Book Review: The Big Book Of World Chess Championships

The Big Book Of World Chess Championships:  46 Title Fights – From Steinitz To Carlsen, by Andre Schulz

One word review:  shenanigans.  In reading this book about the more than 100 years that there have been recognized world chess champions, over and over again that is what this book brings out.  The author, in discussing a bit about the chess and a lot about the context of these matches, points out shenanigans on all kinds of levels.  We have attempts to financially blackmail would-be competitors to thin out the competition and try to earn a living at chess, we have espionage, crib sheets, people changing their names to avoid appearing Jewish (here’s looking at you Kasparov), matches being fixed according to the demands of the Soviet regime, brinksmanship, para-psychology, schisms within the chess federation world, financial corruption within FIDE, and failed attempts to copyright chess moves to keep them from being freely published and analyzed in order to make a profit off of the chess game.  As someone who reads and plays chess at least on occasion [1] there was much to ponder about here, as this book reveals a side of chess that is deeply unpleasant and also not something that those in charge of the game would likely want to be generally known.

This book is divided into five parts, and its roughly 350 pages cover exactly what it sets out to–namely the context and contest of each of the forty-six recognized and official classical world chess championships, which took place in a variety of formats and involved a great deal of bargaining and brinksmanship on all sides.  The first part of the book looks at the age of private World Chess Championships (I), with Steinitzs victories against Zukertort (1), Chigorin (2, 4), and Gunsberg (3) and his loss to Lasker, as well as Laker’s successful defenses against Steinitz (6), Marshall (7), Tarrasch (8), Schlechter (9), and Janowski (10), before Capablanca’s win (11) and then loss to Alekhine (12) who held the title for quite a while after successful defenses against Bogoljubow (13, 14), and an unsuccessful defense against Euwe (15) that he overturned the next year (16).  Alekhine’s death after World War II allowed FIDE to organize chess tournaments, and the second age of World Championship Chess was dominated by the Soviets (II) with victories by Botvinnik (17, 18, 19, 23), Smyslov (20), Tal (22), Petrosian (24, 25), and Spassky (26).  The third part of the book looks at an era when Cold War politics reached new heights (III) with victories by Fischer (27), Karpov (28, 29, 30), no one (31), and Kasparov (32, 33, 34, 35).  A brief fourth section (IV) looks at a time of schism in the chess world where Kasparov (36, 37) and Kramnik (38, 39) held classical titles in an age of massive corruption.  The rest of the book looks at unification and what followed (V) for the chess world with Kramnik (40), Anand (41, 42, 43, 44), and Carlsen (45, 46) on top of the chess world.  The book contains many mini-biographies of the various chess competitors, whether successful or unsuccessful in their efforts at the World Chess Championship.

I am not sure who would enjoy reading this book.  If you are someone who likes the hypercompetitive world of chess championships, which I do, this book is definitely instructive and compelling.  Yet this is not the sort of volume that makes anyone look particularly good.  By the standards of world chess champions, Fischer almost seems to be a normal and well-functioning human being, given the way that so many chess champions were so paranoid and so grasping for money.  Reading this book gives one a picture of just how screwed up the chess world is, and always have been.  People from middle or lower classes find themselves compelled by the game of chess and how it works, and then find themselves involved in battles of nerves with others, trying to psyche out their opponents as well as tactically defeat them, while earning large amounts of money in a world where corrupt FIDE bureaucracies take a large sum off the top and where shenanigans are continually going on.  When we look at the positions on the chess boards, it is hard to know just how screwed up the people are who make their livings from the game, but this book goes a long way in revealing that for anyone who really cares to know.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/08/a-modest-proposal-for-the-development-of-a-robert-bobby-fischer-chess-tournament-for-the-church-of-god/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/16/activity-above-all-the-politics-of-chess/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/07/chessmaster-god/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/08/28/zugzwang/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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