Kramnik Move by Move

By Cyrus Lakdawala


Kramnik Move by Move
Kramnik Move by Move
Everyman Chess (2012)
416 pages
$24.95
Reviewed by John Watson
Cyrus Lakdawala is establishing himself as one of the best instructive writers in the business, and Kramnik Move by Move will only enhance his reputation. Lakdawala has written a raft of books over the past year, and is responsible for a remarkable percentage of Everyman’s "Move-by-Move” series. These are definitely not move-by-move books in the old Irving Chernev sense, commenting upon literally every move, nor what John Nunn does in Understanding Chess Move by Move (which is almost the same as Chernev, but more advanced and analytical). The main idea of the series, as I see it, is to take more moves than would usually be commented upon and explain them verbally, while limiting the number and length of analytical notes. That is particularly true in these books about Capablanca (click to see Watson’s review of Capablanca, Move by Move) and Kramnik, where the emphasis is upon the flow of the game. In Lakdawala’s many Move-by-Move opening books, some of which I will review in forthcoming columns, it’s awfully difficult to avoid concrete analysis, and you find more frequent notes with both analytical and verbal content. In either case, I think his greatest strength as an author is getting to the essence of what the average player needs to know about the position before him. He does so with humor and an accessible style, encouraging the reader to think that chess isn’t so impenetrable after all, without letting on how deeply he understands the game.

In Kramnik Move by Move, Lakdawala takes on the difficult task of explaining the most sophisticated player of his generation (at least of the top-ranked ones), Vladimir Kramnik. In 59 games, he divides the material by general theme, emphasizing the typical chess elements that appear in each category. The Contents read as follows:

Chapter 1: Kramnik on the Attack
Chapter 2: Kramnik on Defence
Chapter 3: Riding the Dynamic Element
Chapter 4: Exploiting Imbalances
Chapter 5: Accumulating Advantages
Chapter 6: Kramnik on Endings

The bibliography lists 12 opening books – which seems odd given the book’s lack of emphasis on openings – and a few websites and databases. You would think to include a few of the many books and DVDs about Kramnik, and of course his games are annotated extensively outside of the games collections, in other books and especially in magazines. A nice choice would be Kramnik’s own My Life and Games (with Damsky); understandably, not everyone has this but it’s a great book if you’re interested in chess biography (Everyman 2000/2001).

Anyway, Kramnik Move by Move has all the good qualities mentioned above. Lakdawala begins insightfully, claiming what should be well-known but isn’t: that Kramnik is an excellent attacking player: "I had the hardest time compiling this chapter, mainly because the cup runneth over from a glut of incredible attacking games – way too many for one chapter, or even one book for that matter. So this chapter is one of the largest in the book, to give Kramnik his attacking due...”

That’s a good idea, although I don’t agree with his specific characterization of Kramnik’s play, e.g., "Kramnik creates so many of his attacks by camouflaging true intent. He switches suddenly from strategic build-up, only to cash out mysteriously into a promising attack. He normally earns his attacks the hard way, incrementally, and very rarely attempts a wild leapfrog over the opposing barrier, in Morozevich/Nakamura-style.” This certainly isn’t the case with Lakdawala’s own selection of attacking games, in most of which Kramnik plays very aggressively out of the opening and goes for an immediate attack. In fact, the dynamic, direct, and often highly theoretical openings he chose over the first major stage of his career are indicative of that. The real point is that Kramnik’s style has changed dramatically over the years. "Young” Kramnik often played for extremely complex middlegames, which helps explain the early dates of most of the attacking games Lakdawala selects. He then entered into a period of generally careful and risk-averse play. Interestingly, over the past year or more he seems to have sharpened his game again, possibly as a result of his loss to Anand.

I don’t have room to review each part of the book, but the game analysis is uniformly instructive. The last chapter is called ‘Kramnik on Endings’. Lakdawala says of Kramnik: "He is the only world champion who has knowingly schemed to set up his repertoire to circumvent the middlegame completely and plunge immediately into the ending.” Here of course Lakdawala is talking about setting up part of his repertoire to work this way (rather than entire repertoire), and I think his claim is true. Moreover, no one else in the top 10 today is inclined to play this way so often. In any case, some of Kramnik’s finest moments have come in queenless middlegames and endgames. One of my students and I looked over 5 endings from this book, each one useful in showing typical themes. This back-and-forth struggle was probably the most exciting (annotations directly from the book):

Kamsky - Kramnik, Baku (rapid) 2010
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 c5! 3.d5 b5!? 4.a4 Bb7 5.axb5 Nxd5 6.Bg3 g6 7.e4 Nb6 8.Nd2?! Bg7 9.c3 0–0 10.Ngf3 d6 11.Bd3 a6 12.0–0 axb5 13.Rxa8 Nxa8 14.Bxb5 Qb6 15.Qe2 Bc6 16.Bxc6 Nxc6 17.Rb1 Nc7 18.h4 Ra8 19.Qc4 Qb5 20.Qxb5 Nxb5

QUESTION: How would you assess this position? ANSWER: Advantage Black. The pawn constellation looks quite a bit like a Benko Gambit, but without having given up a pawn.

