Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Best-Ever Short Chess Books?

(Photo by Avital Pilpel)

If there is ever a list made of the best short chess books ever, Van Amerongen's two works should get serious consideration. His 133 Malcodot Ba'Ptichot [133 Opening Traps] and 222 Tachbulot [222 Combinations] (Tel Aviv: Mofet 1973 [2nd edition] and Tel Aviv: Mofet 1963 [1st edition], respectively) are excellent.

Both books were very short: 40 pages! But length is deceiving. Each page is crammed with at least three or four (often more) combinations or traps -- as well as diagrams, hence the large total in each case. Each of the traps or combinations gets a detailed analysis, including variations. In one paragraph of his books there is often more analysis than is found in three or four pages of bad chess books.

The books -- Van Amerongen modestly calls them 'pamphlets', despite containing much more material than many books -- were cheap: the equivalent (according to measuring worth's web site) of about $5 in current US dollars (and that's suggested retail price -- in practice books are often sold below that price.) Not for him was the $20 sticker price.

Above all, the most important part of the work -- the selection of combinations and traps -- is superb. As he noted in the introduction to 222 Tachbulot (the second book to be printed), it was 'very hard to select the traps for the first pamphlet -- and doubly hard to select the combinations for this one.' Van Amerongen notes that he checked thousands of "candidate" combinations (and, presumably, at least hundreds of traps) and chose the best.

His selection of opening traps is so good that it quickly, and deservedly, became the "bible" of Israeli chess players who wish to avoid (or execute) opening traps, and to this day is used by many chess coaches to help their players improve. Van Amerongen only selected real traps -- those that occur from positions beginners-to-intermediate players actually play. Unlike some authors, he didn't think any blunder the opponent could possibly make is reason to title the refutation a combination -- as, for example, in a certain book that calls 1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Ke2?? Qe4# a "combination" by Black.

The degree of care in the selection is seen by the fact that he had gone over (he notes in the introduction of 222 Tachbulot) all the Israeli chess publications to that date to make sure he does not repeat previously-published combinations (apart from a few deliberately included "classics"). Can anybody imagine the authors of today's chess potboilers cracking open Chess Life or the British Chess Magazine to make sure they will not cheat the reader by repeating material he might have already seen?

This is what chess books are like when the author, like Van Amerongen, is modest, honest, and cares about the reader. The exact opposite, I am afraid, of certain popular chess authors these days.

More on Prime Ministers and Chess

Yitzhak Shamir. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

How many prime ministers do you know who would spend time answering questions by an author of a chess book? Yizthak Shamir did just that. Of course, it helped that the author -- Shlomo Kandelshine -- was writing a book about Menachem Oren, who came from the same town (Rozana, in northern Poland) as Shamir. Shamir was younger than Oren (by thirteen years), but knew Oren's family well. Says Shamir:
He [Oren] was excellent in mathematics, and the best polish chess player. Whenever there were tournaments he played in, we looked in Rozana for his score in the newspapers.
Source: Kandelshine's Oren Ba'Tsameret: Dr. Menachem Oren, Aluf ha'Sachmat ha'Rishon shel Medinat Israel [On the Top: Dr. Menachem Oren, the first Chess Champion of Israel], pp. 12-13. Tel Aviv: Reshafim Press, 1989.

An Oren Brilliancy

In the 1954 Olympics, on September 8th, Menachem Oren (Black) had played a brilliancy against the Dane, Palle Moelle Nielsen. While not exactly news, it is not often one sees a queen sacrifice in the chess olympiad -- and as Black, too...

(Game details: Chessbase 9.0 and Shlomo Kandelshine's book, Oren Ba'Tsameret [see details in previous posts]; annotations: Kandelshine's book, pp. 82-83.)

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 h6 6. Bh4 Nbd7 7. Nf3 O-O 8. cxd5 exd5 9. Qc2 Re8 10. Rd3 c6 11. Bg3

Better is 11. O-O.

11. ... Nh5 12. Be5 Nhf6 13. O-O Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Ng4 15. Nxg4

Better is 15. Bh7+ Kf8 16. Nxg4 Bxg5 17. Bf5.

15. ... Bxg4 16. f3

Weakens White's position. Correct was 16. Bf5.

16. ... Be6 17. Qf2 c5 18. Rad1 cxd7 19. exd4 Bh4! 20. g3

Better is 20. Qd2.

20. ... Bf6 21. Bb1 Qd7 22. Qc2 g6 23. Qb3?

