Monday, April 21, 2008

Review of Joel Benjamin's "American Grandmaster"

Though ostensibly a games collection, GM Joel Benjamin's American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures (Everyman 2007) is definitely a chess book you can read and enjoy without a board in front of you. Filled with amusing anecdotes and commentary on American chess and chess players, it has a lot to offer anyone who has followed the U.S. chess scene for any of the "four decades" that Benjamin discusses. You might say it adds faces and stories to recent U.S. chess history, especially the U.S. Championship (Benjamin participated in 23 from 1981-2006) and the infamous Kasparov-Deep Blue match (where Benjamin served as the computer's chess tutor). For this reason alone it is practically a must have for anyone who has read Andy Soltis and Gene McCormick's The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996 or seen Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. Readers in search of a more standard "best games" collection, however, will definitely be disappointed that American Grandmaster does not offer new analytic details on its author's best games. And at some level, as I will return to below, I share their disappointment. But I think anyone interested in New Jersey GM Joel Benjamin and the history of U.S. chess, as I am, will want to spend some time with it.

For "Bobby-boomers," like myself, who saw "little Joel" grow up on the pages of Chess Life (expecting him to be the next Fischer), Benjamin is a very important player in the history of American chess. He may not have the same legendary status as Fischer or Reshevsky (not having achieved the same international success), but he has had both longevity and prominence on the national scene. In his review of American Grandmaster in a recent Chess Life, Bruce Pandolfini aptly compared Benjamin to GM Larry M. Evans. I might add that both have a strong domestic following as chess players and writers, and both write with a similarly amusing and anecdotal style (witness Evans's recent This Crazy World of Chess). There are differences, of course: Benjamin may not yet have matched Evans's literary output (he has time). Meanwhile, I don't think Evans was quite as much the prodigy as Benjamin, as a brief chronology reveals.

GM Joel Benjamin Chronology

  • 1964 Born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 11
  • 1972 Learns chess at age 8
  • 1972 Mother starts P.S. 222 chess program; brings Joel to scholastic tournaments.
  • 1976 National Elementary Champion
  • 1977 National Master title at age 13 (breaking Fischer’s record)
  • 1978 National Junior High Champion
  • 1978 Manhattan Chess Club Champion
  • 1980 U.S. Junior Champion
  • 1980 National High School Champion
  • 1981 National High School Champion
  • 1981 World Open Champion
  • 1982 U.S. Junior Champion
  • 1983 Beats Nigel Short 5.5-1.5 in London Exhibition Match
  • 1984 World Open Champion
  • 1985 B.A. in History from Yale
  • 1985 U.S. Open Champion
  • 1986 Grandmaster title at age 22
  • 1987 US Chess Co-Champion (closed)
  • 1993 NY Open Co-Champion
  • 1996 World Team Championship, team gold medal
  • 1996 FIDE Olympiad, team bronze
  • 1997 Computer chess consultant, IBM’s “Deep Blue”
  • 1997 U.S. Chess Champion
  • 1998 U.S. “Grandmaster of the Year”
  • 1997-1999 FIDE World Championship participant
  • 1999 World Open Champion
  • 2000 U.S. Chess Co-Champion
  • 2001 U.S. Open Champion

Benjamin has been a player that I have followed from the early days of his career. The first issue of Chess Life & Review (now Chess Life) that I ever received as a USCF member and subscriber was that of July 1978, featuring an article by 13-year-old NM Joel Benjamin on his victory in the 1978 Manhattan Chess Club Championship, with wins over George Kramer and Larry D. Evans, which I have annotated. I still remember playing over the Evans game several times to absorb some of its ideas, and it probably influenced me more than any Fischer game in adopting the Exchange Variation of the Caro-Kann (which I still play on occasion).

Joel Benjamin Takes Manhattan (1978)

When he soundly defeated future World Championship contender Nigel Short in a 1983 exhibition match (see my notes on Benjamin - Short, London 1983), he proved that he was at least among the best chess talents of his age group. Though some might speculate that he would have had greater international success if he had spent the years 1981-1985 focusing on playing rather than on getting his college degree from Yale, there is no doubt that he had good results through those college years, winning the World Open, U.S. Open, and U.S. Championship in quick succession and gaining the GM title at the age of 22.

More critical were his post-college years, and I think that if Benjamin had received the support for international travel and play that he deserved, he would have achieved very different results in the period following 1987. I wish Benjamin would spend more time analyzing his difficulties during this period since they might speak to how we can support other players at that critical juncture.

What I liked best about the book was that it never tries to romanticize the past but instead reports the often gritty realism behind the scenes of various historic U.S. chess events. I especially liked his story about the 1997 U.S. Championship, where he defeated Christiansen (see my notes on Christiansen - Benjamin, U.S. Championship 1997) in the final knock-out match:
During this time I learned the drawback of the new format. With all the eliminated players gone home, the site felt like a ghost town. It's a bit weird hanging out with the guy you are trying to crush, but there wasn't any alternative. One night we were sitting in the hotel sports bar watching a game. 'Buy me a drink,' Larry suggested. Before I could alert the bartender, he added, 'It's in your best interest' (204).
I also found his discussion of computers fascinating and the story of how he was chosen to be the Deep Blue team's chess consultant very interesting reading. I have always thought that Kasparov's claims about a human agent behind Deep Blue's unexpectedly good moves were suspect, and I was completely unpersuaded by the idea that IBM had some nefarious plot against him. Benjamin seems to tell it like it is, and his discussion of Deep Blue's thought processes during the famous 1997 match with Kasparov is the most persuasive I have read.

