Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

There aren’t many better recommendations for a book than ‘Sick as a dog but couldn’t put it down’. This is one of those.

It works for survivalists, bridge players, parallel worldists, philosophers, post-catastrophists, cannibals looking for new recipes and anybody with Woody Allen’s tastes.

It’s gotta be a fav of his. Those naked young things in the bunker with the middle-aged unattractive but pizazzy leader, one his daughter. Although his daughter confesses of the three breeding partners available, he’s the only one that does it for her, he is gentlemanly enough to settle for his daughter’s friend Barbara, who has also had the hots for him since forever. Woody Allen heaven, though maybe mid-twenties is too old for him to look at.

To be frank, our intrepid leader is probably being pragmatic in going for Barbara. She plays bridge better and isn’t (quite) as irritating, whereas the daughter Karen is such a dick. This book does full on Electra AND Oedipus, so add that to the list: good for complexists.

Oh yeah. Good for linguists too. Manny is such a gentleman. To think he knew all he had to do to set me on the road to French was imprison me for a few weeks, eighteen hours of teaching a day, and a kind of taser on a low dose, a mild encouragement to get your memory working if need be. Note to self: maybe he’d forgotten that part. Make sure he doesn’t reread it.

Postscript re the bridge: I thought it read fairly convincingly, like he was either at least a low level player or got good advice, keeping in mind that it was published early sixties, so out of date now, but of the moment, for example, he refers to the Italian style of bidding. I thought that showed quite detailed knowledge or research. There is enough action at the bridge table to keep a reasonable player with an eye for science fiction entertained.

The Theory And Practice Of Gamesmanship, Or, The Art Of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating by Stephen Potter

There is something melancholic reading about a world that no longer exists but that was real to you. To think that when this was written everybody played games all the time. It’s what we all did for fun. If this were written now nobody would read it and I guess the fact that such a big seller in its day has all of 88 ratings on goodreads just goes to show the likely truth of that. My copy is inscribed ‘To Davis, in anticipation of another keen contest on the tennis court. Kathryn’.

What might Davis have learned in advance of that contest? Perhaps he took note of the pages on Hampettes.

“Hampettes”, or minor hampers, exist in plenty. Many of them are of occasional use to the losing gamesman. Many of them come under the heading “Of course, this isn’t really my game” (see “Ruggership” p. 31) While playing squash, let it be known that rackets is your Game, and that squash is that very different thing, a game which you find it occasionally amusing to play at, for the fun of the thing. R. Simpson first drew my attention to this gambit when I was playing lawn tennis with him on a damp grass court on the borders of Lyme Regis. I happened to be seeing the ball and for once in my life really was driving it on to that precious square foot in the back-hand corner of the base line. After one of these shots, Simpson was “carried away” enough to tap his racket twice on the ground and cry “chase better than half a yard”. I only dimly realised that this was an expression from tennis itself, which had slipped out by accident; that he was familiar with the great original archetype of lawn tennis, compared with which lawn tennis itself (he wished to make and succeed in making me understand) was a kind of French cricket on the sands at Southend.

I lost that game. But I learnt my lesson. I walked about the real tennis-court* at Blackfriars (Manchester) two or three times “in order to be taught the game”. I took lessons from the pro (I showed no aptitude). I put by a few shillings in order to buy that most gamesmanly shaped, ungainlily twisted racket. I keep it in the office. And although it has never hit a ball since those Manchester days, I make admirable use of that racket almost every week of my life.

*’Real tennis’ is the name by which Royal tennis has generally been known since the early twentieth century or thereabouts.

Surely you don’t need to know anything about any form of tennis to follow that this is hilarious. But even if that’s so, and even if it is a book about life masquerading as a book about games, I can see that doesn’t mean a modern audience is going to pick it up. What a pity. I’m not surprised to read that the series gets repetitive, but this little book does not.

I noticed that Potter’s development into a humorist might itself have made a chapter in his own book. He had serious ambition to be a serious writer. Whether or not he had it in him to be that, it all got off to a hilariously disastrous start. After a well-received autobiographical volume he turned to a critique of DH Lawrence with unfortunate consequences as described in wiki:

In 1930 he wrote D. H. Lawrence: A First Study, the first book-length work on Lawrence, which appeared in print within a few days of the death of its subject, unfortunate timing because it seemed like an inadequate memorial rather than what it was intended to be, a critical reappraisal. It also suffered from a regrettable misprint, rendering the heading “Sea and Sardinia”, as “Sex and Sardinia”. This was soon amplified by rumour into “Sex and Sardines”, none of which helped Potter’s reputation as a serious writer.

Not that he gave up trying, but his critical analyses were never whole-heartedly embraced and there seems to have come a point where he started diverging with The Muse in Chains: a Study in Education which satired the very area in which he had been working. One can see why this book was so well received, if his insight into George Saintbury was not a solitary shot:

“It is recorded that for eighteen years he started the day by reading a French novel (in preparation for his history of them) – an act so unnatural to man as almost in itself to amount to genius.”

