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John Watson Book Review (82)

Historical and Biographical Works, Installment 3

This column is my last for a while dealing with chess history, players, and game collections. There are quite a number of new and intriguing books in these genres that publishers have just released. There are also some that have already been on the market for quite a long time and have been devoured by fans who have contacted me. When I get questions about why I haven't reviewed one of these books, my answer in the majority of cases is simple: I haven't yet gotten a copy of it. Sadly, it will be quite a long time before getting back to these subjects, but I hope to do so next year.

In the meantime, I want to comment upon both some older and newer biographical and autobiographical works, together with some essays about chess history. At the end I have a 'super-review' that is hardly a review at all, but a fascinating argument presented in the author's own words.

I'm glad to say that I can recommend every book in this list.

On the Attack!!; Jan Timman; 235 pages; New in Chess 2006. Buy from the London Chess Centre

Victor Bologan: Selected Games 1985-2004; Victor Bologan; 236 pages; Russell Enterprises 2007

My One Hundred Best Games; Alexey Dreev; 300 pages; Chess Stars 2007. Buy from the London Chess Center.

Grandmaster Chess Move by Move; John Nunn; 286 pages; Gambit 2005. Buy from the London Chess Center.

Smart Chip from St. Petersburg; Genna Sosonko; 197 pages; New In Chess 2006. Buy from the London Chess Center.

John Nunn's Puzzle Book; John Nunn; 208 pages; Gambit 1999. Buy from the London Chess Center.

To my mind, Jan Timman's On the Attack!!; The Art of Attacking Chess According to the Modern Masters is not remotely like the descriptions on the back cover and blurbs ('teaches you how to build up an advantage and how to convert it into a crushing attack...', 'will increase your imagination and your confidence, and will lead to more wins be cause you know when, where and how to attack in chess...' 'demonstrates that a good attack must be based on sound strategic foundations', etc., blah, blah, blah). Rather, it is his thoughtful tribute to the attacking skills of a selection of 11 top-level contemporary grandmasters, each of whom he sees as having exceptional abilities in the art of assaulting the enemy position. In the main part of the book, Timman presents 33 games, three by each player, complete with descriptions and analysis. The 'attackers' are Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Nigel Short, Ivan Sokolov, Vasily Ivanchuk, Vishwanathan Anand , Alexey Shirov, Veselin Topalov, Judit Polgar, Andrey Volokitin, and Timman himself. The choice of Volokitin was based upon Timman's best judgment, of course, but he has not yet attained the stature of the others, nor had a chance to exhibit the endurance of his skills. Timman himself has had a lifetime of attacking games to boast of, and is not shy about including himself; as a bonus, we get to listen in on his self-analysis. He admits, for example, that he shares the typical attacker's tendency to overlook tactical ideas for his opponent, ideas that he would easily see were he on the other side. Similar thoughts about his own strengths and weaknesses crop up in notes to others' games.

This selection of complete attacking games is followed by a chapter of 33 'Attacking Fragments', generally beginning with a position that is well-advanced into the game. Here Timman includes attacks by many other top grandmasters not mentioned in the first section, such as Svidler, Mamedyarov, and Vaganian. But further examples by Kasparov are inevitable, in fact, four of his wins; and Timman finds room for three more beautiful combinations by Anand. These combinational fragments are arguably even more attractive than those in the first Part, but of course you don't get to see the strategic and positional buildup that produced the conditions for attack.

In case you were wondering about the player selection process, let me quote Timman: 'It goes without saying that such a selection is by its nature subjective: I have not included games from players like Kramnik and Leko, because I failed to find material that was suitable for my purpose.' Does he mean, 'failed to find three appropriate games'? Unlikely. But 'failed to discern the same quality of the consistent attacker' in these two players? Not many will argue with that. He does include a Leko win in one of the fragments, however. And although some may be surprised by Karpov's inclusion, Timman grew up in the era of Karpov's domination and his many beautiful, well-calculated attacks.

