John Watson Book Review (114)
John Watson Book Review #114 More on Electronic Publishing
IM John Watson - Wednesday 26th November 2014
MChess one of several apps discussed by John Watson. Photo © | http://mchessapp.com/
IM John Watson looks again at more Electronic Publications by MChess, EPlus, Everyman Books, Gambit Studio, ForwardChess, ChessApps and SmartChess and some of the publications within them.
As previously indicated, I'm going to take another look at the various chess ebook Apps for tablets and mobile phones. Slowly but surely, this or a similar type of digital/multimedia publication will doubtless come to occupy more and more of the chess publishing space. In terms of sheer convenience and efficiency, it's hard to argue with being able to see and play through the positions that you're reading about. I'm going to limit myself to ebook Apps, but there are many other Apps for tablets and mobile devices that offer instructional matter in the form of videos and of course playing and training programs (an impressive newish one is MChess: http://www.mchessapp.com). Also, at some point I'd like to review a few of the many internet sites offering videos, especially ones with high level instructional and theoretical video material, for example, chess24.com, chess.com, chesslecture.com, chessbase.com, and others.
That's not to say traditional publishing is dead, of course: keep in mind the decades-old predictions about the demise of the printed book (and of paper itself) before assuming that printed chess books will disappear. In fact, I would say that the adoption of ebooks up to this point has been surprisingly slow. To some extent, that may be because the word hasn't gotten out. One simple attraction of using ebook Apps is that they are all free, i.e., it doesn't hurt to download and install any or all of them and then pick and choose among the ebooks that are offered. This also means that ebook companies will experience less destructive competition. The basic functions of all these Apps are the same, so if a company offers unique ebooks, it's not likely that the consumer will forego ignore a purchase just because the book he wants isn't on his favorite App. This also makes it easier for the reviewer; I can compare the features of this or that program, but the decisive factor for most readers will be whether he can get a particular ebook at an acceptable price. Because all of these Apps offer different books, none of them is yet in a position of taking over the market. Up to this point, moreover, chess ebook programs have mainly taken previously-published chess books and translated them to their particular format. That is, very little original material has been written exclusively for the Apps, something that may gradually change.
I'm not going into many details about how you navigate through the programs, since they all have tutorials and free samples which will let you assess the quality of the App and what features are offered. In that way you'll find out, for example, whether or not you like the organization, interface and appearance of the App (fonts and diagrams, for example), while getting a feel for how the pieces move from variation to variation and how they coordinate with the text. Before continuing on to descriptions, by the way, I should warn you that, although some of these Apps are available for both Ios and Android devices, my perspective comes solely from using the Ios versions on an IPad.
In Reviews #107 and #108, I discussed the various types of ebooks and concentrated upon EPlus Books (www.eplusbooks.com), whose App e+Chess was the first of its type, placing the text of the book on one side of the screen and allowing the reader to tap the moves (or use a variety of arrows) to play through games and variations on a board on the opposite side of the screen. You can also look at a variation of your own choosing by tapping on the initial and then destination squares (this can't be saved to memory, however). Their trilogy of works by Nimzowitsch (with new translations by Robert Sherwood) is a great example of how brand new books can be created for this format. EPlus is a sophisticated App, with various unique editing functions and features. For example, Jeremy Silman's Complete Endgame Course, itself a classic, is accompanied by his audio commentary explaining basic concepts, and there are also numerous highlighted notes which stand out from the page to reinforce the lessons. I particularly like the ability to put in a sticky note when I've seen a comment I'd like to return to, for example, or when I've spotted a move not given by the book (perhaps an improvement on theory, for example, or simply a variation I'd like to check). Later I can come back to it, put it in a game, use an analytical program, and save it in a database on my main computer.
Several of these chess ebook Apps are devoted to a particular publisher. For example, I've referred to Everyman's Chess Viewer App before (www.everymanchess.com/chess_app.php); see Review column #107. It has ebook versions of Everyman's extensive library of physical books. As an added bonus, the App can also read any PGN file from an external source so that, e.g., you could import a PGN file of your games or your repertoire to bring to a tournament, playing over your notes and preparation on your way there. Of all the apps I'll discuss, Everyman has by far the largest offering of ebooks, reproducing works from their earliest days and coming right up to their latest offerings. In fact, most of the books that Everyman has ever published are now available in this form. As many of you know, the same books are also available in PGN format as downloads on their website; they can be played through in Chessbase or a similar program. The App gives you the same content as these PGN downloads, which in turn very closely follows the original physical books. The best way to see what's available is to download the App and check out the bookstore. I expect to refer to this App more in the future.
Another renowned publisher, Gambit Publishing, has a fairly new App called Gambit Chess Studio. They have already created 35 ebooks from their highly-regarded collection of titles, with numerous others forthcoming. For example, the book I reviewed recently for this column, Graham Burgess' A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White, is available. Not surprisingly, John Nunn's books are well represented, including no less than six books on the endgame. A couple of other classics are Chess for Zebras by Jonathan Rowson, and for beginning players, Murray Chandler's ever-popular How to Beat Your Dad at Chess. [Disclaimer: There are also several of my own books in the mix].
