John Watson Book Reviews (95)
New Editions. John Watson Book Review #95
IM John Watson - Saturday 1st May 2010
Nottingham 1936. One of the books John Watson looks at in his new column. | http://www.theweekinchess.com
There have been modern editions of some truly legendary chess books recently, as well as some books not well known outside the English-speaking World. John Watson looks at a number of them including Alekhine's books on New York 1924 and Nottingham 1936, and Georg Marco's great volume on Karlsbad 1907, which is not so well known but a really great book.
#95 New Editions of Classics, etc.
For once I don't have to feel guilty about waiting so long between columns. With opening books, to be sure, the unfortunate author loses sales with every passing month, so early publicity is useful. But the books and DVDs in this and the next columns shouldn't lose their relevance. They either contribute to preserving the history of our game, as in this column, or deal with topics of general interests. For example, at the end of the last century there was a decades-long decline in the number of serious tournament and match books published in English. Now we've seen their reappearance, not only with coverage of major contemporary events, but also with the revival of the masterworks from the 19th- and early 20th centuries by a number of dedicated publishers. This type of book was the backbone of chess literature until after World War II. I'll take a look at them first, and in succeeding columns examine I'll examine some specialised works (about, e.g., blindfold chess, chess reminiscences, problems, and the philosophic sides of chess). As always, there are new games collections to discuss, auto-biographical and otherwise. I find it refreshing that the multitudes of books about openings, endgames, attacking, improvement and tactics, are sharing the market with works that are a step or more detached from the unabashed pursuit of practical results.
Botvinnik - Smyslov, Three World Chess Championship Matches: 1954, 1957, 1958; Mikhail Botvinnik; 288 pages; New in Chess 2009
Chicago 1926, Lake Hopatcong 1926 Chess Tournaments; Robert Sherwood; 197 pages; Caissa Editions 2009
Karlsbad 1907; Georg Marco & Carl Schlechter; 475 pages (Hardcover); Caissa Editions 2007
Chess Results 1951-1955; Gino Di Felice; 591 pages; McFarland 2010
Chess Results 1956-1960; Gino Di Felice; 582 pages; McFarland 2010
New York 1924; Alexander Alekhine; 352 pages; Russell Enterprises 2008
Petersburg 1909; Emanuel Lasker; 192 pages; Russell Enterprises 2008
Nottingham 1936; Alexander Alekhine; 195pages; Russell 2009
Lasker's Manual of Chess; Emanuel Lasker, 277pages; Russell Enterprises 2008
Modern Ideas in Chess; Richard Réti, 128pages; Russell 2010
In column 88 I talked about some World Championship match books: one by Kramnik's team, and another by Topalov's, and a third about Karpov's matches. Kasparov's Predecessors series is also match-oriented, in that the drama of World Championships takes precedence over tournament accounts. That goes still further in the second and third of his "Modern Chess" books, which are descriptions of his matches with Karpov. I'll cover those in the near future. Last year, New in Chess published an English version of Botvinnik - Smyslov, Three World Chess Championship Matches: 1954, 1957, 1958. The book was compiled from Botvinnik's writings by his nephew Igor Botvinnik. Every game of all three matches is annotated, almost all by Botvinnik. It's surprising, almost amazing, that this thorough account by one of the participants of some of the most important matches in history wasn't immediately made accessible to English-speakers. After all, apart from Kasparov-Karpov, it's the only time in the World Championship that the same opponents have fought it out in three separate full-length matches (depending upon how you view the Karpov-Korchnoi Candidates Finals match). And these matches were wonderfully competitive: Smyslov lost two of the matches, but came up plus-one in the overall game score (35-34). Incidentally, my Column 81 reviews the two volumes of Smyslov's Best Games, by the recently departed Vasily Smyslov himself (Moravian Press).
Botvinnik made substantial preparatory notes before the matches, of which those to the second and third matches are given in the book. These are entirely about openings, although the introduction to his notebook for the second match is revealing and confirms his reputation for discipline:
"Plan of preparation starting 25 November:
- Collect all Smyslov games played since 1 March 1954.
