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.

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