John Watson Book Review (58)
The Real Champions, or Garry's Guys?
IM John Watson - Friday 21st February 2003
Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part I
Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part I; Gary Kasparov, with Dmitry Plisetsky; 464 pages; Everyman 2003
Since some of this column will deal with the issues of chess analysis and historical accuracy, it may be relevant to give credit to Edward Winter for correcting a mistake of my own. This has to do with an error in my (brilliant, of course) book Chess Strategy in Action, published this year by Gambit. Edward Winter points out that on in my notes to the game Nimzowitsch-Olsen, Copenhagen 1924 (pages 281-282) I state that Nimzowitsch's opponent Olsen didn't play in the international tournament in Copenhagen of that year, and that therefore this was unlikely to be a tournament game. Winter corrects this, citing sources from 1924 and 1925 to show that Olsen indeed played in that event. I appreciate this and don't doubt that I have made more than one such error. This one stemmed from the 1999 Rattmann edition of Mein System, page 300, in which every other player's name and score are recorded correctly but Olsen is left out, presumably a random mistake. The Rattmann edition is superb from a chessplaying point of view and it accurately portrayed the players and results of the other tournaments that I checked.
What's the point? Had I time, I might have (and in an ideal world would have) crosschecked this source and many others. But with deadlines always an overriding factor, my energy was concentrated upon the immediate and complicated task of presenting games, analysis and observations. That work can always be improved upon and will itself contain numerous errors; my priority is to minimize those. Maybe this helps one to understand how the author of a book that only very lightly touches upon biographical data and matters of historical detail can easily fall short in those realms.
Whether or not that applies to an explicitly historical book such as Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors is another matter. We'll take that up later. First, I should say that I first wrote this review rather quickly with the idea of reporting upon and questioning the opinions of others. Upon rereading it, I realise that at some points I sound rather more negative than intended. It's true that I think there are many flaws in the book, that people are blindly overstating its virtues, and that Kasparov's ego can be offputting. But I should make clear up front that this book has many virtues and some important qualities that may get lost in my curmudgeonly criticism. First, it contains greatly improved analysis on some of the most important games in the history of chess. While this analysis is dense and won't be gone through by very many readers, it is nevertheless a major contribution to the search for pure understanding of those games. Secondly, these books (5 volumes are planned) will by their sheer length and the power of the author's name be the work by which future books on World Champions are judged. That may not be fair, especially as regards their historical accuracy and Kasparov's exposition of players' styles, yet it is doubtless the case. Who won't have these books on their shelves as a reference for the subjects under consideration? Thirdly, Everyman has done a brilliant job of putting the book together. Despite the great volume of material it is easy to read and has a nice placement of diagrams. My Great Predecessors (henceforth 'Predecessors') is a high-quality hardback of 464 pages yet remarkably low-priced and affordable for the average player (about $25 online!). Finally, the book is written by a World Champion and must be considered the most ambitious project ever by a player on the very top levels. So although I by no means believe that it is a 'masterpiece', it is nevertheless a work that I'm very glad to have on my bookshelf.
I must say that the title itself is a bad omen. A more correct rendition would surely be Garry Kasparov on His Great Predecessors, or perhaps Garry Kasparov: My Great Predecessors. Not a good start, but obviously the contents of the book are the important thing. Kasparov's book covers the games and careers of four world champions: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine. Other great non-champions are given their own sections, mostly short but occasionally substantial, for example, Morphy gets 13 pages, Rubinstein 18, and Nimzowitsch 14. Unfortunately, their treatment illustrates in extreme form what I feel to be one of the book's most serious weaknesses throughout: the games chosen for these 3 players (as well as, e.g., Reti's) are almost entirely limited to their very most famous games, whether or not these games are well-played or reflective of their style at all. The games are so well-known that even amateurs who have read a limited number of chess books have very likely seen them, probably time and again (even more so the most famous positions). It's astonishing that these authors paid so little attention to researching the games of these famous players, for they would have come across a wealth of more interesting and revealing games, and thus contributed to the reader's understanding of the actual style of the players rather than stereotypical versions.
So much has been written about this enthusiastically self-promoted book that it's difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps with Kasparov himself. Speaking about the book's origins in an interview, he says:
'So, to complete this long answer to the inspiration question, is that by the year 2000 I sensed that classical chess needed a monument. The game we knew for centuries was ceasing to exist. I'm sure classical chess will continue to exist, but it's clear that other forms of chess are prevailing. Classical chess may become like opera, at the top of the pyramid.
Coming to that conclusion, I thought it would be my greatest contribution to the game - to which I owe everything - to write a book on the development of chess ideas throughout history as displayed through the games of the greatest chess players.'
Stirring words those, in particular the part about the book being his greatest contribution (elsewhere Kasparov cited his 1985 world championship victory and this book as his greatest achievements). We are also happy to hear that, far from being a commercial project as one might have assumed from its promotion, Kasparov has selflessly written this book for the game itself (presumably as a gift to his fortunate readers). He modestly assumes that his own work is a 'monument' (not a judgment to be left to others), and declares that other forms of chess are 'prevailing' over the 'classical' form, which is of course the one that is still played in an overwhelming number of professional games (quite in contrast to Kasparov's own languishing 'future chess', which has attracted practically no attention). Fortunately any interview is just that, an interview and not the book itself. What I'd like to discuss is whether Predecessors is indeed a monument, an average work, or something substandard.
The answer is not obvious, and responses from reviewers and fans have fluctuated wildly from more-than-lavish praise to underwhelming acceptance to outright negativity. We start with the many who hold the book in high esteem. Matthew Sadler set the tone in New in Chess review: 'This is a fantastic book. The sort of book that I will have to lock away for fear of spending too much time reading and re-reading it!'. Fair enough, and all the more impressive coming from such a terribly strong player. An even more successful one, Nigel Short, went further in a very recent column: 'One tome, however - My Great Predecessors ... stood out like a beacon. It is probably the most enjoyable chess book I have ever read. Here is a master artist deftly painting the giant canvas of chess history with broad and powerful brush-strokes. The fact there was scarcely a game that I did not recognise, did not in any way detract from the pleasure: they are mostly analysed in tremendous, computer-assisted, detail.'
It's hard to discount praise from such masters of the game. And they are hardly the only ones who feel this way. Sergei Voronkov says: 'Now, about the contents of the book. I've published about a hundred of chess books [sic], but this is the most comprehensive of all. You feel like you are holding a CD with the complete history of modern chess. And the book has no weak points, which is extremely rare with big books like this one. To be direct, Kasparov's book has no rival in chess literature!'
Well, I'm glad that he was direct, anyway! A book with no weak points? In a similar vein I was taken aback by some readers' positive comments from the Bulletin Board at ChessCafe.com . For example, we find high praise from a well-known chess personality: 'It is simply phenomenal. Without getting into extensive detail, since everyone is either going to obtain the book or examine it, I will state my own opinion that the superb quality of the work lies in the first word of the title - My. Kasparov's approach is unabashedly personal and intimate. The tone is of one giant describing the traits and idiosyncrasies of another...What My Great Predecessors is a uniquely personal look by one of the greatest of all players - if not the greatest - at the triumphs and tragedies of those who came before. The only real criticism I have is that the book leaves one panting for the second and third volumes...Everyone should own this book. There never has been, and will never be, another like it.'
I have to interrupt here to say that the very impersonality of the book (called 'dry' and 'technical' by one reader) is a disappointment to me. In 464 pages, apart from the games, we get a rehash of the standard line on the champions' lives, including the same old historical facts, the same old quotes, and for the most part the same old interpretations of the players and the matches that have been passed down for years. As one fan said, 'There is [also] not that much from Kasparov in the book. There are plentiful quotes from other world champions and annotators, but the GK interventions are relatively few.' I agree, at least assuming that this comment applies to the game notes; remarkably, Kasparov's characterizations and opinions even about moves are almost entirely limited to concrete variations, leaving others to comment about the strategies, decisive turning points, and even overall significance of the games! Here it may be helpful to recall my lavish praise of Kasparov's 5-part videotape series 'My Story' in this column. I was so enthusiastic about them in part because Kasparov was so personable and his games and contributions so original. Hardly the case with Predecessors. Very seldom does the book offer any new ideas about the style or personalities of the players, perhaps because Plisetsky (and/or Kasparov?) simply reworded these from other books while Kasparov concentrated on game analysis. One can of course argue that these stereotypical descriptions are so accurate that no new interpretation or even expansion upon them is possible. I strongly doubt that, but even were it so, surely even a summary of any great player's style can be expressed subtly and with nuances that wouldn't be noticed by the average player?
On the other hand, in general notes outside of the games themselves, Kasparov is superb at discussing (and positing original theories about) each player's psychological states, weaknesses, match strategies and match turning points. It is extremely interesting to see him applying his insight into the pressures of high-stakes championships, noting indications of and factors that don't have so much to do with pure chess strength, e.g., the ups and downs of confidence, strength of will, energy, and persistence. Such insight from a player who has himself been through it all is unique and convincing. Also, the book does treat the evolution of a few important strategic ideas; I only wish that there had been much more of this, especially from one who understands every aspect of the game.
Returning to some snippets of praise from the ChessCafe Bulletin Board:
'These books [are] sort of the milestone that ends a great period of the history of chess...Personally, I think this book is destined for inclusion in a very select group of annotated game collections, generally thought of as "classics", a term which is all too easy to overuse. Here, it fits.'
And Mig Greengard, who is probably too close to Kasparov to be objective, says: 'The new book, “Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part One” (Everyman) is a chess event beyond publishing. The scope and nature of its content and the identity of its author make it review-proof.' [in another place:] '... you should buy it immediately. It's an enjoyable read with tremendous breadth and depth of content'... 'The game selection is amazing.'
I have to agree with this last sentence. Indeed, it would be difficult for any author to pick a more overused set of examples. Remember Short's comment 'there was scarcely a game that I did not recognise'? That will be so for many fans of the game, particularly those who have a few historical books on their shelves. To the extent that space remained to be filled, the authors include a few relatively lesser known games; even then one feels that they were chosen less for their uniqueness than because of previous analysis by others. To me this lack of originality is a serious strike against the book.
Now I don't want to argue with the legitimately positive reactions above or the obvious pleasure that this work has engendered. That alone is a powerful argument in its favour: What is a book for, after all, if not to be an enjoyable, informative reading experience? In this sense the worth of Kasparov's work can hardly be disputed. But I do find the worshipful assessments of Predecessors inexplicable unless the writers have been irrationally influenced by the author's status. Just because a book is written by a world champion it will not necessarily be of high quality, much less a classic. It is easy to confuse greatness in a specialised field with skill in writing about it. One could even argue that given Kasparov's busy schedule and his many outside interests and activities (including being a fairly involved chessplayer), a truly superlative book would be unlikely and most surprising. I imagine that the exact same book with another author's name on it would get mild applause. Suppose that a respected grandmaster writer of our time like John Emms or Joe Gallagher had written it. This is not unrealistic given the fact that they have access to computers and presumably more time than Kasparov. Can one honestly believe that their work (i.e., this one with their name on it) would receive the same uncritical adulation, with their mistakes and its weaknesses so easily dismissed?
The book's critics do in fact present a different story. Edward Winter is his usual devastating self, delivering a lengthy list of factual inaccuracies in the book, ones that he indicates he found in one morning (knowing Winter's work, I wouldn't just assume that this is an exaggeration). A sentence from the beginning of his essay might suffice to give an overall impression: 'The absence of, even, a rudimentary bibliography is shocking in a work which claims to be ‘Garry Kasparov’s long-awaited definitive history of the World Chess Championship’, and a lackadaisical attitude to basic academic standards and historical facts pervades the book.' I don't have room to cover his careful criticisms here, but Winter points to these among other drawbacks: a consistent lack of attribution of the book's ubiquitous quotations, no dating of the same, invented stories, changes in established translations and even in the original wordings, badly flawed and ungrammatical English (obviously unedited), broad and untrue claims about others' analysis, and basic errors involving what players did and where they were as well as the rules and conditions of world championship matches.
