By Davide Nastasio
GM Andrew Soltis is famous for his books, which are most often bestsellers. They go out of print very soon, and they become quite expensive on the used market. Soltis has a very nice writing style, with the right amount of technical annotations and prose. In this new work, he explores when to exchange pieces, and when it is not convenient.
But what really makes Soltis one of the best chess teachers is the way he makes a student think about a position. Very similar to the Socratic method, he describes the situation and then comes out with a question which a student knows how to answer, thanks to the wise explanation which Soltis gives every time. Consider the following position:
At the end of Solits’ explanation, everyone knows which move White should play, but Soltis, like a consummate painter, just portrayed the situation without saying which move one should play: “A quick look tells us White is a pawn down. A further examination shows that his pieces are more active than Black’s. But when we begin to calculate we realize he can’t immediately exploit his rook’s penetration to the eighth rank because 24 Bd6 is blunted by 24 … Re8.”
Throughout the book, Soltis quotes Siegbert Tarrasch, Aron Nimzowitsch, and other great teachers of the past, while giving modern day examples played by top GMs.
As in the following example, Soltis quotes Tarrasch: “It’s not what is removed from the board that matters, but what remains.” He gives the following example:
Once more we see Soltis’ technique in asking a question, which makes the reader think: “Black threatens … Nxb3. White stopped him with 1. Bxd4 cxd4. He not only eliminated Black’s powerfully centralized knight, but kept material equal. This must be a favorable swap, right?”
These kinds of questions are worth more than a hundred tactical exercises, because those are the questions we must ask ourselves, and find the answer, during a game. Finding the correct answer makes the difference between winning or losing.
Imagine that the above cited examples come just from the introduction, the next ten chapters are a goldmine for every player who is seriously interested in improving. But the colloquial tone used by Soltis is pleasant also for those who are just interested in a chess book which will teach them without being boring.
Let’s now look at Section 1, which is made up of three chapters.
Chapter one: Queen Takes Queen
Soltis begins in this way because, in his opinion, this is the easiest exchange to evaluate.
The first example shown by Soltis questions us on how to enter a favorable endgame, exchanging the queens. Once more Soltis shows his mastery in explaining what’s happening behind the scenes. The chapter contains more than 20 examples: portions of games, entire games, and positions. It is divided into themes to make the student aware of what happens when one refuses the exchange of queens, and the importance of the right timing. There are also some quiz positions at the end of the chapter.
Chapter Two: Rook Takes Rook
The chapter begins telling us that Tigran Petrosian was particularly skilled in knowing which rook to trade and which to keep. This means that one needs to study this chapter and eventually go over all of Petrosian’s games to see such a skill in action.
Here we can see the first position presented.
In the book there is a nice explanation of what should White do next, and why. I believe the reader of this review should do such analysis for himself, and then eventually check how the game Ivkov – Hort, Varna 1962, went. Once more this chapter is made up of many positions, games, and fragments, and paragraphs which detail the different conditions for which rooks are exchanged.
One of the concepts we find over and over in Soltis’ books is the “priyome.” In the book “What it Takes to Become a Chess Master,” Batsford 2012, written by Soltis, at page 180 he gives the following definition: “Obtaining the pawn structure you want to play is typically the first step of a two-step process. The equally important second step is knowing how to exploit. The Russians gave us a word — priyome — to describe the technique that is appropriate for a particular pawn structure.”
Why did I introduce the word priyome? Because the next game is an excellent example to study. Soltis entitled the following game as “Karpov’s priyome.” It is related to a technique which would delay the rooks exchange.
In this case, the pawn structure we are studying, or the situation we are going to have a problem also in our games, is related to the control of the A file. After 23 moves, White has a big problem to solve. Black wants to take control of the A file with a rook exchange. For example, 24…Rxa2; 25.Qxa2, Ra8; White doesn’t want that to happen, and found the amazing move 24.Ba7! I think something similar can be found also in Capablanca’s games.
Chapter Three : Knight Takes Knight
This chapter begins with a funny factoid: “A 2014 database survey of more than 2 million master games found that Black’s king’s knight, for example, survived to the end of the game less than 26 percent of the time.”
