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Arthur Kaufmann: A Chess Biography, 1872-1938

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Arthur Kaufmann

A Chess Biography, 1872-1938

By Olimpiu G. Urcan and Peter Michael Braunwarth

McFarland, 2012

ISBN: 9780786461455

Arthur Kaufmann: A Chess Biography, 1872-1938

While never a professional chessplayer and now little known, Arthur Kaufmann nonetheless made significant contributions to the game.

For a start, there are two important opening variations associated with his name: in the Petroff Defence (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.c4) and the Vienna Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 d5 4.fxe5 Nxe4 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.Qe2). For another thing, he was a fine analyst, frequently praised by Marco, who aided the latter in writing his several celebrated tournament books. And he was also a strong player, in his best years perhaps of grandmaster strength. One early game against Englisch, played at Vienna 1896, had a wonderful finish. His best game, though, was probably this victory over Spielmann at Vienna 1914:

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3.Nge2 e6 4.d4 d5 5.exd5 exd5 6.Be3 c4 7.g3 Nf6 8. Bg2 Be6 9.O-O Be7 10.Re1 O-O 11.a3 h6 12.Nf4 Qd7 13.Qd2 Rae8 14.Nxe6 fxe6 15.f4 Bd8 16. Kh1 Ba5 17.Bg1 Nd8 18.b4 cxb3 19.cxb3 Nf7 20. b4 Bb6 21. Re2 Nd6 22.Rae1 Rf7 23.Qd3 Qc8 24.Bh3 Rc7 25.Nxd5 Nxd5 26.Rxe6 Rce7 27.Qb3 Rxe6 28. Qxd5 1-0

Some may also be familiar with the consultation game that he and Fahndrich played against Capablanca and Reti in the same year (1914): it is quoted in chapter 4 of Reti’s Modern Ideas in Chess.

This book covers Kaufmann’s chess career and includes over 70 of his games; in addition, there is an outline of his life outside of chess, and that’s fascinating in itself. Our main source here was the great Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, for the two men struck up a deep friendship when young and corresponded frequently. Some of Kaufmann’s writings, notably an essay on Einstein’s theory of relativity, are alluded to and quoted from also – he had a diverse range of intellectual interests. It is puzzling, then, that he didn’t publish more or produce a substantial philosophical work. One would have thought him well capable of it.

Kaufmann died shortly after the Nazis entered Austria in 1938. He was Jewish, and the authors suggest that the most likely reason for his death was suicide. On the evidence marshalled here, they’re likely correct.

The publishers description of the book is here.


Written by P.P.O. Kane

June 13, 2018 at 10:22 am

Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924

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Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924

By Per Skjoldager and Jorn Erik Nielsen

McFarland, 2012

ISBN: 9780786465392

Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924

Anyone with an interest in the great thinker and theorist will find this valuable book to be essential reading.

Nimzowitsch was the most profound of the hypermodern pioneers. He invented and revived numerous opening systems. And, from about the mid-1920s until his death in 1935, he was one of the strongest players in the world.

This book covers his life and chess career up to the eve of the publication of his major writings: Die Blockade came out in 1925 and Mein System followed shortly thereafter (1925-1927). What do we know about the life? Well, we know that Nimzowitsch was born into Riga’s Hasidic Jewish community, which was where he learnt chess from his father at the age of eight. And we know that he had many intellectual interests, notably in philosophy, psychology and the arts (at one time he worked as a theatre critic for a Riga newspaper, as well as writing the chess column), as well as an obsession with chess that gradually took hold of him. It is interesting to note that for Blumenfeld, recalling the Nimzowitsch whom he knew as a teenager in the cafes of Berlin, it was ‘incredible that this lively, gifted youth should only become a chess player.’ Blumenfeld’s little-known memoir of Nimzowitsch appeared in the Russian magazine 64 in 1927: one indication of the extensive research that has gone into the writing of the book.

An illness of some seriousness – Nimzowitsch contracted tuberculosis, the first attack coming in 1908 – may well have played a role in curtailing his other ambitions. Never mind the First World War and the Russian Revolution, two world historic events occurring back-to-back that impacted upon his life directly. He was conscripted into the Russian army at one point, despite his medical condition, and he witnessed at close quarters the Bolshevik occupation of Riga. These experiences must have left their mark and may explain some of his eccentric behaviour in later life. He left Riga for good in 1920, first settling in Sweden and then later moving to Denmark.

The authors don’t speculate whether the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a process whereby events at the periphery led eventually to the dissolution of the centre – may have influenced or given rise to the hypermodern mindset. Or indeed whether in managing an unpredictable malady like tuberculosis Nimzowitsch may have hit upon prophylaxis as a richly suggestive metaphor when thinking about chess strategy. One doesn’t have to be (or to have read) Stephen Toulmin, though, to realise that ideas always have a context, both external (historical and cultural) and internal (psychological).

