Review: Chess Duels: My games with the World Champions

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Review: Chess Duels: My games with the World ChampionsIn the past few weeks, I've received truckloads of great new chess books, but I haven't been able to give them the attention they deserve because I was absolutely thrilled by Yasser Seirawan's new book Chess Duels. I don't like to exaggerate, but this may well be the most fascinating chess book I've ever read.

Superficially, Chess Duels: My Games with the World Champions, published by Everyman Chess, seems to be about Seirawan's games in which he faced Vassily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. But the book is so much more. It's a treasure trove of modern chess history, written in crisp prose and full of delightful anecdotes, political opinions and revelations and, last but not least, extremely enthusiastically annotated high-quality chess games.

I've been reading a lot about chess history lately, reviewing Kasparov's latest book on his games with Karpov and Gulko's account of the KGB's involvement in Soviet Chess. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to mention yet another book on the recent past in chess: Botvinnik-Petrosian, published by New in Chess, about the 1963 World Championship match in which Botvinnik was finally overtaken by a new generation. While I think the book is a must-have for anyone interested in chess history, and certainly contains great chess, especially by Petrosian, I did have some problems with the book's editing.

Botvinnik-PetrosianFirst, there's the question of who the author of Botvinnik-Petrosian is. Well, according to the cover, that's easy - Mikhail Botvinnik. In fact, this is very questionable. It might as well have been Tigran Petrosian, or Vladimir Akopian, or Botvinnik’s cousin’ s son, Igor. The book starts with a short foreword by Anatoly Karpov ("President of the Mikhail Botvinnik fund") and a more lengthy "editor's note" by Botvinnik's son Igor. There follow the actual games from the match (22 in total), annotated by a whole range of different chess players: Botvinnik, Petrosian, Kotov, Akopian, Taimanov, Flohr, Kasparov, Korchnoi, Bagirov, Panov!

Then there's a (very interesting) chapter titled "Petrosian's view of the match", followed by Botvinnik's analysis "Why did I lose the match?". The book ends with the eight games from a 1963 training match Botvinnik-Furman and Botvinnik's "final notebook". In conclusion, I can't help thinking it's somewhat arbitrary to call the book Botvinnik's - perhaps it was a friendly gesture to Igor Botvinnik, who seems to have done most of the editing for the book's Russian edition (the title of which I haven't been able to deduce from the current edition).

To add still more confusion, Botvinnik's "final notebook" published in this volume, in contrast to the absolutely spectacular notebooks that were revealed in the previous part of this New in Chess series on the three Botvinnik-Smyslov matches, do not contain Botvinnik's preparations for his 1963 match against Petrosian but are, instead, from much later (1969). Moreover, the notes seem to be of a much more general nature. Absent, for instance, are Botvinnik's revolutionary preparations in the Queen's Gambit Declined which he introduced in the 12th game of the match (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bf4 c6 6.e3 Bf5 7.g4!).

That said, Botvinnik-Petrosian is still useful in more than one respect. It's very nice to have so much material on one single match bundled together, and both Botvinnik's and Petrosian's (self-) analysis are important from a historical perspective if nothing else. Vladimir Akopian has annotated quite a few match games especially for this volume and his analysis is, of course, excellent. Finally, to be able to read Botvinnik's final notebook remains a privilege no matter where you find it. If you're interested in chess in the 60s, this is definitely one to buy.

After that digression, let's quickly return to Seirawan's Chess Duels. As noted, this book is of a completely different magnitude to most chess books I've read. It's hard to begin to tell you why I liked this book so much, but since we were talking about Petrosian, let's see what Seirawan says about him. (He gives very nuanced, interesting characterizations of virtually all the World Champions, including the ones he hasn't played himself.)

Tigran is often dismissed as a "defensive" player, who was good at anticipating and then "frustrating" his opponent's plans before (grudgingly) "counter-attacking". Such characterizations sound so corny and funny, I just have to laugh. How about those countless games where Tigran just absolutely mashes strong grandmasters off the board, never giving them any chance whatsoever? Just a total crush from start to finish. How about those games where Tigran's opponents, as White, were so intimidated that they rushed to the safety of the nearest drawing variation and counted their blessings after the scoresheets had been signed? Where do these hundreds of games fit into our nice label and definitions of the "great defender'? They don't.

