BOOK REVIEW by CARL PORTMAN
Magnus Carlsen's most instructive games
1st edition (softcover, 176 Pages) £16.99
Also available as an e-book and an app-book
A reviewer should above all be honest, so brace yourself. I am not a Magnus Carlsen fan! It is quite true that he is arguably the greatest chess player in history, and he is an awesome champion. I admire his character, his ability to turn technical draws into wins, and his willingness to try out new ideas in the openings. His will to win even in supposedly dead drawn positions is almost the stuff of legend. I get it, he is brilliant. I just don’t get that excited feeling listening to him, but that is not in any way his fault. He has forgotten more about chess during one bath time than I ever knew, I am sure, and he has defended his title and stayed at the top for years. Kudos to the young man.
That said, the likes of Anatoly Karpov and Mikhail Tal have hitherto provided the mental nutrition I require to enjoy and hopefully improve my game. Perhaps it is a generational thing, yet I am not a dinosaur and I do appreciate that through my own omissions I have failed to benefit from playing through many of Magnus’s games. When I do study, I might scrutinise the swashbuckling games of Alexander Alekhine, Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. Yet Magnus is about much more than attack, and I know this. He is a tremendously resourceful player in defence and through his games, many chess themes become evident. I really should pay more attention to him.
Now, with the timely publication of this book (Magnus defends his title later this year) it is the perfect opportunity to get to know the world champion a little better through his games. He does not annotate them himself, this is done via the author, Martyn Kravtsiv, and I do have to remark that this is a brave thing to do. I mean, what would Carlsen make of it? Has he seen it? Does he think it is good, bad or indifferent? I have no idea. All the reader can do is put in the hard yards and see what happens.
What is this this book about? Let me answer that by first telling you what it is not about. This is not a collection of Magnus Carlsen’s best games, and this should be made clear. The clue is in the title; they are instructive games. There are four main chapters comprising opening, middlegame, endgame and ‘human factor’ themes. Studying such critical themes through the games of a world champion is of course a treat, but the question is, who is the book aimed at, and will the games at such an elite level simply fly over the top of the craniums of most amateur players? Well, it shouldn’t if the book is written well.
In these uncertain times when many books contain so many blitz games because of the Covid-19 pandemic it is a delight to learn that there is only one blitz game amongst the forty-two in the book. What a blessed relief. I believe that whilst such blitz encounters are entertaining, the highest quality is reserved for classical games. There are quickplay games in the book, but that’s quite acceptable to me.
In each game, there is a ‘Magnus Moment’ and the author indicates this in bold at the bottom of a diagram, so that the reader might elect to cover the page and have a go themselves. Can you get into Magnus’s head? It’s all rather good fun.
Mr. Kravtsiv provides a brief at the end of each game entitled ‘What can we learn from the game?’ This is a good learning tool and it offers important food for thought for the reader. I wondered how my own conclusions might – or might not – have concurred with his.
I should comment that much emphasis is placed on the middlegame, and the difficult task of trying to obtain an advantage or initiative in that part of the battle. Unlike many games collection books, this is not set out chronologically. Rather, the games sit under many recognized themes in the books such as development, king position, sacrifice, activity, blockade, bishop pair, counter-attack, defence, harmony and pawn play to name but a few. In this way the games are instructive not simply because Carlsen played them, but the groupings facilitate the digestion (and hopefully inculcation) behind the moves. This is the key to effective learning and I wholeheartedly approve.
I was pleased to find an index of players and openings. I was particularly interested to see that Wesley So features most often as Carlsen’s opponent and the Sicilian, Ruy Lopez and Reti are the most frequent openings. I usually like to see some photographs (even if black and white) in a book of games collections but the absence of any here does not diminish the enjoyment, and we know what Magnus looks like after all. I was too busy immersing myself in the text to look for photographs to be honest. The diagrams and text are of the high standard that I would expect from this publisher. I like the author’s writing style and Graham Burgess has done a marvellous job of translating the work.
I always bang on about having a couple of blank pages at the end of a book so that I might jot down some notes, and I feel duty bound to do so again here. My books are becoming filled with paper inserts with scribbled notes, and I would rather just annotate at the back of the book itself. I shall now provide just one example from the book. This is found in the section about endgame play and covers the controversial subject of opposite-coloured bishops. Too many amateurs (and I include myself here) tend to agree draws far too easily in such endgames, but should we? If it really is a draw, why not play on and try to find ‘the truth’ so to speak?
The light comments are my own.
Carlsen,Magnus - Lopez,Salgado St Petersburg, 2018
1.d5–d6! White wants to relocate the bishop to d5, where it will be a very strong and influential piece. Magnus wants to generate activity. Being passive is not going to bring home the full point. This is still a very tricky position, and opposite-coloured bishops is an ending that often appears on our own chessboards.
1...e7xd6 Black’s pawn structure is shattered 2.a1–a7 2.g2–d5 is possible also.
2...b8–c8?! This is an error, 2...g7–h6! 3.f2–f4 b8–e8 4.g2–d5 e8–e5! Wow.
3.c1xc8 f8xc8 4.g2–d5
Look at the landscape now. The key issues here are pawn structure and activity.
The White bishop has twelve squares to move to, whereas Black’s prelate only has five. Increase your own scope, decrease your opponent’. Easy, right? White should be able to pick up Black's weak pawns almost at will. Also, if Black's b-pawn is destroyed then the white pawn on b4 should be a runner.
4...f5–f4 5.g3xf4 g7–h6 6.a7xf7 c8–c3 7.f4–f5 Black resigned here. Why?
7...c3xd3 8.f5–f6 g8–h8 9.f7–e7 White will mate in a few moves. Work it out on a board for yourself. 1–0
This is but one example from the forty-two games. (Why 42 I wonder?) The diligent student will learn from this book, and with over the board chess due to return in the near future (terms and conditions apply!) there will be ample opportunity to try out any new skills. Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is potential power – it only comes to life when it is put to the test.
What can we learn from the game above? The author says that we should not rely too heavily on the drawish reputation of the opposite-coloured bishop ending. This is especially so if the attacker has an active rook, or the defender’s bishop is restricted by its own pawns. We are also reminded that endgames are primarily a battle to promote pawns, so pay attention to pawn structures. This is all sound advice.
In the final chapter on human factors, the author states that ‘No matter how well a person plays chess, he is still a human being, and not a soulless machine.’ This is quite true. Magnus has a reputation for applying his machine-like calculation and this book does bring some sort of character to the man with clear explanations and examples of play. I shall pay more attention in future.
In his introduction, the author states that the primary aim of the book is to introduce readers to major chess themes and ideas. There is no doubt in my own mind that he achieves this, and that players of all levels will benefit from this book.
I am a fan of the way this book is presented using instructive moments from the games of a great player. I do hope that there is much more of this style to come in the future. The very best annotations would of course be made by the actual players themselves, but failing this, one needs someone with the playing strength and communicative skills to hold our hand and bring a game to life. Kravtsiv achieves this and I hope to read more of his work in future.
The author, Martyn Kravtsiv is a GM from the Ukraine. He was the coach for the team that won the silver medals at the 2016 Olympiad. He also represented his country at the 2017 World Team Championship.
John Nunn (who says he learned a great deal from playing over the games in the book) gives a short video about the book online here: