by Steve Lopez

The dog days of summer are close at hand and it's at this time of year that I find myself spending more time reading about chess than I spend actually playing it. I've had a few chess books, CDs, and other miscellany lying around waiting for me to get time to actually look at them. This week I'll share some reviews/impressions of them with you.

Laszlo Polgar is best known as the father of three chess prodigies, namely the Polgar sisters (Susan, Sofia, and Judit). But does this qualify him to write an instructional chess book? I have to admit that I was skeptical when his book Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games (Tess Press, ISBN 1-57912-130-6) was published a few years ago. The hefty price tag didn't help matters much; I ultimately decided to give it a pass. But I was recently browsing in a chain bookstore and ran across a paperback copy of it for $10.00. At the price of about 1/5 of a cent per position, I figured that it was worth a look.

I'm pretty pleasantly surprised by Polgar's book. Aside from Bruce Pandolfini's introduction and a brief introduction to the rules of chess, the book is languageless (a big plus on hot summer days when you don't feel like slogging through the typical chess book's oppressive [read: boring] prose). It's basically a big exercise book, divided into sections. The first section is made up of 306 mate in one problems. For experienced players, this is pretty good review material (and can be enlightening -- I've discovered that I need some work when mating an opponent's King in the center of the board). The next section consists of over 3400 mate in two positions. Now before you snort derisively, think back -- when was the last time you solved a group of mate in twos? Believe me, it's tougher than you recall. This is followed by a few hundred mate in three problems.

Next we're treated to 600 miniature games showing tactical ideas in action. These games are mostly unannotated, except for the standard evaluation symbols and perhaps one variation per game. Next we get about 150 simple endgame positions to solve, and the volume wraps up with just over a hundred combination problems taken from the games of the Polgar sisters (as a parent, I can understand this -- Dad's justifiably proud of his girls).

The approach taken by Polgar reminds me of that taken by George Renko in his ChessBase CD Intensive Tactics Course (featured in ETN on April 16, 2000). The positions are grouped by theme; for example, if a position contains a central board mate by a Queen supported by a Knight, the next three or four positions will also utilize this same theme. If nothing else, we learn the theme by osmosis -- seeing it over and over tends to let it sink through even the thickest of craniums.

This is a good refresher book for experienced chessplayers as well as a good starter book for beginners. I think it's an excellent "vacation" book -- I can see myself lying on a beach soaking up some rays and solving a few pages of problems from the book. And, at 1104 pages with over 5000 problems and games being presented, it'll keep you busy for a while.

I get some pretty interesting and unusual calls in the course of my work at ChessBase USA. One gentleman called and claimed to have "solved chess" by using a simple system that even a child could master. A few less ambitious folks have developed systems that allow a player to win any endgame, regardless of the material present on the board, by simply following three rules of thumb. Others have developed new systems for revaluing the pieces (for example, systems in which a Rook is worth less than a Bishop or some such). And so on...

So when I get a call from someone who opens the conversation with "I've developed a system...", the red flag immediately goes up. I immediately become more skeptical than The Amazing Randi when someone tells him that they can stand in New York and read a deck of cards as they're flipped over one by one by a dealer in Monaco. But once in a while somebody comes up with something that really catches my interest. Dan Heisman did it with the first edition of Elements of Positional Evaluation (which wasn't really a "system", just a different way of examining the potential within a position); likewise Charles Alexander has done it with this book Knight Moves (Chess Enterprises, ISBN 0-945470-76-2).

Knight Moves (no relation to the Christopher Lambert movie of the same name) is about, you guessed it, the way the Knight moves across the chessboard. Alexander's thesis is that it's easy to see where a Knight may move immediately, but it's difficult to see where a Knight can end up after two or three moves. According to him, he's developed a system that makes it easy for a player to make this determination in just a few seconds.

