Thursday, January 11, 2007

Buried treasures

Every year hundreds of chess books are published around the world, but no more than five percent go on to become classics. Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, Keres's Grandmaster of Chess, Larsen's Selected Games of Chess, Kasparov's The Test of Time... every serious player knows these books and has read them cover to cover.

Among the remaining 95% of chess books there is wide variability in both quality and content. Here are several books that to me stand out in some way, but which for various reasons are not well-known to modern players. If you can find one of these in your local used bookstore, snap it up immediately!

How to Beat Bobby Fischer, by Edmar Mednis (1975)
The late Edmar Mednis parlayed a scrappy and perhaps fortuitous win over Bobby Fischer in the 1962/63 U.S. Championship into a career as a best-selling author. In this book he presents the 61 games that Fischer lost between 1958 and 1972, that is, between the Portoroz Interzonal and the famous match victory in Reykjavik. On the surface this is a novelty item that plays off Fischer's own selection of 60 games, but on a deeper level it is a master class in analysing one's own games, identifying and understanding the mistakes, and then correcting them. Of particular value is the treatment of the psychological factors behind specific errors, and of the periods of relatively poor performance that affect every player from beginner to master.

Chess Openings: Theory and Practice, by I.A. Horowitz (1964)
This thick, one-volume opening book appeared a year or so before the famous 10th edition of Modern Chess Openings that was edited by Larry Evans, and it fell immediately under the shadow of its successor. Al Horowitz, then editor of Chess Review, was not a leading grandmaster; on top of that he had already produced a whole forest of low-level books aimed at D-Class players. But for this effort he brought three key elements together and created a modern masterpiece. First, he began each section with explanatory prose and something he called Idea Variations. These were lines that showed one side or the other executing a key idea and either getting the advantage or forcing a level position. Then he moved on to Practical Variations, the main lines that result from the struggle of both sides to impose their will on the opponent. Finally, he rounded off each section with a number of complete illustrative games by leading players. The result is a book that is as fresh today as it was more than 40 years ago. This is probably more than one can say about MCO 10, although at the right price I wouldn't pass that one up either!

Confessions of a Grandmaster, by Andrew Soltis (1990)
Andrew Soltis is another author whose books can vary wildly in quality. This is his chess autobiography and games collection, published by Thinkers Press of Davenport, Iowa. It is refreshingly candid, and packed with personal stories and interesting anecdotes. It also analyses many encounters with contemporary rivals, usually leading Americans but including the Canadian players Duncan Suttles, Peter Biyiasas and Lawrence Day. A sub-plot running through the book is the author's quest to obtain the grandmaster title, something he achieved in 1980 after many years of effort through the ups and downs of tournament play. This book demonstrates by specific example that apart from their greater playing strength, grandmasters are just like the rest of us: they deceive themselves, get tired, experience doubts, and make silly mistakes. But they persevere, and that's nine-tenths of what gets them the title.

Modern Grandmaster Chess, by Andrew Karklins (1974)
In the early 1970s Andrew Karklins was a young, rated expert living in Chicago. For some reason he became fascinated with the games of the 1964 Soviet Zonal Tournament (a qualifier for the 1965 Candidates Matches.) The dramatic story of the tournament was future World Champion Boris Spassky overcoming a 0-2 start to win the event outright. Over a number of years Karklins analysed the games in great detail, with the aim of understanding every move and answering every one of his own questions. After completing this task he realised that his work should be published. Every game is thoroughly annotated, and no assumptions are made about the reader's playing strength. The result is a highly instructive textbook portraying the struggle behind modern chess, and incidentally delving into the mystique of the Soviet School.

1234 Modern End-Game Studies, by Harold Lommer (1968)
This is a Dover reprint of a book that originally appeared in 1938. As the title implies, it is a collection of composed end-game positions with solutions (at the back.) A study is a position that cannot be assessed or evaluated because there are unresolved complications leading to a surprising or paradoxical result. These are identified in the stipulation, that is, the statement of White's task, which is always to draw a position that looks lost, or to win a position that looks lost or drawn. Open it to a random page and begin solving; there is no better training in developing your analytical powers.

The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, by Rudolf Spielmann (1951)
The Austrian grandmaster Rudolf Spielmann was one of the three or four strongest players in the world in the 1920s. This book, also available in a Dover reprint, is many things at once: a collection of the author's best games, a classification of sacrifices according to their various characteristics, and a thorough treatise on attacking chess. The works of Vladimir Vukovic may be more familiar to the modern reader, but this book by Spielmann was the trailblazer. The only downside is the occasional "helpful" note by editor Fred Reinfeld, whose chess was to Spielmann's as mine is to Garry Kasparov's.

Positional Chess Handbook, by Israel Gelfer (1991)
This book by a modern Israeli grandmasters contains hundreds of well-chosen game examples illustrating all of the major positional ideas in chess, including strong squares, pieces good and bad, weak pawns, cramped positions, the two bishops, and much more. The emphasis is on recognising the key elements in each position and in finding a line of play that exploits them. There is a natural emphasis on the transition from the middlegame to the endgame. I would describe this as a spiritual successor to the works of C.J.S. Purdy or to Larry Evans's famous book New Ideas in Chess.

Bobby Fischer: a Study of His Approach to Chess, by Elie Agur (1992)
Perhaps this treasure is not buried as deeply as the others -- for example, I recently spotted a very favourable review on the web by IM Jeremy Silman. Elie Agur is a national master from the Netherlands, although his FIDE affiliation is currently with Israel. Despite his modest rating of 2285, he has written a highly perceptive book on the characteristics of Fischer's play that separated him so clearly from his contemporaries. I would rate this effort more highly than the Mednis book mentioned earlier, but of course both are very instructive.


Jonathan Berry said...

Congratulations, Dan!

Neil Sullivan said...

Hello Dan. Congratulations on starting what looks to be a very promising blog. As a chess book collector, I am always looking for discussions of books on the web.

I have all the choices on your "Buried Treasures" list and agree with them completely. It is worth noting that in addition to "1234 Modern End-game Studies", "How to Beat Bobby Fischer", The Art of Sacrifice in Chess" and "Positional Chess Handbook" are also available from Dover.

There are a lot of great books that will go unread by the current generation as they are in descriptive and not considered economically profitable enough to warrant an algebraic reissue. If I could, I would put out a new version of Chernev's "The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played". Also published by Dover, it cries out for an algebraic edition.

Please keep up the blog!

Chess Manitoba said...

Theory and Practice - One of the first books I purchased back in 1972 or so. I was unaware of the MCO series, and never owned an edition.

According to Alex Dunne, T&P is a collaboration of Horowitz, Euwe, Battell, Bouwmeester, Dunst, Van Scheltinga, Rudy, among others.

I will have to take it off my shelf and look through it again.

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Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
National master (Canada) since 1984. B.C. Champion 1977 and 1984. Runner-up 1991 and 2002. B.C. Open Champion 1972 and 1982. B.C. U/14 Champion 1964-65-66. Mikhail Botvinnik once wrote that publishing your analytical work forces you to be accurate because it exposes you to criticism. Hence this blog.