15 April 2013

A Small Library

In an important text that is not pictured here, Max Euwe opined:
The development of a chess player runs parallel with that of chess itself; a study of the history of playing methods therefore has great practical value.
The Development of Chess Style (1968), n.p.
Euwe's notion that growth in individual chess skill follows a pattern that parallels historic development often occupies my thoughts. It forms part of my rationale for favoring nineteenth and early-twentieth century games as a principal source for the lessons I develop for young players. It keeps me going back to the classics for my own skill development.

Culled from a much larger collection of chess books, these ten books as a body emphasize the development and practice of positional chess at the beginning of what came to be called the Modern School or Steinitz School. Several of them have been among my principal study and teaching aids through the past seven months.

Paul Morphy's play precedes the Modern School, but Valeri Beim argues in Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective (2005) that Morphy understood the principles that others would articulate, principles that would revolutionize chess. Beim's text is the first one on the left in the image. It has great value for contributing to an understanding of Morphy's positional knowledge, but it falls short as historical scholarship (see "Footnote to Morphy's Mate").

Irving Chernev's texts draw from the era of Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker, contain several games by Akiba Rubinstein, and also include games by the likes of Jose R. Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine, and even players who were active at the time Chernev was writing. As works of history, his texts are worse than useless: he makes up stories that cannot be verified through reference to primary texts. "My First Chess Book" was Chernev's The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (1955), which makes frequent claims of checkmate being announced over the board before a forced sequence was played. There should be no doubt that such conversations have taken place in the annuls of chess history, but Chernev's claims are often suspect.

Nonetheless, The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played (1965) and Logical Chess: Move by Move (1998 [1957]) have tremendous instructive value. Sometimes the value of his writing stems from the efforts of readers who fill in the gaps in his analysis (see "Chernev's Errors"). Chernev's assessment of the contribution of Steinitz offers a kernel of wisdom.
[I]t is from Steinitz and his queer moves that we learn so much about game-winning strategy. It is from Steinitz, whose play might have horrified La Bourdonnais and Morphy, that we discover the fundamentals of position play.
Most Instructive Games, 166
Morphy would more likely have been appreciative of Steinitz's play, but Chernev can be forgiven for adopting a view that is commonly shared by many. It was from Chernev's Most Instructive Games that I found the inspiration and analysis that led me to begin the 2012-2013 school year with lessons from the games of Akiba Rubinstein (see "Lesson of the Week" [18 September 2012]).

Lessons from Rubinstein
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, positional play became the focus of top chess players. The elements of positional understanding were first articulated by Wilhelm Steinitz, followed by Siegbert Tarrasch, and others.
James Stripes, "Positional Play: Lessons from Akiba Rubinstein"
After studying a few of Rubinstein's games in Chernev's Most Instructive Games and Logical Chess, I ordered a copy of John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev, Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King (1994). This book, a chess set, and my puppies were my companions in Eden while my wife attended a retreat there. Through the next two months, as a warm fall gave way to winter, Rubinstein's games occupied the bulk of my study time.

Donaldson and Minev did extensive historical research for Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King and The Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Volume 2: The Later Years, 2nd edition (2011). These books resemble anthogies in the way that they present the annotations to Rubinstein's games. These annotations of many earlier works by several authors are integrated into the game scores with initials identifying sources that are listed at the end of the book. Unlike the vast majority of chess books published today, Donaldson and Minev's comments are sourced and verifiable. Although their documentation does not quite meet the rigor expected of professional historians, they set a standard that other chess books should emulate (see "Rubinstein's Rook Endings").

Having spent so much time with Uncrowned King in late 2012, I was certain to pack my copy of the book along in February for John Donaldson's annual simul on the eve of the Dave Collyer Memorial Chess Tournament. Donaldson graciously agreed to autograph the book upon my request. It was then a pleasant surprise during the tournament itself, that among the books he brought for sale (Donaldson always brings books) was the new edition of his second volume on Rubinstein. I bought the text and asked for another autograph.

