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    Friday
    Dec222017

    The Logo: You're Kidding, Right?

    Some of you will know what I'm talking about, others of you won't. To those of you in the latter group, my apologies, unless you're kids. (Which is why I'm being oblique about this.) What in the world were they thinking? And does anyone suppose that this will in some way represent what will take place between Magnus Carlsen and his challenger next November? Good grief. The World Championship is and long has been in very good hands. (/sarc)

    Wednesday
    Dec202017

    Book Review, Hansen's *The Chameleon Sicilian*

    Carsten Hansen, The Chameleon Variation: Confronting the Sicilian on Your Own Terms. (Russell Enterprises, 2017.) 160 pp., $19.95.

    About a dozen years ago I started playing the Berlin Defense on occasion. Not for a draw, either: as Levon Aronian said not so many years ago, when I play for a win with Black, I use the Berlin!" The ins and outs of the famous Berlin ending that Vladimir Kramnik popularized were more than complicated enough to get good winning chances against the experts and masters I used it against, and I went 6-0 with it against players rated from 1963 to 2410. No complaints here! But when using it in blitz I'd face 4.d3 more and more, and came to find those positions excruciatingly dull after a while. And nowadays 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 is very popular, with stupendously dull Petroff/Exchange French positions where Black either achieves a stagnant equality or else suffers with a slight disadvantage and not so much as a shade of counterplay. So I'd had enough, and dropped the Berlin.

    Sometimes similar happens to many Sicilian players. They get attracted by the razor-sharp variations in the Najdorf or the Dragon, or are attracted to the complexities of the Taimanov, and then they see 1.e4 c5 2.c3 on the board. Or 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+, or one of a half-dozen other anti-Sicilian weapons. What's worse, while some of the sidelines are harmless for Black (e.g. 2.f4, which has mostly gone extinct thanks to 2...d5!), others have their drop of poison and force Black to know a fair amount of theory, too. Black wants to have some fun, but White won't let him!

    And then there are some interesting hybrid lines that can go either into a main line or a sideline, depending on how Black reacts. The foremost of the hybrids starts with 2.Nc3. Given a choice between 2...Nc6 and 2...d6, the former move is more precise, because if White heads for a Grand Prix Attack with 3.f4 Black's most reliable option involves a quick ...d5. Therefore, it's better to play ...Nc6 to save a tempo - why play ...d6 and then ...d5 if you can go to d5 in a single move? The answer is that after 2...Nc6, a Najdorf player is in trouble if White plays 3.Nf3, intending d4. If White can do this, then Black will be forced to play another Open Sicilian other than the Najdorf - a Sveshnikov, perhaps, or a Classical. It's therefore standard for Najdorf players to attempt to punish White by playing 3...e5: no 4.d4 for you! Black seems to be doing reasonably well at the moment after 4.Bc4 Be7 5.d3 d6. White can either play for the d5 square (e.g. with 6.Nd2 followed by 7.Nf1 and Ne3) or for kingside play with 6.0-0 Nf6 7.Ng5 followed by 8.f4, but at the moment it seems that Black is holding his own in any case.

    But White can be even sneakier with 3.Nge2. If Black plays ...e5 now, then White's knights are both perfectly set up for the d5 square: one goes to d5 and the other backs it up, following in its footsteps if the first one is exchanged away. Meanwhile, if Black doesn't play ...e5, White can play d4 if he so desires, heading for a non-Najdorf Sicilian. (Emphasis on the "if".) This is the idea of the "Chameleon" Sicilian: it can be an Open Sicilian if White wants (generally), or not - it's White's choice with this flexible move order.

    The book under review, by Carsten Hansen, is devoted to this anti-Sicilian approach with 2.Nc3 and 3.Nge2, with the lion's share covering 2...Nc6 from Black. Chapter 1 is a very short chapter called "Ideas"; it's more a brief explanation of the sort given above, followed by an outline of Black's options.

    Chapter 2 covers the principled 3...e5, and chapter 3 covers another very principled approach: 3...Nf6 4.g3 d5, and after 5.exd5 both 5...Nxd5 and 5...Nd4 are presented.

    Chapter 4 looks at 3...e6 4.g3 Nf6, and chapter 5 deviates on move 4 with ...d5.

    Chapter 6 is another way of "punishing" White by preventing d2-d4: 3...Nd4.

    Chapters 7 and 8 are non-punishment oriented, but allow White to return to an Open Sicilian. Both chapters start with 2...e6 (rather than 2...Nc6 as in all the previous chapters) 3.Nge2 a6 4.g3 b5 5.Bg2 Bb7. In chapter 7 White plays 6.0-0 and avoids the d2-d4 push; in chapter 8 White goes for it: 6.d4. This transposes to a Taimanov line where White generally sacs the e-pawn.

