Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Flear of a slack manner

The above diagram shows the position after the following moves:

1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6 5 Bg5 dxc4 6 e4 b5 7 a4 Bb7 8 e5 h6 9 Bh4 g5 10 exf6 gxh4 11 Ne5 Qxf6.

This sequence - and indeed this position - has occurred a number of times. It is discussed on page 124 of Glenn Flear's book starting out: slav and semi-slav (Everyman, 2005) with Flear selecting Azmaiparashvili-Chernin, Neum (rapid) 2000 as his illustrative game. Flear doesn't like Black's eleventh move much, marking it as dubious and preferring 11...Nd7.

He may or may not be correct in that judgement, but there are reasons for wondering how rigorous he was in making it: which question we shall be examining later in this piece. But it's not the only question I have about the book, which seems to me to stand as a good example of what's wrong with Everyman books in general.

I say "in general" because I don't believe that this is a particularly shoddy book, nor that Flear is a particularly shoddy author. Far from it. I have several books of his and none are without merit, including this one. It just happens to be one I've been reading recently and therefore happens to be the subject of this piece. But if it's not a particularly poor production then that itself would say something uncomplimentary about Everyman's standards, because the number of errors which I have come across - without particularly looking for them - is, to my mind, unacceptably high. We are mostly talking about errors of language and production, i.e. things that should be picked up at the copy-editing stage: I list those which I have spotted below. I repeat that I didn't go looking for them. They were easy to spot. They drew attention to themselves.

1. Page 37: once knows the basic theory there isn't much need to update it very often. Should presumably be once one knows?

2. Page 42: how Black could diffuse the attack. Should be defuse, a common error.

3. Page 58: Getting involved in tactical mÍ IÈes when behind in development. Should be melées.

4. Page 70: if White's tries the other two approaches. Should be if White tries.

5. Page 82: Shirov prefers 11 Rc1! (see the introductory notes). This move is not, in fact, mentioned in the introductory notes.

6. Page 141: Now White has to decide on his plan of action Full stop omitted.

7. Pages 219-220: (remember that the immediate 5 Bg5 can be met by the sharp 5...dxc4) Remember should start with a capital letter and there should be a full stop after 5...dxc4.

8. Page 225: ensures the recuperation of the c-pawn. Should be recovery.

Is this not a few too many? Everyman may argue that it is not, or that it doesn't matter because the most important thing is the chess content of the book. No doubt it is, but if a publisher believes that this number (or nature) of errors is tolerable then I think I would like them to say so openly. "We don't think this matters, stop complaining." But I do think it matters and I think it's important to say so, if only because unless we are prepared to complain about standards then those standards will never rise.

Moreover, there is not necessarily a total separation between the chess content and the other elements - like language and production values - that are involved in the creation of the book. This is because in the production of any book you need people to look for authorial mistakes and oversights. People make mistakes, so other people are required to detect and correct them. But if the publisher is rushed, lax or negligent - look at it whichever way you wish - in performing the job of oversight where errors of language or production are concerned, then there's no convincing reason to believe that the job will be performed better where the chess content is concerned. Moreover, the very fact of shoddiness in the production of the book will lead us, the readers, to lose confidence in the rigour and reliability of the author's judgements. "If they couldn't be bothered to check that", we will inevitably think", "then what else will they have missed?"

This brings us back - almost - to the sequence I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. But before we get there, I'd like briefly to mention an odd omission in the chapter on the Exchange Variation. On page 80 Flear discusses the line 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 cxd5 cxd5 4 Nc3 Nf6 5 Nf3 Nc6 6 Bf4 a6 at which point he gives two alternatives: 7 Ne5 and 7 e3. He does not mention 7 Rc1.

Which is curious, not just because that move is considered strongest by some authorities, but because among those authorities is a 2003 Everyman book called the ...a6 Slav, whose author describes 7 Rc1 as "the most challenging". That author was, of course, Glenn Flear. If it was "the most challenging" so recently - not a move that could plausibly be seen as a sideline - why leave it out now?

I note that the blurb claims that the Slav and Semi-Slav "have provided the battleground for thousands of exciting encounters between the world's chess elite", the accuracy of which claim (thousands?) I am inclined to doubt. Accuracy does not appear to be predominant among the qualities to which this book aspires. Is it, in this respect, typical or atypical of the genre? How much can we expect from this sort of book?

