Book reviews: "Liquidation on the chessboard" and "Taimanov: The English Attack"
That title is pretty horrible, but I'm told it's very "googleable". Let's go with that.
I recently received three books from New in Chess. Two of them are your run-of-the-mill chess books: well written, somewhat typical and, simply, good books. No real surprises. The third, GM Sergey Kasparov's 'Swamp Book', is really something different. I don't think I've ever read an openings book quite like it. It is on the one hand addictively entertaining and yet, on the other, practically useless. A real conundrum, and I haven't quite decided whether the book's worth one star or five! So until I have, that review will have to wait.
(Man, I really built you up for nothing there, huh? Psych! Oh well; here are my opinions of the other two.)
“Liquidation on the chess board” – Joel Benjamin (New in Chess)
I have to admit that when I think of ‘fun’ chess topics, pawn endgames isn’t the first to come to mind. So I was a bit apprehensive when I first opening GM Benjamin’s new book. The focus is exclusively on this transition within the endgame and its consequences, with the blurb promising a journey into “the fascinating world of tempo play, breakthroughs, king activity, passed pawn dynamics…Exercises will test your growing skills.” Yuck! It sounded far too much like those dry endgame homework exercises I did as a kid for me to really get excited.
Nevertheless, I was very happy to be proved wrong when I started reading. The book is anything but dry, providing an enjoyable read as well as a fine instructive guide. It’s a little in the same vein as Van Perlo’s masterpiece Endgame Tactics, only smaller and perhaps not quite as entertaining. Still, Liquidation is undoubtedly a useful asset for an educational chess library. The transition into pawn endgames is an underexplored topic, but in modern times, when tournaments are less and less likely to have a second time control, being able to grasp endgame subtleties can earn a player many valuable points.
The book’s chapters are broken up in accordance with the material imbalances just prior to liquidation into king and pawn endgames. Benjamin starts with pure queen, rook, bishop and knight endgames before moving into the different combinations of pieces, but the important endgame themes are scattered throughout every chapter. Indeed, it’s these sections on thematic positions and strategic ideas that I enjoyed (and learned from) the most. Benjamin is excellent at explaining not only the intricacies of specific positions, but also useful practical guidance for general endgame play. He carefully dictates the ideas to watch out for when such common themes as breakthroughs, tempo play and pawn races appear on the board, and I felt that I gained a lot from these instructions.
For example, Benjamin discusses his game with Hikaru Nakamura in which Hikaru initiated a neat exchange of queens to reach the following position with Black to move:
I always thought that the common a+c versus a ending was drawn if Black could keep his pawn on a7, but lost if the pawn had moved (imagine, say, the black pawn on a6 and white pawn on a5 – and learn this endgame!). However, Benjamin clearly shows that the position is winning with either side to move, as the extra tempi available to White with a2-a3-a4 allow a favourable triangulation in due course. If you need any more evidence that this book is useful, just imagine reaching this position with White and only, say, ten seconds a move as increment. Do you think you could win it? Well, thanks to Joel, now I can!
In singing these praises, however, I have one major gripe about the book, made even more irritating by the fact that the issues were easily avoidable. There are lots of diagrams, which I like, but from the very first chapter, a number of them are incorrect. There are extra pieces appearing on the board, existing pieces moving around and even a bizarre old-school ‘Wingdings font’ typo. Once I got past a dozen such typesetting errors, I stopped counting. It doesn’t really affect the quality of the material in terms of substance, but it’s sloppy.
[EDIT: After being contacted by the NiC editors, I should clarify that I stopped counting after more than a dozen total errors, including typos and typesetting, etc. Of these, only half a dozen were to do with the diagrams.]
Each chapter includes a whole lot of relevant examples divided by theme, and then ends with around fifteen or so exercises for the reader. I have to admit, these exercises were kind of fun, and there are hints provided in case you get stuck. I also really liked the last chapter, a shorter section entitled ‘Thematic Positions’ that summarises the key themes of liquidation and reminds the reader of the relevant key examples of earlier chapters. After going through all of these sections, I even began to feel like I could better identify when and how to transition in the endgame, as the booked promised I would! If it wasn’t for the typesetting errors, this one could even be a candidate for one of the books of the year – or perhaps I just need to get over my inner perfectionist-grammarian. Overall, I would recommend Liquidation both as a nice, gentle train-ride read and a study book.
