John Watson Book Review (55)
The CD Deluge Continues - Biographies on CD
IM John Watson - Sunday 2nd February 2003
World Champion Michail Tal; ChessBase 2002
6th World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik; Khalifman & Soloviev; Convekta 2002
3rd World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca; Khalifman & Soloviev; Convekta 2001
William Steinitz, The First World Champion; Thorsten Heedt; ChessBase 2003
World Champion Fischer; Robert Huebner; ChessBase 2003
Paul Morphy, Genius and Myth; Karsten Mueller & Rainer Knaak; ChessBase 2003
The products listed above (all of them CD) reflect the growing movement to publish historical works in the multimedia realm. This is great fun for those who prefer to use a computer to reading a book, and a book on CD has advantages which include dashing around a database with links to any game you might wish to see and in many cases getting in-depth analysis to a greater degree than what most historical books provide. So far, however, the strictly biographical information about players has been limited on CDs and has in no way matched what a historically-oriented biography in a book can include. Yet other media are by no means immune to this problem. It's amazing how many recent games collection books (often called 'The Life and Games of...' or something similar) have extremely limited biographical material with brief and dull fare about a player's life away from the chessboard. Few books seem to combine first-class annotations of a large number of games with the sort of biographical material that casual fans as well as chess historians will be interested in.
World Champion Michail Tal shows that ChessBase is addressing the biographical problem. Even more than its previous Lasker CD, we get a multi-sided portrait of Tal with substantial input from various sources. Johannes Sondermann's biography is split into 21 sections, including a rather lengthy multimedia interview with Tal's wife and daughter, itself a contribution to chess history. Since some sections are short, this is no substitution for a full-fledged biographical book, but it's certainly a great source and I found it both fun and informative.
The CD contains 2857 games. The ChessBase annotator index lists 2651 games with 'no annotator', which gives us 206 annotated games, minus some crosstables given in text. Many of the notes are from the bulletins of the tournament. These contain by and large wordless notes (sometimes interesting, but sometimes with just one or two short variations). Other games have good analytical notes, but either no description in words or just a comment or two. Individual players also contribute some well-annotated games (Anand and Rogers, for example). And in typical ChessBase fashion, the annotated games often consist mainly of merged games to illustrate opening theory, a practice that isn't very satisfying but can be useful for the theoretically inclined. So in general, and in stark contrast to the Fischer CD and the Botvinnik CD below, there is little analytical work overall and the product's value rests mainly with the historical aspects. The crosstables are numerous and clear; they make great reading for the nostalgic (like me). As always, there is a training section for those who wish to compare wits with Tal (the Convekta biographical CDs have something similar).
Sondermann provides a 'Chronology', beginning with Tal's birth in Riga on the 9th of November, 1936 and continuing on through the notable personal and chessic events of his life. There are 20 photographs in the timeline alone and more elsewhere on the CD, also giving the work an historical feel. In fact, the photographs throughout the product are an enjoyable plus: they are plentiful and evocative. Sondermann's Bibliography is also interesting, with 6 internet site references and unique entries such as 'Botwinnik, Michail: Interview by Salo Flohr, in: M. Tal - M. Botwinnik. Das Match des Jahrhunderts. Die Revanche 1961, ed. by Neuen Deutschland, collected by Heinz Stern, Berlin (capital of the GDR) 1961'!
I do have some problem with Sondermann's tendency to make judgments about Tal's character and his play when he perhaps he should have tried to report them objectively. On the positive side, there is the section '3.3 Middlegame: The Intuitive Sacrifier'. It is the lengthiest section, with many sacrificial games thoroughly annotated by some top players and by Sondermann himself, using chessplaying programs to good effect. But there are also unsupported remarks such as 'Tal always realized that he was playing a 'partner'. Each partner had his own psychology; thus Misha never made the actually best move, but rather - like the mathematician with great psychological skills, Lasker - the most unpleasant move for his opponent. First of all, he made the move he found the most interesting.' I don't think that one would get far in chess by never playing the best move; this is not just a trivial complaint because the author continues to make exaggerated and I think unjustified characterizations about Tal's play at various points throughout his presentation. For example: 'Today, in the age of chess computers, an artist with his nature of play would hardly have prospects of becoming world champion.'. Well, I'm not sure upon what this is based or how Sondermann is qualified to make such a judgment. Is he saying that modern players play like computers? In fact, I think that Tal in his best form and health (I believe that he twice went 70 or more games without defeat!) would have been an extremely difficult opponent for the world's top players. Part of Kasparov's success has been his determination to remain active and unbalance positions come what may. When a genius like Tal was at his top strength I think that a World Championship could have been well within his reach in any era.
