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Review: Chess for Life, by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan

Gambit Publishing, 224 pages, 2016

By Davide Nastasio
A dear friend advised me against showing too much enthusiasm for the books I read.  But what can I say? This book is really great!  I’m a competitive player on the journey to chess mastery, and generally I try to gather all the possible tidbits of information on how those who have made the journey before me reached the top. This book is what I have been looking for.  Twelve different champions are drilled into revealing how they prepare their opening repertoires and upcoming tournaments, even when they haven’t played for a month or more! Now on the number of champions, I believe a clarification is needed: in the book there are 10, but Sadler is clearly a champion, and the co-author is a great player.  So I considered the number to be 12, because Sadler brings to life Capablanca and Miles inside the book.  But Sadler also dedicated 9 pages to Nona Gaprindashvili, a champion who is having some fame lately, as another publisher just put out a book on her.

 

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I have a lot of books; some I honestly think are garbage.  I wish someone would just ask me to borrow them (generally borrowed books never return!).  Some are good for reference, and some are classics.  We should all have these on our bookshelves.  The book under review caught my attention because I’m in the situation which is described in the book!  I’m a young player who learned to play the game five years ago. I’m a young player trapped in an old body (50 years old).  I have an interest in the experiences of the role models in this book.

The topic of the book in my opinion is particularly interesting for coaches, because each champion gives a particular insight, especially GM Sadler, who shares many training methods and tips. One piece of advice which is becoming a mantra, and I find in practically every book lately is the one found on page 6: “Play the games over on a chessboard.”

This mantra can be found in many other books.  In Artur Yusupov’s Build up Your Chess: The Fundamentals: “You absolutely must play through all the examples and variations on a chessboard.”  Also in Positional Chess Masterpieces of 2012-2015 in the editorial preface: “We would advise all our readers to take out a real chessboard, and enjoy these beautiful masterpieces. This is how we learned to play chess….”

 

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The goals of the book are the following, and I want to copy them from the introduction because by the end of the review the reader will be able to understand if the author did his job and delivered.

  •  To examine the changes that affect players as they get older.
  • To identify techniques for coping with those changes, and to explain how older players can give themselves a fresh lease of life.
  • To highlight choices a player can make at any stage in their career to help to “future-proof” their game.

Please read the introduction the moment you buy the book, because it is great, and the points made are quite important for tournament players.

The first role model is Pia Cramling. I didn’t know anything about her, and the book did a great job of introducing her, her games, and opening ideas.  A total of 20 pages are dedicated to her.  This is found on Page 8 of the introduction.

 

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GM Pia Cramling from Sweden. Winner 13th European Club Cup for Women, 2008, Kallithea, Greece

 

In my database, I have 2,678 games played by GM Cramling.  If someday you have to bet on the result of a game between Hou Yifan and Pia Cramling, bet on Hou with eyes closed, because GM Cramling has some problems in beating the actual Women’s World Champion.  However, GM Sadler did a good job in summarizing GM Cramling’s openings, and the statistics shown in the book are accurate. The article on Pia Cramling is quite interesting for the discussion on the openings and move orders, but she is clearly a champion above the amateur, or the tournament player reaching master level, or even a FM.

Cramling has played against many great names: Smyslov, Jussupow, Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi (something like 9 games!), Larsen, Polugaevsky, Portisch, et al. This reflects on her game, because to play against these legendary players one must learn a lot, especially in the post analysis of the games. She is a good role model to learn from, which I wasn’t aware. But why did I say she is above even a FM who should be a player nearly at professional level? Well, the explanation is quite easy: on page 16, Cramling reveals her opening preparation against another participant at the Women’s candidates in Malmo 1986, with her coach of that time. They prepared a novelty just for Irina Levitina which would be played at move 16!  Now we can believe in Santa, and that a magical book or DVD will make us masters, but the reality is that at a top level without a trainer and full dedication to the game, one cannot compete.

The following position doesn’t come from the book, but from one of Cramling’s spectacular games.  Can you guess Black’s next move?

 

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Here is the game for those who want to know if their guess was right, and to see how it ended:

 

 

But just to give you an idea of how great Pia Cramling is, I’d like to show you another position from one of her games, and then the entire game.  I hope that will convince you to give this book a chance, because the author is presenting us with some top level chess that we do need to learn from.

Once more, can you guess the right move for Black?

 

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Here is the game for those curious to know if they got it right!

 

 

Let’s move to the next champion examined: Nunn.

 

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English GM John Denis Martin Nunn

 

In the 14 pages dedicated to his interview, games, etc., he candidly admitted that for him chess wasn’t “his life” like for Korchnoi or other champions, but maybe that is what makes one a true world candidate to the crown. Not only the size of the brain, which can give that individual an advantage in terms of memory, calculation speed, etc., but the burning fire one must feel for chess. Another interesting thing which came out was how a journalist exchanging opinions on chess with Nunn defined our beloved sport as nothing more than an addiction. From Nunn, we don’t learn specific methods to avoid fatigue, which happens with age–and he would love to be able to plug into a wall socket for extra energy, but for humans that doesn’t really work!  And also Nunn noticed that with aging comes miscalculation.