- Make a card index of openings.
- Draw up overall characteristics, after studying games and card index.
- Look at Olympiad, Alekhine Memorial, theoretical bulletins, semifinals and finals (of Soviet Championships - translator's note), etc, and pick out anything valuable.
- Prepare openings for 12 Black and 12 White games.
- Test these in two sets of training games - 1-15 January, 6 games, 1-15 February 6 games. Total 12 games. Check the rest in home analysis.
- Physical preparation:
a) Spend not less than 4 days each week at the dacha, except for the periods 1-1 January and 1-15 February, when no. of days at the dacha should be no less than 6 per week.
b) Skiing, showers, salt-baths, ice-skating, walking, sleeping with window ajar, see dentist, exercises."
Botvinnik prepares his openings in a way that a modern master might, but with charmingly little detail by comparison. As was the wont at that time, he would concentrate upon a set of major variations, often using games by his contemporaries, comparing them and finding improvements. Sometimes the entire preparation in a variation looks to be purely his analysis, although partly this is because he usually doesn't cite games as he goes along. The comments, being private, can be amusing in view of his reputation as the cool and confident champion; in fact, he resembles the rest of us, for example,
"Correct is 8...0-0 9 Be2!! Na5 (9...Nb8 10 f3!!) 10 f3!!. It's important to threaten e4 before ...c6 and ...Qb6[analysis continues]...Nonsense. Correct is 10 0-0 and on 10...c6 - 11 e4!:
"Rubbish is 9...c5! ?? Maybe not rubbish: 10 d5..." [analysis continues]
[In one long piece of analysis, at the end:]"Whole analysis deserves question mark"!
"8 Ne5 b6!! After the manoeuvre Nf3-e5-d3, the queen does nothing on h5. Coincidentally, Rab1 is routine - better the immediate Nd3 (threat Nf4) and b4! Then Bb7, Bd6, and Qc7 - Very Good!
Extremely important. Maybe nonsense.
More interesting is 8...Nbd7..."
The state of theory is revealing. He says that after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2, "it appears 3...a6 [given as the main move] is obligatory. It is not!! After 3..c5 4 exd5 exd5 5 Bb5+ Nc6 6 Ngf3 Bd6 7 0-0 cxd4 8 Nb3 Ne7, Averbach's move 9 Bxc6+ is a bluff, since one can play 9...bxc6 10 Qxd4 Nf5!! 11 Re1+ Be6 and neither 12 Qc3 Qd7 nor 12 Qa4 Qc7 gives White anything!!"
Then he continues with the 3...a6 main line.
You could treat this as a limited example of the idea that chess understanding has evolved, or at least expanded, since today anyone at International Master level or higher (and many players below that), will more or less instantly feel that 9 Bxc6+ is harmless, and find 10...Nf5 right away, without a computer. As you might expect, the analysis of some other openings include misunderstandings of fairly simple positional ideas that we have mastered today, but remember that this is after hundreds of games in similar positions.
The matches themselves are dramatic, back-and-forth affairs, and of course that is the essence of the book, which I'll leave to you to enjoy. One consistent observation that Botvinnik makes is that Smyslov will rush to exchange queens when given any opportunity. Sometimes this is simply noted, but on other occasions it is a criticism, i.e., the exchange is not objectively correct. Botvinnik's main self-criticism is that his 'old illness, a lack of combinative vision' costs him several points; this seems fair. As a whole, I would say that Botvinnik played the endgames quite as well as Smyslov in these matches, often better, mostly due to positions in which his calculations outmatched Smyslov's intuitive (and sometimes hurried) moves. Botvinnik's judgment is spot on when he says, regarding the third match:
'The reader can see Smyslov's usual virtuoso endgame play in the 5th and, especially, the 16th game. Unfortunately, in some other games, Smyslov did not fully justify his reputation as a subtle endgame specialist. Insufficiently deep endgame play resulted in Smyslov missing chances in Games 4 and 14, and in Game 18, and maybe also in Games 6 and 17. Isn't this rather a lot for one World Championship match, and isn't this poor endgame play the main cause of Smyslov's failure in the matchÿ'
Botvinnik's notes are nothing if not readable: mostly prose, with analysis usually limited to one main line for a game move (although some analysis, in particular about the endgames, is naturally deeper). Because of this, it's a good book to read casually, gleaning insights which you're not likely to find elsewhere. I recommended it highly.
