The Definition of Insanity
Review by Michael McGuerty
Carlsen: Move by Move, Cyrus Lakdawala, Everyman Chess 2014, Paperback, Figurine Algebraic Notation, 430pp. $29.95 (ChessCafe Price $25.57)
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, an expression that is often attributed to Albert Einstein and sometimes even Ben Franklin, but was probably never said by either. In my case it is reviewing a book by Cyrus Lakdawala and hoping for less colorful bombast and more sensible prose. I love the Move by Move game collection books, but Lakdawala is my least favorite among the authors; though he is the most prolific.
Quite incredibly, this is Lakdawla’s fifteenth book in the MBM series. He must write one per month! Lakdawala is an international master, who has been teaching chess for more than thirty years, and who has won the National Open and American Open among other tournaments. In Carlsen: Move by Move he presents fifty-three deeply annotated games, each designed to replicate a chess lesson between a teacher and a student, complete with questions and exercises to test your skills.
First let’s get some of the bombast out of the way. It is easy to find, just turn to nearly any page:
From Game 53, Bologan-Carlsen, Biel 2012, where the following position is reached upon 33…b3!:
“The bishop, who regards himself as a great healer, ‘lays hands’ on the sick and infirm – an act which fails to heal and tends to make his own afflictions grow worse. To some players, to think and to act is synonymous. Your unfortunate writer fits into the opposite category of the player who thinks an awful lot, but rarely progress to step two.”
What does that first sentence even mean in the context of the position? I would prefer the author not waste my time with irrelevancies. Though certainly some do proclaim this style as “charming.” However, such inanities are often followed by reasonable explanations about what is happening in the position.
Here’s an example:
From Game 9, Carlsen-Nakamura, Monaco (rapid) 2011, where the following position is reached upon 26…Bc6:
Exercise (planning): On the surface, Black’s position doesn’t appear as a frayed old rope, on the verge of unravelling. Carlsen picked up four pawns for the piece. On Black’s side of the ledger, Nakamura’s king looks safe and it appears as if he may be generating threats on Carlsen’s king. Come up with a plan for White to seize the initiative for good.
Answer: Sacrifice the exchange, eliminating Black’s only active piece. Black’s extra rook won’t save his eternally exposed king.
When an attack begins to run out of material to invest, we feel like strung out heroin addicts, who lack further means to enter our private, drug-induced oblivion. Carlsen, now virtually in the endgame stage, amazingly continues to sacrifice, never running out of his drug of choice.
27…bxc6 28 Qe4!
Nakamura defends accurately, while under tremendous pressure, avoiding:
a) 28…Rc8? hangs a rook to 29 Rg5! Rg7 30 Qxh7! Rxh7 31 Rg8+ Ke7 32 Rxc8, which regains the lost rook, with a completely winning rook and pawn ending.
b) 28…Ke7 29 Qb4+ Kf6 30 Qd4 Qa7 31 Qc3 Qe7 32 Re2+! (the e3-square must be kept open for White’s queen) 32…Kg5 33 Qe3+ Kh5 34 g4+ Kh4 (34…Rxg4+ 35 hxg4+ Kxg4 36 f3+! forces mate) 35 Qf4! Qf6.
Exercise (combination alert): It’s White to play and force mate.
Answer: Overloaded defenders. Black has no good answer to the dual mate threats on h5 and g3 after 36 Re5!!
The main content is divided as follows:
- Carlsen on the Attack
- Carlsen on Defence and Counterattack
- Carlsen on the Dynamic Element
- Carlsen on Exploiting Imbalances
- Carlsen on Accumulating Advantages
- Carlsen on Endgames
- Index of Openings
- Index of Complete Games
In the introduction, Lakdawala places Carlsen in league with three other players who possessed “near-omniscient intuition”: Morphy, Capablanca, and Fischer. He further categorizes chess players into two types:
1. The player who relies on logic (Alekhine, Euwe, Botvinnik, Petrosian, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand).
2. The player who relies on faith (Morphy, Capablanca, Smyslov, Tal, Fischer, Karpov).
And he notes that Carlsen “clearly fits into category 2.” Yet, I would have liked a deeper explanation to what he means by “faith.” It also seems a bit odd to have Petrosian and Kasparov linked in the same category, opposite Tal and Karpov in the other.
In the chapter “Carlsen on the Attack,” Lakdawala presents nine games spanning the years 2002 to 2013, including some rapid and blindfold games, against opponents such as Aronian, Kamsky, Nakamura (two games), and Radjabov among others. It also includes a young Carlsen playing speculatively in the Two Knights with a risky knight sacrifice upon 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.a3 g6 5.Nxe5 and yet having a winning position by move nine.
Lakdawala calls Carlsen “the undisputed number one endgame player in the world.” In the endgame chapter he presents games that were balanced or “close to even” and demonstrates how Carlsen “impossibly wins drawn games against the world’s best players.” With opponents such as Anand, Aronian, Agdestein, Bologan, Caruana, Gelfand, Kramnik, Naiditsch, Radjabov, and van Wely.
Lakdawala’s prose often reads like the transcript from the commentary of a live game, where the commentator has to fill gaps between moves with banter. But to have this in a printed book is another matter altogether. If I am going to take the time to read a chess book or otherwise study a game, I want the author to be more of an instructor and less of an entertainer. If this were a DVD, then Lakdawala’s style of presentation might fit the medium to a greater degree. Nevertheless, there are those who disagree, and Lakdawala has certainly written enough books for the prospective reader to know where they belong on that spectrum.
One of the surest ways to improve is to study well annotated games of the great players. Carlsen: Move by Move provides the opportunity to do just that, with Lakdawala doing his best to keep things fun and entertaining along the way.
My assessment of this book:
Order Carlsen: Move by Move
by Cyrus Lakdawala
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