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John Watson Book Review (115)

John Watson Book Review #115 Kings of Chess

The Big Book of World Chess Championships by ChessBase' Andre Schulz is available in English and German. Photo ©

The Big Book of World Chess Championships by ChessBase' Andre Schulz is available in English and German. Photo © |

John Watson returns with the first of a series of reviews over the summer. He looks at The Big Book of World Chess Championships; 46 Title Fights – from Steinitz to Carlsen by Andre Schulz.

Andre Schulz; The Big Book of World Chess Championships; 46 Title Fights – from Steinitz to Carlsen 352 pages; New in Chess 2015

The Decline of the Chess History Book

I’ll begin this review with a lengthy digression. In the late 1960s, I learned about chess primarily from books about famous players, usually collections of their games or tournaments. Except for primers, those books were just about all that was readily available in the library and stores of the Midwestern U.S. city in which I lived. Nor was this a unique experience; most of the regulars I met in chess clubs and at tournaments had done their chess reading from the same set of books. The romance of chess history was built into our world view, and our chess conversations routinely referred to the great players and their games.

At some point chess publishers began offering a very different type of material. Primarily, there was a turn towards theoretical opening works, such as the Bis and Schwarz series, and the pathbreaking Batsford books. Chess Informant appeared and revolutionized the publication of recent master games, with an emphasis on contemporary opening theory. The explosion of chess literature that followed over the next decade and into modern times produced books on almost every facet of the game, but concentrated largely upon current practice and theory. While there have always been some new books about the great old masters, they haven’t formed a significant percentage of total chess publications, and still less so of sales. In addition, with the rise of the internet and online play, young players today seem to be reading dramatically fewer books. As a consequence, many of my young students haven’t even heard of all the World Champions, nor of all their challengers, and certainly not of the leading players in generations preceding their own. Today, it’s quite possible to become an extremely strong and active player without any serious exposure to chess history.

Although books about chess history tend to sell poorly, many publishers have bravely persisted in devoting a substantial percentage of their titles to historical subjects. A few which stand out in this regard are McFarland, which has published dozens of magnificent books, original works almost all relating to chess history. Caissa Editions and Russell Enterprises have put out many tournament books and numerous biographies; some of these are new editions with additional material and others entirely original. While New in Chess doesn’t primarily focus on historical subjects, over the years it has consistently produced high-quality books about players and tournaments. You will find my reviews of many of these works in the TWIC Archive (‘Book Reviews’) and hopefully there will be many to come.

Books on Individual players

With some exceptions, there is a tendency for modern works about specific players to be primarily games collections without a great deal of biographical content. Recently, for example, Everyman has published a whole row of books examining the games of great players such as Steinitz, Rubinstein, Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, Petrosian, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Korchnoi, Fischer, Larsen, and into modern times. This is a great series: it celebrates the play of chess geniuses and also fills an important gap, giving young players a chance to learn from these games and broaden their minds. Recently I’ve noticed several contemporary players and teachers make the point that many classic games by the old masters make particularly good teaching material, because the strategic ideas in them are relatively simpler to understand and more clearly expressed than in modern games. That’s due to the fact that such ideas have been absorbed by virtually all strong players today. Thus a strategic plan will either be anticipated and avoided, or neutralized before it comes to fruition.


But what about chess history itself, that is, events, stories and biographical information? For many fans and players, perhaps with limited reading time, it would be ideal to have general works covering this side of the game. It used to be that chess devotees had a single-volume Chess Encyclopedia in our libraries (just as we had single volumes like MCO, BCO, and NCO that covered ‘all’ openings). There was Golombek’s Encyclopedia of Chess, for example, and Hooper and Whyld’s excellent The Oxford Companion to Chess. H J R Murray’s A History of Chess and several other books in various languages provided an overview of chess history. Today, a one-volume general history book is probably unrealistic without sacrificing masses of detail.

