How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

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Simon Spivack
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How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Sat Nov 05, 2011 9:01 am

I'll tell the reader: I don't know. However, there has been a recent instance where a critic appears to have dipped into a text to find examples of mistakes, whilst showing no knowledge of, empathy for or understanding of the subject. I refer to a recent review of Averbakh's memoirs. It can be found at http://www.chesscafe.com/Reviews/books.htm under the title Missed Opportunity.

Apparently the Missed Opportunity is that the book contains nothing new. Well, who would have thought that a book whose genesis goes back to before a Russian edition published in 2003 would have nothing new in it when read eight years later! Curiously, there are two ChessCafé interviews from 2002 in anticipation of that book's publication, so the excuse of ignorance doesn't wash even though those interviews were conducted by someone else. Actually, there are subtle points that I haven't previously seen in English, but I'll keep most of these for a considered review. For example, Averbakh's encounter with the NTS (the Narodno-Trudovoi Soyuz, not something I expect the ChessCafé critic to understand) in 1953. A charge made by the reviewer is that the book is dull; it is more precise to say that the book is difficult, it was written for knowledgeable readers. The sort of slip that would pass the ChessCafé contributor by can be found in the words: And sure enough, in the 1920s and early 1930s, there was a whole series of show trials – the so-called Sakhtinsky Affair, involving engineer saboteurs, … Anyone with pretensions to knowledge of Soviet chess history should be able to spot what's wrong there (hint: look up the meaning of Shakhta, look up the name of the prosecutor).

Much is not explained in the notes, which are sparse. In my opinion, greater detail is called for, or, as the ChessCafé reviewer indicates, much should have been chopped out. Incidentally, there are passages excised; for instance, a ditty about the 1930s footballer Fyodor Selin is in the Russian, but not the English, edition.

In the ChessCafé review one reads: Averbakh traveled the world as a player, journalist, and as a representative of the Soviet Sports Committee, so as an insider, he witnessed great events and knew many of the world's best players. A careless reader might infer that Averbakh, a former President of the USSR Chess Federation, was a member of the Sports Committee, he was not. He represented the Chess Federation, whose affairs were subject to the whims of the members of the Sports Committee, as well as those higher up in the Soviet hierarchy. Perhaps the reviewer was confused by the fact that Averbakh had also been chairman of the training committee of the Soviet Chess Federation. Or perhaps, being out of his depth, he was just confused.

Quite nonsensical is the sentence: One wonders if the translation from Russian to Dutch or from Dutch to English is partially to blame. Anyone who engages his brain should be able to work out that the book was translated from Russian to English. Presumably this twaddle is due to the publisher being Dutch.

Equally idiotic is: Averbakh survived devastating German sieges of Soviet cities during the second world war. Given that Averbakh was never in a besieged city during the Great Patriotic War, it is no surprise that he survived these sieges! Off the top of my head, only Leningrad, Sevastopol and Odessa were besieged Soviet cities.

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Matt Mackenzie
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Matt Mackenzie » Sat Nov 05, 2011 12:07 pm

How about adding something to the comments underneath the review in question, Simon?? :)
"Set up your attacks so that when the fire is out, it isn't out!" (H N Pillsbury)

Paul Cooksey

Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Paul Cooksey » Sat Nov 05, 2011 12:46 pm

Simon Spivack wrote:A charge made by the reviewer is that the book is dull; it is more precise to say that the book is difficult, it was written for knowledgeable readers.
I can't claim to be as knowledgeable as Simon. But I found it a very interesting book, which I read at a couple of sittings. I don't doubt the reviewer read the book, but I question whether he was well enough informed about the subject matter to review it.

Simon Spivack
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Sun Nov 06, 2011 9:07 pm

Matt Mackenzie wrote:How about adding something to the comments underneath the review in question, Simon?? :)
I like the smile. There weren't any comments when I composed my article (I write in Windows notepad, logging on to the English Chess Forum comes later. There is less chance of being cut off mid-post). I see that there are some additions to the ChessCafé review.

