Tag Archives: chess

Winter is Coming

After I have finished reading Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming, a remarkably uninformed, goofy and therefore dangerous book that exhibits its author’s utter ignorance of political theory and practice and in which geopolitics is dealt with at the simplicity level of a Hollywood C-movie (or a comic strip) in which Putin as the sole villain is wearing a black hat and the upright cold (and not-so-cold) warriors who listen to Mr. K. have to show him where the hammer is hanging, if necessary with brute force – after this annoying book, I quite enjoyed his old writing about a topic which he really understands. A little bit less unbearable and much better informed:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/02/11/the-chess-master-and-the-computer/

Garry Kasparov: Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, Public Affairs 2015

A review that highlights the shortcomings of the book in detail can be found here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Shady Side

Norman Tweed Whitaker, the “hero” of this biography is a Dickensian figure: he was both, full of genius and a devil at the same time. Coming from an educated upper middle class family – his father was a high school principle in Philadelphia – Whitaker (1890-1975) became a patent attorney that held also a degree in German literature; his great talent as a chess player made him a dangerous opponent for any player and earned him the US Master title and in 1965 the title of an International Master (that was before the “title inflation” when this title meant still a lot).

Among the masters he defeated in serious games were the legendary players Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Samuel Reshevsky, for decades America’s strongest player (all of them were contenders for the World Championship title); in simuls he even won against Emanuel Lasker and the young Capablanca. The book contains more than 500 games played by Whitaker, some of them annotated. Whitaker was a dangerous tactician with a good endgame knowledge, but the patience for positional play was something he obviously lacked – a mirror of his personality maybe.

Also as a chess promoter Whitaker did more than probably anybody else in the United States for decades to make the game popular: he gave countless exhibition and simultaneous games, organized tournaments, raised funds, worked as a trainer and founded chess clubs, traveled a big deal in the U.S. and abroad to promote the game, co-authored a chess endgame book  – and quarreled a lot with the U.S. Chess Association and people who prevented him to earn the recognition he thought he deserved. He saw himself frequently as a victim of some conspiracy of vicious people that used the threat to expose very personal information about him in order to discredit him and to sidestep him whenever it was possible for them.

This all may be not particularly interesting outside the very specialized circle of chess players or those interested in chess history. But there is an element in this biography that makes it interesting for a wider audience. Whitaker, the cultivated, well-educated patent attorney from a good family and with the chess interest and talent was also a ruthless con man with a long criminal record.

Whitaker was convicted for crimes such as interstate car theft, insurance fraud, extortion and blackmailing (he claimed to know the whereabouts of the kidnapped and murdered Lindbergh baby and was arrested when he tried to extort money for allegedly returning the baby), selling morphine and other drugs via mail, and finally also child molesting. (This list is not complete.)

Grandmaster Arnold Denker who knew him well said about Whitaker:

“His advanced education, high intelligence, command of foreign languages, expensive wardrobe, plentiful ready cash, skill at chess, and confident personal manner all aided in fooling many unsuspecting victims.”

A criminal “career” that spanned over several decades and that earned him various convictions and many years in the jails of Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Therefore it is not surprising that in this well researched and written biography by chess historian John S. Hilbert not only chess masters, but also the Lindbergh family, J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone (with whom he made friends while serving time in Alcatraz) play a certain role.

What turns a talented, intelligent and rather successful man with a good profession into a criminal? And how did this part of his personality coexist with that of a serious, energetic chess promoter with good contacts in many places? The rather unsettling and surprising answer is: we don’t know. There is no warning sign, no early childhood trauma, no history of being depraved of love and affection by his family that turned Norman T. Whitaker into the ruthless criminal he was. It seems that after the first arrest in 1921 and the following conviction – which was so shocking to his father that he died of a heart attack when he learned about the car theft – Whitaker’s life was like on an inclined plane from which there was no turning back.

An interesting book not only for chess players – thanks to the author’s clever choice of documents and his ability to present us his subject as a person with such contradictory characteristics that they hardly seem to fit into one human being, we get to know a fascinating, weird personality.

„What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” (Georg Büchner: Danton’s Death) – that enigma remains still unresolved.