Chess history buffs have a lot to be excited about recently, in part because of the contributions of Dale Brandreth's Caissa Editions, which are high-quality limited editions, including both original books and republished classics. The latter are not scanned reprints but independent editions, with historical background, rare photographs, algebraic notation, and other features. Some are fully translated from the author's original language. Caissa Edition books are exhaustively researched, often adding many games not available anywhere else, or at least not in databases'; they are mostly in hardback. Brandreth is the author or co-author of many of them, and contributor to most if not all. At a minimum he serves as editor and historical researcher.
Chicago 1926 / Lake Hopatcong 1926 Chess Tournaments is the most recent Caissa Editions publication that I've gotten. Bob Sherwood wrote this book with research help from Brandreth. Two tournaments are combined within the same hardcover book, which makes sense given the overlap of participants. Sherwood himself annotated every game, with the exception of a few that couldn't be reconstructed. Marshall won the Chicago event, a 13-player Round Robin, a half point ahead of Maroczy and Torre. Other notable participants were Jaffe, Kupchik, Kashdan, Showalter, and Edward Lasker. Lake Hopatcong 1926 is perhaps slightly better known because Capablanca participated and won. The event was a closed affair with Capablanca, Kupchik, Maroczy, Marshall, and Edward Lasker. Dale Brandreth provides the historical material for the events and players, with photographs, caricatures, crosstables, and indices.
One of the most impressive tournament books ever written is the Karlsbad 1907 International Chess Tournament by Georg Marco and Carl Schechter. In fact, Jeremy Silman has called it "one of the best (if not THE best) tournament books ever written." Bob Sherwood's English translation of Marco's work in German runs 450 pages which also includes extensive notes by Karl Schlechter. It's an algebraic edition, with 15 new photos of the players. Dale Brandreth edits and adds historical material.
|Karlsbad August 20 to September 17, 1907|
|1||Akiba Rubinstein||Russian Empire / Poland||x||½||½||0||½||½||1||1||1||½||1||1||0||1||1||1||1||½||1||1||1||15.0|
|2||Geza Maroczy||Austria-Hungary / Hungary||½||x||0||½||½||½||½||1||1||½||1||½||1||1||1||½||1||½||1||1||1||14.5|
|3||Paul Saladin Leonhardt||German Empire / Poland||½||1||x||½||0||1||½||1||½||½||½||1||½||1||1||½||½||1||1||0||1||13.5|
|4||Aron Nimzowitsch||Russian Empire / Latvia||1||½||½||x||1||½||½||½||½||½||0||0||½||0||1||½||1||1||1||1||1||12.5|
|5||Carl Schlechter||Austria-Hungary / Austria||½||½||1||0||x||½||0||½||0||½||½||½||½||1||1||1||½||1||1||1||1||12.5|
|6||Milan Vidmar||Austria-Hungary / Slovenia||½||½||0||½||½||x||1||1||½||1||0||1||1||1||0||½||1||1||1||0||0||12.0|
|7||Richard Teichmann||German Empire / Thuringia||0||½||½||½||1||0||x||0||1||1||½||½||1||1||½||½||0||½||½||1||1||11.5|
|8||Oldrich Duras||Austria-Hungary / Bohemia||0||0||0||½||½||0||1||x||0||0||½||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||0||11.5|
|9||Gersz Salwe||Russian Empire / Poland||0||0||½||½||1||½||0||1||x||½||½||0||0||½||1||1||½||1||1||1||½||11.0|
|10||Heinrich Wolf||Austria-Hungary / Austria||½||½||½||½||½||0||0||1||½||x||½||½||1||1||1||½||1||0||0||½||½||10.5|
|11||Frank James Marshall||United States / New York||0||0||½||1||½||1||½||½||½||½||x||1||½||0||0||½||0||0||1||1||1||10.0|
|12||Fedor Duz-Khotimirsky||Russian Empire / Ukraine||0||½||0||1||½||0||½||0||1||½||0||x||1||0||1||1||0||1||0||1||1||10.0|
|13||Rudolf Spielmann||Austria-Hungary / Austria||1||0||½||½||½||0||0||0||1||0||½||0||x||0||1||½||0||1||1||1||1||9.5|
|14||Savielly Tartakower||Austria-Hungary / Poland||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||½||0||1||1||1||x||0||½||1||0||1||1||1||9.0|
|15||Dawid Janowski||France / Poland||0||0||0||0||0||1||½||0||0||0||1||0||0||1||x||1||1||1||0||1||1||8.5|
