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    Apr182013

    Book Notice: Alekhine's My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937

    Alexander Alekhine, My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937 (Russell Enterprises 2013). $34.95. 454 pp. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    So-called descriptive notation offers an inelegant and ugly way of recording the moves of a chess game, but that's the way things were in English-language chess publications for at least the first 2/3 to 3/4 of the 20th century. That it is gone is progress, and not just for the benefits of a worldwide lingua franca. Nevertheless, before we say a complete "good riddance" to the old ways, we should note that many great English-language chess books have been written in descriptive notation, and not all of them have been updated into algebraic versions. Further, many of those golden oldies are available at very reasonable prices - Dover publishing in particular is a fine source of old chess books.

    One such book - or originally, pair of books - is the two-part autobiographical collection of Alexander Alekhine's Best Games of Chess. Volume 1 covers his career from 1908 to 1923, the sequel from 1924 to 1937. The games are fantastic, and Alekhine was unparalleled in his day as an annotator in his analytical depth and creativity. When I was a kid back in the 1970s I had the volumes as separate paperbacks, each of which was purchased for fewer than $10 a pop. Years later, coming back to the game and rebuilding my library, I discovered that the version I owned was unavailable. Subsequently, there were two developments: one very bad, and one that was very good.

    First, the bad. John Nunn, then one of the leaders of Batsford Publishing, produced a severely abridged version that included only 109 of the original 220 games. (There were an additional nine games thrown in covering the last part of Alekhine's careeer.) Worse still, it cost more than double the price of the original - a great deal for the publisher, but a crime against a classic and a loss to the chess lover. The version at least updated the notation to algebraic, but beyond that it was a low moment in chess publishing. Then, good news: the original Dover edition was reissued in a combined volume, and at a very reasonable price. (Checking Amazon.com at the moment, it goes for $17.96 for their basic price, and lower prices are available through individual sellers.) The drawback is that it's in descriptive notation, just like the original. For those of us who are "bilingual", that's not a problem at all, but some will find descriptive notation too odious to learn and use.

    If so, then here at last is good news: Russell Enterprises is now publishing a fresh, unabridged edition in algebraic notation. Here's a quick list of what I see as the primary pros and cons of their new edition relative to the old Dover standard.

    Pros:

    • Algebraic notation
    • Spiffier pages
    • More diagrams
    • Lots of photographs of both Alekhine and his various opponents

    Cons:

    • Price: The new edition goes for $34.95 - not an intrinsically bad price at all given the book's size and quality, but it's still double the basic retail price of the original.
    • Upside-down diagrams in Alekhine's black games. (Some people seem to like such diagrams, but I'm not one of them. It's probably a conservative estimate to say that 99.5% of diagrams in chess literature are given from White's point of view, so why introduce such a distracting element here? This isn't some avant-garde book by Adorjan exclaiming that Black is OK; it's a canonical text which is being updated in large part to overcome the annoyance and distraction many will find with descriptive notation. Why introduce a fresh new way of alienating the audience?)

    Finally, let me offer huge kudos to Taylor Kingston and the publisher for offering a terrific resource that, strictly speaking, isn't part of the book. One feature of Nunn's abridgment was a large number of footnotes pointing out analytical errors committed by Alekhine. The errors were certainly there to be noted, but as a book that isn't just historical and instructional but also inspirational, the heavy footnotes weren't the best fit. What Kingston and Russell Enterprises have done is to post an analytical errata file online. (And it's a huge PDF file at that, weighing in at a dense 63 pages!) This is a nice way to give readers the chance to enjoy Alekhine's notes on their own merits and to challenge motivated readers to find the errors on their own, which they can then check online. Finally, it's a public service to chess fans in general, who can look up the file on their own without owning this edition of the book.

    I haven't said much about the book itself, and perhaps wrongly so. Not everyone who reads this blog knows all about Alexander Alekhine and his chess. I will be overly brief here, but hopefully say enough to encourage you to buy the book. First of all, he was the world chess champion from 1927 to 1935, and then from 1937 until his death in 1946. He was a player of a brilliant combinational style - stylistically he more than anyone else influenced Garry Kasparov. He was the one of the first really deep investigators of the opening, and the breadth of his contributions to that phase of the game is astounding. Really, he was the first true chess professional, as measured by his analytical investigations of the opening and in annotation, and in his self-disciplined, experimental approach to self-improvement. In the book you will find technical and strategic masterpieces, but above all you will find dazzling chess ideas produced by a man with an explosively fecund imagination for the game. It's a chess book every club player ought to have, and it's a great book to give to kids to help inspire them about chess. (At least if you can get them off their electronics long enough to read a book.) So the only question is which edition to get: the old one if you want to save a few bucks and don't mind descriptive notation, or this newer and neater one. (To help you decide, here's an excerpt from the new version.)

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    Reader Comments (10)

    Dennis

    An additional point (for the newbies to chess) highlighting the brilliance of Alekhine's analysis is that there was no computer assistance he could employ to tease out ideas which could also test his variations for accuracy. It was a very brave effort for him to publish deep variations using concrete lines as there was always the risk that he would get something badly wrong that a reader might stumble upon and point out to the various chess magazines across the globe.. Most other writers engaged in generalities using hard variations when there was no risk of error. He was a true chess genius with great courage at the board and in his writings.

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve K

    I have the Dover one-volume edition ($11.95 a decade or three ago). A true classic. Highly recommended.

    Agreed on the upside down diagrams. What's the point?

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterhylen

    I think it makes sense to have the "hero" on the bottom of the chess diagram, it helps put you in their shoes. I also think it's a bit easier to calculate with the player on move on the bottom, since that is how it is in OTB chess. When you're black, the black pieces are still on the the bottom from your perspective. So if I'm reading a book on Alekhine, I prefer to see the board from the perspective of Alekhine.

    However, as Dennis noted, a huge percentage of chess diagrams are white on bottom, and I've definitely gotten used to that. So if they had white on the bottom when he is black it wouldn't be a big deal to me, only a slight preference. It wouldn't be a factor in whether or not I buy the book.

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommentercheVelle

    Amazon has it for 16$ ! I just ordered mine

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSS

    It's amazing, really, how distracting upside down diagrams are. Andy Soltis's 'Confessions of a Grandmaster' uses them, and I find them very annoying. And I otherwise really like that book ('Confessions').

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMikeO

    Younger players that grew up playing chess online will welcome chess diagrams with Black at the bottom. It also makes sense from a training perspective if you are using the book without a chessboard. The old way may be a matter of keeping publishing cost down but it's fairly easy nowadays to click flip board before saving a diagram.

    [DM: I understand your point, and you may be right that younger players are more used to it than older ones on account of online play. It's probably the best argument to be made for the practice. But even so, is the argument from screen-to-diagram compelling? I'm not sure. I've played tens of thousands of online blitz games, but there you expect it - just as one expects the black pieces to be in front of you in an OTB game where you're playing Black. I don't expect it in chess literature though, so there it becomes a distraction. (I'm sure I'll adapt to it, but why must I adapt when there isn't a problem to start with?) I'm not opposed to experimenting with the idea in general, but am opposed to using a classic as the test case. When trying to improve something that isn't broken, tinker around the edges; don't do surgery!

    One final, amusing point that I meant to include in the review but forgot to. If you check out the 63-page errata, you'll see that it's always White on the bottom of the diagrams, regardless of which color Alekhine had in the game.]

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPolo

    Dennis

    I don't understand your "hatred" for descriptive notation. You can get alot of knowledge from classic books. As a chemist, I learned alot from Beilstein, which is in German. The ability to read both descriptive and algebraic notation is a benefit. BTW what languages do you read or speak?

    [DM: I don't think I said I "hated" it, but I do think it's inelegant and ugly. I have no trouble reading it at all (in fact, I learned it on my own as a child), and although I haven't used it to record games for at least 30 years it's my "native tongue" and I could switch to it without any difficulty.

    Anyhow, I'm not sure where your comment is coming from. I praised the book to the rooftops and wrote approvingly about the treasure trove of old Dover books. I'm all for using and enjoying great old books, and that's consistent with a low view of the intrinsic value of descriptive notation relative to algebraic. Of course, descriptive notation of the "P-K4, N-KB3" variety is itself an evolution from even more painful forebears. According to the Wikipedia page on the history of chess notation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_notation), for instance, back in 1614 one had to uncork the following monstrosity to express what we now write as Nf3: "The white king commands his owne knight into the third house before his owne bishop."

    It's good for a chuckle, and we can enjoy some interesting reflections about chess linguistics and linguistics in general. But speaking realistically, my odds of using a book written that way as a chess book for learning and pleasure are pretty low. If for some insane reason my favorite chess authors started writing their books in 1614 notation (while prohibiting published "translations"), then I'd probably suck it up and start getting used to it. All the same, I don't see how that is any sort of argument in favor of 1614 notation as anything but an abomination compared to our current options!]

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGoodhumor

    Okay, it's Friday night and I wanted to have some fun:
    According the "inflation calculator" of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $10 in 1972 (one of the version of Alekhine's book published in English) is now worth (drum roll).... $55.69

    So, there goes "Con point $#1: Price". At $34.95, it would have been the equivalent of $6.28 back in 1972 dollars.

    Source: http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

    [DM: I did consider the inflation issue, but didn't pursue it. There is one place where it is relevant to address it, but it's not in my "con point #1". That's because the Dover one-volume edition costs $17.96 right now, at this very second, just as the new Russell Enterprises edition goes for $34.95 right now. I'm comparing two present-day prices.

    The place where an inflation calculation could be relevant was in my complaint about the Nunn/Batsford abridgement. Originally, I had the Dover editions (they came separately) back around 1979 or so, and I think the combined cost was in the neighborhood of $10-11. We'd need to compare that to the $20-25 or thereabouts of the 1996 Batsford edition. Unfortunately, I don't recall the exact prices, but maybe some sleuthing online or from readers who have their own copies going back to those dates can give us more precision. Anyway, that's what I'd compare, keeping further in mind that Batsford roughly halved the content of the original.]

    April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPanterina

    Looks wonderful! Will add it to my list as I'm going to study Alekhine after I've had a look at Staunton and Morphy.

    April 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsh

    There was also a three colume series of Alekhine by Moravian Chess in 1998:
    http://www.newinchess.com/Complete_Games_of_Alekhine_Vol__1__2___3-p-2920.html
    How does this compare with this?

    [DM: Good question, and I have no idea. I have the terrific Skinner & Verhoeven volume (http://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Alekhines-Chess-Games-1902-46/dp/0786401176), but both that and the Moravian series are luxury items. If one doesn't have any of these and isn't looking to spend a ton, I'd heartily recommend getting the book reviewed in this blog and leaving it at that.]

    August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterÅsmund

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