A Century of Chess: The Book!

A Century of Chess: The Book!

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I’m thrilled to share that my blog A Century of Chess (1900-1909) will be released as a print book by FM Carsten Hansen, with the games annotated by GM Cyrus Lakdawala. This material first found (and continues to find) its home on Many thanks to Colin Stapczynski and Sam Copeland for supporting the blog, and to the really wonderful community I’ve been communicating with for years in this space: simaginfan, kamalakanta, the musician TheGhostOfTomJoad, and many others.

The idea with A Century of Chess is to cover chess history in a way that (as far as I know) has never exactly been done before — player by player and tournament by tournament, giving an encyclopedic view of chess history and doing so with high-quality prose. The volume of 1900 to 1909 covers the heart of the classical period, the ongoing quarrel of Lasker and Tarrasch, the classical stars (Pillsbury, Schlechter, Maróczy, Marshall, Janowski) who each brought something new to the game, and the next generation (Capablanca, Rubinstein, etc) who took chess to the next level. Here are the major themes I wanted to explore in this volume and series:

1.Chess Is An Art.

I remember one of my chess mentors, a real old school New York City hustler type, saying, very wistfully, that chess history should be taught in universities the same way that art or music is. That’s not a particularly popular view, but I thought he was basically right then and I still think so now. Chess is perfectly placed on the outer limits of the finite and is the perfect (I can’t imagine a better) blend of competition, creativity, logic, and fantasy. For anybody to get to the top of chess — to be a grandmaster beating other grandmasters — it’s necessary not just to master certain techniques but to reflect one’s personality in a game, the same way an artist would in a painting or a novel, and, not only that, but, at the highest levels, to have an approach to the game that’s truer, more profound, than the approach to the game of some other equally virtuosic grandmaster. That, to me, is the real heart of chess — the fact that the games of Schlechter (for instance) are distinctively, unmistakably Schlechter’s just as Marshall’s games are distinctly Marshall’s; and the two approaches are completely different, almost diametrically opposed, so that when they do meet a fascinating conflict results, summoning up all the inner resources of both players but also presenting a sort of philosophical quarrel, in which, as Viccini puts it in The Princess Bride, we find out who is right and who is dead. 

Who is right and who is dead?

2.Chess Evolves

To really understand the players’ styles, what each of them was bringing to the game, I felt that I had to understand them in context — and that meant the completely crazy, obsessional task of working my way sequentially through chess history. This was more fun than it might sound. In the dead time during a day — waiting for a train, whatever it was — I’d play through the critical games of a tournament and then make notes to myself for later on. From a sporting perspective, it was exciting, to see, for instance, Géza Maróczy break out of his middle-tier position in the chess world and through dint of unrelenting study suddenly win tournament after tournament; or to see Osip Bernstein and Oldrich Duras burst into a somewhat staid classical scene and introduce a dynamic, swashbuckling chess. But the important point was that, working in that way, I was able to understand much better how the high-level understanding of chess evolved: with masters trying out unexpected new directions, with the theory doubling back in itself, with sudden new mutations. All of it was much more complicated (and more interesting) than is presented in standard chess history textbooks. I was really surprised, for instance, to realize that Mikhail Chigorin was probably the key innovator in Indian Defenses, way back when Aron Nimzowitsch was still in high school; that Harry Pillsbury experimented in the Pirc and in hypermodern structures; that David Janowski seemed to pioneer the positional exchange sacrifice that became so famous in the Soviet period; that Romantic play was alive and well in the classical period in figures like Marshall, Janowski, and Duras; and that many of the matches of the period (Tarrasch v. Marshall, Lasker v. Tarrasch, for instance) represented really profound differences in understanding of the inner truth of chess and signified forks in the road that chess theory could have taken. Against that wider background, the contributions of the truly great players come to seem even more remarkable: Lasker preserving a flexible, dynamic approach in the midst of classical dogmas; while Rubinstein and then Capablanca asserted a classicism that was so cleanly logical, so brutally effective, that it seemed to virtually signal the end of chess history. 

Brutally effective

3.Chess Is History

Part of the fun for me in indulging my obsessive, neurotic chess history hobby is the light it casts on 20th century history. The grandmasters weren’t political figures. They weren’t (with some exceptions) intellectuals. They were, by and large, regular people, representatives of the greater European bourgeoisie, and all of the currents of their era passed through them. The famous clash between Lasker and Tarrasch comes to seem a quarrel between bourgeois and bohemian strains in European culture. Pillsbury and Marshall emerge as avatars of a particularly optimistic, devil-may-care moment in American history. And it is hard not to view the coming of the sturm und drang generation in the later 1900s (with the first glimmerings of hypermodernism) as a mirror to the greater intensity and restlessness of Europe at that time, with the classical, lyrical chess of the turn of the century giving way to something that was more ambitious, more complicated, more violent. 

Ambitious, complicated, violent

For me, this has been a really wonderful journey, working through the games and tournaments on my own, then sharing in a really welcoming community space on the blogs, and then finally in book form. Hope to share that journey with some of you!