A review of The Search for Chess Perfection II by C. J. S. Purdy

Purdy was a prolific writer, and his writing was of such a consistently high quality, that the selection of instructional articles for inclusion in the book must have presented quite a problem. At any rate, we get a generous sampling of the good man’s wares. These articles are at the book’s heart and cover a wide range of topics: the endgame, planning and positional play, the centre, the use of pawn sacrifices for the initiative, piece-play, advice on how to reduce oversights and avoid traps, and much else besides.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Search for Chess Perfection II
by C.J.S Purdy
Thinkers’ Press
June 2006, ISBN-10: 1888710306, ISBN-13: 978-1888710304, 390 pages, $35

From the United States, you can order directly from:
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Australia 2765

This is the second, revised edition of a book that can best be described as a celebration of C.J.S. Purdy and his contribution to chess. There are three main parts to the book, focusing on Purdy’s life and writings, and on his achievements as a player. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Cecil John Seddon Purdy learnt how to play chess at the relatively late age (as we would now view it) of 16, but from that moment he was smitten. He knew that what he wanted to do with his life was to play and study and write about this beautiful game that he had come to love: and so he did. Purdy’s widow Anne – another great love – first met Cecil when she was a young girl, and she contributes a moving memoir here. She gives us a loving portrait of a man who may have been unparalleled as a chess writer and teacher, but was chaotic and disorganized in dealing with the practicalities of everyday life. And she shares with us an honest and humourous account of a long, successful marriage (a marriage that lasted for 45 years, close to half a century, and ended only with Cecil’s death in 1979). Along with this, though, she gives us something much more: a genuine reckoning of the costs and rewards of a life lived according to Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss” – for this is what Cecil did.

Purdy was a prolific writer, and his writing was of such a consistently high quality, that the selection of instructional articles for inclusion in the book must have presented quite a problem. At any rate, we get a generous sampling of the good man’s wares. These articles are at the book’s heart and cover a wide range of topics: the endgame, planning and positional play, the centre, the use of pawn sacrifices for the initiative, piece-play, advice on how to reduce oversights and avoid traps, and much else besides. One article gives tips on how to use chess books to supplement and aid experience; another deconstructs the notion (or metaphor) that chess is a war game: for Purdy, the game is rather a kind of idealized argument or debate. The basis of chess (he says) is turn-taking – both players are required to move only once, alternately – which means that each player has an equal say.

A special section – “Combinations: the arts of chess” – collects together 8 articles that, taken together, amount to a master-class on this important aspect of chess. The articles here attempt a definition of the term “combination” (a tricky business at the best of times), list a number of typical combinational motifs and outline some ways of improving one’s combinational vision. One interesting article explores the role of threats in chess, which is to constrain one’s opponent’s responses (if a threat is real, the opponent must take account of it), and so generate a sequence of logical moves that can be calculated. A threat is intricately bound up with logic, because it takes the form of a conditional: “If you don’t do x, I’ll do y.”

Of special interest to me was “A Method of Thinking in Chess”, as this seems to be Purdy’s most elaborate attempt to work out a system of “metacognitive regulation” and apply it to chess (see my review of Jonathan Rowson’s book The Seven Deadly Chess Sins for a definition of this term); here he explores such issues as how to choose a chess move and what to think about when it is your opponent’s turn to move. This article shows that Purdy’s thoughts and teachings were very much related to actual play, and were meant to tally with experience. Purdy’s method here is thorough, but perhaps also a little too rigid, and its very elaborateness could be a drawback in over-the-board chess, where there is generally a strict time limit (and perhaps it is worth noting here that Purdy often got into time trouble as a player). Interestingly, the good man’s own chess practice was somewhat different from his recommendation, as he confesses elsewhere in the book: “”the present writer, although convinced of the efficacy of a set method, has never had the patience to apply one consistently” (p.263). Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds!