Seirawan is a wonderful myth-buster - the best you could possibly wish for. Botvinnik, despite his "public image", was a "smiling, gentle man". And did you know that Euwe was not universally loved by everyone in the chess world? Here is Seirawan taking on what's probably the most stubborn myth of all, which is of course about the most mythical of all champions, Bobby Fischer:

The chess public has long been fed the fable that Bobby Fischer singlehandedly challenged the Soviet chess juggernaut and, in a nod to individual genius, defeated a collective Socialist sports system built over decades. How evocative. (...) Hollywood couldn't make this stuff up - there has to be a movie in here somewhere. I mean, how cool is that? Cool but rubbish. (...)

Let us start with the simplest fact: in the three-year cycle that Bobby won, he didn't qualify. "Single-handedly" Bobby had taken himself out of the cycle because he boycotted the 1969 US Championship, which also happened to be a Zonal qualifier and the first stage in the World Championship cycle. The legend could have ended right then and there: "So sorry, Bobby, afraid you're out of this one. You can try again in the next three-year cycle. The one that begins in 1975. Bye. Take good care of yourself." It was a decision of Pal Benko, who had qualified in the US Zonal, to step aside and give up his qualification spot in favor of Bobby (...).

The simple truth is that Bobby was at times his own worst enemy and cost himself dearly, at times forfeiting, withdrawing and in general sabotaging his own campaigns. It was the assistance of some key people at crucial moments that helped push, persuade and prod Bobby to meet his destiny. Don't forget Dr. Henry Kissinger's phone call that got Bobby to board the plane to Iceland. Single-handedly? Please!

In terms of putting chess history into perspective, I think nobody has ever done a better job than Seirawan. Not because he's got his facts right and he is an objective observer, but because often he was right in the centre of history in the making himself. During the formation of the GMA, the Grandmasters Association, in the second half of the 1980s, a meeting with all top grandmasters was organized by Bessel Kok to discuss the new organization's Articles of Incorporation. Finally, after days of lively discussion, an agreement was reached.

We were all exhausted. Bessel congratulated each of us and said, "Now we have to sign."

"Sign?" said Kasparov. "I'm not sure I can. As the GMA will become a political counterweight to FIDE, I will have to get special permission from my Federation." A comment immediately echoed by Anatoly Karpov.

Lajos Portisch too began to feel uncomfortable. "Yes. Garry is right. It would be best that I ask my Hungarian Chess Federation."

Even Ljubo[jevic], from the much freer nation of Yugoslavia, professed his own doubts. (...) As this conversation moved around the table something began to stir in me. Perhaps it was my tiredness from the three long days of discussion and argument, and jet-lag. Whatever the cause, I simply snapped and committed the worst faux pas in my life. Without thinking I made an outburst as follows: "Gentlemen! Please! This is ridiculous!" I shouted.

As I went on, my voice grew louder: "We have been arguing for three days. At last, we have a document we all agree upon. It is why we came here. If we don't sign there is no organization. What do we need, the permission of our mothers?" The moment this final word left my lips I regretted my outburst. Almost immediately the whole room broke down in convulsive laughter. At first I was confused. What had I said? Then I realized that during many of the meetings Kasparov would leave the room to speed-dial and speak with his mother. I turned to Garry in open-mouthed horror to mumble an apology, but he had turned bright red and looked away from me. The laughter went on for a long time before Ljubo said, "Okay, okay, I sign." In turn everyone signed. I had shamed them into standing up for themselves.

This isn't even the end of this story, but you should really read the rest for yourselves. It's stuff like this that makes Chess Duels such a fantastic and memorable book. It's full of similar gems! And as becomes clear from the above fragment, the good thing about it is that Seirawan not only has a lot of stories to share, but that he shares them in such an entertaining fashion, with subtle humour, an eye for detail and, perhaps most importantly, deep self-knowledge.

I also found the above fragment typical of something I noted while looking at the games in this book. Seirawan seems to me to be a very "intuitive" person. That's to say, he not only speaks on impulse (even with a room full of top grandmasters) and follows his feeling when deciding where to go and play, but he also plays chess in a way that seems to me to be very instinctive. Case in point: Mikhail Tal, arguably the ultimate master of concrete play, simply always lost to Seirawan. Only their final game, played in Skelleftea 1989, ended in a draw to bring the final score between them to 4,5-0,5 in Seirawan's favour. Now that's impressive!

Of course, Seirawan himself is probably the first to point out the shallowness of this stereotype, and indeed, given the fact that he had a more than respectable score against almost all the World Champions he played against (he beat both Karpov and Kasparov while they were reigning World Champions), his play must of course have been much more diverse and universal than what I just wrote. Nevertheless, the way Seirawan annotates some of his games does betray more of a fluid than a strictly concrete approach.

Seirawan-Tal Valletta (ol) 1980

Without doubt the opening has gone in Black's favor. He has a good hold of the center, the two bishops and prospects of exploiting White's advanced queenside pawn as well.

17.Qb2 Covering the a3- and b5-pawns. White certainly cannot play 17.Qxc7? Bxa3!, trading the c7 pawn as after 18.Rc2 Bb4 I reckon I'd be close to lost, with Black's a5 pawn ready to zip down the board. (...)

17...c6 Certainly a reasonable choice and perhaps even one of the best moves on offer. Yet for some reason I was happy to see it. I was more concerned about 17...a4! when I feared being eternally handcuffed to the defense of my a3-pawn. (...)

18.bxc6 bxc6 19.a4! Although I have nothing to be proud of, I was really happy to play this, as now I don't have to worry about being anchored to the defense of my a3-pawn.

19...c5 20.Qc2 Rab8 21.Nd2! Be6 22.Rb1 Rb4

23.Rxb4! Without prejudice I cede Mischa a protected passed pawn and the long-term advantage. In any case, there wasn't much to be done. If White didn't exchange rooks, besides threatening to snip the a4-pawn, Black would double on the b-file with a dominant position.

23...cxb4 24.Rc1! Qd6 25.Qb2! With the text I have dreams of playing Rc1-c6 and Nd2-c4 with good play on the light squares.


Again, perhaps this is a good move and maybe the best in the position. But personally, I was quite glad to see it and considered it dubious. The line that concerned me most was 25...Qe5! 26.Bf3 Bc5 and I just didn't see how I could play for a win. (...)

According to my scoresheet, with his 25th move Mischa offered me a draw. (...) Tal stood up and, leaning towards me, held his hand halfway out for a handshake and an agreed halving of the point. "I'd like to play," I said. Mischa gave me a face that spoke volumes. What was wrong with me? Didn't I understand I stood worse? (...) Yes, Black stands wellin the position. But, you see, there are many positions where a player can stand "worse" and feel quite comfortable. For me, our game was just such a position. (...) Actually, the continuation I had been worried about was a tough concession for Black to make; earlier he should toss away his pride and joy, his protected passed b4-pawn, by 24...b3! 25.Nxb3 Qxa4 26.Qc7 Bxb3 27.Qxe7 Qd7 with a likely draw. Certainly, if any player had winning chances here it would have been Black.

Regardless of my extremely high opinion of the book - go buy it now! - allow me to say that for me this fragment contains a few pretty incomprehensible things. The diagrammed position after move 16 is evaluated as being better for Black, right? Yet despite the fact that he does nothing wrong in the subsequent phase of the game, after move 25 it's suddenly White who refuses a draw offer and can confortably play for a win! (Indeed, Seirawan does win the game in the end.) In the meantime, White has produced no less than five moves deserving of an exclamation mark versus zero for Black, yet at move 24 Black could have retained some winning chances (even though the outcome would have been a "likely draw") had he played 24...b3. What happened here?

My explanation is that Seirawan's attribution of exclamation marks is based on his (subjective) feelings during the game and his personal preference for the positions, rather than any objective evaluation or search for the truth. And let me be clear that I think there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach: this way of looking at things is probably the reason why most of the book is so enjoyable in the first place! It allows sporting remarks such as the following, after a loss against Spassky:
A good win by Boris. A sparkling game, in fact. I missed my one chance to hold (...), and after that it was all downhill for me. Some days you just have to tip your hat and say, "Bravo and well done!"

Still, if there's one criticism that must be noted about this book, I think this is it. By the way, not all the annotations in the book are like this. Perhaps his games against Karpov and Kasparov were more inspiring for Seirawan, since I didn't notice any inconsistencies in that analysis at all. In general, his comments are not only lively and full of emotions, but also very instructive. I found the following fragment particularly useful:

Seirawan-Smyslov Tilburg 1994 (1)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+ 4.Nbd2 c5?! 5.a3 Bxd2+ 6.Bxd2 d6?! 7.dxc5! dxc5 8.Qc2! Nbd7

9.0-0-0 Not bad, but not best. Here I spent time looking at 9.g4!, initiating play on the kingside. The point is that White has to ask himself a larger question: "What am I going to do with my f1-bishop and how should I complete my development?" It is nice to think that 9.e4, 10.Bd3 and 11.e5 might be played with central domination. The problem is that 9.e4 e5 gummies up the position and leaves me wondering what to do with my f1-bishop. Again, another not so bad idea is 9.g3 b6 10.Bg2 Bb7 11.0-0 0-0, completing my development. But in this case the light-squared bishops neutralize one another and I thought the position wouldn't be anything more than a small plus for White. Hence my hesitation and search for a sharper solution.

In fact 9.g4! is a very strong move as it forces Black to answer the threat of g4-g5, while also giving the f1-bishop a little flexibility. (...)

There are many great and memorable games in Chess Duels, but due to the nature of its format (all games Seirawan played against the World Champions), there are also, of course, a number of very poor games in the book. I liked this a lot: how often do you see bad - sometimes even extremely bad - games included in serious games collections? Not often, even though they are often highly entertaining and can also be very instructive, especially when analyzed by someone like Seirawan. I particularly recommend playing through these games - it's great fun.

For me, the best parts of the book are those where Seirawan offers an inside view into the (often very much closed) world of chess professionals. He tells the whole story - warts and all. He has opinions on almost all the key players of the past decades, sometimes very honest and outspoken. On his close friend Korchnoi: "As Victor himself will tell you, he has a very complicated character with a streak of both sadism and masochism." On Fischer: "Reading this pamphlet [I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse], you couldn't help but want to reach into Bobby's life and rescue him from himself and his surroundings."

He writes beautifully and lovingly about Tal's malformed hand and Petrosian's addiction to blitz games. He describes how, in their Barcelona 1989 game, Spassky committed a "wonderfully blatant rule violation" and, after Seirawan had made his first move, spoke to him during the game: "Yasser, why do you torture me with this Caro-Kann business?" But my favourite observation of them all is this one, on Smyslov:

In my youthful imagiation I thought that all world-class players moved their pieces with the same grace, precision and accuracy as Paul Keres. Many in fact do and I was shocked to discover that some do not.

The most shocking was Vassily Smyslov. (...) The very first move was a shock. Vassily, quite a tall man with large hands, grasped his d2-pawn and, fumbling, stumbling, rumbling, it somehow made its way to the d4-square where it was plopped down rather shakily, released with a doubt and the clock was slapped. This was not the smooth precision of a well-oiled machine trained to make thousands of moves with fluid movements. Rather, it was the movement of someone who hadn't learned the rudiments of how to grasp pieces at all.

Shocking, indeed. (Seirawan writes how he later learned Smyslov was losing his eyesight.) Somehow I felt the core of the book are the chapters on Karpov and Kasparov. These are among the best pieces on chess I've ever read. In fact, his first meeting with Karpov, at the 1980 Olympiad in Malta, is such a bizarre story (directly connected to Kasparov) that I won't share it here, except to tell you once again that it is really, really incredible. It's on page 185 and it shows that by 1980, the two K's were already true arch rivals.

Seirawan is actually critical of both Karpov and Kasparov in his book, though probably more so of Karpov. He observes that Karpov became World Champion "without playing in that process a single game outside of the Soviet Union" and concludes with an understated "That's useful". He was an eye witness to an early example of the modern "no handshake" scandals when Karpov, in 1981, refused to shake hands with Lev Alburt, who had defected from the USSR to the USA. And with biterness Seirawan notes that Karpov, to his knowledge, "never once spoke up on behalf of Victor [Korchnoi]'s family members."

With regards to the infamous first match, in 1984, between Karpov and Kasparov, Seirawan proclaims himself "agnostic". He certainly doesn't buy Kasparov's argument that Karpov was the one who benefitted most from Campomanes' decision to terminate the match at 5-3 in Karpov's favour after Kasparov had won the 47th and 48th game: "Let us give Garry the benefit of the doubt and accept his 33 percent chance of winning. That means a 66 percent chance of losing, so who benefited more from the decision to abort?"

In the 80s, Seirawan became someone Kasparov trusted and befriended. One of the most amazing stories about Kasparov in the book is about the 1986 Olympiad in Dubai, when Kasparov tried to negotiate with FIDE on the World Championship cycle and Seirawan was his witness. (Oh yes, Seirawan also beat Kasparov in Dubai.) Again, I won't spoil the fun for you, so instead here's Seirawan's magnificent observations on a young Kasparov during the 1983 Niksic tournament:

Watching Garry at that particular post-mortem in Niksic gave me the same feeling as watching Michael Jordan and Bruce Lee at the top of their game. Garry showed ten and twelve-move variations effortlessly and easily. Boris [Spassky] was reduced to comments like, "Yes. Of course." "Yes, very interesting." "Yes. Of course." And Boris won the game! I've often said that if I had a video tape of that 20-minute post-mortem, it would sell forever.

It was simply amazing watching Garry show what he had analyzed. This was not some well-trained schoolboy. This was a calculating machine without peer. Ljubo, Jan [Timman] and I had a 15-minute walk back to our hotel. We were so dumbfounded by what we witnessed that hardly a single word was exchanged. For those who know Ljubo, this is quite impressive. We could hardly believe what we saw. It was sublime. Jaw-dropping.

As I said, Seirawan doesn't only have praise for Kasparov. Following the 'Great Schism' in the chess world, which came about when Kasparov and Short decided to play their 1993 World Championship match not under FIDE but under the Professional Chess Association (PCA), Seirawan writes increasingly critically of the 13th World Champion. Indeed, it's hard to respect Kasparov for supporting Campomanes during the 1994 FIDE Presidential elections or, in 2000, playing a match against Kramnik when the latter hadn't qualified at all.

Seirawan describes all the political affairs in a clear and understandable way, including his own (failed) attempt to 'rescue' the World Championship during the 'Prague Agreement' in 2002. And as usual, he shares some great inside stories. I did find it regrettable that he refused to speak his mind about what precisely was wrong with Kasparov during the 2000 match in London. He concludes that there really are "Two Garry's: the Good and the Bad". And don't we all know what he means? In the end, though, Seirawan calls him "my friend and dear brother" and I can't help thinking that, in a way, this book is some kind of tribute to Kasparov, with whom he shared so many great and also sad moments.

In my opinion, Chess Duels: My Games with the World Champions, like Kasparov's post-mortem in 1983, is simply jaw-dropping: a whopping 400+ pages full of games played at the highest level, great anecdotes and true chess history revelations. The final chapter is an interesting epilogue about the future of the World Championship. Seirawan is highly critical of FIDE but his advice still manages to be constructive. It's unfortunate that the book was published before last month's FIDE elections in Khanty-Mansiysk, as I'm curious about his viewpoint on the outcome. Hopefully we'll hear from Seirawan in the near future. His opinions will remain among the most interesting in the entire chess world.

We'd like to mention to our readers that Mr Seirawan will do a book signing session and a Q&A:

Saturday, October 30th 14.00-16.00 hrs. Van Stockum Booksellers Herengracht 60, The Hague (Den Haag), The Netherlands