John Watson Book Review (70)
Lives and Games, Part 2
IM John Watson - Thursday 15th September 2005
Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess Volume 1 (DVD); ChessBase 2005
Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess Volume 2 (DVD); ChessBase 2005
Bobby Fischer, The Wandering King; Hans Böhm and Kees Jongkind; Batsford 2004
Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career (1929-1951); Aidan Woodger; 392 pages; McFarland 2004
Amos Burn: A Chess Biography; Richard Forster; 972 pages; McFarland 2004
In this column I'll continue with books that are biographies and/or games collections and have appeared recently or over the past few years. The Fischer volume is an exception but it does have biographical elements.
Before going on, I would like to bring up a few things that I've meant to mention in recent columns but have neglected to. First, it's been a long time since I've recommended other chess review columns on the Web for lovers of chess books and CD/DVDs. You may be surprised just how many reviewers are out there. I have previously noted Carsten Hansen's column on Chess Café (http://www.chesscafe.com), simply the best around, and http://www.jeremysilmam.com, the largest selection of book reviews available featuring a number of literate and well-known chess writers. Probably the most consistent for full-length reviews is Soren Seagaard's http://seagaard.dk/ . Of relatively recent vintage is Richard Palliser's chess book review site. It is excellently written and covers current books (http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/richardpalliser/index.html). Also worth browsing through are the many full-length articles at http://www.chessville.com/reviews/reviews_index.htm . The section doesn't seem to be quite current, but in any case Chessville itself is a fun and very extensive site. Grandmaster Square, a.k.a. GmSquare ( http://www.gmsquare.com/Reviews/ ) has a wide variety of contributors who usually provide in-depth examinations. The British Chess Magazine site http://www.bcmchess.co.uk/reviews/bcmrev.html has had brief but up-to-date and informative descriptions for every month going back to January 1998, all immediately accessible by link. The king of chess software reviews is Robert Pawlak (http://www.chessreviews.com/). For German readers, the Rochade Kuppenheim site http://www.rochadekuppenheim.de/test/index.html has brilliant and thorough book reviews that I always look forward to; and Karl Online, the site for the chess magazine Karl, is also first-rate in that regard (http://www.karlonline.org/kolumne.htm). There are other excellent sites in various languages that I don't often visit – I can't even keep up with the ones above.
I've often mentioned that New in Chess Magazine is my favourite chess magazine, and the only one that I subscribed to. Recently I've added Chess to that list, a modernized version of the venerated English publication that used to come out of Sutton-Coldfield. It is related to TWIC in that IM Malcolm Pein runs the London Chess Centre and is also Executive Editor of Chess. The 66-page magazine covers a broad spectrum: tournament reports, annotated games by strong players, instructional columns (including Daniel King's 'How Good is Your Chess'), historical commentary, collector's books and more. Much of writing in Chess is distinguished by its sense of humour, and sometimes by daring: the September issue's article ''Chessexploitation' caught the attention of just about everyone. The magazine's website is http://www.chess.co.uk/mag.html
ChessBase continues to amaze. They keep putting out innovative high-end products and count upon an enthusiastic market of the more knowledgeable players and devotees to support them. In that way they remind me of Gambit, many of whose high-quality books are geared to the tastes of top players and sophisticated fans. Probably neither company grabs much of the large popular market with this kind of product, but they do well enough with them to supplement their more accessible works. The latter are also of consistently high production quality
With the Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess set of 2 DVDs, ChessBase has recorded a remarkably extensive video interview that must have cost a great deal to produce - I'm sure that Korchnoi doesn't come cheap. He dissects 8 of his own games on each disc. While the minutes aren't listed separately on the case, I'll estimate about 25+ minutes per game on Disc 1 and 30+ minutes per game on Disc 2 for a total of 7-8 hours. This is a massive undertaking. Korchnoi examines these games in great detail, all the while telling stories and giving opinions about his own and other players' styles and careers.
