Books, books, books

by Johannes Fischer
12/16/2020 – Countless chess books are published every year, some better than others. With the year coming to an end, we take a brief look into five noteworthy works that were put in circulation in 2020.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Five notable works

Andrew Soltis: Tal, Petrosian, Spassky and Korchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games, McFarland 2020

Andrew Soltis, McFarlandTigran Petrosian (born on 17 June 1929 in Tbilisi), Viktor Korchnoi (born on 23 March 1931 in Leningrad), Mikhail Tal (born on 9 November 1936 in Riga) and Boris Spassky (born on 30 January 1937 in Leningrad) are among the most important chess players of the 20th century. Three of them were world champions, while Viktor Korchnoi came close twice. The four were born between 1929 and 1937; they were rivals, friends, enemies and companions and had a decisive influence on chess in the second half of the century.

In his fascinating multi-biography, Andrew Soltis tells the story of these four top players, their development, their rise to the top, their setbacks and crises, their rivalry and friendship — from 1929 until 1972, when Spassky lost the World Championship title in Reykjavik and, for the first time since 1948, the world champion was not a Soviet player.

Soltis, a grandmaster and world number 74 in January 1971, worked for the New York Post from 1969 to 2014 and is one of the most renowned chess writers in the world. He is also considered an excellent authority on Soviet chess history, as his book from 1999 Soviet Chess 1917-1991 is now considered a classic.

This grippingly written biography of four players also has what it takes to become a classic. Through a number of anecdotes and stories Soltis shows the human strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of these four highly distinct personalities. At the same time, the author shows how the Soviet system shaped and promoted the four stars, and how they suffered under this system. A total of 207 games, including many lesser-known ones, illustrate the chess skills and chess heritage of Petrosian, Tal, Spassky and Korchnoi.

Andrew Soltis: Tal, Petrosian, Spassky and Korchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games, McFarland 2019 (Paperback, 394 pages, approx. 35.00 Euro.) The copy for review was kindly provided by McFarland.

Jan Timman, Timman’s Triumphs: My 100 Best Games, New in Chess 2020

Jan Timman, New in ChessIn 1982, Jan Timman (born 14 December 1951 in Amsterdam) was ranked second in the world, and for many years he was considered the best player in the West. Timman qualified to the Candidates Tournament three times and won numerous top tournaments in the course of his long chess career.

In addition to his successes as a practical player, Timman is also a passionate composer of studies and an excellent writer. He is editor of the Dutch magazine New in Chess and has already produced plenty of excellent books. Most recently, Timman published Timman’s Titans (2017), a book in which he recalls his encounters with world chess champions, and The Longest Game (2018), a well-told and well-analysed account of the five World Championship matches between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov.

In Timman’s Triumphs, his latest book, the Dutch grandmaster reviews his own career and analyses 100 selected games of his own. Most of the material in this book is new, as only ten of these games had been analysed in his Selected Games (1995).

Timman’s analysis is relaxed, comprehensible and thorough, but this book also impresses with the many entertaining stories and anecdotes from Timman’s long career. The Dutch grandmaster excels not only as an analyst and chess player, but also as a storyteller. Timman's Triumphs is a delight.

Jan Timman, Timman’s Triumphs: My 100 Best Games, New in Chess 2020 (349 pages, approx. 32.00 Euro.) The copy for review was kindly provided by Schach Niggemann.

David Navara, My Chess World, Thinkers Publishing 2020

David Navara, Thinkers PublishingWhen Timman was ranked second in the world in 1982, David Navara had not even been born. He was only born three years later, on 27 March 1985 — one might think that, at 35, Navara was still too young to present a chess autobiography of over 600 pages. And while Timman chats nonchalantly in his memoirs about drinking hashish and wine, travelling through Europe without money and a lack of training discipline, one looks in vain for such adventures in Navara’s book. Instead, he tells entertaining anecdotes about the many tournaments and competitions he has played in with a fine touch of self-irony and gives revealing insights into his world of thought.

Navara became a grandmaster three days before his 17th birthday, and with a current Elo rating of 2697 he is one of the 50 highest-rated players in the world. So he has already experienced quite a bit on the chessboard. In addition, Navara has successfully completed a degree in logic and speaks several languages — we catch a glimpse of his passion for language and playful intelligence by reading the chess poem he wrote at the end of the volume.

The main section of the book is made up of Navara’s 64 games, which he analyses in detail and entertainingly. It is, undoubtedly, a very successful chess biography and a well-analysed collection of games.

David Navara, My Chess World, Thinkers Publishing 2020 (616 pages, paperback, approx. 31.00 Euro.) The copy for review was kindly provided by Schach Niggemann.