The English Attack against the Taimanov Sicilian – Zaven Andriasyan (New in Chess)
Every now and then I see the topic of a new book and I wonder to myself, “Man, what was this guy thinking?!”. That was the case when I heard about the new Andriasyan book on the white side of the Taimanov, one of the most topical Sicilian variations today. In fact, as one of the key theoretical battlefields among many of the world’s elite, the English Attack is really quite a mammoth undertaking for an author.
The theory on this variation has been (and is still) rapidly developing in recent years, and it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the latest trends, subtleties and improvements for both sides. So I find it particularly impressive that Andriasyan has done such a good job of covering it in what is quite a high-level product. The material is up to date and well analysed, adequately detailing (for the most part) critical sidelines and unplayed novelties as well as the more popular main lines.
While the focus is definitely on keeping up with the latest theoretical consensus for the variation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Andriasyan frequently spends a couple of sentences to explain his evaluations and suggestions in terms of general chess understanding. This, coupled with a pleasing density of diagrams, makes the book suitable for lower club levels as well, although the mass of theory that needs to be memorized to master the opening could be a bit off-putting. In any case, I found the regular explanations of the themes and ideas to be very useful, as well as breaking up the monotony of the subvariations.
(Speaking of which, I really think there needs to be some publisher’s rule about the depth that authors are allowed to go with subvariations. Once I got to the final chapter’s line “A1222222”, I felt like my head was about to explode. Why not just break things up into another small chapter? But I digress.)
Another element of this book that I appreciate is that Andriasyan doesn’t just recommend one white move at every fork, but offers a brief (and sometimes not so brief) analysis of promising alternatives. In this way, the book is somewhere in between a repertoire book and a general coverage of the variation. For the English Attack, in which the theory is fluid and constantly being refined, these ‘back-ups’ are quite useful. For example, in the main line with 8…Bb4
, Andriasyan covers 11.Bd4, 11.Qf2, 11.Kb1 and 11.Qe1 within two chapters. I learned a lot from this extra coverage, though in general the structure of the 8…Bb4 section (the ‘old’ main line) was at times a little puzzling. Andriasyan covers 9…Na5?!, 9…Ne7 and the main line 9…Ne5, but omits the topical 9…0-0 (second most popular overall, and the most common today) as well as 9…d5. The latter is perhaps not important, but the former is a rather obvious omission, particularly as it is also Black’s best scoring move. For interest, you could consider checking out Karjakin-Polgar, 2014 World Blitz, as a model way to play (at least the opening) for White after 9…0-0.
In any case, it has to be said that these days, 8…Bb4 has basically been superseded by 8…Be7 at the top level. This is what Andriasyan covers in the final third of the book. I’m sure fans of this opening are desperate to know whether the author has any big, groundbreaking blows for White in the modern main line, but here I have to disappoint you. Andriasyan writes that “9…b5…is not very realistic. Black has few attacking chances, with half of his pieces on the kingside, and it is not easy to imagine how they can be included in the attack. …Here, too, White is better.” Well! Bold statements, but I’m not sure Giri, Svidler or Morozevich would agree. And indeed, in Andriasyan’s main line after 10.g4 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bb7 12.g5 Nh5 13.Be5 Qxe5 14.Qxd7+ Kf8 15.Qxb7
, I’m not convinced that White has any advantage whatsoever. Still, this could just be because the Taimanov is holding up remarkably well these days in all lines, as evidenced by the fact that members of the world’s elite are happy to play it regularly. And if these sort of positions appeal to you with White, then there’s no reason to shy away.
In summary, the task Andriasyan took on was a big one, but I think overall he did very well. If you play or are interested in playing the English Attack against the Taimanov, this is definitely the best, most up-to-date work out there. If you’re on the black side of things, on the other hand, it’s an open question as to whether you need this book. It’s definitely a useful addition to the library and, as I mentioned, the explanation of the themes and motifs for both sides is definitely a huge plus for a book on such a complicated opening. Still, word on the street is that GM Robin van Kampen (who you might better know as the second half of the Eric Hansen vlog series) will be coming out with a DVD for Chess24 on the whole of the Taimanov later this year. Stay tuned for future reviews – including from the Swamp!