Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Human Comedy of Chess

A Grandmaster's Chronicles

I learned the game as a child from my grandfather, who played postal chess. He bought me a small book suitable for my age, but I was more captivated by the names of the openings than the openings themselves, and to this day it is the lore of the game holds my greatest interest.

The Human Comedy of Chess is a work exactly suited to my taste. It’s a collection of articles written in the 1990s by Dutch GM Hans Ree and splendidly translated by Willem Tissot and Maureen Peeck.

It contains 56 articles with an average length of just around five pages and bearing titles such as:

Chess with the KGB
Karpov's Revenge
Khan of Kalmykia
What is Beautiful?
Heroic Tales
The Chess Murder
Adjourned Games

There are pieces on the history of chess, and on familiar names such as Reshevsky, Tal, Botvinnick, Marshall, Keres, Nimzowitsch, Koltanowski, Duchamp. Scattered throughout are a number of games with brief but colourful annotations. Particularly entertaining is Ree's account of the matches between Karpov and Anand, Short and Timman, and Short and Kasparov.

The writing is smooth, witty, engaging, with pungent observations on nearly every page. A sampling:

Today's top chess: rather like the headhunting frenzy of axe-wielding savages

Tal: doctors had accidentally removed not a kidney, but his appendix

Krylenko: executed in 1938 because he had neglected to propagate the social meaning of chess

Duchamp: after the game, chess pieces were sent into the air by balloons

Kasparov: uproots heavy trees with bare hands

FIDE: a banana republic run by gangsters

Time trouble: an addiction

Soviet chess
: before Sputnik circled the earth chess was the only field in which the Soviet Union had caught up with the rest of the world and outdone it

Nor has Ree neglected the dark side of chess. He mentions bribery, conspiracy, intimidation, scandal, con men, imposters, bodyguards, chess bosses, "gruff telephone calls from blackmailers," and bald-faced attempts at cheating. "Sometimes," he writes, it is "hard to distinguish between the chess community and the world of organized crime."

But the best parts of the book are those that communicate Ree's infectious love of the game. Of a match with Topalov, he writes that Kasparov "conjured up an attack out of nothing, with a rook sacrifice," after which he made "fifteen mortal blows in a row, all of marvelous beauty." He concludes by saying, "Those who were privileged to be present knew they would tell it to their children and grandchildren, as long as chess will be played in this world."

This wonderful book gives a thrilling glimpse into a world that ordinary mortals like me would not otherwise see.