John Watson Book Review (34)
A Remarkable Publisher and Other Topics
IM John Watson - Friday 9th February 2001
The Symmetrical English
Carsten Hansen; ; 256 pages; Gambit, 2000
Endgame Study Database 2000, CD-Rom;
Harold van der Heijden; ChessBase 2001
- Moravian Chess Books (see http://www.moravian-chess.cz), a small selection (see below): Quarterly for Chess History #3, Autumn 1999; 514 pages
Complete Games of Alekhine; Vlastimil Fiala & Jan Kalendovsky:
a. Volume 1, 1892-1921; 187 pages, 1992
b. Volume 2, 1921-1924; 458 pages, 1996
Volume 3, 1925-1927; 494 pages, 1998
Botvinnik’s Best Games, Vol 1: 1925-1941; M Botvinnik; translation Ken Neat, 2000 International Chess Magazine, Vol 1 1885, ed W. Steinitz; 1997
I have a grab-bag of topics this time. I talk about a magazine, a just-released CD of chess studies, what I perceive to be a current problem with a leading publisher, and a new book. Finally, I discuss Vlastimil Fiala and his outpouring of books from Moravian Publishing.
- To begin with, I want to mention a publication that might just fit a certain group of TWIC readers’ taste: Stefan Buecker’s German magazine ‘Kaissiber’. I don’t review print magazines in this column, and I won’t do so here, but Kaissiber is the best journal I’ve seen by far for the coverage of rare and little-played openings—just about everything from the Elephant (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 d5) to the Fajarowicz Gambit in the Budapest to slightly more conventional 150-Attacks and anti-Sicilians. A few mainstream openings are also dealt with, but usually with an eccentric, un- or underanalysed move early on. The level of analysis in my opinion far outstrips the many websites and other periodicals that feature irregular systems. Kaissiber has numerous other features, with an emphasis on history and fun: check it out at http://www.kaissiber.de/. A knowledge of German is extremely useful, but not entirely necessary, because much of the analysis speaks for itself.
A recent product that is probably mostly appropriate for another specialized crowd is Harold van der Heijden’s ‘Endgame Study Database 2000’. This CD can be easily described: it contains 58,000 endgame studies! They are indexed by composer, material, and endgames. This work is the result of a lifetime of collecting and sorting. Van der Heijden estimates that 80,000 studies have been published in the history of chess, so his CD covers almost ¾ of those and is truly a must-buy for anyone involved in this area. One has to marvel at the patience involved in entering these studies, not to mention checking for errors. And the electronic format is truly shown to advantage here.
On a negative but not hopeless note, I think something should be said about the ‘other’ British chess publishing house (see my last column). Since I am rooting for the success of the of the revivified Chrysalis/Batsford chess department, and since they are clearly trying to change things for the better, I have held my tongue about Batsford’s apparent surrender to the assembly-line works of Eduard Gufeld. But the situation is getting just ridiculous and something should be said. Gufeld is constantly portraying himself as an artist who places beauty over winning (although his reactions to losing say otherwise); yet his books are uniformly unoriginal and unimaginative. This is hardly surprising in view of their frequency. Just since the Chrysalis takeover, for example, Gufeld has authored these books for them (i.e., I’m not including his recent efforts for other publishers): 1. ‘The Classical French’, with Stetsko, all or large parts of which were published simultaneously in a European magazine, and much of which had appeared in ‘French Defense: Classical System’ (Chess Digest) only a year earlier. Recycling of material is a Gufeld specialty; 2. ‘The Art of the King’s Indian’, again recycled to a large extent, poorly written, incomplete, etc.; 3. Gufeld and Stetsko’s TWO volumes of ‘The Ultimate Dragon’ (just out). This is another of his favorite subjects, and the authors’ typically comprehensive research is indicated by the lack of any bibliography or hint that existing sources were consulted. Please understand that this for a opening that has seen exhaustive and original analysis in books about every aspect of it! I wonder whether, if I took week with a database and an analytical engine, I couldn’t do as well or better. As for its usefulness, Batford itself is due to publish Chris Ward’s ‘Winning With the Dragon 2’ in June of this year. That’s good news for the Dragon fan (and a promising sign for Batsford), since Ward’s is almost guaranteed to be a better book. He is an excellent writer and current with theory, as he is in charge of the ChessPublishing Dragon page. Apart from knowing his subject (he will likely even consult actual books), Ward is himself producing important new moves in the Dragon.
