Jeremy Gaige’s Chess Personalia (Jefferson, 1987) states that Irving Chernev was born on 29 January 1900 in Priluki (Ukraine), but we note that at the familysearch.org website the birth-date 17 June 1899 is indicated.
‘January 1900’ was given on page 7 of Chernev’s last (posthumous) book, 200 Brilliant Endgames (New York, 1989), i.e. in an affectionate introduction by the book’s editor Adam Hart-Davis, who met Chernev a number of times. Mr Hart-Davis has now informed us:
‘I do recall Irving saying that he could always remember how old he was because he was born in January 1900, and therefore was as old as the current year.’
A letter from Irving Chernev’s grandson, Melvin, to Andrew Soltis was published on page 6 of Chess Life, October 2018, written on behalf of his father, also named Melvin, and co-signed by Celia Ann Chernev. From the first paragraph:
‘As you stated, Mr Chernev was born in 1900 in the Ukraine, and he came to Brooklyn, New York in 1905 with his parents and siblings.’
From page 158 of CHESS, April 1940 (in a review of Reinfeld’s book Practical End-Game Play):
‘Mr Reinfeld is an attractive and industrious writer but there are certain faults of which he must rid himself to become a great one. It is in all kindness that we enumerate them. The first is bumptiousness. He is too prone to throw his weight about from the safe retreat of armchair analysis. The amateur reader, hearing him denounce Tarrasch for “gross blunders”, Schlechter for “superficial appraising of the position”, Euwe for “grossly miscalculating”, Tartakower for “lack of insight” and so forth can hardly fail to ask, with initial admiration: “Who is this genius who can pierce through the armour of the great?” Mr Reinfeld’s playing record comes as a shock. The discovery of occasional “gross errors” in his writings, committed not under the nervous tension of tournament play but in the calm of literary composition and overlooked in successive proof-corrections and the realization that the analysis on which he bases his denunciations is rarely his own (as his own meticulous acknowledgments reveal) add to the disillusionment. Such a disillusionment is unnecessary and pointless. We judge a writer as a writer, a player as a player – until the writer obtrudes his own personality on us by such harsh and pointless criticisms.’
This passage brings to mind criticism of Tarrasch by Irving Chernev, on the inside front cover of the January 1956 Chess Review:
‘Mistakes? Rarely did he make one. But here he pulls a boner that is surely the grandmother of all the blunders ever perpetrated on a chessboard.
List to this tale of woe:
It was in the days of his youth, when all the world was still playing wild gambits. Tarrasch had given a piece for a speculative attack, and his opponent was having a rough time of it. The position had been simplified by an exchange of queens, but the defense was still in trouble. Then, to add to the confusion, Tarrasch sacrificed a bishop. In return, he threatened a tremendous discovered check. It was just a matter of moving his knight to the right square.
But now comes a strange spectacle: that of the great master floundering around, trying to [find] the one discovered check which wins. Tarrasch missed the right idea – not once, but four times in succession. His knight hopped about from square to square and when, at long last, Tarrasch succeeded in winning the game it was with the wrong discovered check.’
The game-score was then given:Siegbert Tarrasch – Hermann Hirschler
1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 g5 4 h4 g4 5 Ne5 d6 6 Nxf7 Kxf7 7 Bc4+ Kg6 8 d4 Be7 9 Bxf4 Nf6 10 h5+ Kg7 11 Nc3 Nc6 12 e5 dxe5 13 h6+ Kf8 14 dxe5 Qxd1+ 15 Rxd1 Nd7 16 O-O Ke8 17 Nd5 Bc5+ 18 Kh1 Bb6 19 e6 Nde5 20 Nf6+ Ke7 21 Bg5 Nxc4
(Chernev: ‘At this point Tarrasch has a win. He pointed it out clearly and concisely long after the game was played [i.e. mate in four with 22 Nh5+]. Tarrasch did not admit that he overlooked the win. Instead, he said that he wanted to confuse his opponent psychologically. He would demonstrate by several knight maneuvers that Black dare not capture the e-pawn and then, when he was thoroughly convinced, Tarrasch would swindle him, playing a variation in which Black must take the pawn to save himself – but is too scared to do so.’) 22 Nxg4+ Ke8 23 Nf6+ Ke7 24 Nd5+ Ke8 25 Nf6+ Ke7 26 Nd7+ Ke8 27 Nf6+ Ke7 28 Ng8+ Ke8 (Chernev: ‘And here indeed Black can save himself by taking the pawn: White has no plausible, winning line.’) 29 Rd8+ Nxd8 30 Rf8+ Kxf8 31 e7+ Resigns.