I’ve made a note to get a copy of this book. I guess it was but a small segueway from a line like this to the series that made Potter a household name for many years.

Moving on from….

I’m tired of seeing these on my list of current reading. There comes a point where you have to move them even further than the Back Burner.

An Introduction to the Historiography of Science
Helge Kragh. My first by Kragh and however worthy it may be, it doesn’t read well – is it comprised of a university lecture course cobbled together into a book? I am expecting to be more enthusiastic about others by him when I get to them.

The Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book John Emms
Another book I feel like I should like more than I do – I admit this may be simply because the level is generally way beyond my abilities, but this means to get anywhere near the full benefit from this, I would have thought you need to be about 2100+ in strength. The problems go up to about GM strength. I’m also prepared to admit being the odd one out since it has been through more than one edition. One excellent feature is that it uses lots of non-classic positions, so the patterns one looks for to solve the problems are not easy to spot. I’ve had this by the bed for a while, and although I do still pick it up now and then, it is going back to the chess bookshelf.

On Censorship and the experience of writing Fair Play or Foul.

Dear GR management (GRM in this review). I assert my right as the author of this book to write what I consider to be relevant by way of a review. Please don’t delete it!

Dear GRM, occasionally I write reviews for a shelf called ‘pairs’. I copy the same review to the two different books I discuss. Please don’t delete either – or both (how would you decide?) – though I appreciate it breaks your new rules.

Censorship is like bacteria, or those tiny little mites that live on each of us in their millions without us being conscious of them. We are surrounded by censorship, we all live by and through it, every day we exercise it ourselves and experience the censorship of others. From the time we begin to learn to speak we are told and told and told what we can’t say. We find out that speech is anything but free and we so quickly take it for granted and learn how to operate within the context of free speech that isn’t free, that maybe we never think about the ramifications of that at all.

For some the beginning of this issue, as it pertains to GR, is the deletion of some reviews by management. Various people decided that it was a violation of free speech – unacceptable censorship – and began to fight to change that. Mainly they fought by making sure they wrote things that GR would have to delete to be consistent with their own policies. My understanding is that those who had their reviews deleted like to read fiction for teenagers that they consider to be badly written and then trash it in ways that apparently entertain them. Other people on GR have come to their support by protesting.

But what IS free speech? I expect I can speak for anybody reading this that there is no such thing as free speech, only ever something approaching it. I expect anybody who does genuinely believe in free speech is right now safely locked up in a place for sociopaths. This means, therefore, that there are some sort of rules guiding what free speech is. Some of those are legal. Some are a matter of morality, perhaps personal, perhaps peer-shared, perhaps imposed by some other extra-legal body. Should a GRReviewer (GRR) be allowed to insult writers gratuitously or otherwise? The protest movement itself seems to think that this is acceptable as far as I can tell. One insults a writer and if they notice, they cop it on the chin. That’s free speech. Further, it would appear that the protesters consider that they have the correct ‘definition’, if you like, of what ‘acceptable free speech’ is, whereas others – the GRM in this case, do not.

So my first point is that I, if nobody else on GR, is uneasy about this idea. Why should a small group of GRR be the ones who make this decision? Why are they the correct arbiters of what is the acceptable notion of free speech and appropriate censorship rather than GRM or anybody else for that matter? And, I couldn’t help being curious to know, do they practise what they preach?

Recently I posted a comment on a thread that was started by somebody leaving GR. Quite some time ago now, she had accused me of being anti-semitic on a review I posted. Note that as it happened, it was my own book I was talking about, so I guess both reviewer and author were being called anti-semitic. I have to say this rankled and rankles still. I can’t imagine a worse thing to be called – and the nature of what followed was unsatisfactory to say the least when she refused in public or private to discuss what she had stated, defriended and blocked me. So much for free speech, I thought at the time, as I left her comments up. Eventually a year or more after they were posted, I finally decided free speech be blowed and deleted what she had written. So, moving forward to my recent comment on her leaving, having stated a lack of sadness at her departure – the following happened. I was told by various friends of hers who are fighting the free speech campaign to “fuck off”, to “delete my comment and apologise”, that I was a “toxic bitch”, an “idiot”, and so on. I was also blocked from being able to post more, so I could neither defend myself nor apologise, if I had thought that was the right thing to do.

Interesting. So, it is perfectly fine for somebody to come to my party – in this case my review of my book – and call me anti-semitic – but it is not okay for me to go to their party and express in what I can only call a polite way – my reference point being the responses posted – that I am not sad somebody who has accused me of this rather dreadful thing is leaving.

Most illuminatingly, one GRR who has some thousands of GR friends said rather gleefully this on the thread after quoting part of my comment:

when someone who has a reputation of being unpleasant and toxic has reviews deleted, no – no one cares

In case you are wondering, she was talking about me.

