Disappointment takes adequate planning – an essay about reviewing
I used to review for SKAKBLADET, the Danish Federation’s magazine, but was axed because I became a publisher. I then continued reviewing for Chess Today, where I had the principle of not reviewing books I could not recommend, because I was a publisher. Still other publishers complained and I was axed 8-). I reviewed only to advise people honestly and because I love books, but it seems that my opinions are not welcome. Ok, never mind. More time for writing now that I am no longer officially a reader!
More importantly, as a publisher we have had to consider what to do with reviewers and reviews. Very early on we worked out a few basic principles: 1) Not to send copies to reviewers that gave everyone a glorious review. 2) Not to argue with reviewers. 3) Not to care about bad reviews, although we want to take the points raised seriously.
We did violate 2&3 on one occasion, when a prominent reviewer butchered a book based on almost entirely wrong claims. We did so respectfully and have continued to send books to him.
Now I am about to break rule 2 again. Honestly I am not bothered about the likes and dislikes of these reviewers, for reasons that shall become apparent below. But I think there is an important point (see headline) that is worth raising about reviews of chess books in general. So, reading two recent reviews I could not help noticing how people can have some initial expectations and even after realising that the books are not what they expected, they continue to measure them against these expectations, directly or indirectly.
The reviewer Bill McGeary is not known to us, but I have read a few of his other reviews in order to see if I can pinpoint his way of thinking. I am not sure I was successful, but I think it is fair to say that he is speaking generally from personal experience and in general finds chess books to be expensive…
The first quote from his review that caught my eye was this:
It seems that each co-author would delve into specific areas and work on them solely. The advantage to this is that the reader can get material that is more detailed, usually on a line the co-author uses, and can hear the ideas of a higher level player on those lines. The disadvantage is that the book buyer sometimes pays for material that is highly irrelevant to them. I guess it all depends on what the public is looking for?
The underlining is mine, because it shows a thinking we will see later on. However, it is faulty. At 440 pages Experts on the Anti-Sicilian is longer than most of our books, but prices the same as the others. This is of course intentional from our side, because we know that no one will be interested in everything in this book.
There are things I would want to question just about everywhere, but let us just take a few examples:
Back to the table of contents. I noticed chapter 12 “A Ten Minute Repertoire against the Closed Sicilian” by GM Pavlovic was eight pages. So off I went. It seems that the GM likes playing the Botvinnik setup as Black in the Closed Sicilian 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 and either 6.f4 e5 or 6.Be3 e5. This section seemed too rushed to me, the author throws sequences of moves out and then pronounces that Black is fine. This just didn’t set well with me.
Obviously the reviewer wanted the chapter to be something else. But reading his explanations, you cannot get around that Pavlovic has produced exactly what he said he had produced.
What really took me off guard was the eight chapters by GM Cornette on the “Tiviakov Grand Prix” 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Bb5. It dawned on me that I had simply assumed from the title that this was a book aimed specifically for players of the Black pieces, now I was realizing that I had been mistaken.
The title is on not against or similar. But ok, others have made the misconception. Still, the first ever serious treatment of this interesting line with tons of new analysis is hardly making the book worse, or is it? Later on the review writes:
Aside from that misunderstanding I have to say that the book is disappointing anyway. Ten out of 25 chapters are dealing with the Black side and five of those chapters are 8 pages, 4 pages, 11 pages, 8 pages and 7 pages. The best material for the Black player are the two chapters by Hillarp-Persson I mentioned, and GM Aagaard’s look at the Classical 2.c3 Sicilain, a very complete chapter.
So, am I disappointed because there is so much material for White? To be honest, yes – a little. More than that is the amount of material that was poorly researched or written (read my comments above about the Kings Indian Attack chapter) and how much of is seemed redundant. There are eight chapters on 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Bb5 and three of them are followed by chapters where the author suggest White’s play is better than the previous chapter.
Let us start with the out-right mistakes. First of all, as previously understood by the reviewer, this is not a repertoire book for Black. Actually, it is hardly a repertoire book at all. So why does he continue to write as if it should have been? Secondly, these eight chapters by Cornette are help up against the rest of the book as if they are massive. One of them is only 2 pages! My 2.c3-Chapter could have been four chapters and the balance in chapters would be different?! I cannot help but feel the reviewer is back at his main argument about “paying for what you do not need”.
But it is also completely incorrect to say that Bauer’s and Cornette’s chapters are only useful for white players. Both players look at various lines objectively and in all five lines Black comes out on the other side with equality. Bauer at some point clearly states that this line is nothing, unless people are not well prepared, with the point that people often are entirely unprepared for it.
This is not to say the reviewer did not have some interesting opinions. But he was not reviewing the book we published as much as the book he expected us to publish.
This is also the case with the second case I want to raise:
The review is of The Grandmaster Battle Manual by Kotronias and is written by Michael Goeller. It would be unfair to mark the reviwers, but I would like to say that I have no issues with Mr Goeller’s general effort (on the contrary, he did a great, but not flawless, job). I am not going to go on too much about this review (you need to get back to work and in all fairness – so do I), but I do want to point to a section in the beginning of the review:
[The Grandmaster Battle Manual] sets a similar high standard, though perhaps a bit higher than most of us are able to reach. While it is ultimately a good collection of deeply annotated GM games, it does not provide the middlegame primer that it promises. The themes it covers seem idiosyncratic more than systematic in their selection, the games too often seem stretched to fit the chapter rather than specifically chosen to illustrate the theme, and the implied reader seems expected to know much more than the general chess readership.
You are probably on to me already. Indeed, nowhere does Kotronias or Quality Chess say that this is a middlegame primer. Actually, the title was meant to hint that the book is pretty advanced, which apparently has not reached everyone. We need to think about this, but for now let us just say that the book is very advanced, is not a primer, does not promise to give full coverage of the middlegame or anything of that sort.In the last decade half of all chess books published (more or less) have promised full understanding of a complex area in 128 pages (ok, occasionally more) and this seems to have become the expectation from a good part of the chess readers out there. Most recent we have 60 minute videos by ChessBase on various openings. Fine as a surprise weapon in the club championship, but insufficient for a game against a good player in an open tournament.
Quality Chess will of course publish primers from time to time and do so to the best of our ability. Most recently Chess Tactics from Scratch, which we think is an excellent book. But we will also publish books that aim higher and where not everyone can understand/follow everything. We will not apologise for this. Chess is difficult and requires an effort to understand. Just as anything else which is worth while spending your time on. We try to help, but we do not offer false promises.