The Big Book of World Chess Championships

This brings me (finally!) to the book under consideration in this column: André Schulz’ The Big Book of World Chess Championships; 46 Title Fights – from Steinitz to Carlsen. As far as I can tell, there have been very few books on the history of the World Championship (as opposed to individual Championship matches). What better way to introduce readers to the history of the modern game, while also feeding the appetite of chess history buffs? The author is a well-known chess journalist who has been working for ChessBase for decades. He has been involved in numerous aspects of their operation, for example, I remember him annotating games in the early days, and he consistently has written reports on chess events as well as other types of stories for many years. Schulz is currently editor-in-chief of the ChessBase news site. His love of chess history is obvious, and a glance at the book’s extensive Bibliography gives you a feel for the breadth of his interest. Along with detailed biographical sketches of each champion and challenger, Schulz puts special emphasis on the backgrounds of the 46 championship matches, with the negotiations, conditions and events surrounding them. Some of the details often not given in other books include the players’ seconds and companions, disputes over and descriptions of the venues, the patrons and sponsors who subsidized the matches, the prize money, the special and ever-changing match rules, and the influence of heath, nerves, and age. Schulz almost always describes the champions’ and challengers’ upbringing. He describes their parents and/or families, sometimes at considerable length. He also annotates one game from each match in instructive fashion, supplying enough detail to be instructive without overwhelming the reader with variations.

Schulz includes all the matches and championship tournaments from 1886 to 2014, excluding the FIDE Knockouts. Readers who are unfamiliar with the championships will get to know all about the background and course of each match, including controversies and animosities. In addition, there’s a lot of curious and entertaining material, even for the chess fan who already has a substantial familiarity with historical details. Rather than try to classify them, let me just list some passages that caught my eye. Here’s a rare instance of a successful chess lawsuit:

Gunsberg and Steinitz

“In 1916 Gunsberg [Steinitz’s opponent in 1890, Isidor Gunsberg] took to court Associated Newspapers and the Chess News Agency (or Evening News) for libel, after they made the claim that his chess column in the Daily Telegraph, which he had been writing for 26 years, was seriously flawed. The reason for this accusation was that many of the chess problems published by Gunsberg were unsound, containing more than one solution. The British high court found in favour of Gunsberg and accepted his argument that chess problems quite frequently had more than one solution and that the column could not therefore be regarded as ‘full of blunders’. Gunsberg had called numerous witnesses in his support. Gunsberg was accorded by the court damages to the tune of 250 pounds.”

Gunsberg, incidentally, spent 11 years from 1879 to 1889 as the player behind the ‘chess automaton’ Mephisto (which was controlled electronically from an adjoining room via cable). The next year he decided to become a chess professional!

It’s always interesting to read about how the 19th-century players, so many of whom died in poverty, survived financially. For example, the young Steinitz:

“At the start Steinitz financed his studies with journalistic work, parliamentary reporting for the Constitutionelle Österreichische Zeitung. But he soon had to abandon this activity in view of his weak eyesight. Then Steinitz began to play chess for money and to give blindfold chess exhibitions in the coffee houses of Vienna, for example the Café Romer, the Café L’Express, the Café Central or the Café Rebhuhn (behind the ‘Graben’, not far from St Stephen’s Cathedral) – the latter being at that time the seat of the ‘Wiener Schachgesellschaft’ (Vienna Chess Society)…In 1861 Steinitz won the chess championship of Vienna with 30 victories, three draws and only one defeat. In 1862 he took part in the second great London tournament (after that of 1851), his first international tournament, as the official representative of Austria. He was financially supported by the Vienna Chess Society, namely by the Viennese banker and entrepreneur Eduard von Todesco … Steinitz won for his sixth place five pounds, in today’s money the equivalent of 364 pounds.”

Notice the author’s love of slightly off-subject details, for example, the list of Vienna cafés and their locations. In a similar manner: “One of Steinitz’ pupils was the young Baron Albert Salomon Anselm Rothschild, the youngest son of Anselm Salomon Freiherr von Rothschild and Charlotte von Rothschild. Albert Rothschild studied in Bonn, completed his banking education in Hamburg and in 1874 after the death of his father he took over the Rothschild Bank in Vienna. With a fortune estimated at a billion crowns, Rothschild was considered to be the richest man in Europe. All his life Rothschild remained a passionate chess player and was frequently active as a chess patron. In 1872 he took office as the president of the Wiener Schachgesellschaft, and also from 1897 that of its successor the Wiener Schachklub, at the helm of which he remained until his death in 1911.”

Probably it’s a matter of taste, but I enjoy these digressions. Who knew that one of young Steinitz match opponents invented the repeating rifle? And in his first chapter about Emmanuel Lasker’s matches, there’s a point at which you might wonder whether Emmanuel or his brother Berthold is the more important figure!

Mikhail Chigorin

Jeremy Silman is always contrasting the dull lives of contemporary elite players with those of their more colorful predecessors. Cases in point:

“Contemporaries describe Chigorin as a tall, bearded man, who could appear very fierce in difficult situations over the chess board. His daughter characterised him as nervy and impatient. A non-smoker, in chess tournaments and matches he hated having to sit in the smoke of his opponents’ cigars. Between rounds however, he liked to drink ‘vodka to the point of oblivion’ (Schonberg). As Jacques Mieses once jokingly remarked, Chigorin’s style of life as far as meals were concerned was marked by great regularity: ‘breakfast at eight, lunch at twelve, dinner at seven. And of course that meant: breakfast at eight in the evening whenever he got up, lunch at midnight and dinner at seven in the morning.’ “

Dawid Janowski

“Janowski was also a gambler away from the chess board. He lost many a prize at

roulette in the casino. Thus in 1901 at the tournament in Monte Carlo he won 5000 francs as victor, but he then promptly lost the whole sum at roulette in the casino.

The casino generously paid for his return ticket to his home in Paris. At the tournament at the same place in the following year Janowski was third, but once again gambled this prize money away at the roulette table. Janowski’s passion for gambling was very well known to his colleagues, of course. They often even gave him money to bet on their behalf. Janowski often even won at the start, but like all gambling addicts he never managed to stop at the right moment but kept on playing until all the money had been lost.”

Alexander Alekhine

It’s easy to forget how turbulent and difficult the lives of players were during WWI and its aftermath. Alekhine, for example:

“In the middle of July 1914 Alekhine travelled to the 19th DSB Congress in Mannheim. When the seventh round was being played, on the 28th July 1914, Austria-Hungary, as its reply to the assassination of the successor to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, declared war to Serbia. Within the shortest possible space of time the crisis escalated into the great war into which almost all the states of Europe were drawn…The tournament was suspended and Alekhine was interned together with ten other Russians …During his captivity in Germany he was held in various places – Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Rastatt and Baden-Baden. The longest period of time was spent in Rastatt in a cell with Efim Bogoljubow, Ilia Rabinovich and ‘a certain Weinstein’ (Alekhine), who later, according to Alekhine, became active as ‘chess watchdog’ for the Commissar for Justice Nikolai Krylenko. There were neither books nor newspapers and so Alekhine and Bogoljubow spent their time playing blindfold chess, because the Russians did not have a chess set either.

Since after an examination the Germans considered Alekhine unfit for military service, on the 14th September 1914 he was released from detention along with Bohatyrchuk, Saburov and Koppelman and sent to Switzerland. From there Alekhine made his way with Bohatyrchuk to Genoa, the destination for many stranded Russians….

Alekhine joined the Red Cross, took part in the war as a Red Cross helper and was wounded in 1916, receiving severe contusions to his back. He spent several months confined to his bed in a convent hospital in Tarnopol. Alekhine’s father died around this time after spending more than a year as a prisoner-of-war in a German camp. Alekhine’s mother had already died in 1913, mentally deranged as a result of her continuing use of narcotics.