21.Bf4

EXERCISE (planning): How can Black increase his edge? ANSWER: Swap a wing pawn for a central pawn.

21...f5! 22.g3 Ra4!

Adding a little nudge to e4.

23.exf5 gxf5

Now Black is ready to roll his central pawns.

24.Nf1 e5 25.Bd2 d5?!

Believe it or not, this move may be premature, since Black is unable to stabilize his centre. With hindsight, it was better to play 25...h6 first.

26.Ne3 Ne7

Black is about to play ...d5–d4 with a close to winning position. Kamsky, by now saturated with the odd hybrid of despair and desperation, comes up with an amazing idea.

27.c4!!

Kamsky puts two and two together and, oddly enough, comes up with the number five. He gives up a pawn to break up Black’s monster centre. I always get nervous whenever I concoct some zany plan, which my logical mind ruthlessly dissects and rejects. But then this dark, insane voice in my head whispers: "Go for it. It will work!” Well, in this instance, Kamsky listened to his dark voice and, for once, the normally loony voice spoke the truth! His idea, crazy as it looks, was absolutely sound and should have saved the game.

27...dxc4 28.b3!

Suddenly, Kamsky’s pieces burst forth in incredible activity.

28...cxb3 29.Rxb3 Nd4 30.Rb8+ Kf7 31.Ng5+

White holds the initiative.

31...Kg6 32.Rb6+ Bf6

EXERCISE (combination alert/critical decision): White's pieces savour their brand new, elevated social status. Analyze 33.Nxh7. Does it work?

33.Kg2?

Kamsky protects against a ghost threat on f3. Now his brilliant idea becomes fragmented. ANSWER: He should complete the thought with 33.Nxh7! Kxh7 34.Rxf6 Nf3+ 35.Kg2 Nxd2 36.Rf7+! – the point; White regains the lost piece.

33...Nec6 34.Nd5

GM Eric Prié claims an advantage for White after 34.Ne6, giving the move two exclams, but Houdini says otherwise after 34...h5 and declares the game dead even.

34...Bd8! 35.Rb1

35 Rb7 is met by 35...Ra7.

35...h6 36.h5+!?

Kamsky figures he has nothing to lose, since 36.Nh3 looks quite dismal.

36...Kxh5 37.Nf7 Bg5 38.Bxg5 hxg5 39.Nd6 g4!

The f3–square is a big one for Black’s knight.

40.Rc1 Nb4! 41.Ne3

In time pressure, when logic reaches a cul de sac and we lack the leisure to calculate out an exact line, we have no recourse but to take the dreaded "educated guess,” which is just a fancy term for eeny meeny miny, mo! EXERCISE (planning/critical decision): Black has two ways to play: a) 41...Kg6, consolidate. b) 41...Ra2, sac f5 and go for f2. One of the methods wins. Which one would you play? 41.Rxc5?? Ra1! leaves White unable to find a reasonable defense to ...Nf3 and ...Rg1 mate.

41...Kg6?!

ANSWER: Kramnik uncharacteristically underestimated the dynamic potential of his position. He should go for it with 41...Ra2! 42.Ndxf5 Nd3 43.Rf1 Nxf5 44.Nxf5, when White must give up a piece to halt the surging c-pawn after 44...c4 45.Ne3 c3.

42.Rxc5?!

42.Nb7 was his final prayer.

42...Nd3 43.Rc8

After 43.Rc3 Ne1+ 44.Kh1 Ra1 45.Nf1 Ra7!!, a mysterious figure, a dark mote, appears on the outskirts and soon melts into the horizon. The rook’s energy flows radially, reaching every corner of his world. There is no good defense to ...Rh7+.

43...Ne1+

One can only admire the multi-tasking black pieces who, despite their busy schedules, still find the time to hunt vampires after work. Now Black’s two knights, rook, and his hook on f3 condemn White’s king. In time pressure we just know in our gut that we are on the right track. The details can be put on hold, as long as we head in the correct overall direction.

44.Kh1 Ra1

The rook shoots a meaningful glance at White’s king and awaits a decision.

45.Nf1 Nd3 46.Kg2 Ra2

The barbarian horde pounds at the gate of the city and f2 falls. White can resign.

47.Ne3 Rxf2+ 48.Kh1 Nf3

The impounded king remains locked in the warehouse on h1, hoping to score some much needed Prozac very soon.

49.Ndxf5

Well, why not?

49...Rh2 mate. White’s king claims he isn’t crying, citing a lame excuse about just having cut up an onion for the spaghetti sauce.

Note the QUESTION/ANSWER/EXERCISE format; this is used in all the Move-by-Move books, and provides a training element which complements the explanatory side. Lakdawala is excellent at finding important junctures which test the reader’s understanding without requiring grandmasterly powers of calculation.

I would recommend the book mainly for developing players, say 1200-2000, because they will benefit most; but stronger players will also enjoy it for the great games.