Max Euwe's little-known masterpiece
Max Euwe, 1924 (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy of the Memory of the Netherlands)

Max Euwe's little-known masterpiece


In the summer of 1972, when Gennadi Sosonko left Russia for the West, his luggage consisted "entirely of a strong desire to leave the country, a rather sketchy impression of the world that lay beyond its borders, and a suitcase full of books."

As Sosonko wrote in 2001 in his fond remembrance of Max Euwe for ChessCafe:

According to the rules I was allowed to carry out only books printed in the country after 1945; books printed before that date required special permission. Overcoming the obstacles thrown up by the bureaucracy, I obtained the desired stamp from the Ministry of Culture – “Permission given to remove from the USSR” – for a book printed in 1936.

This was a chess book. I had used it more than once to give children lessons in the Leningrad House of Pioneers, where I had worked as a trainer; to this day, I consider it one of the best chess books ever. I still have it. The title page reads: Max Euwe / A Course of Lectures on
Chess. On the publisher’s page is its title in Dutch Practische schaaklessen.

Sosonko's words were the first I had ever heard of this book by Max Euwe but he is far from alone in praising it.

In The Complete Manual of Positional Chess: The Russian Chess School 2.0, Konstantin Sakaev and Konstantin Landa single out Euwe's Lectures as one of a handful of the best books to study.

In The Art of the Endgame, Jan Timman (whose parents were friends with Euwe, with his father being a fellow mathematician and his mother having been one of Euwe's students in her youth) recommends it, sharing this memory from his childhood:

The world of chess was the most fascinating. I devoured Euwe’s books. The memory of the game Réti-Alekhine, an notated in his book Practical Chess Lessons [a/k/a Practische schaaklessen], which never ceased to amaze me: the black rook appearing on e3 and remaining en prise there for several moves.

In 1981, Anatoly Karpov, then reigning World Champion, offered these words in celebration of Euwe's 80th birthday:

I have the warmest memories of Max Euwe.... A Course of Lectures on Chess by Euwe is one of the first books where I got an idea about how chess theory developed, about the contribution of the first classic games to the art of chess.

And listen to what Tigran Petrosian said on the same occasion:

I was 13 or 14 years old when a textbook by Euwe that is now a bibliographic rarity fell into my hands. I still remember well that the book called A Course of Lectures on Chess was my favorite book and I studied it very thoroughly. 

For a book that earned the admiration of top grandmasters and two World Champions, this particular work by Euwe has proven remarkably difficult to track down (at least for someone who doesn't speak Dutch).

Here's what I've been able to discover.

Practische schaaklessen 

Practische schaaklessen was first published in 1904 and its first edition is freely available (in Dutch) on Google Books (with thanks to the Princeton University Library and its alumnus Eugene B. Cook, a prolific problemist, the compiler of American Chess-Nuts and the man whose name may well have inspired the phrase "to cook" a chess problem). 

H.J. den Hertog, 1914, then a member of Amsterdam's City Council
(Photo courtesy of Memory of the Netherlands)

Since Max Euwe was born in 1901 and was three years old when the book came out, he, as you might imagine, was not its original author. That was Herman Johannes den Hertog (1872—1952), a Dutch chess player, teacher, composer, conductor and alderman. While den Hertog is a new name to me, has 15 games of his on file. I especially like this Vienna gambit game he played in 1904, the same year as his book came out, where, playing Black, he beat the man who four years earlier had been the unofficial Dutch champion.

Den Hertog's Practische schaaklessen proved popular enough that by the 1920s its publisher G.B. Van Goor Zonen decided to come out with a new version.

By that time, however, its original author, who must have been a very interesting man, had moved onto politics and, to the extent that he had any free time (which, given that he and his wife were raising two sons, must not have been much), he was occupied with composing and conducting music and directing choir works, which is why he not only could not revise the book but more basically did not write the remaining volumes of what had originally been planned as a series.

In addition, readers had discovered various errors in the original work that required correction, thus requiring an expert's eye to take a fresh look at the entire work.

Fortunately, Max Euwe was the man for the job. By 1926, he had won and twice defended the Dutch chess championship (an unbroken streak that lasted through 1952 and was capped with a twelfth championship in 1954), along the way racking up match and tournament wins against Bogoljubov, Colle, Maroczy, Reti, Rubinstein, Saemisch, Tarrasch and Znosko-Borovsky, all while regularly writing chess columns for Dutch newspapers. 

As Emanuel Lasker, whom Euwe beat at a simul in 1920, recognized, Euwe was "a great connoisseur of theory." Accordingly, Euwe started by writing a new Part 3 dedicated to the opening, which came out in 1927, and then revising the original Parts 1, which covered the rules and the pieces, and 2, which gave an overview of the game.

Euwe transformed a forgettable work into a classic. The revised Practische schaaklessen, bearing the names of both den Hertog and Euwe, was a hit.

By 1963, it was in its 13th printing and still going strong.

Ultimately Practische schaaklessen ended up as a six-part set, listing Euwe as the sole author and reforming the spelling of its title to Praktische schaaklessen:

  1. Introduction
  2. Overview of opening, middle game and endgame
  3. Opening Repetoire
  4. Theoretical and practical endgame
  5. Judgment and planning
  6. Advanced endgame

According to Euwe's biographer, "together with the unsurpassed Strategy and Tactics (1927) and its sequel Judgment and Plan (1953)," Practische schaaklessen "is undoubtedly one of the best books in Euwe's oeuvre of more than 80 titles." 

The non-existent Practical Chess Lessons

If I only spoke Dutch, I could just pick up Praktische schaaklessen online, where it's still readily available, but Ik spreek geen Nederlands so I started looking for an English translation. 

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Practische schaaklessen was never translated into English, not even after Euwe became World Champion. I'm guessing that what would be the natural English-language title, Practical Chess Lessons, which sounds rather dry, didn't help to spark interest.

The closest you can get in English is The Development of Chess Style, a 1968 translation of Euwe's 1966 Veldheerschap op de Vierenzestig that John Nunn updated in 1997. In the Preface, Euwe writes:

The last part of my book Praktische Schaaklessen contained a certain amount of chess history. This, with a little revision and a great deal of amplification, forms the basis of the present work. In particular, games and characteristic features of the play of the most outstanding masters of the last fifty years have been added. 

But as good as it is, The Development of Chess Style isn't the book that inspired Petrosian and Karpov. For that, we need to find the Russian version of Practische Schaaklessen.

Курс шахматных лекций

While Euwe's Practische schaaklessen appears to have been little read in the West outside of the Netherlands (I can't find translations into other Western European languages), it found a home of its own in the Soviet Union.

In 1930, Physical Culture and Tourism (Физкультура и туризм), the central Soviet publishing house for literature on athletics and sport, published the first edition of a Russian translation, followed shortly by translations into Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Georgian, Latvian and Uzbek as well.

Its title in Russian was Курс шахматных лекций, which translates into English as A Course of Lectures on Chess.

Given their ideological commitment to chess, it's clear that the Soviets put their A-team on this project. The translator was Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Smirnov (Александр Александрович Смирнов), a highly-respected literary critic and professor of philology at Leningrad University who translated Cervantes, Shakespeare, Moliere and Stendhal, to name just a few, into Russian. Euwe couldn't have asked for a better interlocutor. Smirnov, who also translated works by Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Reti, Tartakower and Torre, was an excellent chess player himself, having won the Paris championship in 1912 and having had his games collected in Russian chess treatises.

The book was as popular in the U.S.S.R. as it was in the Netherlands, if not even more so. New printings followed immediately. I'm fond of the design of the cover of the 1931 version above.

Containing many illustrations and embellishments, the books were as beautiful inside as they were on the cover. I especially like this image, which harkens back to the cover from the original 1904 Dutch printing and which evokes this passage from Timman's Titans:

I learned the rules of chess when I was eight years old. It was especially the pieces that made a deep impression on me. A mysterious world opened itself before my eyes. In the garden of the house next door, I saw two of my neighbors playing against each other on sunny afternoons. I was fascinated by the merlons of the rooks, the bishop’s groove, the king’s cross, and the queen’s crown of thorns.

But the most impressive pieces were the knights. They had eyes. You don’t see that nowadays. Modern chess sets are soberly shaped. Knights have stylized manes, their only identifying mark. They no longer feel solid in your hand. My neighbors played on an old wooden board with edges. The garden was full of romance.

The heart of the book consists of eleven lectures on the history of chess, focusing on the games of the great chess players of the past from Greco and Philidor through Andersen and Morphy to Steinitz before discussing kingside and queenside attacks and the endgame.

Given that Euwe's Practische schaaklessen has laid untranslated into English for 90 years, it is an essentially undiscovered masterpiece that has been unavailable unless you both know of it and can speak either Dutch or Russian.

That seems a shame, especially given that two World Champions thought so highly of the book.

Fortunately a Russian chess website has posted Курс шахматных лекций and Google Translator allows non-Russian players to read the text, which makes it possible to share Euwe's thoughts with a wider audience.

In my next post in this series, we'll start on that journey, beginning with Euwe's logical approach to chess.

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