Appendix to Cuttings (see the section entitled ‘British chess literature’)

Below is the full text of our Letter to the Editor of CHESS (B.H. Wood):

Geneva, 27 October 1984

Dear Mr Wood,

Yes, a publishers’ ‘backlash’ was to be expected, but what a pity that the two replies printed in your October issue are so ill-founded and misleading.

Mr Keene accuses me of factual inaccuracies, yet is unable to provide one single example. This is not altogether surprising since portions of his response are clearly based on a complete misreading of my article.

1. What I wrote was, ‘today most of Batsford’s new works are about just one aspect of the game: opening theory’. This is entirely correct, whichever set of figures is used. Since CHESS takes all Batsford titles, any reader may simply count up the ‘New Books’ listings in, say, this year’s issues. Result: a clear majority for openings works. Or would Mr Keene prefer to take the last complete year? In 1983 Batsford published ten books on openings and seven on all other subjects combined. These figures were supplied to me by Mr Peter Kemmis Betty, the Batsford Managing Director, who, remarkably, considered them as evidence of good balance.

Desperate to reach something resembling a 50-50 tally (as if even that would be respectable), Mr Keene quite unjustifiably does a count of the complete Batsford catalogue. Since this includes titles ten or more years old, it is clearly irrelevant to a discussion on current chess book trends. What is astonishing, however, is that even Mr Keene’s misguided statistical exercise shows that openings books do indeed outnumber all others put together. Where then, Mr Keene, is the inaccuracy of which I am guilty?

Raymond Keene then proceeds to list non-openings books (all four of them) that Batsford plan to publish, and prevents any discussion of the central question of balance by failing to say how many openings volumes will appear during the same period. He concludes this point fittingly with a blunder, referring to the ‘charge of exclusive concentration on openings’. Exclusive? No such charge has ever been made.

2. Mr Keene brushes aside any notion of openings books being favoured by Batsford for mere commercial reasons (‘the opposite has often been nearer the truth!’), and paints a touchingly philanthropic picture of small print runs of unprofitable openings works to give writing opportunities to the young. Bad luck for him that the Batsford Managing Director has disclosed the real situation. P.K.B. informed me last year, ‘I entirely sympathise (as I know Bob Wade does) with your desire for more non-opening books. We have always found, however, that these are less successful than the opening books’. Does Mr Keene also sympathize?

3. For the record, what I actually wrote was, ‘Batsford have had a bad recession’ – i.e. the period of economic recession in Britain has been difficult for them. Somehow the ‘bad’ disappeared, leaving a slight change in sense. It remains perfectly obvious, nonetheless, that my whole point concerns the diminishing range and quality of Batsford works. For Mr Keene to say that there are about a dozen books a year and that Batsford are first to reach the shops is hardly an adequate response to this.

4. What he writes about the annotated games collection is profoundly disturbing. If indeed such collections have ‘branched out’ into openings books, what on earth happens to outstanding games which are not of theoretical interest? There could be no better illustration of the obsession with openings than Mr Keene’s ‘branching out’ statement.

Of the ‘real’ annotated games collections he quotes, only one of them (‘by Kasparov’) has been published in the last five years. Clearly he had a struggle to pick out recent examples from the Batsford stable.

What would happen today if Batsford were offered the equivalent of Raymond Keene’s own splendid volume on Nimzowitsch (published by Bell in 1974)? To judge by the comment of the company’s Managing Director quoted above, they would reject it because it would be less of a commercial success than a 14th (or 51st ...) book on the Sicilian. It would be the victim of its own quality and length, and the fact that it concerned a relatively ‘unpopular’ subject.

5. Classic reprints. Here, however, is a pledge that deserves to be warmly welcomed and suitably followed up. First suggestion: the Alekhine best games book(s).

6. I also thank Mr Keene for the belated apology for his inability to provide the Kasparov photocopies which I bought from him, and at his suggestion, well over a year ago. Perhaps he could inform me whether he plans an early visit to Singapore.

The question of photocopies arose when Mr Keene reacted to my doubts about whether Kasparov had been sufficiently involved in BCO to merit one of the two author credits. These suspicions have now been confirmed by a letter received from Eric Schiller, the book’s ‘research editor’, which I give in full in issue 18 of Chess Notes.

Batsford’s exaggerated use of Kasparov’s name is not limited to BCO. Fighting Chess failed to credit Wade as (at least) co-author, while My Games provides an even more blatant example. In the more ethical seventies, Batsford brought out compilations of Karpov’s games (with the world champion’s annotations to many), yet authorship was correctly credited to the compilers (K.J. O’Connell, D. Levy, J. Adams). Could Mr Keene kindly indicate what has happened since then to justify giving Kasparov as the sole author on the cover of My Games, even though it is not claimed that he did any more than annotate ten of them? Perhaps it is just the ‘aggressive and ambitious publishing policy’.

Turning to Mr Gillam’s contribution to the debate, I note his claim that my article was founded on a selfish desire for more books of the kind I like personally. Well, at least I have the support of Mr Keene on this point: he compliments my motives of wishing to see a rise in standards.

It is ironic that Mr Gillam’s view that my article was ‘over-generalised and mysterious’ cannot as yet be discussed since he himself fails to back up the assertion with any examples. Moreover, he ignores the unfortunate fact that no ‘general survey’ article can possibly offer supporting arguments for every given fact or opinion; the space is just not there.

For example, I mentioned in passing that BCO is ‘not without faults’. If I correctly understand Mr Gillam, I should have digressed at that point to give factual and statistical evidence of this. To show, for instance, that, in terms of historical entries, the book is a disaster. If so, I would have needed to back this up by mentioning that I have done a spot-check of 60 pre-1945 game references in BCO, and found that there are factual errors in no fewer than 36. And perhaps I would even have to list all 36 as proof. It would also be necessary to say that there are up to three different mistakes in a single reference, but these are only counted as one, and also that none of these errors was rectified in the ‘corrected’ April 1983 edition of the book. After all that it would be possible – a couple of pages later! – to return to the main thread of the article, and on to corroborate the next point. If that is what Mr Gillam wants, he is asking for articles which could feasibly be written, but which no magazine editor would ever touch; they would be longer than most present-day books.

The only sensible approach is for the author of an article to check his facts rigorously beforehand (exactly what I did, pace Mr Keene), and be willing and able to deal head-on with precise criticisms. I should be delighted to debate any specific matters of Mr Gillam’s choosing, either in CHESS or Chess Notes, if he is ever in the mood to be more explicit. He will have noted, I hope, that as regards the particular book titles mentioned, I have reviewed all of them more fully in Chess Notes, giving exactly the kind of chapter-and-verse evidence he demands.

As regards those BCO historical references: before Mr Gillam asks, I can indeed substantiate the claim. Enclosed is the list of blunders which my random check revealed. I will be pleased to send a copy (by return post) to any reader who is interested, and no less happy to hear from Mr Keene how the fiasco occurred.

Lastly, concerning Mr Gillam’s obscure call for patience, I confess I would favour a rather more ‘aggressive and ambitious’ approach to improving the standard of chess literature for the benefit of all. This is the chief aim of an annual award I offer (from my own pocket, of course) for the best chess book of the year. What motives of selfishness is Mr Gillam able to read into that?

Yours sincerely,

Edward Winter

Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.