John Watson Book Review (69)
Lives and Games, Part 1
IM John Watson - Wednesday 14th September 2005
Vladimirs Petrovs, A chessplayer's story from greatness to the Gulags; Andris Fride; 190 pages; Caissa Editions 2004
The Story of a Chess Player Jaan Ehlvest; 228 pages; Arbitrer Publishing 2004
The Art of Bisguier, Vol 1, The early years 1945-1960; Arthur Bisguier & Newton Berry; 208 pages; 3rd Millenium Press 2003
Assorted books; Moravian Chess and Hardinge-Simpole Publishing
The historical side of chess writing has its own appeal and enthusiastic audience. Many players and writers refer to the dominance of new books on opening theory and underestimate the scores of other books that are being published on a regular basis. Few seem aware, for example, that there are several companies whose chess books are either predominantly or totally concerned with historical figures and subjects. Furthermore, the chess book market has been inundated of late by books, CDs, and DVDs about endgames, tactics, strategy, technique, and chess thinking, as well as the ever popular beginner's and elementary instructional books. The fact is that there are far more chess books being published than ever before. I think that openings books seem deceptively numerous because information about the latest theory appeals to our immediate needs as players.
This column will be the first installment about chess biographies and autobiographies. Most of the books will be biographies combined with games collections. I'll present these books in no particular order and will discuss more in the next review columns.
To introduce the subject of biographies, games collections, and histories, I should mention two companies that reprint/reproduce classic chess works. One such is Moravian Chess, owned and run by Vlastimil Fiala, whose website is http://moravian-chess.cz . I talked about Moravian at some length a couple of years ago but haven't seen many of their works since then. Among other things, Moravian reprints a large number of tournament books as well as bound volumes of different magazines from the 19th Century. They also put out editions of famous books such as Alekhine's collection of his best games (in separate volumes) and those by Botvinnik. Fiala publishes Quarterly for Chess History, as far as I know the world's leading journal of chess history.
A fairly new entrant into this field is Hardinge-Simpole Publishing, an on-demand company that also reprints chess books that are out-of-print and/or have entered the public domain. You can find their books at http://www.hardingesimpole.co.uk/index.html . Their Chess Classics Series draws from various sources such as the older Batsford and Bell works that many of us grew up with, including books by well-known British authors such as Harry Golombek, Bernard Cafferty, Robert Wade, and Raymond Keene.
Titles from their full Catalogue that will probably appeal most to the average fan are those classics with historical import and nostalgic impact. To name a few: the first and second Piatigorsky Cup books; The New York International Chess Tournament 1924; The Soviet School of Chess; Bent Larsen's Best Games of Chess; Games in the St Petersburg Tournament, 1895; the classic Chess Player's Handbook by Staunton; and various books on the Interzonals, Candidates, and World Championships. The basic idea is that most of these books are ones that you can't find elsewhere without some effort. Which is not to say that a long-time collector, someone familiar with the right dealers, a dedicated web searcher, or a city-dwelling bookstore browser with a lot of time on his or her hands won’t be able to dig them up. Perhaps not in the right condition, however, or at the right price. In any case, Hardinge-Simpole's reprints are softbound volumes, inexpensively produced and without the original covers. Sadly, they lack the original physical quality or charm of their originals, a tradeoff for the fact that the books are undamaged and the pages unyellowed or marred. The original type style and appearance is unaltered, which is fortunate. But so is the original notation, which is unfortunate. It means that most of the older books use English Descriptive notation; that notation is no longer used by the modern player. There is a simple tutorial provided and one can easily learn it; nevertheless, this aspect may reduce the books' appeal to those from non-English-speaking countries. You'll probably want to investigate a book or two first to see if you like the way they read and are put together. Another consideration is expense: whether you consider the prices too high or a great bargain depends first upon your interest in the particular book, of course. But if you lust after a book and can't easily locate a copy of the original in decent condition you'll find the cost very reasonable. That is true for both Hardinge-Simpole's offerings and those from Moravian Chess. Quite apart from the pleasure of seeing some of my old works in circulation**, I am glad for and appreciate what both companies are doing. You might want to take a look.
