John Watson Book Review (87)
IM John Watson - Sunday 14th September 2008
Those of you who read TWIC on a regular basis may have noticed that this column has been stuck on the same number for some time. Apart from attending to numerous projects, I've had a more fundamental problem: the majority of the chess books related to what I'm working on are older and/or outside of the areas that I devote to book reviews. Fortunately, I've been reading books for my Internet radio show on Chess.FM/ICC [http://www.chessclub.com] (unabashed plug); and recently, I've also managed to find time to look over an array of titles from this year's output. The next few columns will examine a number of the more interesting products (including DVDs) in loosely organised fashion. I'll deal with general books first (biographies, histories, and tournament books), turning to the ever-expanding list of opening products later.
New in Chess Yearbook 84; 244 pages; New In Chess 2007
Before that, a correction: In an earlier column, I said that New In Chess yearbooks are not available in PGN format. But reader Jim Hawksley points out that the games are available on the NIC website, at: http://www.newinchess.com/Yearbook/Default.aspx?PageID=223. Naturally this includes only the game scores and not theoretical articles themselves. But if you have a Yearbook in hand, what better way to go through the articles without having to enter games one at a time.
This dovetails nicely with a question that I keep getting, that is, how one should be studying books these days, and in particular opening books. It's obvious that databases and DVDs aren't replacing books yet, although they have become a permanent and valuable part of chess study and appreciation. Books are still the most popular method of studying the game, to a large extent because the masters who write books have spent untold hours researching their subjects and are able to guide the reader to the most important moves and ideas, while explaining the rationales behind them and suggesting new ideas. Up to now, that has been the case to a much greater extent than electronic products, although the latter have obvious advantages that I've pointed out.
In an ideal world, readers would open these books, set up the pieces on a physical board, and play through the moves. That simulates actual play in a way that visualization from a diagram doesn't. I recommend taking that approach if possible. But realistically, only a minority of players are going to want to set up and repeatedly reset the pieces to work their way through a game and its variations. It's difficult enough to plow through the workday and the hassles of modern life, without actually having to put effort into keeping track of where you were before you got lost in that last set of variations. As an option, you can scan through a book and practice holding the variations in your head as you read. That's actually a good exercise, and not necessarily a bad way to pick up information from a chess book; but it's beyond most players' capabilities to do well, and sloppiness and confusion can easily result.
A good alternative method, too rarely employed, is to find the relevant games(s) on the computer for the section of the book you are reading, and play through them in ChessBase (or equivalent program) as you read. Then entering variations is easy, and if you want to, you can run an analytical engine as you enter the notes and play through the book. Of course, this depends upon the resources of the reader. By this time, most players have access to at least one large database (Megabase, for example), which can be used to find most of the games appearing in collections and biographies. Supplemented by a The Week in Chess database, you should be able to find the bulk of games from an opening book, and it doesn't hurt to have a correspondence database to fill in the cracks. Within any database, there are various ways to search for a particular game, for example, by using a Search function for game information, or finding it through a Player Index. If there's an embedded game or two, you can likely find them in a database and merge them with the main game. In my experience, this is an excellent way to learn from and enjoy from a book, without having to take too long to do so. As readers of this column know, Everyman has been providing many of their opening books on DVD, complete with games, but the great majority of books out there are still in traditional form, including the very best ones.
Now let's turn to some books. The first under consideration will be games collections and/or biographies of veteran North American players, beginning in the United States and moving North.
American Grandmaster, Four Decades of Chess Adventures; Joel Benjamin; 268 pages; Everyman 2008
The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003; Arthur Bisguier and Newton Berry; 272 pages; Russell Enterprises
Hooked on Chess, A Memoir; Bill Hook; 191 pages; New in Chess 2007
Chess Review and Chess Life: Complete Collections from 1933 to 1975; a set of four DVDs; compiled by Tim Tobiason; Toby Chess [http://stores.ebay.com/Toby-Chess]
Chess on the Edge: The Collected Games of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles, vols 1-3; Bruce Harper & Yasser Seirawan; Chess & Math Association 2008
Nick's Best: Selected Games of Bryon Nickoloff ; Lawrence Day;
In American Grandmaster, Four Decades of Chess Adventures, Joel Benjamin recounts tales from his career, which spans from his days as the strongest young player in the United States up to the present. An abbreviated list of Benjamin's achievements: He was the U.S. National Elementary Champion, the National Junior High School Champion, the National High School Champion, and three-time United States Junior Champion. Benjamin played in a record 23 consecutive US Championships, winning the title three times. Among his many Swiss System victories, six first-place finishes in the World Open stand out.
