Last Thursday, the news broke [Chess Vibes, Chessbase, ChessDom] that Boris Spassky had been taken seriously ill while at home in Moscow. Even though the former World Champion is 73 now, the reports came as an unpleasant surprise to me. Somehow I seem to expect that the legends of the game will live for ever. I know, it’s completely irrational, but still it was rather a shock to hear that Doctors were "fighting" for Boris Vasilievich's life.
We’re forty years on from Rejkjavik, but Spassky, it’s said, is still the second most famous chess player in the world. It’s a sad irony, perhaps, that his illness should come hard on the heels of Bent Larsen’s death. The Dane’s best-known game is probably the one he lost to Boris in 17 moves at the USSR v The World match at Belgrade in 1970 while in turn Spassky himself is renowned for being turned over by Bobby Fischer in 1972.
Initially I’d thought it rather a shame that the career of a former World Champion should be reduced to a single failure - and likewise for Larsen - but maybe the true measure of success is the standing of those who surpass us. After all, the 1970s – our Golden Age - may have found Spassky already past his best, but, nevertheless, in World Championship cycle matches he only lost to those of the very highest echelon: Fischer, Karpov in the Candidates’ Semi-Final of 1974 and Viktor Korchnoi in the Candidates’ Final of 1977/78. That’s not such a bad record by any standard, but especially so for a man who was supposed to have lost his appetite for battle after he snatched the crown from Petrosian at the end of the 1960s.
Spassky became Champion just before we were kings
That epic battle with Korchnoi marked the end of Spassky’s great Candidates’ matches. He went on to tie a quarter-final match with Portisch +1 =12 -1 in 1980 (Portisch went through on tie-break) and play in the Montpellier Candidates’ Tournament of 1985 (finishing in the middle of the pack with +4 =8 -3), but Belgrade 1977/78 was his final genuine tilt at the World Championship.
Viktor the Terrible may have won out in the end, but it takes two to generate a quality scrap and Spassky’s contribution to their heroic struggle should not be discounted just because he finished in second place. Aside from all the tomfoolery that surrounded the games themselves [the swimming goggles, the off-stage rest areas, the voodoo, the walk-outs] Boris played his part on-the-board too. There aren’t many who could bounce back from a start of no wins and four defeats (not to mention having the worst of most of the five draws) in the first nine games of a twenty game match. Boris did, though, and from game 11 to game 14 he won an astonishing four on the bounce to all but get the match back on an even keel.
We’ve had Spassky’s wins in games 13 and 14 in previous editions of WwwK [II and X respectively]. As a result of these victories he’d clawed his way back to +4 =5 -5, but when he reached the position of the following diagram during game 11 he was 4-0 down and also facing an adjourned position in the unfinished game 10 that was clearly worse for him (and which he would eventually go on to lose).
Black to play Korchnoi v Spassky, Game 11 Belgrade 1977/78
So Spassky’s match position looked beyond any hope of salvation and, what’s more, he was playing Black in a line (8. Rc1; 11. b4) that Korchnoi had especially prepared for the match. Indeed this system had already brought the newly ex-Soviet Grandmaster a crushing victory in game 7.
On his 19th move, then, Spassky’s back was firmly against the wall. Korchnoi had, according to R.D. Keene (in his book Korchnoi vs Spassky: Chess Crisis), played well up until now and gained an initiative on the queenside as well as in the centre of the board. Accurate defence was called for and yet, again according to my occasional fellowblogger, solid moves would simply leave White a free hand to strengthen his position at will.
Boris Spassky: his chief weapon was surprise
The situation could hardly have been any more desperate for Spassky and yet it was precisely here that his fight back began. He tried 19. … a5 which Raymondo gave a “!?” and described thus,
“An anti-positional move which encourages White to press forward on the queen side where he already holds the advantage. This decision by the ex-World Champion was probably of a psychological nature since it clearly came as a surprise to Korchnoi.”
... a7-a5 is hardly unknown in these kind of Queen's Gambit Declined positions, and indeed Spassky had tried the idea in a similar-looking (to me at least) situation in the aforementioned game 7, but, anyhoo, Spassky's choice clearly discombobulated Korchnoi who proceeded to reel off what Keene considered to be a series of weak moves. RDK’s notes, citing press-room analysis from Ljuobjevic, Najdorf and Korchnoi’s other English second, Michael Stean, suggest that 20. b5 would have been the best response to Spassky’s bold counter-thrust. Instead Viktor chose 20. bxa5 and went on to lose a game that RDK described Spassky’s “best of the match”.
Boris Spassky: chess fighter. It's not the usual characterisation but sometimes that's exactly how it was. Indeed, such was the strength of his revival that even though he was still a point behind after his four consecutive wins BH Wood wondered, "... whether Korchnoy (sic) can possibly recover the morale which must have been grievously affected by this unprecedented reversal ...." (The Daily Telegraph, 4/1/78). Sadly for Boris, Wood turned out to be wrong, but it was still a great fightback nonetheless.
There doesn't seem to have been any news from Moscow since the initial reports emerged. Wherever he is just now, I hope Boris is on the mend.
Let us then imagine the room where a top class tournament is being played. Let us go on to the stage and ask one of the players, say for example Polugaevsky, to give up his seat to us. Let us now ask Smyslov to tell straight away without any further consideration the course of his thoughts as he studies a position in which he, White, is to move.
I can be certain that his first reaction would be to count up how many pawns there are.
Alexander Kotov, Think Like A Grandmaster
Position after 26...Qa5-d8. Horton - Romón Poves, Ciudad de Huesca tournament 2010, round three.