|16||Johann Berger||Austria-Hungary / Austria||0||½||½||½||0||½||½||0||0||½||½||0||½||½||0||x||1||1||0||½||½||7.5|
|17||Mikhail Chigorin||Russian Empire / Russia||0||0||½||0||½||0||1||0||½||0||1||1||1||0||0||0||x||0||1||0||1||7.5|
|18||Jacques Mieses||German Empire / Saxony||½||½||0||0||0||0||½||0||0||1||1||0||0||1||0||0||1||x||1||1||0||7.5|
|19||Adolf Georg Olland||Netherlands / Utrecht||0||0||0||0||0||0||½||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||1||1||0||0||x||1||1||6.5|
|20||Erich Cohn||German Empire / Brandenburg||0||0||1||0||0||1||0||0||0||½||0||0||0||0||0||½||1||0||0||x||1||5.0|
|21||Paul Johner||Switzerland / Zuerich||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||½||½||0||0||0||0||0||½||0||1||0||0||x||4.5|
There is a lot more prose involved in this book than in an analogous contemporary book, so Sherwood's translation must have taken an extraordinary amount of time and effort. He also makes his own notes about the games, corrects analysis with the help of Rybka, and updates the notation. Karlsbad 1907 was one of the classic round robin events of chess history, with 21 players, won by Rubinstein ahead of Maroczy, Leonhardt, Nimzowitsch, Schlechter, Duras, Marshall, Spielmann, Tartakower, Janowsky, Teichmann, Chigorin, and others. Marco's notes are colorful, insightful, and sometimes humorous. Every reviewer has strongly recommended this book, and I concur.
In columns 80 and 88 I have commented upon Gino Di Felice's colossal research project Chess Results, so I'll simply report that the newest volumes Chess Results 1951-1955 and Chess Results 1956-1960 have appeared, with 1620 and 1390 tournament crosstables, respectively, along with 144 and 142 match scores. Nigel Short tells me that going through crosstables is his favorite reading practice; these volumes should last him a while. Di Felice has done an immense service for the chess community, and McFarland deserves accolades for taking on this project. Incidentally, unlike most McFarland books, these are softcover, which keeps the price within reachable bounds for the average collector. Only Volume 1 covering 1747 - 1900 is apparently in hardback (I don't own a copy).
Hanon Russell, the publisher of Russell Enterprises, and has been contributing mightily to the renewal of older literature. In the past two years, Russell has published five new editions of books from the literature of the first half of the 19th century. In every case, he has brought editions written with English Descriptive Notation up to date by translating the notation to algebraic, and enhanced the books in other ways.
Alexander Alekhine's New York 1924 is widely considered the best or one of the best tournament books of all time. Several guests on my ChessFM internet radio show, who are predominantly GMs, IMs, and authors, have chosen it among their 3-5 favourite books in any genre. Apart from Alekhine's wonderful annotations, which have made the book stand out above others, we have the strength and sheer drama of the event. The list of players is on a level with the greatest pre-modern tournaments. Arguably a few events such as London 1883, Hastings 1995, and AVRO 1938 were stronger (see, for example, the lists of ranked players in ChessBase's The Greatest Tournaments), but the competition between the Champion Capablanca, his aging predecessor Lasker, and his brilliant successor Alekhine is a story line which is still more intriguing in hindsight. Lasker's victory was both shocking and inspiring, while Capablanca's run in the second half is similar to Fischer's mad but also unsuccessful dash to defeat Spassky in the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup. The next rank included some of the most important and interesting chess players and writers ever: Marshall, Reti, Maroczy, Bogoljubow, Tartakower, Yates, Edward Lasker, and Janowsky. These were fighting players with contrasting styles, and in fact there are almost no short draws to be found in the entire 110-game event.
