BOOK REVIEW by Carl Portman
Raymond D. Keene
Foreword by CJ de Mooi
Published by: Hardinge Simpole
2021 Print on demand (Hardcover and softcover)
What is this book about?
The official synopsis:
Inspired by both Daniel Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year' (1722) and 'The King', an anthology of the witty and provocative chess columns of the Dutch Grandmaster, Jan Hein Donner, Ray Keene here collects his thoughts and writings on the year 2020 - both in chess and the wider world. His reflections include the impact of Covid-19 on the popularity of chess, the remarkable influence of the Netflix series 'The Queen's Gambit', the growing army of teenage Grandmasters, the online pivot of chess competition and the emergence of chess entrepreneurs, such as World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
Like Donner, Ray uses chess as a metaphor for observations on art, culture and civilization. Grandmaster Ray Keene OBE has enjoyed a career which spans many aspects of chess, including numerous victories in international competitions across five continents, organisation of three world chess championships involving Garry Kasparov, creation of the first ever world championship in any Mind Sport between a human and a computer (Dr Marion Tinsley v Chinook in draughts, London 1992) and the world record authorship of 204 books on Mind Sports, thinking and genius, with translations into sixteen different languages.
· Fifty chapters (essentially fifty articles)
· First Publication notes
· About the author
· Principle chess results of Raymond D. Keene, OBE
My thoughts and comments
I am going to caveat this at once by saying that I know the author and consider him a friend. This fact does not in any way compromise my own integrity or ability to write this review objectively.
It is fair to say that Ray Keene is to chess (in terms of personality) what ‘The Crafty Cockney’ was to darts. That is to say, everyone has an opinion about him. However, this isn’t about the author; it is about the book. Essentially these are the articles written by Keene mostly in 2020 for ‘The Article’ which is an online platform to encourage the healthy exchange of ideas, without abuse or extremism.
It is worth having a look for yourself, here:
Some articles were also written for the British Chess Magazine.
From the fifty chapters (Shades) I will select just a couple that I enjoyed. Let me begin with Chapter 5 ‘The legacy of Henry Thomas Buckle’ who won the first recorded tournament at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in 1849.
He was a historian who commented that ‘Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to talk about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.’
Keene wrote about ‘Chess in the Year of the Coronavirus’ comparing in a way to medieval pestilence. I chuckled when I read that ‘The returning Knight discovers a blasted realm, villages deserted, so called witches burned in pointless expiation, propitiatory self-flagellation ignored by and unresponsive cosmos, and meanwhile, figuratively, the Devil is dancing wildly on the beach.’ It sounded like a Saturday evening in Bicester, but there you go.
It is this same chapter that contained my favourite prose in the book. Keene’s description of the smoking habits of Hein Donner had me literally belly laughing. In a tournament at Manchester Town Hall in 1973, Donner as usual lit one new cigarette with the embers of the old one and ‘a vast pile of half burnt cigarettes’ built up in the ashtray at the board. Soon this ash increased so much that ‘it began to emit smoke itself, then burst into flames. There was now literally fire on board. The two players seemed transfixed, horrified and unable to react to this crisis.’ Luckily Mr. Keene knew instinctively what to do and he explains what happened next in graphic style.
I had to consult the dictionary several times. Keene’s command and mastery of the English language is evident, and some of the words he uses would be extremely fruitful on a Scrabble board. Some of his musings are above my comprehension, but that it not the author’s fault it is mine. I did not go to college or university – I began work at age 16 when I left school – and I am still catching up decades later. I have though always enjoyed words, so ‘bucolic, abstruse and inimical’ are a pleasure. We use so little of our wonderful vocabulary in everyday life’ and I sometimes feel disillusioned having to dumb-down language. This is a treat then.
I cannot finish without mentioning Chapter 30 which is entitled ‘A modest proposal: let them eat cake’ in which the author talks about chess in prisons. Heck, I even get a mention for my own work in this area. He muses about his ideas for reducing recidivism, and they don’t tally with anything I have ever worked on – yet his tongue in cheek solution is quite brilliant in its conception and might just work! You will have to read this for yourself but it involves feeding prisoners great helpings of ‘cholesterol-forming, high calorie cream cakes.’ Why? Well, I cannot give the game away here, can I?
Suffice to say it is an idea of such cunning that I have arrived at the ineluctable conclusion that it just might work. I cannot wait to share his idea (if not the cake) with prisoners on my next prison visits.
There are plenty of games contained within the pages of the book, some world famous. These include Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Fischer, Spassky, Carlsen, Miles, Petrosian, Keene himself and many more. Let it not be forgotten that the author actually beat the mighty Botvinnik (at Hastings), and is the only Englishman to do so alongside C.H.O.D. Alexander and Sir George Thomas. He knows his way around a chessboard.
I do think it is worth seeing how that game ended. Here is the position (below) with Botvinnik, as Black to play.
Here, Botvinnik selected 34…Rxe2??
This is a massive blunder from a world-class player, but can you see why?
White played 35.Qg4+ picking up a rook and Botvinnik ‘gasped’ raised his hand to his forehead and resigned.’
Other chapters, including the wonderfully titled ‘Bats, balls and rabbits’ and ‘What the thunder said’ weave aspects of life and other people into the world of chess. There is also a chapter asking ‘Why are women better at memory sports than men but (still) not at chess?’
There are some issues that I would like to point out. The page numbers in the ‘contents’ do not correlate to the actual page numbers from Chapter 36 onward.
Also, this first edition contained a number of typos which I identified and communicated to a grateful author. These typos have now been eliminated, so the second edition, already available (it is print on demand so any typos can be corrected immediately) should be happily typo free.
These are facts. Now for my opinions.
I read a rather embittered review on Amazon where someone commented that the book was pseudo-intellectual waffle. That is their inalienable right but hold on a moment. It is true that the book is weighty, intellectually speaking but also engaging, and I found it to be thought-provoking, which I am sure is precisely what the author has in mind when he writes the material. It is a chess cri de cœur at a time when people were confined to barracks as a result of some terrible Pandemic.
I note that the esteemed Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman has written a piece about the book in the magazine ‘New in Chess’ (2021#5) and in his opinion he enjoyed it saying about Keene ‘he has a great knack of putting a lively perspective on events.’
I do have one personal opinion that I do feel bound to mention. I just cannot bring myself to embrace the cover. I get it. It’s grey (fifty shades) but it seems too basic for a man of Ray Keene’s standing in my view. It just looks it was put together in haste, and it does not jump off the shelf. I am sorry, but there we are. Luckily, we would do well not to judge a book by its cover.
Does the book achieve its aim?
Well, what is the aim of the book? You would have to ask the author. It is a collection of fifty columns written for ‘The Article’ and British Chess Magazine and in that respect, it stands on its own for what it is.
One does not have to agree with an author on every point. The idea is to listen to someone else’s views and add them to your own ‘thought pool’ and see what happens. There is an old saying. What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure. I can sense the joy that Keene had in writing these columns, and he obviously invested a tremendous amount of effort and time into producing them. I for one am pleased that he published this, and I would go as far as to say that I would like to see a book II when he has another fifty to share with us, perhaps with a different cover!
I will close with the words of Omar Khayyam, which are mentioned in the book:
‘Tis all a chequer board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays.’
Who is the author?
Raymond Keene OBE Chess Grandmaster, author, organiser and chess columnist (and certainly much more!).