Mastering Positional Chess: Practical Lessons Of A Junior World Champion, by Daniel Naroditsky
This is the sort of book that one can approach with different attitudes. On the one hand, as the youngest person to write a book about chess, the author can come off as a bit of a tyro who writes about mastering chess without having yet been a master. One can be offended by the author’s joy and enthusiasm about writing analytically about the positions of games, some of them played by some of the most talented and accomplished players ever (like Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, and Petrosian, among others). But if you are, like me, a person of middling chess talent but with an interest in bettering one’s game through understanding the principles of position that can give one an advantage when playing, this book is certainly useful. There are matters in life–and chess is but one of them–where young people have an advantage and can provide useful insight and this book is a definite example of that. The fact that the author combines his insight into positional chess with a great deal of enthusiasm only makes this book more enjoyable to read for those of us who, rather than be offended that a teenager wrote about chess, are amused by the youth of the author and pleased by the skill and verve shown in writing it.
In a bit more than 200 pages, the author accomplishes what he sets out to do. There is a discussion of symbols, acknowledgements, a bibliography, before a preface, foreword, and introduction that are all designed to increase the credibility of the author. Normally symbols and bibliographies are put at the end of the book, but it is as if this author (and/or his publisher) want the reader to know that they are familiar with good books and have the credibility to write about the subject. After that the book itself contains six chapters, each of which ends with tactical exercises for the reader to solve (with answers given at the back of the book). The author begins with the issue of prophylaxis, learning how to move in order to stop a threat before it starts, through a knowledge of what one’s opponent is trying to accomplish (1). After that there is a discussion of how to undertake a successful defense when one is in a worse position than one’s opponent, as happens often for us when we play chess (2). After this comes a useful chapter on building and breaking fortresses (3), as that is the sort of material that can help preserve a draw or turn that 1/2 point into a full point victory. The author then moves to the concept of positional sacrifice, where one gives up a pawn or even a piece in order to gain tempo or improve one’s position (4). The author deals thoughtfully with the problem of paralysis in the middlegame, encouraging the reader to try to put their opponent in a zugzwang by which any move makes them worse off (5), before finishing with a discussion on the importance of maneuvering and understanding the tempo of a game (6).
What is it that makes positional chess so difficult to master? As someone whose skill level is fairly middling, reading this book was a good way to get a grasp of what makes human beings different than computers when playing chess. Human beings play chess as human beings, and there are some consequences of this that make positional chess a challenge. For one, human beings tend to be subject to mood swings, and when a game goes from in our favor to not as a result of an inaccuracy or blunder on our part or a particularly excellent move by our opponent, we can psych ourselves out of games rather than keep a clear head. Likewise, there are positions that are hard for people to play well because they put a lot of stress on someone, and knowing how to put the screws on one’s opponents and force them to make perfect moves or go down in flames is a good way to win, even if it’s not a very charitable approach. This book is focused on becoming better by getting a sense of the board and how one can work within its constraints to develop mastery, and it is certainly a worthwhile book for those who want to get better at chess, even if it was written by a fourteen year old.