Small games, big book

Tadic, Branko, and Goran Arsovic, ed. Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures. Belgrade: Sahovski Informator, 2014. HB 560 pp.  ISBN 978-8672970715. List $53.95; approximately $44-50 at Amazon. Also available at the publisher’s website.

What makes for a miniature in chess?  The game must be short. (‘Short’ has historically meant anywhere from 15 to 25 moves.) It should be bloody, filled with tactics and blunders.  And it should be beautiful; or, at the least, there should be something aesthetically pleasing about it.

The Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures contains 1636 fully annotated games sorted by opening variation, with no game running past 20 moves.  It follows in a tradition of books of miniatures, including books by Irving Chernev, Neil McDonald and John Nunn. Is ECM an improvement on this august tradition? Yes and no.

On the one hand, there is undeniable value for your money in this book. You can find wonderful miniatures in nearly any opening variation you desire, although – and this should not surprise – the majority of the games are in the B and C sections of the ECO coding system.  Closed systems don’t lead to short slugfests as often! The game selection represents a decent cross-section of chess history, with games from Morphy (10), Anderssen (7), Alekhine (12) and Tal (12). Among contemporary players, Jobava has 6 games in the book, and Beliavsky has the most (on my scan) with 17. Even Deep Blue gets in on the action with one game – I’ll let you guess which one.

On the other hand, some of the recent games – particularly those that have also appeared in the Informant – are more workmanlike and less spectacular than their diminutive brethren. In some one of the players just makes a blunder and is duly punished. While they may technically be miniatures, they don’t feel that brilliant.  Part of this has to do with the undoubted advances in chess skill and knowledge through the years, but all the same, some of the newer games don’t sparkle the way that the older ones do.

I have found the book to be particularly useful for teaching. In my work with kids, for example, I’ve found that miniatures are both pretty and short enough to keep their attention.  I showed two games (three, including Morphy at the Opera) from this book to a student in recent weeks, but I learned something too – I knew how to handle the 4…Qh4 variation of the Scotch because I’d studied the Maczuski-Kolisch game, beating an opponent who outrated me by 200 points!

Is this book for you? If you teach chess, particularly to kids, ECM will prove very useful indeed. If you enjoy playing through tactical melees, there are plenty here. And I suspect that using this book to help learn an opening – by seeing how typical mistakes are punished – would be a fruitful endeavor.

The price may turn some people off, and its lack of ‘utility’ may dissuade others. That’s a shame. Unlike an opening book, which is outdated as soon as it is printed, this is a book that will entertain for years and years to come. Sometimes we – and by we, I mean I! – forget that chess is supposed to be fun. Playing through the games in the Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures will help you remember.

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One thought on “Small games, big book

  1. Francis Burton

    Looks enticing and potentially useful. However, I do wish all publishers would provide *some* kind of excerpt or “look inside” for books, so that one can get an idea of the contents and format before buying.

    Reply

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