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Book Reviews by FM Sam Collins

Sam Collins

originally published in Chess Today No. 1140 (22 December 2003)

Occasionally I look at my 100+ collection of chess books and sigh. How many random opening manuals I have never looked at, how many boring middlegame textbooks I knew I'd never read. How much junk! With chess publishing reaching higher and higher levels of output, it's consoling to know that, whatever you buy, there's at least one collection on your shelves which is worth having.

My Great Predecessors by Garry Kasparov is that collection. The finest player ever to push a pawn is rounding off his career with the definitive chess publishing event of living memory. Quite simply, the series gives biographies of all world champions from Steinitz to Kramnik, peppered with annotated games and fragments. Clearly inspired by his phenomenal classics series for Chess Base magazine, Kasparov is the only man with the ability or credibility to pull this off. His knowledge of the classics is second to none, and considering that he is also the best player, writer and analyst in modern chess, you have to like the chances of this book being a little gem.

Part I (Everyman Chess 2003, 464 pages, R.R.P. £25) is the subject of this review, and deals with Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine coupled with their main contemporaries (a great section on Rubinstein, for instance). Bad things: he misses a transposition on page 69 and so gives different assessments to the same position. Good things: the book is a work of absolute, unadulterated genius.

Kasparov is on a qualitatively different level from any of his contemporaries or predecessors – only Lasker dominated the game to the same extent, and that was well before the birth of proper professional chess, with the explosion of players and analysis this entailed. This position makes everything Kasparov writes essential reading. His analysis of his matches with Karpov, for instance, is superb, as is his survey of the Scheveningen Variation with Nikitin. This book is no exception, in that while the biographies could have been written by most industrious chess historians and much of the annotation could be done by a good grandmaster, occasionally there arises an insight into Kasparov's head worth more than most of the books in your chess library. Have a look at this offhand remark in Chapter Five:

"Alekhine was clearly ahead of his time in his approach to chess. According to my theory, the game of chess consists of three components: material, time and quality of position. And every player makes use of them as far as possible. With material everything is clear: on this arithmetic level even a computer 'thinks': extra pawn, extra piece – this is the ABC of chess science. The second factor – time – is more complicated, but also understandable: the gain of a tempo, the speed of a passed pawn's advance or the storming of the king's fortress. By sacrificing material for a swift attack, it is precisely time that we take into account... The third – quality of position – is the least obvious, strategic factor: pawn structure, strong and weak squares, active and passive pieces, two bishops, 'bad' king... Here evaluation is a question of intuition, and an understanding of this factor is already a sign of great mastery. Well, and the highest skill is a subtle appreciation of all three factors! The ability to weigh up everything ' for' and 'against', to sacrifice something for the sake of weakening certain squares or, say, to spoil one's pawns for the sake of a couple of tempi. This is accessible to very few: here one needs intuition, experience, God-given talent..."

What I love about the above passage isn't just its clarity, its originality – its authority is what transforms the words into a living, breathing chess philosophy. By allowing a glimpse into his own head, Kasparov enlightens the smallest reader, and allows one to look at the chessboard in an entirely new light, safe in the knowledge that the method applied is that of a unique player.

Readers might be shocked at the primacy of computer analysis in this book. It's sobering to think that even Kasparov needs this crutch to analyse as deeply as possible, but in fairness he's never made any secret of the fact that one of his key strengths is his ability to use computers intelligently and effectively, working around their weaknesses to achieve a higher level of analysis. The number of classics which are cut down by a combination of Kasparov's thought and Fritz's analysis is stunning – every game seems rife with errors. The search for absolute truth in analysis is a cornerstone of Kasparov's work. I remember a conversation with Lev Psakhis, where the twice Soviet champion remarked that Kasparov's level of opening analysis, how he can find more in half an hour than most GMs can find in a week, is due to the fact that since he was 15 he's been looking for the best move in every position he finds. This is in stark contrast to most of the books I've read about the old champions, where the author is frequently too shy or too weak to put the masterpieces under an analytical microscope and see how they stand up. Really this series reads like a clash of two chess cultures – modern analysis of old games with some fascinating conclusions. In addition, existing analysis of these games is subjected to close scrutiny, with numerous assessments challenged or overturned. My study of the book has so far been rather casual – read the histories, play through the main moves and some of the simpler variations – of course the book can be profitably read this way, but it would provide hours of material for anyone who subjects all the games to independent analysis and compares his conclusions with Kasparov's. This dual nature of the book – allowing fireside reading or intensive analysis – broadens its appeal immensely, and means that you'll never be able to extract all that the volumes have to offer.

In short, Kasparov's work is required reading, in these volumes as in all others. He has fully succeeded in providing a literary monument to cement his legacy, and you owe it to yourself to take a peek.

My Assessment: * * * * *

© Copyright 2003-2004 by Chess Today and Grandmaster Square

Other reviews by Sam Collins

Review 1: Play the Open Games as Black, by John Emms
Review 2: The Human Comedy of Chess: A Grandmaster’s Chronicles by GM Hans Ree & Storming the Barricades by GM Larry Christiansen
Review 3: Open Ruy Lopez by Glenn Flear
Review 4: Main Line Caro-Kann by Neil McDonald
Review 5: Offbeat Spanish by Glenn Flear
Review 6: Excelling at Chess by Jacob Aagard
Review 7: Can You Be a Positional Chess Genius? by Angus Dunnington
Review 8: The Grunfeld Defence by Nigel Davies
Review 9: The Best of Chess Cafe
Review 10: How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire by Steve Giddins
Review 11: The …a6 Slav by Glenn Flear
Review 12: Starting Out: The Ruy Lopez by John Shaw
Review 13: Knockout Nimzo (video) by Tony Kosten
Review 14: My Great Predecessors by Gary Kasparov

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted