Midwest Chess Academy Tim Steiner
Midwest Chess Academy
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Book Reviews

By Tim Steiner

This page will be dedicated to book reviews.  I will provide three classifications.  One will be books of interest to the general public or parents or casual observers.  Next will be books that tournament players might find interest.  And finally those books and software that would be beneficial and appropriate for children and beginners.

General Interest

 

New Posting

This book had been released several months ago.  The title is King's Gambit, A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game.   The title was very interesting.  I understand the father/son business as that is usually how this game is passed down from generation to generation.  The world's most dangerous game line was a bit curious.  Was the author writing about the game itself or his relation to the game?  I think it was a little of both.  The author is Paul Hoffman who's claim to fame is that he is a expert of chess, a celebrated author (only 3 books that I know of) and he used to run Encyclopaedia Britannica.  That's a pretty diverse background in my book.

King's Gambit is basically a collection of anecdotal stories from other chess players locally and around the globe, mixed in with all the circumstances that the author has traversed.  The author was fairly honest and generous with sharing details from his personal history with the game and his own family.  That was rather refreshing.  Hoffman writes on a great variety of topics throughout the book which made me eager to read the following chapters.  The author has a very fluid writing style, almost conversational if you will.  I found this aspect extremely pleasing.  The storyline is mostly chronological  with various flashbacks to his earlier memories.  I really enjoyed the rawness of this book.  Hoffman was able to get real opinions and thoughts and feelings about chess in general from some of the top players in this country and abroad.  Usually this type of honesty is filtered, sanitized and made policially correct because everybody knows it's going in a book or magazine and sent to the rest of the world.

Despite the good sensations above, I did find some faults with the book.  First, I thought it was much too long at 387 pages (not including the footnotes).  While that doesn't scare me you have to ask yourself "where do you draw the line?"  You could write a thousand or more pages of anecdotal stories and still not scratch the surface of chess.  This book could have easily been shaved down to 200 pages.  It's kind of like a movie that goes too long (too long is something over 2 hours), you just want to stand up and walk around make sure you can still feel blood pumping in your body.  The author includes multiple footnotes per chapter.  The footnotes are appropriate and they did add to the flavor of the book, but honestly there were too many.  What was even worse was that all the footnotes were located in the back of the book, so you had to flip back and forth and then find the place where you left off reading.  It was a little cumbersome at first and then just outright annoying near the end of the book.   The footnotes were so long there was no way he could put them on the same page.  For the avid chess reader, I felt like I had heard most of these stories before.  There is some original content in the book.  Perhaps about 30%.  The rest were depictions and events that I read about on ChessBase.com, that just had more details added, so I was a little disappointed with that aspect.  However, the original content was highly entertaining and well written, especially about his travels to Libya and his quest to play Gadhafi or Ilyumzhinov (President of FIDE- the world's chess association).

I highly recommend this book.  It was very entertaining and an easy read.

 

I had a lot of gusto to read this book.  I have been a life-long Kasparov fan and have always enjoyed reading his books.  Not only is Garry a great chess player but he is very educated, worldly, and has a great sense of humor.  Having read practically all of Garry's books (My Great Predecesors excluded) I thought I might have difficulty finding information that was new to me.  Alas Garry did provide some tidbits I did not know about him.

The crux of his argument was that in many ways life is a lot like chess and vice versa.  This of course is widely known by chess players, but not by the layperson.  Garry has discussions about many of the ways you can examine and separate chess in order to better understand it.  Garry is a big believer in theories about how the game should be played and not necessarily the "x's" and "o's" of fine chess.  It's more of a universal approach.

The two theories Garry touches on most are TMQ and introspection.  TMQ is an abbreviation for Time, Material and Quality.  This is one of Garry's own personal theories about how to evaluate chess positions.  These attributes are well known to the chess community but Garry seems to take it a step further like no other player in history and uses them with full effect.  Introspection is the process by where you examine your thought processes ranging from your attitude to your overall approach.  This is not an easy thing to do according to Garry.  It's like looking in the mirror and telling yourself to adapt almost overnight.  You know, 99% of the population does not like to admit to themselves that they have weaknesses and that they need to improve.  That is indeed a great lesson for life.

If I have a critique about the book it's that I really thought Garry would provide some more examples of how chess has imitations as applied to the business world.  There were very few examples.  This book was mostly about chess (not that I'm complaining).  That surpises me because Garry is well versed in politics and business.  With the exception of Karpov (who now owns a large stake in a company that is worth $2 B), there has been no other player that has turned his chess life to business pursuits and been so successful.  Well, I suppose there weren't many business examples because Garry has been playing chess for the last 35 years and not performing as a CEO.

