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Looking Back, Part 2
Chess Highlights of the 20th Century; Graham Burgess; 208 pages; Gambit 1999
The Mammoth Book of The World's Greatest Chess Games; Graham Burgess, John Nunn, & John Emms; 560 pages; Robinson Publishing, 1998
Here I continue looking at some books that deal with the past of chess. Note that I am reviewing one of these books for the second time! See TWIC review #8 for my extremely brief comments on the second title above. Now that I've had a chance to use it more, I'd like to talk about it in more detail.
FM Graham Burgess is the Editorial Director of Gambit Publications, and one of the leading figures in British chess publishing. He is, among other things, proof that a player who is neither an IM nor a GM can write chess books of the most demanding and technical nature which are better, by a wide margin, than those routinely produced by GMs. It's an old story, and one true in most fields, but hard work, intelligence, and dedication to doing a good job count for much more in the creation of chess books than do ratings or titles. Burgess has also edited a staggering number of chess books for Batsford, Cadogan/Everyman, and Gambit, and has typeset and translated others. As an editor, he has introduced new methods of move-checking and analysis-checking that have helped to almost eliminate move typos, diagram errors, and the like from recent books.
The first exposure I had to Burgess' writing was his 1990 work, 'The Classical King's Indian Defence', self-typeset and put out in an inexpensive grocery-bag-coloured edition by Chess Enterprises. I thoroughly covered the pages of my copy with notes and comments, and when Burgess' 'The King's Indian for the Attacking Player' (Batsford 1993) appeared, the two books quickly became my favorite sources for KID material. Then Burgess teamed with John Nunn to produce a two-volume set on the main-line KID, arguably the best work ever produced on a mainstream opening. What became evident early on in Graham's work were not just meticulous research, but his ability to identify key junctures in the play and suggest original lines of thought for the reader. His early mastery of computer analysis and healthy skepticism led to numerous significant corrections and additions to theory at a time when few opening-book authors were doing much original work.
Burgess' book on the Alekhine Defence, which I used to play and therefore read most of, immediately replaced Bagirov's as 'the book' on that opening, and in conjunction with a follow-up volume, remains so today. His book on the Smith-Morra is also the leading reference. By way of criticism, I think that in some of these non-mainstream openings, Burgess' assessments can be suspect; but aside from the fact that any truly original effort is going to have misassessments, these works were of such originality and scope as to easily outpace earlier efforts. And in his books on more orthodox openings, such as 'The Queen's Gambit for the Attacking Player' and 'Beating the Indian Defences' (both co-authored with IM Steffen Pedersen), the authors showed the ability to pick sound and state-of-the-art repertoires of the highest quality, contrasting with the sloppy and wildly overoptimistic repertoire books we were used to (and which we still see from certain grandmasters).
In the last few years, Burgess has written some lighter works, co-authored Nunn's Chess Openings, and turned his attention to historical themes. He was project editor for 'The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games', annotating fully half of the 100 games in it and allocating 25 apiece to co-authors Nunn and Emms. The book is a presentation of the games from 1834 to 1998 that the authors consider the 'greatest' in chess history. As it turns out, 'greatest' doesn't just consist of the quality of the play, but includes the criteria of 'historical significance' (which in some cases seems to mean 'fame'), and 'instructive value', another rather subjective criterion. While the book's title may not be literally reflected in the choice of games, it's value as an absorbing survey is enhanced by this approach. Because what we end up with, rather than simply beautiful or complicated battles, is a captivating and informative look at the history of chess. Indeed, each game is introduced by a biographical sketch of the players, some historical context, and a general description of the play. At the end of each game, a section of 'lessons' outline a few simple concepts that the student can focus on. In general, since the games are so well-known, the book is best suited for the young and upcoming player, who should be especially inspired by their first exposure to these monumental struggles. A mass-market book of low physical quality, its price is quite modest for 560 pages, and I think this would be a terrific gift for a young enthusiast.
But the rest of us can also derive a lot from this book, even beyond the obvious pleasure of revisiting the classics. What makes this book really stand out for me (and the reason that I'm writing about it at such a late date) is the game analysis. These are some of the most famous games in chess history, most of them annotated innumerable times, yet the authors consistently find significant improvements upon earlier published analysis. I am in the middle of a project that involves looking at numerous of these games, and have also had occasion to refer to 'The World's Greatest Chess Games' while doing research. Each time, I have found that by far the best and most interesting analysis was given by Burgess, Nunn and Emms, improving upon notes by world champions and leading writers, notes which were sometimes uncritically passed on for generations. The improvements, furthermore, are not only the output of some silicon brain (although that contribution is clearly important), but part of an effort to approach each game freshly and uninfluenced by the received wisdom. Now this is very similar to what John Nunn has done with some classic books (Alekhine's games, 'The Art of Attack', and others). In those cases, however, there was always the potential issue of interfering excessively with what the original author said, however flawed that may have been; one is grateful for the corrections, but disturbed by the notion that the author's book has been taken from him. In the case before us, no such problem exists (in fact, the games are mostly annotated without much reference to earlier annotators' errors). Thus, this book makes a real contribution to the historical literature of the game, one I personally find far more compelling than corrections of name spellings and whether a game was played in one year or another.
'Chess Highlights of the 20th Century' is the latest Burgess effort, a look through the last century (or is it still this one?) with two large pages devoted to each year. Within those two pages, for each year, we are given three or four game fragments (these mostly start in the late opening or early middlegame, and run to the conclusion of the game), a review of the chess news and events, and a brief look at world events. The book is solidly bound, very well typeset (John Nunn), and probably the best-looking Gambit book to date. I should mention the 16-page section of photographs, all from BCM archives, which are mostly garnered from the past 30 years, but include some of the greatest old masters as well.
This book was dismissed by reviewer Tim Harding as a 'big "so-what" ', who explained that the book was 'a coffee table chess book', and was 'based entirely on secondary sources and cannot be regarded as serious history'. What does that mean? That one should only read 'serious history' (and thus, very few books at all, including none of Harding's own)? As I see it, 'Chess Highlights' is first and foremost pleasurable reading, intelligently constructed to be enjoyable to any chess fan from novice to old-timer. The essence of the book is the selection of game fragments, which after all constitute most of the material. Harding has perhaps neglected to look at these fragments, or he would have seen that a large number of well-known games are annotated more accurately and realistically than in previous publications (as was the case with 'The World's Greatest Chess Games'). Thus, even in writing an eminently accessible, popular book, Burgess has still bothered to put a great deal of effort into details which correct the historical record.
Of course, 'Chess Highlights' is still primarily a book for the fan. It is a work to browse through, and could indeed be called a coffee-table book in the best sense of the term (this raises the burning question: How many chessplayers even have coffee tables?). I think that Burgess' selection of games and key positions is just superb, and can hardly fail to delight even jaded fans. One can certainly argue with which chess news and events were the most significant for a particular year. And one could also question the 'World News', which is sometimes dubious history told from a particular country's point of view. But who really cares, when the goal of the book is to delight the reader with a journey through our chess past and with a host of fun and intriguing games? 'Chess Highlights of the 20th Century' succeeds in that regard, so if you're feeling nostalgic, or in the mood for browsing through brilliancies, you should consider getting this book. Or getting a coffee table first, and then buying it.