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John Watson Book Review (61)

The Past: A Reliable Guess?

The Reliable Past Genna Sosonko; 207 pages; New In Chess 2003

The Collected Works of Wilhelm Steinitz ed. by Sid Pickard; Pickard & Sons 2003

'The Anatomy of Chess' [Überlegungen zur Herkunft des Schachspiels] Jean-Louis Cazaux, Gerhard Josten and Myron Samsin; 97 pages; Promos-Verlag Gmbh 2003

In this and a forthcoming column I'll take a break from products about openings and talk about some of the recent contributions to chess historical literature. This is not a specialty of mine, but there have been numerous interesting publications that I've been browsing through with great interest. As usual, a couple of the books will be mentioned primarily in order to indicate their availability.

Genna Sosonko's 'The Reliable Past' is a set of articles that Sosonko wrote for New in Chess Magazine, along with some added material. It is the follow-up volume to his 'Russian Silhouettes' (2001), which I enthused over in an earlier review. This volume is equally well-written and fascinating. As in 'Silhouettes', Sosonko (who left in USSR in 1972) tells of various players from the erstwhile Soviet Union with whom he was personally acquainted. This time he includes three players from the West (Tony Miles, Jan Timman, and Max Euwe), and also talks about players that he had not previously known until they met in the West.

I actually read the entire book, which in itself tells you how much I liked it since I only have time to read a fraction of the chess books that come my way. As in his previous volume, this is a book of pure narrative without any games. Sosonko tells his stories about these often eccentric personalities with a tone that often lapses into the melancholy and poetic. Every player gets a thoughtful and sympathetic treatment, even when Sosonko is critical. For example, Gufeld receives a toughest treatment (although less so than it could have been) in a chapter entitled 'Death of a Salesman'. Yet Sosonko recounts the harshness of his upbringing and his self-expressed need to fight by whatever means necessary when he was growing up. In the end, Sosonko says simply, 'I think that he was essentially a very lonely man', an impression left upon many of us in view of his strained geniality that transformed so instantly into anger.

A list of players covered might be helpful here: Sosonko calls his chapter on Tony Miles 'The Cat that walked by himself' and the one on Viktor Korchnoi 'Obsession'. There is a lengthy portrait of Vladimir Bagirov, another complex character with several sides to his personality and career. And Anatoly Lutikov, an addicted attacker who beat so many of the greats but never studied, and died in poverty. The most nostalgic chapter, called simply 'The Club', deals with the USSR Central Chess Club, the meeting place of greats, and its memorable caretakers. Max Euwe is given the greatest respect in passing through ages both historical and chessic, even in the period when his political prejudices blinded him to reality. One of my favorite chapters is the short one on the great Salo Flohr, a world championship contender who is probably already forgotten by the young players and soon to be disappearing under time's shadow from most of our books. There are many such players today who but for chance circumstance would be guaranteed a more prominent place in history.

Sosonko's final contribution is his satirical account of the future of chess ('Beijing 2024'). Sosonko obviously had a good time writing this but it left me flat.

On top of all that I forgot to mention the many photos of players and surroundings. This book, like its predecessor, is highly recommended to any fan of the game and especially those from an older generation.

'The Collected Works of Wilhelm Steinitz', a CD edited by Sid Pickard, fills out the wonderful set of recent literature about this giant of chess history. And then some. We have seen Thorsten Heedt's ChessBase CD, Landsbergers 'The Steinitz Papers', and the definitive biography in Landsberger's 'Wilhelm Steinitz, Chess Champion'. Pickard has already published a volume of Steinitz's games. But none of these have the gold mine of Steinitz' writings with the research, articles, writings, and analysis that we get here. There is an astonishing amount of material organised on this single CD, and one could spend months if not years studying it. You need ChessBase to use the product, but since the ChessBase Reader comes with it that isn't a problem.

I'll let Pickard describe the disc's features:

'It should be stressed that only writings by Steinitz are found here. No doubt many of his games have been annotated by famous masters, but the central idea of this project is to let Steinitz speak in his own words. For the first time anywhere all of Steinitz's surviving games have been gathered into one place, along with his two books and a selection of his writing as a chess journalist, all readable by chess software. The annotations have been assembled and translated into English algebraic notation, both games and articles. In all, about 900 games annotated by Steinitz are on this CD, plus a lot of supplementary text. The Collected Works of Wilhelm Steinitz includes the following:

1) The "Steinitz" Folder

The Games of Wilhelm Steinitz. The main biographical collection of 1,072 games played by Steinitz. Inludes 22 text documents with Steinitz's own account of 4 World Championships, the London-Vienna match, the Steinitz-Blackburne match, the cable match with Tschigorin and more. 288 games (about thirty-five per cent) are annotated by Steinitz.

