Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess": Book Review.

Originally compiled in 1966 by a subsidiary of Xerox, reissued to coincide, naturally, with the Fischer-Spassky showdown in '72, when I went to a bookstore recently, this was the only chess book in the gaming section now given over to Sudoku! It's never been out of print, I suppose, and although if under a different name you and I would probably not be looking at nearly 250 reviews of it on Amazon (where this appeared today), it's a useful if idiosyncratic compendium of end-game mates, pins, forks, transpositions, and defenses.

Many reviewers previously on Amazon have condemned this book for its ghostwritten quality. Contrary to what some detractors claim, it's clearly explained, in the acknowledgments on the copyright page, and the prefatory remarks crediting the co-authors Stuart Margulies and Don Mosenfelder, that it's a collaboration. Fischer "speaks" in the first person here and there when sharing some moves from his past games, but that's it for any "autobiography." Leaving aside the controversial career of the name on the cover, the contents may not please everyone. Despite the elemental introduction, it's less a book for absolute novices, but not one for those able to plumb the intricacies of defenses with clever or arcane names.

As the Xerox imprimatur may hint, I see it as a precursor to a simple computer tutor, with its 275 "squares" with diagrams (interspersed with instructions) equivalent to screenshots. It lacks the animation, of course, and it can be more difficult to "see" the positions beyond the set-ups, but this lack of movement can also force you to develop your own visual skills to use during games, when one must rely on this ability.

Can this book help you? It begins with a quick overview of the moves. This can be used as a refresher. Then, the book jumps into what for hundreds of pages it tackles: how to mate. Not how to get to the enviable point at which the pieces are set up in the diagrams. So, it has a purpose, like the traditional collections of chess problems, or the books devoted to particular strategems or stages in the game. But, the gap between the opening, middlegames, and the endgames, or near endgames shown here does make for a rather ambitious leap from the King's Gambit to the kinds of advanced situations laid out here.

After showing you how to play, the bulk of the book bounds into back-rank mates, defenses and variations there, displacing defenders, attacks on enemy pawn cover, and a final review. Not the usual print full of "1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6." among Sicilian Dragons. It's a one-of-a-kind set-up that Fischer and his co-writers create. They call it "programmed instruction;" you may call it drill. Used correctly, it can place you in the active role. It may appeal to visual learners (like myself) for reasons that I will consider below.

As the book progresses, the solutions that you get when turning the page do get more compressed. You find yourself, even if you fail to solve the problem, able to glimpse at least the rudiments of thinking ahead as you play. Knights, often a piece that learners wish to use too much, here enter the fray later in the text; bishops too tend to hang back a while. Now and then, as with a real coach, the captions glide over what you want to know more about, but this challenges you to begin to try harder to ascertain what Fischer, Margulies, and Mosenfelder are teaching you.

I am a total beginner; I've recently taught myself as an adult the basics. For me, as a self-taught type of student, these drills help me get in shape. While one reviewer boasted that this book can be read easily in a couple of hours, I have no idea how this could be done realistically for even a speedreader at the beginner or introductory level student at whom I suppose this book's pitched. The lack of notation does encourage you to simply stare at the page and make your mind do the work that no computer or opponent may have the generosity for you to learn. I spent weeks with this book during my commute.

I took it where a chess board cannot go-- on the bus and train and while waiting in offices. The reproductions of the black pieces can be hard to discern on the pulp paperback pages, and their dimensions may be small. But the portability and simplicity of this tutor has much to recommend itself for those who may be tired of or unskilled in notation, wanting a pictorial analysis instead.

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