Inside Chess on DVD: you take the good, you take the bad…

Inside Chess 1998-2000 on DVD.  Available from Chesscafe.com, $89.95 retail, listed at $79.95.

When International Chess Enterprises ceased to be, their content (and perhaps their remaining retail stock) was purchased by Hanon Russell and ChessCafe.  Now, with ChessCafe having changed hands, the new ownership (BrainGamz) has gone back and digitized the crown jewel of that original acquisition, the entire run of Yasser Seirawan’s Inside Chess magazine.

Any review of this product must involve two considerations.  First, of course, the reviewer must assess the continuing value of the magazine itself.  How good are the articles?  How do they read today?  Would modern players be interested in them?  Second, and in my humble opinion of equal importance, the reviewer should describe the production values that went into the crafting of the new product.  How good a job did ChessCafe do with the digitization?  How easy is it to use?  Does the product live up to its advertisements?

My answer is simple.  The magazine is fantastic and, for this reviewer, it is certainly the best American chess periodical ever published.  The DVD and digitization, however, are real disappointments.  ChessCafe missed a real opportunity here by cutting corners and shipping an inferior product.

Born from the rubble of the defunct Player’s Chess News, Inside Chess grew to prominence in a world quite different from the one we now inhabit.  Remember that there was no Internet in 1988.  There was no Mark Crowther – who really should set up a subscription service to let his fans support his work! – to bring us new games on a daily and weekly basis at The Week in Chess.  Chessbase was a mere toy.  In such days there was still room for a bi-weekly magazine that would cover recent events from a near-insider perspective.  A lag of a couple of weeks between game played and annotations published was not cause for alarm; if Seirawan’s wonderful annotations are any indication, it might have been preferable.

The magazine’s main publishers were Yasser Seirawan and John Donaldson.  It’s hard to think of two people better suited for such a task.  Seirawan, of course, was a World Junior Champion, a World Championship candidate, and a second for Kortchnoi and Timman in World Championship matches.  He was also deeply involved in chess politics, having run for USCF President, worked on the GMA, and authored the ‘Prague Agreement’ that sought to heal the dual world champions schism of the early 00s.  Donaldson, while ‘only’ (ha!) an IM, has served as Captain of the US Olympic team and is a eminent author, historian and theoretician.  He is currently the director of the Mechanics Institute Chess Club.

What might one find in an early issue of Inside Chess?  Well, first you’d find some very well annotated games by Seirawan accompanied by lots of unannotated games from recent events.  (Again, recall that this was a time before TWIC, so players could only rely on printed material to access recent play.)  Throw in a few opening theoreticals, some reports (with games) from foreign correspondents and the bi-weekly short news roundup, and you get a fairly good sense of what each issue brought to your mailbox.  In IC 1:18, for example, there is a report about the US Open (and associated USCF political shenanigans), an article on the Speelman-Short match, a Open Ruy theoretical article and a piece on the USSR championship accompanied by Seirawan’s annotations of the Karpov v Kasparov game.  Not too shabby.

Seirawan’s annotations, in particular, warrant continued attention.  His work on the 1990 KvK match was tremendous, as was his on-site reporting of the Fischer return match in 1992.  Some may argue that he was less than objective in his annotating, or that he was not always analytically precise, but no one can deny the passion that comes through his words, nor his deep understanding of chess and chess personalities.  I remember how eagerly I would play through his notes every two weeks when my new issue arrived.  (Thanks to my now-gone grandparents for giving me that subscription so many years ago!)  Reading them made me feel like some kind of chess insider.

As time progressed, and as the Internet began to work its transformative powers on everything it touched, Inside Chess was forced to change.  More emphasis was placed on reporting and annotated games, and less on raw game scores.  Inside Chess introduced a slew of now-famous players to American readers via their annotations, including Anand and Tiviakov.  Stohl, Ftacnik and Atalik were among the regular GM contributors.  Minev’s tactics column was always entertaining and educational.  In its final years Inside Chess saw other welcome additions, including Christiansen’s column on attacking chess and Baburin’s “Endgame Laboratory.”  The latter, in particular, should have received much greater attention than it did.  There’s gold to be mined in those columns!

In the end, of course, Inside Chess could not compete as a bi-weekly.  They tried to continue as a bigger monthly, but as Seirawan wrote in IC 12:6, “[the Internet] fills our original niche better than Inside Chess or any magazine possibly could. … The Internet is a powerful competitor, delivering chess news quickly and in massive amounts.”  Inside Chess tried to continue as an online-only zine, but without any advertising income or subscriber base, it could not but fail.

