Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

‘Alekhine is a player I’ve never really understood. He always wanted a superior centre; he manoeuvred his pieces toward the kingside, and around the 25th move, began to mate his opponent. He disliked exchanges, preferring to play with many pieces on the board. His play was fantastically complicated, more so than any player before or since.’  –  Bobby Fischer

Being mildly impressed by this year’s Alekhine Memorial, I carefully placed Nottingham 1936 next to a puncture repair kit and some light clothing, along with a magnetic set and my ticket for the overnight train from Bangkok to Vientiane -my reason for departure being a 200km cycling trip. Though still a communist state, Laos has adopted an economic free zone in the capital, meaning that it has blossomed in recent years. The Riverside area, a tightly-packed grid of upmarket bars and  restaurants which the Mekong bends around before meandering through the central plains, offers much more than budget accommodation these days, so that admiring Alekhine’s fine attacking prowess and Capablanca’s sublime endgame technique whilst under the influence of -shall we say- more than one Dark Beer Laos was forthcoming in comfort across several sunny afternoons. There was even time to recline and reflect upon my own efforts in the annual Nottingham tournament many moons ago and plan my journey ahead, which loosely, was to follow the river north to a lake named Ngam Ngum.

Opinions about the great champion by the contestants of the  Alekhine Memorial can be found here

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D2vDzaVCFvs

The comments are not too illuminating but worth watching nonetheless. I found this game in particular to be outstanding http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1715950, and as many commentators said, is something which Mr.Alekhine would himself have been truly proud.

About the publication

The publication makes for a light, entertaining read. I found the analysis and annotation to be generally balanced and deeply insightful in places. Mr. Alekhine deals only with what he considers essential in each game and does not bother us with endless sidelines. Occasionally, however, his style is dismissive in places, I suppose this is a forgivable, occupational hazard of being the world champion.  Sometimes, though, it would be nice to know why certain lines/openings are bad to him. I should point out that this book would appeal to those who enjoy the classical period most. I personally found there to be more uninteresting games than interesting ones but then I am not a fan of playing through 30 variations of the queen’s pawn opening & queen’s gambit declined, or however many there were. For the modern reader it is interesting to see how badly wrong the top players can go in the opening. Even in the very first game, I found both Alekhine and Flohr’s play to be inexplicable http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1008345 for such great players. What was also interesting is how the top British players quickly occupied the bottom places in the tournament, just like in the London Classic these days!

Publications such as these are worth purchasing in the sense that they do qualify as historical documents but they must be handled with a little more care by modern day publishers. It provided me with enough entertainment during the quieter hours on my trip and I will return to it once again with interest in due course, courtesy of Mr.Alekhine’s insightful analysis and his inspiring play.

During a Chess competition a Chessmaster should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk. – Alekhine

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Edited by Benjamin Hale, this text is a collection of unpublished articles which brings together philosophy, understood in its academic context, and chess.

The best way to think of this book is as an introduction to philosophy for chess players and nothing more. With that in mind, you shouldn’t expect to be too challenged by the content even if you have never read academic philosophy before, as you won’t be burdened by genius or bewitched by brilliance in this publication. Though the book begins with content which, technically speaking, lies within the analytic tradition in philosophy, it does not delve deeply as most articles are written with the reader in mind, meaning that terminology, experiment and argumentation are explained sufficiently. However, if philosophy is new to you, I suggest you invest a little time researching the earlier content -excluding the first article, which is only there to help sell the book- as some of the later content will refer to it in some shape or form. That is important should you wish to read the book in its entirety. Philosophy cannot be defined by its subject matter, therefore, towards the end of the text we are introduced to a much broader subject matter. The method and approach is rigorous enough so that we can say with certainty that what is being presented is academic philosophy.

Given that I have spent at least 5 years studying philosophy formally, this book wasn’t written for me. I understand the text as being introductory but the difficulty with simplifying philosophy is that if you go too far, it stops becoming philosophy. In my opinion there are a number of articles within the text that come dangerously close to that threshold, and one or two which cross it. Many types of error can be found in this publication, some could have been easily avoided had the author referenced his claims instead of relying upon the vernacular to carry him through, in others terms are introduced that the author clearly has little understanding of and can only allude to, many articles annoyingly slip in and out of the first person, making you wonder on what level they are suitable for publication. One article in particular looks like nothing more than a half-decent first draft.

