So, is Berliner’s new book worth the paper it’s printed on? Yes, the author obviously made a real effort to present something original and interesting. And yes, Gambit (a hot new publishing company that is coming out with all kinds of great stuff – I’ll be reviewing lots of their books in the weeks to come) once again gives us high production value. Unfortunately... well, I’ll present the facts and let you decide for yourself.
Hans Berliner was postal champion of the world. While this is impressive by itself, I have always found postal players to be a bit out of touch with the realities surrounding chess understanding – they usually feel that their form of chess is better, more pure, more accurate, and... (their self congratulations seems to go on and on and on). Berliner’s The System highlights this problem in a very sharp way (I should add that some of my favorite new books in the last few years have been by postal players, so don’t let my prejudice pull the wool over your eyes).
My angst towards postal chess began when I read that many postal aficionados honestly felt that a postal World Champion would beat an over-the-board World Champion in a postal game. The postal caste never seemed to realize that their understanding of chess as a whole was so far below any over-the-board World Champion’s as to make the argument virtually laughable.
Yes, postal players can use books and databases to their heart’s content. And yes, they can stare at a move until their eyes fall out and their kitchen clocks break down and drop from the walls. All this, at its highest level, allows them to play the openings exceedingly well (though far below super GM level, of course), and it also lets them handle tactical situations superbly. Alas, their understanding of positional chess and the game’s inner workings has always been, and will always be, lacking.
Here we run directly into my criticism of Berliner’s book: he insists that he understands the secrets of chess better than any other player in history (Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov included), and his name-dropping and obvious (at least to me) egocentric ravings only proves how little he really knows (or how much, if he proves to be correct!).
The book starts out in a nice manner. Mr. Berliner offers up a new way of looking at the game, and tries to present his system of thought in detail so the aspiring student can emulate him. Whether I agree with everything he says doesn’t matter – I’ve learned to respect any intelligently structured chess system, and Berliner gives us quite a bit of food for thought. In fact, I’m sure that lots of players will find the first sixty-five pages very instructive.
The System’s demise starts when the author tries to prove his theories by showing us how they translate to the study of openings. First Berliner states that he’s proven that 1.d4 is superior to 1.e4 (and to all the other first moves). Next he gives us a story about a conversation he had with Fischer, where he tried to convince Bobby to switch from his beloved 1.e4 to 1.d4. Fischer demanded proof in the form of variations and Berliner, confident in his own chess enlightenment, gave him a lecture that is so simplistic as to be insulting (even a 2100 player would find it trivial).
Some months later Berliner noticed that Fischer, in his annotations to a game, had called 2.Nf3 (after 1.d4 Nf6) inferior to 2.c4 (every top player knows that 2.Nf3 is perfectly reasonable, but nobody would disagree that 2.c4 is clearly best). Berliner’s comment: "Wow!! He had learned something from our discussion after all.” As for the grandmasters that criticized Fischer’s negative view of 2.Nf3 ("a number of Soviet grandmasters took issue with Bobby’s statement”), Berliner says, "they still had the veil over their eyes, while Bobby had this glimpse of Nirvana.”
Having an ego is one thing (all great players do), but claiming that you have refuted several popular openings is quite another. Let’s see what he has to say about some highly respected systems:
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 and now he recommends 4.cxd5 (he places the Knight on e2, intending an eventual f2-f3 and e3-e4 plan). Berliner thinks this is simply better for White.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6 7.Bd3 Bg7 8.Nge2. He gives a game he played against J.Rather and, after trouncing his opponent, says, "The Rather game, to me, epitomizes the way White should play. Black never really had a chance.” It’s clear that he considers the Modern Benoni to be more or less unplayable.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 is best met (according to Berliner) by 4.cxb5 a6 5.f3!. He offers up a lot of interesting analysis and finishes by saying: "There will be very few players who will want to test these variations as Black.”
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 and now 5.f3 is "definitely the right way to proceed.” His comments give the reader the impression that Black is already on his last legs.
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 and now Berliner recommends 11.Bf4 and concludes: "I can find no real defense against this procedure.”
Notice how all his opening systems (with the exception of the Tarrasch) leave the f-pawn unobstructed (His insistence that White’s correct line against the Slav is 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.f3 pushes this observation home. I should add that 5.f3 is so obviously weak that it makes me lose all faith in his understanding of chess as a whole.). This is clearly an important part of his "System.” Due to this, shouldn’t the shocking but eminently logical 1.f3!? be considered? This way, White gets to play the "winning” pawn advance while simultaneously keeping his other options open.
My favorite discussion, though, centers around the Grunfeld. Here he happily enters the Exchange Variation after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 c5 7.Bc4 Bg7 8.Ne2 Nc6 9.Be3 0-0 and then says something unbelievable: "The System and winning move is 10.Rc1.”
As shown in all the earlier lines, Berliner once again makes it clear that he has found something that all the world’s finest players have missed. In fact, we can learn a lot about the author’s state of reality by checking out the following dialogue with the legendary David Bronstein: "I said to David, ‘Why would anyone want to castle in this position? What good is the Rook going to do on the squares b1 through f1?’ David looked at me in his wonderful way, and said nothing. That was quite a statement. Clearly, this idea had made an impression on a connoisseur of this opening.”
My translation of Bronstein’s polite silence would be very different than Berliner’s, but the strangest thing about this chapter concerns his analysis. After 10.Rc1 cxd4 11.cxd4 Qa5+ 12.Kf1 he completely ignores the well-known refutation of this entire line via 12...Qa3, when White is suddenly fighting for equality. This seems very odd, since the move had been discovered long before this book was written. [5-2-02: To be fair, Mr. Berliner later published an analysis of the position after 12...Qa3, and the position after 10.Rc1 still remains a hotly contested one.].
Having criticized so much, I must admit that there is a lot to enjoy in this book. The explanation of his System is worthwhile, the sheer insanity of his claims made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and he offers original opening analysis that is well worth taking a look at (note that "taking a look at” and "taking seriously” are two different things). My gripe is his lack of perspective, his iron conviction concerning his own deep understanding of chess, and the ease with which he dismisses the ideas and assessments of players who dwarf him (they also dwarf me and just about everyone else who isn't in the top 10) in all things related to chess.
Mr. Berliner is clearly a very intelligent man, but his writings make it clear that (as far as chess goes) he’s either poorly informed, deluded, or the greatest genius chess has ever seen.