The back cover of Grandmaster Chess Move by Move by John Nunn (London, 2005) describes him as ‘arguably the most highly acclaimed chess writer in the world’, and here we offer some reflections on certain aspects of his output and on how he differs from most chess authors.
A polymath, Nunn has written authoritative monographs on openings, endings and compositions, as well as annotated games collections and autobiographical volumes. As an annotator he is equally at home presenting lucid prose descriptions for the relative novice and analysis of extreme depth for the expert. He has also penned a fair amount of topical commentary and discussion material, though this has seldom appeared in book form. In 2003 he retired from tournament play, and the Introduction to Grandmaster Chess Move by Move (page 6) describes it as ‘a final volume on the last part of my career’.
Fortunately, his writing career continues apace. For the subject matter of his books he is notably disinclined to take the low road. Not for him the production of an instant match-book or a quick throw-together on whichever master is the biggest box-office draw of the day. One indulgence is to lure with the frequent use of ‘secrets’ in his book titles: Secrets of Grandmaster Play, Secrets of Grandmaster Chess, Secrets of Practical Chess, Secrets of Rook Endings, etc. Although he is a fine teacher, writing straightforward prose without effets de style, a few of his books may be too detailed for any but the most dedicated student, yet even chess enthusiasts who will never peruse, or open, the 320-page tome Secrets of Pawnless Endings (1994) should find it gratifying that a work of such quality exists.
Having no interest in endlessly, or even occasionally, trotting out Morphy v the Duke and Count (‘not an especially good game’, he wrote on page 4 of Learn Chess), Nunn is the antithesis of those chess hacks who survive, more or less, on a diet of low-hanging fruit. Chess books are littered with factual errors thoughtlessly copied from author to author, but copying is not in Nunn’s nature, and his desire not to err is particularly pronounced. Every writer makes mistakes, of course, but not every writer makes an effort to avoid doing so. Few writers take such pains as does Nunn to reduce the risk of error to a minimum.
Intelligence, decency and perfectionism are hallmarks of Nunn, and his views on the average sludge of journalism, which is devoid of all three hallmarks, are hard to dispute. ‘Jimmy Nunn’ was the rendition of his name in a newspaper as far back as 1966, and on page 12 of Secrets of Grandmaster Chess he commented, ‘My opinion of the accuracy of journalists took a nose-dive and has been going down ever since’.
Given Nunn’s versatility in his book production, it may seem paradoxical to attribute to him a strong sense of self-restraint and the ability to rein himself in, yet we consider these to be key factors in his success. His range is vast, but he does not regard his accumulation of talents as a passe-partout for use throughout the entire realm of chess literature. His incursions into chess history, for instance, are relatively rare, but when he does wade in (a notable example being the ‘test of time’ chapter in John Nunn’s Chess Puzzle Book, which scrutinized the quality of play at Carlsbad, 1911) the terrain is selected with care, he ensures that he is briefed to the gills, and the result is something fresh.
The high standards which Nunn demands of himself have been reflected too in his cautious approach to annotating the games of other masters, for even here, on what may be regarded as his home ground, he does not want to let his readers, or himself, down. Below is part of a contribution he made in 1985 to C.N. 993:
‘When I was younger, my games were occasionally annotated in magazines by other players. I was astonished to see what they wrote; indeed, on some occasions, I could scarcely believe that it was the same game. When I started annotating games myself I began to see how difficult it is to write about other players’ games. Of course, one can restrict oneself to essentially trivial comments, or fall back on the usual clichés, but really to penetrate the reasoning of another player is very hard. It is correspondingly valuable when one does gain a fresh insight by analysing games, but this requires a great deal of time which is not always available.’
Yet Nunn is not staid or unadventurous. Without courting controversy, he has no qualms about speaking his mind. As long ago as 1991 he was deploring ‘The Decline of British Chess’ (on pages 20-23 of the January 1991 BCM). His article prompted exchanges in that publication (March 1991, pages 114-115 and April 1991, page 171) and brought him a hands-down victory (against, it must be said, feeble opposition). Now, an essay in Grandmaster Chess Move by Move (pages 270-277) entitled ‘The State of the Chess World’ finds Nunn casting his net more widely, with, inter alia, deft but pointed strictures about the World Chess Federation which are infinitely more potent than any amount of the more customary anti-FIDE squawking.