John S. Hilbert: Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master, Caissa Editions, Yorklyn 2000 (ed. Dale Brandreth)

Arnold Denker: Stormin’ Norman, in: ibid, The Bobby Fischer I Knew And Other Stories, p. 262-274, Hypermodern Press 1995

Norman T. Whitaker / Glenn E. Hartleb: 365 Ausgewählte Endspiele: Eines Für Jeden Tag Im Jahr, Selbstverlag, Heidelberg 1960

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Lost Opportunity

Once again The Luzhin Defense – this time it’s about the film based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

There are thousands of movies based on books; some of them are great artworks in their own right; many are quite ok; and a very big number is simply disappointing. Unfortunately, the feature film The Luzhin Defense (UK/France 2000; Director: Marleen Gorris; Screenplay: Peter Berry; Actors: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Stuart Wilson et al.) belongs to the last category in my opinion.

That the short and fat Luzhin of the novel is played by the haggard John Turturro: granted, because he is a good actor. That the story was transposed from Berlin to an Italian hotel: granted, because it means the film focuses even more on chess than the novel. That the role of Valentinov is expanded in the film compared to the novel: granted, because this ambigous character creates additional interest. That the main female character has now a name: granted, because her having no first name works well in the book but wouldn’t work in a movie.

With other decisions of the film crew I am not at all d’accord. To introduce a major character (Jean de Stassard) that is not in the book and that doesn’t fit at all in this story makes me like this film already much less. 

But the worst are the two major chess scenes in the film that make a real disaster of this attempt to visualize Nabokov’s book.

In the semifinale of the tournament in which Luzhin participates in the movie he seems to be in a hopeless position. But thanks to a hidden brilliant combination he can defeat his opponent and qualify for the final game against his main rival Turati. And here, in showing this supposedly brilliant combination – which is based on a real tournament game Dr. Vidmar-Dr.Euwe, Karlsbad 1929 – the movie lost me completely:

vidmar-euwe

This is the real position in the historical game in which Vidmar is threatened to be checkmated in the next move. But he found a spectacular rescue and played in cold blood 1.Re8+ Bf8 (1.-Kh7 is answered by 2.Qd3+ and black loses its Rook on c2), and now 2.Rxf8+! Kxf8 3.Nf5+

vidmar-euwe2

In the real game, Euwe resigned here already. 3.-Ke8 is followed by 4.Qe7#, and 3.-Kg8 is answered of course by 4.Qf8+!! Kxf8 (4.-Kh7 5.Qg7# doesn’t help) 5.Rd8# – really a brilliant end and a clever choice for the movie.

However, someone in the film crew placed the black rook on c1 and not on c2, and since Luzhin’s opponent plays until the end, we see – under frenetic applause from the tournament kibitzers in the movie the following key position on screen:

vidmar-euwe3

The Film-Luzhin plays exactly like Vidmar, but the last move is illegal with the black rook on c1! To make things worse, in the movie position White is not threatened at all by mate on h2 and the simple 1.Rxc1 wins in the most trivial way.

For anyone familiar with the rules of the game, this scene is ruining the whole movie. As if this was not enough the film provides us with a kitschy and completely unrealistic ending that is not only violating the content and spirit of Nabokov’s book but that would make even each B-movie screenwriter in Hollywood look like a great artist.

A lost opportunity. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Luzhin Defense

“What struck him most was the fact that from Monday on he would be Luzhin.”

These words mark a beginning and an end – the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defense and the end of the probably happiest period in the life of the protagonist when he was the pampered only child of a wealthy St. Petersburg family in pre-revolutionary Russia, living the protected existence of children of this class, when life seemed to be a long holiday. But time is not standing still, finally the boy has to attend school in the city where everybody will address him by his family name only. A rather traumatic experience as it turns out, although the child seems to accept the fact quietly.

It is an interesting decision of Nabokov to present this rather strange boy and later even more strange grown-up with his family name only (even his parents and his wife address him half-jokingly only with this name and not with his first name and patronym as would be usual). It is not until the very end when the readers learn the full name of the hero of the book.

And indeed, there seems to be an aura that creates a distance between Luzhin and the rest of the people. He is not communicative, likes to stay on his own, resolving mathematical problems or puzzles, and he seems to be unable to make friends or be even close with his parents who make all kind of efforts to shower Luzhin with their affection and love to which he reacts by withdrawing even more. His parents seem sometimes to be at a loss what to make of this strange bird that grows up in their nest and that shows no sign of serious interest in anything – until the day he discovers a chess set and learns how to play.

Luzhin develops into a chess wunderkind, with an all-absorbing passion for the game that is reluctantly supported by the father (who seems to be too happy that his son will not be a complete failure and be successful even when it is an activity that society doesn’t consider as something worthy of an educated person with his background). A chess impresario, Dr. Valentinov, takes the child prodigee under his wings and Luzhin becomes one of the most serious contenders for the title of a World Chess Champion.

