John Hilbert on Edward Winter’s Chess Notes

8/10/2020 – Earlier this year, Edward Winter announced the curtailment of Chess Notes, which began nearly 40 years ago. Now, the United States’ leading chess historian, John Hilbert, has written an extensive assessment of Chess Notes, reflecting on the range and depth of material published and picking out many of his favourite articles. They cover almost every imaginable aspect of chess, past and present.

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Edward Winter’s Chess Notes

Appreciation by John Hilbert

The Ides of March this year brought disturbing news: Chess Notes, the repository of all things chess historical, the standard for serious chess history discussion and scholarship, would soon undergo a sad modification. As announced in Chess Note 11763, the chess world’s arbiter of chess truth, integrity and respect for nearly forty years (in its initial print form since January 1982), as of March 31, 2020, would no longer be regularly updated.

I’ve always found it odd, if not bizarre, that sophisticated chess players, who expect unfailing accuracy in game scores, who bristle at calling chess a “mere game,” and who deeply appreciate accurate and brilliant analysis by expert practitioners and theorists, metamorphose into hopeless bumpkins when it comes to the same issues in terms of accuracy, precision, and truth, regarding the game’s history. Imagine a game annotated with comments as slipshod as “and 16.e5 is probably a move seen before, played by someone or another,” or as irreverent as “this move was once played by that Morphy guy,” or as insultingly vapid as “better is something else.” No one would stand for such annotations, much less applaud them. Yet they excuse, when they don’t actively condone, such lack of discipline, such disrespectful frivolity, when it comes to stories, yarns and anecdotes about the game and the great players of the past. Fortunately, for those who feel that chess and its practitioners deserve far more, there has long been a quiet, thoughtful, hopeful place in a chess world filled with tawdry babel.

March 2020 saw over 50 separate Chess Notes posted, while over the last fifteen and a half years, perhaps an average of 45 a month or more. Since March 31, 2020, a period of three and a half months at the time of this writing, only 16 Chess Notes have appeared. This curtailment is a misfortune for the chess community. Not only have those seriously committed to refining our knowledge of the past effectively lost a brilliant source of information, as well as an exchange of ideas and knowledge, but the broader chess community no longer has a website with regularly updated, new material to turn to for carefully documented and vetted chess entertainment. An unfortunate truth is that no other website has the long-standing, proven accuracy that year after year has been made available, free of charge, through the extraordinary contributions made by Chess Notes and the site’s associated feature articles. And there likely never will be another such place so forcefully dedicated to seeing chess and chess players remembered with precision and respect.

The most important section is entitled Chess Notes Archives. There one finds, through the end of March 2020, the index for 8,384 Chess Notes available online (an earlier 3,411 appeared only in printed form) as well as a host of feature articles. An added and much needed bonus on this page is the ability to search the thousands of Chess Notes and hundreds of feature articles for key terms. In addition, don’t neglect to explore the Chess Notes Factfinder, which can be reached from this page, and which presents a meticulously accumulated index of Chess Notes by subject, replete with hot links to each subject. The material, and the ability to search through it, is in itself a monumental achievement. More than that, anyone writing on a chess subject does so at his or her risk, if they do so without carefully conducting searches here, and reflecting on the results.

Dipping into Chess Notes and feature articles is to find a cornucopia of games, photographs, discussions, humor, corrections, announcements, questions and other chess-related materials, all with properly cited sources, carefully prepared for casual readers, serious students, and working chess historians. It is a treasure trove of chess scholarship, introduced with wit and verve, of factual, documented material presented objectively. A lifetime could be spent enjoying the Chess Notes alone, and yet also presented, again free of charge, are over 300 articles - enough material for many books, had the desire been there to publish them in paper form - that taken together form the richest and most far-ranging source of extraordinary chess history material ever assembled.

The feature articles by Edward Winter collectively dwarf the production of any other serious chess historian. Some are relatively short, while others are small books in themselves. (For example, take together FIDE: The Prehistory, and Chess: The History of FIDE.) To describe them all is impossible, certainly in a short piece such as this, but I will suggest some areas readers might enjoy exploring. Of course, my personal selections are subjective and don’t do justice to the full breadth of examples even within my own self-formed categories:

Themes run throughout this vast collection of exceptional material, not the least being the intention infusing so much of what is written here: giving proper respect and recognition to chess figures by accurately seeking and documenting the facts concerning them. It seems a straightforward enough standard. Yet its execution demands discipline and hard work, as well as fairness and precision, qualities more often found in the chess world on the board than off it. Ponder the following suggestion from Fischer Mysteries

Indeed, the largest single category of loose ends regarding Bobby Fischer arguably relates to remarks attributed to him without any precise, reliable source. A major contribution to the cause of chess truth, and to Fischer’s memory, would be a webpage featuring only those quotes which are known to be correct and for which exact citations are supplied.

And then - from 'Fun' - contemplate what for me rings truest, and saddest, of all:

And so it is that much of chess history is not history at all but lurid figments. Anyone criticizing such output risks being labelled a spoilsport or humourless pedant, but a far heavier price is paid by our game’s greatest practitioners, for they are condemned to star ad infinitum in seedy anecdotes which are the product of mindless inter-hack copying or brutal distortion. Any aspect of their lives is considered fair game for sheep and jackals alike, this being the time-honoured process whereby chess history is made ‘fun.’

Chess history deserves far better, and one of the finest voices ever to call for it, to defend it and further it, has left a genuine monument to its practice. One to which the rest of us are, rightfully, forever indebted. 

Biographical note on John Hilbert

This article by John S. Hilbert first appeared in July 2020 on Olimpiu G. Urcan's Patreon webpage, and is reproduced here with permission. Dr Hilbert is the United States' leading chess historian. His 14 books include Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chessmaster (which won the inaugural Book of the Year award of the Chess Café, in 2000), Napier: The Forgotten Chessmaster (1998), Essays in American Chess History (2002) and Young Marshall (2003). More recently (in 2017) he wrote, jointly with Olimpiu G. Urcan, W.H.K. Pollock: A Chess Biography, which was his fifth book for McFarland & Company, Inc. He is currently working on a biography and games collection concerning George H. Mackenzie.

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