Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Rise & Fall of David Bronstein

Recently I couldn’t resist buying the r&f of db by Sosonko. Anyone who has read Sosonko’s articles (in New in Chess magazine or books published by them) on masters of yesteryear appreciates his inside look of the chess world. Filled with anecdotes from a world now gone – but not yet forgotten – he recreates life as it was in those (for us westerners) dark Soviet times. His article on Genrikh Chepukaitis may still be the very best one yet.

So when Sosonko writes about David Bronstein, the man closest to the world chess championship, without effectively ever reaching it, you know this is worth your while.

For starters: the book contains no games of Bronstein’s, don’t expect some unknown game or some previously unpublished analysis. This is not a chess book – it’s a book about the person behind the chess player. Also no personal memoirs are presented either, this is “just” Sosonko’s view on Bronstein through his own observations, talks, discussions …

The book is divided in some chapters, roughly chronologically following Bronstein’s life.

Bronstein’s quotes on chess and his achievements in the first ten pages made a big impression on me: this was a chess hero completely nullifying his efforts, his accomplishments by stating that is was all for nothing. That what he did on a board with pieces meant nothing. It is one thing to think such a thing as a normal person, who considers chess as a hobby and after twenty or thirty years thinks that all this time in preparation, playing and analyzing chess was worth nothing, but it’s another thing to read this coming from an “almost world champion”.

For me in particular this was sobering and enlightening in the same instant – as a hobby player I recently quit chess (the official playing part – still follow the news on internet and play blitz), and find myself – approaching 50 – at a turning point in my life. Reading this and understanding the curse of chess – and at the same time realizing that for someone as Bronstein this must have been 100 times harder (after all he was so close…) – that struck me as very painful – for Bronstein.

Unfortunately, the impact of this hammer blow at the start of the book creates expectations which cannot be sustained throughout the story told. 

Very early in his life, Bronstein sees factors looming that hinder him in the realization of his dream: become world champion and change the history of chess. With his dazzling play, he is almost the antipode of the classic, dogmatic Botvinnik. He shoots to the top, eclipsing upcoming players as Keres and Smyslov and establishing himself as the challenger for the world title. He gets help from Vainstein and Boleslavsky, who support him against the state supported Botvinnik.

But his progress in chess knowledge is not complete: his opponents quickly realise that when the queens come of, Bronstein plays less inspired – and in the endgame he is not particularly better than any other grandmaster. His forte is imagination, his weakness technique. But just like Tal ten years later, the plusses outweigh the minuses and he becomes challenger. In the world title match the score favours Botvinnik, but the games themselves show that Bronstein is the one “making the match”. When he is one point up after game 22, everyone beliefs he will be the new world champion. But he does not want to take a time-out to calm down and to reset his mind to “play two more draws” and loses his advantage.

From that point onwards – his downfall begins. In chess, Keres, Smyslov, Geller and others start surpassing him. In life, his frustration on the missed opportunity starts devouring him. Both combined have the effect that he slowly gets more and more isolated, which only fuels his anger and selfpity. He becomes the “has-been” and fades away. Bronstein can’t forget, looks back in anger and keeps finding new external factors that must have influenced him in that famous 23rd match game.

He considers himself as the real forerunner of modern chess, thinks that he was the true giant, on whose shoulders the young players are standing, but the “lack of recognition” and his constant – but inconsistent – wining about this and other bad things happening to him, isolate him further. He is no longer taken seriously, loses the right to travel abroad and fades away.

Till… in 1989 the fall of the Berlin wall triggers the collapse of the Soviet Union and he gets to travel again. The west is delighted to have this famous name back in their midst – still unaware of his mental drawbacks. Bronstein himself loves the new attention and respect he gets everywhere, but gradually age catches up, the constant travelling starts to become a drag, his native country calls… and he goes back to Russia and a meager pension of 50 dollars per month…

