Don’t always be principled. Embrace the irrational

Sometimes it pays to ignore basic strategic tenets and just go wild. One chess anarchist explains how Play Unconventional Chess and Win by Naom A Manella and Zeev Zohar inspired him

Michael Healey

On the surface, the book Play Unconventional Chess and Win, seems a fairly standard addition to the “most amazing moves”/ “play creative chess”/ “break the rules”‘ school of writing. It contains 137 examples from nearly as many games (and studies), looking at the ways in which strong players occasionally play non-traditional moves and find unconventional ideas. There are almost 400 pages, but they are well spaced with large diagrams – more given to words than lines of analysis – so one can comfortably read through without a board.

Neither author was known to me, or seems to have a FIDE rating. Manella is a chess study composer and researcher on human processing of information. Zohar is an “expert” player who has researched the role of creativity in top-level play. All this may not bode especially well, but GM Ram Soffer is credited with aiding analysis, and both Boris Gelfand and Vishy Anand have written short forewords. Amidst all the super-GM games, each author sneaks in a game of his own, and plenty from other Israeli players, so we can probably dismiss the notion that they are outright amateurs. 

The psychological element is key to the authors. From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the book was the bid for a new annotative symbol:

“… certain ‘outside the box’ moves have a tendency to make the opponent go wrong within the next two to three moves. Therefore we have decided to include in this book a new symbol: ‘^’. It means a challenging move, which does not refer to its objective value, but rather to the higher probability of the opponent going wrong within a few moves”.

So “^” does not represent the objective strength of the move (like “!” or “!!”) but rather refers to the effect it has on the opponent.

Now chess annotations are funny things. Some authors barely use symbols; others turn games into an ordnance survey map; while computers only seem to enjoy adding big red question marks. Many symbols look ridiculous (look up “zugzwang”), or are even irritatingly misleading (using >Bf4 to mean “better is Bf4”, contrary to primary-school teaching). Some I find very useful in my own shorthand annotations, like the triangles for “intending” and “preventing”. However “^” is a nice, simple addition to the canon, where before we would probably have used some combination of “!?/?!”. 

While the authors do not actually use their new symbol that often, here are a couple of good examples:

There are other ways in which the book is also unusual: “In this book we have put together numerous examples of games, most of them played by leading grandmasters, in which we found some weird moves, apparently contradicting the most fundamental principles. Our litmus test for the choice of games to appear in the book was simple: we only chose moves which look ‘irrational’ at first sight, or ‘drunk’ in our language – moves which violate basic chess rules.”

This use of “drunk” is the slightly bizarre theme of the book. The three sections are called “Beer” (Evaluate things differently), “Red wine” (Free your mind) and “Vodka” (King with free spirit), chapters being glasses of each. At the end of each analysis, we ask if the highlighted moves were “inspired” or “drunk”. Those who enjoy a pint with their games can certainly vouch for alcohol bringing out more … unusual moves. Dramatic language and jovial imagery are omnipresent. Humour and metaphor is always a bit hit and miss, but (apart from one particularly disturbing analysis where Vladimir Kramnik and Judit Polgar are portrayed as “flirting”) it provides a certain silly charm. 

The chapter themes don’t make the most sense to me, but general sections cover what you might expect for a book on unconventional play – decentralisation to the edges of the board, unusual captures and exchanges, entombed pieces and walkabout kings. This example of a rook unoccupying an open file was notable:

Here Shirov decides attack is the best defence:

The heroes of the book are undoubtedly Carlsen (7.5/8) and Ivanchuk (11/14), although there are plenty of K games (Korchnoi, Karpov, Kasparov and especially Kramnik) and other creative maestros (Shirov, Morozevich, Polgar, Timman). Despite both appearing on page one (and indeed the cover), Anand and Gelfand, true to their humble natures, are victims as much as victors.

Ulf Andersson receives his own mini-section on unorthodox defence. England is well represented, with games involving Adams (sadly 1/6), Miles, Speelman, Hodgson, Short (king walks) and Sadler, along with a Nunn study. Considering how the book initially purports to be linking computer chess to creativity, most of the games are actually from the tail-end of the pre-computer age, or even earlier, probably showing the authors’ age.

I would guess the modal decade for games is the noughties, followed by the nineties. The authors have a particular fondness for match-games (where undoubtedly the tension makes unconventional moves more effective, and resulting blunders are more likely). The studies in particular are a good addition, all simple enough to demonstrate the desired ideas.

As someone who does not particularly follow top-level chess but has read a large number of chess books, roughly half the examples were familiar to me. Some were mega-famous (Shirov’s Bh3!!!, Ivanchuk’s Qxe6+!?), but others, like this game, which I just happened to know well from the Fantasy Caro, were a bit more obscure:

My own familiarity with many positions was not really a hindrance to enjoyment – the examples chosen are all true icons of chess beauty. The aim of reading a book like this, other than pleasure, is really to inspire yourself – not only to go out and play chess, but do so creatively. In this I believe the book succeeds – I certainly played far more silly blitz than usual over New Year!