Monthly Archives: August 2013

Half-Baked Hesse

Hesse, Christian.  The Joys of Chess: Heroes, Battles & Brilliancies.  Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2011.  ISBN 978-9056913557.  PB $24.95; currently (8/23/13) $22.46 on Amazon.

I have struggled with this review, because – at least in principle – I should really like this book.  Have a look at the advertising slug from the New in Chess website, which is bolstered with laudatory quotes from the likes of Soltis and Anand:

The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.
The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

This is just the kind of thing that should entice someone like me.  I’m a well-educated person.  I enjoy the aesthetic dimension of chess and its history.  Although I am terrible at solving, I am slowly learning to appreciate chess problems and studies, of which there are many in Hesse’s book.  An “unforgettable intellectual expedition” is right up my alley.  And still, for all of that, the book leaves me cold.  Why?

It’s not for lack of effort on Hesse’s part.  The Joys of Chess is chock-full of interesting positions and problems.  Hesse consulted a vast swath of chess literature in the construction of his book, and it’s obvious that the work is a labor of love for him.  There are 597 diagrams in The Joys of Chess, and were a reader to simply choose one at random for study or replay, she could feel quite confident that she would land on something entirely worth her time.

The prose, however, is another matter entirely.  The quality varies greatly by chapter.  Some, like “The Value of the Pieces” and “Smothered Mate,” are unobjectionable and actually quite interesting.  Others, like “Miscellaneous, worth mentioning” and “The theory of relative beauty” contain small factual errors.  In the first case, as Edward Winter notes, Rubinstein did not play 1700 rook endgames.  In the second, Hesse quotes Kant on aesthetics but completely misunderstands him.  (Hesse’s philosophic musings are generally sophomoric.  See the chapter entitled “Determinism” which, sad to say, begins rather like a sophomore’s philosophy exam.)

Hesse begins most every chapter with at least one quotation or aphorism.  The link between the quotation and the chapter is sometimes tenuous.  Take, for example, “Zen and the art of confronting superior forces.”  Hesse quotes a well-known koan, presumably to shed some light on the positions that follow.  No such link is apparent.  He namechecks the Daoist notion of wu-wei, but there’s nothing about Zen until the final paragraph, where Hesse makes a half-hearted attempt to tie the koan to a position where White is in a sort of zugzwang despite being up an unseemly amount of material.  On my count, he discusses Zen in at least two other places, neither of which succeed in illustrating anything about the positions at hand.

Then there are chapters like “The geometry of the chessboard.”  It begins well enough but soon swerves into esoteric talk of ‘CP-invariance’ and antiparticles, all of which is supposed to light on Reti’s famous study from 1921.  I just don’t get it.  The chapter is loaded with fascinating positions for study, and Hesse’s analysis seems quite informative.  Why muddy things up with the pseudo-intellectual chatter?

This pattern repeats itself in more than a few places.  Hesse tries to tease out some obscure connection between high theory and chess theory, and then completely fails to draw the connection out for the reader.  This is not uncommon in contemporary discourse, where our pundits and politicians offer us slogans instead of solutions.  They string together smart-sounding words in the hopes of tricking us into believing their pap.  While Hesse’s prose is certainly smarter than most, it fails to come together at the most critical points.

The Joys of Chess is not the first of its genre.  Most notable are Fred Reinfeld’s The Fireside Book of Chess and Tim Krabbé’s Open Chess Diary.  Krabbé’s website, in particular, can be recommended.  It’s free, and it’s free of the faux-intellectualism that stunts Hesse’s book; when compared to Krabbé, Hesse’s work certainly suffers.

This is a decent, if not essential book.  Readers will find many games and problems they have likely not seen, and all are curious or entertaining.  It is, however, marred by its prose.  It is at once too much and too little.  It can be too verbose, too wordy, too smart for its own good, and yet it feels half-baked, premature.  A little tying in of loose ends would have done this work a world of good.

6/10.  +1 or +2 if you’re not as troubled by loose prose as I am.


Eighty percent of success is showing up

After a few days detoxing from my descent into US Open madness, I’m back in the saddle.  A new review should be up by the weekend, and a retrospective and diagnostic of my games from the Open shortly thereafter.

I thought that some backlash might be coming from my winning the CJA ‘Best Chess Blog’ award, given the nature of the blogosphere and my candor regarding its occurrence.  But even I was a little surprised at the speed with which the backlash came.

Enter Mark Weeks, a prolific chess blogger based in Belgium.

Weeks is peeved, it would seem, because there were originally no entries in the blog category as of July.  I relate the story of how I met Niro and Roland (thanks for reminding me to fix the typos, Mark) and how they came to know of my blog in a post I wrote mid-event.  I also describe my surprise and embarrassment upon learning of my win; my audible response was, I believe, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Here’s the thing about Weeks’ post that irks me.  It’s based on a lot of innuendo and conjecture.  He thinks it odd that I reviewed a book that won the CJA award, hinting at some vast conspiracy while lacking any evidence whatsoever.  (Is he the first ‘booker,’ a new variant on truthers and birthers?)  He links to my ‘About’ page without a word as to its content or lack of spelling mistakes.  He says nothing about the quality of anything I’ve written, save to point out typographical errors.  His remarks regarding my blog are nothing but potshots, and his consummatory congratulations ring tinny and hollow.

The CJA board read my work from stem to stern, and they deemed it worthy of an award.  Is it possible that there were more deserving blogs out there?  Absolutely – but none entered.  I ran into some people who read my work, judged it, and rewarded it.  Eighty percent of success, as Woody Allen (maybe) said, is showing up.  I showed up.  I’m proud of the award, and I’m proud of my work on this blog.

There are certainly problems with the CJA as it stands.  The organization is moribund, and the Awards process needs a dramatic overhaul.  Here again, I’m showing up.  I’ve joined the CJA and have offered to join the Awards Committee to help fix what’s broken about the process.  I’ll also be nominating my blog for the 2014 Best Chess Blog award as soon as nominations open, because I’m convinced that my work here stacks up against anything else in the chess blogosphere, American or otherwise.

Rd 9: A Deserved Hiding

I got to sleep in on Sunday, since the Delegates – miracle of miracles! – had managed to finish up all their business on Saturday.  After a late breakfast with John Watson, I tried to clear my head and get ready to play some chess.  The round time, as is common, moved up on the final day to 3pm.  My opponent came ready to play.  I did not.  This game is the result.

Multiple flaws in my game are on display in this little disaster.  My bishop belongs on e7 and not c7; I got carried away with ideas of pushing …e6-e5 and breaking up White’s center, but even there, the bishop should be on e7 to hit the c5 pawn.  My calculative abilities, if one can call them abilities, were shocking.  I just don’t seem to have the sense of danger that I should.  If any readers have ideas on how to train that, I’d be much obliged.

The silver lining is that while Team Hartmann had a miserable event, Team Watson had a very good one.  John went 6-1 (plus two half pt byes in rds 1 and 2) to finish at 7-2 and grab a share of the U2400 money.  More important than the money was the quality of his play, which was very strong indeed, and all the more impressive given his time away from the competitive arena.  There is only one of his games in TWIC, but it’s a fairly good one, and well worth your time to track down.  Below is a picture of John analyzing with his rd 9 opponent and other future members of the US Chess Olympic team.


Rd 8: A Professional Job

I’m home after a long drive yesterday, and after some much needed sleep.  (Who knew chess tournaments took so much out of you?)  Now it’s time to catch up on Rounds 8 and 9, and then I’ll cap things off with a recap, review and reconsideration of my game.  I’ll return to book reviewing shortly thereafter with a review of Christian Hesse’s book.

Saturday was Delegate Meeting day.  Oy.  I’ve been told it was Kissinger who once said that academics argue so much because there’s so very little at stake.  I’m sure, however, that if he’d attended the Delegates Meeting, he’d want to modify that statement.  Chess players just love to hear themselves argue over the smallest things, and while I’m sure it’s part of my training in informal logic that makes me say this, I heard some of the dumbest arguments imaginable on certain barely consequential votes.