Timman also notes that: 'Except for that 'rare bird' Ivan Sokolov, all of the eleven players show a more or less consistent preference for 1.e4 - in the case of Kasparov and Karpov, at least in their attacking heydays... [jw: You can argue that Kasparov played at least half of his most brilliant attacks in his youthful 1 d4 days, even if his later masterpieces were sounder.] ...But Sokolov and many others have proved that 1.d4 can also suit an attacking player very well. Many 1.d4 openings that had always been considered solid have been sharpened up in recent times.' Of course, some of these players reached maturity in a day when 1 d4 was more popular than now and Shirov, Kasparov, and Karpov certainly did a lot with 1 d4 in their 'attacking heydays'. But it's also a question of fashion; 1 e4 pretty much took over when supergrandmasters despaired of achieving attacks or even good results versus, for example, the Nimzo-Indian. Now 1 d4 is making a comeback: suddenly Topalov seems to be in a 1 d4 'heyday', and more and more players are winning quite brilliantly with it. Perhaps we should say that whatever first move the great attackers choose to play, they will find a way to attack.

Of course, the games are the essence of the book. Their selection is refreshingly original, unlike many works that recycle highly-publicized contests (a fault of Kasparov's Predecessors series, for example). For want of time, I've only been able to look a few games on a computer screen (which allows for real analysis) and browsed through the others. Nevertheless, one quickly grasps that the course of these attacks is not obvious. And even with only three games each, you can see the difference between rather wild attackers like Shirov and Topalov versus more rational ones such as Karpov, Short, and Anand. I should emphasise that Timman's annotations are for the most part short and largely verbal. We don't find the lengthy and convoluted analysis that is featured in most books about attacks. His notes are indeed more complex than those in his Curacao 1962 book (previously reviewed), but similar in spirit; that is, they are relaxed and often impressionistic.

Timman makes introductory comments describing each player's attacking style. Here are a couple of them:

'[Nigel] Short's attacking games have an elegance to them. He gives the impression that he is prepared to go out of his way to produce the most attractive game possible. It is also worth mentioning that he sometimes suffers from the same shortcoming as myself while defending, he sometimes overlooks attacking turns that would never have escaped him while attacking. Again, this is the phenomenon of the out-and-out attacking player feeling uncomfortable when put on the defence.

I was surprised when Gert Ligterink called John Nunn England's best attacking player of all time in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. Although Nunn is undoubtedly a good attacker, personally I rate Short much more highly, as an all-round player but also as an attacker.'

In my opinion, Timman's qualifier 'much more' is too strong. Although I think of Short as a type of chess genius (and he of course climbed further in the world rankings), some of Nunn's combinations are on a level with anyone's in terms of depth and creativity. Perhaps Jan would be moved to tone down his assessment by a fresh look at the games collections mentioned below. Perhaps not. At any rate, it's provocative stuff and far from the usual pablum.

Regarding Shirov:

'Over the years, he managed to instill more balance in his game, and he started pulling off some magnificent technical feats in the endgame.

But it is mainly his attacking games that catch people's attention. There is something infectiously enthusiastic about the way he plays his attacks. There are times when he seems to be looking for complications and launching attacks in dubious circumstances. In such cases he can be doubly dangerous, discovering ideas that can be astonishing. But Shirov is equally proficient in executing rigidly correct classical attacks, and he has a pretty all-round opening repertoire.

There are times when his brain seems to short-circuit, as in one of his games against Spraggett. After a strongly played game Shirov sank into thought, only to be interrupt by his opponent resigning. What had happened? It turned out that Shirov could give mate in two, a possibility that, until then, he had not seen himself.

I have experienced these short-circuits as well, and they are likely to lead to blunders. But this rarely happens to Shirov.'

These descriptions add spice to an already lively book. On the Attack is thoroughly enjoyable and recommended to every chess fan.

Two recent books explore the careers of extremely strong grandmasters who have spent long enough in high-level chess to collect a large set of well-played, instructive, and often entertaining games. Garry Kasparov provides a Foreword for Victor Bologan's Selected Games 1985-2004, and gives several reasons that it may 'inspire young chess players to a deeper study of the classics' [i.e., something beyond the use of the Internet and ChessBase]. He praises the book's inclusion of autobiographical notes and the connection that Bologan makes of his games with the development of his career. For example, Bologan talks about each of his trainers and how they contributed to his style and career. He devotes considerable space to Vyacheslav Cherbanenko, who has attracted attention of late because of the popularity of ...a6 on the fourth or fifth move of the Slav Defence, whether of not White has played e3. Cherbanenko also contributed many early ideas about Bb5(+) versus the Sicilian. Bologan draws an affectionate portrait of the man himself.

Kasparov also likes Bologan's inclusion of personal emotional experiences and how they related to his decisions at tense moments of the game, and of course how they affected his results. I should add that there is a great deal of biographical content, although naturally most of it relates to his chess career.

Bologan annotates 52 of his games. He has been rated over 2600 for almost all of the last 16 years, and briefly touched 2700, so there are plenty of good examples. Quite a few instructive comments are interwoven into the author's game notes, and at the end of the majority of games he appends a section called 'Lessons'. Each lesson consists of three tips, often relating to a specific type of position. Some tips offer general advice about how to size up and handle a situation. Systematic training was key to Bologan's own success. For a long time, Bologan kept a diary during his tournaments. He also assigned himself preparation programs for future tournaments.

The Indices are interesting, if only because they show the high quality of the opponents that Bologan faces, and the nature of his opening choices. Kasparov exaggerates when he calls them 'the most varied kinds of openings', if only because Bologan almost always plays 1 e4 (there is one game with 1 d4, but Bologan says that it is only the 6th time that he has played it up to the year 2004, and thus constitutes a miniscule percentage of his contests). A very high percentage of the games have him playing White. Still, we get a good look at the Sicilian and 1...e5, two of the most important openings in chess. There is also an 'Index of Strategic, Tactical, and Pschological Techniques'! Few of them are psychological, but that's still a unique idea. In general, I think very few people use indices of positional techniques, but that may just reflect my own feelings.

All in all, this a well-written book with a wealth of ideas and observations that go well beyond the usual games collection.

The other autobiographical games collection comes from a player, Alexey Dreev, who has also been at the top levels for many years. Dreev is 38, two years older than Bologan, and has a remarkable record for someone with such a low profile. I was surprised to find from Chessmetrics that he was in the top ten players in the world for about a year (and briefly #9), and he stayed within the top 12 for almost two and a half years. Dreev's rating climbed over 2700 for spans of 2 years (1989-91), 3 years (1995-97), and then several periods thereafter, reaching 2726 in 2005. Finally, he has been ranked above 2600 for 21 years, a model of the top professional, although he's struggling with that figure recently.

Dreev's book, My One Hundred Best Games, begins with a fascinating autobiographical essay about his youth as a much-favoured player (making a surprising amount of money, e.g., in exhibitions). Then, mysteriously, he falls out of favour with the bureaucracy, becomes more-or-less stranded without an occupation, joins the army, and finally connects with the world of chess via a sporting academy. Rather suddenly, we are in 1989 in the USSR Championship and gets his Grandmaster title the next year! What happens after that is known only through his game notes, since the book switches out of autobiography mode and into his collection of complex and interesting games. Dreev always plays 1 d4, so this book serves as a complement to Bologan's. You may want to get one or the other depending upon your own repertoire. Dreev is famous for the Semi-Slav Defence (as White and Black). His main defence to 1 e4 is the Caro-Kann, and he likes to throw in a French Defence once in a while. But as a whole he tends to choose games with White for this volume. The quality of the chess is very high, as one can imagine given that Dreev has 20+ years worth of games as a professional to choose from.