So is that all? One would hope so, but what else do we see from Batsford? 4. A new Gufeld/Stetsko book on the Giuoco Piano (apparently already out); 5. A Gufeld book called ‘The Search for Mona Lisa’ (already past due; and from a description I read, apparently much recycled from his ‘My Life in Chess’ book). American players and readers have all been subject to the ‘Mona Lisa’ refrain from magazines, books, and the one lecture he constantly gives about the same game; 6. a reprint(!) of Gufeld and Stetsko’s ‘Torre Attack’ (not even remotely comparable to Graham Burgess’ excellent book on the Torre); and (forthcoming) 7. Gufeld’s ‘Exploiting Small Advantages’. If on schedule, Batsford will thus have published 7 volumes of Gufeld writing (i.e., not counting the 1999 ‘Classical French’) in the span of little over a year. And that doesn’t even take into account that at least several recent Gufeld books have appeared or are due out shortly with other houses. He has, for example, three books with Chessco (one on the market, one on schedule for June 1, and another due this summer). In addition, there was Gufeld and Schiller’s ‘Secrets of the King’s Indian’ (Cardoza, 2000), which seems right in line with most of Gufeld’s other King’s Indian hack jobs, of which I’ve only mentioned a couple. And who knows what else? In fairness, Gufeld and Stetsko’s ‘The Chameleon Chess Repertoire’ for Chessco was at least about an original subject with original notes and examples, and thanks to the editor’s indefatigable efforts, both readable and proofread.
It’s sad that Batsford has reduced their standards to such an extent. I hope that this review at least serves as a warning to publishers in the future who, lacking chess savvy, might be blown over by self promotion or claims of expertise. On the bright side, I see from advance notices that there are some promising Chrysalis/Batsford books in the making. Apart from featuring some better authors, they are also reprinting classic books and updating others, for example, John Littlewood’s ‘How to Play the Middlegame in Chess’ has recently appeared. Although the company’s output outside of Gufeld has been small, I should note that ‘Batsford’s Modern Chess Openings’ is a major, high-quality book; and while Suba’s ‘The Hedgehog’ suffers badly from a lack of editing, it is a creative effort by a fine player and writer. So the future may not be so dim, but the present situation disappoints me, given that Batsford is the company that started it all with first-rate books for the serious club and tournament player.
On to some books. I should be very happy with Carsten Hansen’s ‘The Symmetrical English’ on several accounts. First, he quotes extensively from my own 1988 Symmetrical English book, with and without criticism but always faithfully. For those who think that this is natural, there have been very few cases (out of many opportunities) in which an author cited one of my books on precisely the opening he was writing about (in his 1999 book on the English with 1...e5, alas, Hansen doesn’t refer to my book on the subject, but I imagine that he may not have heard of it!). At any rate, I appreciate that consideration, and I am also pleasantly surprised that he retained several of the variation names that I invented for this book. Also, to be perfectly clear, without any question whatsoever, Hansen’s book is far superior to my own. Quite apart from 12 years of additional, extensive theoretical developments, I had no database or analytical engines to work with, and no mainstream opening book today can be of high quality without their use. If you want to have the best book available on 1 c4 c5, Hansen’s is it.
Then there is the fact that Hansen is one of the very best reviewers of chess books there is (see http://www.chesscafe.com), especially because he both questions the analysis in others’ books and supplies his own, a rare and time-consuming practice. I think that to some extent this sense of detail characterizes ‘The Symmetrical English’. Nevertheless, for all of the above, I haven’t been completely happy with the sections I turned to in order to compare Hansen’s book with a few lines I had interest in. Thumbing through the book, I started with 1 c4 c5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 g3 g6 4 Bg2 Bg7 5 a3 e6 6 b4 Nxb4 7 axb4 cxb4 8 d4 bxc3 9 e3 Ne7 10 Ne2 d5 11 cxd5 Nxd5 12 Ba3. This is a position that Tony Kosten in his 1999 ‘Dynamic English’ book (not given in Hansen’s bibliography) likes so much for White that he calls 5...e6 ‘?!’. I’ve never really believed in 6 b4, and I think that White’s pawn sacrifice should at least be subject to analysis. Both Hansen and Kosten ignore alternatives to 12...Bf8 (Hansen calls it ‘sensible’), but it’s also artificial and a natural place to be skeptical. In an earlier review (#17, about Kosten’s book), I mentioned that I liked 12...Bd7 with the idea ...Bc6. I think that that ultimately favours Black, but regardless of the exact assessment, this is the sort of thing a questioning author should be looking at. As it goes, Hansen and Kosten’s opinions diverge about the main game that follows 12... Bf8 13 Bxf8, so Hansen really should have used Kosten’s (recent) book and agreed with or challenged it.