[*Disclaimer: My own 4 volumes of English Opening, in mothballs since their first printing, have now reappeared 25 years later! Hardinge-Simpole also carries two much more recent books of mine that are already out of print.]
Dale Brandreth is the owner of the publishing company Caissa Editions, which has been publishing books related to chess history, both reprints and originals, for many years now. They put out John Hilbert's The United States Chess Championship: New York 1940, for example, which I reviewed some time ago in this column. A noteworthy recent publication is Chess: 60 years on with Caissa and Friends, by Alan Phillips. This is a selection of British chess games from the late 1930s to the late 1990, with a wonderful 20-page photo section of notables from the British chess world such as Leonard Barden, W.A. Fairhurst, C.H. O'D Alexander, Robert Wade, B. H. Wood, Stuart Milner-Barry, David Hooper (a co-author of Brandreth's), and many others. More of a nostalgic book than a history of British play, it will appeal to those who have been part of the English chess scene. Caissa Editions also publishes books about older tournaments.
Of more general interest is Andris Fride's biography of the Latvian player Vladimirs Petrovs: A chessplayer's story from greatness to the Gulags. Petrovs is a player of whom I remained totally ignorant until I was 'thumbing through' the ChessBase DVD on great tournaments and noticed his amazing tie for first place with Flohr and Reshevsky at Kemeri 1937. It turns out that this is more than coincidence: the Soviet Union's persecution of Petrovs, which resulted in his tragic death in the Gulags in 1943, also led to his being expunged from Soviet chess literature (a typical technique under Stalin). This "disappearance" extended to Western historical awareness since so much source material in the West came from the U.S.S.R.
Fride believes in an additional explanation. He says bitterly that 'Even some willing Westerners "forgot" to include him and his games in their works'. For me, it's hard to give any weight to this assertion since it isn't backed up by a single example. More convincing is his interpretation of the fallout from Petrovs' fate: 'The Soviets had made the name of Petrovs unmentionable and this took a heavy toll on the Latvia [sic] chessplayers. Most had known him well, but that had to be buried in the past. Some would not even greet his widow when passing. Even now, after the Soviets have rehabilitated him and Latvia is independent, when one mentions Petrovs' name the Latvia players avert their eyes. Some things live with you forever ...' Okay, one suspects that younger Latvian players are unlikely to be so intimidated 62 years after the fact, but for a fast-disappearing generation Petrovs' treatment must have had a great impact. All the better that we be reminded of what is possible. The Soviets engineered accusations in the Latvian newspapers about Petrovs, including drunkenness, voluntary indebtedness, and opposition to the Russians themselves. Maybe some of this was true, but obviously not cause for his fatal punishment. Being Latvian and independently-minded were apparently enough to seal his fate.
Out of curiosity, I endeavoured to understand Petrovs' style as well as his results. Let's take a look at a few of Petrovs' tournaments in approximate chronological order, which I think is revealing. He was born in 1908 and came to chess relatively late at age 13. By 1928 he was playing for the Latvian Olympiad team, chalking up a 53% result against modest opposition. [Trivia: The famous Dadaist Marcel Duchamp was representing France and Petrovs lost to him; two years later they drew.] By 1932 Petrovs has made a great leap, winning the Riga Championship. At the Folkestone Olympiad he scored a quite respectable 54% result but lost to the leading players. By 1935, he did even better on first board for Latvia, but did so by demolishing the lesser lights and still losing to Keres, Fine, Flohr, Alekhine and Steiner. Then, in his first international grandmaster-level tournament at Podebrady 1936, he began what was later to become a pattern: he didn't get a win against the top 6 players although achieving draws from three of them: Alekhine, Foltys, and Pirc. Thus, in spite of a very impressive score versus the remainder of the table, he finished in the middle.