The book also has quite nice photos, both in black-and-white and colour. The former include a scene with Tal, and the latter have some currently famous ex-teammates such as Kramnik, Morozevich, and Grischuk.

If you're looking for a games collection, I think that you'll be very happy with either Dreev's or Bologan's.

There is another autobiographical games collection that I should have reported upon previously, given that it appeared in 2005. John Nunn's Grandmaster Chess Move by Move is easy to recommend and easy to talk about without going into detail. Nunn has the misfortune to be one of the world's best chess authors, so you can pretty much assume that any of his books are worth owning. On top of that, Nunn's previous two volumes of his games have been justifiably praised by one and all, so if I say that this third volume is at least as good as the others, that should be recommendation enough. In my opinion, the newer book is also more accessible to the average reader and is therefore appropriate for a wider audience.

Nunn annotates 46 of his games from 1992-2003 (the previous two volumes were split into his career up to 1985 and his career from 1985 to 1992). He does so in the 'move-by-move' style of his previous work, Understanding Chess Move by Move. This lends a comfortable feel to the book, and I notice an increase in practical advice with respect to assessing positions. Towards the end of the book Nunn includes 25 of his studies and 18 of his problems; he has a love of problems and is also known as a very strong problem-solver.

Did I mention that the games themselves are exciting and beautifully annotated? Nunn loves to attack, and to play systems that leave serious complications on the board. I think that reading all three volumes of Nunn's games would lead any objective chess judge to disagree with Timman's assessment of his attacking skills.

The last two chapters are a bit unusual for a games collection, but in line with this column's historical bent. One is about the history and problems with the chess publishing business in England (with an emphasis on Batsford Books). This is absorbing material for an author (like me), but probably not of general or lasting interest to, for example, younger players. The next essay concerns the state of world chess (with an emphasis on British chess), and will be cited for many years to come. On the professional and World Championship level, Nunn paints a depressing picture, with various absurdities harming the game, for example, drug testing, counterproductive time controls, and lack of player representation. This last sometimes seems to be a permanent feature of the chess landscape, although the ACP leaders are working hard to improve the situation. Nunn does sound an optimistic note when he points to the spectacular growth of Internet and Scholastic chess. To my mind, the question is how many of the young players will continue playing serious chess into adulthood. In the United States, even promising scholastic players often stop competing as early as 7th or 8th grade.

Nunn criticises the FIDE knockout system on several grounds including the increased randomness of results. Thus he may be happier with the recent individual World Championship matches. My own personal take is that while almost any logical arrangement improves upon the knockout system if one wishes to crown the strongest player, the brevity of the last few World Championship matches, along with their almost nonexistent 'qualification' process, detracts greatly from their legitimacy in the historical sense. The return of regular qualifying matches, however biased the first time around, points to an improved championship cycle. Whereas Kramnik's World Championship match was granted, absurdly, only as the loser of a single qualifying match, the likes of Smyslov, Petrosian, Tal, Spassky, and Fischer had to survive lengthy, brutal Interzonal tournaments and win multiple Candidate Matches to get a shot at the world crown. They had to defeat a large set super-grandmasters, not just one. Such tournaments and matches may no longer be realistic options, but shorter versions of them are.

I'll only give a short summary of Genna Sosonko's Smart Chip from St. Petersburg, And Other Tales of a Bygone Chess Era, a book which I still haven't finished but to which I can already give a strong recommendation. Fortunately, I've previously reviewed and praised the first two volumes of Sosonko's retrospectives/remembrances, The Reliable Past, and Russian Silhoettes. Those mostly deal with Russian and ex-Russian players (mixed with those from the broader Soviet Union), but include some Westerners (for example, Euwe, Miles, and Timman in Reliable Past). Smart Chip can be considered the third of a set, and most of what I've said applies to it as well. This time the emphasis remain on Russia, but we get the important figures Pachman and Donner as well. Sosonko's cast of characters is somewhat smaller than previously, because there are some general essays about, for example, chess and sleep, chess and religion (in particular, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the killer instinct in chess and what determines a great player, and Sosonko's own feelings about chess and aging.