The second part of the novel centers around a game of Luzhin with his main rival Turati, followed by a mental breakdown of Luzhin that forces him to give up on his chess career.

But Luzhin is lucky: he finds a young Russian woman from a wealthy emigrant family in Berlin that falls in love with him; despite strong reservations from the mother-in-law, the couple marries and finally Luzhin seems to embark for the first time in his life on a normal life. Everything would be fine, if he would not see everywhere these chess patterns, and to make things worse, one day his childhood nemesis Valentinov turns up again.

It is difficult not to quote excessively from this book – although written and published originally in Russian the English translation reads very smoothly and elegant, no surprise since Nabokov who co-authored the translation grew up bilingual – because there are simply too many parts which show the great mastery of Nabokov even at this comparatively early stage of his career. I will refrain myself and will give only two examples:

Dr. Valentinov, the chess impresario, is described as a cold, cunning, profit-oriented and extremely unsympathetic person (I was wondering: thinking of Silvio Danailov, a famous present day chess impresario, I suppose these character traits are part of the job description. Well, the real-life Danailov seems to be even more unlikable than the novel character Valentinov!).

When young Luzhin loses his wunderkind appeal and becomes just a strong chess grandmaster, Valentinov is walking away without saying much – but with a full bank account (while Luzhin remains quite poor and receives only a few “crumbs” from his income). While Valentinov becomes a film producer – there was much more money to make in the booming film industry of the 1920s – he comes up with a project idea for which he needs Luzhin and some other chessmasters as “staffage”. The few lines that describe their meeting after many years not being in touch are masterful and give in a nutshell a description of the character of both men:

“At this moment the door opened with a rush and a coatless, curly-haired gentleman shouted in German, with an anxious plea in his voice: “Oh, please, Dr. Valentinov, just one minute!” “Excuse me, dear boy,” said Valentinov and went to the door, but before reaching it he turned sharply around, rummaged in his billfold and threw a slip of paper on the table before Luzhin. “Recently composed it,” he said. “You can solve it while you are waiting. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” –

He disappeared. Luzhin cautiously raised his eyelids. Mechanically he took the slip. A cutting from a chess magazine, the diagram of a problem. Mate in three moves. Composed by Dr. Valentinov. The problem was cold and cunning, and knowing Valentinov, Luzhin instantly found the key. In this subtle problem he saw clearly all the perfidity of his author. From the dark words just spoken by Valentinov in such abundance, he understood one thing: there was no movie, the movie was just a pretext…a trap, a trap…he would be inveigled into playing chess and then the next move was clear. But this move would not be made.”

There are also many scenes where I had to laugh, especially the dialogues between the grubby, unworldly Luzhin and his future mother-in-law, a rich and very sophisticated woman – actually these are more monologues of the eccentric lady who doesn’t have exactly the highest opinion of the future husband of her only daughter. Or the attempts to find Luzhin a new occupation after the end of his chess career – rather sad, but also highly comical attempts at times that reach its climax when Luzhin acquires a typewriter:

“It was proposed to him that one of the office employees come and explain how to use it, but he refused, replying that he would learn on his own. And so it was: he fairly quickly made out its construction, learned to put in the ribbon and roll in the sheet of paper, and made friends with all the little levers. It proved to be more difficult to remember the distribution of the letters, the typing went very slowly; there was none of Tot-tot’s rapid chatter and for some reason – from the very first day – the exclamation mark dogged him – it leapt out in the most unexpected places.

At first he copied out half a column from a German newspaper, and then composed a thing or two himself. A brief little note took shape with the following contents: “You are wanted on a charge of murder. Today is November 27th. Murder and arson. Good day, dear Madam. Now when you are needed, dear, exclamation mark, where are you? The body has been found. Dear Madam! Today the police will come!!” Luzhin read this over several times, reinserted the sheet and, groping for the right letters, typed out, somewhat jumpily, the signature: “Abbe Busoni.”

At this point he grew bored, the thing was going too slowly. And somehow he had to find a use for the letter he had written. Burrowing in the telephone directory he found a Frau Louisa Altman, wrote out the address by hand and sent her his composition.”

I would have liked to see Frau Louisa Altman’s face when she read the letter.

Nabokov knew about what he was writing in this novel. He came from exactly the same milieu as the Luzhin in the book (even his father was like Luzhin’s father, an author). He knew the Berlin milieu of the Russian emigrants of the 1920s from his own life there. And he was a strong chess player that even composed and published chess problems – chess was his other life-long interest beside butterlies. It is very probable that he knew Alexander Alekhine (or Aljechin), the later World Chess Champion with whom Luzhin has many similarities personally – the Nabokov’s and the Alekhine’s were neighbors in St. Petersburg and both fathers were deputies in the Duma.

The chess part of the book is so much better and superior in every respect to Stefan Zweig’s Chess! (I don’t want to denigrate Stefan Zweig’s writing, but for me it is obvious that he had only a quite shallow knowledge of the game.) Needless to say that also the other chess masters mentioned in the book are inspired by real chess masters (Turati/Reti, Moser/Lasker); and even the end of the novel is based on the fate of a real chess master, Curt von Bardeleben, who was Nabokov’s neighbor in Berlin if I am not mistaken.

The Luzhin Defense is a fascinating book about an obsessive character and in my opinion the best chess novel ever published. It is also an excellent starting point to discover one of the greatest novelists of all times. Maybe his most mature English works are even better – but I can’t imagine any better starting point to discover the continent Nabokov than The Luzhin Defense.

Do you really need more reasons to read this book?

Luzhin

Vladimir Nabokov: The Luzhin Defense, translated by Michael Scammell in co-operation with the author, Penguin Books (originally published as Защита Лужина, by V. Sirin, Slovo, Berlin 1930)

The copy I was reading contained Nabokov’s very sarcastic foreword to the English edition “with a few words of encouragement to the Viennese delegation” (i.e. the psychoanalysts for whom N. had so much mockery and contempt) and an instructive afterword by John Updike.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Blame It on Bobby Fischer

A little bit more poetry will be a nice addition to this blog from time to time. And since I am at it to introduce a few internationally not yet very well-known Bulgarian poets here, I am presenting another young contemporary poet today with a few examples of his art.

Ivan Landzhev (born 1986) published his first collection of poetry Blame It on Bobby Fischer (По вина на Боби Фишер) in 2012. The volume was critically acclaimed in Bulgaria and shows an already very versatile and surprisingly mature poet.

The collection that is named (like one of the poems) after the eccentric American chess genius consists like a chess game of three sections: Debut, Mittelspiel, Endspiel, all three are introduced by a quote of Fischer. But of course this threepartition may also stand for the different sections of life, and thus it is not surprising that the author starts his book with a childhood reminiscence:

НЕ ПРЕДИ ТОВА, КОЕТО СЕ СЛУЧИ

на шест години в
двора на къщата
съм си намерил камък

и целеустремено удрям
по медалите на майка ми
от първенствата за девойки

няколко трибагреника са раздрани
от родителските постижения
хвърчат искри

не, не съм бунтар
златотърсач съм
аз просто извличам

славното минало

 

Not Before What Happened

six years old
in the backyard
I found myself a rock

and with it purposefully
I smashed my mother’s medals
from all her youth championships

a few national flags were torn to pieces
sparks were flying from the parental
achievements

no, I’m not a rebel
I am a gold-digger
I’m just extracting

the glorious past

The chess metaphor plays a role in several of the poems of this book, but it always points at something beyond the experiences on the 64 squares: 

Цитирани автори

Треньорът ми по шахмат
казваше:
„Играй си твоята игра.”

Треньорът ми по бокс
обичаше да казва:
„Лев–лев–десен–ъперкът,
и оня на земята!”

Професорът ми по медиевистика
напомняше, че
„Аз съм Oня, Който съм”.

И тримата са прави
по различно време на деня.

 

Authors Cited

My chess teacher
used to tell me:
‘Play your own game.’

My boxing coach
would always say:
‘Left-left-right-then uppercut
and he’s down!’

My professor of Medieval studies
reminded me that
‘I am He who is.’

All three of them are right
at a different time of the day.

 One of my favorite pieces in the book is the following: 

Защото ми се струва важно

Силният човек закусва всяка
сутрин по едно и също време,
 
през прозореца поглежда птиците
и всички му се виждат като дивеч.
 
Ако се случи да чете, то
силният човек прочита
Хайдегер
 
и никога Новалис. Нищо
романтично в него няма.
 
Ето:
 
същата жена му се обажда всяка вечер
да отиде в бар, където тя е седнала и
 
се любува най-умишлено на
рамото на друг силен човек,
 
но силният човек така и не разбира.
Разбира се – той просто не отива.
 
Да. А докато времетраят тези и онези
правила и се коват законите, аз си седя.
 
(В подпокривното
студио е нощем.)
 
