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Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy Paperback – March 1, 1999
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About the Author
International Master John Watson is one of the world's most respected writers on chess. In 1999, his Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy won 'Chess Book of the Year' awards in the USA and the UK. He reviews chess books for The Week in Chess and hosts a weekly radio show on the Internet Chess Club. As a trainer, he has worked with many talented pupils, including Tal Shaked.
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Top Customer Reviews
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy Gambit Publications, 1999, 272pp. by IM John Watson Review by Randy Bauer
Randy's Rating: 9.5/10
While reviewing books, I often wonder if any of them will still be considered worth reading in another fifty years. I'm relieved to report that Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy has the kind of staying power and relevance that will bear reading and re-reading in the decades to come. International Master John Watson is a serious chess theorist and author with a bevy of good books to his credit. His books exhibit a care and attention to detail that is often lacking from other popular authors. This book surpasses even Watson's previous high standards.
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy seeks to take up where Nimzowitsch's My System left off. Nimzowitsch's book is often considered to be a seminal work that charted a new course in chess thought. Watson, who believes that modern chess thought is radically different than that of the best players of an earlier era, discusses the various issues raised by Nimzowitsch in the first part of his book, while the second explores modern methods and praxis.
The first part is particularly useful for those who are not familiar with Nimzowitsch's original work. While Watson also seeks to "update" various concepts explored by Nimzowitsch in this section, the coverage isn't nearly as deep as in the second part of the book. Indeed, the first section covers just 91 pages. It is useful, however, for laying the foundation for the balance of the book.
The second part of the book covers a variety of topics. At the start, Watson develops a key concept, that modern play is not as preoccupied with basic principles and is more focused on position-specific analysis. The author often refers to this as "rule-independence" and discusses the demise of general rules and the difficulty of relying on a general description of ideas and plans versus analysis of specific lines in any situation.
Watson then delves into modern play as it relates to specific pieces. In particular, he focuses on pawn play and the minor pieces as well as the exchange sacrifice. Finally, he provides some really fascinating chapters on some little-discussed topics, including prophylaxis, dynamism, time and information, initiative, and the modern opening.
While there is lots of fresh material throughout the book, I found these final chapters to be particularly interesting, probably because they explore topics that are not typically addressed in chess books. While there are many well-intentioned texts written on chess topics, they often exhibit a "deja vu...I've read it all before" tendency. In other words, the same topics are explored with the same types of examples and the same sorts of explanations. Watson's book obliterates this mold.
Watson steps outside the normal topics by thinking about chess topics -- and then explaining them in the book -- to a depth that is seldom found in contemporary books. Quite frankly, Watson puts more into this book than its price would require. There is so much discussion -- based on so much thought -- that I quickly concluded that Watson will end up making nothing more than slave wages out of this effort. The book seems more preoccupation than vocation, and this passion is contagious -- I probably spent more time with this book than any I've read in the past few years.
One of the books that has provided similarly fresh thought, Mihai Suba's Dynamic Chess Strategy, actually benefits from Watson's in-depth analytical approach. Suba's 1991 book, at 144 small pages, couldn't really do justice to the revolutionary ideas that he espoused. The book was also as much an exposition of his very interesting games as his theories. In this book, however, Watson provides many of the examples necessary to back up Suba's original arguments. It is, in many respects, the counterpart to Suba's work, just as Nimzowitsch felt it necessary to write Chess Praxis to provide the examples for his theories in My System.
One of the delicious ironies of this book is the fact that Watson, who argues long and loud for an analytic perspective in chess, is such a good writer of chess prose -- which is the antithesis of this approach to determining chess truth. A player who is looking only to delve into chess through deep analysis of games and games fragments may find this book too wordy and introspective. I certainly didn't. Instead, I found engrossing discussions of chess topics that should interest both the chess player and the chess philosopher.
While the author suggests that this book doesn't teach anything about chess, I strongly disagree. Watson does such a good job of explaining and exploring key chess concepts that a player cannot help but improve his chess knowledge by studying this book. Indeed, after reading Watson's discussion of several topics, I found that I had a much better grasp of those concepts and their modern application.
At the same time that I appreciate the effort, educational value, and strong production that went into this book, I must tell you that I don't entirely agree with Watson's key premise. The book argues that chess has changed dramatically since Nimzowitch's time. While I don't disagree with this, I believe that Watson overstates his case. In Watson's view, the chess pre-Nimzowitsch was basically focused on adhering to rules and concepts as a guide to play, while the modern proponents reject this method and focus ultimately on rigorous, rule independent analysis.
In my opinion, Watson makes his case for the supremacy of the modern method by focusing on overly simplistic chess rules and aphorisms found in chess annotations from earlier players. For example, the author focuses on Emanuel Lasker's suggestion that a player should make only a couple of pawn moves in the opening. However, any examination of Lasker's own play and the opening systems he espoused would suggest that this was not the guide to his own play. In this case, one could suggest that Lasker was exhibiting his own "rule independence" -- perhaps he was suggesting that average players should guide their play by these basic principles; I think that it's likely he viewed his own play to be above such rules.
There are other examples of this tendency to dismiss or overlook the classical players' efforts at "rule independence." Watson spends a great deal of time discussing pawn play, particularly flank pawn play. From his perspective, early flank expansion is a product of modern play. However, in the Ruy Lopez, after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, the non-developing pawn move 3...a6 (later followed by the further wing expansion ...b5 and ...c5) was championed by Morphy, and black's typical early queenside expansion was accepted by most non-modern players as black's best course in this variation. There are other examples. Bird's 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4 fits right in with more modern flouting of the rule about not moving the same piece twice in the opening, doesn't it?
