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An Exceptional Chess Book
The Road to Chess Improvement; Alex Yermolinsky; 224 pages; Gambit, 1999
With so many new books appearing, it will probably be some time before I devote another TWIC review to just one work. But Alex Yermolinsky's 'The Road to Chess Improvement' deserves to be considered on its own. These are great times for chess books, and even fairly straightforward compilations of opening and endgame theory are much more thoughtful and accurate than their equivalents of 20 years ago. But we are also seeing some remarkable writing by active grandmasters, players who until recently mostly seemed to shy away from writing, and who, when they did write, revealed little about themselves or their ideas. Yermolinsky, a U.S. Champion and 2600+ grandmaster, has not only opened his chess notebooks to one and all, but has given us fresh and insightful ideas about nearly every aspect of practical play. He is refreshingly frank, and doesn't shy away from presenting his own failings and frustrations. In my years of reviewing, I have never been tempted to make a dramatic 'book of the year' pronouncement, but I can't imagine anyone else topping this effort in the near future.
Of course, one could find some ulterior motivation for that assessment : Yermolinsky (henceforth 'Yermo', as he is habitually called) writes for the company I am working with (Gambit), and in 'The Road to Chess Improvement', he makes a number of very favourable comments about my own book from last year. But I should say that, when I first heard about this title, I was actually quite skeptical. My main experience with Yermolinsky's writing came from magazines such as New in Chess and Chess Life, and from his website 'Yermo's Chess Diary' (quite a hoot, really; see http://www.concentric.net/%7Eyermo/diary.shtml). In articles from those sources, his style has been extreme, comic, and controversial, which can be either delightful or off-putting; and I have sometimes been disappointed with what seem to me superficial annotations of games he does write notes for. Mind you, this is a man who has 3.5-.5 score against me over-the-board, with a clean 4-0 in understanding (as evidenced by his brilliant post-mortem analysis). So I've always felt that, while his writing was compelling enough in the sense of grabbing one's interest, the profundity of the player himself was being lost in the glitz. Would such a style translate to a worthwhile book?
Fortunately, we don't get to find out. For one thing, the core of the book is, effectively, a thoroughly-annotated collection of Yermolinsky's own games (93 of them, including fragments, with 9 by other players). And what wonderful annotations he gives us: full of self-criticism, penetrating remarks about what happens both practically and psychologically at critical points of each game, and practical advice about how to approach a tremendous variety of positions. Furthermore (and most importantly, from my point of view), his notes relentlessly and accurately pursue the truth of the game under investigation, even if that means detouring into some lengthy analytical details which Yermo knows that many a reader will skip. The interesting thing is that, unlike Hübner or Speelman, Yermo limits these excursions to fundamentally critical positions, leaving himself plenty of space to address an enormous number of other issues (and it's worth noting that these are oversized pages, so the book's 224 pages are the equivalent of at least 300 conventional pages). Thus it is that Yermo's pedagogic and philosophic ideas (discussed next) are backed up by numerous concretely-analysed examples.
At this point, I'm in trouble. I have roughly every third page of this book earmarked to denote interesting comments and original ideas; they just permeate this book! Rather than try to describe the work as a whole, therefore, let me just cite some illuminating remarks and thoughts. Regarding his philosophy of the book, Yermo says: "The idea is to teach by example, rather than offer ready-to-consume recipes. Who knows, maybe chess should be observed, just like a language should be spoken around you, in order to be understood and transformed into a skill. I'll select a few examples on each area-knowledge, tactics, ability, and intuition-that serve as illustrations of how such work of improvement can be done." The first and foremost requirement for improvement is nothing new--"Study your games"--but unlike other authors, he has detailed ideas of how to do it. Yermo is repeatedly critical of the books and videos which offer simple systems 'to play and win', or which promise to reveal 'the secrets of the Soviet School of Chess'. The first few chapters are concerned with practical matters such as dealing with one's emotions, putting up maximum resistance, and knowing your opponent (he even offers useful guesses about what to do based solely upon the relative ratings of the opponents). "The whole idea is to outline some options a chess-player may use during a practical game, regardless of their absolute value."