After his recovery Alekhine worked for the new communist authorities in Odessa as an investigator, but was one day denounced as a noble and put into a common prison. Alekhine escaped the execution of his death sentence only because the Ukrainian chess master Yakov Vilner knew Alekhine and turned to the Ukrainian political commissar Christian Rakovsky (or according to another versions the agricultural commissar Dimitry Manuilsky) and asked for help. The latter pardoned Alekhine and arranged for his release.”

And so forth; things only became worse for the World Champion after these events, with the collapse of his health and utter poverty, combined with the public disgrace of his Anti-Semitic writings. I’d never heard about the lives of Alekhine’s three wives, the latter of whom was 16 years his senior (“In Paris chess circles, the marriage was made fun of with the remark that Alekhine had married Philidor’s widow.”) and an extremely colorful character. In fact, the book takes care to discuss the wives of all the early Champions (several of them players) and lives of many of their children.

Mikhail Tal

There are naturally many funny stories about the brilliant and eccentric Michael Tal, which I’ll leave you to enjoy. At several points, Schulz emphasizes Tal’s poor health, for example,

“However, his weak health did not prevent Tal from living his later life to excess. He drank a lot, but according to Angelina Tal only ‘clean’ drinks such as vodka, preferably the Russian export brands ‘Pshenichnaya’, ‘Kristall’ or ‘Stolichnaya’, and whisky, never beer, wine or cognac, and was a heavy smoker.”

Wives don’t always know what their husbands are up to. When I tagged along with Tal as he and Gennady Kuzmin were pub-hopping in Hastings (the 1973/74 edition), my most vivid memory is of Tal ordering a cognac, tossing it back, then repeating his order with the word ‘cognac!’ as he tapped the bar sharply. He did the same thing at several pubs. So much for ‘clean’ drinking!

Speaking of wives, Tal’s first one was “actress and singer Sally Landau, [who] sang among others in the Big Band of the German Jewish jazz musician Eddie Rosner, who was actually called Eduard Adolph Rosner. Fleeing from the Nazis, Rosner had come to the Soviet Union and been very successful there. Soon after the Second World War, however, he found disfavour and was banished to a gulag with other musicians.” This continues for a while. There’s a lot more about Tal’s life and health, for example,

“A chain smoker, Tal had the habit of often only smoking a quarter of his cigarette and then lighting a new one. Between 1970 and 1975, moreover, he became dependent on morphine.

In addition to his weak health Tal was also handicapped by ectrodactyly: from birth he had only three fingers on his right hand. The cause of the malformation was, according to Angelina Tal, that when her husband was absent during her pregnancy Tal’s mother Ida had mistakenly injected a dose of potassium chloride into her muscle rather than her vein, which led to complications. Despite this handicap Tal was a really good piano player. Because of his outstanding performance Tal was allowed to jump two classes in school and began his university study of Russian language and literature at the early age of 15. He brought it to a conclusion with a dissertation on the Russian satirists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov…”


It’s true that as the game becomes more professionalized, especially in the past 50 years, the personal lives of the champions become less colorful. But the controversies abound, and the drama of the actual matches, including qualifying events, increases with the number of events and more talented and closely-matched players.

The cycle for the 1972 match has always produced a raft of stories and commentary. Not everyone knows that Taimanov’s qualification for the Candidates is said to have come about due to a last-round bribe in the Interzonal: “As Kortchnoi later revealed, Matulovic had sold the point for 400 dollars to Taimanov, or the Soviet federation.” Well, Korchnoi’s testimony about anything is always suspect, but I can personally confirm that we heard this at the time from various sources ($200 was always the figure mentioned), and as far as I know it was never denied.

Schulz also talks about the alleged match-fixing between Petrosian and Korchnoi, which I have never heard of: “The match between the two Soviet grandmasters had, however, been fixed, since the Committee for Sports considered Petrosian to have the better chances of stopping Fischer on his way to the World Championship. For his pre-arranged defeat Kortchnoi was rewarded with three invitations from abroad73.”

