Grandmaster Chess and topical essays

11/25/2005 – Chess books are often edifying and instructive, but more often they are franky boring. Here is one that breaks with the tradition. John Nunn's latest work looks back at a remarkable career of exciting chess, and then takes on some controversial subjects: the FIDE time limit, knockout world championships and drug-testing in chess. Highly recommended.

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The Doctor Writes

John Nunn is well known to our readers, since he regularly contributes commentary on the chess world and offers thought-provoking pieces such as ‘How to Talk to Aliens’ (nothing to do with offering draws to chess players, by the way). In 2003 he retired from international chess, and since then he has been busy producing some of the best chess books in the world at Gambit Publications. He is also involved with chess problem-solving and became world champion in 2004.

Despite all these other activities John has still managed to find some time for writing, and we are now able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. The autobiographical Grandmaster Chess Move by Move (Gambit, 2005) completes the coverage of his international over-the-board career, which was started in Secrets of Grandmaster Chess (Batsford, 1997) and John Nunn’s Best Games (Batsford, 1995).

The book begins with an introduction in which Nunn attacks shoddy game annotation, including the well-known ‘annotation by result’. He might well have added something here on that recent phenomenon, ‘annotation by computer’, in which megahertz are substituted for genuine chess knowledge and explanation.

The bulk of the book consists of 46 games and game fragments covering the period 1993-2003. Perhaps there are not so many top-class opponents here as in previous Nunn volumes, but nevertheless victims include Bologan (twice), Shirov, Piket, Hodgson, Adams, Krasenkow and business partner Chandler. The style of annotation is familiar from other Nunn books – rigorously objective, with a good deal of general explanation, but also with forays into quite deep concrete analysis. Rather amusingly, at several points he touches on the difficulties faced by ‘older’ players who have family and business responsibilities and therefore have limited time to study chess. Perhaps this lack of time is unfamiliar to many professional players, but we suspect that it is all too familiar to the rest of us.

Nunn’s playing style has evidently become somewhat less sharp than in former years, especially as regards his choice of openings. But despite this the book includes several games in which GM opponents are floored by a vicious early attack. Here is an example, taken from the book, with the kind permission of Gambit Publications. We have converted the game for Javascript replay, so you can follow the moves in a separate window while reading the text.

J. Nunn – N. Miezis
French League 1999, Sicilian Defence, 2 Nf3 e6 3 c3

1 e4 c5
2 Nf3 e6
3 c3

Miezis is an expert on the Kan System (3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 a6) and has achieved excellent practical results with it, so I decided to shift the battleground to something which I hoped he would be less familiar with. Unfortunately, I was also unfamiliar with it since I had never played the 3 c3 d5 4 e5 system before in my life. However, I preferred to fight on territory which was unknown to both of us rather than on my opponent’s home ground.

3 ... d5

3...Nf6 4 e5 Nd5 is of course also playable, transposing into a position normally reached via 2 c3 Nf6 3 e5 Nd5 4 Nf3 e6. However, I had noticed that Miezis invariably meets 2 c3 by 2...d5, so it seemed unlikely that he would go in for this line.

4 e5

For 4 exd5 see Game 28.

4 ... d4

If Black plays 4...Nc6, White will reply 5 d4 transposing into the Advance Variation of the French (normally reached after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3). However, many Sicilian players dislike this option, which leads to a type of position unfamiliar to them. The text-move is therefore a popular choice, cutting out d4 by White.

The position after 4...d4 is strategically quite interesting. The d4-pawn exerts a cramping influence on White’s queenside and the fundamental question is whether White can solve the problem of developing his queenside pieces. Black has fewer development problems, but in the long run White’s e5-pawn could form the basis of an attack by White if Black castles kingside.

5 Bd3

This move may appear rather odd, because blocking the d3-pawn is not going to help White get his dark-squared bishop into play. The trouble is that White is more or less forced to block in one bishop or the other, since releasing the c1-bishop by d3 only obstructs the other bishop. Therefore, White aims to castle quickly, which at least gives him the chance to support his e5-pawn by Re1 and, if necessary, Qe2. 5 cxd4 cxd4 6 Qa4+ Nc6 7 Bb5 Bd7 is wrong as White cannot now win a pawn (8 Bxc6 Bxc6 9 Qxd4 Qxd4 10 Nxd4 Bxg2 is obviously good for Black), while otherwise White’s queen and bishop are exposed to attack.

5 ... Nc6

The most natural move. Note that Black should never play ...dxc3, because after the reply dxc3 White can easily develop his queenside pieces, and then the cramping e5-pawn gives him the advantage.

