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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

The Latvian Gambit Lives!

The Latvian Gambit Lives! - Tony Kosten I bought this book on impulse when I saw it last week in a Melbourne bookshop, and it's better than I'd expected. The Latvian is a dreadful opening, and a more realistic title would have been There Is Perhaps No Absolutely Clearcut Refutation of the Latvian Gambit. None the less, the book itself is well researched, and organizes its material in an exemplary fashion.

In case you're wondering what the Latvian is, it's basically a reversed King's Gambit: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 f5. So, Black is not just playing a fairly dubious opening, he's giving White an extra tempo too. How can this possibly be a good idea?


Objectively, of course, it isn't good, and at first I couldn't even understand the point. If White goes for the main line (3. Ne5 Qf6 4. d4), he is comfortably better, and can either play for an advantageous endgame or for an attack. Another promising alternative is Leonhardt's 4. Nc4, followed by Nc3 and d3. White has a development advantage and a dangerous attack. The author responsibly lays out all these variations in early chapters.

When you get to the second half of the book, however, you start to see why the Latvian has its devotees. What Black is hoping is that White won't be content with a comfortable plus, and will try to punish him severely by playing 3. Bc4. When this move works, Black can get spectacularly mated in less than 20 moves. But the positions that arise are complex and double-edged, Black will be fighting on his home territory, and he has plenty of opportunities to counter-sacrifice for the initiative. In particular, he'll be very happy to get this position,


which occurs after 3. Bc4 fe 4. Ne5 d5! 5. Qh5+ g6 6. Ng6 hg 7. Qh8 Kf7! 8. Bb3 Bg7 9. Qh7 Be6. Black has huge compensation for the material, and his position is much easier to play than White's.

In the end, I thought an interesting and general point emerged. If someone tries to provoke you by making ludicrous and implausible claims, don't go overboard. That's exactly what they're hoping for. React calmly and logically, and explore the obvious consequences of what they're saying; often, you find that they're not doing more than advocating an inferior version of a standard idea which is already known to have many drawbacks. You might want to reflect on that next time you get into an argument with a creationist or a global warming sceptic.


A footnote for people who are seriously interested in opening theory. In Volume 2 of My Great Predecessors, Kasparov gives 2... f5 the annotation ?! (dubious), and appends an exclamation mark (good move) to Leonhardt's 4. Nc4. So now you know. But be warned that you have to learn the theory if you intend to play 4. Nc4. You aren't going to be able to find the moves at the board.