This is the penultimate post in what has become my longest book revew, ever.
“People love using chess as a metaphor. Supposedly, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the most chess-like of the martial arts. One chef I knew, upon hearing of my passion for the game characterized his selection of flavors as a “chess game I lay with you mouth, bro.” Part of me hates this tendency. After all, as I’ve mentioned, part of what makes chess wonderful is how much it isn’t like all to this other shit we put up with on earth. Chess has a way of encircling the imagination, of generating fanciful poetics and dubious conceptual linkage.”
Our hero meets Katherine, “…a senior editor at a publication that demanded scrupulously written arts criticism based on diligent research. He “…delivered to her inbox a scrambled piece of mumbo jumbo, larded up with a few pretty sentences so she maybe wouldn’t notice how bad it was. She noticed.”
And a new game of love was on!
“I lived two lives: a public, romantic one with Katherine, and a private, shameful one with chess.”
His chess life “…mostly consisted of playing thousands of games at my computer, huddled and nonplussed. This was not satisfactory. It was lonely and unglamorous and possessed no drama beyond the momentary rages of one game or another. When I told my children about my twenties, I didn’t want to explain that I spent big chunks of it in my bedroom staring at digital chess pieces, surrounded by granola bar wrappers, occasionally noticing the snow drifting by the window. And more importantly, I didn’t want Katherine to see me abasing myself in such a fashion.”
“No. If I was going to be a victim of chess, like Duchamp,
I was going to be a proud victim, like Duchamp. If I was going to waste my hours, I was at least going to waste them flamboyantly. Rather than skulking alone in my room, I decided, I would hold my head high. I would play in real tournaments, in countries near and far, for real money, against live, breathing opponents, hopefully with Katherine at my side…”
He did this because, “…chess is about the most human thing you can do.”
And because, “Chess takes the most banal act of all – violence – and makes it a symbolic ballet with a culture entirely of its own.”
The author, “…decided to set myself an ambitious goal that I would almost certainly fail to achieve, the key word being almost.”
“Yes, I thought: in roughly a year, I would play in the Los Angeles Open, and I would beat a player whose rating was at least 2000. That would represent a violent assault against the limits of my truly meagre talent.”
Why a 2000-rated player?
“Well, it’s just such a satisfying number: those three zeroes standing neatly in a line. Also, the prospect brought me a sort of vicious glee, because I imagined that whoever had taken their rating past that second thousand would be quite proud of themselves. Proud enough that they’d feel extra bad when their position came crashing down before me.”
When I began playing Chess seriously as an adult in Atlanta, Georgia, the top players attending the Atlanta Chess Club at the YMCA on Lucky street in downtown were rated near 2000 but there was not one who sported a 2000 rating. Although there were a few players with a rating beginning with a “2” Tom Pate was the top active player with a rating in the high 1900’s. When seeing the first number of my rating a “2” I will admit to being “quite proud.” I stopped playing Chess to begin playing the much more lucrative Backgammon and upon returning to Chess the going was difficult, to say the least. There was a period when bonus points stopped being added which caused rating deflation, making it even more difficult to garner the much needed rating points. When I did finally break the Expert barrier the Legendary Georgia Ironman said, “You did it like a salmon, Bacon, by swimming against the stream!” Tim figured I would have made it over 2100 if bonus points were still being handed out, but that mattered not to me because I had a TWO at the beginning of my rating.
Our hero made the decision to play in a tournament knowing, “All tournaments are created equal. Most are inglorious little affairs conducted in church basements on weekends. You do battle with a crowd of local yokels… Meanwhile, top-tier tournaments are calm,buttoned-down affairs, sponsored by energy companies and banks, taking place in spacious, teal-carpeted venues.”
“Economically, chess is sort of like acting: top people make money, second-rate people teach, and everyone else receives spotty compensation at best.”
The tournament was in Canada. “There’s a menacing lull that precedes all open chess tournaments – a silence tinted by the excitement of incipient conflict felt by a room full of dorks awaiting their fate. Their fate is determined, during those long moments, by the arbiters,
who run an algorithm that determines the pairings. Also, the computers are always beat-up old PCs. There are no Macs in the chess world. The anthropological significance of this is left to the reader.”
And what did our hero learn from the experience of playing in his second tournament?
“This is one of the embarrassing things about coming to chess in your twenties. When you’re in the lower ranks, your opponents are basically of two varieties: children with promise who haven’t yet developed their skills, and adults who are long past their peak, too old to calculate complicated tactics. Meanwhile, you float in the middle, in a state of static mediocrity.”
“Clearly, I needed to stop relying on my own judgment. What I really needed was a teacher – someone who could actually figure out why I was so terrible. One name came to mind instantly: that of Grandmaster Ben Finegold.”
