Monthly Archives: April 2013

Capablanca in the Age of Chessbase

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Capablanca: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2012.
Paperback ISBN 978-1857446982.  List $29.95. | Kindle ASIN B008M7VR46.  List $22.95. | Chessbase and PGN formats available at the Everyman Chess website and in-app in IOS.

Nota bene: My e-copy of this book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’m not a digital native.  I grew up with 14.4k baud modems and BBSs.  My first experience with what would become the modern Internet came in 1992 or 1993, when I tried to play chess without a graphical interface on one of the original chess servers, and when Mosaic was the end-all, be-all of browsers.  I don’t – much to my family’s disgust – put much stock in texting, and I can only read pulpy fiction on e-readers.  Try as I might, I’m analog to the bone.

Nor am I a digital chess native.  This might seem strange; after all, I play chess against people from all over the world via the intertubes, and I take lessons by means of Skype and Paypal.  I depend heavily on Chessbase and its many wonders to try and better my chess.  I even penned (analog again!) a book chapter where, after sketching the contours of a philosophy of technology using Chessbase as a case study, I declared Garry Kasparov to be a cyborg.  I grew up with chess books and chess boards, and when I really want to learn something, paper and pieces seem to work best.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that I’m in the minority of media consumers these days, and that my ‘side,’ as it were, is losing ground with each passing day.  E-books and e-readers are where the book industry is headed, and the chess book industry is no exception.  And the venerable Everyman Chess is undoubtedly leading the way into this brave future.

Everyman is trying to meet its readers wherever they might be.  They sell some books in epub format on their own site and in Amazon Kindle format at Amazon.  They sell some books in .pgn format, readable in Chessbase or their IOS app, at their website or through in-app purchasing.  They sell some books in native Chessbase format.  Oh, and they still sell tree-killing paper books too. Smile  (Thank goodness!)

Capablanca: Move by Move, the book under consideration in this review, is available in paperback, in Chessbase / PGN format, and as a e-book.  I have seen it briefly in paper, but I’m basing this review solely on my experience with it as an electronic entity.  On the whole, I enjoyed it, and I think it fills a void in the extant literature.  It is not without its problems, however, and I’ll point a few of them out in short order.

There are precious few collections of annotated Capablanca games currently in print.  I own two: Reinfeld’s Immortal Games of Capablanca and Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings. Both are quite useful.  Reinfeld’s fine book is a cut above his usual standard, and Chernev’s is among the best of his career.  But Reinfeld is in descriptive notation, which few young players can read, and Chernev is solely (and understandably) focused on Capablanca’s endgames.  Neither seems fully suitable as the ‘go-to Capablanca book’ for the contemporary player.

Enter Cyrus Lakdawala, who is churning out books for Everyman at a Reinfeldian pace.  In Capablanca: Move by Move Lakdawala analyzes 59 of Capablanca’s games.  Instead of following a strict historical chronology, he groups them according to broad themes of Attack, Defense, ‘Exploiting Imbalances,’ ‘Accumulating Advantages,’ and Endgames.  (Lakdawala uses a similar thematic structure in his contemporaneous book on Kramnik.)  After an Introduction where Capablanca’s biography is lightly sketched, we get to the games.

Capablanca: Move by Move is part of the Move by Move series.  As such, it follows the standard series format.  Games are annotated with a mixture of traditional notes, answers to ‘questions’ from hypothetical students, and a sprinkling of ‘exercises’ that ask the reader to find the next move. 

This has its advantages and disadvantages.  I’ve always thought that formats like these, with problems posed and answers given, tend to present problems in paper format.  Either you have to magically avert your eyes, cover the answers with an index card, or flip to the back of the book for the solution.  (Quality Chess books are notable exceptions in this regard.)  Have a look at the sample pdf provided on the Everyman website to see what I mean.