    Chapter 9 also begins with 2...e6, but after 3.Nge2 Black plays 3...d5, heading for an isolated pawn position after 4.exd5 exd5 5.d4.

    In Chapter 10 the Najdorf player finally shows up: 2...d6, and after 3.Nge2 plays 3...e5. It's similar to the line in Chapter 2, but Black can delay the development of his knight to c6 or forgo it entirely.

    Chapter 11 covers an oddball line where Black seems to acquiesce in an Open Sicilian, only to throw White a curve: 2...Nc6 3.Nge2 e6 4.d4 d5. This is closely related to chapter 9, and here too Black is likely to wind up with an isolated d-pawn. The difference is that in the earlier chapter Hansen looked at lines where Black slightly delayed (or on rare occasions, did without) ...Nc6.

    Chapter 12 looks at various transpositions to the Fianchetto Variation against the Dragon, while chapter 13, strangely enough, covers transpositions to a 6.g3 Najdorf...kinda sorta. The chapter title is "Transpositions to the Najdorf Sicilian", but White doesn't do this. Hansen only has White play d4 once Black has committed to ...e6, so it's really a transposition to a Scheveningen Sicilian instead.

    Chapter 14 covers transpositions to a Classical Sicilian (e.g. 2...Nc6 3.Nge2 Nf6 4.g3 d6 5.d4 cxd4 6.Nxd4).

    Finally, Chapter 15 switches back, turning away from the Open Sicilian to the Closed. Hansen covers a variety of Closed Sicilian lines, i.e. setups with Nge2, g3, Bg2, and d3, aiming for a gradual kingside expansion with further moves like 0-0, h3, Be3, and f4.

    That's what's in the book. The presentation is not based on illustrative games, but straight analysis. There is comparatively little by way of explanation; mostly it's variation after variation with game citations and the verbal equivalent of Informant-style punctuation. (E.g. White has an initiative, Black has compensation, White is slightly better, etc.) That doesn't mean it's bad, but it makes the book less user-friendly to lower- and middle-ranged club players.

    In my opinion, the book is best used as a reference work for players who like some of the lines, and/or for those who like to get certain sorts of Sicilian players (Najdorf fans especially) away from their favorite variations. Thus if you're happy going into main line Dragons, there's no need to bother with Hansen's analysis of the Fianchetto Variation. Play 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nge2 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 and now rather than 6.Nde2, play 6.Be3 and off you go. On the other hand, if you only like 9.0-0-0 in the main line of the Dragon, you can't do this with White, because after 6...Nf6 White more or less needs to play 7.Bc4 to stick to the main lines. There's nothing wrong with this, but if it's not part of your repertoire than you'll have only managed to trick yourself with 2.Nc3 and 3.Nge2. Be careful.

    How's the material? Thumbing through, I often saw Hansen acknowledge that Black was doing reasonably well, at least from a theoretical perspective, so he doesn't seem to be overpromising - which is good. It's always possible that some sideline largely neglected by the pros is at least as good as what they play, but it wouldn't be wise to count on it. The right attitude, or at least one reasonable attitude, is this: if White is never worse with correct play, and Black has a good number of natural ways to go at least somewhat astray, and White's play isn't too difficult to understand and execute with a bit of study, then it's worth trying if you like it.

    One line I was curious about, since I used to play it a lot in blitz through an Open Sicilian move order, arises after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nge2 a6 4.g3 b5 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.d4 b4 7.Na4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nf6 9.0-0 - this is line (A) of chapter 8. (My move order was 2.Nf3 e6 3.Nc3 a6 4.g3 b5 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.d4 b4 7.Na4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nf6 9.0-0.) After 9...Bxe4 10.Bxe4 Nxe4 11.Re1 Hansen gives 11...d5 as the main line, but rightly notes that the less popular 11...Nc5 is a very serious try as well. After 11...Nc5 he considers three moves, and I understand his evaluations of two of them. About 12.c4, he ultimately says that White lacks full compensation for the pawn, while all the lines with 12.Nxc5 wind up with equality when both sides make best moves.

    But I don't understand all of his evaluations after 12.c3 Nxa4 13.Qxa4. In his first sub-line (13...Be7), he gives a variation that results in White having "a tiny pull", but offers an improvement for Black before that. He says it "looks like a good improvement for Black"; okay, but does that mean that it's equal? Black is better? Or that White's pull is even tinier? Likewise in his second sub-line (13...bxc3) he says that it "invites trouble": 14.Nxe6! fxe6 15.Rxe6+ Kf7?? 16.Re5 (etc.) followed by a massacre in the game Zapata-Bruzon Batista, Bogota 2011. But then he says that Black can improve with 15...Be7! (etc.), "when White only has some initiative but nothing like in the game." Does this mean that he's better, but not massacring Black? Finally, in the third subline (13...Qb6) he concludes that "White will have to hustle to get compensation for the pawn". Does this mean that objectively, he has this, and must simply rise to the occasion? Or that he doesn't, but has good practical chances? He also offers a possible improvement for White along the way, but without an accompanying evaluation. It's difficult to give perfectly precise evaluations most of the time, but this seems too vague - especially for one of the most important variations in the chapter. (For my evaluations, see the link to the replayable board, below.)