Аз слагам лед не повече
отколкото ми трябва.
 
Аз слушам силно музика,
създадена от крехки хора.
 
Половината от тях са живи,
обаче като се замисля повечето
май не са…
 
Навън вали, барабани по
капандурите, от капките
 
градът е изтормозен. Сив екран,
разяждан от смущения в сигнала.
 
Когато тракът свърши, ти започваш
и звъниш, сигнализираш ми за себе си,
 
а как ме дразниш само – зная, пак
не аз съм първият ти избор.
 
Вътре – цялото знание в главата ми,
навън – смущения, докато аз
 
отново се обличам
и пристигам
пак!
Да видя
теб
и всичко онова,
което силният човек
си е спестил.
 
Because it seems important to me

The strong man is having breakfast
every morning at the same specific time.
 
He looks at birds out the window
and all of them he sees as game.
 
If it so happens that he reads,
the strong man reads
Heidegger
 
and never Novalis. There’s
nothing romantic about him.
 
Here:
 
The same woman calls him every night
to go to a bar, where she is sitting and
 
she is admiring most deliberately
the shoulder of another strong man.
 
But the strong man never finds out.
Of course – he simply doesn’t go.
 
Yes. And while these and those rules last,
and the laws are being forged, I just sit there.
 
(Inside the attic
studio it’s night-time).
 
I put ice, not more
than I would need.
 
I listen hard to music,
made by fragile people.
 
Half of them are still alive,
but when I think about it, most
of them are not…
 
Outside is raining, it’s drumming against
the skylights, the city is pained by the drops.
 
A grey screen, cankered by
signal disturbances.
 
When the track is over, you start
and you call, you signal me about yourself,
 
and how you just annoy me – I know,
again I’m not your first choice.
 
Inside – all the knowledge in my head,
outside – disturbances, while I
once more put on my clothes
and I arrive
again!
To see
you
and all that which
the strong man
spared himself.

  
In the following poem, the poet uses a pun that is difficult to translate in another language. ‘Samomnenie’ (самомнение) can mean self-esteem, but also vanity, conceit in Bulgarian, whereas ‘samo mnenie’ (само мнение) means ‘just an opinion’; play on words is a frequent happening in Landzhev’s poetry and it adds to the pleasure of the reader:
 

По вина на Боби Фишер

Увереността на маестрото,
който премества леко и
естествено шестнайсетте
си фигури – известна ми е.
 
Вярно е.
 
Аз имам самомнение.
Ти имаш само мнение.
Каква грандиозна разлика
в едничък интервал – оттук
 
до мен.
От Бруклин
до Рейкявик.
 
Е,
не съм ли го заслужил
при такава дистанция,
господин опонент мой,
вездесъщ ерудите?
Не съм ли го заслужил:
по стъпала като спирала да се изкача
най-горе и да се затворя
в къщата си с формата на топ?
 

Through Bobby Fischer’s fault

“I want to live the rest of my life in a house built exactly like a rook”
Robert James Fischer
 
The confidence of the maestro
who moves easily and naturally
his sixteen pieces – I know all about it.
 
It’s true.
 
I have a self-opinion.
You have yourself an opinion.
 
What a grand difference
in a single interval – from here
 
to me.
From Brooklyn
to Reykjavik.
 
Well,
haven’t I deserved it
upon such a distance,
mister opponent of mine,
ubiquitous erudite, you?
Haven’t I deserved it:
to climb the spiral stairs
up top and seal myself
inside my rook-shaped house?

 
 Ivan Landzhev: a young, fresh voice from Bulgaria. It will be interesting to follow his future development as an author.

 

Landzhev

Иван Ланджев: По вина на Боби Фишер (Ivan Landzhev: Blame It on Bobby Fischer), Siela, Sofia 2012

The English translations are by the the poet. The translations Authors Cited and Not Before What Happened were published 2011 in Granta 128. The two other translations were published on Versoteque.com.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

History of the Great Game of Chess

As an avid reader and also chess player, I think it is fairly obvious that I am also a reader (and collector) of chess literature. Although a lot of the chess books I am reading are way too technical to review them here, I will make an exception today. The book I am reviewing is dealing with a certain aspect of the history of chess that might be interesting for a wider audience.

Nansen Arie, the author of История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), is a dilettante – and I mean this expression not in an offensive sense. Arie has so far no record as a chess historian, nor is he a strong player. The author is a cardiologist and a lover of the game of chess since his childhood. Another history of chess I hear a few readers sigh…but this book is different and the subtitle explains us why: the contribution of the Jews to chess (приносът на шахматисти евреи) is the author’s topic.

