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John Watson Book Review (6)

Chess Videos: Indulge Yourself!

Shirov! Best Games, Volumes 1-5, with Alexei Shirov and Ron Henley, (between 90 and 118 minutes each), R&D Publishing, 1998

Grandmaster Video Magazine #18, with Daniel King, (2 hours), Grandmaster Videos 1996

Foxy Openings: The Najdorf, with Nigel Davies, (75 min), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $26.95

Foxy Openings: Nimzo-Indian Defence, with Chris Ward (70 min), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $28.95

Foxy Openings: d4 Dynamite!, with Aaron Summerscale (2 hours, 30 minutes), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $34.95

Shirov! Best Games, Volumes 1-5, with Alexei Shirov and Ron Henley, (between 90 and 118 minutes each), R&D Publishing, 1998

Grandmaster Video Magazine #18, with Daniel King, (2 hours), Grandmaster Videos 1996

Foxy Openings: The Najdorf, with Nigel Davies, (75 min), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $26.95

Foxy Openings: Nimzo-Indian Defence, with Chris Ward (70 min), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $28.95

Foxy Openings: d4 Dynamite!, with Aaron Summerscale (2 hours, 30 minutes), Grandmaster Videos 1998; $34.95

Chess videos have been around for some years now, without receiving a great deal of critical attention. In my experience, they are an excellent teaching tool, particularly because students who work during the day often lack time or energy to pore through books, but can passively absorb chess material from a videotape as easily as they can follow the latest 'NYPD Blue' plot. In this review, I will talk about some of the characteristics of chess videos and then look at some examples.

It's interesting that up to the present, chess lessons and 'books' on CD haven't been terribly successful. This may well change; ChessBase, for example, is currently producing CD lessons, and includes extensive multimedia reports with ChessBase Magazine. Also, the DVD format promises more bandwidth for future efforts. But for now, the most amenable alternative format for chess lessons continues to be videotape. How does this medium differ from booksÿ In the first place, videotapes are preserving live impressions of today's players for posterity. This may seem a trivial function, but when watching historical filmings of the old masters (e.g., Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker), I am always struck by how rare such precious footage is, and sadly, how many notable historical players were only caught on film when they were well past their prime. Both of the companies represented in the list above have done us a service in this regard. Grandmaster Video has produced no less than 18 editions of Grandmaster Video Magazine, featuring the world's very top players competing at premiere events and matches, as well as two World Championship videos. R&D Publishing has something like 13 videos featuring Karpov, coverage of the Kasparov-Deep Blue match, and, for example, the Shirov series I'll be reviewing. Finally, although I don't have any of them, there are Dmitrije Bjelica's tapes of many of the great stars of the Spassky/Petrosian/Fischer era, as well as some earlier footage of greats such as Alekhine, Capablanca, and Botvinnik. In anticipation of inevitable questions, I should mention that most chess book-and-equipment distributors stock videos as well. One may contact, for example, the London Chess Centre (sponsors of this page) or the World Wide Web Chess Superstore (which produces the R&D Publishing videos).

What are the advantages of the video formatÿ In one important sense, the moves are much easier to follow in a video than in a book. You see the moves as they are played and discussed, and therefore you needn't play the moves on a board or reset the positions. Of course, this latter process may actually be helpful in the learning process, but at least with a video, one has the choice of whether to use a board or not. Note that the ideal medium in this regard is a computer with a database (or certain playing programs), in which not only are the moves (and analysis) instantaneously displayed, but one can quickly jump back to any desired position, display multiple positions at the same time, etc. But videos are easier to follow, and have other advantages as well. Having a human being to either guide you through a position or do live commentary on the drama of a game is, pure and simply, fun. It's like having a teacher in your living room, or being allowed to sit in on a post-mortem between two world-class players. For the average player or beginner, especially, the value of a human touch should not be underrated.

One problem with a video, of course, is that one has to rewind in order to review material, as opposed to just glancing at the last diagram or previous moves in a book. In order to find a particular position one is interested in, one may have to scan through a great deal of tape, particularly if one has not recently watched it. Moreover, the viewer is unable challenge the authority of the presenter by making alternative moves on the spot. Frankly, I don't think these disadvantages are so serious, but they do tend to clarify who constitutes the best audience for a video presentation. In my opinion, videos are ideal for (a) players who are in a mood to be entertained by and have fun with chess; and (b) players who want a simplified overview of a particular game or an opening.

