Review: Bobby Fischer - Career and Complete Games

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Bobby Fischer - The Career and Complete Games of the American World Chess ChampionI am one of those people who, despite all the obvious advantages, dislikes virtual music libraries. I need to have the actual albums to get a feeling for the music, which otherwise sounds utterly inpersonal to me. Call me old-fashioned, but for the same reason I think a nice book - instead of a database - of all games played by Bobby Fischer is an excellent idea.

The analogy, of course, isn't perfect, but I was reminded of my sentimental habit when I recently heard some voices complain that Karsten Müller's new Fischer book - with just so many games! - really wasn't modern and useful and was unlikely to attract a big chess audience.

Well, judging by its ranking on various online book stores, I think this complaint is highly exaggerated, but it gives you an impression of how many people think about (chess) books these days. I, for one, am extremely glad that a new collection of all Fischer's games has appeared again and that I can just lazily browse through them with a good glass of wine without having to open my laptop.

Bobby Fischer - The Career and Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion, as it's officially called, published last week by Russell Enterprises, contains all tournament games the eleventh World Champion played between 1955 and 1992. All games are annotated by German GM Karsten Müller, who's renowned for his deep endgame knowledge and meticulous way of analysing chess games.  His task, evidently, was enormous, if only because collecting everything written about Fischer's games must have been an incredibly difficult job, let alone putting the material together, checking it against a computer engine and formulating one's own opinion about the games. 

Before having a look at Müller's analysis, the book's foreword by Larry Evans and an extensive opening survey of Fischer's opening contribution by Andy Soltis must be mentioned. I knew Evans mostly from his world-famous introductions to the games in Fischer's My Sixty Memorable Games. There, Evans adopts a free, associative yet observative mode of writing which combines perfectly with Fischer's own writing style. In this respect, I found Evans' introduction to Müller's book slightly disappoiting. Well, perhaps that's unfair: Evans duly lists all major events in Fischer's chess life and his intro does contains a few really good anecdotes, but it lacked the brille I had silently hoped for. Or perhaps I just knew a lot of stuff already. Anyway, it's actually Fischer's remarks that are as brilliant as ever, such as this one:
Inexplicably, he didn't play another tournament game for 20 years despite boasting he'd give players  chance to beat him by putting his title on the line every year. "I'll call it the bum of the month club, like Joe Louis did," he told me.
(...) I accompanied him and a reporter from Sports Illustrated to an exhibition he gave at Riker's Island in 1960 (...). Once inside the jail, he asked, "Suppose you didn't stop when the guards told you to. Would they shoot?" I told him not to try it. "No, seriously. Suppose you just kept going and didn't stop. Would they shoot you? I mean, would they really kill you?" We were all amused but not quite sure what would happen. At last the warden said gently, "They would not kill you"."
I could go on and on and... well, on second thought, perhaps I must admit that Evans actually does a fine job! He's describing what happened in a compelling and life-like way and making a deeper point as he goes along about Fischer's paranoia.

Andy Soltis' survey on Fischer's opening legacy is equally interesting. Here, too, I can't help tossing in two short, telling quotes:
At a time when young masters feverishly followed the latest victories of Mikhail Tal and Boris Spassky and tried to decipher the latest issue of Shakhmaty Byulletin, Fischer was studying yellowing copies of Steinitz's International Chess Magazine and annotating the obscure games of the Steinitz-Serafina Dubois match of 1862.
And this tiny bit about the Pirc/Modern defence will still give you an idea of the way Soltis writes about Fischer's openings:  
The young Fischer had no respect for this family of openings. When annotating a Steinitz-Dubois game in Chess Life, he wrote: "Steinitz, of course, instinctively rejected such lemons as 1...d6, 1...g6, 1...b6, 1...Nc6, etc., etc." It was quite a change, therefore, when he adopted 1...d6 against Spassky in the 1972 match.

So let's now turn to the games - clearly the heart of the book. These games ... they're just endlessly fascinating to me. Of course, there are the classics, the immortal games, the much more than sixty memorable ones. I won't quote them here, because you all know them by heart, I trust. Actually, I think I'm even more intrigued by games in which Fischer is actually playing badly, or desperately defending a worse position. Is it because it occurred so rarely, as the legend goes? Not really, if you pay close attention, and the good thing is that this is always immediately clear from Müller's commentary, however brief it sometimes is. Here's an example, which also shows Müller's crystal-clear, almost scientific endgame approach:

Kraidman-Fischer Netanya 1968 

Kraidman-Fischer73.Re8? Allowing black a miracle escape by using the unfortunate position of the rook. 73.Rb5 wins, e.g. 73...f3 74.Rf5 Nh6 75.Rxg5+ Kh8 76.Rb5 Nxg4 77.Rh5+ Kg7 78.Rg5 +-

73...Bd8! 74.Nd2 Bf6 75.Ne4 Bd8 76.Nd6 76.Nc5!? is more challenging, but it seems that Black can just hold by the skin of his teeth: 76...Bf6 77.Nd7 Nd8+ 78.Kf5 f3 79.Re3 f2 80.Rf3 Bd4 81.Ne5 Be3 82.Ke4 Ba7 83.Rf5 Ne6 84.Nd3 Nc5+ 85.Nxc5 Bxc5 86.Rxg5+ Kf6 87.Rf5+ Kg6 =

76...Nxd6 77.Rxd8 77.Kxd6 Bb6 78.Kd5 Bf2 79.Re5 Bh4 is also drawn.

77...Nc4 78.Kf5 f3 79.Rd3 f2 80.Rf3 and in view of 80...f1Q 81.Rxf1 Ne3+ 82.Kxg5 Nxf1 =, a draw was agreed.

As you can see, Müller's commentary is strictly relevant and, well, nothing else. In principle, he doesn't indulge in many side-lines or lengthy explanations, even though I suspect it must have been hard for him to resist the temptation. Still, his method ultimately works in this book, partly because of the perfect placement of diagrams (making the book great bedside literature) and the fact that Müller draws from many sources, including Garry Kasparov's recent My Great Predecessors series. 

During the book presentation last week in the Max Euwe Centre, the author gave three examples of original analysis with fascinating discoveries in the book.

Müller would also be the first to point out that too many lines would simply distract from the ultimate idea of this project, which is to give an overview of all games and their relevance to chess history. Undoubtedly, this has sometimes lead to questionable editorial decisions: for instance, I found it profoundly annoying that Müller doesn't always mention Fischer's own comments, e.g. those that he wrote in My Sixty Memorable Games. I mean, okay, perhaps quoting Fischer all the time is a bit too much, but at least mentioning the lines or even the evaluations Fischer gives doesn't seem too much of a luxury, does it?

Apart from this, I didn't find much to complain about this book. Yes, I would have prefered the book in a hardcover edition (they've printed only 500 of those, apparently). And the images, however great (there's a picture showing a torn piece of the tournament program, on which Fischer wrote to the captain of the American team at the Varna Olympiad 1962: "Dear Elliot, I resign the game with Donner Please don't wake me, Bobby"), the images are poorly reproduced for such a monumental work. But the tournament tables and overviews are clear, and some previously unknown games have been found and included in the book. 

Finally, I don't agree with critics saying that Fischer's non-chess life (and his many dubious political points of view) should have been discussed in the book as well. That's something for a proper biography - not a book about his chess career. The book is fine. Even if you've got each and every one of his games in a database already, this modern Fischer classic belongs in your chess library.


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