Since the beginning of modern tournament chess in 1851 and until today, a big percentage of the leading players – including the world champions Steinitz, Lasker, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Fischer (who developed mysteriously into an extreme anti-semite), Khalifman, Kasparov but also leading masters like Zukertort, Tarrasch, Charousek, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Nimzovich, Tartakower, Reti, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Szabo, Lilienthal, Najdorf, Boleslavski, Averbach, Geller, Taimanov, Stein, Korchnoi, Speelman, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Radjabov and many others were or are Jews or of Jewish origin.

Dr. Arie starts his work with an introduction that gives a short overview and that also mentions anti-semitism in chess: the influential chess writer Franz Gutmayer published a number of popular pamphlets in the early 20th century that denounced the playing style of Jewish players as decadent and “sick” – contrary to the “healthy” (Aryan) attacking style of Gutmayer’s disciples. And the world champion Alexander Alekhine published during WWII a series of articles called “„Jüdisches und arisches Schach” (Jewish and Aryan chess) in which he was attacking players like Lasker (whom he publicly admired on many occasions before) in a way that is not worthy of a chess genius. (After the war Alekhine disputed the authorship of these articles.)

In the first chapter, the author gives an overview regarding the main chess events before the establishment of a regular world championship, highlighting the successes of Jewish players and providing very brief biographical notes on them. The second part covers the World Championship matches, the third the Chess Olympiads. Part four covers chess in the USSR, part five the big international tournaments, part six the matches USSR vs. “Rest of the World”, part seven (somehow inconsistently) the “traditional” chess tournaments (like Hastings). A short chapter on Bulgaria would have been interesting and reasonable (the author is Bulgarian and writes primarily for a Bulgarian audience).

Dr. Arie has written a work with the love and industriousness of the amateur. Who wants to learn about the remarkable success of Jewish chess players has in this work all necessary information.

However, I have to admit that this work left me disappointed for various reasons.

The book contains no games at all. A book that wants to explore the successes of Jewish chess players should at least give some remarkable examples of their play and do some effort to explain, why there was such an explosion of Jewish players from 1850 until today, and what the social, historical or psychological reasons behind this development were. Dr. Arie is making no serious attempt to explain this rise of the Jewish element in chess.

A second big disappointment is the lack of a literature list. The author doesn’t mention any sources although it is obvious that he is heavily indebted to the literature on the history of chess. There is no mentioning of Moritz Steinschneider’s classical study “Schach bei den Juden” (1873), no mentioning of Emanuel Lasker’s writings on philosophy or the Jewish question, no mentioning of the Makkabi chess clubs in many countries. Edward Winter’s article “Chess and Jews” on chesshistory.org is also not mentioned, dito Felix Berkovich’s and Nathan Divinsky’s “Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps“, or Meir and Harold Ribalow’s “The Great Jewish Chess Champions“. There is even no mentioning of the sources of the photos in the book. I don’t know if this is the author’s or the publisher’s fault, but it is a lack of diligence and respect for the intellectual efforts of others when these sources are generally repressed and omitted.

This work is written in Bulgarian, but it makes an effort to re-translate many names or expressions into the latin script. Unfortunately the person who did this (very probably not the author) seems to have been not at all familiar with the history of chess. This results in very frequent and rather annoying mistakes like “The Rating of Chess Player” instead of “The Rating of Chessplayers” (title of Prof. Elo’s famous book), “Café de la Regens” instead of “Café de la Regence” , “Ignatz fon Kolish” instead of “Ignaz von Kolisch”, “Vilhelm Cohn” instead of “Wilhelm Cohn”, “Iohann Loewenthal” instead of “Johann Löwenthal”, “Rudolf Spielman” instead of “Rudolf Spielmann”, and so on and on. There is hardly any page in the book without such unnecessary mistakes.

Although I am very sympathetic towards the work of any dilettante (being one myself), I wish this book on an interesting topic would have been written and edited in a better and more diligent way.