I’m skeptical. When you look at the course of the match and the games themselves, this claim seems highly unlikely on the face of it. Schulz’ source is Soltis’ Soviet Chess’. This is a wonderful, readable, and highly-recommended book whose stories, however, are often hearsay and seldom seriously documented. In fact, in Soviet Chess (page 304), Soltis writes:

“Meanwhile, Korchnoi faced Petrosian in the other semifinals. It had been twenty-five years since they first met in the Soviet Youth Championship and Petrosian held a one-point edge overall. He wrote that Korchnoi missed chances in the first half of the match but after the Leningrader failed to win the fourth game, "his chances fell sharply." Karpov, who was close to Petrosian, saw a more sinister cause of the outcome. He claimed that before the match the Sports Committee asked both players which of them could beat Fischer. Petrosian said he could but Korchnoi said no one could. So, Karpov claimed, Korchnoi agreed to throw the semifinals match in return for three major international invitations - "a truly royal present to a Soviet chessplayer in those days." The first eight games of the Korchnoi-Petrosian match were drawn, fueling suspicion that it was being stage-managed. [jw: note that Anand-Kasparov 1995 also began with 8 draws] Korchnoi agreed that the turning point came when Petrosian drew a lost position in the fourth game.

In the next cycle Kortchnoi and Petrosian again met, Kortchnoi won and

one could have the impression that Petrosian had wished to return the present of victory in the match. Kortchnoi, however, denied all pre-arrangements with Petrosian.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this account justifies Schulz’ flat statement that the match ‘had been fixed’.

To be fair, not all conspiracy claims are speculative. About the qualifying Candidates Tournament for the 1951 Botvinnik-Bronstein match, Schulz writes:

“He won this jointly with Isaak Boleslavsky (12 points each), with whom Bronstein surprisingly and under remarkable circumstances had caught up at the end of the tournament. Two rounds before the finish Boleslavsky had had a clear lead, but he drew the last two games practically without a fight, whereas Bronstein won.

Behind that there was Boris Weinstein, Bronstein’s mentor, who was supporting his protégé at the tournament as a second.”

He continues with a description of Weinstein’s machinations. I should add that Bronstein himself in his book directly states that he offered Boleslavsky the deal to allow him to catch up in the last two rounds, and it was accepted.

Bobby Fischer

I appreciated Schulz’ opinion about the legendary …Bxh2 in the first game of Fischer-Spassky:

“On move 29 Fischer took a pawn on h2 and allowed his bishop to be shut in. What looked like a typical beginners’ mistake, and was also commented on in these terms by contemporary grandmasters, was probably a risky attempt to play for a win with a pawn majority on the kingside.” I agree. To this day, some popular sources refer to Fischer’s move as an elementary, childish mistake.

Another Fischer tidbit:

“In his book Chess Duels Yasser Seirawan has drawn attention to the fact that the legend of the apparently lone fighter Fischer is a myth. In reality Fischer had all the relevant people from the US federation behind him for support. Leroy Dubeck, president of the USCF from 1969 till 1972, had agreed with the executive director Edmund Edmondson that all the resources of the federation should be gathered for the project ‘Fischer plays for the World Championship’. For this purpose they also used all membership subscriptions of the USCF. In addition Fischer had the support of Fred Cramer, also from the federation, as his legal adviser. Amongst the chess players on whose help Fischer could count were the grandmasters Bill Lombardy, Lubomir Kavalek as well as Fischer’s close friend the international master Anthony Saidy. A special role was played by Lina Grumette, who was a sort of mother substitute for Fischer and whenever necessary offered him refuge in her house.”

