John Watson Book Review (30)
Mini-Reviews of Noteworthy Releases
IM John Watson - Friday 1st December 2000
I still have my idea of doing lengthier reviews of one or two books at a time. However, it's been so long since I've contributed that I thought I'd write a few lines times or more about recent releases that struck me as either good (when I've read them to a reasonable extent) or particularly worth noting (when I haven't done so). That constitutes about a third to a half of what I've received. These are hardly full-fledged 'reviews', but rather informational mini-pieces with a few opinions thrown in. When I make critical comments, one should remember that I like almost all of these books, and think that the others are important to know about.
Before beginning, I want to mention two things pertinent to my review of John Emms' 'Amazing Moves' book. I had pointed out how Fischer's ...Nh5 Benoni move versus Spassky in their World Ch match was had already been played. In a recent Chess Life article, Shamkovich calls it Boleslavsky's move. He also seems to indicate (obscurely) that it was supposed to be a part of Spassky's pre-match preparation, which according to him was undercut by Spassky's laziness. With regard to Fischer's much-cited Rf6 move against Benko, I want to bring to your attention a forthcoming book about Benko's life and games by Benko himself and Jeremy Silman. From what I've seen in a sneak preview, I suspect that it will be one of the best-selling chess biographies ever, and hope to review it at a later date. At any rate, speaking of the Rf6 game, Benko, a big fan and friend of Fischer's, says something along the lines of 'Everyone says that it's a great game, but I don't know what's so great about it', which is very close to the point I was making. In the book, there follows some fascinating background to the game. Look for it at newsstands everywhere!
'Chess Today' is a new chess news service offered by GM Alexander Baburin with friends and titled associates. It amounts to a daily(!) newspaper of chess news and current annotated games (one or two such from top events, annotations normally by Baburin). On a less regular basis, there have been interviews (with, e.g., Ponomariev and Ivanchuk), endgame studies and some instruction. Chess Today comes via email in a zipped file, and contains the newspaper, to be read by Adobe Acrobat Reader (free), and a ChessBase file of the annotated games that appear in the newspaper. Chess Today costs $15 for a 4-month subscription, which amount to about 12-13 cents per issue (2-3 pages). For further information, go to www.chesstoday.net . I think that TWIC readers are probably the type to whom Chess Today will most appeal, in that they are interested in chess news and would like to have well-annotated games culled from the mass of material out there. Many fans don't have the time to surf the net and visit various tournament sites. This could be a good solution for them.
I haven't written much about game collections since my very first review. Now Everyman has produced two excellent ones about our world champions (Braingames and FIDE). Both have high production value, at least from the standpoint of a non-expert who values a nice cover, readable type, and the like.
'Khalifman: Life and Games', by Gennady Nesis (208 pages, Everyman 2000) contains 96 annotated games, some by Khalifman himself, with a chess (not personal) biography interlaced through the book. The biographical material is highlighted by an extremely interesting 18-page interview with Khalifman, most of it in one place with 2 excerpts in other parts of the book. Nesis is an experienced writer and annotator--his and Khalifman's notes are deep and indicative of the subtlety of key positions. The games are the essence of the book, many of them exciting and some of them stunning.
Vladimir Kramnik and Iakov Damsky's 'Kramnik: My Life and Games' (Everyman 2000) includes 128 games, 53 annotated in detail (140 pages) by Kramnik, and most of the rest annotated by Damsky, often based upon Kramnik's notes. This is also a chess biography. Damsky's observations are sometimes quite insightful, for example, regarding Kramnik's early difficulty in converting advantages into wins, something that I believe has continued in the past two years. Broader changes in Kramnik's style are also noted (and he's only 25!). However, I don't see any reference to Kramnik's astonishing resourcefulness in inferior positions, which continued to surface in the Kasparov match. Most of the book is devoted to games, thankfully, because Damsky's writing is painfully awkward, full of excuses for even the slightest Kramnik slip-up. Sometimes, he tends so strongly towards adulation and exaggeration that one is almost reminded (without the politics) of the horrendous propagandistic style of some Soviet chess writers in the old days (or, for that matter, of several American writers from the same periods). Damsky's 'constant' use of single quotation marks is very 'irritating' and largely 'meaningless'. But the surprising problem is with the translation, an area I seldom comment upon. Regardless of Damsky's style, his intent is usually clear and sentences could easily be made to read well by a simple transposition of words. There appear throughout glaring lapses of elementary grammar and style that would lead one to think that the translator doesn't speak English. Remarkably, when we look at the Khalifman book, it reads very well and there are few or no such problems. Yet both books have the same translator! I'm not sure if this has something to do with Nesis' and Damsky's respective writing styles or with the translator's degree of care, but certainly the editors and proofreaders should share in the blame (or praise).
