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Don Aldrich’s Book Reviews

Secrets of Positional Play by Drazen Marovic (Gambit, 2003), 224 pp., approx. 400 diag., $23.95

Marovic is one of those Yugoslavian (now Croatian) GMs who has been around seemingly forever. Presumably, he has acquired a wealth of chess knowledge. Alas, this reads like a text written in the ‘50s. When I was a young pup first studying chess (1960’s), the quality and quantity of chess books available in English was quite low. We had Reinfeld, Chernev, Horowitz, and that was about it. The idea of translating those wonderful Russian texts we heard so much about had not yet taken root. When it finally did, we found the Russians were not much better off. For every Bronstein or Keres masterpiece, there were a lot of mediocre texts.

The problem wasn’t that the ‘good stuff’ was in a foreign language, it was that it just didn’t exist in quantity. With respect to the instructional manual for the middlegame, Dvoretsky just hadn’t appeared yet. Thus, your average instructional text on planning or positional play was simply a series of examples highlighting the idea to be imparted. Position after position showing the exploitation of dark square weaknesses, utilization of the open file, rooks on the seventh, knights on the sixth, and so on. The problem was, if you didn’t get it by just seeing an example, you didn’t get it. And that is pretty much what Marovic has given us. This book would have been well received forty years ago.

The book is divided into two sections: “Strength and Weaknesses in Space” and “The Chess Pieces: Their Strength and Weaknesses.” Marovic’s basic thesis is that there are strong and weak squares, and strong and weak pieces. A weak square in the enemy’s camp is worthless if there is no piece capable of exploiting it. Conversely, a strong square is no good if there is no useful piece to post on it. In the 40’s, this was heresy (the Boleslavsky and Najdorf variations [d6 weakness], King’s Indian [d6 pawn]); by the sixties it was fairly well understood; today it is part of one’s basic education.

The presentation does not fair much better. The first section chapter headings are topics such as ‘Weak and Strong Squares,’ ‘Strengths and Weaknesses on Files and Diagonals,’ Weaknesses and Strengths on the First/Second Ranks,’ and the like. Now these are all fine and worthy topics. In chapter one, the first series of examples involve White’s exploitation of a weak square at e5/d5; White duly places a knight or Bishop on the square and proceeds from there, explained thusly:
"Looking back at the game we recognize again the clear positional pattern: first a strong central square, then a centralized piece on it, which, after exchanges in the middlegame, supports a pawn advance across the whole kingside. In the end, the centralized force breaks any resistance; a neat process" [p. 20].

All well and good, especially if one has never seen this before. It does raise two questions - how the heck does one obtain that strong central square in the first place? Do we just wait for our opponent to hand it to us? And second, is there no defense? Are we doomed to a neat positional defeat each time? Marovic answers neither of these questions.

Moreover, the book is totally passive in approach. The foundation for all modern education was John Dewey’s ‘learn by doing.’ The middlegame is already arguably the hardest part of chess to learn. The best way to learn is by doing it. Hence the well deserved acclaim for Dvoretsky - all through his books the student is constantly challenged to solve a series of problems. In fact, what one is doing is practicing playing positions carefully selected by the author. Alas, poor Marovic, he simply parades position after position before us; no questions, no quizzes, no exercises.

The examples themselves run the gamut from the 1840s through Dortmund 2001. There is no obvious bias towards newer or older examples. One will find some familiar friends, but many are from lesser-known sources. His notes are more than adequate. He gives concrete variations where necessary, and clear prose explication of what is going on in each position. And there are passages where his natural charm peeps through.

All in all, what is presented is presented very well. The problem is that it is simply a series of seemingly unending examples from master games. In contrast, we recently reviewed here Dvorestky’s book on positional play, and Seirawan’s ‘Winning Chess Strategy.’ One was quite advanced; one quite basic. They both challenged the reader throughout to solve problems on the road to understanding. They both gave additional problems to solve at the end of each lesson. So, would Marovic’s book have been better if the last few examples of each chapter were presented as quizzes? Not necessarily. The true instructional work not only poses questions of the reader, it integrates the process into the whole. The questions and exercises must be carefully selected to achieve the desired goal. Simply turning some of the positions into questions, as some notorious cut and paste authors have been know to do, won’t cut it.

In conclusion, this is a very straightforward book with little to offer the serious student beyond introduction to games and positions he has not seen before. While well produced and written, it is, unfortunately, simply too pedestrian. The beginning student is better off with Seirawan or Silman, or even Nimzowitsch; the advanced - with Dvoretsky.

Other reviews by Don Aldrich

Review 1: The Critical Moment, by GM Iossif Dorfman (PDF Format)
Review 2: Shirov's 100 Wins, by Sergei Soloviov (PDF Format)
Review 3: School of Chess Excellence 1: Endgame Analysis, by Mark Dvoretsky (PDF Format)
Review 4: Winning Chess Strategies, by Yasser Seirawan (PDF Format)
Review 5: Purdy On The Endgame, compiled by Ralph Tykodi
Review 6: School of Chess Excellence 3: Strategic Play, by GM Mark Dvoretsky
Review 7: Secrets of Positional Play, by Drazen Marovic
Review 8: Tony Miles: It's Only Me, by Geoff Lawton
Review 9: Chess Strategy In Action, by John Watson
Review 10: Leko’s 100 Wins, by Sergei Soloviov
Review 11: Super Tournaments 2002, by Sergei Soloviov
Review 12: French Nd2, by Lev Psakhis
Review 13: Chess Endgame Training, by Bernd Rossen
Review 14: King's Indian Battle Plans, by IM Andrew Martin

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted