Tag Archives: Capablanca

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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Capablanca in the Age of Chessbase

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Capablanca: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2012.
Paperback ISBN 978-1857446982.  List $29.95. | Kindle ASIN B008M7VR46.  List $22.95. | Chessbase and PGN formats available at the Everyman Chess website and in-app in IOS.

Nota bene: My e-copy of this book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’m not a digital native.  I grew up with 14.4k baud modems and BBSs.  My first experience with what would become the modern Internet came in 1992 or 1993, when I tried to play chess without a graphical interface on one of the original chess servers, and when Mosaic was the end-all, be-all of browsers.  I don’t – much to my family’s disgust – put much stock in texting, and I can only read pulpy fiction on e-readers.  Try as I might, I’m analog to the bone.

Nor am I a digital chess native.  This might seem strange; after all, I play chess against people from all over the world via the intertubes, and I take lessons by means of Skype and Paypal.  I depend heavily on Chessbase and its many wonders to try and better my chess.  I even penned (analog again!) a book chapter where, after sketching the contours of a philosophy of technology using Chessbase as a case study, I declared Garry Kasparov to be a cyborg.  I grew up with chess books and chess boards, and when I really want to learn something, paper and pieces seem to work best.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that I’m in the minority of media consumers these days, and that my ‘side,’ as it were, is losing ground with each passing day.  E-books and e-readers are where the book industry is headed, and the chess book industry is no exception.  And the venerable Everyman Chess is undoubtedly leading the way into this brave future.

Everyman is trying to meet its readers wherever they might be.  They sell some books in epub format on their own site and in Amazon Kindle format at Amazon.  They sell some books in .pgn format, readable in Chessbase or their IOS app, at their website or through in-app purchasing.  They sell some books in native Chessbase format.  Oh, and they still sell tree-killing paper books too. Smile  (Thank goodness!)

Capablanca: Move by Move, the book under consideration in this review, is available in paperback, in Chessbase / PGN format, and as a e-book.  I have seen it briefly in paper, but I’m basing this review solely on my experience with it as an electronic entity.  On the whole, I enjoyed it, and I think it fills a void in the extant literature.  It is not without its problems, however, and I’ll point a few of them out in short order.

There are precious few collections of annotated Capablanca games currently in print.  I own two: Reinfeld’s Immortal Games of Capablanca and Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings. Both are quite useful.  Reinfeld’s fine book is a cut above his usual standard, and Chernev’s is among the best of his career.  But Reinfeld is in descriptive notation, which few young players can read, and Chernev is solely (and understandably) focused on Capablanca’s endgames.  Neither seems fully suitable as the ‘go-to Capablanca book’ for the contemporary player.

Enter Cyrus Lakdawala, who is churning out books for Everyman at a Reinfeldian pace.  In Capablanca: Move by Move Lakdawala analyzes 59 of Capablanca’s games.  Instead of following a strict historical chronology, he groups them according to broad themes of Attack, Defense, ‘Exploiting Imbalances,’ ‘Accumulating Advantages,’ and Endgames.  (Lakdawala uses a similar thematic structure in his contemporaneous book on Kramnik.)  After an Introduction where Capablanca’s biography is lightly sketched, we get to the games.

Capablanca: Move by Move is part of the Move by Move series.  As such, it follows the standard series format.  Games are annotated with a mixture of traditional notes, answers to ‘questions’ from hypothetical students, and a sprinkling of ‘exercises’ that ask the reader to find the next move. 

This has its advantages and disadvantages.  I’ve always thought that formats like these, with problems posed and answers given, tend to present problems in paper format.  Either you have to magically avert your eyes, cover the answers with an index card, or flip to the back of the book for the solution.  (Quality Chess books are notable exceptions in this regard.)  Have a look at the sample pdf provided on the Everyman website to see what I mean.

