The World’s Greatest Chess Games, and Other Stories

I recently finished playing through a volume titled The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games.  The selection was made by British masters Burgess, Nunn, and Emms and published in 1998; the games included are strikingly different in character from those I have seen before in other volumes.

When learning to play chess, I got as a present Bobby Fisher Teaches Chess, a book mainly focused on combinative end-game play: also probably closer in tone to this volume than my various forays since.  I never applied any real effort to working out the various puzzles, and learned as much, probably, from a simple, cheerfully illustrated children’s introduction by a William MacLeod called Chess for Young Beginners.

My first book of games, though, was Reinfeld’s volume The Immortal Games of Capablanca, from which example I first began to play with any kind of system: I took the lesson that all that is really necessary to win is to keep a sound position; win a pawn when your opponent breaks down and makes a mistake; and push the advantage to an end-game win.  This combines well both with exchange-heavy variants (which I tend to play towards with white) and with stubborn defensive play (which I tend to favor as black) – at least against similarly unstudied opponents!  Against good players, I end up making the mistakes.

The next volume brought to my attention (as a present, I assume), was Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played, a 1965 collection running up to Fisher, but not further.  Perhaps a not particularly serious work, Chernev’s selection of sixty-two masterpieces is focused on position play but also, as he admits in the introduction, games he found particularly beautiful.  By far the most entertaining collection I own, it also helped solidify some parts of my play by illustrating how different pieces affect the position.

Over the last couple years, I then played through the book of the 1895 Hastings tournament – going back to a somewhat different approach to chess, in some ways.  The beginnings of modern play are there, but the speculative play – far fewer computers to count out possibilities – is much more common, with gambits, counter-gambits, and tricks prepared not so much against the strongest lines as against specific opponents.  Some gems, much of interest, but also quite a few dull games: the biggest take-away may simply be how not to play for a draw!

In stark contrast to these volumes, the Mammoth Book is strikingly modern: of its hundred games, only thirty predate World War II.  This is perhaps justified by the growth of chess and by the ability to analyze the game provided by computers.  However, the resulting collection I actually found somewhat off-putting: while claiming to avoid games “where the loser offered little resistance”, all too often the selected games (merely?) feature opening “novelties” which the innovator rode to a victory against a surprised and inferior response.  No doubt the creation of these variations only gains in importance with the advent of analysis by computer and records of thousands of games: but I am left almost feeling that I have no interest in playing chess at that level – some sympathy, perhaps, finally gained for Fisher’s claim that “chess is dead”.

The notes, also, seemed to me quite uneven (or perhaps simply not aimed at the amateur), in certain cases exhaustively going through options perhaps only two or three of which seem plausible on either quick or detailed inspection while in others neglecting notes on moves which seem (to the somewhat unpracticed eye) critical turning points – and plagued repeatedly by “exercise to the reader”-ism in which a game resigned, no doubt with good reason to a master but in a position unclear to mere mortals, is claimed as a simple win.  Again, this contrasts unfortunately with other games where at least the first few moves of the best or winning line at the time of resignation is spelled out.

On the other hand, the book is strikingly useful in illustrating the effectiveness of a careful piece sacrifice.  The authors are perhaps too enamored of the idea – as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, they share with Fisher’s book for beginners an inclination to regard opening and midgame merely as a build-up to a winning combination – but the result is a collection that is particularly useful for its focus in this regard.  My attempts to add this particular bit of flair to my own game have, after some weeks, not reached particularly useful heights, but then perhaps more work would really be needed than I am prepared to put in.

I would also remark, in closing, that in terms of notation I much prefer the aesthetics of the stylized “descriptive” notation of earlier books to the “algebraic” notation now prevalent; the so-called “figurine”, combining icons for the pieces with algebraic move notation, is merely ugly, and not an improvement in clarity on the algebraic.  Naturally the Mammoth Book uses the last of these, a false note that put it under suspicion from the start.