From page 76 of Chessmen by Frank Greygoose (London, 1979)
Below is a selection of general thoughts on chess, and especially on chess writing, that we have penned over the years:
A knight on the rim is grim. A knight in the corner is forlorner. (C.N. 2370)
People possessing only minimal acquaintance with the world chess champions’ careers consider themselves qualified to recount them, rank them and ridicule them. Whether on the Web or in books and magazines, all too many shoddy writers treat the greats of yesteryear with contempt, yet willingly defend or shield the reprobates of today. Our intention is to do the opposite. (A Question of Credibility)
Dregs pretending to be cream. (Description of Cardoza Publishing chess writers.) (C.N. 2377)
The pen-portrait is a form of chess reporting that has fallen into desuetude (as has the word desuetude). (C.N. 2637)
This is not the place for observations along the lines of ‘If memory serves, my understanding has always been that I read somewhere that maybe there was talk once of a rumour that someone perhaps mentioned an oral tradition that it may possibly have been claimed that it was widely believed that …’ (C.N. 2664)
Anyone wishing to make chess history ‘fun’ by spreading unsubstantiated anecdotes and tittle-tattle has only to eschew specifics like dates and places and rely on the shadowy word ‘once’. (C.N. 3112. See Chess: the Need for Sources.)
Proper sources are not optional extras or lace frills; they are required as an integral part of chess writing, and without the best possible attribution quotations are worthless. (C.N. 3160)
Nothing stamps a writer as untrustworthy more swiftly than an expectation that what he writes should be taken on trust. (C.N. 3514)
What is seen day after day regarding chess history and chess masters: unconfirmed game-scores, uncorroborated facts, unproven anecdotes and unsubstantiated quotations. (C.N. 3594)
Quite a list could be compiled of unkempt chess books by that odd but common type of writer, the would-be tutor with a well-camouflaged university education who, anxious to show that he is one of the lads even though chess is a bitter, fearsome pill, invigorates his lessons with rough colloquialisms, illiteracy, exclamation marks and other trappings of poverty. (Chess, Literature, and Film)
By the very act of writing an author in effect sets himself up as an authority, yet all too many are content for nearly anything to be printed under their names, especially regarding chess history. It is as though all writers, no matter how unenlightened about the game’s past, feel licensed – compelled, even – to indulge in historical name-dropping, under the delusion that their output will gain prestige from occasional references, however shallow or fallacious, to the old-timers. (Historical Havoc)
Writers may legitimately be expected to improve with age, as their judgment matures and their libraries expand, but many career curves go in the opposite direction. The road downmarket is a congested one. (Historical Havoc)
Broad sweeps are valueless. Unless an author has explored his terrain thoroughly, how will he be reasonably sure that his central thesis cannot be overturned? Facts count. Tentative theorizing may have a minor role once research paths have been exhausted but, as a general principle, rumour and guesswork, those tawdry journalistic mainstays, have no place in historical writing of any kind. (Historical Havoc)
Publishers should coax writers into giving their all and shun individuals who have no all to give. (Historical Havoc)
When poor books appear, few people utter a word of protest, for it takes longer to prepare a diligently negative review than a few bromidic compliments. (Historical Havoc)
It is unwise for the ‘non-playing’ historian to publish his own analysis, although he may be a useful compiler. Similarly, players who are unversed in, and indifferent to, chess history should not touch it. They are no doubt equally uninformed about fairy chess, and rightly abstain from lecturing on that subject. (Historical Havoc)
After quotations, the field of chess lore most fraught with imprecision seems to be catchpenny claims, made without a whit of corroboration, about celebrities’ interest in chess. (C.N. 4234)
On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long, so join an Internet discussion group.
How easy it is to be a book reviewer, yet how difficult to be a good one. (Over and Out)
Shameful critics follow their own personal or political agenda and objectives, rather than having a set of standards and principles applicable, and applied, to one and all. (Over and Out)
Of course, books by ‘known’ writers/players may also be unworthy of a second glance. Nevertheless, for some of chess literature’s reprobates there mysteriously persists a certain fan-base, however insignificant: speed-readers duped by speed-writers. (C.N. 6381)
Overblown writing may also appear, in less concentrated form, in the treatment of chess history. Authors with only a small reserve of facts (and thus not historians in any case) often seek refuge in pseudo-intellectual generalities. A tell-tale sign is excessive recourse to verbs like ‘echo’, ‘foreshadow’, ‘portend’, ‘symbolize’ and, especially, ‘adumbrate’. Such waffle will flow effortlessly (no research being needed), and practitioners of the broad sweep may even be hailed for profundity in some unthinking quarters. (Unintelligible Chess Writing)
(On how proper writers work.) When they know, they explain why they know. When they are uncertain, they explain why they are uncertain. When they do not know, they either say that they do not know or they say nothing. That is honest writing which treats the reader with respect, and there is no other kind worth doing. (C.N. 8222)
A sociological study could be written on the evolution of chess book titles and covers. Doctorates have been awarded for less. (C.N. 8286)
Give the source of a quote if it is known. If it is not known, do not give the quote. (C.N. 8651)
Tolerance of copying is easy for those with nothing worth copying.
