A review of Samuel Reshevsky by Stephen W. Gordon

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Samuel Reshevsky
By Stephen W. Gordon 
McFarland & Company
Library Binding: 424 pages, January 1997, ISBN-13: 978-0786402755

The full, majestic title of Stephen W. Gordon’s book is Samuel Reshevsky: A Compendium of 1768 Games With Diagrams, Crosstables, Some Annotations, and Indexes;
and this gives an accurate impression of its brobdingnagian scope. It charts the chess career of Samuel Reshevsky (1911-1992), and that was pretty brobdingnagian too. Reshevsky was a genuine prodigy and was giving simultaneous displays against adults – playing scores of amateur players at a single shot – from the age of six; and he was still of grandmaster strength when well into his 70s. The earliest game given here is against the great Rubinstein and was played in Warsaw in 1917, while the last competitive game (number 1766) is against Smyslov, one of Reshevsky’s great rivals, and was played in Moscow in 1991. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Reshevsky was a chess player who straddled the twentieth century.

Gordon provides a substantial linking narrative, surveying Reshevsky’s career decade by decade, and his prose is clear, lucid and interesting. The scores of the 1768 games are generally accurate and they are well presented; there are a plentiful number of diagrams. A considerable amount of time and research must surely have gone into collecting and checking them. It is unfortunate, therefore, that some of the annotations have errors that seem to have arisen out of a conversion from English descriptive notation to algebraic notation. These errors are especially prevalent in Larry Evans’s annotations to the Reshevsky-Fischer match (on pages 217-224). One simple example from page 219: “Fischer and Tal are the best 1.e5 players in the world.” Clearly, 1.e4 (and not 1 … e5) is meant. On the same page, in the note to Black’s twelfth move in game 906, the variation 12.a4 d6 13.a5 is given. Since White’s eleventh move in this game was 11.axb3 this is clearly impossible; 12.h4 d6 13.h5 is meant. And one could point to other similar examples. These mistakes don’t make the text incomprehensible, but they can be quite irritating.

Reshevsky as a player had what one might call a combative positional style. Because he depended on his positional understanding and technique, and was dogged and resourceful rather than inspired (unlike, say, Tal), it is easy for an average player to underestimate just how strong he was. He was unspectacular and so his magic often remained invisible; but not to his peers, of course, those who played against him and sometimes lost. Bobby Fischer put him in his top ten and highlighted one of his strengths: “He can see more variations in a shorter period of time than most players who ever lived.” Fischer went on to say that “for a period of ten years – between 1946 and 1956 – Reshevsky was probably the best chess player in the world”; a judgment that can be queried but is worth consideration. Significantly, Fischer’s time frame takes in the Zurich 1953 tournament where, as we know from the late David Bronstein’s revelations, the KGB bullied Soviet players into cheating and conniving to deny Reshevsky first place (with some players, it didn’t take much bullying). See, in this regard, Andy Soltis’s two articles entitled “Treachery in Zurich” at the ChessCafe website. Another appreciation of Reshevsky, given by Larry Evans on the occasion of his death, is worth giving too:

He was the touchstone against which my generation measured its progress. Bisguier once quipped that we would all beat him in a few more years when he got old. Meanwhile, we all got old waiting for him to get old. (Quoted by Gordon on page 391.)

One can think of a few ways in which the book could have been improved. It would have been good to have some photographs, to give an ostensible sense of Reshevsky’s longevity. And although some games are annotated by Reshevsky, the notes in his own two games collections are not used; these would have enhanced the content considerably (of course, there may have been copyright issues that made this impossible). Finally, some games (e.g. game 1473 against Gulko) end with one player losing in what seems a level position. One assumes that this is because they lost on time, rather than resigned, but no indication of this is given at the end. Some indication of this sort would be useful and avoid perplexity on the part of the reader.

As with all McFarland & Company’s books, the production quality is extremely high. This is a handsome hardback, bound in dark green cloth, and it measures approximately 21 by 28 centimetres. Clearly, even its size and dimensions are brobdingnagian and in keeping with its subject! Samuel Reshevsky: A Compendium of 1768 Games With Diagrams, Crosstables, Some Annotations, and Indexes by Stephen W. Gordon is a commendable record and tribute to a chess prodigy who fulfilled virtually all his promise, who devoted his whole life to the game of chess, never losing his love for it, and who continued to play until almost his very last breath.

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com