Category Archives: Elk and Ruby

‘The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein’ – Genna Sosonko

‘The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein’ – Genna Sosonko.

20 chapters, 17 black and white photos. Foreword by Garry Kasparov which states ‘Bronstein was the first player to propose changing the starting position of the pieces’. Now, is that really correct? But the former World No.1 gives the book the thumbs-up adding: ‘Soviet reality was so complicated’. Now, that I do agree with!

First published in 2014 in Russian, this is a more recent translation of rather a sad book. In what way ‘sad’? Well, Davy B (1924-2006) was obviously a top chesser but the stress of World Championship matches – he drew a match for the crown with Botvinnik in 1951 – meant that the remainder of his life was spent trying to explain, regroup and, above all, recover. None of the games of the match are given; in fact, no games are given at all.

It all began sadly. Dad was seven years in the Gulag. Davy narrowly escaped the Holocaust. The author is at some pains to explain his subject and I believe Sosonko has succeeded. Bronstein blamed his baldness (“I gave my hair” he told me) on the life he was obliged to live.

Chess.com on Twitter: "The great David Bronstein was born on this day in 1924 🗓️. Few have more narrowly missed the world championship title than Bronstein when he drew a match with

Ridiculously overpriced – the cover price is £24.15 – the book, one of a series, tells the tale of a gentleman sent mad by a board game whilst war raged. His writings are given generous praise but his riches lay in his games and wonderful annotations. Here we get none of this.

I met David a couple of times, in London and then Hastings, just after the second Fischer-Spassky match. We got on well. I had always dreamt of meeting the Soviet GM so this was a treat that nothing could spoil beyond everyday comparison. I wrote about it – twice, I think – so repeating much of it here about 30 years later is not going to happen.

The Sosonko text contains dozens of classical references to foreign authors chessers are not going to have heard of. Much is delivered verbatim. Bronstein, a born raconteur, told stories far into his old age when much of chess was lost to him. Having heard one or two, I can assert Sosonko has the patience, background and great love of the game; in short an excellent amanuensis. And you won’t get far into the book without encountering irrelevance heaped upon irrelevance.

The publishers website contains a 12 page PDF which I hope you’ll find revealing.  I did not like this book. I doubt David Bronstein would have liked it either.

The author is a Dutch, formerly Soviet, Grandmaster.

(Also see ‘American Chess Magazine’ No.7, p.122 and Richard James’s review of same penned on this site last May).
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Limited Liability Company Elk and Ruby Publishing House (10 Aug. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 5950043316
  • ISBN-13: 978-5950043314
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm.

chessparrot

James Pratt  (on the right!)

Basingstoke 09/20

Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi

Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi
Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi

Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi : Genna Sosonko

Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

Genna Sosonko emigrated from the USSR to the Netherlands in 1972.  For the past 20 years or so he’s made a career out of writing essays and books about chess in the Soviet Union, and interviewing many of the leading players from that period.

It was Saturday 17 January 1976. The height of the English Chess Explosion.  Richmond Junior Chess Club had opened its doors for the first time just a few months earlier.

As was customary at the time, the visiting Soviet GMs who had been competing at Hastings played simuls against prizewinners from the London Junior Championships, which in those days attracted most of the country’s top young players. And so it was that I was there at a London school to witness two of the all-time greats, Bronstein and Korchnoi, taking on the cream of England’s up and coming chess talents.

The contrast was noticeable.  Bronstein played fast, took some risks and finished quickly (+17 =9 -4). Korchnoi played slowly, taking every game seriously, and using 7 hours to complete his 30 games (+20 =9 -1), losing only to a certain N Short. He said at the time something to the effect that he wanted his young opponents to understand what it was like to play against a strong grandmaster.

This story sums up the difference between two men who had much in common but a very different attitude towards chess.

Bronstein was born in Ukraine, the son of a Jewish family. Korchnoi’s Polish Catholic father and Jewish mother had moved from Ukraine to Leningrad a few years before he was born. Both men were obsessed with chess while neither had great social and communication skills. Both, of course, came within a whisker of becoming world champion.

I’ve recently reviewed Sosonko’s memoirs of Smyslov and Bronstein: the book in front of me now is without doubt the most successful of the trilogy. Korchnoi and Sosonko had been close friends for half a century, although at one point not on speaking terms for some time.

Korchnoi could at times be rude, argumentative and bad-tempered, but that was part of the man, and his friends, such as Sosonko, accepted and perhaps even respected him for it. On reading an article in which Nigel Short, his young conqueror all those years ago in the London Juniors simul, described  him as a ‘cantankerous old git’, he confessed that, although his English was pretty good, he was only familiar with one of the three words. Growing up as he did during the Siege of Leningrad, suffering his parents’ divorce and the death of his father, poverty, hunger and ill-health, you might think, along with Sosonko, that his difficult personality was understandable. You might also ask yourself whether it was, at least in part, something he was born with.

Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi
Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi

“I have problems communicating with other people”, he once said. “Therefore, I do what I like the most. Most of all I like chess, and, to be honest, I don’t know what else I could do.” (No, I don’t know  when or where he said it, but that’s Sosonko for you. No sources, just lots of ‘he saids’, allegations and speculations.)

Korchnoi admitted and accepted his differences, while Bronstein, to use the current vogue word, masked his differences.

Bronstein peaked early, while Korchnoi peaked remarkably late. Bronstein seemed to play for fun, driven by fantasy and imagination, while Korchnoi was a dour and dogged defender who took every game seriously. But it was Bronstein who gradually fell out of love with chess, his obsession turning from the game itself to the perceived injustices he suffered. Korchnoi, in contrast, like Edith Piaf, regretted nothing and remained passionately devoted to chess right to the end of his life.

A long and eventful life it was, too. From wartime hardships to chess stardom, political asylum in the West, world championship matches against Karpov, and his final decades spent quietly (as if Korchnoi could ever be quiet) in Switzerland, it’s all here. Readers of Sosonko’s other books will know what to expect. There’s no chess in it at all, so, unless you’re inspired by Korchnoi’s determination, it won’t do anything to improve your rating. Nor is it an academic history: just memoir and anecdotes. I’m not convinced by the title: ‘evil-doer’ was how he was referred to  by some Soviet players after his defection. It’s a title I might use about Hitler or Stalin, but Korchnoi, whatever his faults, didn’t do evil. But if you want 300+ pages about the man, written by a friend and admirer for half a century, you’ll enjoy reading this book.

Richard James, Twickenham 15th May 2020

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Softcover : 314 pages
  • Publisher:  Limited Liability Company Elk and Ruby Publishing House (17 May 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 5950043383
  • ISBN-13: 978-5950043383
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm

Official web site of Elk and Ruby

Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi
Evil-Doer : Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein
The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein : Genna Sosonko

Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

 

Genna Sosonko emigrated from the USSR to the Netherlands in 1972.  For the past 20 years or so he’s made a career out of writing essays and books about chess in the Soviet Union, and interviewing many of the leading players from that period.

 

This is the position at the adjournment (remember them?) of the 23rd game of the 1951 World Championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik (White in this game) and David Bronstein, the subject of this memoir by Genna Sosonko. A position that would haunt Bronstein for the rest of his life. He was a point up with just two games to play but if the match was drawn Botvinnik would retain his title. Bronstein had been at least equal at various times during the game, but, in this complex ending, had erred a couple of moves earlier, and, if Botvinnik had sealed Bb1 (Bc2 also does the trick) he’d have had a winning advantage.

But when the envelope was opened the next day, 42. Bd6 appeared. The game continued 42… Nc6 43. Bb1, when Na7, planning b5, would have drawn, leaving Bronstein only requiring a draw with White in the 24th game to become the 7th World Champion. Instead, though, he played Kf6, and Botvinnik eventually won, although Stockfish suggests that Black might still have drawn.

I’d always assumed that Bronstein, as befits his play, was a witty and charming man, but Sosonko paints a very different picture. An annoying eccentric who would never stop talking about his obsessions, notably Botvinnik and the above game, but who frequently contradicted himself as to whether or not he really wanted to become World Champion, and as to how much pressure he was put under by the Soviet authorities, both in that match and later.  A man with a never ending stream of ideas about chess, some brilliant, but others crazy. (Perhaps this is not an uncommon trait amongst chess players – I can think of several friends who are very similar.) A man who, as he aged, became sad and embittered, regretting and resenting his chess career and wishing he’d done something else with his life.

At times I thought Sosonko was turning into Bronstein himself, as he regaled me with more and more anecdotes from other players telling similar stories about Bronstein’s oddities, and more and more conversations with him in his final years, all saying very much the same thing.  “Shut up, Genna! You’ve made your point. Can’t we look at some chess instead?”

No, it seems we can’t. You won’t find any chess at all in this book. Even when a game is discussed, as in the above example, we don’t get to see the moves. Yes, most readers can do what I did and look them up, but having to do that is both frustrating and unnecessary.

An air of sadness pervades much of the book. While I agree that it’s important to know something of the personalities behind the moves, Bronstein, like, for example, Alekhine and Fischer, is best remembered by his games.

And yet – there’s a lot of interest here. A lot of material, admittedly anecdotal, about chess in the Soviet Union, and, in particular, about Bronstein’s éminence grise Boris Vainshtein. Sosonko calls him the Prince of Darkness, and I was very much reminded of Dominic Cummings, himself a chess player in his youth, who plays a similar role in the life of another Boris. Descriptions of Bronstein’s chess philosophy often made me stop and think anew about the nature and purpose of chess, and about my own chess philosophy.

With a firmer editorial hand this could have been an excellent book. Cut back on the repetitive anecdotes and the descriptions of his final years. Add the positions and moves when a game is being discussed. Perhaps expand the section on Bronstein’s chess philosophy. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in post war chess Sosonko’s book is still an essential read.