Print

Нансен Арие (Nansen Arie): История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), Сиела (Siela), Sofia 2014

 

Moritz Steinschneider: Schach bei den Juden, Julius Springer, Berlin 1873

Franz Gutmayer: Der Weg zur Meisterschaft, Veit, Leipzig 1913

Emanuel Lasker: Kampf, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin 2001 (reprint; originally published in 1906)

Emanuel Lasker: Jude – wohin?, in: Aufbau, New York 01. January 1939

Emanuel Lasker: The Community of the Future, M.J. Bernin, New York 1940

Alexander Aljechin: Jüdisches und arisches Schach, in: Pariser Zeitung, 18.-23. March 1941

Arpad Elo: The Rating of Chessplayers, Arco, New York 1978

Harold U. Ribalow / Meir Z. Ribalow: The Great Jewish Chess Champions, Hippocrene Books, New York 1987

Felix Berkovich / Nathan Divinsky: Jewish Chess masters on Stamps, McFarland & Co., Jefferson 2000

Edmund Bruns: Das Schachspiel als Phänomen der Kulturgeschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, LIT, Münster 2003

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 


The Best Chess Novels

There are more than two hundred belletristic works in my library in which the game of chess plays a more or less important role. Here I have chosen the – in my humble opinion – thirty best novels with chess as one of or the main topic (randomly sequenced):

 

The DefenseEine gefaehrliche BegegnungTactics of Conquest

  1. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense
  2. Fernando Arrabal: The Tower Struck by Lightning
  3. Rudolf Jakob Humm: Spiel mit Valdivia
  4. Stefan Zweig: The Royal Game
  5. Ichokas Meras: Stalemate
  6. John Brunner: The Squares of the City
  7. Barry N. Malzberg: Tactics of Conquest
  8. Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit
  9. Robert Löhr: The Chess Automaton
  10. Bertina Henrichs: La joueuse d’echecs
  11. Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe
  12. Paolo Maurensig: The Luneburg Variation
  13. Thomas Glavinic: Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw
  14. Fabio Stassi: La rivincita di Capablanca
  15. Ronan Bennett: Zugzwang
  16. Wilhelm Heinse: Anastasia or The Chess Game
  17. Gustav Meyrink: The Golem
  18. Samuel Beckett: Murphy
  19. Guillermo Martinez: Regarding Roderer
  20. Andy Soltis: Los Voraces 2019
  21. Ernst Jünger: A Dangerous Encounter
  22. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Chess Player
  23. Yoko Ogawa: Swimming with Elephants
  24. Ilya Ilf/Evgeny Petrov: The Twelve Chairs
  25. David Szalay: The Innocent
  26. Jesse Kraai: Lisa
  27. Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes
  28. Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
  29. Ignacio Padilla: Shadow without a Name
  30. Arne Danielsen: The Highest Rank

Just for the record, there is at least one excellent novel available in English translation that is featuring the game of Go: Kawabata Yasunari, The Master of Go (trans. by Edward Seidensticker), Vintage. 

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Two marginal remarks after re-reading ‘1984’

Recently I re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ again. After a first reading when I was still at school, and a second one in my late 20s, I came across the book again after a long break. I am not going to details to describe what the book is about because most of the readers of this blog will know this famous dystopian novel.

1984

There are just one or two marginal remarks I want to make here. One is: it’s always interesting to see how a book changes over the years. The ‘1984’ I read as a teen is different from the one I read in my late twenties, and both differ considerably from the copy I read now. And yet it is exactly the same book. What has changed is not the book, it is the reader. Some aspects of the book which were very important to me in my younger years seem to have faded (like the love story between Winston and Julia), other aspects have grown more important with the passing of time. That might simply reflect the fact that the reader has become more mature (hopefully!) but also that certain aspects of Orwell’s novel have come much closer to their realization as it seemed to me 20, 30 years ago. The disappearing privacy of our times, the almost ever-present state control over all our movements, the execution of people because of “thought crimes”, not of real crimes they have actually committed, the deafening everyday propaganda that tries to make us believe things that are obviously not true, the euphemisms in the language we use or to which we are exposed permanently. “Newspeak”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” are concepts with which we are all more or less quite familiar today if we still have eyes to see, ears to hear and a brain to think and reflect about things. Having read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” in the meantime, I think a little bit less of Orwell’s literary originality than before, but it is in the description of the concept of “newspeak” and “doublethink” where he is really impressive.

