I admit it. I have a lot of chess books, and I keep buying more of them. When I’m trying to decide which books to pick up and which to skip, I often find myself scouring the interwebs for reviews. Unfortunately – as seems to be the case in many fields of inquiry – it seems quite difficult to find thoughtful, high quality reviews, and for a few reasons. I can think, off the top of my head, of at least three typical abuses of the review medium.
There are, in the first place, reviewers who just love every last book sent their way. (We don’t need to name names, of course, but a quick google of “chessbook reviews” will reveal one particularly habitual sinner.) Such reviews are rarely enlightening or informative, and indeed, it would seem to be part of the reviewer’s critical duty to tell truths about substandard books.
Second, we might consider those reviewers who are more concerned with brandishing their own bona fides instead of actually reviewing the books in question. Two recent reviews at Chesscafe by Vijay Raghavan are good examples of this hubris in action. In both these reviews Raghavan tries to score cheap points about marketing or nitpicky nonsense; in doing so, he obscures the valid points his reviews are trying to make.
Finally, the old truism ‘you get what you pay for’ is just as true in book reviewing as any other field. Because there is no money (or very little!) in chess reviewing, and because just about anyone can create a blog and start slogging away, there’s very little quality control involved. Sometimes earnest enthusiasts with little chess knowledge, and with even less writing ability, will tackle books they can’t begin to understand. Or they will lambast certain authors for writing books that are ‘too hard,’ not realizing that said difficulty lies with them. Have a quick look at reviews on Amazon or in the chess.com forums, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
I hope to avoid all these problems on this blog.
I write these reviews from the perspective of a decent (1785 USCF on the 1/13 list) club player, and as a reasonably well-educated person. In general, I prefer books that are accessible to club players and written with we ‘chess mortals’ in mind. I understand that some books are written for masters and grandmasters; however, given that most of the book buying public are neither, I believe that good chess writing should be understandable by the competent amateur. I will judge books by their content, accuracy, and style both authorial and editorial. As of this moment, most of the books I review will be those that I have purchased, although I will welcome review copies from publishers.
I take as my model in this enterprise the work of John Watson, who, not coincidentally, is also my friend and teacher. John’s reviews represent, to my mind, the gold standard of chess reviewing. Obviously there is a vast difference in understanding and playing strength between John and me, and that difference will surely tell in any comparison of my reviews and his. Still, I hope that these reviews find an audience, and that this audience deems them worthy of their time and attention.