The Kings of Chess

Edward Winter



The Kings of Chess by William Hartston (published by Pavilion/Michael Joseph, London, 1985) is subtitled ‘A history of chess traced through the lives of its greatest players’. It is excellently produced, richly illustrated and extremely well proof-read. Hartston’s style is fluent and mordantly witty. He can time a quip as well as anybody around, as is shown by the following deliciously irreverent comment on a particularly tedious phase of the 1984-85 Karpov-Kasparov match:

‘The most exciting event in the Hall of Columns during this period was when the match was adjourned for a week to give way to the lying-in-state of Marshal Ustinov, the Soviet minister who had died without waiting for Karpov’s sixth win.’

The book does not claim to be a work of original research. It aims at the same popular end of the market as did Schonberg’s Grandmasters of Chess, but is much superior since it makes better use of better secondary sources. There are, however, similarities, particularly in the way alleged character defects of great masters are given prominence. Hartston’s piece on Staunton is entitled ‘The Pompous Years’ and, though handsome tribute is paid to Staunton’s services to the game, it is his pomposity that is made the fil rouge. Such colourful superficiality hardly does justice to one of the nineteenth century’s outstanding figures.

But there is worse. The Capablanca chapter is called ‘Lazy, Vain and Invincible’. Quoting with frequent relish from My Chess Career (certainly a book characterized by frank (i.e. justified) self-pride, but it was part of the Cuban’s campaign to bring Lasker to the board), Hartston harps on about Capablanca’s alleged conceit, whilst ignoring all his equally frank admissions of weakness or error which are to be found either in My Chess Career or elsewhere.

In two different places William Winter published criticism of Capa to the effect that, early in his career, he tended to make moves without sitting down, as if he were giving a simultaneous exhibition. This was phrased gently in his book Kings of Chess, aggressively in CHESS (1963). It is a pity that Hartston rejected the Kings of Chess version, assuming that the matter is really worth mentioning at all. For then William Winter’s further comment might have been noted too:

‘When he [Capablanca] got over the natural ebullience which springs from youthful success he seemed quite without conceit, he was courteous to all, free from mannerisms and always ready with helpful advice and criticism.’

Instead of this boringly nice quote, Hartston launches further anti-Cuban missiles: ‘The son was named Jose Raul. What better names could there be?’ (page 98); My Chess Career – ‘Compulsory reading for students of chess vanity’ (bibliography).

While Capa’s chess greatness is given coverage, the overall treatment is unbalanced and, therefore, unfair. It is all rather illogical. Why should laziness and vanity be latched on to, rather than any other character defects – or even qualities – that he may or may not have had? Why should others, like Morphy, have a comparatively easy ride? Even David Lawson, who idolized Morphy, found him capable of being self-willed, secretive and devious. Hartston doesn’t.

Our negative reaction to the Capablanca coverage is also based on more detailed matters of historical judgement and factual accuracy. We find all the following quotations highly debatable: Page 99: ‘The followers of Tarrasch, careful and tending to be dogmatic, were led by Rubinstein and Capablanca.’ Page 101: ‘The reason Capablanca was supreme throughout this period was not that his way of playing was more correct than that of his opposition, just that he was more effective in his execution of strategy.’ (Incidentally, it is curious to note that the period in question is 1920-30; five pages later the mid-twenties are described as ‘comparatively lean years’ for the Cuban.) Page 101: ‘Réti, Nimzowitsch and Breyer all greatly excelled Capablanca in imagination.’ Page 109: ‘But probably by this time (1931) neither man truly wanted another match. Capablanca feared that the first result would be repeated; Alekhine was just as afraid that it wouldn’t be. Capablanca, ever vain, could keep his public adulation, even adding commiseration to his due; Alekhine, ever arrogant, cared little about the public, as long as he was on top.’

On page 98 that old yarn about Capablanca turning up for a game (occasion not revealed) in tennis gear is given with much anecdotal elaboration which we had not seen before. Other jottings on this central part of the book: page 87: the word ‘major’ needs to come out in ‘first major international event’. Page 91: in the photograph caption, ‘two decades’ should read ‘one decade’. Page 96: it is incorrect to speak of Bernstein (in 1911) as French. Page 98: regarding Capablanca’s return to chess in 1934 it is not true that ‘for a few years [his] lack of application was reflected in his results’. Page 99: the death-day of Capablanca is incorrect. Page 109: again, that story about Capablanca falling asleep against Alekhine, which Alekhine himself showed to be untrue. Page 117: ‘By 1937, however, both Alekhine and Euwe had been overtaken in strength by other masters of the young generation such as Botvinnik and Keres.’ A very dubious proposition in the case of Alekhine. Page 117: a reference to ‘Nazi-organized tournaments in Spain ...’ It may be noted, too, that Janowsky, a world championship challenger, is not mentioned throughout the entire book. Flohr is also absent from the index, but that is just a slip. One comment on the game annotations: on page 42 after 21...Re1+ it is not ‘mate next move’.

