If you’re scouting about for early holiday gifts, two of the year’s best chess books present a nice package gift.
California IM Cyrus Lakdawala’s “In The Zone: The Greatest Winning Streaks in Chess History” recounts the story behind some of the greatest performances in chess history, from Paul Morphy’s blitz through the first U.S. championship in 1858 and Bobby Fischer’s 11-0 shutout in the 1963-1964 U.S. title tournament to Anatoly Karpov’s win in the star-studded 1994 Linares tournament, when the Russian great beat a field that included four current or future world champions by a stunning 2½ points.
The highlight of Stuart Rachels’ “The Best I Saw in Chess,” a new anthology/autobiography by the Alabama IM who played just a few short years before retiring from elite play at the age of 23, is his account of his miraculous run at the 1989 U.S. Championship in Long Beach, California. Bearing no title and ranked last in the field, the 20-year-old Rachels stunned the world with an undefeated 9½-5½ result, tying for first with veteran GMs Roman Dzindzichashvili and Yasser Seirawan.
Rachels’ book was named the best general chess book of 2020 by the Chess Journalists of America, and Lakdawala’s tome took home the prize as best instructional book. Both are available from publisher New in Chess at NewInChess.com.
Rachels, now a philosophy instructor at the University of Alabama, is partial to long reams of analysis and computer-aided explication, but his book also shines at portraying the human element of top-level chess competition.
In a critical win over GM Sergey Kudrin from his U.S. title run, Rachels acknowledges being mystified by White’s strategy coming out of a Sicilian Dragon: “If 12. a4 bewildered me, then 13. Ra2 made me feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. It looked like the stupidest move I had ever seen.”
It finally dawned on Black that Kudrin’s super-subtle idea was to play b2-b3, c2-c4 and Nd4, redeploying the rook powerfully along the now-cleared second rank.
Black shows his budding philosophical chops. “My labor was motivated by an abstract argument: So far, White has not outplayed Black; therefore, I must have a decent continuation.” White’s plan is sound but slow, so Black goes on the attack with 15…g5! and 20…h4!?, looking for a quick mate.
His instincts are rewarded when White unwisely neglects his defense: 23. Nb5?! 0-0-0! 24. Nxa7+ Kb8 25. Bd3 Rdh8 26. Qe1? (Kudrin falters under the pressure; after a long analysis, Rachels concludes that 26. Bg1! Nc5! 27. Nb5 Qe4 28. Qe1 holds Black’s edge to a minimum) g3! 27. Qa5 (Qxg3 Qxg3 28. Rxg3 Rxh2+ 29. Kg1 Rh1+ 30. Kf2 R8h2+ 31. Ke1 Bc3+! is one winning line) Rxh2+ 28. Rxh2 Qe4+! (White banked on 28…g2+ 29. Kg1 gxf1=Q+ 30. Kxf1 Rxh2?? 31. Qd8 mate) 29. Kg1 Qxe3+, and it’s mate in six after 30. Rhf2 gxf2+ 31. Rxf2 Qc1+ 32. Rf1 Bd4+ 33. Kg2 Rg8+ 34. Kh2 Qc2+ and 35…Qh7 mate. White resigned.
In a nice bit of symmetry, one of Lakdawala’s best chapters focuses on a tournament played just months before Rachels’ miracle run — the dominant 3½-point victory by in-his-very-prime world champion Garry Kasparov at the 1989 Interpolis Tournament in Tilburg, Netherlands.
Kasparov’s win over Dutch GM Jeroen Piket is peak Kasparov — meaning perhaps the greatest player ever firing on every cylinder. In a classic King’s Indian flank battle, Black simply destroys what had been Piket’s pet line with a series of sledgehammer blows: 20. Nc7 (see diagram) g3! 21. Nxa8? (hxg3 here may be White’s last chance to hold) Nh5!! 22. Kh1 (Bxa7 Qh4! 23. h3 Bxh3 blows up the White defensive fortress) gxf2 23. Rxf2 Ng3+! 24. Kg1 (hxg3 fxg3, followed by 25…Qh4 wins) Qxa8 25. Bc4 a6! 26. Qd3 Qa7!!, and the long-range pin wins decisive material after 27. b5 axb5 28. Bxb5 Nh1!, costing White a full piece. Piket conceded.
Kudrin-Rachels, U.S. Championship, Long Beach, California, November 1989
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g3 g6 7. Nde2 Bd7 8. Bg2 Qc8 9. Nd5 Bg7 10. O-O Nxd5 11. exd5 Ne5 12. a4 Bh3 13. Ra2 h5 14. Bxh3 Qxh3 15. f3 g5 16. Kh1 Bf6 17. b3 Qf5 18. Nd4 Qg6 19. c4 g4 20. Rg2 h4 21. gxh4 Rxh4 22. f4 Nd7 23. Nb5 O-O-O 24. Nxa7+ Kb8 25. Be3 Rdh8 26. Qe1 g3 27. Qa5 Rxh2+ 28. Rxh2 Qe4+ 29. Kg1 Qxe3+ White resigns.
Piket-Kasparov, 13th Interpolis Tournament, Tilburg, Netherlands, September 1989
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. c4 Bg7 4. Nc3 O-O 5. e4 d6 6. Be2 e5 7. O-O Nc6 8. d5 Ne7 9. Ne1 Nd7 10. Be3 f5 11. f3 f4 12. Bf2 g5 13. b4 Nf6 14. c5 Ng6 15. cxd6 cxd6 16. Rc1 Rf7 17. a4 Bf8 18. a5 Bd7 19. Nb5 g4 20. Nc7 g3 21. Nxa8 Nh5 22. Kh1 gxf2 23. Rxf2 Ng3+ 24. Kg1 Qxa8 25. Bc4 a6 26. Qd3 Qa7 27. b5 axb5 28. Bxb5 Nh1 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email email@example.com.