Book Review: Chess Informant
BOOK REVIEW: Chess Informant 125 / Chess Informant 126
Tl;dr version: The old Chess Informant series is back with a new groove, and your author was suitably impressed. In terms of high-level analysis for a chess periodical, it’s the best I’ve seen. Moreover, the new style, with well-written and entertaining articles by top-level GMs, makes for an enjoyable read as well as an educational one.
As an ardent student of history, I love “Back in my day…” stories. Nowadays I could, if I want, do my entire preparation at a tournament via my smartphone, which contains a virtual library of chess books and articles as well as an internet database and link to my desktop engine at home. Can you begin to fathom how chess preparation has progressed?! Of course it was not always so, and I loved hearing GM Ian Rogers’ stories of his chess youth in which players would cart folders of hand-written files of games to their tournaments. The next step in the evolution of preparation was Chess Informant, an encyclopedic-sized, pan-lingual chess periodical that was replete with a fully annotated collection of the latest grandmaster games. These tomes contained a dazzling array of Wingdings-esque annotation symbols and virtually no vernacular, but it was all any chess professional needed to take on tour, regardless of their spoken language.
While a marked improvement on paper files, there naturally remained a substantial inconvenience to lugging around a bunch of Informants (or ‘Informators’, as I was taught) on the road. I’m old enough to remember doing just that when I was about 12 and playing in Europe. But of course the rise of truly portable computers and with it computer software and databases of games (albeit of significantly inferior annotation standards) removed the need for such manual labour, and being the indolent traveller that I am, I quickly replaced my treasured Informant collection with plastic and silicon. It sits, gathering dust, in the attic of my parents’ house in Australia, a relic to a pre-technology generation of chess preparation.
Or so I thought.
Despite my having abandoned the series, the Informant production has tirelessly continued unabated over the decades, but in recent years has rebranded itself from a pure data source. Like the proverbial phoenix, it has emerged from the ashes of the technological boom, reborn as an exceptionally high-quality chess periodical that combines cutting-edge analysis with a surprisingly entertaining literary bent. With over half of each book taken up by verbose GM-authored articles, Informant no longer caters to non-English speakers, but instead now provides enjoyable education and mouth-watering opening analysis by some of the world’s best chess analysts. And the rebirth, I have to admit, has been a complete success.
Does it sound like I’m gushing with flattery? I was accused of this by a chess.com reader recently after my review of the new Negi book - an accusation to which I most readily concede, as that book is outstanding! But just in case you feel like I’m overblowing the credentials of Informant’s authors, just look at this list of superstar contributors that feature in both of my review editions:
- Alexander Morozevich – perhaps the foremost contributor to original opening analysis today;
- Mihail Marin – unanimously considered one of the best modern chess authors;
- Karsten Mueller – arguably the most highly respected endgame analyst of the last decade.
Quite a dazzling line-up of stars, but the Informant team ‘bats deep’, as we say in cricket. There’s also Michael Roiz, one of the most reliable annotators around, as well as Emmanuel Berg, an outstanding opening theoretician, particularly in sharp variations after 1.e4. There are also some lesser well-known GM authors who, much like Marin, add a pleasant personal, retrospective slant to their articles. In Inf 126, for example, Ernesto Inarkiev writes a nice piece about life on tour as a chess pro, while GMs Leitao, Sethuraman and Shankland, in particular, give insightful peeks into their thoughts during the ups and downs of their recent World Cup campaigns.
With so many articles covered in each issue, there are always going to be favourites and less-favoured parts for each reader, as was my experience. In particular, I found the articles by one of the headliners and the top-rated contributor, Harikrishna, to be surprisingly disappointing. I was looking forward to really learning something from the thoughts of the almost-highest rated Indian player (at the time of writing, less than 1 ELO behind Anand!). Instead the two articles are rather dry with almost superficial analysis and a somewhat self-indulgent flavour. It is a shame that Harikrishna is also the annotator of the ‘Novelty of the Year’ (the amazing game Carlsen-Topalov from Saint Louis last year), as here, too, his analysis is disappointingly shallow.
On the other hand, I was extremely impressed by the article of Alexander Ipatov, who in Inf 126 also writes about his World Cup experience in Baku. The talented young Turkish GM is a surprisingly good writer, whose analysis is thorough and informative and who gives some really interesting insights into his approach to chess both during each game and more generally. This, for me, was an unexpected highlight. Another intriguing article is the unique ‘mirroring’ series by Emanuel Berg. In each article, he analyses a topical opening tabiya first solely from the white side, and then, in the subsequent game, from Black’s perspective. It sounds odd, and I’ve never seen it done before in such a segmented manner, but somehow it works, and I liked these articles immensely.
But the flagship pieces in Inf 125 and Inf 126 are undoubtedly the very first ones in the two editions, both by renowned opening inventor Alexander Morozevich. As an academic, I’m always impressed when top-level chess players are willing to publish their opening discoveries to the wider community, a knowledge-sharing approach that helps further the ‘science’ of chess theory. Morozevich is one such author, and these standout articles containing his incredible analyses of the Rubenstein French (Inf 125) and the Benoni/King’s Indian Saemisch hybrid (Inf 126) are truly top-class. Even if one doesn’t want to purchase the whole book, no chess professional should miss being across the material published by Morozevich in each edition.
I have to make one point that regular readers will have come to expect of me by now, and which, as a native English-speaker and self-confessed ‘grammarphone’, might not be relevant to all. But regardless, I feel obliged to report: for a chess periodical that previously prided itself on being virtually language-free, the quality of the English writing is absolutely exceptional. My guess is that the articles are first written by the authors in their preferred tongues and then translated externally, although I could find no acknowledgement of a translator in the book. But the books read exceptionally well, especially compared to the standard we’ve come to expect in chess publications. Whatever the means or method, the Informant team deserves a big pat on the back for entering the English literary world at such a high entry level.
My final comment before you run out and buy yourself a copy – ah, who am I kidding? Who buys books outside their house anymore? – is that Informant is not for everyone. By this, I mean that the high-level analysis for which Informant became famous still remains, and to many amateur players this will be overwhelmingly daunting. In my opinion, there are still better periodicals out there from a pure literary-enjoyment perspective for the chess enthusiast, although the style of the new Informant makes it a worthy competitor. (Incidentally, Informant 126 contains a full-page advertisement for the New in Chess ipad app – now that’s really chess knowledge-sharing at its finest!) And for 99 percent of readers, these books are not designed to be enjoyed on the train or the beach, but require a table, a set and a reasonably serious attitude for maximum fulfilment. Still, in terms of combining superb analysis with enjoyable writing and a pleasing mix of articles, the resurrected Informant has definitely won me over. Perhaps in turn I should resurrect my bigger suitcase.