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Each week, The Chess Cafe presents a review of another recent entry into the world of chess book publishing. Hanon Russell, with the help of Glenn Budzinski, Taylor Kingston and Larry Tapper turns a critical eye towards current releases.

Previous reviews are available in the Chess Cafe Archives.

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The books which are reviewed by Messrs. Russell, Budzinski and Kingston are furnished courtesy of American Postal Chess Tournaments (APCT). The views expressed are those of the reviewer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Postal Chess Tournaments (APCT). You may order this book and/or obtain the latest catalog of chess books and equipment from the APCT, P.O. Box 305, Western Springs, IL 60558-0305 USA Phone: (630) 663-0688;Fax:(630)663-0689;

Hanging Pawns, Ten Cents a Pair

Larry Tapper

Winning Pawn Structures, by GM Alexander Baburin, 1998 Batsford, Figurine Algebraic Notation, Softcover, 256 pp., $25.95

Hanging Pawns, by Adrian Mikhalchishin and Wit Braslawski, 1998 International Chess Enterprises, Figurine Algebraic Notation, Softcover, 203 pp., $19.95

Judging by the title of Winning Pawn Structures, one might suppose that the book is about unstoppable passed pawns or rolling central juggernauts. Actually it’s about a much more interesting topic: isolated queen pawn strategy. This is GM Alexander Baburin’s first book-length effort and it is a very good one.

In the introduction the author describes the task at hand:

The question as to whether the isolated d-pawn is a weakness or a strength, has no answer as such — it all depends on some other features of the position.
As a coach, I find that usually club players are afraid to get an isolated d-pawn, as they believe that it will ultimately turn out to be a weakness. Yet, when they have the opportunity to play against such a pawn, they are unsure how to exploit this ‘advantage’ either.

Here we will examine those ‘other features of the position’ which should help us to assess each particular case correctly and find a sound plan...

After these cautionary words, we might be content with a good collection of loosely organized but instructive examples. Moreover, some of the best recent writers (Watson and Ziatdinov, for example) have effectively promoted the view that modern chess strategy must be learned by immersing oneself in concrete particulars, that general maxims and principles don’t take the serious student very far.

Baburin, however, succeeds in delivering a good deal more than he promises. He takes the modern emphasis on concrete analysis seriously, laboriously checking every line and even discovering a number of old analytical errors which many less industrious writers have copied uncritically. But he also manages to systematize all the IQP material to an extent that many of today’s detail-weary readers might find astonishing.
Winning Pawn Structures is neatly laid out in three parts: Advantages of the Isolated Pawn, Disadvantages of the Isolated Pawn, and Associated Pawn Structures. The general idea is that tension and complexity favor the player with the IQP, while simplification tends to expose the weakness of the isolani. So Part I focuses on various attacking plans, Part II on endgames and simplifying techniques.

The Part I material probably represents the greatest departure from IQP theory as it’s been handed down from Tarrasch and Nimzowitsch. Everyone remembers that Tarrasch liked to play with the IQP and that Nimzowitsch preached the blockade and eventual destruction of such static weaknesses. But Nimzowitsch was by no means a knee-jerk anti-classicist, blind to the double-edged quality of IQP positions. In My System he wrote:

The problem of the isolated QP is in my opinion one of the cardinal problems in the whole theory of positional play. We are concerned with the appraisal of a statically weak Pawn, who, however, notwithstanding his weakness, is imbued with dynamic strength. "Which preponderates, the static weakness or the dynamic strength?" So put, the problem gains in significance, in fact it strays in a sense beyond the circumscribed boundaries of chess.

Since Nimzowitsch’s time we may not have made much progress unraveling life’s paradoxes, but modern players have come up with some new ideas about how to conduct IQP attacks. Even so, it seems that Baburin is correct in his observation that there are few IQP enthusiasts at the club level — so players who want to add a few weapons to their arsenals would be well advised to pay close attention to Part I.

The Part I chapters deal mostly with very specific tactical themes: the d5 break with a lead in development, the rook lift a4 with Ra3, direct attack on f7, sacrifice on h6, and so on. Of course the best examples illustrate various combinations of these themes, but Baburin’s skill weaving these strands together makes it worthwhile to read these chapters in sequence.

The bulk of the book consists of illustrative games, deeply annotated in the phases that are relevant to IQP theory. Each game score is given from move 1, so that students of the opening can see how the key IQP positions arose. Here is a relatively straightforward excerpt (from the chapter on advancing the d-pawn):

Wirthensohn-Tal Lucerne OL 1982
1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 c5 3 Nf3 e6 4 e6 d5 5 cxd5 exd5 6 d4 Nc6 7 Be2 Be7 8 dxc5 Bxc5 9 O-O O-O 10 b3 a6 11 Bb2 Qd6 12 Rc1 Ba7 13 Re1 Re8 14 a3 Bg4 15 Rc2 Rad8 16 Rd2 (See Diagram)

