Zurich 1953

15 Contenders for the World Chess Championship

Miguel Najdorf

Reviewer: John Watson
Russell Enterprises
392 pages

When I began doing interviews of chess players and personalities on my ICC/ChessFM online radio show, the initial topic was “Chess and Books.” Later it became a general interview show, but there were always a disproportionate number of guests who were authors, and many others who were book collectors. So, not surprisingly, one of my questions was always: “What are your favorite chess books?”

In response, my guests typically reminisced about the books with which they grew up, and Zurich 1953 was often one of their choices. Most of the time this referred to Bronstein’s book on the great Candidates Tournament, Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953; but surprisingly often, my guests (a rather sophisticated lot) would pause for effect, and then explain that they weren’t referring to Bronstein’s work, but rather to Miguel Najdorf’s 1954 book in Spanish on the same event. That tome, previously unknown to the majority of English readers, has now been translated as Zurich 1953: 15 Contenders for the World Chess Championship. It is published by Russell Enterprises in 392 pages, with Taylor Kingston doing the mammoth work of translation. [As an aside, I should mention that two guests referred to yet a third book about this event as a favorite: Euwe’s Schach-Elite im Kampf, written in Dutch!].

Zurich 1953 was a 30-round event with 210 games contested by Vassily Smyslov (who won), Sammy Reshevsky, Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Tigran Petrosian, Efim Geller, Alexander Kotov, Mark Taimanov, Yuri Averbakh, Isaac Boleslavsky, Laszlo Szabo, Svetozar Gligoric, Max Euwe, Gideon Stahlberg, and of course Miguel Najdorf. It’s odd, but for years I have thought that Bronstein’s book, while containing some good writing, is overrated. As a young player, true, Zurich 1953 was a treasured possession; but so were all of the few chess books that I access to.

Everyone I know who was raised in the same era ended up with sentimental attachments to the cheap and readily-available Dover books such as Alekhine’s New York 1924, Reti’s Modern Ideas in Chess, Bovinnik’s 100 Selected Games, and Zurich 1953. But as the years passed, I grew increasingly discontent with some of Bronstein’s broad generalities and airy observations. Comments that purported to be pearls of wisdom ended up having too little to do with the game at hand, and the most important moments of the game were too often passed over. In that context, it’s interesting to quote from Bronstein’s eloquent Preface to 2nd edition (1979): “I had no wish to become a variations-monger; nor did I want the role of annotator-cum-guide. I felt that the author’s ideas and conclusions should form the basis of this book, with the moves played in each game serving to annotate them, as it were. I tried to let the book’s contents display the richness and limitless expanse of chess ideas, and to let the format resemble that of a literary work.”

That sounds wonderful at first blush, but if the author’s ideas end up substituting for the ideas expressed by the moves actually played, he might overlook the truth of what is happening on the board, as well as the excitement of the fight, and in some cases the influence of a player’s unique style. As it happens, Bronstein gives excellent summaries of the general characteristics of various positions; but he does only at a few junctures in each game, when the reality is that at many other points, the game is characterized by a completely different set of themes and ideas. Bronstein also sounds so confident of his opinions that his misassessments are easy to overlook. Perhaps more importantly, he consistently fails to point out improvements for both sides. Frequently, therefore, the reader is given an unrealistic and often simplistic view which neglects the richness of positions, and passes over important turning points.

You’ll find this problem more than once in every round if you do a comparison of the same game in Bronstein’s and Najdorf’s books. I spent some time looking at Reshevsky’s games, for example, and a typical case arises in the exciting game Bronstein – Reshevsky from Round 28. In Najdorf’s version, he portrays the back-and-forth of the play, describing moves as ‘risky’, ‘ingenious’, and ‘careful’, with pertinent analysis. First Reshevsky, then Bronstein, and then Reshevsky again avoid drawish continuations while taking risks to win. Then towards the end of the game, without needing a great deal of analysis to prove it, Najdorf points out important alternatives on five different moves for Reshevsky, who was in his customary time pressure, all at least equal and some of them clear improvements. This includes a move at time control (move 40) that would have given him good winning chances. Instead, Reshevsky blundered terribly at that point and lost. Bronstein mentions none of this (not even that Reshevsky’s last move is a mistake, much less a blunder), and in fact gives the impression that this enthralling game is of only moderate interest. Nor does he comment about the overall context, whereas Najdorf’s concludes with:

