Unwrapping the Enigma

This review has been printed in the January 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. ISBN 978-1941270028. PB 384pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish on Amazon.

Who is Mark Dvoretsky?

This might seem a curious question in the age of Google. A quick search reveals that Mark Dvoretsky is an International Master, a well-published author with at least a dozen books in multiple languages to his credit, and a chess trainer. Multiple websites refer to Dvoretsky as the world’s best trainer, and with very good reason.

Mark Dvoretsky trained three World Junior Champions and was second to Nana Alexandria in her World Championship match. He is perhaps best known for his long and on-going work with Sergei Dolmatov and with Artur Yusupov, whom he nearly guided to the top of the chess world in the 80s and 90s. Before there was Chernin or Chuchelov, there was Mark Dvoretsky.

Still, for all of this ‘data,’ I’ve always found Dvoretsky to be something of an enigma. Who is the man behind all the books and achievements?

So it was with great interest that I read Dvoretsky’s newest book, titled For Friends and Colleagues, Volume 1: Profession: Chess Coach and translated from the German. For Friends and Colleagues is a two-volume work, with the first volume (under review here) chronicling Dvoretsky’s playing, training and writing careers, and with the second (due out this spring) consisting of a series of occasional pieces about chess training, literature and personalities.

Profession: Chess Coach is not an analytical work, although dozens of interesting games are included, and neither is it a typical autobiography. If pressed, I would describe it as a memoir of his life in chess. There is little in the way of traditional biographic detail. We learn almost nothing about Dvoretsky’s childhood except as it relates to chess, and while photographs of his wife and son appear in the book, almost no reference to them appears in the text.

One of the quirks of this book is the liberal – almost excessive – sprinkling of quotations amidst its pages. Dvoretsky invokes the words of a famed Russian poet in the book’s preface to shed light on its raison d’être:

Vladimir Mayakovsky once said, I am a poet. That’s what makes me interesting. In my life, working as a coach has been most important. Thus, I have conceptualized certain life events and later used them in my coaching. In this book, I have likewise tried to assess… various events from a coach’s point of view, whether these events were related to chess, university studies, etc. This is the main focus of my new book. (12)

The majority of this book revolves around Dvoretsky’s training career, and we spend a lot of time reading about the achievements of four of his pupils: Valery Chekhov, Artur Yusupov, Sergei Dolmatov and Alexei Dreev. But I wonder if Dvoretsky is not being too modest in his self-assessment.

The legendary Talmudist Rashi believed that “when one teaches the Torah to the sons of one’s fellow man, it is as if one had engendered them oneself.  The true descendants are students, those whom one has taught.” To this, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas added: “true filiation… is giving instruction.”[1] When we read Dvoretsky’s account of his various pupils, of why some succeeded and others failed, we are – as Rashi and Levinas would surely agree – learning about Dvoretsky himself.

Success in chess is intimately linked for Dvoretsky to character, and the virtues and vices of numerous characters are chronicled in Profession: Chess Coach. The absurdities of life under the Soviet regime are made plain through tragicomic tales. Many center on the effect of the so-called ‘fifth point,’ or the official notation of one’s Judaism on internal passports. Some allowed their moral compasses to be stunted under these conditions, while others strove for basic decency and freedom of thought against the grain. Dvoretsky tells the good and the bad, and pulls no punches in the process.

Chekhov never fulfilled his promise because of pride and complacency. Dreev suffered because he gave simuls to support his family, leading to sanctions from Soviet officials. Yusupov and Dolmatov found success, in Dvoretsky’s view, because their character and good natures allowed them to succeed despite roadblocks.

There is some score-settling in Profession: Chess Coach. Tal comes off well, as does Gulko, but Botvinnik less so. Dvoretsky eviscerates Josh Waitzkin, rebutting Waitzkin’s account of their relation in The Art of Learning and painting him as soft and incapable of hard work.

If you are looking for a book to help you improve your chess, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are interested in a first-hand account of some very important events and persons in chess history, it’s hard to find a better book than this one. Few have influenced modern chess like Dvoretsky has, and Profession: Chess Coach reads like his valedictory address.


[1] Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life And Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2006), 142.

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