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John Watson Book Review (81)

Historical and Biographical Works, Installment 2

I'll continue with books about chess history, players, and game collections. Each time that I look at my shelf I see more deserving works in these categories, and I will try to stick with them for a few columns. This time we have three books dealing with all-time great players, and a tournament history. There will always be time later to return to the ever-growing stacks of products related to openings!

Smyslov's Best Games, Volume 1, 1935-57; Vasily Smyslov; 348 pages; Moravian Press (English Edition 2003)

Smyslov's Best Games, Volume 2, 1958-95; Vasily Smyslov; 455 pages; Moravian Press (English Edition 2003)

Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective; Valeri Beim; 164 pages; Russell Enterprises 2005

Akiva Rubinstein: Volume 1: Uncrowned King (2nd Edition); John Donaldson & Nikolay Minev; Russell Enterprises 2006

The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996, reprint of 1997 2nd Ed.; Andy Soltis & Gene McCormick; 233 pages; McFarland

Let me talk first about a two-volume autobiographical games collection written by the great World Champion Vasily Smyslov. [Incidentally, for players such as Bogoljubow and Smyslov, I am using the spellings given in the books' titles, which in those cases are also the conventional ones]. Smyslov's Best Games is split into the periods 1935-57; (with 348 pages) and 1958-95 (456 pages). The English Edition, translated by Ken Neat, was put out by Moravian Press in 2003. The games are wonderful, and the annotations extremely readable, being short and mainly verbal. Book reviews about these volumes by James Vigus and John Saunders indicate that there is a fair amount of overlap of games with near-identical notes in his 125 Selected Games, published by Cadogan in 1995. Still, out of 466 annotated games in the two volumes, at least 341 of them (and probably more) appear independently in the Moravian edition we are discussing.

Vasily Smyslov was born in 1921 and quickly rose to the top of the world ranks until, by 1948, he played in the famous World Championship tournament (the Hague/Moscow) that made Botvinnik the first post-war champion. Smyslov himself finished in second place, ahead of Keres, Reshevsky, and Euwe. By 1953, he won one of the most famous tournaments in history, Zurich 1953, immortalized by Bronstein's tournament book. His triumph came over an amazing number of the world's greatest players who represented that 'golden age' of chess. [As an aside, John Donaldson believes that Najdorf's 2-volume set in Spanish on Zurich 1953 is probably a superior work to Bronstein's. Remarkably, Andy Soltis thinks the same thing. On my Chess.FM 'Chess and Books' show (on ICC), the two independently listed the Najdorf set as one of their very favourite books]]

Having qualified for the World Championship, he lost his 1st match with Botvinnik only by tying the match at 12-12, no small feat. Then he had to qualify again by going through an even stronger set of opponents in Amsterdam in 1956: among others, Keres, Geller, Bronstein, Spassky and Petrosian participated. In the end, Smyslov won out and his status as one of the world's top two players was confirmed.

In 1957, he defeated Botvinnik convincingly by 12.5-9.5. This feat and this remarkable match have somehow not stood out as they should have in people's minds. That's primarily so because Botvinnik had his famous rematch clause and was able to win their third World Championship match in the very next year. Smyslov says about this:

'It seems to me that I was not at my best in this match. While giving my skilful opponent his due, and he prepared very thoroughly for the return match, I associated my failure in the match to a considerable extent with the unsatisfactory state of my health. During the match I went down with 'flu', and I finished the event with... pneumonia. And even so, I have no reason to complain of my fate. I fulfilled my dream and became the seventh world champion in the history of chess.'

It's remarkable how often chess players ascribe their defeats to sickness! Yet Smyslov's reputation, and the tone of this book, leads me to believe that this was more than a feeble excuse on his part.

Smyslov's subsequent career was little-publicised, but in fact it was outstanding. He achieved win after win in strong international tournaments, and was an incredibly active player for someone who was arguably past his prime. For example, in volume 1, the results section shows 48 tournaments and matches from the very beginning of his career up to his second (victorious) match with Botvinnik in 1957, at which point he was age 36. Then he played in 36 tournaments and matches in the next decade alone, between 1958 and 1967. For the next 10 years, 1968 to 1977, he participated in 43 more events; and played in 32 more from 1978 to 1987. This last period includes his Candidates Finals match with Kasparov at age 63 [he finished with 9 draws and 4 losses - not too bad]]. Even thereafter, Smyslov's Best Games contains 27 tournaments and matches from 1988 to 1995, when the book ends, although his career continued.

It's important to note that the two volumes constitute a games collection and not a true biography. It has a terrific collection of crosstables, but only prefatory personal and biographical comments. Having said that, here are some interesting quotes from Smyslov:

'In the return match with Botvinnik, fate was not on my side. However, chess did not lose its fascination for me, and quarter of a century later, now at a more advanced age, I again contested the final candidates match for the world championship with the young Garry Kasparov. The curve of my successes has been uneven, but my style of play has not undergone any significant changes. In my play I rely on experience, knowledge and calculation, but more than anything on intuition, on that feeling for position that enables it to be evaluated correctly and deeply, as long as the passion for a struggle is burning.

Of course, over this period of half a century chess has changed. By the last decade of the 20th century an information explosion had occurred in all fields of human knowledge, and this was reflected in the play of the best chess players, to the aid of whom came a powerful compiler of collective experience - the computer.

Now I most often meet players who are armed not with books, but with a chess machine, enabling a quick reply to be given about the present state of an opening variation, or about an opponent. And yet books will never lose their instructional value, since the general laws of the game remain unchanged.

A position changes with every move, and grasping its slightest changes, on which evaluation and concrete calculation depend, is a great skill in the practical struggle at the board.'

His description of his development as a player is fascinating, and relevant to this column. Although they still use books and CDs, few strong players today develop their skills understanding without an emphasis on playing experience (for one thing, we have ICC and Playchess). Smyslov was different:

'In my childhood I studied chess a great deal. I could sit at the board for some eight hours, and sometimes even more. How I managed to find the time for all this, I myself do not understand, since I was not especially well organised. But I managed... Perhaps in one's youth the days seem longer?..

Up to the age of fourteen I studied chess only at home, and did not think about taking part in any competitions. But I passionately read chess books. Their authors became my main teachers, once I began playing on equal terms with my father (at first I used to be given a start - a queen, a rook, all the usual odds).

The first book that I read was Dufresne's self-tutor, published with Lasker's lectures Common Sense in Chess as an Appendix. From it I became acquainted with the romantic games of the old masters and with the gambit style of play. These were the games of Morphy, Anderssen, Steinitz, Chigorin, Zukertort, Blackburne, Gunsberg and other great players from the past. The impression made by them was stunning. A wealth of combinative ideas, a contempt for danger, the brilliance of swift attacks - and all this on the basis of exact strategic thought, almost always accessible and understandable.

Soon came the turn of other books, with games by other masters, full of deep and complex ideas. These were the games of Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch. Among my favourite books it will not be out of place to recall My Best Games by Alekhine, Chess Fundamentals by Capablanca, Die moderne Shachpartie by Tarrasch, and Nimzowitsch's My System.

Of course, I have not listed all the books and magazines that I read then, in the early 1930s. There is no need to. My father's library contained everything, so to speak, of an everyday nature - I think that there were at least a hundred titles and I made a thorough study of this library. Thus I as though traced the evolution of chess thought and repeated its basic steps in my own development. I am convinced that any player with high ambitions should follow such a path.

Despite the rapid development of theory, there is much that remains secret and unexplored in chess. In order to attempt to step even a little further, you must first of all understand what is the limit reached by your predecessors. In my view, the style of a player should not be formed under the influence of any single great master.

A strong impression was made on me by Tarrasch's Die moderne Schachpartie. Although he was an outstanding player in his heyday, he was not one of that vanguard of chess thinkers, who blaze new trails and open new chess horizons. I also gleaned many interesting ideas from the books of Nimzowitsch, Tarrasch's temperamental and talented opponent (his My System is especially splendid). And. of course, first and foremost from the games of the great masters Chigorin and Alekhine, who were able to reveal unusual concrete ideas in a position.'

Returning to his games, Smyslov's own notes are simple, with few dense variations, as was traditional in the early days of annotating. This makes for comfortable reading. Let's look at an example, with Smyslov's annotations. Imagine Kasparov ripping through the following game with 10 pages or so of notes:

Robert Fischer-Vasily Smyslov

Candidates Tournament Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade (21) 1959

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 e6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 d6 6 Bc4

This system of development proposed by the Soviet theoretician Sozin, was included by Fischer in his opening repertoire and he upheld it with unusual constancy during the Candidates tournament.

6...Be7 7 0–0 a6 8 Bb3 b5 9 f4 0–0 10 f5

The young grandmaster's impetuous offensive involves a problematic pawn sacrifice.


11 Nce2

Of course, the piece sacrifice 11 fxe6 looks too risky, for example, 11 ..bxc3 12 exf7+ Kh8 13 bxc3 Bg4 14 Qe1 Qc8 and Black has adequate defensive resources.

11 ..e5 12 Nf3 Bb7

12 ..Nxe4 deserved serious consideration. If 13 Bd5, then 13 ..Bb7 14 Bxb7 Qb6+ and White appears to have no real compensation for the pawn.

13 Ng3 Nxe4 14 Nxe4 Bxe4 15 Qe1!

This subtle manoeuvre enables White to keep up the pressure.

15 ..Bxf3

If 15 ..Bxf5, there follows 16 Nxe5 dxe5 17 Rxf5 Nc6 18 Be3 with fair chances. 15 ..Qb6+ 16 Kh1 Qb7 17 Qg3 Nd7 18 Bh6 Bf6 19 Rad1 Kh8 20 Be3 leads to a complicated game. Black prefers to simplify matters.

16 Rxf3 Nc6 17 Qe4 Nd4 18 Rh3 Bf6

The threat of 19 f6 has to be parried. In the meantime White succeeds in playing his bishop to the centre of the board.

19 Bd5 Rc8 20 c3 bxc3 21 bxc3 Nb5 22 Bd2 Rc5 23 Kh1 Qd7

Black's plan includes playing his rook from f8 to the queenside and, in case of necessity, the evacuation of his king via f8 to e7.The tactical justification of 23...Qd7 lies in the variation 24 c4 Nc7 25 Bb4 Nxd5 26 Bxc5 Nf4, when Black's chances are better.

24 Bb3

By freeing his queen from having to defend the bishop, White then switches it to the kingside, but in so doing he lifts the blockade on the central pawns. 24 Rf1 also came into consideration, for example, 24 ..Rfc8 25 c4 Nc7 26 Bb7 Rb8 27 Be3 (or 27 Bb4 d5 28 cxd5 Qb5) 27 ..Rxc4 28 Qxc4 Rxb7 and Black gains two pawns for the exchange.

24 ..d5 25 Qf3 Nd6! 26 Rf1 Ne4

The knight has moved to an excellent position, thanks to which Black has acquired fine possibilities for counterplay.

27 Qh5 h6 28 Bxh6

The game enters a phase of great complications. At the cost of a piece the black king's pawn shelter is destroyed.

28 ..gxh6 29 Bc2

29 Qxh6 Rfc8 30 Bc2 (30 Rff3 Bg7) 30 ..Bg7 31 Qh7+ Kf8 32 Bxe4 dxe4 33 f6 Bxf6 and the attack is repulsed.

29 ..Bg5 30 f6 Rb8! 31 Bxe4 dxe4 32 Rg3

The attack has reached its height. 32.Kh7 or 32...Kf8 is not possible because of 33 Rtxg5, and both 33 Qxh6 and 33 h4 are also threatened. In this critical situation Black is saved by an interesting tactical idea.

32 ..Qf5!

This spectacular manoeuvre by the queen, which cannot be taken because of the mate threat at b1 (now the point of 30..Rb8! will be understood), solves completely Black's defensive problems. If now 33 Qe2, then 33...Qxfl+ 34 Qxfl Rcxb5 35 h4 Rb1 with a clear advantage to Black.

33 Kg1 Qg6 34 Qe2 Rc6

First of all eliminating the dangerous f6 pawn. White can now regain the piece, but he is unable to parry the counter-threats.

