Sunday, July 09, 2006

Korchnoi, Victor. Chess is my life. Zurich: Edition Olms, 2005. 226pp.

Polgar, Susan and Paul Truong. Breaking through: How the Polgar sisters changed the game of chess. London: Everyman, 2005. 319pp

Two chess biographies, and they couldn't be more different. The Korchnoi is probably one of the finest of its kind ever written, a terrific book, one for the ages by a player for the ages. The Polgar, a book with just as much potential, also about very important players, is a bit of a disappointment. The Polgar is a bit bloodless where the Korchnoi bleeds chess passion on every page.

Victor Korchnoi is one of the greatest figures in the history of chess, a renowned fighter and fierce competitor. Most believe that he is the greatest player never to be world champion, having faced Anatoly Karpov twice for the championship and lost. As well, he faced Karpov in 1974 for the right to play Bobby Fischer in 1975, which Karpov won. As we know, Fischer refused to play and Karpov was awarded the title. This book is Victor the Terrible's memoirs. From his early life in Lenningrad during the Nazi seige to his turbulent years as a grandmaster in the Soviet system to his defection to the west and his life in Switzerland, this book covers a lot of ground. Korchnoi is very open and honest about everything, he pulls no punches. He doesn't hide his disdain for the Soviet's favourite sons and their machinations, particularly for figures such as Petrosian and Karpov, who tried to hold him back. He is candid about his reasons for defecting, going into some detail about his thought processes and the actual process of defecting and how he ended up in Switzerland. He discusses many of his tournament and match victories (and losses) in detail.

A great book. But, be warned. This is not a games collection. Korchnoi only annotates a handful of games in this book. He does have several games collections (both in books and on DVD) available. As an added bonus, the book comes with a CD of 4280 unannotated games. Korchnoi is still playing, of course, still at the a very high level in international tournaments, still rated 2600 and ranked 134th in the world.

Susan Polgar is the eldest of the three famous Polgar sisters, Judit being the youngest and most famous and Sofia the middle and least famous. They're famous because their father used them as a sort of pedagogical experiment to see if he could raise chess grandmasters by various educational strategies, mostly via tactical drills. Well, he succeeded. The details of how he did this would be facinating as well as instructive, wouldn't it? This book is the story of how these three women became a sensation in the chess world and beat a lot of men at (supposedly) their own game. The best part of this book deals with the girls stuggles as they were growing up to be taken seriously in the male dominated world of chess, both in their native Hungary and in the world at large. These parts of the book are quite effective, and really make the book worth purchasing on their own. As well, there are many insights and stories about the sisters lives that make this an interesting and entertaining book.

On the other hand, there's more about this book that is disappointing than not. First of all, we really don't get much on their father's strategies for turning his daughter's into geniuses, only vague generalities. I was certainly expecting some detail on his methodology and pedagogy.

Also, the focus is really Susan. She takes up 125 pages of the book, Sofia about 70 and Judit about 85. The last 30 pages or so on the 2004 Olympiad also mostly revolve around Susan. The book would have been much stronger if the emphasis was more even, especially if there was more on Judit's rise as one of the strongest players in the last 10 years, being the first woman in the top 10. At least for me, that was a story worth telling. As well, I found all the sections on the sisters a little superficial. I don't need tabloid-style details, but I felt a lack of personal details and real insight made the book seem a bit bloodless, lacking in passion and emotional resonance; the sisters really didn't come alive for me in this book like Korchnoi did in his.

The main reason for this superficiality is the uneasy balance between biography and games collection in the book. Over 70 pages of games and combinations in the Susan chapter, 60 for Sofia and over 65 for Judit, with each woman's bio sections also liberally sprinkled with games and game fragments. So, the vast majority of the book is really a chess games collection, not the story of how the sisters changed the game of chess. Now, the games are well annotated, especially for the average player, but they really dominate the book, to it's detriment. I get the sense Susan Polgar wanted this book to inspire girls and women to play chess, to reach for the top. I think it could have, but their stories would have inspired, their triumphs and tragedies, not their game scores.

This book is certainly worth buying, I don't regret buying my copy. And one day a truly great book will be written about the Polgar sisters, in particular about Judit's rise to the top, but this isn't it. I look forward to reading some other recent books on women's chess, including Jennifer Shahade's Chess Bitch and Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen : A History.


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