Review: Timman's selected games - Jan Timman

[This review first appeared in Westward Ho!]

Timman's selected games - chess the adventurous way

by Jan Timman

248pp.+index Cadogan Press, 1995
"It is not always the games with the best chess that leave behind the strongest memories (...) This selection of 80 games gives a picture of the fighting chess I have always championed."

  This is simply a collection of annotated games, some of which are very well-known and many of which have been annotated elsewhere. If you have not met Timman's annotations before (as I hadn't), you may be tempted to regard this volume as warmed-up leftovers, but this is to do the author an injustice. The games are mostly from top tournaments and the World Championship cycle, and Timman is a top Grandmaster writing for a professional audience. His annotations are quite modestly put, but are deep and precise. If you have ever sat through games annotated glibly by GMs[*], you will appreciate Timman as a commentator who comments only when necessary, and at an appropriate level.

  His play features crisp openings, enterprising middlegame play and endings rich in detail. The search for the crucial inaccuracy in a master game is often a challenging piece of detective work, and while I am in no position to judge how well he has done this, I enjoyed accompanying Timman on his journeys. I was particularly struck by a number of critical endgames, in particular a fascinating KBB vs. KandN ending against Speelman, and a really thorough study of the fourth game of the 1990 Karpov-Timman Candidates' Match. Timman has a point to prove here and takes the stand with great assurance - it reminded me of Fischer's tour de force of analysis in his annotations of the Botvinnik-Fischer endgame. The other striking feature for me was the number of games where there was a difficult material imbalance that required technical resolution - Queen against Rook and Bishop, for example.

  But what Timman relishes above all these is the human struggle: there are great set-pieces, superb escapes, desparate time scrambles, enterprising pawn sacrifices and some glorious messes... like the fifth match-game Ivanchuk-Timman, 1990 - which Timman dryly introduces with "The game annotated below does not really come within the confines of what is commonly understood to be top chess." As you can tell from this, Timman is also a fluent and entertaining writer of English: I also enjoyed a remark from a Candidates' Match game where after 1. d4 f5 he offers: "A very surprising opening for Speelman, but I must say I had expected him to do something unexpected."

  The range of openings on show is impressive: he opens with 1. e4, 1. d4 and 1. c4, and plays as Black the French, the Sicilian, the Pirc/Modern and defends the Ruy Lopez and Petroff, while against the QP he plays as Black the Modern, King's Indian, Grunfeld, Queen's and Nimzo-Indian. He is a true modern - there is hardly a classical, merely 'equalising' defence in the book - and a real fighter. For example, the fifth game of his 1989 match against Portisch he went for victory by playing very riskily as Black - but won. His play attracted a lot of criticism at the time, and this itself roused Timman's fighting spirit - so in his annotations he takes on a 'simultaneous display' against his critics. I was also struck by the number of games where time trouble played a part. I wonder if Timman also makes note of clock times against his moves (a practice which I believe was first recommended by Bronstein), as even here he is precise, often citing (e.g.) 15 minutes for 17 moves.

  Compared to Nunn's recent book, it lacks the anecdotes and personal glimpses - this reflects the origin of the annotations. He does permit himself the occasional splendid piece of prejudice or spleen - for example "I still don't regard [the King's Indian] as a fully-fledged opening", or "It is hard to believe what Russian commentators sometimes try to foist on the public". [You will recall from the paragraph above that Timman plays the King's Indian as Black!] But, like Nunn, the depth and quality of the analysis is consistently high. If you are looking for study material this is a good source.

  I didn't much welcome the use of the NICbase opening classification - RL, SI, and FR for Ruy Lopez, Sicilian and French. This is very natural for English speakers at first look but soon lapses into an impenetrable RL 26.2.1 and FR 4.4.4 and lacks the universality of the ECO [A00-E99] system. It also has some obvious anomalies - for example, the opening to the game Kasparov-Timman is given as QI 1.6 and confidently labelled Queen's Indian - but it began 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4+ (the Bogo-Indian), and as can be seen from the diagram, on move 16 the Black b-pawn is still at home on b7. By all means Cadogan should go along with the author's framework, but could have supplemented the classification with ECO.

  If I have another reproach, it is that what Timman regards as an 'appropriate level' to comment often left me struggling to follow him. This is, I suppose, the cream of chess, and in quantity may be too rich for many club players. In particular, the whole opening phase of the game is often left up to the reader as common knowledge. Common knowledge amongst GMs, may be, but I would have been glad of a few landmarks being pointed out before we headed off into the middlegame. I still was glad to read this book - when I travelled with Timman, he showed me many sights on the journey that I would never have noticed on my own.


[*] I will always remember "prevents Nf5" as the complete annotation to ...g6, followed by "prevents Bg5" after ...h6 - any guesses as to the author?