"The March of Chess Ideas" by Anthony Saidy

"The March of Chess Ideas" by Anthony Saidy

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This week's review of The March of Chess Ideas by IM Anthony Saidy might be my last "My Bookshelf" article. I say "might" because you never know, I could change my mind. First of all, although I have heard that some people like the book reviews, I never felt that they had the chess substance which should be in an article. Also I am once again in the Balkans and will be playing some tournaments, so I plan to write about those and the associated experiences, as I have done in the past. When I return to the U.S. I will change the topic of my column to some other thing - I am not sure what yet.

I will soon be playing two big tournaments in Bulgaria on the Black Sea, one in Albena and one in Golden Sands. After that I will head back to Serbia for two more tournaments, one in Novi Sad and one in Paracin, and then I will go to the Czech Open in Pardubice.


The aptly-named Golden Sands, Bulgaria

Allow me for one moment to advertise the tournaments in Serbia - the one in Novi Sad is organized by my friend GM Sinisa Drazic and takes place from June 28th to July 4th. I played there in 2011 and it was a good tournament. Since then it has grown and there are now around 12 grandmasters pre-registered. You can find information about it on the website (it's on the right side of the page). Immediately after the tournament, there is a music festival in Novi Sad - the Exit Festival, which is one of the biggest music festivals in Europe. Unfortunately I can't go to that, because the tournament in Paracin begins immediately after the one in Novi Sad. The Paracin tournament is, I think, the strongest yearly open tournament in Serbia, and will have many grandmasters playing, and high prizes. You can find information about the tournament here. So, if you want to play a few tournaments in a row in the summer (there is also another after Paracin, taking place in the city of Senta, and you can find information about that from the other organizers), consider these tournaments. The costs are pretty low and the conditions are good.


Chess-crazed Serbia, witten here in the Cyrillic "Србија" 

But now on to the review of The March of Chess Ideas. This is a book about the history of the development of chess ideas, from the Romantic Era of Anderssen and Morphy up to Kasparov (the book was published in 1994). The first chapter is a rather wistful  introduction to chess in general and its origin. This is followed by fairly short chapters on the Romantic Era, the Classical Era, and the Hypermoderns (in which he also introduces Alekhine). But the majority of the book consists of chapters about various strong and influential players from around 1940 until 1990 - Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Keres, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Larsen, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Korchnoi, and Kasparov. In each of these chapters Saidy includes games by the player and also descriptions of him as a chess player and a person. For instance, Reshevsky's chapter is "The Spirit of Survival"; Tal's is "The Psychology of Magic"; Fischer's is "The Limits of Genius". He makes each player a role in defining what chess is.

Throughout the book there is a clear dichotomy between the poles of Science and Art, Logic and Creativity. Saidy writes in a very romantic way and clearly comes down on the side of art and creativity. He also shows how each of the players he sees as "scientists", "logicians", or even "anti-heroes" (as the chapter on Petrosian is named) played their crucial role in the development of chess ideas. In the first chapter Saidy introduces this dichotomy and relates it to yin and yang, with yang being the scientific, analytical, and technical side of chess. Yin represents the creative and intuitive side. Throughout the whole book this duality is hardly below the surface.


Where I got it

Yet again I don't know where I got this book. Probably I should have just excluded this section altogether. For instance, when I did a review of 100 Soviet Chess Miniatures, I wrote that I did not know where I got it. A week or so later, I met a friend from college who informed me that he had sold it to me back then.

I am sure I had this book by 1995, so it was probably new when I bought it - thus I most likely got it from a catalogue.

What's good about it

This is a great introduction to chess for an amateur player. It shows that chess is more than just a game and is much richer than someone who just started to play might think. That said, it is probably not for a total beginner - the annotated games and ideas involved might be a little too complicated. I think a lot of chess players should read this, particularly those who think chess is just a way to show how smart they are.

The games are annotated fairly lightly, although there is some analysis, particularly at points where it is necessary. As with the whole book, the notes have a bent that is descriptive, romantic, and "epicurean", with the intention of appreciating the game, rather than trying to analyze it completely. I think it is enough to learn plenty from the games.

IM Anthony Saidy
In every field it is important to learn what has come before in order to understand the current state of knowledge. For example, in chemistry you learn about the beginnings of the science, about the Mendeleev Table, and so on. Only then do you move on to the most recent things. It should be the same with chess. You will have a better understanding of current chess play if you can see how it developed. And this book helps to do that.

How it impacted me

Doubtless I learned a lot about the development of chess from this book. It surely helped me to see chess as more than just a game (although I don't think that I did by any means at that point). I am not sure to what extant the book introduced me to the featured players. I feel that I already knew them all by that point, but surely it shaped my understanding of their place in chess. I do believe that this book introduced me to the idea of the above-mentioned duality, if it had not occurred to me yet.

An Excerpt

I feel that excerpts speak well for this book, so I will include a few. First, various quotes from the first chapter, "Chess: Origin and Meaning":

            "No one knows today precisely when and how chess was conceived in the mind of ancient man. But nearly everyone who loves the game has some suspicion of why.

            Across the centuries chess has come to us with manifold changes, replete with myths and legends and symbolizing man's history and struggle....

