Cyrus Lakdawala, Kramnik: Move by Move (Everyman Chess, 2012). 416 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
While IM Cyrus Lakdawala has been a prominent figure on the California chess scene for at least three decades, it's only in the last several years that he has turned his hand to writing chess books. He has been remarkably prolific in that time, cranking out no fewer than nine books. His latest (I think!) is Kramnik: Move by Move for Everyman Chess, one of seven "Move by Move" books he has written for that publisher. Most of them have been opening books, but along with the present work he has also written a "Move by Move" book on Capablanca.
Those familiar with Lakdawala's chess know that he likes technical positions. It's not that he can't play sharply - it would be hard to achieve the IM title without a reasonably high degree of proficiency in all aspects of the game - but his leanings are towards the technical side of the game. That makes him a reasonable choice to author a book on Vladimir Kramnik, the 14th World Chess Champion, though I think it should be noted that despite a stereotype that has arisen around Kramnik, he is a far sharper player than most amateurs seem to believe.
This is reflected in the book. Of the six chapters presenting Kramnik's games, two of them - "Accumulating Advantages" (chapter 5) and "Kramnik on Endings" (chapter 6) are just what you'd expect. But at least three of the other four chapters suggest a different Kramnik than the Berlin + Petroff stereotype would suggest: "Kramnik on the Attack" (chapter 1), "Riding the Dynamic Element" (chapter 3) and "Exploiting Imbalances" (chapter 4). (Chapter 2, "Kramnik on Defence", is harder to categorize based on the title alone.) Indeed, Lakdawala addresses the Kramnik stereotype early in the book and seeks to challenge it. He begins chapter 1 as follows:
I had the hardest time compiling this chapter ["Kramnik on the Attack"], mainly because the cup runneth over from a glut of incredible attacking games - way too many for one chapter, or even one book for that matter. So this chapter is one of the largest in the book, to give Kramnik his attacking due.
Kramnik is not a name which normally comes to mind as associated with the word attack [sic], the way Linda McCartney isn't often associated with her music career…. Kramnik creates so many of his attacks by camouflaging true intent. He switches suddenly from strategic build-up, only to cash out mysteriously into a promising attack. He normally earns his attacks the hard way, incrementally, and very rarely attempts a wild leapfrog over the opposing barrier, in Morozevich/Nakamura-style.
There are 10 games in that chapter, nine in the chapter on defense, 10 in the chapter on dynamic play, eight games on exploiting imbalances, 10 on accumulating advantages and 12 on endings. Added to the one game in the intro, there are 60 in all.
Lakdawala's notes are primarily aimed at middle to upper-middle level club players. The analysis is generally light, but there are typically several critical moments in each game where he'll dig in and get to the bottom of things. If the analysis is light, however, the same can't be said for the verbal commentary. Lakdawala shines when it comes to offering explanations, often doing so in dialogue. Here's an example from Short-Kramnik, London 2011, position after 12…Qe6-f5(!!)
A curving finger beckons White's bishop to e7.
Question: Something is not quite right, like the college student who texts his mom to wish her a happy Mother's Day, rather than take the effort to call. Did Kramnik just drop a full exchange?
Answer: To a very small child, money is just paper and nothing more. Kramnik sac'ed the exchange - he didn't drop it.
Question: For what compensation? His "sac" looks like one part bluster and nine parts bluff.
Answer: Strangely enough, Black gets compensation with the following:
- White's disfigured, doubled f-pawns and isolated h-pawn.
- When White takes the exchange on f8, his bishop has trouble returning, since Be7 is met by … f5-f6!, continuing to imprison it (a theme Short was unfortunately unable to evade later in the game!)
- White's rooks just don't work well in the resulting position.
Conclusion: I think Black stands equal at a minimum after the acceptance.
The bishop, full of feral insinuation, cautiously approaches e7, though he knows something is wrong. It is too easy. But who could resist? Short gets ambitious and pounces, as his haughty bishop, annoyed by Black's refusal to show deference, decides upon punitive action against Black's f8-rook. Personally, I have grave doubts about the move. In fact, I think White is the one fighting for the draw. A more cowardly-inclined man like me would undoubtedly go for 13 Qxf5 Bxf5 14 Bd3, when the position really is boring and drawish.
This extended quotation reveals two more things about Lakdawala: his self-deprecating humor, which appears elsewhere in this book (and not only in this book), and his love of figures of speech. The book is rife with analogies and metaphors - many odd and amusing - and some will find it excessive. (The rest will find it unbelievably excessive!) It's okay: roll your eyes and groan when it gets to be too much, but he's never boring and it's hard not to be in a good mood while reading the book.
In fact - his sense of humor left me amused even as he took some shots at…me! You may remember Kramnik's match with Levon Aronian last year, and that in the one game he won Kramnik essayed the Scotch Four Knights: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4. The opening had the reputation for being both dull and highly drawish, and I was far from the only one who said so. So why did Lakdawala single me out? For two reasons, I suspect. First, it's easier to pick on me than the GMs who expressed similar sentiments. But the second was that I went out of my way to vent some spleen that day, referring to the Scotch Four Knights as "disgustingly dull" while offering as a motto for its advocates "Not everyone is brave enough to play the London System!" As Lakdawala has also recently written books on both the Four Knights and the London System, I could hardly have done more to make myself a target! It felt like Lakdawala repeated my "disgustingly dull" remark about 20 times, but fortunately he let me off the hook with "only" three repetitions after the initial quote. As noted above, though, it was always done in a wry manner, so I was laughing all the way.
One thing he gets wrong, though - understandably, as he probably seldom or never looked at my blog except to find the quote - was to infer from my dismay at Kramnik's choice of opening in that particular game to a lack of respect for Kramnik or that I find him a dull player. The longer someone reads this blog, the clearer it will be that I have tremendous respect for Kramnik; in fact, he's probably my favorite player among the contemporary elite.
In conclusion, Kramnik: Move by Move is an entertaining read aimed especially, but by no means only, at mid-to-upper-mid-range club players. Recommended.