We perhaps cannot expect it to be comprehensive. There are such books, but they are rare and noteworthy and we cannot expect every book to be among the best. We can surely also assume that in time some of its judgements will be found wanting. Opening theory changes and if this were not so we would not buy so many books.

But we can, surely, expect some sort of consistency and we are surely entitled to trust that the judgements the author makes will be made with care. Is this the case here? On page 125-126 - in the illustrative game immediately following Azmaiparashvili-Chernin - Flear invites us to follow Ivanisevic-Zivanic, Herceg Novi 2001, which game proceeded as follows:

1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6 5 Bg5 h6 6 Bh4 dxc4 7 e4 b5 8 e5 g5 9 exf6 gxh4 10 Ne5 Qxf6 11 a4

and now Flear, observing that "11...c5 leads to crazy complications", describes the game move (11...Bb7) as "the relatively quiet option". (Indeed, Black swiftly found himself in a satisfactory position.) Which is interesting, because the position after Black's eleventh move is exactly the same as the diagram position. The position after his apparently dubious eleventh move in the game which Flear gives immediately preceding this one.

A point, a transposition, which apparently escapes Flear completely. It does not invalidate his opinion that Chernin had a better alternative on move eleven, but it does beg the question as to why Flear didn't notice that he reaches the same position, by different move-orders, in consecutive games. So we are surely entitled to ask - if he didn't see that, exactly how hard was he looking?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post Justin.

That missing line in the Exchange Slav is exactly the sort of thing I was getting at in my recent comments about Davies' book on the Reti.

Anonymous said...

The idea of pawn recuperation has got me thinking... If Rowsen can speak to his pieces and ask them where they want to be, can I do something similar to mend my ill pawns? Probably it's not so easy... I guess that "recuperation" has been confused with "recoup".

Do the economics of chess book production result mean that budgets for proof-reading are minimal?... Other publishers - Gambit for example - are better, aren't they?

Do chess players make good writers?... I think the situation is worse for computer/software books which have more text and more (?) of a requirement to convey concepts.

Glenn Flear reviews opening books for the esteemed New In Chess Yearbook series and in the latest issue he reviews a couple of books from Everyman... but he doesn't pick up on points like yours, Justin.

Have you thought about being a proof reader? I think you'd be ideally suited.


ejh said...

Do the economics of chess book production result mean that budgets for proof-reading are minimal?... Other publishers - Gambit for example - are better, aren't they?

Gambit are much better, yes, which tends to suggest that Everyman could do a better job than they do regardless of the fact that the margins are tight. (Which is the case for most book production, not just chess books.)

Anonymous said...


i suspect you're right about the economic thing.

The trouble is the demand will be there regardless of how shoddy the work is (almost). Cost of extra work to make a very good product will usually outweigh the extra revenue in sales.

My theory is that most people (myself included) don't actually buy chess books because they execpt to learn anything that will help them win a game. If that's true I wonder if there is less of an incentive to actually make a good book in the first place.

ejh said...

Cost of extra work to make a very good product will usually outweigh the extra revenue in sales.

I think this is true, but it doesn't need to be true. If reviews were more thorough and reviewers keener to expect proper standards of production then I think it would affect the expectations of readers. They would likely be less willing to buy books which reviewers had told them in advance suffered from serious flaws of production or approach.

As it is we have a strange situation where it's almost universally agreed that most chess books aren't very good and yet most reviews of those books are neutral or favourable.

Anonymous said...

I was going to mention the problem of chess book reviews in my next post.

I agree this is a major problem. I can't help but feeling that one of the reasons why Chess magazine (for example) doesn't review books properly - in the main - is that it's attached to a shop who's very aim is to flog you those same books.

Incidentally this isn't a problem that's unique to chess. There's a very similar issue in magic as a hobby.

Anonymous said...

Angus, ejh hasn't proof-read your post or he would have picked up that it is Rowson not Rowsen. I expect a thorough grammatical cheque wil be givven too thiss poste.

Anonymous said...

"As it is we have a strange situation where it's almost universally agreed that most chess books aren't very good and yet most reviews of those books are neutral or favourable."
The reviewers are too often mediocre players without much
understanding of chess, so
they are unconfident in their own assessments. No wonder they prefer
to be neutral or mildly positive.

ejh said...

Yes, I think that's so. For instance if I review a book for Kingpin (or here) it might very well have been written by somebody 400 or more Elo points better than I am and I'm just not qualified to investigate many of their judgements.

I am, however, qualified as a reader of books and I therefore try and do as best as I can in the areas in which I am best qualified to speak.