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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part 5 - Garry Kasparov We're now up to Karpov, and the tone of the series becomes very personal. Kasparov/Karpov has several times been listed as one of the great sporting rivalries of all time. They played five matches for the world championship, all of which were extremely close, and many bitter words were said on both sides. These matches will be described later, in Volume 7. Here, we're getting the rest of Karpov's brilliant career. There's so much material that I can only give a few highlights; if you're fond of chess history, and have been following the story, you'll find any amount of stuff to amuse and instruct.

First of all, and I couldn't help feeling it was partly to annoy Karpov, he makes him share the book with Viktor Korchnoi. The three matches Karpov played with Korchnoi were not quite as hard-fought as the ones against Kasparov, but the off-board antics have become myth, and provided a large part of the story behind Chess, The Musical. Kasparov has some wonderful anecdotes, several of which I hadn't heard before, which center around Korchnoi's legendary paranoia. Karpov's team included a psychologist, Dr. Zukhar, whose main function was to help Karpov with his sleep problems. Korchnoi became convinced that Zukhar was a psychic, whose real job was to hypnotise him into playing badly. Karpov, a great pragmatist, decided that he would exploit this. So they told Zukhar to seat himself during the games so that he was as visible as possible to Korchnoi, and then stare at him continuously for the whole five hours of play. Zukhar took his new position very seriously, and abstained from drinking anything with his lunch (he even skipped the soup), so that he wouldn't have to take bathroom breaks. It worked. Korchnoi expended a great deal of energy countering the imaginary threat; this may have been the critical factor when he unexpectedly recovered from 5-2 down to 5-5, but was unable to win the last game. The anecdote I liked most, though, was from the early 90s. Tal, one of the key people on Karpov's 1978 team and notorious for his sense of humour, met Korchnoi at a tournament. "You know, Viktor," he told him in a confidential whisper, "it's a good thing that you didn't win the match. If you had, the KGB had all the plans in place. You'd immediately have been eliminated." This was just a spur-of-the-moment fantasy from Tal, but Korchnoi believed it!

Behind everything, you feel Fischer's presence. Kasparov is tormented by the unanswerable question of what would have happened if he'd defended his title against Karpov. If only Karpov had beaten Fischer! Kasparov beat Karpov, and that would give him a clear right to style himself The Greatest Player Ever. Alas, Fischer refused to play, and no one will ever really know why. Kasparov keeps trying to show that Fischer chickened out, because he thought Karpov's chances were too good. He describes the years of work by all the top Russian Grandmaster, preparing for the match that never happened. Karpov was armed to the teeth with the fruits of a whole country's research. He quotes Petrosian, who said that Fischer's favourite opening lines had all been refuted by 1975.

But Fischer, like no one else, could create new openings when he needed them; this is the man who took the Exchange Ruy Lopez, which had been considered harmless for 50 years, and turned it into a deadly weapon. And he never asked anyone for help. Karpov and Kasparov were incredibly strong players, but Fischer was just in a class by himself, even if he wasn't completely sane. As the English chess humourist Bill Hartston said, the only human being you can sensibly compare him with is Mozart.