This review has been printed in the March 2018 issue of Chess Life. A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.
Timman, Jan. Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. PB 320pp. ISBN 978-9056916725.
Once a haven for the geeks and oddballs among us, chess has taken on a new and more positive valence in the modern social imaginary. Chess is marketed to parents as a propaedeutic to academic achievement for their children, and as a source of important non-cognitive skills like ‘grit.’ The current US Chess mission statement – “empowering people through chess one move at a time” – highlights the benefits of playing more than it does the game itself.
Today’s leading players also bear the signs of this shift. Top tournaments are broadcast live across the world via YouTube and Twitch, and the competitors explain their wins and losses with sage-like equanimity, their sponsorship deals prominently featured on their blazers. ‘Lesser’ Grandmasters and Masters are riding the e-sport wave towards exclusive streaming deals and video series. Scholastic chess has become a growth industry: coaches and camps proliferate, and it seems like half the players at big tournaments are juniors.
Surely this newfound respectability is beneficial for American chess. But is it an unalloyed good? Is nothing lost when the chess world is transformed into a wholesome, family-friendly environment?
I think back to my first steps in the chess world, back to evenings at the public library in Merrick, NY, where I was the only person in the room under 40, and where I lost game after game to old Russian men who regaled me with wonderful, unprintable jokes. It was a space where the teenaged me wasn’t quite supposed to be, but I was there anyway, and I was learning to fit in.
You might think about your experiences at large tournaments like the US Open. The reputable players play their games, go back to their rooms, and get ready for the next round on their computers. Gone are the days of all-night blitz benders in the skittles room. Gone are the days of the pub crawl and the hangovers destroying the next day’s play. Worst of all, the postmortem is a relic, an antiquity, offered only by the aged and accepted even less frequently. Those that do occur are haunted by a third party – the ubiquitous Stockfish app, lurking, correcting, standing as the ultimate authority.
(Is this the part where I tell the kids to get off my lawn?)
Jan Timman’s newest book, Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions, is many things at once: a set of sketches of ten world champions, a study of their styles and games, a catalogue of Timman’s own dreams and memories. At its heart, however, I think Timman’s Titans is an elegy for what has been lost, for better and for worse, in modern chess, and a deeply personal remembrance of a world that no longer exists. As with most elegies, and here I follow Coleridge, it reveals equally the greatness of its subjects and its author. This is Timman’s best book to date.
Timman’s Titans consists of (a) personal remembrances of each of the world champions from Alekhine through Kasparov, (b) a discussion of their games and careers, and (c) highlights of Timman’s own games against the champion in question. The analysis is insightful and extremely well done, but the real reason to buy this book is for Timman’s memories and memorials.
Timman knew all of the champions he discusses save Alekhine, and he played against six of them in serious competition. The chapter on Alekhine, despite the handicap of never meeting him, is a particular highlight. We journey with Timman to Lisbon, Portugal, where Alekhine spent his final years. We accompany him on his wanderings through the snowy town, and we are present as he stumbles upon one of Alekhine’s own chess sets in a tiny junk shop. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, we get a sense of Timman the flâneur, and the writing is evocative of no less than W.G. Sebald or Teju Cole.
Of the nine remaining champions, Karpov is the subject of the largest chapter, at just over 50 pages. This is not terribly unexpected, as Timman faced Karpov more than anyone else in his career – some 115 games, according to my database. The chapter on Smyslov reveals a shared love of studies and justifies Genna Sosonko’s claim of a stylistic affinity between the two men. For me, however, the most interesting sections are those on Euwe and Tal.
Max Euwe was a friend of Timman’s parents, having taught Timman’s mother mathematics in her youth. It was, however, through a book of Euwe’s games – “a plain-looking book with a hard dark-blue cover. … The paper was thick, the letters were large. Euwe was the hero.” (33) – that Timman first studied “real, serious chess.”