35 h4 Rxf6 36 Rxf6 Qxf6 37 Qh5

If 37 hxg5 there would have followed 37...Qf4 38 Qg4 h5!, and 37 Qxe4 is also not possible in view of 37. . Qf4 38 Qxf4 exf4 39 Rg4 f5 when Black wins.

37 ..Qf4 38 Kh2 Kg7 39 hxg5 hxg5 40 Qxg5+ Qxg5 41 Rxg5+ Kf6 42 Rh5 Rb1 43 Kg3 Rf1

The rook ending is fairly easily won. The king is cut off from Black's passed pawns, and they advance irresistibly.

44 Rh4 Kf5 45 Rh5+ Ke6 46 Rh6+ f6 47 Rh4 e3 48 Re4 f5 White resigns

That's it: nothing fancy, but comfortable and attractive writing. If you like Smyslov's games and style and want to get insights into his thinking, you should acquire these two volumes. At the same time, you should keep in mind that they are primarily games collections with only a limited amount of biographical commentary. The publisher's website is

Valeri Beim's Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective is one of those fairly short books that manages to convey its point in an original and clear way. Briefly, Beim undertakes an investigation of Morphy's game and concludes that many of the standard notions about his play are inaccurate. He, like many of us, was mainly aware of Morphy's 'crushing defeats of trusting opposition'. 'What I actually found', he says, 'was something different'.

Quite a complex figure results, and we find Morphy making mistakes and misjudgments in one game, but adjusting to them and correcting his weaknesses in later encounters. Here's an example:

Paul Morphy - Daniel Harrwitz, Paris m1 (game 2), 1858

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 exd4 4 Qxd4 Nc6 5 Bb5 Bd7 6 Bxc6 Bxc6 7 Bg5 Nf6 8 Nc3 Be7 9 0–0–0 0–0 10 Rhe1 h6 11 Bh4 Ne8 12 Bxe7 Qxe7

Beim points out that the opening has gone very badly for Black. He suggests that Morphy's correct course would be:

'to prepare for dynamic operations so as to begin them under the most favorable circumstances. The point being that the opponent, who has less space and poorer piece coordination, will be unable to improve his position similarly. Therefore, White might have proceeded with 13.Re3 Qe6 14.h3 (or 13.Kbl first); then, he could double his rooks on the e- file, or pull his queen back to e3. And inasmuch as Black couldn't bring his knight back to f6, for fear of e4-e5, he would have a hard time finding moves.'

13 e5?

Beim: 'Instead, Morphy removes all the disadvantages of his opponent's position. The reason for this decision is easy to see after looking at his play in the preceding games. Evidently, he was relying on his advantage in development, and according to tradition, strove to open the game. In the heat of vendetta, Morphy failed to notice that this would lead to unfavorable exchanges and that it would also remove the pieces necessary for the attack.' As the game goes, neither side plays very accurately and Morphy simply blunders towards the end.

13 ..Bxf3 14 gxf3 Qg5+ 15 Kb1 dxe5 16 Rxe5 Qg2 17 Nd5 Qxh2 18 Ree1 Qd6 19 Rg1 Kh7 20 Qe3 f5? 21 Nf4 Qb6 22 Qe2 Rf7 23 Qc4 Qf6 24 Nh5 Qe7 25 Rde1 Qd7 26 a3 Nd6 27 Qd4 Rg8 28 Rg2 Ne8 29 Qc3 f4 30 Rh1?? g6 31 Rhg1 Qd5 32 Qe1 Qxh5 33 Rg5 Qxf3 34 Qe6 Rf6 35 Qe7+ Rg7 36 Qxe8 hxg5 37 Qe1 Qc6 0–1

The following game is a much better showing for Morphy, who Beim thinks absorbed the lessons of the European masters and incorporated them into his play, but retained his unique feel for the initiative.

Paul Morphy - Johann Loewenthal, London (14) 1858

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 d4 exd4 6 e5 Ne4 7 0–0 Nc5 8 Bxc6 dxc6 9 Nxd4 Ne6 10 Nxe6 Bxe6 11 Qe2 Bc5?! 12 Nc3 Qe7 13 Ne4 h6 14 Be3!

