Chess24 Jan Gustafsson on Alpha Zero

John Watson Book Review (63)

Looking Backward, Again

Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions; Pal Benko and Jeremy Silman; 668 pages; Siles Press 2003 [2004 actual publication]

#63 Looking Backward, Again

William Steinitz, Chess Champion; Kurt Landsberger; 487 pages; McFarland 1993

Red Letters – The Correspondence Chess Championships of the Soviet Union; Sergey Grodzensky and Tim Harding; Chess Mail 2003 [Book and CD]

All World Championships From 1886 to 2002; CD; ChessBase 2003

The Greatest Tournaments in the History of Chess 1851-1986; CD; ChessBase 2004

Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions; Pal Benko and Jeremy Silman; 668 pages; Siles Press 2003 [2004 actual publication]

[All of these books can be purchased from the London Chess Centre, which sponsors this site. Also, you might want to check out their publication Chess Monthly; it is certainly one of the best chess periodicals in English.]

Once again this column offers up a few historical works worthy of serious consideration. In fact, assuming your interest in the subject of any of these books or CDs, you can't go wrong with acquiring them. Histories and game collections are generally easier to read than, say, endgame or openings books; for the average fan that's an important factor. I think that it's also fair to say that one learns in a different and useful way when exposed to practical games with varying openings, middlegames, and endgames. As a general division of historically-oriented books and products we have the biography, which provides pleasurable reading, and the games collection which contains material that one can both appreciate and learn from. All of the products above have elements of both types.

Before starting in I should say that The Greatest Tournaments in the History of Chess 1851-1986, which I review in depth below, is in my list of the very best chess products over the past five years. I can hardly recommend it more for anyone even remotely interested in the dramatic history of chess, its players, and their games. In the same way, Pal Benko: My Life, Games, and Compositions transcends all autobiographical and biographical chess book that I've ever seen. Although I'm saving an actual review of it for a later column, I have included the title for the reader's information. This is an amazing new work by Pal Benko and Jeremy Silman. It combines every feature that a chess biography/games collection could reasonably expect to have. I had a contribution in writing a survey of some opening theory for the book and I was able to watch it develop over several years. Silman's effort and pure dedication to this work was like none that I have ever seen. Long-time reviewer Randy Bauer calls it "a monumental effort, a supreme achievement, a breathtaking endeavor, and the standard against which all future chess biographies will be measured." I'll save my discussion of that controversial claim for a later column, but you needn't wait to purchase your copy!

I previous reviewed Kurt Landsberger's book about Steinitz' letters, but never discussed its precursor William Steinitz, Chess Champion. In recent columns I examined an impressive list of recent Steinitz material including Landsberger's earlier work, a ChessBase biography/games collection by Heedt, and Pickard's phenomenal collection of Steintz' writings and games. William Steinitz, Chess Champion is an older work (1993) so I won't delve into it much. This is the ideal book for those who enjoy the traditional biography, i.e., the sort that is written about writers and statesmen. Such a narrative generally includes a multitude of details, some vital and others less absorbing. I personally like this approach and I haven't read a better or more interesting summary of a World Champion's life. (I would also recommend Winter's fascinating volume on Capablanca, published by McFarland. It is not exactly a biography, but is absorbing and meticulously researched.) Landsberger's work includes a fine selection of photographs and provides a fascinating cultural backdrop to Steinitz' life story in, for example, Vienna and the United States. The book does go into some mundane details of Steinitz' life, which I feel are nevertheless of use in forming a complete picture of his quest for recognition and financial security. The bulk of William Steinitz concentrates on biography rather than chess games. But it is salvaged in this respect by a concluding chapter of 15 Steinitz games annotated by Andy Soltis. In a perfect fit for a book of this sort and its potential readers, Soltis annotates without analytical detail, locating key points in games and writing with the clear and instructive style for which he is famous. I should give the warning that this book may seem too dry and scholarly for some readers with neither a strong interest in great players nor fascination with chess history. I also suspect that a majority of enthusiastic young players would be unlikely to get through it. However, for those of us who enjoy experiencing the human side of chess I can definitely recommend this as a perfect piece of fireside reading. You will appreciate the fine physical quality of this hardback; in this respect the McFarland is in a class of its own among the leading United States publishers.

