‘The Definitive Book’ – that’s written on the front cover and it nearly put me off reading it. Fortunately, I conquered my scepticism and plunged in. I didn’t know any chess book that merited the word ‘Definitive’; now I do. Big claims need big justification, but this book is extraordinary. It attempts to describe all the themes, the ideas, that chess problems use, and it succeeds in that formidable task.
Encyclopedias tend to sit on one’s bookshelf looking impressive, but rarely opened. You could do that with this tome, of course, and merely mention to your friends that you’ve got a copy, to up your kudos. But you can use this for fun, too. It has 1,726 problems and endgame studies, with their solutions and explanations, and you can dip into it at random; every page has problems that I had never seen before and each was a pleasure.
The names of problem themes can be disheartening: ‘Tertiary Arrival Correction’, ‘Distributed Rukhlis’, ‘Regel der Wirksamen Felder’ – what on earth are those? It doesn’t really matter, although if you’re curious you can find out easily – the book has not only the entries themselves, but also an index with cross-references and translations. Of course, there are errors – no humans could write a book as comprehensive as this without making some slips – but Velimirovic and Valtonen have achieved a praiseworthy level of accuracy. The English is at times a little faltering, but not to the point where one might misunderstand.
If you’re a composer, you’ll probably go straight to the index of composers to look for your name, and there’s a good chance you’ll find one of your problems in here. Just from that, the publishers should get good sales! It’s not cheap – no encyclopedia is – but at €39.95 it’s not out of most people’s range, and there’s far more content than any of my other chess problem books. My only worry for the future of this book is that the price can hardly cover the effort that has gone into writing and publishing it. Printed encyclopedias are becoming phenomena of the past; I haven’t used my Encyclopedia Britannica for years now; Wikipedia is both reliable and up-to-date. So, if the publishers don’t make a good return on their investment, can I suggest that future editions become on-line wikichesspedias?
I hope there will be new editions in due course; composers are constantly inventing new ideas to puzzle the solver and these will be given names and become recognised themes. Encyclopedia writers haven’t finished their work when they’ve read the proofs – they’ve given themselves a lifelong duty to update and expand their creation. They need collaborators, of course – people willing to send in suggestions for additions. I’m tempted to become one; it would be much like being on the worldwide team that helps to update the Oxford English Dictionary. In the chess problem world, this book will attain the status of the OED. ‘Definitive’? Definitely!