When he gets to openings and early middlegames, Yermo gives us wonderful tutorials in a number of sidelines to major openings, e.g., 11.h3 in the main line of the Queen's Gambit Exchange Variation and 4.Nf3 g6 5.cxb5 a6 6.Qc2 in the Benko Gambit. He points out how simple the Benko is for Black to play in a stereotyped manner, and I have personally seen how successful he is after posing just about any kind of new problem for the Benko player, who likes to make 12-14 moves without thinking. Regarding the Modern Defence (1 g6), he is again skeptical of books and videos which promise Black an easy time, asking "Have you ever wondered why there is so much less theory there than in the Sicilian? Maybe because White's task of obtaining an opening advantage is achieved relatively free of problems?" He also points out that 1.d4 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.c4 (intending 3 c5 4.d5) involves Black in a lot more mainstream theory (or inferior lines) than the purveyors of this 'easy' system admit. The Grand Prix Attack is subject to 12 pages of harsh treatment, and linked with the Colle and Trompovsky as systems which are advertised to players as " 'secret' openings that would allow them to handle the resulting positions with ease, operating with 'ideas' ands 'schemes' instead of memorizing variations and calculating tactics." At Yermolinsky's Chess Academy in Cleveland, he says, "we do not practice a 'quick fix approach' that is popularized by many teaching GMs", and students are urged to avoid "primitive set-ups designed to avoid theory." He explains that when he began to teach, "Like many amateur teachers, I was tempted to cut down by offering 'simpler' opening systems. But soon I realised that to teach chess off the top of my head is not reliable. In fact, it's no more than an illusion, and practising it borders on plain old cheating." That may sound harsh, but I wish that the many highly-paid chess teachers around the U.S. who put so little effort into their work would listen and respond accordingly.
I want to note some cases in which Yermo gets into the nature of modern chess strategy and thus touches upon the areas I set out in my own book. At various points, for example, Yermo shows positions which contradict traditional wisdom such as 'counter an early flank attack with a pawn counterblow in the centre', or "don't play on the side of the board where the opponent has an advantage" (he says that those who made up this rule probably knew better themselves!). "The whole idea", he says, "is to reject any postulates in principle, only to be replaced by concrete analysis", a sentiment he echoes elsewhere in the book. "It's easy to deal with beginners", he says, who can be told to " 'develop pieces as fast as possible', 'try to capture space with the center pawns', 'don't move the same piece twice', and so on. Fair enough, but I don't think it works beyond the beginner's level." I agree.
Regarding reversed openings, Yermo quotes Dutch Defence expert Malaniuk regarding 1.f4 for White: "That move's gonna' hurt me!" A succinct version of what I say in my book! I was also very interested in Yermo's discovery that the styles of Botvinnik and Tal during their two matches differed by a lot less than they were advertised to by chess journalists, and in much subtler ways. This is an original observation; I didn't touch upon the subject in my book, but I considered making a similar point about characterizations of 'style' in general, e.g., pointing out the exceptional tactical eyes of 'positional' players like Petrosian and Karpov.
Yermo criticizes the classic books as 'misleading', telling his students: "Take Yermo's word for it, set those books aside and start working on your own." As for books since WWII, he says "guess what, a lot of them just repeat each other. Same boring lists of positional elements, same 'tactics serve strategy' and 'attack only when prepared' hollow advice, same carefully selected games which are nothing but one-way beatings delivered by chess heavyweights to the tomato cans of amateur ranks." By contrast, Yermo offers complex, double-edged examples, and when one side makes an original exchange to get positional concessions, he says, refreshingly, that in the resulting position, "there was simply no way to tell who would prevail by simply referring to one dominant positional factor, such as with most 'positional games' shown in classical books the outcome of the game was not decided by Black's brilliant recognition of a positional pattern. On the contrary, it strictly depended upon the accuracy of his calculation of the 'post-positional' tactics." A neat turn of phrase! I guess Karpov's 'post-positional tactics' would rank pretty high on the scale. Another gem: "The good old self-comforting thought, 'I did everything right positionally, so the tactics favour me' doesn't always ring true. Believe me, I know. I used to say this every time but not any more we should learn to accept the fact that the combinational style has the same right to exist as the positional approach." A simple and eloquent statement that cuts right through our ongoing obsession with 'tactics serving strategy'.
Well, there's so much more, including Yermolinsky's personal experiences with Soviet training and his gradual advance into the world's 2600+ elite. In conclusion, 'The Road to Chess Improvement' is an honest and sincere book, as well as an top-notch read. I should mention that it is primarily aimed at advanced players, but it could not fail to help those above 1600. For anyone looking to improve and to understand the modern game in a fresh way, I believe that this is one of the most exciting and provocative works to appear in years.