Aristotle once asked ‘What is it about a thing that makes a thing what it is?‘ Concerning this publication, the best answer I can give -if we ignore the spurious claims in the introduction- is, primarily, an intention by the editing author to find a niche in the market, and secondarily, to offer the opportunity for writers people who write to find their way into print, which within academia is usually a necessity.

Even though both chess and philosophy have long literary traditions, there has been little convergence between the two, and in my opinion, what has been published has always failed to make a genuine impact within their own respective fields let alone each others. I don’t feel that this book has made a genuine contribution towards bridging that divide.

A disappointing read.

MJM

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The beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.  –  Aaron Nimzowitsch

And so too with literature. Occasionally in chess literature we stumble upon a book based upon a concept that appears so self-evidently sound, it demands that we take a deeper look. When I then saw a plethora of rave reviews for the aforementioned text, I was powerless to resist locating it on amazon, and then as if like a robot, began punching in the numbers on the credit card, salivating in stupor, awaiting its delivery with…something or other.

More seriously, I intend to marginally break rank here. I don’t write for anyone or anything other than the joy of writing, which gives me a greater level of freedom than those within literary circles within chess. Some thoughts on that: book reviews tend to suffer from time pressure and lack of interest, and more importantly a lack of freedom. It is in the interests of a titled player not to be too critical of a text published by the company which employs him. Some criticism is both necessary and acceptable as long as the bar is raised accordingly. By this I mean an average book becomes a good book, a good book becomes a great book, and a terrible book becomes a bad book. A lack of time is more pernicious than may first appear. Personally I like to take my time to think more deeply about certain issues, as the answer isn’t always apparent. Sometimes we don’t know for sure how we feel about something until we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Of course, being rubbish at chess means that my understanding of the game is much less than titled opposition, but having invested my entire life into education, having always been an avid reader and lover of writing per se entitles me to an opinion, one which I believe is informed enough to express. In previous posts I durstn’t refer to a text without quoting from it, as I didn’t want to drag the culture of chess literature into the gutter -as its never been there before honest!-but this time it has to be that way. More importantly, I will keep this brief as the text allows me to do this.

The text in question has clearly had a lot of thought put into the construction of it, although some explanation upon how the ‘modern’ era is defined would have been nice. Is there any reason why the author chooses 1993 as a starting date I wonder? The games are chronologically ordered and fascinating without being exceptional due to  the primary purpose of the text being instruction. The quality of the annotation and commentary is consistently high, which makes reading the book an absolute pleasure. Furthermore, Stohl does a good job of choosing lesser known games, and making them, as the title says, instructive. Some of them cannot be found on-line, even though the players are well-known.

A solid effort by Stohl and well-worth buying. He should be very proud of himself. My suggestion for an active reading process with this book is to play through each game carefully, then spend time thinking about how the game is instructive in the context of the modern game. It’s not as easy to do as you might think.

MJM

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John Lennon once said that French rock is like English wine. Would he be rocking if he read ‘The Modern French’ if he were still alive…well read on and decide for yourself.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover but surely the best way to know what a book is about, who wrote it or what the price is, is to look at the cover which tells us the text ‘The Modern French’ arrives courtesy of Antic (no not Raddy) and Maksimovic, who have teamed up with New In Chess. On the back cover, the text claims to ‘change your view of one of the most popular openings of all time’ – and no that’s not a daft attempt to sell a book, it is in fact a very daft attempt to sell a book. Literature in chess tends to lack the transformative capacity its impoverished authors & publishers tend to play up, so along with the bright red cover it was I who was initially ‘rocked’ upon receipt of this rather strangely bundled reading material. Also on the cover we see the words ‘A Complete Guide for Black’. Given that Carlsen has recently been lashing out with the Winawer, I thought I’d look up the lines he’s been playing. Imagine my surprise when I found it had been omitted from the text altogether, along with the also popular Burn and Rubinstein variations. What kind of ‘Complete Guide’ could this be, I asked myself? The title -also to be found on the cover oddly enough- claims that the book details ‘The Modern French’ yet upon perusal many of the lines covered are far from modern…I was indeed perplexed and felt compelled to read on, safe in the knowledge that any book on the French Defence simply must be a good read (yes you’ve guessed it, the author plays the French Defence too).

