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    José Raúl Capablanca: 3rd World Chess Champion - A Short Review

    Isaak and Vladimir Linder, José Raúl Capablanca: 3rd World Chess Champion (Russell Enterprises, 2010). 272 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942) was one of the all-time greats, obviously, but as his life recedes ever farther into the past, he becomes more a mere name and less a personality of interest to the general chess world. This is a pity not only because of his merits, but because it is our loss. His masterpieces, and there are many, are both beautiful and instructive. Indeed, Capablanca was a major influence on Botvinnik (who in turn helped train Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik!) and Fischer, so how could we fail to benefit from the study of his games?

    There is of course some English-language material on Capablanca that's fairly easy for most of us to find: the section in volume 1 of Garry Kasparov's My Great Predecessors series, along with Fred Reinfeld's 1942 work The Immortal Games of Capablanca and Irving Chernev's Capablanca's Best Chess Endings, published in 1978. Not to be overlooked are Capa's own books, including the primer Chess Fundamentals and his 1920 volume My Chess Career. (There are more books; I'm just listing the usual suspects, to which the access is easiest.) So there's certainly room in the chess marketplace for a new life and games work on the great Cuban.

    Enter the Linders, a father-and-son duo of Russian chess historians. What they offer is a book that fills the aforementioned void, and offers something new - at least new to me. There are the games and game fragments (87 of them), the usual accounts that Capablanca played here and then he played there, and neither aspect is new or earth-shattering. What is nice, however, and - importantly - new is that they draw on a lot of information from Russian and Russian-language sources. Capablanca played in four significant tournaments in Russia/the Soviet Union (St. Petersburg 1914 and the Moscow tournaments of 1925, 1935 and 1936), and of course Russian chess players were interested in and wrote about him even when he wasn't playing there. So even readers familiar with the old sources will learn something new and gain a fuller picture of his career. Those of you with no material on Capablanca may want to consider getting the book to fill the gap, but those of us who do have material about him should consider getting it anyway, on account of the Russian perspectives.

    I do have some criticisms, as usual. First, the editing and/or copy editing in this book is pretty bad. Here are some examples, which could be easily multiplied:

    Page 20: In the second annotation to Capablanca-Marshall, New York m(2) 1909, it should be White, not Black, who has problems developing his bishop. Later on the page, 17.Rae8 is given; it should be 17...Rae8. And likewise, on page 22, in a note to the fifth game of the aforementioned match, we're told "And of course not 33.Kh8??", but it should be 33.Kh1. (Sadly, there are quite a few errors of this sort.) On the same page, a new game from that match begins, also labeled game 5. It's in fact game 6.

    A different sort of error: on page 26 (and elsewhere) we have "Nimzovitch" rather than the correct "Nimzowitsch". And here's still another sort of error: On page 146, we learn this about a series of simuls given in Moscow: "He played a total of one hundred forty-six games with the result +106, -25, =16." (Now that's the kind of math only a politician could love.)

    That's all minutiae, of course, and I haven't forgotten errare humanum est. But there's far too much of it. My second complaint is more significant: the game annotations are pretty weak. Fortunately, in the Linders' brand-new book on Emanuel Lasker, German GM Karsten Müller handles those duties. Here, however, the annotations are generally pretty light - often too light to be of any real instructional value - and don't (or only barely) take recent commentary into account.

    Third, there are some rather goofy comments that just leave me scratching my head. On pages 81, in a note to the fifth game of the Lasker-Capablanca match, we have this note to Black's 7th move, 7...b6 in a Queen's Gambit Declined: "It is interesting that Karpov, too, fianchettoed his queen's bishop in several games of his world championship matches", and there then follows all 20 moves of game 34 of Karpov's 1984 match with Kasparov. Why exactly this is "interesting" and why Karpov is singled out eludes me, as the variation chosen by Karpov in that game (the Tartakower Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined) has been played in tens of thousands of grandmaster games, and by world champions aplenty: 10 times by Tal, 12 times by Petrosian, 53 times by Spassky, 3 times by Fischer, 28 times by Karpov, 16 times by Kasparov, and 9 times by Kramnik, to pick the most prominent cases.

