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:
Popular chess journalism is not easy to enjoy or admire, based as it is on an unflattering estimation of what its public will find readable. Soggy in its determination neither to offend nor to inspire, it is generally anti-intellectual and repetitious; unbending in its evident belief that the game itself is a bitter pill for public taste, it tries to sweeten everything by labouring ‘the human side of chess’ ... (C.N. 323)
The chess press prefers to play its controversies by intuition rather than by serious investigation and analysis. (C.N. 1379)
Nowadays ‘Grandmaster’, ‘International Master’, etc. are used almost like forenames. Paradoxically, the very top players outgrow their titles; it would be incongruous, and perhaps even insulting, to refer to ‘Grandmaster Fischer’. (C.N. 1982)
A knight on the rim is grim. A knight in the corner is forlorner. (C.N. 2370)
One curious way in which history repeats itself is in the practice whereby the quality of world championship match play is run down by contemporary critics but aggrandized by posterity. (C.N. 2372)
Poach from a dubious source some suspect chitchat about a deceased master and whisk it up from an alleged one-off incident into a categorical denunciation of repeated misconduct. Yes, being a chess journalist is that easy. (A Question of Credibility)
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)
Many authors cannot resist slipping in a casual ‘As Tarrasch remarked …’ or ‘Remember Tartakower’s aphorism …’, without any perceptible idea of where the master might actually have made the comment in question. (Wanted)
Instead of using primary sources, many, if not most, authors turn to the most readily available books for material that can be effortlessly taken, pinched and whisked. When the same old stuff just shuffles on from one book to the next, it is evident that chess knowledge does not advance but goes round in circles. (Wanted)
Dregs pretending to be cream. (Description of Cardoza Publishing chess writers.) (C.N. 2377)
No blunder is too elementary to have been made by chess writers at one time or another. (C.N. 2469)
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)
Never trust any writer who compiles lists of chess quotations without providing sources. (C.N. 2853)
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)
It is hard to imagine a more defective area of chess literature than quotations. Writers copy from one another all kinds of unverified or unverifiable phrases without any explanation, context or source. (C.N. 3225)
Nothing stamps a writer as untrustworthy more swiftly than an expectation that what he writes should be taken on trust. (C.N. 3514)
There is something carefree and almost random about how the chess world attributes many writings and sayings to persons (Tartakower is a safe bet) and nations (‘Old Russian proverb’), and this often makes it impossible for the reader to determine what is genuine, erroneous or bogus. Our recommendation is to dispense with any publication or website which offers ‘chess quotes’ without indicating where and when the statements in question were purportedly made. (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)
The intensity of hankering for an/any award is often inversely proportional to the merit of the hankerer and to the prestige, if any, of the award hankered for. (Chess Awards)
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)
The supreme judge of chess history, i.e. chess history itself, is unmerciful to dross-merchants. (Historical Havoc)
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)
Never trust any writer who has counted, and brags about, his output. (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. Censuring a writer for inflicting a feeble or unnecessary book on the chess world may be reckoned bad form, as if unquestioning gratitude were due to all who do our game the honour of writing about it, no matter how unequipped for the task they may be. Eminent film critics have a more fastidious approach: they judge whether a production is a masterpiece and, if it is not, they bluntly explain why. In chess that would appear absurdly rigorous, not to say churlish and pedantic. Writers who devote pages to arguing whether one move is better than another profess astonishment that others care that historical facts should be correct. (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)
Chess historians and bibliophiles have to reconnoitre not only the majestic boulevards but also the squalid backstreets. (C.N. 3913)
Every writer makes mistakes, of course, but not every writer makes an effort to avoid doing so. (C.N. 4218)
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.
Tartakower is one of the most difficult chess writers to translate into English (among others are A. Nimzowitsch and F.K. Young). (C.N. 4437)
Many chess books are consigned to the excess baggage hold of the Caissa Express, bound for instant oblivion. (Over and Out)
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)
Vacuous copying is done by chess writers of many kinds, and the key to breaking out of this vicious circle is research, allowing more and more neglected material to trickle into mainstream works. (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)
Quotes without sources are also without value. (C.N. 7856)
(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)
Seldom can a database be consulted for an old game without an error or discrepancy of some kind being found. (C.N. 8353)
There has probably never been a chess book wholly free of error, but it is a question of degree and of whether the author, whatever his lapses, shows signs of caring. (C.N. 8494)
Give the source of a quote if it is known. If it is not known, do not give the quote. (C.N. 8651)
Trustworthy writers naturally resist the temptation to repeat unverified material, and especially in a domain such as chess lore which is notoriously infested with imprecision and uncertainty. (C.N. 8866)
Loath to provide sources or admit uncertainty, copy-and-bungle writers baldly present their version of the ‘facts’ as ironclad, never informing the reader that something else can be found somewhere else. (C.N. 8977)
Tolerance of copying is easy for those with nothing worth copying.