Start Right!

The Foreword (more about that to come) reads as follows ‘Over the intensive two-year effort of writing this book, the aim of the authors has been to present you with more than the traditional bone-dry analysis of all possible variations [?]. To this aim, apart from explaining the essential strategies and plans pertinent to this opening, we also cover a multitude of complex plans and theoretical novelties as part of our new strategic approach’. That’s a strange start. Those who write in a professional capacity don’t usually draw attention to a period of time as short as that, bearing in mind to get where you are usually involves research over periods far greater. Fifteen years or a lifetime of effort, okay now we are getting there but two years? That’s on a par with the your first post-grad qualification, what’s so exceptional about that? More crucially, for a number of reasons I will point to later, I don’t believe the text even constitutes two years of ‘intensive’ effort. I also don’t believe that the approach offered by the authors is particularly new either; ‘new’ for them maybe but only them. One text that does attempt to give a ‘bone-dry analysis’ and, in my opinion is what the authors are alluding to, is Lev Psakhis’ book ‘The Complete French’, but if this is the sort of thing they are trying to move away from it needs to be asked why they have copied/used the same format? Though successful attempts are made to summarize and highlight key positions throughout, originality or lack thereof pervades the text from start to finish on a number of levels. The text smells of a copied, but improved, version meaning that aspects of the text are misdescribed by the authors.

Once again from the Foreword: The French has been an integral part of many top players’ repertoires  [but isn’t this true of most mainstream openings?], and it was the key weapon in the hands of old masters such as Botvinnik and contemporary stars such as Carlsen and Morozevich. When you look at their tournament results, it becomes clear that they chose the French Defence in important games, when they need to secure a win with the black pieces.’  What a load of old tosh, the sentence simply isn’t true -shame upon the editor. Carlsen does play the French but only occasionally and rarely in crucial games. Trying to over-emphasize the importance of the French Defence by construing language to suggest that its selection is habitual amongst certain top players is just another cheap sell. I don’t understand why the Foreword is used to try and sell you the book. It’s an unpersuasive start I must say. To conclude this section, I also don’t understand why the Winawer has been left out, if demonstrating how essential winning with the French is, then I suspect it’s omission tells us more about the book than anything else -the authors simply don’t play it.

What I definitely liked about this book.

1) It’s about the French Defence!

2) The analysis is, undoubtedly, the strong point of the book. It is sound throughout, as well as being easy to assimilate. A good balance has been found between range and depth of response with much quality annotation to boot.

3)  I was personally happy to see that the authors dropped the tradition of starting with rare and unusual moves. I’ve always found retaining motivation to be an issue when you are forced to wade almost half-way into a book before anything familiar emerges. I was also happy to see that chapters are finishing with concluding remarks. Though perhaps more could be said, the remarks do tie in well with the content, helping those of us who are less gifted.

What I definitely didn’t like about this book

1) Attention to detail is lacking in places. A foreword is only a foreword when its written by someone else and not when its written by the authors of the book. That’s what we’ve called a preface for the last several hundred years. The game on pages 58 & 59 isn’t referenced properly. It reads Schebler-Art.     Minasian, Kalithea 2008. Since I know GM Schebler, I asked him about this. He informed me that his opponent was named Artashes Minasian, and not Art. The punctuation denotes abbreviation but given the spacing, I wasn’t sure whether Minasian was part of his name or a place, it is unclear in the text.

2) Some attempts to infuse modernity or provide context are crude and inexact. For example, pg 59: ‘3. e5 is regarded as the third strongest move, [justification?] after 3.Nc3 and Nd2. The recent tournament practice confirms this assessment.’ Poor English and vague, unsupported statements here. ‘When it comes to old masters, the biggest fans of the advance variation, Nimzowitch and Paulsen, provided the biggest theoretical advances. Later on, a number of top players, adopted this variation as part of their regular repertoire [the correct connotation is main repertoire]. You couldn’t make this stuff up, and I am supposed to believe this book constitutes a two-year intensive effort? This is just another example of crap writing in chess.

