Category Archives: biography

Quest or Obsession?

This review has been printed in the October 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves (Doubleday, 2019) is, on first blush, a fairly conventional tale of a young man’s obsession with chess. Chapin first approached the board as a troubled teen, and in the book’s early chapters, he recounts his early dalliances with the game on his school’s chess team.

Already in these initial pages we find the two competing elements of Chapin’s life in chess. He describes the “ecstatic flight from [him]self” that he discovered in the game, and the growing importance it held in his day-to-day living:

… I lost interest in all of my other typical activities. The brief thrills of breaking the law or almost breaking a condom felt like shallow flutters compared to the sustained joy of playing over one of Bobby Fischer’s masterpieces. (24)

But for all of the pleasure that chess provides him, Chapin also discovers that he’s not a very good player. While he can deal with losing to other “chess nerds,” a series of ego-crushing defeats by his older brother is a step too far. Chapin swears the game off (33), assuming that it’s “just one of those things I liked when I was a kid, like cartoons, or Sartre, or weed…” (Here, as above, we see Chapin’s repeated sensationalism in action.)

Chapin’s “remission” ends when, during a hastily arranged reporting trip to Nepal, he encounters street hustlers in Katmandu. Predictably he loses, but the obsession returns, and while Chapin wonders if it’s not due to the effect the heat is having on his mood stabilizers (45-6), soon he is passing up the pleasures of the flesh to play chess on the Internet.

The bulk of All the Wrong Moves is devoted to Chapin’s abandoning himself, sometimes against the advice of his better angels, to chess. He starts with a local club in Bangkok, followed by a painful loss at the Bangkok Open that prompts him to withdraw from the tournament. He heads to New York and then Toronto, intending to exile himself from the game, but instead falling deeper and deeper under its spell.

Here the story takes a turn. Chapin meets a woman and comes to make a bold decision. Instead of fleeing from chess, and in an effort to overcome the shame he felt in his divided attention, Chapin rips off the band-aid. He effectively “goes pro,” trying to improve seriously over the course of a year, and with the goal of defeating a player rated 2000.[1]

This quest – and it’s clear that Chapin has shaped his tale as a quest – takes the author to Saint Louis for a month, where he hates everything about the city save the Chess Club and his lessons with Ben Finegold. He plays rated games in Toronto, New York, Hyderabad, and finally Los Angeles, where a win over an A player and a draw with an expert brings the journey to its completion.

Quest narratives like Chapin’s are not only about actions and deeds, but also meaning and growth. The hero is supposed to have learned something, become different and wiser, in his travels. What is the net result for Sasha Chapin after his sojourn in the chess world, and what should we take from it?

There is no small difficulty in reviewing a memoir. Any criticism runs the risk of reading like bad psychoanalyzing, and as someone who writes about chess for a living, it’s tricky to avoid expecting too much from a trade book aimed at non-specialists. Still, with these admonitions firmly in mind, we might hazard the following reading.

There is a chasm in Chapin’s tale between the descriptions of the joy he finds in chess, and the agony losing brings him. On the one hand, he senses and articulates quite well the beauty of the game (25, 52, 88-90), but the pleasure he finds pales in comparison to the self-loathing wrought by defeat.

For much of the book Chapin simply cannot abide the blows to his ego brought on by losses. After a child beats him, he says “I feel nothing but rage, and I am its only object.” Later he decides that perhaps “the essential ingredient to good chess play was self-hatred… I made sure to be as sad and uncomfortable as possible.” (103, 107)

It is odd that of all the methods Chapin employs to try and win more games, the most logical – study – never appears in the book. In 224 pages there is no mention of chess books or videos, no effort expended in showing readers the day-to-day work of chess improvement. Instead we get tales of days-long Internet blitz benders, which are fun, but which do little to improve his play.

And it’s not as if Chapin is unaware of chess literature and culture. He name-checks Aron Nimzowitsch, Jonathan Rowson, and Peter Svidler during his August 13th appearance on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess Podcast. He ominously cites “the Database” (47) as something that the best players have to master. So why doesn’t any of the hard work of improvement appear in the book?

Part of this omission may have to do with his audience. A memoir that details weeks analyzing the Sveshnikov probably won’t tear up the best-seller list, and Chapin admits on the Podcast that he made an authorial decision to “compress” the technical content.

But I suspect that the lack of focus on training has more to do with the almost Manichean framework of Chapin’s tale. Chapin is a believer in talent – you either have it, or you don’t. He incorrectly thinks that Magnus Carlsen is “infamous for not needing to study quite as hard as other high-level players” (77) due to his innate talent, while he laments his personal lack of any such gift.

The upshot, on this account, is that you can’t hate yourself for not being great. (77) Hard work and deliberate practice, the kind originally championed by Anders Ericsson can only paper over a lack of talent. So it’s not Chapin’s fault he’s bad at chess – it’s his inability to create mental images (43), his lack of God-given ability, or his opponent’s odorous distractions (153), but never the fact that, at least in the book, he doesn’t seem to actually try to improve.

There is more than a bit of magical thinking on Chapin’s part. Is it rational to move to Saint Louis for a month to take lessons with a GM? Certainly it’s good for the book. The pages on Finegold are delightful, and the koan-like lessons he recounts are memorable. But it also may be the case that the bitter truths Finegold tries to impart – have less fun! never sacrifice! don’t lose all your pieces! marriage is ok! – are self-fulfilling for Chapin’s understanding of the game’s value, and his along with it, as wholly measured in wins and losses.

Stranger still is the decision Chapin makes to travel to Hyderabad, taken as part of a desire to find “some way to speed things up a bit – some way to sell my soul to chess itself – some great and costly hero’s errand [he] could embark on, with epiphany as its reward.” (142) So he decides to play a tournament in India to “find Caïssa,” the goddess of chess, in the place where chess was born. Nevermind that Caïssa is a Greek dryad, or tree nymph, in William Jones’ poem!

Chapin’s “pilgrimage” makes for good reading, but what effect does it have on his chess career? He plays a few games with poor results, gets violently ill, and is forfeited out of the tournament. Something shatters in him; as he writes in a key passage,

I looked myself in the eyes. I was greenish, tired, and covered with a grimy residue of boomtown pollution commingled with sweat. … How would the rest of this go? I wondered. Like, the rest of my life? Probably like this, because this was it. How cute. Running from one distraction to another. Finding any defined life unbefitting of a never-ending sense of grandiosity. Neglecting a good woman in favor of a form of comfortable self-imprisonment. Just like a few girlfriends prior, whom you’d abandoned so you could experience mental episodes in peace. This is how you are. You know all this stuff. And now you’re spending all of your time learning it all over again. Super, super cute. Welcome to Hyderabad. (167)

The final pages on the Los Angeles tournament are almost anti-climactic after his Hyderabad revelation. While Chapin is happy to draw a player rated 2040, he seems almost relieved to tragicomically lose his last over-the-board game. Why? Are Finegold’s teachings, and in particular, his koan-like “secret to chess” – the capstone to the book which I will not spoil here – a mantra to bring peace to patzers everywhere?

It’s clear that the final pages of the book are meant as a grand denouement, a big reveal. Chapin achieves some kind of equanimity where everything – wins, losses, brilliancies and blunders – are all “mostly fine,” but the side effect is that the passion drains from Chapin and from his chess. Is this indeed enlightenment, or is it resignation?

I am of two minds here, and so I leave it to the reader to decide which is more true. (Perhaps both are?) But the second possibility raises a troubling question for chess players. Is it possible to love chess without excelling at it? Is it ok to be obsessed with a game that, for all of its pleasures, will break your heart again and again and again?

For Chapin, the answer seems to be no. But if we shift our thinking a bit, and understand the object of our infatuation with chess less in terms of wins and losses, and more in terms of beauty and meaning, the answer (even on Chapin’s own account) may be yes.

