High-level instruction...

8/17/2005 – In the new ChessBase Workshop, we preview two "high-level instruction" disks. The first is the Chess Media System DVD "How to Play the Najdorf, Vol. 1", latest in the "Mr. Kasparov" series, the second is Alexander Bangiev's CD "Squares Strategy 2: The Opening". More...

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Previewed by Steve Lopez

Two columns ago we looked at a couple of new ChessBase disks suitable for beginners; this time around we'll look at two which are better suited to more advanced players.

The first of these is the latest entry in the Mr. Kasparov series of DVDs: How to Play the Najdorf Vol. 1. It should be obvious from the title that your instructor on this DVD is none other than Garry Kasparov himself. This is the first in a planned series of Chess Media System instructional disks on the Najdorf Sicilian.

The DVD contains a series of videos in which Kasparov discusses the ins and outs of the Najdorf (pronounced "NY-dorf" and named for the legendary Miguel Najdorf who pioneered this highly unusual Black variation of the Sicilian Defense): 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Bg5 a6 (or the shorter 5.Nc3 a6; either way Black's ...a6 is the defining move).

The Najdorf is considered a risky choice for Black, but as Kasparov says on this DVD, "High risk often means high rewards" (or as we Yanks say, "No guts, no glory"). It's a highly tactical opening offering Black the "great chance to start [a] big fire in the opening" (again quoting Kasparov).

So why would you want to play the Najdorf? That really depends on your preferences as a player. Despite the vast amount of "book theory" that you'll find in various encyclopedic opening compendiums, there's plenty of room for improvisation and creativity in the Najdorf. It's not a highly theoretical opening in which you need to be booked to the gills out to move thirty (as is the case with some other opening systems and variations); at any moment either player can easily veer off into uncharted territory. This makes the Najdorf especially attractive to tacticians who hate "book work" and home preparation.

In playing the Najdorf a player can get by with knowing the general principles: the goals for both players, which squares and pieces are important, simple maneuvers that play key roles, etc. And that's exactly what How to Play the Najdorf Vol. 1 is all about: learning these concepts and seeing them applied in practical play. There's still a lot of ground to cover, though, which is why this DVD is the first of a planned series of disks; even though a player can make do with knowing the general concepts, there's still a lot of this conceptual territory that must be understood. Playing the Najdorf can be a lot like walking on quicksand: the ground's always shifting and that'll require you to shift your thinking as you go along.

The DVD contains a series of nine video talks by Garry Kasparov, each of which is presented in the Chess Media System format: you get a window displaying the video of Kasparov as he explains the concepts which works hand in glove with an automated board display in ChessBase/Fritz which shows the moves as Kasparov discusses them. Here's a list of the videos and their lengths:

 

  • 01 Introduction in a famous opening (12:37 min)
  • 02 Possible deviations (9:43 min)
  • 03 Najdorf 6.Bg5 Nbd7 (18:35 min)
  • 04 Najdorf 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qf3 (19:21 min)
  • 05 Gothenburg variation (19:59 min)
  • 06 Poisoned pawn variation 9.Rb1 (19:36 min)
  • 07 Poisoned pawn variation 13.e5 (22:46 min)
  • 08 Poisoned pawn variation 13.Be2 and 9.Nb3 (27:49 min)
  • 09 Poisoned pawn variation 8.Nb3 (17:24 min)

The DVD also has a Najdorf opening book which you can use for additional statistical information: just load the book and play through the variation tree, with statistics provided on the success (or lack thereof) for each move in the tree (and there are nearly a quarter-million unique positions in the tree). After you get an idea of the basic concepts to look for, you can use the database of 16,267 unannotated games to see these concepts used (or ignored!) in practical play. And, when you're ready, you can also use the statistical opening tree as an opening book for the Fritz family of chessplaying programs, forcing the chess engine to play nothing but the Najdorf (giving you some valuable "combat experience" before you decide to try the opening in competitive play).

And, for our European friends, you can watch the DVD on your television using a regular DVD player (but this won't work on U.S. DVD players due to the different DVD format).

The reason I label How to Play the Najdorf Vol. 1 as "high-level" instruction is because a certain amount of chess knowledge (in the area of positional/strategic play) on the part of the viewer is assumed. For example, Kasparov will tell you that d5 and f5 are important squares for White Knights but he doesn't go into an explanation of why -- it's assumed that you'll see a Knight on one of these squares and know why it's strong. Now we're not talking about Master/GM-level knowledge here -- I'm just an average player, but I understood it (because I've read Pachman's Modern Chess Strategy and some other intermediate-level strategy books). But the DVD's not for a new player who's still working his way through Bruce Pandolfini's or Lev Alburt's books. If you've acquired some positional knowledge (the ChessBase Basic Principles of Chess Strategy CDs also do nicely here), you'll be fine.

