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Chess Book Face Off: The Development of Chess Style Vs. Chess Endings

I've been getting back into chess lately, after taking a break for a couple years, and to get back up to speed, I've been reading quite a few chess books. I thought it would be fun to review and compare some of them, which is why I explored how to add JavaScript chess boards to the blog in my last article. Now I'll put that new feature to use while discussing a couple of chess books I've read recently: The Development of Chess Style by Max Euwe and John Nunn and Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge by Yuri Averbakh. Both of these books are somewhat older, being written in 1997 and 1993, respectively. That doesn't mean they're obsolete, because plenty of good chess books are also classics. Chess as a game is still progressing and theory changes, but the fundamentals are solid. Besides, one of these books is more about the history of chess, so it's only downside to being older is that it doesn't include more current developments.

The Development of Chess Style front coverVS.Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge front cover

The Development of Chess Style

This book is not so much about learning or improving at chess, but discovering the rich history of chess and how the game changed and grew throughout the centuries. It was written by two prolific chess authors and grandmasters. Max Euwe and John Nunn take us from the early 1600s with games unearthed from manuscripts written by Greco, through a parade of grandmaster and world champion games to the then-present day of Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, and Veselin Topalov.

Each time period is introduced with a few pages explaining who were the strongest players of the day, and how they went about discovering new facets of the game and moving it forward with improvements and discoveries in positional play, tactical calculations, and precise technique. Then a number of example games are presented to show how those style developments influenced the play, changed the course of the game, and brought us to where modern chess is today. With 61 games in all, it was a fascinating tour of chess. I was a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to pick up on the stylistic changes to the games, but the authors did an excellent job picking good examples of the style of each time period and explaining the nuances of each game.

The first game had a clearly different style than later ones, as we can see here:

You can see from stepping through the game that early on, players did not understand opening development very well, and if checks were available, they were pounced upon even if they served no useful purpose. Most of the pieces in this game that had moved were also traded off, and the resulting board position looks ridiculously unbalanced. These early games are a huge contrast to what came later. The progression that chess took was quite fascinating.

Packing that many games with commentary into a little over 200 pages didn't leave much space for diagrams, so each game would only get 3-5, depending on the game length. That means it's best to play through the games over a chess board or with a computer program so that it's easier to follow the game with all of the variations, and there are a ton of variations in the analysis. I played through them on my iPad with Smallfish, an app that uses the top-rated Stockfish engine for evaluation. With the chess engine's assistance, it was easy to see that the authors' tactical analysis was not always correct, but it was surprisingly accurate most of the time. That's quite impressive given that using computer analysis to check variations was completely useless at the time this book was written, even though computers' tactical computation far exceeds human abilities today. That says a lot about the skill and expertise of the authors.

Every once in a while they would miss something in their analysis, such as in this game between Garry Kasparov as white and Predrag Nikolić as black:

This is an extremely complicated game with multiple layers of tactics happening in numerous positions. For instance, after black's mistake in the 15th move, multiple lines were explored with exceptional analysis. Yet, the analysis for the move 19. h4!! ascribed a brilliant move to one that could have been much better. In the game, black made a mistake in 19. ... h6, and that may have biased the authors' analysis of the previous move. On the other hand, Stockfish found this line with 19. Ne5 to be much better:

In this line white is able to methodically advance his e3 pawn and restrict black's pieces until they are in such a bind, or zugzwang, that he has to give up one of his knights with no compensation. In the resulting position, white's pieces are far more active than black's. The a8 rook is hardly in the game at all, and white's attack is still in full swing.

Near the end of the game analysis, the authors criticize Kasparov's 31st move 31. bxc5?!, but really, the move was just fine. Their alternative suggestion, 31. a4! was actually slightly worse because it allowed black to play 31. ... h5, attacking white's g4 rook. Kasparov actually did make a slight inaccuracy with 33. Rb2, and he should have played 33. Rb7 right away, but it didn't matter much by this point in the game and Kasparov closed the deal.

In reality, these alternate lines were mostly a minor thing, and only rarely did the analysis miss something dramatic. Euwe and Nunn's analysis capabilities are so far beyond mine that I wouldn't even know when they slipped up if it wasn't for the powerful computer assistance we have these days. I found their commentary clear and entertaining, and it was truly a pleasure to take this trip through the history of chess style with them as guides. If you're curious about how the game of chess has evolved over the centuries, this is a great book, and it will give you a much deeper appreciation for how the game is played and the dedication it takes to master it.

Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge

Perhaps counter-intuitively, one of the most important parts of chess to study if you want to get better, especially early on, is the ending. It may seem like learning some opening tricks, so that you can get an early advantage and coast through the game to an early mate, would help you win more games, but the reality is that most opening tricks don't give you much of an advantage. You still have to know how to finish the game without chasing the enemy king all over the board, and if you have a good understanding of the fundamental concepts for opening development and have a handle on middle game tactics, the best way to improve your game is to know how to win as many endings as possible. The more you know about the ending, the more comfortable you'll be when you get there, and you'll start seeing all kinds of mating patterns that pop up at other points of the game to gain an edge or even rack up the early wins.