There are pages where Chapin hints in this direction (54, 84-89), towards viewing chess as “the most human thing you can do,” as violence made beautiful through abstraction and sublimation. But he never gets to the key point, namely, that to be human is to be a creature in search of meaning.

Tarrasch was right when he said that chess, like music and art, has the power to make us happy. But more to the point, chess, like its more respected cousins, can orient a world. It doesn’t happen automatically or for everyone – an act of apprenticeship is required, as Deleuze said of Proust’s apprenticeship to signs in his Search for Lost Time – but I would bet good money that more than a few of my readers understand what I mean.

I will not speculate on why Chapin does not make this final connection, but it may explain why he misunderstands the example of Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicates a full chapter of All the Wrong Moves. Chapin takes Duchamp’s self-abandonment to the game as the model for his own quest, but ultimately deems him a failure who wasted his creative powers.

I think Chapin underestimates Duchamp’s achievements. Far from being “never excellent, as Chapin claims (69), Duchamp was of master-level strength, a member of the French national team and the winner of both over-the-board and correspondence tournaments… none of which, it turns out, is relevant to the question at hand.

Duchamp’s “gambit,” his abandoning the art world in favor of chess, can only be understood as a personal quest for meaning. Because chess could not be commercialized, because it was beautiful like art but without economic value, outside “social position,” as he told Time in 1952, it took hold of him, giving him an axis mundi around which to build a life. Even if he had never won a game, that would be enough reason to give himself to Caïssa and become her servant.

We are now far afield of the typical “book report” review some may have expected. My trip into the weeds has been an effort to take Chapin’s book seriously, and to do it justice. It is a raw, intimate, unvarnished look at one man’s journey through the chess world, and it’s a good read to boot. Many of us, myself included, will see more of ourselves in it than we might want to admit.

I found the end of All the Wrong Moves unsatisfactory and unfinished. That may be more about me than about Chapin’s book; in any event, my feeling was meliorated in no small part by Chapin’s appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where his eventual return to chess is left open. For his sake, I hope he finds a way to give it a go.


[1] Note that there’s slightly more to the story here than the book lets on. Chapin was supporting himself as a feature writer during these months, publishing pieces on Eric Hansen and the 2016 World Championship Match among others, and on the basis of a feature that eventually became Chapter 3 of All the Wrong Moves, he had already secured a publishing contract for the book under review.

Trainer to the Stars

This review has been printed in the July 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Tukmakov, Vladimir. Coaching the Chess Stars. Ghent: Thinkers Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-9492510501. PB 352pp.

Anyone can teach a beginner the rules of chess, but it is a rare individual who can mould raw talents into Grandmasters. It is perhaps rarer to be the person who polishes Grandmasters and helps them grow into one of the world’s elite. This month we look at a book by and about just such a person: Vladimir Tukmakov’s Coaching the Chess Stars.

Tukmakov’s name may be familiar to regular readers of this column. He is the author of three previous books – Profession: Chessplayer, Grandmaster at Work (2012), Modern Chess Preparation (2012), and Risk and Bluff in Chess (2016). A vastly strong player in his day, Tukmakov has been the captain of numerous medal-winning teams in both club and international competitions, and most recently, he has served as the trainer for Anish Giri and Wesley So.

Coaching the Chess Stars is a memoir of Tukmakov’s time as captain and coach. About 40 percent of the book revolves around his work with the national teams of the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the Netherlands, along with his captaining the powerful Azeri SOCAR club team. There is much that is interesting here, including discussion of the psychology of team selection, and his memories of the late Vugar Gashimov. Still, I suspect most people will read it for the stories about his individual students, and in particular, Anish Giri.

While Tukmakov was part of Karpov’s team from in the 90s and worked with Geller, Tseshkovsky, and Korchnoi, among others, it was Anish Giri who first brought Tukmakov into full-time coaching in 2014. His initial impressions of the 19 year old (and already 19th in the rating list) Giri appeared logical enough: “I expected to work with a gifted tactician who would simply have to learn the deeper layers of positional chess.” (210) The truth, however, was more complicated.

Anish really felt at home in sharp dynamic positions – but only if he had the initiative. However, when his own king was threatened, he often switched to defence at the slightest hint of danger. … In general, I had to work with a very talented and well-educated chess player who had certain weaknesses. We managed to fix certain things at the training camp, but given the lack of time, our preparation was mainly devoted to the upcoming competition. (210)

We get a sense here of the promise of, and problems with, Tukmakov’s book. There is a clear diagnosis of Giri’s strengths and weaknesses, but precious little concrete discussion of exactly how they went about fixing “certain” things.

Certainly this seems reasonable. The relationship between coach and pupil is, after all, sacrosanct, and there is an implicit taboo against revealing too many details of the training without permission. But if you’re writing a book about coaching two of the world’s top players, surely you should satisfy your audience’s curiosity about how to help a 2730 player improve?

This is the irresolvable tension of Coaching the Chess Stars. On the one hand, Tukmakov gives readers a clear and thoughtful account of his two years with Giri. His dissection of their preparation for Alexey Shirov (217-226) is a fascinating bit of psychological acumen, and his notes to Giri’s games are refreshingly succinct and “human.”

As an example, here’s what Tukmakov had to say about two key moments in Giri’s win over Topalov from the 2015 Norway Chess tournament. The quoted comments and evaluation symbols are his.

CATALAN OPENING [E11]

GM Anish Giri (2773)
GM Veselin Topalov (2798)
Norway Chess (8) Stavanger, 06.24.2015

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 0–0 7. 0–0 c6 8. Qc2 Nbd7 9. Rd1 b6 10. b3 a5 11. Bc3 Bb7 12. Nbd2 c5 13. Ne5 cxd4 14. Bxd4 Nxe5 15. Bxe5 Qc8 16. Rac1 dxc4 17. Bxf6!?

“In this line of the Catalan, as in most of the others, White can, at the most, count on a minimal advantage. Implementing it is problematical and depends on numerous nuances. The unobvious exchange of his beautiful black-squared bishop for a seemingly nondescript knight is one such.” (Here we also get a sense of the occasionally stilted translation in Coaching the Chess Stars.)

17. … Bxf6 18. Qxc4 Bxg2 19. Kxg2 Qb7+ 20. Qe4! Rfb8 21. Rc6 Qd7 22. Rcc1! Qb7 23. Qxb7! Rxb7 24. Ne4 Be7 25. Nd6 Rd7

image

“Such positions seem worse but appear quite defensible. The problem is that up to a certain moment there appear to be no real threats, so the weaker side doesn’t need to look for only moves, but then, when they suddenly find themselves in such a situation, the necessary concentration has already been lost.” I should add that today’s leading engines, including Stockfish and Leela, struggle to properly evaluate this kind of position, thinking Black to be absolutely fine.

26. Nc4 Rxd1 27. Rxd1 b5 28. Ne5 Bf6 29. Nd7 a4 30. Rc1! axb3 31. axb3 Be7 32. Rc7 Rd8 33. Rb7 Bd6 34. g4! h5?! 35. gxh5 Kh7 36. b4! Bxb4 37. Ne5 Rd5 38. Nxf7 Rxh5 39. f4! Kg6 40. Ne5+ Kh7 41. Nf7 Kg6 42. Ne5+ Kh7 43. Nf3! Rf5? 44. Ng5+ Kh6 45. Kf3 Bd2 46. e3 b4 47. Nxe6 Rh5 48. Nxg7! Rxh2 49. Nf5+ Kg6 50. Ne7+ Kf6 51. Nd5+ Ke6 52. Ke4 Rh3 53. Rb6+ Kd7 54. Kd3 Bc1 55. Rxb4 Kd6 56. Kd4 1–0

“This victory was achieved in Giri’s trademark style.”

