Reviewing Chess Books

Edward Winter

book reviews

Brentano’s Chess Monthly, June 1881, page 67

Remarks by F.M. Teed on page 109 of the May 1886 International Chess Magazine:

‘Chess reviewers, as a rule, are so indiscriminately laudatory that conscientious criticism is likely to be regarded as the work of a malevolent, splenetic and generally unpleasant individual, yet such ought not to be the case. It is an easy matter to write a gushingly favorable notice of such a book as this [Chess-Nut Burrs], if one elect to dilate on its best features, and to pass over its imperfections. Anyone can ring changes on “elegant typography”, “choice collection of gems”, “the best work of the best workmen”, “terse and incisive diction”, or like conventional phrases; but that is a kind of writing that signifies nothing, as a rule.’

Today one can easily think of countless editors and columnists who should read and heed Teed’s creed.


Reviewing The Major Tactics of Chess by Franklin K. Young, the BCM (March 1899, page 99) expressed some excellent sentiments on book reviews in general:

‘... In these rapid times, ostensibly intricate matters are not liable to much contradiction, even where there is more than a small suspicion of error; few who really examine them caring to openly dissent from the most doubtful conclusions, when these are cast in all the imposing dignity of print. Thus readers (and reviewers too) favour the temerity of authors, and help to mislead the public, including of course themselves – the simple, good-natured, omne-ignotum-pro-mirifico public; the great present and future public, which can never be too well or honestly served.’


The approach of E.G.R. Cordingley to book reviewing was set out on page 174 of The Chess Students Quarterly, December 1947:

‘If I appear a poor encomiast, it is because in reviewing a book I judge whether, within the compass of its pages and its title, the author has made the most of the material available and presented a balanced, interesting work; but I am not content with a book being merely good, and interesting, and competent – I must ask myself in what way might it be better, more interesting, more enlivening to the curious, inquisitive, seeking mind of an intelligent chess player; for, after all, a reviewer’s function is not to advertise the publishers’ wares but to give a frank, objective opinion upon a book; to offer constructive suggestions; to discourage careless writing, or indifferent supervision by the publisher; and, in general, to help in maintaining a high standard of book-production.’

For fastidiousness Cordingley was a nonpareil. Here are some of his criticisms of Golombek’s book Capablanca’s Hundred Best Games of Chess:

‘In one respect Golombek has been inconsistent, but he followed in the steps of countless generations of annotators: he uses the Present, Past, and Future Past Perfect tenses for actions that should enjoy a common tense. In one game the notes are in the Present, in another the Past, and in a third in the mood of the moment, vacillating with carefree abandon betwixt past and present, with occasionally a false sequence within a sentence for sweet variety’s sake. … In game 81 will be found “is”, “was”, “would be”, “would have been”, – need the argument be carried further?

… One other comment I feel forced to make, the extraordinary use made of the semicolon, here a servile lackey to the colon and full stop. It is used to replace the colon, whose specialized use is clearly defined, and to join two sentences having no connecting thought. I suspect the compositor of having a hand in this ill usage of the half stop, for the narrow two inch column probably does not ease the art of justifying the margins.’

Source: The Chess Students Quarterly, June 1947, pages 106 and 110.

(Kingpin 2000)

How quaint such comments seem in today’s more hectic era.


In Historical Havoc we observed:

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.

See too Over and Out.

Do readers know of any magazines or websites which, systematically and comprehensively, produce authoritative reviews of new chess books?