The DVDs are presented in the form of interviews by ChessBase Magazine editor, reporter and Web Manager Frederic Friedel. Korchnoi is 73 years old, incredibly active (in more than one way: he can't sit still!), and someone who even now must be reckoned with as a player in high-level international chess. The first DVD includes his games from 1949 to 1979, all the way up to his match for the world championship in Baguio 1978 versus Karpov, where he shows the win that got him two wins versus Karpov's four and back in the running (Karpov eventually won 6-5). The second DVD continues with fascinating games against leading players. For example, against Kasparov (in Brussels 1986), Korchnoi gets a winning position right out of the opening when Kasparov sacrifices first one pawn and then another (Korchnoi admires the second decision, not at all an obvious one since it achieves little versus proper play, but the correct practical decision). With nothing to lose Kasparov manages to launch a very unlikely kingside attack. Every time that Korchnoi seems to have completely refuted it Kasparov comes up with something to maintain at least a chance of success and confuse matters. Kasparov plays an incredible maneuver Rc1-c7-e7 that leaves Korchnoi shaking his head in appreciation. Nevertheless Korchnoi is still in charge and plays with great skill. Then in time pressure he misses several fairly easy winning continuations and Kasparov escapes with a miraculous draw. The game haunted Korchnoi and he says that his disappointment was so great that it was a real factor in his later poor record versus Kasparov. I checked a database and indeed, the man who had excellent records versus all the World Champions of his time scored 0-10 with 15 draws thereafter! Korchnoi was getting older, of course, but Kasparov's power never ceases to amaze. [trivial side note: I am using the familiar spelling 'Korchnoi' instead of their 'Kortchnoi'. Ironically, ChessBase's own databases use 'Kortschnoj' ]]
Introducing his game versus Spassky in Clermont Ferrand 1989, Korchnoi gives a little background. He and Spassky had grown up in Leningrad with the same trainer (Zak). His games with Spassky went back 34 years at that point (Korchnoi boasts a 56% advantage out of 67 games), including a tough Candidates match in 1968 (won by Spassky) and another in 1977 (a classic encounter won by Korchnoi). Korchnoi explains that following his win in the 1973 USSR Ch Spassky really didn't have any great successes, and that after their 1977 match he believes that Spassky "didn't work" anymore. This provided him an advantage in their game. Korchnoi is on the White side of a Tartakower Queen's Gambit (which he calls the "Tartakower-Makogonov-Bondarevsky System"). He explains with mock annoyance that he has had to play this against everyone, either in matches or serious play: "Karpov, Spassky, Kasparov, Huebner, Belyavsky, Geller..." and presumably more. He laments, "I had to break my head what to do against this system as White." But Spassky, he knew, hadn't changed his systems or kept up with theory for many years, and Korchnoi thus prepared a special move order of recent vintage. Spassky wasn't quite up to the challenge and allowed Korchnoi a strong kingside attack. An exciting game followed in which Spassky defended beautifully but never equalised and couldn't stand up against Korchnoi's maneuvering play. Interestingly, Korchnoi looks at a possible defence for Black at the end of the game and says that he (White) gets a winning pawn endgame. It doesn't in fact win, which indicates that Korchnoi did not overprepare for the presentation. I think that shows through in some other games in which he seems to be looking at a position for the first time, and it adds a spontaneity that makes the whole product more enjoyable. I should add, however, that a large dimension of Korchnoi's personality is missing from these DVDs: his well-known anger and dislike of so many other players in the chess world. My own feeling is that his statements about people are not to be trusted. Fortunately, what we have here is the man at his most genial talking about some great games.
Anyone who can afford it should have My Life for Chess. One could go to two 8-hour lectures by Korchnoi and still not get the value that this format provides. In particular, Korchnoi's ruminations about his matches and opponents make this 2-disc set most attractive to those with some familiarity of chess history over the last 50 years. For them it may be the most enjoyable combination of chess personality and annotated games that they have experienced (especially if one likes video presentations).
Next comes another Fischer book, this one written for the popular market and generally presenting his life in dramatic form. The publicity sheet for Bobby Fischer, The Wandering King by says that 'The authors [Hans Böhm and Kees Jongkindby] have dug through the archives, including recently opened FBI files, in order to place the more negative aspects of the man into context - his tough upbringing [? - jw], his exceptional talent, his anti-social behaviour, his fight against the chess authorities and his growing eccentricity.' Already I'm mistrustful: I hope that this isn't another piece of writing that excuses Fischer's faults on grounds that wouldn't apply to others? You can "put into context" anyone's life or behaviour on any general grounds, e.g., what of the above doesn't apply to Hitler? Come to think of it, Bobby might like that comparison. But seriously, the reader should watch out for a style of presentation that trivializes the reality of a person by picking events and explanations to serve ones bias. Let's see if that's the case as we move along.
The first good news is the breadth of the book's content: it is not a single author's account but consists of 16 interviews and two articles along with essays by the authors. This exposes one to a variety of personalities and makes for easy and pleasant reading. I won't describe these interviews in detail; unfortunately, many of them consist of the same old stories and comments that experienced players and fans have heard for years on end. Presumably the book will therefore most appeal to, and is recommended for, a popular audience including those who don't play chess (note too that there is only one game included). Much of what the interviewees give us is unsupported speculation or simplistic psychological conjecture. The book even cites a handwriting expert who makes sweeping assertions about the workings of Fischer's total mentality. Fortunately the authors don't think that there's anything to his assertions, but they're still included. That doesn't mean the book isn't at times fun to read; just that there isn't enough of biographical or historical substance. Those interviewed include Korchnoi, Karpov, Short, Timman, and Seirawan; with a couple of exceptions the rest are prominent and highly respected figures in the chess world who are in and of themselves interesting. So in one sense you can't go wrong and I don't want to dissuade all potential readers. At the very least, inveterate Fischer watchers and/or those who are addicted to news about the man will not ignore Böhm and Jongkindby's work. Nor will most of Fischer's ardent defenders.