For all of this, there remains a frustrating lack of particulars in Tukmakov’s presentation of his actual work with Giri. Perhaps the most detailed assessment comes in an interlude entitled “Anand and Giri,” where Tukmakov (reprinting his response to Giri’s question) describes the “undeniable genius” of Anand’s continual “self-tuning” throughout his career, and especially in the context of the rise of the machines. (232)

The role of the computer in modern chess is a persistent theme in Tukmakov’s books. Here, as in Modern Chess Preparation, Tukmakov writes from the perspective of someone who grew up with a classical Soviet education, and before the ubiquity of the computer. Having worked to incorporate the insights of our metal friends into his Grandmasterly understanding of the game, especially as it relates to coaching and training, Tukmakov is well equipped to help us think through what best practices for the human-engine relationship might look like.

Tukmakov’s central idea, in both Modern Chess Preparation and Coaching the Chess Stars, is that players have to achieve some kind of harmony – a key word for Tukmakov – between modeling our play on the machine’s superior skills and losing our individual style or creativity in doing so. He advises his readers in Modern Chess Preparation to study the classics (123f) with the aim of internalizing essential rules and patterns, and to limit our time with, and dependance on, the engine. (199f)

This problem is seen from a different angle in Coaching the Chess Stars. The computer, Tukmakov writes, is the conductor of the “world chess orchestra.” It is authoritative, hegemonic, and equally available (at least in principle) to everyone. What, then, is left to the coach when Stockfish on a cell phone is stronger than any carbon based lifeform?

The answer for Tukmakov is harmony. The coach’s job is to help their student achieve their “unique ‘sound’ and distinct technique,” to jointly develop the student’s “unique creative side to the maximum” and induce a harmony between their personality, their talents, and the rigors of modern chess. (8)

In contrast to Anand, whose growth paralleled that of our metal friends, resulting in a stylistic synergy or “harmony,” Tukmakov diagnoses (233-4, 268-9) a disconnect between Giri’s opening preparation and the moves that follow. “Your moves are mostly good,” Tukmakov writes, “but now you are playing by ear; these moves are not backed up by long computer-generated variations and they do not claim to be the strongest. As a result, harmony collapses and your play fades.”

Tukmakov proposes two paths forward. Giri could simplify his openings and aim for greater harmony (the Carlsen option) or he could increase his tolerance for risk and complexity (the Caruana option). (234) But how precisely to do this? What kind of concrete training could help one of the world’s elite improve? Here Tukmakov is largely silent, which is unfortunate given how universal Giri’s “disconnect” would seem to be for today’s players.

The tension between prescription and privacy, between detailed narrative and the breaking of confidences, runs through Coaching the Chess Stars. To his credit, I think Tukmakov tends to err on the side of caution and respect for his former charges. There is nothing salacious in this book, no gossip mongering or settling of scores. One gets the sense that, even after being terminated, Tukmakov still holds Giri in very high regards.

The same is largely true of Tukmakov’s chapter on his time with Wesley So. So is portrayed as immensely talented but poorly educated, such that the coaching relationship was less about specific game preparation and more about the transmission of high-level chess knowledge. Here again, however, little is shared about what their work consisted of, beyond the mention of “tactics” (293) and work on “the great players of the past.” (295)

Coaching the Chess Stars is a fascinating view “behind the curtains” of chess at the highest levels. Tukmakov is a good writer and a better annotator, and the fact that the book is successful despite the near impossibility of his task, having to respect privacy while revealing the nature of elite coaching, speaks to the difficulty of the project as well as his skill in executing it.

Join the Club

This review has been printed in the May 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Soltis, Andy. Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1476671468. HB 394pp.

Tanner, Robert. Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0786496020. HB 328pp.

It will not be news that women are underrepresented in chess, both historically and in the current day, to readers of Chess Life. We know all too well that there are not enough women playing our game, and whatever the reasons for the disparity might be, the new US Chess initiative is both welcome and overdue.

Nor will it be news to fans of chess literature that women are underrepresented in chess books and literature. There are precious few women authors – Judit and Susan Polgar, Alexey Root, and US Chess Women’s Program Director Jennifer Shahade are among the few that come to mind – and even fewer titles devoted to women’s chess or leading female players.

So I, like many interested in chess history, was excited to get my hands on Robert Tanner’s Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games, published by McFarland in late 2016. Tanner’s is the first serious biography of Menchik in English, although Jennifer Shahade has written extensively about Menchik in her 2005 Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.

The basics of Menchik’s life and career are described in Part I.3, “A Biographical Sketch.” Here Tanner rehearses much of what is already known. Born in 1906, Menchik’s family left the Soviet Union after the revolution and she ended up in England by 1923. Her mother was English; her father was absent after the early 20s, although Menchik did not break relations.

Menchik joined the Hastings Chess Club, studed with Maróczy, and rapidly improved. She won the Women’s World Championship in 1927, which she defended six times, and was the first woman to compete in both Carlsbad and Hastings in 1929 after a banner year in international play. Perhaps her most important tournament was Moscow 1935, won by Botvinnik and Flohr. Menchik finished in last place. She married in 1937, and was killed in London during the Blitz in 1944.

Menchik was largely seen by her peers as a curiousity at best. Albert Becker demeaningly called for the creation of a “Vera Menchik Club” at Carlsbad 1929, membership in which would be awarded to anyone who lost to her. (Draws counted as half- or candidate membership.) What irony, then, that Becker was the club’s inaugural member!

DUTCH DEFENSE (A85)
Vera Menchik
Albert Becker
Karlsbad (3), 02.08.1929

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Ne4 6.Bd3 f5 7.Ne5 Qh4 8.0–0 Nd7 9.f4 Be7 10.Bd2 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Bc5 12.Bxe4 fxe4 13.Qb3 Qd8 14.Na4 Be7 15.Bb4 b6 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.cxd5 exd5 18.Rac1 Bb7 19.Nc3 Qf7 20.Qb4 Rd8 21.Rfd1 Ba8 22.h3 Qe7 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.b4 Rd7 25.Rd2 Rhd8 26.Ne2 Rc8 27.Rdc2 Rdc7 28.Nd4 g6 29.Nb5 Rd7 30.Kf2 h6 31.g4 a6 32.Nd4 Rdc7 33.f5 g5 34.Kg3 Bb7 35.h4 gxh4+ 36.Kxh4 Kf7 37.Kh5 a5 38.bxa5 bxa5 39.Nb5 Rd7 40.e6+, Black resigned.

Tanner explains how prejudice against Menchik still exists. Her “restrained and positional” style (23) has been called “dull” by Internet dullards, who evaluate her playing strength as that of a US Chess expert, and who pooh-pooh her ongoing choice to live a “well rounded life” instead of “eating and breathing chess.” (ibid.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone would criticise a man for such imagined sins.

To his credit, and in agreement with the likes of Leonard Barden and John Saunders, Tanner pegs Menchik as being of International Master strength. He also paints a fuller picture of Menchik’s style in Part II, “Her Games, Events and Crosstables.” Among the 350 games in the book is her most famous combination, played in the fourteenth game of the 1937 match for the Women’s World Championship against Sonja Graf, and this delightful knight sacrifice against Sir George Thomas from 1932.

KINGS INDIAN DEFENSE (E85)
Vera Menchik
Sir George Thomas
London (4), 04.02.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 e5 7.Nge2 b6 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.d5 Ne7 10.g4 Nd7 11.Rg1 a5 12.0–0–0 Nc5 13.Ng3 Bd7 14.h4 a4 15.h5 Qb8 16.Bh6 Qa7 17.Bxg7 Kxg7

Menchik-Thomas

18.Nf5+! Nxf5 19.gxf5 a3 20.f6+ Kh8 21.Qh6 axb2+ 22.Kb1 Rg8 23.hxg6 fxg6 24.Qxh7+!, Black resigned.

There are also problems with Tanner’s work. The first is the presence of numerous typos and unremoved editorial markings. Names and words are repeatedly misspelled, sometimes lines away from correct spellings, and the remnants of a writer’s placeholding trick (multiple x’s, a sign to come back and fill in later) were never removed. (24, 166) Such carelessness is surprising for a McFarland title, especially one that is described in the colophon as a second printing with corrections.

Other critics, notably Vlastimil Fiala [1] and Edward Winter [2], have taken Tanner to task, both for the typos and for a relative lack of historical research. Fiala’s concerns have more than a whiff of sour grapes – he admits that he had once aspired to write his own biography of Menchik – and his judgment that the book “should never have gone to print” is very harsh.

Still, there is a kernel of truth in their critiques. Tanner’s bibliography is comparatively slight, and Fiala notes multiple chess journals and columns that Tanner could have reasonably been expected to consult. Such research is vastly easier in the modern day, especially with new databases available in English libraries. See Tim Harding’s essential British Chess Literature to 1914: A Handbook for Historians, particularly Chapter 8 (“On Doing Chess History Today”), for more on this key topic.

Let me also mention one last concern, and a personal peeve. Tanner uses internet sources (chessgames.com, 365chess.com) to cite multiple game references. This is substandard. No game database, not even MegaBase, is free from errors, and chessgames.com even allows users to upload data without an apparent quality check. It’s the chess equivalent of citing Wikipedia, and it’s out of place in a book that aspires to typical McFarland quality.

To sum up: Vera Menchik is, despite its very real flaws, a welcome addition to the literature. It shows that there is space for scholarship on women’s chess, and it gives readers unfamiliar with Menchik a competent overview of her life and career. Unfortunately it also feels like a book that, in its publication, shirks the hard historical work that would complete it. One can hope for a second edition that is actually corrected and somewhat expanded.

One book does not change an entire field. There remains a palpable Whiggish tendency in contemporary chess historiography, one that presents the history of chess as a progression of great men and their great ideas. (Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors is a paradigm of this tendency.) In doing so, it passes over traditional underclasses like minorities and women, and undermines the role of artifacts and technology.

Andy Soltis’ Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games can be read in this way. The criticism is, in part, correct, but one of the many things I like about the book is the way that Soltis focuses on the contributions of women in the success of their famous partners.

Soltis says in the Preface that Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi was a book he wanted to write as he researched his canonical Soviet Chess 1917-1991, but could not at that point (2000) for a lack of original source documents. His idea was to show the intertwined lives, both professionally and personally, of these great champions – and show it warts and all. In this he succeeds, and anyone interested in any of these players or chess in the Soviet era would do well to pick up Soltis’ book.

There is a lot of tea spilt in Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi. There are plenty of beautiful, well-annotated games, of course. The real interest, at least for me, is found in the unveiling of private lives.

No man is an island, and there is value in seeing how biography and influence shaped the ‘great men’ of chess history. We learn about Korchnoi’s horrific childhood in a decimated Leningrad, and how it haunted him. We are there when Spassky meets his ‘fater’ Bondarevsky, and we see the effect that it had on an undisciplined youth’s life and career. Soltis’ telling includes the influence of friends and lovers, trainers and government apparachiks, and it makes for a richer picture of these tremendous players than is commonly known.

Soltis makes special mention of two women in the book. Sally Landau met Mikhail Tal in 1959, marrying him the next year. Landau, a powerful personality in her own right, was an actress and singer of regional repute, Her ten years of marriage to Tal were tempestuous, but she bore him his son Gera, and her 2003 biography of Tal is a primary (if contested) source of knowledge of Tal’s life.[3]

Even more interesting is Rona Petrosian, the power behind Tigran Petrosian’s throne. Soltis makes a convincing case for the pivotal role Rona played in Tigran’s success, pushing and goading him to press and win, making and using connections with the vlasti (Soviet officials and bureaucracy) to benefit her husband. She “completed” him (50); without Rona, there would not be Tigran as we know him today.

There is a movement in public history towards the reconfiguration of what counts as history. History is moving beyond the retelling of facts from above, from the perspective of the victor or powerful. Soltis’ book does some of that – how could a book on three World Champions not? – but it also attends to the stories of those left out by the traditional narrative. Read it for those stories, and stick around for the beautiful games.


[1] Fiala, Vlastimil. “Chess Review: Vera Menchik Biography.” Quarterly for Chess History (5:20: Spring 2019), 563-581.

[2] See (1) http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter148.html (2) and http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter175.html

[3] A translation of Landau’s book has been announced by the English / Russian publisher Elk & Ruby.

World Championship Fever

This review has been printed in the November 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.

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Butler, Brin-Jonathan. The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501172601. HC 224pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056918132. PB 208pp.

Karolyi, Tibor. Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen: His Extraordinary Skills Uncovered and Explained. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917760. PB 249pp.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Caruana: Move by Move. London: Everyman Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1781944790. PB 368pp.

It’s almost here.

By the time you read these words, and barring some unforeseen event, the 2018 World Championship Match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana will just about be upon us. If you’re anything like me, the coming days will be long ones indeed. I can hardly wait for the match to get started, and I’d ask all of you to avoid making any demands of me while the contest is ongoing. My attention will be squarely on London.

The publishing world appears to have taken note of this match as well, with four books about Carlsen or Caruana being released right around the start of the match. This month we’ll take a look at all of them, but much of our focus will be on a real novelty – a trade book from a Big Five publisher about our beloved game.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer known mainly for his work on boxing and Cuba. His 2015 The Domino Diaries is a critically lauded memoir of his time studying the sweet science in Havana, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is memorably described in a 2012 article for salon.com. Here, in The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again, he investigates a more subtle, if no less violent, form of combat.

This was not a book that Butler, on his own admission, was looking to write. He received a cold-call from a Simon & Schuster editor one week before the opening ceremonies in New York, and the editor asked if he’d be willing to write about about Magnus Carlsen. There were three questions to be answered in the process:

One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history – higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer – not Carlsen – were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everyone was still taking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on tip affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown? (7)

I include this long passage from The Grandmaster for two reasons. First, it gives a sense of Butler’s prose, which is taut and provocative. This is a book that will, I suspect, sell relatively well, and from the outside, it appears that Simon and Schuster is going to put some muscle behind its publicity.

It also shows that Butler wrote the book that his editor wanted. It presupposes the validity of the third question; in point of fact, I’d go further and say that the assumed link between genius and madness in chess defines The Grandmaster. What’s worse, I don’t think that Butler begins to answer the second question, and he makes very little effort to even attempt the first.

Writing a serious book about chess or genius requires research. Optimally the author would talk to recognized experts, both in the chess world and beyond it. There is very little evidence in The Grandmaster that Butler did any pre-match research on Carlsen beyond reading the D.T. Max New Yorker piece from 2011 and watching the 2012 60 Minutes segment. He seems to have spent most of his time at the match talking to random people in the VIP area, and much of the book involves him chasing down whatever leads they gave him.

This might not have been a problem were the leads useful. Interviews with the the likes of Harry Benson, Frank Brady, Dick Cavett, and friends of the late Peter Winston might help us understand Fischer and his aftermath, but they they shed precious little light on Carlsen or the 2016 World Championship in broader context. Nor does the recounting of tales of mental illness among chess masters (131-5) help us to understand Carlsen’s psyche during the match. Carlsen is not Fischer, and the comparisons are, frankly, insulting.

The result is that The Grandmaster is salacious and ‘sexy,’ but terribly uninformed. It trades in tired cliches about players and fans. The general admission audience in New York is said to be old, crumpled, and hygienically challenged. (52-3) The Grandmasters in attendance are largely grifters. (58-60) While Butler gets the highly moneyed, oily, Russified feel of New York right, there’s little else in his recollections of the match that match up to my own.

George Plimpton strapped on a pair of shoulder pads while writing Paper Lion, and David Foster Wallace played a lifetime of tennis before coming to worship at the altar of Roger Federer. It’s clear, despite his description of a youthful dalliance with chess, one soaked with machismo and street hustling, that Butler is not a student of our game. The Grandmaster suffers for that lack of intimate knowledge. What could have been a bridge to a public looking to understand the world of chess is, alas, an opportunity missed.

Those looking for a more successful book about Carlsen would do well to check out IM Tibor Karoyli’s Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen. Karolyi is one of the most serious writers and analysts in chess today, with dense titles on Karpov and Tal to his credit. Here he turns his attention to Carlsen’s legendary endgame prowess, analyzing 91 positions that span his full career. The following example, “the first game in the book that Carlsen played at the level of an all-time great player,” (88) is both typical and delightful, and the uncited analysis is based on Karolyi’s.

image

SIMPLY A PLEASURE
GM Magnus Carlsen (FIDE 2698)
GM Zbynek Hracek (FIDE 2614)
Bundesliga 0607 (14.4), 31.03.2007

33.Ra6! Bb7 Heading for a pawn down endgame with an active rook. 34.Rxa7 Rxd6 35.Rxb7 Rd1+ 36.Kf2 Rd2+ 37.Kf1 Kg6 38.g4! Kf6

38. …f5! should be enough to draw.

39.b4 Rb2 40.b5 Rb1+ 41.Kf2 Rb2+ 42.Kg3 e5 43.b6 g6 44.Rb8 Kg7 45.Kh2 Kf6

If 45. …Rb1 46.b7 Kh7 47.g3 Kg7 48.Kg2 and White wins, but the computer suggests that Black might be able to draw after 47. …Rb2+.

46.Kg1 Ke6

Here 46. …Rb1+ (C.D. Meyer) may draw as well.

47.b7! Kf6 48.g3 g5 49.Kf1 Rb1+

49. …Ke7 50.f4! and “White clears the seventh rank in a few moves.” But what about 49. …Kg7?

50.Ke2

“The King continues its journey towards Black’s position. To spot its final destination and see the threat it will create requires imagination and the touch of a specially talented player.” (87)

50…Rb2+ 51.Kd3 Rb3+ 52.Kc4 Rb1 53.Kc5 Rc1+ 54.Kd6 Rd1+ 55.Kc6 Rc1+ 56.Kd7 Rb1 57.Ke8 Kg7

After 57…Rb2 58.Kf8 Rb3 59.Rc8!! threatens mate!

58.Ke7 Rb2 59.Kd6 Kf6 60.f4!! exf4 61.gxf4 gxf4 62.Rg8!!

“It is hard to find words to describe this! It would be a great thing if Magnus had found this tremendous idea somewhere around here, but I think he likely spotted it at move 47 (if not earlier at move 38). It would have been fabulous for him to find this in an adjourned game, but he did it over the board. It is simply a pleasure for the author to show you ideas like this.” (88)

62. …Rb6+

62. …Rxb7?? 63.e5#

63.Kc7 Rxb7+ 64.Kxb7 f3 65.Kc6 Ke5 66.Re8+ Kf4 67.Kd5 f6 68.Rf8 1–0

There is some attention to biography in Endgame Virtuoso Magnus Carlsen, and Karolyi makes an particular effort to describe Carlsen’s early style and opening choices. Still, this is a book about endgames, so if they’re not your cup of tea, it might not be the book for you. That, however, would be a shame. Endgame Virtuoso is another excellent effort from Tibor Karolyi, and I enjoyed it immensely.

There are other titles around devoted to Carlsen, of course, including Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein and Carlsen: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala. (The latter was reviewed here in February 2015.) Until very recently, there were none that featured Carlsen’s challenger. Now there are two: Caruana: Move by Move, also by Cyrus Lakdawala, and Alexander Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games. The books are similar, as I’ll explain, but there are reasons one might choose between them for pre-match reading.

Caruana: Move by Move is a typical offering from Lakdawala, and I mean this in two respects. First, the book follows his usual schema for a player-focused Move by Move title, with six broad sections – the Attack, Defense and Counterattack, the Dynamic Element, Exploiting Imbalances, Accumulating Advantages, and the Endgame – dividing his 60 analyzed games.

There is also the issue of Lakdawala’s style, which is on full display in Caruana: Move by Move. If you have read any of his dozens of other titles, you know just what I’m talking about: the lack of authorial self-control, the metaphors that stretch on and reveal little, the strange nicknames. (Caruana becomes “Caru” here. No one calls him Caru.) Some readers absolutely love Lakdawala for this, while others – including me – are less enamoured.

Kalinin’s Fabiano Caruana: His Amazing Story and His Most Instructive Chess Games is a more traditional games collection, and it is organized in two parts. Part I, “The Rise of an American chess star,” sketches the trajectory of Caruana’s career with 25 games, archival interview material, etc. Part II, “Learn from Fabiano’s best games,” contains 37 games largely focused on the middlegame.

The analysis in both books is of a good standard, and both are surprisingly current in their coverage, including games through May of this year. I took a serious look at Lakdawala and Kalinin’s coverage of Carlsen-Caruana from the third round of the Sinquefield Cup in 2014 – an exciting Caruana victory ably covered by Ian Rogers in the November 2014 issue of Chess Life – and found both treatments entirely serviceable.

The choice between these two titles might come down to a decision between Lakdawala’s polarizing prose and Kalinin’s restraint and sobriety. If you like Lakdawala in general, you’ll like Caruana: Move by Move too. If not, Kalinin’s book would be a fine choice. For the record, I preferred the latter, but found the former pleasant as well.

Studying Print On Demand

A pared-down version of review has been printed in the August 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.

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Hansen, Carsen. Chess Miniatures (series); Specialized Chess Tactics (series); Winning Quickly at Chess (series)

Soltis, Andy. 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take One a Day to be a Better Chess Player. London: Batsford, 2017. ISBN 9781849944342. PB 384 pp.

Sosonko, Genna. Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2018. ISBN 978-5950043383. PB 314pp.

Sosonko, Genna. The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. Moscow: Elk & Ruby, 2017. ISBN 978-5950043314. PB 272pp.

Tkachenko, Sergei. One (Bishop, King, Knight, Pawn, Rook, Queen) Saves the Day: A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (series)

I had a real E.F. Hutton moment a few weeks ago.

E.F Hutton, you may recall, was the eponymous founder of a New York brokerage of whom it was said, “when E.F Hutton talks, people listen.” Or so the commercial went, anyway.

Such was my reaction when I read a post-Candidates Tournament interview with Fabiano Caruana at chess.com. Peter Doggers asked Caruana about his pre-event preparation, which, as one might expect, involved a lot of opening study. How that preparation looked in practice, however, might seem rather surprising. Here’s what Caruana had to say:

The other guys [Chirila, Dominguez, Ramirez, and Kasimdzhanov – jh] worked on openings most of the time but while they were doing it, I solved a lot of studies. I also did some stuff which I really hate doing, which is, I went through some [Mark] Dvoretsky stuff, which I really don’t like doing, because it’s hard! Also, a lot of training games, a lot of blitz games. We even played some bughouse, which is not really chess training, but still, it’s fun. I would say most of the opening work I did was not opening work.

It makes sense that Caruana would brush up on his endgame theory via Dvoretsky, and that he’d play training games against his seconds in openings he expected to encounter. But… studies? I have to admit that my ears perked up, proverbially speaking, when I read this.

Part of my attention to Caruana’s comment came from a long-standing interest in endgame studies, the solving of which I find perversely pleasurable. (Turns out I’m terrible at it.) Perhaps more relevant were the confluence of strong Grandmaster endorsements for this training strategy. I’d seen GM Peter Leko and GM Melikset Khachiyan independently recommend studies for calculation training in a span of just a few weeks. It makes sense: because studies, by definition, try to create new and interesting twists on known tactical motifs, players can’t just ‘recall’ the right answer. They have to do the work to find it.

There is no shortage of good sources for studies. Harald van der Heijden’s HHdBV database is the gold standard, containing over 85,000 studies that span the full history of the genre. Journals like EG bring new studies to your mailbox quarterly. And there are of course books, including the canonical Domination in 2,545 Endgame Studies by Kasparian, The Art of the Endgame by Timman, and Studies for Practical Players by Dvoretsky and Pervakov.

A key difficulty faced by many new solvers, and common to most of the titles listed above, is that most studies are not suitable for the novice. The solutions are too long to calculate, and the positions are too cluttered and artificial. Here is where an innovative series of pocket-sized titles from Elk and Ruby, a new Russian/English publisher, might be of interest.

In these six books, one devoted to each of the six different chessmen, the Ukranian composer Sergei Tkachenko offers 100 studies with solutions no longer than six moves deep. Consider a typical example (49-50) from One Knight Saves the Day – A World Champion’s Favorite Studies. (Note that each of the six books bears the same title, with the only change being the thematic piece featured therein.) It’s White to play and draw in this study by Rusinek, and the notes are Tkachenko’s unless otherwise noted.

image

White has an unenviable position – his king is dancing with checkmate… For example: 1.Qf6+? Qxf6+ 2.Nxf6 Nf7#

1.Rh6+!! Kxh6 2.Qf8+!

2.Qh2+? Kg6 3.Qc2+ Nf5–+; if 2.Qh4+? Kg6 3.Qh5+ Kxh5 4.Ng7+ Kg6 5.Nxe6 Nf7# (not given in the book)

2. …Kg6

2…Kh5? 3.Ng7+=

3.Qg7+ Kf5

3. …Kh5 4.Nf6+ Kh4 5.Qh6+ and Black loses a knight.

At first glance it looks like white has used up all of his defensive resources… And yet:

4.Qf6+!! Qxf6+ 5.Ng7+!

5.Nxf6?? Kg6 6.Nd5 Nf7#

6. …Ke5=

A few points are worth mentioning here. The position above appears only after Black’s seventh move in Rusinek’s original. By truncating the study, Tkachenko removes some interesting tactics, but he also makes it much more reasonable a task for mortal solvers.

There is also a typo in the text. (You thought Chess Life was asleep at the wheel, didn’t you?) 6. …Ke5 is erroneous, and 5. …Ke5 (or Rusinek’s …Ke4) are the correct final moves. It may seem nit-picky to mention this – it’s rare that any book, chess or otherwise, is completely typo-free – but it’s worth mentioning in light of Elk and Ruby’s innovative publishing model.

Elk and Ruby makes use of print-on-demand (POD) technology across its list. There are serious advantages to this approach, as argued by its owner, managing editor, translator, and general ‘hype man’ Ilan Rubin in his manifesto “Who Needs Chess Book Publishers?” If you don’t need to worry about inventory or delivery – the POD provider handles it for you – you can keep staffing very lean, leading to greater profitability for both author and publisher.

There are, as Rubin admits, also downsides to this hybrid model. We see one in the example above.[1] Because Rubin wears so many hats, and because he does most of the work himself, errors can creep in. Three of Tkachenko’s six study books had problems with their diagrams in their first ‘printings;’ because the titles were POD, however, the errors were quickly corrected.

Tkachenko’s study collections are wonderful for those looking to train their calculation, and also for those who just want to enjoy the beauty of endgame studies in a digestible format. They are also perfectly sized at 4” by 6” for travel or beach reading. And who among us doesn’t like to solve studies at the beach?

Elk and Ruby is home to a growing list of Russian and Soviet themed historical works as well, including two new books from Genna Sosonko, one of chess’ leading writers and memoirists. With The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein and Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi, Sosonko offers his readers intimate pictures of two of the chess world’s most complicated men, and with equally complicated results.

Sosonko’s portrait of Bronstein is very hard to read. Not because it’s poorly written, but because Bronstein was a deeply unpleasant man, and Sosonko pulls no punches here. Bronstein saw his failure in the 1951 World Championship match as the defining moment of his life, and he never got past his hatred for Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet ‘favored son.’ Whether he was forced to throw the match remains unclear, and Sosonko catalogues the different explanations given by Bronstein across the years.

Why would Sosonko, Bronstein’s friend of fifty years, write such an ugly book? Why puncture the myth of the happy-go-lucky defender of human creativity against computer onslaught – his battles in the Ageon tournaments are the stuff of legend! – and show the world how narcissistic and petty Bronstein could be? It’s not as if Sosonko was unaware of what he was doing with his ‘warts and all’ approach to the matter. (269)

Bronstein is quoted from a conversation towards the very end of his life, talking about books written ‘in his name’ – one of the highlights of Sosonko’s book is the story of Boris Vainshtein (126-140), powerful apparatchik and the true author of Bronstein’s famous book on Zurich 1953 – where he says “what [do they] understand about our life? I’m sorry about my life. About my entire life.” (251)

It occurs to me that part of Sosonko’s goal, in these books and elsewhere, is to try and explain “our life,” or the stark realities of daily life in the Soviet Union. He says as much in the book’s first chapter:

[h]ow can I enliven the dead letters of a text with the winds of those times, with meaning to the contemporary reader without detailed explanations? How can I convey a whole set of prejudices and beliefs without relying on the words everyone once understood? You see, many aspects of the distinct atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s in the USSR are now gone. (17)

Born a Jew to a father banished to the gulag, and coming of age during the horrors of the Second World War, Sosonko’s Bronstein in The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein was deeply stunted by the banal violence of Soviet bureaucracy and unofficial state racism. He does not excuse Bronstein’s behavior, not exactly, but he does seem to offer reasons that might mitigate our passing judgment on him. It’s hard to read, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. Still, I think (?!) I’m glad I did.

Sosonko’s portrayal of Viktor Korchnoi in Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi is more positive, and more much palatable. His book covers the whole of Korchnoi’s life and career, focusing on his 1976 defection from the Soviet Union, the Karpov matches, parapsychology, and his life in Switzerland with Petra Leeuwerik. What shines through the text, however, is Korchnoi’s absolute love for chess, his indefatigable energy and drive to explore every element of the game. Sosonko does not shy away from Korchnoi’s character flaws, but the treatment is even-handed and enjoyable.

Elk and Ruby are not the only chess writers / publishers using POD technology. I wrote about GM Lars Bo Hansen’s pioneering efforts in this area back in 2013. His seven Master Chess pamphlets are available on Amazon and worth your attention. More recently, FM Carsten Hansen has made extensive use of POD with some of his recent titles.

Hansen has three series currently in print: Chess Miniatures, published by Russell Enterprises; Winning Quickly at Chess, which is self-published; and Specialized Chess Tactics, also self-published. Here I’ll discuss books from the first two series. I have not seen titles from the third.

All of Hansen’s books are essentially collections of miniatures organized by opening. In Chess Miniatures, the games are no longer than 25 moves long, while in Winning Quickly at Chess, games are limited to 15 moves. All combatants are rated at least 2350 in both cases. So readers can expect master-level games in specific openings where one side wins quickly, and the idea is that some knowledge of typical traps and tactics can be discerned by playing through them.

In principle, this sounds wonderful. In practice, however, I have my doubts. Many of the defining errors in Hansen’s games occur when a player leaves opening theory, and because Hansen includes a LOT of game references in his notes, there’s often very little room for original analysis. Consider Game #78 in Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening Volume 3: Flank Openings, a title in the Winning Quickly series.

English Opening [A21]
Alexander Belezky (2381)
Vladimir Moskvin (2691)
Ilyumzhinov Cup Internet, 06.05.2006

1.Nf3 g6 2.g3 Bg7 3.Bg2 d6 4.d3 e5 5.c4 f5 6.Nc3 c6 7.0–0 Nf6 8.Bg5

Alternatives are discussed in 11 lines of opening references.

8. …0–0 9.Rb1 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.b4

This is a new move, and a mistake. Hansen gives 13 lines of game citations in the notes, including some verbal discussion of key alternatives.

11. …e4! “Winning a piece.”

12.dxe4 Qxc3 13.exf5 Bxf5 14.Rb3 Qf6 0–1

Most of the action (and spilt ink) takes place in the citation of opening alternatives, and not in the analysis of the actual games under discussion. This is especially true in the self-published volumes, which may be partially attributable to the games being shorter, and the errors occurring with divergences from theory. I can see the value in Hansen’s publishing concept in these series, but for me, the execution is lacking.

Those looking for a miniatures collection will be happier with Andy Soltis’ latest book, 365 Chess Master Lessons: Take one a day to be a better chess player. Readers are advised in the preface to take the book as a series of 365 lessons, one per day, where a miniature of 20 moves or less is analyzed, one or more questions are asked, and a supplementary game wraps things up. The unspoken conceit is that this will lead to real improvement after a year’s time.

For me, this last bit is rather artificial, but the book stands on its own as an outstanding games collection. Soltis is as reliable an author as it gets, and his analysis here is concise and to the point. Many of the games are uncommon or unknown, and more than a few are missing from my nearly 10 million game database.

This is one of those missing games, starring former US Chess President Leroy Dubeck in a pretty win from 1958. The notes are Soltis’, and the theme of the ‘chapter’ (Day 181) is “[b]acktracking. To get from a bad opening to a playable middlegame may require some backtracking.”

Smith Morra Gambit [B21]
Leroy Dubeck
Raymond Weinstein
New Jersey Open, 1958

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 Na5? 7.Qd4! f6?!

Black now sees 7. …Nf6 8.e5. But 8. …Nh5 9.e6 f6 and …Nc6 looks worse than it is.

8.0–0 Nh6

White allowed 8. …Nxc4 9.Qxc4 because he would threaten 10.Nb5 or 10.Nd5 followed by Nc7+.

9.e5! Nf5?

Black would have to admit his sixth and seventh moves were bad if he continued 9. …Nc6! 10.Qf4 f5 . But then would get to play a middlegame.

10.exf6! exf6

Now 10. …Nxd4?? 11.f7#

11.Re1+ Be7 12.Nd5! Kf8

Better than 12.Qxf6 because 12. …Nxd4 13.Nxf6+ Kf8 14.Bh6#

13.Rxe7 Qxe7! 14.Bh6+!

Did White miscalculate? (14.Nxe7 Nxd4)

14. …Ke8

No, 14. …Kg8 15.Nxf6#, and 14. …Nxh6 15.Nxe7 is hopeless.

15.Qc3 Qd6 16.Re1+ Kd8 17.Bf4 Qc6 18.Qxf6+! 1–0

Black resigned before 18.Qxf6+ Qxf6 19.Bc7#.

365 Chess Master Lessons is excellent, and players of almost any rating and ability would find something of value in it. Some might find it old-fashioned, coming from a traditional press like Batsford, but I’ve long believed that old-fashioned never really goes out of style.


[1] Publicity is also difficult for POD publishers. Without dedicated marketing teams, advertising falls to Twitter, Facebook groups, and “earned media” like reviews. Such efforts can feel artificial and astro-turfed.

Get off my lawn!

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.

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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.

Lombardy–In Memoriam

This column has been printed in the January 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.

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Introducing his 1924 lecture course on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger famously said:

Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died. The character of the philosopher, and issues of that sort, will not be addressed here.[1]

Building this month’s column, I thought about, and dwelt with, this passage for many days. I consider Heidegger to be one of the most important, if personally flawed, philosophers in the whole of the Western tradition. Here, however, I cannot help but disagree with the “Hidden King” of Marburg.

Any interpretation of a thinker or writer’s legacy must focus on the written word, but not exclusively and rigidly so. Biography can often help explain the influences and shifts outside of the text that, all the same, weave themselves invisibly within it.

This is certainly true of Heidegger himself, and it is just as true of Grandmaster William (“Bill”) Lombardy, whose life and books are under our lens in this month’s issue. Lombardy was a brilliant chess player who, for better or worse, became best known for his supporting role in Bobby Fischer’s ascension to the World Championship. This fact, this constant and perhaps chafing association, may help to explain the advent of his productive authorial career and its tragic, final chapter.

To my knowledge Lombardy wrote or co-wrote seven books, six of which will be discussed here. (The seventh – a tournament book for the 6th Interpolis Chess Tournament, released in 1983 – is only available in Dutch.) Modern Chess Opening Traps was the first, published in 1972 right before the Iceland match and appearing in England as Snatched Opportunities on the Chessboard: Quick Victories in 200 Recent Master Games.

Both titles are slightly misleading. The book is largely, as the latter suggests, a collection of miniatures from the late 60s and early 70s, although only the English edition attributes the games’ players, and then only in an index. But Lombardy also includes a number of opening ‘traps’ or typical blunders in standard openings systems.

Of particular contemporary interest is game #193, where we see how quickly Black can lose in the London if White gets a free hand on the kingside. The evaluations and quotes are Lombardy’s, and I have translated his Descriptive Notation into Algebraic.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4!

Lombardy curiously labels this a “Modern Colle” due to the placement of the bishop outside of the c3–d4–e3 pawn chain.

3…e6 4.Nbd2 Nbd7 5.e3 Be7

Current practice shows Black’s move order and setup to be somewhat suspect. Today’s theory prefers 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 (the ‘Modern’ London) Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 (more popular than …Be7) 7.Bg3 0–0.

6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 0–0?! “Better is …b6 and …Bb7.” 8.h4! b6 9.g4 Nxg4? 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Kg8 12.Qxg4 Nf6?

Lombardy: “Carelessness is a great extravagance in a tight game. …f7–f5 helps close the gaps.” Still, White seems much better here. After 12…f5 13.Qg2 Nf6 (defending e6) 14.Rg1 White’s attack is hard to meet without major concession.

The computer thinks Black can hold after 12. …cxd4! 13.cxd4 (13.Be5 Nxe5 14.Qh5 Bxg5 15.hxg5 f5 16.g6 Nxg6 17.Qxg6 and Black should survive this.) 13…e5! (13. …Nf6!? is unclear) 14.Rg1 Nc5 (14. …exf4? 15.Ne6) 15.Qh5 and now a typical silicon drawing variation follows: 15. …Bf5 16.Bxe5 f6 17.Ne6 Bxe6 18.Rxg7+ Kxg7 19.Qg5+ Kf7 20.Qh5+ Kg7 21.Qg5+ Kh8 22.Qh5+=.

13.Qe2 g6 “Helpmate!” If 13. …Bd6 14.Be5! and Black cannot take the bishop: after 14. …Bxe5 15.dxe5 Black must lose the knight or abandon h5 to the Queen.

14.h5! Nxh5 15.Rxh5! gxh5 16.Qxh5 Bxg5 17.Bxg5 f6 18.Qg6+ Kh8 19.0–0–0 “Black resigns before mate.”

While Lombardy did not play in the 1973 U.S. Championship, the first to be played after Fischer’s victory, he did write its tournament book. The bulk of U.S. Championship Chess: A History of the Highest American Chess Title, with the 1973 Matches Annotated (1975) features Lombardy’s fine annotations, but of greater note is the presence of the book’s co-author, David Daniels.

Daniels, who wrote the historical section of the 1973 tournament book, was a New York master who ‘pinch-hit’ for Fischer in his December 1967 Boys’ Life column, and who (according to Andy Soltis) may have been one of the ghostwriters for I.A. Horowitz’ column in the New York Times. True or not, Daniels was a chess writer and historian of some repute, and his association with Lombardy bore excellent fruit.

Two of Lombardy’s most interesting works – Chess Panorama (1975) and Guide to Tournament Chess (1978) – were co-written with Daniels. In contrast to the 1973 tournament book, where each man took clear responsibility for specific portions of the text, these two titles are largely (but not wholly) written in one voice. The effect is laudatory.

Chess Panorama is a light-hearted anecdotal look into the world of chess, touching on topics like the clock, “chess scandals,” endings and final rounds. I rather enjoyed the discussion of the opening, where the authors – in 1975, years before ChessBase! – lament the explosion of opening theory, and the chapter on blunders is of particular interest.

Guide to Tournament Chess is a comprehensive introduction to rated chess. Part I describes the logistics of the tournament circuit along with rules and etiquette. Part II, “A Guide to Better Play,” offers practical advice. Among the topics covered are playing against stronger opponents and the ‘strategy of the draw.’ The skeleton of an opening repertoire is sketched in six pages, and a thoughtful bibliography of recommended books – one comparatively heavy on endgames and game collections – rounds things out.

Daniels was not Lombardy’s only writing partner. Chess for Children: Step by Step (1977), an introduction to chess using photographs and color diagrams, was co-written with Betty Marshall, the wife of Fischer’s lawyer Paul Marshall. While the book appears dated today – the quality of both print graphics and chess primers having increased dramatically in the intervening years – its use of ‘mini-games’ to focus on specific pawn and piece play was an interesting pedagogical experiment.

Lombardy did not publish between 1983 and 2011. He returned to print with his autobiographical Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life, produced by Russell Enterprises but appearing under Lombardy’s own imprimatur. The book strikes a very different tone than is found in his previous titles, and this requires some consideration.

I first met Bill Lombardy at the 2013 U.S. Open. We crossed paths a few times more, most recently at the 2017 Iowa Open mere weeks before he died. The older Lombardy was, in my experience, a deeply bitter man who felt that his genius and his tutelage of Fischer had gone unappreciated, and that he had been systematically shortchanged by the chess world. While he could be charming and cordial, particularly in one-on-one settings, Lombardy did not hesitate to vent his spleen loudly and publicly.

Whether and to what degree this bitterness was justified, I leave to the reader. But it must be said that the Janus-faced nature of Understanding Chess – a work that veers between erudite games collection and pure score-settling – only makes sense in this context. His analysis and explanation of his game against Hans Ree at the 1976 Olympiad is emblematic of the book’s dual polarity. We pick it up (with Lombardy’s notes) at move 50, where the players adjourned.

image

50.d4! The following rook endgame is quite instructive for any player… 50. …Rf6? … Hans in fact missed a golden opportunity to activate his rook, an opportunity which he will denied for the remainder of the ending. He should have played for the active rook, the basis of all rook endgames and which in this case seems to hold the draw: 50. …Rg7! 51.dxc5 Rg2+ 52.Kf3 Ra2 53.cxb6 Rxa3+ 54.Ke2 axb6 55.Rxb6 Rc3=. 51.Rh7+ Trading rooks leads to a quick draw, even though White achieves a protected passed pawn. 51. …Rf7 52.Rh5! In this case, the fact that White’s pawns are split is to his advantage from the perspective of creating a supported passed pawn. Again we are reminded of the active rook. 52. …cxd4 53.Kd3 Kd6 54.Kxd4 Rf6 55.Rg5 a6 56.Rh5 Ke6 57.Rh8 Kd6 58.Rd8+ Kc7 59.Rd5! White is clearly better, but this is also the critical moment for Black since his next move will define the defensive task to come… 59. …a5? This eases White’s task… 60.a4! Now Black’s queenside is fixed and White’s a-pawn, which in many lines could be captured on a3, is further out of range of the black rook. The impending simplification of pawns following c5, followed by the invasion of the white king, easily decide the game. 60…Kc6 The active rook concept is no longer enough. 61.c5! bxc5+ 62.Rxc5+ Kb6 63.Rb5+ Ka6 64.Ke5 Rc6 65.Rd5 Rc4 66.Rd6+ Kb7 67.Rd4 Rc1 68.Kxf5 Kc6 69.Ke5 Kc5 70.Re4 1–0

While there are some additional resources for Black – most notably on move 61, where Ree could have played 61. …b5! or 61. …Re6! 62.Rxf5 b5! to hold the draw – Lombardy does an excellent job of explaining the practical difficulties in Black’s defense and the underlying positional principles. He also played the ending pretty darned well.

Less savory is the introduction to the game, where Lombardy claims that Ree shirked his adjournment analysis in favor of a night at the hotel bar. This, according to Ree himself in his monthly column at the Russell Enterprises website, lacks any basis in reality. The Dutch team did not even stay at the hotel in question.

Understanding Chess is filled with similar sideswipes. In its first pages he offers a novel account of basic chess principles and ‘eidetic imagery,’ but not before he has taken shots at multiple chess personages for “thwarting” his chess teaching and denying him lucrative opportunities. Perhaps his rawest vitriol is reserved for Jack Collins, the founder of the famous Hawthorne Chess Club and lauded mentor to both Fischer and Lombardy.

Lombardy’s claim in Understanding Chess can be summed up simply: Jack Collins was never Fischer’s teacher. His lack of playing strength meant that he could only offer “trivial knowledge” to the Byrnes, Fischer, and Lombardy, all of whom were “superior masters” to Collins. It was Lombardy himself who was guided Fischer. “…I was Bobby’s only chess teacher from [age eleven] and right through Reykjavik. Some may not like hearing this surprising news, but I assume they will get over the shock… Thus Spake Zarathustra!” (14)

This is a very different tune than was sung by Lombardy in his earlier books. Chess for Children is dedicated to “John (Jack) W. Collins, the teacher of Grandmasters and World Champions, who made chess a truly happy experience for me and so many others.” Lombardy’s 1974 forward to Collins’ My Seven Chess Prodigies is effusive in its praise, and he goes so far as to write that “Jack is the chess teacher.”

Bracketing some of the factual problems in Lombardy’s claim – it’s hard to see how he could have met Fischer before 1956, when Fischer was already thirteen – what could explain this radical break? Lombardy decries his being left out of Collins’ will in Understanding Chess, but in the final analysis, I cannot help but wonder if the rift comes from somewhere deeper.

William Lombardy was a highly educated man and, by any standard, a true chess great. His perfect score in the 1957 World Junior Championship is a ridiculous feat, unequaled to this day, and his fifteen medals in twenty years of international team play are astounding. But he came of age in a time where two greater players – Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer – sucked up all of the oxygen in American chess, leaving almost no support for anyone else.

What, then, was left for a man so close and so far from the top of our game? To me, the invocation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the prophet who proclaimed the coming of the übermensch, is telling. Lombardy saw Fischer as the overman, born in part of Lombardy’s own unheralded efforts, and we – the mediocre ‘last men’ of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – were incapable of appreciating either of them. The outpouring of love and remembrance after his death is evidence that, at least in this respect, Lombardy might have been mistaken.

** My thanks to my good friend Bob Woodworth for allowing me to raid his extensive library in researching this piece.


[1] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 4.