‘Authoritative’ excludes all those easily pleased outlets making do with superficial impressions which could be written by virtually anybody. For example, a reviewer who praises The Joys of Chess by C. Hesse (Alkmaar, 2011), not realizing that it is unreliable and makes excessive, insufficiently credited use of earlier writers’ work, is unqualified to review books in, at the very least, that category. A reviewer of a new openings monograph needs proper knowledge of what has already been published on the same opening. A reviewer who imagines that all McFarland books (even the Steinitz biography by K. Landsberger) merit indiscriminate eulogies has no business publicly assessing works about chess history. Plaudits are deserved by many McFarland titles, but not all, and it is the critic’s task to make the requisite distinctions. A reviewer whose own volumes are notorious for blunders and other defects (plagiarism, for instance) should be neither reviewing nor authoring. Nor, of course, should any writer wish to quote favourable opinions received from such a reviewer. T. Harding rushing to cite R. Keene’s fulsome praise of his Blackburne book was a pathetic spectacle.

Some people are qualified to evaluate no chess books of any kind, but nobody is qualified to evaluate the full range of the game’s literature. C.N. 3766 referred to the skill of Brian Reilly, as editor of the BCM, in bringing together a team of excellent book reviewers which included J.M. Aitken, W.H. Cozens, G.H. Diggle, W. Heidenfeld and D.J. Morgan, each with his specialities.

It is relevant to recall the words of W.H. Watts on page 115 of the March 1933 BCM:

‘It has long been a grievance of mine that so far as chess books are concerned the art of reviewing has almost entirely disappeared. It seems that Editors imagine book publishers send copies of their new publications solely to get the little bit of publicity which a favourable puff will provide, and are averse to any form of criticism. Either this, or books are reviewed by writers not sufficiently qualified to criticize, or who do not know what a book review is. I remember in my early days book reviewing was taken quite seriously, and choosing reviewers for important books was a task requiring the most careful consideration. Editors took great care to see that books had adequate and suitable attention, and in no case would the trite clichés which now pass as reviews be accepted. “Well printed”, “On good paper”, “Many and very clear diagrams”, “Profound analysis”, “A splendid selection of brilliant games”, with a few other stock phrases similarly pleasant, culminating in “No chessplayer’s library is complete without it” exhaust almost every review of a chess book that has appeared for many years.

How different it was in the past. Comparatively speaking Chess Blossoms by Miss F.F. Beechey is a very unimportant book, and yet in the Chess Player’s Chronicle of 1883 no less than four pages were devoted to its review. This review is a critical examination of the contents, and is what I with my old-fashioned ideas always imagined a review had to be. The review of Horwitz and Kling’s End Games occupies two pages of the CPC for May 1884, and I could multiply these instances many times by reference to early issues of the BCM itself. It must happen occasionally that the most important chess event of the month is the publication of some new book on the game, and yet it gets but scant notice, on the lines indicated, and henceforward passes into oblivion.’

A chess publisher supplying review copies can be hopeful of an enthusiastic write-up, with or without cronyism and with or without thought. The very existence of chess titles produced by non-chess publishers may be overlooked. To take specific cases from recent years, below are three hardbacks, Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom (New York, 2004), Power Play by Jenny Adams (Philadelphia, 2006) and Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown (New York, 2015).




The third of those books has only just appeared, but which chess magazines and ‘review websites’ have offered their readers authoritative assessments of the earlier two works? And, lest all this be considered too arcane, to which magazines or websites can a reader turn when wishing to buy a book about Magnus Carlsen and seeking dependable, objective guidance on which ones are excellent, good, bad and awful from among the dozen or so titles available?

carlsen kohlmeyer


harding blackburne

The observation at the start of C.N. 9592 above, concerning the ‘pathetic spectacle’, prompts a question: is there any chess writer less McFarlandish than Raymond Keene?

As shown on page 38 of volume two of Chess Characters (Geneva, 1987) G.H. Diggle wrote in the April 1986 Newsflash:

‘In the June 1887 BCM is a review of H.E. Bird’s Modern Chess, Part V, a shilling booklet of 36 pages devoted entirely to the Evans Gambit. Yet the reviewer, Edward Freeborough, devotes seven pages to dissecting Bird’s analysis, winding up however on a cheerful note: “... the student will certainly not be dissatisfied with his shilling’s worth. There is plenty of provender: he must supply his own digestive organs.”’


Latest update: 19 April 2016.

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