    Working through these variations, it seems that he prefers to follow previous games wherever possible. There were plenty of spots between a branching point and the end of a variation where equally good alternatives seemed to be present, but unless the improvement was fairly major he would follow in the footsteps of a cited game. There is value to this approach, but my preference would be for fewer references and (a) more direction and (b) more independent analysis. While the book purports to be something like a repertoire for White, it comes across more as an encyclopedia on the line, and as such more of a starting point for research than its terminus.

    This again shows up in the main line with 11...d5 (rather than 11...Nc5). After 12.c4 bxc3 13.Nxc3 Be7 14.Nxe4 dxe4 15.Rxe4 0-0 16.Qb3 Bf6 17.Be3 we come to a position that has arisen twice before. In one game Black played 17...Qd7, an inferior move which was followed by several more inferior and even bad moves on the way to a short draw. White was the lower-rated player and was happy to repeat in the game Zivkovic-Kurajica, Teslic 2006, but he could have won instead of settling for the draw. Hansen points this out, but doesn't punctuate any of Black's inferior and bad moves along the way. Thus his main line follows the other game, Jones-Firouza, Baku 2016, which went 17...Qd5 18.Qxd5 exd5 19.Rf4 Nd6 20.Rf5 Ne5 21.Rd1 Rfe8 22.b3, when "White has a small but clear advantage in the endgame and duly converted it into a full point some time later".

    All well and good. But if one runs the engine while doing all of this, a third option shows up: 17...a5, intending ...a4 and in some lines helpfully clearing a6 for the rook. Houdini likes this a lot, giving triple zeroes in most lines and only a tiny, sub-+= plus after 19.Rc1 a4 20.Qb7 Qd5 21.Qxd5 exd5 21.Rf4 Nd7 22.Rf5 Ne5. It's very similar to Jones-Firouza, but the insertion of ...a5-a4 helps Black a lot, as he gets clear counterplay against White's b-pawn. From here a draw looks like an overwhelming favorite. Incidentally, this isn't just some quirk of Houdini's: asmFish and regular Stockfish both give 17...a5 immediately, while Komodo takes a few blinks first before joining its chums. (AlphaZero couldn't be reached for comment.)

    Is this a huge problem? No. But many of us have access to giant databases and can find the games for ourselves. What we want from the author of an opening book is to shape and organize the material, pare it down, help us understand what's going on, cue us in on move-order issues, and find improvements over existing theory and practice. To my taste, there isn't enough paring down, explanation, or independent analysis in this book. It's useful as a reference and for generating ideas, but from what I've seen in this chapter I think he's putting too much trust in previous games.

    Let's look at one more line, as it's suggested by Vasilios Kotronias in his anti-Sicilians repertoire book for Black. This is Hansen's chapter 6: 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nge2 Nd4. At the end of the chapter Hansen admits that there doesn't seem to be any advantage for White, but White has a nice array of options to put Black under pressure.

    What's odd about this is that when I look at one of the lines he refers to in his summary, (B1), I see no place where he claims that Black equalizes against best play. The line begins 4.Nxd4 cxd4 5.Nb5 Now 5...e5 (5...Qb6 is given parenthetically, and doesn't equalize; the engine thinks it's a pretty bad move, and in practice Black has played 5...e5 14 times and 5...Qb6 only once, losing). 6.Qh5 d6 7.Bc4 g6 (he briefly analyzes - or rather, gives a game citation with - 7...Nh6, concluding that it's "considerably worse for Black") 8.Qf3 Be6 (8...Nf6 is looked at and found wanting) 9.Bxe6 fxe6 10.Qb3 and from here he follows the game Lehtinen-Soederberg, Finland 2001 through White's 18th move, concluding that "White has the better chances". The moves from here to there are 10...Qd7 11.d3 (Hansen doesn't note it, but this move isn't considered by Kotronias; he only looks at 11.0-0 and 11.c3) 11...a6 12.Na3 b5 13.Nb1 Ne7 14.a4 bxa4 15.Rxa4 Nc6 16.c3 Bg7 17.Qa2 Rc8 18.0-0+=.

    How does this hold up when you run the engine? It's at best unclear. First, on move 11, it may be better for Black to abstain from ...a6, at least for the moment, and develop his knight. The knight has little to do on b5, and will have to retreat to a3 sooner or later to join the play. The question is if a quick c3 from White will force ...a6 anyway. It might, but since White can improve on Hansen's line with 13.c4 it may make sense for Black to induce c3 instead. Thus 11...Ne7 12.c3 a6 13.Na3 Bg7 may equalize; likewise 12.f4 a6 13.Na3 b5! 14.fxe5 Nc6!, with probably sufficient compensation. It isn't completely clear though, and it's a good spot to dig more deeply for anyone who would go into this line with either color.