White has a choice of captures. He can take the rook on e5 allowing 27...Qxd1+ after which Black is an exchange up but White has a lot of threats, or he can take the queen with 27.Qxd8 after which play continues 27...Rxd8 28.Rxd8 Kxf6 and white has won back his exchange.
I thought I'd analysed the position well enough - and in all important senses except one, I had. Initially I'd intended to take on e5 because after 27...Qxd1+ 28.Kh2 I could force a draw. Black, with his rook hanging and his king facing a discovered check, is manifestly in a perilous position and in fact, after 28...Qf3 (which, Black told me later, he had planned to play) White wins with 29.Ng4+.
However, I think Raúl would have found the rather better 28...Qd4
which I had seen in analysis and after which I could find nothing better than a draw. Correctly, because although there are two knight moves giving double check, or for that matter the queen can take the rook, none of these avoid the draw that follows after 29.Qxb8 Qxf2+ 30.Kxh3 Qf1+ or (for instance) 29.Ne8+ Kh6 30.Qxb8 Qxf2+ 31.Kxh3 Qf1+ when, despite White having two extra knights, Black has a perpetual check.
That's not so bad. In principle, I had nothing against a draw seeing as Raúl is a good player, rated some 170 points (and counting) higher than me. I'd be happy to take it. But in principle I'd also like to play for a win if I reasonably can, and here I thought I reasonably could.
Because White, surely, is winning a pawn here? Yes, he is, I realised, no doubt about it. And I can't take a draw if there's a pawn-up ending on offer.
So I changed my plan and instead of taking the rook, I took the queen and after 27.Qxd8 Rxd8 28.Rxd8 Kxf6 winning back the exchange I naturally continued 29.Rd6+ Kg7 30.Rxa6
and having taken the aforementioned pawn I sat back to try and work out how I should go about winning this pawn-up ending.
At which point I noticed that it's not a pawn-up ending. It's an ending with the same number of pawns on either side.
How did that happen then? I gave it a little thought and shortly I realised that Black had actually taken a pawn, back on move 22
which capture I had, of course, noticed. Or at least I'd noticed it at the time. But after that I kind of forgot.
Even as it is, White should not have lost. He might even have won. But not being a pawn up after all doesn't help. Nor does discovering that you're not a pawn up when you thought you were.
I've got form for this, this losing-count-of-the-pieces business. There was this game from last year, where I similarly thought that I was a pawn up in an ending, but I was not:
Black is not a pawn up
or this one from a number of years ago, where I offered a draw, not realising that I had an extra knight.
Two knights are more knights than one knight
At least Smyslov wouldn't have spotted that one.
Do grandmasters count up the pawns? I don't believe they do and I've never quite understood what Kotov meant by that, unless it be that they would do so on seeing a position for the first time, as opposed to one they had been looking at, watching develop, for several moves already. I certainly find it hard to believe that proper players habitually lose count of the material balance. Actually I find it hard to believe that I do.
Interior. Day. The room is drab and featureless; devoid of furniture save for a plain, cheap, table and two uncomfortable looking chairs.
Two men are playing chess, but DCI John Luther is clearly not interested in the game. When the other man makes a move. Luther doesn't turn his head to look; doesn't respond to, "This may turn out to be the first time I ever beat you"; doesn't object when the game is left unfinished because his opponent is called away.
The photo is from the Ginger GM and the display board pictured is, apparently, in the lobby outside the playing-area in Khanty-Mansiysk.
The caption reads:
KIRSAN + ♥ = FIDE
which is not, perhaps, quite so easily understood as it may first appear. Does it means that Kirsan supplies the love which makes FIDE possible? Or does it mean that Kirsan makes FIDE possible - provided others supply the love?
In the comments box Maths enthusiast simona (or possibly this one) takes another approach, observing that by employing simple algebra, an outcome less pleasing to Kirsan's eye is easily arrived at:
(1) Kirsan + Love = FIDE
Subtracting Love from both sides of (1):
(2) Kirsan = FIDE – Love
Perhaps we may refine that equation, too, and express it thus:
FIDE - ♥ = KIRSAN
which means, essentially, that Kirsan is what you get when you take the love out of FIDE. Where 'love' represents the feeling that Gens Una Sumus actually means something and that chess is a world where all who play are taken into account.
Of course the expression could also work for other values, for instance:
KIRSAN + ₤ = FIDE
or, if we prefer, employing Simon's algebra
KIRSAN = FIDE - ₤
which would certainly be the view of some onlookers, and not just those who cannot tell their ♥ from their ₤.
Still, perhaps all this will change soon and with the help of the Times' chess correspondent chess will again "be seen as the human achievement it is rather than a global joke". Because with new, enlightened leadership for FIDE, Coca-Cola will reverse their policy of not sponsoring sports run by corrupt organisations.
Not a joke
But what of Khanty-Mansiysk? It's not, perhaps, the centre of the Universe, though it may be the centre of Russia, which is not necessarily the same thing. Whether an out-of-the-way town of seventy thousand people is an appropriate place to hold an Olympiad is a matter which has attracted some commentary, not all of it to the liking of the present writer, especially those which refer to it as a Third World Olympiad, which is neither true, nor a phrase which I much like. It's an Olympiad, which is for everyone, not just the Western nations' club, and not a context in which dismissive references to the "Third World" seem to me to be appropriate.
It's not, I think, a great place to hold the Olympiad, something which would be true even if the process by which it comes to be there wasn't quite so murky. But is it really more dangerous than Moscow in 1994? Is the location more controversial than Haifa in 1976? Is the state which hosts it less democratic than Dubai in 1986 or more distasteful than Buenos Aires in 1978? (Or Leipzig, say, or Varna?)