Let's turn to some specific videos to expand upon these thoughts. R+D Publishing's series of tapes about Alexei Shirov's best games is highly recommended for anyone who wants to hear a world-class grandmaster talk about chess. Since people pay considerable amounts of money to go to brief lectures by such players, I would think that the potential audience for such tapes would be wide indeed. Shirov talks about his favorite games (usually four per tape; there are 19 games in all), adding some background to each game and, mainly, a lot of analysis. Most of these games, which are marvelous and full of tactics, come from Shirov's book which I reviewed in a previous column (Fire on Board). On tape #4, he adds one recent game, and then on tape #5, three of the four games are new. Readers of that book who want to try out one of this series should therefore get tape #5 first. Interestingly, Shirov has corrected some mistaken analysis from Fire on Board (without saying so) and has added some new opinions, so the series has a certain scholarly value as well.

I have to emphasize that these videos are to be enjoyed, and I'm reluctant to criticize them as I might a more serious book. But I should say that the production value of the Shirov videos is not terribly good, and certainly not up to that of the Grandmaster Videos series discussed below. Instead of having an electronic board superimposed on the screen, Shirov and Henley (who moderates) have to use a demonstration board. As a result, the filming is continually paused and restarted so that they can reset positions, catch their breaths, and/or correct mistakes. There are many pregnant pauses, and the chemistry between Henley and Shirov is, well, barely existent. In one sense, this adds some needed levity, since almost every time Henley suggests something (either by way of a move or explanation), Shirov either contradicts him directly, or merely says 'yes', and goes on to change the subject! I don't think that Shirov means to be so dismissive; but he has a very literal mind and when presented with a statement, he tries to correct every inaccuracy in it. Henley, on the other hand, is clearly trying to appeal to the (presumably amateur) audience, and gamely tries to fill in elementary tactical details while presenting little tidbits of wisdom. The problem is that the tidbits are sometimes mistaken, so that Shirov feels obliged to correct them. For some reason, I found the resulting dynamics quite funny. In general, I think that Shirov is personable and interesting, but he is also a bit eccentric, which may not play well with everyone.

I won't deny that there are other minor esthetic problems with these tapes, e.g., the introductions and advertisements are awkward, to say the least. But what really counts is that these are great games presented in a friendly format, and you get to directly hear the thoughts of one of the very best modern players. For me, at any rate, this is a very pleasurable way to gain a greater appreciation of modern chess. I applaud R+D's effort to show us brilliant players like Shirov live, and look forward to seeing more of their work.

Grandmaster Video has been producing high-quality videos since the beginning of this decade. The three videos I'll be commenting most upon for the rest of this review are opening-repertoire tapes, but GMVideo also produces beginner's and instructional tapes by the likes of Daniel King, Raymond Keene, and Julian Hodgson. They have also put out a series of documentary-style video 'magazines'. One of these, Grandmaster Video Magazine #18, covers the events of the 1996 PCA Grand Prix events in Moscow and Geneva. In this video, one can see live rapid-play and blitz matches, interviews with the players, and post-game press conferences from the like of Kasparov, Kramnik, and Polgar. This stuff is pure joy for the fan, and presents top-flight players close-up in a way seldom experienced by many club players. I'm not sure whether GMVideo will continue to produce this series, but in any case I highly recommend picking up a few of the older ones for your library.

GMVideo uses a presentation technique superior to that of R&D's: the moves which are being discussed appear on a full-screen representation of the chessboard. For their opening series ('Foxy Openings'), this technique allows the viewer to see ideas (projected plans) and subvariations quickly and easily without losing track of the original position. Although the 'author' of the video appears on the screen fairly regularly, one is mostly listening to his voice while watching the moves. Again, there's no substitute for being able to thumb back through a book and quickly locate a particular line, but at least the video material is accessible and generally well-organized. Better still, the moves are visually impressed upon the viewer, which for many may be the best way to learn. I'm very impressed with the high percentage of quality opening videos GMVideo has produced, and having purchased several for myself and my students. Normally, the reader is armed with a complete repertoire with or against a particular opening. Naturally, there is no way the analysis can match the depth or accuracy of a full-length book on the King's Indian, for example; but the inherent scope of some openings is quite limited, and that's where the Foxy Opening series really shines. They have produced, for example, repertoire tapes on the Alekhine (Dunworth), Modern Defence (Norwood), MacCutcheon French (Martin), Trompowki (Hodgson), Chigorin's Defence (Davies), and the English Defence (1...e6, 2...b6) and the Budapest Gambit (both Plaskett), as well as other such systems. In each case above, the scope of the subject matter is narrow enough that relatively deep and sometimes original analysis can be presented. Tapes on such subjects are sophisticated enough to be helpful even to a master, as well as to the targeted audience, which I presume to be the club player (perhaps in a range from 1200-2100). The unusual thing here, however, is that a child with a couple of years of shoving the pieces around behind him might get quite a lot out of such a presentation, particularly since several of the 'authors' do their best to add drama and entertainment to their presentation.

