Right Said Fred

The name of Fred Reinfeld came up recently on the Chess Book Collectors Facebook page.

For decades now Reinfeld has been mocked and slated by many strong players, but his books are still remembered fondly by those who grew up with them 50 or more years ago, so much so that “21st century” editions in algebraic notation of some of his books have been published.

My view is somewhere between the two extremes. For me Reinfeld is, or at least was, the chess equivalent of someone like Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown. If you want great literature you’ll look somewhere else but if all you want is a good story and an easy read then Archer or Brown will probably suit you just fine. It’s very easy to be snobbish about this sort of thing but I’m not sure that’s a reason to criticise authors whose books have given pleasure to so many. (Of course there are very many other reasons why you might want to mock Jeffrey Archer, but that’s something else entirely.)

There are many with good things to say about Reinfeld. Leonard Barden (in correspondence with Edward Winter) referred to Reinfeld’s ‘lucid and informative explanations’ (Chess Notes 8004). According to BH Wood in the Illustrated London News in 1977, “Bob Wade has remarked again and again how poorer players find him helpful”. (Chess Notes 8364). On the other hand, David Hooper (again in correspondence with Winter) wrote: “He started with some serious books, found they didn’t pay, that the public wanted drivel (How to win in ten moves) and American pace necessitated mass production of drivel, he developed contempt of chessplayers, including many champions” (Chess Notes 8436). I think most of us can name several contemporary chess authors who started with serious books, found they didn’t pay and reverted to mass production of potboilers.

A quick scan of the shelves in the Chess Palace came up with seven books authored by Reinfeld, along with one edited by him and a couple of others (by Marshall and Reshevsky) which he is believed to have ghosted. There may possibly be one or two more around somewhere. So I decided to refresh my memory about these volumes.

The only Reinfeld beginners’ book I have is The Complete Chessplayer (1953), a solid guide similar in concept to other adult beginners’ books of the same period, for instance Golombek’s The Game of Chess (my first ever chess book) and Pritchard’s The Right Way to Play Chess (still in print: as it happens I edited and updated the most recent edition). It starts with the rules of chess, followed by some basic tactics, some basic endings and an opening survey. I was surprised to see that Reinfeld gave 5…Nxd5 in the Two Knights an exclamation mark, claiming that the Fried Liver was unsound. I was also surprised to read that ‘King-side castling is common in ninety-nine games out of a hundred’ (both meaningless and factually incorrect – much of the writing is careless in this way). Finally, there’s a short selection of lightly annotated master games. I don’t think I bought this book myself: it must have been in one of several boxes of books I’ve been given over the years. Yes, it’s dated and for various reasons wouldn’t be a lot of use now, but it was a pretty good book for its day.

Chess Mastery by Question and Answer (1939) was a pioneering attempt to teach by demonstrating master games and asking the reader to comment on some of the moves in terms of both strategy and tactics. An interesting idea which has been copied by few if any other writers. Regular readers will be aware that in general I approve of using Socratic methods when teaching chess, although they’re probably more useful in one-to-one tuition rather than in a book. Reinfeld applied the same technique to a selection of lower level encounters in a later book, Chess for Amateurs, which was actually the second chess book I ever owned some 50 years ago. I lent it out some years later and never got it back. It would be good to see contemporary authors writing more books in this style. Come to think of it, I might even write a Chess Heroes book using Socratic methods to critique children’s games.

Amidst all the mockery, Reinfeld hasn’t really received credit for his pioneering teaching methods. Many of us now understand that one way to improve is by intensive solving of tactics puzzles, and, if you want big books with lots of tactics there are several to choose from. Reinfeld was the first to produce this sort of book. As I collect tactics books I had to have 1001 Brilliant Chess Combinations and Sacrifices and 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate (both 1955, and both books have appeared in different editions with slightly different titles – these are the titles of my editions). These have been reprinted recently in algebraic notation, but without correcting analytical errors. Big tactics books are great but you’d probably do better with something more recent where the analysis has been computer checked.

Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess (1947) was recommended by GM Kevin Spraggett as one of his favourite books, and is generally considered to be one of Reinfeld’s better efforts. Possibly this was because the notes to many of the games was based on Tarrasch’s own annotations. I remembered enjoying this book when I borrowed it from a library as a teenager so wanted a copy mainly for nostalgic reasons. It’s been reprinted, but not translated into algebraic. As there’s no other collection of Tarrasch’s games readily available in English this would certainly merit a ’21st century edition’.

Reinfeld published two collections of games played by British (and Commonwealth) players: British Chess Masters Past and Present (1947) and A Treasury of British Chess Masterpieces (1950). Two enjoyable collections of games, many little known and some played by little known players, with light, some would say superficial annotations. As a British chess player myself I wanted these for my collection. They won’t do a lot for your chess improvement but I’m pleased to own them. As far as I know, neither of them have been reprinted.

I’ve been selective about which Reinfeld books I acquired and avoided the obvious potboilers but I wouldn’t call any of these books mass-produced drivel. Yes, he generalises and over-simplifies but you have to when writing for less experienced players. Yes, any fool could switch on a chess engine and improve much of the analysis. Yes, much of what he wrote about the openings is out of date. Yes, some of his writing is slapdash. Yes, some of his books contain unverifiable anecdotes which today would, quite rightly, earn him the wrath of Edward Winter. But considering the books in my library, The Tarrasch book is important and would merit a ’21st century’ edition. The two collections of British games are pleasant and undemanding, in a genre which sadly no longer seems to exist. The tactics and question/answer books were revolutionary for their time. Most importantly his books gave a lot of pleasure to thousands, perhaps millions of readers. If you’re looking for something to make you a better player in 2015, though, you’d be well advised to look elsewhere.

Richard James

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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.