Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
The United States Chess Championship, 1845-2011
By Andy Soltis
This third edition sports an additional chapter, ‘Sponsor Shock (1997-2011)’, which brings the story forward by a decade and a half. That period saw success for home-grown Americans, Benjamin and Christiansen among them, and ex-Soviet émigré players (such as Gulko and Shabalov) alike. In light of the current chess scene, the two significant events are the rise of Nakamura (winner in 2004 and 2009 – and also in 2012, the latter championship not being covered in the book) and Kamsky’s return to something of his former strength. He took the title in 2010 and 2011 and he’s the current holder as well.
The book as a whole surveys championship events in the United States from 1845, so it is pretty much as it says on the cover. Up until the early 1920s, championship events usually took the form of matches between the leading players of the day. A notable exception was the First American Chess Congress held in New York in 1857; notable, because it announced the arrival of Paul Morphy. Several Morphy games are annotated here, including the game with the famous ‘queen sacrifice’ versus Louis Paulsen. In the main, these early events were irregular, though there were nine matches in the 1890s, including two in 1894, curiously enough: a double-tussle between Showalter and Hodges, with one victory apiece.
From 1936 up to the present day, the United States championship has mostly taken the form of a tournament – though the format (round-robin, Swiss system, a series of knockout matches) has varied over the years. And the championship has become a regular, most often an annual or biennial, event in the chess calendar. If one were to take a relief map of this event, there would be three significant outcrops.
First of all, Reshevsky’s period of domination in the ‘30s and ‘40s; and it is curious to note that Reuben Fine, a world class player during these years, never became US champion, despite his many international successes. Secondly, Fischer’s great heyday, which began in the late’50s and lasted throughout the 1960s. Indeed, in the 1963-64 championship Fischer whitewashed the opposition: he played 11 and won 11. This was the championship where Evans (second place, with 7 and a half points) was congratulated on ‘winning’ the tournament, while Fischer was applauded for ‘winning the exhibition’, such was his superiority. Thirdly, Walter Browne’s six victories in the 1970s and early 80s. Browne’s achievement might have been even greater had it not been for his incredibly infantile behavior in 1978: read Soltis’ account of the events surrounding Browne’s withdrawal and try not to laugh. Tears would be wasted.
Soltis provides a crisp and lively narrative which ripples outward from the book’s strict subject matter on occasion to consider, for example, the career and fate of Paul Morphy. There is a generous selection of games, full tournament crosstables and some interesting statistics (e.g. Fine has one of the highest winning percentages in the championship with 78%, despite never having won it; for comparison: Fischer has the highest with 83.3%).
The United States Chess Championship, 1845-2011 is an excellent document of record, and an engaging and entertaining book to boot.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org