In the powerful 1937 Kemeri international tournament mentioned above Petrovs had by far the greatest result of his life and performed at a truly world-class level. Again, he scored only 2.5-3.5 against the other top 6 finishers but he did beat Fine and blasted away the rest of the field by 8.5-1.5. As I see it, Petrovs' play was very cautious and sometimes deceptively quiet. Out of nowhere he could establish positional advantages and nurture them home with his superb technique. The drawback of this style is that it lacked the unpredictability and dynamism necessary to achieve full points versus leading players. This showed in the powerful 1937 Semmering-Baden International (a double round-robin) where he finished in last place behind the likes of Keres, Fine, Capablanca, Reshevsky and Flohr. Against those players he ended up with 6 draws, 3 losses, and 1 win. Likewise, his 8th place in the middle of the table at Kemeri 1939 resulted from 4 losses to the top four players, 3 draws and a loss versus the next four players, and then 6-0 versus the bottom end. This story repeated itself, e.g., in the 1940 USSR Championship, where he scored 1-7 versus the top finishers and 8-3 versus the other competitors. He was solid and competent, and could draw the super-elite players more often than most of his contemporaries; it's just he couldn't seem to create enough problems for them to win. Based upon the games included in the book, I calculated his lifetime score versus leading players: (a) 1.5-1.5 vs. Capablanca; (b) 2.5-2.5 vs. Alekhine; (c) 0-1 vs. Botvinnik; (d) 2.5-7.5 vs. Keres; (e) 0-2 vs. Euwe; (f) 1-4 vs. Flohr; (g) 1.5-2.5 vs. Fine. A side note: his results over the years were helped significantly by his 9.5-3.5 against Mikenas!
Petrovs' other successes included clear second in Margate 1938 (in which he beat Alekhine and drew Spielmann) and 2nd place in Sverdlosk 1942. Overall, however, he was second-tier and had quite a few disappointing results. His most spectacular achievement (apart from the Kemeri triumph) came in the Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1939, where he scored 72% on 1st board. Once again, this was because he was able to draw (but not defeat) the top stars Alekhine, Keres, Capablanca, and Stahlberg, while avoiding a single defeat in 19 rounds!
Fride talks quite a bit about chess in Latvia and to a lesser extent in the neighbouring countries. A section called 'Chess Personalities of the Baltic States' lists and briefly describes Kieseritsky, Nimzowitsch, Betins, Petrovs himself, Mikenas, Keres, Tal, and the contemporary players Tonu Oim and Konstantins Grivianis, the latter a world-famous correspondence master who translated Fride's book from Latvian. Glaringly absent is the brilliant Alexei Shirov who, were he included, would represent his beloved Latvia better in terms of strength and creativity than anyone else since Tal. One suspects that the Fride has his reasons, perhaps Shirov's move to Spain, but I've never heard anything negative about Shirov from the Latvian players I've talked with.
In The Story of a Chess Player, Jaan Ehlvest writes a chess autobiography by playing the both the role of an interviewer and at the same time the one being interviewed. He too deals with the domination and persecution of a Baltic State under the Soviets, this time Estonia. He describes a close call in which his grandmother saved the family from deportation to Siberia by a spirited protest ("She was a very beautiful lady", Ehlvest adds as a supplementary explanation). But by the time Ehlvest is growing up he is treated fairly well, especially as a chessplayer. He says: 'It is true that one had to be loyal to the Communist party-but that was true in all spheres of Soviet society. However, there were chess players that were more than loyal-one did not need to actually join the Communist Party to have normal opportunities in chess.... Some players did become Communists-most notably Garry Kasparov and Alexander Beliavsky. I believe, however, that in Kasparov's case there was not much choice in becoming a member...But you would have to ask him yourself why he joined. I was never asked or advised to join-even when I qualified for the Interzonal tournament in 1987.'
Apart from the games section, the most intriguing and amusing chapter is entitled: 'Secret Life of the Player'. It begins with a quote from Hemingway: 'I guess really good soldiers are really good at very little else.' In that context, Ehlvest warns that chessplayers 'are not geniuses at all' and suggests that some may in fact possess talent that only applies to chess. A lot of his secret life seems to be about relatively trivial things: his last fistfight (before high school); his first time going to the cinema at age 17 with a schoolgirl; his dream car; his enjoyment of poker; his fear of heights and snakes. His own questions tend to get in the way of his telling us much about himself. I give him much credit, however, for revealing so much about the following delicate subjects (remember that Ehlvest both asks and answers the questions):
'You are not married yet. What kind of woman are you looking for?'
