Friday, 13 September 2013

Chess Reviews: 222

Move by Move
By Cyrus Lakdawala
400 pages
I may have written a lot of articles this week, but I don't think I could ever match the extraordinary literary output of Cyrus Lakdawala.  He is the undisputed master of Everyman's popular Move by Move series and his latest volume somehow appears, as if by magic, just as soon as I have reviewed his previous one.

This time it's Mikhail Botvinnik's turn under the microscope. Indeed, with the ongoing Moravian series on the sixth World Champion's complete games and selected writings, plus the forthcoming Soltis biography due from MacFarland ''Spring/Summer'' next year, Botvinnik's popularity is on the rise once again.

Lakdawala sticks to the format he used in his books on Capablanca and Kramnik, breaking Botvinnik's most instructive games into chunks categorised under the following headings:
  • Botvinnik on the Attack
  • Botvinnik on Defence
  • Riding the Dynamic Element
  • Botvinnik on Exploiting Imbalances
  • Botvinnik on Accumulating Advantages
  • Botvinnik on Endings
There's a very short piece covering the basic Botvinnik biography before we launch into the first of many illustrative games, this one featuring an early trademark - the Stonewall Dutch (against Rabinovich back in 1927). The author's flowery prose blooms early on in this volume. In answer to his question, ''Is the Stonewall a sound line for Black?'' he says: ''I don't care for it as Black, but there is no accounting for personal taste. My wife Nancy squeals in joy and claps her hands in delight at the thought of a trip to Disneyland, while I view the same trip as a wilful descent into vulgar commercialism. Instead, 6 ...d6 would be a Classical Dutch.''

Most of us would have stopped after ''...personal taste''. There's a lot more evidence of such overwriting as we progress through the book. For example, in the latter stages of another game, as Botvinnik moves in for the kill against Garcia's king, there is talk of public hangings providing family entertainment.

Garcia vs. Botvinnik
Botvinnik plays 35 ...Bc3! and the hanging imagery is given a stay of execution:

''The king drops from the gibbet, his legs kicking as he sways. Within the witnessing crowd, his conniving bishop and queen, brother and sister, whisper: 'Let us never utter his vile name again' .'' (The game concluded 36 Rxf8+ Kxf8 0-1.)

It's a pity the prose is consistently overcooked like this because when the notes are kept simple they are genuinely pertinent and instructive. I don't like the abbreviated versions of names either, such as ''Capa'' for Capablanca, which I think lacks respect or, for that matter, the abbreviation of other words, like ''sac'' for sacrifice. It is indicative of the world's penchant for dumbing everything down.

Stylistic concerns apart, this is a very interesting book. The classic games are all there: the two-piece sacrificial denouement vs. Capablanca (AVRO 1938); the exchange sacrifice vs. Portisch (Monte Carlo, 1968); the miracle save in rook ending vs. Fischer (Varna Olympiad, 1962)...indeed, Botvinnik aficionados could indulge in a game of ''Botvinnik Bingo'' and call ''House'' without much trouble. Yet there are lesser-known games in the mix too, such as a game from a 1961 training match against Furman.

There's some great analysis; there is no doubt the author has worked on the illustrative games. Here's a sample.

Petrosian vs. Botvinnik
Game 1, World Championship, 1963
Botvinnik played 21 ...Ng7?! when 21 ...Ng5!! was a much better option, leading a wonderful - and decisive - sacrificial attack. The analysis can be found in the book, but I'll add another diagram to show a possible finish.

Petrosian vs. Botvinnik
''It was difficult to perceive that, despite his two pieces up, White is helpless and doesn't have a single satisfactory move'' - Botvinnik. Indeed, Black wins after ''27 Rac1 R8e4! 28 Rcd1 Rg4! with mate in two moves.''

There is the occasional slip in the historical detail. Recounting the tale of Smyslov's astonishing resurgence, which took him to the final of the Candidates series against Kasparov in 1984, the preceding matches are inverted; Smyslov was successful first against Hubner and only then against Ribli. Additionally, it was a spin of a roulette wheel that broke the deadlock against Hubner and not ''a lucky coin toss''. (Incidentally, the roulette wheel had to be spun twice; the first time it landed on ''0'' and only on the second spin did it land on red, to grant Smyslov passage to the semi-final against Ribli.)

Readers who have somehow managed to neglect a careful study of Botvinnik's games will have their eyes well and truly opened by the quality of the classic encounters in this book. It's a book I enjoyed reading (despite my criticisms) and I'm now looking forward to the forthcoming volume on the games of Viktor Korchnoi.

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