Deserving Irving

I wrote a few months ago about Fred Reinfeld. I really ought to consider his contemporary and occasional collaborator Irving Chernev (1900-1981).

History has been much kinder to Chernev, than to Reinfeld. There’s something of a feeling, isn’t there, that Chernev=Good while Reinfeld=Bad? By all accounts Chernev was a nice guy and a real enthusiast for chess, while Reinfeld, although the stronger player, was a rather unpleasant man writing his books for money rather than for love. Although Chernev’s books are outdated, some of them still have value and his passion for the game shines through all his writing.

It’s time to look at the Chernev books in my chess library.

I have two books of chess trivia, inspirations for The (Even More) Complete Chess Addict.

The Chess Companion (1968) is described as “A merry collection of tales of chess and its players, together with a cornucopia of games, problems, epigrams and advice, topped off with the greatest game of chess ever played”. The first half comprises (mostly) chess fiction, by the likes of EB White, JM Synge and Stephen Leacock. Then we have a collection of interesting games and puzzles, some trivia and epigrams, and finally, the Greatest Game (Bogolyubov-Alekhine Hastings 1922, since you asked). All very enjoyable and entertaining, but I’m not sure how much of it would meet with Edward Winter’s approval. Wonders and Curiosities of Chess (1974) is very much the same recipe as the second half of The Chess Companion.

Winning Chess (1949) is a collaboration between Chernev and Reinfeld, a guide to basic tactical ideas illustrated with simple examples. Still, I think, a very useful book for novices.

My other Chernev books are all games collections. The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (1957) does what it says on the tin. The games range in length from 4 to 24 moves and come with light annotations. The provenance of the games doesn’t always stand up to historical scrutiny (the first game, predictably, is ‘Gibaud-Lazard’ which wasn’t as Chernev claimed, a tournament game, and, as we now know, lasted longer than four moves), but if you want a collection of miniatures, perhaps for coaching purposes, or just for an enjoyable read, you won’t go far wrong.

Logical Chess: Move by Move (1958) is perhaps Chernev’s best known, and also most controversial, book. He presents 33 games, all annotated in depth, literally move by move. He even manages to find something different to say every time 1. e4 or 1. d4 is played. The other day a novice player at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club had a copy with him and assured me he’d be a very strong player by the time he’d finished the book. However, Logical Chess was slated by John Nunn a few years ago, and it has to be said that not all of the notes stand up to modern computer analysis.

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played (1966) is a collection of ’62 Masterpieces of Modern Chess Strategy’. Well, relatively modern, given that the games range from Steinitz in 1873 to Petrosian in 1961.

The Golden Dozen
(1976) gives us ‘the twelve greatest players of all time’, along with 9 games by each of numbers 3-12, 10 games by number 2 (Alekhine) and 15 games by number 1 (Capablanca), all annotated in depth. The first edition, which I have, is a handsome hardback published by Oxford University Press.

Chernev returned to his beloved Capablanca for Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings (1978), with 60 complete games, all of which Capa won in the endgame. Again, much useful material for study and tuition as long as you can accept the reservations over Chernev’s style of annotation.

Chernev had a personal preference for strategy over tactics and enjoyed games where the winner followed a simple strategical plan from beginning to end. This type of game is very instructive for intermediate players, perhaps more so than tactical games, but if you’re annotating games of this type there is often a tendency towards annotation by results and over-simplification. But, if you’re writing for weaker players you have to generalise and over-simplify. Novices have to learn the basic principles of chess before learning when and how to break them. Inevitably there are also analytical errors which can be discovered easily by switching on an engine.

The first game in Logical Chess is a case in point. Chernev is very critical of White’s 9th move, but the engines are still happy with the first player’s position. The real mistake is 10. dxe5, a horrible move allowing a black piece to approach the white king. In the final position White could have played on with the computer defence 18. Bxf7+. Now 18… Kxf7 19. Qd5+ is a perpetual check, while after, say, 18… Kf8, White sacrifices his other bishop: 19. Bf4 Qxf4 20. Bh5 Nf6 21. Rxf2 Nxh5 22. Qd5 when he’s two pawns down but has some practical chances. Earlier, the computer is not impressed with Black’s 16th move, instead preferring to complete its development calmly with O-O-O.

Chernev, although not the strongest of players, had an unerring eye for a good game and was meticulous in consulting as many sources as possible before writing his annotations. Many of his books still have value today. Both Logical Chess and The Most Instructive Games have a lot of invaluable material for chess coaches, although you might like to check the analysis and the current state of opening theory first. The Golden Dozen seems to have been underestimated: that and Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings, Chernev’s last two chess books, are worthy of consideration because of the excellent choice of games and the clarity of the annotations. John Nunn might advise swerving Irving, but for intermediate players and those who are teaching them, some of Irving’s books are still deserving of your attention.

Richard James

This entry was posted in Articles, Richard James on by .

About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.