    On page 101, in the comments to Capablanca-Tartakower, New York 1924 (the famous rook ending with 35.Kg3), they suggest that Black pursued exchanges in hopes of a draw, but on move 23 they write that Tartakower could have gone for a rook ending, "but as Tartakower himself noted, 'all rook endings are drawn.'" This statement is bizarre on at least two counts: they had just suggested that Black was playing for a draw, but now, in a worse position, he's not? And second, the game winds up in a rook ending after all, and Capa wins it. If the Tartakower quote was meant ironically, that would be one thing, but there's nothing about the context suggesting that it was. (Perhaps this is a failure of translation?)

    For a while these quirks and errors drove me slightly crazy, but the book's pluses eventually won me over. Overall, I think the book is worth getting for those with any interest in chess history in general and Capablanca in particular - especially if this is your first book about him. I do hope that Russell Enterprises puts out a second edition at some point, cleaning up all the errors and perhaps redoing the annotations.

    Ordering information here and here.

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    Reader Comments (15)

    A different sort of error: on page 26 (and elsewhere) we have "Nimzovitch" rather than the correct "Nimzowitsch".

    Correct? The most common book by A.N seen in America has been "My System", and far and away most editions I have seen have been the old Tartan McKay printings. There it is spelled "Nimzovich". It is also spelled that was in a Fireside printing of Chernev's "The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played".

    But a Dover edition of Alekhine's "My Best Games of Chess 1908 - 1937" spells it Niemzovitch in the first half of the book (corresponding to the first volume published concerening years 1908 - 1923) but Nimzowitsch in the second half. For that matter, A. A.'s name is spelled without the final "e" in the first half of the book.

    And then there's the 1973 reprinting of the 1971 Batsford English translation of Levenfish's & Smyslov's "Rook Endings". The spelling of A. N.'s last name in that book? Nimtsovich.

    I'm sure I could find another variation or two if I kept digging, but why bother? Calling one spelling or another correct seems a bit pedantic. And that one isn't even hard! Did anyone ever decide how to spell the last name of Ratmir (Kh/Ch/H)olmov? And then there is ChessBase's insistence on spelling Korchnoi (which I've also seen as Korchnoy) with about 12 extra consonants, something along the lines of Kordtschdtchkhshnoj. Good Lord, it took me a while to figure out that ChessBase hadn't turned Korch the Torch into an unperson! That also means that all the updates I've used from TWIC are half worthless unless I spend to the time to correct the spelling. (And ChessBase will punish you if you don't use their spelling. Change Kordtschdtchkhshnoj to Korchnoi and the database helpfully erases all the extra features, such as the pictures.) Is there any particular reason we have to suffer with German spelling for Eastern European names? Don't chessplayers suffer enough from Leko-Kramnik games and the analyses of Robert Hubner and Eric Schiller books without this additional source of agony?

    July 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIcepick

    While it's inconvenient that ChessBase uses the German spelling, "Kortschnoj", it's not the keyboard vomit you spewed. As for "Nimzowitsch", it's now generally considered the official English transliteration. The world won't come to an end if someone uses an alternative spelling, but even without this example the general point about the editing/copy editing stands.

    July 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Anand in an interview also mentioned that his first 'serious' chess book was "Chess Fundamentals" by Capa and he added that he "built his career on them".

    July 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjaideepblue

    Forget Korchnoi, how about Nepomnjaschtschi?

    July 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrey

    Or is that Nepomniashchy? I think that's ChessBase's official spelling, at least as of MegaBase 2007. The TWIC updates use a different spelling, of course - Nepomniachtchi. Plus there's the whole Ian vs Yan issue.

    It looks like everyone agrees on the spelling of Rashid Nezhmetdinov's last name, however. Of course he has been (unfortunately) dead for the last 36 years, so he isn't a moving target anymore.

    July 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIcepick

    Give DM a break fellows! I think that he was simply using that as an illustration; and the only error he may have made (if any) is that he took 'more common' and 'more correct' interchangeably. In the context of the particular point he is making, that is not much of an error - a good editor will try to put forth the most common spelling, won't he? Again, if this was the sole point which DM relied on for his criticism, then the issue is again somewhat different - he is only saying that in the context of other errors...

    July 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAAAA

    AAAA, at what point did I say that Dennis's larger point about the editing/copy editing wasn't valid? I was simply pointing out that the names of Eastern European players often have many alternate spelling. On that one point I thought Dennis was being overly critical. You won't find anything indicating that I disagreed with his larger point.