“The “Evil-Doer”, as the Soviet chess players now called Korchnoi, had turned chess into a matter of state urgency. The Soviet leadership received real time accounts of the world title matches as though they were dispatches from the front in time of war.”
It is difficult for anyone not living when Viktor Korchnoi
defected to understand what his leaving the “Mother country” meant to the Chess world at that time.
“…in taking a one-man stance against the hulking Soviet monster, he gained the entire world’s attention and imprinted his name in the history of the game forever. Just as a poet in Russia was much more than a writer, a grandmaster in the Soviet Union was much more than a chess player.”
“Chess’s next wave of popularity was exclusively down to Viktor Korchnoi. He represented quite a melting pot: the conflict between two opposing systems, the international tension caused by that very Cold War, and his personal drama, with the Soviet authorities refusing to allow his family to leave for the West. News of this standoff made chess front-page news again, and it was even the subject of the madly popular musical Chess, which ran for years in London and New York.”
Thus the stage is set by the author, GM Genna Sosonko in his magnificent new book, Evil-Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi.
“Almost half a century later, it is not easy to appreciate what such a decision by Korchnoi meant for a Soviet citizen, and how incredibly hard it was to make that final leap to freedom.”
Sosonko emigrated from the Soviet Union before Korchnoi, but he left after receiving permission from the monolithic State; Korchnoi defected, thus earning the opprobrium and enmity of not only the Soviet authorities, but also of the citizens of Russia. Korchnoi was considered a renegade; a traitor.
The following paragraphs explain the author’s aim in writing the book:
“There was a time when Sigmund Freud
dissuaded the writer Stephan Zweig
Stefan Zweig in seinem Salzburger Domizil am Kapuzinerberg. 1931. Photographie von Trude Fleischmann. [ Rechtehinweis: picture alliance/IMAGNO ]
from attempting to compile the former’s biography: “Whoever becomes a biographer forces himself to tell lies, conceal facts, commit fraud, embellish the truth and even mask their lack of understanding – it’s impossible to achieve the truth in a biography, and even if it were possible, that truth would be useless and you could do nothing with it.”
“I have to agree with the father of psychoanalysis and I have not attempted to write Korchnoi’s biography as such. Rather, this is a collection of memories, or to be more precise still: a collection of explanatory notes and interpretations of incomprehensible or misunderstood events from the complex life of a man whom I knew for nearly half a century, and alongside whom I spent in total many months – indeed years. I want to believe that these recollections will not only uncover the motives behind his controversial actions, but will also shed light on his approach to the game, his personality and behavior in everyday life. In any event, a portrayal of Korchnoi must obviously highlight the most important feature of his life – his dedication to chess – which grew into an obsession.”
“When he turned seventy, he asked me to write the foreword to his collected games. Naturally, I hardly imbued my text written for his big occasion with “plain speaking.”
“Yet, in the book you are now holding, I have attempted to do just that: in my reflections on this great player, I wanted to display him, as the English say, warts and all.”
The author has achieved his goal. It must have been painful at times to write so openly and honestly about someone with whom one spent so much time, and about someone for whom he obviously had so much affection, but Sosonko has done a masterful job in this outstanding work of art. I lived during the era of which the author writes, but did not play Chess seriously until 1970. Therefore I learned much from the early, pre-1970, period of Viktor the Terrible. Even though I have read extensively about the Chess world much of what I read in this book shed light on some of the dark spots.
“This is how Canadian grandmaster Kevin Spraggett
described a conversation with (Boris) Spassky:
He began to list Korchnoi’s many qualities:
…Killer Instinct (nobody can even compare with Viktor’s ‘gift’)
…Phenomenal capacity to work (both on the board and off the board)
…Iron nerves (even with seconds left on the clock)
…Ability to calculate (maybe only Fischer was better in this department)
…Tenacity and perseverance in defense (unmatched by anyone)
…The ability to counterattack (unrivaled in chess history)”…Impeccable technique (flawless, even better than Capa’s)
…Capacity to concentrate (unreal)
…Impervious to distractions during the game
…Brilliant understanding of strategy
…Superb tactician (only a few in history can compare with Viktor)
…Possessing the most profound opening preparation of any GM of his generation
…Super-human will to win (matched only by Fischer)
…Deep knowledge of all of his adversaries
…Enormous energy and self-discipline
Then Boris stopped, and just looked at me, begging me to ask the question that needed to be asked…I asked: “But, Boris, what does Viktor lack to become world champion?” Boris’s answer floored me: “He has no chess talent!”
Viktor Korchoi was what is popularly known as a “late bloomer.” He may have had little, or no, talent for Chess, but no Grandmaster ever out worked the Evil Doer. He rose to the rarefied heights attained by strong determination, and an indomitable will to win.
“Korchnoi was born in Leningrad into a Jewish family on 23 March 1931. Lev Korchnoi (Viktor’s father) was killed at the very beginning of Russia’s involvement in World War II, and Rosa Abramova (his mother) took Vitya’s upbringing upon herself. The little boy lived through the Blockade of Leningrad, the death of many nearest and dearest, cold and hunger, and at one point was hospitalized with dystrophy.”
claimed that a difficult childhood was a priceless gift for a writer, while Soviet grandmaster Alexander Tolush
asserted that you needed to be poor, hungry and angry to be good at chess. There is no doubt that being brought up without his father and his tough childhood contributed to Korchnoi’s difficult personality, and were the reasons for complexes that it took him many years to shed.”
Viktor overcame the obstacles in his path to challenge for the World Chess Championship, becoming the second best Chess player in the world.
“If he noticed somebody voluntarily choosing a passive or quite unpromising opening line, he would shake his head: “What can we say here? X had a difficult childhood, a difficult childhood.” He would repeat this at a training session of the Dutch team prior to the Haifa Olympiad (1976) when we were analyzing some opening of Polugaevsky’s. This expression caught on, and became part of Dutch chess folklore for many years: what, did you have a difficult childhood or something?”
who worked with Korchnoi in the early 1990’s, was also amazed at the famous veteran’s energy and emotional state:
The several days that we spent analyzing together during his candidates quarter-final again(st) Gyula Sax
(Wijk-aan-Zee 1991) enabled me to understand him much better than the ten or so games that we had played against each other until then. Korchnoi was spewing out ideas like a fountain. Sometimes we would spend almost an entire day on chess, yet like a child he would then continue to play around with the chess pieces, trying out various positions.
also noticed this quality:
Sometimes you ask somebody to look at a position and they refuse – “I’m not interested, I don’t play that line.” Well, you would never hear such words from Viktor Lvovich. He would analyze any position, attempting to grasp it and suggesting ideas. For example, we would look at a position where we needed to find a way for black to equalize or for white to gain an advantage. When it looked like we had found it, everything seemed to work, and we had checked the variations, I would have stopped there. Yet Korchnoi always tried to penetrate the position more deeply, and to see if there was another way.
Now the players no longer analyze, they head for the nearest computer for the answer.
“Korchnoi was sixteen when he managed to draw a game against Estonian master Ivo Nei
after escaping from the jaws of defeat. “This was the first time that I felt pleasure from a difficult, tiresome defense! But if, in my youth, the desire to defend was driven by mischief, a love for risk, then in the subsequent years defense became my serious, practical and psychological weapon. I enjoy drawing my opponent forward, allowing him the taste of attack during which he might get carried away, drop his guard, sacrifice some material. I often exploit those episodes to launch a counterattack, and that’s when the real battle begins,” Korchnoi said at the start of the 1960’s. He concluded: “Masters of defense have contributed no less to chess history than masters with an attacking style!”
“Only Korchnoi can capture that pawn!” became a widely-used cliche to describe position where any sane chess player would not even consider accepting a sacrifice.
“Shall we ‘Korchnoi’ a bit?” I had heard masters and even grandmasters suggest this during analysis back tn the Soviet Union, when they considered capturing material that appeared particularly dangerous to accept.
Journalists of course lapped up the Leningrad grandmaster’s attitude to the game: “A man of courage who chose defense as his weapon!”…”Korchnoi captured the poisoned pawn and chalked up another win!”…”After the Leningrader accepted everything thrown at him in sacrifice, his opponent found himself without a mating attack and raised the white flag.” Phrases like these were often found in tournament reports.
“At the end of his life, Francois Mauriac wrote” “I’m not brave enough to revise my technique, as Verdi did after Wagner appeared.”
“Well, Korchnoi did have enough bravery. Middle aged, he decided to review his approach to the game, to become broader minded, to throw off his focus on material, to learn to play positions with the initiative, with sacrifices and with material imbalances. He managed to do this in the prime of a successful career. Only professionals are capable of appreciating the gigantic effort that Korchnoi made.”
“He said one day: “You know, I have a son in Ukraine, he’s 32 years old. Recently, he wrote to me that he had just realized that he had lived half his life. Well, at that age I suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to play chess!
Even though that’s when I won the national championship for the second time! I suppose you need a great deal of talent to win the championship of the Soviet Union without knowing many of the laws of chess! After all, all sorts of things have been written about me! I’m a great defender, that my play resembles Dostoevsky and all sorts of nonsense. Yet I couldn’t have played any differently, I didn’t know how to! So I started to work. I analyzed thousands of games. I mastered the most important skill of all – to wield the initiative!”
“Yet, after changing his style, he retained his won, original way of looking at the game. Korchnoi’s deliberations about chess were always to the point, yet unexpected.”
I end the review here. I could continue, going on and on, ad infinitum. I have attempted to convey the tenor of the book to the reader to the best of my ability. You, the reader, will decide if I managed to impart a glimmer of what this marvelous book contains.
A personal note: While reading a book to review I never write in the book; any book. To do so would be to deface the book. A book is sacrosanct. I place paper in the book, and then reread the pages containing the inserted slips of paper. It is almost like reading it twice. I agonized on what to include, which caused much anguish after deciding to exclude parts for the review. While rereading parts of the book I cogitated on how to begin the review. This, too, caused much anguish. There is so much contained in the book that I could write other, totally different, reviews, using none of the above.
I have read every book written by the author, one of the very best writer’s on the Royal game, not to mention his many articles. My admiration for Genna Sosonko is unbounded. This work is his pièce de résistance.
One of the glorious things about being a lover of the Royal game is the computer. One of the worst things about being a fan of chess is the computer.
Since I am still alive at an advanced age and have a computer I am able to watch the games of the best human players in real time via the machine. For instance, as I punch & poke at this very moment, GM Gata Kamsky is playing one of my favorite openings, the Leningrad Dutch, versus GM Mikhailo Oleksienko. The latter played 6 b3 against the usual first five moves, a move favored by IM Boris Kogan. The ideas the “Hulk” shared with me about this particular move order have stayed with me. I will be surfing on over to the game periodically while writing.
I prefer to watch the moves played in the game sans computer generated analysis while trying to understand what is transpiring over the board in a country on the other side of the planet. I admit that occasionally I am so flummoxed I will resort to looking at current analysis provided by the tournament website, or the ol’ standby, http://www.ChessBomb.com.
As should be known from what I have written previously, I am a HUGE fan of Hikaru Nakamura. “You gotta pull for SOMEBODY,” was heard on numerous occasions at the House of Pain. I pull for Hikaru, and make no bones about that fact. Today, at the tournament in memory of GM Vugar Gashimov, my man, Naka, had the White pieces versus Fabiano Caruana, my number two favorite player. I think of him as an International American. And no, Magnus is not my number three. That honor goes to Peter Svidler, because I read in an interview he listens to Bob Dylan. Svid, my man! I have got to like a player who appreciates Bob.
One of the best things about watching chess on the interweb is the interviews after the game. Unlike earlier days, a computer is used by the players for analyzing the just played game. Something may be gained by my being able to watch the players share their thoughts, but something has also been lost. Anyone who has ever watched GM Walter Browne go over his game will attest to that fact. It has been said that Walter has never lost a game in analysis, and for good reason. Walter was a bundle of energy with the pieces flying across, and sometimes off, the board. The best show was after the game when it came to Mr. Six Time!
Today’s game between my two favorite players was an English Four Knights game. The system is one in which White builds up a fine position with more space and then has to decide what to do with it. I am reminded of my days playing backgammon, when a player would reach a beautiful position and a kibitzer would say, “Take a picture of it,” meaning he had to make a move and because he had no timing, his position would collapse like a house of cards no matter what move he made. “Stack ’em up,” would also be heard as the unfortunate player had to begin placing too many chips on one pip. This is what occurred in today’s game. Hikaru said as much after the game. “I didn’t find the right plan an that’s why I should’ve lost,” he said. After move forty Hikaru said honestly, “Right around here I start losing my mind for no reason.” Earlier as I was watching him lose his mind, I thought of something GM Viktor Korchnoi said about Magnus Carlsen being rated so highly at such a young age and there being thousands of positions he had not seen. The great thing about the game of chess is that although a player may have seen millions, if not billions, of positions, he has not seen this particular position. He may have seen similar positions, but not this one, and he has to not lose his mind in the complications.
Because of the computer programs, or “engines” as they have become known, top level chess is vastly different than it was even a generation ago. This is not your father’s chess. The players speak of the “engines” anthropomorphically. For example, Hikaru said, “The computer will probably be a better person to ask than us.” Later he said, “That’s why computers are better than us.”
Fabiano got in on the discussion by saying, “The game was complicated. I don’t know how we played until I check the computer.” It seems to me that a player rated 2783 ought to know how he, and his opponent, played without having to resort to a machine. Have the programs advanced so far as to be the end all when it comes to understanding chess?
GM Caruana said, “I wish there was more time to see Baku. We only had one day…” I smiled while thinking to myself of the lyrics to a song from the musical, “Chess.”
“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me