I’ll close, if I may, with a couple of personal thoughts. Even though he studied geography, not psychology, Sosonko likes to psychoanalyze his subjects, tending towards theories based on nurture rather than nature. These days most of us take a different view. A child presenting with his oddities today would probably receive various diagnoses and labels. For better or for worse? You tell me.

Finally, here’s Sosonko explaining why Bronstein, at the end of his life, was popular with children.

“People rejected by the adult world are often children’s best friends. They are not quite normal to other adults, but are full of charm for children: fully-grown charming eccentrics who never become proper adults.” Guilty as charged.

 

Richard James, Twickenham 10th May 2020

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Softcover : 272 pages
  • Publisher: Limited Liability Company Elk and Ruby Publishing House (10 Aug. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 5950043316
  • ISBN-13: 978-5950043314
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm

Official web site of Elk and Ruby

The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein
The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein

Smyslov on the Couch

Smyslov on the Couch
Smyslov on the Couch

Smyslov on the Couch : Genna Sosonko

Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko
Gennadi Borisovich Sosonko

 

Genna Sosonko emigrated from the USSR to the Netherlands in 1972.  For the past 20 years or so he’s made a career out of writing essays and books about chess in the Soviet Union, and interviewing many of the leading players from that period.

This, following on from books about Bronstein and Korchnoi, which will be reviewed later, is the third of a series of memoirs. Whereas Bronstein and Korchnoi were strong personalities who had controversial careers, Smyslov was a much more balanced character.

The word most associated with Smyslov is ‘harmony’. He sought harmony in his chess games, always seeking the most harmonious placing of his pieces. He was also a talented opera singer:  harmony again.

In the first part of this book, Sosonko introduces us to his friend. The life of a chess player in the Soviet Union must have been a mixed blessing. While you were living in a totalitarian regime, chess was valued and its exponents respected – as long as they toed the party line. Smyslov, we learn, was a man of profound and sincere religious convictions: a member of the Russian Orthodox church. Beyond that, he was also, rather unexpectedly, interested in all things paranormal. He seemed to believe in astrology and the prophecies of Nostradamus, and was convinced that chess originated on Atlantis. It always intrigues me how many strong chess players, who excel at thinking rationally over the chessboard, have totally irrational views on other subjects.

Perhaps it was this fatalism, the belief that everything in his life was pre-ordained, which enabled Smyslov to ‘go with the flow’ during his chess career.

At the end of this part, we have eight pages of photographs, before moving onto part 2

Now we turn the clock back to the 1953 Candidates Tournament, and, specifically, this game, from round 26.

The tournament was approaching its end: Smyslov was leading but Bronstein still had a chance to win the prize of a title match against Botvinnik. The Soviet authorities instructed Bronstein to play for a draw, which, as you can see, he did, choosing the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez, long before Fischer rehabilitated it as a winning try.

Bronstein never forgot this, and, nearly half a century later, published an article about match fixing in the 1953 Candidates Tournament which angered the usually placid Smyslov. Bronstein’s article and Smyslov’s reply both appear here.

Sosonko then moves on to discuss, in more general terms, the Soviet Chess School, offering revealing insights as to what life was like for grandmasters from the USSR.

The final third of the book returns to Smyslov, and is based on conversations with the great man during the last eight years of his life: from 2002 to 2010. I’ll have a lot more to say about this when I review Sosonko’s memoirs of Bronstein and Korchnoi, but I’m not sure how much this adds to our knowledge of Smyslov, or how much he would have wanted to be remembered for his declining years.

If you’ve read any of Sosonko’s other writing you’ll know that he writes well, and, very often, poignantly. He tends to throw in a lot of cultural references, which you might find helpful, but, on the other hand, you might just think is showing off. Me: I enjoyed the musical references but mentions of Russian literature often mean nothing to me.

It’s not quite true that there’s no chess in the book: there’s just one game, played when he was 14, which, although Sosonko doesn’t mention it, is spookily similar to the Famous Game Rotlewi-Rubinstein.

If you’re looking for a book that will improve your rating, then, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you want to know more about Smyslov as a person, you’ll probably enjoy the first third of the book. If you’re interested in the history of chess in the Soviet Union, particularly in the years following the Second World War, you might want to read the second part, but you’ll need to bear in mind that the author is an compiler of memoirs and anecdotes, not a historian. It’s the final section that leaves me with mixed feelings. A moving testimony of the final years of a much loved and respected champion, or just voyeurism? I’m in two minds: maybe you should read the book and decide for yourself.

 

Richard James, Twickenham 15 April 2020

Richard James
Richard James

Book Details :

  • Paperback : 199 pages
  • Publisher: Limited Liability Company Elk and Ruby Publishing House (5 Nov. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 5950043324
  • ISBN-13: 978-5950043321
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.1 x 19.8 cm

Official web site of Elk and Ruby

Smyslov on the Couch
Smyslov on the Couch