Review: Winning Chess Middlegames

| 1 | Chess Event Coverage
Winning Chess MiddlegamesIvan Sokolov's Winning Chess Middlegames - an Essential Guide to Pawn Structures has already received so much positive feedback from reviewers that it seems difficult to say something different about the book. I had very high expectations of this recent New in Chess top selling book, but after such extraordinary praise, I must admit I was slightly disappointed. How is that possible?

Let me start by noting that the book is, of course, good. The layout is pleasant to the eye. It has plenty of diagrams, including many analysis diagrams. Most importantly, Sokolov is a fine analyst, who is both objective and personal at the right times, and who is surprisingly honest (and funny) at times:

"I have to admit that I have played this type of position with white in a number of games, and never thought of this kind of sacrifice at all."

"Many strong players have opted for this way of immediately seizing space and it is difficult to be critical of this, but I feel that keeping the tension in the centre and delaying the push of the pawns is a much more approriate strategy."

And, my favourite quote of the book:

"Had I not known the names of the players [Radjabov and Anand - ed.], I would have thought that the black player must be a complete patzer. However, in chess as in life things are often not the way they seem."

Comments like these offer an interesting view into a top grandmaster's thinking. His game analyses, too, are often clear and very instructive:

Ivanchuk-Aronian Morelia/Linares 2007

Ivanchuk-Aronian after 16.Rxc316...Rxc5

It seems that all four rooks are soon going to be exchanged along the c-file, resulting in an easy draw for Black. But as we will soon see, the c-file is not that important here. Opting for two hanging pawns in the centre with 16...bxc5? would not be wise here. since White can undermine these pawns with the standard 17.b4! c4 18.Nd4 and with a dominant knight and better pawn structure, White has a massive, probably winning advantage.


A beautiful move. White keeps the rooks on in order to target the weak isolated pawn on d5. For his part, Black cannot create any counterplay related to his control of the c-file.

17...Rfc8 18.Rd1 (...)

A great and very insightful piece of analysis indeed, and the book is full of them. Unfortunately, in some cases Sokolov also has a tendency to be vague or unspecific. In the same game, Sokolov praises Ivanchuk's technique as 'an excellent learning example for amateurs and grandmasters alike' without explaining what exactly this technique consists of, and what makes it such a good example. Sure enough, Ivanchuk subsequently plays fine moves, but I always thought technique was supposed to be a little bit more than just playing good moves.

Or take this fragment, where Sokolov explains the nuances of the H?ºbner variation of the Nimzo-Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6):

Ivanchuk-Aronian after 16.Rxc3(...) Black's counterplay is not immediately obvious (contrary to the S?§misch Nimzo, here White's potentially weak c4 pawn cannot easily be attacked), so he has to play constructive moves, excerting central pressure and waiting for White to make a decision about his pawn centre. Once White pushes his pawns and the central structure becomes fixed, Black should be able to shuffle his pieces and find targets in the white camp. White should, for his part, remain as flexible as possible, keeping central tension and delaying any pawn push until the moment when a central blockade works in his favour.

This is a much less clear explanation, in my opinion. It raises several questions. What exactly are the 'constructive moves' in this position? How should Black shuffle his pieces, and which concrete targets can be found? And precisely when does a blockade work in White's favour? These are all questions that may be totally obvious to someone of Sokolov's calibre - he may even find them pretty dumb - but for a mere 2200 player like myself, I'm afraid it's all quite confusing.

Similarly, Sokolov sometimes helpfully notes that a position may look like one discussed before - but then forgets to mention what these differences actually consist of. Note that I'm not saying what Sokolov explains isn't useful in some general way, just that it's not always as profound an approach as the back cover of the book promises.

However, my biggest problem with the book is the fact that it's rather misleading about its contents. Titled Winning Chess Middlegames, my first question when I got hold of the book was: how should I interpret the title? Does it mean something like 'How to win chess middlegames' or rather, 'A book about chess middle games that are winning (for whichever side?)'? The book's subtitle, 'an essential guide to pawn structures' doesn't clear up this semantic misunderstanding. But all joking aside, neither Michael Adams' forword, nor the introduction, nor the back cover mentions the fact that the book is only about 1.d4 openings.

Worse even, there are only four type of 'pawn structures' that Sokolov (however elaborately) discusses: doubled pawns, isolated pawns, hanging pawns and central pawn majorities. The illustrations for these structures in an overwhelming majority stem from games in the Nimzo-Indian and the Queen's Gambit - in other words, the 'classical' 1.d4 openings.

So you'll understand, most examples of doubled pawns focus on doubled c-pawns, while the examples of isolated pawns are mostly about an isolated d-pawn. There is one game featuring a Slav Defence, and not a single game featuring King's Indian structures - let alone Ruy Lopez or Sicilian pawn structures.

Things are even more mysterious because in his introduction, Sokolov does say he wants to 'explore the most important types of pawn structure in chess', and he also mentions openings such as the Catalan, the Najdorf and the King's Indian. He even tells a little anecdote about Karpov and the Ruy Lopez!

Which raises the question: was neither Sokolov nor the publisher aware of this colossal gap in the book's coverage of pawn structures in chess, or was the gap cleverly hidden from view for marketing purposes?

Another strange (for such an outstanding publisher) point of (minor) criticism is the fact that the book is edited a bit sloppily. For example, occasionally an indefinite article (a, an) is missing (which is normal in most Slavonic languages, but feels weird in English) at the start of a sentence, such as:

  • "Good decision." (p. 25)
  • "Crucial mistake." (p. 27)
  • "Critical moment." (p. 49)

(On the same pages we also find the correct usage: "A sorry sight." (p. 25), "A thematic idea," (p. 27) and "An important tempo." (p. 49).)

But enough nitpicking. Let me say once again that I do like Winning Chess Middlegames and I recommend it to anyone interested in Nimzo-Indian and Queen's Gambit pawn structures - which should be pretty much everyone interested in chess, of course.

The book contains fantastic, personal and sincere views of chess and game analysis. And sure enough, the ideas Sokolov explains can be used in much more positions and openings than the ones used in this book.

Still, let me end by saying that I hope New in Chess will change the subtitle of the book in the next edition (which is sure to come) into: 'An essential guide to classical 1.d4 pawn structures'. It is a much more appropriate and honest title for such an honest book.


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