A Question of Credibility

Edward Winter



From page 110 of Jörg Wickram Der Jungen Knaben Spiegel by Gertrud Fauth (Strasbourg, 1917)

Can the chess aficionado have faith in what he reads on the Internet? The short answer, alas, is no. Quite apart from those irredeemably dire chess newsgroups (two parts cat-lap, one part sulphuric acid, and scant trace of literacy), the Web currently fails to offer reliable basic information about, for example, the game’s great champions of the past.

Anyone seeking enlightenment may find himself, courtesy of an undiscriminating search-engine, at the ‘World Chess Champions’ page (www.chesschampions.com). Having then clicked on ‘Capablanca’, he comes face-to-face with a risible run-through of the genius’s life which contains such assertions as, ‘In 1914 Capablanca went 11-0 in a New York tournament’. As is well known, his only tourney in 1914 was in St Petersburg, Russia, where he went +10 –2 =6.

Our nescient tutor goes on to affirm that in 1922 Capablanca played in the ‘15th British Chess Federation championship’. In reality, there was no such event and, of course, even if there had been, a Cuban would hardly have been eligible. Later, there is talk of $10,000 in gold for the 1927 match between Capablanca and Alekhine. Untrue again, as is the unaccountable claim that in 1935 and 1936 Capablanca participated in tournaments in Ramsgate. Are English seaside resorts really so indistinguishable? Margate is meant.

At the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad, we are told, Capablanca scored ‘6 wins and 4 draws’. Read 7 wins and 9 draws. The final paragraph relates that the Cuban ‘played over 700 tournament games winning over 71 percent of the time’. The public record, easily accessible and a shade different, shows that he played 485 tournament games, winning 55.87% of them.

The perpetrator of this jumble has unabashedly given his name: Bill Wall. That is the same individual who presumes to narrate Capablanca’s career in the Web’s grandly-named ‘Chessmaster Encyclopedia’ (www.chessmasternetwork.com). Most of the above mistakes are rehashed there.

Nor does Mr Wall prove any more of a safe pair of hands when, in the same two Web sources, he directs his 10-watt searchlight at the career of Alekhine. Naturally there are simple misspellings (e.g. ‘Schlecter’, with ‘Teichman’ two lines later), followed by the same gold bullion bull. For good measure we are informed that Alekhine was the author of ‘several books’. Eighteen, in fact.

For more about two of the ‘several’, a link is provided to a page on Alekhine by Mark Crowther, whose expertise and eloquence shine through in the following excerpt:

On the Way to the World Chess Championships a book published in several languages before being published here by Pergammon comparitively recently.

New York 1924. A classic Tournament record produced by Dover. One of his very best, due for a revamp in format one would hope though.’

Where does one start? In the first title, for On the Way read On the Road. The word Chess shouldn’t be there. Championships needs to be in the singular, and the dates 1923-1927 are missing. The misspellings ‘Pergammon’ and ‘comparitively’ are just the icing on the cake. Concerning the second paragraph, the English edition of the New York, 1924 tournament book was produced by the American Chess Bulletin; Dover merely did a reprint in 1961.

Surely such writings are, to borrow from Mr Crowther’s ineffable prose, due for a revamp in format, content and everything else one would hope though.

The weak in chess are seldom shy about meting out opinions, despite their ignorance of even straightforward matters. (Nothing criticized in the present article would have been at all difficult to get right.) Mr Crowther avers, for instance, that in the last 18 months of his life (i.e. 1944-46) Alekhine ‘was probably not even in the top 50 in the World on the strength of a couple of matches he played against weak Portuguese opponents’.

A startling assertion, so let us examine the facts. Who, we may ask, were those ‘weak Portuguese opponents? The record (readily available) shows that Alekhine had a match against just one Portuguese player, F. Lupi. That was in January 1946, and the world champion won +2 –1 =1. Given that the moves of his victory in the third game are unpublished, the suggestion that Alekhine was outside the top 50 is thus based on a grand total of three games played two months before his death.

Among Mr Wall’s other effluence is a pitiful feature on ‘eccentric chessplayers’ (www.txdirect.net/users/wall/chess.htm). A couple of sentences about Alekhine will give the flavor:

In a few tournaments he was found in a field drunk. He would urinate on the floor in other events.’

For these dainty tidings no documentary source is given, of course, for the Walls of this world expect us to take on trust their attacks on the chosen prey of the day. It can only be guessed that he has gleefully seized and embroidered upon what Reuben Fine (strong master, undependable writer) said on page 54 of The Psychology of the Chess Player, but that really won’t do. 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.

At least Messrs Wall and Crowther manage to report correctly that Alekhine died in Portugal. Even that feat has proved beyond a famously untrustworthy writer, Larry Evans, in his misnamed column ‘All about Alekhine’ (to be found at the same Chessmaster Network site). He bafflingly asserts that Alekhine died ‘in Madrid’. By normal standards a laughable blunder, but for Mr Evans a routine lapse. In a recent article ‘Alekhine’s Last Days’ in the same source, he contradicted himself, saying that Alekhine died ‘in Lisbon’. That too needs correction, but at least it is the right country.

Another article on the ‘Chessmaster Network’ has Larry Evans putting forward his classification of ‘The Ten Best Players of All Time’. The penultimate name is Botvinnik, who, he informs us, died in 1994. Actually it was 1995. Then comes Tal, believed by Mr Evans to have died in 1991. The correct year is 1992.

And so it is that 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.

Note: This was our first article written for the Internet, when we began a series entitled ‘Chess Lore’ at the Chess Café. It will be noted that the links cited are (fortunately) now obsolete.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.