It's a long way away, but then again, anywhere is a long way from most places. I doubt that anybody travelled much further than the South Africans. Who I don't suppose are complaining.
Nor are the world's great chess tournaments normally, if truth be told, always held in large towns - or places where you'd go on holiday for the weather - or for that matter, places are that close to major population centres.
Come to that, wasn't the greatest of all chess matches held in a pretty remote country near the Arctic Circle?
Which way to the beach?
It's going to be a bit unlucky for Tromsø - population, less than Khanty-Mansiysk, location, almost nine degrees closer to the North Pole - if we're going to apply the same criteria as are being applied to Khanty-Mansiysk. Because, it's one of two bidders for the 2014 Olympiad. The other being Varna, which is also near the sea. Except the sea near Varna is often warm. And not at all solid.
Now as it happens, I've been to Tromsø. I went there to celebrate, or perhaps avoid, my fortieth birthday. But the whole reason I went there was to get away from the world in general. (Which is, perhaps, not completely opposite to my reasons for playing chess.) Not because I thought it was a party city and the place to be seen in the summer of 2005.
Still - it's a remote part of the world and you won't get there without a long plane ride over snowy mountains. I wonder if those criteria will count against it, or if they only matter when you're outside Western Europe. The decision will be taken in Khanty-Mansiysk.
Anyway, you see my point. Either it is a world game or it is not. Either we embrace that idea or we do not. Easy for me to say, sat at home in front of the PC. But the travelling - of course it's an inconvenience. But isn't it sometimes worth it? And in some ways, is it not the point?
It was this position which Geller saw in my room that morning. And yet 25 moves have already been made! Lev Polugayevsky, Grandmaster Preparation
Looking at the diagram it does seem incredible that White could have foreseen that the position would arise long before the game started. What stands out most now, though, is not the achievement per se, but rather Polugayevsky's evident pride that he could accomplish such a feat.
These days, needless to say, a theoretical novelty on the 25th move wouldn't be considered the least bit noteworthy. I often wonder what Polu would think about modern chess. Would he have loved it or would he think that the use of engines and databases takes away all the fun?
Sixty Memorable Annotations 1: Fischer-Sherwin, New Jersey Open 1957
Two weeks ago we posted about an upcoming two-part World Service documentary on the future of chess. The programmes have now been broadcast, though if you missed them they can still be listened to.
They're very good, with an impressive list of interviewees including Viswanathan Anand, Ivan Cheparinov, Peter Doggers, Fernand Gobet, Bill Hartston, John Healy, Anatoly Karpov, Alexandra Kosteniuk, David Levy, Malcolm Pein, Ian Rogers, Amon Simutowe and Antoaneta Stefanova.
But you know who they are. Who is Simon Terrington - and how did he come to make a documentary about chess?
Simon in Sofia
ejh: Tell us about yourself. You say in the programme that you were brought up in Macclesfield and learned chess there. You now live in Oxford and you're a management consultant. What happened between Macclesfield and now, and what part has chess played in that?
ST: I played chess with my dad as a child, and loved it. Then I came to London and did some chess tournaments. I started teaching maths and used to play chess with my children and it was a great way for us to bond. My dad used to develop computers and they always fascinated me: I started playing against a ZX81 when I was young and even then they surprised me with how strong they were.
ST: I never really had a strong club attachment, but I used to have a wonderful chess trainer called Veljko [Veljko Stanisic of Ealing chess club - ejh] who was a refugee from Serbia. He was a lovely man and a very strong player and used to play a lot of King's Gambit - anything which involved an early f4.
As the typefaces suggest
ejh: When I was trying to track you down for the interview I came across a few references where you're linked with the BBC, addressing seminars about its future and so on. But are these the first programmes you've made?
ST: Yes this is the first programme I've been lucky enough to present: chess has done great things for me.
ejh: That's an interesting thing to say. Are you thinking of any other specific great things?
ST: It's touched every aspect of my life - helped me to do better at work, helped me crack my PhD and I had a game just before conceiving my first child!
ejh: In my experience, because chess is a minority pursuit but also because people tend to back away from it a bit, media outlets don't tend to cover it unless there's somebody within them who's particularly keen to do so. Assuming the programmes were your idea, was there somebody at the World Service who was really behind the project of making them?
ST: Everybody at World Service has been really supportive; they realised how important it was in places like Eastern Europe and India, they realised it had been somewhat neglected, although they did do something in 2009 about Armenia being a strong chess nation, and they also realised it was actually a good subject for the radio, although probably better online.
ejh: Well yes, I've written a fewtimes about how even the world championship has disappeared from the BBC's website, except for its South Asia section!
Talking of which - you went to Sofia, to watch Topalov-Anand. You spoke to Anand, but not to Topalov - though you interviewed his second, Cheparinov. Did Topalov turn you down?
ST: We were trying to get a broad range of voices from different countries - Stefanova and Cheparinov from Bulagaria, Karpov and Kosteniuk from Russia, Anand from India, Peter Doggers from Holland, Ian Rogers from Australia - we were happy with the variety.
It's a glorified memory test
ejh: I thought you had a good selection. You probably had Bill Hartston on more than anybody else.
Did you find yourself taking issue with anything at all your interviewees said?
ST: Not really: they all know a lot more about the subject than me. Perhaps David Levy was more optimistic about the potential of computers than I would have been.
ejh: The first programme kind of set out how computers have challenged chess - you had Fernand Gobet giving up because of them, and of course Kasparov's 1997 match - and then in the second, you put the case that they actually contributed a lot to chess in a number of ways.
