Review of Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy by John Watson
When this book came out a few years ago (around 1999) it became really hot and was soon reprinted, awarded "book of the year title", and so on. In this review I will try to cover a few issues related book to help you decide whether you need to read it.
But first a little story: When I got the book, I did not read it very much because of busy schedule and instead gave it to my friend, a more experienced player (say, a 2300 guy). A week later he told me that on the first impression, the book sucked, because it did not provide any new ideas and simply related the ideas that could be easily found in other books. In particular, Watson borrowed a few examples from Dvoretsky’s books on positional play, more than an author would usually borrow from a single other book. However, when we talked about the book a month later again, the same master told me that, in fact, as he looked deeper into the book, he found it has some very useful ideas and that I need to study the book carefully. By 'ideas', he meant new thoughts regarding chess strategy in general. So let’s try to find what Watson has in his books that others don’t have.
Here are the major points that make Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy a special book:
Statistics Watson uses statistics from large databases to evaluate the positional concepts that he discusses. For example, he found out that although queen + knight are considered to be stronger than queen + bishop, the statistics from databases don’t give any advantage to Q+N. I think there is more to be done in this field (chess database + statistics), and Watson is using rather simple tools, but the concept is surely appropriate.
Stratetic ideas: - Watson proposes some strategic ideas that are really new and somewhat contradictory to well known general rules. For example, we are taught that the side with two bishops should open up the position to use two bishops most effectively, while opponent (say, with two knights) has to keep position closed. The book gives examples where the opposite happens and the side with two knights deliberately opens up an initiative and it turns out to be a good plan! I personally liked that the author tries to explain the nature of this strategic phenomena that he talks about. In other words, he tries to answer why things happen in very general terms, and sometimes even describe chess in terms of information theory and other concepts taken from outside of chess.Advanced level - The book is clearly geared towards advanced players. Being over 2000 is strongly recommended if you want this book to be useful and interesting to you. For example, Watson discusses how the evaluation of 'isolated queen pawn' (IQP) type of middlegame shifted from pessimistic to an optimistic one, because Botvinnik and other players found aggressive plans for white. This makes a lot more sense if you have already seen the games with Botvinnik on white side of IQP or, even better, have played those positions yourself. On a similar note, Watson discusses how exchange sacrifices became a lot more common in chess than it used to be, say, 80 years ago. If a reader (1600) does not have a good enough technique to convert an extra exchange into a full point, he might be mislead in his chess development by reading that chapter. Watson implies that the reader knows (from experience) how easy it is to win positions with extra exchange when there is no counterplay, and shows exceptions to the rule ("rook stronger than knight"). Well, you really have to understand the rule before looking at numerous exceptions!
You should figure out some things on your own
- Also, most games are given with some critical position discussed in great detail, but the continuation of the game often given without too many annotations, so there is some expectation that the reader can figure out himself what’s going on if he really wants to. Such approach makes sense, because otherwise there would be not enough room to fit all strategic ideas Watson wants to cover.
- This is not an instructional book, in a sense that making the reader a better player is not the author’s main purpose, as he admits himself. Thus there are no exercises like the ones you would find in Dvoretsky’s books. But also, the book is intended to give not just answers, but maybe unanswered questions as well. For example: "What is a positional rule in chess? If it has exceptions, is it really a rule".
The examples are given from different time periods, starting from 1920s, but there are a lot of games from the 1990s, played mostly by top GM’s.