Okay, I've gone on too long about something relatively inessential. I very much recommend both of these books, and should emphasize that both have a remarkable number of games that deserve the appellation 'brilliant'. (Uh-oh, I'd better 'stop' right now, before I get into 'hot water').
John S Hilbert has written two recent books on facets of American chess history. The first, in which I initially had very little interest, has begun to grow upon me: 'Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master' (481 pages, Caissa Editions 2000). Whitaker was one of the stronger players in US Chess of the 1920s and 30s, and was awarded an IM title by FIDE in 1965 (perhaps justified if we compare the weak players who have received retrospective 'GM' titles). Like many chessplayers, he was a bizarre character. Unlike them, he spent considerable time in prison (including Alcatraz) and engaged in activities ranging from car theft and blackmail to drug-dealing, bootlegging, attempted bribery, fleecing heiresses, and hoodwinking just about everyone in his life. All this after beginning as a lawyer specializing in patents! Hilbert has done an astonishing amount of research, and his lengthy book adopts a scholarly tone at times, one that that may not excite all readers. One may prefer to browse through this book rather than digest it straight through. All is not criminal adventure here; a good deal of 'Shady Side' relates to Whitaker's chess activities (also amusing and controversial), his career and his games. I don't have time to fully describe it, but for any chess historian or collector, this book is a must. I think that many other players who enjoy the tales of chess as well as the game will find it a treat. I know that I do.
I was quite interested to look through Hilbert and Peter Lahde's 200-page 'New York 1936: The First Modern United States Chess Championship' (I wish he'd cut down on the length of these titles!), published this year by Chess Archaeology Press. This is a fascinating epoch for US Chess, marked by the decline of Marshall, Olympiad successes, and the maturing of world-class players like Fine and Reshevsky. The book covers both qualifying events and the Finals, a 16-player round robin. Reshevsky finished 1st, followed by Albert Simonson in second and Fine third. The book concentrates on the history of the US Champion's title (long held by Marshall), events leading up to the tournament, and contemporary accounts. Regardless of the specific outcome, the games show Reshevsky, Fine, and Kashdan (5th) to be the most sophisticated and doubtless strongest players, with a surprising lack of depth in the rest of the field (perhaps excepting Simonson, who is solid and appears to wait for the opponent's mistakes. I know nothing else about him). That times have changed is indicated by the poor and mistake-riddled game that is awarded the brilliancy prize, probably because all the best players had fairly solid positional styles and didn't have anything flashy to offer.
'Informant #79' (Z Krnic, editor; 371 pages, Chess Informant 2000) is still the #1 publication for serious and advanced players. 569 games with in-depth annotations followed by a special section on Anand with 35 of his games. Best games and novelties from the previous edition, etc. We've looked at Informant before in this column; the truly serious student could probably survive and thrive with this publication alone.
'ECO 'C', 4th edition' (Z Krnic, editor; 568 pages; Chess Informant 2000) is included here because the Encyclopedias are such important works, traditionally favourites of the top players and authors throughout the world. I must agree with other commentators that the ECO volumes have lost some of their lustre since they stopped having explicitly-named individual IM and GM analysts in charge of each section. Today's Encyclopedias are almost exclusively compendia of Informant games and annotations, without original ideas by the compiler. Of course, they can still be enormously useful, both because many don't have a database with those games and notes, and also because the information is sorted organized according to the importance of each line. For the average player, ECOs are mostly useful if they deal with the player's favourite openings. Otherwise, some may want to get much of the same information in condensed form by using the one-volume Small ECO ('SECO'), which is also easier to carry to a tournament.
'The Modern Defence' by Jon Speelman and Neil McDonald (160 pages; Everyman 2000) covers 1 e4 g6 2 d4 Bg7 (in Chapters 1-4, by McDonald) and 1 d4 g6 2 c4 Bg7 (in Chapters 5-9, by Speelman). Another long overdue book, with the added bonus that we get to enjoy more fascinating analysis by Speelman. I've only looked at a few games analysed by each author, and can't judge whether the book is truly comprehensive (that exemplary game technique again!). But I'm immediately annoyed by the lack of even a simple index for this most transpositional of openings. The authors' facile advice is that 'if you don't see the move or idea you want to study, look at the nearest variation you can to find it'. Given the past record of such books, I am suspicious, and the devotion of more space to the Gurgenidze System than all other 1 e4 g6 lines doesn't help. But this book would not be in the present review unless I thought it was at least worth your attention. From what I have seen, the presentation is excellent, which would not surprise anyone familiar with the authors. I know of no other recent book that covers this fascinating and important opening, which is employed by so many top players as a second or third system (although rarely as their main defence). Strangely, the Modern Defence is almost two separate books, with McDonald devoting gobs and gobs of space to verbal explanation and Speelman (as one might expect) getting down and dirty with analysis and showing his concern for issues of theory. I would prefer Speelman's approach in any case, but the more so here because McDonald can't possibly spare so much space and still do justice to his assigned variations. They would require more than his allotted 61 pages to cover with minimal depth anyway. Regardless of its schizophrenic quality, these are first-rate authors, and anyone who wants to know more about the Modern Defence should consider buying this book.
