In his column in the May 2017 issue of CHESS, John Saunders regrets the demise of the ‘fun’ chess book. The sort of book that Reinfeld, Chernev and Horowitz, amongst others, used to produce. These books might include, for example, entertaining short games or combinations with light annotations, some accessible problems or studies, lists, records, history, anecdotes and trivia.
John writes: “… I find that my last chess book to fall squarely into this category of chess literature is Mike Fox and Richard James’s splendid The Even More Complete Chess Addict, of which the second edition was published in 1993.” He goes on to speculate as to whether this type of book has gone out of fashion, and, if so, why. He proposes two reasons: that these books require a higher than average degree of writing expertise, and that there is now so much material of this nature available on the internet.
There’s a lot to be said for both those reasons, and perhaps there are other reasons as well. There days there are fewer adults with a genuine interest in chess culture, as opposed to self-improvement. There still seems to be a market for chess improvement books, whether they’re aimed at weaker club standard players, or stronger players aiming to reach genuine chess mastery. The quest to improve your chess, as witnessed also by the title of this blog, is to be welcomed, but do the players who just want to enjoy chess still exist? I’m not sure: perhaps they don’t.
The most recent book of this type I have on my shelves is The Joys of Chess, by Christian Hesse, which was slated by Edward Winter for plagiarism and inaccuracy. These days we have a rather different relationship to truth than we did even 30 years ago when Mike Fox and I were writing The Complete Chess Addict. It’s no longer enough to use secondary sources, cutting and pasting dubious unsubstantiated anecdotes from earlier chess trivia books. We’re all historians now: these days only fully researched and assessed primary sources will do, and, if we copy anything from someone else who has already done the spadework we’ll be accused of plagiarism. And that someone else will probably be Edward Winter whose diligent research is to be found on the chesshistory.com website as well as in various books. Do we really need more books retelling the same tired anecdotes? In these puritanical times, is it really appropriate to make fun of the drinking habits or mental health problems of great chess players? Now that top players rarely compete outside supertournaments we no longer witness great players duffing up lesser lights with a cascade of brilliant sacrifices: instead we get subtle (or dull, depending on your perspective) Berlin Wall endgames. so perhaps it’s harder to find the sort of games beloved by the likes of Chernev.
In the early years of this century, Mike Fox and I had been vaguely discussing producing a new edition of our book, provisionally entitled The Ultimate Chess Addict. We had a lot of new material based on our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS, and believed we could produce a bigger and better book. But, alas, it was not to be as Mike died too young in 2005. Since them I’ve often been asked (and have been asked twice on social media within the last few days) if I was planning to write anything else on the same lines. Well, part of me feels that the whole Chess Addict project was very much tied up with my friendship with Mike, and that I had to move on and do other things with my life. Part of me also feels that perhaps, as John Saunders suggests, there’s no longer much of a market for this sort of book. But, on the other hand, it would be a lot of fun to do. I asked a friend a few years ago if he might be interested in working with me, and just the other day someone I only know in cyberspace, who had enjoyed reading the original as a boy and was now reading carefully selected extracts to his daughters, also expressed an interest. I could, I suppose, start by returning to the Chess Addict website, which was abandoned in mid sentence after Mike’s death.
At present, though, I’m concentrating on working on the Chess Heroes project and won’t really be able to start anything else for the next year or two. After that, who knows? You can help: do feel free to let me know whether or not you think there’s still a market for this type of book. Like John Saunders, I’d be sad to think that chess books designed to entertain readers rather than improve their rating were a thing of the past.