Review: The Grandmaster Battle Manual

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

There are dozens of chess improvement books on the market - impossible to read them all. But even if you're tired of keeping track of the good ones, or if your most recent one is Dvoretsky and Yusupov's classic Training for the Tournament Player (1993), you should consider purchasing Grandmaster Battle Manual by Greek GM Vassilios Kotronias.Actually, I think the book could've been even better if Kotronias had chosen the bold and delightful How to Win Open Tournaments as a title, which, in fact, he did consider as well. This title conveys, even more so than the slightly nondescript The Grandmaster Battle Manual, the usefulness and enormous practical value of Kotronias' book. Glancing at some of the chapter's titles alone should convince any skeptic: Annoy Them!, Be a Harsh Critic of Your Own Wins, Facing Lower-rated Opponents, The Challenge of the Last Round. That's promising stuff for ambitious tournament players. By the way: yes, of course - I know these themes are not new subjects in chess improvement theory. On the contrary: they are emphasized by every self-respecting chess trainer. But it's also true that most chess players don't have trainers, or ever had them, and essential though these lessons may be, they are often forgotten quickly or, more likely, comfortably ignored. For instance, it took me until very recently (long after anything that could possibly pass as 'my chess career' was over) to realize that probably the biggest mistake club players make, is to be too happy with their victories and too dismissive of their losses, making up excuses and blaming circumstances rather than themselves. Here's how Kotronias vividly and recognizably describes his own painful experiences with the subject:

[N]eglecting self-criticism when it was easily within my reach was my main undoing. While reviewing the games I played in the above-mentioned period, I discovered recurring mistakes in my play, and these mistakes had to do with pure chess-playing qualities more than anything else. I have often failed to seriously assess a situation, misplaced my pieces as a result of not trusting my intuition or lack of knowledge, played irresponsibly fast in a winning position, or, on the contrary, played too slowly because of a lack of confidence. Or in some cases, to put it bluntly, I did not know what to do and did not care to find out afterwards. The most intriguing fact is that often these mistakes had gone unnoticed or were suppressed to oblivion, simply because I won these games. Had I been a harsh critic of myself I would have spotted not only their cause, but also the cure. (...) Nowadays, I feel that analyzing a won game may even be more important than the game itself. I now recall with appreciation the lengthy analysis of Dr. Huebner in Chess Informant, realizing why, boring as they looked in the complete absence of any exclamation marks, they were constantly reproaching mistakes rather than praising his good moves or those of his opponent. If you want to reach a high level you cannot be superficial, you must scrutinize.

Another excellent example of Kotronias' engaging explanations can be found in the chapter Facing Lower-rated Opponents. The art of beating weaker opponents is probably one of the most challenging ones in chess, and Kotronias gives superb examples of players who are very good at this. I was delighted to read that Kotronias considers Vladimir Epishin to be one of those - I've often watched Epishin play in open tournaments myself and I always was impressed by his determination behind the board. One of Epishin's typical victories Kotronias analyses was played against ChessVibes editor IM Merijn van Delft, a game he introduces as follows:

Facing the Dutch IM Merijn van Delft, he concentrated on obtaining a slight space advantage (...). In the process of exploiting this advantage he handles the pawn structure to perfection, using it to create bases as well as permanent targets for his minor pieces while at the same time restricting those of his adversary. As is often the case, asymmetry in the pawn skeleton comes in handy for the higher-rated player because it allows Epishin to display his deep positional knowledge.

After 22 moves, an endgame been reached which Kotronias evaluates as follows:

23.Kf2 += White has reached what he wanted - an ending with an asymmetrical pawn structure, more space and better pieces. Still, he should not have won as easily as he did, and perhaps not even won at all against correct defense. But, as a rule, in situations like the present one the practical problems prove insurmountable for the less experiences or lower rated player. 23...Red8?! A move that loses time while doing nothing to restore harmony in the black camp. Preferable was 23...g5!? seeking to restrict White's kingside pawn majority and obtain some dark-square control. (...) I consider the ensuing positions drawable, as Black has held his ground on the kingside. 24.Rxd7 Rxd7?! 24...Nxd7!?+= would have been better, restricting White's edge to a minimum. After the game continuation White's advantage takes on alarming proportions. 25.Rc1! Kf8! 26.Ke3 Ke7 27.a4! +/- Ensuring that Black's queenside pawns will be unfavourably fixed, while Black has not taken the slightest measure to contain White's kingside pawn majority; the game has been strategically decided and the next few moves of the Dutch master deprived him of his past practical chances (...).

