Review: Mastering Positional Chess

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Mastering Positional ChessA 14-year old writing a book on positional chess?! How can that be? This was my first reaction when I received Mastering Positional Chess by Daniel Naroditsky. Sure, he's a World Junior Champion and obviously is a talented youngster, but how could such a young boy write a coherent, let alone instructive chess manual on so 'mature' a subject as positional chess? Well, I don't know - but he did it anyway.

Actually, the idea to write a book grew within the young author at an even younger age. As John Donaldson writes in the foreword,

Started in 2006, when the author was only ten (!) years old, Mastering Positional Chess: Practical Lessons of a Junior World Champion was written, for a very specific reason. Young Daniel realized his lack of positional understanding was causing him to lose many games. He set out to correct this deficiency in a most ambitious way by collecting classic examples on a variety of positional themes and subjecting them to extensive analysis. Having done this Daniel then clarified things in his own mind by putting into words what he had learned not only from the classics but from his own games.

I must admit I was a bit skeptical when I read this, together with Naroditsky's introduction and the first pages of the actual book. Did you use words like 'verbosity', 'armada' and 'multitude' when you were 10, or even 15 years old? Well, who knows - perhaps young Daniel did get some stylistic advice from his parents here and there - or from John Donaldson or the editors, New in Chess. It hardly matters once you start reading the truly impressive and highly enjoyable book Daniel Naroditsky has produced. I think it may well be one of the best books ever written on positional chess.

There are several reasons for this. One is Naroditsky's down-to-earth language and his approach to chess problems. This enables him to make everything look easy without ever sounding shallow. Another is the almost perfect length of his examples - he spends exactly enough space on his explanations, the examples have diagrams at precisely the right moments and the selection of fragments and games is a good mix of personal experiences and well-known historic encounters from the world's greatest chess players. Most impressively, Naroditsky shows he totally understands the nuances and subtleties, however complex they sometimes are, of the positional concepts he is explaining. This is how he explains prophylaxis in the first chapter:

This book starts with prophylaxis because I'm convinced that in order to master positional thinking, one needs to first master prophylactic thinking. Let me define what exactly I mean by prophylaxis. Prophylaxis can mean stopping a possible plan or a future threat by the opponent. For instance, evacuating the king from a danger zone is an example of prophylaxis - the king might be subject to an attack, and removing the king completely nullifies the effectiveness of the attack. Another example of prophylaxis is when you take away an important square from your opponent, thus rendering a certain plan or idea useless. The first person that touched upon the subject of prophylaxis was Latvian-born Danish Maestro Aron Nimzowitsch. He formulated the idea itself and emphasized the importance of prophylactic thinking. Although today's definition of prophylactic thinking might differ from Nimzowitsch's, he certainly deserves full credit for 'inventing' prophylactic thinking. Another important point: prophylaxis is completely different from defense. In defense, you're almost always trying to parry threats that are already present, while prophylaxis is all about rooting out the source of problems. For example, if one side has a bishop that can potentially cause problems, trading the bishop for another piece or even giving up an exchange to eliminate it is an example of prophylaxis.

I don't want to sound too lyrical, but I find this an almost perfect piece of chess prose. Let me explain why in some detail:
  • Right from the start, the author shows he has in mind a clear arrangement of priorities in positional themes.
  • In very simple terms, the concept is explained. There follow several simple examples, readily understandable to players of all levels
  • The author not only introduces a relevant bit of history but he even explains that chess has evolved while at the same time still using traditional concepts (something that took John Watson two whole books - very good ones, by the way - to explain)
  • The author also defines what's not within the scope of his definition, something that's often forgotten by even the best chess instructors.

What about a concrete example? Here's one from the same chapter:

Karpov-Timman Montreal 1979

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.g3Although this move was never very popular, it is still completely viable and gives White an easy game. White's idea is to set up a Closed Sicilian type formation, and slowly start to push Black off the board. The objective evaluation of this variation is a slight edge for White.

4...Bg7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.Nge2 e5 7.0-0

diagram 1

7...Na6 This move is a bit awkward. The evaluation doesn't really change, but the alternatives, 7...Nc6 and 7...c6, are better. The problem with 7...Na6 is that the knight doesn't really do anything - Black will play with a piece less until the position opens up. Interestingly, the knight will be one of the causes of Black's trouble later on.

8.Re1 c6 9.h3 Re8 10.Bg5

diagram 2

10...h6?! It's hard to believe this completely natural move is a mistake. The problem is that after Be3, it will be very difficult for Black to achieve any kind of counterplay. White will simply play g3-g4 and Ng3, and Black will find himself totally cramped. In order to get somewhere, Black needed to act quickly. (...) After 10...exd4! White is forced to play 11.Nxd4, and only now does Black play 11...h6. Although the position after 12.Bf4 g5 13.Be3 is slightly better for White, Black has good dynamic counterchances after 13...g4!?.