    I already mentioned 13.c4 as an improvement, giving White an edge. After his 13.Nb1 Ne7 14.a4 the position is closer to equal, but it's hard to say with certainty if it is or not. What is clear is that 16...Bg7 isn't Black's best, and White's edge is unquestionable after that. 17...Rc8 isn't best either, and on both moves 16 and 17 Black should prefer ...a5 instead. For example: 17...a5 18.b4 dxc3 19.Nxc3 0-0 20.bxa5 Rfb8 21.0-0 Nb4 with full or very nearly full compensation for the pawn.

    In sum, I don't think the book is suitable for players under 1800 or 1900, at least not as a standalone repertoire book, not least because there is too little real, explanatory prose. Players at or especially above that rating range could profit from the book as a reference and a starting point, but not as a ready-made repertoire.

    Let me close with some positives. What is in the book is good as far as it goes, and there is no attempt to hide the dead bodies: if Black equalizes in a chapter, Hansen doesn't pretend otherwise and doesn't disguise it with a collection of weasel words. That isn't always the case in books recommending non-main line openings, so that's unfortunately worthy of praise. Hansen has done his due diligence in his database research, and while I think there should have been (a lot) more of it, he does offer improvements over previous games. One final virtue of the book is to extend one's imagination. Many of us are set in our ways when it comes to our anti-Sicilian repertoire with White. The Chameleon Sicilian reminds us and demonstrates that there are lots of ways to go after 1...c5, and even if one doesn't adopt the book's repertoire in its entirety we might try to incorporate some bits and pieces, especially as a surprise weapon or against players who use certain sorts of Sicilians.

    The analysis above can be replayed (with further detail) here.

    Tuesday
    Dec192017

    Pirc, Damiano, and other Misnamed Opening-Player Pairs

    Skimming through this brief article by Vlastimil Hort on Vasja Pirc, I noted with interest that he was only able to find a whopping two games by Pirc where he played the opening named for him: 1.e4 d6. While that's doing Pirc a favor, it's almost as undeserved as the fate suffered by Pedro Damiano (1480-1544). He wrote about, but did not play, the terrible black opening that starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6. In fact, he correctly pointed out hat 2...f6 is a bad move and that 3.Nxe5 is a strong rejoinder. (Presciently, he also discussed 2...Nc6 and 2...d6 - the latter hundreds of years before Philidor came on the scene - and correctly [or so most people and engines would agree] claimed that the former move is best.)

    So what was his reward? The garbage move 2...f6 is standardly known as "Damiano's Defense". A sad fate, even if this semi-slander has kept Damiano's name a household word in the homes of chess players for half a millenium.

    Readers, can you think of other injustices when it comes to opening names? Let's make a giant thread out of this if we can.

    Monday
    Dec182017

    Some First Thoughts by Ken Regan on AlphaZero

    First thoughts, and some proposed experiments as well. (And an interesting game to try with a partner.)

    Sunday
    Dec172017

    Book Review: Kirillov's *Team Tal: An Inside Story*

    Valentin Kirillov, Team Tal: An Inside Story. (Elk & Ruby, 2017; originally published in Russian in 2016.) N.p., 157 pp.

    This book, largely but not wholly about Mikhail Tal, was published by the same house that put out Genna Sosonko's book on David Bronstein (recently reviewed here), and makes an interesting contrast with it. Both were extraordinarily strong, sharp and creative players whose countries of origin had been swalled into the Soviet Union. Both were Jewish, and both had their difficulties with the Soviet authorities at different times in their careers. Neither had an easy life, but where Bronstein - at least Sosonko's Bronstein - comes across as someone who constantly complained to anyone would was willing to be listen, Tal - whose spectacular collection of medical problems almost defies belief - was just the opposite. Where Bronstein was a psychological drain on others, Tal's energy and gusto for life has made him one of the most beloved figures in the history of chess, especially by those who knew him.

    This book was written by someone who knew him from when they were both youths. Valentin Kirillov (1938-2017) was a year or two younger than Tal (born in November of 1936), and in his own way followed in Tal's footsteps. Like Tal, he grew up in Riga and became a very decent chess player, though not in Tal's league. He was in Tal's circle of friends from their childhood, and even served as one of Tal's seconds from 1968-1976.

    Why 1976, you might wonder? After the Interzonal that year there was a three-man playoff for the last two Candidates' spots, and Tal, on the verge of qualifying, allowed the Poisoned Pawn Najdorf against Lajos Portisch, and lost. Kirillov himself had recommended against Tal's choosing that line, but the Soviet authorities decided they needed a scapegoat, and that role fell to Kirillov.