'I do not know why, but I am very fond of blond women. The personality does not matter much-I think I can handle any kind; but it is best if the woman is clever. She must also have the qualities real women from the past had. I am not a nobleman, but probably I would like a noble, stylish woman for a wife-but I can live without one also.'
'Would you marry someone from the chess world?'
'The idea of having a "chess family" is not so good. Competitive chess, like any other competitive sport, is not for women because it is very stressful and harmful to your health. I do not believe that any caring man should want that his sweetheart gets hurt.'
'Which country has the most beautiful women?'
'I have been asked this question many times and my answer always changes. My first answer was Spain, Iceland, and Russia-I cannot remember the order. On the TV, the Italian women are gorgeous, and having been in the Ukraine I must say that they for sure qualify to the "finals". ..
As you get older, you no longer chase after the fairer sex with your tongue hanging out-there are so many of them. Everywhere there are beautiful women; one has to pick what one wants.'
Now that is candor! If only those last-page 'interviews' in New In Chess would be so revealing.
This is a self-published book or something along the same lines (the cover says 'Ehlvest Chess Gates Presents The Story of a Chessplayer'). There are numerous photographs but they are all of Ehlvest and none particularly gripping. Not surprisingly, it's the chess that's most interesting. There are many excellent games interspersed with general comments about the game, player's styles and personalities, etc. For example, in the middle of a fairly humdrum sequence of moves he says: 'The most difficult moves to make in chess are the ones with queen and rook. These most valuable pieces make the biggest difference in a game. The main problem with rooks is which rook to use for which line. Here White plans to transfer the rook to the kingside...[moves follow] Here you may expect some annotators to make a comment like "to beat a solid player like Beliavsky, you need to mate him." Actually this is nonsense! GMs cannot afford to engage in this kind of weak thinking. There is-and you must find-the best move. It is tempting to later on tease your audience with explanations like "I evaluated this and that as such." In fact we do not evaluate anything. I believe this evaluation terminology came about when some "experts" tried to teach students how to choose a move. Evaluation is only possible after the game, when we know all the consequences.
The only way is to search for the best move!'
Or: '...but chess is a dynamic game where the situation is always changing. It is not enough to know the static nature of the position-things are much more complicated. One must know when you can play ...g7-g6 in this variation and when you cannot. If you do not know it, you must at least realize your mistakes after the game. If you cannot or do not have anyone to tell you, then you are lost-at least for chess. I am always curious how people can trust chess teachers who do not have the proper education to teach such things. In some other sports, incorrect training can even damage you physically.
In the Soviet Union, and not only there, the demand for higher results was so great that it did not consider the effects on the individual. Only the strongest survived. This was true in chess as well. Probably the ones who survived were not the most talented, but rather the ones who could cope with the enormous pressure of-for example-only first place being sufficient to qualify to international tournaments...I am lucky that I got proper chess education-but many are not fortunate. At least a bad chess education does not damage you mentally, as happened to many sportsmen of the Soviet Union-both the winners and the losers.'
I don't want to deceive the reader: While parts like those above make good reading I also find some of this book rather dull. His unique interviewing style has both positives and negatives. Nevertheless, as a whole, I found the book fun enough to read through to the end (which is unusual for me these days) and the games notes are excellent. Those two reasons are more than enough to recommend it to players and fans of the game.
The Art of Bisguier, Vol 1, 1945-1960 is another example of publication by a non-mainstream book company 3rd Millenium Press (a self-publishing firm?). There's a pun in the title: Bisguier's first name is Arthur, and he is called "Art". This volume deals with the years 1945-60. Bisguier won or tied first at 5 U.S. Opens and captured the U.S. Championship in 1954. He was a leading player for decades, and for a period in the 1950s he and Larry Evans were the strongest Americans apart from Reshevsky. A half century later Bisguier is still an active, respected figure on the U.S. chess scene, particularly popular because of his open and friendly manner.