3) The concept of the book lacks refinement. The format of the book is so similar to Psakhis’ ‘The Complete French’ I did expect it to be in the wafer-thin bibliography but its not there. I find that to be rather suspicious. Also missing is Nigel Short’s book, and Shaun Talbot’s, both of which are essential reading for the French. More importantly, the handling of the Tarrasch is somewhat idiosyncratic. We are only offered Morozevich’s 3…Be7. All it needs is for someone else to come over the top with more concrete analysis showing exactly what is wrong with the response 3. Be7 (though the authors seem to know already), and the entire chapter will be rendered obsolete. Sounder 3rd moves clearly exist, Nf6 and c5 spring to mind and should have been offered. Though 3. Be7 is a modern move, and thus fits in with the overall aim of the book soundness cannot be sacrificed for the sake of modernity. In offering more third move alternatives, at least the authors would have a get out of jail free card to play if 3 Be7 does not stand the test of time. Some of the positions shown, particularly where white plays 4. e5 & 5. Qg4 require a horrendous level of precision if black is to avoid being wiped out early on…I for one certainly won’t be playing them. The poor exposition of the Tarrasch reveals the limitations of the book more clearly than anywhere else. The reader has little choice other than to follow the authors down a precipitous path, the option of an alternative route would have been a more pragmatic decision in the pre-writing phase.

When I studied at post-grad level, I was taught by one of my professors that in order to write about something, you need to define what it is first. So what is the modern French? We simply don’t know because the question doesn’t arise. What does modern mean? Post-Kasparov? I don’t know. Confusingly, I noticed John Watson in the reading list, who is one of the few authors in chess that can document development in chess successfully, but why can’t the authors reference his work and inform the reader since he is in the bibliography? We are presented with an array of carefully indexed modern games, but that is just exposition. No effort is made to state whether the line being played is modern -often not the case in the text-and in what sense it is modern. Why are certain moves defined by modernity? Too little is said.

What I think the title alludes to is a modernized text on the French. Questions can be asked over why we have both the Steinitz and the McCutcheon in the book when the Winawer can replace both. If the McCutcheon is so great, then perhaps the authors would like to explain why it is virtually non-existent at the highest level? Again, this ‘Complete Guide’ is complete in the sense that it fulfills the authors impartation of their own preferences, whether they have homed in on relatively unexplored, modern lines solely to create strong marketing points or to substantiate their own analysis is a question only they can answer, the answer lies somewhere between the two I suspect.

4) Given that the book aims to provide key positions and structures, as part of its successful attempt to offer an in-depth look at the french, why are we denied, middle and endgames? Surely its crucial to see how the strategic motives are played out, seeing that such value is placed upon them? Annotation would be useful but not necessary. The authors could have given you the option of playing through the game yourself without having to go on line.

A Conclusion

I’m not sure what John Lennon would have made of this book, I think he would have said it hummed rather than rocked. But seriously, I think ‘The Modern French’ has greater strengths than weaknesses but will never be considered to be a classic, as there is too much room for improvement in it. The content is at times superficial and at others in-depth and highly informative. We are never freed from its erratic twists and turns, which probably comes down to a lack of writing credentials more than anything else. How else can we interpret the total lack of originality in the format and style of the book as constituting anything other than a lack writing craft? It is true that improvements have been made if you compare the work to Psarkis’ but they are not sufficient in themselves. The analysis is sound and impressive but just about everything else is sloppy and imprecise. There is a strong tendency in chess to copy or base your work previous publications, ‘The Modern French’ disappointingly fits into that tradition in my opinion.

Anyway, that’s just my take on things. I stand to be corrected as always.

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Did you know that a rain forest the size of Covent Garden is cut down everyday to make way for chess publications? Hundreds of species are reported to have lost their home, become untraceable (as no forwarding address was left) and even extinct occasionally. One species, it is said, secreted an oil which has soothing capacities for those in time-trouble, an indigenous GM from Brazil claimed. He added further that pre-match preparation rarely extended beyond incorporating the oil into a balm which would be rubbed into the shins during play. I wonder if chess will ever become partially responsible for environmental catastrophe -that is should such a thing be possible-hmm…perhaps I should stop buying hard copies and seek out the soft copy in a less guiltier fashion just in case?!

Not intentionally -and without guilt I might add- I recently picked up the publication that cost the most out of the 30-something books I’ve acquired this year. It’s not often that I pay over 40 quid for a book, in fact its only ever happened twice in my whole life. Being the most expensive chess book I’ve ever bought, perhaps it was inevitable that the publication would pop its way up the reading order somehow.

