Better is...

7/31/2004 – Hot-tempered people are said to have "a short fuse". In this week's ChessBase Workshop you'll see why Steve Lopez is slamming his chess book collection off the walls as he rants about standard chess clichés. Better skip this column if you're easily offended or are humor-challenged

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Better is...

by Steve Lopez

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled summer of product previews to bring you this message of absolutely no merit.

My friends will tell you that I'm an accomplished ranter. The lowlifes among them will readily admit that they deliberately try to wind me up just to watch me go off; I can go from zero to a full frothing rant in just under 0.75 seconds. A close friend said just the other day that she'd like to see me get locked in a room with Denis Leary just to see which one of us would come out alive -- and her money ain't on Denis.

I've lately started looking through my collection of chess literature (well over 500 books and CDs) for the first time in a long time and I find that I'm really seeing them with fresh eyes. And, after perusing the third or fourth volume, steam shot out of my ears and my head started spinning around faster than Linda Blair's at a Black Mass. The top of my head blew off and stuck to the ceiling. My mouth engaged (grinding gears as I went straight to fourth) and I launched into a twenty-minute non-stop rant that had my aforementioned lady friend rolling around on the floor wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. But I'm not laughing -- I'm torqued. Chess literature is often chock-full of valuable tips, advice, examples, and information that can really help you improve your game...

...but why does much of it have to be so damned poorly written???

Look, nobody's expecting the typical chess writer to give Tom Clancy a run for his money (and, to be honest, I think Clancy sucks too -- but one rant at a time here); chess writing is technical writing and as such isn't going to make the Times' bestseller list. Sometimes chess books can be wildly entertaining (a particular passage from Michael Stean's book Simple Chess once had me laughing for a solid fifteen minutes), but if a writer can't make a chess book entertaining, he or she could at least use grammatical English and avoid the old hoary standard clichés.

Topping the list of rant-inducing chess book gaffes is that old chestnut "better is". Dang near every chess game ever annotated contains at least one note that starts with "Better is..." (e.g. "Better is 14.Bg5 as it puts pressure on Black's Knight"). Did every chess writer on earth wake up one day talking like Yoda? "Better is" isn't; it's clumsy and ungrammatical. Really better is something like: "The move 14.Bg5 is better because...". It reads well, sounds more conversational and less pedagogical, and has the bonus of helping pad out the volume if the writer's one of those guys who slaps a mere six or eight games together and calls it a "book".

A moment's logical thought will tell us why so many annotations start with "better is". If the writer started the sentence with the move itself (i.e. "14.Bg5 is better"), some editor/typesetter is bound to hose it up and not begin the sentence as a new line or paragraph; this would render the gamescore unreadable. So "better is" is used as a separator to denote the start of an annotation.

But why does it always have to be the same separator? Because it's easier to use the same phase every time than it is to think of a new one (such as the one I provided a couple of paragraphs ago). If you're working against a deadline, original thought is bad; following an old convention in a lemming-like manner is much better (leading me, waggishly, to reiterate it thusly: "Better is acting like a lemming when you're working against the clock". Do you see how poorly that reads?).

Just because it's the conventional way of separating an annotation doesn't make it right. C'mon y'all, let's get creative here and try to do it differently. (And, yes, I've been guilty of using "Better is" myself. Mea culpa. Caveat emptor. And a whole lot of other Latin phrases which I'll rant about in a minute).

Another phrase that really winds me up is "White is for choice". One second you're replaying a chess game, the next second you're reading a philosophical debate. Are we to infer that if White is for choice, then Black is for predestination? And, if so, why is Black even playing the game if the result is predetermined? Shouldn't he just choose not to play? And if he does choose that, is he really making a choice or is that "choice" just an illusion, as his choice not to play is a result of predestination? Is Black therefore a Calvinist and, if so, how does that affect his game? Is he playing only "orthodox" openings?

Trying to untangle this Gordian Knot of philosophical debate is reminding me of my own personal philosophy, which can easily be summed up in two words: "More beer".

What exactly does "White is for choice" mean? It's a fancy way for the author to say, "White's a bit ahead, but I really haven't looked all that closely at the position. So I don't want to say that White's 'ahead' because I'm afraid that you might actually reach this position down at the chess club, Black will play something that blows you off the board, and I'll wind up looking like a total wiener".

Another cop-out shortcut that chess writers use is to stop annotating a game someplace in the late middlegame and wrap it up by saying, "The rest is a matter of technique". Ripoff!!!! Be honest -- say that you haven't a clue why the endgame played out as it did. But don't just truncate the game by saying "the rest is a matter of technique"!

