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Looking Back, Part 1
Three Hundred Chess Games; Siegbert Tarrasch; 366 pages; Hays Publishing, 1999
The Game of Chess; Siegbert Tarrasch; 270 pages; Hays Publishing, 1994
The Life and Games of Carlos Torre; Gabriel Velasco; 295 pages; Russell Enterprises, 2000
In this installment and the next, we have two books by one of the greatest players and teachers of all time, a unique biography/games collection of a great old master, and two books relating to the history of chess (which I am deferring to the next review-'Part 2'-for space reasons). As I often do, I have included two books that appeared some time ago with three recently-appearing ones.
One could make the case that Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch was the strongest player in the world at some point during the 1890s; he also played at a world-class (top five) level throughout, and somewhat beyond, the first decade of this century, all the while keeping up his medical practice. Tarrasch was, deservedly, designated as one of the first five 'grandmasters' of chess. But he became even better known through his writings on the game, which appeared in books, columns, and periodicals. For at least two generations of aspiring players, Tarrasch's work was the primary source of their chess education. Reti made the point that Tarrasch might have had even greater success over the board had he not shared so much of his knowledge with the rest of the chess world.
Surprisingly, the recent translation of Tarrasch's masterpiece '300 Chess Games' ('Dreihundert Schachpartien', first published in 1896, I believe) makes this book available in English for the first time. The book is an annotated collection of Tarrasch's own games, along with a biographical description of Tarrasch's chess career, from his years as a youth in Breslau through 1894, when at age 32 he was arguably in his prime. A few years ago, I borrowed and read a copy of the German edition of '300 Chess Games' in order to do my own research on Tarrasch, and I got most of my ideas about his contributions from this book. Not because he expounds upon his theories as much as he does elsewhere, but because '300 Chess Games' is a record of how Tarrasch actually played, and how he explains his own moves. It reveals a pragmatic player who, however, had extremely strong opinions about certain positions, and who was judgmental regarding many move options about which the modern master would be indifferent, considering them more a matter of taste than of fundamental principle. '300 Chess Games' offers an excellent perspective on late 19th-century play, and includes many classic illustrations of how to exploit positional advantages.
I'm not sure which players would benefit most from playing through the games and notes of this book-probably those from about 1200 to 2000. For those who value the study of classic game collections, I think that the games in this book have more educational value than those of any great player up to Alekhine, because the positional themes and types of complex maneuvering which arise in Tarrasch's games are more universally applicable to a developing player's needs. Nevertheless, the book's main appeal will be to collectors and fans of the old masters. I don't have the German edition any more in order to make a direct comparison, but the translation by Sol Schwarz is unpretentious, literate, and reads very well, qualities lacking in the translations of many chess books. I do take exception to the habit of capitalizing all piece names, and even such things as 'Queenside' and 'the Exchange'. Yes, nouns are capitalized in German, but that is no reason to do so in English. Okay, that's my petty academic quibble, expressed solely for the record. Admittedly, it has nothing to do with the generally high quality of '300 Chess Games'. A more serious question is whether, as the German edition did, Hays should have gotten a strong player to write updated notes to supplement the openings section. I think you could argue this either way, and in any case, it's our gain to have this classic available in English.
Since we're on the subject of English editions of Tarrasch's works, I also want to comment on 'The Game of Chess', a new edition of which was put out by Hays in 1994. This is essentially an update of an older edition, with conversion to algebraic notation and some modest editing (e.g., some sparse notes and happily, more diagrams) contributed by the publisher. In this case, the translation (an old one) has many flaws and is not up to Schwarz' standard; but fortunately, the simplicity of the subject matter and clarity of Tarrasch's writing renders this unimportant.
'The Game of Chess' is primarily an introduction to chess for near-beginners, with material of increasing complexity later on in the book which would serve intermediate players as well. Tarrasch starts with a description of algebraic chess notation and basic mates, assuming only a knowledge of the rules on the reader's part. I would describe his teaching method as a 'standard positions' approach, in that he believes that exposing the student to a great number of fundamental and essentially-recurring positions will develop his or her intuition, a process, in his words, 'analogous to that a mother uses to teach her child to talk'. For me, this immediately raised the question of why so few of the novice's books we see in our super-bookstores takes this approach. Remarkably, Tarrasch gives a clearer and better description of how chess is typically played than I see in our modern books, which tend to be full of broad advice and invalid generalities. One can easily see why he was considered the preeminent teacher of his time: he was not trying to fool anyone.
'The Games of Chess' has three major sections, on the endgame, middlegame, and opening, followed by illustrative games. The endgame section is mostly filled with fundamental, 'must-know' positions, and is written clearly and efficiently. The openings section, not surprisingly, is often dated and inaccurate; although on the whole, it contains mostly valid and instructive ideas, especially for the study of 1.e4 e5. Tarrasch's renowned dogmatism about openings is evident , including his insistence upon the inferiority of many time-proven Black defences, so any teacher using this text would have to supplement or replace this section with more up-to-date material. The middlegame section best illustrates the standard-position approach, systematically enumerating standard combinations and attacks, standard techniques (pins, forks, etc.), standard tactics and tricks, and standard positional concepts. As John Hall says in his Introduction: "Other books try to be more general than specific: he presents a large number of typical situations, covering essentially all the important structures a sort of 'hands-on approach'." And Tarrasch himself says: "A good game of chess is decided in the middlegame For the conduct of the middlegame, we have in the studies of the typical combinations and attacks, made ourselves familiar with the raw material. The player who carefully studies this colossal material, until he makes it his own, should be able to cope with any situation." Of course, chess has become far more complex and there are a lot more 'typical structures' these days, not to mention that Tarrasch's phrase 'should be able to cope with any situation' was terribly exaggerated even at the time he made it. But I have to say that you could do much worse with a novice student than to forget all those popular books and series and simply teach directly from this book. Chess has advanced a great deal, but looking through this book, I'm not convinced that chess pedagogy has done so, at least at the elementary level.
To conclude my Tarrasch discussion, I want to say something about his famous 'dogmatism'. Tarrasch's popular historical image is that of a follower of Steinitz who rather dogmatically followed the latter's ideas while expanding them to embrace the virtues of quick development and space control. I think that any objective study of Tarrasch has to conclude that he was indeed more dogmatic than most players of his stature, not only in his extreme statements about openings, but in assessments of strategies and even of individual moves. On the other hand, he played moves he had earlier criticized, and didn't seem to take his own theories as seriously as Steinitz did when it came to practical play. He also tried to establish himself as an original contributor to chess theory, independent of Steinitz. An interesting passage from 'The Game of Chess' addresses Steinitz's 'strong' recommendation that, versus rook-pawn attacks such as h4-h5-h6, it was best to allow the pawn to advance to h6 and then play g6, after which the pawn at h6 would be weak in the endgame. Steinitz also warned against blocking the pawn's advance by means of h6, for fear of weakening the g6 square. Tarrasch proudly argues against this, asserting: "Therefore never allow an enemy rook pawn to advance to the sixth rank, but block the advance by playing your own rook pawn one or two squares forward-a principle first enunciated by the author and diametrically opposed to the teaching of Steinitz. On this point, as on many others, I had been obliged to contest the teachings of that great theoretician. Here are some examples to demonstrate the truth of my dictum " [italics his]. Of course, the truth is that one sometimes allows such an advance and one sometimes blocks it. There are no valid 'dicta' or principles about such matters. But it shows how determined that thinkers like Steinitz and Tarrasch were to put chess on a rigorous scientific basis, even to the extent of establishing rules for a particular type of pawn advance.
To this day, our elementary texts are full of bogus guidelines about more important topics than rook pawn advances, so we should not feel too smug about such quaint arguments. It would be very interesting to compare the results of using Tarrasch's The Game of Chess as an elementary textbook with those of using our five bestselling introductory books. I doubt that 70 years or so of added chess experience would prove to have benefited the latter.
Russell Enterprises has again put out an off-the-beaten-path title (recall 'Kings, Commoners, and Knaves' and 'The Human Comedy of Chess', both reviewed in this column): Gabriel Velasco's 'The Life and Games of Carlos Torre', translated, revised, and expanded from the 1993 version in Spanish. The translator is Taylor Kingston, a columnist at chesscafe.com whose book reviews I highly recommend.
Right off, I should say that I consider the book's greatest virtue to be its historical contribution, involving the gathering of biographical material and scores of Torre's games, as well as a rare five-page interview with Torre conducted by the author in 1977, in the year before Torre's death. From the collector's point of view, this is a unique and valuable contribution to the game's literature. Torre was not only Mexico's greatest player, but for a magical year (1925), Torre had brilliant results competing in three tournaments against the world's elite players. In those tournaments, the 21-year-old Torre finished just behind the likes of Capablanca, Lasker, Nimzowitsch, and Bogoljubow, while placing ahead of Reti, Spielmann, Yates, Marshall, Grunfeld, Tartakower and others from the world's upper crust. In the following year, Torre suffered a nervous breakdown, and 'never again played a serious game', according to the author. His place in chess history, although fleeting, was significant.
