How to Defend in Chess

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IM Colin Crouch, 2000, Everyman Chess,
Pages: 224 pp.
Rating:  9

Some writers have a gift for making the reader think, and IM Crouch cements that status with this well conceptualized, researched, and written book. The author’s previous book, Queen’s Gambit Declined: Bf4!, provided an authoritative discussion of the theory of a topical opening variation. This new effort is simultaneously more expansive and focused — while the topic of defense can cover a wide variety of methods, Crouch mostly relies upon a small game sample from two players to demonstrate these strategies.  In this case, it works, because the author pours so much into the discussion.

This chess book starts out with a good concept, and Crouch doesn’t stray in executing it. Concentrating on ten games each of World Champions Emanual Lasker and Tigran Petrosian, the author shows the uniquely different approaches that are possible to defense in chess.  While great defenders, these two went about their task in entirely dissimilar ways.  Lasker was renowned for his ability to create immense complications that often sidetracked a player with the objectively better position. On the other hand, Petrosian was adept at taking a more passive approach, often retreating his pieces to secure locations and snuffing out the offensive threats via prophylaxis.

The differences inherent in these approaches provide many opportunities for useful commentary.  For the defender, the dynamic tension between the “Laskeresque” and the “Petrosianistic” approaches to defense is a very practical dilemma. The chess battleground is strewn with useful examples where a passive defender should have resorted to activity and an active counterattacker would have had better chances by hanging tight.

While Crouch is duly impressed with the abilities of these two chess luminaries, he does not let it interfere with an objective treatment of the subject. A common failing in annotating chess games, particularly those played by others, is to praise all of the decisions of the winner and criticize all those of the loser. Crouch does not fall into this trap — there are many points where he finds fault with the play of Lasker and Petrosian; I found it particularly instructive where Crouch discussed ways that Petrosian could have played more actively — in the spirit of Lasker.

Some of the examples used by the author are familiar, but Crouch does not allow them to become hackneyed.  For example, just about any serious player has run across the famous Lasker-Napier Sicilian; Crouch’s notes are much different than others I have seen to this game, and they allow even the most ardent student of the game to take a fresh look at this epic contest. Likewise, Petrosian’s famous defensive exchange sacrifice against Reshevsky from the 1953 Zurich candidates tournament is given a thorough treatment — many players have seen only the position leading up to the famous 25….Re6!! and will find a discussion of the entire game quite interesting.

Crouch also shares some fascinating opinions about the players themselves. I was particularly interested in his reading of the Fischer-Petrosian candidates match in Buenos Aires from 1971. Crouch believes that Petrosian, not Spassky, was the only player with the talent and ability to stop Fischer in the 1969-72 World Championship cycle.  However (here we get that familiar Lasker-Petrosian tension), he believes that Petrosian’s one weakness, his reluctance to take the initiative, ended up costing him a chance in this match — as well as his chance to be regarded as one of the super-champions of the caliber of Kasparov, Fischer, or Karpov.

There is a lot of chess analysis and insight packed into this volume.   Besides the main 20 games, there are an additional 23 supplemental games that build upon the themes discussed in the main games.  It’s notable that most of the games are high caliber affairs involving the strongest players of the respective eras.  We see Lasker battling Pillsbury, Chigorin, Steinitz, Schlechter, Nimzovitsch, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe and Spielman.  Petrosian tangles with Smyslov, Reshevsky, Botvinnik, Spassky, Fischer, Tal, Kasparov and Karpov.

The book also includes an interesting introduction that covers the defensive themes and their development throughout chess history. Coupled with indexes of openings, players, and games, and solid production, this is a top notch book.

In summary, the author has surveyed an important topic in a new and interesting way.  The book is appealing in many respects — it provides extensive coverage of key games of two world champions, it discusses defense in a depth often not found, and it provides a nice balance between active and solid approaches.  In short, this is a intelligent, well written book that deserves careful study.

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