ST: I think the overall impact has been positive - so many people can play across the internet, computers have taught us a lot, the standard is higher - but they also take away the magic to an extent. I don't think they'll ever tame the exponential complexity of chess.
ejh: I was also thinking that when you were talking about how the internet means anybody can play anywhere and any time, you gave Amon Simutowe as an example of somebody who comes from a part of the world where chess is not strong. But of course Simutowe had to come to Europe and then the US to really become a strong player. As yet we have no reason to think you can do it on the internet.
Amon for all seasons
ST: Yes, very good point, face-to-face is a big part of it; let's not forget many people think that face-to-face is a big part of the psychological aspect of the game also. Perhaps to be coached and become the best you have to be face-to-face with people.
ejh: I also wondered if the woman from New York wasn't a bit optimistic in saying kids will sit there and play for hours. They do all try to play all their moves in about fifteen minutes, even if they've got ninety minutes plus increments!
ST: That's a good point, but chess is an amazing training in concentration for children. But you're right, things move quicker in every aspect of life these days.
ejh: You were very clear, I think, that you considered chess a Good Thing. You say it's been a good thing for you - but that's not the only reason.
ST: I think overall it is a Good Thing; I think there are also downsides and even a dark side. I think there are some things which are better but many things which are worse.
ejh: The dark side being the obsessiveness, the introspection, the waste of brilliant minds on a glorified puzzle?
ST: It can be very time-consuming, you could say that it is basically intellectual fighting. If it's done in good humour it can bring people together, but it can otherwise be quite unpleasant. I find these risks manageable.
Probably safer than looking down, anyway
ejh: I would also suggest that where you referred to chess' competitiveness, its nature as a blood sport (I think John Healy used the phrase) there's more of an element of struggle-with-oneself than is the case with other sports. Which is good and bad.
On the other hand, if more young minds were devoted to chess rather than investment banking or designing weapons systems, that couldn't be such a bad thing...
ST: I think it really is a battle with oneself and an exercise in character development which is great. My own view is investment banking: good, weapons systems: not good.
ejh: Have you had any press interest in the programmes, either from the specialist press or elsewhere?
ST: Well of course the main event is the Brixton and Streatham chess blog :). But Alexandra Kosteniuk was kind enough to put it on her site, as well as Chessbase, BBC News Online and a few others.
ejh: The programmes hopefully stay online indefinitely? I know some iPlayer stuff only lasts a week, but the Friday Documentary programmes seem to be stored permanently...
ST: I think that's the case, which scared me initially in case the programme wasn't too good, but I'm actually quite proud of it, mainly because the interviewees were so good - chess players can be pretty smart, funny, objective and self-critical people.
ejh: That'd be smart in an intellectual rather than a sartorial sense?
ST: Well Fischer used to look pretty good in a suit, but yes :).
Though of course it's mostly paternity suits now
ejh: And if chess isn't a matter of life and death, it is at least A Matter Of Life And Death.
ST: Yes, Bill Shankly said of football, "it's not a matter of life and death - it's much more serious than that". I actually think chess is fundamentally only a game, although a very good game, and you actually enjoy it more and get more out of it if you realise that.
Korchnoi - Spassky, Candidates' Final: Game 14 Belgrade 1977/78
I enjoyed EJH's post on the video for Manic Street Preachers' (It's Not War) Just the End of Lovelast Sunday. I liked the vid too, I have to say. Sure, they got themselves in a muddle over who was supposed to be who, and, yes, the chessboard continuity was all over the shop, but I thought it was a good watch nonetheless. If nothing else, it's a reminder that chess in the 1970s retains a cultural resonance that the game today can only dream of.
Michael Sheen's mannerisms were right on the money - he actually looked like somebody who was playing a serious game of chess as opposed to looking like somebody who was trying to look like they were - and, the far-too-modern-looking demo aboard aside, I thought they might a very decent fist of portraying the spartan look of Soviet-era chess. The Manics' "classic Seventies chess match" (Nicky Wire) doesn't look so very different to the Korchnoi - Spassky Candidates' Final held in Belgrade from November 1977 to January 1978.
Have a look at the photo at the head of today's blog. Check out the plain, functional, table and chairs; check out Korchnoi's 'your-great-granddad-would-have-worn-this' cardigan; check out a real 1970s demo board: as dated in feel as the Manics' is contemporary. The Manics' demo board wouldn't look out of place at the London Chess Classic (although the manual moving of the pieces would). Korchnoi-Spassky's, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of thing that you'd expect to see at an event that had cars like those in the picture below parked outside the venue.
That's the 1970s for you: metaphorically, and often literally, black and white film. As I write these words, I recall that the first FA Cup Final I watched in colour was Ipswich v Arsenal, played, when I was nine, just a few months after Viktor and Boris finished up in Belgrade.
Fact: When we were Kings everybody drove Ladas
Anyhoo, now that we've had our fill of '70s Communist Austerity Chic, let's take a closer look at Boris Spassky. Did you notice that he's wearing a sun visor? I wrote about this last November [WwwK IV]. For reasons still not entirely clear (perhaps to protect his eyes from the theatre's overly bright lights, perhaps to block attempts to hypnotise him), for the final games of the match Spassky took to wearing a sun visor and/or swimming goggles during play. I know it sounds utterly preposterous, but it's absolutely true.
As you can see, the photographer has caught Spassky studying the demo board at the back of the stage. That's how he played the second-half of the match: he preferred looking at the giant board and didn't care to analyse looking at the chess set on the table in front of him.
I wish I had a better photograph of Boris and his extravagant eyewear, one where his gaze is not directed away from the camera, but this is the only one I've been able to track down thus far. Still, looking at it again after EJH's post, I saw something I hadn't noticed before. It's Black to make his 28th move. Black to play his 28th move and yet Spassky is already wearing the sun visor.