6 0-0 g5!?

6...Nge7 is the most common continuation, when White replies either 7 Re1 or 7 Be4.

The text-move was unexpected and I was now on my own. Black’s plan is rather clear: he simply intends to win the e5-pawn with a combination of ...g4 and ...Bg7. White cannot even reply 7 Re1?, because then 7...g4 traps the knight. At first I was at a loss as to how to proceed, but then I saw that by sacrificing the e5-pawn White could obtain a dangerous initiative.

7 Be4

Essentially the only move. White threatens to take on c6, not only relieving the pressure against e5 but also seriously damaging Black’s queenside pawn-structure.

7 ... Bd7

7...g4 8 Bxc6+ bxc6 9 Ne1 h5 10 d3 is slightly better for White, as there are tempting squares for the b1-knight at c4 and e4, while White can support his e5-pawn by playing f4. Therefore Black decides to spend a tempo countering the threat of Bxc6+.

8 d3

Opening the line of the c1-bishop so that the f3-knight can jump to the active square g5.

8 ... g4
9 Ng5!

This position has arisen four times in practice, with White winning all four games. Two of these encounters occurred before the present game, but I only became aware of this when I checked my database after the game. 9 Bxc6 Bxc6 10 Ng5 avoids losing a pawn, but after 10...Qd5 11 Qxg4 Qxe5 the position is starting to open up, and this favours the side with the two bishops.

9 ... Nxe5

9...h6 is also possible:

1) 10 Nh7 Bg7 (10...Nxe5 11 Nxf8 Kxf8 12 Re1 Qf6 13 Bxb7 Rb8 14 Be4 and White regains the sacrificed pawn with a clear advantage in view of Black’s misplaced king and weakened dark squares) 11 Qxg4 Bxe5 12 f4 Bf6 13 Bd2 Qe7 14 Na3 0-0-0 with a very sharp and unclear position.

2) 10 Nxf7!? Kxf7 11 Qxg4 is a positional piece sacrifice. Currently White has just two pawns for the piece, but he has long-term attacking chances because the black king lacks a safe spot. After 11...Nge7 (11...Nxe5? loses to 12 Qh5+ Kf6 13 Bf4) 12 Na3 h5 13 Qf3+ Nf5 14 Bf4 Rc8 15 Rae1 White had sufficient compensation in Sanduleac-Rajkovic, Pancevo 2002, a game which White eventually won.

Accepting the pawn is double-edged, since Black’s early g-pawn advance has left him with several weaknesses, especially along the f-file.

10 f4

This allows the f1-rook to join in the attack from its original square.

10... Ng6

Black has various alternatives, but in every case White either regains the pawn or secures a dangerous initiative:

1) 10...h6 11 fxe5 hxg5 12 Qxg4 Be7 was played in Tempone-Spangenberg, Buenos Aires 1992 and now 13 Bxb7 Rb8 14 Be4 Qc7 15 Qg3 Nh6 16 Na3 would have been very good for White.

2) 10...Nc6 11 f5! exf5 and now:

2a) 12 Bd5 Nh6 13 Qb3 with another branch:

2a1) 13...Qe7 14 Bf4! (14 Qxb7 Rb8 15 Qc7 Qe5 is unclear) 14...0-0-0 15 Na3 with a strong initiative in return for the two pawns.

2a2) 13...Qf6 14 Re1+ Be7 15 Qxb7 Rb8 16 Qc7 Rc8 17 Qg3 0-0 18 Bf4 gives White fair compensation for the pawn, but he may not have any advantage.

2b) 12 Bxf5 (this simple continuation is best) 12...Bxf5 13 Rxf5 Nf6 and now:

2b1) 14 Nxf7? (a tempting but unsound sacrifice) 14...Kxf7 15 Qb3+ Ke8 (15...c4? 16 Qxc4+ Ke8 17 Bg5 Be7 18 Nd2 gives White a very dangerous attack) 16 Qxb7 Qd7! 17 Qxa8+ Kf7 and White will lose his queen.

2b2) 14 Nd2! Bg7 15 Nde4 dxc3 16 bxc3 and Black is in difficulties:

2b21) 16...h6 17 Nxf6+ Bxf6 18 Ne4 Bd4+ (18...Bxc3? loses to 19 Nxc3 Qd4+ 20 Kh1 Qxc3 21 Qe2+ followed by Bb2) 19 Kh1 Ne7 20 Rh5 Bg7 21 Bf4 with a large advantage for White.