I still consider the Internet a new medium, so conventions are difficult to determine. I'm sure Matt is aware that an aggrieved author writes to the journal which published a negative review; however, others who demur seek a a different outlet. Specifically, I don't know whether what I write would be subject to an editing process by those who support the critic and insist upon a Manichaean world view. Why take the chance when I don't have to? It's all too likely that the blunders I have pointed out will be drawn to the attention of ChessCafé. My caution is not diminished by the fact that ChessCafé has silently corrected errors in the past: not something I can prove.
Paul Cooksey wrote:... I found it a very interesting book, ... but I question whether he (the reviewer) was well enough informed about the subject matter to review it.
I concur. I don't deny that the Dutch editor must have been asleep on the job, even so, there are fascinating snatches of life inside the former USSR. Here is an example showing both tendencies.

Averbakh was called up for military service in the mid-1950s. The absurdity of calling up a civilian for military service when in his thirties in peacetime is something I shan't dwell on. Here is part of what appears on page 94 of the English edition:
The Grandmaster title brought me certain privileges. I did not have to sleep in a two-storey bunk like others of my rank, but got an ordinary bed, like officers. I was also exempted from cleaning the latrines.
The editor should have observed from the previous page and further down the current one that Averbakh held the rank of lieutenant. In other words Averbakh was an officer. Ergo something had gone awry which needed investigating. Preferable perhaps is to change like others of my rank to like the other recruits and like officers to like the company commander.

The Russian source has:
Гроссмейстерское звание дало мне некоторые привилегии — спал я не на двухэтажных нарах, как остальные курсанты, а, как и командир роты, на обычной кровати. Освободили меня и от чистки гальюна.
Why didn't the Dutch editor bring this up?

Not having been subject to military discipline, I don't know whether in Western navies a lieutenant would be compelled to clean the lavatory (the head in naval jargon), somehow I doubt it. However, there are posters who can put me right on that.

A little later on the same page there is:
'Senior lieutenant Averbakh to be sent to take command of the VMF in Moscow'.
This is obviously wrong, but I won't explain why in this post.

One has to try and gain a feel for the realia. This is why I consider more notes essential. When I finally publish my review, I intend to bore readers by supplying those notes, probably as a pdf attachment. No doubt I shall overlook things. The topic is non-trivial.

It is true that I'd have liked to have seen more, for instance, Averbakh should have provided further background about Keres in 1945-6, 1950 and 1953. My guess, and it's not a confident one, is that the Russian text was already with the printers before the 2002 interview in which these matters were raised. Without going through everything with an even finer toothcomb, I'm not sure of all the differences between the Russian 2003 book and the present English one. Certainly the poetry in the Russian has been sent to the infernal regions!

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by John Moore » Mon Nov 07, 2011 7:29 pm

I enjoyed this Simon but a fine or even a finer toothcomb - well!

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Tue Nov 08, 2011 8:48 am

Some are saddened when a word or expression slips the spelling it was moored to and sets out on a voyage to parts unknown. Old men mourn when reminded of the fate of mobile vulgus. Indeed, a good way to win a coin toss in some circumstances is to utter the imprecation mob, for the red mist rises.

In the OED Concise (tenth, revised) toothcomb is defined as used with reference to a very thorough search. One can see that the Oxenford compiler took to it like an Anglo-Saxon being reminded of Mons Badonicus, for there is the comment: from a misreading of the compound noun fine-tooth comb.

But we are here to discuss chess history, not to bury it. Will some kind soul write to ChessCafé and point out that at least one person mentioned in Averbakh's memoirs did survive a devastating German siege. Can ChessCafé's experts name him? Some clues are that he was badly wounded at Sevastopol in 1942 and that he was present when Von Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad. I am not thinking of Kortschnoj.
Last edited by Simon Spivack on Tue Nov 08, 2011 10:11 am, edited 1 time in total.

Ola Winfridsson
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Ola Winfridsson » Tue Nov 08, 2011 10:10 am

Simon: Not having read this book myself yet, I strongly suspect that the reviewer has let his disappointment at finding no new revelations or information as regards Keres, Bronstein, Zürich-Neuhausen 1953, Curacao 1962 etc. colour his review.

As for the 'siege' issue, I guess the reviewer is probably using it loosely as a synonym for 'battle', rather than a siege in the strict sense of the word, which clearly would give a bit more scope for Averbakh having been in such a place.

Many thanks for posting your initial mini-review, because you've actually made me want to read this book! When I saw it had been published I was greatly excited about it, but then I stupidly read the thrashing on Chess Café, and changed my mind. Quite simply, I overlooked the fact that that review was written by someone who obviously was looking to have everything 'cut out in cardboard' as the Danish saying goes.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Andrew Farthing » Tue Nov 08, 2011 3:36 pm

I liked the Averbakh book rather more than the Chess Cafe reviewer. It is uneven, and the final third seemed less interesting than the rest, perhaps because the author was less closely involved in events by that stage. It's not a gripping narrative in the manner of Korchnoi's Chess is My Life, but it's a perfectly decent read.

For anyone interested, I wrote a lengthy review of the book for my 'ChEx Bookshelf' column in the Oct/Nov ChessMoves (the ECF newsletter, available online to ECF members via the Federation's website).

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Tue Nov 08, 2011 4:07 pm

Ola Winfridsson wrote:Not having read this book myself yet, I strongly suspect that the reviewer has let his disappointment at finding no new revelations or information as regards Keres, Bronstein, Zürich-Neuhausen 1953, Curacao 1962 etc. colour his review.
This is one interpretation, however, I consider it only a partial one. Earlier in this thread I used the adjective Manichaean, which I consider to be closer to the truth. In some quarters, failure to condemn the Russians (sic) and all their works is a moral turpitude; there are no compromises permissible. All Russian successes are by cheating. It is time this Cold War attitude was thrown onto the garbage heap of history. It may not be heroic, but understandable is the simple boast of Mikoyan “I survived!”

I don't believe any reticence of the part of Averbakh in his book was due to personal considerations. Even though Pamyat’ (Memory, Memorial or Monument) has been harassed by the Russian State (incidentally, Sergey Voronkov the Russian chess historian, friend and collaborator of Averbakh's is, or at least was, a member of Pamyat’). Rather, it was due to his target audience being Russian. It would be good to know whether the Russian 2003 edition, ignoring the switch in language and minor changes, is the same as the 2011 English edition. My impression is that they are, but I don't want to asseverate as much, not at present. If the audience was meant to be Russian, this would mean that the intended reader would not necessarily want more to be made of, for instance, the collaboration at Curaçao that what Averbakh gives. The book is a trip down memory lane, a fascinating one.

It should be noted that Averbakh records how his own father was arrested in the Great Purge (page 36). He was lucky, as the replacement of Yezhov, the original poison dwarf, as head of the NKVD by Beria signalled a temporary lull. Averbakh senior was freed. Given that the families of traitors to the Socialist Motherland were objects of suspicion, Averbakh was fortunate.

Reverting to my comment about target audience. On pages 41-42 Averbakh discusses some team contests. The English translation reads:
There it was possible to meet the participants of the first all-Russian tournament, K. Rosenkrantz and N. Tselikov, musicians such as D. Oistrakh and Schweitzer, top engineers like Shadrin and Althausen, Arabian professor Baranov, and many other representatives of the Moscow intelligentsia.
The Russian text is
Тут можно было встретить участников первых всероссийских турниров К. Розенкранца и Н. Целикова, музыкантов Д. Ойстраха и Швейцера, крупных инженеров А. Шадрина и Альтгаузена, профессора-арабиста X. Баранова и многих других представителей московской интеллигенции.
In my opinion there should have been at least three notes here. As a bare minimum: Karl Wilhelm Rosenkrantz (1876- 1942); Nikolai Petrovich Tselikov (1881 – 1966); and a mention that the first all-Russian tournament was in 1899, in Moscow. To give the reader an idea of its strength, it could have been added that the first all-Russian champion was Chigorin. Actually, I was not aware that Rosenkrantz and Tselikov played in the first. I knew that Rosenkrantz played in the second, in 1900-01. Tselikov played in the first Soviet championship in 1920. There was a supporting tournament for the first All-Russian, I don't know whether they played in that. Don't overlook that Tselikov would have celebrated his eighteenth birthday in 1899.