    So: that's a story about Tal, but about Kirillov too - and Kirillov features prominently in the book. He is not an invisible narrator. He is proud of his friendship with Tal, with the work he did with him, of his own chess accomplishments, and of his work as a writer: he often quotes his earlier work, and not just because of the relevance of the content but to show off his style. Nor is he the only non-Tal subject of the book: other Latvians of Tal's generation and in his ambit feature take their turns on stage: Aivars Gipslis, Janis Klovans, Janis Kruzkops, Alvins Vitolins, the very young Alexei Shirov, and - of course and especially - the Maestro: Tal's long-time trainer, friend, and father-figure Alexander Koblencs.

    The narrative focuses on the parts of Tal's career over the period where Kirillov was especially close to Tal, and particularly but not only during periods when they were in contact with each other. Those are the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book, both because of the behind-the-scenes detail and because Kirillov, despite writing the book late in life and in poor health, successfully conveys the ebullience of their youth and his youthful hero-worship of Tal. That's the heart of the book, but after the Tal adventures and his survey of some of the other notable Latvian ches personalities mentioned above, much of the last section centers on his (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to have Tal properly memorialized in Riga.

    Tal died 25 years ago, in 1992, but his memory remains strong to this day, especially for those of us who were playing chess during his lifetime. (And even more so, of course, for those who knew him and played him - as even I had the chance to back in 1988, albeit only in a simul.) This book is not an encyclopedic account of his life and career, and doesn't have a single game. (Though there are two entertaining fragments of Belgrade Gambit analysis by Tal, Kirillov and their childhood circle.) I'd always recommend starting your entry into the world of Tal with his autobiographical The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, and for more on his career and especially his games, there's Tibor Karolyi's very thorough three-part series, which includes plenty of biographical information as well. But this small volume is a worthy addition to any Tal fan's library.

    Recommended.

    Saturday
    Dec162017

    Chess.com's 2017 Speed Chess Championship: The Finalists are Set

    The second semi-final of Chess.com's Speed Chess Championship is over, and we now know who will face Magnus Carlsen in the final, set for January 3 at 1 p.m. ET. It was a close match, and for those who didn't see it live but want to watch the replay (go to twitch.tv/chess and look up the Nakamura-Karjakin match) without any spoilers I'll put the recap in the comments section.

    Friday
    Dec152017

    Book Review: Sosonko's *The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein*

    Genna Sosonko, The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. (Elk & Ruby Publishing, 2017.) 271 pp.

    Memento mori, the medievals said - remember you must die. Going back further, Socrates said that life is a preparation for death. This may seem a glum take on life, but we will all be dead a lot longer than we'll be alive. If the end of this life is the end of us, the value of this life diminishes somewhat, but even then it matters: what of our progeny, our friends, and those we influence directly or indirectly? Even if our story comes to an end (which I don't believe), we are not islands unto ourselves. We must live, and as some do a much better job of living than others, we must learn how to live well.

    Perhaps the best way to learn this art is by example: see those who flourish and love, and are loved and capable of receiving that love. See what they do and what they believe, or what beliefs underlie their practice, and emulate them in a way that is relevant to your personality and station in life. Talk to them and learn from them, and if it's possible, learn from their mentors.

    There is another way. It's not as good, but it too has value: learn from those who don't know how to live. What made them the bad examples they are? What is the source of their troubles? Was it something they did, or their environment, or some combination of it? As I sometimes tell my chess students, life's too short to learn only from your own mistakes; learn from others' mistakes as well - or only from their mistakes, if possible! It's a sort of Screwtape Letters approach to life, or if you like something more recent and comical, there's something to be said for Opposite-George Costanza:

    As C.S. Lewis points out when discussing his The Screwtape Letters, and is at least alluded to in the Seinfeld clip, it's not always exactly clear how to implement the "opposite" of bad advice and instincts, but for the most part we have a pretty good idea of how it will work. If we see someone living a life of bitterness and regret, of narcissism and constant complaint, it's pretty obvious that this is not a desirable life. The person living it is miserable, and makes others miserable until they peel away. We may not know how best to fight those tendencies in ourselves, but seeing them displayed in others helps us to see that we've got a challenge on our hands, and that fixing or at least mitigating those problems is critically important.

    What, you may wonder, does this have to do with a chess book? Well, not too much with a normal chess book - though such a book might be the antidote to the "how-not-to" that is sometimes on display at the local club. But this isn't a conventional chess book. No games are given, and there are no positions except those semi-visible in the photos. No moves are given either, except for a few that are alluded to - there are no diagrams. The book is instead a sort of biography of the late great chess grandmaster David Bronstein (1924-2006). Or rather, a memoir of their interactions, interspersed with Genna Sosonko's reflections on Bronstein and his life.

