Review: Loose ends of 2010

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Review: Loose ends of 2010A reviewer's task is never done. A constant stream of new books is produced every month, but a reviewer can't possibly have something meaningful to say about each and every book that is sent to him. In this review, the last one of 2010, I want to take a look at some of the books I was forced to neglect - until now.

Review: Loose ends of 2010Let me begin by mentioning that GM Jacob Aagaard recently won the English Chess Federation "Book of the Year 2010" Award for his Attacking Manual Volume 1 and 2, published by Quality Chess. Last week, at the London Chess Classic, I had the pleasure to meet the author and congratulate him personally on this achievement. The books are published in Quality Chess's usual excellent format and are full of lengthy analysis and instructive explanations. Despite its somewhat simplistic-sounding title, it's in fact a highly nuanced book, full of thoughtful considerations such as the following, which Aagaard offers after a crazy middlegame variation resulting in a perpetual:

All of this is very spectacular, but as our abilities in chess increase, we start to see beyond the immediate attractive beauty of queen sacrifices and a perpetual check organised by a bishop and two pawns on their own to the deeper understanding of strategy and its implementation.

One aspect of the books I particularly liked was the 'Diagram preview' with some thought-provoking questions ("How to use the momentum?") at the beginning of each chapter. The idea sounds so simple, but it's a very clever way to whet the reader's appetite and give him a flavour of what's to come. These and other components make the book ideal not only for hard-working students but also for a lazier (and probably larger) audience.

Review: Loose ends of 2010This is true to a lesser extent for Volume 2 of John Nunn's massive Nunn's Chess Endings. I've praised the first volume and I can only repeat my enthusiasm for the sequel to what the publisher, Gambit, calls 'the definitive work on practical tactics'. This time, Nunn delves deeply into the mysteries of rook endings, and endgames with rooks and minor pieces (especially endgames where one of the players is an exchange up), uncovering many hidden treasures and entertainingly refreshing long-forgotten theoretical knowledge.

As said in my review of the first part in the series, I have my doubts about the number of people actually taking the trouble to set up these positions on a chess board and going through all of Nunn's fantastic but complex and demanding analysis, but even without doing that, the book remains a gem, not least because Nunn doesn't shy away from including obscure new game fragments rather than the obligatory old stuff.

Review: Loose ends of 2010Another massive volume (650 pages, to be precise) that appeared in the year 2010 (in fact, I received it in the mail just the other week) is the fourth, 'completely rewritten' edition of Jeremy Silman's classic How to Reassess Your Chess (4th Edition), published by Siles Press. To be honest, I only knew the earlier versions of this book by hearsay, so I was pleased to be able to finally read it myself. Silman often, helpfully, refers the reader to what he wrote previously, and he certainly isn't afraid to admit he's changed his mind. (If you ever need to get an interesting reply from someone, consider asking him what he's changed his mind about, and why.) This leads to honest explanations such as this one on planning:

In the third edition of How to Reassess Your Chess, I gave a thinking technique that I had personally found useful over the years. I felt it might prove equally useful for higher-lever amateurs who had been struggling to create logical plans. However, the passage of time (which always brings new experience and insight) drastically changed my view about the practicality of any complex system of planning.

My change of heart came about when I corresponded with students and lovers of chess from all over the world who were obsessed with finding plans (...), and as a result hadn't fully integrated the imbalances into their play. By breaking imbalances and plans into two separate things, I had inadvertently caused many hard working students to lose sight of the one goal I had intended to push: master the imbalances.

Many of the (newly added) topics in Silman's book are very recognizable (such as the chapter on 'Macho Chess') and reminiscent of things other authors (such as Jonathan Rowson) have written about. But that's okay: the original How to Reassess Your Chess was published over 20 years ago and Silman - contrary to some of his fellow chess authors - clearly has moved with the times. This book contains so much good stuff (and, naturally, some not so good stuff) that it's no exaggeration to say that it will take me all of 2011 to fully digest it.

Review: Loose ends of 2010In the light of such epics, Bruce Pandolfini's Chess Movies 1 - Quick Tricks, published by Russell Enterprises, is everything the heavyweights are not. The book contains 64 miniature games, each featuring an opening trap. The title's reference is to movies because every single move in the book gets a separate diagram and a separate comment. I guess this can be seen as either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. I usually regard such 'original' approaches with skepticism and this book is no exception.

As a matter of fact, I am a big fan of having plenty of diagrams in a chess book, but shouldn't an author also try to encourage at least some visualisation and imagination from his audience? Apart from that, I found many games and comments disappointingly silly. To read, after 1.e4, that "This is popular on Earth, but not so much on the planet Mars," or that "Some find this move very appealing. Some don't," may still be dismissed as an attempt at humour (failed, in my humble opinion), but what to think of the proposition that "This e-pawn might one day anchor a knight at d5 or f5" (it doesn't happen in the featured game) or that "Yes, king-pawn openings can lead to closed positions, too" (followed by a very 'open' game)? Let's just say this book wasn't intended for me. I know Pandolfini can do much better than this.

Review: Loose ends of 2010Fortunately, there's also good news from Russell Enterprises (who earlier this year gave us the impressive The KGB Plays Chess). This year, they've started the so-called World Championship Series in which the Russian authors Isaak and Vladimir Linder take on a World Champion in each volume. So far, books on Capablanca and Lasker have appeared, and my impression is favourable. I like the scholarly, functional yet intuitive way the material is presented, the up-to-date bibliography, the tournament and match crosstables and the game annotations (especially the ones done by GM Karsten Mueller in the book on Lasker). I'm sure chess historians will find things to quibble about in these volumes, but for your average chess enthusiasts, these books present a very good and high-level introduction to these great players.

Review: Loose ends of 2010This is a good opportunity to mention another project by the prolific Mr. Mueller, as it involves another former World Champion, Mikhail Tal. While only published in German so far, Zaubern wie Schachweltmeister Michail Tal (loosely translatable as Magic according to Mikhail Tal, co-authored by Raymund Stolze) is an in-depth study of the tactical expertise of the Eighth World Champion, including many exercises and contributions from Boris Spassky and Artur Yusupov (whose excellent Boost Your Chess 2 - Beyond the Basic - make sure to check the instructive chapter on the topical QGD Lasker Variation! - was also recently published). Hopefully, Mueller and Stolze's important treatise will soon be translated into English as well.

Before discussing some recent opening books, I want to make it clear that I agree beforehand with those who consider it almost criminal to try and cram so many good books into so little space. In general, I think every good book deserves a proper, i.e. lengthy, review. The sad fact is, however, that a proper review not only requires good intentions and a motivated reviewer, but also considerable knowledge of the book's subject at hand. In the case of the English Opening, this knowledge is sadly absent - at least as far as yours truly is concerned.

Review: Loose ends of 2010GM Mihail Marin's Volumes Two and Three on the English Opening (in the Quality Chess Grandmaster Repertoire Series) are thick, beautifully-hardcover books covering the so-called Anti-systems (Anti-Slav, Anti-QGD, Anti-King's Indian, etc.) and the Symmetrical English. I'm sure some of my team members who are addicted to opening with their c-pawn will just love these books, but for me, looking at all these lines just makes me realize life's too short to try and understand all chess openings. But I sure marvelled at fragments such as this one:

12.Bxh6! White exchanges the knight that has consumed three of Black's tempos and forces the enemy bishop to occupy a relatively unfavourable square. This will speed up White's initiative considerably.

12...Bxh6 13.Qe2 A classical approach; the queen is the last piece to be developed. White only needs to centralize his rooks in order to maximize his activity when he will be ready for the massed advance of his queenside majority, supported by the minor pieces.

Review: Loose ends of 2010Although I do have slightly more practical experience with the Scandinavian Opening, it is only with the move 2...Nf6 after 2.exd5, and not with 2...Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 which is what French GM Christian Bauer discusses at length (almost 300 pages) in his recent book Play the Scandinavian, also published by Quality Chess. I tried looking up my own 'pet line' against this, which is to play, instead of the automatic 4.d4, the move 4.Bc4, followed by 5.Nge2, but I couldn't find it in the Variation Index. Then I realized this was given under lines starting with 5.d3, but that isn't really the same thing and indeed Bauer doesn't seem to give 'my' move order. After that, I looked up what Bauer suggested for Black after 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nf3 Bg4 4.Be2 Nc6 5.d4 0-0-0 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nbd2 (a position which, via a move-order transposition, can also result from the Portugese Variation, starting with 2...Nf6 3.d4 Bg4!?).

I do have some experience with this line as both White and Black, and I was pleased to see Bauer's recommendation 7...Qf5! which, indeed, is the move I myself play in this position as Black (and which other opening books on this line underestimate). Bearing in mind this extremely small sample size, it certainly looks like Bauer's has done his homework and has made a very useful contribution to the theory of the Scandinavian.

I'm afraid this review has turned into quite a potpourri of recent chess books, perhaps leaving the reader more confused than informed. So I want to finish this one-time 'experiment' with something rather more stereotyped and safe, especially at the end of the year: namely a list of my favourite chess books of 2010. This won't be the first end-of-year list to appear, nor will it be the most significant. But here's my personal shortlist anyway:

A reviewer's task is never done. After I finished this review, another new and interesting opening book arrived by mail - Yuri Yakovich's Sicilian Attacks, published by New in Chess... But enough already: it will have to wait until next year. For now, I wish all readers of ChessVibes a very successful 2011.

Happy New Year!
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