Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Relatively Smooth Little Win, and Two Book Reviews

Okay, I made one blunder, but luckily it was late enough and I was winning by a large enough margin that I held on anyway. The game was an offbeat Sicilian. My opponent played too slowly and I was able to establish a dominant position. As quite often happens, once he realized he was constricted he lashed out reflexively without checking the variations thoroughly enough. I obtained a better ending, increased my advantage, blundered, but was still able to convert my smaller advantage into a win. Here's the game:


Not such a riveting affair, but I take wins where I can get them. In other chess news, I will not be going to the Space Coast Open since I still don't have a job and really shouldn't spend money on tournaments. Luckily I still get some free books, so here are a couple of book reviews:

Playing the Queen's Gambit, a Grandmaster Guide by Lars Schandorff,

This is a very high level manual for how to handle the white pieces vs. various black defenses to the Queen's gambit. I got this book to shore up my repertoire since many of the lines I play are covered. These include the Modern Exchange line in the QGD, the 6.Ne5 lines in the Slav, and Bg5 versus the Semi-Slav. There is also coverage of 3.e4 in the QGA which I don't play but might take up, as well as a section on less popular lines like the Albin and Baltic. The Chigorin is given it's own section, which is probably appropriate given how its popularity has increased recently. The Tarrasch has a stand alone chapter, as does the highly fashionable a6-Slav.

The book is organized in the complete game format, which I prefer, and there is a good mix of prose and variations. As this is a book aimed at higher level players however, the prose is not as explanatory as you might find in a 'Starting Out' book. Generally the author will give a 5-10 move variation with only a few comments as to why a certain move was played and to describe the underlying concept. This is exactly the level I want in an opening book, but may not be enough for some.

The variations are generally not too long, though as Schandorff has opted for a main line repertoire they can become very complex. This is not a book to get if you simply want a playable middle game and are happy to let black equalize as long as you retain play as white. The purpose of playing these lines is to get positions where white has a real chance of being better out of the opening, and to put serious long term pressure on the second player. That cannot be done playing the Colle (sorry Colle people. Please don't leave a ton of analysis in my comments. The Colle is playable but equal).

Schandorff's style is conversational without being too chatty. Many correspondence games are cited, and there appears to be a lot of original analysis. I was little surprised not to see Chess Publishing listed in the bibliography, but other than that all the major periodicals and books were used.

I like this book a lot, but I cannot recommend it if you are just starting to play the Queen's Gambit. For that purpose, Everyman has two good introductory texts that I can think of, one by Chris Ward entitled 'Play the Queen's Gambit' and of course John Cox's wonderful 'Starting Out: 1.d4' which is hardly a starting out volume at all and of the two is the more theory heavy. If you are however an experienced player of the Queen's Gambit, Schandorff's book is an excellent resource to help your understanding of the critical lines and a valuable update to some rapidly changing theory. I have in mind the Anti-Moscow Gambit and the a6-Slav when I make that statement. Don't buy this if you're under 1700. If you're over that, give it a whirl. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual, Mark Dvoretsky

There's not much I need to say about this book. The reviews have been uniformly stellar, and after working with this volume I can only agree. The material is well explained, and the presentation order is very logical and facilitates learning.

Oh, and it's really, really hard. Really. Really. Difficult.

That's not to say the concepts are hard to grasp. In fact the opposite is true; Dvoretsky's writing is clear and his jargon is kept to a minimum. When he does invent a term, such as 'mined squares' to describe squares your king cannot go to in pawn endings, his inventions are easy to digest and remember. What always kills me about Dvoretsky books is that he is one of the few authors who really does write only for masters. The exercises in this book are exceptionally difficult, requiring calculation powers way beyond my abilities. Dvoretsky books are definitely aspirational rather than practical for most of us, but that doesn't mean we can't improve by trying to solve the problems he sets forward. If nothing else, they force us to go beyond our usual variation threshold which hopefully will improve our calculation abilities.

So I guess the bottom line is, get this book, work through it, and try the exercises. Don't give up easily, but don't feel too bad if you can't solve them. They are extremely hard, and unlike many problems grasping the key ideas does not make the problem easy. These are not the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, the knight's hanging after sacrificing the pawn, duh' and then the variations are easy to work out. These are the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, if I move my king backwards in this complex pawn ending then 8 moves down the line after an only semi-forced series of exchanges, I think I'll have the opposition which may be enough to pick up the additional pawn and win by one tempo another 9 moves forward'. This is a book for the very serious player who is willing to endure a lot of headache and suffering, but who is committed to getting better. This book and these terribly hard problems will help you improve if you put in the work. Not great for the casual player, but a must for anyone who want to reach expert or master.

One final note, concerning FIDE's proposed changes to the K-factor. For those who don't know, the k-factor determines how much your rating changes with each win or loss. FIDE is thinking about doubling the k-factor, which would mean that when you lose you drop twice as many points as under the current system. The argument is that by increasing the k-factor you would make ratings a more accurate predictor of future performance in the near term. Rating guru Jeff Sonas has presented quite a bit of statistical evidence supporting the increase in the k-factor.

Of all the arguments for and against the change, one I haven't heard that often is that increasing the k-factor might reduce some of the gridlock at the top of the rating charts. It seems to me (totally off the cuff, no stats to prove it) that of the top 20 probably 10-12 of them are always there, even when their performances seem a bit lackluster. This increase would create more turnover at the top, which might put more players in the super-tournament and world championship mix. I get really tired of seeing Peter Leko and Peter Svidler draw 3/4 of their games at Linares every year. While it's true they are strong enough to draw often, I'd like to see players who take a little more risk (and thus could expect the commensurate payoff in rating points under the new system). In my humble opinion, anything that can be done to make the ratings system more dynamic is good. I personally think live ratings are the way to go, but FIDE will never go for that. Way too logical. Plus, it would be harder for FIDE to game the system for their favorite players. Did I just say that? I guess I did. Peace.


CHESSX said...

Nice game.
I like the strong well placed knight that had to be exchanged for a rook.

How much of the book work you do sinks in?

I read chess books but have trouble remembering what i have learnt when i need it.

Good luck with the job hunt.

Briana said...

The book work is like any book work, some things I retain and some I don't. I find the key is to focus on a small amount of material that I really want to understand, and then work very hard on that for a period of time. For example, if I want to learn an opening I don't just look over it in the book and play out a few games, I choose a model game and play solitaire chess with it trying to guess the moves of my side. It really helps to imprint the major features of the position on your mind. I should note however that I am blessed with a very good memory, so this might come easier to me than to others.

CHESSX said...

Thanks for the advise,i will work longer on certain elements.
Rather than skim over lots of material.
Quality not quantity.