11.Be3 Qc7 12.Qd2 Kh7 13.Rad1 Bd7 14.g4

diagram 3

Karpov plays this part of the game with immense precision. Timman, understanding he will lose if he doesn't do anything, attempts to find counterchances in dynamic play.

14...Rad8 15.Ng3 Bc8 16.f4 b5 If White allows Black to play ...b4, his position will suddenly become a bit shaky. Therefore:

17.a3! b4 18.axb4 Nxb4 19.Nce2 exd4 20.Nxd4 a5 21.c3 Na6

diagram 4

An important position has arisen on the board. White's pieces are located ideally, or so it seems. He is centralized, and Black's pieces are somewhat uncoordinated. However, things are not as one-sided as they appear. Black wants to play ...Nc5, and possibly ...d5, when White's e4-f4-g4 armada will be subject to pressure. Karpov, after determining the threat, looked for ways to defend against it. The next step was to decide which pieces could be improved. He quickly saw that the d8 rook x-rays White's queen. He then asked himself where the queen would be better placed. Obviously, the answer is c2, from where it will x-ray the king and, mainly, defend the e4-pawn.

22.Qc2!! Once you see this move, it may seem pretty obvious. Understanding that the queen isn't placed well on d2 is not easy, however. Despite the pin, the queen was facing no danger, and it is very difficult to make a move such as 22.Qc2. Now, Black's counterplay is parried (22...Nc5 is met by 23.b4, when the e4-pawn is defended), and he has to wait passively until White will crush him.

22...Bd7 23.Nf3!

diagram 5

White plans Bf2, when he will be ready for the decisive assault. Black is completely helpless.

23...Re7 24.Bf2 Be8 25.Qd3 White is threatening 26.e5.

25...Qb7 26.Ra1! And Timman resigned after 12 more moves. A brilliant display of prophylaxis by Karpov - by means of one awkward-looking move, he totally demolished Black's plan.

Why did I quote this example in its entirety (apart from a small digression on move 10)? There are several reasons for this. The first is one is purely graphical: in my opinion all diagrams are placed exactly at the right places in the text, namely at all critical moments of the game. (Update: see the comments below this article, where readers draw attention to striking similarities between Naroditsky's analysis of this game and analysis done by Dvoretsky&Yusupov and Karpov himself.) Most chess books, even very good ones, contain superfluous diagrams, or - more often - not enough to follow the logic of the text without setting up a board (and I admit I'm often too lazy to do that.)

Secondly, I like the fact that Naroditsky takes his time to explain the prelude to the actual 'theme' of the game (move 22), by explaining just enough about the opening and the early middlegame to understand what's going on (in fact I even learned something I didn't know about this particular line), but doesn't elaborate too much, not on every move, and isn't too wordy in his prose. In fact his explanations are just right: always relevant, always clear, always wanting to explain what exactly is going on.

I also found it a relief to note that after his well-written, easily accessible explanation of the prohylaxis theme, the author doesn't shy away from extremely high-quality chess (in 1979, you couldn't do much better than Karpov and Timman!). This is something I noticed time and again in the book: top level super-GM games next to well-selected games between unknown (to me) players, next to instructive games (both wins and losses) of Naroditsky himself. It's almost impossible to imagine the material was selected by such a young player instead of a mature veteran, but there you are.

Mainly, I chose to show one lengthy example rather than a few short fragments because I really think this is one of the book's strengths: extremely well-written, carefully selected examples, showing the 'whole range' of positional aspects of a particular theme. The above one is in this respect not an exception, but very representative of Naroditsky's style.

In between the examples, Naroditsky often makes valuable and sharp points, such as his observation that "tactical players have one main weakness: they aren't patient." Another great aspect of the book is that the author doesn't want to show too many different themes: apart from prophylaxis, he studies the defense in worse positions, fortresses, positional sacrifes, paralysis (a rather refreshing theme!), and various aspects of manoeuvring. There also useful excercises, a preface by Daniel's parents and a formidable epilogue, in which the young author writes:

After reading a book on positional chess, I have always thought that I would not get outplayed in a single game. That, unfortunately, is quite untrue. From my own experience, I have found that the ideas which one has learned simply blend into the rest, and when you analyze a game, you might not see any visible signs that you have comprehended many more ideas. Therefore, you should certainly not be alarmed if you get badly outplayed. After all, positional mastery comes not only with immediate understanding, but also with experience.

Wise words. Here is an author who, despite his young age, shows remarkable maturity not only in his play but also in the way he perceives the game in all its aspects. A self-conscious and modest, realistic and reasonable author with an amazing talent for explaining what's going on during a game of chess. I hope this review doesn't make him spoiled, because I am already eagerly awaiting his next book, which I hope is just as refreshing as Mastering Positional Chess.


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