Correct was 23. Qd2 or 23. Qf2.

23. ... Bh3 24. Rf2

24. Qxd5 was necessary.

24. ... Bxd2 25. Nxd5

25. ... Re2!!

A well-calculated queen sacrifice.

26. Nf6+ Kh8!

26. ... Bxf6 27. Rxe2.

27. Nxd7 Bxf2+ 28. Kh1 Bd4! 0-1

White resigned since 29. Rg1 Bg2+ 30. Rxg2 Re1+ mates next move.

Friday, July 10, 2009

...and Practice.

While Dr. Oren really did not treat chess as more than a hobby, and physics teaching as a profession -- indeed, as Kandelshine's book (see post below for details) makes clear from numerous interviews, he was one of the best teachers of his time and even headed the Israeli teacher's association -- chess players will be chess players.

Here are -- again -- some anecdotes from former students (all page numbers from Kandelshine's book):
One day he saw two pupils in the back of the class playing chess. He said nothing, despite this being an obvious infraction of the rules. Suddenly, he screamed at one of them -- who made a blunder -- and explained to him the correct move. (pp. 42-43)

He would insert chess terms into his physics lectures. I remember he particularly 'annoyed' a pupil called Laufer [lit. 'runner'; the name of the chess bishop in German - A.P.] He would think about his games during class and, whenever he recalled a bishop move, shouted: 'Laufer, what happens to a vector when...?'. Poor Laufer had to know the material perfectly for every lesson. (p. 43)

He would solve problems on the board and mumble to himself -- 'that's impossible, I had to play Qd7...' We all encouraged him to play in the Israeli championship since we knew we could then copy during the exams, since he'd be thinking of chess. (p. 20)
And, from a personal interview:
Oren walked in front of the class for a few minutes back and forth, holding a chalk, mumbling to himself... suddenly he straightened up, said, 'Well, it's mate!', threw the chalk into the garbage can, and started the lesson.
So much, as they say, for theory.


Dr. Menachem Oren
. Source: Shlomo Kandelshine's book (see previous post), p. 8.

Dr. Menachem Oren, Israel's first chess champion and (according to many I have interviewed, as well as many books) the strongest player of his time in Israel. He was, inter alia, the first Israeli chess champion -- in 1951 -- as well as Lasker chess club's first board when the Israeli chess league was launched in 1954. He was was a teacher of physics in the famous Gimnasiya Hertzeliya high school in Tel Aviv. That, and that alone, was his profession. Chess was always a hobby, and, indeed, he often said that for (almost?) everybody -- chess should be a hobby, too. From Kandelshine's book:
As a hobby I like chess a lot, as a profession, no. It gnaws on one's nerves and gives no satisfaction or money. It is very hard to advance in it, and no easier to make a living from it. (p. 21)

I was not excited by my victory [in the Israeli championship, 1951- A.P.], nor would I have been excited by a defeat. I was very excited for only one moment -- when David Ben Gurion shook my hand... (p. 21)

One should not overindulge in chess. When it becomes the main thing it hurts man's ability to function, his life's work. (p. 42)

Chess is not popular among the young today, and when it is practiced, it's in an unhealthy manner. Instead of many youths dealing a little with chess, a few youths deal far too much with it. Chess is good only as a complementing device for an harmonic education. (p. 42)

I was Oren's student in high school and also knew him previously from the Lasker chess club. As I entered the class for the first time, he told me: 'Here is not the Lasker club!' (student's reminiscences, p. 45)

Government Officials and Chess

David ben Gurion (r.) listening to Menachem Oren (standing) at the closing ceremony of the Israeli chess championship, 1951. Extreme left: the minister of education, David Remez. Middle: David Greengard, championship manager. Source: Shlomo Kandelshine, Oren Ba'Trasmeret -- Dr. Menachem Oren, Aluf Ha'Sachmat Ha'Rishon shel Israel [On the Top: Dr. Menachem Oren, the First Chess Champion of Israel], photo section. Tel Aviv: Reshafim Press, 1989.

While chess-playing government officials are not rare, it is perhaps not too common for the prime minister of a state dealing with so many other problems -- and, what's more, who can hardly play chess -- to take such an interest in the game, not only in international events, but in local ones. Ben Gurion, the prime minister, took such an interest -- perhaps at the request of Remez, the minister of education, who was the greatest fan of chess in the early years of the state.

Can you imagine, today, that the American president -- or the current PM of Israel -- would bother to come and visit, let alone show any interest, in a chess tournament?