21 January 2013

Logical Chess: A Book Review

Irving Chernev, Logical Chess: Move by Move (1957) has earned its place as a classical text that is often recommended to players who seek to improve their chess skills. Batsford converted the descriptive notation in the original to algebraic and published their updated edition in 1998.

I have vague recollections of studying portions of this text in the 1970s, but cannot recall whether I owned a copy or used one from the library.* A couple of years ago, I picked up the Batsford edition and it has been sitting on my shelf collecting dust.

In mid-December, I started going through the book systematically. First, I study each game without reference to the text. When I believe that I have identified the critical turning points, the main positional ideas, and the key tactical alternatives, I read through Chernev's annotations.

This book is not aimed at players seeking to advance into Expert class (my present goal), but is aimed at slightly weaker players. It offers lessons in elementary positional thinking. Nonetheless, I am finding it both interesting and useful. For instance, Chernev's discussion of the Colle System helped me reorient my thinking.  I often characterize as "passive-aggressive" opening choices where White seems to eschew the initiative (and yet I play the Reti!). The Colle is one of those systems likely to provoke my contempt. While studying a couple of games in Logical Chess, however, I gained some respect for the system. My disdain was replaced by logical consideration of the strategic ideas.

As a consequence of reorienting my thinking, when I faced the Black side of a Colle in the first round of the Spokane Chess Club Winter Championship last week, I respected my opponent's plans and sought ways to neutralize them. Chernev's game 3 in Logical Chess is Colle -- Delvaux 1929. His comments elucidate the dynamic potential of the e3-e4 pawn break. The Colle System reappears as game 8 in Logical Chess, Przepiorka -- ProkeŇ° 1929; and as game 9, Flohr -- Pitschak 1930. Finally, Chernev's own use of the Colle System appears as game 21. Having recently gone through Chernev's comments on the first three of these games, proved stabilizing for my thought processes during round one. Contempt for the ideas of weaker players courts disaster, while respect and refutation brings victory. After I neutralized my opponent's plans, he blundered a piece. The rest was easy.

A notable characteristic of Logical Chess: Move by Move, is the literary effort needed to explain the same moves repeatedly in new ways. How much can one say concerning the merits of 1.e4? Chernev keeps his comments instructive and entertaining without merely repeating what he has already said concerning moves that appeared in another game earlier in the book. The core principles are repeated, but in new language. This ever changing repetition reinforces the ideas. Neil McDonald follows this pattern of varied repetition in Chess: the Art of Logical Thinking: From the First Move to the Last (2004). John Nunn, however, does not comment on quite every move in Understanding Chess Move by Move (2001). Nunn discusses the merits of each opening move once, then reserves commentary for moves not seen in games earlier in the text. Chernev's influence upon these two more recent books reveals the timelessness of his work.

Chernev's analysis is not without errors. In the first game of the book, White resigned in a position where Black still had much work to do to secure the win.

White to move
White's king appears to be in a heap of trouble. Chernev states, "there was no escape" (18). However, White might have tried 18.Bxf7+ Kf8 19.Bf4 Qxf4 20.Bh5 Nf6 21.Rxf2 Nxh5 22.Qd5. The danger to White's king is no longer imminent, and White has some play for the two lost pawns.

One might also take issue with his summary of White's principal choices against the French Defense. He offers some humor in his assessment of the Exchange Variation.
[A]fter the exchange of pawns the positions are equal and symmetrical and an attack is difficult to whip up, unless you are a Morphy. (81)
I quoted John Watson's assessment that it is "not particularly imaginative" in "French Defense!" My opponent in the game featured in that post, however, is no longer a provisionally rated high school player. He is the third highest rated player in Spokane, and a repeat winner of local events. He still plays the Exchange Variation, and has garnered plenty of experience with it against strong players. Another strong college student in my area employs the system, and he is a tactical monster. Perhaps both of these men are Paul Morphys! Their abilities in seemingly equal position should not be underestimated.

While sharing Chernev's assessment of the Exchange, with the caveat that I will likely be forced to defend this view vigorously over the board, I must challenge his brush off of those advocating of the Advance Variation.
The cramping move 3 e5 has a great many advocates, but the argument against this system is that White's pawn chain is rigid and susceptible to undermining tactics. Black initiates a strong counterattack on the base of the pawn-chain by 3...c5, followed by Nc6 and Qb6, when White finds himself defending a centre that has lost its flexibility. (81)
Chernev correctly identifies one of the resources that Black has to attack White's pawn center, but the cramping effect on Black's position should not be underestimated. The Advance Variation, in my opinion, is one of several principled ways to meet the French. Moreover, the strongest player who I have played OTB employs it. It is an opening that has forced me to play my best chess. Contrast Chernev's view with a more modern perspective.
The best way to learn the genuine French Defense is by playing the Advance Variation -- 3.e5, the most natural move for White, which closes the centre immediately and gains space.
Viktor Moskalenko, The Flexible French (2008), 9.
Chernev's Logical Chess: Move by Move must be read critically. The process of studying the book thoroughly, both absorbing its lessons and challenging its faults, should be beneficial to any club player wishing to improve. I heartily recommend this book to advanced beginners who understand rudimentary tactics, as well as to players up to and including my current strength (strong A Class).


Update 20 February 2013

See "Chernev's Errors" for detailed analysis of one game that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of his guidance to the aspiring player.

Note

*In the early 1980s, I drifted away from my youthful interest in chess. With my first son on his way and money tight, I sold half of my chess books in order to buy a history book that seemed particularly useful to me at the time. Now, I regret having parted with two RHM Press classics: the tournament books for San Antonio 1972 and the 1973 Soviet Championship. I may also have parted with a copy of Logical Chess, but my memory is less clear on that point. Happily, I hung onto the tournament book for Wijk aan Zee 1975, the selected games of Svetozar Gligoric, and the collected games of Anatoly Karpov. There are others that I parted with, and others that I retained. Logical Chess was not among the five that I consider most significant.

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