The features I like most about this book and Garry's other titles is that Kasparov has such a profound knowledge of chess history.  It is truly staggering.  Kasparov has always been, and I predict always will be, extraordinarily honest about what happens emotionally and psychologically and what impact that has on the geo-political landscape.  I have not found any other chess author that can rival the amount of reality Kasparov provides.  This book is highly recommended.

 

 

This is a book I was looking forward to reading.  After hearing all the media hype about this book I felt it was somehow my duty to read this book.  It is written by an author whose sole connection to chess is that his grandfather was once a strong and famous player in Europe back in the early 19th Century.  The author will readily admit he doesn't have the proper experience to write intelligibly about chess, only a burning passion to tell a story.

Shenk does a fine job when he chronologically describes his grandfather, what seems like the entire history of chess until present day and the Immortal Game.  What is the Immortal Game?  It was a game played between two very strong masters back in the early 19th century.  The players were Anderssen and Kierseritsky and at the time (or shortly after) it was considered to be the "best" or most beautiful game ever played.  Was it exciting?  Yes, I suppose so.  Was it the best game ever played up until that time in history?  No, probably shouldn't have been.  So why is it considered this title?  Nobody is sure.  However, it was indicative of the style of play for that generation.  Just like in art and paintings, there were certain eras of style.  This particular style of chess was known as the Romantic Period.  In this period it was considered manly and macho not to defend, even if you king is hanging on by a thread.  The aim of the game was to attack and to make as many superficial and cavemanish (apologies to all of you cavemen out there) attacks on your oppenent as possible.  Also, you must try and sacrifice material at a whim and make it all look pretty in the end.  You might be asking yourself, "was this an effective strategy"?  Absolutely not.  By today's standards those games are indicative of about a mediocre amateur (maybe weaker) player today.  What is interesting is to see how far chess has come over the years.  The chess world has definitely made large strides in recent times, just as science has done.

Is this a book I would recommend to the public?  Yes, indeed.  As a strong player who didn't have a lot of time for a full examination of the game, I largely missed out on the history of chess in my education.  I found this book to be a non-threatening way to look at the vast history of chess.  It is well written, and moves along rather fast.  Initially, I was not expecting to enjoy this book, but as I made my way through a majority of the book, I guess you could say I felt smarter about the game I love.

 

 

This is a book written by a sports writer from New York which chronicles the lives and tournament results of a high school chess team which has been more or less automatic when competing for the National Championship for the past 5-7 years.  What makes this story compelling is that the have a ragged, eclectic squad of players from the burroughs of New York.  Each player has a very separate personality and quality they bring to the table.  The author and coach contend that is quite challenging to organize and moderate such a diverse set of players.  Somehow, year after year, the squad is able to get it done in crunch time.

I found this book to be highly entertaining.  I felt the author having a sports background was able to paint a clear picture of how much stress is involved in chess competitions.  As being a high school player when I first entered competitive chess, I understood the pressure all too well.  There were citiations about current strong young players that I follow.  There were even references to some local scholastic players, many of which I have played against.  This book also provided a wonderful perspective for me as a coach.  I've always wondered what chess was like in New York (chess captial of the world, in my opinion).  It's funny, but they face similiar challenges that we face here in the Midwest.  It really gave me a global perspective and a model for how to craft chess here in Kansas City.

Would I recommend this to the general public.  Emphatically yes!  There were times that I had trouble putting the book down at night.  The book flowed with effortless grace.  There were some areas though that I had issues with.  The Kings of New York examines with fair detail about the lives of each of the main players on the team.  There was a player that was reported and apparently confirmed that did not attend classes or school at all, yet he was on the roster.  Apparently there are other schools in New York that have tried to stop this player from representing the school.  I would have to support this argument.  Furthermore, he has all day that he can study (even though the player says he never studies; I've heard that line before, mostly from players that want the general public to believe they are "gifted" or prodigious).  Having the time to study at maximum is a tremendous advantage over the other players.  Really he should be on a team by himself as a home-school.  There are lots of grandfathered laws and rules that get bent like this especially at national and state events.  Unfortunately, our national sponsor, the United States Chess Federation cares little about policing the integrity of the game at this level, much less the professional level.  In a way, I felt the book kind of glorified or made acceptable this policy which is definitely in the grey zone for ethics.