Returning to newer works, I have to say that Tim Harding as author and publisher has done it again. His recent 64 Great Chess Games (correspondence masterpieces, reviewed in an earlier column) and his remarkable database of correspondence games MegaCorr are top-quality products. Megacorr is now out in its 3rd edition, although I only have the 2nd, so I will forego a description of it. In "Red Letters" he has coauthored with ICCF Grandmaster Sergey Grodzensky a remarkable book that summarizes every Soviet Correspondence Championship (from 1948 to 2002), complete with the results and crosstables of each event. A small selection of exceptionally interesting games is given for each event. It's quite amazing that so much fits into 160 pages – subjectively the book doesn't seem that short – although one would still wish for a few more games. The Soviet correspondence championships were no minor affair: Harding quotes Grigory Sanakoev that his greatest achievement was not his World Correspondence Championship but his 2nd place in the final of the 6th Soviet Union Correspondence Championship!

The division of labour in this work is clearly (and refreshingly) laid out by Harding in his Preface. The players shared (approximately equally) the research into results and personalities, with both contributing to the collection of photographs. Harding edited the CD (see below) and found most of the games ('and notes', presumably those from other players). In the end Harding put at least his share of actual work into the project. Still, what most would consider the essence of the book itself was written by Grodzenky: he researched and wrote all the main chapters covering all the championships and provided notes to every game except for a minority of previously annotated ones. A chess historian, Grodzensky provides the descriptions of the events and players. In fact, his original Russian version of the book is given in a separate HTML file on a CD that Harding put together, along with other features. Both the CD and book have numerous photographs of the players, with the CD also giving short summaries of the careers of the individual participants.

Regarding his CD that comes with the book, I'll quote parts of what Harding himself says about its contents:

"On this CD you can find:

Championship games database, ussrccch, in ChessBase formats (new and old), Chess Assistant format and PGN, including all the games we have found from the championships. Many of the games are annotated, some deeply ... the ChessBase (CBH) version is ... the master version of the database, complete with opening and thematic keys.

Supplementary games database, ussrmore, (also in multiple formats) with more than 3,000 games from other USSR correspondence chess competitions... There are also games from earlier USSR Team Championships, and many games from semifinals and championship First League tournaments....The original Russian text in Adobe Acrobat PDF format...

[An HTML section includes:] An illustrated guide to the players and arbiters in the championships (with many more photographs than appear in the book). Crosstables of all the 21 championships in HTML format with some games linked to the crosstables. Those championships for which we have complete game files (the 16th onwards and also the 4th) are presented in HTML format pages created by Palview3, so that these games can be played through onscreen with your web browser...."

All this is very impressive and easy to browse through; I particularly enjoy playing through these often amazing games with the javascript playing board.

On the slightly negative side, the book itself is relatively short and one would like more annotated games in it. I should also say that most of what are called the "annotated" games in the database tend to have only other games merged in, i.e., without commentary. But that is standard practice (see the remaining reviews) and, when one includes both the book and the CD, you'll find more than enough fascinating chess material here. In conclusion, I highly recommend Red Letters to all chess fans, with a 'must buy' designation for lovers of correspondence play.

All World Championships From 1886 to 2002 is another fine product from the world's premier publisher of books on CD. There are two databases on the disc, with the "linear" World Championship going from Steinitz-Zukertort (1886) to Kasparov-Kramnik (2000), and the "post-split" FIDE World Championships from Karpov-Timman (1993) to the most recent knockout, won by Ponomariov in 2002.

Each match is accompanied by a historical introduction of increasing length as the years go by. These reports are accompanied by photographs and some annotated games. I say 'some' because a considerable number are annotated with words and/or lengthy analytical notes by strong players (sometimes the champions themselves), yet even more have merely merged games with at most a couple of independent lines of analysis. The disc includes a training database (from Karsten Müller) and multimedia features, mostly old and snippets of video (some a few seconds long, beginning with Capablanca) and others about more recent champions. One may want to watch the multimedia sections on this CD and other ChessBase products rather than download them, given the space they consume on a hard disc.

This collection is a fitting complement to Kasparov's Predecessors series, since it allows one to play over the games that he's addressing (and in 11 cases with his extensive notes). It is also a useful and handy product to have on your computer, replacing that inevitable search through ones books for just the right game. On the computer you can locate that game and instantly browse through any part of it. This CD is therefore a great addition to ones library, and one that it is practically essential for those who write about chess or are involved in chess research. It is also ideal for fans who collect and love playing through World Championship games.