I talked about game 14 of the Korchnoi-Spassky Candidates' Final, in WwwK III, ending the post with this ...
The session neared its end and with the shortage of time forcing both players to actually remain at the board for a change everybody was waiting for Spassky to make his 31st move. Little could anybody have known that he was about to crank the weirdness dial all the way up to eleven.
... before continuing the story in WwwK IV with a passage from Ray Keene's book on the match (Korchnoi vs Spassky: Chess Crisis) :-
"Spassky now caused an uproar in the audience by appearing on the stage wearing, for the first time, a large bright silver-white sun visor. Korchnoi reacted by demanding the curtains be drawn across the stage, thus screening the players from the audience which had been thrown into tumult by Spassky’s behaviour."
Raymondo's note appears in the book after Black has made his 30th move (... Rf8), but the photo shows his timing - and therefore mine - must be wrong. Not a huge mistake, for sure, but as the Manics will tell you, it's always worth trying to get the little details right.
PHOTOS: Korchnoi-Spassky - Chess Monthly, vol 43 # 787-788 February 1978 Venue - British Chess Magazine, February 1978
For sex tourism, there are far better places to go, or so a friend of mine who knows about these things tells me
Nigel Short, writing on Cuba, New In Chess 2010#5
The following email was sent to New in Chess on 27 July. It does not appear in the latest issue, 2010#6.
Nigel Short has never been celebrated for his attitude to women - or other people in general - but his comments in NiC 2010#5 were low even by his standards. Sex tourism is a grotesque, exploitative business which is humiliating for the women who find themselves driven to work in it, when indeed they have a choice, and shameful for those who take advantage of it. It is not something that should be encouraged or laughed about, still less discussed in terms of whether there are "far better places to go".
Nothing is entirely off limits for humour, but is it really necessary to be so offensively lacking in empathy for one's fellow human creatures and the plight in which they find themselves? Not everything in the world is placed there so that Nigel Short can snigger about it - and if he is unable to restrain himself from doing so, do the editors at New In Chess not possess the ability to edit it out? Yours
Simon Williams: the Ginger GM. Grandmaster since Hastings 2008; S&BC Blog interviewee [I, II, III]; and, as of January this year, producer of his own range of chess DVDs. I thought Williams' first offering, The Killer Dutch, was really rather good so I was very pleased to receive review copies of his latest release, The Killer French Parts I and II.
I’ve played the French off and on for more than twenty years now and have already collected (far too) many books on the opening. True, I only played it on one occasion last year (and that by transposition from a c3-Sicilian) and was planning to try 1. … g6 against 1. e4 in the coming season, but I’m always curious as to the latest goings on in this old favourite of mine.
I was also very interested to see how a new DVD would get on in a marketplace that already contains a number of options for club chessers interested in exploring the French Defence. There's Viktor Moskalenko’s highly regarded The Flexible French from 2008; The Wonderful Winawer, by the same author, is due out later this year; Vitiugov’s The French Defence and McDonald’s How to play against 1. e4 for a start and Chessbase alone have four separate products that cover the French Defence out at the moment.
It was with some anticipation, then, that I began to watch these DVDs. Long story short: I was far from disappointed with the result. For those who want more detail, in what follows I'll take a look at technical and presentational issues; give an outline of Williams' suggested repertoire; examine The Killer French's treatment of the four main branches of the French (Advance, Tarrasch, Winawer and Exchange) in some detail; and, finally, conclude with a discussion regarding the depth of coverage of these DVDs and some issues that arise regarding the nature of Williams' repertoire choices. Those amongst our esteemed and most valued readership who lack either the time or inclination (or both) to read through that lot may wish to fast forward until they see Clouseau and just take a look at the summary.
At the risk of stating the obvious, The Killer French (hereafter TKF) is a DVD: a video lecture that teaches a repertoire for Black based on the opening moves 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5. The two discs in the set can be bought either separately for £19.95 each or as a pair for £35; the first lasts approximately four and a half hours, the second around five.
What may be less immediately apparent is that the TKF can be played on a standard DVD machine. For me, this is already a big plus: a return to how things used to be in the early days of such products. Goodness knows why Chessbase switched to making DVDs that can only be viewed on a computer. Isn’t it obvious that sitting on a sofa watching a widescreen TV is infinitely more appealing than sitting at a desk peering at a computer screen?
Anyhoo, for the vast majority of this DVD set we find Williams on the right-hand side of our screens and a computer generated chessboard (the graphics familiar to anybody who plays on Chesscube) on the left. Those who have already seen Williams’ first DVD will not be surprised to learn that the production values for TKF are very high. The overhead shots of the chessboard have gone, which I think is rather a shame, but a scrolling text bar has been added which helps to underline the significance of certain points. It’s not particularly easy both to read and listen to the GingerGM at the same time, but I quickly discovered that a judicious use of the rewind button allowed me to do first one then the other.
While TKF is certainly very good from a technical point of view, it should also be said that Williams himself has a very likeable on-screen presence and he presents the material in a highly engaging manner. A few minor niggles aside (I noticed a couple of Chapter Title screens that appeared in the wrong place; I’d prefer full game references e.g. not just Grischuk v Short but the year  and tournament [Reykjavik] too) it’s hard to fault TKF from a technical or presentational point of view and I suspect that it would not be found lacking if put up against any other DVD on the market right now.
So what of the actual material Williams is trying to teach us? The TKF repertoire is based around the following choices:
Disc One Advance: 5. … Bd7 Tarrasch: 3. … Nf6
Disc Two 3. Nc3: Winawer, Poisoned Pawn Variation
Disc Two also includes suggestions on how to meet those choices that are less popular at the higher levels but are frequently wheeled out at club level: Exchange; King’s Indian Attack; Wing Gambit; 2. b3; set-ups based on 2. Nf3, 3. Nc3; and, last but not least, the Wankers’ Gambit (really) are all covered here.
