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Electronic Instruction and an Excursion into History
The Sicilian Defence, CD-ROM; various authors; New In Chess, 1999
The French Defence, CD-ROM, 2nd Edition; Paul van der Sterren, editor; New In Chess, 1998
Soviet Chess 1917-1991; Andrew Soltis; 450 pages; McFarland & Company, 2000
In this review, I will take a look at some more New in Chess ('NIC') products, and then discuss Andy Soltis' latest historical effort. Before doing that, I should add that since my review of the Chess Publishing site (review #18), I have found myself returning to those sites on a regular basis to catch up on current theory. Having looked more closely, I have to say that I'm impressed and happy with the regular updates. Several of the sites have expanded since I wrote the review, and I strongly recommend a look (link elsewhere on TWIC). This fascinating project puts a new spin on how active chessplayers will be keeping current, and expands the scope of chess on the Internet.
In review #19, I talked about the new NIC Yearbook CDs. The same company puts out 'New in Chess Magazine', which is generally considered the best chess magazine available in English, with extensive notes by world-class players. Here I will look briefly at a more recent NIC endeavour, their series of CD-ROMs about major opening complexes. I have played around with the two of these openings discs listed above, but it should be mentioned that three others of this series are the 1997 'Catalan/Bogo-Indian', edited by Catalan expert Genna Sosonko, and the 1997 'King's Indian' and 1999 'The Open Games' (the latter covering 1.e4 e5), both edited by Jan Timman.
As should be clear from their subjects, these CDs are ambitious efforts to cover major opening complexes on a single disc. How do they go about this? Each CD contains a database of games, many annotated by leading masters, chosen from just about all variations of the opening (including rare and irregular lines). Also on the discs, happily, is a set of all the surveys about that opening which have appeared over the years in NIC Yearbooks. As I pointed out in the previous review, this is a lot easier than dragging out 50 individual Yearbooks and hunting around for the relevant articles! The user plays through all games on a game board with normal functions such as the ability to play the game over automatically, jump around on variation branches, and the like. The 'key viewer' allows one to collect and look at games by variation and subvariation. Variations of each opening are introduced with prose essays about the state of theory and links to both critical games and historical games of note.
So how does one use these CDs, and who are they for? Obviously, they are not meant to keep you current with the very latest theory. That can be better done by downloading games from TWIC and other chess sites, or by going to ChessPublishing.com. And if one wants a large database of games in a particular opening, that can be done in a few minutes with a database program. But what one gets with these NIC Opening CD-ROMs is a well-organized database of high-quality games, many of them annotated. The French Defence, for example, contains over 2,500 annotated games out of 32,000, and The Sicilian Defence has over 4,000 annotated games out of 85,000; that's a lot of notes! The result is that the student gets a comprehensive opening book (with the ease of interactive playback and searching) about subjects which are no longer covered in your ordinary chess book. After all, no one is writing a book called 'The Sicilian Defence' these days! So the most appropriate user of these CDs, it seems to me, is someone who wants a solid reference 'book' on the opening in question or someone who wants to study the opening from the standpoint of either colour. In fact, any player from club player to active tournament player could use these discs to learn an opening from scratch in a very deep way, or to greatly increase their familiarity with an opening they use from time to time, but need to know more about.
In my experience with the French and Sicilian CDs, I had little trouble getting used to how to navigate around the database or use the board controls. I also found the material excellent, with good marks for covering all the irregular and non-main lines which confront the average player. Nevertheless, I have a number of technical complaints. First, a small point: while it's easy to play through the main games, some of the general overview games have commentary with variations which can only be read and not played through on the board. Second, travelling through keys is the most convenient way to navigate material in a systematic fashion; but one can get lost in individual games. Some kind of 'merge' function such as ChessBase has would be useful, even if it was just temporary, to get an overview of how several games in a variation diverge and compare. Also, it would be nice to have the feature I praised in describing the new NIC Yearbook CDs, that is, the inclusion a set of PGN database files containing the relevant games and notes. These could be downloaded and used directly in database programs like ChessBase, or be easily convertible to ChessBase or Chess Assistant formats. There is a database of 'G30/I30'-format games on the discs, but I don't have a converter for these--perhaps NIC could provide one?
Finally, these CDs advertise 'a direct link to Rebel, Fritz, MChess Pro', which to me implies automatic analysis. When I followed their directions for Fritz, all it amounted to was a shortcut for starting Fritz as a separate program, still requiring me to input the moves from the game under consideration and switch back and forth between the programs. Maybe I did something wrong, but that's not what I'd call a direct link. In any case, most players using this program will have plenty to think about with the games and analysis from the CD itself, so this is not serious issue. But it adds to my impression that one is using this program to explore and learn about an opening, not to add and download one's own ideas.
Technical gripes notwithstanding, there is a legitimate market for these opening discs: players who don't want to buy scores of books on particular variations of major openings, but would rather have a single, 'complete' reference on an opening, with high-quality annotated games. If NIC can makes this format just slightly more convenient to use (and downloadable), they can improve an already-attractive product.
Returning to the world of paper and ink, the first thing I noticed about Andy Soltis' 'Soviet Chess 1917-1991' was how much fun it was to hold a thick, well-bound hardback chess book! This is the first book I've gotten from McFarland (although I've looked lustfully upon those in my friends' collections), and the quality of the book (including the binding, typesetting, layout of crosstables, and the like) is itself enough to recommend it to any collector or book lover. As a reviewer, I get so used to the endless parade of paperbacks that I forget what a pleasure it is to peruse something resembling 'the books of my youth'.
And peruse I did. This book is extremely enjoyable to read, especially for those hardcore fans among us who have spent a lifetime reading about the games of the lesser Soviet masters, but never quite had a picture of who they were, or even exactly what they had achieved. In my case, most of the names were extremely familiar, but primarily through game references, so even the slightest fleshing out of their lives and faces was intriguing. And lest I forget: Soltis includes a 16-page section of high-quality photographs, albeit mostly of the superstars. I particularly enjoyed seeing the likes of Romanovsky, Ragozin, Bondarevsky, Boleslavsky, and the young Kotov.
So it's easy to recommend this book, although one must take into account the price ($55), and in fairness, younger players may not relate to, or even be bored by, the stories and references to countless players they've never heard of. Also, this is overwhelmingly a historical account (see discussion below), so what I said about Edward Winter's book could also apply here: those obsessed with the game as it is played, but not with it's personalities, may not find much of interest. But most chessplayers, and I would think just about any fan in his 40s or above, should have a great time with this book.
Jeremy Silman talks about the 'evil' Soltis and the 'good' Soltis, a characterization I agree with and which I touched upon in TWIC Review #2. I mentioned there Soltis' awful Chess Digest pamphlets, and his wonderful 'Confessions of a Grandmaster' and 'The Art of Defense'. But I should also praise Andy for his longstanding Chess Life column "Chess to Enjoy". When Soltis' column was attacked some years back by a Chess Life reader as having a dull and 'journalistic' style, I wrote that it was not only the most consistently entertaining piece in the magazine, but that it required a remarkable amount of historical research and love for the lore of the game. This book has many of the characteristics of that column, good and bad, and I will have to defer to chess historians to assess matters of accuracy. It would be interesting to see an Edward Winter review of 'Soviet Chess', as he was more than once critical of Soltis' neglect of sources in 'Kings, Commoners, and Knaves' (e.g., "the writings of Andrew Soltis, for example, optimistically expect the reader to take almost everything on trust"). As it stands, I will refer to Taylor Kingston's long and interesting review of Soviet Chess for the Chess Café (www.chesscafe.com). Regarding sources, Kingston refers favourably to Soltis' 8 pages of notes and Bibliography, but regrets his lack of use of historians Mikhail Kogan and David Richards. I'm out of my league here, but I do wonder if listing a lot of sources says much about the quality of the research. I had read several of the 'non-chess sources', for example, and couldn't imagine their concrete application to the book. Also, I didn't see Cafferty and Taimanov's 'The Soviet Championships' (Cadogan 1998) listed, despite its complete crosstables and Taimanov's many game notes.
Taylor also thinks that Soltis has turned "what could easily have been a sprawling, jumbled mass into a well-researched, coherent narrative ". I think that the coherence is sometimes lacking. The relation of politics to chess is a major theme, and rightfully so, but the examples tend to be flimsy and unclear. At the very least, Soviet machinations in the chess world itself, at FIDE, could have been discussed at length. There is also a lot of jumping around between subjects, some of it due to Soltis' tendency to like a good quote or good story. One example that Taylor likes is the resistance of the museum director when the 1935 Moscow International was to be held in the Museum of Fine Arts. Soltis writes: "The director declared the chessplayers would get inside the museum 'only over his dead body'. That was a condition Krylenko could easily have satisfied." A smart one-liner, but it isn't backed up. This is the style of many of Soltis' Chess Life columns: a bit of drama and a good story, which you don't quite trust, but you don't really care, because it's fun. That may not work so well in a serious historical work. Very often, Soltis' take on a controversial issue is to quote various famous players' witty comments. But he doesn't tell us his own opinion, nor take much regard for the reliability of the person he's quoting (especially when some of them are notoriously unreliable). Taylor also brings up the fact that Soltis seems to want to tackle large and compelling questions, such as "What made Soviet chess?"; but that we never find out what he thinks. And in the middle of nowhere, he blames the Soviet system's lack of incentives for the decline of Soviet chess, neglecting to explain what incentives would have accounted for earlier successes. I found that in general, very few large questions were given sustained attention, or resolved.
Soltis says in his Preface: "Perhaps fewer than half the games, game fragments, and problems in the first 10 chapters have been published outside the Soviet Union." I remember wondering about this statement, since so many of the games were familiar, but I was too lazy to do a count. Interestingly, Taylor had the same notion, but plunged ahead and said that a random check in his database cast some doubt upon the assertion. At any rate, while I think that the stories and player descriptions are just fascinating, 'Soviet Chess' is disappointing (perhaps inevitably so) when it comes to chess play itself. Of course, no book which mainly concentrates on 75 years of chess history, general history, and bringing to life so many associated figures with the game has much room left over for the infinite subject of what Soviet chessplaying itself was about. But the notes to the games are superficial (and sometimes just wrong, as I see it); and there seems to be no discussion of the development of style, the development of theory, or any other issues related to Soltis' 'What made Soviet chess?' question. The notes can be exasperating, e.g., when Soltis calls Sveshnikov's 2.c3 theory "one of the few major Soviet contributions to opening theory in the decade", a silly statement.
So I do have some problems with this book, but they are of a technical nature and should not interfere with what is, after all, a great read. For a chessplayer, the history of the Soviet chess is an infinite subject we can't get enough of. 'Soviet Chess' is fun, beautifully-produced, informative, and nostalgic in the best sense.