There have been various debates about the relevance of such criticisms in view of the fact that the book concentrates first upon games and secondarily upon historical details. But it still contains a substantial amount of historical description, and as far as I have seen there are no objections to the factual points Winter makes; in fact, others have added to this list of problems. I have to sympathise with a certain amount of looseness by authors concerning the finer points of historical accuracy (see the introduction to this column). However, in a book that purports to be a serious historical work, in fact a monument to chess history, I cannot believe that anyone would simply dismiss such sloppiness and factual misrepresentation as unimportant. For this reason alone it would be difficult to maintain the view that Predecessors is a masterpiece, even should the book's other material qualify it as an excellent work.
But Kasparov's chess analysis has also been criticized, and not on grounds of accuracy alone. In spite of claims such as the games having been 'studied under the microscope of the latest analytical computer programs', Dvoretsky in Chess Café finds various errors in a game he chooses to analyse, including the fact that Kasparov missed a one-move mate at the end of a 2-move analysis! One commentator on the book bravely turns this into a virtue: '[The one-move mate] certainly establishes that the My Great Predecessors analysis is not completely based on computers or stolen from other sources, as some critics have implied, and it also shows that Kasparov can make mistakes.' But International Master Richard Forster points out that 'it is the clearest proof yet of blind copying by the Kasparov book, for the simple reason that the missed mate-in-one line is also to be found in the Chess Stars book on Lasker.' Ouch. According to Forster, the Chess Stars books were a frequent source of unattributed analysis in Predecessors, often in cases where their precise analysis was unlikely to have been discovered independently.
Forster's article on the analysis in Predecessors has drawn comparatively less attention than Winter's factual criticisms (which are dismissed as 'nitpicking' or 'not the point' by the other camp). But his is a more serious criticism from the standpoint of those who cherish the analytic and theoretical aspects of chess books. Forster examines a single game (one that he had analysed some years ago). He compares Kasparov's notes in the book with his own. Again, it is impossible to report the results in detail, but Forster's summary is powerful. In his own words:
· A very great part of the analysis (certainly more than 95%) has been copied from earlier sources, mostly without proper acknowledgement (either to Chess Stars or the earlier sources).
· Several highly relevant sources have been neglected, others have been only partially checked.
· Even in the "original" analysis, part has been anticipated and with one exception it only confirms previous analysis.
· Despite computer use a few clear improvements have been overlooked, though I (a 2300+ player at the time) and my computer (circa Fritz 3, I guess) had found or confirmed them in 1996.
· Analysis by Bogoljubow is "refuted" [Forster discusses this], but the original assessment turns out to be correct and the "refutation" mistaken.
These criticisms are hard to argue with, and it is odd that some reviewers fob them off as trivial. As I contended above in a similar context, what seem to be patterns of unattributed pilfering and mediocre analysis would never be so easily forgiven in a book by lesser grandmasters. In response to both of the above articles, Mig Greengard tries to justify at least some of the flaws by citing the authors' ignorance of the literature. His explanation: 'Researcher Plisetsky was largely limited to Russian literature [Forster mentions this as well], which was far from comprehensive before WW II.' Is this really an excuse? After all, Garry Kasparov is the wealthy World Champion who spends much of his life in the West. Is he not capable, for the sake of the book that he calls one of the two most important achievements in his career, of mailing some of the widely available literature of the West to his coauthor? Or perhaps even spot him a few plane tickets, spending money, and hotel stays so that he can find the relevant information? Or, if Plisetsky doesn't read English, maybe Kasparov could have added a third member to the team.
Naturally one can argue about such things, but I'll come down firmly on the side of those who believe that such shoddiness more than calls into doubt the adulation of the readers and reviewers cited above. Again, to be clear, players' pure reading enjoyment of Predecessors is enthusiastically welcomed and respected; chess needs more such inspiration. But inferring from that a sort of objective greatness isn't justified.
Before continuing with criticism and assessment, I'd like to switch subjects and cite passages from a fascinating online interview that Kasaparov gave, as recorded on the ChessBase home page. He faced the inevitable but compelling questions about comparing the strength of great players throughout the ages. He said quite a bit about this, e.g.,
'You know, today every weak grandmaster, I don’t want to be too insulting talking about club players, every weak grandmaster knows more about chess than Fischer thirty years ago. Clearly, not because their geniuses, they simply have access to computer database. Click, click, click, click and you have all the games and you can study. Maybe you are not studying but you have access to that. So Fischer could be miles ahead of his contemporaries because he was a genius and he could find new ways. But facing somebody from the future he will be really behind.