The Introduction, written by Böhm himself, begins innocently enough. He first refers to the documentary put together for the Dutch TV series from which this book developed. In the next section these remarks will be expanded upon by co-author Jongkind in a detailed 10-page article entitled 'The Making of the Wandering King' (which incidentally includes a nasty characterisation of Kasparov). Böhm describes each interview from that documentary in a few sentences. Then he passes on to general remarks about Fischer. I'd like to devote some time to this because I feel that his opinions partially reflect how a large number of people view the former world champion. Recently, for example, the standard line by players and columnists consists of a brief disclaimer that they are appalled by Fischer's recent awful remarks, but that they are sympathetic with the sadly tormented Fischer, condemn the awful behaviour of the U.S. and Japanese governments towards him, root for him to get to and stay in Iceland, forgive him because of his gift to the chess world, wish him the best, etc. Böhm, for example, turns the eccentric into a saint:
'Fischer also managed to raise the payments and conditions of professional chess players in general significantly, by sacrificing his own material - and immaterial- interests.'
A heroic description. But what is he talking about? Fischer certainly was the cause of the increase in prize funds in tournaments and matches and his demands also improved the conditions for professional chessplayers (in the West, at least). It's also a fact that he gave up huge sums of money by refusing to make advertisements or play in further matches. But did he do the former (improve conditions) by means of the latter (material sacrifice)? I don't see any connection, in fact, quite the opposite. Fischer himself profited by holding out for larger prize funds; this helped chess, but was hardly a material sacrifice. And he almost certainly hurt professional chess funding by refusing to advertise (which I nevertheless think was an admirable stance). The same applies to not playing again: had he continued to compete it obviously would have brought more money and attention to chess. Those decisions worked against his material interests, but also hurt chess professionals' "payments and conditions". As far as anyone can tell, his reasons for foregoing profit were his own. Of course no one knows about Fischer's 'immaterial interests' [whatever Böhm means by that], but his subsequent religious, philosophic, and political direction has hardly helped chess professionals materially or otherwise, nor the game's image, which is closely related.
Böhm's continues: 'The horror relates to the changes Fischer's character underwent since he became the best player on earth in 1972: - which is to say from the moment the sobering effects of reality stopped being applicable. Those character changes are comparable to the manner in which a committed revolutionary sometimes degenerates when he becomes absolute ruler.' [Note the fact that the edition in question is a translation, as indicated by 'The horror relates to'; perhaps that accounts for some of the poor writing in this book].
Such pop psychology perpetuates the myth that Fischer "suddenly changed" (Böhm: "from the moment"), and became deranged soon after 1972 as a result of winning the match. As usual in Fischer speculation, there is almost no input from players who were actively involved in the American chess scene in the late 1960s up to 1971. In fact, only one of the 20 people interviewed or involved in the book qualifies in that regard – Pal Benko. For that matter, there are only 3 Americans consulted altogether, and no one is asked about Fischer's psychological problems or behaviour from pre-match times. It is easy to theorize and pontificate from such a distance. In the United States, stories about Fischer's paranoia and prejudices were commonplace at that time. It also seemed that every time we heard that 'Grandmaster/Master X' was working with Fischer the news followed quickly that Fischer had dismissed him. Even then it seems that people were always betraying him. You could argue that at some point several years after the Championship match something fundamental suddenly snapped, but even that lacks substantiation. The only pre-1972 personal contact with Fischer that I saw in this book involved Hans Ree, who met him in Netanya, Israel in 1968, four years before the match. He spent some time with Fischer and reports: 'It was already said then that he had made anti-Semitic remarks. I asked him. He said that it was indeed true, but that he had realized that this had been stupid. "Moreover", he said, "I am half-Jewish." So at that moment he was, but later he was at it again.' Make of that what you will, it's at least direct testimony.
Böhm goes on to describe Fischer's current complaints and says, 'Fischer may magnify reality in his line of reasoning to absurd proportions, creating fire-spitting monsters with nine heads and a hollow laugh. His life story, however, shows the real events behind the birth of these little monsters. Fischer was shadowed by the FBI, the KGB did have a Fischer file, the Russians did conspire against Fischer, Fischer did not get all the royalties to which he was entitled, and the auction of his storage space was wrongful.' [emphases his]
Again, the charged language ("shadowed") and exculpatory implications. At the time the FBI had a file on and kept an eye on practically everyone who visited Russia, as they did on a significant portion of the politically active American public. Was Fischer personally affected by this? And did Fischer know at the time or would he have been surprised that the KGB had a file on him? It's strongly implied that these factors had something to do with Fischer's strange behaviour and beliefs. How? Böhm doesn't even try to connect the little monsters to the man himself.
