Category Archives: biography

Biographies from McFarland

This review has been printed in the April 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

Harding, Tim. Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786474738. HB 592pp. List $75.00.

Sanchez, Miguel A. José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786470044. HB 277pp. List $55.00.

Zavatarelli, Fabrizio. Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786496907. HB 376pp. List $75.00

Most of the biggest publishing houses leave chess to their smaller brethren, with a few notable exceptions. Batsford and its valuable backlist have changed hands a few times, now resting with Pavilion Books out of London. The US Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess was for many years published by McKay, and is now in its 6th edition with McKay’s successor, Random House.

There is an American house that is publishing some very interesting studies of chess history as part of its wide and varied list, and chances are, unless you work in the industry, that you’ve never heard of them.

Until now, that is.

McFarland & Company is an independent publisher from North Carolina. Focused on the library market, they specialize in fields like military history, baseball and popular culture. Somewhere along the way they added chess to their purview, and today McFarland puts out more scholarly chess books than any other publisher.

Some of these titles – compilations of hard-to-find crosstables, bibliographies, etc. – are of limited popular interest, but the biographical works have potential cross-over appeal. I gave the 2014 McFarland release of Andy Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion a favorable review in these pages (May 2014), and the book went on to win the Book of the Year prize awarded by the Chess Journalists of America.

Four McFarland chess biographies have crossed my desk in recent months. Two – Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career by Fabrizio Zavatarelli and Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess by Stephen Davies – are first rate works on fine but lesser-known players. Zavatarelli’s book in particular is worth a look. The tale of Kolisch’s rise to fame and fortune, made possible in part through his chess contacts, is dramatically told.

Of possibly greater interest are the titles on José Raúl Capablanca and Joseph Henry Blackburne. The legendary Capablanca was the third official world champion, holding the title from 1921-1927, and Blackburne was one of the top tournament players of the later nineteenth century. Both books bear an identical subtitle – “A Chess Biography” – but as we shall see, it reads rather differently depending on the author.

In José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography, Miguel A. Sanchez paints his portrait of Capablanca against a broad backdrop of time and country, economy and politics. The first chapter, for example, describes the history of Cuban chess, showing how the sugar boom allowed aficionados to bring players like Morphy, Steinitz, Blackburne and Chigorin to the island. It also gives face and personality to many of Capablanca’s early supporters and rivals.

There is much that is familiar in Sanchez’s account. The general outlines of Capablanca’s life are well known and there are no shocking revelations to be found here. Still, I suspect that even the most ardent Capa fan will learn something new from Sanchez’s very readable book. Of particular, if morbid, interest is the discussion of Capablanca’s high blood pressure and health problems, the deleterious effects of which Sanchez locates much earlier in Capablanca’s career than commonly thought.

There are 192 competently annotated games in José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Because Sanchez emphasizes biography over chess, contextualizing Capablanca’s chess career within his life more broadly, this number feels appropriate. Contrast it with the 1184 games and 55 compositions in Tim Harding’s Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography, and you begin to get a sense of a stark difference in authorial attitude towards the biographical task.

Blackburne was the best British player before the rise of Miles, Short and Adams in the late twentieth century. He was a great popularizer of the game and one of its first professionals, making annual exhibition tours through the ‘provinces’ for nearly sixty years (1861-1921) and specializing in simultaneous blindfold exhibitions for fifty of them.

Most of Harding’s work has gone into excavating the details of Blackburne’s chess career. He has recovered unknown games, corrected errors in published games, and created detailed travelogues for his tours and travels. Many details of his family life are documented and dozens of pictures are provided, but make no mistake – this is a chess biography.

Harding’s book feels definitive. Of course new material will continue to be discovered, but so much work went into its writing, so much material is presented, that it almost overwhelms the general reader. Historians will find Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography to be an indispensable resource, but casual fans may want to start with the chapter on Blackburne in Harding’s more approachable Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

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Book Note: Karolyi on Tal

Because there are just too many books coming out to keep up with, I’ll be doing some brief book notes along with my longer, in-depth reviews and essays. This is the second of those notes. – JH

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 1: 1949-1959, The Magic of Youth. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982774. PB 448pp. List $29.95, currently $23.70 on Amazon.

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2: 1960-1971, The World Champion. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982798. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently $21.74 on Amazon.

In the course of researching the games of Mikhail Tal for a forthcoming Chess Life review, I had the opportunity – and the pleasure – to spend some time with Tibor Karolyi’s two volumes on Tal. (A third, covering the remainder of Tal’s playing career, is in press.) Excluding Tal’s own efforts, there are no finer books on Tal in print.