There follows nearly a page of facts about Lina Grumette (with a bit about her friend Jacqueline Piatigorsky)! Schulz often tosses in stories about side characters, including organizers and directors. He has an interesting digression about the remarkable director Carol Jarecki, including the account of Jarecki and her husband’s breaking the bank at the San Remo casino, followed by a description of the life of her husband’s wealthy brother! Perhaps that’s a bit too far afield. Still, these things add a certain charm to the book, and stand in contrast to the bulk of chess literature. Another example: right in the middle of describing the first Alehine-Bogoljubov match (1929), be interjects: “There was also an illustrious throng analysing in the press room, namely the Russian master Evgeny Znosko-Borovsky who had emigrated to France, Jacques Mieses, Hans Kmoch, Dr. Jakob Adolf Seitz, Wilhelm Orbach and the chess author Heinrich Ranneforth, editor of the Deutsche Schachzeitung and from 1902 to 1906 vice-president of the German Chess Federation. A few years later Dr. Seitz was among those players who were playing in the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires in 1939 and who remained in Argentina when the Second World War broke out in Europe. After the Second World War, Dr. Seitz returned to Europe and from then on lived in Switzerland. The Jewish master from Offenbach Wilhelm Orbach, on the other hand, died in 1944 in the Auschwitz concentration camp.”

On the one hand, this might seem arbitrary information of limited relevance, but I found it interesting. Periodic digressions into the chess milieu keeps the narrative fresh.

Interesting facts

There are many interesting facts which I’ve never run into before. For example,

“At the AVRO-tournament in 1938 Capablanca suffered his first slight stroke.” (Later in the book, Schulz notes: “In March 1942 José Raul Capablanca suffered his second stroke in the Marshall Chess Club and died of its consequences on the 8th March.”)

And who knew that “Keres… was moreover one of the best tennis players in his country and on one occasion runner-up in the national championship”?

Another oddity: “At the FIDE congress of 1955 in Gothenburg, Botvinnik had submitted several suggestions. Thus the World Champion made efforts to be allowed to play in the candidates’ tournament because he was of the opinion that the qualification cycle conferred an advantage on the challenger for the WCh match, since unlike the inactive title defender he (the challenger) was getting tournament practice.” (!)

We learn that during the third Botvinnik-Smyslov match, “Botvinnik had complained about growing anti-Semitism, which manifested itself according to Botvinnik’s comments in anonymous calls and threats. Before the match, he worked himself into the right mood against Smyslov, with whom he normally got along quite well, by fighting with him about the wish to have a fourth timeout in the case of illness. Until then only three timeouts had been allowed per player. After winning the match Botvinnik complained that on one occasion Smyslov had not turned up personally to resign an adjourned game and also not to resign for the whole match.”

There are also surprising things I never noticed, for example, that in the first Steinitz-Chigorin match 1889, “only the 17th and final game ended as a draw. The previous 16 games were all won by one side or the other.”

I was entirely ignorant about the history of seconds. Referring to the 1908 Lasker-Tarrasch match, Schulz writes: “For the first time in the history of the World Chess Championships a player was supported by masters acting as his seconds. Lasker engaged as his helpers in the preparation for the match the Austrian Heinrich Wolf and the Russian Simon Alapin.”

Sometimes the choice of seconds for these early matches is surprising; we learn that for his successful 1935 match with Alekhine, Euwe had Geza Maroczy as his second, with Salo Flohr and Reuben Fine helping as well. A murderer’s row! Even considering the effect of Alekhine’s alcoholism (his behavior in Game 21 is described in gory detail), Euwe’s description of his preparation and his opening superiority in the match itself suggests that this may have decisively influenced the outcome. Schulz also finds this tidbit: “In his book ‘Caissas Weltreich’ Euwe later described how at that time people spelled Alekhine’s name (in its German spelling): ‘AL as in alcohol, JE as in jenever (Dutch gin), CH as in Champagne and IN as in Ingwerbier (i.e. ginger beer).’

Zukertort's Funeral

Schulz includes this heartwarming story (heartwarming for a chess historian, anyway):

“On the 26th June 1888, at 10.30, in the presence of approximately 20 chess lovers, including Bird, Hoffer and Gunsberg, he [Zukertort] was buried in the Brompton Cemetery in London. As time went by the location of his grave was forgotten. In March 2011, however, the English grandmaster Stuart Conquest discovered in the cemetery the totally decayed grave of Zukertort. With the help of the ‘Polish Heritage Society’ in England and some chess lovers Conquest collected 2000 pounds and had the grave restored. On the 26th June 2012 it was revealed to the public with its new headstone.”

