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John Watson Book Review (15)

Kings, Commoners, and Knaves; Edward Winter

Kings, Commoners, and Knaves; Edward Winter

Kings, Commoners, and Knaves; Edward Winter; 452 pages; Russell Enterprises Inc, 1999; $29.95

In what is perhaps the central philosophic essay of this book, entitled 'Historical Havoc', Edward Winter makes a few comments which throw into relief his unique position in the chess community. As a 'beneficial innovation', Winter proposes a "research association that [pays] chess history the serious attention that is automatically accorded to other academic domains. Apart from checking manuscripts and coordinating researchers' work to avoid duplication of effort, a chief task would be to index sources...A further essential task is to anthologize all the main games played since chess began, so there finally exists an exhaustive chronicle." Elsewhere, Winter laments: "Newcomers to chess should quickly realize that even basic archival and statistical information is sparse. Sports such as tennis, golf, baseball, and cricket offer their devotees a mass of data in readily available publications, but chess does not."

These comments are indicative of both Winter's scholarly passion and his eccentricity. Academics, at least in the United States, are funded and supported by the government and educational institutions. And, as Winter surely knows, chess history is not yet an accepted academic domain. Apart from the issue of money, there are so few chess historians in the world that a comparison with traditional academic realms is, unfortunately, off-the-mark. As for the sports realm, I was one of those literally hundreds of thousands of kids who grow up devouring books of baseball statistics, as well as similar volumes for other sports . But very few if any of such kids are concerned with the spelling of player's names or their birthdates, as Winter is when it comes to chess history. Rather, they're absorbed with Ty Cobb's batting average or Babe Ruth's home runs, and with endless comparisons between the performance statistics of the great players. That market is driven by the obsession of imaginative youngsters; it's not clear that historical archives about chess have the power to similarly excite readers, with the exception of the scores of the games themselves. In fact, chess history may seem impoverished by comparison to sports history if one only looks at the raw accumulation of details, but it has something which other sports don't: an impressive collection of almost every important game of modern chess, including more games than any student could thoroughly study in a lifetime. A chess score is very different from a game summary or even a baseball box score, in that what players value most about a chess game is included in it, complete with the excitement and tension of the struggle itself. For this reason alone, chess history offers its fans more riches than any other sport, in spite of the technically inferior state of research Winter bemoans.

I'm not saying any of this to 'refute' Winter's arguments, but rather, to point out that his area of interest, which he takes extremely seriously, is a very specialized one, and one which not many people work in. Nor is it an area which is nourished by some mass market demand, as the sports writings he refers to are. Ironically, however, Winter's own writings, which stem from his dedication to this rather obscure field, seem to appeal to quite a large audience. As I carried my copy of Kings, Commoners, and Knaves around the San Francisco area for three weeks, an extraordinary number of club players pawed both at and through it with an enthusiastic interest I seldom see exhibited for the latest opening book. This leads me to a phenomenon I have noticed, related to Winter's work: it seems to me that, to a first approximation and with many exceptions, the chess community can be divided into two camps: 'serious players', whether weak or strong, who often have only minimal interest in the non-playing periphery of the game, and more general 'fans' of the game, a category which might include, for example, book collectors, chess history buffs, intense followers of the latest and oldest tournaments, and players whose fan interest is a major part of their devotion to the game. I have noticed that most of my chess students have libraries reflecting this schism: some have mainly current opening books and books of the how-to-improve variety, whereas others' collections are made up of the sorts of books with which Kings, Commoners, and Knaves concerns itself, e.g., games collections of the older masters, histories of the game, books of stories and anecdotes, tournament books, and in general, books reflecting an interest in the game's romantic past. Just a look at Winter's biography will indicate the sort of books I mean, although naturally there are many books on his list which only a serious collector would own.

This long introduction is meant to answer a primary question about any book: Who is it forÿ I believe that Kings, Commoners, and Knaves is primarily for the second category of fan, devotees whose main interest is not with the game as played (the moves, analysis, theory, competitive techniques, etc.), but with the history, politics, and anecdotal side of chess. Naturally, there are plenty of players who belong to both categories, but one had better have a well-developed taste for chess trivia, the Old Masters, and the minutiae of biographical detail to truly enjoy this book. By contrast, the response of players in the first category above to much of Winter's work would probably be a big 'So whatÿ'. They simply won't find much that conforms to their interest in moves and strategies. Hopefully, the reader of this review knows more-or-less to which camp he or she belongs, and can therefore make an educated guess as to whether this book will fit one's tastes.

