Kramnik — Move by Move

Cyrus Lakdawala

Reviewer: Timothy Randall
Everyman Chess
416 pages

Having gone on a tear writing several highly instructional and entertaining opening repertoire books, Everyman Chess’ compulsive author, Cyrus Lakdawala has sharpened his keyboard to produce game collections of popular world champions, starting with Capablanca, followed by Kramnik…Wait a moment. I specified popular. Kramnik?? Not Bobby? Gary? What about Mischa, yes, Mischa? Let us not forget about Boris! But no, our verbose author’s random number generator somehow stopped at 14, for Vladimir, the 14th classical world champion, perhaps the most unpopular titleholder since Botvinnik, the most misunderstood chess king since Iron Tigran. Some chess fans have not forgiven Kramnik for ending the 15-year reign of his predecessor, Kasparov. The Everyman Chess editors have obviously gone mad.

Perhaps not. Please read on.

While many book purchasers might agree the author’s assertion that the sterile queenless position from the Berlin Defense could be inscribed on Kramnik’s gravestone, he successfully makes the argument that this world champion provides a versatile and highly skilled style from which much can be learned. Lakdawala explains, diagrams, dramatizes 58 games covering a wide assortment of openings (eight Nimzo-Indians, half-dozen each of Sicilians, Semi-Slavs, and King’s Indian Defenses, plus five Spanish) against a formidable lineup (five versus Kasparov, four with Leko, three each against Topalov, Anand, and Aronian, plus a pair of games each against the Polgar sisters and wonderboy Carlsen.) As we will see, many of these games, due to overlapping topics, could have easily appeared in each of several chapter divisions.

After his customary introduction, Lakdawala opens the first chapter with “Attack,” giving titanic battles to dispel people’s opinion that Kramnik’s style is a permanent flat line. In fact, the author confesses he had difficulties in narrowing his game selection to a mere ten games. Imagine Kasparov resigning as white after 35 moves? Be prepared to be impressed!

On the flip side, the reader may not be as surprised to be served up nine games in the next chapter on “Defense”. Before these games receive the fast-forward, consider the value of study on Kramnik’s defanging Kasparov’s King’s Indian Defense, a tight-rope walk against the Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez, an insane Four Knights game that defies the opening’s placid reputation, and a clinical demonstration of the Berlin Defense which should be a prerequisite studying before tackling John Cox’ outstanding opening book, The Berlin Wall.

Lessons on “Exploiting Advantages” are explored in the third chapter, with examples of cashing in on material advantage, maintaining the initiative, pawn structure, and superior development. Included are the first of the book’s rapid/blitz/blindfold games as well as later use of human/computer tag-team competitions. At first reaction, I felt moderately ripped off that these non-standard contests were selected, but having read the author’s rationale for including such games, I heartily approve their inclusion. Lakdawala also admits it is depressing that Kramnik and his colleagues play blindfold better that most IMs with sight of the board. (Sigh.)

Steinitz fans will appreciate the coverage in the fourth chapter on “Accumulated Advantages”, dealing with a wide array of topics including space, bishop pair, pawn center, key squares, open files, and color complex. Included is Kramnik’s must-win game over Leko in his first title defense. An example of his mastery of queenless middlegames in the torture of Kasparov in a QGA is frightening.

The book winds up with chapter five, highlighting endgames with emphasis on how Kramnik bypasses the middlegame directly to “instant endgames” within Grunfeld, English, and QGA systems. Several games are run though 30 to 40 moves with no initial comments before the author comes to brass tacks with lucid but not overly detailed explanations. Especially interesting/instructive was his two pieces versus rook & two pawn endgame grind.

While clearly a fan of Kramnik’s play, the author is not a mere cheerleader wearing blinders. He notes an occasion where Kramnik exhibits “the positional player’s disease”, distracted from one side of the board to greedily gain play on the other side of the board (a man after Silman’s heart). In his game four annotations, he anoints Kramnik’s castling move with “?!”, while noting most annotators assigned at least one exclamation mark, later noting an overlooked mate-in-four opportunity. Several games later he acknowledges a Kramnik error which allowed his opponent to crawl back into the game, making the missed move an exercise for the reader.

Having utilized Fritz and Rybka in earlier books, the author’s computer analysis has graduated to Houdini. While respecting the tactical wizardry of these tools, he remains never hesitant to disagree or criticize silicone suggestions as artificial or “overly computery”. Lakdawala claims one position is won by force while his software is “blissfully ignorant”, evaluating equality, and he labels another Houdini suggestion as “rather stupid.”

Utilizing the “move by move” format presented by Everyman Chess, the author punctuates the games with question after question, as well as posing combination alerts along with planning and critical decision queries. Samples include:

* “What does Black get for White’s bishop pair and space advantage?”
* “What is the purpose of moving the knight twice in the opening?”
* “Why walk into a self-pin?”
* “Hey! I suggested Bxf3 earlier and you criticized it Now Kramnik plays my idea and you give him an excalm! Why?”
* “Why not capture with a pawn to strengthen the center?”
* “Once again, find a way to increase White’s activity and initiative.”
* “Giving up the e5-square?”

As in his other books, Lakdawala sprinkles words of wisdom that can extend beyond the game annotations to which they are attributed, including:

* “There is no such thing as risky when one is on the cusp of busted.”
* “The principles are generalities which work most of the time – not 100% of the time.”
* “…the golden rule of all rook and pawn endings: Keep you rook active at all costs, even if it means giving up a pawn.”
* “…not all unsound attacks are destined to fail. If you don’t believe me, just ask Mikhail Tal.”
* “So practical chances shouldn’t be dismissed.”
* “The KID goes in and out of favour at the top over the decades for no apparent reason. From time to time paranoia arises that the KID has been refuted by this line or that one! But in reality, there is no – and never has been – any existential threat to KID.”
* “When facing multiple threats his (Kramnik) key to survival is to prioritize, identifying the most to least fatal threats and dealing with them in that order.”
* “A person can lose his mind if he thinks too long and too hard about how utterly messed up our world is. The same rule applies on the chessboard if you get caught up in the miseries in your position.”
* “Create confrontation when leading in development.”
* “A line simply goes out of fashion because some titan loses with it to another titan – a fact which has little to no bearing on the average tournament player, for whom it is probably still fully playable and equally confusing to both sides.”

Lakdawala’s style provides a cultural and dictionary smorgasbord, as he casts forth images of vampires, purse-snatching kings, skydivers, deboning chickens, slaughterhouses, sarcophaguses, and puppies; he frequently makes references to classic and contemporary songs and writings as well as news making events. Some references probably go over some people’s heads (mine included), but the author can never be called boring, and, now after this book, neither can Kramnik.

(P.S. The book concludes with a game-and-a half sampling of Lakdawala’s Capablanca book.)

Recommended with enthusiasm for players rated 1500 and up.

I will conclude with the author’s wish, “May Kramnik’s depth of understanding rub off and increase ours as well.”