The book I am referring to is Edward Winter’s Chess Facts and Fables. which is a McFarland publication from deepest, darkest two thousand and six…or 2006 as its also known. Winter is known for his famous Chess Notes website. Like many, I have respect for its author, which is the primary reason why I bought the book. Specifically, I wanted to see how the published and on-line content differed, hoping the published material would be superior in content. Though there’s truth in that, the published material does not differ greatly in quality, though enough to justify purchase.

Some Comments

The purpose of the text is explained clearly in the preface:

‘Fact and fable are commonly intermingled, and chess historians have a hard time disentangling them, for the game’s literature is particularly blighted by untrustworthy assertions, rickety anecdotes and dubious quotes. The intention of the Chess Notes series, which began in 1982, is to sort out fact from fable and to present fresh, accurate material.’

Winter is not a distinguished player as such but a historian (not an historian given that it is currently 2012), meaning that the text is academic in approach and format. He is critical of chess literature on the whole, with the rigours of academia perhaps putting him at variance with literary conventions, or lack thereof, in chess literature. Before looking more closely at the text, I would like to reflect upon this potential variance with a pre-amble.

A Preamble

How do we make headway through the jungle of chess literature effectively? Is it a fundamental mistake to attribute blame towards a collective of individuals within chess, or are there issues within the literary culture of chess which are broader? Here’s some thoughts from William Hartston, taken from the August edition of the British magazine Chess:

“You have to separate the professional players who are actually making a living out of the game, and the professional players who are just layabouts who don’t do anything other than play chess of whom there are always lots” (pg.24) 

I would like to argue that Bill’s comments apply to literature in chess for a number of reasons. Without over-simplifying matters, there are many authors in chess who have a noticeable weakness in terms of distinguishing ability from knowledge, and in turn knowledge from the communication of knowledge. There’s often an underlying assumption amongst the guilty that being endowed with chess ability enables you to write & research competently, which are it seems, not skills in their own right. Instead, they are natural bi-products from chess ability and thus do not need to be practiced and mastered to the extent that chess does. Unfortunately, there is some justification here: if a literary genre is poor on the whole, why should anyone have to worry about the quality of their publications? Aren’t my mates the publishers? And won’t that uncritical reader Joe Public just buy anyway? However, should you want to achieve originality rather than mediocrity, then a more reflective approach is required. On page 132, Winter describes the writing of Reinfield and Golombek as being glib and portentous in its attempt to reveal the motivations of Botvinnik. I can’t reproduce the source as the quotation is lengthy, however, it is hard to disagree that what is reproduced appears fabricated rather than researched. On page 248, former world champion Lasker comes under scrutiny, appearing in an article named ‘Literary Controversies’

“An English edition of Dr.Lasker’s ‘Chess Manual had just come out to a most reverential reception by the critics. The Doctor, however, had by no means done his homework, and furthermore had indulged in some obscure philosophy and phoney eloquence which, had it come from anyone else, might have raised an awful whisper of waffle!”…

Personally, I’ve always found motivation to be a perpetual problem in chess literature, and that its vital -not necessary- to ask yourself what the primary purpose behind writing is: to educate or to supplement an income in a poor man’s game by making a name for yourself? Did the author actually enjoy the writing process, do they have the credentials to write effectively, and if so, exactly how much thought went into the construction of the text, given that incoherent analysis, incomplete sections, rushed, wrong format, contradictory, poorly researched, no substantiation of important points, can seem par for the course with certain publishers & authors? Winter, often appearing as a sniper, has an easy time taking such individuals to task, as we all have. However, it is important to remember that the relative structure of academia (where some of us do perform proper research) and publishing in chess differ greatly.

In broader terms, the problem of practitioners misapplying themselves to the craft of writing can be found in all sports & pastimes. It is not just chess that suffers from this problem as many distinguished sportsmen/women often turn their hand to writing, usually with negative results. Though, in my opinion chess literature is generally poor, there has been discernible improvement in the last ten-twenty years. Poker, the game of the day according to Kasparov, is another good example of game in which top players will write about how to improve your game, whilst lacking the skills to do so effectively. The author of this blog has delved into such publications, and can confirm that poker literature is in far worse shape than chess literature, generally speaking (but makes for a better xmas present).

