Six of the Best

It is said that more books have been written about chess than about all other games combined. I don’t suppose anyone has ever attempted to count them but it is a very plausible (if useless) piece of information. As a young man, I found it impossible to afford all the new chess books I wanted to add to my library. The world’s largest private collection is that of the German grandmaster Lothar Schmid, which is thought to contain around 20,000 chess books.

I console myself that quality is what counts, rather than quantity. There are a small number of truly great books and a great deal of second-rate, often ghost-written dross. Chess fans have long parted with their money for manuals said to have been written by X, but which have merely been signed off by the great man.

What follows is my own list of recommendations of pure gold — books which no chess library should be without. Since there are six members of the army of chess pieces, that is the length of my list.

First — and the most obvious — is the only book genuinely by the late Bobby Fischer, My 60 Memorable Games (Batsford), which, exceptionally, contains three of his losses — and in the notes to all the games he is laceratingly self-critical. “I simply underestimated the force of Tal’s reply”, “I already knew I’d been outplayed”, “I offered a draw, afraid he wouldn’t accept” are the sort of remarks that crop up throughout these marvellous annotations. They give a clue to Fischer’s sporting greatness: the players who understand their own failings and address them honestly have the greatest capacity for objectivity and therefore self-improvement. Thus, Fischer opens his book with a quote from Emanuel Lasker: “On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.”

If there were a title for the most compelling writer among the chess elite, it should have been awarded to David Bronstein, who died six years ago at the age of 82. He failed to become world champion by the narrowest of margins: in his 1951 challenge against Mikhail Botvinnik, he was leading the so-called “father of Soviet chess” with just two games to go, but somehow failed to close the match out. Some speculated that he had been made to throw the title — he was Jewish, Stalin had sent his father to the Gulag, so he was not the Soviets’ ideal champion. 

Yet Bronstein’s legacy as an author remains supreme. Although his most famous work, The Chess Struggle in Practice (David Mckay), is justly regarded as the greatest of all tournament books, my personal favourite is the much less well-known 200 Open Games (Dover). As the title suggests, these are 200 examples of games by Bronstein beginning with the moves 1.e4 e5. Within that arbitrary limitation, he weaves a gloriously rich tale of a lifetime’s creativity, combined with a wonderful sense of humour. Like Fischer, Bronstein includes a number of his defeats, including this one, playing Black against the future world champion Boris Spassky in 1960: the astonishing final combination gained a peculiar fame when it appeared in From Russia with Love.

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 d5 4.exd5 Bd6 5.Nc3 Ne7 6.d4 0-0 7.Bd3 Nd7 8.0-0 h6 9.Ne4 Nxd5 10.c4 Ne3 11.Bxe3 fxe3 12.c5 Be7 13.Bc2 Re8 14.Qd3 e2 15.Nd6 Nf8 16.Nxf7 exf1=Q+ 17.Rxf1 Bf5 18.Qxf5 Qd7 19.Qf4 Bf6 20.N3e5 Qe7 21.Bb3 Bxe5 22.Nxe5+ Kh7 23.Qe4+ and Bronstein resigned. In 200 Open Games, he admits “regretting to this day” not finding the refutation of Spassky’s sacrifice, but adds, with characteristic generosity of spirit, that his opponent’s dazzling conception was “a blue bird soaring in the clouds”.

Bronstein is just one of the great Russian grandmasters lovingly portrayed by Gennadi Sosonko in a series of superb biographical sketches, Russian Silhouettes, published by the Dutch firm New in Chess. Sosonko, a Russian grandmaster who emigrated to Holland in 1972, has triumphantly succeeded in evoking an extraordinary world that is now lost forever-of geniuses, usually Jewish, attempting to retain their creative integrity under a crudely conformist regime. Here is Sosonko on his friend, the other-worldly former world champion Mikhail Tal: “He never wore a watch. ‘What’s that? You’ve got something ticking on your arm!’ For Mischa, time in the accepted sense did not exist.”

It is not necessary to be a great player to write a great book about chess. Dr Anthony Saidy, although once US Open Champion, never became a grandmaster; but I have regularly reread his Battle of Chess Ideas (Batsford) for pure pleasure. It is now somewhat dated, ending as it does in 1972 before the computer’s influence took hold. Yet the sheer quality of Saidy’s writing will make this book endure longer than many that might as well have been written by a silicon chip.

The chess books most avidly devoured by club players are those on opening theory — the readers are promised that thus armed, they will gain an advantage right at the outset. 

Yet very few of these monographs — and there are thousands of them — have anything original to say; if a grandmaster has some genuine secrets about opening strategy, he will keep them to himself. Tiger’s Modern (Quality Chess Europe), by the Swedish grandmaster Tiger Hillarp Persson, is a glorious exception. For Persson, who has played the Modern Defence in his own special and very risky way for years, this is a real labour of love. As he writes in the introduction: “Playing these lines is a constant struggle. Occasionally I wake up thinking ‘I must play something else’ but then a few mornings later (after some hard work) I wake up thinking ‘It’s alive! It’s a miracle!’ and so it goes on. Don’t let the first of these mornings scare you. If you are not too lazy the other kind of morning is waiting around the corner.”

My final book selection is the only one by a Briton: Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently about Black and White (Gambit), by Jonathan Rowson. The Scottish grandmaster has produced a memorable account of the efforts involved in trying to become a very strong player; a noted chess tutor, he imparts with seriousness and passion the mental techniques that must be mastered. This is one of those few books that really do make you a better player, having read it. Above all, it teaches you how to think. What could be more important?  

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