I could continue at length. The point is that the book is not only a full accounting of the matches, including 46 instructive games, but much more than a dry accounting of, for example, who won which game of the match.


Now as a reviewer, I inevitably have to complain about something. In this case it is not terribly important, and not even the author’s fault. Furthermore, it’s a complaint that I’ve voiced several times before, and applies to many books from various chess publishers, namely, that the translation is quite awkward at times, in an easily correctible fashion. At some points, it simply doesn’t read like English at all, sometimes because of a too-literal translation of words, but usually because the elements of a sentence tend to follow what is presumably the syntax of the German original, for example, “In 1900 Gunsberg shared second place with James Mason behind Richard Teichmann in the moreover not all that strong London tournament.” Or: “The tenth game which was so decisive for the outcome of the match has been analysed by generations of chess lovers, not always objectively and absolutely accused of mistakes.”

This Germanic syntax introduces ambiguity about what is being referred to by pronouns and modifiers (especially because commas are often lacking or misplaced), for example, “As well as taking part in tournaments Gunsberg was active as a chess journalist for several newspapers, where at the end it was not he but his wife who wrote the articles which appeared under his name, as well as being a tournament organizer (Ostende 1906).” Presumably Gunsberg was the organizer and not his wife? Or not?

The good news is that this is a vast improvement upon earlier translations by this translator (see my review of ‘My System’, #83 in the Archives). There are almost no sentences with serious grammatical mistakes, and few in which you have to work hard to dredge up the meaning. I suspect this is due to the efforts of the proofreader Harald Keilhack (who incidentally has been a publisher of unique and wonderful books in his own right). But listing the translator himself as a proofreader is a bit fishy, because any native English speaker would pick up the obviously flawed sentences if he or she had really carefully read over the manuscript.

To be clear, this is a rather picky complaint which after all comes from an author, and I don’t think these blips will bother many readers. In any case, I enjoyed the book immensely, and I was never disturbed enough by the strange wording that I didn’t rush forward in the text to follow the narrative.

I’ll conclude with a couple of general realizations that came to me during the course of reading this book. First, for all the justifiable complaints about FIDE and its role in the World Championship cycles, note the Championships 1through 16 took 51 years to complete, with no qualifying events. This was followed by another 11 years in limbo before FIDE took a firm hand. The next 30 World Championships (17-46) involved lengthy tournaments and/or matches to qualify a challenger, and nevertheless were held over only 67 years (1948-2015). Quite as significantly, challengers are now chosen not by the whim of the champion, but by qualifying events; a comparison of the challengers from each period confirms the superiority of the latter method. There is reason to think that the current system can be improved, but by and large it produces a fair result.

Ages leading players learned chess

The other thing that struck me was the age at which the great players learned chess. With a smaller pool of players and very few professionals, it was possible to climb to the top even if you learned the game fairly late and even if you then played little prior to adulthood. This changed dramatically as the years went by, and today I suspect that few players in the elite learned to play after age 6 or so, with every one of them playing intensely while they matured. Here’s a partial list of when some champions and challengers learned the game. I grabbed these by jumping quickly through chapters of The Big Book of World Chess Championships, so please forgive any inaccuracies:


Steinitz 12

Zukertort 16

Chigorin ‘took his first serious interest’ in chess at age 23 (and only had his first major success at age 29).

Lasker 11? (approximate)

Marshall 10

Tarrrasch 15

Capablanca 4

Bogoljubow 15

Euwe 4

Smyslov 6

Bronstein 6

Reshevsky 4

Botvinnik 12

Spassky 5

Karpov 4

Kasparov 5

Anand ‘roughly 6 years old’

Short 6

Kramnik 4

Carlsen 5


In conclusion, it should be clear that I enjoyed The Big Book of World Chess Championships very much and highly recommend it, especially to players who haven’t explored the history of our game in depth. Young players will particularly benefit from an exposure to how the game and its understanding have evolved. Congratulations to André Schulz for having made this unique contribution to chess literature.

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