John Watson Book Reviews (105)
John Watson Book Review #105 - Biographies and Game Collections 2
IM John Watson - Saturday 25th May 2013
John Watson Review 105. Photo © | http://www.theweekinchess.com
John Watson looks at more chess biographies and tournament books. Walter Browne was a legend in US Chess for his sharp fighting chess and time trouble. New in Chess have now published his detailed autobiography and annotated games collection. World Champion Vishy Anand has had an amazing career and there is now a 3rd edition of his game collection produced in conjunction with John Nunn. Watson also reviews classic chess books sometimes available for the first time in English, tournament books on AVRO 1938, Pasedena 1932 and also Geza Maroczy on Paul Morphy.
John Watson Book Review #104 - Biographies and Game Collections 2
Stress of Chess (and its infinite finesse); Walter Browne; 464 pages; New in Chess 2012
Vishy Anand: World Chess Champion, Life and Games (3rd edition); Vishy Anand and John Nunn; 544 pages; Gambit 2012
AVRO 1938 International Chess Tournament; Robert Sherwood & Dale Brandreth; 167 pages; Caissa Editions 2010
Pasadena 1932; Robert Sherwood, Dale Brandreth, and Bruce Monson; 118 pages (hardcover); Caissa Editions 2011
Paul Morphy; Geza Maroczy; 292 pages (hardcover); Caissa Editions 2012
I've always thought that a book of Walter Browne's games would be an extremely worthwhile project; his autobiographical games collection The Stress of Chess and its Infinite Finesse confirms that and then some. Although it could have done with less and/or more interesting prose (more on that below), the games and annotations are nothing short of magnificent, and a tribute to Browne's skill, energy, and creativity. Before going any further, let me quote at length from Yasser Seirawan's Foreword. He emphasizes two aspects of Browne's play, hard work and deep calculation, outstanding traits I would also single out. And the following well-written description matches what I observed of Browne over the years:
"In the many games that we contested we held a deep post-mortem. Often these lasted for hours and during them it was obvious, time in and time out, that Walter had out-calculated me. We had looked at the same variations, but he had calculated them more deeply than I had. In many instances Walter went far beyond the point where I had stopped, being satisfied with a line. Walter wanted to be sure. When he felt a win existed he wished to nail it down with calculation and cold-blooded determination. When I asked why he didn't just play an obviously good move, he would often say that while his 'instinct' had told him to play the 'natural' good move it was his calculation that guided him to consider other possibilities, and what ultimately caused him to come to a decision was the calculated line. In most cases Walter's instinct and calculation were one and the same, producing the same move, which he would then play. But here comes the rub. He would go into deep concentration, using large amounts of time on his clock to confirm his instinct with concrete calculation. The result? Chronic time trouble. The flip side of his greatest strength, calculation, was that it often led to harrowing time-scrambles. Bingo! Wonderful, you may think. All I'd have to do is present enough problems for Walter early and often enough and he would drift into time-trouble, at which point I might take advantage... Unfortunately, it was precisely here, when he was in time-trouble, that Walter was at his most dangerous. Cobra fast, he could make 20 moves within one minute, and those 20 moves were like perfect links in a chain leading to victory. It was truly remarkable to see him in action while in time-trouble. He was a demon. Any one caught playing time trouble blitz against him would likely fail as again and again Walter would come through the most harrowing clock pressure in better shape than when he started. How he kept his nerves during these episodes remains a mystery to me."
Bingo! Here are the Contents:
|Foreword by Yasser Seirawan|
|Foreword by Danny Kopec.||11|
|Foreword by Bill Chen||17|
|CHAPTER I – Early Development, 1953-1969.||21|
|CHAPTER II – Elite Tournaments and Simul Tours, 1970-1978||47|
|CHAPTER III – International Success and Semi-retirement, 1979-1989.||215|
|CHAPTER IV – Blitz, Opens and Poker, 1990-2011.||327|
|Index of Players||457|
The first chapter is a very readable account of Browne's childhood, followed by the frantic world travels he undertook, both to make a living and to secure his IM and GM titles. He dashes back and forth between continents, often running out of money, and has to gamble on Blitz games, play poker, and win Swiss Systems to stay solvent and fund his pursuit. Americans in particular had extremely few opportunities to play for norms, since few tournaments within the United States fulfilled the necessary conditions (even if everything else was right, you still had to play three FIDE-rated foreigners, but usually there weren't three to be found!). In spite of these obstacles, Browne fought his way to the title. In fact, only two grandmaster titles were handed out in 1970: Browne and Karpov. Players and fans today have no idea how difficult it was to become a grandmaster. In fact, several of the few Americans who got titles around or before that time did so in a single event, or without enough norms but as a deal with other countries in exchange for letting their players become GMs as well. Browne very much earned his way.