 

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GM Jose Raul Capablanca

 

Then we reach the first non-living champion, Capablanca, who GM Sadler tried to use as an inspiration. Unfortunately, there are some points which are not clear to me. Page 52: “You can imagine that I thought at once of Capablanca….”  Obviously, I didn’t.  Why would he think about Capablanca? Did he study him in the past? Did he write a book on Capa? But the part which is totally unclear to me is the following also on page 52: “In those last three weeks before tournament, I played through Capablanca’s games, computer-free, and tried to understand the patterns in his play.”

The first question is: how did he play over Capablanca’s games computer-free? Which book did he buy, or use, if he had one in his library? How many hours a day?

Since I wanted to follow his recommendation, no matter what, I assumed he didn’t really mean “Capablanca,” but just a champion from the past, a classical time, not too far back in time, nor too near.  So I used Alekhine, because I have two books on him, one written by Alekhine, and one by a modern author. However, let’s hope one day Sadler clarifies the point so I can use my Amazon Prime and enlarge my chess library!  In any case, I have three weeks, like Sadler, until my next two important tournaments, so let’s see if this advice works!

 

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After the chapter on Capablanca is the turn of the interview to Judit Polgar, I call it interview, because the entire chapter is just 5 pages, and shows a big difference with the others examined till now. Of course on Judit Polgar, and the Polgar sisters many articles, books etc. have been written. However, while reading the interview it was interesting to notice that Judit admits that around 2003 she had to change her way of studying the openings, and likely used an engine for discovering new moves exclusively, or tried new ideas. Also in this case there is not much new which would help an amateur. Likely for those making the leap, it is necessary to have a coach who knows how to use engines, and teach them how to integrate the opening research with engines.

Then we find a chapter which is very interesting for players over 50. The chapter is dedicated to FM Terry Chapman, an amateur who reached the FM title at 57, and achieved a peak rating of 2331. This is likely the most important chapter in the book.  Once more we see that a FM gives a lot of ideas, training tips, more than GMs or top GMs who need to keep their preparation a secret! First of all, I believe to respect this player we should show some of his games. But this would make the review too long. So I promise to devote another article to Mr. Chapman, because I found some of his games quite entertaining, and definitely worthwhile to learn from. Mr. Chapman tells us clearly that he worked with coaches, and played against players who were better than he was. This is clearly a recipe many players share. It seems the preparation should be for the first 30 moves! This is something I observed too. Depending on the “rating,” a player will make a major mistake on the first 20-25 moves.  Consequently, if we can make our preparation by covering the first 30 moves of our opening repertoire well, we can have an easy win.

Another point that Chapman makes is the importance of studying first-rate openings, because 4-5 years down the road there will be big rewards. Yes, it is not going to happen overnight that one can learn an opening and begin to slaughter the field of different opponents we find at our weekend tournaments. I believe just this chapter on Terry Chapman covers the goals of the book described in the beginning.
Now I could continue describing each chapter of the remaining champions, but I’ve been warned that often my reviews become too long, and I also don’t want to spoil all the surprises for the reader.  I’ll try to cut it short for the benefit of everybody!

Some of the conclusions of the book are not really substantiated, like the following on page 215: “It is possible to achieve great things at any age.” In the last world championship, Carlsen vs. Anand, we saw Carlsen falling asleep while playing, and he still beat Anand without difficulties. I don’t really know what the authors mean by “great things at any age.”  When Kasparov played a blitz match against someone his age, he won; when he played against today’s top, however, he was easily outclassed (also if everyone respects him and loves him as a champion, but of the past).  However, I’m not the only one to think that way. During the interview with Terry Chapman, on page 81 Chapman says: “Let’s face it, for most players their strength does decrease quite strongly from a certain age.”  And always following what Terry Chapman says (but also in this case we don’t have proof, through data, we just know it intuitively), over 65 to be around 2200 could be a very strong rating, likely due to physical decline in the brain.  Finally, the part of the final conclusion chapter of “training strategies” is a nice little gem, worth the book price!

My own conclusions on this book: I heartily recommend it, because in my opinion this is a book one must read more than once. One could make flashcards of some of the ideas given in it and try the different training methods proposed. This is a book which is worth it to have for those who are serious about the game and plan their next steps to improvement, as well as those trying to raise their own rating, which is the idol many chess players worship. I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews and this gallery of champions, and the not-so-well-known players. But of course, now it’s up to me to use the different methods described in the book, to make myself a better player. I love this book because it kept my attention high and kept me looking for more information and ideas to use in my training. In the end, what I really gained from this book was a way to keep the flame of the passion for learning chess burning strong, and for this I must thank the publisher and the authors who believed in this project!

 

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