(A pedantic might observe that if after 24...Nxd7 White is still 'only' +=, as he was after 23.Kf2, then 23...Red8 shouldn't actually be considered 'dubious', but I think it's obvious Kotronias is trying to make a point about Black's 23rd move rather than cast a strictly scientific judgment on it.) A relatively unknown game deeply analyzed by a strong GM is always something to enjoy - and Kotronias shows his determination to penetrate into critical positions throughout The Grandmaster Battle Manual. (The book's very first game features 9 pages of analysis of the position after Black's 13th move. Clearly, Kotronias isn't afraid this will discourage his readers!) But what I found especially striking is how typical this fragment seems to be for how weak players often lose, apparently without making any major mistakes, against stronger opposition. I've experienced it myself dozens of times, to my eternal frustration, feeling utterly powerless to stop it, though Heaven knows I tried. But of course, that's precisely because these players were stronger than me. It's examples like these that make Kotronias' book such a tremendous read. But there's more! In the highly ambitious chapter Geometry & Co: A Creative Outlet to Success, Kotronias aims to describe his personal approach to (tactical) chess creativity, which in his view is strongly linked to the 'visualization of a recognizable geometrical shape, such as a cluster of pawns or pieces that would take flesh and bones after the move is made on the board'. When I read that, it sounded a little vague to me, until I saw some his first example:

Grischuk-Smirin Beersheba 2005 In the diagram we can observe the rectangle e8-b8-b2-e2-e8 and its blockages at b6 and e5. The solution then comes easily and naturally; actually all that was required to notice the trapezium e8-b8-b5-e2-e8 in order to find it: 25...Nxf3+! By deflecting the e2-bishop Black succeeds in eliminating the b5-knight and wresting the initiative; his pressure down the b- and e-files is more important than the creation of White's passed d-pawn.

While one must admire Kotronias originality in pointing out this pattern, it can, in my opinion, hardly be called a direct cause for the tactical motif that, according to Kotronias, flows 'naturally' from it. After all, the reason the text move worked was only because White's other knight, not part of the above-mentioned 'trapezium', happened to be on f2 instead of, say, g3. How convenient! Kotronias, to his credit, does admit that he is 'no mathematician' and 'will rush to disclaim any responsibility for any misapprehensions my handling of the subject may cause', but that still couldn't take away my feeling that this chapter is somewhat flawed and even a bit naive, which is a pity, even if it doesn't really matter because the examples provided are all wonders of creativity and in-depth analysis by the author. Another aspect I liked a lot was Kotronias' very personal and often humorous commentary. He's able to give his analysis a personal yet always relevant touch. Here's an example of how he manages to do this, from a chapter specifically dedicated to 'Berlin Wall'-like structures. Note especially how Kotronias casually elaborates on a very interesting idea in this opening, even though it didn't even occur in the game. Kotronias-Mastrovasilis Greek Cup 2010

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.Nc3 Ne7 10.h3 Bf5?! This game was played in the semi-final of the Greek Cup, in a hard-fought match between Peristeri and Thessaloniki Chessplayers' Union (...). The board order was random, which meant that neither I nor my opponent knew we were going to play each other. Given the importance of the encounter it was expected that those with Black would play rather solidly, so my opponent's choice of opening did not come as a surprise to me. But the move 10...Bf5 did surprise me, and I could hardly remember what I had prepared against it. 11.Nd4 After twenty minutes of thought I decided to throw in a couple of logical developing moves and see what Black would do. Well, to be honest, in the back of my mind there was also an idea that in this position two knights could be the equivalent of two bishops, so I would pursue the policy of trading the c1-bishop for the e7-knight in order to keep agile minor pieces and control the light and dark squares equally well. Although this idea did not materialize during the game, I think the concept is correct because Black's light-squared bishop will be ineffective on the h7-b1 diagonal if the second player cannot sufficiently control f5. Exchanging the c1-bishop for the e7-knight is designed to achieve mainly that, with an added benefit that White does not have to constantly worry about drawish endings with opposite-coloured bishops, as he would have no bishops left!

Reading The Grandmaster Battle Manual is not only inspiring and highly enjoyable - it also emphasizes hard work (but not too hard, and not during tournaments), and the need to be practical. 'If you are a perfectionist, you will never approach really high levels', is one of Kotronias' surprising statements; in another chapter, he stresses the crucial role of 'annoyance' during games. In yet another, he says that 'Defence is, in my opinion, the most vital quality for a player who aspires to reach the top.' This book will provide you with food for thought until you can't stop yourself from signing up for the next Open in town.


More from CM ArnieChipmunk
Why chess will never be popular

Why chess will never be popular

In praise of draws

In praise of draws