The book describes these changes in his life not exactly, but gives some details unknown to me before – especially the comments of his fellow grandmasters are insightful. Despite the respect he had amidst them, they did know his eternal babbling, which could make your head spin before or after a game. His never-ending variations on how to play a new variation of chess, new time controls, new tournament formats… 
And then on page 198 it hit me: when reading “His philosophizing could be described by the term ‘asynchrony of appositions’, meaning a lack of connection between semantic strings. (note of the reviewer – at least for the listener – for the thinker uttering these words, there may very well be a connection, just like for a mathematician the link between electricity and a hyperbolic cosine is simple: the high voltage line hanging from a transport line mast) Put more simply, this meant jumping from one subject to another and a lack of coherent reasoning.”  I realized the book itself mirrored Bronstein’s mind: by jumping from one piece of information to another, Sosonko (willingly?) recreates the associative mind of Bronstein, linking everything with everything. Oh yes, here’s another analogy. And here, another anecdote illustrating how contradictory he was. And there, another good quote from an artist, philosopher, writer, scientist, characterizing Bronstein as he was indeed – such a good comparison – as if written with Davy in mind. It all piles up and there seems to be no direction, no storyline, just heaps of information, comparisons, ideas, similarities. And then you realize that this omnidirectional style is how Bronstein’s mind must have worked.

Indeed, when talking about chess, why not have the possibility to skip a move once in a game, or have a one-time knight jump available for a king in peril? Or the possibility to place a captured pawn back in the game? The game of chess is rich enough in variations (according to Wikipedia, more than 2000). There are limitless possible ramifications in the design of chess – everybody can be world champion in his own “style”. But is having thoughts like this not fleeing the reality? If you are not anymore the best in your field, it is easy to muse about a variation where you can still be the best. Take Fischer: he copied Bronstein’s idea for random chess (which – as far as I know it – is much older than both), to avoid that tedious bit of opening theory. Or Capablanca, who wanted to play on a bigger board with two sets of chessmen.

So we see an image of a chess player that I’ve not seen before. Of course, Sosonko has first-hand experience. You cannot compare this book to a biography of a historical chess player (see for example the series by McFarland). There, there is only indirect proof of how the player was in real life. The book shows us that chess players – even the very best – can have their demons, that they are not “perfect people”, successful, rich, amiable, gently, well-disciplined, respectful. A chess player is formed by his upbringing, his cultural background, his talent, his environment. And sometimes this all makes a good match, but sometimes the genius part is placed in a man “too light” to bear that part. It is a good thing we can read about the struggle of a man with his talent – and how he dealt (unsuccessfully) with that once-in-a-lifetime missed opportunity. This is the opposite of a hagiography: it shows the man Bronstein – and that’s all Sosonko wanted to show us. We may not like the subject of the picture (and I’d say, maybe the style of the painting is a bit too baroque),  but just like Adolph Northen’s painting of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, it shows us reality.

What about the book production quality? The format of the softcover book is OK, the typesetting also, it reads fluently. The text on the back cover is printed slightly oblique.  The cartoon on the front cover is very well done: Bronstein throwing darts to a picture of Botvinnik on a wall – one has hit the aim, but the other is next to the frame, as a symbol that Bronstein in the end had critique on almost everything, Botvinnik-related or not. The wall representing not just the system supporting Botvinnik, but the whole world, limiting him, Bronstein to achieve his full potential.

So conclusion: is it a good read? Well, that’s the wrong question. “Good” is not the right word for this book. The story Sosonko tells us is insightful, tells us something about life, about achievement, about purposefulness. It is not a happy story – it does not end well. Our hero dies blind, alone, and almost forgotten, a relic from the past. A too large portion of his life he used his shield of eccentricity to camouflage his uncertainty, his indecisiveness, his disillusionment. It made him bitter, but in the end, he came close to reconcile himself with his past and the demons he made himself.

It is a difficult read – but the advantage of the complexity of the text is that it makes it easier to understand Bronstein’s train of thought – his stream of consciousness. Don’t expect a well-defined article about a certain topic like the ones Sosonko has written on other chess players. Bronstein was too complex and Sosonko’s interactions with him too frequent to draw a one or two-dimensional picture of the man.

Could the text have been written more “fluently” – probably. But by writing the way he did, Sosonko showed us there was more to cunning Davy than meets the eye. I think Davy would have liked the book: nuances and contradictions surrounded the man, and this book illustrates this well. Tip of the hat to Elk & Ruby for publishing this; not the easiest subject, not the easiest elaboration, but definitely worth your while.


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