Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review of "Joys of Chess"

Published by New in Chess, 2011. Author: Christian Hesse, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Stuttgart

Hesse's labor of love is the perfect antidote to all that hard work you've been investing in tactics puzzles and rook endgames. Crack it open and grab a breath of refreshing chess air for a few minutes; you're bound to find something to make you smile. It's like getting one of the world's top grandmasters to read you Tarzan comics. (Which, I learned from this book, was Bent Larsen's chief duty as Bobby Fischer's second at the 1959 Interzonal tournament!) It's the first chess book that's given me a feeling of guilty pleasure: how can chess be this much fun?

To give you a taste of what you can expect, here are a few of my favorite moments from the book:

In "Retreats of Genius," Dzindzichashvili retreats almost all his pieces back to their starting squares...and wins decisive material.

A disgruntled Garry Kasparov calls chess website publisher Frederich Friedel and says, "You are a dead man, Fred. You have put me in a very embarrassing situation." Friedel, you see, had posed a simple little problem to Kasparov, and when Garry's students couldn't solve it, the world champion spent a day on it and couldn't solve it either. For your edification, here is the possibly the world's most difficult chess problem: "A game begins 1.e4 and ends on move 5 in mate with the move knight takes rook. What was the game?" (The book has the solution, of course.)

In the chapter on chess dreams, we see a theoretical novelty in the Sicilian Defense that came to Larry Christiansen as he slept. We also get to see a Nimzo-Indian that David Bronstein dreamed in its entirety. After a white blunder on move 14, black mates in 3, and "Bronstein can do that in his sleep." And with one hand tied behind his back, no doubt!

Hesse puts a novel spin on chess sacrifices by comparing them to Einstein's e = mc2, which is the equation that explains how a tiny bit of uranium can yield a massive explosion. A sacrifice, after all, can also translate material into incredible energy--on the chess board. Hesse illustrates this with a couple of spectacular sacs, including a 2-piece offer by the inimitable Mikhail Tal.

In "the butterfly effect," we see a study in which white can give up a passed pawn on either h6 or h7. It looks inconsequential, but 9 moves later we see that the difference of just one square is the difference between a draw and a win. The catchy chapter title is a useful reminder that, in a possibly critical situation, you need to be careful about selecting between moves that look very similar.

Several studies caught my eye. In the chapter on symmetry, we see a problem with all eight of white's pawns on the 4th rank and his king on f1, while black's pawns are all on the 6th rank with his king on f8. White to play and win. In the chapter on parity arguments, a problem has 31 pieces on their original squares--except white's h1 rook, which is missing. What was black's last move? Clever stuff.

Hesse suggests an amusing parlor game for chess players: "the conqueror of the conqueror of Fischer." The goal is to see how many degrees of separation exist between you and Bobby, counting a victory over a difficult opponent as one degree. Count your victory over a strong player as one hop, then count his/her victory over a stronger opponent as the next hop, and so on, until you finally get to a grandmaster who defeated Fischer. Count the hops, and there's your Fischer number.

I don't mind the rare moments when Hesse inserts himself into the book, as it illustrates how a patzer not unlike me can have a ton of fun exploring chess. I find his attitude to be charming and infectious.

While the book is mostly just for fun, there's actually a fair amount of instructional value here: more guilty pleasure! If you're a chess player, this is a great book for your wishlist; or if you're looking for a Christmas gift or birthday gift for your favorite chess geek, wrap this book with a bow. It easily rates 5 stars out of 5. You may purchase these 417 pages of rollicking chess fun on Amazon here.

Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. I have endeavored to remain completely unbiased and helpful, and feel confident that the review reflects my commitment to objectivity.

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