Review: Revolutionize Your Chess

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Revolutionize your chessHere's a confession: I've had Viktor Moskalenko's latest book Revolutionize Your Chess in my possession for weeks already, but I've been reluctant to review it. The reason, quite simply, is this: I don't like it at all.

I loved Moskalenko's previous work, The Flexible French, hands down. I positively reviewed it back in 2008, and I also rather liked his book on the Budapest Gambit. This time, however, Moskalenko has written a completely different kind of book - a much more ambitious kind of book, to say the least. On the cover we read that this book is 'a brand-new system to become a better player'. Now, I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the word 'system' together with the words 'to become a better player', I tend to turn sober right away and put on my most sceptical glasses. Haven't we heard such claims before, and haven't authors learned from the past? Apparently not. Well, as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so let's just see what Moskalenko's got up his sleeve.

By the way, what's with all these 'improve your chess' books recently? It's almost as if all modern chess titles focus on the improvement of the reader, of you, rather than on providing amusement and interesting stuff. I think this is a misunderstanding of many reader's motivations to buy books. I, for one, am not at all primarily interested in improving my chess by means of chess books - I read them because they tell me something interesting, not because I want to score points. The most important thing is to enjoy chess, no? Improving is only of secondary interest to me, but hey, that's just me of course. More importantly, I think improving one's chess can be achieved by studying any chess book seriously. As far as I'm concerned, this doesn't have to be mentioned in the title time and again.

Anyway, back to Revolutionize Your Chess. First, I would like to invite you to read the first few paragraphs of the book's foreword in full. Then, I will comment upon it.

Thanks to decades of research and the development of computer programs, chess theory is quite well developed as far as the opening and the endgame are concerned. Still, once they have reached a certain level most players fail to make real progress. They focus their study on openings, a limited amount of strategic themes and classical tactics in the middlegame, and a collection of standard endgame themes. Which means that they do not understand much of what they are doing when they are sitting behind the board themselves, facing real chess problems.

How can this be? The answer is quite simple: the general rules of the game have not been discovered yet. Famous chess researchers have developed various systems which have been universally accepted in the chess world. But these systems are highly theoretical and often not very realistic. We need a modern, dynamic system. And I intend to offer you one in the present book.

Frankly, I find this introduction amazing. Amazingly silly, that is. If, as Moskalenko claims, the general rules of the game have not been discovered yet, how come there are thousands of grandmasters adopting them, tens of thousands of IMs who play well above the level of the 'most players' Moskalenko intends as his audience? How did all these very strong players acquire their current or past level of play without these 'general rules of the game'? Apparently, they're all doing fine without Moskalenko's new system! Even if we grant Moskalenko the idea that these players, too, have still not grasped the 'right' system, or that they somehow 'intuitively' acquired it, how to explain why some players did 'get' this intuition and others didn't? I hope you see the logical trap Moskalenko has set for himself on the very first page of the book. It makes his task for the other 340 pages considerably more difficult.

But let's not waste time with this introduction, which may, after all, have just been a commercial stunt. (Disappointing all the same, since I expect a more honest approach from the New in Chess editors.) More interesting are Moskalenko's ideas about the history of the present 'general rules of the game', even if they, too, are hopelessly flawed. After introducing the well-known Elements of Steinitz (and, later, of Alexander Kotov), with its 'permanent and temporary advantages', Moskalenko mysteriously writes:

These elements are in general quite useful in practical play, and the list has not changed much in chess literature until today. However, I think that the main problem of Steinitz's theory is that there is not much of a mention of dynamic chess, where the key rule is: to give checkmate! In fact, in dynamic chess, many permanent advantages become temporary, and temporary advantages may become permanent at any time.
I've puzzled over this statement for quite some time, especially the part about temporary advantages becoming permanent, but I failed to understand it. My conclusion is that it's either truly brilliant or truly stupid. I mean, isn't it a characteristic of a temporary thing to be able to change into, well, something else - say, something permanent? For instance, according to Moskalenko, one of Steinitz' temporary advantages is 'bad piece position of the opponent'. Surely Steinitz understood that if the position of a bad piece didn't change during the game, it could become a permanent disadvantage? Shouldn't we give that credit to the first World Champion? I think we should.

Of course, I acknowledge it's entirely possible that it's just me who doesn't understand what Moskalenko is up to here. Perhaps his theory makes perfect sense to grandmasters and not to amateurs. Or it makes perfect sense to people who don't like to think things through that much. After all, I like to see myself as a philosopher, too, and perhaps I'm just looking for problems that really aren't there? But in that case, what kind of audience did Moskalenko have in mind, and shouldn't he have done more effort to be a little more explicit in what he means, especially given the ambitions he has clearly expressed? 