The structure is consistent throughout with each chapter consisting of an overview, a pair of illustrative games and a theory section, Williams using the latter to add some concrete detail to the themes and variations that have been described in the earlier segments. It’s an organisation of material that works well and it’s self-evident that plenty of thought has gone into the making of this DVD.
Not only is the material arranged in a highly user-friendly way, the repertoire itself is entirely consistent and coherent. “Attack is the best form of defence” is Williams’ motto and in every line he endeavours to find the most active/aggressive/challenging response that Black can muster. Pieces are sacrificed to destroy White’s pawn centre; exchanges given up on f3 and elsewhere (I suspect TKF sets a new record for the number of exchange sacrifices given in a set of DVDs devoted to opening theory); g- and h- pawns hurled forward and kings left to fend for themselves in the centre of the board. In fact in some lines you seem to have to adopt all of these strategies except the kingside pawn storm – and you’d probably be doing that too if you hadn’t already given away all your foot soldiers on that side of the board. Fort Knox, it ain’t!
It’s the sort of repertoire, then, that you might expect from a man who’s favoured the Classical Dutch for more than two decades. That said, it’s worth noting that while some might consider the recommendations aggressive, bordering on somewhat risky, they are at least moves that Williams has been prepared to play himself. References to the GingerGM’s own games abound throughout the DVD which certainly helps build confidence that his suggestions are not just outright unsound.
A Closer Look
It’s time to explore TKF in a little more depth. Here, though, I face the problem inherent in reviewing any product. It’s clearly not possible to discuss a product in any meaningful way without making specific reference to its content, but give away too much detail and nobody need bother actually buy the thing. In an attempt to square this circle I will try to reveal the flavour of Williams’ suggested repertoire through references to both my own games as well as some top-level encounters. Hopefully this should give any potential purchasers enough information to be able to decide whether or not they want to add these DVDs to their collection.
After some introductory comments Williams opens DVD One by taking a look at the Advance Variation. This is probably the right choice: these d4-e5/e6-d5 interlocking pawn structures crop up everywhere in the French and if you don’t like the positions that arise here you probably shouldn’t be playing 1. … e6 in the first place.
Black’s choice in the main lines of the Advance pretty much boils down to a decision over whether to play 5. … Bd7 or 5. … Qb6 after 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. e5 c5, 4. c3 Nc6, 5. Nf3.
I must confess that the subtleties that inform this particular decision are more or less entirely lost on me. 5. … Qb6 seems to get quick pressure against d4 after 6. Be2, but the queen may be misplaced after 6. a3 so delaying a choice about where to place her majesty and playing 5. … Bd7 is possibly better when White advances on the queenside. The tricky bit, needless to say, is that you don’t know what White’s going to play on the sixth move when you play your fifth!
I suspect the choice here is a matter of taste: a judgement over which of 5. … Qb6, 6. a3 or 5. … Bd7, Be2 bothers you the least. That said, I’m not sure that either line necessarily leads to a disadvantage for Black. My personal preference is usually … Qb6 although … Bd7, Williams’ recommendation, seems to be the more popular choice since Korchnoi brought it back into fashion in the 1970s.
The position after eight moves in the Spassky-Korchnoi game looks pretty normal to modern eyes. It’s funny to think that it could have been unfamiliar even to Grandmasters as recently as thirty years ago.
TKF’s coverage of the Advance is largely very good although I will have something to say about the omission of some sidelines (mostly White’s alternatives to c3 at move four) a little later.
“… if Black wants to enjoy the natural spirit of the French Defence he should continue 3. … Nf6!?. As usual, the pressure on e4 forces White to close the centre with 4. e5 … After 4. … Nfd7 … the genuinely French (temporarily blocked) positions arise.”
Viktor Moskalenko: The Flexible French
True that, as they say on The Wire. Of all Williams’ repertoire choices, his main line against the Tarrasch Variation is probably the only one that I’ve often played myself. It was pleasing, then, to see his main line head for this position
which used to be known as the starting point of the Keene-Timman variation (and may still be for all I know). Regular visitors to our humble blog may recall that we posted an example of RDK playing this line back in January. Raymondo’s13. … Ng4 turned out to have a flaw and has long since been forgotten so TKF, unsurprisingly, follows a different path.
Evidently theory has move on a fair bit since I last studied this branch of the Tarrasch in any depth (there’s certainly plenty of stuff on the DVD that’s new to me) but, nevertheless, I think that a game I played back in 2003 still does a decent job of highlighting some themes that regularly crop up in this line.
(1) At the time I’d thought that White had played the opening far too passively with not enough action to counter Black’s plans and far too much fannying around (h3, Kh1, a3 etc). However, compare the position at move 22 with Marjanovic-Timman, Sarajevo 1984.
Pretty similar wouldn’t you say? Marjanovic was rated 2525 in 1984 so perhaps my opponent hadn’t been playing that badly after all. That said, I suspect the differences between the diagram and my game are all in the GM’s favour. In particular, the rook is much better placed on c3 from where it does a better job protecting the kingside. (Timman won in the end anyway, mind.)
(2) After the game my opponent described my 12. … a6 as of ‘one of those moves you make when you obviously have no clue what to do next’ and looked rather sceptical when I explained the reasoning behind the move. I’d completely forgotten about that post-mortem exchange until I was reminded of it while watching TKF. At some point Williams talks about the possibility of Black playing a prophylactic … a6 and mentions that several strong players have chosen to play it in various positions in this line over the years. Well call me a person who holds a grudge for far too long if you will, but all I can say is “Up Yours Mr. 108. Vengeance is mine!”