Chess has frequently been described as a game of pattern recognition. We learn how the pieces move by remembering patterns. We learn to recognize tactics by remembering patterns. Alexander's system consists of extending the Knight's basic pattern to be able to see at a glance where the Knight can potentially move over the course of the next two to three moves; in other words, you'll learn to recognize where the Knight can wind up over a two to three move span by memorizing and recognizing patterns.

It's a short book (just 57 pages before you get to the practice exercises), but is by no means a quick read (unless you're one of those disgustingly Einsteinian types who can think in four dimensions). I'm fairly dense, so I'm taking my time with it. I'll freely admit that I've not yet finished the book and that I have no idea whether or not the pattern recognition technique given by Alexander will work for me (I'll have to get back to you on it). But I can tell you this much: it's an interesting book that proposes a very unique technique for board visualization and it's definitely worth a look. Mastering pattern recognition technique is a major bugaboo for most chessplayers and I'm all for anything that provides me with a new angle on board visualization. I think the author may be on to something here...

Readers of my other Internet chess columns (both here and on the SmartChess site) already know that I'm an avid (albeit amateur) chess historian. I love chess biographies, read them voraciously, and collect trivial and anectdotal information about great players of the past . So when Sid Pickard sent me a copy of the new CD Grandmaster Efim Bogoljubow by ICCF IM Victor Charushin, it definitely set my tail to waggin'. I've been writing about Bogoljubow for the last 8 years in my book Battle Royale and I'll confess that I find the man to be a total cypher. Very little has been written about him in the west and it's damnably hard to find decent information about him.

Not only does this CD contain a lot of great biographical info on Bogo, but it has a huge pile of his games (some of which have previously been almost impossible to locate in any sources beside private gamescore collections). There are 1247 games on the CD and over half of them are annotated. The annotations are in the form of Informant-style commentary and a number of different annotator's works are provided (in fact, over a hundred of the games are annotated by Bogo himself). Charushin has annotated 274 of the games specifically for this CD.

The database is presented chronologically. It begins with an foreword by Sid Pickard, followed by an introduction by the author. Chapter One describes the coffeeehouses where Bogoljubow obtained his early hands-on experience and gives details on his first tournaments. This chapter is followed by four games (three of them annotated) which are representative of Bogo's play during this period.

Chapter Three details what to me is the most interesting period in Bogoljubow's life: his internment by the Germans during World War I. Bogo was playing in a German tournament in August 1914 when war broke out between the major powers in Europe. As he was a Russian citizen, he was arrested and held by the Germans for the duration of the war. He spent much of this time of incarceration playing and studying chess, and it's at this point in his life that his playing ability really took off. The CD provides 47 games from his period of internment at Baden-Baden and Triberg. The text for Chapter Three ends with a really haunting and poignant photograph: the tuxedoed participants of the Mannheim tournament at what appears to be a formal banquet, blissfully unaware of the turmoil that's about to rock Europe. It really evokes the spirit of the "Guilded Age", a period that's lost and gone forever.

The CD is also chock full of photographs and tournament crosstables (one of my favorite chess photos is present on the CD: a group shot of the participants of the New York 1924 tournament -- Janowski with his haunted look, Edward Lasker smiling for the camera, Capablanca appearing as though he wishes he was anywhere else at that moment, and Dr. Lasker with a very characteristic wry expression on his face).

Grandmaster Efim Bogoljubow is a really marvellous CD -- in fact, it's the best implementation of the ChessBase 7 text format I've seen on a CD that wasn't produced by ChessBase. And I really wish I'd had this information before I'd started writing Battle Royale -- it would have been much easier to write about Bogo had I known some of the things I've learned from this CD. You can get more information on it from the Pickard & Son website.

And now for something completely different...