Soltis makes some very interesting reasoning upon the knights, and shows some interesting games which prove that knights shouldn’t be regarded as equal, since like the bishops, they can become bad. Soltis also treats the topic of the outposts.
Particularly interesting is the following position, and how White won thanks to being able to maintain an outpost in F5.
Then we reach section 2, comprised of 4 chapters.
Chapter Four: Bishop Takes Bishop
This chapter begins with a very interesting old game, which shows a lot of ideas behind which bishop to exchange and why. Soltis analysis begins around move 19.
Chapter Five: Bishop versus Knight
Once more we are shown Soltis’ amazing teaching abilities in this chapter. As always he asks many questions, which allow someone to reflect deeply upon the game. One of the points raised in this chapter (but there are many others) is this question: if the bishop is such a good piece, why would someone trade it for a knight? The answer can be disarmingly simple: for damaging the enemy pawn structure. The following game (pay attention to move 9) is an example!
Chapter Six: The Two Bishops
Soltis begins the chapter with this paragraph: “Every beginner hears about the two-bishop advantage. “Two bishops can control all of the board’s squares, light and dark,” they are told. But that’s somewhat abstract. What does it mean in practical terms? It means that the player with the bishops can more easily attack and limit enemy pieces than his opponent can.”
Soltis illustrates the point with a wealth of examples. While I tend to agree with him, I do believe some players, mistakenly, make the bishop pair advantage something which it is not. For one, it is not an absolute advantage, and mostly depends on the pawn structure. Most amateurs consider such advantage a kind of holy grail that they put on a pedestal and worship, believing it will give them an easy win.
I’d like to show how wrong they are with this nice modern game, but I could have used also a game by Chigorin, who was famous for demonstrating that the knights can be stronger than the two bishops.
Chapter Seven: Opposite Color Bishops
In this case, the title of the chapter is quite self-explanatory. However, Soltis clearly states that while in the endgame opposite color bishops can lead to a draw. To assume that because one enters an opposite color bishop endgame it automatically draws is a very big mistake. My tournament experience is that most young players believe such a myth, and I’ve won a lot of points thanks to that. But one game I just saw in the latest Chessbase magazine (169), clearly shows that opposite color bishops endgames are not drawish!
I could tell you to watch the game from move 57 when the opposite color bishop endgames begins, but I believe it can be interesting to see also the previous part. As with the previous chapter, it shows that the bishop pair advantage is not giving an easy win.
We reach section 3 of the book, made up of three chapters.
Chapter eight: Heavy Pieces
Over and over Soltis proves to be exceptional as a teacher. He starts by saying that when we remove all the minor pieces, and leave queens and rooks, we call that “heavy pieces endgame.” But it cannot really be called that, because for sure the king cannot come out like in other endgames. The focus of the chapter is the trade of the knights or bishops which leads to “middlegames” with heavy pieces.
Chapter Nine: Queen Versus Two Rooks
Soltis mentions that this kind of imbalance is not rare, but often the side who welcomes the exchange which leads to such forces on the board discovers that he may have entered a lost position. I also have seen it happen in many tactical exercises, but while maybe for a computer it is easy to fight against two rooks, I believe for humans it can be quite difficult.
With all this said, if the side with the queen is called Fischer, I believe we already know the final result. Enjoy!
We then reach the final chapter.
Chapter 10: Fischer, Petrosjan, and Capablanca Endgames
I’ll let the reader of the book discover this last chapter. There could be a surprise.
In conclusion, I believe GM Soltis is like Asimov for Science Fiction. You simply cannot miss any of his books. The chapters really cover many real-life situations we find over the board, and the quizzes at the end of each chapter give a chance to test the understanding of the material. Maybe the quizzes are not as plentiful as one would want, but the book is not about quizzes, but about raising chess understanding. Most importantly, Soltis gives chess culture. He expands our chess horizons and understanding through the series of games and positions he presents. If one wants honestly to improve, please stop asking, “How?” Just buy Soltis’ books, read them, and enjoy them. Improvement will come automatically!