Inside Chess remains a fascinating and valuable read.  I own a complete run of the print edition, and I often leaf through random issues, playing over games, recalling events of the past, etc.  Nearly every issue contains something that will be of interest to any chess aficionado.

Now we turn to the second part of this review, dealing with the new DVD edition of the complete IC run.  And here my review is much less laudatory.  To put it plainly, I think ChessCafe has churned out an inferior product that could have been much better with only slightly more effort.

Here is what ChessCafe promises to deliver in its advertising for the DVD:

  • All 284 issues!
  • Three DVD set!
  • Searchable PDF format!
  • Easily find events, openings, and players!
  • One table of contents file for all issues!
  • One index file for all issues!
  • It looks great on the Ipad GoodReader app, and in the Kindle!

Because, presumably, the original computer production files were unavailable to ChessCafe, each of the 284 issues was scanned and saved as a pdf that averages perhaps 50mb in size.  Such file size is, putting it mildly, unwieldy.  In order to read issue 12:6 on my Ipad, for example, I had to upload it to my Dropbox account and then open it in IBooks.  The scanned pdf is slightly sluggish when turning pages, with each page image having to load and then refine focus to fit the screen.

The real problem with the DVD is way that the scanning was done, coupled with a lack of editing of the scanned images before they were converted into pdf format.  It appears that someone simply scanned the magazines with a flatbed scanner without doing any editing work whatsoever.  You can see blank space at the bottom of many (most) of the scanned pages, and some pages are slightly crooked in orientation.  All of these problems are very easily fixed through open-source means.

Here’s an example.  I extracted the first pages of Alexander Baburin’s Endgame Laboratory from issue 11:1, dumped out the images, and ran them through the open-source ScanTailor package.  ScanTailor is designed for post-processing of scanned documents, allowing users to crop images, correct orientation, remove blemishes, etc.  It has the virtue of being extremely easy to use, and best of all, it’s free.  What were the results?

comparison_small

The original page is on the left, and the reprocessed one is on the right.  The text is darkened, the orientation is fixed and the blank space at the bottom of the page is removed.  The process was quick and easy, requiring very little human intervention.   Perhaps most importantly, the reprocessed file is approximately 1/4 the size of the original.  I fail to understand why ChessCafe would not spend the extra time and undertake similar editing.  Their product is shoddy, and it’s unfortunate.  This new incarnation for Inside Chess deserved better.

The index and table of contents files are just as disappointing.  They are gigantic scanned pdfs of each issue’s TOC and the bi-yearly game indexes lumped together without bookmarks, pagination, etc.  There is no linking between specific contents in the cumulative Table of Contents, for example, and the appropriate article in the correct pdf file.  I have to go find the right pdf, open it, and then go to the correct page.  The idea that you can “easily find events, openings, and players” just doesn’t ring true.

I understand that such cross-linking would have required some technical know-how.  If ChessCafe doesn’t have that ability in-house, there are consultants out there who are more than able to do the work for them.

Some will say that I’m being vastly overcritical here.  Perhaps.  I just see this as an opportunity lost.  Inside Chess is a treasure trove of great chess reading and content.  Its digitization was something I’d long hoped for.  But this wasn’t I wanted.  These files, to be completely honest, look like something made by a guy with a scanner in a room.  They don’t look professionally done at all, and it would have been so very easy for ChessCafe to have found someone competent to do the job.  Maybe they will remedy this before they do a second edition of the DVD.

Summary:  Inside Chess DVD, rated 10/10 for content and 4/10 for production.  Recommended only for the die-hards who don’t have the physical issues and who don’t mind the total lack of polish of the digitized files.

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4 thoughts on “Inside Chess on DVD: you take the good, you take the bad…

  1. Chris Wainscott

    I reviewed these for my blog as well, and as you can see (http://ontheroadtochessmaster.blogspot.com/2013/06/review-of-inside-chess-three-dvd-set.html) I note towards the end of my review that there were technical issues with converting the scan pdf’s.

    The scan quality was so poor that 5’s became S’s when copied and pasted from pdf into the text editor of my blog.

    Unlike you I don’t have the entire run in print so that made me sad because I was really looking forward to weeks (months) of enjoyment.

    I would also like to see the content put into a pgn format so that it would be even more versatile. I get how in depth that request is, but still…for $70 or whatever this retails for I’d like to see a bit more value.

    Your review is dead on.

    Reply
    1. fullcityplus Post author

      The misrecognition of letters is an OCR problem, and not necessarily a scan problem. I think the DPI is probably sufficient, but the OCR process is still imperfect. I’d love pgns too, but that would be a HUGE amount of work for Chesscafe. My guess, given the lack of attention to detail on the DVD, would be that they’d have no interest in doing that work.

      Reply

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