The next example was, in the above line, 5 Nf3 e6 6 a3 Nge7 7 b4 Nxb4 8 axb4 cxb4 9 Ne4 Bxa1 10 d4 Bc3+ 11 Kf1 0-0 12 Bg5, my old suggestion, at which point Hansen thinks that ‘12...d5 secures Black a comfortable edge while leaving White’s attack with nowhere to go’. It’s not as though I wouldn’t have looked at 12...d5, so at least Hansen should pursue this a little (regardless of what the materialistic computer says). I looked at the obvious 13 Nf6+! for over an hour, and White has quite an attack. With hardly any details, play can go 13...Kg7 (there are a lot of pretty lines after 13...Kh8 14 h4 and 14...h5 15 Nxh5 f6 16 Nxf6 Kg7 17 h5, for example, or 14...Nf5 15 h5 h6 16 hxg6 fxg6 17 g4 Rxf6 18 gxf5; I don’t have room to show them, obviously) 14 Qc1 dxc4! (14...Kh8 15 h4, again leading to atastic play favouring White) 15 e4 Bxd4 (15...a5 16 Nh5+! Kg8 17 e5) 16 e5 Bc3 17 h4 Qd3+ 18 Kg1 Nf5 19 g4 and the analysis goes another 10-15 moves! My computer-assisted analysis shows how difficult not just this, but all the parenthetical lines and many unlisted alternatives are for Black, with equality resulting only in the main line. Some winning positions for White are actually assessed as –4.00 or –5.00 until you play moves against the computer. But the main point is that my suggestion was dismissed without a serious look.
I see that this is going to take way too long, so let me just mention a few examples by page. I prepared line ‘c’ 11 Qd3 on page 101 against the Keres-Parma some years ago. Hansen admirably mentions it, but just says that it’s ‘quite good’ with two old fragments. Since White’s other choices (4.5 pages in the book!) lead to little or nothing (in White’s best other try, Hansen himself indicates that 12 Bg5 f6 13 Bd2 Bb6 is okay for Black), then surely he should have given 11 Qd3 some analysis. On page 185-6, I think that line ‘a3’ 11 Qd2 is probably White’s most dangerous anti-Hedgehog line, but by just quoting a game and not trying to improve, Hansen makes it looks like an harmless sideline.
Then there are omissions, e.g., on page 207, ‘A2’, the main line, the gambit 6 Bg5 a6 7 e4!?, which I think is promising for White and in any case important, isn’t given at all.
I appreciate the traditional tree structure of the book, and in fact Hansen covers every major system thoroughly. I do think that there could have been a little more strategical explanation, e.g., on page 97, the somewhat bizarre-looking 9 Be3 only became the main line after years of trying other moves. Its main point (to stop ...Rc5) should have been mentioned. Of course, I well know how impossible it is to think about every line and find all the nuances when you’re writing a book. So the above types of examples are hardly fatal flaws. Also, any look through ‘The Symmetrical English’ reveals that Hansen makes a lot of new suggestions (I didn’t have time to assess them), and that his book is clearly nothing at all like a database download. I can also sometimes be too critical—what we have here is after all far better, more accurate, and more professional than a typical Gufeld book. But I respect Hansen enough to hold him to a higher standard, and since I did find more ‘problems-per-look’ than I would have liked, I will reluctantly downgrade this work from a strong recommendation to a mild recommendation. Nevertheless,serious 1.c4 players will certainly want a copy, and defenders of 1.c4 c5 or related variations should strongly consider it as well.
For some time, I have been wondering who on earth Vlastimil Fiala, the founder of Moravian Chess, might be. Kaissiber editor Stefan Buecker, mentioned above, is the only source I’ve found with biographical information. Fiala is a 41-year old who earned a PhD in History in 1990 and has held various academic posts up to at least 1997. He publishes two magazines in Czech, and one (discussed below) in English.
Fiala’s output as a chess publisher and writer over the last decade has been simply staggering, and I urge you to visit his site (see below) for the whole story. He put out something like 75 volumes (most roughly 370-410 pages) of ‘The Complete Encyclopedia of Chess Openings’, with apparently only 500 copies of at least some of them. These contain anywhere from 1200 to 1700 games up to 1997, and there more than 100 additional 60-70 page booklets similarly organized. I haven’t seen any of these, but it seems obvious that they have been surpassed by chess databases and probably don’t sell now.