Be assured that, besides the biography, there are plenty of games here too (well over 400), most of them with annotations by Nimzowitsch himself, and many of these culled from out-of-print tournament books, his chess columns in Riga and Scandinavian chess magazines.

All in all, this is an excellent book, well researched and well written, and produced by McFarland to their usual very high standards. I very much look forward to the sequel.

The publisher’s description of Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery, 1886-1924 is here.

Fighting Chess with Hikaru Nakamura

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Fighting Chess with Hikaru Nakamura

By Karsten Müller and Raymund Stolze

Edition Olms, 2012

ISBN: 9783283010232

Fighting Chess with Hikaru Nakamura

A compelling portrait of one of the most exciting players in the world.

Each chapter begins with a game or two from Wijk aan Zee 2011, arguably Nakamura’s breakthrough tournament – he won it, finishing ahead of Anand and Carlsen and several other elite players – then goes on to discuss a key aspect of his game. Nakamura’s prowess in the endgame, his opening repertoire and in particular his penchant for the King’s Indian Defence, the risk-taking and fighting spirit that’s so characteristic of his style, and (of course) his enthusiasm for bullet and blitz: these are some of the topics under discussion. A wide-ranging interview takes up the bulk of chapter 6.

My only slight qualm with the book is the constant comparison with Fischer (particularly prevalent on pages 109-124), which doesn’t do Nakamura any favours and anyway is beside the point. He is an elite player certainly, but he is not and is unlikely to be the dominant force that Fischer once was. Perhaps the comparison is a curse that all talented American grandmasters must endure (Seirawan got it to some extent). Anyway, recent results and interviews suggest that Nakamura has found his own path.

There’s plenty of chess in the book, the final chapter including five of Nakamura’s best games (four chosen by the player himself), but as intimated it is more than simply a games collection. This is a terrific book overall and timely too, in that Nakamura will likely prove to be one of Carlsen’s most dangerous rivals over the coming years.

The publisher’s description of the book is here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

April 12, 2018 at 6:30 pm


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A Compendium of Games, Notes, Articles, Correspondence, Illustrations and Other Rare Archival Materials on the Cuban Chess Genius Jose Raul Capablanca, 1888-1942

By Edward Winter

McFarland, 2011

ISBN: 9780786466344


Every admirer of Capablanca should own this book.

Edward Winter states in his preface that this book ‘is less a biography than a compilation of documents and data’; yet nonetheless, from all that he has assembled, one can glean a vivid picture of the great champion’s life and chess career. We follow his career from prodigy to young pretender, from world champion to aged challenger. Yes, the loss to Alekhine took the wind out of his sails for a bit, but renewal and revitalisation followed soon after.

In the first chapter Winter gives in full Capablanca’s article, ‘How I Learned to Play Chess’, which includes the famous description of how he beat his father in his very first game of chess. He was then just 4 years of age. Further articles by Capablanca and others are quoted later in the same chapter, and indeed throughout the book. There are also interviews conducted at various crucial points in Capablanca’s life, together with transcripts of his broadcasts and lectures. Several games are included, many with annotations by Capablanca himself, and there’s a generous helping of rare photographs. Included also is the chess column where Capablanca introduced the now famous game Ortueta-Sanz to a waiting world.

Winter provides a linking narrative, but actually he does more than that, especially when it comes to discussions of the negotiations for various world championship matches. Capablanca negotiated with Lasker and Alekhine as challenger (after he lost the championship in 1927) and as champion (after beating Lasker in 1921) he received challenges from Rubinstein, Alekhine and Nimzowitsch. The protracted and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations for a rematch with Alekhine take up a fair amount of the book.

One small indication of the character of Capablanca: when he sent a letter of challenge to Alekhine via a friend, it was unsealed, out of courtesy. It was a signal of respect to his friend that he naturally trusted him not to read the letter. On the whole, Capablanca comes across as a person of impeccable manners. He was a great champion and also – consider his many simultaneous displays, his writing for newspapers and chess magazines, his broadcasts and lectures – a great populariser of the game. A perfect ambassador for chess.

As ex-world champion, he continued to show his calibre at such tournaments as Carlsbad 1929, Moscow 1936 and Nottingham 1936. Although he died at the relatively early age of 53, his life was by no means a tragic one. Purdy’s summation of Capablanca seems fair: ‘Let us rejoice that here was one genius who was fully appreciated in his lifetime.’

The publisher’s description of the book is here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

April 3, 2018 at 1:34 pm

My Chess

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My Chess

By Hans Ree

Foreword by Jan Timman

Russell Enterprises, 2013

ISBN: 9781936490677

My Chess

An interesting book bringing together 40-odd articles Ree has written over the years, mostly for New in Chess magazine.

Profiles of one sort or another predominate, whether of world champions (Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov), near-world champions (Bronstein, Kortchnoi, Timman), cultural figures associated with chess (Duchamp, Nabokov) or Dutch players whom Ree has known (with one, Euwe, being also a world champion).

Ree writes about tournament play and the chess club, De Kring, as well. And, like the current world champion (see Carlsen’s recent interview on Norwegian TV) and the Austrian artist Gottfried Helmwein, Ree seems to have a soft spot for Donald Duck.

One sentence struck me. Ree writes of Euwe that, despite his solid establishment status, he preferred to mingle with bohemians rather than ‘respectable plodders’. It struck me because that’s a strand or a subtext running through many of the essays: in the Netherlands, uniquely perhaps, chess is an arena where the bourgeois and bohemian worlds meet.

The essay about Murey is especially beautiful and, in my view, the best in the book.

The publisher’s description is here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

February 28, 2018 at 5:47 pm

Bobby Fischer for Beginners

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Bobby Fischer for Beginners: The Most Famous Chess Player Explained

By Renzo Verwer

New In Chess, 2010

ISBN: 9789056913151

Bobby Fischer for Beginners

As a first port of call for those wishing to learn about Bobby Fischer‘s life and chess career, this book does a fairly good, though by no means perfect job.

Its great advantage is that it takes in the whole of Fischer‘s life, up until his death on 17 January 2008, while quite a few other books end just after the 1972 match with Spassky.

After considering Fischer‘s various contributions to chess (including the invention of the Fischer chess clock and the proposal of Chess 960 or Fischer Random Chess as a way to renew and reinvigorate the game) and outlining what is currently known about his life, 10 of the eleventh world champion’s games are given with light annotations. Most of these games are significant, but at least one (game 5, a 12 move loss from a simultaneous exhibition in 1964) has only curiosity value. It is included only because it is Fischer’s shortest recorded loss.

Some attempt has been made to set out Fischer’s contributions to opening theory (for example, on pages 26, 48 and 62) but this is woefully incomplete. His rejuvenation of the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez at the Havana Olympiad in 1966 is not mentioned – to give but one small omission. Actually, come to think of it, Botterill’s chapter in the collection of Fischer’s games published by Batsford is probably still the best word on this subject; and it was written about 45 years ago.

There’s a reasonably complete set of tournament and match results and the highlighted statistics, such as they are, seem fairly accurate. However, the author seems unaware that Fischer compiled a second top-ten list of great players in 1970 and that this second list included, for example, Botvinnik (who was not in the 1964 list, which is set out in this book on page 119) but excluded the great Alekhine (who was in the 1964 list).

In general, the less you know about Bobby Fischer and in particular his contributions to chess, the happier you will be with this book. This may strike some as a rather back-handed compliment. What I mean is that if you are not ‘a beginner’ when it comes to Fischer, to use Renzo Verwer’s term, then you’ll have an unwelcome awareness of the author’s omissions and of how his sometimes bald statements need to be qualified. If you are ‘a beginner’ or know very little about Bobby Fischer, then Verwer’s book will serve as an adequate introduction to its subject.

The publishers description of the book can be read here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

January 3, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Eminent Victorian Chess Players

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Eminent Victorian Chess Players: Ten Biographies

By Tim Harding

McFarland, 2012

ISBN: 9780786465682

Eminent Victorian Chess Players: Ten Biographies

Here is a book that transports you back to the nineteenth century, to a time when London was the centre of the chess world.

The ten biographical essays, each one diligently researched and vividly written, take a considered look at four giants of the game – Staunton, Steinitz, Blackburne and Zukertort – as well as exploring the lives of some lesser known but still colourful figures. Looking at the likes, for example, of Bird, Evans and Gunsberg.

We learn quite a lot about these men (they are all men, as it happens), and not only about their contribution to chess. As a case in point, consider the good Captain Evans, inventor of the celebrated gambit in the Italian Game, who also came up with the coloured lights system for ships travelling at night. His was a historic contribution to nautical safety which earned him many international plaudits, although, as Harding readily acknowledges, there is much of his life that remains unknown to this day. The Victorians showed great tact and circumspection with respect to any hint of scandal or unconventional social arrangement, an admirable characteristic which (alas!) too often leaves the historian at a loss, dependent on supposition and educated guesswork.

Nonetheless one does get here a very real sense of the uneasy tension between the British players, Staunton and later Blackburne and the latter’s ‘supporters’, various lesser lights who wrote chess columns, and the immigrant players who had newly arrived from Europe. Many of the new arrivals were Jewish, as well as being, more often than not, superior in skill to the home-grown talents, and one cannot deny that there was an anti-Semitic flavour to much of the journalism, as in Duffy’s disgraceful persecution of the great Steinitz (see pages 182-183 of the book). Major sources of tension were professionalism (British sportsmanship versus Continental mercenaries), position and (of course) money – always in short supply.

There are plenty of annotated games, as well as photos and ink drawings of the players, and each essay ends with an assessment of its subject’s contribution to chess. Harding has written an excellent book, and an important one too.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Written by P.P.O. Kane

January 3, 2018 at 11:30 am