Thursday, April 17, 2008

McKay Tartan Books Nos. 1 - 3

Quote of the Day: "Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make people happy." — Siegbert Tarrasch

OK, I admit it...I collect books. Over the years I have managed to accumulate about 10 books for every one that I have read. Of course, I planned to read them all some day, but have never budgeted the time. Someone once commented that if I could learn by osmosis and put my books under my pillow each night (one at a time), that I would be a chess grandmaster in a year or two.

But chess isn't the only subject for which I have a lots of books. There are many other subjects as well. Now that I am tiring of lugging the books from place to place (and the fact that I recently married another book collector), I am starting to cut back on my library. I have found, however, that there are some that I just can't seem to part with.

On top of the list of keepers is the Tartan paperback series published by David McKay Company, Inc. of New York beginning about 1967. There are more than 60 books in the series and they are not all concerning chess. In fact, they are not even all about games. In the next few months I will explore the backround and content of the series and invite input from the readers of this blog. I have always been curious about the "missing numbers". Eventually I gained a bit of insight when I negotiated the contract with Random House (owner of the former David McKay Company and the relevant book rights) for the most recent edition of the USCF Official Rules of Chess (2003).

The beauty of the chess books in the series when I bought most of them was that they were inexpensive, readily available, and pretty much covered the bases. Some of them are way out-of-date at this point and most are in English Descriptive Notation, which is a drawback since the preferred language of chess today (especially among newcomers) is Algebraic Notation. Nevertheless, many of these books are true classics. Some are deceptively hard to find and much more expensive than when they were originally published.

Several books in the series have been updated with new covers, new co-autors and new material. Others have merely been reprinted again and again. There is no central database, as far as I can tell, with the details of the series. Nevertheless, I will try to sort the information out and publish it here.

I will deal with the first three books of the series together since they were all written by the same author, Grandmaster Reuben Fine. Dr. Fine could have been a candidate for the World Chess Championship in the late 1940s but turned down an invitation to the World Championship Tournament of 1948. He was also a well respected Psychiatrist. You can check him out in Wikipedia by clicking here.

The first book in the series, Ideas Behind The Chess Openings, began as a group of articles that Dr. Fine wrote for the Chess Correspondent circa 1941. "Because so many encouraging letters came to me from so many enthusiastic readers it was a real pleasure to expand the previous short sketches into a full length book," he said in the Preface to the first hardcover edition dated May 5, 1943.Above is the hardcover edition (1943), with dust jacket.

The Tartan softcover version was first published in June 1967 with additional printings in August 1970, March 1972, October 1972 (pictured here with a cover price of $2.25) and many times thereafter.
The Tartan #1 book is ISBN No. 067914066. The most recent version (pictured on the left) is ISBN No. 0812917561. The cover design shown at the beginning of today's blog was by Herbert McClure. By the way, I have also seen an older cover the Tartan #1 book and some others too (see below).

Of the three books, Ideas Behind the Chess Openings is the most seriously out of date. The reasons are obvious. It has been 65 years since the book was written and 15 years since Dr. Fine passed away. During all that time, hundreds of grandmasters and, more recently, chess playing computer programs, have analyzed the openings in substantial detail. Many assessments have been changed, new ideas have been introduced, and a few old ideas have been reinforced.

Nevertheless, I still believe that this is a good book for any serious chess player to devour and keep on the shelf for reference. The reasons are best stated by IM Bill Kelleher in his review on <<---CLICK to see the review.

I recently came across a website of another fan of this series. Check it out. My goal is to help him fill in the blanks. I don't think he realizes that not all of the books in the series are chess books. That's took me 30 years to make the discovery.

The Middle Game in Chess (ISBN: 0679140212) was originally published in 1952. It was first reprinted as part of the Tartan softcover series in June 1969, again in March 1972, and many more times after that. The copy shown here was printed in September 1972 on the heels of the Fischer-Spassky championship match.

Unlike the first book in the series, The Middle Game in Chess has not become out of date. The elements of chess combinations remain the same and comprehensive knowledge of chess tactics is still a requirement for any serious player. Certainly computers have permitted easy verification of all the solutions presented in this massive 440-page volume and a few errors were found. And, as stated earlier, algebraic notation is preferred over the archaic english desriptive system employed in the original work.

So, in 2003 (10 years after Dr. Fine's death), Burt Hochberg updated and edited The Middle Game in Chess for Random House's attractive McKay Chess Library series. In my opinion, he did a nice job. This book remains a classic. Careful study will boost your chess rating by a few hundred points for anyone who is not already a chess master. I first read this book in 1972-73 and my rating jumped from 1369 to 1715 in about 18 months. Knowledge of chess tactics will never become obsolete.

For many years, Reuben Fine's Basic Chess Endings (ISBN: 0679140026) was considered the bible, especially for correspondence players. It was the place to go for reference in solving all kinds of endgame problems. But as time passed by (the book was first published in 1941), errors were found in the analysis. Leading Grandmasters Edmar Mednis and Pal Benko did a good job of cataloguing many of the errors. Once computer programs entered the equation, it seemed that all of the answers would be known.

That's why the chess world celebrated when Pal Benko agreed to personally revise Basic Chess Endings for republication by Random House in 2003. For some reason, maybe money or perhaps lack of time, the much anticipated corrections turned out to be woefully incomplete. Simply stated, the endgame bible is no longer the authoritative reference that it once was. That's too bad. Nevertheless, the books is still a classic....and worth having in any chess library!

1941 Hardcover Edition of Basic Chess Endings by R. Fine