 

 

This book certainly created a lot of buzz in the chess community and deservedly so.  I myself was eager to learn from perhaps the greatest scholastic player ever in the United States.  I've had several opportunites to meet Josh since he does appearances across the country and with some regularity the national events.  Last time I bumped into him was the National Elementary Championships, Nashville, TN in May of 2007.  Several of my students were able to get this book signed by him and snatch an excellent photo opportunity.  Josh is really an amazing ambassador for the game of chess.  He's smart, well educated, considerate, has no visible arrogance and one hell of fine public speaker, not to mention charasmatic.  He's the complete package for the chess world.  It's too bad he doesn't accpet his role with more vigor.  It is well chronicled in this book that during much of his life he has regretted the spotlight; that it took part of his life and privacy away from him.  Well, when you are famous, this comes with the territory.  I love all those Hollywood movie stars that make $20 million dollars a picture complain that their lives are being broadcasted too much.  They may have a point, but they are also in the top 1% of all wage earners in the country.  I'm sorry, but I'm not going to cry too much for them.  I can understand Josh's point too, but it's also known that his father was responsible for much of his stardom. It's no wonder that when Josh turned 18 he gave up on professional chess and dabbled in martial arts.  What's one of the many lessons in this book?  Parents- don't push your children too hard with their sports or activities.

I was really interested in reading all the stories Josh had to tell about chess.  He's been all across the world and been on the biggest of stages.  Sadly, I found the chess stories were not numerous and the stories shared were light on the details or portions of his life that I already knew about.  I would say 70% of the book was dedicated to his martial arts experiences.  Honestly, I was not looking forward to reading about the martial arts portion.  I like watching martial arts and someday I hope to acquire this skill, but I think it's a sport that you just gotta watch in person to get the full flavor.  I have to admit that Josh did an excellent job of describing all the details of his new obsession.  Near the end of the book I was really into the storyline. Josh was able to earn the title of World Champion in Push Hands martial arts.  Quite an amazing feat for him to be able make similar achievements in two separate fields of study all before he is 30 years old.

Josh wraps up the book by trying to analyze his life (typical of a chess player) and he comes to the conclusion that he is not special in any way as it relates to his activities.  He arrived at these activites by different circumstances and his consistency in excellence is truly inspiring.  Josh thinks that the key ingredient to his successes is not that he was born a talented chess player or skilled martial artist; it's the way he approached them and they way he overcame obstacles in his learning process (hence the title of the book).  Josh contends it's his attitude, perseverance, and willingness to suffer humility which provides him with such great strength.  A wonderful life lesson for all of us.

 

 

This book was recommended to me by one of my student's parent.  This book is a fiction mystery.  It has a really cool looking cover and apparently the author is pretty talented and especially popular across the world.  I am not your typical fan of fiction as I read mostly non-fiction, but I tried to keep an open mind.

I found it very difficult to get into this book.  It was described by the parent that it was a book that had a lot of chess content in the storyline and that you'd have to be a pretty good player to comprehend the moves.  Apparently, the moves of this game were directly releated to the storyline.

Here's a sampling of my many critiques.  First, I found the language and sentence structure of the book to be quite complicated.  As a chess player and scholarly person as myself, this is to say the least - unnerving.  It was probably an 11th grade reading level, perhaps higher.  There were so many $5 words in there I think I had to have a dictonary standing by my nightstand.  Secondly, the story was very slow in developing.  There were about 5-6 clues the main characters were looking for in order to solve the mystery and about half way through the book they only had one clue. Thirdly, I thought there were way too many characters to keep track of.  I think there were like a dozen or so characters.  However, my task was made a little bit easier near the end as the characters were being erased by the villian at a rapid rate.  Fourth, the story centers around a chess problem or puzzle (like the kind we give students to get better).  But this was different.  The problem we had to solve was a retrograde puzzle.  What is a retrograde puzzle?  Well, it's more about solving a generic puzzle than having to solve a chess problem for mate.  You are asked to re-create a position from 2 or 3 moves previous.  I am an Expert and I have to say this puzzle was not easy, in fact they were downright difficult.  We were then asked to go forward in the position as the moves corresponded to the moves the villian was doing in real life.  The clues that were supposed to be hints to the next moves were not especially helpful as there are many, many possibilities on the chessboard.  Lastly, I found the ending a little predictable and anti-climactic.  How was a mystery anti-climactic.  Well, when the bad guy was caught, he/she filled in all the holes and missing pictures in the extravagently conceived plot.  It kind of reminded me of when I watched the Scooby-Doo cartoon as a child, the bad guys always spilled there guts after they were caught and provided a most comphensive run down of all the nasty details.  To me a good mystery is one that leaves you guessing as to the conclusion or who commited the crime.  Maybe this is a pre-requisite of these types of murder-mysteries.

