Publisher: Batsford £15.99/$23.95 312 pages ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
First published in 1965, Irving Chernev’s book has become a classic in the field of annotated games. Now Batsford bring us an algebraic edition to make the book more accessible to further generations.
The author, born Russian but a nationalised American, presents 62 games played by the greats of the game from Steinitz to Fischer, each with an instructive theme. These include demonstrations of how to play with the Bishop pair (Game 20: Rosenthal – Steinitz, 1873), weak colour complexes (Game 38: Bernstein – Mieses, 1904 amongst others) and creating and supporting a passed pawn (Game 9: Fischer – Berliner, 1960). This is a real treasure trove of positional and endgame play in particular.
Let me start with Chernev’s style of instruction. His annotations favour explanations with words rather than multiple variations, although short lines are used to explain tactical points.
In the following position from the famous Capablanca – Tartakower, 1924 game, Chernev writes:
“Now comes a brilliant continuation which Capablanca must have planned many moves before. In a simplified ending, where Pawns are worth their weight in gold, he gives away two Pawns! Moreover, he lets Black capture them with check!
The King is heading for f6, a square from where he can assist the Rook in mating threats, and also help the passed Pawn take those last three steps.”
This is the sort of plan which might not occur to someone who hasn’t seen it before but will stay with them forever when they have. One of my competitive OTB games last year was won using this very idea, letting some Pawns go in order to advance my King and shepherd a Pawn home.
Some of the game commentaries may seem obvious but I feel they are useful, for instance, in the following diagram, Chernev writes:
“29. Ke3! This move accomplishes a great deal.
- The King protects the pawn, freeing the Rook for active duty.
- The King is brought closer to the center.
- Black’s Rook, blockader of the Pawn, is forced to retreat.
- The passed pawn will be able to advance.”
All obvious enough but by stating the benefits of the move, the reader is aware of its logic and what he should be doing to achieve his aims. This awareness can be used in more long-term planning in his own games.
The games are very well chosen, they are excellent examples of the various themes. Here’s a look at Game 39: Steinitz – Sellman, 1885.
Chernev writes: “16. Be3! This move, seizing control of the black squares, marks the beginning of White’s positional attack.
White plans to win the game by taking possession of the most important squares in sight, eventually leaving his opponent without a single playable move.”
A few moves later…
“23. Na5! The Knight has taken five moves to get to a5, a square at the edge of the board, but there is method to Steinitz’s madness. The Knight is bound for c6, to kill off the King’s Bishop.”
“30. Bf2! This Bishop has been idle for quite a while, but it is now ready to go to work on the black squares. Its first threat is 31. Bh4, attacking the Rook which protects the Knight. This would win the exchange at least.”
“35. Bd6! Places Black in zugzwang. Let us look at the choice open to Black:
- The King may not move.
- The Bishop may move, only at the risk of instant capture.
- The Rook may move to b8, when 36. Rxd7 Kxd7 37. Bxb8 wins a piece for White.
- The Knight may move to b6 (not to f8, as 36. Re7 is mate) when 36. Re7+ Kf8 37. Nh7+ Kg8 38. Nf6+ Kf8 39. Rd7 is discovered check and mate.
- Capitulation – upon which Black decides.”
As a good portion of chess players buy books with the hope of improving their play, a game collection of “The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played” sounds very promising. Does it live up to its billing? Absolutely. The clear-cut strategies together with Chernev’s elucidations will soon become part of the reader’s understanding.
There has been slight criticism of this book by some who say that Chernev over-simplifies the games, suggesting the win was all down to a general principle which one side ignored and the other used. This is fair comment and the reader should bear in mind that there is often a stronger defence to be found. However, the real value in this book, and game collections in general, is in the ideas.
By absorbing the themes in this book, the reader is accumulating plans and methods of executing them. Then, in his own games, he can calculate the best way to realise his aims.
There are some errors in the book, of two types. Firstly, an incorrect move in the notes of Game 5: Rubinstein – Duras, 1908, after White has played 34. b7:
“With the threat of winning by 55 Rh8+followed by Queening the Pawn”.
The original book does not make a mistake here: “With the threat of winning by 35 R-R8ch followed by Queening the Pawn.”
Of course, it is obvious what is meant and this was the only example of this that jumped out at me.
The second type is some errors in the analysis, which were also in the original. In Game 3: Boleslavsky – Lisitsin, this position occurs:
Black plays 24…Qh6 and Chernev notes: “If 24…Qxg3 25 Rd2 leaves Black curiously helpless against the threat of Rg2 winning the Queen.”
However, on 25 Rd2? Black has …Bh6! 26 Rg2? Rc1+ 27 Qxc1 Qxg2.
The reason Black can’t play 24…Qxg3 is the simple 25 Rh3 winning the Queen.
Whether the analysis errors should have been corrected is open to debate. I have seen some comments (with regard to other books) saying that such corrections have detracted from the lesson being given, although I don’t think that would apply in this instance.
I have had an old copy of this book for many years and have always enjoyed the games and Irving Chernev’s writing. The book is invaluable for the ideas contained within and should be a part of every player’s library. In terms of player strength it is suitable for, I would say everybody up to 1700 strength will gain hugely from these examples and I would be surprised if stronger players didn’t also find plenty that they had not seen before.
Even a chess improver with severe time constraints can play through a game from this book a day and learn a great deal in a couple of months. If you haven’t got this book already, take this opportunity to get a real classic in algebraic format.