|New York March 16th - April 18th 1924|
|2||Jose Raúl Capablanca||Cuba||½1||xx||½½||½½||01||½1||11||11||1½||½1||½1||14.5|
|4||Frank Marshall||United States||½0||½½||½½||xx||½1||0½||01||½0||½1||1½||11||11|
|7||Efim Bogoljubow||Soviet Union||00||00||½½||10||10||10||xx||01||11||½1||01||9.5|
|10||Edward Lasker||United States||½0||½0||½½||0½||01||½0||½0||½1||00||xx||0½||6.5|
Apart from the change to algebraic notation, the new edition is faithful to the original, adding more diagrams but leaving the notes untouched. I'm glad that the publisher decided to go this way; using engines to make improvements is not a terrible thing to do, but on balance I'm more interested in the flow of the notes and narrative. Alekhine's essay on the openings is also impressive and fun to read, more so than if you had to wade through pages of updated analysis. As Russell says, you're free to run the analysis through a computer engine if you wish.
Alekhine shattered all previous chess writing standards with the depth, insight, and accuracy of his annotations, including assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the participants. His verbal explanations enliven the analysis, and the play itself is more imaginative than in any event up to that time, again a consequence of having such creative and uncompromising players. If you're looking for a reason to rank New York 1924 above all early tournaments, you can argue that the existence of this legendary book itself puts it above the others.
A lesser-known and shorter work (192 pages) is Emanuel Lasker's Petersburg 1909, translated into English by Teichman, and transcribed into algebraic by Russell. St. Petersburg was not as strong as New York 1924. At the top were the world's numbers 1,4,5,6, and 7 players, with no others in the top 10. But this understates the competitive drama, because Rubinstein, who finished tied for first with Lasker (a full 4 points ahead of the field), was soon to be, if not already, the world's de facto number two. The fight between the two was incredibly exciting, with Lasker having to win his last game to catch up.
The other participants included some of the best of the day, and represented a wide geographic swath, as shown in the book's list, as follows:
- America: E. Lasker
- Germany: Cohn, J. Mieses, R. Spielmann, R. Teichmann
- England: Burn
- Holland: Speijer
- Austria: J. Perlis, C. Schlechter, S. Tartakower, M. Vidmar
- Russia: O. S. Bernstein, F. J. Dus-Chotimirsky, S. N. von Freiman, V. I.
- Nenarokov, A. K. Rubinstein, G. F. Salwe, Eugene A. Znosko-Borovsky (Carl Rosenkrantz retired from the tournament in order to enable Dr. Perlis, who was by chance in St. Petersburg, to participate.)