On a daily level, Browne's life was a bohemian one; he mentions three incidents with policemen; in one he was jumped on and punched by cops and in another he was roughed up without cause. Walter, who used to have particularly long hair, has never struck me as a radical, so he surprised me by writing of the police: "and they wonder why they are called PIGS!". Old feelings persist. I think he'd grant that the percentage of brutal and severely prejudiced police has declined dramatically, but he's also right to point out that people were treated very badly based solely upon their appearance.
The games are naturally the core of the book, and they are as exciting and dynamic as one would expect from Browne, who arguably played the sharpest chess of any U.S. player in his generation. The annotations, appropriately, are extremely concrete. There are few excurses into abstract positional principles, or philosophic meanderings, or commentary about how Browne is 'feeling' during the game. Instead, the majority of moves from beginning to end are annotated, usually with pure analysis; verbiage is mainly limited to assessments with (sometimes) brief explanations to justify them. The games themselves are simply wonderful, in my opinion as good or better than in any similar work. Many are lengthy slugfests with twists and turns and exciting opportunities for both sides. There are only a few one-sided wins, and they are attractive ones. For the most part, Browne chooses complex and colourful games whose quality is such that it would be almost impossible to analyse them without a computer and a good deal of time. This is chess at its best.
My main problem with the book is the one that Jeremy Silman points out about most autobiographical chess books. After the interesting first chapter, Browne seldom talks about any meaningful life experiences outside of chess. There are lengthy introductions to each succeeding chapter (27, 26, and 54 pages, respectively), but increasingly, they fall into a tiring recitation of which event he played in, and which opponents he played in which round (often describing the games purely in the abstract, which is not likely to engage the reader). This quickly becomes tedious, and continues to the very end of the book. The fact that he disagrees with some of the pairings isn't likely to elicit sympathy or interest 30 years later. When we get to his cross-country travels playing in Swiss Systems or doing simultaneous exhibitions, it doesn't get much better. We find out that the lighting wasn't good, that he drove to city X on bad roads, that the accommodations were either good or bad (without explanation). Once in a while he refers to some unexceptional weather or other. Way too often, we find out that he had a dinner somewhere and the food was great. I never hung around Walter, but he strikes me as someone whose life has probably been a lot more interesting than this book indicates. I understand the desire for privacy, and disinclination to put his own experiences and opinions out in public; but in that case, there's really no need to include prose sections of this length at all. To be fair, I should stress that very few chess autobiographies reveal much about the players themselves. Nevertheless, considering the outstanding quality of the games and analysis, this book would have been better as a traditional games collection with only a small fraction of the narrative material. It doesn't help that the writing itself is sometimes awkward, or that there are numerous grammatical lapses. New in Chess has always impressed me with their excellent editing, but this work should have been proofread much more carefully.
On the Swiss System circuit, Browne was renowned for complaints and disputes (it seemed to me this happened in every tournament). In the book, he periodically brings such things up but doesn't obsess about them. He also upon occasion blamed defective clocks for losses; there is some irony here, and in his accounts he could have acknowledged that pounding away on these old mechanical clocks in his almost inevitable time trouble was not only a recipe for such problems (and was very distracting to opponents). In general, Browne feels that he was repeatedly slighted by the U.S. chess authorities, whether the American Chess Foundation or United States Chess Federation (once he uses the term 'double-crossed'), or the editors of Chess Life. He indicates that this persisted in spite of his numerous U.S. titles and superb international results. I think there's a lot to this; as far as I could see, only a small subset of American players were part of the in-crowd and received consistent support, and Browne wasn't one of them. His assertive personality probably didn't help in that regard, but as the number one player and leading U.S. candidate for world honours, he deserved much better. In Fischer's case, when there was money and prestige for the bureaucrats at stake, truly horrendous personal behavior was somehow never an obstacle to assistance from the same fawning officials. Also, it's pretty obvious that things wouldn't have worked this way had Browne settled in New York instead of California. Today, for all the complaints about U.S. chess, I don't see such provincial favoritism being a core problem. Maybe I'm being naïve.
The book ends with a chapter which continues in the 'I went to tournament T and played against X,Y, and Z' mode. But at the end, Browne discusses some of his poker career (he was/is a first-rate player), which is entertaining and will interest the many poker fans out there. I should also mention that Browne was one of the world's best Blitz players, and he spent years promoting Blitz chess via events that he organized and the magazine which he founded and wrote, Blitz Chess.