“An emotional struggle, in which the American grandmaster lost not only the game, but also any chance for first place.” Which is nice to know, since Reshevsky came the closest to disrupting Smyslov’s march to victory. [Kingston’s Rybka-assisted contribution – see below – doesn’t contradict Najdorf’s analyses of these tactical positions, which is a good indication that they aren’t far off.].

I should also mention that Bronstein’s famous book has no introduction to, or descriptions of, the players. Nor are there round overviews, or a tournament summary. His is a mechanical narrative in which we find little drama. By contrast, Najdorf’s book reflects the dynamic and competitive nature of the event. Along with an account of the games, the standings are given before every round, and Najdorf is clearly swept up in the excitement of the race. Even at the end, when Smyslov becomes out of reach, he makes us aware of the contest for second place, since that result qualified the winner for the next Candidates Tournament (no small matter). He provides context for the games, including their significance for the standings, and the reasons that players made certain moves and errors (for example, tiredness, the role played by the clock, etc.), as well as which player has expertise in various types of position that arise.

Najdorf gives his book a human touch, with numerous anecdotes as well as observations about the players themselves. As an indication of its broader scope, Zurich 1953: 15 Contenders contains photos of the players, crosstables, and an opening theory section. It begins with substantial and sympathetic biographical portraits of all the players, summarizing their careers and styles, and ends with a review of the tournament and the players’ performances. It praises the top finishers but also graciously provides reasons for the tailenders’ poor results, e.g., Szabo’s nervous condition, Taimanov’s second occupation (as a musician), Stahlberg being, “perhaps not in the best physical condition”; or, referring to Euwe: “If we take into account the point difference between the Dutch veteran’s first and second cycles, we can deduce the effect the length of the tournament had on his play. However, his performance is very meritorious, and especially at the start we saw him show his best fighting spirit against the vigorous youth of today.”

I’m not sure who wrote these sections; perhaps some of the material was contributed by his second GM Julio Bolbochan, who apparently wrote a fair amount of the book, but whose contribution Najdorf doesn’t acknowledge. Speaking of giving credit, Bronstein himself doesn’t mention Boris Veinstein. Andy Soltis’ work Soviet Chess 1917-1991 features Veinstein a good deal; in this book, he describes him as “un-credited co-author, spymaster Boris Veinstein”.

I don’t know if this is the same person as ‘Vainstein’, a player whose name you run into in 1930s chess literature. At any rate, by most accounts, Veinstein wrote a great deal (some say nearly all) of Bronstein’s book! In fact, someone who many years later was hosting Bronstein at his house told me that Bronstein admitted that he hadn’t written a lot of Zurich 1953. My best guess is that both Najdorf and Bronstein wrote the general observations and descriptions in the game notes, but that their two sadly-forgotten assistants did much of the analytical work, probably in collaboration with the main authors. But it’s merely a guess, and we may never know. Bolbochan, by the way, was a prominent Argentine GM and strong theoretician with a career spanning 6 decades (his elder brother Jacobo was an IM).

There was quite a high percentage of draws in Zurich (56%). I noticed that many games ended with a great deal of play remaining on the board, and/or with good winning chances for one side or the other (as Najdorf points out). Bronstein was the drawing king, at over 71%, with Boleslavsky at 68%. Reshevsky had a typical percentage with 57%. Najdorf points out that Reshevsky was successful with draw offers in his own time trouble, and that several of his games ended strangely. At the end of Petrosian -Reshevsky in Round 17 [Game 117], agreed drawn, he says, “As is his custom, Reshevsky offers a draw in a position inferior for him, and once again has the luck to get his proposal accepted. It is interesting to note that Reshevsky never offers a draw in an equal position and, even more interesting, that there are still grandmasters who keep accepting his ‘generous’ offers. This was the third game of the tournament which presented such a curious problem, which we will call psychological; the other beneficiaries were the Soviets Averbakh and Boleslavsky. [jw: Najdorf refers to Game 17 and Game 47, in the latter of which he says “Here Reshevsky proposed a draw, and to the astonishment of everyone, Boleslavsky accepted!”] Now it is the young master Petrosian who, for no reason, and with time pressure for his opponent but not for himself, accepts the draw in a promising position worth playing out.”