'Yeah, and the same would be Fischer playing Botvinnik, or Botvinnik playing Steinitz, because you could see that every generation has been bringing new ideas to the game of chess. And that’s why the size of the commentaries has been increasing. I discovered even when I wrote my first articles for Welt am Sontag, I couldn’t deal with that. The same style, the same number of words, more lines. Games are more complicated. And I think the old champions couldn’t cope with that. Yes, you could talk about giving them time to study, but then it would not be Fischer. It would be a player with the Fischer talent but named Karpov or Kasparov because that’s… you would wind up comparing their talent. In Volume 3 I will come up with a highly controversial claim, that I’m sure will upset many people. I think that in 1975, if they played the match, Karpov would have beaten Fischer...'
Asked roughly the same question later, Kasparov responds: 'Too many "time travel" questions: It's enough to say that any average GM today knows more than Fischer did in 1972, at his peak. He was way ahead of his generation, but we consider many of those games primitive now, just because we know so much more. Not about his talent, but about the knowledge... ' Further related comments: '...But in general the level of resistance the players face has grown stiffer and stiffer.' 'It's possible to say that all modern players are in some ways creatures produced from this battle [the Kasparov-Karpov matches].'
One might want to check out Kasparov's interviews at both ChessBase.com and ChessCafe.com. In these, he displays the enthusiasm and personality that seem largely missing from his book. When we do find a uniquely personal exposition in Predecessors, it tends to be very odd. Let's look carefully at the Introduction as an example of Kasparov's personal opinions about the greats of the game. He attempts to connect various players's chess personalities (and styles) with the political and intellectual milieu of the time. Unfortunately, the historical description of the 'ages' involved are broad and confused, resembling some grade school textbook but lacking even its consistency. One might try to blame this section on Plisetsky (a convenient out, since we never know who wrote what), but it's very likely that Kasparov would write his own Introduction and his recurrent tendency towards political simplification is clearly recognisable therein.
To start with, we find that 'modern chess originated in the 15th century - an intellectual game, modeling psychological warfare.' I don't believe that last part, but anyway, we later find that 'Lasker was the first and at that time the only player to realise the importance of psychological factors'. This indicates that the game's model went unnoticed by a raft of great players, which seems unlikely. Granted, this is a small point, but it introduces us to Kasparov's main thesis: 'The best masters of every epoch were closely linked to the values in which they lived and worked. All the changes of a cultural, political, and psychological background are reflected in the style and ideas of their play'.
Some of the examples are hilarious: 'And remember the slogan that [Philidor] proclaimed in the middle of the 18th century - "The pawns are the soul of chess!" Do we not hear in this echoes of the coming Great French Revolution?' Apart from the preposterous stretch required here, you will note shortly that historically significant events related to other players are at least very close to their peak strength, whereas Philidor's are found only in 'echo time'. Moving on, we find that Anderssen's 'style was that of reckless attacks on the king, with mind-boggling sacrifices, personifying the triumph of mind over matter (fully typical of an educated German, and not alien to the ideas of Hegel and Schopenhauer)'. Good grief. Does Kasparov refer to Schopenhauer's tendency to Eastern mysticism, perhaps? Or (since we're talking about educated Germans) Marx's materialism, Nietszche's determinism, and Bismark's guns? Anyone can play at this game. Similarly, Morphy typifies American 'pragmatism, aggression and accurate calculation' (whatever the last is when applied to a people) 'that enabled America to accomplish a powerful spurt' in the second half of the century. Since he lists Morphy's key years as 1857-9, those qualities are perhaps to be found in the forthcoming American Civil War? That would be a difficult case to make; maybe one could more reasonably posit that they are reflected in the devastation of Native American society in the decades thereafter.
Kasparov says: 'Running through the fourteen champions of the world, we again observe an inseparable link between chess and social surroundings'. I'm not sure whether any of his characterizations has historical merit, but I'll pick out a few here:
Lasker: His deep knowledge of human psychology helps him win, and 'Who at that time were the masters of thinking? Of course, Einstein and Freud! As they say, commentary is superfluous'. Superfluous indeed. But just in case: Einstein as psychologist is at best an obtuse and misleading reference to relativity and thought experiments. And Lasker's insights into chess psychology could hardly be further afield from Freud's theories or approach to thinking.