In the Introduction to this second edition, the authors present a rationale for studying these old games. Referring to Rubinstein -- Salwe, Lodz 1908, which is also found as Game 20 in Logical Chess, Donaldson and Minev note its significance.
Akiva's play against the Tarrasch variation of the Queen's Gambit, in which he gives Black hanging pawns and blockades the d4- and c5-squares, is part of the technical knowledge of every master today. Knowing what happened to Salwe, modern players will take radical action rather than acquiesce to a static disadvantage. Rubinstein's games, in which the great master was often given carte blanche to implement long-term plans, are still models for students wishing to learn positional chess.
Life & Games of Akiva Rubinstein (2011), 7
Yesterday, in a blitz game, I had this game in mind as I sacrificed pawns to lock Black's light-squared bishop out of the action. My efforts nearly succeeded until, in time pressure, I missed the winning idea and then even blew a technical draw. In contrast to this game, Viswanathan Anand scored a brilliant victory over Levon Aronian in the recent Tata Steel Grandmaster Tournament by sacrificing material to release this bishop. In the En Passant interview after the game, Anand mentioned Rotlewi -- Rubinstein as the inspiration for his play. The authors of Uncrowned King call Anand's inspiration "Rubinstein's Immortal Game" (95).

Steinitz, Lasker, Tarrasch
In spite of his youth [Rubinstein] has acquired the set and sound style (suitable of his temperament) of Dr. Tarrasch. As a matter of fact he acknowledges his indebtedness to the latter, whose book of 300 games he has thoroughly studied.
C.T. Blanchard, Western Daily Mercury (29 June 1907)*
Garry Kasparov calls Rubinstein the "brightest" of the "new generation of followers of the Steinitz School" that emerged on the competitive chess scene in the early years of the twentieth century (My Great Predecessors, Part 1 [2003], 187). Kasparov's comment led me to consider the so-called Steinitz School in more detail following two months of focus on Rubinstein.

Lasker's Manual of Chess (1960 [1932]) has been in my personal library for many years. It is a remarkable text offering instruction in all phases of the chess game--opening, ending, middlegame strategy, combinations. It also offers Lasker's inimitable views of the ancient and modern history of the game. His writing sometimes seems ponderous as he struggles to elevate ideas concerning chess up to a level of life philosophy. Some of his remarks concerning the contribution of Steinitz illustrate this tendency.
Principles, though dwelling in the realm of thought, are rooted in Life. There are so many thoughts which have no roots and these are more glittering and more seductive than the sound ones. Therefore, in order to distinguish between the true and the false principles, Steinitz had to dig deep to lay bare the roots of art possessed by Morphy. ...
     The world did not listen but mocked at him. How should this insignificant-looking person have discovered anything great?
     So the world spoke and acted accordingly, but the world was entirely mistaken. The world would have benefited if it had given Steinitz a chance. He was a thinker worthy of a seat in the halls of a University.
Lasker's Manual of Chess, 187
Perhaps ten years ago, I pored through some portions of Lasker's Manual that had a lasting impact on me. In particular, I was impressed by his honesty and objectivity in annotating a loss to Harry Nelson Pillsbury. Many times while playing in tournaments, Lasker's words, "Black wants to set White a task" (247), have echoed in my head. An object in competition is to offer one's opponent problems to solve. If he or she solves them correctly, play may result in neither player gaining an advantage. In this game, Lasker criticizes his own loss of time in his manner of bringing his pieces into play through the first few moves. As a chess coach teaching choldren, I designed my first lessons concerning positional chess on the basis of Lasker's annotations.

Lasker's Common Sense in Chess (1965 [1917]) is the print version of a series of lectures that he presented in London shortly after he became World Chess Champion. The book offers a brief and useful primer in the basic principles of chess strategy. Lasker's lectures were, perhaps, one of the earliest expressions of the rule that one should deploy knights before bishops in the opening.

Lasker is sometimes undervalued in discussions concerning the development of the modern school. Although he calls himself a "player" and favored psychological play against his opponent over objective consideration of the board, when he expressed tenets of positional play, he was very much a student of Steinitz, or an ally in advocacy of Modern Chess.

Wilhelm Steinitz, The Modern Chess Instructor (1895) is an essential text for the chess historian. The Preface offers a précis of the tenets of the Modern School, as well as many practical ideas for individual chess improvement (see "Principles of Chess Training"). The bulk of the book, however, offers an opening manual that must be regarded as terribly out of date. Indeed, Steinitz sometimes opted to ignore his own recommendations in practical play (see "Steinitz Defense").

The most systematic expression of the principles of chess strategy as they were understood by those of the Modern School should find articulation, one would expect, in Seigbert Tarrasch, The Game of Chess (1987 [1935]). That, at least, was the reason I bought the text. But, I have spent far more time going through Tarrasch, Three Hundred Chess Games (1999), a translation of the now classic Dreihundert Schachpartien (1896), which reputedly served the great Rubinstein so well in his quest for chess excellence.

In these ten books are enough of value to serve well during a lifetime of study.

*As quoted in John Donaldson, and Nikolay Minev, Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King (Seattle: International Chess Enterprises, 1994), 56.

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