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Friday, December 3, 2010

Chess Books and Studying

I gave up actually studying chess years ago because I realized I had reached the point where the time spent versus the amount of improvement was minimal. The truth is of all the chess books I bought very few actually got read and even fewer actually improved my game to a noticeable degree. Most likely it was a case of absorbing a little here and a little there. In any case, I still like to browse books occasionally and yesterday was looking over John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy which I really enjoyed.
This book is pretty fascinating. Watson makes some comments about a subject that often comes up. Who is better, players of yesteryear or today? Watson says in the introduction, “The reader should understand that my own early chess education was almost entirely filled by the study of the games of players before 1930…it will be obvious that I consider modern players to have a broader and more subtle understanding of the game than their predecessors. Normally this would go without saying and it in no way denigrates the great old masters…But there is so much emotion invested in the veneration of the old champions that I want to emphasize my respect for their play, and also how irrelevant I consider the direct comparison between champions of vastly different eras.”

In this book he attempts to show that modern theory is dramatically different from what it was in Nimzovich’s day. He points out that there are principles of positional play (bad B’s, N outposts, centralized pieces, etc.) but his opinion is that rule oriented and principle oriented theory was worked out or at least substantially understood by the time of Nimzovich’s death in 1935. The argument goes that modern chess consists of applying them to an increasing number of specific positions along with a massive increase in opening theory and if you gave Lasker and Capablanca time to catch up, they would immediately become challengers for the world title. Watson disagrees!

He claims that while modern theory has advanced, it hasn’t advanced in a simplistic, rule based fashion. He adds, “It is the aim of the modern school not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position.” If you’ve ever read any early Soviet analysis you often ran across the phrase “concrete analysis.” Starting with the post-war generation they rejected dogmatic principles and abstract analysis and placed emphasis on the characteristics and consequences of the individual position. For example, super-trainer Mark Dvoretsky emphasizes the analytic approach where the modern player derives his perspective and intuition from detailed analysis. Thus, a lot of classical rules have become irrelevant.

Watson takes a look at such issues as the center and tempo, the big center, surrender of the center, Pawn minorities and passed Pawns, Pawn chains, doubled Pawns, the isolated QP, use of Bishops and Knights in modern play, the exchange sacrifice, etc.

His conclusion in modern theory differs from classic theory in that there are different concepts in many areas, some of which include abandoning the idea of moving each piece only once in the opening, willingness to accept a mobile but vulnerable center Pawn mass and decline in the importance of P-majorities, a sophisticated approach to doubled P’s which includes a willingness to accept them and many other things.

He also points out many differences in modern players such as their willingness to ignore development for gains in other areas, accept backward and doubled P’s, move P’s in front of their K, develop B’s before N’s, often accepting bad B’s, long term positional P sac’s, etc.

I know what Watson means when he talks about studying the old classics because I grew up with chess books that taught rules and principles and there were few books on tactics because many thought they couldn’t be taught. One early middle game book I had was Znosko-Borovsky’s “The Middle Game in Chess” in which he reduced chess down to space, time and force. Larry Evans also published a similar book much later. I also played the QGD Exchange Variation a lot and then proceeded to carry out the minority attack. Why? Because Reshevsky had great success with it in many games and it was covered in detail in Pachman’sModern Chess Strategy. The last time I tried it was in a couple of CC games against 2000-rated players and the best I could do was draw because they had no difficulty in finding the best defense. Reshevsky’s opponents rarely did. Then in The Road to Chess Improvement, Alex Yermolinsky discussed the QGD Exchange Variation in its modern form and barely mentioned the minority attack because modern players don’t play it; they have other, better, plans for White.

While this book may be controversial it is definitely worth reading.

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