Review: Two Classics
Peter told me last week he had been to a concert called The Beatles vs. The Stones. Tastes differ, but still ... as a Beatles fan I can't help feeling tempted to start a discussion with Stones fans sometimes, just for fun. Do they really think Sticky Fingers is better than Sgt. Pepper?
I guess making comparisons like these is only human. In this review, I want to make another unfair comparison: one between two classic chessbooks, both of which have recently appeared in a reprint: one written by Bobby Fischer, the other by David Bronstein.
Bobby Fischer's My Sixty Memorable Games (first published in 1969) has been reprinted many times, but the latest reprint by Batsford is a special case, not because it's an algebraic edition, but because, according to the back cover of the book, in contrast with previous editions of recent years, "no alterations have been made to the text other than the conversion of moves into algebraic notation, making this an updated yet accurate reflection of the original book". And this is actually true: my own (non-algebraic) edition of Fischer's book is from 1988, and apart from the notation, the new reprtint an exact copy - even the page numbers are identical.
This is precisely as Fischer would have wanted it. In the years before his death, he has complained numerous times about unauthorized changes in his masterpiece - most notoriously an annotated edition by John Nunn, which (to add insult to injury), also contained a few painful mistakes. Publisher Batsford has now made up for this with a clean reprint of the original.
It's silly attempting to describe the most famous chess book of all time from an objective point of view, so allow me to just share a few personal observations in an attempt to grasp the meaning and importance of this ultimate chess classic.
I bought the book just after I'd joined a chess club, in 1988. During that time, I used to write down my own analysis of the games I played at the club in a little notebook (which I still have). I had lost my first couple of games, and my notes were full of frustration at my opponents. I wrote how they made noise during the game, how they had been lucky to find the winning combination and how, despite my loss, my opening knowledge was superior to theirs. Then I started reading Fischer's book. His first comment in the first game (Fischer-Sherwin, 1957) reads as follows:
- "This used to be my favorite. I thought it led to a favorable variation of the King's Indian reversed."
Robert James Fischer
I realized that Fischer now thought quite differently about it! He was clearly criticizing his youthful self. In the next game (Fischer-Larsen, 1958) Fischer also condemns a move of his own, calling it 'a mistake!' even though his opponent resigned at that very moment.
This was all new to me. I recalled that both Karpov and Kasparov were always very proud and self-confident in their analysis. And besides, weren't chess grandmasters always right, anyway? Fischer's comments didn't fit at all with the picture of chess analysis I had in my youthful mind, and it definitely didn't fit with my I-was-am-and-always-will-be-right image of world champions. But apart from Fischer's refreshing objectivity (which I experience even now, when browsing through the book again), another thing struck me: his amazing humor. Here was an author who could not only criticize himself, but also make lighthearted and funny remarks in between. What a difference it made with my own sour notebook full of irritation and self-vindicative writings. Here are a few more famous examples of his self-criticism:
- "Here I offered a draw, not realizing it was bad etiquette."
- "Nowadays I would know better than to try to squeeze a win out of such a simplified ending."
- "As Olafsson showed me, White can win with 53.Rc7+! It's hard to believe. I stayed up all night analyzing, finally convincing myself and, incidentally, learning a lot about Rook and Pawn endings in the process."
Fischer's comments were objective, yet also full of witty quips and vernacular American-English which seemed quotable right away. (In this respect, he is a bit like Oscar Wilde.) Most of all, Fischer displayed a fantastic feel for compact, funny yet extremely subtle use of his language:
- "Throwing a monkey wrench into Black's carefully contrived setup!"
- "He won't get a second chance to snap off the Bishop! Now I felt the game was in the bag if I didn't botch it. I'd won dozens of skittles games in analogous positions and had it down to a science: pry open the h-file, sac, sac ... mate!"
- "I could see from the expression on Smyslov's face that he already thought he was busted."
Then there are the many lively - sometimes even emotional - yet always concise and colorful remarks such as: "Blow for blow!", "Agressive defence!", "Should be the losing move!", "My first threat in the entire game!", "Infiltration!", "A shot!" etc. Oh, by the way, all the above-mentioned quotes are from the first 17 games only...
It's obvious that Fischer's book doesn't only contain memorable games (most memorably of all, perhaps, Fischer's dramatic encounter with Botvinnik at the 1962 Varna Olympiad) - it contains even more memorable one-liners. The same can be said of the game introductions by Larry Evans, which have become famous in their own right. They're short, often just two or three paragraphs, but always interesting, and they, too, are full of memorable use of language:
'Finally, he has not escaped me!' exulted Fischer.
'It is difficult to play against Einstein's theory,' sighed Tal, who went on to capture first prize.
Maybe My 60 Memorable Games is the best chess book ever written - but I think it's definitely the best-written chess book ever.
The sorcerer and his apprentices
A completely different classic which has recently been reprinted (by New in Chess) is The Sorcerer's Apprentice by David Bronstein and Tom Furstenberg (it was originally published in 1995 by Everyman). Well, two chess books can't possibly be more different than Fischer's and Bronstein's - and it's hard to come down to earth after reading Fischer's book again.
You see, Fischer's comments are often minimalistic, full of sharp humor, concise variations. His games and analysis are of a deceptive simplicity, which does in my view raise the question how much an ordinary mortal can actually learn (in a chess sense) from Fischer's notes - apart from the obvious fact that chess can look so simple when played well. On the other hand, Bronstein's analysis seem always aimed at potential students. Bronstein is not half as funny or straight to the point as Fischer, but his writing is often a lot more detailed and elaborate:
This is a serious positional mistake after which Black finds himself in a difficult situation. With hanging c- and d-pawns the black Knight at c6 turns out to be very badly placed. It blocks the defence of the c5 pawn by the Rook and the defence of the d5 pawn by the Bishop, and if the Knight moves away, say to a5, the important square e5 remains in White's hands. The normal position for Black's Knight, when he has hanging pawns, is on d7, where it defends the c5 pawn and controls the square e5. Black should of course have captured with his Knight, and after 11...Nxd5 12.Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Qc2 Qh5 he stands no worse.
This subtle move reinforces the d4 pawn and threatens the unpleasant transfer of the white Knight to f5. It is very difficult for him to obtain any play. Probably best was 12...a5 followed by the sacrifice of the pawn at a4; in this case the c-pawn would have become a passed pawn and Black could have hoped for counterplay.
These explanations are the best parts of the book by far. Bronstein was not only a fantastic chess player, but also a great chess explicator. The book is full of very useful and instructive explications.
However, contrary to Fischer's book, which is just perfect (which is why absolutely nothing should be changed in it), I think The Sorcerer's Apprentice also has its downsides. In fact, I've always thought the book was slightly overrated. This, by the way, is hardly Bronstein's own fault.
The first thing that annoys me about the book is the various prefaces and introductions it contains. These are mostly personal recollections by Tom F?ºrstenberg and others. What strikes me (and, I must confess, irritates me) in these introductions is the emphasis the authors lie on Bronstein's 'greatness', his love for the game and his 'kind heart'. (The book also contains a telegram from the President of the Russian Chess Federation Bronstein received for his 75th birthday, thanking him for his 'services to the world of chess'.)
David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Mikhail Botvinnik
In general, think there is a bit too much of the 'apprentices' in this sorcerer's book. It's all nice and well-meant, but ... I mean, we all love chess, right? There's really nothing special about that, so why mention it time again in Bronstein's case? And who really cares about Bronstein's character in a book subtitled 'Improve your chess with David Bronstein' - except of course the people who knew him personally (like F?ºrstenberg)? I guess it's all just a little too sentimental to my taste. Well, at least now you know why I like Fischer's style so much.
There's another minor point of criticsm I must make. I've already given an example of Bronstein's splendid way of explaining chess positions. But he also likes to tell anecdotes in great detail and this gives me mixed feelings. Bronstein's personal experiences of his matches with Botvinnik are very interesting and historically important, but personally I wasn't too interested in stuff such as what kind of wine Bronstein drank with which friends at which occasion all the time.
Here the book is at its most unbalanced: sometimes we get very interesting memoirs about historical matches or the Second World War, then we are suddenly treated to a rather pointless story about good whisky and a toast to someone's health. Even more confusingly, sometimes we get other chess player's (e.g. Timman's) opinion on matters, too.
Of course, this doesn't mean you shouldn't buy this book! In fact, the new edition also contains many beautiful photographs (by the way, the photo of Fischer on my edition of My Sixty Memorable Games has disappeared in the current edition!), and there's lots of cool new stuff compared to the first edition of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
For instance there's a very interesting lecture Bronstein gave on his experience with computers. This is a fantastic piece of chess writing that I found very inspiring. Bronstein explains in great detail how he tried to battle computers on various occasions, especially during the Aegon Human vs. Computer tournaments in 1990 and 1991 in The Hague. I myself was a live witness to the following game:
Bronstein - Fidelity Elite 10
The Hague 1991
1.e4 e5 2.f4 (After assuring the reader that he was 'very honoured' when asked to operate the computer on this occasion, F?ºrstenberg explains how Bronstein came to choose the King's Gambit for this game - it was a suggestion by F?ºrstenberg himself.) 2...exf4 3.Nf3 Be7 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nxe4 6.Ne5 Ng5 7.d4 d6 8.Nd3 f3 9.Be3 Bg4
Here David Bronstein asked me: 'What kind of a game would you like to see?'. I still do not regret my reply: 'Make it as spectacular as you can.'
What a fantastic move, especially to play against a computer! And of course, after this Bronstein went on to win the game in very spectacular style, meanwhile commenting on the game while it was still in progress! At moments like these, it's easy to forgive F?ºrstenberg his enthousiasm and reverence for David Bronstein.
Fischer vs. Bronstein
Fischer and Bronstein have played each other twice in serious games (and twice in blitz games). Both tournament games were fighting draws, and Bronstein has included one of them in his main section '50 Games with Comments': Bronstein-Fischer, Marl del Plata 1960:
When we arrived in Buenos Aires, we discovered Bobby Fischer's name on the list of participants. The next morning, when we went to the station to go to Mar del Plata, Bobby was waving to me from the train and I had the pleasure of introducing Boris Spassky to the great American player. They became friends instantly and have remained so until this day.
The game is very high level and Fischer gets lots of compliments from Bronstein in his analysis. (Interestingly, in an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad from January 2007, Hans Ree states that Bronstein didn't have a lot of respect for Fischer, mentioning Bronstein's book Chess in the Eighties in which Bronstein argues that Fischer was a 'pragmatic, unartistic fighting machine'. It's perhaps revealing that Bronstein only mentions Spassky's friendship with Fischer - not his own.) The game is not in My Sixty Memorable, which says something about the strict criteria Fischer used for his game selection. (His game with Spassky from that tournament, however, is included. Fischer lost that game.)
What I find striking is that when I think about My Sixty Memorable Games, I don't actually think about chess or games - I mostly think about Fischer's language. But when I think of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, I cannot recall a single anecdote or memoir from the book - all I remember are great chess moves. Of course, Fischer's book contains 60 fantastic and memorable games, and Bronstein's book contains many interesting anecdotes, but there you are.
I'm sure many readers disagree with me and will say they have actually learned a lot from Fischer's games and have intensely enjoyed Bronstein's stories. Well, that just proves my point. Great books can be interpreted in many different ways. Read both these classics and you will know what I mean.
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