The book includes over 100 of his favourite or significant games, all surrounded by narratives about the events and players. The three longest chapters of mostly prose deal with the 1997 Kasparov-Deep Blue match (his 'Blue Period'!), chess teaching/scholastic chess, and the state of American chess. Throughout the book, and especially in the latter chapter, Benjamin is not afraid to make sharp criticisms and controversial statements, which are naturally fun for the reader. He was the chief chess consultant for Deep Blue in the Kasparov match; that chapter will be particularly interesting for the non-chessplayer, having the natural drama of 'man-versus-machine'. It is also very well written. I should say that I never felt that there was any serious controversy about 'cheating' by the IBM team, and Benjamin makes the case for putting anyone's lingering suspicions to rest. Even the Toilet-Gate accusations, as absurd as they seem to be, are arguably as well founded as these.
I personally enjoyed the sections on the US Championships, split into the years 1981-1996 and 1997-2006. It's fun to see names of players that you haven't heard of or thought about for a while, along with results that had pretty much blurred together in my memory. Benjamin says: "Of all my accomplishments in chess, I am most proud of my record in US Championships." He isn't afraid to bring up negative results, both in these Championships and in the World Championship Knockouts; that is not the case with many chess autobiographies. I also admired his generous treatment of the controversial ending to the 2003 Seattle U.S. Championship, in which three of the top four boards took very short draws in the last round. The organiser Eric Anderson, having poured considerable time and money into the event, was upset, and awarded extra money to the two players who did fight it out. Instead of going into a self-justifying tirade about the professional necessities of his situation, Benjamin does explain them, but also says that he had 'a sick feeling even before he stopped the clocks' as he saw the other games being decided in the same way, and expresses sympathy with Anderson's feelings. Best of all, he says that the event served as a positive influence and that he rarely offered or accepted draws thereafter unless it would clearly help him to win a tournament.
In addition, although he makes only passing reference to it, I admired his decision not to play in the World Championship held in Libya, thereby forgoing an important professional opportunity. Politics play too large a role in chess as it is, but the effective exclusion of the Israeli team should have generated a much broader response of this sort. Which is not to say that many other countries wouldn't merit a boycott based upon their government's policies in the real world; but an exclusion that operates within the chess world itself is a different matter, and it punishes players who we should think of as international citizens when it comes to the play. Unfortunately, this hasn't been the only violation of that principle.
For obvious reasons, the book will appeal most to American players, who will recognise the events, characters, and idiosyncratic details of the U.S. chess scene; but I think it's fair to say that everyone can enjoy Benjamin's adventures and insights from a lifetime in the chess world.
The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003 is another biography of an American player, Arthur Bisguier. I already discussed the first volume in a previous column (#69): The Art of Bisguier, Vol 1, The early years 1945-1960. The first thing to note is that the new book sports an attractive cover and is extremely well put together; the publisher Russell Enterprises adheres to the professional standards that characterize its books. I say this partly because the first edition, produced by 3rd Millenium Press, was justifiably criticized for its cover, typesetting, layout and editing. I think the content of that volume more than offset such problems; then again, I tend to give little weight to the physical qualities of a book. I think that's because I grew up with horrible-looking and error-ridden publications, including magazines and pamphlets, which nevertheless provided glorious riches to me as a player and writer.
The book revolves around 100 games annotated by Bisguier. The annotations are fairly casual, without depth, which makes it easy to read without a board (see above). Perhaps he includes too many games against famous players that end in fairly early draws; this seems a form of name-dropping that uses up space for higher-quality and more interesting contests. Indeed, the Introduction has a lengthy list of 'great players he scored against', rather than beat. But the distinguishing characteristic of the book is the background that Bisguier gives about each of his opponents (many of them prominent U.S. players). He intersperses entertaining stories involving himself and others, with a good deal of history and reflection. This makes for entertaining reading, even more so for those who were around for most of this era. In that regard, numerous old photos add to the flavour of the book. For the most part, the games are absorbing and instructive.
