21 August 2015

Editing Matters

In my previous post, 2015 CJA Awards, I wrote,

Another piece deserving special note was 'Winner: Reconnecting with Caissa' by GM James Tarjan, which received two awards: 'Best Features Article' and 'Best Story of the Year'. An Honorable Mention for 'Best Features Article' went to 'How to Catch a Chess Cheater' by Howard Goldowsky. [...] The Tarjan story didn't impress me as much, so I'll return to it in a future post.

Why did I like the Goldowsky piece better than the Tarjan piece? This question has been bothering me since I learned that the Tarjan piece won two awards. Both stories were based on topical ideas, developed into feature length articles by writers who know their subject matter thoroughly. I read the nine-page Goldowsky piece straight through in one sitting, but put down the six-page Tarjan piece after two pages. I had to force myself to pick it up again and read it to the end. Here are the first few paragraphs of the Tarjan story.

In case you don’t know, chess is ruled by a goddess; her name is Caissa. She presides over a beautiful kingdom, but she is fickle and difficult. If you are lucky (or should we should say, if you are unlucky), she will call you to worship.

Caissa called me when I was very young. In my adulthood, it was time to worship at other altars. Caissa was not happy to lose a devotee, but she talked it over with her fellow gods and goddesses. Some of the other devotees did not understand, but Caissa herself did, and accepted it.

Years later, with the aid of a human-created silicon monster, she called on me again, and I heard the call.

The start is very good, but note the first paragraph : 'should we should say'. The entire piece is badly edited. Later on:

So if you said to me, Jim, you scored seven of nine in the U.S. Open. Big deal. Who cares? If you said that to me, I would be happy to concur.

That sort of unfocused writing is tedious to read and the meandering article is full of it. This criticism is not against GM Tarjan, but rather against the editors of Chess Life. Someone should have taken a red pencil to the whole thing and turned a promising story into a great story. As it was published, it didn't merit two CJA awards.


I don't want to end this post on such a negative note, so let's look at a chess story that happened more than 46 years ago, 'Battle of Junior Giants' by Andrew Kempner.

The genesis of a six-game match between the top two ranking juniors (according to USCF rating tables), Walter Shawn Browne, formerly of Brooklyn, now a citizen of Australia, and James E. Tarjan of Sherman Oaks, California, was a simple question: who is better?

Walter's answer was instantaneous: "l'm better!" Tarjan's was reflective: "Maybe Browne's better." The result, a 3-3 tie, was thus a mild surprise to even the staunchest Tarjan supporters, who found themselves in the vast majority. Only one fan hoped for a Browne victory, stating simply: "Tarjan won't analyze with me any more."

The report included the following photo.

Chess Life, March 1969

Browne made a lifelong career out of chess; Tarjan retired at age 32. Who could have guessed that their chess careers would have turned out so differently?

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