A review of Chess Facts and Fables by Edward Winter

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Chess Facts and Fables
By Edward Winter
McFarland & Company
October 2005, 395 pages, ISBN-10: 0786423102

This is the fourth volume in Edward Winter’s “Chess Notes” series, an immense work-in-progress that is devoted, broadly speaking, to chess history. The previous volumes have bought a rigour to the subject that had hitherto been absent and, daresay one say it, a fear among those writers on chess who have been content simply to repeat folklore, with no regard as to whether it also happens to be true. This present volume continues in like vein.

In the preface to Chess Facts and Fables, the author sets out the problem as he sees it:

Fact and fable [in chess] are commonly intermingled, and chess historians have a hard time disentangling them, for the game’s literature is particularly blighted by untrustworthy assertions, rickety anecdotes and dubious quotes. (p.vii)

Indeed. In chess, many writers have followed the famous advice to eschew facts and “print the legend” – and have even felt the need to embellish the legend a little in the process. For if one has a good story to tell, why care if it is untrue? In an article called “Story-telling” (given on p.231) we meet one such writer: Alex Dunne. In his book 2010 Chess Oddities, published in 2003, he tells the story that Paul Morphy – “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess”, as he has been called – “arranged women’s shoes in a semicircle around his bed”. It is a bizarre claim, but Dunne has not been the only offender in making it: the story has appeared in many different guises, and every writer seems to have their own version of it. After demonstrating that the story is a wilful distortion of a banal fact, Winter comments:

And so it is that much of chess history is not history at all but lurid figments. Anyone criticizing such output risks being labelled a spoilsport or humourless pedant, but a far greater price is paid by our game’s greatest practitioners, for they are condemned to star ad infinitum in seedy anecdotes which are the product of mindless inter-hack copying or brutal distortion. Any aspect of their lives is considered fair game for sheep and jackals alike, this being the time-honoured process whereby chess history is made “fun”. (p.231-232)

This quotation is absolutely crucial to understanding the underlying seriousness of Winter’s enterprise – he is a chess historian on a mission – but the book is not just concerned with the correction of other writer’s inaccuracies: it also seeks to amuse, educate and entertain.

Structurally, the book consists of a number of items or articles, which vary greatly in length; some consist of only a few paragraphs, while others are over 5 pages long. They are arranged in seven sections, which are:

I. Positions
II. Games
III. Miscellaneous
IV. Biography
V. Gaffes
VI. Mysteries
VII. Quotes.

Of these, the most telling is “Miscellaneous”, for the book is essentially a miscellany, a now sadly neglected genre that was popular during the Victorian Age. David and Ben Crystal recently wrote (or composed) a miscellany devoted to Shakespeare, which was reviewed here; this one is devoted to chess. It presents a diverse collection of facts, quotes, texts, and of course games and positions, all relating to chess. (The “Chess Notes” section of the Chess History Center website: http://www.chesshistory.com will give a further flavour of what to expect.)

Everyone will have their own highlights from this volume. My own would include:

• The presence of many elegant prose stylists who have written about chess, such as G. H. Diggle and Gilbert Highet. I would place, also, Edward Winter himself among their number. Winter’s asperity when dealing with slip-shod writers who can’t be bothered to check their facts (including “general purpose intellectuals” of the order of Arthur Koestler and George Steiner) is a guilty pleasure.

• Some (about 10) forgotten or little-known games of Adolf Anderssen, dating mostly from the 1850s. Adolf Anderssen, winner of the first-ever chess tournament, held at London in 1851, has, incidentally, quite a literary pedigree. Nabokov refers to Anderssen’s victory against Kieseritzky in 1851 – the “Immortal Game”, as it has come to be known – in his introductory remarks to The Defense, his novel about the chess master Luzhin. Also, a position from Anderssen’s victory against Dufresne in 1852 – this one called the “Evergreen Game” – appears in Chapter 69 of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.

• An exploration of the origin of the epigram, “The threat is stronger than the execution,” which is usually attributed to Tartakower. It seems, though, that earlier writers had expressed the same thought, albeit not quite as pithily.

• The interviews with the great Capablanca and a teenage Bobby Fischer; in the latter, carried out in 1961, Bobby predicts that he will be world champion by the time he is 20.

• The voices of myriad chess players from the past, which here ring loud, clear and true: J.H. Blackburne’s grumpiness on being accosted by “problemists”. Isidor Gunsberg’s statement about the poverty of viewing chess as competition: “To play solely to win a game which offers such inviting temptations to anyone gifted with an imagination, requires a man who has fishblood in his veins.” H.E. Bird on his approach to the game, concluding with the words: “If I am not original in chess, I am nothing.”

Chess Facts and Fables is a large volume (about 25cm. x 17cm.) and the text is set out in double columns on each page, so there is an immense amount of material here. One downside of this, though, is that the text, whilst certainly readable, is relatively small. There are many diagrams of chess positions, and many photographs and line drawings of famous and little-known players, and these add to the value of the book. For anyone with an interest in chess history, this volume is a wonderful treasure trove. It is perfect for browsing, whether one happens to be in one’s library or on one’s lavatory.

About the reviewer Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at a>