Of course, Morphy's 3...a6 has proved more popular than Bird's 3...Nd4, but I don't think it is because players found one principle to be less important than another. I would suggest that the preference was (and is) the case because chess praxis has been a continual process of hypothesis testing. Theories are developed and tested in practice, and conclusions are reached. Sometimes these conclusions are ultimately proved wrong, and theory develops all over again. This continual testing and re-testing is an incremental process that is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I think it fits in better with chess development than Watson's model.
For example, I think the experience of several world champions casts at least some doubt on the book's assertions. Watson makes a strong case for the prevalence of a calculating, dynamic approach in modern chess, but it's hard to attach this paradigm to Karpov, the present FIDE champion and the best player in the world for a significant stretch of time during the modern era. Indeed, during that time you could find a significant increase in strategic openings that Karpov favored, such as the Tarrasch variation against the French Defense, the Classical Variation versus the Pirc Defense, and Be2 variations in the open Sicilian. In my opinion, Karpov's play (and imitators like Ulf Andersson) remind me more of Capablanca than more modern players.
Meanwhile, Bobby Fischer would seem to mitigate Watson's ideas on dynamism. While present players like Kasparov and Shirov may use the Sicilian and other defenses as a way to immediately create unclear play that doesn't lend itself to determinations of equality or advantage for either side, many players and writers have suggested that Fischer (even though an exponent of sharp openings like the Sicilian) did not view it that way. Fischer was on record as suggesting that a player with black must achieve equality first before playing for an advantage.
Finally, there is Alekhine. Perhaps he is, in the statistical sense, an "outlier,&
Alex Yermolinsky in "Road to Chess Improvement" also acknowledges that the old instructional classics found it easier to instruct with clear strategical plans, while strong players know what to avoid and try to cross the plans, so necessitating flexibility.
In general, Watson makes an excellent case, e.g. with the Ivanchuk-Anand game, I think Watson's right and Anand wrong that normal pawn structure and bad bishop rules would not have helped at all, because one active rook outweighed everything else. Watson also shows some shortcomings of Nimzovich's tempo counting, and refutes Nimzo's quaint advance French lines with the move ...f6, attacking the HEAD of the pawn chain.
The sections on the minor pieces are superb. He astutely points out that opposition to "dogmatic" love of the bishop pair has itself become a dogma. E.g. Flesch claims that the bishop and knight have precisely equal value, but this is a dogmatic claim about two pieces with completely different moves (p. 148). It's also clear that the B-pair does constitute an advantage in very many cases, including one dismissed by Nimzo (p. 67).
A definite advance on the conventional strategy books is the advice on BvN in the opening. Most players learn that Bs like open games and Ns like closed ones. But in the opening, the side with a Ns often has a development advantage, so the best strategy is for THAT side to open the game, make use of the tactical abilities of the N, and force pawn moves that create permanent outposts. So the side with the Bs should seek to stabilize the position, catch up in development, then open up the game when ready, so the bishops can display their strength (pp. 178-9).
There is also good material on good v bad bishops. Beginners often prefer bad bishops because they can protect their pawns. More advanced players learn to reject them because of the weakness of the opposite colored squares. But as Watson shows, still more advanced players will sometimes revert to the beginner's attitude, where "bad bishops protect bad pawns for good reasons". One example I can think of is neutralising enemy rooks while one's own rooks attack undefended pawns and reduce the enemy rooks to passivity.
Watson does overstate his case a bit though. For example, Tal relates a post mortem after Game 9 of their first match. Tal rattled off some variations, while Botvinnik said he didn't dispute what Tal said, but just said he assessed the merits of exchanging queens. Tal first thought it was "too abstract", then came to appreciate this wisdom. Another example comes from Andy Soltis' fine book "Soviet Chess". Petrosyan thought Gufeld had violated so many rules that there just HAD to be a way to punish him, which he found. In fact, Chernev's elementary book "Logical Chess Move by Move" pointed out decades ago that a rule violation should often be punished by a rule violation.
I also disagree Watson's treatment of the old masters. For example, he will excuse modern greats for annotating in ways that LOOK like they are applying rules, because otherwise too many trees would have to be killed to explain the caveats. But then the same allowance should be made for the older annotators too, which Watson fails to do, unlike Yermolinsky.
I also wonder whether Watson actually read Tarrasch's "Dreihundert Schachpartien", which to be fair may have been translated into English ("300 Chess Games") after Watson wrote. For example, Watson claims (p. 41) about the Nimzo-Salwe 1911 game with 7. dxc5, "After this game, 6...cxd4 was considered better [than Bxd7]". But almost 20 years before, Tarrasch in 300 Chess Games had played 6...cxd4 and given it an exclamation mark because, as Tarrasch *explicitly* stated, Bd7 would allow 7.dxc5 with a good game. Watson makes other less blatant errors, e.g. the usual "dogmatism" accusation (p. 95), and indeed there are a number of genuine examples. But there are many times when Tarrasch appeals to the specifics of the position, e.g. where he explains that the N goes to the edge because in that position it was important to drive the B off that diagonal.
Another reviewer noted the disrespect for Capablanca. For instance, on p. 94, Watson notes an example of Capa's alleged dogmatism, while Euwe and Kramer had noted Capa's NON-dogmatism. It's important to note that Capa never lived to see "Last Lectures" in print, and what he probably intended was Bogolyubov's line with O-O AND exd4. The book also has him recommending a line that falls into a trap, although his "My Chess Career" has the correct line. But I can see why Watson went just by what was written, and he does come down on Capa's side in his annotations of the famous loss to Lasker at St. Petersburg 1914.
I mention these shortcomings, as I see them, because most reviewers on various websites have expended many keystrokes on praise. And I repeat, the praise is NOT overstated in the case of this high-quality book