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Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Nostalgic Chess Book

     The other day while browsing the remnants of my once extensive chess library I came across an old book that brought back memories. 
     Quite a few years back I accompanied my parents from rural Ohio on a three day drive in a Studebaker Golden Hawk to Miami, Florida. Back in those days there wasn't any Interstate highways and while my dad drove, my mother navigated using a series of free road maps my dad picked up at the local gas station. 
the Golden Hawk

     Once arriving in Miami we spent the night in a motel and the next morning boarded a flight for our first ever plane ride. We were headed for San Juan. The plane was a twin engine propeller driven aircraft. In those days they left the cockpit door open and occasionally a passenger would stick their head in the door and look around the cockpit. When we returned home I remember my mother commenting that the plane ride was beautiful, but it wasn't something she would want to do again. 
     When we arrived in San Juan we stayed with my brother, a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, who was stationed at the old Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station. We stayed with him and his wife in his cramped quarters and a few things stand out in my memory. One was when he took me on a tour of the airfield and I got to climb all over a PBY airplane. Another highlight was having an evening meal in the Chief Petty Officers' club where we dined on something that was, up to that time, unknown to us; something called pizza. Unless you were from the big city you had never heard of it. Being used to plain old Southern cooking where most everything was fried in grease, my mother thought it was just “OK.” 
     I also remember my dad, who very rarely ever drank, buying a bottle of rum which was his sole souvenir. For a long time he showed it to people and bragged about how little it cost. When he died over 40 years later that bottle of rum was discovered unopened in his workshop tool cabinet. 
     The real highlight of the trip though was my 12th or 13th birthday (I can't remember which one it was!). We went into San Juan proper and my brother bought me a red and white Renaissance chess set. Today I wouldn't touch one, but in those days it was beautiful. I also got three chess books: How to Win Quickly and Attack and Counterattack by Fred Reinfeld and The Golden Treasury of Chess by Al Horowitz which was my favorite. 
Mine was red and white

     One reviewer gave The Golden Treasury of Chess two stars stating that it was outdated and had only light annotations. I am rather perplexed by the reviewer's attitude. When you by an old book that was first published in 1943 and reprinted in 1956, 1961, 1969 and 1971 exactly what do you expect?! Yes, many of the games have no notes or very light notes and not all have diagrams, so to enjoy them you will have to think a little bit; maybe the reviewer was too lazy to to that. Most readers' complaints were about the very sparse notes. 
     Here's a little secret about the book. The collection was originally published by Francis J. Wellmuth in 1943 and it was revised and printed many times by Horowitz and the latest 2009 edition has been further revised and printed by Sam Sloan. The size of the book and the games appearing in it have changed over the years. The book's history has been covered by Edward Winter in an article titled The Horowitz-Wellmuth Affair
     My copy is not the one I received in San Juan, it is the 1971 edition and it contains eight games by Fischer. But for me the book's charm is that it contains gems played by unknown, forgotten and dimly remembered players as well as the giants of bygone eras. 
     The other day I spent a little time playing through some of the games from the pre-Morphy period of the early to mid-1800s. The following game was what the book describes as, “One of the most magnificent chess masterpieces on record.” and states that, “Connoisseurs hold that the annals of Chess produce no higher flights of genius than the play of M'Donnell in this game.” Is that statement true? I'll let you judge for yourself. 
     The La Bourdonnais – McDonnell chess matches were a series of matches in 1834 between Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais of France and Alexander McDonnell of Ireland. These matches confirmed La Bourdonnais as the leading player in the world. They are sometimes seen as having been unofficial World Championship matches. La Bourdonnais won the first, third, fourth and fifth matches; McDonnell won the second match, and the sixth was abandoned with McDonnell leading. Overall, the matches went to La Bourdonnais' with a score of +45 -27 =13. 
     The games were recorded by the club's elderly founder William Greenwood Walker, who remained by McDonnell's side for almost the entire duration of the match. Play generally began around noon, some of the games taking more than seven hours to complete. La Bourdonnais knew no English and McDonnell knew no French. It is said that the only word they exchanged was "check!” 
     After each game, McDonnell would return to his room exhausted, where he would spend hours pacing back and forth in a state of nervous agitation. Meanwhile La Bourdonnais would be downstairs regaling himself at the board. He would continue to play till long after midnight, smoking cigars, drinking punch and gambling. La Bourdonnais was an ebullient and garrulous individual. When winning, he grew talkative and affable; but when things went against him, he swore tolerably round oaths in a pretty audible voice. McDonnell was observed to be taciturn and imperturbable. Winning or losing, he betrayed little emotion at the table, a habit which seemingly unnerved his explosive opponent. 
     Harry Golombek evaluated the games and found them to generally be of low quality. There were some instances of brilliance, but the level of technique, especially in the endgame was low. In one game McDonnell had an endgame with a rook and two pawns versus a rook and did not know how to win. He lost his rook due to a blunder and lost the game. La Bourdonnais was not as bad as McDonnell in the endgame but he was weak in the opening. The games lacked any cohesive strategy. There were relatively few draws, but this was partly due to McDonnell's inaccurate defense, which caused him to lose games instead of draw them.

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