I find some unnecessary bits. Bisguier and his co-author Newton Berry give introductory summaries of what was going on in the chess world for short periods (e.g., 1982-85, 2001-3), but these are fairly random selections and I don't feel they add much to the book. There are also some misspellings and errors in the material outside of the game notes themselves, for example, I'm currently staring at the '10.5-2.5' result in the 1993 Kasparov-Short match, which finished 12.5-7.5 and was at no point 10.5-2.5 along the way. These are hardly important factors, and don't interfere with the friendly and casual pace of Bisguier's accounts.
Probably Bisguier's greatest theoretical contribution was to the Berlin Wall variation of the Spanish/Ruy Lopez. He played this consistently and for many years, way before it became popular in the past two decades. He also contributed greatly to the Worrall Variation versus the Ruy Lopez and other opening systems, notably enriching some Four Pawn systems against the King's Indian and Modern Defences. In general, he liked to go his own way and not get involved in theoretical struggles.
I'd recommend this book in general, and in particular to anyone with an interest in chess biographies/game collections, as well as those who would enjoy reminders about the bygone players of the American chess scene.
Continuing with the American player biographies, I'll keep my comments limited about Bill Hook's Hooked on Chess, A Memoir. But I interviewed Bill on my ChessFM radio show, and it's clear that he could have written a book three times as long had he wished to. Bill is best known in the international chess world as the many-time team captain of British Virgin Islands in the Chess Olympiads. He's played in 16 Olympiads over the years, and he is famous for having won the overall Men's 1st Board Prize in 1980 with an amazing score of 11.5 out of 14 points. The British Virgin Islands issued a stamp in his honor because of this feat; in the book you can see it: a picture of the position from his final round. 'Hooked on Chess" is an autobiography (without significant game content) which begins with Bill's early years and his first experiences with chess in the middle of World War II as an 18-year old. The game led him to a decades-long relationship with a New York chess club/cafe called Fishers, or Fursa's, and otherwise known as the Flea House. Bill regales the reader with tales of the eccentric players and hustlers at the club, along with the many famous personalities that passed through its doors. Chessplayers will particularly like the meetings with, and stories about, assorted famous players and people. Among others, he played with Stanley Kubrick, Harold Schonberg, Marcel Duchamp, Miguel Najdorf, and Bobby Fischer.
As the book and his life proceed, we are told many stories about his life in the Virgin Islands and his travels, with a focus on the Chess Olympiads that he attended. I won't go into more detail, but should mention that the book contains a 31-page section of Bill's professional-quality photographs taken over the years, including those of world champions and recent stars. Bill's first profession was as an artist, and the book also includes pictures of a few of the very fine paintings that he created over the years.
If you like chess history and stories about a life in chess, again with a touch of nostalgia, I recommend this charming book.
Still on the subject of United States chess and nostalgia, we move from biography to history with Tim Tobiason's Chess Review and Chess Life: Complete Collections from 1933 to 1975, a 4-DVD compilation the two main chess magazines in the United States over 4 decades, presented as PDF files. All PDF files can be read with the Adobe Acrobat Reader which is downloadable for free from the Adobe site.
The individual DVDs break down in complicated ways, but ultimately you get: 1. the USCF magazine Chess Life from 1946-1969 (the earlier years are in the form of newspapers!); 2. Chess Review, the extremely popular U.S. magazine under the direction of Al Horowitz, issues ranging from 1933 through 1969; 3. the temporary combination of the magazines under the name Chess Life & Review from 1969-1975. Following 1975, the magazine changed its name to Chess Life and that publication, published by the United States Chess Federation, has been national U.S. chess magazine ever since. The nice thing about scanning is that we get all of the photos and graphics. Because of this, the DVDs have gargantuan sizes, for example, 3-4 Gigabytes, and you may not want them on your hard drive.
Getting together a complete collection of the physical magazines was a great feat in and of itself, but the apparently simple act of scanning and converting them is also a massive effort. For both, we have Tobiason to thank. Tim is a chess entrepreneur whose learning materials and huge databases are listed under the Toby Chess site at http://stores.ebay.com/Toby-Chess.