There have been chess variants for as long as there's been chess. I can imagine a couple of medieval sultans playing each other, when one turns to the other and says, "Hey, why don't we try a game where the pawns can move this way instead?" There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these things kicking about: sets with an extra piece or two, sets with larger boards, sets with non-square boards, stes designed for three or four players, three dimensional (tri-level) sets. And I have to be honest about this -- most of these things just leave me cold. I liked the 3D set that Sears used to sell in the mid-70's (that is, until a heavyset girl from my neighborhood broke two of the three plexiglass boards), but that's pretty much the only chess variant I ever enjoyed. I once bought and tried something called Orbital Chess, played on a round board, but it was practically impossible to track the Bishops' moves: diagonally in four directions as in normal chess, but spiralling toward the board's center and out toward the rim. After playing a game in which one of the Kings had been in check by the Bishop for three moves without either player being aware of it, I gave up on the game. I used the "normal" sets provided as analysis boards for a while, but the game has since been packed up and now resides in a dark neglected corner of my game collection.

But one chess variant game has intrigued me, ever since I first heard about it in rec.games.chess.misc a few years ago. Steve Jackson Games (publishers of the excellent Car Wars boardgame and GURPS role-playing system) publish a chess variant called Knightmare Chess. It's not a complete chess set (you'll need to provide your own) -- it's a deck of 80 cards that are used to add completely random (and often bizarre) elements to a game of chess. It's based on a French game called TempÍte sur l'Echiquier (and I have no idea what that means. "Bonjour, mademoiselle," is the total extent of my French linguistic abilities -- I tend to remember only the personally useful stuff). I finally broke down and bought a copy of Knightmare Chess a few days ago just to try it out.

Each card has a point value, with more powerful cards having higher values (up to a maximum of ten points). To start, you build a 150-point deck by selecting the cards you want. Your opponent does likewise. Then you start playing chess. On your turn you make a move and have the option of playing a card. Each card has wild results -- you might be able to make one of your pieces move like a totally different piece, or you might play a card after your opponent moves which forces him to take back his move and make another. Some cards even turn a piece into a completely new kind of chess piece (in my first game of Knightmare Chess, I played a card that turned one of my pawns into a "Crab", which could move and capture diagonally forward one square at a time -- in other words, the pawn's forward move was replaced by a diagonal move. The idea might sound silly at first, but it was a pretty effective piece: my opponent spent considerable time and effort in attempts to capture my Crab).

Here are a few sample events from a recent Knightmare Chess game I played (in which we played the following variant: your hand always contains five cards and you draw a new card from the deck as soon as you play one. This allows for a lot more cardplaying and a very wild randomized game). My opponent was absolutely card-crazy, playing a card on nearly every turn. I took a more conservative approach, sitting on my five-card hand and only playing a card when I felt I could do the most damage with it.

Does all of this stuff sound demented? It is. Knightmare Chess is a maddeningly infuriating game, but it's also a lot of fun. Forget about planning -- the best you can do is look a move or two ahead, since your opponent will likely be able to play something completely unpredictable that violates the normal laws of chess (I've discovered that the best strategy for Knightmare is to make moves that maximize the potential of my cards, rather than the potential of my board position). Forget about standard openings -- I played a card early in my last game that allowed one of my Bishops to move like a Knight for one move, which shot down any opening "preparation" my opponent may have done. Yes, I had a dark-square weakness afterward, but I was really a killer on the light squares! And you most definitely need to adjust the way you view the rules of chess. I had a mate-in-one sitting on the board when my opponent suddenly played a card allowing the King to swap squares with any pawn of the King's color. So not only was I suddenly about to checkmate a pawn instead of a King, but it was a pawn sitting on its own first rank (which is legal in Knightmare Chess as long as it's an effect caused by a card).

I went whole hog with this thing and bought the second set of cards (Knightmare Chess 2) which adds an extra pile of bizarre effects to the game (and can be combined with the original set to create a 160 card master deck). Some of the cards in the second set are pretty hilarious. One of my favorites is "Nonconformist" which states: "One of your opponent's pawns has become a nonconformist...it now moves and captures backwards, in the same direction as your pawns, but it still belongs to your opponent. It is promoted if it reaches his first rank." I don't know about you, but I find the idea of a rebellious pawn that decides to go it's own way in life to be near-lethally funny.