This it seems, is getting to the essence of what ‘free speech’ means, at least in terms of GR protests. It is a highly prescribed affair, to do with patronage, popularity. It is not about principle.

One of the things that I am now curious about, but may never know the answer is this. Nobody came to my defence on this thread. Of course, this maybe because everybody reading it was in general agreement with the free speech advocates who were trashing me. But then again, maybe it was a fear of expressing themselves in view of the mob they would have to face to do so. I’ve been wondering about this all day, only to receive a private message late this evening in which the person who sent it said

I saw that everyone freaked out at you…which was really unfair, mean-spirited, and completely in opposition to the very kind of free speech they think they are supporting.

Not a huge amount of data, but still, it comforted me that my theory about all this might be right, a theory based on the last time I was involved in a battle for free speech. What people say in private and what they are willing or able to say in public can be very different things. Which brings me to this book.

In the early nineties I wrote a book – this book – which examined various high profile cheating scandals in bridge. In a nutshell I suggested that maybe the people accused of cheating hadn’t been, that the chiefly American accusers might be wrong as a consequence of strong cultural differences between their understanding of bridge and those of other nationalities. I also suggested that the Ely Culbertson might have deliberately destroyed a competitor for the HUGE money by creating the idea that he was cheating. I sent this book to several publishers and was prepared for polite declinations. I was not expecting what actually happened which was that I received vitriolic angry rejections. My book was being censored by mainstream publishers; their problem wasn’t whether it would sell, but they hated the ideas in it. What could I do? I thought I’d produced a good book that would sell, but I put it in a drawer and moved on. One day, however, I mentioned it to a top Australian player who asked if he could look at it. He took it home and brought it back first thing in the morning. Damn, I thought. It wasn’t any good after all, if he hasn’t even bothered reading it. But in fact what had happened was that he sat up all night with it and we now spent some hours talking about how wonderful he thought it was. He thought I should keep trying to get it published. I sent it to the editor of a UK magazine who serialised it. Then I self-published it.

Although it received nice reviews, soon after its release Jeff Rubens, editor of by far the most important bridge magazine Bridge World wrote a hostile editorial about it. He spoke, I guess, for the real heavyweights of bridge in the US, ex-world champions and such like. A reader sent in a very mild attempt to defend the book and that attracted yet more editorial anger. Wow, two hostile editorials. I knew I really had written something that was worthwhile at that point. Nobody else wrote to Bridge World to support me after that. Meanwhile the edition quickly sold out and I started getting feedback from people which was unexpected and completely the opposite from the diatribes that appeared in Bridge World. More than one person said it had been life-changing for them and they really meant it. It let them be more tolerant to others, to be less paranoid and angry about other people. Many people read it in a night. Somebody wrote to say he’d stayed up all night reading it and went down to a shop to buy three more copies to give people the next day. A bridge partnership stayed up all night reading it aloud to each other. Non-bridge players read it. I was invited to present a talk to a magicians’ convention in Vegas. Ten years or more later I still occasionally received these mails.

Lots of people wrote to say that they agreed with what I’d said.

But not one person wrote in public that they agreed with it.

Who could blame them when they saw what had happened to the first poor devil who made a stab at it in Bridge World? Mobs are scary to stand up to and Bridge World and the elite of US bridge are (in this context) a mob. We can say all we like that we live in a culture of free speech, but what does that really mean? I was wondering about all this today as I considered the situation regarding the post where I was attacked with such vitriol by some of those representing the cause of free speech. Is there a group of Goodreaders out there who don’t approve of the way in which free speech was exercised in this case, but are too scared to say so? Are the GR protesters a righteous mob? I have the toughness that comes of being what others have called a toxic bitch so I’m willing to stand up to mobs. But are other people? More to the point, since in the grand scheme of things it is neither here nor there if anybody sticks up for me, is there a mass of people on goodreads who are too scared to have a public point of view disagreeing with the protesters? They have, after all, set themselves up as the righteous defenders of free speech. If one questions them, is one doubting the very idea of free speech? Does that scare people? Is the protest movement speaking for the many silent, or not? Do they need majority support to morally justify themselves?

Going back to the book I wrote, some years later came another development. One of the ex-world champion US players who was a prominent accuser of others being cheats published an autobiography in which he presented various evidence to support his case. Trouble is, some of his evidence was factually incorrect. Whether by mistake or not, he had materially changed the stories of played hands in ways that made it look worse for those accused. I collected together both his stories and, from official records, what actually happened in each case, wrote it up and sent it to Bridge World. Does it surprise you to hear that BW declined to publish my article. Now, this was surely an intrinsically interesting story – ‘world champ lies in book, were the Italians REALLY cheating?’ – and yet he claimed that people weren’t interested. Censorship can use so much to bolster its imposition. But consider this. If all those people who wrote privately to me to support me had done it in public, Jeff Rubens would most certainly not have been able to use this as his excuse. Meanwhile it has gone into history, this false evidence used to accuse some truly great players of cheating.