Black has achieved a fine attacking position. The pattern is similar to those we have seen in some of the previous examples, e.g. in the game Yusupov-Lobron (with colors reversed). It is worth mentioning once again that in such positions the presence of all the pieces on the board is usually an indication that the possessor of the isolated d- pawn is doing well, while his opponent has made some mistakes. Here the influence of the d2-rook does not really discourage Black from advancing in the centre — he is ready for it!
16...d4! 17 Nxd4

17 exd4 leads to a position from the game after 17..Nxd4 (but not 17...Bxf3?!, which allows White to solve most of his problems after 18 Bxf3 Rxe1+ 19 Qxe1 Nxd4 20 Kh1!) 18 Nxd4 Bxd4. On the other hand, capturing on d4 is compulsory, as 17 Nb1? loses to 17...Bxf3 18 Bxf3 dxe3 19 fxe3 Rxe3.

17...Nxd4 18 exd4

White would not have survived after 18 Bxg4 Nxg4 19 Qxg4 either, because of 19...Nf3+ 20 Qxf3 Qxd2.

18...Bxd4 19 Bxg4 Rxe1+

This is not the only way to defeat White in this position — 19...Nxg4 20 g3 Qh6 would be just as good, as the following analysis proves:

a) 21 h4? Rxe1+ (21...Bxf2+ wins as well) 22 Qxe1 Qxd2 23. Qxd2 Bxf2+ 24 Qxf2 Nxf2 25 Kxf2 Rd2+, winning;

b) 21 Rxe8+ Rxe8 22 h4 Nxf2 23 Rxf2 Qe3 24 Ne4 Rxe4!? (or 24...Bxb2 25 Qd7 Rf8 to Black’s advantage) 25 Bxd4 Rxd4 26 Qf3 Qxf3 27 Rxf3 g6 and the resulting rook endgame is technically winning. Yet Tal’s move is more forceful...

The foregoing example is typical in its combination of exposition and detailed analysis. Baburin’s notes to move 19 are also typical in that they are based on his own careful analysis and not recycled notes by the winner or other commentators. Baburin does this sort of thing throughout the book and for this he is to be loudly commended.

In Part II of Winning Pawn Structures the reader is asked to reverse the board and see things from the perspective of one who is playing against the isolated pawn. Now the main objective is not a violent coup de grâce but smooth transition to a superior endgame. As the Part I examples show, this is not so easy to achieve. Putting first things first, however, Baburin begins Part II with a chapter explaining which types of IQP endgames can be won and which can be defended.

Baburin concludes the endgame chapter with the general observation that play against the isolani is typically insufficient to win; one must usually create a second weakness. In the course of developing this view he very clearly explains exactly which combinations of pieces make things easy or difficult for the defender. Pure knight endgames, for example, are good for the defender, but the addition of rooks makes the attacker’s job easier opening a second front.

I don’t how much of Baburin’s endgame exposition is original — perhaps he got some of it from Averbakh, whom he cites as a main source. In any event I was surprised to learn how systematically this topic could be presented. I suspect that even IM-level endgame buffs could learn a few things from this chapter.

After looking at IQP games from both sides of the board, Baburin goes on in Part III to discuss various "transformations of the pawn skeleton" that can occur from IQP positions. Of these the most notable and complex is the structure with hanging pawns. The transformation is well illustrated by the hoary example Rubinstein- Nimzowitsch Karlsbad 1907, which Nimzowitsch used in My System for the famous family portrait entitled "The Isolani and His Descendants":

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 e6 3. c4 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bf4 cxd4 7. Nxd4 Bb4 8. e3 Nf6 (See Diagram: "The Isolani")

9. Nxc6 bxc6 10. Bd3 O-O 11. O-O Bd6 12. Bg3 Bxg3 13. hxg3 (See Diagram: "The Isolated Pawn- couple")

13...c5 14. Rc1 Be6 (See Diagram: "The Two Hanging Pawns")

As Nimzowitsch himself recognized, hanging pawn positions are more difficult to analyze than those with "their grandpapa the Isolani." The character of the struggle can change suddenly as either hanging pawn advances or the battle shifts from one side of the board to the other. Thus Mikhalchishin and Braslawski faced a daunting task putting together their monograph on the subject, recently published by ICE. The first author is a veteran grandmaster, the second a chess entrepreneur who specializes in educational software.

There is considerable overlap in content between Winning Pawn Structures and Mikhalchishin and Braslawski’s Hanging Pawns, including a few common games. So it was interesting to compare the two books directly, starting with the ancestral Rubinstein-Nimzowitsch game.

The early results were less than encouraging for the ICE entry. In Winning Pawn Structures the Rubinstein-Nimzowitsch analysis is workmanlike but not exceptional by Baburin’s standards. In Hanging Pawns, however, one cannot help but notice that at one point an entire paragraph is lifted word for word from My System without attribution.