The author of Kings, Commoners, and Knaves is probably best known for his syndicated column 'Chess Notes', which now appears in the magazine New In Chess. A collection of writings from that column was published in this book's precursor, Chess Explorations. Winter also writes for the Internet site The Chess Cafe (, and for other periodicals. Because the book is a collection of these mostly short essays about disparate subjects, Kings, Commoners, and Knaves is organized in fairly loose fashion. The chapter titles are Positions, Games, Openings, Miscellaneous, Gaffes, Mysteries, Reviews, and Quotes. The first chapter is a series of problems and some game excerpts, whose unifying elements seem to be (a) the presence of a tactic which appeals to Winter, and (b) some 'historical' connection, e.g., they tend to be taken from old magazines and newspapers columns and mostly refer to compositions or games from the first half of the century or earlier. The second chapter, 'Game s', also retains this historical emphasis. It is a very long chapter, and includes an extensive analytical article comparing several great players' notes to Capablanca-Bogoljubow, Moscow 1925. The game and notes are then analyzed by Richard Forster, who incidentally provides analytic help throughout the book. Mostly, however, the games and game excerpts of this chapter are presented without serious notes, and are characterized by a flashy (often elementary) tactic. Again, the success of these chapters depends upon the reader's interest. It would be easy to select a more compelling set of problems, positions, and games; but if the reader is attracted by the historical dressing (e.g., the fact that one such problem is the only one Euwe ever composed), then these chapters might have special appeal.

'Openings' is a short chapter, mostly about when an opening was first played or how it was named. There is also an interesting and well-written overview of early Scotch Game theory stemming from Steinitz and Zukertort. Winter, in the 'Historical Havoc' essay, complains about contemporary opening books, saying that "historical ignorance of the openings is rampant, with writers regularly analysing from scratch positions already meticulously examined in the past". This strikes me as a typical overstatement. The Scotch example is the only one I found in Winter's current work, and it isn't a very good one. When I compared contemporary Scotch Game theory and the above article, I didn't see anything from the latter that I would add to the former, or anything in the article which contradicts current theory. I also wonder how 'regularly' I (or other opening book authors) analyze opening positions which have already been 'meticulously' analyzed by othersÿ I rather doubt that this is a frequent occurrence.

'Miscellaneous' is a chapter of odds and ends, from a discussion of the termination of the first Karpov-Kasparov match (with a distinct bias against Kasparov's camp), to tidbits about the authorship of Bronstein's 1953 Zurich Candidates Tournament book, to various opinions of Janowsky's play. I enjoyed this entertaining chapter. In 'Gaffes', Winter moves into the area he is perhaps best known for: exposing errors in the literature. His favorite targets are Raymond Keene and Eric Schiller, with Andy Soltis and GM Larry Evans getting harsher treatment than most. Typical mistakes Winters points out include the wrong dates for games, misspellings of players' names, wrong dates of birth and death, and false claims about various historical events. This can get awfully dull, and for me, the funniest part of this chapter concerns the response of authors and publications to being corrected. Keene, for example, had said that it was 'staggering' that Steinitz had such an 'abysmal' tournament rec ord in the period 1886-1894. When Winter pointed out that Steinitz hadn't played a single tournament in that period, the unflappable Keene merely replied that by calling it 'abysmal', he was criticizing Steinitz' lack of activity! This refusal of authors to admit errors is a consistent theme in Winter's writings. I should also say that Winter's use of irony and sarcasm can sometimes make an obscure technical correction highly entertaining.

There follow 12 pages of high-quality photographs in the middle of the book, including ones of many great players such as Steinitz, Lasker, Pillsbury, Nimzowitsch, Euwe, Alekhine, and Capablanca. These are not photos I've seen elsewhere, and will be enjoyed by fans of the Old Masters. The next chapter, 'Mysteries', deals with unsolved questions or issues of chess history. Many readers will be interested in Winter's take on the question of whether Alekhine was a Nazi. His conclusion is not definitive, but he does say that "it is difficult to construct much of a defence for Alekhine." Another entertaining discussion in this chapter deals with the gold coins which spectators supposedly threw on Marshall's board at the end of his famous game against Levitsky. Accounts of this event, even by those claiming close knowledge, are amusingly varied.

The last two chapters are called 'Reviews' and 'Quotes'. 'Quotes' is, as you might expect, a series of quotations, mainly from well-known players of yore. As before, this is the sort of thing history buffs love, but will probably not excite the young, ambitious player. Quite amusing are some severely critical (and entertaining) quotes by famous players about their chief rivals. This chapter is a light and friendly way to close the book.

I have left 'Reviews' for last, because it returns to the question of Winter's philosophy with which we opened this review. Winter's book reviews are mainly, and appropriately, about books which are historical and/or encyclopedic in nature. There is probably no one better at finding the numerous factual errors in Divinsky's Chess Encyclopedia or in the Larousse du jeu d'echecs. But when he reviews other types of books, Winter's perspective seems limited. For example, his review of Karpov's Chess Is My Life (1981), enthuses over 'many unexpected touches of wit and intriguing examples of razor-sharp observation', citing some broad comments Karpov makes about other top players (personally, I found these overgeneral and dull, but each to his own). At the same time, he laments the 'disappointingly few revelations about the subject's private life, inner thoughts, or even study or training routines.' This attitude is both strange (to me) and typical. I well remember, when I first got this bo ok, that I was excited because of Karpov's annotations, and because the book presented the chess highlights of the tournaments he participated in. If I were reviewing the book, I'm sure that I would put at least half of my emphasis on this (chess) aspect of the book; after all, Karpov's notes are the recorded thoughts of one of the great geniuses of the game. But Winter barely mentions the games (once). Sometimes, it seems as though he has almost no interest in chess itself, preferring generalities, quotes, and issues outside of the play, with a few simple problems or obvious tactics interspersed. Again, this approach is perfectly okay in principle; but how would the average reader of Winter's review be able to decide if he wants the bookÿ

The other issue related to these reviews is Winter's tendency to take sides. For someone who is so admirably concerned with the accuracy of the written word, one would think that objectivity would also be of primary importance. But Winter seems to stick with his heroes and his villains, come what may, and is very selective in what he reports about them. Kings, Commoners, and Knaves has only bad things to say about Kasparov, for example, and puts a consistently negative spin on whatever he says. At the same time, Fischer is remarkably exempt from criticism (with one very qualified exception), and the subject of some fawning praise. At one point, Winter combines these points of view in this sweeping statement: "In other words, Fischer is neither diplomatic nor hypocritical, and, right or wrong, he has kept his beliefs and principles intact for 30 years. Kasparov has trouble not contradicting himself over what he said last Tuesday." Although I'm sure that Winter would staunchly defend hi s point of view, the careful reader will soon realize how one-sided and pre-ordained such conclusions are. I also have problems with Winter's tendency to condemn in blanket fashion. Citing just one advertisement he disapproves of, Winter claims that Graham Burgess and Murray Chandler are "just a routine part of the United Kingdom's injurious coterie or chess writers, editors, and publishers." He also targets Burgess elsewhere in the book. The problem is, this 'injurious coterie' probably publishes more high-quality and original chess material every year than the rest of the world combined. Again, Winter's neglect of the playing side of the game apparently leads him to regard the rash of books from the major British publishers as some sort of cheap, insidious tide, when in fact the quality and accuracy of analysis and writing from authors like Burgess and Chandler (as well as, for example, Gallagher, Nunn, Emms, and Wells) is higher than I've ever experienced in my 30 years as an avid reader of chess books. In fact, these authors' dedication when it comes to presenting actual chess ideas reminds me of Winter's own when presenting chess history. If Winter were aware of that, it might temper his criticism, or at least confine it to matters of historical accuracy.

Apart from Fischer, who does Winter likeÿ Well, not surprisingly, he admires a number of historical writers such as Jeremy Gaige, John Hilbert, and Eduard Shekhtman, among others. He makes the excellent point that such gentlemen labor in obscurity, and deserve a far wider audience. I trust his opinions in this area, which seem to conform to my friend John Donaldson's, another paragon of historical erudition. On the other hand, I don't believe that Winter is qualified to call Hugh Myers an 'openings expert' (elsewhere he is called a 'luminary'), any more than I would be qualified to call Divinsky an 'expert chess historian'. But Myers is one of his consistent favorites, and gets treated accordingly. In general, Winter seems to feel that most writers are either the 'good guys' or the knaves, and allows for very little middle ground.

It must be granted that my misgivings above are mostly of a philosophic nature, and hardly affect the inherent interest or entertainment value of this book. Criticisms aside, Kings, Commoners, and Knaves is a refreshing and important addition to the literature. It's true that many 'player's players' will probably be bored with the subject matter, and needn't bother with it. But I'm also persuaded that a large number of fans of the game, and especially of the game's history, will consider it a great pleasure and a tremendous bargain at the price. Just be sure to decide where your interests lie before you invest your time and money.

NIC Grischuk

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