The feature essay depicts 'Smart Chip' Genrikh Chepukaitis (his nickname was 'Chip', and 'Smart Chip' his computer chess handle). Chepukaitis was a great blitz player and important figure in the Russian chess scene for decades. Further essays tell of Yakov Neishtadt (great player, analyst, and writer), Evgeny Ruban (a talented victim of the system and himself) , Ludek Pachman (great player with political contradictions), Ratmir Kholmov, Irina Levitina (women's World Championship finalist and bridge convert) , Hein J.H. Donner (grandmastar and arguably greatest chess journalist of all time).

I can't say enough about these books as a set. They have no chess moves (none that I can remember, anyway). Just portraits and essays. As a bonus, all three Sosonko volumes are adorned with wonderful photographs of great players and the characters that he writes about.

You might find it unusual to write a column about chess history and biographical games collections and then include a book of puzzles, especially one written 8 years ago! As a set of problems, John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book is a good one. Nunn takes his test positions from actual games, often between leading grandmasters. Be warned that it is also a very advanced book, in that the majority of exercises would be extremely difficult for the average player to solve. In fact, I think that the book is most helpful for strong players, say, 2000 and above, who want a real challenge. Even grandmasters might get a tough workout solving these positions, and they could well be part of a master's tournament preparation. For the record, I was impressed by the subtlety of some of these positions and showed a few of them on my Chess.FM Internet show.

But that has nothing to do with the reason that I've selected this book to talk about. Rather, I'd like to describe a fascinating and potentially controversial section that Nunn incorporated into this book, one that seems to have escaped notice in most book reviews: his historical comparison of older, pre-World War I players to modern ones. Nunn calls this section 'The Test of Time'. I'm going to essentially take Nunn's own words to give an abridged version of his goal, technique, and results. Thus you will read one of the least original reviews of all time, but learn about a fascinating endeavour. I feel that his is a brilliant analysis of this longstanding question, and easily the best solution ever offered.

First, Nunn discusses various methods for trying to make assessments of the relative strengths of the players. I'll quote a portion of this:

"One of the great perennial questions in chess is: how do the great masters of the past compare with the leading players of today? Like all really interesting questions, it is very hard to answer. It is even possible to disagree on the ground rules for the comparison: for example, should you take into account the development of chess theory over the intervening time, and not mark down the old masters for their naive handling of many opening systems? There have, of course, been many attempts to tackle this question mathematically, using rating calculations. At one time such efforts depended on manual computation, but today it is possible to use computers to tackle much larger samples. The simplest approach is to take a very large database and pretend it is one huge tournament which is played over and over again. If you assign every player an initial rating of, say, 2000, then as the tournament is repeated the familiar names of today's leading players gradually float to the top. When the ratings have stabilized, you can then perform the purely cosmetic tidying-up of adding a constant to all the ratings to bring them into line with the current Elo system (because your initial guess of 2000 might have been wrong). Of course, this final step makes no real difference, because it doesn't affect the ranking positions in the list. If you do this with the well-known MegaBase database, you end up with a slightly surprising result: the modem players end up at the top, with the old-timers lagging well behind.

At first this seems a reliable method, but after a little more thought doubts arise. First of all, there is the selection of games. It is easy to see how a bias in the original database might skew the final ratings. For example, databases tend to be far more complete and detailed in modem times than in historical times, so modem masters will have ratings based on a full record whereas the data for historical players may be patchy and based only on a few major events. In certain databases historical players are often represented by a fair proportion of non-tournament games from exhibitions, friendly matches, etc. These tend to be preserved far more often if the famous player wins than if he loses, skewing the ratings in favour of the older players..."