Then there's Curacao: When people from the same country agree to draw in advance, that hardly amounts to a conspiracy against another player. Obviously, as many have pointed out, Fischer's chances of winning the tournament were considerably enhanced by this deal. As far as I can see, nothing in his record showed that this energetic youth tended to become "exhausted" at tournaments, and even if there were this would be a very strange thing for the alleged conspirators to count on! At least a 3-0 record by one of the Russians would be an advantage for him; 1.5-1.5 was a disadvantage in terms of taking first place from anyone else who was playing truly well. You may rightfully question the ethics of agreed draws (which are still common among countrymen), but Karpov's interview (as well as that by Benko, who was there) makes the same point: "Petrosian, Keres and Geller agreed [to produce] three draws in the first three rounds. With draws you cannot win the tournament [laughs], but this was a fact. Fischer played in Curacao, and then he explained his bad play was because of this agreement. But Fischer took fourth place and had no chance to win the main place to meet the champion. But he had found an excuse for his bad performance." Benko agrees. In the face of such logic, Böhm asserts with a tone of certainty: 'the Russians did conspire against Fischer' – what evidence does he have for this? As for the mystery of the Great Storage Space Affair, I don't know who to believe, but it's odd to connect Fischer's views on the Jewish Conspiracy and other subjects to frustration over a single incident that occurred so late after his positions were known.
Böhm finishes the Introduction with a flourish: 'But whether Fischer now plays chess or not, everything newsworthy about him is reported in the media. That is what happens to living legends. The May 2002 issue of New in Chess says about the following about Karl Rove, George W Bush's top strategist:
'And what do these journalists invariably call him? What wondrous epithet is bestowed time and again on this loyal and generally admired patriot? That's right, you will find it hard to find an article in which Karl Rove is not called "the Bobby Fischer of American politics"!'
The examples are legion and in all languages, and they will continue to appear. 'Bobby Fischer' still stands for an intelligent, clear strategy and an extreme determination to win, even if he has not played chess for almost thirty years.'
My first problem with this is that I don't know what it means, i.e., I have no idea what New In Chess said 'about the following about Karl Rove', because we aren't told either where New in Chess got the quote from, or what they said about that quote. Or is this a misstatement and the quote is in fact from someone at New in Chess itself? Since the translator has difficulty with English at various points, that seems just as likely but not certain. A proofreader would have helped throughout this book.
The next problem is that I have read many, many articles on Karl Rove and don't recall ever hearing him referred to as "the Bobby Fischer of American politics", much less invariably so. I'm sure that has happened somewhere but would be surprised if it has occurred in more than 1% of such articles. I suppose the part about "loyal and generally admired patriot" is sarcastic. Apart from the fact that Rove isn't usually characterized as "patriot", I strongly doubt that any of Fischer's defenders would like him to be admired for being a dirty tricks operative! The difference is that some of both Rove's supporters and even opponents ruefully admire his ability to cast aside pretensions of fair play in order to achieve victory at any cost, whereas even Fischer's worst critics cannot help but acknowledge his commitment to absolute fairness in his determined pursuit of victory over the chessboard.
Interviews are sometimes a poor medium in which to search for genuine information, but one can usually glean the better parts. Harry Sneider is presented as 'a special friend of Bobby Fischer'. He turns out to be a weight lifter who trained Fischer and is still in touch with him. Among other things Sneider informs us that Fischer "has read 100,000 books". One has to wonder where this figure comes from; remember that we are continually told that Fischer always tells the truth, whether about being tortured in a jailhouse or beaten up by the Japanese. Anyway, Sneider tells us further that "Fischer has an enormous memory capacity. In world history there are people like Mozart and Einstein, but Fischer is in his way also unique. Someone like that is born once every 100 years. He is really a treasure for humanity. I hope he comes back and starts playing chess again, so we can enjoy the talent that God gave him.' Thanks to the interviewer, Sneider also supplies some informative details about Fischer's post-championship life in Southern California and his relationship to the Church of God.