[jw: I should also add that many of these annotated games are highly enjoyable for Steinitz' extremely opinionated and crusty style, with sharp criticisms of the play of his contemporaries. There is also a list of all tournaments with results, and 32 matches. He won 28, lost one at a handicap, lost a famous two-game telegraph match to Chigorin, and lost the two matches to Lasker at the end of his career. Some of the wins were against unworthy opposition (and one was a 'match' of 1 game); but the number of high-quality victories is nevertheless an achievement for the ages, and include a 7-0-0 and a 7-1-2 versus Blackburne as well as a 7-1-4 and 10-5-5 versus Zukertort! Incidentally, by way of comparison, there are 689 Steinitz games in my own database].

2) The "Instruct" Folder

The Modern Chess Instructor. Steinitz's masterpiece in 20 text documents, which include 7 chapters of Steinitz teaching chess. Steinitz discusses the openings, examining 8 major systems in 167 Surveys and 79 Illustrative Games. Also included is the Steinitz-Tschigorin match of 1889, for the World Championship.

[jw:] To me, these now hard-to-get writings that Pickard has collected are the core of his contribution, especially the classic 'The Modern Chess Instructor' in e-book form. I'd like to mention a few fascinating quotes that I've already run across from the 'Instructor':

'In the present treatise I have adopted a new mark += to signify a preferable game without sufficient advantage to force a sure win as distinguished from the +- sign which I intend to use for a clearly winning position or at least for a much greater superiority. The sign "N" I have employed in accordance with the example of Cordel's Fuher durch die Schachtheorie, in order to call attention to moves of which I was the inventor in practical play, or else for the purpose of marking analytical novelties which for some reason or other I consider of great importance, with the view of challenging the strictest investigation of the ideas which they intend to develop and of the often numerous sub-variations which form the subject of entirely new analytical demonstrations in subsequent main columns and in the notes.'

'For a similar reason it cannot be too much impressed on the learner that the study of trustworthy analyses of the opening is of paramount importance in comparison to partial researches of later stages of the game, if only on the ground that the former often include some of the best samples of middle play and of the end, or most instructive hints for the conduct of the game to the last by pointing out the respective object of attack or defense, and by giving useful assurances in reference to equalities of position or of any superiority on either side. On the other hand, the study of middle play and of termination alone, will only very rarely throw any retrospective light on the knowledge of the openings.'

'One of the principles laid down in Part I of this work is that the Bishop is stronger that the Knight. From this I deduced that pinning a Knight early in the game ought to be disadvantageous, as it must lead to a loss of a move or of value in exchange.

Ergo, I concluded that the much-dreaded Ruy Lopez ought not to be a strong opening, although it has been favored by some of the greatest masters and for some time even by myself in actual play.'

'Moreover, the cultivation of the game seems also to exercise a direct influence of the physical condition of chess players and the prolongation of their lives, for most of the celebrated chess masters and authors on the game have reached a very old age, and have preserved their mental powers unimpaired in some instances up to their very last moments. It has also been computed that the average length of life of the general devotees of the game is the highest in comparison to any other class of men whose duration of life has been systematically subjected to statistical observation*. [*We make this statement on the authority of Mr. Jas. D. Seguin, Chess editor of the Times-Democrat of New Orleans.]'

Of course the bulk of 'Instructor' is of a more theoretical nature. It includes a discussion of chess principles, and more than half of the book is devoted to analysis of just about every double e-pawn opening, often in great depth.

3) The "Congress" Folder

The Sixth American Chess Congress. Five text documents, including the Committee Report and tournament crosstable. Then all 430 games are given, each annotated by Steinitz. An important part of American chess history, and one of the best tournament books of all time.

4) The "Magazine" Folder

Newspapers and Magazines. Large excerpts from The Field, and the International Chess Magazine in 13 text documents. These include the Wisker-MacDonnell match (1874), the Zukertort-Rosenthal match (1880), the Lipschuetz-Delmar match (1888). Many additional games and articles are found.

* Chief among his newspaper columns is The Field, which Steinitz edited from November 1873 until the summer of 1882, after the Vienna Congress. Later Steinitz declared that in this column he set forth the basic tenets of the modern school. The Figaro column is roughly co-terminus, offering mostly problems and lighter fare.

* Syndicated columns appearing in America between 1883 and 1899, or single contributions to various papers, still need much work to unearth. Names of newspapers and columns have yet to be cataloged and scanned year by year.

* The International Chess Magazine (1885-1891) is intact and often available in specialty shops. A primary source for Steinitz's account of the first four world championship matches, and the Steinitz-Tschigorin cable match.

[jw: And I should add to this list a lengthy and admiring tribute to Anderssen ('Dr. Anderssen') upon his death.]

5) The "Gambit" Folder

The Steinitz Gambit. Covering 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.d4 Qh4+ 5.Ke2 in 2 text documents, 6 Surveys and 300 games. 28 games annotated by Steinitz. A modern openings book, and the sole exception to our "Steinitz-only" rule.