2b22) 16...Nxe4 17 Nxe4 0-0 18 Qxg4 Kh8 19 Qh3, threatening 20 Rh5, with an enormous attack.

3) 10...gxf3 11 Nxf3 Ng4 (11...Nc6? 12 Ng5 Nh6 13 Qh5 Qe7 14 Nh3 is winning for White, while 11...Ng6 12 Bxb7 Rb8 13 Ba6 gives White some advantage) 12 h3 N4f6 13 Bxb7 Rb8 14 Ba6 Bd6 15 Nbd2 is better for White. It is very risky for Black to accept the pawn by 15...dxc3 16 bxc3 Qa5 17 Bc4 Qxc3, since 18 Nb3 followed by Rb1 and Bb2 gives White a dangerous attack.

11 f5

Opening up lines and taking aim at the weak f7-square.

11... exf5
12 Bxf5

12 Qb3 Nh6 13 Bd5 looks dangerous, but after 13...Qe7 14 Qxb7 Rd8 15 Bd2 Bg7 there is nothing clear for White.

12... Bxf5

Or 12...Ne5 13 Qb3 (threatening both 14 Re1 and the neat 14 Nxf7 Nxf7 15 Bg6!) 13...Nh6 14 Be4 (stronger than 14 Bxd7+ Qxd7 15 Ne4 0-0-0 16 Bg5 Nxd3, which isn’t totally clear) 14...Qb6 (after 14...Bg7 15 Qxb7 Rc8 16 Qxa7 White is a pawn up) 15 Bxb7 Rd8 16 Re1 Bg7 17 Bf4 f6 18 Bd5 with very unpleasant pressure for White.

13 Rxf5

 

13... Nh6?

Up to here, Black has not made a significant error, but this natural move turns out to be a serious mistake. Black hopes to force the rook back and thereby gain time to develop his pieces, but after White’s reply this scheme collapses and it turns out that Black has fatally weakened the f6-square. Alternatives:

1) 13...Nf6 14 Nd2 (simple development is best) 14...dxc3 15 Qb3! (15 bxc3 Bg7 16 Nde4 0-0 is fine for Black) 15...Qd7 16 Rxf6 cxd2 17 Bxd2 gives White a strong attack.

2) 13...Qd7! is the right way to attack the rook and keeps White’s advantage to a minimum:

2a) 14 Qe2+?! N8e7 (not 14...Qe7 15 Ne4 Qe6 16 Bg5 Be7 17 Nbd2 0-0-0 18 Bxe7 N8xe7 19 Rf6 Qd5 20 Qxg4+ Kb8 21 c4 with a massive advantage for White) 15 Rxf7 h6 (not 15...Bh6 16 Ne4 Kxf7 17 Bxh6 Nf5 18 Qxg4 with excellent compensation for White) 16 Rf6 hxg5 17 Rxg6 g3 gives Black the initiative.

2b) 14 Rf1 f6 15 Qe2+ Be7 16 Ne6 Kf7 leads to a likely draw after 17 Ng5+.

2c) 14 Rxf7! Be7 15 Rf1 (15 Qb3 Nf6 is unclear) 15...h6 16 Ne4 0-0-0 17 c4 gives White an excellent knight on e4, but he has still to complete his queenside development. On balance, I think White should be slightly better here.

14 Ne4!

 

For a moment my opponent looked stunned as I played this move, so I suppose it was a complete surprise for him. White clears the g5-square for Bg5, while at the same time the f6-square beckons to the knight. The crucial point is that taking the rook by 14...Nxf5 costs Black his queen after 15 Qa4+ Ke7 (or 15...Qd7 16 Nf6+) 16 Bg5+.

14... Bg7

There is nothing else. It is unusual for a player to be able to launch such a vicious attack with most of his pieces still on their original squares.

15 Bg5 Ne7

This move surprisingly costs Black a piece, but the position was lost in any case; for example, 15...Qb6 16 Nf6+ Bxf6 17 Rxf6 Qxb2 18 Nd2 and the threats of Nc4, Rb1, Qa4+ and Bxh6 are too much, or 15...dxc3 16 bxc3 Qc7 17 Rxc5 Qb6 18 Qa4+ Kf8 19 Nbd2 followed by Nc4 and Black’s position is a total wreck.

16 Rf6!

 

Threatening to take on h6, or to play 17 Nd6+.

16... dxc3

16...Bxf6 17 Nxf6+ Kf8 18 Bxh6# is a nice mate.

17 bxc3 Qd5
18 Rd6 Qf5
19 Bxh6

White cashes in his attack to win a piece.