That said, I did rather enjoy being a Delegate, if only because I could tune out and look at things on Chessbase if the discussion went sour.  I learned quite a bit about the state of the USCF and its finances, which, all things considered, are decent and perhaps even on the upswing.  Michael Khodarkovsky gave a report about FIDE and Americans in international play.  We learned that Franc Guadalupe is actively working to get some kind of online play for USCF members and, perhaps more importantly, is bargaining with Random House to publish the long-awaited 6th edition of the Rulebook.  Guadalupe seems incredibly competent, which naturally means we can’t induce him to stay on as full-time director.  Oh well.  A boy can dream.

Two motions were actively debated.  The first dealt with the introduction of an age-limit for Delegates.  This makes sense, and legal opinion apparently was on the side of age-limiters.  But youth prevailed, if only because (1) there was a 14yr old Delegate already seated with whom the majority of the grandparently delegates were smitten, and (2) people were convinced by some of the least well-thought speeches I’ve ever heard.  So we can seat toddlers as delegates… because states rights.  (Seriously.)

Second, Jim Berry tried to introduce a plan to allow scholastic players up to the age of 12 to buy life memberships for $500.  Sounds great, right?  Most scholastic players drop out, so that has got to be a cash grab for the Federation.  But it would seem that no one actually did any cost-benefit analysis to determine how many players drop out and come back, what percentage of players would have to disappear as adults to make such a cheap price point feasible, etc.  I was moved to make my one and only comment from the floor here, telling the delegates that most of them were far older than me and that I (and my coming governing cohorts) might have to deal with the consequences of a plan that apparently wasn’t worth their doing basic math or anything.  Luckily reason – or non-insanity – prevailed here and the motion failed.

It turns out my evening game was against another delegate, this time a woman from Wisconsin.  After some dodgy opening play, I was able to tie her defenses down to a backward c-pawn and then open up a second attack on her kingside.  I probably could have won faster, but in the end I’m basically pleased with my play here.  The resistance could have been stronger, but it wasn’t a blowout and I had to actually, you know, do something to win.  This left me at 4.0/8 heading into the last round.

Rd 7: The Good Fight

I took a 1/2 pt bye for rd 6, leaving me at 3.0/6 when the schedules merged Friday night for rd 7.  It might seem odd to some that I took two byes, given that I drove all this way and paid all this money to play chess.  Why not just play all nine rounds?

Part of it, honestly, is that chess is hard.  It’s hard for GMs, and it’s hard for patzers like me.  A long game can really take the wind out of your sails, and two long games in one day is exhausting.  I also wanted to spend time out in Madison, visiting with friends, etc., and really just take a leisurely, vacation-style approach to the event.

While others were slogging it out Friday afternoon, I wandered around the playing site and took pictures.  Most of those went up yesterday in a Flickr album, but I did want to place a few in this post with some comments.

I thought it might be kind of interesting to take a few pictures of the playing hall when it was empty, just for the sake of comparison.  Imagine my surprise when I wandered in and saw a single game running in the far corner.


It turns out that Frank Niro (right) and Jeffrey Roland (left) have been playing a 12 game match across America, with this game the last in the series.  The game was in its death throes when I was taking these pictures, so I got a chance to talk to them both and exchange information.  Frank’s ears perked up when I mentioned the existence of this blog, and he scribbled down the URL.  Sometimes chance meetings lead to good things…

I also spent quite a bit of time in the tournament bookstore, which should shock no one given the title and nature of this blog.  (Lots of pictures are in the Flickr album.)  In the end I picked up four titles over these past few days, with one coming from a local used shop.


The book in the upper right corner is a Jack Spence tournament book.  Spence was an Omaha organizer and chess historian, and he is the namesake of a chess club that I direct in Omaha.

My understanding is that the tournament bookstore was a collaborative effort between Chess4Less and the Rochester Chess Center.  Hats off to them both.  They had a great selection of books and equipment.

The Wisconsin Chess Association had a small display near Chess Control with memorabilia from the history of Wisconsin chess.  Of particular interest were the items from the 1989 World Youth, which took place in the state and in which players the likes of Leko, Polgar, Schwartzman, Waitzkin, etc., participated.  Some prescient person had Polgar sign her name placard, and they had it out for passersby to see.


I also attended the Chess Journalists of America meeting in the afternoon session.  I, of course, am only an amateur ‘journalist,’ but because of the increased blurring in information services between print and electronic media, and because I also write for the Nebraska state chess magazine, I thought I should check them out.  Dan Lucas and Jen Shahade from Chess Life and Chess Life Online joined Niro, Roland and Al Lawrence at the head of the room, and the meeting served as a dual CJA and Publications Committee meeting.


CJA awards were handed out at the end of the meeting; much to my surprise and great embarrassment, this blog was named the Best Chess Blog.  Apparently Niro and Roland had read the blog in its entirety during the few hours between our meeting and this meeting, and deemed it worthy of the award.  I’m honored, of course, but now this means I have to live up to the praise.  (If it helps me get review copies of books from more publishers, that’s also swell.)

Dinner was followed by my rd 7 game.  My opponent was a young expert from Florida, and it was probably my best game of the event thus far.  The game, a quiet line out of the 9.dxc5 Tarrasch, went nearly six hours, and while I was probably lost in the final position anyway, I ‘graciously’ stumbled into a 1am checkmate in one.  Oy.  On the whole my calculation was solid, and my only big oversight (besides the mate) was allowing the queen trade.  I hallucinated some variation where I’d check out of it, retreating the rook, but of course this just hangs things.  I might have had practical chances to hold the rook ending if I’d traded down at the right time, but White played very well, finding the best moves again and again to keep pressing.

Friday pictures

I’m in the midst of my duties as a delegate to the USCF, so I’m going to have to upload my game report later.  To tide you over, here is a Flickr album filled with pictures from yesterday, including images from the Niro-Roland match, the bookstore, the CJA and the general membership meeting.  There are also some pictures of displays and memorabilia from the tournament site.  I’ll tag and add slugs as time permits.

Rd 4 & 5: Doubleheader

Yesterday was my long day, my day of unending chess labor, my two-a-day.  I’ve never played in a large national event where multiple rounds of 40/2 SD/1 games are on the cards, and now I know why.  It’s exhausting, even if – as I did – you luck out and get a fairly quick win in the late game.

I started the day at 1.5/3, so I expected to be playing someone fairly decent in round 4.  My opponent was a 20ish 1977 player, and to be honest, he flat-out beat me.  They don’t call the Ruy ‘Spanish Torture’ for nothing.  If Black plays inaccurately in any number of lines, White just builds up a powerful kingside attack and wins.  Had I kept my light squared bishop, I think my chances would have been better, but in the end, the ‘kid’ (I can say that at 37, right?) just outplayed me.  Hats off to him.  (I will note, however, that begging out of a quick postmortem because ‘you might have to eat’ is a little sketchy when the next round starts in 3.5 hrs.  Just say you’re not interested.)

After some muttered profanities, I cooled my jets in the bookstore and then went off for dinner at the restaurant across the street.  It was then time for pregame coffee and chess prep!

Some of the discussion at chesspub about these posts led me to reconsider my overly zealous pregame habits, so I tried to take it easy, only looking at a few variations to remind myself of key points.  It might also have been a small blessing that pairings didn’t go up until perhaps 20 minutes before the round, as I couldn’t obsess over my opponent’s repertoire if I didn’t know who he or she was.

My round 5 opponent turned out to be a very nice 11 yr old from New Mexico rated around 1500.  This is his second US Open, he told me, and his brother played in the Barber.  I’d looked at a lot of d4 openings in the weeks before the Open, and my thinking generally is that older folk such as myself should strongly consider playing things besides 1.e4 against talented kids.  He played a variation of the Slav where he takes …dxc4 early, and I was a bit befuddled.  Eventually I sac’d my b-pawn and got a lot of play against his exposed queen.  Surely he resigned too early, as there was plenty of play in the position, but White is vastly better in the final position.

I ended the day at 2.5/5, and with my half pt bye in round 6, I’ll be at 3.0/6 when the schedules merge tonight.  Today I’ll return to downtown Madison for awhile, and then I’ll attend the Chess Journalists of America meeting before eating and preparing to play tonight.  I should also have more pictures tomorrow!

Here are my games, presented with my thanks to those who would take the time to view them!