John Watson Book Review (50)
Some General Works and Ongoing Favorites
IM John Watson - Thursday 9th January 2003
Heroic Tales: The Best of ChessCafe.com 1996-2001
edited by Taylor Kingston;
431 pages; Russell Enterprises 2002
The Steinitz Papers
325 pages; McFarland 2002
Walter Penn Shipley: Philadelphia's Friend of Chess
John S Hilbert;
442 pages; McFarland 2003
World Chess Championship Matches. Anthologies 1-3
311, 327, and 295 pages, respectively; Russian Chess House (Convekta) 2002
Masterpieces of Chess Composition (individual pamphlets on:) V. & M. Platovs, R. Reti & J. Fritz, Sam Lloyd
325 pages; McFarland 2002
Curse of Kirsan: Adventures in the Chess Underworld
285 pages; Russell Enterprises 2002
New in Chess Yearbooks #64 and #65
(both 236 pages); New in Chess 2002 and 2003
Chess Informants #84 and #85
Sahovski Informator; (341, 356 pages); 2002
Since I've been away from this column for so long, I have a large backlog of products and books that I think the readers will want to know about. So after a couple of relatively lengthy reviews in the last two columns, I'm going to make somewhat shorter comments on more products; these will be organized by subject, type (e.g., CDs will be next), and then by publisher. This time I want to mention some more general works.
Requiring some discussion and deserving a strong recommendation is Heroic Tales: The Best of ChessCafe.com 1996-2001 edited and organized by Taylor Kingston. This is a collection of articles from the Website ChessCafe.com, which I have often referred to and recommended in this column. It features a typical and broad selection of the site's authors. Here are some of those contributors (with their subjects and/or my descriptions in parentheses): Hanon Russell (the Site's founder and chief), Hans Ree (long-time international chess reporter), the late GM Tony Miles (witty grandmaster annotator), Tim Harding (opening articles), Carsten Hansen (IM and reviewer extraordinaire), Tim Krabbe ('Chess Curiosities' expert), Dan Heisman (teacher), Mark Dvoretsky (world-famous trainer and author), Karsten Mueller (endgame expert, co-author of Fundamental Chess Endings), Bruce Pandolfini (elementary teaching column), Gary Lane (strange openings), Geurt Gijssen (an International Arbiter), Richard Forster (IM and chess historian), Edward Winter (chess historian, ), Lev Alburt (the rare strong grandmaster who has devoted himself to teaching and many excellent books in that field), Burt Hochberg (former Chess Life editor, history), All these are established chess journalists with lengthy experience in the world of chess. Of the above, my own favourite columns are Ree, Krabbe, Forster, and Hansen.
Kingston himself is represented in both the History and Reviews sections; I always read his contributions the minute they appear. His chess book reviews are literate, widely read and enjoyably opinionated. They are also thorough and well thought out. He probably takes the strongest stand on books of any regular reviewer, whether praising or criticising them, and adduces plenty of arguments to support his view. I agree with his assessments almost of the time, although when I do disagree I tend to do so strongly. A case in point, indicative of both of our interests, was Jonathan Rowson's The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. Kingston absolutely shredded it. His objections had to do mostly with Rowson's obscure and sometimes pretentious prose and his confusing flights of fancy. Here and in general I think that Kingston's reviews tend to be more concerned with writing style, readability, logic and argument than with the chess side of things. Those factors are important and sometimes even the key to whether a book is good or bad, particularly when the content is unexceptional or lame. But I tend to judge the chess contribution first and the quality of the writing and coherence of the presentation secondarily. The chess contribution might consist of general insights, for example, or the game as it is played, e.g., illustrated by examples and commentary. Thus, while I substantially agree with Kingston's criticisms, my own feeling was (and is) that Rowson's book is nevertheless a classic: he says more pertinent, and I think valid things about chess psychology than all the books and articles that I have read on that subject combined. I also think that his concrete examples well illustrate his points and reflect his first-rate chess intelligence. Finally, it is a rare case of the truly original book. In a sense, therefore, Kingston and I may both be right about the book, but our priorities are quite different. He is of course also one of favourites on the site.
