Review: NIC Yearbook 100

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From the start of this website back in 2006 there has been no clear rule about which content would (should?) be published, except for: what kind of chess article would I, the editor-in-chief, find interesting to read? Five and a half years later I still try to follow this guideline, and it made me decide to do this review.

Some of you might be surprised to learn that I was a bit reluctant to pay attention to the 100th New in Chess Yearbook. Isn't that something special? Isn't NIC our main sponsor? (And didn't we also write about the 100th issue of Chess Informant?)

Yes, yes, and yes. It is something special when a key publication in the chess world reaches such a milestone, and naturally we don't mind supporting our long-term advertiser a bit with a review (either positive or negative - a well-known rule is that a negative review is better than no review). But.

The 'but' here is about competition, though on a small scale. We happen to publish a chess product about openings too...

And so when we received a review copy of Yearbook 100 a few weeks ago, we faced a small dilemma. We could either neglect it, and not promote this competing product, or choose to review it anyway, simply because our readers would enjoy it. In the end I decided that the guideline stated above should prevail: I, a chess fan myself, would certainly be interested in reading this review! Besides, a review can only help the customers to make up their own mind whether they want to purchase it, choose a subscription to CVO instead, or preferably, both.

One cannot deny (and I certainly don't feel the urge) that the 100th Yearbook is really something special. Besides the regular content (the Forum, Joel Benjamin's Opening Takes, a review of recent opening books by Glenn Flear and 30 Opening Surveys), a large amount of bonus material can be found in this anniversary edition. The publisher decided to expand the normal size with no less than 56 extra pages while keeping the regular price of € 26,95 ($29,95).

The front cover has a photo of Garry Kasparov, who wrote a special Survey about his experience in the famous Zaitsev variation of the Closed Ruy Lopez. There is a number of 'Star Surveys' written by, among others, various reigning World Champions, such as Hou Yifan (Women), Anatoli Vaisser (Seniors) and Andrey Obodchuk (IPCA).

Another difference with the regular Yearbooks is that this special edition contains small interviews with a number of 'very special' authors (who tell what the Yearbook means to them), and there are lists with Yearbook facts, figures and highlights.

Furthermore, Yearbook supervisor René Olthof wrote an anniversary column about the latest (as in: deepest) novelty of all time, presented by the publisher as 'a celebration of theoretical research'. Amazingly, the latest novelty was played at move 64!

At the end of the book there is a Anniversary Quiz, containing 16 questions about openings, players, chess history and the Yearbook series itself. Three winners will be awarded subscriptions to the Yearbook for three years, two years and one year respectively.

But let's go back to the start: Kasparov’s Survey on the Zaitsev. This variation was always a bit special to me, as it was the first ‘contact’ I had with serious opening theory. When I arrived at my first ever tournament, the Open Dutch Championships in Dieren in 1991, and had set up my tent on the grass of the local football club, I spotted two club members, both a bit older than me. In front of their tent, they were playing blitz. I greeted them, and started watching. I noticed they were playing the same variation all the time with both colours: a deep and complicated variation of the Ruy Lopez. They told me it was called ‘Zaitsev’, and played many times between Kasparov and Karpov a year before. Only later I would find out that Zaitsev was a chess player and coach!

I must say that I found the survey by Kasparov both good and a tiny bit disappointing at the same time – perhaps it was because I had the highest of expectations from The Boss. As you might know, a Survey always contains an intro text explaining the line that’s discussed, followed by about a dozen games with annotations, mostly in symbols. In this case the text was Kasparov’s experience with the line, basically from 1976 till 2005. The 13th World Champion quickly goes through a number of Zaitsev games he played, and mentions which lines exactly he picked in which year. The exact reasons why he went for different lines in later years are touched upon, but overall Kasparov describes the development of his repertoire only in quite general terms (‘in this year I played this move, later I turned to that move’).

The games that follow are all of Kasparov’s theoretically important Zaitsev games and the most important ones by other players. All of them have analysis in symbols, and somehow this was a bit of a disappointment for me. I know this is how the Yearbooks are designed, and it’s been done like this for many years. I worked with many of the books myself and even wrote three Surveys myself, during the time I was a NIC employee in 1999-2000. (One was about the Morra Gambit, and how to refute it in three different ways. One of those methods I used successfully in the train tournament this week!)

But still, I don’t know, somehow I can’t read those symbol annotations anymore, at least not page after page after page. In my opinion, and this also counts for most of the other Surveys in Yearbook 100, there’s no good balance between text and variations. As someone who feels that titles like Rowson’s Undertanding the Grünfeld or Sadler’s Queen’s Gambit Declined are among the best opening books ever written, I find the Survey intros too short, and the game sections too long.

Three pages from a typical NIC Survey

Besides, dealing with such huge numbers of variations without text in a book seems out-dated to me. These days just about every tournament player owns a laptop, and they are used to working on their openings with a program like Chessbase which provides easy access to branches of variations. I remember the time when I manually entered many lines from a Yearbook into my database, when I still played many tournaments myself. Looking back, I feel I must have been crazy! Now that I’m ‘in the business’, I’m surprised that New in Chess still doesn’t provide this material in digital form. The main reason must be fear of illegal duplication.

It must be said that sometimes there are games with text analysis included in the games selections, but often just one per Survey (and in a tiny text font - am I getting old?). The reason why a certain game gets more text is often not very clear. For example, in the Kasparov Survey there are seven games with symbol annotations only, then one game with text analysis, and then a lot of games with symbols or little bits of text. However, the game with text doesn’t seem to be theoretically more important than others.

Something else. It seems to me that the publisher is sometimes recycling games that were published in NIC Magazine before. For example, you might encounter a Survey written by Tibor Fogarasi titled ‘The Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up’, about the Grünfeld with 3.f3 Nc6, which has ‘(special contribution by Peter Svidler)’ under the title. However, this seems to be referring to the game Nakamura-Svidler, Amsterdam 2009, analysed by Svidler for New in Chess Magazine 07/2009 and given in this Survey with symbol annotations. There's not much wrong with republishing such a game, as it's useful for the opening student to have all material available, together. But 'special contribution', for me, gives the impression there is new material to be enjoyed. For me as a chess fan such a 'tactic' is a let down, but as a publisher I can understand it.

These are about the only negative bits I could find in Yearbook 100, and might come down to a personal taste of dealing with openings, and opening books. Generally speaking the Yearbook, and especially this one, is a splendid publication for chess students who want to work on their openings seriously. The Surveys are a nice mixture of top-notch theory in the main lines (e.g. the Najdorf with 6.Bg5 or the Botvinnik Slav) and interesting ideas in sidelines (e.g. 1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Qe2 by, who else, IM Jeroen Bosch).

I also like the fact that the NIC editors always care about details. To start, they provide lots of photos in good quality, which is rare in the chess world. The 100th edition starts with a small tribute to Wim Andriessen (my former boss!) as the founder of New in Chess, the international successor to his magazine Schaakbulletin. And then there is the ‘silent’ page 266, with photos of former contributors who have passed away: Vladimir Bagirov, Gerardo Barbero, Tony Miles, Edmar Mednis, Eduard Gufeld, Johan van Mil and Huib Roest. The latter was a member of the editorial staff for 15 years, and a former colleague of mine. I still remember his joke when I brought an apple to the office one day.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. An onion a day keeps everyone away!

To summarize, the Yearbook’s Surveys feel a bit heavy to digest, but generally the book is of course chuck full of high-quality content. If you don't know it yet, issue #100 is definitely the one to try out. Despite its title, a Yearbook appears four times a year. It’s good stuff, and it probably works well to combine with CVO too! :-)


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