Karolyi follows a recipe in these two books that he first cooked up in his two books on Karpov for Quality Chess. (Those books, Karpov’s Strategic Wins 1: The Making of a Champion and Karpov’s Strategic Wins 2: The Prime Years, can also be recommended.) He breaks Tal’s career down by year, interspersing deeply annotated games with discussion of tournament situation, personalities, and Tal’s personal life. Summaries of each year’s results conclude chapters, and indexes by player and page number are included along with a rough index of themes found in Tal’s games.

While Karolyi includes many of Tal’s most famous sacrificial efforts, he also analyses more ‘workman-like’ games, including no small number of his endgames. Karolyi is a diligent analyst, and while he (like many of his Quality Chess brethren) can sometimes present more analysis than can be easily digested, this is surely preferable to offering too little. The image of Tal we get through these books is of a much more well-rounded player than commonly thought.

Karolyi also spends a lot of time, and obviously spent a lot of effort, contextualizing each game. In some cases he sheds light on the identity of Tal’s opponent, while in others he sketches the situation Tal found himself in while playing the game. Many personal anecdotes are relayed, and the book is much richer for it.

69 fully annotated games are found in Volume 1, while Volume 2 contains 66 complete scores. Dozens of fragments and game citations (some with notes) are given as well. When the third volume is released, Karolyi will have given the chess world a comprehensive and compelling account of Tal the player and Tal the man. It will only further burnish the legend that is Mikhail Tal.

Learning from Gelfand

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

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Gelfand, Boris, and Jacob Aagaard. Positional Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78483-006-9. 288pp. HB $34.95. [Note that Quality Chess has only released the hard cover version to specialized chess retailers, and a paperback should be on Amazon in the nearish future.]

Positional Decision Making in Chess is Boris Gelfand’s second book, the first being his 2005 My Most Memorable Games. Were it simply another batch of his annotated games, it would well be worth our attention. Very few of the world’s elite put pen to paper (fingers to keys?) while they are still active players.

Most of Kasparov’s many books emerged only after his retirement. Books by Anand and Kramnik predate their World Championship reigns, while the bulk of Shirov’s output now comes in DVD form. Recent works by Giri and Polgar are excellent, but Giri’s best years are ahead of him while Polgar has retired from tournament play.

So when a player like Boris Gelfand – a six-time Candidate, the 2012 Challenger for the World Championship and the 13th ranked active player in the world – writes [1] a book about his games, we chess bibliophiles tend to take notice. And all the more in this case, for Gelfand has given us a superlative book.

My Most Memorable Games is, on the whole, a traditional ‘best games’ collection. It is evident from even the first pages of Positional Decision Making in Chess that Gelfand has something else in mind with his new book. As he writes in the Preface,

…the intention of this book is not to focus on the accuracy of the moves I made at the board… but on the thought process that led me to finding them in the first place. … [T]hroughout we have focused on the reasons for the decisions and plans I made, and also the limitations of my thinking during the game. (8)

While (sometimes copious) analysis of Gelfand’s games is provided, the real focus of the book is how Gelfand takes decisions over the board, with positional decisions front and center. The games of Akiba Rubinstein – Gelfand’s favorite player – are enlisted in this effort, and special emphasis is placed on Rubinstein’s influence on Gelfand along with his relevance for contemporary chess theory.

There is much to like here. It’s good to see Rubinstein get his due as player and theoretician, especially as there are very few legitimate books about him in print. Gelfand’s annotations are clear, and his descriptions of his opponents are both respectful and revealing. The book’s surprisingly personal feel is amplified by the photographs strewn throughout its pages.

For me, however, the central theme of the book only appears between the lines of the text: Gelfand’s relationship to the computer. No one can dispute the changes wrought on chess and its play by our silicon friends. Nor, if we are honest, can we overlook the way in which most players trust engine evaluations blindly, almost outsourcing their thinking to the computer. (Look at Twitter or the ICC chat during the next big tournament if you doubt this.)

What is most interesting to me about Positional Decision Making in Chess is seeing how Gelfand, a member of the last generation to come of age before the rise of the machines, thinks about engines and their limitations. Gelfand trusts his intuition – this word appears repeatedly in the text – and prefers to view engines as tools for understanding rather than as infallible oracles. Rarely have I seen such honest and practical discussion of the topic. For instance:

…I am a strong believer in the value of a chess education built on thorough knowledge of the classics [like Rubinstein – JH]. Any attempt to emulate the engines and their 2,000,000 moves a second is doomed to fail. We need to supplement calculation with all other weapons available. And one of these is intuition, which is strongly rooted in pattern recognition. (58)

Extremely often the computer will suggest moves that no human would consider. And when we do not feel it delivers us a clear understanding of why this move is good, I cannot see that it makes sense to follow its recommendations. (199)

If only those kibitzers on ICC would heed Gelfand’s warning!

