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.
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.
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+.
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?
“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. …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.