The three videos I've chosen are relatively recent productions. The first, Nigel Davies' The Najdorf, I've picked because its scope is more ambitious than the above-mentioned videos. The Najdorf is a complex, strategically messy system which hardly seems to lend itself to a 75-minute video. Davies had previously done a superb job of presenting a repertoire in the Chigorin Defense (1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6), and recently put out a repertoire with 1.e4 c5 2.d3 versus the Sicilian Defense. The latter seemed to me rather disorganized and unconvincing, which perhaps indicates how important subject matter can be in such cases. With the Najdorf repertoire, Davies made a believer out of me again. He covers every serious White system (6.Bg5, 6.Bc4, 6.Be3, 6.f4, 6.Be3, 6.a4 and 6.g3) in plenty of detail to arm someone for tournament play, and still has time to discuss things like 6.f3, 6.Bd3, and 6.h3. Since I myself played three of White's moves, I was impressed by his clever choice of responses, which limited the amount of study necessary for Black while retaining a fundamental soundness. Davies' presentation is fairly hurried, to be sure; but replaying the tape should suffice to fill in what one misses the first time. I don't have room to expand upon this, but if I wanted to take up the Najdorf for the first time, I could do much worse than to take my first steps with this tape.

Another complex opening which is well-covered in a limited time is the Nimzo-Indian, presented by Chris Ward. Ward shows that by picking slightly unusual but positionally well-founded lines, Black can play the Nimzo-Indian without a great deal of preparation. He offers simple ideas against irregular moves such as 4.Bd2 and 4.g3, and classical solutions in the main lines such as 4.e3 b6, 4.Nf3 b6, and 4.Qc2 d5. The emphasis is on soundness over complications; players who want something spicier might do well to combine Ward's suggestions in the difficult lines with sharper alternatives provided by theory in others. Again, I can recommend this as an excellent starting point for an opening which will last you a lifetime.

Aaron Summerscale's d4 Dynamite! should appeal to less-advanced players. Young players often start out with a simple repertoire 1.d4 based on the Colle Attack; Summerscale provides such a repertoire with the Colle-Zukertort (1.d4, 2.Nf3, 3.e3, 4.Bd3 with a later b3 and Bb2) versus 1...d5, and a Colle with 1.Nf3, 2.Nf3, 3.e3, 4.Bd3, 5.0-0 and 6.c4 versus ...Nf6/...e6/...b6 systems. Summerscale cannot be faulted for lack of complete-game examples and strategic explanations: the tape lasts two-and-a-half hours! Without denying it's possible benefit to stronger players, I see this tape as a practical primer in elementary tactics and a non-threatening way for young players to be introduced to opening play. There is a great deal more care taken to explain why some 'obviously' winning position is indeed winning (I fast-forwarded a lot!), and what the ideas are behind the various plans tried by both sides. Unlike Davies' and Ward's repertoires, this one isn't as strictly organized or appropriate for memorization; it's merit resides in the simplicity of the ideas involved. Consider this tape if you're looking for a safe and quiet way of playing the opening or have a young student who might benefit from such a system.

Hopefully, I've made it obvious that I like these videos. One of my few gripes about the Foxy Openings series, however, is that, while they produce a small pamphlet of complete games to accompany each opening video, they could with very little extra effort put in a short index of the recommended variations. This is particularly true since the printed list of complete games never seems to touch upon a significant part of the repertoire. To study the video seriously, it's probably necessary to take some notes as one goes along. I should also repeat my original warning: unquestionably, one gets more and better information about an opening from a book written by an expert. After you get back from losing a game at the club tournament, for example, you're much more likely to find concrete advise on the particular line you just played from an opening book than from a video. Nevertheless, the fact that for many people, a video will provide a fun and entertaining way to learn an opening should more than make up for these drawbacks. In conclusion, I highly recommend that you give videos as try as a supplement to your normal study from books.

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