Jan Timman has a too-brief interview. To my taste, the best part is his description of meeting Fischer in 1990. Timman's respect for Fischer survives the latter's usual inanities about Kasparov and Karpov fixing their match, an accusation Fischer also leveled at Korchnoi. Amusingly, Fischer still calls Kasparov "Weinstein". Well, not so amusingly, because Timman adds: "If he doesn't like somebody then he is automatically a Jew." Still, Timman says about him, "It's a real pity. Fischer is a sympathetic person by nature. He is always honest. He never minces words." There's something very odd about this: Why would an angry person full of hatred for so many individuals that he has met, and on top of that directing a venomous revulsion towards a whole 'race' of people (and/or their faith), be described as sympathetic? Perhaps for the same reason that so many famous people with negative political, ethical, or personal histories have been considered affable and friendly by those that met them. There's surprise that the wicked one seemed so "human". But should we really care? To me, worrying about whether someone is 'sympathetic' has little value under such circumstances. Getting him help, perhaps, but that's another matter.
Incidentally, how is it that Timman and others know that Fischer is "always honest"? By all accounts Fischer is a recluse who has had only limited interaction with the public world or 30+ years, and apparently only brief contact with Timman. If we're just going by feeling or intuition, his descriptions of various run-ins with authority do not strike me as particularly honest; those are just my intuitions, however, and that's the point. Again, his mythical portrayal is based upon a romantic mindset and not on evidence or experience.
Most readers will probably want to hear what ex-World Champion Karpov has to say. I was surprised to hear that he had first met Fischer in 1972, and disappointed that Karpov doesn't say what passed between them. Here are some of his comments upon their unplayed matches:
'Fischer had his personal problems, I believe. He was not ready. And I don't want to claim that he was afraid of me: most probably he was afraid of himself. So he became World Champion, he gave some interviews, and he believed that the World Champion has no right to make mistakes. And then with such a position and with such an outlook, you cannot play chess at all, because you cannot avoid mistakes. There are big mistakes and there are small mistakes. Big mistakes of course are not for a World Champion, but small mistakes you always make. It can be one, it can be two or it can be more. But to avoid mistakes altogether you must simply stop playing chess.
He made such an extreme task for himself that he couldn't start a game. As a champion he couldn't even start one game. So this was his personal problem, and I regret that such a thing happened to him. The chess world missed another great match'...
[Interviewer:] You met him in 1975?
'No, in 1976 and 1977 we had several meetings, but at the end of these meetings I just left with the conclusion that Fischer would not play. In 1976, I was hoping that he was coming back, but the last meeting in 1977 was strange. We almost agreed on everything, and it was an open question: what should we call this match? ...Chess was always [considered] part of sport in the USSR, and so I knew that the name Fischer had in mind - 'World Professional Championship' - [would be a problem to Soviet Authorities, with whom Karpov does not sound so pleased]. I said we must exclude the word 'professional'; the whole world will understand what we mean anyway. I explained [my reasoning] straightforwardly. In the beginning he was beginning to understand, but then when we had a written agreement ready, and the pens in our hands, Fischer started to sign and then he said 'No, No, we shall sign for everything, including the title, or we sign nothing'. Then I said to him: 'I had many problems the first time, in 1976 in Japan, I was accused of being a traitor.' Some people said that I wanted to sell the title - that I wanted to get a lot of money to play Fischer and give him the title back. Some stupid things they made up. But it worked. Then in 1977 I said we could change the title. But then Fischer didn't want to use any other title. Then I realized he just didn't want to play. He was in the same position as in 1975: he was looking for excuses to get out.
[Interviewer:] He was a coward?
I wouldn't use that word. He was not afraid. He was afraid to start the competition, he was afraid of his form, I don't want to say he was afraid of me or anybody else.
[Interviewer:] Would you like to play him?
He is still interesting. People are wondering what condition he's in. He's 60, which is quite an age for a chess player.'
There are some nuggets in The Wandering King. Unfortunately, as I've indicated, quite a lot of this book's content is old hat or predictable. But if you're interested in Fischer and modern chess history as a whole, you should consider getting a copy.
McFarland & Company not only stands at the high-end of American chess publishers but arguably also at the pinnacle of world publishers when it comes to production quality and scholarship. Theirs are books are made for libraries, jammed with historical research and including comprehensive collections of games many if not most of which cannot be found in conventional sources. McFarland's chess historical books span quite a range. They include relatively obscure subjects such as John Hilbert's volume on Walter Penn Shipley (not a prominent player but an organizer and supporter of chess; 442 large-size pages), Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps (!), and Kurt Landsberger's collection of Steinitz letters. But the majority of their chess publications thus far have been biographies/games collections. The good part is that most of them are just readable enough to balance their potentially dry emphasis on research. By 'readable' I mean to include the books whose primary appeal rests with the presentation of well-annotated games by famous players.