One of the strongest practical – as opposed to moral –
arguments for not copying other writers’ work is that the work
copied may well be wrong. (C.N. 9097)
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.
Readers should trust nobody who unquestioningly relates ‘fun’ material about old chess masters’ déboires with hotels, restaurants and luggage. (C.N. 9365)
Any colourful approbation or disapprobation of chess in the output of an eminent literary figure is liable to be quoted as representing his own views even if expressed only by a character in a work of fiction. (C.N. 9413)
A.’s opinion that indoor games may abate mental decline becomes B.’s claim that chess prevents Alzheimer’s disease. (C.N. 9436)
Letter-writers know that submissions in colourful language ... are more likely to reach the presses. To that end, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ and ‘hanging is too good for them’ have always been serviceable entreaties. Then as now, a measured analysis of pros and cons is less likely to attract an editor’s eye than a spree of fustian ignorance. Now but not then, the Internet allows anyone to by-pass whatever barriers, however low, editors put in place for participation in a discussion. There are pros and cons there too. (C.N. 9531, regarding the 1972 Spassky v Fischer match)
If Gaige’s Chess Personalia (1987) were a federation’s project, a sub-committee might still be drafting the terms of reference. (C.N. 9555)
A chess publisher supplying review copies can be hopeful of an enthusiastic write-up, with or without cronyism and with or without thought. (C.N. 9592)
Whereas many people review books without reading them, we prefer to do the reverse. (C.N. 9623)
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.
The propagation of accusations and the supply of proof should go hand-in-hand.
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.
People worth quoting are worth naming. (C.N. 9814)
Exclamation marks do not enliven clichés. (C.N. 9865)
In most cases, to put an exclamation mark is to pat oneself on the back. (Chess and the English Language)
When the facts about, for example, a player’s identity, a date or a venue are open to doubt, the reader needs to be informed accordingly, and a question mark helpfully signals caution. Nonetheless, some writers prefer to plump, perhaps at random, for one of the options, thereby presenting as a certainty a matter on which the evidence is mixed. A question mark added in, for instance, a game heading, to indicate that the factual details are not clear-cut, is a sign of strength, not weakness. (C.N. 9887)
When plumpers say what a given master ‘once said’, ‘often said’ or ‘used to say’, they are simply opting for one version of what earlier plumpers said was said. No caveats are expressed, and random possibilities are presented as fact ... Many chess writers do not take even a little trouble and, above all, they pretend to possess knowledge which they do not have. Entire websites are ‘devoted’ to sourceless quotations, that most facile way of filling space, and they are a plumper’s charter. (C.N. 9929)
Wanted: one topical chess forum where 100% of the contributions are worth reading, and not 100 forums where 1% are.
With optimum use of source material, the chess historian must try to show what is certain, what is probable, what is unlikely and what is untrue, and at every stage the reader is entitled to ask, ‘Where did that come from?’ (C.N. 10022)
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’.
Specifying sources is not only an act of fairness to earlier writers but also a way of ensuring that relevant background information is known. (C.N. 11207)
What should be the golden rule of criticism but often is not: criticize the worst the most.
It is tempting to propose, as additions to Unusual Chess Words, such neologisms as boardista, boardite and boardomaniac – and there may be better ones – to describe those individuals who rush to point out any picture featuring a wrongly-placed chessboard yet never express concern about obvious blunders in chess writing. (C.N. 11471)
As regards content, it is, of course, vital to gauge accurately what readers do, and do not, need to be told, with matters seen from their standpoint. Poor writers often include information which is self-evident (or, at least, traceable via a quick Google search) while omitting information which is essential and requires elucidation by them. There should be no spoon-feeding of readers but also no off-loading of verification work onto them, or leaving them to guess what may or may not be true. With such basics accomplished, the writer’s skill comes into play at the next stage: attempting to produce prose whose flow is not impeded by the corroborative details. (C.N. 11583)
When nothing is explained, everything and anything can be imagined ... Only with the rewarding discipline of real sourcing can the writer aspire to real clarity and real precision, and that is what readers deserve. (C.N. 11583)
Facts about people. Opinions about ideas.
To set the public record straight, a methodical approach can help: rebut misinformation and speculation, staunch their propagation, piece together the truth. First destroy, next blockade, lastly rebuild. (The Termination)
Many chessplayers are sticklers for fact only regarding works of fiction. (Historical Havoc)
Do not answer puzzles on-line in a way that spoils them for other people.
To the Chess Notes main page.
To the Archives for other feature articles.
Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.