White’s main move against the French, theoretically speaking at least, is 3. Nc3. To counter this Williams recommends taking the bull by the horns and heading straight down the ultra-sharp Poisoned Pawn variation which runs:
and must be the most double-edged, most forcing line in the entire French canon.
Nigel Short once memorably described the second player’s plan in this position thus:
“For want of something better to do, Black often lets his kingside disintegrate with the intention of landing a big cheapo on his opponent in the middlegame”
which is a little harsh if perhaps not that far from the truth of the matter. Vigorous play is essential if Black is to justify the material sacrifice and giving White a dangerous passed pawn. The fellow on h2 might not look very threatening at this stage but I used to play these positions from the White side in my younger days and I won several games (usually via entirely lost positions) through the simple expediency of pushing h2-h4-h5-h6-h7.
Nosher was writing back in 1990: long before engines began to have a significant impact on the analysis of opening variations. Nowadays entering such an incredibly complex, some might say totally mad, variation without a lot of work with a silicon pal should probably be considered somewhere between rather risky and totally foolhardy. Frankly, I find some of these positions rather scary and almost completely uncomprehensible. Perhaps this is because I haven't (yet) been able to spend much time investigating them.
Williams has done a lot of the work for us, but these are high maintenance lines and attempting to play them without a fair degree of preparation is likely to lead to accidents. Still, high risk usually equals high potential reward. For inspiration have a look at Grischuk chopping up Topalov’s Mini-Me at one of the Grand Prix tournaments from 2008. The specific line of the Poisoned Pawn is not the one Williams recommends on the DVD but nevertheless the game is highly representative of the kind of (messy) play that’s likely to arise from following TKF’s suggestions.
While it’s natural to focus on such forcing lines, anybody who wants to play the French should remember that while White’s options on move four and five may be less theoretically challenging they can still be dangerous in a practical game. Here’s me on the wrong side of a miniature against the S&BC Blog’s Art Correspondent Martin Smith:-
Williams does address these sidelines, but, the fact that he gives them a similar amount of attention as they get in Uhlmann's Winning With The French not withstanding, my feeling is that the coverage is a shade skimpy. Again, I’ll come back to this a little further on.
I couldn’t let a review about a DVD on the French go by without a word or two about the interesting (to me, although not the GingerGM it seems) French Exchange. I mentioned last week how Williams’ recommended response to 3. exd5 can lead Black to playing the Exchange variation himself. I just want to add one quick thing here.
Against 3. exd5 exd5, 4. Nf3 TKF suggests a solid system for Black based on the moves …c6, … Bd6, … Nge7. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s always worth having that sort of option in your locker in case of need – but if you like the IQP positions that result from 4. Bd3 c5 why not go for 4. Nf3 Nf6 instead? After 5. Bd3, instead of the 5. … Be7 of Short – Heine Neilsen [TIFE VII] (although I’m sure that must be fine too)we can go 5. … c5 like Kasparov – Korchnoi [TIFE IX] and we’re back in our preferred game. True, White can circumvent our plans with 5. Bg5, but Bohnisch-Uhlmann [TIFE V] shows that the pin, despite my initial concerns, should not be in the least bit threatening.
That’s more than enough on TKF’s coverage of the IFE, I think, except to say that Williams’ pithy summing up of 3. exd5 is rather amusing. “Play chess: the better player should win” he says, before adding, almost as an afterthought, “Hopefully that’s you.”
So that’s what TKF covers. How well does it do it?
A database of relevant games is not included with these DVDs. Nevertheless, in general I’d say the treatment of the opening is very good albeit in a “Starting Out” or “Chess Explained” kind of a way rather than the definitive work of reference style like Watson’s Play The French or many of the books that Quality Chess have been publishing of late.
This is not a criticism of TKF, it’s just the nature of the format: you’ll always find much more information in a book than you will in even the very best DVD. Potential purchasers will no doubt already be aware of this issue, but, anyway, for the most part my feeling is that the information contained in this set of DVDs is entirely sufficient for the vast majority of club players to be able to play the French with confidence. TKF is about explaining the ideas behind the moves and not just teaching theory by rote so studying the material thoroughly should mean that you’re not left completely on your own even when White plays a move not explicitly covered on the DVD.
Nevertheless, I say “for the most part” because there are two particular areas where TKF might have beefed up its coverage. They both concern the difference between what gets played at club level and what appears on the board during Grandmaster games.
Firstly, TKF’s exploration of the Advance variation begins at the position reached after 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. e5 c5, 4. c3 Nc6, 5. Nf3. This is definitely the main theoretical continuation but in my experience club chessers will very often have diverged by this point. There’s 4. Nf3 and 4. Qg4 (both favoured by Nimzowitsch); 4. f4 (Steinitz) and 5. Be3 (Kupreichik). The first two options try to make use of the tempo saved by not playing c2-c3 to launch an attack while in the third Black will end up squished if he doesn’t find a way to immediately challenge the enormous centre that White’s trying to set up. I’ve faced them all over the years and can personally attest that the fact that none of them are particularly challenging from a theoretical perspective doesn’t necessarily make them easy to face in a practical game.
It’s similar with some the sidelines available to White on move four of the Winawer. Here the moves arediscussed but there is very little detail. 4. Nge2 and 4. exd5 are covered well enough but 4. Qg4; 4. a3; 4. Bd2; 4. Bd3 and 4. Qd3 get less than ten minutes between them.