For example, Stephen Gordon's modest 406 page collection of Reshevsky's games uses the effective technique of introducing each decade with a several-page essay about Reshevsky's life and career during that period. The book is a deliberate and understated testimony to Reshevsky's unique spot in chess history. It's almost difficult to comprehend that such a part time player could be ranked among the very best who have ever competed. Reshevsky's games are a revelation; his unpopularity among players in the U.S. may have contributed to the lack of historical attention that he has received.
Edward Winter found a fascinating way to write about Capablanca's life that remains unique among chess biographies. He used an almost exclusively documentary approach, unearthing a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles by and about the champion, including his own writings and letters, with some wonderful commentary on other players of his time. Winter has investigated the key controversies of Capablanca's career, notably the issues and arguments surrounding the matches both played and unplayed with Lasker and Alekhine.
I have previously mentioned Kurt Landsberger's biography of William Steinitz which, much like Winter's account, derives almost entirely from documents, articles, letters and the like. Landsberger supplies more of his own interpretation and the flavour of a narrative to his book, which is one of my very favorite historical works. And there are several more such biographies, e.g., Soltis' of Frank Marshall with 220 very well-annotated games. Skinner and Verhoeven's collection of Alekhine's games takes up 824 pages. The latter is almost exclusively research and not to my taste.
I should probably say something about my approach to writing this column. Readers have probably seen that my assessments favour quality of games (including annotations) and what I consider interesting content over production value and historical accuracy. Sometimes this is undoubtedly unfair to the books. One might ask how I can praise the Bisguier biography in my last column (which is poorly produced in many respects and not particularly well-written) and be critical of well-fashioned books that required far more effort. Basically I liked the games and notes in the Bisguier book. I also appreciated its originality and its appeal to U.S. players spanning several generations. Something similar could be said about the Ehlvest book: not well-produced but an original subject with absorbing personal narrative and terrific annotated games. A judgment about whether games are fascinating or notes interesting is of course subjective. In the same manner I enjoy some books because they are so different, or just fun to read. The reader may also have noticed that I fail to mention prices, which are of course critical when deciding what to buy. Nevertheless, I often take price into account without explicitly saying so, e.g., McFarland books are quite expensive and require something particularly appealing for me to recommend them. The moral of all this is to take my judgments with a grain of salt, listen to others, and look over the book if you can before purchasing it.
Here I want to look at two more recent additions to this group (both McFarland, 2004). Aidan Woodger's Reuben Fine: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career (1929-1951) is one of those dogged attempts to locate every game by a great player and explain them. The Acknowledgements list gives a hint of how wide a search was undertaken but the Introduction is more interesting, explaining Woodger's motivation and his approach. The author overwhelmingly uses annotations from other sources (usually multiple ones) but also adds his own suggestions, checked by a slightly dated 'Fritz 5.32 on an IBM machine with a Pentium Chip'. Woodger begins with a biography of 6 densely-packed pages (McFarland usually uses small type) and then moves on to the games. These take up most of the book. As far as I can tell, every 'important' game has notes, often very thorough ones.
Reuben Fine was one of the great American players, for several years one of the very best in the world and according to Jeff Sonas' historical ratings reaching #1 in the early 1940s and #2-#5 in the latter part of the 1930s. His results in the late 1930s were equal to the best, and most observers felt that he had a strong case for being Alekhine's challenger for the World Championship. I briefly described this in a previous column. Among other tournaments, he won Hastings 1935/36, tied for first in Amsterdam, and came in 3rd at the famous 1936 Nottingham tournament. He won Zandvoort 1936 (a point ahead of Euwe and two ahead of Keres), Leningrad and Ostende in 1937, Margate 1937, and of course finished 1st with Keres at the famous AVRO 1938 tournament (ahead of Botvinnik, Euwe, Alekhine; Fine was only 24 at the time!). He also won the gold medal at the Olympiads in 1933 (3rd board), 1935 (first board), and 1937 (2nd board), accounting for the greatest results ever for the U.S. teams.
Fine also had a lengthy career as an author. His most famous works included Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, one of the most popular books ever among players who have graduated from the developmental stage. It is rather dogmatic even by the standards of his own time and still more so by virtue of hindsight, but if nothing else shows what a clear and appealing writing style Fine had. He also wrote Basic Chess Endings (a tour de force and still highly relevant to endgame theory in its revised form by Pal Benko) and The Middle Game in Chess. Fine's own games collection is excellent and drawn upon in full in Woodger's work. Finally there's the infamous The Psychology of the Chess Player, widely regarded as one of the most absurd books ever written about chessplayers. After his chess career ended, Fine became an exponent of Freudian psychoanalysis, authoring important works in the field. He continued to write and co-author chess works, generally shorter ones that are considered inferior to his previous efforts.