    Alternate spellings of E.European names are very common. In fact, just today I ran across yet another variation on "Alekhine" - "Aljechin". That was in Kasparov's anotations to Botvinnik-Capablanca AVRO, 1938 (1-0) included in Chessbase's MegaBase 2007. As a chess player one just gets used to it, like switching between the many notational systems used for recording games. (Offhand I can think of eight different notational systems I've seen in my books, counting some of the minor variations. And that does not include notational systems using non-English lettering.)

    July 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIcepick

    Sorry, Dennis, I don't quite catch your drift with the last sentence of the second paragraph.

    You seem to say that there's loads of good stuff about Capa already out there, but then conclude that there's 'certainly room in the chess marketplace' for more... contradiction, or is that just me being dumb?

    July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNick Funnell

    Nick,

    That was some sloppy editing on my part. I had changed that paragraph several times, and by the end a key sentence got excised. The bottom line is that I don't think there's a lot of stuff on him at all, at least not commonly available. None of the books by Capa have much to say about his life. The Reinfeld book has only barebones biographical material, and the Chernev book has none. That leaves the chapter in Kasparov's book. It's not bad, but at 115 pages mostly devoted to his games, it's hardly the definite biography. So while there has been coverage of his games across the generations (though most of that coverage has been pretty superficial by contemporary standards), good, widely available biographical material has been wanting.

    July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    First of all, thanks to Dennis Monokroussos for taking the time to respond to the blog comments. I agree completely with Icepick's point about the use of "correct spelling" of Нимзович. (After all, Alekhine/Alekhin/Алехин had two different spellings of his name in his "My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1937". Who are we to say which spelling is more correct?) There were several typos in Dennis' review and I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to correct them.

    My reason for writing though is to find out more about the Russian sources. Do these add special insight into the games that couldn't be found by reading a combination of Capa's own notes and our favorite German/Czech silicon annotator? Also, does the book contain a competent index, and is there a list of the openings covered?

    Again, Thanks to DM for taking the time to answer these blogs!

    August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSmyslov Fan

    Smyslov Fan: You raise some interesting issues, which are worth addressing one more time. I think, though, that the point about my alleged typos is a red herring at best. (I only noted one typo, btw: a missing 'i' in 'politician'. Where are the others?) My point isn't that a book should be perfectly edited or else be rejected as worthless, but that the book's editing was too lax. But this has nothing to do with the Nimzowitsch/Nimzovich issue, so I don't understand why the point about typos was juxtaposed with the transliteration discussion. Also, while I do strive for accuracy in my work, there's something slightly absurd about comparing my one-man blogging operation with paid work from a publishing company.

    Re: 'Alekhine' vs. 'Alekhin': I don't think this is relevant, unless - at least for starters - we have multiple English spellings by Nimzo... himself. The fact that there are multiple options that are phonetically legal doesn't mean that just anything goes. Try publishing a book on "Platoe" or "Playtoe", or on his student "Aristottel." There's a well-established practice in English-language chess literature of spelling the GM's name "Nimzowitsch", so normal publishing practice would follow that.

    On the matters of the second paragraph, I'll take the issues in reverse order. There is an index of openings, but if the "competent index" you're asking about is something like a subject index, the answer is no. The only indexes are of openings and players. As for the Russian sources and insight into the games, I noted in the review that the game annotations were generally very light. The Russian sources mainly fill out the historical context.

    August 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Thank you again, Dennis.

    Since you asked:

    Fifth full paragraph: Page 20: In the second annotation to Capablanca-Marshall, New York m(2) 1909, it should White, not Black, who has problems developing his bishop. (Missing word)

    You pointed out the other one I noticed. I thought there were more, but don't see them now.

    August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSmyslov Fan

    SF: Right you are about the second error (since fixed). If there were other ones, they didn't disappear on my account - I only fixed the two you've mentioned.

    August 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    A funny p.s.: the second instance was an error, but it wasn't a typo. So my official total for the review remains at one! :)

    August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Dennis, You write: "I do hope that Russell Enterprises puts out a second edition at some point, cleaning up all the errors and perhaps redoing the annotations."
    Well, so do I, but I wouldn't hold your breath. Russell's much-lauded "Tal-Botvinnik 1960" has gone through multiple editions without correction of many typos and complete mistranslations that were pointed out to him long ago. See for instance
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tal-Botvinnik-1960-Mikhail-Tal/dp/1888690089

    Russell's company deserves great credit for making a lot of wonderful material available to the chess public, so it's a great pity that the editing and quality control sometimes leave much to be desired.

    March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Adams

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