By providing us a window into his decision making, and by showing us – warts and all – both the limits and triumphs of his thought, Boris Gelfand does much more than merely offer us edifying games to study. The author of Positional Decision Making in Chess is an exemplar for all of us who struggle to learn from the computer without succumbing to its siren call. This might well be the book of the year, and serious students of modern chess practice should not miss out on its lessons.


[1] I would be remiss if I did not mention the role of Gelfand’s ‘helper,’ Jacob Aagaard, in the construction of this book. Aagaard, himself a very well regarded author and pedagogue, recorded extensive discussions with Gelfand and used them as the basis for the written text. It appears that most of the conceptual content should be attributed to Gelfand, while the style, structure, and some of the pedagogy are Aagaard’s.

Rematch by Proxy

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

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Franco, Zenón. Anand: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 376pp. ISBN 978-1781941867. List $29.95; currently $23ish at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. Carlsen: Move by Move. London: Everyman, 2014. PB 432pp. ISBN 978-1781942079. List $29.95; currently $25ish at Amazon.

You’ve got to hand it to the guys at Everyman Chess. They know an opportunity when they see one.

With the 2014 World Championship fast approaching, and with no titles on the combatants in their catalogue, Everyman asked two authors – one of their most prolific, and one of their newest – to remedy this most unfortunate situation.[1] The books under review this month, out just in time for the match, are the fruit of those labors. Both should also be available in e-book format by the time this review goes to press.

For Carlsen: Move by Move, Everyman turned to its most indefatigable author. International Master Cyrus Lakdawala has penned 21 titles (including forthcoming books) with Everyman since 2010, six of which are focused on a specific player. Carlsen: Move by Move is structured like most of Lakdawala’s biographical works for Everyman, with 54 annotated games divided into six thematic chapters.

I have reviewed two of Lakdawala’s books – Capablanca: Move by Move on my blog, and Botvinnik: Move by Move in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life – in the past. In those reviews I noted a troubling trend, one that continues unabated in Carlsen: Move by Move. With each new book he seems to cram more and more cutesy, cloying commentary into his analysis, and his work is beginning to suffer from it. For instance:

  • “[t]he black queen emits an odd, adenoidal grunting sound in response to her sister’s intrusion.” (259)
  • “[t]he rook staggers from the sudden unveiling of the truth. He sneaks out, the way a chastised third grader creeps out from the principal’s office.” (262)
  • “Annoying white pieces stick to Black’s hanging knight like discarded gum on a shoe. … [t]he g-pawn’s attempts to intimidate remind us of a Chihuahua, mimicking the Pitbull’s fury…” (ibid.)

This personification of pieces is relentless and tiresome. What’s worse, some of Lakdawala’s ‘metaphors’ seem confused or nonsensical. In Carlsen-Caruana (Biel, 2011) – game #32 in the book, from which all the above is taken – we encounter a typical example of this shtick gone awry.

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Carlsen has just played 25.f4?!. Caruana might have responded 25…Ne3!, of which Lakdawala writes: “the knight inserts his head into the lion’s mouth, hoping he has been well fed.” If the hungry rook takes the bishop with 26.Rxe3 (White’s only move), Black has 26…Bxf4 with compensation. Caruana blundered in the game with 25…Re6??, allowing White to trap the knight by placing “calming hands” (???) on the rook and bishop with 26.Bd5.

Lakdawala’s analysis is decent enough, although he, like many authors, seems to lean on engines a bit too much. He can clearly break down the essentials of a position when he so chooses. But what is valuable in Carlsen: Move by Move gets lost amidst the avalanche of bad jokes and vapid prose.

Zenón Franco has done a much better job with Anand: Move by Move. The Paraguayan Grandmaster, having already published on Anand (Viswanathan Anand – Quíntuple Campeón del Mundo, 2013), has written a relatively straightforward biographical work. Anand: Move by Move begins with a twenty-five page assessment of Anand’s style. Franco lauds Anand’s flexibility, noting his ability to change his playing style to defeat Kramnik (236) and Topalov (264) in World Championship matches. He goes so far as to compare Anand’s universality with that of Fischer (11) – no small compliment!