"Hardly anyone plays any of these lines”, says Williams, “ ... they're not particularly important.” Not for a GM and/or those playing at a higher level maybe, but, in my experience anyway, at club level White is more likely to go for this sort of thing than head into the main lines with 4. e5 and 5. a3.
The other thing about these variations is that they have the potential to explode into absolute chaos. If you get caught in an unfamiliar line you can sometimes compare the position with something less alien and work out what to do that way. The trouble with some of these move four variations is that they’re often quite unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. Black rook on g4 by move 7 anyone?
Keeping things in perspective, that’s just two areas where the coverage falls short and it’s also worth noting that more experienced Frenchies will already have such lines worked out by now so won’t be troubled at all by the lack of attention here. Those new to the opening, though, might find themselves coming unstuck if they don’t give these allegedly minor lines some thought before trying the opening out in their games.
Burnout and Reliability?
“I've always had my doubts about you trenchy-type fellows. Always suspected there might be a bit too much of the battle-dodging, nappy-wearing, I'd-rather-have-a-cup-of-tea-than-charge-stark-naked-at-Jerry about you.”
Colonel Melchett, Blackadder IV
If nothing else, hopefully I’ve successfully managed to convey the impression that Williams’ repertoire on TKF is hard-hitting, uncompromising, and, one imagines, every inch the sort of chess that would satisfy even Colonel Melchett. The recommended lines are double-edged in more ways than one, however. Before making your purchase you may want to consider the issues of burnout and reliability.
The nature of very forcing lines is that it’s often not very long before they’ve been mined to the point of exhaustion. Kasparov’s observation that the intensive research into the 10. O-O-O variation of the Bf4 Queen’s Gambit Declined has managed to “scratch the position next to its bottom” is a rather wonderful description of the problem. In older times the evolutionary process was much slower than it is today (blame those bloody iron monsters) and where before it might have taken years of practical games to establish correct play now we can leave Fritz running overnight and all mysteries are solved.
We can hardly have it both ways. We might find a very forcing line of play that is good for Black, but if we do White will eventually either try something else along the way or not let us play it in the first place. The more this process continues, the more moves that are found, the more likely we’ll end up a position where there’s not much left on the board.
The relevance of these musings to TKF? Well, there is one line given that leads to a forced draw (an option to avoid the early bath is given along the way) and some others lead to an endgame with little or no prospect of a Black win unless White helps out with a major blunder or two. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise - it’s the price you pay for playing lines in which one slip by White can lead him to a clearly worse or even lost position.
So much for burnout. What of reliability?
Some of Williams' suggestions are relatively untried. In particular I have in the mind the recommendation against the 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. Nd2 Nf6, 4. e5 Nfd7, 5. f4 variation of the Tarrasch, a plan which Moskalenko said (admittedly two years ago) has, “… not yet been widely explored”. Similarly, he advocates a sub-variation of the Poisoned Pawn Winawer that, while not new, has certainly been played much less frequently than the mainlines.
The advantages of this approach are obvious: White will likely be less familiar with our opening choices and possibly won’t have prepared a reply at home. Even if they have, a best line of play is less likely to have been established against newer systems.
The drawbacks are equally clear, however: someday somebody might come up with a sequence or a single move that blows a hole in our preparation and knocks a whole line out of commission. There has, for example, already been some talk on chesspub about the ultimate assessment of one of TKF’s suggestions against the Tarrasch.
Again, we can’t have our cake and eat it. If we want to play cutting edge theory, particularly if we are choosing very forcing, aggressive lines, we must accept that the accidents, either theoretical or practical, will happen. This is inevitable and, as before, I don’t regard this issue as necessarily highlighting a weakness or strength of Williams’ repertoire. Again, however, it’s something that prospective purchasers will want to think through before parting with their cash.
I don’t want to give the impression that TKF is all about flashy variations which only work because White is made to play obviously inferior moves. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all. As the most average of average of club chessers, my opinion as to the ultimate soundness of these lines has no real value. However, while I think it’s probably fair to say that Williams’ chessboard risk threshold is probably set a little higher than some would feel comfortable with, Gata Kamsky, for example, has used at least one of the more hazardous lines that you’ll find on TKF in two separate super-GM tournaments and it seems unlikely to me that he would have done so if he thought it outright unsound.
What else is there left to say? Not much I think.
Those who want a definitive reference work or a database of games will want to look elsewhere but TKF could well appeal to nearly all other club chessers. Those significantly higher-rated than me (currently 163 BCF/approx 1954 elo) might find they want/need to supplement the DVD with material from another source; more modestly graded club chessers may want to pay more attention to Advance and Winawer sidelines than Williams does here.
As noted, some may have issues around ‘burnout’ and the relative newness of some of the lines given. I do not, as it happens, but in any event it seems to me the issue is one of the nature of this sort of chess rather than TKF per se. By any standards this DVD set is well made, well presented and will give an enjoyable and entertaining starting point to playing the French Defence the Williams way. Even club chessers who have played 1. … e6 for many years are likely to find something new here and anybody who wants a highly confrontational/counter-attacking 'defence' to 1. e4 in their repertoire could do a lot worse than consider TKF.
It’s traditional, it seems, to end a review by awarding the product a number of stars or perhaps a mark out of ten. I’ve never found that satisfactory, I have to say; never really understood why it would be necessary. If you think what you’ve got to say can be summarised in such a blunt way, why bother to write the review in the first place? If you want to find out what the reviewer thinks why not read the chuffin review?
So no stars from me; no marks out of ten. Instead, I’ll end with the observation that before I watched these DVDs I was a person who had played the French for many years but who was intending to try something else against king's pawn openings in the coming season. Having watched TKF, though, I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist going back to my old favourite after all. The next time I see 1. e4 my response will definitely be 1. ... e6.