Review: Max Euwe's Best Games by Jan Timman

ChessAnalysisChess Personalities
Games of lesser-studied world champions part 1

Max Euwe's Best Games: The Fifth World Chess Champion (1935-37)

by Jan Timman

New in Chess 2023, paperback, 304 pages

Sample pages available in pdf on the publisher's website

New in Chess recently launched an attractive new series of best game collections. The first three have been devoted to world champions whose games tend to be somewhat less studied than those of the truly dominant figures. I'll begin my reviews with Jan Timman's book on Euwe, with which the second-strongest player in Dutch history writes about the strongest (not counting Anish Giri!). Timman already wrote on Euwe in personal terms in Timman's Titans (2016). Euwe's Best Games focuses purely on the chess. Timman talks interestingly about this project in an interview on Ben Johnson's Perpetual Chess Podcast (episode 336).

Euwe sensationally defeated Alekhine in the 1935 world championship match, only to lose the revenge match in 1937, Yet, he retained his place among the elite for a long time.

The four chapters divide the work into periods, as their titles indicate: the 1920s; World Champion; Dethroned; After the war. The 80 games range from 1920 all the way to 1975, so we witness the evolution of chess itself (not just Euwe's own play) over half a century. There is a substantial bibliography, along with an index of names, of openings, and some evocative photos. (I would have liked a numerical list of games, too.) The Introduction very concisely outlines the essential features of Euwe's play:

Kasparov writes: 'He was the first to begin preparing professionally for world championship matches.' It was nothing short of a paradox: a top player who distinguished himself from his colleagues because he had a regular job aside from chess, and he turned out to be an eminent professional. Of course, Euwe was of exceptional class not only in opening theory. Studying his games, I discovered that he was very good at concrete calculation, and combined this with fine positional feeling. Apart from that, I noticed he was a full-blooded attacking player. ... Generally, Euwe had excellent endgame technique. Especially when the features of the position were clear, he wouldn't make any mistakes. However, sometimes he could act hesitantly... [and a] mysterious phenomenon in Euwe's career is the blunder. (pp. 9-10)

Indeed, concision is the keynote of Timman's approach throughout. It is possible that some readers might wish for lengthier explanations in places; others might miss the questions and puzzles that many authors now insert in their annotations. However, I greatly appreciate the fact that there is hardly anything superfluous in Timman's presentation. For example, he says very little on opening theory, but has the wonderful skill of summing up in a few words where and how modern knowledge has advanced on that of Euwe's day, so that readers can see where to look further if they wish to.

Euwe's own annotations, readily available for the early period in From my Games 1920-1937 (1975 - on the internet archive), are likewise used sparingly, only at points where it is particularly interesting to know what Euwe thought (whether rightly or not). Timman usually includes interesting details about Euwe's opponents, woven into the outline story of the Dutch world champion's career.

Where Timman really excels is in the judicious use of engine-generated variations. His notes are tactful - no branding of moves as 'blunders' just because of a swing in the Stockfish evaluation. In his enlightening prose explanations, he often points out the difficulty for humans of seeing certain 'computer' moves. And the variations provided are almost always perfectly judged - enough to tell us all that we need to know about the game, without overwhelming us with very long lines. I admired this particularly with the head-spinning game Euwe-Rubinstein (1923). Please take a look at the sample moments here:

There are of course some great battles with Alekhine and other top players such as Keres in this book. I have not yet finished reading all of it, but I know that this is one I will be returning to for many years. Warmly recommended.