Nowadays chess books are almost always copies of other chess books in that they take a theme, opening, or “system” and either try to improve on other books about those things or actually plagiarize the ideas of others in some sort of “hidden” (or just lazy) fashion. The effort to improve on past work is extremely important since classics are often fine tuned by better writers, new examples, or fresh ideas that add to and refine the old ones. However, truly original, useful (anyone can write an original useless book!) books are extremely rare.
Ukrainian grandmaster Vladimir Tukmakov (he came in second in three Soviet Championships, which tells you a lot about his enormous strength) has written a fascinating and original (useful!) book about chess prep, but not the kind of chess prep you’ve ever been exposed to before.
Let’s take a look at each chapter.
Chapter 1 – The Evolution of Preparation:
Study the Classics
Epilogue to Chapter 1
This chapter starts off with the following fascinating discourse:
‘“Do you think I’m morally obliged to play the same defense I played against Chigorin?”’ ‘“You’re not obliged, but the public expects you to defend your principles.”’
Such, or approximately such, was the dialogue between Wilhelm Steinitz and Isidor Gunsberg in 1891.”
Afterwards Steinitz played the move 6…Qf6, which had ended in a fiasco for him in his game against Chigorin, played over the very same days (!) by telegraph.”
He follows with this (deeply annotated) game (which saw Steinitz get eviscerated), and then says, “Nowadays it’s not so much the game itself, but the circumstances surrounding it, which are liable to provoke nothing but bewildered admiration. It shouldn’t be forgotten that we’re not talking about a coffeehouse game for meaningless stakes, but a match for the World Championship.”
This, of course, is the start of his talk about the evolution of modern preparation, and how honor and a religious adherence to the “rules” were eventually discarded in favor of more practical factors. His quote of George Bernard Shaw is right on the money: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in try to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Though Steinitz was trapped in the “reasonable man” template (as were most people of that time), Emanuel Lasker was not! The following Lasker quote makes this very clear: “The strictest rules in chess are exceptions.”
Tukmakov’s insight into the players that were gentlemen of their time, and players that spat on convention, makes for exhilarating reading. This examination of this evolution (and revolution!) fills 114-pages and takes us to modern times. And, when all is said and done, he makes a compelling case that this kind of chess education (I usually hear this referred to as “chess culture”) is critically important to one’s chess development. I agree with him 100%, and am saddened when I run into players (lots and lots of players!) who have no chess culture at all. In my view, this lack of chess culture robs fans of the full chess experience – they don’t know they are being robbed, they don’t know they are missing out on so much, but they are.
Chapter 2 – The Computer Era
Analyze your own games – without a computer
Epilogue to Chapter 2
This chapter is nothing less than brilliant, though perhaps I feel that way since I’ve been screaming to deaf ears about this very same topic. In my view, computers have taken away much of romance that I equated with chess professionalism. Worse still, it’s actually done harm to the chess masses, who allow their machines to point out their mistakes without really understanding why they were mistakes. And, horror upon horror, more and more amateurs actually feel that the computer’s analysis is their own analysis, though they aren’t able to explain why any of the computer’s moves are correct.
But enough of my raving, let’s see what Tukmakov has to say:
“The episodic appearance on the highest chess stage of such recently fashionable lines as the Polugaevsky Variation or the Poisoned Pawn, often comes down to testing out the erudition and memory of your opponent. Will Black find (or remember) the only path – well, if so, it’s a draw. Otherwise – inevitable doom.”
This struck a chord. I watched the after-game videos to the recent Wijk aan Zee tournament, and in one game after another a super-grandmaster would say something like, “I had worked all this out and knew it was fine for me, but then I couldn’t remember my analysis.”
Here’s another important Tukmakov paragraph: “Top-level chess has fundamentally changed. In the twentieth century people loved to say that chess is a combination of science, art and sport. Now art has quietly receded into the shadows and the game is much more about science and sport. Improvisation and imagination are increasingly giving way to painstaking research.”
In Chapter two Tukmakov discusses the amazing depth of preparation showed by Anand against Kramnik in their match, and also pointed out Topalov’s huge advantage over Anand in their World Championship match (played in Topalov’s home turf, which allowed him to gain access to a supercomputer all through the match).
This chapter fills 75-pages and demonstrates the problems that befall those professionals that go all-in on heavy computer preparation, and compares it to those ever-dwindling players who still strive to create a battle between two minds. He has quite a bit of advice for amateurs too!
We’ll leave this chapter behind with one final Tukmakov (partial) paragraph: “A person who hasn’t fully devoted himself to chess simply can’t allow himself to get involved in chasing after a phantom. The constantly improving programs create the illusion that truth, or in any case its chess component, is attainable. Victims of this faith, an unusual new religion, even include grandmasters, who spend ever more time in front of a glowing screen.”
Chapter 3 – Deciding Games
Epilogue to Chapter 3
This chapter discusses the psychology and sporting attitude that makes a player win tournaments, and makes other players fall just short. Key games from extremely important contests highlight these things extremely well.
Overall, this book is beautifully written and deeply thought out. Since Tukmakov is Russian, I’m left in awe at his translator, Colin McGourty, who is able to turn Russian into flawless English while also retaining the author’s artistic flair.
Very highly recommended!