    Sosonko is himself a grandmaster (b. 1943), and like Bronstein lived in the Soviet Union, though unlike Bronstein he defected in 1972 to the Netherlands, where he lives to this day. Sosonko knew many, maybe all, of the post-war greats of Soviet chess, many of whom he befriended and some of whom - like Mikhail Tal - he even worked with, pre-defection. He has authored several very appealing books commemorating those players, though there's a touch of ghoulishness to it, as many of these pen portraits were first published in New in Chess Magazine shortly after the player's death.

    (This was once spoofed in the satirical chess magazine Kingpin, and on p. 266 of the book reviewed here there's a very funny passage near the end: "And of course, Davy [Bronstein] complained to everybody about this Sosonko dude, who was just waiting pen in hand for him to kick the bucket so that he could publish his memoirs about the near world champion. The interesting thing, though, is that all of Davy's complaints, although frequently unfair and exaggerated, and sometimes even absurd, had a grain of truth in them" (p. 266, emphasis in the original).)

    Back to the book. As noted, it's not a traditional, conventional biography. Different events and eras of Bronstein's life are described, but the focus of the book is on the big, gaping wound in Bronstein's soul arising from his drawn world championship match with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1951. Leading by a game with two games to go, Bronstein failed to hold a drawn (but not trivially drawn) ending in game 23 in Botvinnik's last white game, and after a draw in game 24 Botvinnik kept his title, while Bronstein never again got that close to the champion's crown.

    Reading this book - and for that matter, other books by Bronstein - one learns that Bronstein had an unending stream of reasons and excuses for failing to win the match (and for not holding the draw in game 23), many of them wildly implausible and sometimes contradictory. And although this was the most significant event of his life, Bronstein's ability to grasp the truth about himself was often tenuous. This is part of the human condition, and some of us have a harder time with this than others (and at different times and in different situations); for Bronstein, this seems to have an especially acute shortcoming.

    At any rate, this wound, or whatever it was in his soul that made this one failure so searing, was something that poisoned him. Even though he lived for another 55 years, the ghost of game 23, his antipathy towards Botvinnik, and perhaps the shame he felt or projected onto others for not winning the title haunted him to his death. Sosonko makes this point constantly throughout the book, and it's likely that he did so in part because Bronstein himself went on and on about it to him for decades.

    It is evident that Sosonko also feels admiration for Bronstein and tried to be a friend to him. He attempted at times to help Bronstein see that some of what he claimed was nonsense, but it simply didn't work, and he stopped trying. To the extent that Sosonko's representation of Bronstein and his neuroses was accurate, it must have been exasperating and exhausting to be his friend.

    Since much of the book shares with us, the lucky readers, the sense of that exasperation as Sosonko recounts over and over and over and over and over again Bronstein's complaints (about game 23, the match in general, about Botvinnik, about young players, about Mikhail Tal's being celebrated even though Bronstein was playing the same kind of chess before Tal did, about ratings, about the competitive element in chess outweighing the artistic, about not getting a pension from FIDE, about this and that and the other thing, etc., and always returning to the same topics), we might wonder what exactly is the point of the book. To make us suffer as Sosonko did, at least to a very small degree? To undermine the light-hearted persona Bronstein presents in some of his works (at least those not ghostwritten by his mentor and patron, Boris Vainshtein)? As a debriefing session or therapy for Sosonko?

    It's not clear. Because Sosonko is such a good writer, the book isn't as painful as it could have been coming from someone else's pen (or keyboard). But it's still a fair question to ask why we should read it, because for all the fine writing, and for the attempts to understand Bronstein and emphasize that he was a brilliant chess player with a sharp, creative mind, it's still the sad story of a person whose life was lost in bitterness and regret. So if you do choose to pick up this book, dear reader, look at the life of David Bronstein with compassion and with an eye to avoiding his mistakes - including the meta-mistake of not trying to overcome his mistakes. Very few of us will have to live under a regime like that of the Soviet Union, thank God, and few of us will experience the competitive pain of coming so close to become the world's #1 in anything and coming up just short. But we all have our wounds and our shortcomings. By reflecting on a life of great talent that was not well lived, we can learn lessons that help us to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately ensnared Bronstein.

    Friday
    Dec152017

    2017 Speed Chess Championship: Karjakin vs. Nakamura

    The second semi-final of Chess.com's 2017 Speed Chess Championship starts tomorrow (Saturday) and features a battle of the #2 and #3 seeds, Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura, respectively. The format is the same as always: 90 minutes of 5'+2" chess followed by 60 minutes of 3'+2" and 30 minutes of 1'+1". After each segment finishes there's a Chess960 game at that time control, and all the games count equally - it's the standard 1-.5-0 scoring system.