Chernev’s annotations were based on Tarrasch’s own remarks on pages 391-392 of Dreihundert Schachpartien (Gouda, 1925). See also pages 340-341 of Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess by F. Reinfeld (London, 1947).
Whether the game was more than an offhand encounter is unclear, but it seems to us a sizeable exaggeration by Chernev to accuse Tarrasch of perpetrating ‘a boner that is surely the grandmother of all the blunders ever perpetrated on a chessboard’.
As regards the occasion, Chernev, who put ‘Nuremberg, 1894’, said that the game was won by Tarrasch ‘in the days of his youth’, whereas he was about 32 at the time. Some databases unaccountably state that the game was played in Berlin in 1880.
Chernev gave ‘some personal opinions’ on page 28 of the November-December 1933 Chess Review. They included the following:
- ‘The perfect game is Réti-Kostić, Teplitz, 1922.
- The most important game. Pillsbury-Tarrasch, Hastings, 1895.
- The most exhaustive – and exhausting – annotator is Tartakower.
- The laziest. Lasker and Teichmann.
- The most interesting matches were Alekhine-Bogoljubow, 1929, Tarrasch-Schlechter, 1911, and Capablanca-Euwe, 1931.
- The most interesting combinative game was Alekhine-Cohn, Stockholm, 1912.
- The coolest player under fire is Kashdan.
- The perfect annotators are Alekhine, Marco and Grünfeld.
- The game most interestingly annotated is Bernstein-Nimzowitsch, St Petersburg, 1914, by Marco in the Wiener Schachzeitung.
- The most brilliant move was move no. 36 R-Q5, in the game between Alekhine and Tartakower, Vienna, 1922.
- Perhaps the most overrated player was Morphy.
- The most underrated player was Teichmann.
- The greatest “natural” player was Zukertort.’
Asked about chess books which had a profound influence on him, John Nunn replied (see the 3/2002 New in Chess, page 98):
‘When I was a young player, I read The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Irving Chernev which made chess seem extremely easy. However, I then read Alekhine’s Best Games of Chess, which made chess seem impossibly difficult. I eventually discovered that the truth lies somewhere between the two.’
Dr Nunn informs us:
‘I was referring to the 1924-37 volume by Alekhine. I recall being particularly impressed by 18...Nxf2 in Rubinstein v Alekhine, Semmering, 1926, or rather the fact that Alekhine must have seen it some time in advance.’
Most C.N. items mentioning Irving Chernev have concerned chess history and lore, but he was an exceptionally entertaining annotator. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played was published by Simon and Schuster, New York in 1965 and by Faber and Faber, London the following year. The US publishers also brought out a Fireside paperback edition (undated), and in 1992 the work was reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc., New York. An algebraic version has yet to be produced and would be very welcome.
C.N. 8196 discussed The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Irving Chernev, a book which had a profound influence on John Nunn, and we commented: ‘An algebraic version has yet to be produced and would be very welcome.’
An algebraic edition has now been published, by Batsford (‘an imprint of Pavilion Books Company Limited’).
When it first appeared, in the mid-1960s, the book received extensive coverage in Chess Review, although not in Chess Life, and on page 39 of the February 1966 Chess Review an advertisement listed all 62 games selected by Chernev:
The February 1966 issue of Chess Review also had, on pages 46 and 64, a lengthy, highly favourable review by John W. Collins. As regards the production standards he observed:
‘Designed by Cecile Gutler [sic – Cutler], the physical aspects of the book are attractive. The cover design and frontispiece by Edward Sorel is one of the most original to appear. The binding is red and sturdy, the paper and type good ... and the photographs striking (these last are a welcome additive too many publishers omit for economy).’
All the photographs have been omitted from the Batsford edition. In common with other recent Batsford books (most notably, the 2008 edition of Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games), the volume as a whole (a paperback, naturally) looks drab, despite some attempt to replicate the textual lay-out of the original.