In another section of stories, Sondermann relates: 'An incredible anecdote goes as follows: When Fischer was reading his hand allegedly prophesying him, "I see that you will soon loose your (world champion) title to a young American", Misha is said to have immediately turned towards Lombardy next to him, saying: "Congratulations, Bill".
It's fun to include such stories and Tal had a famous sense of humour, but the author should explain why the anecdote is 'incredible'.
I like this CD a lot, so my complaints aren't that important. But I should mention his many criticisms of Tal's play that aren't really supported by examples. When he does give such an example, it's seldom fully convincing. Here's one that I think you'll agree concerns a fun and challenging position:
'Yet he did show carelessness and indifferent technique in winning positions, e.g. the two missed chances in the twentieth game of the revenge match against Botvinnik. [jw: I'll let this pass, but if you look at that game I don't think 'indifference' was a factor]. Another example is the pawn ending of seven pawns against seven pawns in the first game of the candidates semi-final against Korchnoi [Moscow 1968] having a double pawn. Misha was unable to decide it in his favour, although Averbach later found a way of winning during a most difficult analysis.'
[White to move. Tal says:]
"Here I wrongly made the mistake of not believing myself. At first, I wrote down the winning move 28 e5, but then decided to work out all lines literally to mate. To do this proved not at all easy. It was only several day later that a detailed analysis appeared, confirming that, by avoiding many wrong paths, White could win by force. Being unable to find all this at the board, I rejected 28 e5, played inaccurately again, and Korchnoi found the only moves to force a draw."
[Sondermann:] 'Misha played 28 h3, and after 28...Kf6 29 Kf4 e5+ 30 Ke3 a6 31 b3 Ke6 32 ef+ Kxf5 33 f3 Ke6 34 g4 f5 35 gf+ Kxf5 36 h4 Kf6 37 Ke4 Ke6 38 a3 b5 39 cxb5 axb5 40 Kd3 Kd6 the game was drawn by agreement.
Yet Smyslov, Furman and Averbach found a winning way in an analysis: 28 e5! f6! 29 h4+ Kg6 30 Kf4 a6! (the struggle for a remaining tempo to zugzwang begins) 31 a3! b5 32 cxb5 axb5 33 b3! fxe5+!
34 Ke3!! Kf6 35 a4 ba 36 ba Ke7 37 Kd3 Kd6 38 Kc4 Kc6 39 a5 f4 40 gf ef 41a6 f3! 42 a7 Kb7 43 Kxc5 Kxa7 44.Kd6! Kb6 45.Kxe6 Kc7 46 Kf5 Kd6 47 Kf4 Ke6 48 Kxf3 Kf5 49 Ke3 Kg4 50 f4 Kxh4 Kf3! Kh3 52 f5 h4 53 f6 Kh2 54 f7 h3 55 f8Q +- (Averbach, Yuri: Pawn endings, Sport Publishing House, Berlin 1988, p. 304ff, diagram 606, orig. Russ. Moscow 1983).'
So Sondermann feels that this example illustrates Tal's 'carelessness and indifferent technique'. Lets see: Tal missed or underestimated a move that was 7 moves into the analysis of one line that required 6 strong moves by Black and White to reach. And that last move itself was one that some very strong players might not have played when faced with the position itself! Does he really think that Botvinnik or Smyslov or Fischer, as great endgame players as they were, would have seen this?
And then the funniest part. After that whole description, some editor(s) at ChessBase comment: 'However, 34...f4+! should keep the draw'. So Tal didn't even have a win anyway!
Of course such things are just irritants and overall this CD is great fun and a high-quality job. Note though that it has much more emphasis on historical matters than game analysis.