And it gets worse. While describing Emanuel Lasker's six general rules of attack and defence - based upon Steinitz' - in Lasker's Manual of Chess, of which the first rule is: 'In chess only the attacker wins', Moskalenko writes: 'My problem here is that what Lasker explains are philosophical concepts. What can you do with these ideas concretely, when you're sitting at the board?' This sounds fair enough (if still a little vague), but look at what Moskalenko wrote just a few paragraphs back: 'the key rule is: to give checkmate!' How is this more practical than Lasker's rule that in chess only the attacker wins? Also, what to make of Moskalenko's previous statement that 'Steinitz' elements are 'quite useful in practical play'? If the rules work in practical play, how can they be too philosophical? I don't get it.

In the last paragraph of the foreword, Moskalenko promises to 'make an attempt to systemize this dynamic approach to our game'. But in fact no such systemization is made in Revolutionize Your Chess at all. What Moskalenko does - and, fortunately, often quite well - is explain what chess skills a complete player needs, and what elements may play a role in determining these chess skills, and the ability to make good evaluations during practical play.

First, there are the 'Chess Skills'. Moskalenko mentions opening knowledge, endgame knowledge and middlegame knowledge (which consists of strategic and tactical skills) and then mentions tactical and strategical skills again as separate skills. The sixth skill he mentions is 'Basic Knowledge of the Chess Rules'. This 'chess rules knowledge', Moskalenko explains, again include tactics and strategy. Rather confusing, if you ask me.

Of slightly more interest are Moskalenko's six 'Personal Skills': memory, disposition (the will to win), psychological skills, physical condition, discipline and concentration. Indeed these are useful and very important skills; still, identifying such skills is hardly original, let alone 'revolutionary', since it's been done many times before by authors like Mark Dvoretsky, Jonathan Rowson and Alex Yermolinsky, to mention just a few recent ones. 

In the next chapter, Moskalenko elaborates on the 'general chess rules' mentioned before. He introduces his 'dynamic system with Five Touchstones', the core of the book, as follows:
This 'pragmatic style' [by the Soviet School, led by Botvinnik - AWM] considers the classical chess laws in a more dynamic way. Advantages may change during a game, or may even be overruled by an endangered position of the king, or by the factor which has thus far been neglected in theoretical works: Time. This dynamic factor should be included in any chess system if we want to call it conclusive.
And sure enough, the author lists 'Moskalenko's Five Touchstones' of dynamic chess as follows:
  • T1 Material
  • T2 Development
  • T3 Placement of Pieces and Pawns
  • T4 King Position
  • T5 Time

Again, Moskalenko stresses that a chess player should especially 'sense when the factor time (T5) is prevalent, in order to get a firm grip on the key moments of the key moments in the game.' But doesn't this all sound very, very familiar to you? Fans of Jonathan Rowson will no doubt recognize the five 'dimensions in chess' from chapter 7 of his book Chess for Zebras (material, opportunity, time, quality, psychology). Note the inclusion of 'time' in Rowson's list. Tellingly, Moskalenko's bibliography does not include Chess for Zebras, but we could forgive Moskalenko for this were it not for the fact that this talk of 'dimensions' - including a 'Time' dimension - in chess is not at all Rowson's invention but ... Garry Kasparov's.

As Rowson had already discussed in an even earlier book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins (talk about listing elements of chess!), Kasparov thinks of chess as a game of three dimensions: Material (piece value), Quality (positional features) and Time (initiative). In The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, Rowson even adds another 'Time' dimension to this list: time on the clock, or 'ticking time'. The details are of no concern to us now - what is, is that Moskalenko is apparently unaware of this discussion, nor of the fact that Robert Hübner has discussed (and demolished) Kasparov's dimensions theory as well (in ChessBase magazine, 2003). Particularly, Rowson writes in Chess for Zebras:

Hübner argues, convincingly, that Kasparov's tiradic conception is incoherent because the three different dimensions collapse into each other: 'Time' and 'Material' are relevant only in so far as they are 'Quality'. Hübner expresses this by saying that time is a dynamic factor, while material is a static one, but the only way the importance of these dynamic and static features can be assessed is by their relevance to quality, and then cease to operate as distinct dimensions. (...)

Time is sometimes absolutely vital, and a single tempo can make a decisive difference, but sometimes Time is completely irrelevant, and having lots of extra tempi doesn't matter at all. So 'time' doesn't exist on the chessboard in any unitary way, because the value of one move varies enormously.

Rowson discusses the various aspects of these concepts in great detail, agreeing with Hübner as saying that 'the significance of these expressions for the description of chess structures has been overestimated because they can be applied in every situation', but at the same time conceding that such an approach can have 'considerable pedagogical weight'.

Again, let's not go into too much detail - what's important to note is that Moskalenko's discussion on his own elements is extremely simplistic by this standard. (What about Moskalenko's touchstones 'collapsing into each other'? Can't they, too, be applied in almost any situation?) And this is especially painful because Moskalenko boasts that 'in most books about chess rules the concept of Time is simply ignored, and in practice their chess laws do not work - or do not make much sense - for this precise reason.' He fails, however, to see that perhaps they fail in practice precisely because concepts like Time and Material (and indeed all other 'touchstones') are such tricky philosophical ideas in the first place.

Summing up my problems with the theoretical part of Revolutionize Your Chess, I conclude that:
  • Moskalenko attacks a strawman when he says the current models do not work well in practice;
  • the suggestion that previous models were 'too theoretical' is demonstrably untrue;
  • the concept of breaking down chess into five dimensions or 'touchstones' is not 'revolutionary' at all;
  • Moskalenko's model (and just about all other theoretical concepts he introduces) invites a host of philosophical questions not addressed in the book;
  • while accusing others of failing to provide a 'theoretical framework', Moskalenko's system, too, is just a list of basic elements that can mostly be found in any good book on how to improve your chess.

Let's now turn to the practical application of Moskalenko's theory in analysis and game situations. Moskalenko is a great chess instructor and, as always, he chooses his examples well.  No doubt they are interesting, as was obviously the case in his previous books. But in the current book, the comments are often needlessly confusing because Moskalenko wants to include his touchstones all the time. Consider the following typical example:
Moskalenko-Barria, Bilbao (rapid) 2005

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Na6?!

Revolutionize your chess

Black develops his knight in a strange fashion. The idea ...Na6-b4 must be wrong, as it wastes two tempo (-T5 and a delay of T2) in the opening.

6.e4 Bg4 7.Bxc4 Bxf3 Black spends two more tempi (-T5 and -T2) to trade B x N.

8.gxf3 But in exchange he gets a better pawn structure (-T3 for White).


Revolutionize your chess

The key position of this opening. Now White can choose.

9.d5!? The signal for dynamic play! I chose this ambitious advance in order to fight for space, hindering the development of the black kingside at the same time (T3 versus T2). Of course, after the natural 9.Be3 White has better chances, but after 9...e6 the position is quite blocked, and it will not be easy for White to exploit his lead in development.

9...cxd5? This might be the decisive mistake, since it weakens b5 (threat Bb5+) and therefore the king's position (-T4). But what to play? The best solution was the dynamic counter 9...e6 10.dxe6 Qxd1+ 11.Kxd1 fxe6 12.Be3 +=.
First of all, all these T-numbers look extremely distracting. I kept leafing back to the page where the touchstones are listed to see which T is which, disrupting my concentration. Moskalenko himself admits this on the following page when he says that 'keeping score on all the touchstones throughout the game is hard, if not impossible', but then assures us we will acquire an intuition for it in due course. (By the way, recall what I said about having fun reading chess books. Did you enjoy all these T's?) However, I seriously wonder how it helps me to know that the manoevre Na6-b4 is a minus T5 and T2, if I know it's such a common way to develop the knight in many other Slav lines? What makes the current situation different from, say the line 5....Bf5 6.Ne5 Na6!? as played by Kramnik? Indeed, isn't 6.Ne5 in this line also a -T5 and a -T2, since after all it 'wastes a tempo', and why, then, is it the main line in the Slav all the same?

Another huge problem in just this one example is Moskalenko's use of the word 'dynamic': he considers both 9.d5 and 9...e6 to be dynamic, but fails to give any reasons as to why he thinks this is the case. And wasn't this precisely his problem with older methods - that they failed to define and realize the concept of 'dynamics'? And even if we would have a definition, what use is dynamic play when the alternatives, such as 9.Be3, are sometimes better objectively? Shouldn't we learn to play the best moves first?

Okay, perhaps I'm reading way too much in this one example. To be sure, there are better examples in the book, but they all suffer from the same illness: too much focus on the touchstones for the sake of the touchstones only. I'm sure you can improve your chess if you study the examples closely - but then again you can also learn a lot from studing the examples of any other good chess book that offers good explanations.

On top of that, there are numerous other flaws in the book. Moskalenko's big chapter on the Opening features examples from 1.d4 openings only - bummer for 1.e4 players who thought they were being 'dynamic' by opening with the king's pawn! (In fact most examples from the chapter on the middlegame are also taken from 1.d4 openings.)

Finally, it struck me that, unlike an author like Lars Bo Hansen, Moskalenko mainly uses his own games as illustration to a specific topic when he's winning them. For me, this was the final nail to this book's coffin. Don't get me wrong, Viktor Moskalenko seems like a sympathetic author and he sure is a respected and very strong grandmaster, but in this book he comes across as a bit of a show-off who pompously presents his 'revolutionary' ideas whithout any kind of self-reflection and knowledge of chess-philosophical matters. The book does contains good stuff, but I liked the Viktor Moskalenko of The Flexible French much, much better. I hope he returns soon.


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