Chess Duels

My Games With The World Champions

Yasser Seirawan

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Everyman Chess
427 pages

Let’s start with the book’s back-cover generic blurb:

“Four-time US Champion Yasser Seirawan provides a fascinating and highly entertaining account of his games and encounters with the world champions of chess including: Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Tigran Petrosian, Mikhail Tal, Vassily Smyslov, Mikhail Botvinnik and Max Euwe.

“Having been involved in frequent battles against world champions over a 25-year period, Seirawan is in an ideal position to reveal how it really feels to be facing the legends of the game. He describes and analyses, in depth, his most memorable encounters – both famous victories and painful defeats, against the best chessplayers of the last 50 years.

“During this time Seirawan has also been highly active in off-the-board chess activities. This has brought him into close personal contact with many of these champions. In Chess Duels: My Games With The World Champions, Seirawan recounts many stories involving these giants of the game – giving an intriguing insight into their personalities away from the board.”

All this is true, but does the reader really need another book of games, or stories about famous players trekking from one tournament to the next? Personally, I love deeply annotated master games and any rendition of chess history. However, for those that aren’t sold, let me point out the real reason to rush out and buy this book: Seirawan himself.

Yasser Seirawan is one of those rare grandmasters that succeeded in business and who enjoyed countless activities outside of chess. Well mannered, cultured, and a magnificent speaker, he just so happened to also be one of the greatest positional players ever. As a result, he didn’t study the game as deeply as he should have (he had World Champion level talent), but he had a hell of a good time.

To quote from an old Los Angeles Times article (1987): “He swims, skis, surfs. His forehand, they say, is as devastating in karate as it is in tennis. He is a hustler, a snorkeler and a notorious ladies’ man, surfacing a few years back as Cosmo’s ‘Bachelor of the Month.’ He even reads, voraciously.”

Clearly, this isn’t your typical chess writer! Instead of egotistical posturing, boring bouts of “tournament reports”, or pages of mind-numbing variations, Yaz (as he is affectionately called by his friends) intertwines smooth storytelling, fascinating information about the various World Champions and about chess politics, and annotations filled with down to earth, instructive, highly informative, prose.

Starting out with the basics of his personal history, Seirawan leaps into a fascinating (13 page) discourse about Bobby Fischer, filled with some of the best Fischer anecdotes I’ve ever seen.

After this, another door of chess wonders is opened up, this time with Victor Korchnoi being the face on the other side. The following tale was a dream come true for the young Yaz, but it would clearly have been a dream come true for any aspiring player:

“Victor took me aside to speak with me in private. He explained he would soon be playing his Candidate’s Match against an arch-rival, Tigran Petrosian. ‘Would I like to be his second?’ I was dumbfounded and didn’t know how to answer. I’m quite sure nothing came out of my mouth as I stood there in shock. I can honestly say that my tumultuous thoughts centered around one concept only: how much would it cost me and could I afford it?

“Victor completely misunderstood my silence. ‘Oh!’ Victor said, ‘Sorry. The conditions are: I pay your travel, hotel and meal expenses. While you are working with me, I pay you 500 Swiss francs a week …’

Now I was convinced I was dreaming. Did I understand that right? Victor was offering to pay me? To train him? What on earth could I teach Victor Korchnoi? I gratefully accepted and stuck out my hand in agreement.”

After this we get more on Korchnoi, and much more on Fischer too (including Korchnoi’s views about the American World Champion). Then Yasser leaps into his views of and experiences with the World Champions (up to and including Kasparov), which includes many wonderful tales involving other legends like Reshevsky, Euwe, and my personal hero, Bent Larsen.

The following surprised me:

“Now the conversation took on an intensity as Bent explained himself. ‘I’ve been told that the Sioux Indians measured the worth of a man’s life by the enemies he had. If he had a great enemy he was in turn great to have been worthy of such an enemy.’

“Needless to say, I was confused. Bent continued. ‘You see, Yasser, I have no enemies. None at all. I began to wonder if perhaps I’m not a boring person. A man without enemies? What does it say about me? And then I remembered, yes, I do have on enemy after all. Max Euwe! And he is dying.’ Bent went on to explain that Max Euwe was in poor health and that he had received a telegram from Euwe. It asked him, Bent, to forgive him so that he might pass in peace. That day, Bent had sent back a one-word telegrammed response. ‘No.’ Ouch.”

Tales like this are absolutely priceless (if you want to see the reason for Larsen’s “no”, buy the book), but things really get cooking when Yaz takes us through his personal over-the-board battles against Smyslov (life score: 2 ½ – 2 ½), Tal (life score, an amazing: 4 ½ – ½), and all the others. These reminisces include the actual games, replete with typical Yasser-style (clear prose explaining exactly what’s going on) notes. For example, here’s a comment from Seirawan – Tal, Brussels 1988 (after white’s 14th move): “I could ‘feel’ though Mischa’s body language that his level of concern for the position was becoming elevated. At such times he had the habit of pursing his lips and leaning his head forwards into the board. I too sometimes bear down at the board and bring my head forwards. At times our head came close together.”

I could go on and on about this very special book. Hopefully I’ve given you a taste of the wonders in its pages and convinced you to add this instant classic to your own chess library. Make no mistake about it, Chess Duels: My Games With The World Champions is a great book and will likely take the 2010 book of the year prize. It’s something that will give you months of enjoyment, and leave you a far better player and richer person once you’ve read it.

Chess Duels: My Games With The World Champions has my highest recommendation.