Incidentally, in the translation, tournaments should have been preferred to tournament and the professor of Arabic and scholar K. Baranov to Arabian professor Baranov; however, this is fairly minor stuff. According to M.S. Kogan in Ocherki po Istorii Shahmat v SSSR (published 1938) Rosenkrantz played in two of the five All-Russian tournaments. The alert will notice the designation USSR to pre-revolutionary contests! Note the year of publication.

Amongst the other names listed, David Oistrakh needs no introduction to a Westerner. However, Schweitzer cannot be Albert Schweitzer, that Schweitzer was an accomplished musician, but better known for his theology, besides, he would not have been present in the USSR in the late 1930s. As expected, Albert Schweitzer is in my copy of the Oxford Companion to Music, but no other with that family name. I'd never heard of the engineers A. Schadrin and Althausen. Sadly the name Schadrin is also that of a cannibal, whose depravities were widely reported in Britain at the time he was caught. In my notes I may delve into this further (not the cannibal!).
Ola Winfridsson wrote:As for the 'siege' issue, I guess the reviewer is probably using it loosely as a synonym for 'battle', rather than a siege in the strict sense of the word, which clearly would give a bit more scope for Averbakh having been in such a place.
Up to a point, Lord Copper. There is no account of Averbakh fighting in a battle, either.

There are two explanations from what I can tell. The reviewer did not read the book properly (I don't believe he would be capable of doing so), or he did not know that Moscow was never under siege (highly plausible) during the Great Patriotic War. Incidentally, the reviewer used the plural sieges.

On the whole the English is an easy read, despite the terseness of the account. My explanation for the slips and the absence of more notes are the lashes from those twin tyrants time and money.

Many a mickle makes a muckle.

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Matt Mackenzie
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Matt Mackenzie » Tue Nov 08, 2011 6:21 pm

Have to agree Simon, with the idea that not everybody wants to hear that there were shades of grey in the Soviet-era chess world :?

To go on the likes of chessgames.com and see some indulging in mindless demonisation of the likes of Botvinnik and Karpov is a singularly depressing experience.....

Lev "Browne Seirawan and Benjamin are more talented players than Kasparov" Alburt has a lot to answer for :twisted:
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Ola Winfridsson » Tue Nov 08, 2011 7:17 pm

Simon Spivack wrote:
Ola Winfridsson wrote:Not having read this book myself yet, I strongly suspect that the reviewer has let his disappointment at finding no new revelations or information as regards Keres, Bronstein, Zürich-Neuhausen 1953, Curacao 1962 etc. colour his review.
This is one interpretation, however, I consider it only a partial one. Earlier in this thread I used the adjective Manichaean, which I consider to be closer to the truth. In some quarters, failure to condemn the Russians (sic) and all their works is a moral turpitude; there are no compromises permissible. All Russian successes are by cheating. It is time this Cold War attitude was thrown onto the garbage heap of history. It may not be heroic, but understandable is the simple boast of Mikoyan “I survived!”
Undoubtedly you're right, and something I've often thought about, not least when it comes to all the supposed scandals of Soviet chess.

Matt: I totally agree. To be perfectly honest, I find the attitude of many writers towards some Soviet players a bit rich. It's very easy for us, safe and snug in a democracy to castigate what we consider spineless or entirely self-serving behaviour of people in a system where even the slightest misstep could and did lead to privileges being revoked or worse (which makes the dissenters even more admirable).
Simon Spivack wrote:
Ola Winfridsson wrote:As for the 'siege' issue, I guess the reviewer is probably using it loosely as a synonym for 'battle', rather than a siege in the strict sense of the word, which clearly would give a bit more scope for Averbakh having been in such a place.
Up to a point, Lord Copper. There is no account of Averbakh fighting in a battle, either.