ChessBase has released an absolutely amazing piece of historical research entitled The Greatest Tournaments in the History of Chess 1851-1986. This disc can give almost endless pleasure to the browser, and high-class instruction for any who want it. It covers the careers of all the great names of chess history via the tournaments in which they played. The main criterion for a tournament's inclusion is the presence of several players ranked in the top ten at the time of the tournament, normally with a couple in the top four. Sometimes the historical significance of the tournament is of overriding importance even if the competition was not quite as fierce. Every tournament has a report attached to it with first-hand accounts mixed into the writing, and some wonderful photographs. These reports are compiled and written by the first-rate chess historian Manual Fruth, who has used contemporary sources such as newspaper articles and tournament books. He also annotates some of the key games. Fruth is one of those extraordinary chess researchers who isn't appreciated by the general chess public. He is also, I discovered, an author, publisher, and owner of a chess antiques business. As usual, the CD also contains the ChessBase Reader program and separate databases of each individual tournament with all of the game played in it.

I should point out what's not included: 'Official' tournaments are saved for another disc. This means World Championship qualifying events such as Candidates and Interzonal tournaments. Interestingly, editor Rainer Knaak also excludes New York 1927 because he considers it a qualifier; I can't agree with his reasoning but this is the only controversial case that I can see. In a review on Steve Lopez bemoans the omission of Zurich 1953, but that was a Candidates tournament (World Championship qualifier). Also, notice that the end date is 1986. This avoids the problem that there have been so many super-tournaments since that time which have included only the world's top players with perhaps one or two others. Thus in the last 15 years we have often seen tournaments which include, for example, numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 in the world, or 2, 3, 5, 7 or something similar; sometimes there have been 3 such tournaments in a year. By contrast, this CD mostly gives us the classic tournaments that we grew up admiring, i.e., those which matched great players who rarely met each other over the board. These naturally had more drama because of their rarity. Rainer Knaak in his Introduction mentions the difficulties in the selection process that eliminated, for example, Baden-Baden 1870 and Wien 1882. Indeed, I would question the inclusion of Dallas 1957 that featured only numbers 4 and 6 in the world, but in general the selection shouldn't be controversial.

One can lose untold hours jumping around this disc. Having such a complete record with the stories and all the crosstables provides many interesting things that most chess histories neglect, i.e., how players were invited, who did badly in these famous tournaments, who won the first- and second- Brilliancy Prizes (often one for each round), and much more. Just browsing around, I was surprised to see the following facts:

(a) The rarity of draws in the earliest tournaments is shocking. In the London 1851 knockout tournament that established Anderssen as the world's leading player, only 7 of 85 games were drawn. In the Master tournament of the First American Chess Congress in 1857, that ratio skyrocketed to 8 draws out of 70 games.

(b) Who would have thought that Teichman of all people would have won the powerful Karlsbad 1911, a full point ahead of Rubinstein and Schlechter at their peaks, in a tournament that included Marshall, Nimzowitsch, Spielmann, Duras (extremely strong at the time), Vidmar, Tartakower, a young Alekhine, and many othersÿ Teichman was called 'Richard V' for his 5th place finishes, but with the benefit of hindsight he has to be one of the most unlikely victors of a super-tournament.

(c) Although it's probably well known to fans of chess history, I admit that I had no idea that Vladimirs Petrovs tied for first place with Reshevsky and Flohr (both near their peaks) in the famous Kemeri 1937 tournament, ahead of Alekhine, Keres, Fine, Stahlberg, etc.! An astonishing feat, especially over 17 rounds, and Petrovs even lost a totally won game in time trouble versus Reshevsky. Who was this guyÿ Befuddled, I called to John Donaldson, who with his customary erudition was able to fill me in on Petrovs' life and his tragic end just a few years later. One wonders whether he would have become a world-class player but for the whims of fortune.

(d) There were several instances of dramatic swings in results. For example, Fritz Saemisch took 3rd place in the powerful Baden-Baden tournament of 1925. Then, in the same year, he finished 18th in the 1st Moscow International tournament.

(e) You can find a lot of surprising failures. Just one example: Geller finished dead last in the 'Tournament of the Stars' in Moscow 1981 with a miserable 4 points of 13. Surely one of the worst if not the worst result in his career as a leading grandmaster.