In the end, regardless of my technical complaints above, the value of a book like this rests mainly with its chess content. For that reason, I enthusiastically recommend The Stress of Chess to all chessplayers from 1600 up through grandmaster. Browne's games and notes are as good as it gets, easily better than you'll see in most books about or by world champions. He is enthusiastic and passionate about chess, and justifiably proud of his achievements. If you enjoy chess as an art and a struggle, you should grab a copy of this book and play through the games. It may remind you what you liked about chess in the first place.
I've reviewed and praised two earlier editions of Vishy Anand: World Chess Champion, Life and Games, and you can find my comments in the Archives of The Week in Chess website. When parents and students ask me about a good games collection to study, this book has been my most frequent recommendation. It is not only exciting and readable, but connects better with the modern student who has trouble relating to the classic 19th- and early 20th-century games collections because of their narrow range of openings and middlegame structures.
This new edition has 30 extra games; they include Anand's world championship tournament victory in 2007, as well as his match wins versus Kramnik and Topalov. In the 2nd edition, Anand annotated the games and they were checked by John Nunn. This time Anand selected the new games, John Nunn did annotations, and then Anand did the checking. The style of annotation, with an emphasis on explanation and moderate amount of analysis, has remained the same as in earlier editions. From Nunn's Introduction:
"I have always admired Anand's games for their apparently effortless logic, which often has even very strong players in difficulties right from the opening. While he prefers to avoid complications, he does not shy away from tactics if he thinks that is the correct course. The instructive value of these games is immense, and my annotations to the new games attempt to explain some of the principles underlying his play. These days, deep computer-assisted opening preparation is more important than ever, but I have preferred not to go into the openings in too much detail, simply pointing out new ideas when they occur and attempting to explain their significance."
At the end of the book, there's an interesting 16-page 'Appreciation' by Sean Marsh, consisting of a description of Anand's path to the world championship combined with a two-part interview of Anand from 2011. A humorous but also revealing excerpt:
" I asked Anand how it felt to be the undisputed king of chess and if holding the FIDE title for the first time in 2000 had been diluted somewhat by the existence of a rival titleholder.
VA: Personally, I felt this was the championship open to me, I won it and I tended to dismiss other arguments. But I noticed for a while that well, inevitably you can only just ignore the rest of the world and I think someone said that if there are two World Champions there are actually none, and that statement seemed to be true to me. If, every time you have to talk to someone they say, "Oh, you're the World Champion which one?" And then if something has to be explained in eight paragraphs instead of one pretty word, then it's a drag, so for sure, that was an irritating phase. So in 2007, when people said, "Are you the World Champion", I was able to just say "Yes !" and not give a long legal explanation. Then it's already much, much nicer."
In the style of a stock market analyst, I'll repeat my 'buy' recommendation. With the new games and extra material, this edition offers value appreciation. I should mention that Gambit is offering a large selection of their books as e-books for Kindle and apps, a list of which can be found on their site (go to http://www.gambitbooks.com/ebooks.html). With a click, they can be downloaded via Amazon.
Caissa Editions continues to impress with their series of tournament books. In this column I want to mention a couple of these, as well as the first-ever English edition of Geza Maroczy's Paul Morphy biography. All three books are sturdy hardcover editions and will be permanent additions to your chess library
In review column 100, I had just received and mentioned AVRO 1938 International Chess Tournament by Robert Sherwood and Dale Brandreth. Now I'd like to say a more about this extremely important book, again quoting from it to give some background and convey its flavour. The tournament was a double round-robin among the world's best players at the time: Alekhine, Capablanca, Euwe, Botvinnik, Keres, Fine, Reshevsky and Flohr. It served as a sort of Candidates Tournament to provide a challenger for Alekhine, in the sense that Alekhine agreed to play the winner, but he also reserved the right to play anyone else meeting his conditions before then (his match with Flohr had just fallen through, by Alekhine's account due to the political situation in Czechoslovakia). Such a tournament is especially interesting in view of today's ubiquitous supertournaments, and in particular the dramatic, recently-concluded Candidates event. Sherwood and Brandreth have created the first complete book about this event in English. All the games are fully annotated by Sherwood, and Brandreth writes about the tournament in three essays.
AVRO 1938 was a travelling event, with rounds in Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, Groningen, Zwolle, Haarlem, Utrecht, Arnhem, Breda, and Leiden. The implications of this schedule are referred to in some pre-tournament interviews cited by Brandreth in his introductory piece "Arrival of the Masters". Alekhine says, "The idea of the AVRO to hold a tournament with play in different towns is de facto new. It may deserve imitation because in this way more tournaments could come into being, whereas now with one town not enough support can be obtained. However, the additional traveling to and from is a disadvantage, especially for the older masters."