I am simply thrilled to have these DVDs, which are not only exciting for older American players, but for chess fans and historians everywhere. Obviously every great American player in those years is represented repeatedly, as well as second- and third-tier masters of considerable stature. On top of that are organizers and executives, columnists and analysis, and stories of countless events. Furthermore, one is reminded about the staggering number of games which haven't made their way into databases. A top player like Kashdan, for example, is represented in Megabase mainly because of his European tournaments and a few U.S. Championships; but a huge number of his other games appear on these discs (to be clear: in print/PDF form). Naturally, many early U.S. masters, even including those who played in the US Championships, are barely represented in the conventional databases. The great majority of readers will doubtless be browsers, and the only really frustrating aspect of the PDF files is that one cannot search for names or keywords with the Reader. Furthermore, although some of these old magazines are indexed at the end of the each year, others aren't. Searching by page number is in any case very time-consuming.
As I write this I'm skimming through the Chess Review disc and I find that Tartakower himself has a column in 1952 (at age 65, four years before his death). Who would have guessed? In this one he discusses the pressure of last-round games and includes two from tournaments in the late 1940s which he won; both were relatively strong events.
These DVDs are a gold mine for all chess historians and any chess fans who love reading about chess history.
Now we move on to another American player, the Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles. In the three volumes of Chess on the Edge: The Collected Games of Canadian Grandmaster Duncan Suttles, vols 1-3; Bruce Harper & Yasser Seirawan explore all the Suttles games they can dig up and, as far as I can see, they annotate every single one of them! The authors were assisted in their researches by a host of historically-minded types, and there are contributions from Lawrence Day and Gerard Welling.
Duncan Suttles was, as Wikipedia puts it , "the strongest Canadian player between the eras of Abe Yanofsky and Kevin Spraggett." He hasn't played seriously since the middle of the 1980s, having retired from the chess world to work in computers and software. Suttles' tournament achievements included wins in countless open tournaments over many years throughout Canada and the United States. He played in a few Olympiads, and won several Canadian Championships. His most important tournaments came in the Interzonals of 1967 and 1970, with a particularly successful period in 1973-4. It included first place in the Canadian Open and a shared first in the U.S. Open, followed by success in international play. He played and did well in the famous San Antonio Grandmaster tournament in 1972, earning his grandmaster title. For all that, his main legacy has been the dedicated use of the move 1...g6 as Black (the 'Rat') and a variety of eccentric positions as White, always involving a kingside fianchetto.
Perhaps I use the expression 'labour of love' too much, but it's as appropriate here as in any other recent chess book I can think of. Certainly no great fortunes are to be gleaned for the authors, at least not from the royalties that will accrue from a book of 990 pages dealing with a relatively obscure player (by chess biography standards). But there's no letup of enthusiasm in the presentation of these games, which are commented upon in a chatty manner with an emphasis on explanation and instruction. The annotation style is rather old-fashioned, comfortable, and extremely easy to read. The authors Harper and Seirawan use relatively few variations (more in Volume 1 than the other two), and hardly any lengthy variations. In fact, you could argue that there isn't enough analysis, because the games are messy and often unthematic after a point (see below); so that they can really only be explained with specifics. But the authors are quite clear that their goal is not to dissect each of Suttles' games as much as to explain his 'unique style'. So they spend a lot of time talking about games and positions with similar themes and stylistic tendencies, succeeding in tying Suttles' games together.
The three volumes are oddly organised, and one suspects that some decisions as to organisation were made after the authors were well into the project. Volume 1 has 100 games that are laid out in 18 chapters according to 'themes', the themes including such commonplace items as Space, Attacks, the Center, Positional Play, etc.; but also Weird Maeuvers, Psychology, 'Just Plain Funny', 'Blow-Outs', and more. The volume ends with a word on the 'Rat' and a section on the 'Suttles System' (the moves g3, Bg2, d3, Nc3, Bd2 and Qc1).