(f) Sometimes a player catches your eye, for example, Maroczy, who played more games (198) in these tournaments of anyone except Lasker (256), Tartakower (239), Spielmann (221) and Marshall (202). Because he appeared so often and had decent but not exceptional results (2nd place behind Lasker in Nuremberg 1896/7 was his best Super-tournament), I decided to check the rest of his record. Maybe it's just me, but I always had the impression that Maroczy was a fine player who wasn't really among the world's elite. Looking at Jeff Sonas' historical ratings, one finds that Maroczy was actually the world's highest rated player in 1906, was in the top 5 for 12 years, and was in the top 15 for 34 years! His ranking and successes absolutely swamp most of his better-known contemporaries who were not World Champions, e.g., Spielmann, Schlechter, Marshall, Janowsky, Tartakower, Vidmar, Teichman, etc. Only Tarrasch was clearly better, whereas Nimzowitsch and Rubinstein had very similar overall standings.

I did find an error with respect to drawing frequency, although it has nothing to with the compilers. In his contemporary report on Bled 1931, Kmoch says, 'Only 39 of the 182 games ended with a draw!' I was taken in by this astonishing statistic and only later decided to check it. In fact, 85 (47%) were drawn. There was one amazing thing about this tournament, however: its result. Alekhine won by 5.5 points ahead of second-place Bogoljubow!

The CD has 6843 games in all, with every game from the tournaments and some from side tournaments and simultaneous exhibitions. Many of these are annotated in the normal sense of the word. But ChessBase also counts as 'annotated' a lot of other games with just some merged games in the notes and few if any words. That's the standard practice with today's electronic products (e.g., those by ChessBase and Convekta); it's not terribly important, perhaps, but something to keep in mind as a customer. In general, The Greatest Tournaments should not be looked upon as an annotated games collection but rather a historical and reference work. A nice touch is that the Brilliancy Prize games and other games of special interest from each tournament are linked to the database, so that you can instantly play over the game referred to.

The 50 tournaments on the disc are as follows, with the rank of the top players given in the right column:

No. Tournament Nos. 1-10 Top ten
1. London 1851 -
2. New York 1857 -
3. Vienna 1873 1, 2, 4, 7
4. Leipzig 1877 3, 5, 6
5. London 1883 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10
6. Hastings 1895 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10
7. St Petersburg 1895 2, 3, 4, 6
8. Nuernberg 1896 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10
9. Vienna 1898 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10
10. London 1899 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10
11. Paris 1900 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
12. Cambridge Springs 1904 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
13. St Petersburg 1909 1, 4, 5, 6, 7
14. San Sebastian 1911 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
15. Karlsbad 1911 2, 5, 7, 8, 10
16. San Sebastian 1912 3, 5, 7, 9, 10
17. St Petersburg 1914 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10
18. Mährisch 1923 2, 8, 9, 10
19. New York 1924 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8
20. Baden-Baden 1925 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10
21. Moscow 1925 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10
22. Bad Kissingen 1928 2, 5, 6, 8, 10
23. Karlsbad 1929 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10
24. San Remo 1930 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10
25. Bled 1931 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10
26. Moscow 1935+36 2, 3, 6, 9 / 1, 2, 7, 8
27. Nottingham 1936 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10
28. Kemeri 1937 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 10
29. AVRO 1938 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10
30. Salzburg 1942 2, 7
31. Sverdlovsk 1943 3, 4, 8
32. Groningen 1946 1, 4, 8, 9
33. Moscow 1956 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10
34. Dallas 1957 4, 6
35. Bled 1961 1, 5, 6, 9, 10
36. Los Angeles 63 1, 4
37. Capablanca 63 3, 8, 9
38. Santa Monica 1966 1, 2, 5, 10
39. Moscow 1967 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
40. Moscow 1971 2, 3, 5, 9, 10
41. San Antonio 1972 3, 5, 7, 9
42. Milan 1975 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10
43. Moscow 1975 3, 4, 5, 8
44. Leningrad 1977 1, 6
45. Bugojno 1978 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8
46. Tilburg 1978 3, 4, 7, 8
47. Montreal 1979 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10
48. Moscow 1981 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
49. Bugojno 1986 2, 3, 4, 9-11
50. Tilburg 1986 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

This collection is fun and informative. It is also a masterpiece of research. I'd be extremely surprised if any book comes remotely close to its detailed description of so many great tournaments in one place. For my taste it is the best electronic product yet put together.

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