The preference for disparaging gossip affects most of the chapters to at least some extent. Euwe was ‘such an ordinary man’ (page 115) that his 60-year career is dealt with in just a paragraph or two. The bibliography skips the dull Soviets and goes straight from Botvinnik to Fischer. There it recommends Darrach’s Bobby Fischer vs the Rest of the World, ‘the book which launched a thousand lawyers’. Since that work is accurately described on page 176 as ‘an unauthorized and scurrilous biography’ it must be significant to note that there is no reference at all to Frank Brady’s indispensable (serious...) study, published by Batsford in 1974. The Lasker chapter captures the German champion vividly – but still cannot resist churning out vague claims (page 81) about his ‘being swindled by all who did business with him’, trying to mate two male pigeons, despising imitation flowers, etc. (We might point out that Dus-Chotimirsky – Lasker & His Contemporaries, issue 4, page 140 – quotes Lasker as saying that he could not stand real flowers, but we have no wish to launch a debate on his floral tastes ...)

That is our charge-sheet against The Kings of Chess. Much of the rest of the book is good, even very good, and Hartston’s style makes one want to forgive him almost anything. Surely a way could have been found to keep the bons mots and readability without perpetrating injustice after injustice against the game’s greatest geniuses.


William Hartston (Cambridge, England) writes:

‘Your comments are much appreciated, even the criticisms, which were not unexpected, but I think that you have slightly misconstrued my intentions. The book has two major objectives: firstly to give a personal account of my view of the people who have made chess what it is today; secondly to redress the imbalance of earlier writers who have been obsessed with the games and results and forgotten that they were dealing with something more than mere chessplayers. I’ve always been irritated by the blind adulation of many chess writers for their heroes; what I’ve tried to do is to present pictures emphasizing the warts but suggesting that their achievements transcend such human limitations. Taking some of your specific points:

Staunton: But he was pompous. I must have read through all of his Chess Player’s Chronicle writings and many of his Illustrated London News columns when preparing this chapter. I’d started with the intention of portraying him as the patron saint of European chess, but by the end I was convinced that the man must have been unbearable. Of course, he had a lot to be pompous about, and perhaps this view makes his behaviour when faced with Morphy more understandable, if no less unforgivable. I think that the London clubland chess scene over which Staunton presided had an enormous effect on Steinitz’s career. It was that lingering pomposity which Steinitz so despised among the English.

Capablanca: I have as high an opinion as you of the extent of Capablanca’s talent. I just think that he could have contributed so much more to chess if he’d bothered to work at it harder. I don’t believe that the vanity of My Chess Career can so easily be excused; the whole work exudes an aroma of self-adulation. And all this fits with Alekhine’s venomous but highly rational dissection of his opponent.

I’d be prepared to defend some of my other anti-Capa comments too: for example, when praising Réti, Breyer and Nimzowitsch for their imagination, I could produce dozens of games of theirs which could never have been played by Capablanca; yet I feel that almost any Capablanca gem could have been produced by Réti or Rubinstein or another great technician on a good day. The thing about Capablanca was that his were all good days. Of course, all this is subjective, but I do have grounds for the assertions. Incidentally, when I described the mid-twenties as “comparatively lean years”, I meant by comparison with the early and late twenties. Is this not so?

On the comparatively small space given in the text and the bibliography to certain champions, there were reasons: Euwe, I have always considered, was a man who only held the title by accident; he was an historical hiccup in the age of Alekhine. And as for Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian and Spassky, I’d have loved to give them more space, but the theme at this stage of the book was the Soviet chess epidemic, of which these great players were only symptoms. The Western champions were all men who, in some way, were fighting against a system which was not built to accommodate great chessplayers; the Soviets were the exact opposite: productionline models. I have had excellent personal relations with all the four above Soviet champions, and I have enormous respect for every one of them, but they did not fit into my story.

The bibliography, incidentally, is a collection of books which I think the reader will find interesting. Brad Darrach’s thing certainly comes into that category. I did, I must admit, dispense with the indispensable Frank Brady book. Most of my Fischer material was gleaned from contemporary reports or from personal contacts with eye-witnesses.’

We are grateful to Mr Hartston for his reply, which we shall try to answer in as condensed a form as possible.