Returning to 'Heroic Tales' after that personal digression, I can perhaps simplify the reader's decision about whether to purchase a copy by the following guidelines: (a) If you go to the ChessCafe Website, sample the contributions, and like what you see, there's a very good chance that you'll also like this book. Regardless of whether the articles that Kingston has chosen are the best, they are still above average and make great reading; (b) If you just like reading about chess and aren't overly concerned with learning concrete opening theory or going over a great many games (neither a feature of most essays), then this is a book that should interest you; (c) Those interested in chess history and instruction will find a great deal to please them therein; (d) If you've read ChessCafe.com consistently for the years under consideration, you may conceivably find much of the book too familiar to be worth it.
I'm in category 'd', but I've had great fun reading all the articles that I missed and revisiting old ones anyway. I highly recommend this book as an entertaining general read that covers most areas of the game.
The only other non-periodical from the list above that I have read a great deal of is The Steinitz Papers by Kurt Landsberger. It is much more entertaining than one might think from the sound of the title. Just for fun, I've had it on my kitchen table for about a month and have been reading it every day at meals. One quickly realizes that the natural audience for this book, which consists mostly of scholarly research, will be collectors and those interested in chess history. It is a high-quality hardback and priced above what most ordinary players would want to pay for such a specialised book with only limited playing content. Landsberger, a great-grandnephew of Steinitz, already wrote William Steinitz, Chess Champion; here he gathers together a remarkable number of letters, notes, match agreements, newspaper articles, and more by and related to Steinitz. The good news is that much of this material is lively and entertaining. Steinitz himself was notoriously irascible, sarcastic, and entertaining; whereas his critics and enemies (constituting a large company) can be quite competitive in those regards. For example, Zukertort writes of Steinitz as "an opponent who prides himself on the scurrility of his speech and writings." The critic Hoffer says of Steinitz: "since he has grown fat, unfair and over forty, he has thrown off the mask and gives full play to the floodgates of his accumulated venom." It is well known that Steinitz' latter years were marked by terrible poverty and tragedy; reading the letters and accounts from that time is a touching reminder. The book has 24 pages of photographs, 8 of letters and samples of Steinitz' writing. I think the book deserves high praise, and it should be enjoyed by anyone who reads chess history.
'Walter Penn Shipley: Philadelphia's Friend of Chess' is a scholarly book by John Hilbert, one of the top historical writers around. I discussed his delightful and accessible work on Norman Whitaker in a previous column. This book is of at least as high a quality in terms of writing and research, but not as much fun; and as with the Steinitz book above, the average player probably won't want to spend the money necessary to get such a specialised work. However, there are many interesting games, some annotated very well by the omnipresent IM Richard Forster; so for those of you who like games from (mostly) 1890 to 1920, there is plenty to chomp on. Shipley was a strong player for his time, but apart from the vicissitudes of Philadelphia chess, the book's main interest for chess historians may well be his relationships with Steinitz, Lasker, and Capablanca. All lived in the U.S. for parts of their lives, and Shipley hosted, sponsored, and provided friendship and various kinds of help to these three (not the least by organizing tournaments). Significantly, Shipley served as arbiter for the negotiations for the Lasker-Capablanca match.
Hilbert's book contains 16 pages of very high-quality photographs, including 4 with Capablanca but otherwise of Shipley, his family, and some lesser figures. I admire this book greatly. It is another labor of love from Hilbert and is often fun to read, although there are some pages of the dullest correspondences. Unfortunately, this book will probably appeal to only a limited market. On the bright side, it fills out the historical record and should delight fans of that facet of the game.
Convekta Ltd. (the maker of Chess Assistant) has a Russian branch called the 'Russian Chess House', and they have produced a number of new books. Of these, 'The World Chess Championship Matches' seems to be the most thorough project, covering 3 volumes and some 900+ pages. All the World Championship matches are covered, naturally, and although there is a brief multilingual Preface, the volumes consist almost entirely of wordless annotated games. But before you turn the electronic page on me (and it), I should point out that the annotations include extensive notes from the championship contestants themselves and also from an impressive variety of leading grandmasters, many world-class players and contenders for the crown. This provides a cross-section of opinion and reflects a great deal of research. Whether the Russian School grandmasters are adding to these notes is unclear, but probably not, since I don't see them credited.