"Even if it were possible to assemble a complete selection of games, there would still be uncertainties. If, at some point, there were a general advance in chess strength, this method might fail to detect it (since a player's rating will be based largely on games against his contemporaries). Moreover, a purely mathematical system raises other questions. A player's career typically takes the form of a period of ascent, a plateau near the peak of his strength and then a gradual decline. If one omits all Capablanca's games after he became World Champion, then his rating shoots up, since games from the 'declining' period have been eliminated. This may affect Fischer, who retired while at his peak, and many modern players, who have not yet had their 'declining' period."

This is great stuff, if ultimately unrelated to Nunn's final solution to the problem. He next describes his goal and approach:

"My main interest is in assessing how much the overall level of chess has changed since the pre-First World War period. My method of comparison is not mathematical, but is based on an actual analysis of games. While this introduces an element of subjectivity into the process, it affords a direct comparison which is valid across any span of time.

One could undoubtedly devote a great deal of time to this subject and produce an academic treatise, but this is a puzzle book and so my discussion will be more limited. I decided to take two tournaments, one from the historical past and one recent, and analyse all the games in the two tournaments looking for serious errors. Since I wanted a fairly large sample, I chose tournaments containing a considerable number of games. My historical tournament was Karlsbad 1911 (325 games). This event seemed to have the qualities I Was looking for: top players such as Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, Schlechter and Rubinstein, together with only moderately familiar names such as Perlis and Fahrni (I did not want to restrict my assessments to the very top) and a tournament book by a well-known player (Vidmar) to help me find errors.

The final scores from this event were:

Karlsbad  1911
                           1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
 1 Teichmann,Richard       * 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 0 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 18.0
 2 Rubinstein,Akiba        0 * ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 17.0
 3 Schlechter,Carl         0 ½ * 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 0 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 17.0
 4 Rotlewi,Georg A         0 ½ 1 * 1 1 0 0 1 ½ 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 16.0
 5 Marshall,Frank James    ½ 1 ½ 0 * ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 0 1 ½ 1 0 1 1 1 15.5
 6 Nimzowitsch,Aaron       0 ½ ½ 0 ½ * ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 15.5
 7 Vidmar,Milan Sr         ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ * 0 ½ 1 0 1 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 0 0 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 15.0
 8 Leonhardt,Paul Saladin  ½ 0 0 1 ½ 1 1 * ½ 0 1 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 0 1 0 1 1 1 0 13.5
 9 Tartakower,Saviely      0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ * 1 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 0 1 1 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 13.5
10 Duras,Oldrich           1 0 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 0 * 0 0 ½ 1 0 0 ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 13.5
11 Alekhine,Alexander      0 0 0 1 ½ ½ 1 0 1 1 * 0 0 1 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 0 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 13.5
12 Spielmann,Rudolf        0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 1 * 0 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 0 0 1 0 13.0
13 Perlis,Julius           ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 * ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ 0 0 0 0 1 12.0
14 Cohn,Erich              ½ 0 0 1 ½ 0 1 1 ½ 0 0 0 ½ * ½ ½ 1 0 1 1 0 0 ½ 1 1 0 11.5
15 Levenfish,Grigory       ½ 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 0 0 ½ * 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 0 1 0 11.5
16 Suechting,Hugo          0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 1 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 * 1 1 0 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 1 1 11.5
17 Burn,Amos               1 0 0 1 ½ ½ 0 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 0 0 0 0 * 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 0 0 11.0
18 Salwe,Georg             ½ 0 1 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 0 1 ½ 0 1 * 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ 11.0
19 Johner,Paul F           ½ 0 ½ 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 0 * ½ 1 0 1 1 0 0 10.5
20 Rabinovich,Abram I      ½ ½ 0 0 0 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ * ½ 1 ½ 0 1 1 10.5
21 Kostic,Boris            0 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 0 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ * ½ 1 1 0 1 10.5
22 Dus Chotimirsky,Fedor I 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 ½ * 1 0 0 1 10.0
23 Alapin,Simon            ½ 0 ½ 1 1 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 1 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 0 * ½ ½ 0  8.5
24 Chajes,Oscar            0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 1 ½ * 0 1  8.5
25 Fahrni,Hans             0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 ½ ½ 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 1 1 ½ 1 * 0  8.5
26 Jaffe,Charles           0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 ½ 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 *  8.5 

The recent event was the 1993 Biel Interzonal (468 games according to MegaBase), with players ranging from Kramnik, Kamsky and Anand to Gluckman and Kalesis, As with Karlsbad 1911, a couple of the very top players were missing.