The second and third volumes, containing 513 more of Suttles' games, switch to a new system: they are ordered by ECO code, with the second volume including the 'A's, and only up to A43 (Suttles played g3 in almost every game), and the third volume including 'B' thru 'E'. This last seems like an enormous amount of territory, but in fact Suttles plays only 3 games in the 'D' category and 11 in the 'E's. He had one of the narrowest repertoires, if not the narrowest, of any grandmaster that I can think of. Which means, of course, that you can learn a lot about some very specific structure and lines, for example, the Closed Sicilian and, naturally g3 and ...g6 systems. To make up for the fact that the games in the first volume aren't organized or indexed according to opening, the second and third volumes list game 'segments' (the opening moves) and refer you to Volume 1! This inconvenient system was hopefully not the authors' original intent, and it doesn't interfere dramatically with someone trying to study particular opening lines.
I should mention that the three volumes are in hardback and look terrific, with excellent typesetting and diagrams. Suttles, Seirawan, Harper and a few contemporaries appear in a limited number of photos.
Suttles' seemingly strange style and his eccentric tendencies are the consistent theme that binds the authors' and contributors' description. On the Suttles website, we find this comment by Harry Golombek: 'On another level, there is the strange Canadian master, Suttles. During a tournament, or away from one for all I know, he never willingly gets up before midday. This treatment of time is on a par with his topsy-turvy methods of play over the board. For him the ideal development of his King's Knight is [h3] and similarly [f2] is best for the Queen's Knight. I once thought that, talented player though he undoubtedly is, he handicapped himself very much with these methods; but I no longer believe this. This system of play is employed rather like a red rag to a bull. His opponents, more often hypnotized by these strange procedures, usually succumb to a powerful King-side attack.'
I'll conclude by citing the Forward by Lawrence Day (there are also Prefaces by the two authors). Day's combines biographical impressions with a few philosophic remarks. He says that Suttles 'always played 1...g6' [emphasis his; this isn't literally true, but close enough], and attributes that to a peculiar reasoning: Suttles already knew where the bishop's optimal square was (g7), so why not move it there first? Day tries to explain the development of what was called the 'Rat' (1...g6 is now called the 'Modern Defence', a much less interesting name), an opening described by 'creeping around the edges'. Instead of something straightforward like the Sicilian Dragon, in which both sides' plans are usually known straightaway, 'the Rat likes the murky shade of fog and dark corners'. Day discusses Suttles' pawn play, perhaps the essence of his style, pointing out how the pawns 'seem organic parts of one big snake'. Interestingly, Day himself championed something called 'The Big Clamp' in roughly the same time period, but it involved a large centre of pawns and the acquisition of central space, both at odds with the philosophy of the Rat. Nevertheless, these two systems are characterised by the emphasis on pawn conglomerations to the neglect of development. After some biographical comments, Day's final paragraphs are about Suttles' exploitation of time pressure. He concludes with: 'Above all, Suttles was a very practical player', a point reinforced throughout the book. In fact, in a majority of the games it doesn't seem to matter which player has outplayed the other, but what happens at critical moments in the messy positions that Suttles consistently creates. For the most part, he outplays his opponents, including 'ordinary' strong masters, but the top grandmasters handle those moments well, and win out more often than not. Regardless, Suttles' creative play earned him the respect of contemporary players on all levels.
Chess on the Edge will appeal to readers with some time on their hands and interest in unusual, feisty chess. I should say that the three hardcover volumes comprise a rather expensive set, and those on a limited budget may want to limit their purchase to the more generally instructive and witty Volume 1.
The problem with these review columns is that I have to skip over worthwhile books that I haven't had time to fully peruse. But I want to be sure to mention Nick's Best: Selected Games of Bryon Nickoloff. It is the biography of another Canadian player, International Master Bryon Nickoloff, a talented player whose life was cut short at age 48. The author Lawrence Day was a lifelong friend and rival who is an experienced chess author and journalist, as well as an International Master. Merely thumbing through the book you can see the depth in which Day has researched both the chess and background material. Like the Suttles book, Nick's Best is a games collection, but with a much more biographical approach, full of stories and historical context. Day intersperses historical information throughout, while keeping his eye on Nickoloff's chess games and career. Canadian chess fans will have a special interest in the many references to there country's players and events, and I doubt there will be many who haven't picked up a copy.
If you're interested in reading about the life of an interesting but hardly prominent player who roamed the chess world, had adventures, and produced some fine games, give this one a try.