The bulk of the book is 32 annotated games from 1991-2014, representing a decent cross-section of Anand’s career. Franco takes pains to situate each game both in terms of its tournament situation and its broader place in Anand’s oeuvre.

The inclusion of a strong biographical narrative in Anand: Move by Move is most welcome. Unlike Lakdawala, who actually points to an unsourced Wikipedia quote to prove a point (Carlsen, 9), Franco references multiple sources in his text, citing Anand’s own words whenever possible. The analysis is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Houdini’s presence is not onerous.

Were this a competition between the two titles, a rematch by proxy, Anand would certainly have his revenge here. Poor Carlsen will just have to console himself with his champion’s crown.


[1] That the books are aimed at those interested in the match is obvious: see Carlsen: Move by Move, 9, and Anand: Move by Move, 368.

Unwrapping the Enigma

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

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

Who is Mark Dvoretsky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Great Dane

This review has been printed in the December 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Larsen, Bent. Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. Translated from Todas Las Piezas Atacan (volumes 1 and 2) by Freddie Poggio and John Saunders. ISBN 978-9056914684. 336pp. PB $34.95; currently (12/2) $25ish on Amazon.

The name Bent Larsen is, for many Americans, inextricably linked with that of Bobby Fischer. It was Larsen, not Fischer, who played first board in the 1970 USSR vs the World match, with Bobby – returning to chess after a three year absence – graciously giving way to the Dane. And it was Larsen who was Fischer’s second victim in his miraculous march to the World Championship, the score of the Candidates Semi-Final in Denver standing 6-0 in the American’s favor.

Such myopia is perhaps understandable, given the Fischer-colored lens that colors American understanding of chess history. It is also lamentable. Bent Larsen was not merely a bit player in the great Fischer drama. He was, for at least a decade, the only Western player (besides Fischer) to seriously trouble the Soviets, the winner of dozens of tournaments and three Interzonals, and a prolific writer to boot.

For years the English-speaking world has had to make due with just one games collection from Larsen: his 1970 Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess 1948-1969, now out of print and relatively hard to find. New in Chess has seized upon this fact and published Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. And not a moment too soon.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games is a translation of two recent Spanish collections. Games #1-74 are an extended and revised version of the material in Larsen’s Selected Games, with games through 1973. Games #75-124 come from Larsen’s 1973-77 journalistic efforts, so the notes have a slightly breezier feel than the earlier ones.

Larsen is not quite in the class of Botvinnik or Smyslov as an annotator, but he is very close. His notes are deeply instructive, judiciously mixing variations with prose. We get a real sense of Larsen the player and strategist in these pages, and the influence of his hero Aron Nimzowitsch is clearly felt.

Here is Larsen’s account of a ‘mysterious rook move’ that would have pleased the Stormy Petrel. White is to play.

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18.Rb2!!

… the advantages of 18.Rb2 can be summarized as follows: (1) it leads to a direct threat, with a gain of tempo; (2) it prepares for a doubling of rooks on the d-file; for example, 18…Qc7 19.Na4, with the idea of 20.Qc4 and 21.Rbd2; (3) it is important to retain the c-pawn to support the knight on a4. That is to say, with the c-pawn solidly protected and the a-file blocked, White can concentrate his forces on exploiting the open d-file. Then White will be able to strengthen his position with Nd2 and Nc4, Bf1 and Bc4, or h3–h4 and Bh3. (43)

Here we see the profundity of Larsen’s play as well as his explanatory prowess. Modern engines may prefer the ‘dogmatic’ (Kmoch) 18.b4, but they do not contradict the validity of Larsen’s move. If we look at the text a bit closer, we might also see something else.

The same game – Larsen-Perez, Gijon 1956 – appears in Larsen’s Selected Games. There Larsen says that “it is really important to keep the pawn on QKt3, to protect the knight on QR4. With the pawn on QB5 solidly protected and the QR file blocked, White is able to concentrate upon the exploitation of the Queen’s file.” This earlier rendering makes more sense, and I suspect – although I cannot say definitively – that the new translation is mistaken.

There are other small errors sprinkled through the text. Impossible moves are given (11…Kf5, 153). Openings are incorrectly named (35) and evaluations are flipped (287). It may seem pedantic to note such issues, but Larsen’s writing deserves much better.

Still, this is a fantastic book. Bent Larsen was a world-class player and writer. His games remain vital, entertaining and educational. So do yourself a favor: put down that opening book for a few days and let Houdini rest for a while. Get out your set and pieces and spend some time with Bent Larsen’s Best Games. You might just remember why you started playing chess in the first place.

