Book Review: Sergey Kasparov's Swamp
“A Cunning Chess Opening For Black” – Sergey Kasparov
New in Chess
“Lure your opponent into the Philidor swamp!” promises the subheading on the book’s cover, accompanied by a ghastly green-and-brown photo of – literally – a swamp. A non-chess themed cover is already an unorthodox start for a chess book, but Sergey’s just getting warmed up. This is definitely no ordinary opening text.
What do I mean by this? Well, this is the first opening book I’ve reviewed that could easily have earned any rating from one to five stars out of five. It’s all a matter of perspective, and perhaps more importantly, of what you want out of your purchase. For example, I started reading the book with a real interest in learning the Philidor’s Defence – an opening that has increasingly become incorporated into the repertoires of top grandmasters, although usually as a surprise weapon. You’d think this wasn’t such a strange expectation to have in reading what purports to be an opening book. However, I have to admit that in terms of teaching the Philidor to a new adoptee, the book doesn’t do a very good job. The variation structure is a bit confusing, concrete lines are pushed aside in favour of endless illustrative games and, after my first full read, I honestly had no idea of exactly what repertoire Sergey was proposing for Black. Uncanny.
However, something else had happened by the time I reached the final page. I had become convincingly, embarrassingly addicted to Sergey’s writing. The book is engaging, humorous, mercurial and ‘unputdownable’, an imaginary adjective I reserve only for those books that bait me into a full read in one sitting. One’s first inkling comes at the start of the introduction. “Hello, dear reader!” chimes Sergey, in a (most likely unintentional) throwback to the opening lines of the great Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” (Incidentally, dear reader, your present author uttered these words on stage in the 2004 production of this musical at Melbourne University.)
But I digress. Sergey continues the introduction in an engaging, conversational matter, a tone that he maintains throughout the text. At this point, he introduces that the book is a ‘family work’, with wife Tatiana on the technical front and daughter Eva in charge of the translation from Russian to English. The latter’s contribution cannot be understated, because the quality of the English is excellent, both in terms of error-free and interest-sparking prose.
But it’s Sergey’s writing style that is the true highlight. Honestly, to spend a day inside his thoughts… Sergey’s introduction includes definitions of different types of swamps (again: literal swamps!), descriptions of ancient and modern warfare strategy, references to news anchormen, a grisly narration of getting sucked into a swamp and a bizarre cartoon of an ogre, given without reference or context. An entertaining and unpredictable introduction, despite being surprisingly light on the chess! The best way to give an idea of the type of delightfully unorthodox exposition is by way of a few examples:
“Water flowing out of swamps has a characteristic brown colour, which comes from dissolved peat tannins.”
“His legs are growing sluggish because they get stuck in the slime…his breathing gets heavy and rapid, and then a thick green mass closes over his head…”
“Have I managed to convince you to buy the book? If yes, then hurry, for it may be the last copy on the shelf!”
The latter quote is a nice segue into the zone of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, an unusual technique for a chess book (well, any book) whereby Sergey often engages with the reader as if in real time. This is often seen when going through the comments to his illustrated games. For example, in introducing a game in which he suffered a painful defeat,
“The [next] encounter is commented in detail, so let me leave you for a while; I don’t want to feel the sadness again.”
And in the notes to other games, you’ll find other examples of breaking down the author-reader ‘wall’ such as:
“Please play through the rest of the moves yourself. I also need a break sometimes…”
…and my personal favourite:
“While I take a short break (I have to answer a phone call), please think: how would you play here?”
One really gets the impression that Sergey is sitting down opposite the board, speaking directly to the reader. And indeed, this one-on-one training is perhaps the key advantage of the book. What the book lacks as a clear opening guide is more than made up for as a general work of chess instruction. Sergey is a chess trainer, and his coaching skills really come out when one plays through his annotations. Notes about general principles, tips for practical chess and interesting positional and endgame analyses abound. There are 156 (!) illustrated games in the book, and I don’t think there was a single one in which I didn’t read at least one comment I found useful and instructional. And this from a guy with a rating slightly lower than my own! Impressive.
There is a downside to having so many illustrated games, of course, and this falls in line with what I said at the outset: the book could have done with more emphasis on explaining the opening lines and ideas outside of just the commented games. But overall, the entertaining style and instructional comments were enough to tempt me into a second, and then a third, full read of the book. And surprisingly (given that I was reading the book for review purposes rather than learning), after three full reads, I began to notice that my understanding of the opening was (unintentionally?) growing as well. I began to get a feel for the positions of the Philidor. I’m still at a bit of a loss when it comes to the theory – there’s no reference to how to deal with any of Negi’s anti-Philidor recommendations, for instance! – but, just like Seasame Street’s popularity with children, the entertainment does come with a nice ‘learning’ side-effect.
For a fun read in an entertaining style, I find myself heartily recommending this book. Moreover, as there are very few good modern texts on the Philidor, Sergey’s work probably also sneaks to the top of the pile in that category as well, despite my cynicism. Given all of this, and the fact that I keep carrying it with me to cafés, I feel I have no choice but to recommend wading into the Sergey swamp for everyone. I predict that you’ll get sucked in, but in a good way. Four stars.