6th World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik; Khalifman & Soloviev has a very different approach. It contains, as the cover says, '1069 games played by Botvinnik from 1924 to 1970. The games have been deeply annotated by [Khalifman & Soloviev].' And they really are annotated! Not with verbal notes, but with considerable analysis throughout the game, with very thorough attention paid to the World Championship matches, as might be expected. My understanding is that this material almost exactly corresponds to that in the Chess Stars book on Botvinnik (which I haven't seen). Of course most players haven't read that book and even those who have done so may want to have the games in a form that they can play over effortlessly on a screen. They also get some great photographs that apparently don't appear in the book.
The CD begins with a very short written section about Botvinnik's life with things like the dates of birth and death and descriptions such as 'he learned to play at 12', 'was educated as engineer', and facts such as that Botvinnik won the world championship and retired after 1970 to work on chess computers. Pretty dull stuff. But then we begin to see the body of the presentation: first, a year by year description (chess details) of all events with plentiful games and crosstables. Perhaps some of us need reminding that
Botvinnik was certainly one of the very greatest players in history, winning events of high quality throughout his career, not to mention a few World Championships. According to most observers (and from his playing record), he was the best player in the world from roughly the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, and was among the top three or better for a long time thereafter. Playing just a little, he still managed to maintain his strength beyond the usual age of declining powers. As late as 1969 (at age 58), for example, he ties for first at Wijk aan Zee with Geller ahead of a strong field including Keres and Portisch. He was 2nd to Larsen in in Monte Carlo 1968, and at Palma de Mallorca 1967 he was 2nd to Larsen tied with Smyslov ahead of Portisch, Gligoric, Ivkov and others. In 1966/7 he won Hastings by a full point. In Amsterdam (IBM) 1966, a short tournament, he was the winner by 2 points! He took first by 1.5 points in the 1965 Nordwijk aan Zee tournament. And a year before his match loss to Petrosian, at age 51, he triumphed in Stockholm 1962 finishing 3 points ahead of Flohr in a 9-round tournament (in a relatively weak field, but still...). This from someone who had ceased to play an active schedule.
The CD has 24 very nice photos, some with great players, and the usual training exercises, with opening material that is still relevant today. It comes with 'Chess Assistant Light' and doesn't require any outside program. I should also mention that the Convektta CDs here come with pamphlets describing the use of Chess Assistant in considerable detail. In any case I recommend this product, not the least for the excellent annotations.
Another ChessBase CD is World Champion Fischer by Robert Huebner. It contains
1000 games (including texts, so probably more like 980 or so) by Fischer, many annotated (e.g., Interzonals, important international tournaments, Candidates matches, World Championship). As so often, there are games with only one suggested move or line; but on the other hand some of the games listed as 'no annotator' actually take considerable material from famous annotators, so when you add it up, the number of at least partially annotated games is impressive. The video cuts include just a few newsreels and short interviews from relatively early days. After being exposed to other great players with broad interests and intellectual depth, one is reminded that Fischer is a like a child trying to form meaningful sentences and having difficulty expressing himself about anything other than chess, something that persists to this day. Unlike Tal (or most world champions, for that matter), he has never struck me as someone who would have been exceptional in any other profession.
Fischer's early career and rise to the top are covered in a series of texts. There are some nice photographs and the description of his career would be very good for those with no introduction to Fischer. Others might find it a bit superficial, but it's fairly big and certainly better than most biographical information on this medium (at least before this new crop that we are discussing). The core of the CD is Robert Huebner's analysis of Fischer's play, which parallels that of Alekhine in his CD that I previously criticised. I'm not fond of this one for the same reason, but since many people thought that I was unfair in that earlier case (probably true), I'll let him speak more for himself:
'It is for this reason that I have decided to turn my attention to Fischer's famous game collection, "My Sixty Memorable Games". Most critics deem Fischer's comments to be entirely devoid of errors, and each and every one of his observations is accepted as gospel truth. I was plagued by the desire to find out whether this reputation is indeed justified.
It seems to me as if Fischer does not try to fathom the finer points of quiet positions with the same amount of care and attention that he gives to any number of tactical positions. When analyzing complex positions Fischer occasionally lacks the will to probe deeply, and contents himself with incomplete structural explanations and vague judgments. This deficiency is particularly obvious in some endgames. The selection of games for his book also reveals this trait. To my taste, there are too many games in this collection where no real struggle ensues. The opponents are pushed from the board without offering resistance, often after making serious errors in the opening; there is hardly any interesting material for analysis.' Then of course Huebner goes on to analyse (and criticise) at great length!
