The catalog description of GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Chess Knowledge (2000) by Rashid Ziyatdinov with Peter Dyson intrigued me and I decided to order it as part of an array of chess books and equipment. When I received the order a few weeks later, GM-RAM was not in the shipment. It was out of stock. Ten years later, I searched online through the collections of several used books stores and bought a copy still in pristine condition. The used price was a few dollars more than it had cost new, but the bookstore shipped it the first business day after my order. It arrived in the mail last Wednesday.
Although I found the catalog description appealing, others failed to read it, ordered the book, and then disliked what they received.
Contains positions only, no analysis.The publisher, the author, and some reviewers— positive and negative, describe this distinctive feature of this book: it contains diagrams without analysis. The author does not indicate the player on move. For some positions, one diagram thus becomes two elementary positions.
USCF Catalog, c. 2000
Black to move draws; White to move wins.
In the middlegame positions, the rationale for excluding the knowledge of who is on move differs. The authors offer a useful explanation at the head of a chapter containing 120 positions and fifty-nine game scores.
The first part of the chapter gives the positions. Certain of the games have more than one position included. These positions are like the fingerprint of the games—from this fingerprint, the associated game can be identified. Following the positions, the full game scores are given.If I study the games, if I make the effort to memorize them, then I know when I see the position whether Black or White is on move. Moreover, in some positions there might be some useful insights gained from an extra tempo. If the position derives from a game where White was on move, but we look at the diagram as if it is Black to move, the result might differ. Such a thought experiment could reinforce the need for vigorous play, for the element of time in chess strategy.
The Legendary 300
On the back cover of the book, the publisher offers an extract from the introduction.
In Russian folklore it is said that there are 300 positions which comprise the most important knowledge an aspiring player must acquire. About two-thirds of them are from the endgame and the remaining third are from the middlegame.In the introduction, Ziyatdinov explains that opinions differ as to the precise identity of these 300. He mentions Lev Alburt’s Chess Training Pocket Book: 300 Most Important Positions & Ideas (1997) which contains a substantially different collection than the 253 in GM-RAM (forty-seven are left to the reader). Ziyatdinov’s selection favors endgames and middlegame positions from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Botvinnik-Tartakower, Nottingham 1936 is the most recent game in the fifty-nine. Alburt’s collection favors more recent grandmaster practice.
Ziyatdinov also offers a more ambitious assessment of the value of complete games from the nineteenth century.
If you know just one of the important classical games, you will be able to become a 1400 level player, know 10 games and you will be 2200 level, know 100 and you will be 2500.That’s it: my road to expert is much shorter than I thought. If I know ten nineteenth century games, I’ll blast right through expert and make master. But, wait, I’ve known more than ten of these games for years, and I only recently broke into class A. What holds me back from realizing Ziyatdinov’s promise?
My knowledge of such games as Anderssen’s “Evergreen Game” must lack depth. Ziyatdinov explains how infants acquire language, “when we start to speak, we repeat many times the words we are hearing from other people” (7). When he speaks of knowing a game, he does not mean the way I have memorized a handful of poems, or part of Ahab’s soliloquy in Moby-Dick (1851). Rather, he means learning those games the way we learn the alphabet, and the combinations of sounds that make up the words we use every day without needing to think about them. He likens this “tacit knowledge” to the information stored in a computer’s RAM. Possession of this knowledge renders playing second nature.
Alburt’s promise is more modest. His 300 includes twelve key king and pawn endgame positions, and claims these are all that are needed to become a strong player. On the other hand, a master must know fifty positions.
Here’s a promise: To be a strong player, you do not need to know hundreds of King and Pawn endgame positions—but only 12 key positions. Of course they have to be the right positions—and they’re in this book! To be a master you do not need to know thousands of King and Pawn endings. You need to know 50 key positions.While I was waiting for GM-RAM to arrive last week, I created forty-eight flash cards of pawn endings. These forty-eight are all of the blue diagrams in the first chapter of Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (2003). The two dozen pawn endgames in GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge include a few that are not among these forty-eight, but perhaps all the essential ideas are in both sets. Knowing Ziyatdinov’s two dozen, and Dvoretsky’s four increases my number to about sixty pawn endgames. That’s not too intimidating.