Countless chess “fans” say:
“Please talk about chess moves and only chess moves!”
Dear “chess moves and only chess moves” fans:
Ever since I first put chess pen to chess paper, I have run into people that scream to the heavens when anything is mentioned other than chess moves, variations, and/or a description of an event that, in my view, proves professional players are as dull and lifeless and nerdy as the public thinks us to be. In their minds, “tournament color” should be, “We played chess, we talked about opening variations, we were proud to be representing whatever nation we came from, and then we played more chess.” Exciting, heady stuff indeed!
This image relegated us to nerdy obscurity, and the public’s interest in our game held firm at “nonexistent” to “piteous.” In fact, chess only hit the map when a bad boy appeared in the guise of Robert Fischer. He was highly intelligent, and charismatic in a “look you in the eye and snarl” kind of way. Women found him attractive, men worshipped him, American patriots embraced him (the man that stood alone vs. the Soviet chess machine), and everyone was suddenly talking about chess, international intrigue, and the vast amounts of money that he insisted he deserved (our present crop of chess millionaires would not exist without Fischer’s “outrageous” – or so they were called at the time – demands).
Chess suddenly was hot, thanks to the use of the always-successful (check out pro-wresting as proof of this) “good guy vs. bad guy” paradigm (in Fischer’s case, some people viewed Bobby as the bad guy and Spassky as the hero – the ability to pick either one as the guy with the white hat made the whole situation even more rabidly addictive). The English, realizing what was happening, created their own brand of “good vs. evil” by coming up with a chess television show that featured a couple of home grown “good boys” vs. a couple of “evil commies”. The ratings went through the roof, and English citizens sat glued to their television even if they didn’t know how to play chess!
But, one lone man can’t keep a revolution steaming along by himself, and with Fischer’s retirement from chess (and the public eye) after his match in Iceland, chess once again fell into the realm of party jokes about freaks with large foreheads playing 40 people at the same time.
As a 12 year old who was just starting out on his personal “chess road,” chess overwhelmed my imagination not only because of the beauty of the moves and tactics and strategies, but because of its history and the personalities that inhabited it. To me, a sport’s figure (baseball, soccer, football, etc.) that announced that he would give 110% and then grunted his way to victory, couldn’t hold a candle to the highly intelligent, incredibly colorful, fascinating geniuses that ruled the 64 squares.
Thus, though I would study master games and openings for many hours each and every day, I would put in equal time reading about Philidor, Morphy, Steinitz, and all the rest that followed. I read about the Philidor family’s deep royal connection to music, how court musicians would often play chess when extra time presented itself, how he was singing in the choir at the age of six, how he composed music, played chess, and traveled all over Europe living a life that transcended any one creative outlet. I read of Steinitiz’s reaction to various personal tragedies, his poverty, and his eventual descent into madness. I reveled in tales of Capablanca’s womanizing, the tragedy of Alekhine’s demise, Lasker’s multi-field genius, Tal’s drinking (and the devastating effect it had on his health), and also was moved by the poverty that affected the lives of so many – Carl Schlechter, who was a heartbeat away from the World Championship, being a particularly sad example.
But, though I couldn’t stop reading about my many chess idols, another addiction also appeared: famed players who wielded rapier pens. At first I basked in the undercurrent of energy found in Alekhine’s notes, but then I discovered Tal’s highly personal prose, Larsen’s wit and humor, Donner’s acid (but oh-so-funny) tales, and finally Georg Marco (1863-1923), who in my view is one of the greatest chess writer’s of all time. His mix of insight, humor, instruction, historical perspective, and energy has never been surpassed. Check out my review of the KARLSBAD 1907 International Tournament, and his notes, HERE.
Many years ago I wrote a piece in Chess Life Magazine where I recommended that chess teachers use a cattle prod on inattentive students. After all, the students are paying us a lot of money to make them better, so if they are having trouble concentrating, isn’t it our duty to do something to wake them up? Thus, an electric shock to the genitals will ensure that they retain their attention for the rest of the lesson, and for any other lessons in the future. Ah, the hate mail that poured in after that article appeared! Comments like, “How dare Silman electrocute his opponents! Why hasn’t he been arrested?” still make me smile to this day (alas, satire is a foreign word to too many chess fans).
Clearly, I don’t believe in “chess moves and only chess moves.” After reading a modern chess biography where the author offered a wealth of wonderful chess and moves, but only seemed to gives us trips to one hotel after another (plus a bit of math) in his life notes, I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to share my vision of a true chess bio with the world. Thus my book, PAL BENKO: MY LIFE, GAMES and COMPOSITIONS, was “born.” Note that a real bio isn’t just about one player and his chess. It gives deep insights into how he interacted with other greats of his day, how poverty and/or politics affected his life and career, and how relationships, education, and other interests ultimately help or hinder his rise up the chess ranks.
And this takes us back to the “chess moves and only chess moves” fans. I get it; you don’t like me equating chess with real life. You find it distasteful, sour, bothersome, classless, an insult to all that’s holy. And when I dare mention women and chess in the same sentence … well, I’m shocked that a fatwa hasn’t been placed on my heretical head.
I hear you! And I reject you (we’re not a good match, so let’s get a divorce and live our respective lives in peace). I will ALWAYS mix instructive prose (or a basic answer to a basic question) with (if possible) humor, sexuality, history, raw life experience, and anything else I can toss in the mix. For those that hate this, stop posting your repetitive comments to that effect and just skip my column, avoid my books, and run out of the room if you happen to see me lecturing at some event (cause I’m far “worse” in person). And, if you like some of what my column offers but get uncomfortable when I let loose, please accept that this will occur from time to time – if it offends you, just leave my page and pretend that it never happened.
In many ways these people remind me of someone that hates pasta but goes to the same Italian restaurant once a week, only to sit down and look at the menu, scream, “Pasta again?” and walk out in a huff. In other words, if you look at my stuff it will indeed be, “Silman again.” If you must share your outrage that I’m me with the masses, save us the usual rude tirade and just type, “Silman again?” We’ll know what you mean.
Finally, I wish to put out a plea to everyone to try and give chess history a shot. You’ll find that it makes the game much richer and more colorful than you might have imagined, and that the many characters you read about will inspire you to seek more detailed tomes on your new chess heroes. DO read “batgirl’s” historical pieces (great stuff – right here on chess.com, of course! She’s doing everyone a fantastic public service.), and GM Becerra’s introductory articles on various overlooked but important chess players from the past, and if you find that these whet your taste for more, check out some of the following books:
THE LIFE AND GAMES OF MIKHAIL TAL by Tal. Great games, great notes, great tales of his life from Tal’s pen to you. Many consider this to be the greatest chess book of all time.
GRANDMASTER OF CHESS in 3 volumes: The Early Games, The Middle Years, and the Later Years. If you can find the original 1965 Arco hardcover editions, grab them as fast as you can! Keres pretty much sticks with chess, but his games, the amazing notes, and the honest/thought provoking prose that precedes them makes these books nothing less than fantastic.
THE LIFE OF PHILIDOR: Musician and Chess-Player by George Allen. Originally published in 1865, so the English is old-style (which makes it very hard – at times agonizing – to read, but the material is priceless). Reprinted by Moravian Chess: http://www.moravian-chess.cz/
DE LA BOURDONNAIS VERSUS MCDONELL, 1834 by Gary Utterberg (McFarland & Company, 2005). Very expensive, but your public library might have it. Contains all 85 games (all annotated - played in 6 matches) from their epic battle for world chess supremacy. This legendary contest will blow you away, and Utterberg’s study of the players and the times they lived in will enrich your knowledge of history and give you a far greater understanding of how these chess legends survived (or didn’t survive!) in those long past days.
PAUL MORPHY: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess by David Lawson. The best book/biography on Morphy – nothing else comes close. Over 400 pages of juicy Morphy-flavored goodness.
CAPABLANCA by Edward Winter (McFarland, 1989). The cover’s subtitle explains everything: A Compendium of Games, Notes, Articles, Correspondence, Illustrations and Other Rare Archival Materials on the Cuban Genius Jose Raul Capablanca, 1888-1942. If you’re a Capa fan, then this is a must-buy.
COMPLETE GAMES OF ALEKHINE by Kalendovsky & Fiala in three volumes: Volume 1 covers 1892 – 1921, Volume 2 covers 1921 – 1924, and Volume 3 covers 1925 – 1927. Gives ALL Alehkine’s games (most with notes), crosstables, and unparalleled details about his life in chess and life away from chess. From his battles for recognition, to how he made his living before becoming famous, to his attempted suicide with a butter knife, to his bizarre taste in women, to his fall before the god of alcohol. When I read these books (yes, they are in English), I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Nothing else comes close. You can find these incredible tomes at: http://www.moravian-chess.cz/
A.ALEKHINE: Agony of a Chess Genius by Pablo Moran (McFarland, 1989). Covers his final (miserable) years, from 1943 to 1946 (a perfect complement to the 3 book series mentioned above). Amazing stuff! The following words of Alekhine put it into perspective: “Plans? What plans can I have? The best part of my life has passed away between two world wars that have laid Europe waste. Both wars ruined me, with this difference: at the end of the first war I was 26 years of age, with an unbounded enthusiasm I no longer have. If, sometime, I write my memoirs – which is very possible – people will realize that chess has been a minor factor in my life. It gave me the opportunity to further an ambition and at the same time convinced me of the futility of the ambition. Today, I continue to play chess because it occupies my mind and keeps me from brooding and remembering.”
FRANK MARSHALL, UNITED STATES CHESS CHAMPION: A Biography of 220 Games by Andy Soltis (McFarland, 1994). Soltis’ masterpiece.
EMANUEL LASKER, 2ND WORLD CHAMPION by Isaac and Vladimir Linder (Russell Enterprises, 2010). Other than the monster (over a thousand pages long!) EMANUEL LASKER: DENKER WELTENBURGER SCHACHWELTMEISTER, which is only in German, the book by the Linder brothers is the best thing I’ve ever seen on Lasker.
BLINDFOLD CHESS: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games by Eliot Hearst and John Knott (McFarland, 2009). 437 pages of pure historical gold.
Finally, I noticed that various readers wanted to read more about Reuben Fine. Fine himself wrote a book of his best games titled, LESSONS FROM MY GAMES: A Passion for Chess (Van Rees Press, 1958). I’ve seen many copies in various used bookstores, so I’m sure you can pick it up if you’re so inclined (it’s available on www.alibris.com for a bit over $8.00). The ultimate book on Fine is: REUBEN FINE: A Comprehensive Record of an American Chess Career 1929-1951 by Aidan Woodger (McFarland, 2004). Another very expensive tome, but many public libraries have it.
Please keep in mind that I’ve only given you a taste –- there are enough magnificent history-oriented chess books out there to keep an avid reader happy for a couple of lifetimes.