So this review is addressed more than anything to people who may be in doubt about what is going on here at GR, but are too scared to speak, nervous to speak, or perhaps simply don’t understand why it might be important.

SPEAK!!! On the thread I mentioned at the beginning of this review I was blocked from speaking any more. I wish to make that point to make it clear that I wasn’t bullied into stopping, being bullied isn’t something I take to readily. Don’t be bullied. Not by GRM. Not by the protesters. Say what you think. In a way the latter is harder, if you disagree with GRM because they will be unfailingly polite, whereas the free speech advocates can say what they like, how they like, where they like. Okay!! Still speak! They are maybe a bit sharper with a pen than you are? So what. Still speak. Free speech isn’t worth a low-flying fart, it doesn’t really exist, without interaction. Here you can still do that. If you agree with the protesters, speak up. I’ve long been predicting a world where Amazon will be a straightforwardly evil presence, but not yet. If you are uneasy about the protesters, perhaps you are on the side of rubbished authors or GRM SPEAK UP!!! I have no idea if speaking up is ever a right, but it is surely sometimes a duty and I really think this is a case where it is a duty. How you are treated by the protesters doesn’t really matter. If they disagree with you, they might tell you to fuck off, call you toxic – that’s their definition of free speech. But live by yours. In the end that is all free speech can be: what YOU think it is. Not what GRM thinks. Not what Manny thinks. What YOU think. That is, it is what we all think, which makes it, of course, a right dog’s breakfast.

But if you are doing that, exercising your right to free speech in a closed room on your own with the lights off, either through fear, or because other people have told you that you can say what you like but NOT where it counts, I assure you that this is not free speech, even if the free speechers tell you so. If that was free speech, well, Soviet Russia was its most loyal supporter. There, after all, you weren’t stopped from saying what you thought, only from saying it where anybody was listening. There is no difference between a bureaucracy telling you where you can say something and a bunch of people on GR telling you that. The effect is the same. This seems so obvious to me that I can’t understand why it isn’t obvious to the protesters, in so far, at least, as it pertained to my modest experience with them.

I am reminded of what happened to Colin McGinn, who lost a great deal of his life recently after a student reported him for sexual harassment. A group of academics stated in a public letter that “We recognize Dr. McGinn’s right to free speech” but that he should not be allowed to say anything in public about the situation or to defend himself publicly by talking about what happened. This despite the fact that he was being trashed by media in one of those stories that still sells newspapers. He was at perfect liberty to talk about anything that didn’t actually matter to him.

Fortunately right now, you have more rights to free speech than McGinn, and a great duty to use them. This ad appears on Amazon at the moment:

Forum Moderator

We like to think of our forums as a Free-Speech Zone. And freedom works best at the point of a bayonet – or a “Delete Post” button. As Forum Moderator, it’ll be your job to keep the forums safe and sanitary, while highlighting the posts that actually have something valuable to say. You’ll slap the bad guys’ hands and the good guys’ backs.

If you are tired of Hydra, if you are thinking it doesn’t really matter if such and such is deleted, keep in mind that this is really what you are fighting about. ‘Safe and sanitary’ scares the bejesus out of me. I can’t distinguish it from something you’d see in a Soviet Russia or Communist China re-education camp. But that’s just my opinion. PLEASE HAVE YOURS. And please remember that it doesn’t really count if nobody can hear it.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

You are playing a game. In adjournment you are offered a cast iron safe opportunity to cheat. It won’t affect the outcome of the game, you are going to win anyway. But it may change how you win. So what do you do?

The world is divided into two. Game players. Those who are not. If you are the latter, you won’t have a clue, not the least understanding of what it is to be the former. I mean, huh? You are going to win anyway, so what the fuck? Cheat? Weird.

This book is a fabulous depiction of a player of games. We start off with the ennui of having no challenge, of being the best. See, right there, something which might surprise you is revealed. Is it good being best, something you wake up to with a buzz every day? Not in the least. You have nothing more to do, you can’t even get better. It is why so many top sportsmen have a goal which is always out of reach, just one, while all the others might have been conquered a thousand times. But the one that always eludes them, it is that which keeps their psyche intact.

It’s good to win, bad to lose, right? Well, no. that’s not necessarily so. Gurgeh finds himself in this position. A physical challenge is offered during a game, which he must accept. The sexual parts of the loser will be removed. For his opponent this will be devastating, permanent mutilation. His, on the other hand, will grow back again. It’s not necessarily good to win. How many times have I experienced this. You play a friend, a lover, a sibling. You know what it means to them. You know how losing hurts. That should make you more inclined to win and yet.