Willy Hendriks, On the Origin of Good Chess Moves: A Skeptic’s Guide to Getting Better at Chess, New in Chess 2020

This book by the Dutch IM Willy Hendriks is not a biography or a collection of games, but anyway deals with chess history. It starts with an interesting quiz — a game and four questions. Here is the game...


...and here are the four questions:

  • How strong are the players?
  • When did Black make a mistake?
  • Approximately when was this game played?
  • Who could the players be?

Willy Hendriks, New in ChessIf you replay the game, you quickly notice that White outplayed Black positionally. That’s why it perhaps comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that this is an encounter between Adolf Anderssen and Daniel Harrwitz, namely the first game of their match in Breslau in 1848, which ended in a 4:4 draw.

This and other games by Anderssen suggest that the common image of Anderssen as a tactician who played boldly on the attack without regard for material is too one-sided. With this idea as a starting point, Hendriks takes a unique look at chess history and especially at the representation of chess history. He does this by looking at games by players such as Greco, Philidor, Staunton, Anderssen, Morphy and others, and tries to understand their respective contributions to chess history based on their games. In doing so, Hendricks comes to the conclusion that the conventionally told chess history, in which Philidor was the first to recognise the importance of pawns, in which Anderssen was a typical representative of the romantic sacrificial game and Steinitz formulated the foundations of positional play, is not supported by the games and the publications of the old masters.

Of course, Hendriks also deals with the question of how it came about that chess history is told the way it is told, and whether there is someone specific who brought this narrative into the world. Without meaning to give too much away, I will mention that, according to Hendriks, Emanuel Lasker played a decisive role in the emergence of this phenomenon.

Hendriks’ book is far more than a historical treatise though. Rather, he is interested in the question of what the individual player can learn from chess history to improve their game and their chess training.

In 2012 Hendricks published Move First, Think Later, one of the most interesting and stimulating books on chess thinking. In On the Origin of Good Moves, whose title and cover allude not without reason to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Hendriks has also succeeded in writing an interesting, provocative and stimulating book.

Willy Hendricks, On the Origin of Good Moves: A Skeptic’s Guide to Getting Better at Chess, New in Chess 2020 (432 pages, paperback, approx. 29.00 Euro.) The copy for review was kindly provided by Schach Niggemann.

David Smerdon, The Complete Chess Swindler: How to Save Points from Lost Positions, New in Chess 2020.

David Smerdon, New in ChessThe title promises a lot, and the book is fantastic — it’s not for nothing that it was chosen the 2020 Book of the Year by the English Chess Federation. Australian grandmaster David Smerdon, who currently teaches at the University of Queensland in Australia, studied economics and received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam and the Tinbergen Institute in 2017. His doctoral thesis has the refreshingly unacademic title Everybody’s doing it: Essays on trust, social norms and integration. Human behaviour is also the focus of his book on the art of swindling.

The term “swindle” has a different meaning in the world of chess than in everyday life — “to swindle” in chess usually means to hold or even win a position that is objectively much worse or even lost.

Mastering this art is immensely valuable in practical play, but it has hardly been studied — except by Simon Webb, who gave some advice on successful “swindling” in his famous book Chess for Tigers. As Smerdon demonstrates, it is possible to learn how to swindle, and thus confront opponents who are too confident of victory by creating unexpected problems to save a half or even a full point.

Systematically and with many wonderful examples, Smerdon explains which psychological attitudes in the opponent and in oneself favour a successful swindle, in order to then reach deep into the bag of tricks of successful swindlers and show which chess motifs swindlers — and those who do not want to be swindled — should know.

This provides a lot of beautiful and descriptive material. Nonetheless, what makes Smerdon’s book a pleasure is his enthusiasm, his humour and his passion for chess. He writes vividly, wittily, clearly, entertainingly and repeatedly makes excursions into other areas — for example, by reflecting on the Monty Python film Life of Brian in the chapter on optimism, or by briefly mentioning in another chapter what, according to the current state of psychological research, is the secret of success.

Since a successful swindle always has an irrational component — if both sides played the best moves, one could not save an objectively lost position — many of the examples presented by Smerdon contain unusual motifs, and precisely because the games are anything but perfect one sees wonderfully irrational game progressions and constellations that rarely occur in collections of best games — which is refreshingly original.

Smerdon has succeeded in producing an enthusiastic and well-written book full of original examples, which is also extremely useful for the practical chess player. And so, despite the many other good chess books that have appeared this year, The Complete Chess Swindler is well deserving of the 2020 Book of the Year award.

David Smerdon, The Complete Chess Swindler: How to Save Points from Lost Positions, New in Chess 2020 (368 pages, paperback, approx. 25.00 Euro.) The copy for review was kindly provided by New in Chess.

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register