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.
- Algebraic notation
- Spiffier pages
- More diagrams
- Lots of photographs of both Alekhine and his various opponents
- 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.)