John Watson Book Review (#109)
John Watson Book Review #109: The Essayist
Mark Crowther - Tuesday 1st April 2014
My Chess by Hans Ree. Photo © | http://www.theweekinchess.com
John Watson reviews a book of essays by the well known Dutch journalist Hans Ree. He's one of my favourite writers on the game and has seen the game since the early 1960s. Ree thinks he has been lucky to live through this period in his opinion the heyday of the game. Subjects including Alcohol, Anand, Carlsen and Donald Duck.
John Watson Book Review #109: The Essayist
My Chess; Hans Ree; 240 pages; Russell Enterprises, 2013
I don't know what it is about Dutch chess journalists, but they seem to produce the best chess essays in the world (in English, anyway). The chess world is fortunate to have English translations of Jan Hein Donner, Genna Sosonko, Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, and Hans Ree, and there are many other newspaper columnists and writers who have enriched the genre (on the internet, Tim Krabbe comes to mind). 'My Chess', published by Russell Enterprises, is a translation of Hans Ree's 'Mijn schaken'. I was surprised to see how much time had passed since we were treated to Ree's essays in a collection in English. 'The Human Comedy of Chess: A Grandmaster's Chronicles', published in 1999, is a superb compilation of his writings, also put out by Russell Enterprises. I reviewed it at the time (Review #16 in the Archives).
Many if not all of these articles appeared in the magazine New in Chess and/or the column 'Dutch Treat'. The latter appeared for over a decade at the website ChessCafe.com, but is now at the website of the chess book publisher Russell Enterprises; the link is http://www.russell-enterprises.com/dutchtreatbyhansree.html . Hanon Russell was formerly the owner of ChessCafe.com, and he retained Ree's column when the website changed hands. The writing is as sharp and insightful as ever.
'My Chess' is translated from the Dutch by Piet Verhagen. This is a bit surprising, since Ree, who appeared on my old Chess Talk show for ICC, speaks fluent English (or at least on the level of most Americans, which is admittedly milder praise). It's interesting to compare his essays with those by Sosonko, previously discussed in this column. Ree's style is journalistic and economical, saying a lot in few well-chosen words. By contrast with Sosonko, who has a rather romantic and nostalgiac tone, Ree tends to have a witty, even whimsical voice. He is also not afraid of being critical and negative about the people he describes, which keeps his writing from becoming overly sentimental. But Ree, like Sosonko, cherishes the great chess personalities who have passed away and makes you aware of the richness and uniqueness of his subjects' lives.
The chapters in 'My Chess' begin in alphabetical order by last name or topic, which emphasizes their independence from temporal restraints. The Contents are as follows:
The Essayist: Contents
Hans Aalmoes 7
Yochanan Afek 9
Johan Barendregt 20
Tabe Bas 30
Ostap Bender 34
Botvinnik vs. Smyslov 36
David Bronstein 41
Chess Cafés 47
John Cage 54
Magnus Carlsen 58
Emil Joseph Diemer 60
Donald Duck 65
Hein Donner 67
Marcel Duchamp 76
Jean Dufresne 84
Max Euwe 87
Robert Fischer 97
Hans 1, 2, 3 and 4 105
Rob Hartoch 107
Willem Frederick Hermans 110
Wrong-colored Corner Square 114
The Sin of Pride 116
Kasparov vs. Karpov 120
Viktor Kortchnoi 129
De Kring 140
Lost Boys 144
Max Euwe Center 151
Jacob Murey 155
Vladimir Nabokov 159
The Nose 168
Uncle Jan and Hikaru Nakamura 172
Constant Orbaan 177
Lodewijk Prins 182
Savielly Tartakower 193
Jan Timman 206
Berry Withuis 224
A Sunny Existence 228
Photo Credits 233
I can't describe many of these individually, obviously, but to give you a feel for the diversity of subjects, let me describe a few.
'A6648' is the handle of the most prolific player on the online playing site ICC; he is currently up to 590,000 games and counting. A symbol of the modern age.
'Alcohol' is an essay with stories about chess players who drink (or drank), including Ree himself, along with stories related to drinking and chess. This could easily be expanded into a full-length book; when I was active, it seemed to me that every Russian and Eastern European player drank to excess, not that it affected their chess much; and every nationality could boast of their hard-drinking chess star. Come to think of it, several of Ree's Dutch compatriots have been champion drinkers. Today's superstars seem quite dull by comparison; perhaps they are simply better at hiding their weaknesses. In any case, this is a fun essay.
Ree delights in eccentrics. For example, he reviews a book about Emil Joseph Diemer, fanatic promoter of Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. It turns out that Diemer was also a committed Nazi and believer in Nostradamus. Diemer sent out some 10,000 Nostradamus letters, claiming to have cracked his code by assigning numbers to each alphabetical character used by Nostradamus. But in Ree's words: “Even sympathetic friends thought it curious that the code just happened to be hidden in the German translation rather than in the French original.”
In another column, Ree gives his impressions of and stories about Johan Barendregt, who was a strong Dutch player and, incidentally, another chess journalist. By trade, Barendregt was a psychologist and professor; he was also a hypnotist, and attempted to improve Ree's chess play by means of hypnosis (unsuccessfully).
Interestingly, Ree played eight World Champions and spent time with many of them. There are chapters on Anand (very brief), Botvinnik vs. Smyslov, Carlsen, Euwe, Fischer, and Karpov vs. Korchnoi. One of the best and most extensive essays is about Max Euwe, with a number of stories and details that I haven't seen elsewhere.
The variety of 'My Chess' is part of its appeal, and Ree addresses subjects as different as Nabakov, chess cafes, John Cage, various tournaments and clubs, chess in Venice, Donald Duck (no, this isn't about Magnus Carlsen, but I should note that in a recent interview Carlsen called Donald Duck comics his favourite non-chess books), and 'The Nose' (don't ask). Other lengthy pieces are devoted to Tartakower, Jan Hein Donner, and the Dutch grandmaster (and yes, journalist) Lodewijk Prins. The Tartakower essay is absorbing and full of surprising details; hopefully someday someone will undertake a biography of this legendary figure.
The book ends with a reflective essay about Ree's life in chess called 'A Sunny Existence'. He feels that he's lived in a golden age of chess, one that seems to be disappearing in current times. Whether or not that's true, his own essays about past players make a good case for the claim. In my opinion, every lover of the chess milieu and chess history should read Hans Ree's 'My Chess'. While you're at it, you might want to pick up a copy of 'The Human Comedy of Chess'.