    The action begins at noon ET (= 6 p.m. CET), and the winner will face Magnus Carlsen, who defeated Wesley So in the other semi-final in November. More info here.

    Friday
    Dec152017

    Book Review: Fishbein's *The Scotch Gambit*

    Alex Fishbein, The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. (Russell Enterprises, 2017.) 125 pp., $17.95.

    Not interested in keeping up with the latest developments in the Berlin, the Marshall, and 50 other Ruy Lopez systems? The Italian Game isn't a good way to avoid theory anymore, and there's loads of theory on the Scotch as well. If you're a 1.e4 player who wants something that's sound, doesn't have a huge amount of theory, and still offers some chances for an advantage, GM Alex Fishbein suggests that the Scotch Gambit may be just what you need. And frankly, it's not a terrible suggestion.

    The Scotch Gambit - which like the Holy Roman Empire - isn't really a Scotch or a gambit - arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4. (On nomenclature, why isn't 4.c3 called the Scotch Gambit instead?) After the usual move, 4...Nf6, the game has transposed into a Two Knights (3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4), and White will soon regain the pawn after 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4. Alternatively, Black can play 4...Bc5, but after 5.c3 it's a Giuoco Piano unless Black greedily and wrongly 5...dxc3, which is met by 6.Bxf7+. White can also play 5.0-0 and after 5...Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 it's the Max Lange Attack, which also typically arises through a Giuoco move order.

    So why not play the Italian Game? Fishbein doesn't say, and the only reason I can think of offhand is that after 3.Bc4 Bc5 (3...Nf6 poses no problems in getting to the book's material after 4.d4 exd4 5.e5) 4.0-0 (4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.e5 is another line covered in the book) Nf6 5.d4 and now 5...exd4 heads for the Max Lange Attack, but 5...Bxd4 is an important option ruled out by the book's move order. Another possible advantage is a psychological one. More players prefer 3...Bc5 over 3...Nf6 against the Italian Game, but 4...Nf6 is much more popular than 4...Bc5 against the Scotch Gambit. If you think your best practical chances with Fishbein's repertoire come against the Two Knights lines, then his move order is preferable.

    Is there a drawback to the book's move order? The only one that comes to mind is 4...Bb4+, and it's a relatively unknown line. Fishbein covers it briefly, and his suggested reply looks reasonable. So the decision comes down to whether one prefers the Two Knights lines or the Giuoco lines, and whether one is more afraid of 4...Bb4+ against the SG move order or 5...Bxd4 in the Giuoco/pre-Max Lange move order.

    Turning to the book's contents, most of the first three chapters focus on the Two Knights positions arising after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4. Chapter 1 looks at the solid 7...Bd7, chapter 3 at the more vibrant 7...Bc5, and chapter 2 covers a miscellany of Black options on the way to the starting position of chapter 1 (4...d6, 4...Bb4+ [mentioned above], 6...Nd7, and a couple of oddities post-7...Bd7).

    Chapter 4 looks at 5...Ng4 and 5...Ne4, both very decent alternatives to the main option of 5...d5. That is relevant to the overall repertoire, of course, but chapter 5, presenting 5.0-0 Nxe4, is not. Quoting Fishbein himself: "5.e5 is not the only move for White. 5.0-0 is also possible. Theory has long held that this variation is toothless, and after I looked at it, it appeared to me to be even less promising for White than commonly thought." Then, after continuing with the moves 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3, he says this: "Black now has three main moves, 8...Qa5, 8...Qh5, and 8...Qd7. Unfortunately for White, all of these moves are sufficient for equality, and the last two are very easy to learn for Black. In these lines, White has very little to play for and in fact must play carefully to maintain equality. Therefore, I cannot recommend 5.0-0 as a weapon for White, unless you are facing an opponent who is either not well prepared or needs to play only for a win.... I never advocate playing for a draw with White, even against a stronger player. In fact, I consider that a sin against chess."

    Quite the ringing endorsement! So why cover it? I don't know. It's true that Black can play 5...Bc5, when 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 etc. is the Max Lange Attack, which thinks is worth allowing from White's point of view, but one needn't use this move order to get there: 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0-0 Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 does the trick. So this chapter could have been eliminated without any real sacrifice, though it's perhaps handy for any 1...e5 players to know what to do against it. Handy, but off-topic, and the critical comments could have been buried in a paragraph or two in the Max Lange chapter.

    Speaking of which, that's Chapter 6, where he helpfully emphasize that the problem for the MLA isn't the long main line starting with 8.Re1+, but rather 8.fxg7 Rg8 9.Bg5 Be7 10.Bxe7. This naturally leads to Chapter 7, what he calls the von der Lasa variation, where after 4...Bc5 5.0-0 Black prefers 5...d6 to 5...Nf6 (which invites the MLA). The VDL proper (Fishbein's coinage) only arises after 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

    Chapter 8 considers Black's alternatives after 5...d6 before getting the full VDL. The main alternative is 6...dxc3, with the bad 6...Nf6 also examined and 6...d3 mentioned en passant.