As we find emblazoned on the back cover, featured on the second page of the Introduction, and quoted again several paragraphs later, Larry Evans called Bisguier "the greatest natural player" who appeared in the 1962-3 US Championship, which won by Fischer. For the record, Bisguier had an excellent record against Evans, who was one of the greatest post-WWII American players and won several U.S. Championships. Co-author Berry explains that Evans was well aware of Fischer's skill but thought that Fischer was only the better player whereas Bisguier had the greater talent. Fischer's superior results, he says, derived from his monomaniacal study and hard work. Unfortunately we aren't told whether Evans later changed his mind. I don't think many modern observers would agree with that picture. In my main database, Bisguier beat Fischer once, drew him once (both of these games are included in the book) and lost to him 13 times. The finish of the Bisguier's lone victory is displayed on the front cover and must have been satisfying for him:
In this position, Bisguier played 33.Qxe8+! and Fischer resigned. Although Bobby looks about 20 and sports a white shirt and dark tie in the sloppy cover drawing, he was 13 years old at the time of this their first encounter. To be fair, this is a collection of Bisguier's wins and best games, not of his losses.
Bisguier himself continues the theme: 'Unlike Reshevsky, who played strong, winning chess from age six, Bobby was a comparatively late-blooming prodigy. It wasn't until his teens that Fischer singled himself out as a player of extraordinary ability. The secret to his success seemed to be less raw talent than hard work. He played a tremendous number of games and read chess literature voraciously and exclusively. Bobby's ability to absorb incredible amounts of information opening variations, subvariations, etc. and store it away for future use was absolutely astounding.'
The book's main section consists of 82 of Bisguier's games, which are almost always fun and instructive. Bisguier's analytical notes are interspersed with useful verbal explanation. He features his attacking games, which are very dynamic and tend to include sacrifices, whether by him or his opponent or both. He is at home in chaotic positions with creative possibilities, and certainly could hold his own with anyone in that realm. Sometimes Bisguier cheats a bit and characterizes what is really a pseudo-sacrifice as a sacrifice, as if to emphasize his attacking style. But in fact, his play in the more positional games (or parts of games) is extremely impressive; and my feeling from being in later tournaments with him is that his style has evolved in that direction through the years. That observation doesn't come from a large sample space, however, and Bisguier himself might disagree. Whatever the case, those who haven't appreciated how strong a player Bisguier has been will have their eyes opened by these excellent games.
To this day Bisguier specializes in certain systems. His sophisticated use of the Berlin Defence to the Spanish Game goes back decades (it must interest him to see the top fellows finally discovering its advantages). As White, the Worrall Variation versus the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 was a favorite, and against the King's Indian he has played both the 4 Pawns attack and his specialty 4.e4 d6 5.Bg5, often followed by f4. The "Bisguier System" versus the Najdorf didn't catch on but he won plenty of games with it: 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e5 7.Nb3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Be3 followed by 10.f3. His opponent's probably underestimated its possibilities, but it's also the fact that Bisguier simply outplayed them.
For many, the best thing about the book will be its span across American chess history. Bisguier plays against an array of players whose names are familiar to those long in the U.S. chess scene, but many of whom are beginning to fade from the common memory. Each game against an American is preceded with a short description of his opponent. I wish that there had been a few more stories about these players, but you can't have everything. Just a few names that bring back memories: Weaver Adams, Karl Burger, Arthur Feuerstein, Eliot Hearst, Charles Kalme, Alex Kevitz, Lee Magee, Albert Simonson, Ken Smith, Tony Santasiere. Many of his other opponents were mainstays of American chess.
This is an excellent book with entertaining and instructive games. It could have used a better 'look' (especially the cover, but also the layout) and in some cases the text could have been more modest, but those are minor faults. We need more such books so that great players like Bisguier leave a record of their thoughts and play. I would recommend The Art of Bisguier to anyone, but all the more so for those of us who enjoy American chess history and have watched this first-rank player's games through the years.