Despite his fine research, I find Velasco's writing style irritating in the biographical sections of the book. Velasco seems to blame Torre's results, good or bad, on his mood, and micro-interprets the results of individual games in terms of Torre's ability to play naturally (with a 'bold', 'risktaking' style) or his inability to do so, based upon nervousness, distracting news, or some such. Apart from the lack of evidence for these speculations, I don't think that even a very strong player, especially one not present at the event in question, could safely extrapolate such conclusions from game scores alone. There is also a degree of romanticism about Torre viewing chess as only an art form, without caring in the slightest about victory or defeat. This is based upon the comments of only one friend, and seems unlikely. Why, for example, does Torre react to his phenomenal start at Moscow 1925 (clear first after 9 rounds, clear second after 13) as follows: "In the last rounds, Torre gave way under the nervous pressure and could not keep pace The Mexican lost inexplicably to players in the lower half of the table " Velasco doesn't mention that these players were Yates and Bohatyrchuk, neither a slouch, with Bohatyrchuk clear 11th in a stellar field of 21, and thus conveniently described as 'in the lower half'. Nor does he mention or show the games (a fragment of Yates' game is hidden in a note), both of which were exciting and extremely complicated, with 'bold and risktaking' play on the part of both sides. The Bohatyrchuk game in particular is far more interesting than several (perhaps all) of those which Velasco includes from the same event. Furthermore, Torre murdered the lower half of this talented tournament, which included Rubinstein, Spielmann, Levenfish, Saemisch, Dus-Chotimirsky, and other stars, finishing with 6 wins and 3 draws, apart from the two games Velasco mentions. A lot of these results were achieved in risky and complex positions, so is it really surprising that he could have lost two games in the same manner? Anyway, perhaps Torre's nervousness at the end, if it existed, stemmed from his unexpected position in the tournament and desire for victory (which according to Velasco didn't exist). Who knows? There is no evidence presented to support the author's speculations, which he states as facts. Velasco's description of Torre's last-round loss to Edward Lasker in Chicago 1926 is also inventive. Somehow Lasker's last two 'serious' results (over a period of 3 years!) establish that Torre is almost assured of at least a draw, yet, Velasco says, "as the game progressed, however, it became clear that Torre's mind was not fully on the game". The actual game indicates no such thing, rather, a complex struggle which, after mistakes by both sides, eventually turns in Lasker's favor. Even if Torre wasn't at his very best, perhaps it was because this was the decisive game of the tournament, and he desperately wanted to win? Velasco, to his great credit, rejects the truly wild and unfounded speculations by Reuben Fine and other historians about this game. But to have any commentators who weren't even present making speculations about the psychological causes of the result of a single game is just bad history.
I'm also disappointed with the game annotations. I don't know what level of player Velasco is, but his analysis is often lacking, whether making unfounded comments about well-known openings, making dubious assessments, or skipping over the crucial junctures of games entirely. That is not to say that certain positions aren't very well-analysed, but the quality of the annotations is inconsistent. A lot of the games are one-sided and not particularly interesting, and although Velasco's image of Torre as an almost reckless attacking player sometimes proves true, many of his games are marked by cautious play, with the win achieved either by Torre's superior technique or by a blunder on his opponent's part. The author seems to impose his own romantic ideals on Torre's play, when it would have been more interesting to examine how Torre's obvious talent and his inexperience interacted. The notes also contain silly and overinterpretive comments, e.g., in an opening which has been repeated many times, the author cites a Korchnoi game in the same line, and then says "Clearly, the great Victor Korchnoi has studied the games of Carlos Torre", though there is nothing in the Korchnoi game to indicate that. In fact, I played a very similar game myself in the same opening without seeing either of these earlier games.
In my opinion, then, this is not a particularly high-quality book from a player's point of view, nor is it as instructive as it might have been with a better annotator. 'The Life and Games of Carlos Torre' is, however, the story of a remarkable player who only briefly graced the halls of international competition. Mr. Velasco has done a thorough job of digging up a lot of hitherto unknown material about Torre, and collectors, historians, and fans of that era will undoubtedly find such material to their liking. Copies can be ordered from the excellent website www.chesscafe.com.