            What, then, is the essence of chess? Let us begin with its most evident characteristics and then go on to the less obvious qualities.

            Chess is clearly a war game. It shows us two opposing armies comprised of royal hierarchies and their assembled soldiers. World Champion Emanuel Lasker attributed its popularity to human delight in a fight. To him, chess was an intellectual microcosm of the struggle of all life - scientific and artistic yes, but not a true science or art. Thus, Lasker left us no new strategy or a legacy of beautiful games. Rather, his games exhibited the quality of that mythical being he postulated in a philosophical writing, the Macheide (Son of Battle) - evolving through eons of struggle and natural selection, reaching a peak of indomitability.


            But chess is more than a game, a fight. It is a science, with man-made principles, recorded data, hypotheses subject to an ultimate proof - defeat or victory. It can be viewed, if you wish, purely technically, as a body of knowledge and applied principles with ever-widening frontiers and increasing refinement. Chess may thus be compared to a closed system in the physical universe; in order to master it, one must simply discover its rules as a chemist discovers the underlying dynamics of matter. When one plays over a game by a fine technician, one receives a sense of rightness and the impression that the master has penetrated very deeply indeed into the workings of the chess pieces.

            Moreover, and most importantly, chess is a creative art. It has within it that element which I believe delights human nature even more than a fight - beauty. There is the beauty of a fine technical performance, comparable to a well-chiseled render of Bach...

            This book is essentially about the great chess players of our time, and their ideas. I have come to perceive their symbolic relationship to Caissa, the goddess of chess.


            Few really knew her; some encounter her without recognition. Yet it is for her favor that we strive as we bend our efforts toward chess art. it is she whose symbolic presence and promise of reward drive on the chess giants locked in combat...

            When I allude to Caissa in the pages below, many will regard her only as a poetic metaphor. But I am not speaking of any objective reality - rather, I am speaking of the inner one, the life of symbols. And the inner reality of things is the most difficult of all truths to discover.

And now from the chapter on Bent Larsen, "Larsen: The Vitality of Romance":

            A rich position! Here again we see the perennial collision of two conflicting concepts of chess.

            In the subtle mind of Petrosian, where control of key squares is paramount, Black's serpentine maneuvers have neutralized the attack, and he is ready with the counterthreats of ...Nxe4, ...e5, and perhaps ...f5 to assert dominance in the center. If White plays 20.Bxc5 dxc5 21.Nf6 (or 21.Qxc5 Bxd5 22.Rxd5 Qb6 with a likely draw) 21...Bxf6 22.Rxd8 Raxd8 23.Qe2 or 23.Qc2 Rd4, Black has ample compensation for the queen. A technician would conclude that White's attack has spent itself.

            Larsen, on the other hand, has part of his spiritual ancestry from the old Romantic players who delighted in the quest for beautiful combinations. They cared not for scientific certainties. In pursuit of their ideal they were willing to risk much more than "trifles" like weak squares and pawn deficits. So, faithful to the goddess whose favor he always expects, Larsen finds a striking way to continue the attack.

            20. e5!!

            An extraordinary sacrifice, the point of the last three moves. It opens no new line but merely diverts Black's g7-bishop to a square from which it must soon move again. Thus the move only gains a single tempo. But after Black has used two moves to play his rook from f8 back to f8, and three tempi to get his knight from e6 to c5, this single tempo more makes a crucial difference. If Black declines the pawn he is positionally lost.

And finally, here is the last part on the chapter about Botvinnik - "Botvinnik: The March of Science" - which is, sadly, very relevant to our times and rather prescient.

The Encroachment of the Machine

In latter years Botvinnik, whose rigorous play has been compared to that of an invincible machine, has increasingly turned his attention to the chess-playing computer. His expectations (1968) in this field were tremendous: "Computers will very soon be able to defeat even grandmasters" (!). What future does that prospect hold for the creative art of chess, the dramatic, human struggle? Is it not a prospect of creative doom and dehumanization, indeed the very death of chess?


            Paradoxically, Botvinnik envisions that in the era of victorious machines chess will have added prestige, the grandmasters' reputations will be enhanced, great numbers of talented players will be attracted to chess. Such, it seems, is the glamour of the machine in our technological age.

            It is necessary to interject that science and technology are not unlimited boons; they have also a destructive potential. Just as man's technological products now threaten to engulf him physically, an ultra-scientific frame of mind can lead to spiritual sterility. In chess the power of unlimited analysis, should it ever be gained by a machine, will do chiefly one thing: destroy that which we love. Chess lovers will always demand to see human, flesh-and-blood chess artists in creative combat, in preference to any computer!

            This writer knows little about computers but still has hastens to affirm: There will never be a computer that can play chess like Fischer, any more than there will be a machine that can compose music like Mozart. Because the thought processes of an artist cannot be captured in electronic cells. And, we must state again, chess is an art.

Any Downsides?

As you can probably tell, Saidy is very much a romantic. Sometimes his language is a little over-the-top and overly-mystical. He repeats many times that chess is an art and mentions Caissa a lot. I feel that some people might find this a little annoying, but it is still a good book.

Aside from that, you should know that Saidy pretty much includes only the most famous games of each player portrayed. A very knowledgeable chess player might have already seen almost every game in the book.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Red wine. phpK9LnLL.jpeg

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