These volumes would be good tools for students who are highly motivated. By playing over these games systematically, they could learn just about everything about the development of chess and an enormous amount about the game itself. Even a lower rated but developing player can appreciate the great champions, and everyone can enjoy the drama of the world championships. These are nice hardback books with exotic cover designs that I find very attractive. Certainly someone who doesn't already have a complete set of the World Championship Matches should get one, and those who want high quality (but wordless) notes can be assured of finding them here.
Another Russian Chess House publication is 'Masterpieces of Chess Composition', a set of physically small books (a step up from pocket size) that each contain collections of 100 compositions from leading composers of studies and problems. Represented are V. & M. Platovs, R. Reti & J. Fritz, and Sam Lloyd (of whom I have only heard of Lloyd and Fritz, but who are all apparently well-known in that realm). They are wordless except for a very brief biographical introduction (a couple of paragraphs).
Sarah Hurst's Curse Of Kirsan is a collection of essays, mostly from articles that Hurst did for CHESS Magazine. Not too much of the book is about Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, which is perhaps good, since to my mind Hurst's journalism is not of the highest standard when dealing with this subject. In contrast, Hurst offers interesting portraits and interviews with all sorts of top players such as the Polgars, Xie Jun, Ponomariev, Alexander Baburin and a host of English chess personalities. She does this with a very personal style that places the events in the context of her own interest in chess and her adventures in finding and interviewing her subjects. I haven't read enough of this book to assess it, but if you like stories about chess and chess personalities, you can hardly go wrong.
It's hard to say much that I haven't said before about the next two publications, both published periodically. The first is increasingly popular among top players. New in Chess Yearbooks #64 and #65 consists mainly of opening surveys annotated by IMs and GMs; but I always turn immediately to the theoretical and often historical writing of Sosonko's Corner, and the remarkable letters/discussion forum, which consists of letters about theoretical issues and discoveries by top players. In #64 and #65, for example, writers included Sasha Belezky, Sosonko, Jonathan Rogers, Zoltan Almasi, Jose Vilela, Paul van der Sterren, A C van der Tak, and Rene Olthof (the editorial supervisor of the Yearbook). There are also book reviews by Glenn Flear (who is I think an improvement upon his predecessor Matthew Sadler). The column covers about 4-5 books (and one video), alternating between general considerations and excerpts. When you review just a few books (and are presumably paid to do so), you should be able to read much of the book with care, and it's evident that Flear does so.
As always, the Opening Surveys are the core of the Yearbook and there are too many contributors to list here. A few from these issues are Rogozenko, Bologan, Shulman, Karolyi, Pelletier, Almasi, Stohl, Golubev, Tiviakov, Dautov, and Belyavsky. The Yearbooks are the favorite publications of two IMs that I know, and is particularly aimed at serious fans of theory. It is published four times a year.
To me, the crème de la crème of chess publications continues to be Chess Informant. It fulfills a different function than the Yearbooks above. Those give specialised treatment and full coverage of various opening variations; whereas Informant gives sample games in just about every main opening with some sparkling middlegame play and/or complex endings reflective of high-level play. I read the Informant avidly, in part because I have the background knowledge of the openings that I am interested in as well as specialised books on them. Thus the Informant provides the most important extra ingredient: thoroughly annotated recent games using those openings by the world's very top players (including Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Leko, Ponomariev, Shirov, Gelfand, Judith Polgar, the rising young stars, etc.). Importantly, the contributors are choosing some of their most interesting games, so the middlegames can be extremely interesting and/or instructive. There is also a wealth of side material. Issues #84 and #85 are typical in that regard. They have these sections: (a) the 10 best games from the previous issue, with a survey of the opening from the top game; (b) the games section itself (488 games in #84); (c) Index of Player and Index of Annotators; (d) a list of combination exercises from that volume; (e) a list of endgame exercises; (f) a list of tournaments, players, and results from the time period between Informants (73 of them in #84 !); and (g) a section of games, novelties, combinations, endings and statistics on one of the leading players of the day (Short in #84, Portisch in #85). All developing players might do the following: try out one issue of Informant (you can usually even get a used one at chess booksellers) and see what you think. If the lack of prose (there is none at all) isn't too off-putting, you might want to get this periodical for some time to come. It is published three times a year. [Thanks to Baldomero Garcia for suggesting corrections to this column.]