Copying usually goes hand-in-hand with incompetence. (C.N. 9452)
An important function of journalism is pest control.
There are two words which all readers of chess books, magazines, websites, discussion groups, etc. should be encouraged to write publicly as often as appropriate: ‘Source, please.’ (C.N. 9274)
When an author says that someone said something, saying where and when it was said is not a donnish luxury or self-indulgence but an essential service to the reader which should be automatic. (C.N. 9274)
How the media often operate nowadays. At their worst, they wake up late, scavenge, copy, misinterpret, invent, pontificate and then move on to wreak havoc elsewhere. (C.N. 9344)
There has been, particularly of late, a steep decline in the quality of chess obituaries; many are dumped on-line after hurried copy-pasting. Often nowadays, people are wikipediaed into the grave. (C.N. 9346)
Beware of any chess commentator, and especially on FIDE and politics, who favours surmise over facts.
When Internet articles on FIDE politics have a comments section, the number of comments worth writing, posting or reading is usually infinitesimal.
Critics with irrefutable arguments may be accused, faute de mieux, of obsessively conducting a vendetta, feud or smear campaign, although critics of FIDE are spared such accusations.
Unspecific accusations of dishonesty concerning chess players will result in an international news story. Specific proof of dishonesty concerning chess writers will result in international silence.
Much of chess history is not history at all but lurid figments. Anyone criticizing such output risks being labelled a spoilsport or humourless pedant, but a far heavier price is paid by our game’s greatest practitioners, for they are condemned to star ad infinitum in seedy anecdotes which are the product of mindless inter-hack copying or brutal distortion. Any aspect of their lives is considered fair game for sheep and jackals alike, this being the time-honoured process whereby chess history is made ‘fun’. (‘Fun’)
If only critics of chess films were one-tenth as demanding about chess books.
Chess criticism is not just about FIDE and films.
Pointing out chess mistakes in films is fun. Pointing out chess mistakes in chess literature is pedantry.
Gaffes in chess literature pass without comment. A wrongly set chessboard in a film is pounced on every time.
Exclamation marks do not enliven clichés. (C.N. 9865)
Wanted: one topical chess forum where 100% of the contributions are worth reading, and not 100 forums where 1% are.
Writers who find the chess world claustrophobically small often go for a broad sweep, i.e. big-picture waffle with an abundance of non-chess name-dropping. If, for instance, the subject is genius, Leonardo da Vinci is always handy. The dual advantage – for the writer, if no-one else – is that broad sweepings can be redacted at speed without the need to know anything and, on account of their vagueness, without the risk of confutation. (C.N. 10069)
Most on-line comment should be private reflection, if that.
In chess journalism how often can numbers above fifty or a hundred be believed, let alone figures in the millions?
About chess, studies show that 100% of writers claiming what studies show are 100% without studies to show.
Articles on chess in the mainstream press: the higher the profile, the lower the expertise.
Nobody knows, even roughly, how many people play chess, and nobody should pretend to know.
Bad authors write what others could but never would. Good authors write what others would but never could.
When chess masters die, good writers go to their bookshelves. Bad writers go to Wikipedia.
Obvious crooks provide one service: casting light on cronies less obviously crooked.
Hoaxers exploit ignorance, haste, laziness and wishful thinking, which makes the chess world a natural target. (C.N. 10237)
Life is too short for chess websites which let anyone post anything anytime and anyhow.
Bad writers are always lucky, but never in the long run.
Chess kibitzers could make even a pope a misanthrope.
In proper journalism, the interviewer probes, politely but searchingly. In chess journalism, vacuous servility is the norm.
Chess writers and chess players have a common enemy: wishful thinking.
Praise received should be quoted sparingly, and never when from a disreputable source.
Reporters report. Commentators comment. Historians tidy up.
In the Internet age, the opening choices of the world’s best players are frequently attacked in real time by nameless ten-opinions-an-hour individuals for whom suitable advice would be: kibitz inwardly. (C.N. 11123)
Some cheat at the chessboard, others at the keyboard. (Copying)
According to lazy caption-writers, people laughing or smiling together are ‘sharing a joke’. Those merely talking are ‘deep in conversation’.
What should be the golden rule of criticism but often is not: criticize the worst the most.
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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.