Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Calculus of Variations

... is what I should be reading, but I've procrastinated with a chess book. Shades of my checkered college career (which lasted long enough to qualify as such), but the temptation was embedded in one of the maths book's co-author's name, I.M.Gelfand -- the chess Gelfand (Boris) is an IGM (int'l grandmaster), BelaRussian-born, now residing in Israel (which is what the I. above stands for). So, calculation of variations instead. Well, not so much that, as I gave up serious study of chess long ago, not that it was ever that serious; rote memorization (e.g. of opening lines or endgame positions) is not my forté (odd that I'm thought a "detail guy" at work), but it had to be done to a certain extent to be competitive. My inclinations, anchored by some natural tactical skill, lean towards the pretty combination or sacrifice, the endgame study or chess problem. Chess as a spectator sport has the virtues that one can play along and that it need not happen in real time, and in fact expert commentary underpins both. (Then there's the game's rich history and other byways.) That's more or less what I expected in picking up a collection of IGM J.H.Donner's chess journalism, The King: Chess Pieces. Instead, I got an insider's ironic commentary on the state of chess up through the years when I was an active tourney player (when there were 50, not 500, IGMs) and on the state of a strong chessplayer's mind that resonated on more than one level. Blunders outnumbered brilliancies, not only the the board (though even of a handful of studies included, the first one is cooked, i.e. incorrect) -- Donner's prognosis for how long it would take computer chess to be competent was off by a factor of 100 -- but such errors and provocations (contentions such as "Chess is and will always be a game of chance.") are redeemed by an inimitable style (per the above-linked review, just about as close as the Dutch can come to gonzo -- that reviewer also edited the print selection Heroic Tales: The Best of Chess Cafe 1996-2001). Replaying those years was how I was repaid, in part. But the real surprise was the literary dimension.

It happens that Donner was friends with Harry Mulisch, and wrote a monograph on him (in Dutch: Mulisch, I Presume). And Mulisch returned the favor, after Donner's death, with a tribute to their friendship in the form of The Discovery of Heaven, his magnum opus: the character Onno Quist is recognizably modeled on Donner. (65 chapters, the 65th square: shades of Pale Fire! speaking of chess and literature.) What is it with the Dutch and chess, anyway? The smallest European country to sport a world champion, Euwe, who briefly took the title away from Alekhine (who had taken it from Cuba's Capablanca; Donner's Havana adventures also noteworthy btb) but, the last amateur, preferred to remain pedagogic. Donner's journalistic style also infected Hans Ree; Tim Krabbé maintains an excellent cabinet of curiosities (the Open Diary particularly) as well as writing thrillers (not my cuppa, but in light of Nabokovian problematics I may have to investigate); even in the annotation category, Jan Timman has exceeded all others in The Art of Chess Analysis, as well as editing New in Chess magazine (my subscription lapsed), which also published the Donner collection. Yet Donner spills much ink over the supposedly sorry state of Dutch chess and Dutch literature.

It seemed that proceeding from Donner to Paul Valéry's Monsieur Teste would be natural. It turned out to be artificial. Not even up to the least of Pessoa's heteronyms. Quite a disappointment.


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