Manny's Reviews > Grandmaster Preparation

Grandmaster Preparation by Lev Polugaevsky
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Sep 07, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: games, strongly-recommended, the-tragedy-of-chess
Read in January, 1986 , read count: 5

An extremely unusual book, about a love affair between a man and a chess opening. The story is well told, and you are absolutely carried along by the narrative. Even though you've seen the plot a million times (Boy meets variation; boy loses variation; boy gets variation back again), you find yourself holding your breath. OK, I'm exaggerating a little, but every chess player should read this book. There's nothing quite like it.

No, but seriously, this isn't just one of the best chess books of all time; it's one of the best books ever about the creative process, period. Polugayevsky, who at his peak was rated in the world's top five, was a fantastically gifted and hard-working analyst, with a strong quixotic streak. The variation of the Sicilian Najdorf that bears his name is sometimes called "the suffering variation"; it's the ultimate come-and-get-me opening, and starts 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cd 4. Nd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 (Fischer and Kasparov's favorite move) 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 b5!? reaching this position:

Polugayevsky variation

What's going on? Didn't White's last move just threaten e5, winning a piece due to the pin on the knight? Yes, but if he does that, then Black has a defense: 8. e5 de 9. fe Qc7! 10. ef Qe5+.

Polugayevsky variation

So Black wins the piece back, but he has so far only developed his queen, while White has got half his army into play. How can this be good? But the more you look at it, the less obvious it is that White can just kill Black like a chicken, which is certainly your first thought. Black has all sorts of strange resources, in particular the rook maneuver Ra7-d7, after which it's often surprisingly easy to get a counterattack. Then Black also has the bishop pair and a better pawn structure, so endings tend to be favorable for him.

And the Black pieces have the oddest way of just developing themselves. If White takes on g7, the bishop on f8 takes back, and is immediately a very powerful piece. Or alternately, if White castles short, it can sometimes go to c5 with check, gaining time against the White king on g1. The other bishop is often able to go to b7 and hit something on e4. Polugayevsky talks about the hidden harmony of the Black pieces, which emerges like a photograph in its developing bath. A poet as well as a chess player, if that wasn't already apparent.

None the less, the first impression is far from misleading: White can launch a dangerous attack in literally a dozen different ways. Polugaeyevsky, however, believed in Black's position, and spent years of his life analyzing the maze of complications. In the book, he gives a breathtakingly honest account of what it was like; the dejection when a new attacking try appeared to refute the opening he'd invested so much time in, the elation when he finds a miraculous countermove, then despair again when another attack seems to bust it. I almost feel I need to issue a spoiler warning when I say that it ends on a happy note, with Lev and his variation happy together at last.

Now, alas, Polugayevsky is no longer with us, and his variation is generally deemed to be unsound. But if he were still here to defend it, who knows what the critical verdict would be? I am not sure I have ever seen a stranger example of the old proverb: love will find a way.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Paul (last edited Aug 04, 2009 06:00AM) (new)

Paul Bryant Hmm, I'd probably go with Dean Martin over Polugayevsky, but I see what you mean. Manny - have you ever reviewed anything on the King's Gambit?


Manny Paul wrote: "Manny - have you ever reviewed anything on the King's Gambit?"

I don't think I've ever read a book on the King's Gambit! I did review Kosten on the Latvian Gambit the other day, if you missed that...


message 3: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Yes! I love these.


message 4: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy You know, I'll never understand 2 ... c5. I have a friend that plays it against me occasionally; I guess he can do okay with it, but he beats me 6 times out of 7 anyway. But if I play it, I'm a total mess. I get the threat on queen's pawn at e4, but it always comes at the cost of opening black's queen's side to attack and leaving my bishops stuck like Polugayevsky. And let's just say, I'm no Polugayevsky.

Another problem I have is that whenever white plays Bg5, pinning the night on f3 like in this variation, I tend to respond ... h3, which usually ends up Bxf3 and then I take the bishop with the queen or pawn. Bad idea?


Manny The Sicilian is a very difficult opening - that's why World Champions tend to like it so much. There are dozens of variations, and often the strategy is almost completely different from one variation to another. But there are some common themes, of course.

So, when White plays Bg5, pinning the Nf6, the first thing to think of is playing either Be7 or Nbd7. This means that you'll be able to recapture with a minor piece if White takes on f6. As you've already noticed, taking with the queen or pawn is a bit uncomfortable. But there are plenty of lines where that's fine too. As I said, difficult opening!



message 6: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Yeah, I like x. Bg5 Be7, but I tend to develop that bishop early and a lot of times my knight gets pinned with king's bishop already involved in the middle. I like ... Nbd7, too though. I wonder why I never do that? Probably because it's one of those "beginner" rules of opening that says you should always develop your knights to the center and sixth rank. I have to use those rules to get through openings, because I'm a patzer.


Manny In many variations of the Sicilian, it's good to put your queen's knight on d7. Though you're right, c6 is its most natural square.

Look at some of Fischer's and Kasparov's games as Black in the Sicilian. They are fine models to follow! Plenty of them available online.



message 8: by Moira (last edited Aug 05, 2009 03:19AM) (new)

Moira Russell What a neat review! Now I'm tempted to read it, altho I know nothing about chess....


Manny Thank you! I don't know any non-chessplayer who has read it. If you do, I would love to get your perspective...


notgettingenough Love the book, love the review.


message 11: by Junta (last edited Nov 15, 2015 03:13AM) (new) - added it

Junta Great review (boy meets variation...)! I haven't read this but a book by Polugayevsky on his love must be amazing.


message 12: by Manny (last edited Nov 15, 2015 02:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Junta, you have to read it! If anything, I'm understating how amazing it is!


message 13: by loudermilk (new)

loudermilk have you ever cosciously thought of chess analysis in terms of the P vs NP problem?


Manny Oddly enough, I never have! My immediate reaction is that there can't be a connection, but things may not be as obvious as they look...


message 15: by loudermilk (new)

loudermilk heck. just trashed reply FEATURING...Cart Before the Horseism, Unprovable Presburger Pawn Positioning and a Detached House in Shinar. still, thanks for your review. you've got me excited about chess again.


Manny Not me, the immortal Lev Polugaevsky!


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