John Watson Book Review (80)
Historical and Biographical Works, Installment 1
IM John Watson - Wednesday 5th September 2007
Beginning with this column I'll finally move away from openings for a while to talk about historical works and biographies/game collections. There are too many books of this sort to do justice to, so if you have a favourite player that you'd like to investigate, remember that a simple Web search will often bring up what you want.
The good thing about historical works is that they can remain popular over the years. This contrasts with most books on openings, whose worth can obviously fade with time (although some retain their value for decades). At best, a biography gives compelling stories and well-annotated games; generally we get one of these, but only a smattering of the other.
In the following columns, I'll fall into my usual bad habit and discuss a few works in great detail, leaving much less room for the others. Therefore, in order to talk about as many historical books as possible, I'll be devoting at least three columns to this general area of inquiry.
Bogoljubow, the Fate of a Chess Player; Sergei Soloviov; 280 pages; Chess Stars 2004
Grandmaster Efim Bogoljubow ; Victor Charushin; CD-ROM; Pickard & Son, 2000
The Day Kasparov Quit and other chess interviews; Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam; 344 pages; New in Chess 2006
CHESS RESULTS;A Comprehensive Record ; Gino Di Felice's; Vol 1 1747-1900;
Vol 2 1901-1920;
Vol 3 1921-30;
Vol 4 1931-1935;
Vol 5 1936-1940; McFarland 2004-2006
Why Lasker Matters; Andrew Soltis; 320 pages; Batsford 2005
Beginning with slightly older books this month, let's look at Bogoljubow, the Fate of a Chess Player, written by Sergei Soloviov and published by Chess Stars in 2004. Authors and publishers are always claiming that their biographical subjects have somehow received surprisingly little attention, even in absurd cases (we mentioned this with Soltis' book on Fischer). But I think it's fair to make this assertion with confidence when it comes to Bogoljubow, one of chess history's great players. In terms of historical attention, Bogoljubow has always been obscured in the shadow of the great Alekhine at his peak with Capablanca and Lasker grabbing their own shares of attention. With this book, we now have a biography and games collection that covers his fascinating life and does service to his games.
I'm going to supplement and to some extent compare Soloviev's book with a remarkable CD from the publisher Pickard and Son, called simply Grandmaster Efim Bogoljubow. It is written by Victor Charushin, and was published in 2000. Although I'm certainly no expert on Efim Bogoljubow, I'm pretty sure that there aren't any other major works on him in English. That was in fact Charushin's claim in 2000 (see below), and Soloviev's in 2004. In fact, judging from his book, Soloviev was almost certainly unaware of the existence of the Charushin CD itself. Anyway, as both authors point out, the historical neglect of Bogoljubow, a chess giant by any standards, is astonishing. To some extent, this may be explained by his non-person status in the Soviet Union. Charushin says: 'In the Soviet press even the mention of Bogoljubow's name was strictly forbidden.' As we will see, this neglect was compounded by the taint of his later Nazi associations. Not a good combination of items on your résumé!
Nevertheless, in Bogoljubow we are talking about someone who played for the World Championship twice, which already puts him in very select company, and very close to the greatest players who didn't win the title. Soloviev puts it in perspective:
'Over a period of more than 15 years, Bogoljubow was permanently among the challengers for the world title. During these years he managed to win several top tournaments against almost all best players of the time. ...He was twice champion of the Soviet Union and later he was to become a multiple champion of Nazi Germany.' Actually, Bogoljubow was also a German champion in the post-Nazi period.
Charushin gives us a different way of looking at it. He says:
'The chess career of Efim Bogoljubow spanned forty-four years, and his statistics are impressive. He played about 1700 games in 120 tournaments, in which he claimed prizes 48 times; and in 29 matches, 16 of which he won. Bogoljubow is also the author of a book series, published in the USSR and Germany.' In fact, at least one of his books is still relevant, as I discovered when reading his biography on Chigorin for the sake of research.
So why is he so obscure to the modern chess player and fan? Apart from the political difficulties mentioned above, I think that it's easy to forget his great results when you have Lasker, Alekhine, and Capablanca dominating the airwaves during his years of peak playing strength.
I've tried to glean and combine some facts from these books about Bogoljubow's fascinating life and career. Bogoljubow was born in 1889 in the Ukraine. Politics permeated his life, even though he seems to have been fundamentally apolitical. Early in his career, for example, at the beginning of World War 1, he was taken prisoner while playing in a German tournament along with other strong Russian players, including Alekhine. The Germans had declared war with Russia overnight after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The players' treatment was initially harsh, and Alekhine managed to escape. But after a short time and some adventures, it turned out that their status as chess players ensured them good treatment, and they were able to choose their own place of so-called 'confinement'. Remarkably, the prisoners were even allowed to pick out a resort town, Triberg, in which Bogoljubow thrived. He married a local girl, Frida; in fact, as it turned out, they lived for 38 years in this same German town. In Charushin, there is very little mention of Frida, but Soloviev talks about her in several places. To emphasize the situation, I should mention that while Bogoljubow and the other Russians were 'pseudo-prisoners', they played eight high-quality 'Tournaments of Prisoners'.
After the First World War, Bogoljubow rapidly ascended to the world's elite. His strength was probably best symbolized in three major tournaments that encompassed the peak of his career. The first was in Bad Pistyan in 1922, which he won with 15 out of 18 ahead of Alekhine and other strong players. In the next two years he won both the 3rd and 4th Championships of the Soviet Union, already no mean feat. His crowning achievement came in the Moscow 1925 supertournament, where in 21 rounds he won 13 games and lost only 2, finishing a full point and a half ahead of Lasker, and even further ahead of Capablanca, Marshall, Torre, Reti, Rubinstein, Spielmann, and a host of other great players. This was the moment that he was perhaps best able to take on Alekhine or Capablanca in a match. But in spite of another terrific performance at Bad Kissingen in 1928, winning ahead of Capablanca, Euwe, Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, Reti, and other leading lights, his results were inconsistent, and by 1929, when Alekhine played him for the World Championship, one could argue that he was already past his peak at 40 years old. Which is in not to say that he didn't have a legitimate claim to the match. Alekhine was going to beat anyone at that time, including Capablanca, and the match wasn't really close in spite of the fact that the individual games were exciting and competitive. Not surprisingly, in their second match in 1934 Bogoljubow had further declined.
Returning to the political realm, it was after his victory in Moscow 1925 that the Soviet chess overlords came into being and began to distribute their favours. Although Bogoljubow was still internationally active, these bureaucrats restricted his access to a couple of tournaments and, mainly because of his loss of income and rising debts, he renounced his Russian/Soviet citizenship in 1926. From that point onward he was condemned by the Soviet State and became a 'non-person', with his name was erased from all records, including tournaments, for many decades.
Ironically, in 1938 he became a Nazi! This was done (at least it has been claimed) in order to keep his home in Germany, and to assure that his daughters could go the University, since they were deemed not to be of Aryan blood, And finally, because his German wife wanted to stay in her home country.
Many chess fans don't realize how many strong tournaments were held in Germany and Poland during World War II. Some great players who participated were Bogoljubow (who just about always played), Alekhine (consistently), as well as Keres and to a much lesser extent Euwe. One can well argue about their role in legitimizing the Nazi regime by playing. But Bogoljubow doesn't seem to have been ideologically inclined, and was said to have disliked the Nazis intensely. Even as late as 1950, however, FIDE didn't make him a Grandmaster by reason of his alleged 'Fascism'. He got the title the next year, not long before his death in 1952. As late as 1951, at age 62, he was still an active and strong player, somewhat in the tradition of a Smyslov or Korchnoi. In 1947 he won the German Championship and later finished 2nd behind Unzicker in a strong tournament.
I highly recommend 'The Fate of a Chess Player', but the lack of a Bibliography is a dreadful omission in an explicitly historical work. For one thing, Soloviev has obviously used many annotations by other players. By contrast, 'Grandmaster Efim Bogoljubow', Charushin's work on CD, cites many sources from memoirs and libraries. His Bibliography of 24 books includes Efim Dmitrievic Bogoljubov (1889-1952), authored by Petrovic and Klement and published in Zagreb in 1977. The other most important book devoted purely to Bogoljubow is Brinckmann's Grossmeister Bogoljubow, published in 1953 in Berlin (in these cases the publishers' names are not given). Boboljubow himself wrote a number of books, for example, Die Moderne Eroffnung 1.d2-d4! in 1924, and the above-mentioned Selected Games of M. I. Chigorin, which was a tremendous contribution to chess literature and his notes in it are still quoted. He also lists Moscow 1925, a classic book on the tournament which was his greatest triumph, and other instructional works. Naturally, Charushin cites many tournament books as well.
Both products have great collections of Bogoljubow's games, and they are as important in Soloviev's book as his biographical narrative. Soloviev has split up Bogoljubow's career into 13 periods, and has annotated every single one of 200 games, all in the languageless notation style of Chess Informant. Charushin has similarly split up his texts, into 19 parts, with a greater wealth of biographical detail overall. He includes a database of over 1200 games, also with languageless annotations, including 105 by Bogoljubow, 274 by Charushin, 56 by Alekhine, and others by a wide variety of players and journalists. The problem is that the vast majority of these games have rather superficial notes. That especially applies to Charushin's own notes, which very often have just have one or two unanalysed alternative moves or a merged game or two. So in the end, it's fair to say that Soloviev's annotations are superior, but Charushin's history is more detailed and better researched. Both products are highly recommended, and depending upon your choice of medium (book or CD), you won't go wrong with either.
Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam is the world's best and most prolific interviewer of elite players, and he is also one of the leading chess journalists. ten Geuzendam is the Chief Editor of the world-famous Dutch magazine New in Chess Magazine, and over the years has conducted over 100 lengthy interviews and biographical articles. He has also written many tournament reports, most famously about the super-tournaments in Linares, Spain, but also about top tournaments the world round. The Day Kasparov Quit and other chess interviews is his third book, joining Finding Bobby Fischer and Linares, Linares!: A Journey into the Heart of Chess.
Ten Geuzendam's journalistic relationship with Kasparov is like no one else's, which is indicated by the fact that on the day the strongest player in history quit chess, he asked to be interviewed by Ten Geuzendam. In fact, the Dutch journalist has interviewed Kasparov about 20 times over the years, five in this book, and indeed, our knowledge of and insights into the greatest player in history are to a large extent dependent upon these interviews. It should be noted that the interviews in this book are largely based upon ones that appeared in New In Chess, but with the addition of several that were previously unpublished. The interviewees include Vladimir Kramnik (4 times), Vishy Anand, Hikaru Nakamura, Mark Taimanov, David Bronstein, Kirsan Iljumzhinov, and many more. The author is particularly proud of three interviews that originally appeared in Dutch. One has him spending a wild day in Buenos Aires with the incredibly energetic 84-year-old Miguel Najdorf. It is a wonderful read, but also a real contribution to the historical literature, since Najdorf died three years thereafter. Another is with the notoriously taciturn Vasily Ivanchuk, who is remarkably open once he gets started, and an interview with Kramnik, who has talked with Ten Geuzendam numerous times over the years.
The author manages to get players to talk about subjects that they might not otherwise discuss in public. His experience with Bronstein, who resisted interviews for years, stands out in that respect. Bronstein shows him memorabilia, including a childhood game, and discusses experiences from his extraordinary life in the chess world.
For anyone who enjoys the personal side of chess and wants to know more about the inner workings of the game's famous representatives, you absolutely must read this book. Pure gold.
Gino Di Felice's CHESS RESULTS: A Comprehensive Record series is an amazing project that simply must be mentioned here, regardless of whether the average reader will be disposed to buy it. The series of volumes is broken into spans of years, with Volume 1 (which I don't have) covering 1747 - 1900, 1901-1920, 1921-1930, 1931-35, and 1936-1940, presumably with further volumes to come. Di Felice does no less than list the crosstables of every serious tournament that he can find (which is just about every 'main chess competition that took place in the world') and results of every notable match in that time period. The tournaments are listed in chronological order with the name of the sponsoring organisation, if available. In each volume, all the players' names and all tournaments are indexed at the back, and he includes an impressive list of sources.
I lack the expertise to assess this work, but it replaces and tries to improve upon the similar and out-of-print compendiums by Jeremy Gaige, with di Felice expanding the number of tournaments. For the years starting with 1931, de Felice is the first to attempt this level of research. Gaige lists 1364 tournaments for 1931-1940, but without crosstables. To show how di Felice has contributed to chess history, note that he provides 2055 tournaments with crosstables for that time period. Obviously this will be the standard reference for chess research in this area for many years to come.
di Felice's is academic book, with the traditional austerity of a scholarly work. I have to say that this particular tradition of modesty doesn't appeal to me, because I find nothing wrong with knowing more about the author and his adventures in compiling material. To me, a degree of informality seems more fitting within our relatively small community.
But that's just a personal prejudice and hardly a criticism of di Felice's monumental effort.
Someday, I suppose, there will come a time when some hardy soul(s) get all this transferred to electronic media, with cross references to all players and events. That day is long in coming, however, and in the meantime chess historians will feast upon the information di Felice has given them.
The specific year that an historical book appears isn't of great consequence; nevertheless, I should have mentioned Andy Soltis' 2005 book Why Lasker Matters in an earlier column, just for the sake of informing potential readers. It's a fascinating look at Lasker, who some consider the greatest of all world champions; in my opinion, he would at least be in the top four, at least in the sense of relative strength, and taking into account longevity.
