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    Entries in David Bronstein (2)

    Friday
    Dec152017

    Book Review: Sosonko's *The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein*

    Genna Sosonko, The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein. (Elk & Ruby Publishing, 2017.) 271 pp.

    Memento mori, the medievals said - remember you must die. Going back further, Socrates said that life is a preparation for death. This may seem a glum take on life, but we will all be dead a lot longer than we'll be alive. If the end of this life is the end of us, the value of this life diminishes somewhat, but even then it matters: what of our progeny, our friends, and those we influence directly or indirectly? Even if our story comes to an end (which I don't believe), we are not islands unto ourselves. We must live, and as some do a much better job of living than others, we must learn how to live well.

    Perhaps the best way to learn this art is by example: see those who flourish and love, and are loved and capable of receiving that love. See what they do and what they believe, or what beliefs underlie their practice, and emulate them in a way that is relevant to your personality and station in life. Talk to them and learn from them, and if it's possible, learn from their mentors.

    There is another way. It's not as good, but it too has value: learn from those who don't know how to live. What made them the bad examples they are? What is the source of their troubles? Was it something they did, or their environment, or some combination of it? As I sometimes tell my chess students, life's too short to learn only from your own mistakes; learn from others' mistakes as well - or only from their mistakes, if possible! It's a sort of Screwtape Letters approach to life, or if you like something more recent and comical, there's something to be said for Opposite-George Costanza:

    As C.S. Lewis points out when discussing his The Screwtape Letters, and is at least alluded to in the Seinfeld clip, it's not always exactly clear how to implement the "opposite" of bad advice and instincts, but for the most part we have a pretty good idea of how it will work. If we see someone living a life of bitterness and regret, of narcissism and constant complaint, it's pretty obvious that this is not a desirable life. The person living it is miserable, and makes others miserable until they peel away. We may not know how best to fight those tendencies in ourselves, but seeing them displayed in others helps us to see that we've got a challenge on our hands, and that fixing or at least mitigating those problems is critically important.

    What, you may wonder, does this have to do with a chess book? Well, not too much with a normal chess book - though such a book might be the antidote to the "how-not-to" that is sometimes on display at the local club. But this isn't a conventional chess book. No games are given, and there are no positions except those semi-visible in the photos. No moves are given either, except for a few that are alluded to - there are no diagrams. The book is instead a sort of biography of the late great chess grandmaster David Bronstein (1924-2006). Or rather, a memoir of their interactions, interspersed with Genna Sosonko's reflections on Bronstein and his life.

    Sosonko is himself a grandmaster (b. 1943), and like Bronstein lived in the Soviet Union, though unlike Bronstein he defected in 1972 to the Netherlands, where he lives to this day. Sosonko knew many, maybe all, of the post-war greats of Soviet chess, many of whom he befriended and some of whom - like Mikhail Tal - he even worked with, pre-defection. He has authored several very appealing books commemorating those players, though there's a touch of ghoulishness to it, as many of these pen portraits were first published in New in Chess Magazine shortly after the player's death.

    (This was once spoofed in the satirical chess magazine Kingpin, and on p. 266 of the book reviewed here there's a very funny passage near the end: "And of course, Davy [Bronstein] complained to everybody about this Sosonko dude, who was just waiting pen in hand for him to kick the bucket so that he could publish his memoirs about the near world champion. The interesting thing, though, is that all of Davy's complaints, although frequently unfair and exaggerated, and sometimes even absurd, had a grain of truth in them" (p. 266, emphasis in the original).)

    Back to the book. As noted, it's not a traditional, conventional biography. Different events and eras of Bronstein's life are described, but the focus of the book is on the big, gaping wound in Bronstein's soul arising from his drawn world championship match with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1951. Leading by a game with two games to go, Bronstein failed to hold a drawn (but not trivially drawn) ending in game 23 in Botvinnik's last white game, and after a draw in game 24 Botvinnik kept his title, while Bronstein never again got that close to the champion's crown.

    Reading this book - and for that matter, other books by Bronstein - one learns that Bronstein had an unending stream of reasons and excuses for failing to win the match (and for not holding the draw in game 23), many of them wildly implausible and sometimes contradictory. And although this was the most significant event of his life, Bronstein's ability to grasp the truth about himself was often tenuous. This is part of the human condition, and some of us have a harder time with this than others (and at different times and in different situations); for Bronstein, this seems to have an especially acute shortcoming.

    At any rate, this wound, or whatever it was in his soul that made this one failure so searing, was something that poisoned him. Even though he lived for another 55 years, the ghost of game 23, his antipathy towards Botvinnik, and perhaps the shame he felt or projected onto others for not winning the title haunted him to his death. Sosonko makes this point constantly throughout the book, and it's likely that he did so in part because Bronstein himself went on and on about it to him for decades.

    It is evident that Sosonko also feels admiration for Bronstein and tried to be a friend to him. He attempted at times to help Bronstein see that some of what he claimed was nonsense, but it simply didn't work, and he stopped trying. To the extent that Sosonko's representation of Bronstein and his neuroses was accurate, it must have been exasperating and exhausting to be his friend.

    Since much of the book shares with us, the lucky readers, the sense of that exasperation as Sosonko recounts over and over and over and over and over again Bronstein's complaints (about game 23, the match in general, about Botvinnik, about young players, about Mikhail Tal's being celebrated even though Bronstein was playing the same kind of chess before Tal did, about ratings, about the competitive element in chess outweighing the artistic, about not getting a pension from FIDE, about this and that and the other thing, etc., and always returning to the same topics), we might wonder what exactly is the point of the book. To make us suffer as Sosonko did, at least to a very small degree? To undermine the light-hearted persona Bronstein presents in some of his works (at least those not ghostwritten by his mentor and patron, Boris Vainshtein)? As a debriefing session or therapy for Sosonko?

    It's not clear. Because Sosonko is such a good writer, the book isn't as painful as it could have been coming from someone else's pen (or keyboard). But it's still a fair question to ask why we should read it, because for all the fine writing, and for the attempts to understand Bronstein and emphasize that he was a brilliant chess player with a sharp, creative mind, it's still the sad story of a person whose life was lost in bitterness and regret. So if you do choose to pick up this book, dear reader, look at the life of David Bronstein with compassion and with an eye to avoiding his mistakes - including the meta-mistake of not trying to overcome his mistakes. Very few of us will have to live under a regime like that of the Soviet Union, thank God, and few of us will experience the competitive pain of coming so close to become the world's #1 in anything and coming up just short. But we all have our wounds and our shortcomings. By reflecting on a life of great talent that was not well lived, we can learn lessons that help us to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately ensnared Bronstein.

    Sunday
    Oct222017

    Two Interesting Books

    While browsing around on Amazon a couple of days ago, a couple of chess books popped up in the "recommended for you" list. Both are about Soviet grandmasters, and neither features any chess (or any to speak of).

    The first that showed up was Team Tal: An Inside Story, by Valentin Kirillov. It's a short book that looks like a collection of vignettes about the late great Mikhail Tal, and it looks like a nice book for his fans.

    The second book is about David Bronstein, another great player who came very close to becoming the world champion, but unlike Tal, he didn't succeed in doing so. While Bronstein was a brilliant player who lived a fascinating life, one could detect sadness and a touch of bitterness in his later works (e.g. Secret Notes). But in Genna Sosonko's The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein, it seems that the bitterness was almost all-consuming, at least from his late middle age onward. It's hard to tell from the excerpt Amazon makes available how pervasive Bronstein's negativity is in the text, so if any of you have read the book, please offer your thoughts about it in the comments. (Likewise about the Tal book, if you've read that one.)

    At any rate, both books look interesting, at least to middle-agers like me who grew up at a time when Tal and Bronstein were chess heroes to many young players.