‘Drab’ would never describe Chernev’s writing, and in The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played he was perhaps at his best. Collins wrote:
‘... one feels this latest book is the true Chernev, one might say the ultimate Chernev. It gives full vent to his enthusiasm, wit, admiration of the positional-strategic and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Royal Game. Much of this is evident in his previous works, but this time it all comes out.’
This reference to Chernev’s qualities, and not least his knowledge, is certainly justified. Although C.N. items have shown that he sometimes cut corners, he was active at a time when writing and scholarship were not regarded as a natural pairing and when anecdotes and other chestnuts were particularly prevalent. Few were interested in sources. Above all, in the pre-digital age the work of writers in his field was far harder; they could not fill in gaps in their knowledge with press-of-a-button ‘research’.
Chernev’s output – clear, humorous and easy-going – gave the impression of effortlessness, but much industry lay behind it all. On 19 January 1977 he wrote to us:
‘I think you will be pleased to hear that I have sent off to Oxford University Press my completed manuscript of Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings, a labour of love (and hard work).’
Although his prose was often conversational, it was literate and carefully structured, bearing no resemblance to the ultra-casual ‘I’m-just-one-of-the-lads’ stuff increasingly seen in chess books and magazines since his time. We have also been struck by the scarcity of typographical errors in Chernev’s writing throughout his life.
Relatively few of his own games are readily available, although it is not difficult to find unknown or little-known scores. Two games from Section B of the preliminaries for the 1942 US championship, including the one below against Altman, were published on page 29 of the March-April 1942 American Chess Bulletin.
Irving Chernev – Benjamin Altman
New York, 1942
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 Be7 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bh4 Nbd7 7 e3 c6 8 Bd3 dxc4 9 Bxc4 Nb6 10 Bb3 Nbd5 11 O-O O-O 12 Rc1 Nxc3 13 bxc3 b6 14 Ne5 Bb7 15 Qd3 c5 16 f3 Bd6 17 Bc2 g6 18 Nxg6 c4 19 Qxc4 fxg6 20 Qxe6+ Kg7 21 e4 Qe7 22 Qh3 Bc8 23 g4 g5 24 Bf2 Bf4 25 Rcd1 Qa3 26 e5 Nd5 27 Be4 Ba6 28 Bxd5 Rad8 29 Bb3 h5 30 Rfe1 Rh8 31 Be3 Rdf8 32 Bxf4 Rxf4 33 gxh5 Bc8 34 e6 Qd6 35 Re5 Kf6 36 h6 Rh7 37 Qh5 Ke7 38 Qxg5+ Rf6 39 Rde1 b5 40 R1e4 Rhxh6 41 Qg7+ Ke8 42 Rg4 Bxe6 43 Bxe6 Rxe6
44 Qxh6 Qxe5 45 Qxe6+ Qxe6 46 Re4 Resigns.
In the other game on that page, Chernev’s opponent, D. Podhorcer, blundered early on: 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 3 c4 b6 4 g3 Bb7 5 Bg2 Be7 6 Nc3 Ne4 7 Qc2 Nxc3 8 bxc3 f5 9 O-O Be4 10 Qa4 O-O 11 Ne1 Bxg2 12 Nxg2 d6 13 Nf4 Qc8 14 d5 e5 15 Ne6 Rf6 16 Be3 Nd7 17 Qc6 Nf8 18 Nxc7 f4 19 Kg2 Rh6 20 h4 Rb8 21 Na6 Qxa6 22 White resigns.
A third game from the same event was published on page 63 of the July-August 1942 American Chess Bulletin:
Irving Chernev – John T. Westbrock
New York, 1942
Queen’s Indian Defence
1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 3 c4 b6 4 Nc3 Bb7 5 Qc2 Bb4 6 Bg5 h6 7 Bh4 O-O 8 e3 d6 9 Bd3 Nbd7 10 O-O Bxc3 11 bxc3 c5 12 Nd2 Qc7 13 Bg3 Nh5 14 Bh4 f5 15 f4 Nhf6
16 d5 exd5 17 Bxf5 Rae8 18 Rae1 Ne4 19 Bg6 Nxd2 20 Qxd2 Re6 21 f5 Re4 22 Rf4 Nf6 23 Bxf6 gxf6 24 cxd5 Rxf4 25 exf4 Rd8 26 c4 Bc8 27 Re3 Qg7 28 Qe1 Rf8 29 Re7 Qh8 30 Qg3 Resigns.
