King of kings

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The King’s Indian Defence is to chess what the piano is to music. It’s complex, rich and all the pros end up playing it eventually. Fischer, Tal and Kasparov are probably the Chopin, Beethoven and Mozarts of the opening, but other big names like Bronstein, Geller, Najdorf and Korchnoi were lifelong devotees. And of course, for the ankle-biters, there’s also Nakamura, Grischuk, Carlsen (sort of) … It seems one basically can’t get to the world’s elite in chess without learning the ‘Kid’ at some point.   I never learned it. It’s one of my biggest childhood regrets, like not learning the piano. Or discovering our neighbour’s chili tree when I was 5. The one rated game I played on the black side was a kind of medieval torture that put me off. But just like the piano, I always figured that someday, some hard work and serious effort to get past the steep learning curve could pay big dividends. And then, well, it was too late.   So it was with morbid curiosity and a tinge of regret that I started reading a couple of Kid book recently. The first was the first volume of Vassilios Kotronias’ epic King’s Indian series, on the fianchetto variations. I thought this might be a nice place for me to start because I know the fianchetto variations of the Benoni quite well, and there are a lot of transpositions. But reading this book was basically like being asked to recite scales on your very first piano lesson. Or (because I’m getting sick of the piano thing) like getting punched in the face. After reading half the book, I had to throw it down and go watch a mind-numbing movie just to stay sane (‘Deadpool’. Awesome.)

The problem was not that it’s a bad book – it’s not. Kotronias is an incredible theoretician, a master tactician, an impressive researcher and, by all impressions, a humble, down-to-earth guy. But in keeping with his thoroughness as a researcher, the book is a massive tome of variations that, while surely preparing one for a correspondence GM or the world computer championships, only serves to confuse the poor reader into submission. Or, at least, that’s how I felt. At the end of half of the 720 pages (!!), I felt like my understanding of chess (and especially the King’s Indian) hadn’t improved at all. If anything, I felt overwhelmed by a chronic realisation of my own inferiority. A more accurate (and catchy) title would have been ‘You know nothing about chess – I Kid you not’. (Well, I like it anyway.) So then (after Deadpool – really awesome, did I mention?) I went to my second book.  At a ‘mere’ 340 pages, a quarter of the weight and much more attractively titled, Ilya Smirin’s  “King’s Indian Warfare!” was like a light breeze. No variation trees, no heavy theoretical discussions. Smirin is another livelong Kid player, and as he uses his own games and experience to explain the opening, one feeling comes through loud and clear: his pure, unbridled passion for the opening. As he explains it, “The Kid is one of the most fascinating openings in chess. It involves everything I love about the game: risk-taking, attacking, exchanging weaknesses or material for dynamic chances, clever tactics, surprising turnarounds and a deep sense of possibility.”

How inspiring is that?! In two sentences, I felt more motivation for the opening than I ever had before. So I started reading, and I literally couldn’t put the book down – I finished it in one sitting, and was eager for more. More importantly, I felt like I had really started to understand chess again. With chapter titles like “Line Opening”, “Destruction of Pawn Structure” and “Fighting for the Initiative”, it’s easy to see why; the book’s structured around themes and motifs rather than theory. After the last page, all I wanted to do was play some blitz games in the opening. And that’s exactly what I did. (Moderate success. I kept getting out-theoried. Go figure.)   And then, many months later, a strange thing happened. I got a copy of Kotronias’ fifth and final volume: ‘Saemisch and the Rest’. My first reaction was dread (‘Deadpool 2’ doesn’t come out til next year.) I was expecting the book to be another impeccably researched theoretical treatise, and I wasn’t wrong. But as I began reading, I started to appreciate the academic brilliance of Kotronias’ work. The number of theoretical novelties he has discovered and shared, for both colours, in this researched-to-death opening is just incredible. The level of detail and depth that he has gone into is unlikely to be matched in a generation. True, descriptions of intuition and strategic understanding are rare, but that’s because the level of concrete research is, frankly unsurpassed by any other opening book I’ve read – Negi included.  

  Like a kid trying to understand Rachmaninoff (yes, the piano is back), I was simply too intellectually flattened to appreciate the text before. But now, having built up a little bit of understanding and experience in the Kid, I suddenly had a whole new level of respect for Kotronias’ books. And I actually started to enjoy reading them. That’s right: I went back and read the first volume again, too. Much better.   It’s still heavy going; don’t get me wrong. But now I can see that the rewards for hard work are tangible. I just needed that ‘boost’ along the learning curve that Smirin’s book provided. As my neighbour’s backyard taught me, one does not launch straight into chili.   As an extra illustration of the thoroughness and diligence Kotronias has shown to his literary legacy: There’s even a large appendix added at the end of this final volume. It includes corrections and additions to each previous volume, including those that only the author himself had discovered (and could therefore have safely buried). How often do you hear of a chess author doing this?! Quite incredible, and kudos to the Quality Chess team for allowing valuable printing pages to be used for this. I was very impressed.   Having sung his praises, I still have to issue a warning about Kotronias’ books: They’re still extremely high-level, so I wouldn’t recommend players under 2000 tackling them (unless you’re also a correspondence player). In fact, this is how I would summarise the books’ usefulness:

  • If you’re already an experienced Kid player with an ELO over 2300, you can and should buy the Kotronias series immediately, and keep it permanently in your chess office.
  • If you’re a slightly weaker club player with Kid understand, read Smirin’s book first. If you like it and are on a mission to improve your chess, consider starting off with one of the Kotronias volumes – choose the variation that’s your weakest.
  • If you’re curious interested in learning the Kid, or are just interested in tactical games collections from passionate GMs, then take my approach: read Smirin. Then go from there.

    (PS Aren’t you impressed by my restraint on chess puns today, despite the obvious potential? Seriously, I’ve changed. No Kidding.)