As so often, the games constitute the essence of the book. As I looked through his games from the 1930s, it was hard to find one that wasn't at least interesting, often fascinating. I find them more diverse and creative than the typical contests of the 1920s, perhaps because Fine's was a real golden age of chess in terms of the number of world-class players representing past, present and future greats. The subject of Fine's style is controversial. He probably wasn't deserving of the epithet "Flohr-Fine Style", which referred to dry, cautious, and technical play. Certainly Fine was no slouch at tactical play, and his well-prepared, innovative openings were often dynamically charged. Nevertheless, the assessment of several players that Fine was disinclined to risk anything and was at his best in technical positions was probably true, at least when playing top opposition. Fortunately, his famed opponents did the risk-taking often enough that Fine's games with them provide lasting enjoyment. I should also say that in his lesser tournaments Fine seemed to indulge in unclear tactics more readily. You can see this just by thumbing through the book.
Reuben Fine concludes with Appendices including biographical data about Fine's opponents, a fun list to skim through. There are also sections on the time controls used at various tournaments (remember 40 in 2.5 hours without sudden death?), Fine's own books, blindfold play, and the usual indices. This book is mainly for a lover of chess play. There isn't much description of Fine's life, although there are many articles by players and journalists that preface tournaments and they sometimes spice up things by describing Fine's extra-chess side, e.g., his concern with the 'adulteration of foods' that was said to be typically American at the time.
When considering biographical/games books, there are several main factors that I look at. Perhaps the most obvious and important is whether I'm interested in the player being written about. I confess to a prejudice towards World Champions and other elite players. Fine qualifies in that regard, as do a majority of well-known chess biographies. When other players are involved, I would like a description of the subject's life and contributions and why they should be of interest to me. I also consider whether the book is mainly a set of games and how interesting and well annotated they are, or a descriptive biography. In the latter case, one can mean biography in the sense of providing substantial details about a player's life outside of chess and/or supplying details about events relating to the tournaments and matches involved. Many chess biographies do mainly the latter ('Grandmaster X arrived in Bern on July 2nd. He stayed at the Y hotel along with Grandmaster's X and Y. The tournament hall was located at the end of the street. In the drawing of the lots, Master X ...'). Fewer do the former but sometimes it justifies the book's existence. Fine's contributions (books, opening and endgame theory) are special and particularly interesting to me as a writer. On the other hand, the description of his life outside of chess is limited. Articles from the time supply information about both his life and reputation as a competitor, but not enough to be satisfying.
Altogether, one can see that I might recommend Woodger's book, and I do. Indeed I spent a lot of time with it (mainly looking at games) without doing so under obligation of writing a good summary/review. I also spent far more time than I normally would have with Richard Forster's massive Amos Burn: A Chess Biography, which received an overwhelmingly positive response from reviewers. I was frankly not that taken by the book, which admittedly may be just a matter of personal taste. I do wonder, however, if other reviewers really went over many games and/or read most of the rest of the book. Or do they principally stand in admiration of the incredible feat of research and care that the author put into it? Naturally the one is not exclusive of the other, but one suspects that the latter is the case. Remember that reviewers get free copies.
Forster's work is a 972-page biography/games collection of Amos Burn, one of the leading masters of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. When I saw a comment from a reviewer suggesting that Burn was not in the same (high) class as Blackburne, I decided to refer to Jeff Sonas' historical ratings lists and in fact I think that if you compare their careers as a whole (i.e., over their long careers) Blackburne and Burn occupy a very similar level (as does their mutual score: 10-9 in Blackburne's favour). That might be a good way to think about Burn's strength and historical standing. One naturally wonders why Forster feels that such a lengthy account of his life is worthwhile. Reviewers point admiringly to the fact that Amos Burn: A Chess Biography is probably the greatest combination of thoroughness and accuracy ever achieved in a chess biography. That is no mean achievement, but perhaps not the best of criteria. Writing a thorough book about a modern world-historical figure would requires sifting through unimaginably more material than is available about a chessplayer, yet authors manage to do it in fewer pages than Forster. The skill is in paring down your material without losing the essence of your subject, while keeping in mind the reader's time and interests.
At any rate, the book isn't a good fit with my criteria discussed above. In the first place I am not especially interested in Burn as a player, i.e., when compared to other players. His games are fine but don't grab my attention in the way that, say, a World Champion's do. Nor do I discover much of interest about Burn's life outside of chess. Okay, that's due to Burn himself (he was considered a dull sort) and presumably to the unavailability of appropriate source material. But those factors don't help me as a reader. Most biographies are also lacking in this regard, but have games and notes that are more compelling to me. Others hold my interest because they are so full of life details and well-written. I think of books such as Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions, Landsberger's William Steinitz, Chess Champion (mentioned above), and Alexander Münninghoff's Max Euwe, The Biography. The bottom line is that I enjoy actually reading these books, whatever their academic faults may be. Burn strikes me as a stodgy dullard compared to these colorful and multi-dimensional players. He is occasionally dragged into a controversy (e.g., exchanging sharp letters about playing a match with Gunsberg), but one has to plod through masses of material to find a bit of colour.