Purdy’s qualities as a writer are many and varied. He is literate and often witty, with a felicitous turn of phrase. At one point, he remarks of a forlorn piece: “this knight is buried alive, like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story.” Elsewhere, considering which colour is to be preferred at the start of the game, he says that

In anthropology, it is not true. But in chess it is true, that White is superior to Black. … In chess, at any rate, gentlemen prefer blondes.

(Although, in contradistinction to this, I seem to recall that Bent Larsen, grandmaster and gentleman, wrote once that he liked Black best for its counter-attacking possibilities, and indeed would often play Black systems with an extra tempo as White. Jonathan Rowson’s latest book, Chess for Zebras, touches on this question of colour too.) He can be iconoclastic (“Don’t be too puzzled by what the books say about the center. It’s partly nonsense,” begins one article about the pawn centre) and will rarely simply repeat authorities’ opinions; he will add to them or challenge them where this seems to be warranted. So he sets out in one article to disprove Lasker’s proposition that there is “no combination without a considerable plus, no considerable plus without a combination.” Along with plain speaking – at one point he dismisses talk of there being “elements of chess”, or a priori theories, as bunkum – Purdy had a wide chess culture and a personal and, in important respects, even a radical view of the game. He believed that threats and combinations were the basis of winning chess (later in the book, J. N. Hanks refers to this as “the Purdy style of constant small tactical possibilities”: an apt formulation) and that positional play was of only secondary importance. The quality that I’d emphasize most of all, though, is the integrity that lies at the core of Purdy’s intelligence. It is present in all of his writing here.

J. N. Hanks contributes an appreciative but critical sketch of Purdy as a player. Like almost all Australians, Purdy was a sportsman who had a relish for competition – natives of that country seem to ingest this in infancy, along with their mother’s milk – and had iron nerves and immense concentration. He was an efficient and sound analyst, but prone to time trouble. He prepared his openings well, although he didn’t create or come up with many innovations; the purpose of opening preparation, as he saw it, was rather to save time at the start of the game and get the kind of positions he liked. Finally, Hanks (who played Purdy many times) notes that he was at all times – win, draw or lose – a fair and courteous opponent.

Just over 30 of Purdy’s games are included, and this is certainly an insufficient number to get a rounded view of him as a player. It seems that he had a catholic opening repertoire: as White he played both 1.e4 and 1.d4, and sometimes he played the English Opening (1.c4). As Black, he played a variety of defenses and usually met 1.e4 with either 1…e5 or the Sicilian Defense. Most of the games given here are hard-fought positional struggles, but we also see some complex tactics, notably in Purdy’s victory over Napolitano (here, game 22). This superb game enabled Purdy to win the first Correspondence Chess World Championship, in June 1953. This was a truly Herculean achievement, for the tournament had begun 6 years previously.

Purdy’s annotations to his own games are honest and perspicacious. And even here, as in his overtly instructional writings, he can’t help but teach. So his game against Berger, played at the New South Wales Championship in 1964, becomes an occasion for a discussion of the distinction between strategy and tactics, and is laced with original insight. He remarks at one point that “in chess, as distinct from war, a plan is only something to follow if nothing better turns up.” Which is true, once one ponders it, yet how any times are we told – in all manner of textbooks – that “you must always follow a plan” and that “a bad plan is better that no plan at all”? Purdy’s message is: follow a plan, but keep it real! And be opportunistic!

For the chess student, Purdy offers the closest thing to a liberal education in chess, and reading him is like being in the presence of an amicable, erudite companion. Every player will get something out of this book, will have their assumptions challenged and horizons expanded, but it is likely, I think, to be especially valuable for strong club players. The book is well produced (I found only one typo: a Bishop figurine is used instead of a Knight figurine in the game on p.246), and even the graphics that accompany the articles’ titles are amusing and well thought out. Overall, The Search for Chess Perfection II is a book to be treasured and constantly studied and reread.

Bio: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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