When in possession of a rock-solid case, he does what any truthful author is glad to do: dire tout haut ce que les autres pensent tout bas. Few, if any, Batsford authors in the early 1990s were prepared to criticize publicly (as Nunn did, on pages 26-27 of the German publication ChessBase Magazin, July-August 1991) the lamentable Batsford Chess Encyclopedia, a would-be flagship which capsized the moment it left the slipway. Nunn’s article on ‘Chess Publishing and the Batsford Story’ on pages 278-285 of Grandmaster Chess Move by Move provides a further grisly reminder of what B.T. Batsford Ltd. was like for much of the 1980s and the early 1990s. Even today, such insiders’ stories are a rarity, but Nunn has the facts and is prepared to share them.
Naturally enough for someone who is ‘arguably the most highly acclaimed chess writer in the world’, in most of Nunn’s books he stands as the sole author. Where he has worked on somebody else’s book, for the production of an algebraic edition (an exercise involving more pitfalls than might be thought), the outcome has not always been happy. The most regrettable case, the My 60 Memorable Games débâcle in the mid-1990s, was by no means his sole responsibility but it entailed uncharacteristic lapses of judgment, both pre- and post-publication. When describing in Grandmaster Chess Move by Move a string of inglorious Batsford doings, Nunn had a golden opportunity (or, indeed, a golden obligation) to include a belated word of contrition about the Fischer episode, and it is inexpressibly disappointing that, a decade on, he still felt unable to do so, passing over the aberration in silence.
Given Nunn’s propensity for keeping a firm hand on the controls, it is no surprise that nowadays he writes and produces books for his own company, Gambit Publications Ltd. Despite a certain sameness in many Gambit books (if a dozen of them were randomly opened on a table, could even the Gambit editorial team identify who had written which?), the company has justly built up a reputation for quality which no British chess publisher has enjoyed since the heyday of G. Bell and Sons.
Nunn’s contribution to chess literature continues but has already been immense. Some writers create order and help chess knowledge to advance; others create disorder and obstruct such progress. In the former category Nunn is pre-eminent, and perhaps uniquely so.
Regarding its editorial panel for chess books, Batsford’s refusal to change a waning team proved fatal for the company.
As mentioned in C.N. 4218 above, on page 12 of his book Secrets of Grandmaster Chess (London, 1997) John Nunn reported that in a 1966 newspaper his name came out as ‘Jimmy Nunn’. (‘My opinion of the accuracy of journalists took a nose-dive and has been going down ever since.’)
It could have been worse. From page 71 of Il lessico degli scacchi by Yuri Garrett (Brescia, 2012):
Asked about chess books which had a profound influence on him, John Nunn replied (see the 3/2002 New in Chess, page 98):
‘When I was a young player, I read The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Irving Chernev which made chess seem extremely easy. However, I then read Alekhine’s Best Games of Chess, which made chess seem impossibly difficult. I eventually discovered that the truth lies somewhere between the two.’
Dr Nunn informs us:
‘I was referring to the 1924-37 volume by Alekhine. I recall being particularly impressed by 18...Nxf2 in Rubinstein v Alekhine, Semmering, 1926, or rather the fact that Alekhine must have seen it some time in advance.’
Richard Réti’s remark that Emanuel Lasker ‘often deliberately plays badly’ was given in the section on the former world champion in Masters of the Chess Board (London, 1933); on page 124 of the German edition (Mährisch-Ostrau, 1930) the wording was ‘Lasker spielt oft absichtlich schlecht’. See too pages 404-405 of A Chess Omnibus, as well as C.N. 6889. We should like to give the full text of Réti’s original article (‘published after the New York tournament of 1924’).
A detailed study of Lasker’s play has just been published, John Nunn’s Chess Course (London, 2014), and it is unmissable.
In his Introduction (page 7) Nunn writes:
‘... the myth has developed that many of Lasker’s wins were based on swindles, pure luck or even the effect of his cigars. In reality, there was nothing mystical or underhand about his games; they were based on a deep understanding of chess, an appreciation of deceptive positions and some shrewd psychology. Another myth for which there seems no real evidence is that Lasker deliberately played bad moves in order to unsettle his opponents. Certainly Lasker played bad moves, as all chessplayers do from time to time, but the point which struck me when analysing his games was how often he adopted a safety-first strategy. Lasker was a great fighter and had a strong will to win, but his winning efforts hardly ever crossed the boundary into recklessness; in almost every case, he played moves that appeared provocative but were no worse than the alternatives, with the important difference that they were more likely to induce a mistake.’
The enlarged edition of John Nunn’s Chess Puzzle Book (London, 2009) has been translated into Russian (Moscow, 2012), and we have a copy with an inscription by Vladislav Tkachiev:
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