19... Bxh6
20 Rxh6 0-0-0

Setting a neat trap.

21 Nbd2

Now that White has avoided 21 Nd6+?? Rxd6 22 Rxd6 Qf4 trapping the rook, Black could well resign, but he limps on for several moves.

21... Ng6

If 21...Rxd3, then 22 Nd6+.

22 Qb3 Qd5
23 Qxd5 Rxd5
24 Rf1 Rf8
25 Rxh7 f5
26 Rh5 Kc7
27 Nc4 Ne7
28 Rh7 Kd7
29 Ne3 1-0

After the section on games, Nunn devotes two chapters to his chess compositions, one dealing with studies and the other with problems. The study chapter is quite entertaining and some over-the-board players may even enjoy the problem chapter, as many of these problems are of a puzzle type rather than the complex works produced by ‘professional’ problem composers. You should be warned that you are expected to tackle some helpmates in this chapter, although veterans of our Christmas puzzle competitions shouldn’t have any trouble here.

The final two chapters are essays called ‘The State of the Chess World’ and ‘Chess Publishing and the Batsford Story’. These are in some ways the most interesting and possibly controversial part of the book, even though there is no chess content. In the first chapter, Nunn launches an attack on chess administration, both nationally and internationally. He particularly criticises FIDE for three things: the so-called FIDE time-limit (which gives each player 30 seconds per move from move 40 onwards), the knock-out world championship and drug-testing. This section was evidently written just before the San Luis world championship, so some specific points have been slightly overtaken by recent developments. On the question of time-limits, Nunn at least sees eye-to-eye with Nigel Short, who recently expressed a view that rapid time-limits are damaging chess. The following two paragraphs give some idea of Nunn’s views on drug-testing:

With the third blunder by FIDE, we move from the unfortunate to the absurd. I am referring to the matter of drug-testing. Physical sports face the problem that there are many drugs which can improve performance, and quite apart from being unfair, the use of such drugs can have a negative long-term impact on a person’s health. Therefore most physical sports have a list of banned substances and a testing program, although the details may differ from sport to sport.

In the late 1990s, FIDE introduced a drug-testing program for chess, despite the fact that no drug has ever been shown to improve performance at chess. Moreover, the list of banned substances was taken from a list for physical sports. Perhaps larger muscles might enable a player to bang the pieces down more firmly, but there is no reason why such drugs should improve mental performance. FIDE’s rules for drug-testing have changed with considerable frequency; the current rules are buried in a rather obscure part of the FIDE website.

Given the number of mix-ups which occur in other sports over drug-testing, even in sports where professional advice is available, one can only feel for the itinerant grandmaster, scraping a living by going from one tournament to another, and now expected to be an expert on pharmacology as well. At one time, FIDE’s rules involved the imposition of fines of up to a quarter of a million dollars for a failed test and up to a million dollars for refusing to take a test. That’s FIDE’s vision for chess: a quarter of a million dollars for taking a cold remedy which can’t possibly improve your play. One would have thought that national federations would have had a duty to protect their players from such blatantly unjust regulations, but in fact most of the leading federations were amazingly quiet on the subject.

Fortunately, FIDE have now backed away from financial penalties, preferring instead to impose various periods of disqualification (up to a lifetime ban) for different offences. While this might be an improvement over the earlier rules, the prospect of a lifetime ban is serious enough for a professional player. Am I alone in thinking that all sense of proportion has been lost in this matter? In other professions you have to do something really serious before you are disqualified from practising; why should chess-players be disqualified for using a cold cure? Large sums of money are very rarely at stake in chess, and most grandmasters are not followed by hosts of young, adoring fans who might be tempted to indulge in cold cures if their heroes are caught in the act of so doing.

Nunn’s view are patently sane: it is true that there seems a huge discrepancy between the sort of offence required to lose your livelihood amongst, say, lawyers or doctors (e.g. running off with your clients’ money or being fatally incompetent respectively), and that amongst chess-players (taking a cold cure which happens to include one of a long list of banned substances).

The second essay on chess publishing takes the lid off many aspects of this industry. It especially focuses on how Batsford, the world’s best-known chess publisher, went bust in 1999. The assets of the company were bought by media group Chrysalis, who still use the Batsford name, but this transfer left Batsford’s chess authors owed tens of thousands of pounds of royalties which were never paid. The Batsford bankruptcy did not seem to have attracted the attention one might have expected and, indeed, many people do not seem to be aware of the change of ownership.

This is an interesting and very worthwhile book. The well-annotated games provide instructive chess content, and the essays are thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Frederic Friedel


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