An outstanding positional decision; by exchanging bishops White deprives his opponent of the bishop pair, and gains the upper hand on the dark squares. The last two moves offer a clear demonstration of why Black's 11th move was an error.

14 ..Bxe3 15 Qxe3 Bf5 16 Ng3!?

Beim: '16 f4 Bxe4 17 Qxe4 0–0–0 keeps a small advantage for White. But Morphy bravely sacrificed a pawn for a small, but lasting initiative. Today, this is how chess is played, but in those days nobody played this way. It was only Alekhine who first began to regularly treat the game this way - and he was born 55 years after Morphy.'

16 ..Bxc2 17 f4 g6 18 e6!

'Simple, but effective; the aesthetic effect of this uncomplicated stroke is considerably enhanced by the fact that it did not come about by chance, but as the logical consequence of the pawn sacrifice on move 16.'

18 ..Bf5 19 Nxf5 gxf5 20 exf7+ Kxf7 21 Qh3 Qf6 22 Rae1 Rhe8 23 Re5! Kg6 24 Rfe1 Rxe5 25 Rxe5 Rd8 26 Qg3+ Kh7 27 h3 Rd7?

Beim suggests 27 ..Rd5!, pointing out that even a perfectly-played game doesn't guarantee a win.

28 Qe3 b6 29 Kh2! c5 30 Qe2 Qg6 31 Re6 Qg7 32 Qh5 Rd5

'All of Black's pieces are bound to the defense of weak squares and weak points, which means that Black has no reserves to bring up because of the small number of pieces left on the board. So the chances of the passive side falling into zugzwang are very great.'

33 b3 b5 34 Rxa6 Rd6 35 Qxf5+ Qg6 36 Qxg6+ Kxg6 37 Ra5 Rb6 38 g4 c6 39 Kg3 h5 40 Ra7 hxg4 41 hxg4 Kf6 42 f5 Ke5 43 Re7+ Kd6 44 f6 Rb8 45 g5 Rf8 46 Kf4 c4 47 bxc4 bxc4 48 Kf5 c3 49 Re3 1–0

'Morphy was so far ahead of his time that this game would be a treasure even by modem-day standards!'

Beim emphasises Morphy's innate genius and memory, but also his uniquely dynamic play. Quoting from his conclusion:

'Summarizing what we've seen, it seems vitally necessary to mention that there is no mystery to Morphy's success...His innate gifts were colossal: a phenomenal memory, his staggering intellectual aptitude, and an enormous specific talent for chess.'

'...I have emphasised the outstanding feeling that Paul Morphy had for the initiative, piece development, and the factor of the interaction of the pieces. This last factor is the most important element of the dynamic component of chess. This factor is all-encompassing and includes, to a somewhat lesser extent, the static component of chess as well. But it shows itself much more boldly, effectively, and clearly in the dynamic. All other principles of chess, without exception, incorporate this element.'

'Beyond any doubt, prior to Morphy no one ever expressed so clearly or so con¬vincingly the power and importance of the dynamic elements of the game of chess. Morphy's best games remain unsurpassed in simplicity and stand as convincing examples of "dynamic chess." It wasn't until Capablanca appeared that someone showed such a harmonic understanding of the coordination of the pieces at his level. And it wasn't until Alekhine emerged that someone showed the power and importance of the dynamic component of chess to the extent that Morphy did...Paul Morphy can be considered the founder of the contemporary dynamic approach to chess.'

Beim, incidentally, includes an interesting Bibliography with sources extending from Russian magazines to German books to modern American works. This is a great book and can be read by players of almost any level beyond a beginning one.

I was going to wait for the revision of Volume Two, but I should make some comments on the second edition of John Donaldson & Nikolay Minev's historical masterpiece The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, which the authors revised and expanded last year. It is one of the most carefully-researched books ever on any individual player. Donaldson & Minev dig up games from various sources, for example, old magazines, archived newspapers, obscure and out-of-print books, and correspondence with fans and history buffs. They use tournament books, of course, but also such gems as two rare Polish books covering 'the history of the Lodz Chess Society'! It obviously takes years to gather such material. As far as I can tell, the second edition differs from the first by additions of games and historical accounts, many of which were supplied by readers of the first edition and Rubinstein fans. From a description of the additions, it's hard for me to assess whether owners of the first edition will want to get the second. Obviously this depends upon taste, and if possible you should try to glance through the newer edition.

