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Review: Nona Gaprindashvili: Legendary chess careers, by Tibor Károlyi

By Davide Nastasio

130 pages, Chess Evolution, 2016

I was born in a world (and historical period) where women were quite undervalued. Often women had a limited set of roles, and the male world was clearly repressing and suppressing women’s creativity, intelligence, and their hard-working contribution to create a better society.
In the chess field, famous was the phrase by Fischer: “I could give any woman in the world a piece and a move; to Gaprindashvili even, a knight.”

 

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Nona Gaprindashvili

 

Which in other interviews he reiterated as: “There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knights-odds to and still beat.”

 

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Bobby Fischer, 1960

 

Luckily this biased vision of the world is today, at least in civilized western countries, being overturned, and women are very important members of society.  In many cases they are the bread winners who, thanks to their hard work, support the family.

I believe chess to be a great tool for correcting our biases and prejudices. Obviously, I know that is quite difficult to go beyond the limits imposed by the culture and historical period in which we were born and raised.  Thanks to this spiritual chess journey, however, I often find myself challenging these wrong beliefs which were passed down in my culture when I was young.  Thanks to this self-inspecting work, I find myself renewed, and with a new understanding of reality.

When I saw this title by Chess Evolution, I got it right away because I wanted to know if Fischer’s phrase was correct, and since my scientific degree has taught me to be skeptical of easy explanations, I wanted to know more about this champion from the past. I hope, with this review, to enlighten the reader to know a little more about this wonderful chess player and her playing strength.

Chess Evolution has also published books on other chess champions, such as grandmasters Hort, Portisch, Timman, Seirawan, and Torre.  Click here to see my review on GM Eugenio Torre. 

The concept on which this series of books is based is on interviews in which Tibor Károlyi, who did his homework and knows the games of the champions interviewed, ask some focused questions both on their careers and on their games.

The material of the interview is quite original, and the selection of the games quite interesting. However, the book is a work in progress, because the author continues to reminisce and work on the champion he is writing about for a longer time than what it took to do the interview. For example, at page 47 we discover that the author was still gathering material for the book one year after the interview! In fact, he finds himself in a conversation with one of the best composers/solvers in the world: IM Afek, who tells him about a game he played against Nona Gaprindashvili in 2005.

 

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IM Yochanan Afek

 

The game is about four pages of annotations and many diagrams which let the reader follow it without a chessboard, which can be a good exercise to improve one’s visualization!

 

example_annotated_games

 

I’d like the reproduce here the game just mentioned, because I also like it very much.  To avoid spoiling the surprise for the reader, I will not reproduce Tibor Karolyi’s skillful annotations.

 

 

The author has chosen the games based on many different criteria: among them, the importance of the game at a certain point of Gaprindashvili’s career; games which had a high learning value; and ,of course, games chosen for their pure entertainment value.

Now, let’s return for a moment to discuss Gaprindashvili’s chess strength, since that is what we began this review with: Fischer’s quotation on how he could give a piece advantage to any woman in the world.

Notice that while in Western Chess, it’s seen as a kind of offense, because it means a player is not strong at all. In Eastern board games like Wei-Chi (Go) or XiangQi (Chinese Chess) it is quite normal for a master of the game to give a material advantage to the amateur.

Such biased belief of the Western chess mind is captured quite well in the book Chess secrets I learned from the Masters, written by Edward Lasker.   On page 3, he recounts the following story: “One night we were invited to meet a Go master at the Japanese Club. Although Emanuel Lasker, his brother Berthold, and I were to play in consultation, a handicap of nine moves was proposed — something like Queen odds in chess. Lasker laughed and said he did not think anybody in the world could give him that handicap…”  Now, in order to read the entire story, I recommend that you buy the book; however, that night they were butchered by the Go master like any chess master would crush an amateur playing for the first time.  Go is quite a difficult game, and some of the finesse needed to play it can be learned only with the right training, as in chess.

However, returning to our days, even in GO tournaments if the difference of strength between the two players is high, one will begin with some stones advantage, like in the Lasker story just mentioned.

Returning to Gaprindashvili, for the moment let’s also leave aside Fischer, who was clearly the best player of all time, and who was a statistical outlier, since the best GMs in the world would lose 6-0 against him. Let’s ask ourselves: how did Gaprindashvili score against top male players?

One tournament which came right away to my attention was Lone Pine 1977, in which Nona Gaprindashvili tied for first with three other strong GMs.  She won nearly $6,000, a small fortune in 1977.  The field of names behind her is particularly significant. Christiansen, Browne, Lein, Shamkovich, all great names of the past, all behind her! But there are even more names, because that tournament was clearly super-strong: Quinteros, Seirawan, Szabo. Of course I could continue, but she was clearly a GM level player, and she gained a GM norm in that tournament.

In conclusion, I think this book is worth being in one’s library. This book is not a huge collection of games that one will never read, but the selection of games is focused. Throughout the book there are some important lessons and ideas to absorb, like the following one with which I’d like to conclude the review from page 19: “At the tournament of my life, in Lone Pine 1977 I did not win a single game in the opening. I won them by outplaying the opponent… by the way when a player works on chess he or she should feel so absorbed that they do not notice time passing.”

 

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