The leading final round 13 scores from Biel were:

01 Gelfand B GM BLR 2670 9.0 31690
02 Van der Sterren P GM HOL 2525 8.5 31545
03 Kamsky G GM USA 2645 8.5 31470
04 Khalifman A GM RUS 2645 8.5 31390
05 Adams M GM ENG 2630 8.5 31345
06 Yudasin L GM ISR 2605 8.5 31340
07 Salov V GM RUS 2685 8.5 31285
08 Lautier J GM FRA 2620 8.5 31280
09 Kramnik V GM RUS 2710 8.5 31240
10 Anand V GM IND 2725 8.0 31435
11 Epishin V GM RUS 2655 8.0 31305
12 Lputian S GM ARM 2565 8.0 31275
13 Shirov A GM LAT 2685 8.0 31195
14 Ivanchuk V GM UKR 2705 8.0 31125
15 Sokolov I GM BOS 2610 8.0 31030
16 Portisch L GM HUN 2585 7.5 31855
17 Bareev E GM RUS 2660 7.5 31580
18 Sveshnikov E GM RUS 2570 7.5 31515
19 Abramovic B GM FIDE 2460 7.5 31140
20 Polgar J GM HUN 2630 7.5 30850

72 players

Mark Crowther comments (Source for the table: incidently it seems that the result in MegaBase 2007 of the game Dreev - Gurevich (2) is wrong, I believe it should be 0-1 (not 1-0 as given in ChessBase), presumably on time. I discovered this when trying to create a more detailed table for this article.

The method I chose to examine the games was a two-step process. I reasoned that a good way to eliminate differences resulting from 80 years' advance in chess theory was only to look for really serious errors - if you blunder a piece, it doesn't matter whether you understand Nimzowitsch's pawn-chain theories or not."

[Watson: Notice this important step. I'm always hearing (and reading) that "If the players of yesteryear could only catch up with opening theory, they'd be as good or better than today's players". The funny thing is that the many years (usually decades) of study that modern players put into opening theory should not only count towards their strength, but that study and practice contributes vastly to their understanding of the middlegame and even some endgames. The silly idea that you can just 'catch up' in opening theory ignores the vast undertaking that this would involve, especially to absorb the vast number of openings and opening variations necessary to a complete chess education. Nunn removes this factor from the equation, to the enormous detriment of the modern masters' strength assessment! Surely this will roughly equalise things? Let him continue: ]

"To analyse almost 800 games from scratch by hand would take years, so first I used the automatic analysis feature of Fritz 5 to look at the games without human intervention. It was set in 'blundercheck' mode, which fitted in with my objective of looking for serious errors. Then I examined 'by hand' all the points raised by Fritz to decide whether they were genuine blunders or products of Fritz's imagination.

I had no particular preconceptions about what the results of this search would be. Like most contemporary grandmasters, I was familiar with all the standard textbook examples from the early part of the century, but I had never before undertaken a systematic examination of a large number of old games. I was quite surprised by the results. To summarize, the old players were much worse than I expected. The blunders thrown up by Fritz were so awful that I looked at a considerable number of complete games 'by hand', wondering if the Fritz results really reflected the general standard of play. They did. By comparison, the Fritz search on the 1993 Biel Interzonal revealed relatively little; many of the points raised had already been examined in the players' own notes in Informator and elsewhere. I had originally intended to have the Karlsbad and Biel positions side-by-side in this chapter, but the results were so lopsided that I decided to concentrate on Karlsbad here. Some of the more interesting Biel positions may be found scattered throughout the rest of the book.

