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Four Small Chess Publishers from the U.S.
Winning with the Sicilian Defense, 2nd Edition; Jeremy Silman; 353 pages; Chess Digest, 1998; $22.50
How Purdy Won; C.J.S. Purdy, Frank Hutchings & Kevin Harrison; 176 pages; Thinkers Press, 1998; $18.00
Scandinavian Defense: Portuguese Variation; John Roush, Mark Lance & Mike Cornell; 112 pages; Chess Enterprises, 1998; $7.95
A Strategic Opening Repertoire; John Donaldson; 142 pages; International Chess Enterprises (I.C.E.), 1998; $14.95
First, a quick note of thanks to the many readers who sent me feedback on my initial reviews. Then, an apology for the delay in producing this set, which was caused by a three-week chess trip. On the positive side, boxloads of new books arrived at my doorstep, so I am well-stocked with interesting material. This week's column is as much about chess publishers as about specific books. In the United States, as in many other countries, a number of small publishers produce chess books on a regular basis. I suspect that many TWIC readers, especially outside of the Western Hemisphere, are only vaguely aware of certain of these publishers and their books, and I have chosen a few of their recent publications as a vehicle for discussing the authors and publishers involved.
Before moving on to the above books, let me mention a few small U.S. publishers not represented in that list. I am sad to report that Hypermodern Press has stopped publishing. This imaginative project of Jim Eade's produced only a dozen or so books, but they included reprints of excellent older works (e.g., Larry Evan's Modern Chess Brilliancies), a potential cult classic in the collection of Arnold Denker's chess reminiscences, and some theoretical works such as this writer's own book on unconventional King's Indian lines. These Hypermodern books are top-quality productions (with some brilliant covers by artist Bill Cone); collectors should take note and secure copies before they become unavailable. I should also mention Lou Hays' Hays Publishing, whose 1991 edition of My System is the best in English; and American Chess Promotions, which put out, for example, Leonid Shamkovich's entertaining Chess Terrorist's Handbook. Siles Press is a newcomer with Jeremy Silman's The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, a compendium of positional chess ideas which I strongly recommend to all chess teachers.
On to our featured books. Chess Digest is the oldest company represented. A family business founded by Ken Smith in 1962, it sells books and equipment by mail. But Chess Digest also publishes its own books--lots of them. Older U.S. players grew up carting around grubby copies of Chess Digest monographs; for better or worse, they were inexpensive and readily available, although not up to today's standards. Even in recent times, Chess Digest authors have had an annoying habit of 'borrowing' material (without attribution or, presumably, permission); this is a serious failing, but it would be unfair to saddle the honest Chess Digest writers with the sins of the few.
The key to Smith's operation is that he has always kept his prices low and tailored his products for amateurs and club players. I think that this serves a very useful function; not everyone can afford to dish out $25 a pop just to fill in a corner of his or her repertoire. Moreover, many grassroots players have used Ken's methods and publications as a guide to improvement; and while his teaching approach doesn't exactly correspond to Dvoretsky's, there are after all many ways to skin a cat. (Actually, I can't think of even one, but you get the idea).
Traditionally, Chess Digest publications have unfortunately included some works of truly dubious quality, both in the sense of the chess material and the production quality. The trick to buying from them is to look over the book itself, or at least a trustworthy review, before purchasing. As indicated in a previous review, even a strong player and (normally) good writer can and does put out low-quality books when the economic incentives are right. The good news is that, in recent years, the proportion of quality books from Chess Digest has markedly risen, and the production quality in particular is vastly improved. A top-flight example of this is Jeremy Silman's Winning with the Sicilian Defense, 2nd Edition. I have two precursors to this book in my library, also from Chess Digest: Jeremy's miserable 1984 pamphlet on the Accelerated Dragon, which is little more than a 50-page, badly-typed manuscript; and his 1991 edition of the current work, which is thoughtfully written, but cheaply produced and simply too short at 172 pages. Now there appears this revised 2nd edition, which is, well...just terrific! First, there's a high-quality cover, nice binding, and vastly improved typesetting and layout. More importantly, Silman has 353 pages of excellent analysis and explanations, and his research is vastly improved. Significantly, as part of his repertoire for Black, he gives numerous alternative lines in case the reader doesn't like the main recommendation. The core of this repertoire is the Accelerated Dragon (a long-time Silman specialty); but any Sicilian player can get his money's worth from this book, since almost 200 pages are devoted to the many White deviations from 2.Nf3 and 3.d4,for example, 2.Nc3, 2.c3, the Smith-Morra Gambit, the Grand Prix Attack, and others. (On that subject, by the way, Jeremy wants the reader to know about a move-order omission, i.e., that 1.e4 c5 2.c3 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Bg4 is given as the main antidote to 2.c3; but nothing is recommended for 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3, when 3...d5 does not transpose, although it is still playable). Winning with the Sicilian Defense is perfect for someone who wants to take up the Sicilian for the first time, and has loads of valuable information and suggestions for the experienced 1...c5 player as well. If Chess Digest can continue to publish books like this one, they will quickly gain the respect and thanks of tournament players everywhere. Just a great book at a great price.
Thinker's Press is the publishing concern associated with Chessco, another seller of books and equipment by mail. The driving force behind both is owner Bob Long, who has been in the business since 1967. From the beginning, Thinker's Press distinguished itself from other small American chess presses by publishing books of good physical quality with relatively high standards of presentation. Looking back over the years, moreover, Bob seemed to be able to mine appealing instructional books from the ranks of unknown players such as Rolf Wetzell (Chess Master...At Any Age), Ariel Mengarini (Predicament in 2-Dimensions), and Alex Angos (Endgame Artillery). Naturally, this approach resulted in a few lemons as well, since players of lower strength will inevitably produce some poor books. But with a series of mostly untitled authors (i.e., non-IMs or GMs), Thinker's has found its niche, appealing to the 'casual' tournament player and collectors with unusual and instructive books.
Recently, Thinker's has begun to republish a series of books by and about C.J.S. Purdy, the renowned Australian player and teacher. The fourth and latest of such books (which are very nicely produced, by the way), How Purdy Won, is about Purdy's correspondence career. Originally published in 1983, the book was an effort by two collaborators, Frank Hutchings and Kevin Harrison, to complete a 'half-finished' set of notes left by Purdy when he died. Essentially, the book is a games collection, differing from books written by Purdy alone in that there is not as much chess advice, and considerably less of Purdy's unique writing voice. Nevertheless, the games are instructive and interesting; among others, Purdy fans (a growing cult!) will be delighted, as will collectors and historians. My guess is that readers from about 1200 to 2000 would enjoy it most. Overall, however, I think that the average player will much prefer Purdy's classic The Search for Chess Perfection, also re-published by Thinker's in 1997 and available from them for $20. The latter book is 309 pages of games, biographical information, instructive articles, and in general far more of his own entertaining writing. To get started, I would recommend trying that volume first, and only then deciding if you want to join the cult.
The most unique of small American chess publishers is surely Bob Dudley's Chess Enterprises. A full-time college professor, Dudley has published chess books for two decades in his spare time. For many years, a Chess Enterprise book was the quintessential labor of love, in that Bob and his wife would spread the pages about a room and laboriously hand-assemble each and every copy. Then he would sell the finished copy out of his garage for prices so low (typically $3.00 to $5.00) that other chess publishers would gnash their teeth. I would be astonished if Bob ever made any money on these efforts; but he continues to put out books at a steady pace and, as with Chess Digest, the production quality of Chess Enterprises books has risen dramatically over the last five years. Ultimately, the prices rose as well; Silman and Donaldson's three superb volumes on the Slav, for example, 150-60 pages each of small-print analysis and prose, compelled the reader to part with frightening sums like $8.95 and $12.95.
To an even greater extent than the publishers mentioned above, Dudley has had a hard time saying 'no' to potential authors. Occasionally, he has therefore served as a sort of non-profit vanity press, putting out a few books which leave you wondering how long the author has known the rules. But at the same time, the Chess Enterprises list has always included books of real value. Aside from the Donaldson and Silman efforts, Larry Christiansen has written three books for Dudley, and there is an excellent set of four endgame books by Mednis which I have employed in teaching. Three important contributions to the literature come to mind, the only English translations of Nimzowitsch's Blockade and two of Botvinnik's shorter books (15 Selected Games and an endgame treatise). My own three theoretical works from the early 1980s still contain some relevant ideas (or so I fancy), and anyone who would take a chance on Chessman Comics deserves publishing immortality, of course.
Scandinavian Defense, Portuguese Variation is a typical Chess Enterprise publication, not destined for greatness, but a functional effort by three unknown authors who did some specialized research on a subject they obviously enjoy. The Portuguese Variation, quite fashionable at the moment, is 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.d4 Bg4!?. I didn't have the other recent monographs on this dynamic defense, so I compared the book with recent games from Informants, ChessBase Magazine, and of course, TWIC (easily the richest source of games). I looked at all of the 4.f3 lines and concluded that this opening is changing so rapidly, with new moves (unmentioned in the book) arising as early as moves 7 and 8, that the reader should definitely update this work with a database search before doing anything else. One problem with the book is that some obvious tries for both sides are left uncommented upon, although the authors put some independent work into less relevant positions. My other gripe is exemplified by the comment on the very first page of Chapter One, where the authors state that "Other notes are ours except when someone else is attributed directly." But then only a move later, they lift three notes directly from Sulskis in Informant without mentioning him (or Informant) at all! This failure of attribution is a pet peeve of mine; but I think in this case the omissions are merely careless and not intentional. Anyway, with those provisos in mind, this book is a useful starting point to jump into a fun and experimental opening. My guess (and I'm not sure how good I am at this) is that it would be most appropriate for players in the 1000-1800 range.
Finally, let me briefly comment upon International Chess Enterprises ('I.C.E.'), the company associated with Yassar Seirawan's Inside Chess, in my opinion the best U.S. chess magazine. I.C.E. is not as old as the other publishers above, nor do they have as many titles. The production value of their books, moreover, is inconsistent and apparently not improving, if the book I'm reviewing is any indication. However, of the companies I've mentioned, I.C.E. easily has the highest percentage of titled authors. The core of their authorial staff, for example, are three Inside Chess regulars: Seirawan himself, John Donaldson, and Nikolayev Minev.
Of those three, IM John Donaldson has done the best and most disciplined work. It would be hard to go wrong with any book that John has written over the years; in the I.C.E. context, his two volumes on Rubinstein are brilliant works of research, and he has added to the historical literature with specialized works on Alekhine and Fischer. John is not only an enthusiastic and knowledgeable historian; his books and articles have established him as one of the world's leading authorities on the Accelerated Dragon Sicilian and Slav Defenses.
His latest I.C.E. book, A Strategic Opening Repertoire, draws upon Donaldson's expertise on the White side of systems involving the first three moves 1.Nf3, 2.c4, and 3.g3. Several top players, most prominently Kramnik, use this order (or 1.c4 and 2.Nf3) in order to transpose into those queen-pawn (1.d4) openings which suit them, while avoiding others. In this regard, I find rather amusing Donaldson's statement that by playing 1.Nf3, "we are aiming for Queenside openings that restrict Black's counterplay. That mean no 1.c4 e5, and no Modern Benoni, Budapest Gambit, King's Indian, etc." But for most 1.d4 players (myself included), these are precisely the defenses one most hopes to meet, since they are fun and offer White a wide variety of promising approaches. In fact, Kramnik and most of the other GMs Donaldson cites in his introduction use the 1.Nf3, 2.c4 move order to avoid the dreaded Nimzo-Indian and associated ...e6 openings, and perhaps (if they aren't in the mood) the Grunfeld Defense as well. A small point, but perhaps of interest to the reader. What about the essence of the book, the White repertoire? John does a terrific job of outlining the fundamental ideas and strategies of a complete 1.Nf3/English Opening opening scheme. For readers who complain that they can't stand reams of analysis and want the relevant ideas outlined, this is your book. John's whole goal is to substitute concepts for variations wherever possible, an approach I have philosophical differences with, but which is nevertheless precisely what many players (including some of my own students) will most appreciate. The chapters on the Reversed Closed Sicilian (with ...Nc6), the Hedgehog, and the Double Fianchetto systems are wonderfully economical, giving the reader the conceptual arsenal to play the White systems for a lifetime. John's main anti-...e6/...d5 weapon is the Catalan; in a solid 13 pages, he presents the basic ideas, although there are a few systems missing, and the reader would do well to supplement this chapter with another book and/or databases. In general, the main problem with this book (and other I.C.E. books related to opening theory) is that it's much too short, without enough attention to exact move orders, and does not allow Donaldson to give us the full benefit of what I know to be his in-depth knowledge of these systems. The limited extent of the book also leads to omissions; for example, the author is ambiguous at best about dealing with 1...c6 and 2...d5, and he neglects a variety of possible transpositions into a Leningrad Dutch structure, apparently believing they will transpose to a Closed Sicilian Reversed structure (which they don't necessarily do). This brings up one more complaint: if ever a book needed an Index of Variations, this is it. For John Donaldson of all people to have neglected this strikes me as implausible; I prefer to believe that space constraints were again at fault.
In the big picture, my fault-finding notwithstanding, this is a book that's been needed for years (along with something on the English Opening), and the average player has an opportunity to pick up a self-sufficient repertoire for White, taught by one of our very best chess writers. As a core book for a greatly expanded second edition, A Strategic Opening Repertoire also has the potential to grow into something really exceptional.