Huebner assesses Fischer's notes and games themselves (as he did with Alekhine): 'I decided not to distinguish between actual and proposed moves.' He provides summaries if each game, or an 'Overview of the games in keywords', reflecting his notes which are mainly analytical corrections and/or disagreements with Fischer's play or annotations. He does this for all 64 games, skipping very few games (e.g., 4 games out of the first 30). For example, here are some typical summaries by Huebner, referring to games 10 thru 17 of Fischer's book:
'10.1 Overestimating static weaknesses; underestimating technical defensive resources; lack of clarity in assessing the position
10.2 Overestimating the initiative; lack of clarity in assessing the position
10.3 Underestimating technical defensive resources
10.4 Underestimating tactical defensive resources
11.1 Overestimating the strength of an attack on the king; vague judgment; lack of probing a complex position deeply enough
12.1 Lack of depth when going into an analysis of strategic and technical details
12.2 Lack of clarity in assessing the position; overestimating own chances
12.3 Inaccurate defence; lack of clarity in assessing the position; a lacking desire to explore strategic possibilities
12.4 Defensive resources not mentioned
12.5 Tactical oversight in the endgame
12.6 Inaccurate defence in the endgame
13.1 Strategic deficiency when deciding on how to proceed after the opening
13.2 Strategic deficiency when deciding on how to proceed after the opening
13.3 Strategic deficiency when deciding on how to proceed after the opening
13.4 Lack of probing a complex position deeply enough
13.5 Strategic deficiency: characteristics of the position were not correctly assembled
14.1 Inaccuracy in regard to details
15.1 Strategic deficiency: lacking understanding for the right pawn-structure; underestimating the solid holding of the position
15.2 The best counter-attack is not mentioned; the critical moment of the game is not realized
16.1 Overestimating own position
16.2 Strategic deficiency in proceeding after the opening
16.3 Strategic deficiency: misjudging the characteristics of the position; overestimating the initiative during an attack on the king; failure to probe a complex position deeply
16.4 Neglecting subtleties of execution in inconspicuous position
16.5 Neglecting subtleties of execution in inconspicuous position
16.6 Failure to probe deeply in inconspicuous position; overestimating own possibilities
16.7 Overestimating own position
16.8 Neglecting the attacking possibilities of the opponent
17.1 Overestimating the initiative; strategic deficiency: underestimating the significance of weaknesses of the pawn-chain
17.3 Strategic deficiency: underestimating the weakness of the pawn-chain
17.4 Failure to probe deeply and lack of clear judgment
17.5 Overlooking defensive resources while attacking the king
17.6 Wrong judgment during the endgame: overestimating his own chances to hold a passive position'
Huebner even provides an index to these deficiencies, and tosses in a few extra games including one of his own (drawn after a Fischer blunder).
I have to say that this kind of scholarly criticism leaves me rather cold. Given his lack of understanding, it's amazing that Fischer ever won so many games, and one wonders what kind of lengthy list Huebner would make for some 'mere' 2500 or 2600 player. And for 2000 players, well, trees would surely have to be sacrificed . The problem, I think, is that almost anyone, given time and a few computer engines, would be able to call into question almost any game or set of annotations by any player, perhaps not with the positional judgment of a Huebner but adequately enough. I don't see this as particularly interesting to anyone beyond the one doing the analysing (to whom it admittedly must be fascinating) and a small minority of players who don't want to do their own investigations and would rather read such technical criticisms than enjoy the unadulterated games of Fischer or a New in Chess Magazine.
I have to admit nevertheless that I see one benefit of what Huebner is doing in this case, i.e., exploding the myth that 'My 60 Memorable Games' is perfect or near perfect. I've actually heard several times a notion that's been passed around that 'there isn't a single error' in the book. Just the fact that someone could believe this at all is another example of the sort of mindless Fischer worship that is widespread in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere. Most people will agree that reality is more interesting than fantasy when it comes to chess literature and history.
I should also be fairer to Huebner than last time by admitting that I found the actual analytical notes upon which he bases these conclusions to be pretty convincing in almost all instances. Huebner deserves credit for getting closer to the truth about both the way the game is played and its literature. Nevertheless, I suspect that most readers will agree with me that they'd much rather read a balanced and appreciative games collection than immerse themselves in this sort of fault-finding. In conclusion, we have a high-quality product that has enough new material and information to please a Fischer fan or anyone who hasn't been exposed to very much of his career. Otherwise I don't find much that interests me, so I'll give the CD a tepid recommendation.