Chess wise, I would say the book was accurate without too many incorrect chess descriptions or assertions.  I felt as though there were logical and realistic discussions on chess content.  If there was one thing I could change here was the fact that the chess notation was a mixture of the three different styles of notation.  To a strong chess player, this is similar to scratching your fingernails on a chalkboard.

My final opinion of this book is that it was very well written, despite my criticisms.  Obviously, I am not an aficionado of these types of books so I may not be the most appropriate reviewer.  I am sure this author delivered the goods to the die-hard murder-mystery public.  Sadly, I was unable to completely solve the mystery.  For those of you that read this book, there is one big clue that slips out about half-way through that will help you figure out the villian.  Good luck to you!

 

Tournament Players

 

Play the English: An active opening repertoire for White

By Craig Pritchett

Published 2007

Accuracy:  Does this book cover the most topical lines?  Only moderately so.  It covers the Four Knights variation in good detail.  It also covers the Symmetrical to good effect.  Does it cover the most critical lines?  That’s difficult for me to say since I don’t play the English, but it seems they tried to use the most popular lines that offered White the advantage.  In those selections, then yes, I would say the book covers the most critical lines.  However, in my estimation the most critical lines are those in which theory and practice have not seen eye to eye which color is better.

Layout:  Everyman almost always produces the same layout.  I did not find any particular order to the sample games of each chapter.  It seemed mostly random, as did the chapters.

Originality:  If there was any originality in this book then it escaped me.  Honestly, this book could have been written by anybody and I never would have been able to tell the difference.  See general cons below for more information.

Breadth:  This being an opening book it is truly exceedingly difficult to include all relevant variations.  This book introduces a repertoire based on the advance of d4.  So this only gives you a slice of what the English has to offer.  Honestly I didn’t really pick up on the fact that they were concentrating on a certain line of play by White.    I’ll be kind and say the book kept to task upon reexamination.

General Pros:  Well it started off with a bibliography which is important.  I’ll bet my chess clock that the author never even opened up one book on his bibliography.  I found several places where the author quotes things from other sources that weren’t even on this list.  It also had a list of the main games in the back of the book, which is helpful when scanning to find your favorite player.  In general, the author does a good job in selecting main games by the top players and even in the sub lines, the author has chosen well respected names.

General Cons:  This is a typical opening book in today’s society.  It is easy to see not much effort when into producing this.  I am sure all of it was done on a computer with a database.  There was no original analysis that I could find no discussion of interesting moves that computers found and in general no real discussion of the topical theory.  Just games and analysis is what we can expect today.  The best opening books are those that explain pawn structures, general plans and themes and discuss games in chronological order.  This book did none of the above. 

In the introduction we learn that the author has a great deal of respect for the complexity of openings and writing a book about one.  This author did not inspire any confidence whatsoever that he is the best man for the job to explain this opening.  In fact, it says this author, Craig Pritchett, is an International Master.  I’ve searched my database and it appears he only reached a rating of 2300 something.  This is not enough for the IM title.  The back of the book explains that this author is an expert in these lines.  I only found about 15 games by the author dating back about 35 years.  That hardly qualifies him as an expert.  He didn’t seem to have an impressive record and 90% of the games he was Black.  This is strange because the introduction indicates that a majority of this book is written from White’s perspective.

 

The author also explains that he was objective in his analysis.  I did not find this to be true as the book was already slanted because they did not chose the best sidelines for Black, only the most popular.  Also disturbing was the limited coverage of some of Black’s best lines; The Hedgehog (only 20 pages out of 187).  A good opening book will prepare you against the more difficult responses.  The rest of the variations covered fairly esoteric lines for Black.  These lines are good for club players and below but an “A” player or above would find them annoying having been included.

Reader Level:  The book says it is aimed at the club & tournament level player.  I sincerely doubt this.  Because the book is so analysis laden, this book is definitely designed for Experts and above.  I do not think this particular repertoire would be popular with a club level player, considering your average club level player is 1300-1500.  This is just not realistic to expect someone of that caliber to digest something of this nature.