Books read in Chessbase format overcome this problem.  If you open Capablanca: Move by Move in Chessbase or Fritz and view a game in the ‘Training’ view, you can only see one move at a time, therefore doing away with the need for the index card, etc.   Each of Lakdawala’s exercises appears in this view as a task for the reader to solve, fulfilling the original aim of the format.  (The questions and answers are not similarly formatted; this might be something for Everyman to reconsider in the future.)  Going through the games in a manner akin to ‘solitaire chess’ was quite enjoyable and perhaps even educational.  I certainly found this mode of access more amenable than I did the e-book.

And why was that?  I viewed the e-book (in epub format) on both my Nook and my Ipad.  In both cases I sat down with the e-book/e-reader, my board and my pieces.  The mismash never really worked for me.  The screen on the Ipad would timeout and go dark while I was studying the position on the board, and the screen on the Nook was small enough to be engulfed by diagrams.  For me – and others may well disagree – chess books don’t span the gap between the physical and the cyber particularly well.  They need to be one or the other, either paper and plastic or fully electronic.  Maybe those lucky few who can play over complete games in their heads might have a different experience.   I wouldn’t know.

I was also provided a .pgn file to test in the Everyman Chess app for IOS.  Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the riches of the Chessbase interface, but the app suffers terribly in comparison.  It’s hard to navigate between variations and sub-variations, and here again the screen times out if you neglect it for more than a minute or two.  It is certainly handy to have the ability to read chess books on my phone or while traveling on my Ipad, but I don’t think it’s robust enough to serve as a primary interface for study.

Those readers who have stuck with me to this point are surely muttering to themselves, “enough with the technology reviews!  What about the games and notes?”  On the whole, Lakdawala does a fairly good job with the analysis.  He tends to favor words over variations, keeping the thickets of analysis to a pruned minimum.  If you compare his analysis of the famous Capablanca-Tartakower endgame (New York, 1924) to that of Dvoretsky in DEM, for example, you see quite quickly that Lakdawala is writing for a broader audience.  He’s not trying to conclusively discover the inner truths of a position; rather, he’s trying to teach his reader something about Capablanca and about chess.  I suspect the market for this kind of project is bigger than that for Dvoretsky’s.

At times, and to his book’s great detriment, Lakdawala is entirely too fond of words.  His verbosity sometimes crosses from the florid to the fetid; put differently, Lakdawala desperately needs an editor who will ruthlessly cut the worst excesses of his prose.  In the sample pdf on the Everyman site, we can find, just in the first game, a few of his lesser affronts: “[w]hite fires a bullet into the wall to test the forensics of the position” (16), “[t]he white king’s fevered dreams conjure very real phantoms, as he tosses in his sweat-soaked bed” (17), etc.  What, pray tell, is a “mindblower fact?” (17)  Things go from bad to worse in game two, where Lakdawala describes the flaws of a move with this gem: “[n]ow light-squared punctures dot White’s position, as on a pox-scarred face.” (21)  The rest of the book is filled with similar sins against the English language.  There might be some who find this kind of thing cute… but I find it cloying, distracting, and an unfortunate blight on an otherwise respectable work.

While I’m at it, I should say that (1) I was slightly annoyed by Lakdawala’s continued use of the nickname ‘Capa’ for Capablanca.  It might save six characters hundreds of times over, thus reducing page count, but it’s a little disrespectful.  (2) I really wish that Lakdawala had chosen not to insert contemporary game references into his notes.  It hardly seems fair to hold Capablanca responsible for not knowing opening theory from fifty or sixty years after his death.

On the whole, however, I think Capablanca: Move by Move fulfills a need in the chess marketplace.  While it is not the ‘scholarly,’ comprehensive treatment I’d hoped it would be, it’s certainly good enough to serve as the go-to Capablanca book for all those young chess players who are so sadly ignorant of chess history.  Those who can read descriptive might consider Reinfeld instead, but both books would be worth your time and money.

Recommended for players of all ratings, despite my reservations.  7/10.  (And please, Everyman, let your editors run free on Lakdawala’s future efforts!)

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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.