Game over, you’ve won, that’s good. The victory was easy, even better. But it is the journey. Gurgeh is gutted more than once when his opponent capitulates. The journey is everything, the arrival is neither here nor there. To have it easy is to be robbed.

And yet…losing is pain. Winning is not pain. Playing is a paradox, both winning and losing can be hard to take.

There are two types of people in the world. The game players who give all of themselves and the ones who do not. For the former the game is real life, and real life the game. Life is nothing but a facilitator of the playing of the game. It has no instrinsic separate purpose. Anything Gurgeh does or does not do is to better his playing. When it becomes necessary, it is this that permits him to win the game that means his opponent will have his sexual organs removed. Real life takes what was the angst away from his decision.

I ask you again, do you cheat? And if so when and why? I know players who would not dream of cheating in the game, but in real life? What’s real life? I’ve played often enough with thieves to understand what is the difference for them. But not for a moment would I expect to be robbed.

Gurgeh cheats. The ethic not to is strongly ingrained, but a drone offers him something even more important than winning: to win in a perfect way that has never been done before. And the ethic of the aesthetic is strong indeed. In the real world we have the story of Alekhine faking a famously beautiful game. Gurgeh is the master playing a young girl. He is going to win for sure. It is this very fact that makes it possible in the end for him to countenance the drone’s corruption of him. He accepts information and acts on it. He wins, but the perfect-never-done-before-way eludes him. And thus he experiences the sour, so very bitter taste that victory can have.

I think long and hard about cheating. How close have I come, how often? You are playing chess, as you touch a piece you are going to move, you realise it is wrong. Swiftly the words ‘j’adoube’ come out of your mouth. You are playing bridge and it is impossible not to face different sorts of cheating all the time. Do you succumb? How? In the bottom of your heart do you think that if you do moral things this neutralises the things you do that are not? Have you made this decision and then locked it away so that your psyche has no qualms? You genuinely believe that you aren’t cheating when you are?

But, then, the book is this. It is an adventure story which fails at no hurdle. It is utterly believable, wildly exciting, entertaining. I’m dying to see the movie. Honestly, you won’t even notice it’s about games unless you want to. I forced myself to read it more slowly than I wanted to. For me that’s the ultimate compliment.

Fair Play or Foul: Cheating Scandals in Bridge by me

Dear Ms. Chua,

On an afternoon where my bridge partner had to cancel at the last minute, I looked through some books on a shelf in a side room. Serendipitiously and gloriously I found Fair Play or Foul. As mathematicians would say: elegant. Right to the point and way way ahead of its time. A pleasure to read and to learn from. A wonderful book.

Bernard Schneider

(Connecticut, USA)

I don’t know if the review I wrote below makes it sounds like nobody bought this. In fact the whole edition of 1200 copies or so sold out in a few months and I received many amazing comments on it. A couple of people even said it changed their lives, difficult as that may be to believe. I keep all this mail for a while, but lost it all in the mother of all computer accidents.

But I still get correspondence about it and a couple of days ago the above letter turned up.

So there, Jeff Rubens, who wrote not one but two dedicated angry editorials in Bridge World complaining about what a terrible book this is. Bernard (whoever he is) and I poke our tongues out at you.

Fifteeen or so years ago the author was in NY on the phone to Jeff Rubens, highly influential editor of the world’s most important bridge magazine, Bridge World. Having finished this ms. she was finding it hard to publish. For some reason it was engendering a lot of ill-will. At any rate, her American friends had insisted she talk to Rubens about it, and, having described to him what it was, he said ‘Hmm. So it’s a Godel, Escher, Bach sort of book.’ She thought for a second and said ‘Yes, I suppose it is’. Pleased as punch, of course, who wouldn’t want their book compared with this absolute classic. Much later on, she’s just read wiki on Godel, Escher, Bach and noticed this:

In response to confusion over the book’s theme, Hofstadter has emphasized that GEB is not about mathematics, art, and music.

All of a sudden the light’s switched on. Rubens meant the book isn’t about anything, he meant but it isn’t a bridge book is it, he meant who’s going to read the bloody thing? I can hear his pursed lips now, I can see him rolling his eyes as he makes this impolite comparison.

Disclosure: the star system isn’t necessarily reliable in this instance.

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

With no such intention in mind, I rather fell out of the frying pan on this one. I had to get away from Yourcenar and a glance at the shelves made me think nothing could be further from Hadrian than a book about Go.

My very first Go move, and it’s a mistake. There I was, reading yet another book where the author has taken a true story and turned it into a novel. Yet another book where admiring fans talk of how real the novel is. I’m a historian, so the whole idea of the biopic, or bionovel, or novel based on, turns my stomach. You end up with a society which gets its history from Fox or Walt Disney or French women who wanted to be an Emperor. Much more interesting than reading a history book, I dare say. Scowls and shakes fist at the very idea.

