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A collection of interviews with contemporary chess Grandmasters, done by Aaron and Claire Summerscale, along with annotations of the players' favorite games. Worth reading if you already know a bit about modern chess, though maybe not for the retail price.

(Trade Paperback: 144 pages, ISBN 1857442431
Published by Everyman Publishers, distributed in America by The Globe Pequot Press
Copyright 2001; $19.95 USD, £14.99 UK


The book's title is a bit delightfully misleading; instead of covering a single figure, Interview with a Grandmaster features conversations from nine different Grandmasters (well... somewhat; we'll deal with this later): from the rising prodigies, to those at the top of their game, to chessmen--and -women--who have mostly retired from professional competition. The list, in the order the book features them, is as follows:

  • Yasser Seirawan: This American player, the 1979 World Junior Champion, is as well-known for his chess skills as for his continuous dispute with FIDE (the Fédération Internationale des Éschecs, or the International Chess Federation) and, interestingly enough, for being named Cosmopolitan's Bachelor of the Month in September 1983. Seirawan is currently rated 2631, ranking 63rd in the world.
"We don't make sprinters run the 100 metres against a Ferrari!"
-Nigel Short, on computer chess
  • Joel Lautier: An up-and-coming Frenchman, this multi-talented Grandmaster is publicly set on becoming one of the world's top ten players. With a 2666 rating, Lautier is only 27 spots away from reaching this goal.
  • Sofia Polgar: The younger sister of female phenomenon Judit Polgar (currently ranked 7th among all players, male and female), Sofia has had a strong career of her own that she has mostly left behind for chess teaching and other endeavors. The only International Master of the interviewees (one step below Grandmaster), Sofia is still one of the twenty best female players in modern chess.
  • Julian Hodgson: The "Grandmaster of Disaster", Hodgson's unorthodox attacks and consummate skill have won him both many championships and considerable repute, despite being more of a self-professed 'chess hobbyist' than a professional player. His 2609 rating, 6th in England and 105th in the world, show that he takes the game much less lightly than he does himself.
  • Emil Sutovsky: Born in the same town as Garry Kasparov, Emil moved to Israel at a young age and went on to win the 2001 European Championship at the young age of 24. Sutovsky's rating is 2679, 26th in the world and the 3rd-highest for a player his age or younger.
  • Jonathan Rowson: Scotland's youngest Grandmaster, Rowson is also an Oxford graduate (with honors) and an accomplished chess author. Rowson currently has a 2558 rating and is ranked 246th.

Aaron and Claire Summerscale (mostly Claire) spent a good several months poring through chess databases and roaming the British and European chess tournaments, collecting the most popular questions that aspiring chessmen wanted to ask the elite. Fortunately, not every interviewee was asked the exact same set, but questions about computer chess, personal weaknesses, and what the grandmasters think we novices should study were common.

Two questions that all grandmasters (yes, and Sofia) were asked, though, were "What do you consider to be your best game?" and, following that, "What do you think is the best game ever played?" After each player's answer, of course, is a copy of the game in Simplified Algebraic Notation, annotated (I assume by Aaron, he being the actual Grandmaster between the co-authors), and sprinkled lightly with diagrams of actual and hypothetical positions. The book ends with a short, if fairly humorous and informative, collection of chess quotes, including Garry Kasparov's "Chess... is mental torture", Lord Byron's "Life is too short for chess", and, my personal favorite:

"There are two types of sacrifices--correct ones and mine"
-Mikhail Tal, former World Champion

The interviews themselves are a bit mixed in quality, but pretty good on the whole. Despite chessmasters known for being... less than stellar conversationalists, none of the interviewees are completely wooden, though a couple botch their fair share of questions. Emil Sutovsky and especially Jonathan Rowson shine in their dialogues. Claire is no pushover, either: she knows what to ask whom and when to push for more information on a subject. The interviews, on the whole, are pretty good, if not jaw-droppingly so.

The advice therein, unfortunately, is a bit banal. When asked to share "their nugget of chess wisdom", virtually every grandmaster replied with "Never give up", "Play for fun, not for ratings", or a variant thereof. At least it's comforting that the top players all agree on something regarding chess success, I suppose... Also unsurprisingly, most of the players all have strong sentiments against computer chess, or at least pitting them against humans in competitive tournaments. Most agree, though, that computers have use in training and, perhaps, some forms of entertainment.

One useful insight that several of the masters concurred upon was the necessity of learning openings as a beginner player--or lack thereof. Study the endgames more than the beginnings, most said, assimilate tactics over strategy. Once moved away from talking about chess directly, though, the interviews really tended to pick up. The vitriol against FIDE (and, in a couple of exceptions, darning-with-faint-praise) and personal anecdotes were generally the most addicting parts of the book. Interview with a Grandmaster also reveals that grandmasters seem to be unusually versed in dirty jokes; though most were lost to the shears of the editor, be watchful of at least one 'favorite joke' involving the urinary system. (And this, mind you, was the only joke not called "extremely unprintable".)

The games chosen as the best were surprisingly obscure, at least to me: none were games I had personally seen before, and I didn't recognize probably a good half-dozen of the players. They still lived up to the hype, though. The annotations were not as detailed as they could have been, but well-done nevertheless, and the diagrams were useful for the reader who didn't want to have to set up a board position for every single play. A couple of games have selections from the players' annotations included as well, which are interesting if not particularly useful. An interesting sidenote is how three of the grandmasters all chose the same game as one of their two favorites; in these cases, alternates were brought up and annotated instead. (My personal favorite was probably Lautier-Leko, Ubeda 1997, but this is likely more due to its unsubtle nature and my nonexistent chess skills combined more than anything else. Look for it somewhere even if yo don't buy the book.)

The main problem with the appeal of this work, though, is that it assumes the reader is already acquainted (albeit mildly) with modern chess. Prior knowledge of 'Braingames' (the Kasparov-Vladimir Kramnik match), (Boris) 'Gelfand', and 'blitz chess' (speed chess) is more or less assumed--the foreword even makes references to the "[m]any of you [who] have noticed me stalking the tournament halls"! This is a book about serious chess players, written, more or less, for serious chess players. But if you know enough that you would enjoy reading the annotations of the games--which, after all, take up half of the book--you would probably understand the rest of it. Even if you're an amateur or just someone who hasn't played a game of chess in years, there's still a fair deal's worth of information that would be funny or appealing.

But would it be $20's worth? Would it be worth that much even if you're shooting to be just as good as these guys? Interview with a Grandmaster, it is true, is barely 140 pages long. The games make it 'read' much longer than it looks, and the cover does look really cool, but the core question--should you buy?--is iffy nonetheless. I happened to find a used copy at The Strand for $6.95, and snapped it up; I'd recommend anyone with any sort of interest in chess, period, to do the same at that price. If you can only find it at retail: if the contents of this review have intrigued you at all so far, you'll probably get your money's worth. If you don't know much more about professional chess than your infant nephew, flip through it a bit--the glimpse you get might intrigue you--then buy it for the chess nut in your circle of friends. They'll find something to like in it.

"What chess is, I don't know, but that it is I am very glad."
-Jonathan Rowson
Summerscale, Aaron and Claire. Interview With A Grandmaster. London: Everyman Publishers, 2001.
(All ratings are current as of July 2004)
Creation spurred by the Everything2 Literary Quest.

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