Any other publisher with 40,000 or so pages becoming irrelevant might be discouraged. Not so Fiala. Aside from at least 7 collections of endgames, he has an astonishing number of volumes in the following categories, with the number of books in parentheses:
I Historical Chess Tournaments’
20, between 24 and 64 pages and inexpensive
II Classic Magazine Reprints:
(a) American Chess Bulletin, 1904-39 (36 volumes!, the early ones 280-310 pg., later 170-210 pg.)
(b) Capablanca Magazine (3 Volumes)
(c) Lasker’s Chess Magazine reprints (Emanuel Lasker, editor!), 9 vols (292 pg. Each, 1904-5)
(d) Steinitz’ International Chess Magazine reprints (W Steinitz, editor!), 7 vols (388 pg. each, 1885-) To me, these are the best of all these reprints, replete with Steinitz’ often caustic but at other times respectful commentaries, wonderful strategic comments, analysis, etc. The volume I list above has a whole series of articles devoted to Morphy, who had just died, controversy over Steinitz’ forthcoming Zukertort match, and the like.
(e) The Chess Player’s Chronicle reprints (H Staunton, ed), 14 vols (400+ pages each, around 1841+)
(f) Chess Monthly reprints (P Morphy, editor!), 5 vols (384 pg., 1858-)
and many more (e.g., American Chess Magazine and Brooklyn Chess Chronicles reprints). All of the above make entertaining, browsing (I have done quite a lot), and I would recommend buying one or two first, to see what you think.
III Games Collections/Biographies:
Here are some books, listed above, that I have already read a lot of and can appreciate as a player. The 3-Volume set of Alekhine’s games (and travels) contains a very large number of annotated games and includes simultaneous exhibitions. Games are drawn from a variety of sources, particularly from a huge list of newspapers and periodicals. There are interviews, letters, multiple points of view about events from various articles at the time, etc. Unlike the reprints, these volumes contain a great deal of writing by Fiala and his co-author. Further volumes forthcoming.
Then there’s the wonderful Botvinnik book of early games, including training games, with extensive notes by Botvinnik. There will be 3 volumes in this series, a classic set of books that are here translated into English for the first time (I think), by Kenneth Neat. I just love this one, since I’ve always liked Botvinnik’s play. Check the website—these books are very reasonably priced.
IV Quarterly for Chess History
I’ve left what is probably the best for last. Fiala’s current masterwork is the ongoing magazine/research periodical/book: ‘Quarterly for Chess History’. This true labour of love features articles by leading English-speaking chess historians such as Kenneth Whyld, K Landsberger, John Hilbert, and Fiala himself. There have only been 3 issues, the latest one dated Autumn 1999, but put out fairly recently, as Fiala’s personal note in the introduction carries the date October 14, 2000. This is a massive 514-page review of a large number of subjects from chess history. Fiala has wonderful articles on ‘Steinitz in Russia’ (106 pages!), ‘The Olympiad Hague’ (57 pages), and short biographies of Duz-Khotimirsky (12 pages, half games), Vidmar (14 pages, half games), and Sant-Amant (20 pages, mostly prose). He also writes a 104-page article on Steinitz-Lasker 1894, with 42 pages of introductory prose and then the annotated games! Landsberger writes ‘Steinitz Revisited’, Hilbert contributes ‘Chess In Philadelphia II’, and Whyld presents some newly-discovered games by Emanuel Lasker. There are also Fiala columns on chess research and miscellany, book reviews, and the like. Thus most of this issue is done by Fiala, who is fortunately fluent and very readable in English. I am not into chess history (apart from games, theory, and changes in play), but I find much of this material fascinating.
In conclusion, most of the books listed above are probably of interest mainly to fans of chess history, with the exception of things like the Alekhine and Botvinnik collections. But I think that ‘Quarterly for Chess History’ would also interest any chessplayer, and should also be in libraries everywhere. It is in my opinion an extremely well-priced specialty product at $29 + $4 postage per issue. As of the third issue, Fiala speaks of having only 37 subscribers via his website (http://www.moravian-chess.cz), and points out that despite being on sale in chess book dealers around the world, ‘our own circle of subscribers is needed’. As a subscriber, you get 20% off on the price of a book ordered from Moravian chess. The publisher’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.