It was the Tal Memorial. We all watching knew that Carlsen knew exactly what he was doing as the punchdrunk Ponomariov kept staggering to his feet to make one more awful move. It was too easy. It was SO easy. Carlsen could make such a slow move in the middle of what looked like delivering a series of knockout punches? We were all too impressed for words.
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This was the first part of a three-part series - the other two books being Play Like a Grandmaster and Train Like a Grandmaster.
Kotov - and this book itself - have been a little controversial in the chess world. I also doubt that most strong chess players think in such a rigid and computer-like way as Kotov suggests that one should aspire to. Nevertheless, I still think it is a good book and was very influential for me. I think I was in a particularly obsessive phase when I was reading it, because I highlighted many parts of it and also underlined things.
I can remember writing things that later seemed to me to be stupid, which caused me to cover them up with white-out. He really does a good job of quite honestly showing what it is that makes a player strong or weak.
The second chapter, on positional judgment, is one of the best - he uses excellently-chosen examples to illustrate instructive decisions by strong players in archetypal middlegame positions. The first chapter, which is about the analysis of variations, is the one which has caused the most criticism.
Kotov begins by showing examples of faulty analysis - thinking in circles, analyzing the same variations over and over again, or viewing the position un-concretely, without any analysis at all. He says that he too had a serious inability to analyze, and only became a grandmaster once he improved in that aspect. He goes on to discuss the technique of analysis in minutiae, including the selection of candidate moves, the order in which the moves should be analyzed, and so on.
I really doubt that most top-level players analyze in such a rigid manner - selecting and counting the candidate moves and analyzing each one separately without any "leaps of thought". And quite often, a general positional assessment is not enough to sufficiently understand the position. Usually you need to actually look at possible variations to understand the position - and then later you will begin to see candidate moves that would not otherwise occur to you at the outset.
In almost all complicated positions this is the case, unless the moves are very forcing. Nevertheless, things like circular thought and vague thinking are a problem. I am not sure it is so much a problem of chess strength as it is of form. Another tournament my head is full of confusion, I am mixing up variations and forgetting what I calculated. But I am still the same person - probably the bad form has to do with life events or other factors.
I think that has more to do with the selection of candidate moves. Of course, the whole book is not about the "tree of analysis". A large part of the first chapter is devoted to elements of chess thought which are not specifically part of the method of analysis.
Kotov addresses such questions as whether to recheck your analysis, whether to trust your opponent, how to deal with situations where you have multiple possible wins, and when to analyze at all. Additionally, Kotov has a lot of material on the reasons that blunders occur, and how to avoid them. He goes precisely into the thinking processes which produced the blunders and shows why they are wrong. I was intrigued to find out that the rock band Rise Against wrote a song called "Kotov Syndrome".
Supposedly Kotov Syndrome is a chess term for when a player thinks for a long time in a very complicated position, goes deep into the position to the point of losing touch with reality, falls short of time and finally makes a move that he had hardly analyzed, which turns out to be a blunder.
Kotov describes this scenario at the beginning of the book. Now this phrase is used sometimes to describe non-chess situations - the Rise Against song is about politics. On the other hand, I had never heard or read anything about a "Kotov Syndrome" in chess or elsewhere before. How it impacted me I got this book fairly early on in learning chess.
I was playing tournaments by then, but I probably read it when I was rated or so. Most people begin playing chess casually, playing the first move that comes to their mind, going on intuition and short tactics, or just "ok, I want to try to do this Certainly I learned a lot about positional assessments and thematic ideas from the chapters from the "Positional Judgment" chapter. Recently I was invited to the closing ceremony of a team tournament in which candidate masters and first-category players were playing.
I asked my audience what they would like me to talk to them about, and I was inundated with requests. Some asked me to demonstrate some interesting combination, others wanted to know how to play the Sicilian Defence correctly for Black. Let us suppose that at one point in your game you have a choice between two moves, Rd1 or Ng5.
Which should you play? What then? Do I like the look of the position then? Then you look at the knight move. He can drive it away by h6, I go Ne4, he captures it with his bishop.
I recapture and he attacks my queen with his rook. Lets look at the rook move again. If he plays Bb7 I can reply f3, but what if he captures my a-pawn? What can I play then? No, the rook move is no good. I must check the knight move again. Try the rook move again. Rd1, Qxa2. Already 30 minutes gone on thinking whether to move the rook or the knight. What about Bb1? Just like that with hardly any consideration at all.
My words were interrupted by applause. The audience laughed, so accurate was my picture of their trials and tribulations. When I revealed that I was writing a book to tell all that I knew about analysis, baseed on what I had learned from other grandmasters and what I had discovered myself I was rewarded yet again by applause. Thus I came to realise that players even in high grades have a great need of such guidance.
Let us consider one such case. As it is not very difficult to see this concrete line must involve a sacrifice. There are several possibilities: Bxh6, Nxg6, Ng4 and Which then? Let us analyse. Nxg6 Bxg3 Rxe6 gxh5 What if Qxh6 Bxe5 Rxe5 Qg7 Qe3 Rxg6 Qxg6!
Bd5 and White has nothing concrete. Ng4 is stronger? Where will the black queen go? Qxf5 exf5 Two pawns up, White stands better. Nor does Qxd4 save him, as then So Ng4 is good? But what if Then No, White cannot allow that, queens are exchanged and all his pieces are en prise. And once again his thoughts dwelt on the various ramifications of those two moves, and yet again the resulting positions did not appeal to the master.
Once more he returned to consider Ng4 and once again he did not find a win there. How many times he jumped from one variation to the other, how often he thought about this and that attempt to win, only he can tell. Alas this was almost the worst move he could play. Black played the decisive Nf4 and after Qg4 h5 Qd1 h4 White had to resign. Note in passing that White was wrong to reject After Qh4 Qxh4 Nxh4
"Think Like a Grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov
Think Like A Grandmaster