Books are a constant reference in Timman’s Titans. We learn that a book on Botvinnik (Botvinnik Teaches Chess by Müller) was an early influence, and Euwe’s Judgment and Planning in Chess was an introduction to “strategic planning.” Later books by Alekhine (My Best Chess Games 1924-1937) and Smyslov (Selected Games) were of great importance.
Euwe, whom Timman could never bring himself to address by his first name, is described as bearing a “colossal authority,” as indefatigably hard-working and (despite the odd over-the-board blunder) eminently logical. For his part, Euwe tried to help Timman where he could, setting up contacts for an early tour of the Soviet Union, and quietly contributing rather large sums of money to the “Timman Committee” that aimed to support an assault on the World Championship.
It is clear that that Timman greatly admired Euwe, despite some sharp differences in personality between the two men.Where Euwe was solid and respectability, the young Timman was a bon vivant, someone who “hung around in shabby cafes… surrounded by shady types” (55) and who used a threadbare fur coat as a makeshift sleeping bag. Discipline and sobriety were not in his nature. Indeed, as Timman tells us, his attempts to emulate Botvinnik’s “spartan” training methods before his first Grandmaster tournament failed horribly, and it was only after he returned to his “trusted, unhealthy” lifestyle that he began to win.
Perhaps Timman’s admiration for Mikhail Tal, “a type of romantic player that has disappeared,” (111) can be traced to their similar outlook on life. He seems to take delight in describing his first encounters with the Seventh World Champion, how he succumbed to the famed “hypnotizing power of Tal’s eye” (110) in their first game in 1971, and how he spent a drunken evening getting the better of Tal in a 1973 blitz match.
It is hard to imagine such a thing happening at one of today’s leading tournaments. Sure, the Chessbrahs like to have a little fun while streaming, and there are videos on YouTube of bughouse games after big events at the St. Louis Chess Club, but as Timman correctly notes, “[t]oday’s top player is a teetotaller… It is unthinkable that he would mingle in the social circles around the tournament the way Tal did. The top grandmasters of yesteryear sat at the bar like all the other visitors. Young players who invited them to play a blitz game would never be turned down.” (111)
For all of this, Timman was not blind to Tal’s very real flaws, and in particular, his alcoholism. He tells a story of one of the first times he saw Tal “knocked out by alcoholic excess:”
Ischa Meijer (a well-known TV journalist at the time in the Netherlands – translator’s note) had come to Hastings to interview me. … Meijer described how Tal interrupted our conversation, saying: ‘Jan, don’t tell them about our lives.’ The interviewer reported: ‘A while later, he has to be carried off.’ My father, who had great respect for top chess players, was upset by this short sentence. How did the interviewer dare to write something like that?
But however painful this short sentence may have been, it was the truth. To me it was more interesting what Tal said before that. I remember the look in his eyes – a touch of despair was visible when he testified to our solidarity. (114)
I have to admit that I find the pathos of this passage almost unbearable. It is testament to the strength of Tal’s demons and the challenges of living under the Soviet regime, but more than that, it is emblematic of broader societal changes in the intervening years. Our knowledge of public health (rightly) stigmatizes smoking, an activity that permeates Timman’s Titans, and the ‘romance’ of addiction is much withered. Luckily for Timman and for us, he seems to have learned to moderate his vices, allowing him to write this book, and us to enjoy it.
This review was originally meant to have included discussion of two other books, but Timman’s Titans is so rich, so packed with stories and insights, that twice my allotted page space would not have done it justice. I do not think it controversial to say that this is one of the best chess books published in recent years, and players of all strengths would find it of great interest.
What may be more controversial are my concerns – mild as they may be – over the direction of modern chess. I offer this olive branch to those who disagree with me: you can, barring the unforeseen, find me in the bar after the evening rounds at this year’s US Open in Madison. Come visit. I’ll buy you a drink, and we can shoot the breeze while we play some blitz or eavesdrop on someone’s postmortem.
Do me a favor, though – don’t come too late. I can’t stay out all night like I used to, and I’ll have meetings and another round to get ready for in the morning.