Books read in Chessbase format overcome this problem.  If you open Capablanca: Move by Move in Chessbase or Fritz and view a game in the ‘Training’ view, you can only see one move at a time, therefore doing away with the need for the index card, etc.   Each of Lakdawala’s exercises appears in this view as a task for the reader to solve, fulfilling the original aim of the format.  (The questions and answers are not similarly formatted; this might be something for Everyman to reconsider in the future.)  Going through the games in a manner akin to ‘solitaire chess’ was quite enjoyable and perhaps even educational.  I certainly found this mode of access more amenable than I did the e-book.

And why was that?  I viewed the e-book (in epub format) on both my Nook and my Ipad.  In both cases I sat down with the e-book/e-reader, my board and my pieces.  The mismash never really worked for me.  The screen on the Ipad would timeout and go dark while I was studying the position on the board, and the screen on the Nook was small enough to be engulfed by diagrams.  For me – and others may well disagree – chess books don’t span the gap between the physical and the cyber particularly well.  They need to be one or the other, either paper and plastic or fully electronic.  Maybe those lucky few who can play over complete games in their heads might have a different experience.   I wouldn’t know.

I was also provided a .pgn file to test in the Everyman Chess app for IOS.  Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the riches of the Chessbase interface, but the app suffers terribly in comparison.  It’s hard to navigate between variations and sub-variations, and here again the screen times out if you neglect it for more than a minute or two.  It is certainly handy to have the ability to read chess books on my phone or while traveling on my Ipad, but I don’t think it’s robust enough to serve as a primary interface for study.

Those readers who have stuck with me to this point are surely muttering to themselves, “enough with the technology reviews!  What about the games and notes?”  On the whole, Lakdawala does a fairly good job with the analysis.  He tends to favor words over variations, keeping the thickets of analysis to a pruned minimum.  If you compare his analysis of the famous Capablanca-Tartakower endgame (New York, 1924) to that of Dvoretsky in DEM, for example, you see quite quickly that Lakdawala is writing for a broader audience.  He’s not trying to conclusively discover the inner truths of a position; rather, he’s trying to teach his reader something about Capablanca and about chess.  I suspect the market for this kind of project is bigger than that for Dvoretsky’s.

At times, and to his book’s great detriment, Lakdawala is entirely too fond of words.  His verbosity sometimes crosses from the florid to the fetid; put differently, Lakdawala desperately needs an editor who will ruthlessly cut the worst excesses of his prose.  In the sample pdf on the Everyman site, we can find, just in the first game, a few of his lesser affronts: “[w]hite fires a bullet into the wall to test the forensics of the position” (16), “[t]he white king’s fevered dreams conjure very real phantoms, as he tosses in his sweat-soaked bed” (17), etc.  What, pray tell, is a “mindblower fact?” (17)  Things go from bad to worse in game two, where Lakdawala describes the flaws of a move with this gem: “[n]ow light-squared punctures dot White’s position, as on a pox-scarred face.” (21)  The rest of the book is filled with similar sins against the English language.  There might be some who find this kind of thing cute… but I find it cloying, distracting, and an unfortunate blight on an otherwise respectable work.

While I’m at it, I should say that (1) I was slightly annoyed by Lakdawala’s continued use of the nickname ‘Capa’ for Capablanca.  It might save six characters hundreds of times over, thus reducing page count, but it’s a little disrespectful.  (2) I really wish that Lakdawala had chosen not to insert contemporary game references into his notes.  It hardly seems fair to hold Capablanca responsible for not knowing opening theory from fifty or sixty years after his death.

On the whole, however, I think Capablanca: Move by Move fulfills a need in the chess marketplace.  While it is not the ‘scholarly,’ comprehensive treatment I’d hoped it would be, it’s certainly good enough to serve as the go-to Capablanca book for all those young chess players who are so sadly ignorant of chess history.  Those who can read descriptive might consider Reinfeld instead, but both books would be worth your time and money.

Recommended for players of all ratings, despite my reservations.  7/10.  (And please, Everyman, let your editors run free on Lakdawala’s future efforts!)