Where I think the book is lacking is in the serious analysis department, and I must confess that my first impressions of the book were very negative as I realized it contained so few of my favorite Benjamin games -- and those that were discussed received little or no annotation! Eventually, I realized that my problem with Benjamin's book may be that I take him more seriously than he takes himself. The opening lines are symptomatic of what sometimes comes across as a snarky attitude:
"Hi, my name is Joel. I'm a forty-three-year-old Pisces. I like sports, crossword puzzles, nature programs, and controlled mating attacks. Welcome to my story" (5).
Some may find this charming, but it struck me (especially at first blush) as more appropriate to an article in Chess Chow than the autobiography and games collection of one of the finest American-born GMs in history. While I eventually enjoyed the book, I can't help but think even now of the missed opportunity to have a deeper analysis of Benjamin's best games from the Hall of Fame GM himself preserved for posterity.

Let me quantify this criticism: I counted 114 games and 14 game fragments, only 36 of which receive analytic commentary (some much better than others). The vast majority are printed with no analytic comments at all, which seems almost pointless today with game databases. By way of comparison, there are three recent volumes documenting Canadian GM Duncan Suttles's Chess on the Edge, and the first volume alone contains 100 annotated games. Granted, there are a few dozen games that are very well annotated, but why not all of them? I don't want to speculate on the answer, but I think a more substantial games collection that featured only the choicest anecdotes (along with only the choicest games) would have been a much better book with greater longevity in the marketplace.

Benjamin's games have as much to offer as any other GM's "best" or most "memorable." I have annotated several of his more recent games at my blog that would have been worthy of extended treatment in his book (including Benjamin - Bryan Smith, World Open 2006; Benjamin - Gregory Kaidanov, U.S. Open 2006; and Benjamin - Pascal Charbonneau, USCL 2007 -- the last of which Benjamin himself annotated online but not in American Grandmaster). And I have tried to convey in my articles on The Brooklyn Defense, Benjamin's Classical Hippopotamus, and Benjamin's Games with the Nimzovich Defense that he may be the greatest U.S. GM practitioner of unorthodox openings. That's why I'm disappointed that the games in American Grandmaster do not receive the serious analytic treatment that they deserve -- and that some of what I consider to be his best games are not treated there.

I think that a more aggressive editing of the book would have improved the final product and encouraged more notes, especially on the games in the second half. As it stands, it appears the editors have only occasionally stepped in to offer corrections to the text in brackets (though it is not exactly clear if this is the editors or Benjamin himself). The most interesting aspect of the book is where Benjamin weighs in on the question of the future of American chess. In the end, his comments here do not amount to much more than a plea to "send money." His recommendations:

  • Make chess more lucrative. By focusing on scholastic chess over professional chess, we are not doing enough to encourage excellence and a long-term commitment to the game in young people. Chess shouldn't be an expensive kid's hobby but a potentially lucrative job that could pay for college and beyond. Without money in the sport, it is not going to attract the best and brightest.

  • Where players receive appearance fees (which they always should), require minimum move numbers to help combat "draw death."

  • Fix American swiss tournaments (like Goichberg's World Open) by holding them in resort locations where they will more resemble vacations than gambling junkets and by redistributing prizes in reverse pyramid structure with the greatest rewards for the true professionals at the top.

  • Clean up the USCF and have it follow more of a business model that corporate and philanthropic sponsors can understand and support.
While I agree with many of Benjamin's complaints, I don't think he offers much of an action horizon for bringing about change. To whom are these recommendations addressed? They may as well be a prayer to God. Simply complaining about problems doesn't do anything about them. In fact, without thinking through possible solutions, you are not going to be able to identify the real problem to address.

To take just his critique of scholastic chess -- that chess should not just be a kid's game and that resources should be more directed at sustaining pros. It's surprising that someone who makes most of his living these days by teaching chess in a scholastic setting and who was himself the beneficiary of one of the first scholastic chess programs in the country would make this argument, but in any event it seems very short-sighted. I think there is not much chance of creating a culture of professional chess in the U.S. without first creating a deep and genuine interest in the game among young people. You probably need at least 1,000 serious amateur players for every professional if you are going to create a base of support for players, sponsors, writers and tournament organizers to draw upon -- and that is probably a low estimate. Basically, by saying that we have to have lucrative professional chess opportunities to sustain young people's involvement you are basically putting the cart before the horse. Where is the money going to come from? Until chess becomes more deeply ingrained in the culture, you are not going to see the broad fan and player support necessary to sustain professionals, as I have argued before in my essay on Chess Amateurism.