The question of exactly who should and shouldn’t write is a complex one as many factors -most importantly profit-can dictate; having a name or a title, however, can create a false sense of security by offering opportunity where those more suitably qualified are overlooked. After all, why wouldn’t you want to hear directly from someone who has helped fashion history rather than some unknown academic or journalist, isn’t that how the story goes? Well you should at least question such an approach because the person who literally writes history with their achievement is rarely able to document it effectively. Sometimes, sound literary practice doesn’t even come in the window let alone go out it, what is produced is often questionable on a number of levels, as Winter mentions above. What I think is particularly frustrating about chess is that it is an intellectual pursuit, you -or at least I- don’t expect the craft of writing to be treated with such scant regard. Top chess players are noted for being bookish and intellectual yet they frequently contribute poor literature, completely lacking in inspiration and originality. Writing, like chess, is an art/science/skill, whatever you want to call it, that takes years to master. If you believe you can write effectively about something you do just like that with no real talent, training or application, then in my opinion, you have allowed either a need for money or a love of chess to blind you. There’s a saying which goes ‘Those who can, do, those who can’t teach’ In the context of the modern game I would modify that to ‘Those who can, do and write about it too, whilst those who can’t teach’. It shouldn’t be like that, pools of talent should be based on merit only and should remain separate from one another so that neither drags the other down. It’s only us who are rubbish at everything -my particular field of expertise-that should cross boundaries so willy-nilly, as no one cares what we say -right readers?

Once again my points are generic, I will refer more directly to examples as I encounter them. I should close by stating it is not my intention to review texts that are suspect, nor to criticize and offer solutions. This pre-amble was written to highlight issues that are apparent to me within chess literature and to reflect upon them, that’s all.

Content

Some points of personal interest within, starting with the Anglophile, Capablanca.

Chess by climate

It’s probably illegal for Cubans to dislike Capablanca and being a Brit I am compelled to say that I also enjoyed the Capablanca interview on page 89. I say this because of the close relationship Britain and Cuba have, ever since a bus route was constructed between the two, following this linked tv clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uc_NS_4QCWI. The tricky thing about interviews, however, is that the uncreative journalist can only publish what was said, they cannot publish what the interviewee thought of the interview or the interviewer. There are often good reasons for this, such as wanting to keep your job. But all this means that its difficult to ascertain the seriousness of what has been said. If the person being interviewed disregards the publication or doesn’t like the interviewer, the interview is often best ignored. Let’s look at a rather tongue in cheek Capablanca in transit from Havana to Moscow:

‘Climate, Capablanca said, has more to do with creating chessplayers than any other factor. He regards himself as an ‘accident’ in the chess world, as, he asserts, tropical or semi-tropical countries seldom produce a chessplayer…England, he thinks, produces excellent chessplayers because of its peculiarly raw climate, which drives men into indoor pursuits’.

Though he may have been able to support his views with statistical data, I would like to think his comments are somewhat light-hearted, perhaps inspired by a cuise-liner martini? Of course Capablanca wasn’t to know of the contribution chess has made towards environmental catastrophe and its impending doom, in which most countries will be either ‘tropical or semi-tropical’ as he put it.

More seriously, a serious attempt is made to document the often overlooked period of transition between Alekhine and Botvinnik. I found this to be section fascinating if somewhat incredible in places. Above all, I helped frame the difficulties F.I.D.E has had throughout its history, revealing that internal dissensions are precisely what gives F.I.D.E its name. It is a sad fact that 70 years on, little has changed. I don’t think we’ll ever be seeing GM Danny King applying his catch-phrase ‘Start-right’ to F.I.D.E.

An example of how easy Winter’s job is can be found on page 110. He addresses a misquotation by Chernev, concerning what is generally considered to be the worst advice in chess, that being the oft quoted ‘Great players never castle’. Winter is quick to point out that the original statement runs as follows ‘Good players seldom castle until the end of the game, and often never at all’. The alleged ‘worst advice in chess’ is in fact nothing more than a statement based upon the play of a few individuals.