The cards themselves are very sturdy and will stand up well to repeated use (plus the artwork is pretty interesting, sometimes even unsettling). The game can easily be handicapped: one player could start with 150 points of cards while the more-experienced player might start with a 100 point deck. In fact, the game itself is a nice handicapping device. A lot of my close friends and family aren't "serious" chessplayers and are consequently reluctant to play a game with me. But Knightmare Chess randomizes the game to a sufficient degree so that relative chessplaying ability becomes a lot less important compared to figuring out moves that maximize the strength of the cards in your hand. As far as "changing the game" goes, they can keep FischerRandom -- I'm enjoying Knightmare Chess a lot more.

Just to give you a clearer idea of how this thing works, set up a chessboard to the position after the following moves:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe7

This is a standard opening position for the Ruy Lopez Worrall Attack. But watch what Knightmare Chess does to the game:

Black's 5th move: Black moves 5...b5 and then plays the "Forbidden City" card, in which one square is designated as "off limits" for both sides for the rest of the game (a piece isn't even allowed to pass through the square). Of course, Black designates b3 as the Forbidden City.

White's 6th move: In desperation, White plays 6.Bxb5 and follows it up with the card "Cowardice", which allows White to move one of Black's pawns one or two spaces backwards. Obviously, he returns the a6-pawn to a7 and saves his Bishop.

Black's 6th move: Black is persistent and plays 6...a6. He doesn't play a card.

White's 7th move: White plays 7.Bxc6 and does something really ugly -- he plays "Challenge". This allows White to choose a type of piece, which Black then must move on his next turn or else lose his turn completely. Of course, White doesn't want to pick "Rook" or "pawn", so he chooses "Bishop" instead, forcing Black to move a Bishop on his next turn.

Black's 7th move: He's forced to move a Bishop or lose his turn, so he plays 7...Bb7, with the idea that it's better to lose a Bishop than lose a Rook. He doesn't play a card.

White's 8th move: The obvious 8.Bxb7 is played and the Rook is again threatened. But White relentlessly creates another threat with a new card: "Disintegration", in which White disintegrates one of his own pawns (think of it as a very radical clearance sacrifice). The e4-pawn bites the dust and vanishes from the board. Now White threatens 9.Qxe5+ as well as 9.Bxa8.

Black's 8th move: He saves the Rook and attacks the Bishop with 8...Rb8. He doesn't play a card (Black's hand isn't bad, by the way -- it's just that none of the cards are terribly useful at the moment. But he thinks they'll be important later, so he's not doing any discards to replace the cards in his hand).

White's 9th move: Not much choice -- he plays 9.Be4 and doesn't play a card.

Black's 9th move: Black actually plays his card on White's turn (which is allowed by the instructions on the card in question) -- it's "Bog", which means that White's Bishop can't move to e4. Instead it gets "bogged down" on c6 (after just one square) and must stop there, which changes White's last move to 9.Bc6. Black then plays 9...dxc6, snapping off the Bishop, and opts to not play a card.

White's 10th move: He plays the "Resurrection" card (instead of making a move) and returns his captured Bishop to the board, placing it on f1.

And so it goes. Madness! Don't even try to analyze this position. Things look a bit bad for Black, but Knightmare Chess is a game of wild swings of fortune. You might be on the ropes one turn and then be able to play a card that saves the day on your next move (for example, White's sixth move in the game we just looked at). The game is a whale of a lot of fun and is a good social game to play with the casual chessplayers in your life who are tired of you constantly beating up on them. In fact, you might try it out with some buddies at the chess club -- I imagine that it would be a good "late-night" game to play after a few grueling hours of constant blitz chess. Knightmare Chess is completely wild and unpredicatble, often funny, always bizarre, and a great break from the rigors of "real" chess. It's not for everyone, but do give it a try if it sounds like fun to you. I'm sorry I didn't buy a copy a long time ago. I usually despise chess variants but Knightmare Chess is an exception -- it's a real blast.

You can learn more about Knightmare Chess at the Steve Jackson Games website

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits and sacrificial play, stop by my Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.