Book Notice: Richard Reti's Masters of the Chessboard
Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 12:11AM
Dennis Monokroussos in Book Reviews, Masters of the Chessboard, Richard Reti

Russell Enterprises has been a prolific chess publisher of both new works and reissued classics. Many of their new books are excellent (notably including several works by Mark Dvoretsky), but their biggest contribution to the chess world may be their updated revisions of older works. The latest classic is Richard Reti's Masters of the Chessboard, written shortly before the author's death and posthumously published.

The book, as Andy Soltis notes in the Foreword, is a sequel to Reti's New Ideas in Chess (also recently republished by Russell Enterprises). The books go in a similar direction, with Reti telling an evolutionary story about the game from Adolf Anderssen and his combinative style, to Paul Morphy's positional genius in open games and then the broader positional understanding of Wilhelm Steinitz and his followers. There are developments that are refinements, and then come the hypermoderns, who shake things up and introduce ideas that break new grounds beyond the Classical realm of Steinitz and Siegbert Tarrasch and their descendants.

In New Ideas, Reti is heavy on talk and theorizing, and the games are presented with very light notes. The aim isn't description or analysis, but illustration. In Masters, by contrast, the analysis and commentary are far more substantial. This is a book one can learn chess from, rather than a tract one reads to consider a new point of view. Reti still promulgates his theories and general ideas about the game, some of which still seem sensible while others appear rather quaint. His psychological assessments of certain players are often likewise a mix of the insightful and the dubious, but it is at least pretty interesting to see how a leading player viewed his great contemporaries. Nowadays most top players are afraid to offer any penetrating comments about their opponents to the chess media, for fear that the player spoken of might hear it and benefit.

Getting back to the book: over the course of 205 pages (Masters is considerably longer than New Ideas) Reti profiles 17 players, who are divided into two groups. "The Older Masters" includes Anderssen, Morphy, Steinitz, Tarrasch, Emanuel Lasker, Carl Schlechter and Harry Nelson Pillsbury. "Masters of Today" features Geza Maroczy, Frank Marshall, Akiba Rubinstein, Rudolf Spielmann, Aron Nimzowitsch, Milan Vidmar, Savielly Tartakower, Jose Raul Capablanca, Efim Bogoljubow and Alexander Alekhine (who was then the world champion). There are 72 games, together with some mini-essays on a few opening variations (including the eponymous Reti Opening).

Speaking of mini-essays, there are discurses on various topics, including rook endings. "Everyone" knows the famous Capablanca-Tartakower ending from New York 1924, and Reti presents it as well. But he shows another example as well to further illustrate the idea of activating the king in a rook ending even at the cost of a pawn or two. Another thematic idea presented several times in the book is the proper exploitation of the bishop pair in an ending. The stock Steinitz examples (vs. Rosenthal and Englisch) are there, but Reti also gives at least two other cases: Blackburne-Em. Lasker, London 1892 and Tarrasch-Rubinstein, San Sebastian 1912.

Overall it's a good book: a sort of early "My Great Predecessors" type of volume, but with less analytical notes and more commentary. Inexperienced players should take some of his sweeping comments with a grain of salt, though. To take one example: Reti makes a distinction between specific variations and ideas in the opening, suggesting that learning the former isn't important, in part because the old books are full of mistakes, while learning ideas is crucial. In keeping with that approach, Reti offers many general, even sweeping statements about various opening lines.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the richness of chess, his statements are often just as passe and even wrong as the variations he criticizes. In fact it's a dialectic. General ideas are fine, but pair two competent players and they'll be about equally conversant with them. What counts then are the specifics, because they are what enable one player to promote the ideas that favor him and hinder those of his opponent. Further, general ideas may sound terrific, but if one's beautiful philosophizing about a given structure doesn't help one avoid getting mated, it's the idea that needs to be tossed onto the trash bin.

The book has its limits, but that doesn't detract from its value as a games collection, an historical document and as a fascinating if flawed textbook. Very briefly, another flaw is with the copy-editing, which wasn't particularly good, though more accurately described as a venial than a mortal sin. To err is human, but I'm sure the fine people at Russell Enterprises can be a little less human in this respect in the future. Overall though, the book is recommended.

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