But, of course there is much to distinguish between the two books. It is the endeavour of Yourcenar to write about a period of which we know very little except at a political level. Kawabata, on the other hand, is writing of something that he witnessed, something that over the short period of time between reporting on it for newspapers and turning it into a novel, became more than it was. Kawabata thus writes at the most domestic and intimate level, the very stuff of which the classical Roman period has left virtually nought. Here, then, we have a novel that is as warm as Memoirs of Hadrian is cold.

Kawabata is writing of something he knows in the most familiar of ways and don’t we feel that as the reader. I imagine Yourcenar would have paid dearly to be able to do that. Her story, however, is a purely intellectual exercise. Yourcenar writes with intellectual rigour, Kawabata with love. The cold and the warm.

The result of these different approaches is that for me Kawabata reads true – and it doesn’t matter whether the precise details are fabricated – while Yourcenar, who might have more strongly struggled to be accurate, reads less true. One might argue this is because Kawabata WAS there, Yourcenar wasn’t, and of course what he writes is going to feel more believable. But I don’t think that is the real answer as to the different reactions I find myself left with to these books.

I read both these books in translation. I imagine Hadrian being easy to translate, not only because it has no specialist nature to it, but because the translator worked in intimate proximity to the writer. For Edward Seidensticker quite the opposite was the case. When asked ‘When translating, do you put the emphasis on getting everything right word for word, or conveying sense?’ he replied:

I stay as close to the original as I can, but for me it is very important for the translation to read smoothly – in other words, to have a certain literary quality and that means very frequently in matters of small detail departing from the original. A literal translation cannot be a very literary translation. But I stay as close to the original as I can. My theory of translation is that it is imitation; it is counterfeiting. And the counterfeiter who makes George Washington on the dollar bill look handsomer than he was is not a good counterfeiter. There has to be a spiritual bond between the translation and the original work, which means the translator must like the original work. But if someone tells you your translation is better than the original, you should consider it an insult because that is not what you’re supposed to be doing. You are not supposed to be improving.

and to the question ‘Do you check with the authors when you depart from their original?’: ‘It’s useless because authors don’t like to talk about their work. At least the ones I have known best don’t like to talk about their work. I never asked Tanizaki about anything, but it was very clear: Tanizaki is a very lucid writer; there are almost no problems of comprehension. I did ask Kawabata, but he was never any help, so I stopped.’

Not only was the author further removed from the translation process, but on top of that, we have the issue of the specialist nature of the object to be translated. Did Seidensticker have any experience of Go? Not that I have been able to discover. Still, I guess a good counterfeiter can get away with this, and if I’ve made that a theory, I think it holds for this book. I never felt like the move from one language to another mattered. Is it possible that Japanese translates especially well into English? Ignorantly, but intuitively, I want to say yes, it does. I feel like I am reading something quintessentially Japanese despite it’s being translated.

I noticed this, James Cowley, writing in the New Stateman:

He understands, too, the value of silence – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry – the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images – is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are distinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

I don’t feel this for one moment, that this sense of silence, pause and vagueness is missing in English. Well, I gather it is often said that Seidensticker is as good as translators get. He learned Japanese in a way which will be of interest to the linguists out there:

It was a revolutionary way in those days and hasn’t changed much since. The service language school assumed that it was possible for us to learn Japanese. Before the war, it had been assumed that only the Japanese could learn Japanese – a ridiculous assumption. But the Navy language school said we could, providing we had a reasonable amount of ability and intelligence. They taught what was called the natural method. We didn’t learn grammar, but learned from speaking and listening, the way a child does. I’m not sure it’s a very valid theory, but it was a good school, probably the best I’ve ever been in. By the end of 14 months, we were able to read a newspaper. Before the war, that would have been thought impossible. The Army required its language students to be soldiers, but the Navy didn’t require anything of us. Except that we study Japanese. It was complete concentration on one subject, which is not how most universities work. And we worked on it steadily without relief.

I observe that this book is typically discussed in terms of its relationship, real or imagined, to the decay of the Meiji period and the destruction of Japanese tradition taking place in this period. It isn’t that I mind the idea of this and certainly the author was deeply regretful that these changes were taking place. Nonetheless, it is a book about Go. It is a book about the nature of game-playing at the rareified level of being the best in the world. It is a book about the moral and aesthetic changes that were taking place in Go at that time, changes to be noted and mourned whatever else was also happening to mirror this in society at large. It’s a book about sportsmanship, neuroses and mistakes. The changes it observes, the struggle between the amateur ideal and the professional ethic, the pain suffered by the protagonists, the hapless hangers-on, all this rings true to anybody who has played games in an ambitious manner.

I confess, then, this is how I read this book: as a person who can’t tell the black squares from the white on a Go board or what to do with the doubling cube, but who has all too intimate a knowledge of how games at that level work. And I’m left harrowed, depleted – and enriched, of course – by this exquisitely sad tale.

