew has a lively engaging writing style and he was able to explain clearly and lucidly, what he feels are the most important characteristics of this structure. In order to truly appreciate the depth of his commentary, one often has to put in a bit more analytical thought. I like the way he was able to connect the treatment of certain type of positions that intuitively may seem completely unrelated. For example, while discussing the strengths and weaknesses of placing White's kingside pawns on f2, g3 and h4 while Black has a dark square bishop in the Carlsbad structure, Matthew wrote the following:
"(About placing your pawns on the same colour as the opponent's bishop)...It's one of those rules that I always have to think twice about because intuitively it feels a little risky: aren't you just making it easy for the opponent to attack your pawns with his bishop in this way? That is true, but it only matters if your opponent can get his bishop behind your pawns and attack the base of your pawn-structure"
He then gave an example from the Berlin endgame as an example of the potential risks of such a strategy, and compared the key differences that game had with a normal Carlsbad.
There are a ton of these nuggets that can be found from this chapter and I somehow find myself agreeing with Matthew that a "Chess Uncle" should start relying on lines that are less hyper-theoretical and sharp, and more strategic in nature such as the Arkell's Carlsbad. Studying this chapter in detail will help you to improve your middlegame understanding and also learn to be patient in positions with a very slight plus.
Keith Arkell is also known to be particular adept with endings and if you play quiet lines, you are always going to be facing a lot of them! The final part of the chapter is a Rook ending lecture based on Arkell's own games. According to the authors, Arkell has an amazing 303(!!!) rook endings in his games, and he normally scores very well from them. I will not go into detail about Matthew's prose and analysis of these games except that those are every bit as excellent as one can expect. There are many excellent rook ending books out there in the market but I have not seen any that cover practical rook endings with such clear and insightful comments.
As readers might be able to tell, I really love the material in this last chapter and I am inclined to say that this chapter is worth the cost of the book itself. However, I feel a little frustrated with some of the choices that were made in the publication of this book. For instance, while I enjoy reading interviews in general, I do not quite see the point of including a chunk of interviews in a book that is written by a player as strong as Matthew Sadler. The guy is close to 2700 and writes extremely well, and I will love to have an entire book filled with his insights on the game rather than him giving interviews! I was particularly bewildered at the lack of coverage of the games and styles of Judit Polgar and Nigel Short, both of whom are living legends. Nigel in particular, recently crossed the 2700 mark once again, albeit rather briefly and I would love to see a discussion of his choice of openings over time.
The other slight complaint that I have would probably be the chapter on Tiviakov's interpretation of the 3...Qd6 Scandinavian. While Mattew and Natasha did a really thorough and splendid job in breaking down the various methods that Sergei uses in his games, I kind of wonder whether the chapter was really i) an advocate of the opening itself, ii) to educate us the various ways one can build an opening repertoire or iii) both? These days, the existence of this variation is under threat (John Shaw's analysis in his recent 1.e4 repertoire book springs to mind) and I imagine that the authors' intention was probably more towards ii. This is fair, except that I would have really liked to read a bit more about Sergei's treatment of the Isolated Queen's Pawn.
Perhaps, this demand is a tad unfair as I was once on the receiving end of an extremely torturous affair:
We did not really analyse after the game and I simply asked him where he thought I went wrong. He said "you shouldn't allow a2-a4 - this severely restricts your counterplay and allows me a very nice outpost on b5" before walking away. I learnt a lot from those simple words and 5 years later, I played the following game: