The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Following is a book review by noted chess historian John S. Hilbert, who has appeared several time previously at "The Campbell Report" (for a bio listing his credentials check his Stalking the Blue-Eyed Chess Score). I present this as a separate article (as opposed to including it on the "Chess Reviews" page) because of its significance. Any book purporting to present comprehensive coverage of the career of a great world champion is sure to attract careful scrutiny, so I'm sure more will soon be published concerning this flawed book. Just remember, you heard it here first! -- J. Franklin Campbell

Emanuel Lasker, Volume I, Games 1889-1907, by Egon Varnusz

Book Review
by John S. Hilbert

Emanuel Lasker, Volume I, Games 1889-1907, by Egon Varnusz (Budapest: Schmidt Schach 1998; 280 pp., Indexes of openings and opponents; bibliography; paperback, suggested retail price: $25.95).

Ordinarily I do not review chess books that I cannot recommend to readers. Doing so seems somehow unfair, given I know I am talking about an author's work, and he or she isn't here, next to me, with the immediate opportunity to respond. Hitting someone when they are down is bad enough. Hitting someone when they aren't even here, besides engendering a certain metaphysical confusion, seems somehow less proper.

But not for this book. Not this time. One reviewer, who shall remain nameless, has already called Varnusz's Emanuel Lasker "probably the best book on Lasker published." The same reviewer suggests some problems do exist with the book, but does not provide details. The general conclusion is left to stand … or fall. In my opinion it falls flat on its face.

The book is a disaster. More to the point, it is dangerous disaster. How can a chess book dealing with games played approximately one hundred years ago be considered "dangerous"? And to whom? We shall see.

For the record, Emanuel Lasker states it includes 327 games from the period 1889 through 1907. The games are annotated in Informant fashion, using symbols, with an essentially one page forward, a four page chronology, and interspersed among the games, which are liberally diagrammed, runs selected passages from other works and brief material about Lasker. The diagrams are clear, the paper acceptable, and the size of the print large enough for ease of reading. In short, the book's format, on first glance, appears reasonable and indeed, even attractive.

And therein lies the danger. The book appears reasonably well constructed, at least in terms of comparison with various eastern European books that have begun to sprout in the past few years, and thus suggests to the unwary reader that it stands as a legitimate attempt to convey useful information about one of the greatest chess players ever to play the game. This appearance of legitimacy leads itself to such unfortunate, quick comments as those above suggesting this is a good book. This work, clearly, is not the best, nor even an adequate, book on Emanuel Lasker. I shall examine this book in terms of presentation, language, possible copyright violations, and substantive flaws, in what might loosely be thought of as matters of increasing significance for potential readers.

Presentation: In terms of format alone, a closer examination of Emanuel Lasker begins to show some unfortunate traits. As with early Informants, for those who can remember that far back, no distinction in print is provided to distinguish the moves of the games from those of the notes. A failing understandable in the early days of such annotation-by-symbol affairs, today such a lapse is merely irritating, and in any event hard on the eyes. No crosstables are provided so, for instance, when the reader comes to the great Hastings 1895 tournament, starting on page 105, there appears simply a listing of the players and their point totals ("1. Pillsbury 16,5" reads the first entry, though heaven knows why for an English language market a comma must be used in place of a decimal point, if not the notation "16½"). We then are given a game, numbered "1" (apparently a reference to the round number of the event—the text does not number the games one through 327, rather beginning over again with "1" for each event, so we are left to take on faith alone the author's claim that 327 games do indeed appear in the book), followed by the players ("Lasker-Marco"), followed by the ECO code number for the game ("D37").

No name of the opening is given. No acknowledgment or explanation of the use of ECO codes is given. No table explaining the annotation symbols is given. No attribution is given for the annotations. And the only reference for the game score itself is in the "bibliography" (the reason for the use of quotation marks for that section will become apparent later), which merely states the author apparently used various tournament books, including Hastings 1895, though no clearer a source than this is provided.

Language: Emanuel Lasker shares with a number of its continental cousins a failure to obtain a native speaker of English to at least smooth out the most egregious blunders in idiom and syntax, let alone the various problems that appear with simple spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Such failure is, sadly, commonplace. A book sent into the world, it is hoped, has a working life much longer than its author, and certainly longer than the first generation of those who read it. While the help of a professional, native speaking editor or at least proofreader would of course be ideal, merely allowing a native speaker generally trained at the college level in the language to read through the manuscript and change the most obvious mistakes would surely make such books much more palatable to an English speaking market.

But problems with language often go deeper than the sentence structure itself. They go to thought as well. It is one thing to have to pick one's way through poorly phrased material when there is at least a reasonable expectation of catching the author's meaning; it is another to wander hopelessly in a verbal jungle so dense as to obliterate, at times, thought itself. A brief illustration. On page 7, the reader finds the subheading "A little statistics and explanation" (the awkwardness of such language is transparent, but read on). Here the reader is told that "there are 327, mostly annotated games by Lasker in this book." I leave off the double period at the end of the sentence. Whether the games are mostly annotated, period, are annotated mostly by Lasker, or are mostly annotated by Lasker, is a cliffhanger the author never resolves. The reader is then told "we have found all the official games with one exception." The proverbial shoe never drops: the reader is never told which is that one, slippery fellow that got away. But the reader is immediately told that "it was not a very difficult task [not finding one game?] as there was not such a dumping [?] of tournaments then as there is now …."

I think I know what Varnusz means. At least in part. But that is precisely the trouble. A reader shouldn't have to "think" at such a level, one necessary when text obscures rather than informs. No one expects of chess books, sadly enough, the "continuous dream" of great literature, wherein ideally the reader forgets, after a fashion, and if only momentarily, that he or she is reading at all. No one expects authors of chess books to anticipate reader questions, to carry the reader along, not through a mindless plodding of uninteresting prose, but rather in a refreshingly clear and perceptive manner, in a way that actually stimulates thought and discussion, by allowing the reader to concentrate on the meaning behind the words, so to speak, and not merely on what the words mean. No one expects this of chess authors. I don't know why, but they don't.

Apparently unevenness in writing, to phrase it politely, is rather expected of those who write about chess. To quote Varnusz out of context, but from the same paragraph as the one explored above, "our [our?] book is not a homogeneous one, but this is intentional." So too the literature of chess and chess history.

Copyright Violations?: Let the authors and publishers decide for themselves, of course, if this has taken place. I, for one, find the acknowledgments given unacceptable. One example illustrates this well. On page 135 we are given a rather obscure subheading: "John C. Oven [sic]," apparently a reference to John C. Owen, author of, among other works, The Match Tournament at St. Petersburg, 1895-6 (Caissa Editions: Yorklyn, DE 1989). Starting on page 135 of Emanuel Lasker, Varnusz begins a series of paragraphs, without an introductory quotation mark, extending through the top of page 139 that includes, without significant alteration, pages 10-11 and 109-112 of the Owens book. Varnusz at the top of page 139 gives a concluding quotation mark, and "(O)," which apparently is all the recognition Oven/Owen is about to receive. One wonders if John Owen or Caissa Editions were ever contacted for permission to use such extensive quotations in such a fashion. I could find no acknowledgments by Varnusz. Perhaps another reader can. Such practices, of course, make me wonder what else in the text is simply lifted from other books.

What passes for a bibliography in this work is unfortunate. On page 273 there is something termed a "bibliography," though the first two entries read as follows: "Barendreht [sic] $ Lasker-Pillsbury $ E. Lasker $ Laskers [sic] Manuel [sic]of Chess $." One can only wonder at the use of money signs to separate texts from their authors. One can also only wonder at how "Brandreth" became "Barendreht" for a reference that should rather read something like this: Lasker vs. Pillsbury, Edited by Dale A. Brandreth (privately printed, Miquon, Pennsylvania 1960). "Laskers Manuel" is self-explanatory, one might suppose, though no more precisely pinned down than is "Barendreht." The same "bibliography" sends the reader to another interesting and hitherto unknown tournament source: Cambridge Springs 1907 [sic].

Substantive Flaws: The most glaring and pervasive of substantive flaws, of course, is that Varnusz never mentions Kenneth Whyld or his extensive work on Lasker. Perhaps the failure to refer to The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker by Kenneth Whyld (Nottingham: The Chess Player 1998) can be excused, as both books appeared just this year. Unfortunately such an explanation overlooks the fact that Whyld and The Chess Player in fact put out a three volume predecessor work on Lasker, the third volume of which was published no more recently than 1976. The more reasonable explanation, then, is that Varnusz was unaware of Whyld's earlier work, let alone his more recent. Nor does the bibliography mention Welgeschichte des Schachs: Lasker, Vol. 11, another very good general collection of Lasker's games, and one copyrighted in Germany in 1958.

Varnusz says his book gives 327 of Lasker's games during the period 1889 through 1907. An examination of the book shows Varnusz was not limiting his selection to "official" games (i.e., tournaments and matches), but was clearly including at least some exhibition and consultation games. How he arrived at 327 games is unexplained. Especially since Whyld's recent work includes for the same period 799 games.

Varnusz's treatment of his subject is often unfortunate as well. Take, for example, his selection of Lasker's exhibition games in 1892. Varnusz provides a brief section that includes under this heading, and starting at page 54, four games: Isacson - Lasker appears under the subheading "New York 1892." No subheading is given for the very next game, Bird - Lasker, though clearly that encounter was supposedly played in New York, too. If the game had been played against Henry Bird, the New York location would be quite odd, as Lasker's games against the famous English player in 1892 were played in England. The actual game Varnusz attributes to Bird on page 54 of his book is in fact a game played in New York at the Manhattan Chess Club on November 8, 1892, between J.W. Baird and Lasker (see Whyld, game number 153). The two remaining games in this section, played in Philadelphia, Reichelm - Lasker and Shipley - Lasker, are in fact two of ten played against five Philadelphia players between December 20, 1892 and January 3, 1893, during which time Lasker also conducted simultaneous exhibitions. Whyld's book includes all ten seriously played individual encounters as well as nine examples of consultation play, from the same two week visit Lasker paid to the City of Brotherly Love.

One last illustration of the substantive errors made by Varnusz appears at page 245 of his book. There the reader is given a game labeled as being from the "Cable Match Berlin-New York 1906." It is said to be between Lasker and "Philips." The game in fact appears in the American Chess Bulletin for November 1905 (at page 337), so we know immediately that the year Varnusz gives for the game is wrong. Lasker's opponent was in fact Harold M. Phillips (note Varnusz's spelling error), who the reader might like to know served as United States Chess Federation president some forty-five years later, in the early 1950s. And in any event, Lasker was not Lasker, or at least not the Lasker of interest to Varnusz, for the American Chess Bulletin makes very clear that Phillips was in fact beaten by Berthold Lasker, Emanuel Lasker's older brother, and not the reigning world champion, who was not competing in the cable match between the Manhattan Chess Club and the Berlin Chess Society.

I hesitate to speculate as to how often such errors have crept into Emanuel Lasker. One suspects, though, given all that has been said above, that they are legion. The points used above are merely for purposes of illustration, but even those alone are of such magnitude as to render suspect the entire work. In any event, one hopes this book will not long be mistaken as possibly one of the best books published on the former world champion. It is not.

Copyright © 1998 by Johns S. Hilbert

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