“The Soviet Chess Patriarch”

This review has been printed in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Soltis, Andy.  Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0786473373. HB $49.95; currently $39.96 at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Botvinnik: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2013.  400 pp.  ISBN 978-1781941027.  PB $29.95; currently $22ish at Amazon.

The Dover edition of Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hundred Selected Games was my first ‘real’ (non-primer) chess book, and it made quite an impression on me. Some of the Patriarch’s moves seemed other-worldly, as if they were made by a superior alien intelligence. While I was too young to fully grasp the propaganda embedded within the introductory essays, I tried to follow his advice for improvement – without, sadly, much success.

Now two new books – Andrew Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion and Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move – have been published. With their release, a new generation of chess fans will, I hope, be introduced to the life and games of the Sixth World Champion.

Soltis’ book is a sober and scholarly biographical study. Here was someone who was as feared as he was respected among his Soviet peers, who spent nearly thirty years in a futile attempt to create an ‘intelligent’ computer program, and who defended Stalin until his death. Botvinnik portrayed himself in his writings as a kind of Communist superman, and his self-assurance and iron-cast beliefs were legendary. He remains something of an enigma, especially to a post-1989 reader.

Soltis’ Botvinnik is a man who was thoroughly of his time and place. The internal logic and teleology of Marxism may be hard to grasp today, but for Botvinnik, it was simply a given that the revolution begun in 1917 would inevitably lead to global Communism. This was not a wish or hope; this was science. Botvinnik tried to bring a similar rigor and logic to the chessboard and to his life more broadly.

In the 30s and 40s, as Soltis suggests (174), Botvinnik’s dominance was in no small part due to his superior training and opening preparation. Afterwards, it was his technical dominance, and his skill in adjourned positions, that allowed him to remain as first among equals.

This is not to say that Botvinnik’s success was restricted to the chessboard. Again and again Botvinnik used his influence with important Party leaders to advance his career and sidetrack his opponents. Soltis does an excellent job of tracing the numerous threads of patronage and influence that aided Botvinnik throughout his career.

One hundred and nineteen games and positions are included in Soltis’ book. The notes tend to follow the general contours of Botvinnik’s own, and Soltis also references Alexander Khalifman’s analysis. While the games are not the main focus of the book, they represent a sizeable chunk of the text, covering a decent cross-section of Botvinnik’s career.

Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Soltis’ book. Lakdawala has written four books in the Move by Move series on specific players – the others being Capablanca, Kramnik and Korchnoi – and this book follows the usual template. Botvinnik’s games are the star of the show, and Lakdawala uses them to illustrate the Patriarch’s skill in six areas: attack, defense, dynamics, exploiting imbalances, accumulating advantages, and the endgame.

Lakdawala offers copious notes to the sixty games, and as is standard for the Move by Move series, he intersperses questions and answers in the analysis. Lakdawala is obviously trying to inject humor and vitality into his prose. The text is full of bombast: the Velimirovic Attack is “psychotic” (107) and one of Tal’s moves is “insane” (230). There are a lot of ten-dollar words in Botvinnik: Move by Move, and at times they obscure the otherwise excellent analysis in the book.

Style, of course, is a very personal thing. I don’t think that Botvinnik, who (on Soltis’ account) modeled his annotations on Stalin’s ‘terse’ manner of speech, would be thrilled with Lakdawala’s excesses, but plenty of readers seem to like it just fine. Of more concern are the faulty generalizations and factual inaccuracies. It’s not true, for example, that Botvinnik was “faithful to his beloved Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian his entire life” (50), and there is no statistical evidence for the repeated claim that Botvinnik was nearly invincible in games with opposite-side castling.

The games in the two books don’t overlap dramatically. Nineteen are common to both on my count. Both books are physically attractive and generally free from typographical errors.[1] I suspect that different readers will gravitate to one book or the other, and given their marked stylistic variance, this should not surprise. Those who want to enjoy Botvinnik’s best games with a enthusiastic guide should consider Lakdawala’s, and those more interested in a careful study of Botvinnik as person and player might turn to Soltis. Both can be recommended, but readers should consider their own preferences in choosing one or both books.


[1] I found two typos in Soltis (Botvinnik-Sorokin was played in 1931 and not 1951 on p.47, and the ECO code for Botvinnik-Stahlberg should be D32 and not D22 on p.83) and one in Lakdawala (an ellipse was not closed, but the page number eludes me). This does not include the questionable grammatical constructions in Lakdawala, the most grating of which was “I conjecture: …” (165).