The sad part is that a lot of the best-played and best-annotated games end up this way. You're playing through a game from a book -- it's a real see-saw battle between the players and you're hanging on every move, riveted by each word of the expertly annotated game. Black offers a pawn on move 33, you turn the page for the next move...and see "The rest is a matter of technique". That's just plain wrong, man. It'd be like going to an X-rated cinema, watching a really great foreplay scene, seeing the screen go black with the phrase "The rest is a matter of technique" superimposed, and then it's straight on to the next scene. That'd be enough to make you just button up your raincoat and go home.

Chess writers have a lot of tricks they use to make them appear to be smarter than you are. Duh! Of course they're smarter than I am -- that's why I bought their danged book! I'm not going to buy a book by a guy rated 765 and expect to learn anything (except maybe how he got away with it -- then I might be able to figure out how to make my books sell better). These tricks are used by the 99.999% of chess writers who can't use the best cheap sales trick of all: putting "By World Champion So-and-so" on the book's cover. Lesser mortals must resort to other ploys.

The biggest trick, which was perfected (if not invented) by Fred Reinfeld, is to quote Shakespeare as a move annotation. I once saw a game annotated as a Reinfeld parody in which every annotation was a Shakespeare quote; I laughed 'til my sides hurt. Such "classically annotated" games are mostly found in beginner's tactics books (and it's not always Shakespeare who's quoted, either -- I've seen chess writers quote everyone on the "classics" shelf from John Milton to Heroditus). You've seen 'em: Black misses a Knight fork, loses his Rook, and then comes the note, "'There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip'" -- which just makes me wants to give the annotator a fat lip. I want to see an annotator quote someone like Harold Roth as an annotation just once -- but I guess that would be self-defeating, since it wouldn't make him look all that intelligent.

I'll confess that I did this Shakespeare trick myself, once. Extra-super-special bonus credit if you can cite the publication (and it's not online, so don't bother Googling). It was in a chess mag that had a total circulation of maybe about nine copies. Thank heaven for small miracles.

I really want to see a game annotated as a film noir. And, if the annotator's really good, he could annotate White's moves as Humphrey Bogart and Black's as Sidney Greenstreet: "I like to castle against a man who likes to castle. Men who don't like to castle aren't to be trusted, as they often castle injudiciously when they do..."

Another way to sound more pedagogical is to write in foreign languages, especially Latin. Sure, it makes you sound smart, but the informational content for most readers is approximately bupkis. That's especially true for those of us who spent most of our time dozing through Latin class and think that sic transit gloria mundi means "Gloria's sick but is on the way anyway and will probably arrive on Monday". You know I love ya, Bruce, but are you hearin' me here? A few writers use French in place of Latin, apparently under the misguided notion that speaking French will get them some action. That only works on reruns of The Addams Family.

And it's definitely time for some new chess clichés. "A Knight on the rim is dim" means nothing to today's young readers, who think that you're saying that the Knight got a low SAT score. "A Knight on the rim is grim" is no better; in most anthropomorphic chess sets, it's the Bishop who looks the most dour and your readers will just think you need your eyeglass prescription changed. The Knights always look angry, but "A Knight on the rim is pissed" doesn't rhyme (that phrase does work, however, in a twisted way).

I'll resist the urge to start this paragraph with "better is". I think a better cliché would be "A Knight on the rim is like jumping naked into a big pile of double-edged razor blades". It doesn't rhyme but the imagery and point are clear enough (and, in any event, memorable).

Another all-time bad cliché is to annotate 1.e4 with "Best by test". News flash: the move 1.e4 doesn't ever need to be annotated (unless you're the moron who once tried to annotate every move of the NY 1924 tournament), and it certainly doesn't need to be "explained" by that hoary old Fischer rhyme. Whenever some writer uses "Best by test", I want to slap him across the back of the head on the outside chance that I might hit his "reset" button. Meanwhile, I can't shake this weird mental image of Fischer sitting in his jail cell as his Japanese jailer sets a half-eaten plate of sushi in front of him and says, "Best by test".

Enough carpet-chewing already; you get the picture. It's well past time for chess writers to get their act together and start being more creative with their prose. Nobody's expecting Winning Techniques Using the Maroczy Bind to be a rip-roaring great "beach read", but authors can easily stamp their own impression on a work by avoiding the old formulaic ways of writing and coming up with some new means of expression. Just use this column as an example and think of what you could do when you actually have something to say; I've occupied three browser screens and wasted a few thousand electrons in the act of saying absolutely nothing worthwhile. The possibilities stagger the imagination.

Top that, Denis.

Until next week, have fun!

© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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