Capablanca complains more directly:
"It's not purely playing chess anymore a physical factor has been added. It will be a handicap tournament." "The younger players will be best able to stand it. What does it matter whether you sleep badly and every time get strange food when you are twenty or thirty years old. For Alekhine, especially, it must be a hindrance, and for me, the oldest, entirely."
[Interviewer:] "So you feel the younger players have the best chances?"
"I feel that Botvinnik will win, if he plays as well as at Nottingham, and in addition I give Reshevsky a good chance, for he is young and very energetic."
Interestingly, Capablanca also says "My health is excellent and the travel has been splendid." But after the tournament, we discover at the end of the book, both he and his wife Olga will blame his dismal result on the poor health that they claim he arrived with.
The pre-tournament predictions varied, with Alekhine and Botvinnik perhaps small favourites. In the end, two of the seemingly least-likely players triumphed: Keres and Fine. In his essay 'The Results Analyzed', Brandreth has some definite opinions about the causes for players' performances, e.g., he suggests that Keres benefitted from toning down his usually aggressive play and playing in almost passive style, throwing his opponents off. In general, players were not inclined to take huge risks, and 33 of 57 games were drawn. Fine's outstanding previous result had been equal 3rd-5th in Nottingham 1936, 1/2 point behind Botvinnik and Capablanca and equal with Reshevsky and Euwe and ahead of Alekhine. In AVRO he began with an amazing 5.5 in the first six rounds, and his overall success was in part due to defeating Alekhine in both halves of the tournament. Brandreth includes this tidbit in his description of Fine's performance; digging up this material is typical of his research in many books:
"At the end of the fifth round he was interviewed by Dr. Tartakover for the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf and ascribed his success to:
1. The theoretical knowledge obtained through his work on the new edition of MCO, to be published soon.
2. Abstinence from tournament play during the past six months. He felt that he had had too much of it in the previous two years.
3. Forcefully withdrawing from the enchantment of chess, thus regaining inner restfulness. Earlier this year he had decided to give up chess as a profession and complete his studies in mathematics. Last May he had asked the AVRO committee to release him from his contractual arrangement to play.
4. Playing 1.e4 in the first game against Botvinnik. This was selected more by intuition than by reason, and was psychologically in line with the above because it forced him to deal with new and less familiar situations and thus removed over-rating and under-estimation of both himself and his opponent from his calculations.
5. He had much less to lose than his opponents, and he believes this is main reason for his success. "
After this, Fine struggled, although not enough to relinquish 1st place entirely. Brandreth: "It seems obvious that battle fatigue had set in after his fantastic start. Contrasting Fine's thin body features some five years before with his pudgy, contented-looking features at AVRO, I believe that Fine suffered from the lack of a tough physical regimen that would have increased his stamina and fighting spirit. The toughest wolves are lean and mean!"
He is also critical of Alekhine's opening strategy:
"Had Alekhine asked himself from where his creativity brought him many of his most impressive victories, I think he would have realized that he had better chances with more offbeat openings, putting his opponents into uncharted territory, where probably all but Keres would have been uncomfortable. It would have been more interesting for the chess public, too, since his positions as black versus Fine and Botvinnik were pathetic and lifeless.
In the second half Alekhine scored one point more than in the first half. It is known that before his 1937 match with Euwe he had given up both alcohol and smoking, and evidently this strict regimen was also followed at AVRO. Although it is reasonable to assume that giving up alcohol was beneficial, I think the calming effect of cigarettes in the cauldron of AVRO might have outpaced the longer-term detriment..."
Alekhine's comments on the tournament are perceptive. After complaining about the arduous travel schedule, he makes no excuses for the overall result: "When we have said this, and have added that the tournament revealed no player who outclassed the rest (the first two prizes were tied for), there still remains a salient fact of which the chess world will have to take account—the victory of youth. We may try to explain or excuse the ill-success of one player or another by special circumstances, such as fatigue or ill-health; we may throw doubt on the superiority of a tournament winner, since success is almost always partly a matter of luck; but in all fairness, we cannot get away from the fact that three representatives of the younger generation beat the world champion and his two predecessors."
Fun stuff. As Brandreth concludes: " History will, I think, look at AVRO 1938 as the greatest tournament up to that time, for its success in bringing the best players of the day together, for some superb games, for its push towards FIDE control of the world championship title, and for its contributions to chess theory and practice."