Because the ending is so important, the other chess book I picked was a book on endings. I have previously read one other endings book from Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess series, Winning Chess Endings. It was an excellent introduction to endings, and the whole series is exceptionally good. Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge covers more endings and more ending concepts in less than half the space. It is concise and dense, with only five chapters in about 100 pages. It covers the fundamental mates, individual pieces against each other (like rook vs. knight), pieces vs. a pawn, piece and pawn vs. piece, and various pawn and piece endgames that actually happened in grandmaster games.

The explanations and analysis are crisp and clear, and Averbakh primarily presents a wide variety of endgame setups and then walks through the moves to get to a win or a draw, depending on the position. Sometimes alternate lines are explored to show why certain tempting moves don't work in the given position, but most explanations are kept short and to the point. With 147 positions covered, it ends up being about one and a half positions per page. This book is probably not the best first book on chess endings for a beginner, but it is a great second book. It's excellent practice to set up a difficult endgame position in a chess program, and play through it against a chess engine set to maximum strength, trying to achieve the claimed result of the position. If one could win (or draw) every position in this book with ease, they would be well on their way to mastering the endgame and be a formidable opponent across the board.

One of my favorite endgame techniques happens with a rook and pawn vs. a rook, and it's referred to as building a bridge with the rook. In this position, your king is in front of an advanced passed pawn, and you need to get your king out and free of checks before you can queen the pawn. A direct approach doesn't work, as seen here:

The white king cannot escape the rook checks, and if he gets too far away from the pawn, the rook will be able to grab it. You achieve the goal of queening the pawn by bringing your rook to the fourth rank to shield your king from checks by the opponent's rook while still keeping their king out of play. It's a wonderful maneuver that looks like this:

Once the pawn promotes, the game is as good as done because you've honed the rest of your endgame skills with the positions in this book.

For the most part, Chess Endings is free of errors, even though it was written before computer analysis. There are a few errors in the last chapter, though, where the positions are more complicated and less well studied. One that stands out is the analysis of a rook and pawn endgame between Tarrasch and Rubinstein that had been played to a draw:

At the end of this game, the last pawn was going to fall, so they agreed on a draw,. But back at the fourth move, white had a win! The key to getting a win with white is to push that outside passed a2 pawn, heeding the saying, "passed pawns must be pushed." That move creates enough trouble for black that once most of the pawns are swept off the board, white is able to get into a favorable position that looks quite similar to the building-a-bridge position. It's quite a few moves in, but it turns out to be achievable:

Of course, I figured this out with the aid of Stockfish, but I still find it quite instructive to go through these engine-generated moves and figure out why they work, in this case for white. After 4.a4, both sides spend some time attempting to get into better positions until the move 10.Rd5+ Kxc4, when the first pawn falls. Black has a nice, active king, but his rook is tied down to guarding the a4 and b2 pawns. White has a more active rook, an extra pawn, and two of his pawns are passed pawns. His king is hanging back to help out the f2 pawn, but overall, he should have the better position here.

Notice that the move 13.a5 Rxa5, grabbing that outside passed pawn, would have been a mistake for black, because white could have replied 14.Rf5+ and 15.Rxa5 with an X-ray attack on the rook. The game would have been over at that point. By 27.f6 Rxa6 the black king had to run all the way over to a7 to stop the outside passed pawn, and all of the other pawns had been gobbled up except for white's now dangerous f6 passed pawn. Black has no time to get his king back over to stop white's king from getting behind the pawn and relieving the rook of guard duty. Then the white rook is able to come out via Rf8-g8-g4, allowing the king to come out by 34.Kg7 so the pawn can be pushed some more. One last check of the black king with 36.Re4+ pushes him away from the pawn, and the pawn queens.

This may not have been the only way for white to win, but it is pretty straightforward and illuminating, as was this endgame in general. All of the endings in this book were excellent, and I learned a ton by going through them. I'll continue to learn as I practice these positions against the computer, as this short book has much more to teach. I would highly recommend it for getting to the next level of endgame understanding.

Two Very Different Chess Books

Even though these two chess books cover entirely different topics, it's good to compare them. The Development of Chess Style shows a wide variety of endings, since nearly all of the games presented are clearly won by one side or the other, with numerous mating patterns shown throughout the games. It was also an excellent way to learn some of the history of chess by reviewing some great games of the chess masters including Philidor, Anderssen, Morphy, Steinitz, Capablanca, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, and many more. Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge gave a great set of lessons covering all of the fundamental endings, and then some, in a compact book that's easy to reread, yet will take some time to fully master. I can easily recommend both for the advanced beginner chess player, and I would imagine even expert and master players would get a lot out of them.

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