A second very small remark which seems to be detached from the above (but wait and see): while re-arranging my library not only Orwell’s book went through my hands again but (amongst many others) also my chess book collection changed places. Yes, I admit it: collecting chess books (thousands of them) is one of the weirder features of my personality. Maybe later I will write a bit more about my collection, but this is a kind of private obsession that is not shared by very many people and therefore maybe interesting from a pathological point of view only. Be it as it may, I treasure those books in my collection that have not only an interesting content, but also those that tell me a story. For example books with book plates, exlibris or owner stamps of the previous owners, personal dedications, books with annotations by the previous owner, or books which are for a special reason interesting beyond the content. I have one of the very few surviving copies of a specific chess problem book – almost the whole edition sank on board of a ship that was sunk by a German U-Boot in 1917; a very rare copy of Marcel Duchamp’s and Vitaly Halberstadt’s “L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, tracked down after a long hunt in an antiquarian book store in Antwerpes, Belgium for a small fortune (and with all errata slips!); several books inscribed with dedications by former world champion Botvinnik; a bulletin of a tournament in Moscow 1991, signed by my chess idol Mikhail Tal after our personal game. One the most treasured books in my collection is a tournament book of the Moscow International Tournament 1935, won by Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik ex-aequo, with 66-year old chess legend Emanuel Lasker half a point behind (he was undefeated and demolished the “invincible” Capablanca). Now this is one of the great tournament books every collector would like to possess – but I remember that I got a faster heartbeat when I discovered the book in an antiquarian book store in Heidelberg for another reason: the book had what almost all copies of that edition were missing – the preface by Nikolay Krylenko.

Krylenko was one of the early Bolsheviks that with great energy and extreme ruthlessness helped to establish the dictatorship of Lenin and later Stalin. He was a very efficient henchman of the system, who – since he was an expert in “revolutionary law” – always asked indiscriminately for the death penalty of those who came under his fingers. One of his most infamous remarks: ”We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” As People’s Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic he had plenty of opportunity to get “enemies of the people” (real and invented one’s) executed for the good of the Soviet Union.

But this bastard had also another side that made him (almost) human. When he was not busy getting people tortured in the ‘konveyer’ (the equivalent to room 101 in Orwell’s novel, or of Guantanamo in the 21th century) and executed after a “fair trial” that lasted rarely longer than five minutes, he was an avid mountaineer and participated in several of the early German-Russian Pamir expeditions. And he was an excellent chess player of master strength that did more for the popularization of the game than probably any other person in history. Chess, the favorite pastime of men like Lenin and Trotsky (both excellent players) was a game played by a very small number of people in Russia before the October Revolution. With a powerful man like Krylenko who was pushing the right buttons for the administration to provide comparatively big resources for the establishment of what was later to be known as the “Russian Chess School” and that dominated the chess world until the rise of Bobby Fischer, it was just a matter of time until the new talents with Botvinnik as the chosen No. 1 would develop to a strength that was not to be surpassed for several decades by any player outside the Soviet Union. Krylenko was also the first to organize international tournaments in the Soviet Union with the strongest masters from abroad. It was these tournaments where the Russian masters could finally test their growing strength.

Like most of the early Bolsheviks, Krylenko met his fate when he seemed at the top of his career. During the great purge he was arrested under the same absurd accusations like most people that became a victim of the great witch hunt. His was tortured for several weeks, convicted in a 20-minute trial and immediately shot. His interrogator was to fall victim to the great purge himself just a few months later.

As most of you will recall, Winston Smith is working in the Ministry of Truth. His task it is to permanently change the past. Newspapers and other past texts have to be changed all the time. People who have disappeared or were “vaporized” (nowadays this is done with the technical support of drones) have to disappear also from the record. After the respective changes, the old papers are deposed of. No trace of the real past will remain in the records, just as no trace will remain of the disappeared and vaporized. Big Brother is always right. The same fate waited for Krylenko. After he was executed, his name was removed from all records of the Soviet Chess Federation and all other records. The preface of the Moscow Tournament Book 1935 which was written by him was removed from almost all copies diligently with a razor blade. Only a very small number of advance copies were already distributed. And one of them is now in my possession. It’s one of these small ironic coincidences that I laid my hands on it again just by chance after I had finished my re-reading of ‘1984’.

George Orwell: 1984, Penguin Classics

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We, Penguin Classics

Robert Braune: Apôtre de la Symétrie, L’Esprit 1913

Vitaly Halberstadt / Marcel Duchamp: L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, Paris-Bruxelles 1932

Anon.: Bulletin Moscow International Chess Tournament 1991, Moscow 1991

Vtoroj mezdunarodniy shakhmatniy turnir Moskva 1935, Moscow/Leningrad, 1936

Arkady Vaksberg: The Prosecutor and the Prey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1990

The blog of Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett contains very interesting details about “the bastard who re-shaped the chess world” which I partly used for my article:

https://kevinspraggettonchess.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/nikolai-krylenko-the-bastard-who-re-shaped-world-chess/

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.