    In Chapter 9 Fishbein turns from the very old to the very new, exploring Georgian GM Baadur Jobava's Giuoco line (through the SG move order) 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.Be2.

    Finally, Chapter 10 looks at Black's main alternatives on move 2: the Petroff (covered in four games) and the Philidor (one illustrative game). Against the first he recommends the now standard line 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Be3; against the latter it's 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.g3.

    The book is anything but encyclopedic, and it doesn't purport to be. There are 61 illustrative games in this slim work, with short theoretical sections prefacing the games in most of the chapters. The style of the book is a trainer preparing an opening for his students, and as such it's big on general ideas, typical plans, and the occasional move-order finesse. Neither the theory nor the analysis is overwhelming. The book is aimed at the club level, but even pretty serious amateurs (e.g. 2000+) could benefit from it.

    Something I like about the book is that it doesn't overpromise. The Scotch Gambit is a minor opening, and it's a minor opening for a reason. Black has more than one way and more than one system to achieve equality. Fishbein does not pretend that White gets an advantage everywhere with best play, and that's good. Of course he's enthusiastic about it, and most importantly, he has (or at least had) skin in the game: he himself plays the SG, both against amateurs and fellow GMs. This enthusiasm often leads him to offer "Yes, but" evaluations; the computer says it's equal, but.... I'm not opposed to such evaluations in principle; I offer them myself. But some suspicion is in order that the "but" may not be as worrisome as he implies: Black's score against the SG is most satisfactory. I offer this as a mild caveat emptor, and note that since he plays the SG himself, the "Yes, but" gains in credibility.

    Something I didn't like so much was the organization of the material when I started digging into Chapter 1. Often the move order varied from the canonical version Fishbein recommended, and it would take a bit of care to figure out how to get back to the official repertoire. Sometimes along the way back to the repertoire some further analysis would take place. It might prove interesting and illuminating of the broad themes, but potentially confusing in terms of lining all the ducks up in a row. It would have been helpful and convenient to have put a tighter structure on the material, e.g. by changing the move order of the games (while noting the correct move order in the notes) to fit the repertoire.

    Overall, it's a useful book for those looking for a 1.e4 e5 repertoire for White with a manageable amount of theory. I don't think it's as promising as the main lines of the Ruy and the Italian, but for those looking for something that's more wash-and-wear, or as an occasional surprise weapon, you could do worse than to check out this book.

    For more info and an excerpt, here's the publisher's book page.

    Thursday
    Dec142017

    Mr. Eight-Time: Peter Svidler Wins Yet Another Russian Championship

    While Peter Svidler didn't win any major events this year until the Russian Championship, he has performed consistently, gaining points in every or almost every event he played in this year. At the moment his rating is 2767.7, just a point and change below his all-time peak rating of 2769, achieved in 2013. He's back up to #10 in the world, and showing (as did players like Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Boris Gelfand, Vassily Ivanchuk and others) that passing the age of 40 (Svidler is 41) is far from a death sentence for one's career.

    Now about the Russian Championship. Entering the last round he was in a four-way tie for first, with three other players half a point behind. A playoff looked likely, and there was one--but it only involved two players. Svidler had White against Vladimir Malakhov - one of the players in the tie - and won cleanly and convincingly in a Spanish Four Knights (via a Berlin move order). The other two players in the tie had the black pieces: Vladimir Fedoseev (against Evgeny Romanov) and Nikita Vitiugov (vs. Sergey Volkov). Fedoseev, who led or co-led throughout the tournament (except in the final standings) was unable to beat the lowest-rated player in the field (though in this field, that's still an extremely strong player), but Vitiugov managed to beat Volkov. (Crushed him, but while he was already better with Black after just 13 moves, he was certainly helped along by the blunderful 14.0-0-0??)

    This entailed a two-game playoff between Mssrs. Svidler and Vitiugov. Svidler gradually outplayed his opponent with Black in the first game, and in game two Vitiugov took such extreme risks with Black that he was lost after his 7th(!!) move and resigned on move 18.

    So that makes eight Russian championship titles in all: 1994, 1995, 1997, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2017. Granted, Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Grischuk, Sergey Karjakin, and Ian Nepomniachtchi weren't playing, but he has won the title ahead of them as well.

    (Speaking of which: Nepo has won the title once, in 2010, and lost in a playoff to Svidler in 2013. Karjakin has never won the title, but he has twice been eliminated in playoffs - in 2010 to Nepomniachtchi and in 2012 in a large playoff that knocked Svidler out as well. Grischuk has won one title, in 2009, and surprisingly Kramnik has never won it - he's 0 for 3.)

    Congrats to Peter Svidler!

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