Bullet Chess by Hikaru Nakamura

Manny and I are about to provide the live and online commentary for the Geneva Chess Masters. We will get to meet some of our heroes, including Kramnik, Nakamura and Judith Polgar. One way or another it seemed like time to get out my review of this which I wrote a while ago, long before Naka had a result in the 2013 Tal Memorial which has the potential to shake the theory of this review just a little…

Bullet Chess or How Nakamura Made My Life Better

My ex-ex-ex-defacto-sister-in-law is a paediatric cardiologist. But in truth there is only one teensy bit of it – about 2 mm long – in which she is interested, so if you ask her about ‘the heart’, as likely as not she’ll say ‘not my area’. If pressed she might wave a hand dismissively and say ‘it beats while you are alive and then it stops.’ Ah, the joys of living in the age of specialisation. Her lack of interest isn’t only limited to the heart, but to life generally. Mostly if she can’t relate it to that 2mm bit of heart, her eyes glaze over. HOWEVER – and this is a very big however – her ability to interdisciplinarise everything is pretty impressive. Whether you talk to her about doing the laundry, an unlucky hand you had at bridge last night, or the political situation in Botswana, she will do her level best to apply the information proferred to her ‘thing’. Chess players take note. Chess players for whom ‘quick chess is not chess’ take note.

‘So Bullet’s like ER’ Bo said. ‘And slow chess is like elective surgery.’ We were discussing the role of mistakes in the various types of chess and Bo had just been talking to a colleague in ER. Faced with a patient who was technically dead after being bitten by a jellyfish, the only chance of reviving him was to inject something into a vein. When the doctor unfortunately picked an artery that meant, although the patient was saved, it was at the expense of a limb which needed to be amputated. ‘In elective surgery,’ Bo continued, ‘this would be unforgiveable. But in ER, in a time-critical situation it was no more than an unavoidable mistake. Not only was time critical, but it isn’t possible in a dead person to distinguish an artery from a vein the way it is in a living person.’ He was a highly experienced doctor, but nonetheless, in ER, the Bullet chess player might say, ‘the mistakes are all there waiting to be made.’

After this story, lesson one should be easier to digest. You play a game of Bullet and you move on. There is only one important aspect of mistake making in Bullet to analyse: how long did it take you to make it. All things being equal, ten seconds is worth about a piece. To make a bad move quickly is neither here nor there. To make it slowly is unforgiveable. Not that it is this simple. Nakamura looks at when you have time to burn and should think but don’t. This is much much harder to deal with – how do you recognise that THIS is that moment when you take stock. But basically, it is this straightforward, you play a game, you make mistakes, he makes mistakes, you move on. You aren’t a doctor. Your mistake hasn’t just cost somebody limb or life. It cost you a rating point. Get over the whole idea of being a drama queen about losing. If doctors can plough on, you can too.

Yes, Bullet is different from tournament chess, as different as ER is from elective surgery. But that doesn’t mean it is to be dismissed any more than a doctor would turn his nose up at an emergency. ‘Save that man by cutting open his throat with that pocket knife and – I’m sorry, I can’t do that, it just isn’t surgery.’ What skills does Nakamura lend to his tournament chess by playing bullet?

(1) Simply playing a lot of games, the more games he plays, the more he can have the right attitude to any one game that it is everything and nothing.

(2) Bullet is about winning, not drawing. Not ‘not losing’. He is used to having to try to win every game.

(3) When something goes wrong, what the hell? That’s something that happens to him every day of the week. Lots of times every day of the week. Remember Anand-Nakamura in the 2011 London Classic? We could attribute the result of that game to bullet.

(4) As he discusses towards the end of his book, chess, like tennis and football, is being decided by quickplay methods when the slow form of the game does not produce a result. The higher your ambitions in chess, the more necessary it is to accept that being able to play quickly is vital. The ‘it’s not chess’ attitude no longer holds. The capacity to play quickly has always been necessary but never more than now, in the time controls/lack of adjournments and in sudden-death playoffs. One might ask if playing quickly makes one intrinsically superior. The answer to that is ‘obviously’. If we are to argue that ‘x is just as good as y, he just needs more time’ – well, take that to its obvious conclusion and I could be number one in the world too. Just give me more time. Lots and lots more time. Equally, if player x can only match player y with preparation, familiarity, being in his comfort zone, then that is a sign of inferiority too. I guess this comes to the conclusion that all things being equal, a player who can play fast is a better chess player than one who cannot. Having said that, we set some sort of limit on this conclusion. Being mentally alert is one thing. Having the physical ability to follow through on that is another matter that has nothing much to do with chess. If that’s your edge you might as well be doing any sort of internet gaming out there based on speed. We do not, therefore, give bullet the credence we would lend to slightly slower versions of quick chess but they are all connected. Taking in the important lessons of this book will make you better at 3 minute chess and 5 minute chess and 20 minute chess and tournament chess.

