19 February 2012

Book completed - How to Play the English Opening

I've now finished How to Play the English Opening by Anatoly Karpov (Batsford, 2007).  (EDIT: not to be confused with the book with the same name by Nigel Povah.)  As part of my opening study practice, I decided back in December that I needed something more in-depth to look at regarding playing the English.  I've had long experience with the opening (as shown by the links to the annotated games on the sidebar) and it's done well for me.  However, I think part of the success I've had in the opening has been due to its surprise value in tournament play and other players' general unfamiliarity with it.  In order to gain true mastery over the English and employ it most effectively, I came to the conclusion that I would have to put more work into understanding it.

This book certainly did not disappoint, from the point of view of in-depth study.  The title may be somewhat misleading, however; this is in no way an instructional book for opening novices, rather a collection of key games in the English annotated by Karpov, with an emphasis on explaining important move choices in critical variations.  In the process, the reader also acquires an understanding of how and why grandmaster practice in the opening has evolved.  This excerpt from the author's introduction reflects exactly what I was looking for:

"Be assured that a careful study of the presented games will be more beneficial for mastering the English Opening than the blind memorization and learning by rote of different variations and schemes. As a result you will be able to penetrate deep into the opening and discover its close connection with the middlegame and even the endgame. You will discover strategical plans of struggle, learn some technical devices, and trace the development of various ideas in this opening. Besides this, getting to know the games of famous grandmasters is in itself a pleasant and useful pursuit."

While you can read a summary review by IM Jeremy Silman at the above link, here are my own observations.
  • The participation by Karpov in a majority of the featured games presented in the book (on both sides of the struggle) gives the material the added dimension of being presented by an experienced practitioner.  He is able to authoritatively comment on his own thinking and preparation and also has deep background on the games of other famous GMs that are presented.
  • This book is not for wimps.  It demands your attention and will require effort on the part of class-level players to understand why Karpov judges some positions a certain way.  Not all tactical points are explicitly explained, either.  However, this is no different from what would be involved in studying other GM-level annotated games and working things out for yourself when necessary is in itself a useful study practice.
  • Unlike with many opening books on the market, the author has no set point of view on the opening to sell (this isn't entitled Win with the English Opening), so his explanations and evaluations come across as objective.
  • The level of the material requires the reader to have some previous familiarity with the English Opening as well as a solid grasp of positional concepts.
  • The formatting was fairly dense but readable, with 1-2 diagrams per single-column page.  Due to the large number of side variations (often including complete game scores) presented in each of the 30 main game chapters, I think this was a good choice for how to present the material.
  • The writing was high quality.  I saw at most two typographical errors in the narrative text and only found one game score error, and that only after completing the book and looking up the game in question in a computer database.  (The book error did not in fact materially impact the analysis and was from a partial game score.)
I went through the book with a set in front of me, playing through the principal games and most of the side games and variations, resetting each time from the start.  This method takes advantage of the repetition required for learning purposes, as well as allowing for more deliberate focus on each line studied.  Shorter annotated sidelines were visualized, in order to train board sight and visualization skills.  While I use a variety of computer tools, I find working through books with an aesthetically pleasing set to in fact be of more practical use, as it encourages concentration and allows for a physical and mental experience directly related to OTB tournament play.

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