There are two explanations from what I can tell. The reviewer did not read the book properly (I don't believe he would be capable of doing so), or he did not know that Moscow was never under siege (highly plausible) during the Great Patriotic War. Incidentally, the reviewer used the plural sieges.
So Averbakh never left Moscow during the war? I wasn't aware of this (not having read the book). My thinking went along the lines that the Soviets didn't evacuate cities, and therefore it was perfectly possible for Averbach to have been present, as a soldier or a civilian.

As for the reviewer's use of the plural ('sieges'), I honestly think that you can't read too much into that; he might very well be talking in generalities (German attacks on Soviet cities) while still thinking of Averbach's (singular) role in this. The reviewer doesn't strike me as a man of pointillist subtleties, but rather more likely to use a broad brush.

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Jonathan Bryant » Wed Nov 09, 2011 9:57 am

"Specifically, I don't know whether what I write would be subject to an editing process by those who support the critic and insist upon a Manichaean world view. Why take the chance when I don't have to? It's all too likely that the blunders I have pointed out will be drawn to the attention of ChessCafé. My caution is not diminished by the fact that ChessCafé has silently corrected errors in the past: not something I can prove."

I can't remember the subject now, but I do remember one review in which the reviewer made 'jokes' about one of Tal's hands. A number of people - myself included - complained and Chess Cafe, to their credit, published the negative comments. The review itself was edited for the archive.

It was a gross mistake for Chess Cafe to publish the article in its original form, but CC did respond appropriately I felt.


As for your original point, I do feel that the typical very low quality of reviews is a significant problem for the chess world. In contrast to the issue you raise here, usually I find the problem is a 'reviewer' who is unwilling to engage his critical faculties at all.

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Wed Nov 09, 2011 1:12 pm

Andrew Farthing wrote:For anyone interested, I wrote a lengthy review of the book for my 'ChEx Bookshelf' column in the Oct/Nov ChessMoves (the ECF newsletter, available online to ECF members via the Federation's website).
A perfectly respectable review, which must have taken some time to prepare, from what I can see. For those in a hurry, it is listed under September/October 2011; the article is on page 22, about three quarters of the way down the pdf. Note that one will need an ECF membership number, or a code, to obtain a copy.
Ola Winfridsson wrote:So Averbakh never left Moscow during the war?
He did.
Ola Winfridsson wrote:My thinking went along the lines that the Soviets didn't evacuate cities ...
I'm not sure I understand what is meant by evacuate cities. An entire army was evacuated by sea from Odessa. Elsewhere, huge swathes of Soviet industry were shifted east before the advancing Germans, of necessity many workers went with the plant. A lot of children were evacuated from Leningrad before the siege; in the past Karasev, a Soviet historian, gave a figure of 467,648 persons evacuated before 11th August 1941, I don't like the pseudo-precision of such a number, anyway, it was offset by an influx of refugees from the Baltics. Indeed, on page 44 of the English language version of his book, Averbakh describes how his institute was evacuated from Moscow.

In his memoirs (page 43), Averbakh describes how in Naro-Fominsk (which is near Moscow) he slept in the tanks he was helping to build; almost certainly BT-7s, but the source just gives BTs. They worked twelve hours a day. However, the most dramatic scenes described were of the panic in Moscow, which is to be found on page 44. For those who have read the English language version of the book, it is easy to see how the reviewer could have deluded himself into believing that the capital was under siege.

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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Christopher Kreuzer » Wed Nov 09, 2011 1:54 pm

I agree siege (if referring to Moscow) is wrong, but 'Battle of Moscow' is a common term used and the Germans did get close (hence the panic). It could certainly be described as 'threatened' by the advancing German army. The Wikipedia article (this is one of their featured articles, so hopefully OK) says they got as close as 20-35 kilometres, some units being able to see the buildings through their field-glasses.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Moscow

Simon Spivack
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Re: How often does a reviewer read the book under scrutiny?

Post by Simon Spivack » Wed Nov 09, 2011 2:49 pm

What a blithering glaikit numpty, a gallus chappie wha quotes frae Wikipedia and weens he's eiked oot something.

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