What about the games? Forster is successful in using other's notes (mainly contemporaneous ones) and adding his own computer-assisted analysis with the minimum of intrusiveness. In other words he has allowed the old masters' note to breathe without piling up too many corrections and refinements. This is a real art and there are several biographical works that fail in this respect. Even Kasparov's Predecessors series comes to mind, although with such famous games one could argue that a search for ultimate truth is more appropriate. In the end, however, I didn't find most of Burn's games compelling. Remember that I am comparing his with other games collections, not trying to denigrate his play. In fact I don't know of any strong player whose games don't provide some fun and intellectual stimulation. But for me, the McFarland Fine book contains more interesting games, and most annotated games collections that I have are much more attractive in that respect. To name some examples: books by the players themselves such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Keres, Bronstein, Fischer, Tal, Korchnoi, Kasparov, Shirov, Anand, just for starters (one could add less prominent collections such as Speelman's, Belyavsky's, Averbach's etc.), and those partially or fully written by others, too numerous to mention. Even the relatively bare games collections by Kramnik and Khalifman contain one fascinating game after another, and who wouldn't read the Predecessors series before most others? The point is that we all have limited time in which to read, and still less to devote to collections of master games. I would prefer to spend that time exploring the books above instead of devoting my attention to Burn's games.
Having said that, Forster makes a great decision to introduce the book with excerpts from Burn's games that show especially creative and/or attractive ideas, and then listing his favourite games by game number. I noticed this last part (the list) only at the end, after having played through a number of random games through the book. These favourite games are far more interesting than the average lot in the rest of the book. I examined 7 of the 20 (without using a board, unfortunately), and found that they were attractive and contained more than a fairly obvious combination. By using this list the reader might satisfy his desire for interesting ideas without having to wade through 901 games. But then the question remains: Why should someone spend so much money and reading time on a relatively dull narrative and set of games when they could have a 150-200 page book The Life and Games of Amos Burn with his best 30-40 games the most interesting pickings of his life? I think the sign of a good writer in any field is that he can limit his material and provide readable, highest quality substance. As I indicated above, an academic and research-oriented book dealing with a president, scientist, or world leader might potentially need tens of thousands of pages to present all valid material on its subject. But books of this type are often pruned to the 300-500 page range and admired by scholars and laymen alike for their combination of breadth and economy. Furthermore, such works are used and cited by many other researchers, students, and writers outside of the field; it seems unlikely that Forster's volume will serve a similar function.
Briefly returning to the games, I found two tendencies by the players involved: (a) a great number of fundamental positional/strategic errors, some real howlers. Understandably some of these stem from unfamiliarity with structures that became second nature to later players; (b) a love of tactics - one need only leaf through the diagrams to see this. I also think that both Burn and his opponents had impressive attacking insight. Forster points to a lot of errors in the execution of attack and defence, but that's true to this day and more so among the middle-rank players that make up many of Burns' opponents. If nothing else I was impressed with how early players resigned in the midst of a winning combination by their opponent. This indicates a high level of calculational skill. It also reminds me of how sad the influence of fast time controls can be. In today's 1 hour games (and 30 minute games, etc) there's often not even time to verify whether a combination is good. Even at 40/90 with sudden death afterwards, only the superstars would be able consistently attack with the combination of subtlety and accuracy that marks great attacking chess. To my mind, high quality requires at least 40 moves in two hours; let's hope that many events with such a time control survive the onslaught of modern impatience.
Forster's book includes a great many photographs, most of them small and attractively inserted into one column of the text. A considerable portion of their subjects are so obscure that they will be unknown to even an avid fan of late 19th- and early 20th century chess. Forster has also done a thorough job with the end material. There are 24 pages of densely-packed end notes in small print. Then, apart from the usual lists of players, tournament records, and openings, we find a General Index (often missing from chess books). In addition there's a lengthy Index of Themes including various breakdowns of material (this can be generated from ChessBase), pawn structures, sacrifices, and much more. He even provides us with special categories such as 'advance with f-pawn, weakening'. Impressive stuff, but will anyone read it?
I've gone on too long. Amos Burn: A Chess Biography is a great piece of research. Any author so dedicated deserves high praise regardless of how important one thinks the finished product is. The ingredient most lacking in chess writing today is hard work, and it is clear from start to finish that Forster has invested far more effort than most of his fellow authors. For all that, I would not recommend Amos Burn to the average fan or player. To me, this is a work for collectors and libraries, not one to be purchased and read by those with a limited chess budget.