The Westbrock game was also on page 16 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 April 1942:
The Eagle was apparently mistaken about Chernev’s place of birth (‘here’). His date of birth was discussed in C.N. 3007 (see page 98 of Chess Facts and Fables).
The most detailed article about him is ‘An Invitation to Chernev’ by Jerome Tarshis on pages 500-503 of Chess Life & Review, September 1979. Some recollections quoted on page 501:
‘The writing that I did was done on weekends and after hours ... It was only when I had an idea that I thought merited a book that I would do a book, and then I would spend a lot of time on it. For example, when I wrote The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess, I went through some 15 to 20 thousand games, to pick out games that were dissimilar and weren’t just baby traps, or dreadful blunders in the opening.
When I wrote Logical Chess Move by Move – and this also applies to The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played – I went through hundreds and hundreds of games that were mostly positional in character. I wanted to be able to point out that the positional play was more important, and that the combinations would come of themselves.
It wasn’t easy to choose the games. In a lot of fine games there are a great many moves that are not exactly meaningless but are difficult to explain to the average or below-average player. And it wasn’t enough for me to find a good game where the two bishops are better than the two knights. I wanted to find the very best example.’
C.N.s 644 and 5036 quoted some comments to us about Reinfeld from Irving Chernev, in a letter dated 19 January 1977:
‘I thought I was the only one who saw that The Human Side of Chess was written with venom. But then, Reinfeld hated impartially! He hated Morphy, Alekhine and Capablanca most of all. He hated all chessplayers – except those who bought his books. Those he despised.’
From our collection:
For an examination of Chernev’s reliability regarding stories about chessplayers, see Chess Anecdotes.
Gerard Killoran (Ilkley, England) notes that a century ago reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Isidore, not Irving, Chernev. One of several instances is on page 38 of the 15 October 1916 edition:
We see that page 3 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 March 1913 had ‘Isidor Chernev’.
Roger Mylward (Lower Heswall, England) writes:
‘I have examined the United States Federal Census for 1910 and 1920 covering the Brooklyn area of New York. In 1910 the following family members were living in Brooklyn Ward 16, Kings, New York: William Chernev (aged 34), Mollie Chernev (33), Isidor Chernev (10), Celia Chernev (8) and Rose Chernev (4). The family had emigrated from Russia in 1907; William was a retail merchant dealing in groceries.
In the 1920 Census, the family (living in Brooklyn Assembly District 6) consisted of William Chernev (aged 45), Irving Chernev (19), Celia Chernev (18), Rose Chernev (14) and Michael Chernev (8).
The 1915 New York State census had the forename Isidor. According to the New York Death Index, Mollie Chernev died, aged 42, on 18 October 1919 in King’s, New York.’
The above passage about Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev comes from page 80 of the March-April 1967 Chess World. It was omitted from page 65 of The Search for Chess Perfection II by C.J.S. Purdy (Davenport, 2006) and from page 147 of The Chess Gospel According to John edited by R.J. Tykodi and Bob Long (Davenport, 2010). In both books its place would have been just before the paragraph beginning ‘In this series ...’.
From page 52 of the same issue (March-April 1967) of Chess World:
Purdy’s ‘How to Advance in Chess’ article was on pages 77 and 80 of the same issue. Most of his praise of Irving Chernev was quoted in C.N. 9713, but below is an additional passage in which Purdy related that he had recently given a chess lesson, lasting just over an hour, to a 13-year-old girl, ‘a fairly raw beginner’:
‘What would I charge for such a lesson normally? Well, at least $4, assuming I was willing to give one at all. Not many beginners care to pay so much for early lessons.
What is the answer? I saw it at once, and told the pupil, who realized I would not have time to give further lessons.
Ten years ago there was no answer. Now there is. It is Chernev’s Logical Chess Move by Move.
For this is the only book of annotated games that is comprehensible to a tyro. Every other book of annotated games leaves some moves unexplained.’
Chernev’s 1943 book Chessboard Magic! was discussed in C.N. 10275.
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