Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Classic Work. A Tragic Haircut. (A Book Review.)

Logical Chess: Move by Move

by Irving Chernev

If I could transport myself back in time to give advice about chess to the nine-year-old-me -

- the nine-year-old who'd just about stopped blundering a piece or two every game, the nine-year-old starting to sense that chess was in some indefinable way more than a game, the nine-year-old who'd had one chess lesson in which he'd been taught about the Sicilian Dragon, but which he misremembered and played only in a mirror image, with f5 and the fianchetto on the queenside, the nine-year-old beginning to get some kind of clue about a little more than the basics, the nine-year-old starting to like chess rather a lot more than his other hobbies - then I would simply advise him to play through the classic book Logical Chess by Irving Chernev.

After all, the first chapter called The Kingside Attack deals with the stuff young boy's dreams are made of: dashing kingside attacks, devastating invasions on the light-squares weakened by an absentee g-pawn, mating assaults on the castled monarch, sacrifices on h3, f7, the enemy king smoked out from his corner and swept across the board, and the like. And it does so from basics such as why we develop knights before bishops, why we move pieces only once in the opening where possible, from the importance of castling and rapid and efficient development, the fight for the centre and the centre as the zone of counterplay against flank attacks, the avoidance of weakening pawn moves in front of the castled position, how combinations arise as a matter of course from good play against weak play. And it does so in an enthusiastic, captivating prose style, that makes a virtue of repetition - the Move by Move of the subtitle is literal; each move is commented on - which enables the concepts to soak in gradually and unobtrusively in the learner.

In other words, there is a thematic compactness to the games chosen and the way they are explained, and this is Chernev's outstanding (both senses) pedagogical style in this book. This thematic compactness extends even to the variations he demonstrates and the order of the game, these things cleverly chosen to bring his points truly home. For instance, take a look at the position to the left of this text, from game 12 in the book. White's pieces got in a muddle earlier and abandoned his kingside, after which black was able to provoke the pawn-weaknesses we see in the chain running from f2 to h4 in front of a worried-looking white king. It's Flohr, black to move, and with 17...Qxh4! he caused Pitschak's immediate resignation thanks to the mate coming on h2.

Now take a look at the position to the right from game 13 in the book, where it's black to move in Dobias-Podgorny - one game later and eight pages on. White has just played 14.Rfe1!, and Chernev explains: "This unexpected zwischenzug (in-between move) threatens immediate victory by 15. Rxe7 Qxe7 16. Bxf6" - the analysis could have stopped here, but instead continues - "16... Qd6 17. Ng5 h5 18. Qxh5! gxh5 19.Bh7#!" How could a learner fail to absorb this exciting motif, demonstrated vividly in differing circumstances but so closely together in the book?

All this praise extents to part two of the book, The Queen's Pawn Opening. The emphasis here different: it's on the positional-pressure starting with 1.d4 promises white, which in these games usually manifests itself along the c-file in Queen Gambits Declineds, or via the built-up energy of Colle systems and similar. In other words, it's the sort of stuff positionally-naive nine-year-olds need to know how to avoid being on the receiving end of, the sort of stuff they might want to try out against tactically-rampant ten-year-olds. If this sounds less like the chess-dreams of children that chapter 1, it doesn't really matter. Chernev's pizazz, humour and enthusiasm carries us through. He even manages to describe castling kingside as "probably the most significant contribution to civilization since the invention of the wheel," and the chess-besotted-child is likely to half-belief this. Perhaps my life would have turned out better had I read this at nine - rather than instead deciding that the sofa and bath were civilization's greatest achievements, and that Man should more or less ceased his inventiveness with their discovery, as more or less I did in my life.

The third and final and weakest chapter of the book is called The Chess Master Explains his Ideas, and it is here Chernev's partiality as an author in this work is particularly visible. In several of these games, the winner plays reasonable moves, the loser pretty awful moves, and an absolute walloping results; yet Chernev rates these games as positional masterpieces. Crushes, yes; Masterpieces, no. Perhaps he rates them so highly because they demonstrates the principles he is determined the reader ought adhere to (despite occasional disclaimers to the contrary about flexibility.) Or some games in this section suffer the opposite problems. In these Chernev again explains the winner's play as flowing logically from ideal principles such as rapid and efficient development in the opening, piece-coordination in the middle-game, and accurate and efficient play in the endgame - whilst the loser flouts at some point one of these dictums, and suffers the consequences, he says. But in fact the actual losing point is sometimes a lot more elusive, the win far more sophisticated, the decisive error far later. Chernev's over-confidence that classically-correct play ought be rewarded with such wins risks confusing the learner who believes he is applying absolute-rules only to find the victories don't follow as smoothly from then as he's been lead to believe. No sense in this book of dynamics, hypermodernism, the "ugly" nature of modern play can be discerned; the reader who reads only this book will be strong against a certain type of victim, but against more sophisticated others the conceptual limitations will soon tell.

That is why, if I could go back twice in time, I'd travel back six months later and run through some of the limitations with the book. These are most easily seen in the lack of defensive resources Chernev demonstrates, and it is fun to try to search through these games for defensive improvements. Some are interesting but for Chernev's purposes ultimately irrelevant. In the diagram to the left, for instance, it is black to move, and the pin on the f6 knight implies he has two choices: 13...Kg7 or 13...Bf5. He chose the former, and white Spielmann already in his sacrificial-element finished the game off nicely starting with 14.Nce4!. Of the latter defence, Chernev analyzes after 14.Nxf5 gxf5 15.Qg3 how both 15... Kg7 and 15...Kh8 lead to immediate disaster for black.

Could black - Wahle - have done any better? Chernev omits an important possibility from the point of view of understanding the game more fully. After 13... Bf5 14.Nxf5 gxf5 15.Qg3, black can play 15... Nh5 or 15... Ne4 bailing out to an endgame. True after then 16.Bxe7 Nxg3 17.fxg3 (17.Bxf8 Nxf1 18.Bh6 is witty but inferior) white will pick up the f5 pawn and should have little difficulty winning the endgame, but nonetheless this would have been a much better try for black. And given this, perhaps even 13...Bg4 might be his best bet in the diagram. It is reasonable of Chernev to omit all this, since it doesn't change the ultimate result, and it is not thematically in-keeping with the chapter - but the reader should be aware this sort of thing quite often exists in these games, and must be look at the book not as a source of all wisdom but as a good starting point to understanding the spirit of a certain type of game of chess, but not the accuracy or sometimes even the inevitability of the result.

Sometimes the omission of a defensive resource is rather more deceiving for the reader. Take the position to the right from Tarrasch-Mieses (1916). White with his two bishops, better development, and extra space undoubtedly has a clear advantage. Black played 15... Rfe8? and after 16.Qh3 Qd6? (that 16...h5 is the only move here says enough about black's position) 17.Bxf6 gxf6 18.Qh6! soon lost. All this is well and good and clearly explained by Chernev. However, black's best defence is 15...h6! in the diagram position. It is true that after 16.Bh4 or 16.Bf4 white retains a clear advantage, but 15...h6 staves off immediate disaster by neutralising the threat of 16.Qh3 h6 17.Bxh6. Not only that, in several variations in the surrounding moves Chernev analyzes ...h7-h6 to show how it loses. Why did he not include 15...h6 in his notes, really the only move that keeps black in the game, and a defensive try he was happy to analyze in similar positions where it lost? Because, presumably, it contradicts Chernev's "message" about not making weakening pawn moves in front of your king unless absolutely necessary. But here it was necessary, albeit less obviously absolutely necessary than in some cases he presents, for instance cases where such a move stop an immediate mate. One might even say that Mieses applied the principles Chernev advocates rather too severely here and almost-immediately it cost him the game; this is something that without a doubt Chernev should have pointed out to his reader.

The omission of certain defensive opportunities is not the only partiality displayed by Chernev. For instance, in his note to 1.d4 in game 23 he writes dogmatically about how white's general plan should include keeping a pawn in the centre - especially for it to act in support of a knight outpost at c5 or e5, about the ideal deployment of the bishop and rooks, deployment of the queen at c2 or e2, and kingside castling. This is ludicrously over-prescriptive, yet Chernev castigates white's actual choice of the Stonewall Attack for similar reasons, writing that "Aside from the fact that making so many pawn moves in the opening is a flagrant violation of principle, the adoption of a system which calls for the launching of an attack by a preconceived formation of pieces, without regard to the advisability of an attack and without reference to the requirements of the particular position, is contrary to the concept of proper strategy and to the spirit of chess itself." That's true, but Chernev's own prescriptions seem perilously susceptible to a similar criticism. The practical problem is that occasional-disclaimers aside, it is not hard to imagine an easily-swayed reader becoming as dogmatic as Chernev is as to what is right and wrong in chess, without realising that chess is just not like that for the most part.

Why was Chernev apparently so unaware of these problems? Probably due to a lack of strategic sophistication that is evident in certain places in the book. Take the diagram position to the left. Black can recapture on d5 in two plausible ways: with the pawn or with the knight. He chose the pawn, a perfectly reasonable move, and Chernev condemns the alternative capture with the knight on the grounds that e3-e4 will leave white in control in the centre. But the situation is strategically a lot more complicated than this, and 9...Nxd5 is also perfectly reasonable move, since it more or less obliges the exchange of two minor pieces: after which white's extra-space counts for less, since after the exchange black's pieces won't be treading on each other's toes.

Still, all this shouldn't put off improving players picking up this book and playing through each game, with Chernev's commentary warm and welcome company. This is the book children who have learnt a bit about chess should get from Santa, this is the book adults who've picked up the basics should use to get to the next level, and every public library should have a copy. As for me, there weren't many surprises reading this work nowadays, because I have picked up these ideas in dribs and drabs over years. I only need a time machine now to receive their gift in one convincing, direct, memorable dosage at the stage one should, and perhaps to the nine-year-old-me I'll add in some advice about haircuts too.

PS. Take a look here for an example of how Chernev writes.


Jonathan B said...

You might also advise your 9 year old self about not wearing coats indoors otherwise you won't feel the benefit later.

Jonathan B said...

I like the cub cap at the jaunty angle look ... part model citizen part gangsta in training.

Tom Chivers said...

It was a school hall on a Saturday in winter and the caretaker hadn't thought to keep the heating on! I think I finished third in that tournament behind Matthew Crocker and Arif Jamal, who I think you can see in the background behind me, and who might possibly be this guy now?

ejh said...

Is that you too?

ejh said...

Incidentally, I still occasionally look at my copy of The Most Instructive Games Of Chess Ever Played. He was a great populariser, Chernev: at this distance of course his flaws are obvious (and I seem to remember being puzzled by some of the contradictory things he said even when I was a kid) but it's still a superb book for a child just learning the game.

Tom Chivers said...

Quite ejh. And no! I wish I was so photogenic! (/good looking.)

Chris Morgan said...

Hope you earned your cubs chess problem solving badge Tom.

Tom Chivers said...

Alas, not...