I won't say as much about William Steinitz, The First World Champion by Thorsten Heedt, but it may be the best of the ChessBase lot. There are 1102 games, very many annotated, and in particular Heedt uses Steinitz own annotations for, e.g., the World Championships. The CD includes many photos of Steinitz and his contemporaries, both in the biographical texts and in the tournament reports, the latter being more plentiful than on the other ChessBase CDs. The author Thorsten Heedt has done a superlative job of collecting material. The timing of his work is apparently coincidental, being released in the same time period of the relatively recent Landsberger books on Steinitz, which are the definitive record and essential reading for Steinitz fanatics. From all appearances, Heedt's work is a completely independent work, with of course much more emphasis on Steinitz' chess. Presumably readers of Landsberger would want this CD anyway, and the average player will find both great games and most of the history he would like to know. Highly recommended.
Karsten Mueller and Rainer Knaak are two excellent writers who can be counted upon to do fine work. On Paul Morphy, Genius and Myth, they combine with Thomas Eichorn to write about American great Pau Morphy. The CD has a large selection of photos of many types and covers Morphy's career well. Eichorn provides the biographical work in several lengthy texts covering different phases of Morphy's career. Mueller's section is a limited one about Morphy as a player, referring to annotated games and positions to illustrate his style. The combination of analysis and description is a good idea and one only wishes there were more of it. In differing interpretations, Knaak is not impressed with Morphy's positional insights but Mueller emphasizes that 'the positional foundation for his play was better'.
I was particularly interested in Knaak's section on Morphy's playing strength. It has the following 'Summary':
'Morphy proved himself clearly superior to each opponent. All four of them showed in single games that they could play very strongly; each of them managed to really outplay Morphy in at least one game. Morphy was clearly better on the whole in the opening and he mostly converted his winning positions. But I cannot recognize that he knew more about chess than his opponents (with the exception of the opening) nor that he already had mastered positional precepts, as defined later by Steinitz. Perhaps Morphy's rapid rate of play (according to eye-witnesses) also contributed to the fact that his contemporaries and even opponents admired him beyond all measure. Also the fact that the 20 year-old Morphy was extraordinarily young for a chessplayer at that time may have led to the idolization of the American which took place. Morphy also made mistakes but there was no area of the game which influenced playing strength in which he was inferior to an opponent.'
Knaak goes on to characterize Morphy as greatly superior in the opening; he was also good in the middlegame, but in the latter case only on about the same level or slightly better than his worthy opponents. In this context we see Knaak's controversial stand that Morphy's understanding of positional chess was nothing special even for his day; he also emphasizes Morphy's mistakes in closed positions. According to Knaak, Morphy played the ending well but was not markedly superior to his opponents. As indicated above, he emphasizes that Morphy was not inferior to his opponents in any of these phases. But he also thinks that the ecstatic praise of his genius is a bit much. Knaak illustrates his thesis with some well-annotated games and a selection of mistakes by Morphy against each opponent.
I like this CD and think that its new take on Morphy is probably more accurate than previous ones. At the very least we have a serious and well thought out contribution to historical analysis by a first-rate analyst.
Finally, 3rd World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca by Khalifman and Soloviev is extremely similar in form to the Convekta CD on Botvinnik above. There's a fairly short biography with 7 large photo portraits, and a listing of all his tournaments complete with full crosstables and a short description of the tournaments. The tournament results are staggeringly good, as with Botvinnik. One can play against the usual training positions from Capablanca's games and even follow subvariations to the main lines.
The core of the CD, as with that on Botvinnik, consists of 640 annotated games. The annotations are wordless but the analysis is extremely deep. Much of it seems to be produced by chess engines, although it's obvious that the authors are thoroughly involved and the border between the two is unclear. Perhaps the latter guided and checked the engine's analysis as the notes were produced; there's no way of telling. In any case the reader gets a great amount of pure chess material. There is considerably less in terms of personal biography and the work has no general characterisation of Capablanca's game. So I can recommend this CD mainly for serious chess study, and I believe that it will also appeal to admirers of Capablanca's superb play.