On page 257, Mr Winter turns his attention to Kasparov’s work entitled ‘My Great Predecessors’ ??! –  a highly dubious publication. Though, admittedly, much of the content of Mr.Winter’s writing can appear a little obscure and perhaps even irrelevant, here is a topic which is of great importance for the modern chess player. The account provided is invaluable to any inquiring reader as so much can be learnt -and not learnt-from the collective effort which Mr.Kasparov has put his name to. The listed errors alone is off-putting, however, but for those of us who do enjoy writing for what it is can tell you, it is the construction of the text that is most revealing. What Mr.Winter has to say is important not only because it draws into question the text itself but also, to some degree, the literary circles within which the text appeared. Those of us who have dared to delve into them know how abhorrent they can be…sadly we are in a small minority.

To conclude, reading Winter’s work is an education in itself. It questions the efforts of generations of chess players without being haughty or condescending. Given that it is the only text I have read which he has written, I do not wish to extend my comments to his more general aims for writing. It is true that there is a sense in which exemplifying the mistakes of others is an all-too-easy task, and at times I did wonder where it all leads, as defining what history is or what it involves for Mr.Winter is difficult to establish. I hope that I will one day find a definition of what history is according to Mr.Winter, because his efforts to establish truths in chess more often involve correcting others than constructing the past with his own voice.

Unfortunately, many regard the critic as an enemy, instead of seeing him as a guide to the truth …  –  Wilhelm Steinitz

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The Genius and the misery of chess, I came across this text after reading several reviews on-line. It arrived in my hands just before I was about to order an Arrabbiata, at a local restaurant and being relatively small text, I began reading what at first appeared to be an entertaining, if somewhat superficial, account of genius and misery in chess, the purpose of the text being to account for both in chess, and perhaps reveal connections between them. The title and concept behind the book struck me as being not just intriguing but entirely sound, with the lives and characters of players ranging from As-Suli the exile (880-946) to Magnus Carlsen being covered. However, the final paragraph of the introduction reads as such “You won’t find full biographies here. What you will find is the essence of players, the triumphs and tragedies that shaped their lives. You will get a fascinating look at chess and chess players from a perspective you may never have considered before” (pg6) It is undeniably true that literature in chess is primarily theory orientated and that we often don’t know much about the lives of past and present practitioners. Whether or not the ‘essence’ of an entire career can be told in one or two pages is another issue. Personally, I think that’s stretching the concept a little, particularly when there is no methodological account of how the author arrived at his conclusions. Another compounding difficulty is that we are also denied the author’s sources. Though some scant referencing is in evidence, we do not have a bibliography and are thus unable to check whether the author has researched the subject sufficiently. Though this may sound pedantic, it is in fact essential; without such literary conventions in place, the reader is practically forced to go along with what the author says. Irrespective of how knowledgeable the author may feel, it is unscholarly to assume that what they say will be correct per se. Unfortunately, there are moments in the text where it becomes abundantly clear that the author isn’t correct (more on them to come). Though we are offered a list of Suggested Further Reading, it is far too thin for a work which covers so much ground. More worryingly, some texts directly contradict the author, and others are contentious to say the least, drawing much criticism from many within the game. Though I did gain some enjoyment from this lite-read, I found myself gradually losing more and more confidence in it, to the point where I stopped taking it seriously on any level. The author is an International Arbiter and has written over 30 publications yet what I found was someone with poor writing skills relying on his experience -and presumably contacts- within the game to sell the book. Though it could serve well for cross-referencing purposes, I concluded that the only real use of the text was to serve as a starting point of interest, in the same way that web-sites such as Wikipedia function. If trustworthiness isn’t top priority, and you need background info, then The Genius and the Misery of Chess, has a use. It could also serve well as a present for someone with a passing interest in the game. It took me 2 long days to get from cover to cover, which I felt obliged to do, seeing as I had bought the thing.

Some points:

Prior to this read, I’d never heard of Mongoose Press, and hopefully never will again. It’s claimed that there was a team of editorial consultants but I find that difficult to believe. The book was originally written in Russian and translated into English, though it’s not clear whether the translation is in-house or not. I noticed very early on that there are a number of issues concerning unnatural usage of English. Other issues concern paragraphing, which is completely random throughout, and tone which is frequently informal and at times conversational. In general terms, the writing displays a lack of craft and control. Serious issues arise concerning content, some of which, raises doubts that need answering. For example, (pg 25) :

“…he [Morphy] began his historic, triumphant journey around Europe, during which he defeated all the champions of England and France, and finished with the German Anderssen, the untitled chess king of the Old World.” 