As the Batsford back cover says: "Emanuel Lasker was the longest-reigning world champion (1894-1921) and remained one of the world's top 10 players for nearly four decades. He competed against top players such as Capablanca, Rubinstein and Alekhine at the height of their game, and was consistently successful, yet almost no one studies his games today. Lasker is often overlooked by the modern chess player, and the secrets of his success remain a mystery".
Before moving on I should mention one of my few problems with the book. I know from my own study that there's a lot of Lasker research around, and Soltis himself quotes many players talking about Lasker, as well as books with annotations. But for some reason, Why Lasker Matters has no Bibliography. That's too bad, because future researchers of Lasker are left hanging. Of course, most readers aren't chess researchers, so they won't worry about this rather academic issue.
The book contains 100 annotated games and occasionally fills in tidbits about Lasker's life. The games are not only smoothly and competently annotated, but Soltis enriches them with insights about what characteristics held back other great players of Lasker's time. Furthermore, he provides brief biographical information about many of them. I had no idea, for example, that Schlechter was the 'hardest working man in chess' in his era, playing over 850 games of master chess from 1895 to 1912 (a stark contrast to Lasker). Or that during that time he edited Deutsche Schachzeitung and revised the Handbuch, which was the ECO of its time. I think that most readers will share my enjoyment of such colour commentary.
Soltis' first Chapter has a section called 'The Psych Hoax', an insightful an original demolition of the old saw that Lasker won by psychological means. Back when I did research for my books on modern chess strategy I went over perhaps 75 of Lasker's games, and concluded the same thing (in fact, in this column I called this the stupidest of all the stereotypes about the great players). Soltis looks at the claim more seriously and counters the arguments associated with it. He presents the material with humor, for example:
'Reti thought he figured it out when he read an interview Lasker gave to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf after his victory at New York 1924. Lasker said that some of his opponents had recognizable quirks, such as Geza Maroczy who was better at defense than attack. Reti concluded that Lasker "is not so much interested in making the objectively best move as he is in making those most disagreeable to his opponent." In other words, Lasker played the man.
But then Reti went completely off the rails: Lasker often accomplishes this, he wrote, "by means of intentionally bad moves." This is nonsense. If this were true, Lasker would not have been just a 2500-player as some of today's players believe. Or a 2700-plus-player as retroactive ratings suggest. If Lasker could deliberately play badly against the world's best players - and regularly beat them - he would have been over 3000.
The primary evidence cited by Reti and his successors in advancing the psychology hoax are:
-Lasker played obviously bad opening moves - such as g2-g4 in the Dragon Sicilian.
-He gave up material for something hard to define, something called "positional compensation."
-He often played the "practical" move rather than try to find the best move, and
-He counterattacked and complicat¬ed even before his position was clearly bad.
Today's players should look at this and laugh. In a typical Sicilian Defense nowadays you might see g2-g4 by White, a Black counterattack by move 10, a positional sack by either player and "practical" moves by both. No one would consider the moves deliberately bad or the slightest bit "psychological." '
I agree with Soltis completely. Surprisingly, or maybe not so, Kasparov repeats this old psychological nonsense in his Predecessors series, and indeed I think that his stereotyping of the early greats is a real weakness of the early volumes.
A more complete review would discuss the particulars of Lasker's games and Soltis' interpretation of them. One can't help but admire the amount of research and choice of material that went into this work. His notes are careful, often citing historical commentaries to games, and properly critical. My only general criticism would be that after the first few games, Soltis doesn't overtly address one of the book's important issues, that is, discovering why Lasker did win. The issue seems to get lost as he gets involved in analysis and assessments. At the very end of the book, Soltis does return to the subject and provides an explanation:
'We've come to the end of the Lasker story. Is there a solution to the mystery? The best answer is that he employed many of the techniques that have become common today. He violated general principles when he felt confident in doing so. He played "practical" moves. He focused on the specifics, such as targets, rather than the theoretical. He didn't calculate what didn't have to be calculated. He realized the clock was the 33rd piece. He complicated before his position got bad. He took calculated risks. He sacrificed for purely positional compensation. He used tactics to advance positional goals.'
I think that a very good case can be made for each of these points, and Soltis has obviously reflected upon them as he pursued his investigative work. Still, it would have been nice to point out these factors explicitly as they occurred in the games. As it is, the attentive reader will still get more out of the book by keeping this overall question in mind.
In conclusion, Why Lasker Matters is a first-rate annotated games collection and a repository of enjoyable historical material. Soltis has made another valuable contribution to the literature.