Alekhine: 'the embodiment of psychological aggression..., maniacal striving to finish off the opponent, together with rich combinative imagination. All this amazingly resembles the devastating wars that shook Europe in the first half of the twentieth century'. Of course Alekhine was champion during the 20s and the Great Depression, not during World War I, and he was inactive from major competition as champion during World War II. Interestingly, too, Capablanca's play covers most of the same years but for some reason, according to Kasparov, he reflects 'the years of hope and optimism'.
Euwe: 'A symbol of the age of the scientific and technological revolution, the start of the era of atomic energy and the computer', although again Euwe's peak and championship years are prior to their appearance.
Botvinnik: he had a 'cold and merciless style'...'based on psychology and opening preparation - is this not a symbol of the might of the Stalin regime!' Well, Stalin was dead for most of Botvinnik's actual reign, and one could associate the lengthy period in which he was a super-grandmaster with any socio-political trend one chooses. In addition, we should ask who was the other World Champion with merciless technique, superior opening preparation, and psychological dominance? Surely that's Fischer. What would Bobby think of being called the embodiment of Stalinism! This kind of speculation can be fun once you get the hang of it.
Smyslov: he reflects 'the revival of Orthodox Church' (??), apparently establishing his 'inseparable link between chess and social surroundings'.
Fischer: This is brilliant - 'an outstanding contemporary of the Beatles, hippies and mass disturbances by students, demanding greater individual freedom.' This apparently refers to a previously unknown Fischer allied to the causes of peace and love, anti-war protests, drugs, flowers, and sexual liberation. Or perhaps fighting for the rights of homosexuals and Blacks? Kasparov has already shown his difficulties with of western history in The Wall Street Journal, and really should stick to the part of the world that he knows best.
Karpov: 'a vivid symbol of stagnation'. He is a reflection of things like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 'corruption, stagnation, cynicism, and conformism'. It comes as a great surprise that Kasparov would so characterize his nemesis.
Kasparov: In his championship year of 1985, 'a storm of change swept the planet [...despite 'desperate attempts to reanimate the past (a further three matches with Karpov!)'... 'However, many changes still lie ahead...'. As they say, commentary is superfluous.
Kramnik: 'What is your company worth?' 'How much are your shares?' 'And there came into chess a person who personified this approach with his style of play and life.' A rather harsh characterization of his successor. He turns out to be a sterile materialist, even in his life; and, alas, not the type to reform the planet. In addition, although Kasparov himself may seem to be the most mercenary player of all time, that is apparently some sort of misconception on our part.
Notice that there are no novelists, poets, visual artists, or musicians in these 'cultural' descriptions. Their inclusion might rather dramatically shatter the model. And since so many of the World Champions were Jewish or of immediate Jewish descent, the 'social surroundings' of Jews might be of interest. Something about the Holocaust and Botvinnik's ascendance, for example. Again, one could come up with all sorts of bizarre interpretations, and Kasparov's are about as random as any. Okay, I admit that I have picked upon one of the silliest parts of the book; I just wish that he had fleshed out these portraits of great players at some point.
Having come this far, I would conclude by saying that this is a very important book deserving high praise for its scope. I don't feel, however, that it should be considered a 'great' one. The analysis overall is clearly a big improvement upon that of the classical annotators, with chess engines accounting for much of this. Such progress counts for a lot, but the games themselves are way overused and we learn very little about the players' styles or personalities that isn't written in other books. I'm not sure how much work that Kasparov actually put into this project, protestations notwithstanding. He undoubtedly pored over the games and put considerable time and energy into the analysis. Nevertheless, he seems to have paid little attention to the game selection, player characterizations, or the book's historical representations. Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors must be recommended as an ambitious, interesting work by (I believe) the greatest player in history. It clearly delights and inspires some of its readership regardless of its weaknesses, and is a book that most players will want to own, if only for the story-like narration of events and chess developments. For these reasons alone, I would call it a significant book, perhaps even one of this year's best. But for some reason we have been led to believe that Predecessors is a masterpiece, belonging to the class of great books if not transcending them. In reality it is something less grandiose: a valuable book with numerous weak spots.