Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (23)

by ChessBase
7/12/2009 – Chess authors and publishers have a tendency to become over-excited, to put it mildly, when trying to induce potential customers to part with their money. But a darker side also emerges on occasion. With some grim examples the Editor of Chess Notes shows that there are cases where hype tips over into something far more reprehensible. It is time for a reality check.

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Chess Explorations (23)

By Edward Winter

The book whose dust-jacket carried the above commendation was by no means bad, but would many authors wish their work to be described immoderately? As shown below, there is, in fact, no shortage of them.

The dust-jacket in question was on The Golden Dozen by Irving Chernev. The book was produced by the Oxford University Press in 1976, and it is rare to find a reputable publisher resorting to such hype. An occasional co-author of Chernev’s, Fred Reinfeld, was also the occasional beneficiary (or, perhaps, victim) of verbal extravagance. As mentioned in C.N. 2377, his book Chess for Children (New York, 1958) called him a ‘Leading Chess Master’ and the ‘world-famous chess writer and champion player’. Only the second of those three claims seems beyond reproach.

The foregoing, however, are by no means the worst cases of hype in chess literature, as will be seen below. But first, a general caveat may be entered: self-praise by an author or publisher is not necessarily hype. C.N. 4218 noted that the back cover of Grandmaster Chess Move by Move by John Nunn (London, 2005) described him as ‘arguably the most highly acclaimed chess writer in the world’. That is a perfectly reasonable statement.

Downmarket it is a different story. As reported in C.N. 2345, the dust-jacket of Chess by K.M. Grover and T. Wiswell (London, 1952) stated: ‘Kenneth M. Grover, when 12 years old, was hailed as a chess child-prodigy, and today he is America’s number-one chess player.’ The original (1941) US edition called him ‘America’s Number One chess and checker exhibition player’. In their other books, Let’s Play Checkers (New York, 1940) and Twentieth Century Checkers (Philadelphia, 1946), the twosome also awarded themselves high-pitched write-ups. The back-cover of the former said of Grover: ‘He is America’s No. 1 checker and chess exhibition star and is popularly known as the “Mighty Mite”.’

From the dust-jacket of the 1941 edition of Chess by Grover and Wiswell

The following appeared on the dust-jacket of The Batsford Chess Encyclopedia by Nathan Divinsky (London, 1990):

An alternative view to Batsford’s is provided in A Catastrophic Encyclopedia.

For hype, though, even B.T. Batsford Ltd. of the 1980s and early 1990s has been shown a clean pair of heels by the US company Cardoza Publishing. It recently brought out a new edition (supposedly corrected, but not so) of a 2004 book on Fischer by Eric Schiller. The back cover asserts that he (Schiller, not Fischer) is ‘widely considered one of the world’s foremost chess analysts, writers, and teachers’. As shown in our review of World Champion Combinations, those same words were already being used by Cardoza over a decade ago. An alternative view as to what Eric Schiller may be ‘widely considered’ is provided in A Sorry Case and Copying.

His co-author for World Champion Combinations was Raymond Keene, and opposite the title page was a claim that he is ‘considered one of the strongest players in the world’. The considerers were naturally not named because, as pointed out in our above-mentioned feature article on the book, he played his last serious chess in the mid-1980s, and on the 1986 rating list he was not among the top ten players in England, let alone the world.

Many of his books contain material relevant to the present article, but just one further example will be given for the time being: the dust-jacket of Samurai Chess by Michael Gelb and Raymond Keene (London, 1997) described the latter as ‘the world’s leading authority on chess and mindsports. An International Chess Grandmaster since 1976 and winner of 14 separate British championship titles ...’ Tony Miles’ assessment of the book was published on pages 52-53 of the Spring 1998 Kingpin. More generally, Kingpin has also published this unmissable article.

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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter

Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then, over 6,200 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.

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