Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Chess Reviews: 78

New York 1924
By GM Alexander Alekhine
352 pages
Russell Enterprises

‘‘We use ‘super tournament’ so much today that, as with ‘super-model’, ‘super-computer’ and like, its meaning has become, well, less than super. But New York 1924 was a super tournament that was truly extraordinary’’

So says GM Andy Soltis in his thoughtful foreword, before going on to add some important historical context to the tournament.

There’s a note from the publisher, explaining that although various editorial mishaps have been corrected form earlier editions, Alekhine’s original game notes have not been checked against the analysis of chess engines

‘By all means, if that is what you wish to do, go for it. For the rest of` us, it may be enough to sit back and savor one of the great chess tournament books of all time. Enjoy…’

There’s a reproduction of a memorable group photograph, with facsimile autographs of all of the players. They all look very serious except for Dr Emanuel Lasker. I’m not sure if the picture was taken before or after the event, but the impish look on the face of the second World Champion was of course ultimately justified. Further photographs of the players intersperse the text.

The tournament thoroughly deserves its place as one of the most memorable ever seen. The reigning World Champion, Capablanca, was there as were his predecessor (Dr. Lasker) and eventual successor (Alekhine). Past and future World Championship challengers Janowsky, Marshall and Bogoljubow (plus Maroczy, who for some reason never did get around to playing his proposed title match with Lasker) were there too, no doubt all eager to prove themselves against the world’s elite.

Ultimately, Dr. Lasker pulled off another one of his extraordinary tournament victories after an exciting race with Capablanca. The latter had sensationally lost to Reti early on and just couldn’t catch the eventual champion.

Revitalised tournament books can be judged by various methods.

It’s time for a close examination of three of the key criteria.

1) How good is the original version of the book?

Those who already own the Dover version of the tournament book will probably read it with mixed feelings. There’s no doubt that Alekhine’s annotations were ahead of their time but the format of the notes is clearly very dated and they are difficult for modern eyes to follow.

In short, the old edition is undoubtedly a great book, but these days can be seen as hard work.

2) Are the games lively, entertaining and educational?

The grand mix of players highlights a pivotal moment in the history of chess. This was the true dawning of a new age, with Richard Reti leading the way for ‘Hypermoderns’ and their ‘openings of the future’.

The old guard were by no means willing to move aside and the sparks certainly flew over the board.

Here’s a few key examples:

Reti v Yates

An excellent demonstration of White’s hypermodern approach 1-0 (31)

The clashes in the openings were evident throughout the tournament. Famous endgames abounded too:

Dr. Lasker v Ed. Lasker

White drew from here, in 103 moves.

Capablanca v Tartakower

35 Kg3 ‘Decisive! White sacrifices material in order to obtain the classical position with king on f6, pawn on g6 and rook on h7, whereupon the black pawns tumble like rotten apples’.

Janowski - Ed. Lasker

Yes - White really is moving up the board. Several wins were missed before the game was drawn after 71 moves.

Those snippets should whet the appetite. Many more await the reader.

3) Is the new edition a worthy addition to chess literature?

The original book suffers from an outdated format and cramped layout. Russell Enterprises have very successfully improved both issues, with the notes now flowing through each game and the notation fully converted to algebraic. The pages are easy on the eye and the number of diagrams has been greatly increased.

The main body of the work is of course intact, and includes Alekhine’s famous article:
‘The Significance of the New York Tournament in the Light of the Theory Openings’.

His survey takes up 27 pages and he certainly has his work cut out, analysing his way through the classic openings (starting with the Ruy Lopez) through to the Reti Opening.

Some of his conclusions now appear quaint, such as his swipe at 1 e4 g6:

‘Capablanca took the liberty once of playing this ‘‘Joke Opening’’…naturally, this experiment has no claim to any theoretical significance.’

However, there is still plenty of wisdom in his words and it is historically interesting to see the differences in opinion between then and now.

Modern readers, who habitually eschew anything old fashioned (regardless of content and value) will have no problems being inspired to study the fabulous games.

It is good to see Russell Enterprises continuing to resurrect classic tomes for modern readers. One can only hope that the tournament book of Nottingham 1936 will receive similar treatment soon.

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Howard Goldowsky said...

Nice review. But when will you start writing about chess at the Mongoose blog?


Howard Goldowsky said...

Another interesting tidbit about this book is that ChessCafe decided to withhold distribution to Amazon and its brick-and-mortar distributors, in an effort to sell more copies at its Web site. (ChessCafe initially did this with Dvoretsky's Analytical Manual, too.) In my opinion, this is a mistake. Does the loss of promotional opportunities and publicity counter not having to provide a wholesale discount?

Sean Marsh said...

Thank you, Howard.

Chess articles at Mongoose Times could well follow in due course.

Russell Enterprises must know what they are doing; I heard recently that the Dvoretsky book is already heading for its second printing - quite an achievement.