A much less heralded but still interesting event was held in 1932 in Pasadena California. In Pasadena 1932 International Chess Tournament, once again, Sherwood analyses the games, whereas Brandreth contributes the results of years of research as well as an essay about the tournament and its course. According to him, Pasadena "came about largely due to the confluence of two circumstances: the interest of chess organizers in California in holding an international event, and the availability of the reigning world champion, Alekhine, as part of his world tour, which was to include the Pasadena tourney followed by a Mexico City event and concomitant simultaneous exhibitions. Earlier there were hopes that Capablanca might play as well."
Capablanca was apparently poised to play, but Alekhine threw a wrench in the works in a letter to the organizers: " Does Capablanca participate in the tournament and does your Committee agree to pay me in that case 2000 dollars extra fee?". A lot of money in depression times. Brandreth further points out: " Consider Capablanca's viewpoint too. Suppose that Capablanca were included in the tournament and Alekhine won, with Capa second or even lower. Even allowing for the fact that a close result in a tournament is not equivalent to winning a match, the interest in a Capa – Alekhine match would likely be greatly diminished. In a tournament such as Pasadena, with the same competitors augmented by Capablanca, the chances of either one scoring a substantial victory in the total score would be slight. Capa could hardly see either of these results as equivalent to another title match."
In the end, Alekhine's strongest opponent would be Kashdan, at the time a world top-10 player. The other entrants were Reshevsky and Fine (still too young and not yet elite players), Steiner, Dake, Reinfeld, Araiza, Bernstein, Factor, Borochow and Fink. Alekhine clinched first place with a round to go, with Kashdan finishing in second place a respectable point behind, and Dake, Reshevsky, and Steiner well behind in 3rd-5th. Sherwood does a very good job of annotating the games (some are missing), not foregoing detailed analysis when needed but not going overboard, and being sure to note important opportunities and turning points.
After the main tournament section, there is a two-page report on the 'Minor tournament', whose participants included strong players from many western states and California. To my delight, I found out that this tournament was won by my [JW's] mentor and childhood friend Reverend Howard Ohman of Omaha, Nebraska. To conclude the book, Bruce Monson contributes a lengthy essay on the Pasadena Congress Women's Chess tournament. He describes the career of Mary Bain, one of America's leading women players for years, with a lengthier account of Lavieve Mae Hines, who was coached by Alekhine himself and won the Women's Congress.
Another fine Caissa contribution is Sherwood's translation from German of Paul Morphy by Geza Maroczy. Maroczy's 1909 work is a joy to read, full of quaint romantic prose by a modest author who was among the world's top-10 players for well over a decade. Maroczy is charmingly in awe of his subject, almost starstruck. The Foreword begins:
"Paul Morphy! A name with a wondrous, magical sound! It evokes the memory of the most outstanding master of all time and spurs the hearts of all chess devotees to beat faster, for every friend of the royal game admires and reveres him. The beauty and depth of play of the noble-thinking, great master, the genius inherent in his ideas and plans, are without peer in the annals of chess. In this lies the reason why interest in Paul Morphy the chess hero remains as alive in the widest circles of chess devotees today as it did fifty years ago. And with good reason!"
And two pages later:
"Like a brilliant meteor, he appeared in the heavens of the chess world, quickly vanishing, but leaving behind an eternal remembrance. He was the Only, the Unique, with whom no one could compare. A personage in a realm of strict rules!"
Okay, it's a bit much, but where's the harm? There is enough sober narrative to accompany this enthusiasm, and Maroczy is careful to record the literal course of Morphy's career as he goes along. Still, passages such as the following one, describing the Cafe de la Regence, are particularly enjoyable:
"Here, too, was where he conducted his most extraordinary achievements in blindfold play. The 27th of September, 1858, was the date of this monumental feat, requiring acute sharpness of memory and a far-reaching talent for calculation. When the result—six wins and two draws—became known to the feverishly excited throngs, thunderous applause burst through the wide halls such as had not been heard within these weathered walls since the time of Philidor. It was with a well-nigh awe-struck reverence that those present looked upon the young conqueror, for whom a precious gift of the highest chess talent had been bestowed from the cradle; and all present were taken with the conviction that there was no one among their contemporaries who had the power to wrestle this strongest of strong players to the ground."
Maroczy's admiration extends beyond the board; he consistently points to Morphy's gentle and honourable character as well as his obvious gifts as a player. You should be aware, however, that this is still primarily a games collection, and not a prose narrative. Biographical material and general comments are limited, and the great bulk of the book is devoted to Maroczy's annotation of Morphy's games (407 of them, including some fragments). So to get the most out of this book, you need to plunge into the games - there are ample diagrams, and it's possible to do that without a board.
In conclusion, this is a fine book and a must for lover's of chess history. It is also a valuable collector's item, with a one-time print run of only 600 copies.