And besides: if you were to just pump more money into the professional chess circuit, you would basically create a feeding frenzy, with players from all over the globe coming to the U.S. to compete for that money. In the end, you are more likely to feed a few hungry former Soviets than to sustain the young Americans.

The most intriguing if perplexing issues Benjamin raises (without truly engaging) have to do with native-born versus "foreign" players in U.S. events. Benjamin basically asks: Who is "American" enough to participate in the U.S. Championship? in U.S. qualifiers for the World Championship? in the Olympics, playing on the U.S. Team? Should Tony Miles have been allowed to play in the U.S. Championship, for example, taking the chair of a more "native" player? And more generally, how are we to build a native tradition of chess talent when the competition from foreign imports is so intense?

The book jacket and title, which seem designed to appeal to fans of Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo, would seem to suggest Benjamin favors a particularly right-leaning response. And as one of the few GMs in the United States who could actually run for president (at least until the Arnold Schwartzenegger Amendment changes the rules), one suspects that he may have an axe to grind. He does say that he thought glasnost "the greatest disaster in the history of American chess" (248). But in the end he does not seem to offer any answer to the questions he has raised, leading you to wonder why he raises them in the first place. This is what he writes:
When Russian chessplayers first began to arrive on our shores they provided competition necessary to stimulate American talent. But the numbers have gotten so out of whack that any young player would be discouraged from a career as a professional player. My Fischer-boom generation encountered few immigrants in our early years and hung around for thirty years. Young stars of later eras...moved on to new chapters in their lives. Competition is healthy, but so is the opportunity for success. The market has not grown to support the huge numbers of grandmasters we have now. [The rest of the world also has a problem with a market overloaded with players.] (248)
So what are we supposed to do about it? Send them home? The bit in brackets at the end of the quote seems to come from one of the editors, though it is never clear who is inserting those remarks... In any event, the bracket man makes a good point! This is not just an American problem, and the former Soviet Union clearly is responsible for a terrible rate of unsustainable over-production of GMs. But what to do about it? In the end, Benjamin has no answers beyond this simple statement: "It saddens me that it is harder than ever for an American to have the kind of career that I had" (248).

I don't want to end on a sad note, but there is no question that American Grandmaster is not exactly the sort of book I would have liked to see from the New Jersey GM. Yet I did enjoy it, and it did get me thinking a lot about chess in the U.S. and about the history of U.S. chess. It is definitely a book worth owning. And maybe in a decade or so, Benjamin (or someone else) will get around to writing the "best games of Joel Benjamin," fully annotated, which is what I'd most like to see. Until then, maybe I will try my best to fill the gap!


katar said...

Excellent, excellent article. I thought the book looked a bit light on instructive/analytic content on flipping thru it.

I look forward to the next installment of "Mammoth Traps: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Cavemen." :P

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks, katar. Funny you should mention "7 Habits," since I am actually trying to work up a set of different "Caveman Tactics." Not sure I'll reach 7 -- maybe you can suggest some? Mammoth traps is just the first. I have in mind things like throwing the left hook (with a3 and b4), spear throwing (especially exchanging the dark-square bishops), interring or cave blocking (with an e6 pawn sac), stone-fall traps (the Noah's Ark trap motif, catching a Bishop with pawns like a rodent under a rock), etc. Eventually I might work up a complete Caveman Repertoire, which would include the Caveman Caro-Kann, the French Wing Gambit, Grand Prix with a3, Saemisch Surprise in the Alekhine, and other openings I have or will discuss here. Some planned additions include the Austrian Pirc with a3, the 150 Attack (which some call "the Caveman Attack" already), the Steinitz-Sveshnikov Attack in the Giuoco Piano (5.d4 exd4 6.e5), etc. Suggestions welcome, especially for what the caveman would play as Black....

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. We need more of these in chess journalism. I bought the book, because I wanted to read what Benjamin had to say about Deep Blue (I spent a long time writing a review of Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine for Chess Cafe) and the state of U.S. chess. The games didn't much interest me.

--Howard Goldowsky

Chess Manitoba said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chess Manitoba said...

Just a small question with Joel's CV.
I don't have any reference material in front of me, but in 1982 - Wasn't he too old to be a Cadet ?

Thu Apr 24, 10:40:00 AM EDT

Blue Devil Knight said...

Great stuff, thanks for the review!

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the notes. Yes, I was mistaken: it was the Junior and not the Cadet Championship. I corrected it.

BTW: the text does contain quite a few well-annotated games, just not as many as you'd expect, and not the best in my opinion.

Polly said...

Enjoyable post. Talk about a stroll down memory lane! That picture from the 1978 Chess Life and Review article looks quite familiar. I belive I actually took that photograph.

katar said...

very creative ideas. If you come up with a metaphor for inventing fire/wheel then you are a cleverer one than i.

Anonymous said...

excellent article! First time in your blog, good work.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful review of Benjamin's book. More enjoyable to me was your own questions and commentary on the state of the state of American chess.

It's obvious he did not the write the book you hoped. So why not take this challenge on yourself? It's a topic that interests the greater community. Ask the controversial questions, and use this blog to generate different viewpoints. After all being a GM is not a pre-requisite for authoring the significant books on chess - it may actually be a constraint.