The books that have successfully combined chess and humour are few in number.
Offhand, I can recall only three outstanding examples: The Twelve Chairs, a satiric Russian novel of 1928 by Ilf and Petrov, and a couple of more recent efforts, How To Cheat at Chess and Soft Pawn, both from the adept pen of William Hartston. Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin’s book is a creditable addition to their number.
Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess is probably best described as a spoof. The authors adopt the voice and persona of ‘Gary Kasparov’, or rather an imaginary version of the great world champion. Their Kasparov is a little wimpy and whiney at times, and he is prone to blame his mistakes on past champions.
There are twelve chapters, with each one devoted to a prior world champion, from Steinitz to Karpov. Every chapter has more or less the same format. Typically, we see a given world champion making use of a particular tactical motif or strategic device (e.g. Tigran Petrosian’s use of the positional exchange sacrifice) or playing a particular kind of position (say, a rook ending) – and, crucially, succeeding. We then see a game or three where Kasparov makes use of the same stratagem, or finds himself in a similar sort of position, but matters do not turn out so well. The joke (there is just the one) is that Kasparov has simply been aping or superficially emulating the great player’s approach without understanding it fully.
It is a neat conceit, but it does become a bit wearing after a while, and it simply cannot be sustained in a book just shy of three hundred pages. Eventually, one just wants the authors to show the games. Also, some of the analogies drawn between the past champions’ and Kasparov’s games can be misleading, or not awfully enlightening, as to the nature of the chess. A firefly is ‘like’ a fire, but phosphorescence and combustion are quite different processes.
The great virtue of the book is, however, the chess. All of the games involve at least one world-class player, so they are of a very high standard indeed. Generally, the annotations are erudite and enjoyable; the analyses are deep when necessary and seem accurate. There are a number of heavyweight ‘K. versus K.’ encounters, with Kasparov taking on Karpov and later Kramnik.
One overriding message to glean and take home: chess is a concrete game. It is the details, even the quirks of a position, which determine whether a certain approach is appropriate and likely to prevail. Therefore, it is never wise to simply parrot or ape an aspect of a great champion’s play (not that the actual Kasparov has ever done this, mind). Context is all!
Overall, Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess is fun and instructive, though as indicated the humour is a trifle laboured. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.
By Tibor Karolyi and Nick Aplin