Akiba Rubinstein: The Later Years
by IM John Donaldson & IM Nikolay Minev.
This book is unique in a number of ways. The first thing you notice is the layout. While it is the approximate size of most books (9×6 inches), the long measurement is horizontal. Secondly, the material is presented in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a grandmaster and a class B player. Third, interspersed throughout the text are copious caricatures of famous personalities captioned by their pithy quotes about the endgame. The net result of these unique features is an easy and fun to read book, that instructs without the usual drudgery of endgame treatises.
GM Soltis has written dozens of chess books and is clearly one of the best writers around. The quality of his opening books has been mixed but some of his other works have become classics – Pawn Structure Chess (1976) and Frank Marshall, United States Champion (1994) come to mind. This new work may well be his best book and is certainly one of the best endgame books ever written for the class (first category) player.
My first impression was that the Socratic dialogue was a poor idea. But I became so absorbed in the subject matter and positions, that after a while I didn’t even notice the format. Though I knew most of the principles presented, for some reason I couldn’t put the book down. It reads so easily, you just keep turning the pages. The dialogue cleverly draws you from one example to the next by anticipating the reader’s questions. And the vast majority of the examples are taken from the past 10 years.
The real core of the book is the principles, rules, and “secrets.” There are many, but not so many as one might think. Soltis frequently insists that one can get by with only a handful of rules of thumb, and tries to prove it. Nearly everything of importance is covered: active pieces, fortresses, Lucena, Philidor, converting advantages, planning, zugzwang, opposition, to name just a few. Various myths about the endgame are debunked. Special chapters are found on Queen, Rook, Knight, Bishop, and Pawn endings. Overall, the book appropriately gives most emphasis to Rook endings, since they are the most frequent and most difficult. Their treatment is excellent. The revelation that Queen endings are relatively easy (and the reason for this) is alone worth the price of the book.
Soltis even coins his own terms for two crucial ideas that are emphasised throughout the book: mismatches and elbowing out! Mismatches are an imbalance of material in certain areas of the board. I would describe it as a synthesis of the principle of decoying plus the endgame version of my principle of “localised material advantage” (see my An Introduction to Chess: The Creative Game; Prentice Hall, 1982). “Elbowing out” is a truly wonderful description of a well-known King manoeuvre in the endgame that has never been named. The term is destined to become a part of standard usage.
I have only a few misgivings.
- Soltis argues in Chapter One that one needs to know only a few basic endgame positions to “get good”. He says knowing a large number of such positions “helps but is not essential.” He thinks that knowing basic positions doesn’t tell you how to win, and that “a good practical player would figure it out…” Well, I think it depends on what he means by “get good” and how does one become a good practical player anyway? His statements are perhaps useful in the first chapter so as not to scare off readers, but I think the reality is, the more basic positions you know, the better you will get.
- Though the caricatures are cute and some are good (they were done by the publisher’s son), many don’t really resemble the players they supposedly portray.
- In many of the examples, I found reasonable defensive tries that aren’t discussed. Most of these don’t change the evaluation, but their explanation would be valuable to the student. On the other hand, many Class B players will not find the defensive tries anyway.
This is a premier endgame book for the Class player – readers rated 1500-2100 will get the most from it. But even I found a “secret” I didn’t know (Rule of Five) and the book changed my image of Queen endings. I have always felt that the earlier in one’s chess development that a player learns an appreciation for the endgame, the stronger that player is likely to become. This book has the ability to instill that appreciation very early, without presenting too much detail. As mentioned in the preface, the publisher noted that most endgame books are terribly designed, poorly written, have out of date examples, contain confusing wording, are just ugly.
They wanted to design a book that would both entertain and teach. I think the author and publisher have succeeded admirably.