Why is this? Partly because it isn’t just a book about chess. Nakamura joins you as your therapist as well as your chess advisor. He tells you how you should behave, when he talks about the etiquette of bullet chess he is talking about living with the consequences of losing and winning from the point of view of your own psyche, not just manners.

To demonstrate this, let me put on my ‘chess-player’s girlfriend’ hat.

The girlfriend’s impressions. I swear to you, as I reflect upon the transformation of RegGuy from this – weedy, pale-chested, knock-kneed boy on ICC beaches, hoping to be picked by manly opponents, only to find his face ground into the sand – into boy wonder, that Nakamura is the Charles Atlas of Bullet chess. RegGuy’s aura is now ‘mess with me, buddy? I’d like to see you try.’

Manny at work
Manny at work

Maybe auras don’t count for much when you are playing somebody a million miles away over an internet connection, but I see it. There is a transformation of how he understands the use of his clock, a transformation not only in practice, but in observation. The stories of his bullet games now are the stories of the clock and the psychology and the tactics that go with it. In the 1950s, you would have seen a picture of RegGuy, sweet little weed in one photo, muscle-wielding dynamo in the other and a testimony as to how much more sex he is getting now. Well, I can’t help it. He’s so sexy when he is winning.

RegGuy's ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.
RegGuy’s ratings performance leading up to the writing of this review.

Nor is this the only big change. The sex is better as well. I can imagine the girls out there in the audience looking at that last sentence warily. Who wants Bullet Sex? But this book isn’t about doing things quickly per se. It is about time management, which is pretty much all sex is, right? More to the point, there hasn’t been one of those ‘late into the night I’m determined to lose a couple of hundred points here whatever I do’ sessions. The ones where after he has lost he tries to convince himself and you that it wasn’t about losing, it was about winning. I don’t need to tell anybody that sex – well, yes, life – is better without those. If only he hadn’t invented that chant: Woo Hoo, Hikaru! It’s all very well in the middle of kibitzing a tournament, or winning another game of blitz, but in BED???!

If I may apologetically point out that while I’m a chess patzer, I’ve spent a lot of time playing games seriously, including high stakes rubber bridge for years, as a consequence of which there are types of people I recognise. I started wondering after watching RegGuy’s routine of playing short sessions when he was winning and long ones when he was losing, if he was simply a compulsive gambler, ie loser, who needed the whole pattern of addictive behaviour that goes with that, the angst and suffering. When I pointed out that this is what losers do, play when they are losing and stop when they are winning he cottoned onto the idea and modestly changed his habits. But nothing like he did after reading Nakamura. The consequence is that he no longer has a damaging emotional involvement with his losses. There isn’t enough data to say what impact reading this book has had on his tournament chess, but simply from the way he talks, his more confident, sensible – practical – attitudes, I’m sure it will be good for it too.

Permit me another hat. The copyeditor’s and writer’s impressions. I’m sorry to say, that much as the copyeditor of this book comes in for high praise in the acknowledgements of this book, it nonetheless has errors which would make Horton (of King Pin) howl with rage. If copyediting had bullet ratings, this book’s copyeditor’s would be about 600. I find the errors so unlikely, it is almost like they have been added to sabotage her work after she looked at the proofs. That bad. To begin with I was seriously irritated by the fact that RegGuy said over and over ‘this is the sort of thing you say, but he puts it better.’ Did I say he was getting more sex? I can’t believe it. But to be fair this book is ill-served by the first chapter. It is so light-weight and badly written it would put anybody off who picked it up and judged it there. Saying ‘bullet chess is fun’ – no, I’m sorry, ‘bullet chess is fun!’ because the exclamation point is the main source of punctuation (groan away, Horton) – over and over is neither enlightening nor encouraging. As the book warms up, illuminating content and an improved style do lead the reader naturally to that conclusion. Not only that it is fun but that it has much wisdom to impart to any chess player, tournament or otherwise.

Moreover, Nakamura makes a good case for bullet chess now being the only real chess, the only form of the game where chess talent and chess understanding really count any more.

He never actually says bullet is good for your tournament chess, but why wouldn’t it be? Leave aside all the arguments about bad habits, they aren’t relevant. You can develop bad habits at any form and you can develop bad practise habits irrespective of how much time is on the clock. You play a lot of chess and in the process you learn a lot about how human beings work. That has to come in handy. Look at Nakamura, bullet chess supremo and number 5 in the world as I write. One can see the positive bullet impacts on his game. Not only that, but because he is dynamic and exciting, he is the player we all want to watch at that level. While the others are having their dreary computer-prepared draws, he is playing chess and even though he opines that playing at tournament level is not about playing chess any more, he has forced the idea that it can still be upon the chess-playing world.

Woo Hoo, Hikaru!