Good Books – Part II

I actually read Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games in Russian (only many years later I read it in original and I must say that it was even better!) The books in Russian dedicated to great players were part of the famous “black series” – the name comes from the black cover these books had. There were two other players from that series that left deep impression – Akiba Rubinstein and Isaak Boleslavsky (both in Russian, I don’t think they have been translated to English). The book on Rubinstein was written by Razuvaev and Murahveri and it is a classic (and I think pretty difficult to find) – it is also one of Gelfand’s favourite books. Rubinstein’s smooth and seemingly effortless positional style is one to admire and impossible to copy. In this sense it is very similar to Capablanca’s and in my opinion it is the weakness of his nervous system (and force majeure coincidences) that prevented him from becoming a World Champion. The book on Boleslavsky was written by Suetin and it was a true gem. Boleslavsky was at his prime in the early 1950s when he won the Candidates tournament in Budapest in 1950 together with Bronstein, only to lose the play-off match to him later that year. After that his career quickly went downwards but he was an excellent theoretician and went on to become Petrosian’s coach for many years. Boleslavsky’s contribution to modern theory is often unfairly neglected. He was one of the first players to use the King’s Indian with black in the 1940s and 1950s and his treatment of the Spanish with white was exemplary. What interested me most was his play with black in the Sicilian – he was the first to play …e5 in the position after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Be2 e5! He showed the viability of the positions after black creates a “hole” on d5 and this led to the boom of all the Najdorf lines when black plays …e5 (in the Najdorf black has the additional possibility to place his knight on d7). This was picked up by Fischer and the Najdorf became one of the most popular openings ever since.

Studying chess was easy and pleasant for me until the moment I discovered the books by Dvoretsky. It was (and still is) a fiendishly difficult time when I try to solve the exercises in his books! Only upon trying that masochistic task did I realise how difficult it is to play chess at the highest level. I read and studied all Dvoretsky’s books, but not all of them left the same impression. For me two of them stand out – Opening Preparation and Secrets of Chess Tactics. I have always been interested in opening study and analysis so the Opening Preparation widened my views and gave me a lot of ideas not only in various openings and schemes (a notable chapter is on the King’s Indian Attack) but also how to study and explore openings. There was also stuff I knew from my own experience, but sometimes it is good to have confirmation by a high authority that what you know is good. The Secrets of Chess Tactics was an eye-opener: there is a sub-title on page 147 called Science Fiction and there follow two games by Tal – Tal-Portisch, 2nd game of their match in 1965 and Tal-Larsen, 6th game of their match in 1965 (with a game by Yusupov in between). The analysis of the Tal games and my attempt to put myself in his shoes opened my eyes to a completely new way of playing chess – I just “got it” how Tal played and how it was possible for him to play like that. I also understood that I cannot play like that, it isn’t my style and character, but the fact that I came to see another dimension of chess made me feel that I have expanded my horizons immensely.

Smyslov’s book Letopis Shakhmatnogo Tvorchestva (basically a selection of his best games, the closest thing in English are probably these two volumes – Volume 1 1935-1957 and Volume 2 1958-1995) is similarly laconic like Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals I mentioned in Part I. But it is not so much his words that matter, the feeling I got when playing over and analysing his games and trying to delve into the positions and understand his thinking processes is what makes it an excellent book. There are 326 games in it, so plenty of material to get into Smyslov’s mind and get a grasp of his feeling of harmony.

My breakthrough in 2005, when I reached another level of chess understanding and playing strength, can be attributed to one book. It is a book on Capablanca by Euwe and Prins (here’s a link to the book in German. I read it in Russian with the title Baloven Kaissi, while it doesn’t seem to be translated in English).

Click to enlarge

It is a great pity that it cannot be found in English because the book is amazing. I had a bad end of 2004 and I spent the whole December, January and February studying Capablanca’s games. I got the books I had by him: My Chess CareerThe Last Lectures and all the books that had something on him: Kasparov’s Predecessors Volume 1 and Alekhine’s tournament books on Nottingham 1936 and New York 1924 and 1927 and I put them next to the chess board that I used for study – they were used on a daily basis for 3 months. Still, the most useful and thought-provoking was Euwe’s book. It is written from a psychological perspective and it analyses the games from this angle. The analysis of the moves isn’t always correct, but for me the most important was to try to get into Capablanca’s mind, to try to understand his move-finding algorithm. Going through his games over and over again for days on and thinking about them all the time produced a result. I started to sense the way he played, why he played certain moves and how he handled various situations. The greatest eye-opener was how precise he actually was. Every single move had a “why” and it always answered a concrete question. Exploring very carefully every move and stopping to ask myself why he has played a certain move formed a habit in me to do the same in my own games. At the end of this period I played a strong open tournament in Malaga which I won, scoring my second Grandmaster norm.

In approximately the same period I discovered Rowson’s books The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras. Rowson is a deep thinker (and a very friendly fellow, as I discovered in 2014 when we shared a taxi from our hotel in Hinckley to the train station on a Sunday afternoon after a 4NCL weekend) and he touches subjects that have always intrigued me. In Sins he defines 7 main shorcomings that chessplayers are prone to in their thinking and suggests ways to overcome them. He gives these sins peculiar names, like Blinking, Wanting and Egoism, but the concepts are profound and his advice sound. In Zebras he continues along the same lines of psychological insights, only this time he examines wider problems, like why it is difficult to improve after a certain age, how to play with black and white, myths and style, concentration, doing and being, and many more. I have known Rowson’s writing from his first book, Understanding the Grunfeld, a theoretical book written in such a way that I had no choice but to start playing the Grunfeld immediately, yet the above-mentioned books are the cornerstone to understanding the psychology of chess and chessplayers. At the end of the day better chess comes from better thinking processes and every one of us must first become aware and understand his or her own thinking processes before he or she tries to improve them. These books helped me do just that.

In Part III I will talk about books that deal with broader aspects of chess and are less concerned with the moves.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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