6) The "Tables" Folder

A comprehensive document of Steinitz's match and tournament crosstables in .pdf format. The Adobe Acrobat Reader is included here. [jw: see above for a description of these tables]

7) The "Bonus" Folder

Two professionally made Steinitz screensavers. Simply double-click and an icon will be placed on your desktop. User may adjust settings or uninstall with a right-click on the desktop icon. Also contains an electronic jigsaw puzzle with a Steinitz theme.'

All of these sections are well organized by 'texts' and links to relevant sections, general writings, and annotated games. And there are photographs, although I couldn't get some of them to display, something that hasn't happened with other CDs.

Regrettably one serious obstacle stands in the way for potential for buyers. I don't normally talk about prices, but the $74.95 tag is by far the largest I have seen for any CD product. In fact, this will probably scare off the majority of TWIC readers. My guess is that Pickard, having spent so much time and money on the project, assumed that chess history bugs, collectors, and the most serious students would be his market. In fact, 'The Collected Works of Wilhelm Steinitz' is a must for every such historians and those in love with chess history. It is also a find for the player (like Fischer) who wants to learn from a brilliant player/writer - remember that this is a huge well-annotated games collection. To cite an argument that this price may be reasonable (given a certain perspective), let me quote the ever-informative Taylor Kingston from his review in ChessCafe:

'A greater problem for some potential buyers may be the price, $74.95. While this may seem high, it is actually quite a bargain. Little of Steinitz’s work has been reissued inexpensively. Old copies of The Modern Chess Instructor are not all that rare, but are not cheap; the average price we found in a search of online booksellers was about $120 (we got lucky and found a first edition for $50 a few years ago). The Sixth American Chess Congress is much harder to find; we located two copies, selling for $152.50 and $400 respectively. Moravian Chess and Edition Olms reissued several volumes of The International Chess Magazine some years ago; these we found going for $35 to $65 each. We estimate that to get all this in hard copy, plus the game collection and everything else on the disk, would cost anywhere from $350 to $1000.'

Okay, that still might not convince the average or even advanced player that it's worth it to plunk down so much money. After all, most of us aren't collectors or historians and wouldn't go around buying $120.00 books anyway. All I can say is that this is easily the best historical/analytical/biographical CD that I have ever seen and will be an absolute treasure if you do have an historical interest in great players or just want insight into the ideas of the inventor of modern chess.

'The Anatomy of Chess [Überlegungen zur Herkunft des Schachspiels]' is a small volume (booklet) of largely academic articles/papers about the origins of chess, the subtitle meaning literally 'Reflections on the Origins of Chess'. Two of the articles and an important Afterward are in German, 6 of the articles are in English, and the Introduction is presented in both languages. This collection is actually volume 8 of a set called the 'Tuebinger Beitraege zum Thema Schach' or, roughly, 'Articles from Tuebingen on Chess Themes'. One might also call these papers or essays. Other volumes (that I have not seen) have contributions, for example, about the history of chess problems, chess psychology, a master tournament, and exotic subjects such as the political influences on chess during the Third Reich! One is devoted to the positional play of the top-level master Eliskases, who defeated Capablanca in 1937 and Fischer in 1960!

The editors and contributors discovered their common interest and came together over the Internet. The fundamental issue came about because the study of the origins of chess has been based upon ancient texts and archeological evidence, but these sources are hardly complete and in any case flawed as mechanisms of fundamental explanation. Several of the contributors follow a traditional path of finding geographical and cultural origins of the game (the ancient Kushans, for example, in a region of Central Asia). If I am interpreting correctly, however, most of the contributors to this volume (or authors of articles that the editors have found) are combining knowledge of ancient cultures with a theoretic-structural approach to the subject. For example, instead of interpreting chess linearly as an evolution of war games, they connect chess' development with a variety of human endeavours (such as cards and dice, or mental activities that are further afield). The contributors reject the idea of an 'inventor' of chess or a single root game (e.g., a board game). They try to derive their conclusions from looking at the structure of the game itself and integrating that with historical discoveries, which incidentally include 'origins' of the game in China as well as the commonly-stated beginning in India. One approach is to use the unique characteristics of chess to uncover similarities with ancient games. In some sense chess may be looked at as a 'game type' rather than a type of game, the modern form being an amalgamation of activities and thought which may not relate to 'our' chess in a narrow and linear sense.

Or so I read it! In fact, I'm not sure that I understand much of what is being presented; some of the articles are extremely specialized and feature academic jargon that I'm not familiar with. And of course each article proposes its own interpretation, some seemingly at odds. One clearly needs to take one's time with the articles - I've of necessity skimmed through the work. At any rate, this volume is for those interested in the way that chess came about, in particular for someone who wants to take this issue seriously rather than just locate a time or place where the game began. Incidentally, Yuri Averbach - a name recognizable to most of us - has an academic article included in the book

The booklet is available at Promos-Verlag; Postfach 7265; D-72785 Pfullingen; Germany. The TeleFax is 0049-7172-790135, price 12.8 Euro plus shipping. Details . There you also find reviews, including one by Taylor Kingston.


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