Review of Joel Benjamin's "American Grandmaster"
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).
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.
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.
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!