domingo, 26 de julio de 2015

Review: The Secret Life of Bad Bishops by Esben Lund

Title: The secret life of bad bishops.
Author: Esben (Silas) Lund.
Publisher: QualityChess.
Pages: 194.
Price: 19.99€.

I want to dedicate today's post to this obscure book from the QualityChess catalog. Esben (he has legally changed his name to Silas now) Lund is a IM from Denmark that has already a book with the same publisher (Rook vs. Two Minor Pieces). I say obscure because the author is relatively (for me it was totally) unknown. To add to that fact, he is not even a GM, hence normally one would not even consider buying this book, but QualityChess rarely disappoints, hence I decided to give this book a try.

The first thing to note is that the book is short. It comes with a reduction of price relative to normal QualityChess titles, but it was not clear for me if the 5€ reduction in the price tag was because the unknown author or the shortness of the book. My guess is that it is for the later.

The book explores one topic: the bad bishop, which the author insists in calling double edged bishop (DEB in many future references). The main point of the book is to show that generally those bad bishops are not really that bad, but have a hidden potential.

The book is structured into a (very big) introduction where the topic is presented, a chapter on exchange sacrifices, a chapter on opening theory in the advanced french defense and an endgame section of bishop vs rook and bishop vs knight. To finish the book there is a collection of problems where we are supposed to use the new knowledge acquired in the book. Lund tries to demonstrate in these chapters how the play in the examples revolve around a DEB (accepting his nomenclature). The idea is to show his point in the middlegame, the opening and the endgame.

In general the prose is good, but the explanations not always convince me.  I have never been afraid of a bad bishop. I have been playing Slav, Caro and French since I was young, and in those openings you can have a bad bishop lying in c8 (or b7) inside the pawn chain. The consequence is that I had little need for someone to explain me that this bishop does have a future if the conditions are right. But I felt that Lund tried very hard to prove that the play always revolved around a bad bishop. For example in the exchange sacrifice chapter, I sometimes felt that he was stretching the point too much. In some positions he claimed that an exchange sacrifice was played to isolate a DEB (i.e. bad bishop), but I felt that the game continuation would have been equally good had the other player had a knight instead of a DEB. You sacrificed an exchange in order to get a powerful mass of central pawns or a passed pawn or the control of some key squares.

On the same note, the  chapter on endgames had for me little connection with the main point of his thesis. Bishop vs rook is not about if the bishop is a good or bad bishop, but as Lund points out, about if the bishop side can improve his position or if it becomes stagnant and lost. The discussion of bishop vs knight can be treated as a bad bishop vs a knight or a good bishop vs a knight, but Lund does not follow this path either, concentrating too much effort in very simplified endings where the bishop isn't good nor bad, just a bishop.

With the analysis I have mixed feelings. There are places where the analysis are deep and Lund makes really good points, showing some hidden possibilities. However in some (admittedly far less) cases the analysis is just flat (especially in the introduction). I got the feeling though that the material exposed in the book was always checked with an engine, hence I had not to worry that the author was only an IM, the engine is far stronger than any GM wanting to write chess books.

So, do I recommend it? The review is harsh, that I cannot hide, and I'm not done with it yet, but I have a very difficult time answering the question.

On the one hand: Yes, it is a short book from an unknown author and the discussion in my view is sometimes forced. Moreover (yeah, I told you I was not done) there is a whole chapter on a variation of the advanced french. Well, I play the french, hence I should find it interesting (and I did) even though I never played that particular variation. But what if you don't play it? You through away 30 pages of an already short book?

On the other hand: The thesis is interesting and the arguments compelling. Even if you do not agree with it, it is thought provoking, and that is something good. Everything that makes you think and not read and nod is good. The chapter on opening theory will explain you a pawn structure you most probably have no experience with, a pawn structure that at the first sight seems really bad for black. That's not the case though, as Lund shows. Hence even if you are never near a french defense, your chess knowledge will expand (this same argument applied to Flores' Chess Structures). The ending chapter is interesting (I'm a huge fan of endings) and the exchange sacrifice one should appeal you by definition. Hence there is much to love in this book, even if you think it is not always about the infamous DEB.

So at the end of the day, the point that remains is: Do you have 20€ to spend on an interesting but short book? That is a very personal decision. I'm quite happy with the book and have not regret the money spent. I'm even considering buying the other book by Lund. But there are definitively other books which will improve your chess more, other books that will offer you more chess for a little more money (and the ratio time enjoying the book / money would increase), so I cannot recommend the book in good conscience.

But there's the catch: If you want a book that is definitively different and thought provoking, well written and that shows that the author has put his heart on it and if you don't mind much the money (or on the other hand, the shortness), then go for it, and please tell me afterwards what do you thought, because it is a book I think we'll enjoy more the more we discuss its points.

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