Instructive Modern Chess Masterpieces


GM Igor Stohl, 2001, Gambit Publications
Pages: 320
Rating:  7.5

There will always be an audience for books about well-played games by strong players with world class annotators, and this is no exception. The grandmaster author has selected 50 classic games for annotation, and he does a great job of bringing them to focus for most players.

I’ve always found well  annotated games to be a great learning tool.   It’s true that one has to be exposed to well played games to start the process of understanding what good play is all about.

Author Stohl is a grandmaster from Slovakia, and his annotations can be found in several chess periodicals, including Chess Informant and Chessbase Magazine.   He is known as an openings theoretician, and this shows up in his approach to the games in this book.

While many games collection books largely gloss over openings theory discussions, Stohl provides quite a bit of commentary in this area. The games in the book are from 1993 to 2000, and in many of the earlier games the author has updated the theory with examples from more recent events.

It’s interesting to contrast this book with another recent Gambit offering, John Nunn’s Understanding Chess Move by Move, because the books offering somewhat contrasting annotating methods.  Nunn’s book is based on general discussion and commentary after most moves, and this means that just 30 games can be covered in 240 pages.  Stohl is more laconic, relies on variations to make many of his points, and covers 50 games in 320 pages.

One of the features that some may or may not like is found in Stohl’s game summaries. There are no introductions to the games – they just start right off with the moves.  At the end of the games, there is a summary that gives a few paragraphs of explanation of the key points and concepts.  This often mentions key points in the game and ways that one or the other side might have changed the eventual outcome.   While this might assist a player who wants to go through the game and form their own conclusion (such as those who use the solitaire method with the games in the book), many readers like the author to frame some of what is going to happen in an introduction.   I found the summaries a little hard to follow – I often had to flip back several pages to find the point in the game the author is talking about.  Rather than these extensive “look behinds” I would generally prefer Nunn’s method of discussing these key issues as they arise in the game.

Most of the games are contested by world class players from the top events of the past eight years.  It’s not surprising that Kasparov is a contestant in nine of the games; the others appearing with greater frequency are Shirov (7 games), Topalov (6), Kramnik and Anand (5 apiece), and Gelfand (4).  I was surprised to find just 2 games by Karpov – less than the 3 for Leko, J. Polgar, Timman, and Van Wely.

There always is a concern that the games will be ones that players have seen before.  While there are some of those in this collection (Kasparov’s brilliant rook sacrifice against Topolov at Wijk aan Zee 1999, his blitz of Anand in an Evans Gambit at Riga 1995, or Shirov’s sacrificial fireworks in the Grunfeld Defense against Kramnik in their 1998 match spring to mind), I found that about half the games were new to me, and several of the others were far from analyzed out.  I think most players will find enough new material here.

Reflecting modern trends, the Sicilian Defense is by far the most common variation found in the book, accounting for 11 of the 50 games.  The next closest variations are the Ruy Lopez and Queen’s Indian Defense with 4 games each.  Three of the “hot” queenside variations, the Grunfeld, Slav, and King’s Indian Defense each show up in just two games.

In my final analysis, this was a useful and worthwhile book, and most players will benefit from its study.  However, when comparing it to Understanding Chess Move by Move, the annotations did not interest me or involve me in the game as much.   There were fewer of the revelations or discoveries to be found here.  No doubt this may partially reflect my preference for discussions as opposed to variations, but I did not find the book as compelling as Nunn’s.  This also reflects the decision to put a fair amount of the actual discussion of the game in a summary rather than in the annotations within the game.

As is generally the case with this publisher, the production values for the book are very good.  It is a large book with a noticeable heft to it, the print and diagrams are clear, which is especially important when using figurine algebraic notation .  The book nicely opens flat without undue pressure.  The table of contents lists each of the games, and there are useful indexes of the players and openings in the back.

In conclusion, Gambit Publications is on a roll, and they continue to turn out high quality books that will appeal to serious students of the game.  In this case, the author, a noted theoretician, has provided detailed notes of the opening phase as well as the other parts of the 50 games.  Featuring most of the world’s best players over the past decade, it will provide plenty of useful study.  The author tends toward the analytical style of annotating; those who prefer more wordy discussions should check out Nunn’s Understanding Chess Move by Move.


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