- Bohemia: Duras
- Hungary: Forgács
|St Petersburg 14 February to 12 March 1909|
|1||Akiba Rubinstein||Russian Empire/ Poland||*||1||1||1||½||½||½||1||1||1||½||1||0||1||½||1||1||1||1||14½|
|2||Emanuel Lasker||German Empire||0||*||½||1||½||1||1||1||½||1||1||1||0||1||1||1||1||1||1||14½|
|3||Rudolf Spielmann||Austria-Hungary/ Austria||0||½||*||1||0||1||1||½||1||½||½||½||1||0||½||1||½||½||1||11|
|4||Oldrich Duras||Austria-Hungary/ Bohemia||0||0||0||*||0||1||½||0||½||1||0||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||11|
|5||Ossip Bernstein||Russian Empire/ Ukraine||½||½||1||1||*||0||1||0||1||1||1||1||½||0||0||0||½||½||1||10½|
|6||Richard Teichmann||German Empire||½||0||0||0||1||*||0||½||½||½||½||1||1||½||1||½||1||1||½||10|
|7||Julius Perlis||Austria-Hungary/ Poland||½||0||0||½||0||1||*||½||½||1||½||1||1||½||1||½||0||0||1||9½|
|8||Erich Cohn||German Empire||0||0||½||1||1||½||½||*||0||0||1||½||½||0||½||½||½||1||1||9|
|9||Carl Schlechter||Austria-Hungary/ Austria||0||½||0||½||0||½||½||1||*||1||0||0||1||1||½||0||1||½||1||9|
|10||Gersz Salwe||Russian Empire/ Poland||0||0||½||0||0||½||0||1||0||*||½||1||1||1||½||0||1||1||1||9|
|11||Savielly Tartakower||Austria-Hungary/ Poland||½||0||½||1||0||½||½||0||1||½||*||0||0||0||½||1||1||1||½||8½|
|12||Jacques Mieses||German Empire||0||0||½||0||0||0||0||½||1||0||1||*||½||1||1||1||0||1||1||8½|
|13||Fyodor Duz-Khotimirsky||Russian Empire/ Ukraine||1||1||0||0||½||0||0||½||0||0||1||½||*||½||½||½||1||0||1||8|
|14||Leo Forgacs||Austria-Hungary/ Hungary||0||0||1||0||1||½||½||1||0||0||1||0||½||*||½||½||½||0||½||7½|
|16||Milan Vidmar||Austria-Hungary/ Slovenia||0||0||0||0||1||½||½||½||1||1||0||0||½||½||0||*||½||1||0||7|
|18||Sergey von Freymann||Russian Empire||0||0||½||0||½||0||1||0||½||0||0||0||1||1||½||0||½||*||0||5½|
|19||Eugene Znosko-Borovsky||Russian Empire||0||0||0||0||0||½||0||0||0||0||½||0||0||½||1||1||½||1||*||5|
In the Foreword, Tim Harding points out that in the All-Russian championship, played simultaneously, the young Alekhine won convincingly with 13/16, earning his master title.
The opening index reveals the dominance of the Ruy Lopez and Queen's Gambit Declined. Except for a moderate number of French Defences and some Vienna Games and Four Knights Openings, nothing else is played with any frequency.
As an author, Lasker is no Marco, and the notes are extremely matter-of-fact. But the way he spots mistaken strategies and inaccurate technique reveals his class, and most notes are pitched at a low enough level to be of use to any developing player. I was completely unaware that this book existed, and applaud Russell for bringing it into the modern world.
Nottingham 1936 is another classic by Alekhine; the tournament is particularly fascinating because of its combination of the old and new guard across several generations. In terms of pure strength, it included the number 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 players in the world. Among them were three former champions (Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine), continuous holders of the title stretching back to 1894, the current one (Euwe), and a future one, Botvinnik, who would not only succeed Euwe but who would only relinquish the title for the last time in 1963! Bogoljubow was of course a two-time challenger, and one of the underrated powerhouses in the annals of chess. As if that weren't enough, we find the old guard challenged by the likes of legends who were themselves within reach of World Championships: Reshevsky, Fine, and Flohr.
|Nottingham August 10th-28th 1936|
|1||Mikhail Botvinnik||Soviet Union||x||½||½||½||½||½||½||½||1||1||1||1||1||1||½||10|
|2||Jose Raúl Capablanca||Cuba||½||x||½||½||1||1||0||½||1||½||½||1||1||1||1||10|
|4||Reuben Fine||United States||½||½||½||x||½||½||½||1||½||1||½||1||1||½||1||9½|
|5||Samuel Reshevsky||United States||½||0||0||½||x||1||½||1||1||1||½||1||1||1||½||9½|
|8||Emanuel Lasker||Soviet Union||½||½||1||0||0||½||0||x||½||1||½||1||1||1||1||8½|
|12||Theodore Tylor||United Kingdom||0||0||0||0||0||½||1||0||½||0||1||x||½||½||½||4½|
|13||C.H.O'D Alexander||United Kingdom||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||1||½||x||½||½||3½|
|14||George Alan Thomas||United Kingdom||0||0||0||½||0||½||0||0||½||0||0||½||½||x||½||3|
|15||William Winter||United Kingdom||½||0||0||0||½||0||0||0||0||0||0||½||½||½||x||2½|
Alekhine’s annotations are sparer than in New York 1924 (Nottingham 1936 is only 195 not-very-dense pages long) but still full of interesting opinions and criticisms. Andy Soltis in the Foreword feels that Alekhine has become more mature and objective in his comments. It seems to me that the ratio of words to variations is much higher than in his earlier work, which at any rate makes it easy to follow the book even without a board. This is a classic work which anyone who loves the history of the game will want to own.