In order to be more specific about Karlsbad, take one player: Hugo Süchting (1874-1916). At Karlsbad he scored 11.5/13.5 or 'minus 2', as they say these days - a perfectly respectable score. Having played over all his games at Karlsbad I think that I can confidently state that his playing strength was not greater than Elo 2100 (BCF 187) - and that was on a good day and with a following wind. Here are a couple of examples of his play:"...

[Watson: You have to get the book to see these examples of Süchting's horrendous mistakes and misunderstandings. Nunn also has talks about more positions, and then includes a section of 30 Karlsbad "puzzles", representing all of the players. The positional mistakes by the top players are particularly telling.]

"How, then, did Süchting manage to score 11.5 points in such company? Well, he did have a couple of slices of luck - Duz- Khotimirsky overstepped the time limit while two pawns up in a completely winning rook ending and Alapin agreed a draw in a position where he could win a piece straight away. However, there were some games where Süchting might have hoped for more; he certainly had Levenfish on the ropes (see puzzle 184), and he agreed a draw in the following position against E.Cohn:" [Diagram follows] "It is hard to understand this decision, as with a clear extra pawn Black certainly has very good winning chances and could proceed without the slightest element of risk."...

"Returning then to the question as to how Süchting scored 11.5 points, the answer is simply that the other players were not much better. If we assume Süchting as 2100, then his score implies an average rating for the tournament of 2129 - it would not even be assigned a category today. Based on the above, readers will not be surprised when I say that my general impression of the play at Karlsbad was quite poor, but the main flaws did not show cup in the areas I expected..."

[Watson: Here Nunn shows that openings weren't a problem in this tournament for the older players (who specialised in a few systems). Then he points out the generous time-limits in Karlsbad. Having eliminated those factors, he gives three reasons for his the weak play of the Karlsbad group:]

"The first was a tendency to make serious oversights. It is quite clear that the Karlsbad players were far more prone to severe errors than contemporary players. Even the leading players made fairly frequent blunders. Rubinstein, for example, who was then at virtually the peak of his career (1912 was his best year) failed to win with a clear extra rook against Tartakower ... He also allowed a knight fork of king and rook in an ending against Kostic..."

"The second problem area was an inclination to adopt totally the wrong plan...[examples follow]..."

"The third main problem area was that of endgame play...[horrendous examples of elementary blown endgames follow]..."

[Watson: In the course of research for a book, I made a lengthy look at endgames from a comparable period and found similar butchery, including some terrible blunders by top players such Lasker. The endgame skills of the great masters - excepting Rubinstein - are much exaggerated in books, for the reasons that Nunn gives, i.e, the understandable selection of a very small set of games for reasons of instruction and beauty.]

Nunn goes on to discuss the treatment of games in older tournament books, comparing them with today's analytical approach. He addresses an obvious objection:

"Doubtless, some will respond by searching through contemporary tournaments and finding errors just as serious as those presented here. However, a couple of words of caution. Remember that all the examples given here were played in one tournament. Of course, it is easy to present a player as an idiot by listing the very worst blunders from his (or her) entire career, but that is hardly the point - it is the frequency of errors which is important. The second cautionary word concerns the method of measuring the frequency of errors. You cannot just take a tournament book and count the number of question marks; modern players are far more critical and objective than their predecessors. Although there are exceptions, tournament books from the early part of the century seem to be strong on flowery rhetoric but weak on pointing out mistakes. You actually have to analyse the games to obtain a realistic assessment of the standard of play; one day, perhaps, you will be able to feed a selection of games to Fritz and it will come back with the players' Elo ratings, but that day has not yet arrived."

Nunn's argument makes sense to me, and I can subscribe to its conclusions. Of course, it would be interesting to hear from someone with a contrary point of view.

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