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    Friday
    Jul132018

    Book Review: Chess Lessons, by Mark Dvoretsky

    Mark Dvoretsky, Chess Lessons: Solving Problems & Avoiding Mistakes. (Russell Enterprises, 2018) 274 pp., $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    If you’ve been reading my blog since its inception in 2005, you know that I’m a big fan of Mark Dvoretsky’s work. Dvoretsky, who passed away in 2016, was a strong player in his day. (He was only an IM, but his FIDE rating was over 2500, and this at a time when that put him in the world’s top 50. He was in the USSR then, when it was very difficult for all but the very best Soviet players to participate in norm tournaments.) But he was even more successful as a trainer, a vocation he took up around the age of 30. His students/trainees won numerous junior world championships, frequently reached the Candidates stage, and achieved everything but the absolute world championship.

    Dvoretsky’s work was not confined to face-to-face work with top-level students, however. He also published many books and articles with very high-level training material. His work wasn’t intended for anyone below around 2000, and that’s being pretty liberal. Most of his work is designed for masters, and a sizable chunk of his material is challenging even for grandmasters. It’s not all like that, but even his comparatively easy material isn’t designed to be read on the subway or in bed before falling asleep.

    So what about this new book, which was written before his passing but had to be translated into English? Is it accessible to elites only, or can strong club players (with a strong work ethic and a high tolerance for pain and frustration) benefit from it as well? Dvoretsky suggests in the Introduction that the book is a sort of addendum to his Analytical Manual. That was one of the most challenging books I ever worked with – maybe the most challenging – so if his assessment of Chess Lessons is correct it’s not a book for the casual player – even if that player is rated around 2000.

    But let me suggest that it’s not that bad. There’s a good deal of “talk” in the book, both to explain what’s happening in the position and to offer general advice. There are lots of challenging questions from Dvoretsky, but not all of them require a trained professional to find their solution. More importantly, not all of them are capable of being understood only by trained professionals. A comparatively lower-rated player can learn from the book, even without managing to solve any of the tasks posed. (It isn’t a puzzle book, but Dvoretsky will put a question mark at a diagram in the course of a game or game fragment to indicate a challenge, along with “W” or “B” to indicate whose move it is and 1-5 asterisks to indicate the position’s difficulty.)

    Still, the book is designed for players who are professional or aspiring to it. To go through the book as intended will require a good deal of time and effort, and as noted above, a high tolerance for pain and frustration. As someone who has worked a little with Dvoretsky, mostly with his books but also in person, I can assure you that you will grow from his books if you use them in the right way. Whether you have the time, ability, and inclination to do so is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

    Thus far I’ve said almost nothing about the book’s contents. With some books that would be inexcusable, but with Dvoretsky’s works it’s pretty normal. A lot of his books are collections of complicated positions where one must work through concrete details and figure out the truth; they’re very rarely about general chess understanding or solving positions based on stock tactics. He trusts that his readers have already learned these lessons and are trying to achieve the highest levels. The are hundreds if not thousands of tactical primers and dozens of books on typical positional themes, standard pawn structures, and so on. To go from a competent master to a world-class player involves skills that go beyond what we can all learn by rote learning, and his exercises are pitched accordingly. (There’s nothing wrong with rote learning; without that foundation a player is unlikely to become a competent club player, let alone a professional. It’s not sufficient for those who want to become IMs and GMs, but it is necessary.)

    Lest you think that I’m kidding about the very concrete nature of what Dvoretsky is (or rather, was) up to in his books, here are the seven parts of his book:

    Part 1: Lessons from a Certain Game

    Part 2: Positional Games

    Part 3: Discussions in the Opening

    Part 4: The King in Peril

    Part 5: Under Fire

    Part 6: Games with Questions

    Part 7: Playing-out

    Helpful, right? (Not really.) It doesn’t get any better when you dig into each part. For instance, the sections of Part 3 are titled “Fascinating Classics”, “Two Failures of Eugenio Torre”, “A Stumbling Block”, and “Unobvious Candidate Moves”. The first section begins with the famous Rotlewi-Rubinstein game and examines other games with a similar structure. Torre’s failures are both on the Black side of the Classical Slav. The “stumbling block” focuses on Nadanian’s treatment of the Basman-Sale Variation of the Sicilian, and the last section looks at a mind-bending and wild Slav sideline. But don’t be misled: in none of these cases is Dvoretsky offering anything like opening advice. It’s all about problem-solving, which is the primary focus of all his chess works. It could be an ending, a middlegame, or an opening – whatever. We as chess players have to solve problems. We can’t move pieces, can’t consult books, can’t consult engines (unless we’re correspondence players or cheaters). We memorize and study, but ultimately, we have to figure some things out for ourselves, and training ourselves in that ability is what we have to do to get really, seriously, meaningfully good at the game. Dvoretsky isn’t trying to teach us any of the variations covered in part 3. He has simply found a fresh batch of games with deep problems to solve. In some cases there are positional ideas or opening variations we can reuse, and in other cases – most, I’d say – the analysis will have no direct application. But building up skill by deep analysis of challenging positions? That’s the ultimate reusable benefit.

    In conclusion: if you’re at least 2000 (maybe 2200, and certainly above) and ambitious, the book is worth your while. If you’re below 2000, the exercises will be far too challenging; and if you don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to really work at the book it’s not worth your while either. Of course, one can buy the book and replay the games and analysis just for pleasure, and to learn a bit here and there en passant. There are better books for that purpose, however, and if you go through the book in this way you’ll lose its main benefit – you’ll already know the solutions. So I recommend the book to higher-rated players with ambition, and as something ambitious lower-rated players can work towards.

    (Amazon link here; publisher's excerpt here.)

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