Although Lasker's Manual of Chess is in the category of instructional books, which I generally do not review, I should at least mention that it too has a new edition, published by Russell, in algebraic notation. The book is physically very attractive, and differs from the original with photographs, some notes about Lasker's career, and computer-checked analysis. Taylor Kingston has done a fine job as editor of putting all this together. I miss his magnificent book reviews.
That brings us to Richard Réti's classic Modern Ideas in Chess, a book long overdue for an algebraic edition in English. It is undeniably the book that has had more influence than any other in shaping our view of the intellectual history of modern chess. In a remarkably short tome, Reti traces the evolution of chess thought from the early days of Anderssen and Morphy through Steinitz, Tarrasch and Lasker into his own time. The book was originally written as articles, mostly in 1921, and turned into a German book, with the heavily-revised and expanded English edition appearing in 1923 (as an aside, I was once involved in a similar project to put Reti's book into algebraic, and I retranslated all the sections of the German edition which survived into the English version. They needed it badly, but have been left intact here; perhaps we'll see some retranslation in a future revised edition). Reti has sections on Pillsbury, Schechter, Rubinstein, Bogoljubow, Breyer, Tartakower, Alekhine, and Capablanca, with beautifully-written philosophic essays about the nature and direction of chess, including a discussion of hypermodern ideas, and even some dabbling into the connection between culture and chess style. Each of the above players is characterized by their ideas and philosophies; this is done in a broad and charmingly romantic way, as though their games were primarily or at least substantially reflections of their philosophic and spiritual leanings. As far as I know, Modern Ideas in Chess was the first book to enter into this territory. As such, it had even more influence on people's thinking than if Reti's brilliant exposition were only one in a crowd of similar works.
Modern Ideas in Chess was my second or third chess book, and it was one of the most inspiring works I've read before or after; I'm not sure that I would have continued to play chess without it. Like many others, I grew up wedded to the wonderful and in some respects superhuman stereotypes that he introduced. Remarkably, Reti's portrayals of these players' styles not only became the received wisdom, but have been used in practically every popular and serious chess book that has appeared since! Even today, in his Predecessors series, Kasparov's view of early players (perhaps based upon Plisetsky's research) is heavily weighted in the direction of Reti's representations, that is, in the stereotyped portrayals which are used almost universally in the literature. Apart from using the overly familiar depictions introduced by Reti, Kasparov's nearly exclusive use of the most famous games of these players (including Reti's choices) reinforces the strong impression that he didn't attempt to form an independent assessment of these players' styles or thoughts, but simply bought into the conventional wisdom. I feel that this lack of originality (or curiosity) is one reason that his early volumes are inferior to the later ones. Nevertheless, this is certainly a tribute to Reti's lasting influence.
Few young players these days seem interested in chess history much less its intellectual history. For them, Modern Ideas in Chess would surely serve as a tonic, especially since it is short and such fun to read. Of course, that also goes for any adult who hasn't read it. Incidentally, my guests in those same ChessFM broadcasts mentioned above have often named it as one of their very favourite books. All told, it's hard to imagine how anyone interested in the history of chess or matters of chess style and philosophy could do without this book.
IM John Watson - Photo © Jonathan Berry
John Watson is an International Master, teacher, and author of numerous books, including the award-winning Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action. His most recent work is the 4-volume Mastering the Chess Openings. John writes for the website ChessPublishing and conducts weekly interviews of leading chess personalities on ChessFM (ICC).