What is the basis for this assertion? Why does he say this when it is common knowledge that Staunton avoided Morphy, and when the texts contained within the suggested reading support this view explicitly?

Most of the official world champions (presumably the most talented of their era) are missing from the text, there is no explanation why or those who have suffered a far more tragic end than many in the text are omitted too, the sad figure of Lembet Oll springs to mind. The section on Capablanca is incomplete, it cuts off half-way through his playing career. Though noted for his genius, the account of him reiterates that which has been documented countless times before, leaving us wondering why the section is there at all. A similar problem arises with Przepiorka. Again, much of what is said is superficial and not well-researched. There are uncommissioned documentaries on youtube which do a much better job of telling his tragic story. When literature has to succumb to amateur film-making for content, something is clearly not right. The section on Nigel Short is also incomplete and makes no effort to explain what became of his genius. We are left with the feeling that the author is over-reliant upon his own concept for the book and own understanding of chess history, without having the skills necessary to offer a more professional and thus credible account of what is presented. Though a chronology of players is offered, understanding the nature of the chronology presented is almost impossible, owing to the arbitrary selection of material chosen.

What did Bobby do wrong in the eyes of the author?

Some content suggests a lack of self-reflection in the work itself. The writing descends to a tone of hostility at times, and shows an uncritical bias towards the author’s origin. Rather than analyze Fischer’s claims that ‘The Russians’ (of which the author is one) conspired against him, he fires a cheap ad hominem against him and claims that ‘he [Fischer] even claimed the Russians of conspiring against him’. Those more professionally minded might see such material as an opportunity to explore, and potentially re-write history with evidence supporting their claims. Another issue concerning control arises, again concerning Fischer:

“…Bobby won by 17.5:12.5 and received $3.5 million.

And so ended the new chess fiesta in Robert James Fischer’s biography. It ensured him a proverbial place in the history of chess”

The style and content is simply too conversational. Apart from the lack of clarity regarding the terminology employed, a two-line paragraph beginning with a conjunction shows a lack of understanding behind the purpose of a paragraph. Further contempt towards Fischer is evident:

“But the 29-year old American Grandmaster was dissatisfied, so he began with his notorious tricks. The opening ceremony was postponed twice; there were rumours that the match was threatened by failure. However, Bobby had foreseen everything; at the critical moment, the news arrived that Slater had doubled the prize money.”

Context is essential 

Many great players died in poverty, some from incurable diseases. Given the era they played in there is, however, nothing exceptional about that. Without sounding cold, its not moving to learn that Rubinstein lost his mind in an age where diagnosis of mental illness was in its infancy or that a chess player died of an incurable disease. It stuck me that the fate of many great chess players was no different to many of their era. Of course it is sad that their lives and chess career were cut short but the circumstances surrounding such demise was not untypical. Cases where death came cruelly, such as Przepiorka, occupy only a fraction of the material covered.

Some points of interest

I did notice that the content showed greater insight towards the modern era, and that the author did have a much better understanding of the Russian players. The sections on Alekhine and Spassky appear sound, but again since we are denied the sources we cannot be sure, however, a degree of control appears which we don’t see elsewhere.

There isn’t too much chess in the publication but its there. Ignoring a few exceptions, I found the games included to be of much interest. The author sought out career-defining victories, though not necessarily those commonly found elsewhere. Pilsbury’s talents are exemplified well, and lesser known players such as Stolberg all have games to play through. This is a definite strength of the book, and in terms of aspect, comes closest to realizing the author’s aims. Games can shape careers more perspicuously than events can shape lives (anyone who has studied consequentialism in its modern form can attest to that).

To conclude, to me this text is an example of what is questionable about chess literature rather than what is great about it. It is an over-ambitious work that makes no real effort to account for historical events with any credibility, leaving the reader with the awkward dilemma of having to accept what is said unequivocally or treat the text with a general mistrust. I chose the latter and hope that the author confines himself to auto-biography in the future, where I am sure he has much to say. The content is really nothing more than oration, with a few literary practices dressing it up to appear as something else. Should it leave you feeling somewhat down, there’s always the following link to read, which addresses similar topics but more professionally, and hence with greater credibility http://chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=8534 .

MJM

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