Star Rating:  I give this book        out of five for at least having a heart beat.

Recommendation:  I seriously cannot recommend this book to the average chess player.  The only players that will find value in this book are current English players or more specifically, English players who are struggling with their current lines.  This book might offer them a new avenue.  You’d be better off digging up games in a database yourself.

 

 

 

Starting Out: Classical Sicilian

By Alexander Raetsky and Maxim Chetverik

Published 2007 by Everyman

Accuracy:  Does this book cover the most topical lines?  Yes, very much so.  It covers rare moves, The Boleslavsky Variation, the sharp 6. Bc4 line, the Sozin,  the Velimerovic, the Richter-Rauzer, the Traditional 6. …e6 7.Qd2 Be7 and the Modern with 7. …a6.  Does it cover the most critical lines?  Since I do play the Classical Sicilian, I can say without a doubt this book covers the most critical lines.  And those lines are the Sozin, Velimerovic, Richter-Rauzer and the Modern.

Layout:  Everyman almost always produces the same layout especially for this series.  I especially like the way that they put little tips and tricks and notes scattered throughout the book.  That is really helpful.  The authors also include a recitation of the current theory which you won’t find in many books.  There was also an introduction, Index of Variations, Index of Games and a Bibliography.  Jam packed!

Originality:  I did not really find any originality to this book.  Nowhere did I see any reference to novelties or home-grown analysis.

Breadth:  As it is always difficult to properly and concisely write a book on openings, this book covered a wide array of variations and all in under 170 pages.  Awesome job!  They might have been a little short on discussing rarer moves or sidelines.

General Pros:  The Starting Out series of books has always been top-notch and they delivered once again.  I like the bibliography when it doesn’t have every single book published on the topic.  In that case I know the author(s) haven’t reviewed them all.  It was especially interesting to see a book by Kasparov with his former trainer published back in 1984.  Garry didn’t write very many opening manuals so it was refreshing to see this post.  I was also delighted to see the authors double checking their work with the Rybka chess engine.  Most authors do not and would not publish what program they use.  It’s nice to know they used a super-strong program.  I didn’t find any analysis errors either. 

The authors deliberately used both analysis and words to describe what was going on in the positions, frequently using both simultaneously for complete understanding.  You just can’t get enough of the authors’ thoughts in books.  In this respect they did an excellent job.  I found the analysis to be extremely objective, never really giving too much credit to either side.  The theoretical discussions were all highly accurate, consistent with my beliefs about certain variations.

The Classical Sicilian is a good choice for the tournament player.  One of the reasons I play the Classical is that it affords Black room to make errors and still be competitive.  In other variations such as the Najdorf or Dragon, one slip-up and you are finished.  However, it’s not such a good choice for club players or below.  There are many transpositions and there are 4 to 5 major pawn structures that Black needs to be familiar with.  The Classical is more of a positional approach.  I know there are lines that lead to tactical and complicated positions but these are much less rare than in the Dragon, Najdorf or Sveshnikov variations.

General Cons:  I had a difficult time finding bad points about this book.  But no book is perfect so I will list some preferences I wish were included.  I thought the introduction was extremely light.  I love reading books that set you up for the learning process.  I guess I wish the book was a little longer with more meat and substance, but I understand that the nature of the book was to provide an introduction to the reader, so I’m not incredibly disappointed here.

The other item I wish the authors would have improved was to include some original analysis or thoughts.  One of the reasons why certain authors should be picked to write about a certain topic is that they possess special information and understanding.  But I guess in today’s society, the best players with these openings will not elect to share their knowledge.  It is certainly no wonder why there may not have been any original analysis as both the authors are not experts on this opening variation.  I only found a handful of games by one of the authors and none from the other.  This does not inspire confidence.

Reader Level:  The book does not indicate precisely what level the book is aimed at.  References include “a basic book” and “for improving players”.  Pretty vague language.  This book is probably designed for the club or tournament player.  Too complicated for the novice player, and not enough meat for the Experts and above.  The range is probably 1200-1999.

Star Rating:  I give this book     out of five stars.  I would have given it 4.5 stars but it lacked originality.

Recommendation:  I highly recommend this book, but only to those players who know they want to play this variation or currently do.  This book is not designed to sway you one direction or the other.  You should not use this book as a reference piece.  This is one of the better books on the Classical that I have read.  Price is $25.  Probably worth it.