Sid Pickard is offering e-book versions of two works from the 19th century: 'Henry Bird's Chess Masterpieces', by Henry Bird, and 'Common Sense in Chess' by Emanuel Lasker. The books are in ChessBase format, and the free program ChessBase Light is more than sufficient to read them. Descriptions and ordering information can be found at www.chesscentral.com. (I should also point out that a huge, quite inexpensive database of admittedly 'second-tier' quality can be found there as well-2.33 million games!). Anyway, I prefer the Bird e-book, which contains 157 games annotated by Bird (some very briefly). It is historically interesting and importantly, I haven't seen it before. Lasker's famous lecture series is fairly short, but may appeal to those in search of a vehicle for elementary instruction.
In my next column, I'm going to try to lay out some guidelines for assessing opening books given the new state of databases and analytical engines. A book which is rather mysterious in this respect is Lasha Janjgava's 'The Queen's Gambit & Catalan for Black' (192 pages; Gambit 2000), translated by Graham Burgess (I am no longer impressed by the immense output of 'Graham Burgess', by the way-it has become obvious to me that there are two Graham Burgesses, neither of which ever sleeps or takes a vacation). Janjgava, a Georgian GM, presents a repertoire for Black with 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6. We are not certain from the introduction whether or to what extent he used either databases or computer playing programs. One would guess that he used the former but not the latter. In any case, in the long-standing battle between theoretical minimalists ('just the moves, ma'am'...'Whyÿ Because it's there!') and metaphysicians ('White's move is justified by the following 47 positional considerations, all shown by arrows and colours in the diagram...'), Janjgava clearly allies himself with the former camp. In his 183 pages of game excerpts and analysis (followed by an excellent Index), I found only of couple of brief concessions to the idea that explanation of ideas or strategies is worthwhile. The strange thing is that this has been the traditional approach to opening books, whether one goes back to the 19th century or well into the second half of this one. Only recently have we assumed that a reader will be either bored or intimidated by 'pure' theory without any window dressing. In the case of the book before us, I think that not only an advanced competitor, but also a club player who has dabbled with the Queen's Gambit Declined for some years, might find the material of great interest. The question is how one, as a consumer of chess information, prefers to absorb it. The Queen's Gambit & Catalan offers the reader one line against each White system, except in the case of the main line QGD (with White playing Nc3, Nf3, Bg5 and e3), when Black has the choice between the Lasker Defence with ...h6 and ...Ne4 and the Tartakower Defence with ...h6 and ...b6. Against the Catalan, the emphasis is on 'open' lines involving ...dxc4. With all the books on topical modern openings, it is interesting to see one recommend a solid classical approach from Black's point of view. This alone makes it of note. The goal, explicitly stated by the author, is to gain 'good prospects of full equality' and then have 'chances to play for the full point if White is imprecise or overambitious'. Against strong opposition in particular, it's hard to argue with such an approach. The drawback against an inferior opponent is that one often ends up under very slight pressure with no positive prospects, and must at best simplify to positions with no winning chances. Thus a 1...d5/2...e6 repertoire might be a good second system, or a complete solution for someone frustrated with the various Indian Defences. I haven't examined Janjgava's book closely, but there is plenty of specific analysis, and the chosen systems will clearly suffice to get you out of the opening with a decent middlegame ahead of you.
Finally, I want to mention the strangest chess book I have received of late (although the Whitaker book is a close competitor): 'The Turk, Chess Automaton', by Gerald Levitt (258 pages; McFarland 2000). This deeply-researched book deals at great length with the famous 'chessplaying machine' of the 18th- and 19th century that captured the imagination of the world (especially Europe), and in particular, the non-or-weak-playing world of the rich and famous, including many rulers and scientists. The ingenious mechanism by which strong players were stuffed into this machine and able to see and manipulate the pieces is thoroughly described. As with Whitaker's book, I at first had little interest in this book, but now I just love browsing through it from time to time. The book includes articles, games, and more that I don't have room to describe. Amazingly, the Turk was fully reconstructed in our time using only 18th century technology; it cost $120,000 to do so! McFarland's production of the hardback volume once again surpasses that of any other currently-published chess books that I know of. Especially when one considers the price ($50), this book will mostly appeal to collectors and historians (every one of them, I would think!), and those who simply delight in the eccentricities of chess history. Be forewarned that many tournament players will find the material (especially the games and scholarly material) too arcane and often dull, but I find it a lot of fun, and if you have the money and want something completely different...