The first intention of The Kings of Chess had been fully appreciated by us; any such work, even one aiming to avoid subjectivity, will inevitably be an essentially personal account, and our objection was not to this general point but rather to more precise aspects of Mr Hartston’s personal view. As regards the second intention, ‘to redress the imbalance of earlier writers’, we could not disagree more, for we see no evidence of any such imbalance. Quite the contrary; in our view, earlier writers have nearly all trivialized and demeaned the great masters. One could name many writers who have ridiculed, let us say, Steinitz, Tarrasch and Janowsky with endless anecdotal piffle. But how many writers are ‘guilty’ of taking these players seriously or of glossing over their warts?

We agree that Staunton was pompous, perhaps even unbearably so, but is it not a point which should simply be made briefly and not laboured?

It is true that not everyone would be as indulgent as ourselves with respect to the ‘self-adulation’ of My Chess Career, but we would have preferred Mr Hartston to give attention to the amount of self-criticism in the book, remarkable for a man desperately anxious to secure a world title match with Lasker. For instance: the Corzo games ‘lack, naturally, some of the compact, machine-like force which characterizes the games of the great masters’ (page 7). ‘The openings begin to resemble more those of a master, though generally they were much weaker than they should be, as there is too much slow moving, elaborate plans which cannot be carried out against strong opponents, instead of the simple, forward, strong, attacking moves which should characterize White’s development’ (page 24). The Marshall match: ‘The play during the match showed that I was weak in the openings and just about strong enough in the simple play for position’ (page 26). Fifth match-game with Marshall: Capa criticizes four of his own moves, the comments including ‘I was highly praised by many because of the excellence of my play in this position, while in reality I could have done better’ and ‘Very poor play’. Sixth match-game: He criticizes his own fourth move. Eleventh match-game: Capa expresses dissatisfaction with two of his moves. Page 46: ‘Soon after the match some of my new admirers talked to me about arranging a match with Dr Lasker for the championship of the world, and I told them that I would not consider it, for the simple reason that he was a much better player, and that I had to improve a great deal before I contemplated such a thing.’ Capablanca v Janowsky, San Sebastián, 1911: Capa criticizes five of his first 23 moves, and also calls his 48th move ‘an error’, while he says of Black’s 52nd: ‘This move I had not properly considered.’ Pages 63-64, summing up on the San Sebastián tournament: ‘I had to learn a great deal about openings, something about the mere play for position in the middle-game, where no combinations can be made, and to build up positions capable of either holding or attacking successfully the enemy. I also had to acquire the self-restraint and serenity that are only the product of long and continuous victories.’ Capablanca v Molina: He criticizes two of his moves. Capablanca v Alekhine, St Petersburg, 1913: He says his eighth move is ‘not to be recommended’. The first note to the game v Blumenfeld and Pawlow begins: ‘Strange to say I never had had occasion to play this defence, and at this point I did not know what to do.’ Game v Kaufmann and Fähndrich: he expresses disapproval of his 23rd move. It is true that the remainder of the book contains few, if any, instances of self-criticism, but have any other annotators been able to spot deficiencies in his play in those later games?

Returning to Mr Hartston’s other points, we feel that ‘highly rational’ is a much too generous description of Alekhine’s dissection of Capablanca in the New York, 1927 tournament book. Here we go along with Golombek (pages ix-x of his book). If Capablanca could never have played many of the games of Réti, Breyer and Nimzowitsch, would that not simply be because he played too well for that? Were their imaginative strokes necessarily the best moves? By the same token, our appreciation of Capa’s elegant style is such that we feel equally unsure about Mr Hartston’s point relating to Réti and Rubinstein.

One cannot reasonably dispute the description of the mid-twenties as ‘comparatively lean’, and we have not disputed it; it is the quote from page 101 that isn’t quite right.

Little to add on the Soviets, other than to say that since the book’s subtitle is ‘A history of chess traced through the lives of its greatest players’, Smyslov & Co. do seem due at least a little more coverage. The bibliography is ‘a selective reading list of what I have found to be the most useful and interesting sources’, but can Darrach’s ‘thing’ really fall into either category?

One last matter of detail. On page 98 Mr Hartston refers to Capablanca’s ‘high blood-pressure and hypertension’, and in doing so he may have been following pages 63-64 of World Chess Champions. However, Anthony Saidy (Santa Monica, CA, USA) has informed us that high blood-pressure and hypertension are the same thing.


A paperback edition of The Kings of Chess was published in 1986, but with only a few textual corrections (see C.N.s 1207 and 1232).

See too our general article William Hartston.

Latest update: 18 April 2022.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.