Another game covered in both books is the absorbing struggle Sokolsky-Botvinnik, Leningrad 1938. Here again, one would have to score a point for Baburin, this time on analytical rather than – uh – editorial grounds. In the game a critical position arose after 1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 d5 3 d4 g6 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 e3 O-O 6 Be2 e6 7 O-O b6 8 cxd5 exd5 9 b3 Bb7 10 Bb2 Nbd7 11 Qc2 a6 12 Rac1 Rc8 13 Rfd1 Qe7 14 Qb1 Rfd8 15 Bf1 c5 16 dxc5 bxc5 17 Ne2 Bh6 18 Ba3 Ng4 19 Qd3 Nde5 20 Nxe5 Qxe5 21 Ng3 Qf6 22 Nh1 d4 23 Qe2 Ne5. (See Diagram)

Here Baburin observes: "Botvinnik wrote that after 24 Rxc5 Rxc5 25 Bxc5 Black plays 25...Nf3+? (the mark is mine) 26 gxf3 Bxf3 27 Qc2 Bxd1 28 Qxd1 Qg5+ and 29...Qxc5, winning. However, this is an oversight, as in this line it’s White who wins after 27 Be7!. Instead Black should play 25...Bf3!..."
Nice piece of work, eh? In contrast, Hanging Pawns merely repeats Botvinnik’s analysis (with proper attribution this time).

So now we come inevitably to the unpleasant business of making invidious comparisons. In fact I’ve been putting off submitting this article to The Chess Cafe, wrestling with the question, how to write a review of two closely related books, praising one to the skies and bludgeoning the other unmercifully, without seeming biased or sophomoric. Unfortunately there is no way around it — Winning Pawn Structures is just a terrific book, and I regret to inform you that Hanging Pawns, though not totally without merit, amply deserves a good bludgeoning.

Luckily Hanon Russell has saved me some trouble by covering many of the essential points in his review of another ICE/Braslawski collaboration a few weeks ago. [The review of Mastering Rook vs. Minor Pieces may be found in The Chess Cafe Archives.] Hanon has already taken note of some characteristic touches such as putting introductory material at random places in the text, or helpfully supplying a place name index, as if that were some kind of symbolic compensation for a nearly total lack of organization.

A couple of examples:

–Introducing a Korchnoi-Karpov game on page 157 of Hanging Pawns, the authors observe: "The problem of hanging pawns occupies an eminent place in modern chess strategy. The plans of both sides are well known..." Really? Either the authors felt they needed 157 pages to break the news gently, or this is an old article copied verbatim and tossed thoughtlessly onto a pile of other recycled snippets.

–Possibly I’m missing something, but on pages 143 and 149 there are examples that seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with hanging pawns. They're 'neo-classic center' positions, perhaps intended for some other book but somehow swept up in the authors' cut-and-paste frenzy.

And a few general complaints:

–Each example begins with an early middlegame position with the move below the diagram numbered ‘1’. The reader has no clue what openings gave rise to these hanging pawn positions. There is no opening or thematic index, nor is there a table of contents. We must admit, however, that the place name index gives invaluable assistance to any reader who wants to make a detailed comparison of Capablanca-Lasker, Havana 1921 with Spassky-Pachman, Havana 1962.

–The games are not numbered, nor are they presented in any discernible order. Extensive cross-reference would be a natural device dealing with such a complex topic, but the amorphous structure makes this next to impossible. Furthermore there are groups of games with strikingly similar strategic themes (e.g. Kasparov-Portisch on page 8, Kramnik-Ribli on page 11) but the authors rarely mention such similarities. The examples tend to be self-contained little worlds with little continuity in style or content.

–The smuggled-in Nimzowitsch passage gave me a bad feeling, so I checked several other games against standard sources such as Informants and books by Keres and Botvinnik. It then became evident that the authors’ favorite modus operandi is taking variations given in old Informants and dressing them up with a little bit of perfunctory prose. For example, the reader is invited to compare: Kramnik-Ribli on page 11 with Kramnik’s notes in Informant 59; Panno-Timman on page 16 with Minev’s notes in Informant 24; Karpov-Smyslov on page 19 with Smyslov’s notes in Informant 31. The general idea is that Tal writes "23...h5? 24. Qg5! +-" and the authors turn that into something like "Of no avail is h5 because of the crushing blow Qg5." Who knows how much of the book was written exactly this way?

In spite of all these glaring deficiencies, some readers may find Hanging Pawns to be a useful book. It’s nice to have a collection of over 100 annotated hanging pawns examples in one place. Here and there one finds some interesting and possibly original exposition. And Hanging Pawns escapes Edward Winter’s lowest classification, "new trash recycled from old." The authors are discerning enough to recycle only the highest quality material.
Even so, one does not have to be as fastidious as Winter to feel insulted by such a blatantly slapdash effort. Hanging Pawns may not be trash, but it most certainly exemplifies what Winter calls the Easy Way Out method of chess authorship. ICE have published some excellent books and it is hard to understand how we could find them so soundly asleep at the editorial wheel.

The contrast between these two books could not be starker — Winning Pawn Structures is the book Hanging Pawns might have been if only the authors had taken the trouble to do it right.

[Winning Pawn Structures, by GM Alexander Baburin is now available at The Chess Cafe Online Bookstore]