The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein is mainly a games collection, also offering background regarding tournaments, descriptions of Rubinstein, and major events of his life. His important games are annotated by the authors in combination with notes and comments by great players that appeared in tournament books.

Some young players might ask 'Who was Rubinstein?' That takes Donaldson and Minev 700 pages to answer, but in general chess books he has often been called the strongest player who never got to play for the World Championship. A brief synopsis: Rubinstein was born in 1882, learning chess at age 14 or even later, and becoming a master only at age 24. But after that his ascent was almost supernatural. In St Petersburg 1909, he tied with the great Lasker for first place, and in San Sebastian 1911 he finished a half point behind Capablanca. Then in 1912, he played in 4 supertournaments and won them all! Unfortunately World War 1 prevented a match with Lasker and interrupted his career. After the war, he was never quite the same player. To quote the authors: 'Akiva Kielowicz Rubinstein, Paul Keres and Viktor Korchnoi belong to a very select club: they are the strongest players never to become world champion. While Keres and Korchnoi had their chances at the title, Rubinstein was denied the opportunity. One might well call the great Akiva the strongest player to never have a shot at the crown.' I would add Reshevsky to the above list.

Rubinstein is best known for his brilliant endgame play (particularly in rook endgames), but his opening contributions are often overlooked. Let me list a selection of openings that bear Rubinstein's name:

1. The Tarrasch Queen's Gambit 3 Nc3 c5 4 cxd5 exd5 5 Nf3 Nc6 6 g3 This is Rubinstein's move, responsible for the diminished popularity of the Tarrasch Variation to this day.

2. The French Defence 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 with 3.Nc3 (or 3 Nd2) 3...dxe4; sometimes only the line 4 Nxe4 Nbd7 with 5...Ngf6 is called the Rubinstein Variation.

3. 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bb5 Nd4. To this day Rubinstein's 4...Nd4 is the greatest disincentive to 4 Bb5.

4. The Nimzo-Indian with 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e3 is sometimes called "the Rubenstein Complex", and especially 4 e3 c5 5 Nge2

I'm running out of room, but this is a book that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the all-time-great players. Indeed, Donaldson & Minev's book compares favourably with the vast majority of books on any World Champion contestant.

The primary audience for Andy Soltis & Gene McCormick's The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996 should be fairly clear: fans of U.S. chess and chess history in general. Although this 2006 McFarland paperback is only a reprint of the 1997 2nd Edition and does not update it, I want to bring the book to the reader's attention because it is so much fun. Its stories are entertaining and the extensive historical information on the event is fascinating.

Soltis & McCormick's 1997 book updated the original The U.S. Chess Championship 1845-1985, which was written in English Descriptive notation (now it uses Algebraic, of course). The present one is a history of all U.S. Championships through 1995. The book provides all sorts of biographical details, and tournament accounts that preserve the excitement of the competition. Other features are the Index of records, photographs (7 pages and excellent, though too few) and quotations from the participants. Note that the course of this event isn't updated for the last dozen years, but that will not be a concern for the likely reader.

I do have two issues with the book. As with many historical works, there is no Bibliography. I'd be very curious from where the authors have gleaned all this material, whether from magazines (such as Chess Review, Chess Life and Review, and Chess Life; and 19th century periodicals), or from tournament and biographical books. This should be easy to fix. If it's a question of too many sources, they could supply an overview of the most frequently used ones. The very successful nature of Soltis' and McCormick's narrative demonstrates that the source material contains a wealth of information and is worth knowing about. Another issue is price. As always, the quality of this book is excellent, but I'd be hesitant to shell out so much money for a paperback.

Assuming that you have an interest in this area at all, and American fans almost certainly will, The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996 will provide you with hours of reading enjoyment.

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