The odd thing is that something similar happens once again, later in the tournament, although Najdorf doesn’t comment upon it. Furthermore, Bronstein, in his own annotations to the Reshevsky game mentioned above, grumbles “With this move – while I was still writing it down, in fact – Reshevsky offered a draw (for the third time this game).” Finally, there’s the strange case of Szabo who, early in his game against Reshevsky, overlooks a direct elementary mate in two, apparently because Reshevsky moved quickly (Game 130)! Either the former prodigy had the ability to disrupt his opponent’s concentration with his mannerisms, or he had the luckiest tournament of his life.

Soltis says that Najdorf “had a notoriously bad relationship with Reshevsky”, but Najdorf praises the latter’s play throughout, and in his concluding tournament review says, “Reshevsky, for his part, demonstrated that he was perhaps unacquainted with the modern treatment of certain openings, and if we add to this his lack of a second, he can rest assured that his final result is a complete success. In the second cycle, the American grandmaster tried to force several games with such bad luck that it nullified all his chances, whereas when he was no longer spurred by the need to retake first place, he displayed perfect technique in the exploitation of his superiority.”

Taylor Kingston does an excellent job with the translation, and his Preface is enlightening, for example, he says, “Najdorf was a gregarious, outspoken individual with an exuberant personality, and a lively voice is heard in his prose. I have tried to preserve that voice in this English version, letting Najdorf’s wit, his love for chess, his affection and respect for his colleagues, and his enthusiasm for life in general come through.

“This book is no mere dry assemblage of variations; it is a vivid account of a major chess event by a direct participant, who has put on the page not only chess moves and analysis, but also colorful and insightful portrayals of the men who made them, and the mise-en-scene in which they fought their battles over the board. That made my work more interesting and enjoyable, but also imposed, I felt, a responsibility: to make sure that his color, wit, and enthusiasm were not lost in translation.”

As with Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess, there is a 36-page computer assisted supplement by Kingston which is available on the web at Russell-enterprises.com. It’s called ‘Analytical Notes, Corrections, and Enhancements.’ Kingston explains:

“The games and note variations in 15 Contenders for the World Title were converted to algebraic notation using ChessBase, with the analysis engine Rybka 3 UCI running in the background. During this process much of the book’s analysis came to be compared to Rybka’s…

“We present here the corrections, additions and enhancements thus revealed that we consider significant: not minor half-pawn differences, but cases where an important tactical shot was missed, where a resource that could have changed a loss to a draw or win was overlooked, where a good move was called bad (or vice versa), or where a position was misevaluated. Also some cases where there was no mistake, but an especially interesting variation, or a much stronger one, was not pointed out.

“In some cases we also checked Najdorf and Rybka against Bronstein’s Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 and Euwe’s Schach-Elite im Kampf. Sometimes the Russian or Dutch GM saw something Najdorf did not [and vice-versa – jw], but it was surprising how often Rybka found something all three had missed.”

As I said in my review of Alekhine’s games collection, this method leaves Najdorf’s book in its original form, uncluttered, which I like. The analytically-minded reader or researcher can go to the website to check the details, or of course use his or her own engines.

Zurich 1953: 15 Contenders for the World Chess Championship is a superb book. Familiarity with this tournament is essential to a well-rounded chess education, and Najdorf’s exposition is easily the best and most entertaining available. I should warn you in advance that some reviewers have complained about poor editing, and it does seem that there are more errors than we have come to expect from a Russell Enterprises production. But the true chess fan (or anyone who enjoys chess, for that matter) will easily be able to see past the occasional technical glitch and appreciate this for one of the finest tournament books ever produced. I love this edition, and am grateful that I can finally enjoy it in English.