I'll give you a warning here: Garry Kasparov videos can be as instantly addictive as crack cocaine. As I was watching one of the first two videos on How to Play the Najdorf Vol. 1, a chessplaying friend (who's more or less a "casual" player and not too interested in instructional materials) walked by, stopped and watched the video, and when it ended said, "Play some more!" And, while I have no intention of playing the Najdorf myself, I watched a fair bit of this DVD and actually learned a few things that can be applied to my own non-Najdorf Sicilian opening choices. As Kasparov says at the end of the third video, understanding the Najdorf's generalities "will help you to understand better the other sharp Sicilian lines".

 


Probably the most "controversial" preview I ever wrote was for Alexander Bangiev's Squares Strategy Vol. 1. There were a lot of comments on chess message boards for a few weeks afterward, mostly complaining that I'd not said enough about the disk itself and instead seemed intent on "frightening" potential buyers. That's good -- it was exactly the response I was trying to achieve. Bangiev's Squares Strategy is not "easy" -- it's the most challenging series of CDs produced by ChessBase. Trying to explain why is a lot like peeling an onion: everytime you remove one level, you'll find another level underneath.

There's nothing new about chess masters creating "systems": Aron Nimzovich is the first guy who springs to mind (after all, his most famous book was titled My System). Two others who pop into my head are Hans Kmoch (who created a system of classifying pawn structures and pawn play, along with a corresponding "lingo" to describe them) and Alexander Kotov (who developed a system of positional analysis). And it's consequently not surprising that all three of these gentlemen are among the most controversial chess authors; players still engage in bitter arguments over their work (and, in Nimzovich's case, it's been three-quarters of a century since his book's appearance!).

Readers either love or hate these guys. For Nimzovich it's usually the "anthropomorphization" (dang, is that even a word?) of the chess pieces; Aron used metaphors such as keeping passed pawns "under lock and key" because of their "lust to expand". Some players hate that -- but they remember these metaphors, so I guess Nimzo got his point across pretty well. Kmoch drives players crazy because of the terminology he used to describe certain kinds of pawns and structures; some players say Pawn Power in Chess is the best book they've ever read, while others (like myself) have a hard time getting past the weird terminology. And Kotov is in a class by himself; readers who try tackling Think Like a Grandmaster generally either "get it" instantly or are left scratching their heads.

In my opinion, Bangiev's Squares Strategy is sort of a combination of Kmoch and Kotov -- conceptually the CDs are as challenging as Kotov, while their use of abbreviation and terminology is reminiscent of Kmoch.

What makes Squares Strategy so challenging is that the "B-Method" (a term which I despise, by the way) requires you to think about how you think (see? I told you this would be like peeling an onion). You have to disassemble the way you analyze positions and then reconstruct your thinking method -- in other words, Squares Strategy requires you to change the way you think.

In theory, Squares Strategy is really pretty simple. When you're evaluating a candidate move you'll need to compare it against a short checklist of criteria provided by Bangiev. That's as much as I can tell you without providing the checklist itself (which would be pretty unfair to the author, but which also handicaps my ability to preview the disk effectively). The hard parts are twofold: learning the terminology and abbreviations which Bangiev uses, and "tearing down" your pre-programmed thinking process in order to use the checklist structure which Bangiev provides. I suspect that's going to prove difficult for some readers, and that's why I was trying to "scare" you in my preview of Volume 1 -- I didn't want you to think it was going to be some kind of magic remedy that goes down easily.

The new CD, Squares Strategy Vol. 2: The Opening is a bit more specialized than the first volume, in that it applies the "B-Method" to just the opening phase of the game. It's presented in the "classic" ChessBase training disk format -- instructional texts along with annotated illustrative games (as opposed to the video method of the Chess Training System DVDs).

There are two databases on the CD. The first is the instructional database. It opens with eleven texts explaining the B-Method and its application to the opening of a chess game. The next 102 games in this database are analytical discussions of a wide variety of specific chess openings, showing how Bangiev's method is applied to each. This is not easy going -- the games make exclusive use of Bangiev's self-developed abbreviated notation to explain the concepts. Most of the remaining sixty database entries are complete games, again annotated with Bangiev's abbreviated notation.

The second database has twenty-eight games, each of which contains timed training questions allowing you to test your knowledge under timed conditions. At certain points in the game a window will appear and challenge you to find the correct move within a preset time limit (usually five minutes); the program will tell you whether you've found the correct solution.

Here's another warning, one quite different from the one I presented for the Kasparov DVD: this stuff is hard. In Squares Strategy, you'll need to learn a new specialized set of terminology and then restructure your thinking processes in analyzing positions and candidate moves. It's a challenge and not a particularly easy one. If you're up to it, give Squares Strategy a go and I suspect it'll pay dividends in your results on the chessboard.

Until next week, have fun!


© 2005, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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