In general, the Gambit Studio format follows the original EPlus model: text on one side, board on the other (there's an option to put them on the side you prefer), with tapping on moves or using arrows to navigate through the game. There are the usual functions of text size, diagram size, flipping the board, etc. Navigation is flexible and easy, and I find the proprietary font to be particularly pleasing – it's the same one Gambit uses in the physical editions, and I've always thought easier on the eye than other chess fonts. That is all the more true in the ebook format. The appearance is uncluttered, and the easy-to-use search function is another nice touch that I don't see on other apps. On the negative side, there is no way to add personal notes or copy text, and the user can't make independent moves that aren't in the notes. To be fair, the same is true for most Apps, and this won't be very important for the average user anyway.
In order to explore the Chess Viewer App, I purchased two Gambit ebooks: John Nunn's Understanding Chess Endgames and Volume 2 of Igor Stohl's Garry Kasparov's Greatest Chess Games. Stohl's book has a particularly large number of variations and subvariations. These proved easily negotiable, with different arrow functions allowing a quick transition from one line to the next without needing too much tapping (or any, if you prefer). These Stohl volumes are certainly among the best things written about Kasparov, by the way, and his commentary is arguably more enjoyable than Kasparov's annotations of his own games. I was having fun reading through his career details when suddenly it struck me that Kasparov retired almost 10 years ago! Seems like yesterday, but pretty soon the young players won't even know who he was.
I picked the Nunn book in order to see how easy it might be for a student to learn some endgames. The ebook format really shines here, and one can imagine a student or amateur player sitting on a plane and poring over the entire book. Unlike many of Nunn's highly technical books on super-specialized openings, this one has clear and relatively straightforward examples that represent all the basic and some sophisticated endings, as well as the most useful of general endgame principles. The average player could do well enough with this book alone for his endgame education.
Looking at the endnotes, it occurred to me that Gambit has a unique claim to fame. Its founders (now called ‘Directors') – John Nunn, Graham Burgess, and Murray Chandler – are still in charge and do the work after about 17 years (along with Petra Nunn, who is the German editor). This is surely a record for stability in the chess publishing world, where owners, editors, and contributors come and go. Congratulations!
New in Chess Book and Files
Another publisher-specific App is New in Chess Book and Files, which in collaboration with Eplus Books puts out ebook versions of new and classic New in Chess books, for example, Timman's Curacao 1962 , Vassily Ivanchuk's 100 Selected Games (by Kalinchenko), Sokolov's Winning Chess Middlegames, and Van Perlo's wonderful Endgame Tactics. Moskalenko's The Perfect Pirc-Modern is an opening theory book; I hope that we will see more of these. The interface and functions are the same as the E+chess App described above. The main issue right now is not with the App or the quality of these offerings, but with the paucity of books translated into ebooks thus far. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of New in Chess' vast library of books appear as time goes by. I do recommend the majority of books they have in their store right now. Most readers will form a collection which includes selected books from various Apps. There is also an separate App for New in Chess Magazine, but I haven't explored it yet.
I mentioned the Forward Chess App in Review #11. It is available for both Ios (IPad and iPhone) and Android; see www.Forwardchess.com. Several things distinguish this App and make it essential to know about. First, it has an imbedded analytical engine (Stockfish) which analyses the current position, just as you are probably used to seeing when you use ChessBase. The engine gives its top two lines with the usual numerical assessment. You might think that having an engine isn't that important for recently-published books, because authors these days have engines look at their moves and know which lines are relevant. But for one thing, that's not true of older books; and of course even in new books, at least one of the two moves will often not be mentioned in the text. More importantly, the Forward Chess App lets you make your own independent moves/analysis by tapping on squares of origin and destination, and then you can turn on the imbedded Stockfish engine to analyse those moves. I should say that this is slightly awkward on the IPad in that every time you make a move for your own analysis, you have to turn the engine off and on again, but it comes off and on almost instantly, so this is only a minor inconvenience. During analysis of anything already in the book (as described above), the engine stays on continuously just as it does in Chessbase or similar programs. I personally find engine analysis a huge plus, and I know that at least two other publishers including EPlus plan on having one soon.
The other outstanding thing about ForwardChess is its selection of books. They put out ebook versions for a large number of chess publishers, for example, Chess Stars (a large selection of high-quality opening books; most if not all of these are repertoire-based and thus handy for the tournament player), Quality Chess (20 books, including several from the Grandmaster Repertoire series, Judith Polgar's two recent books, and various opening books), Chess Informant (recent Informants – it really helps to be able to play through the moves!), Mongoose Press Tamburro's Openings for Amateurs, Wojo's Weapons, etc.), and Russell Enterprises (including classics like Tal-Botvinnik 1960 and Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual) . Also, interestingly, they have their own ebook versions of New in Chess books, which are different from the ones in the New in Chess Book and Files App; two that stand out for me are Hendrik's Move First, Think Later and Bent Larsen's Best Games by Larsen himself. This is clearly an App that a chess book lover should download and browse through.
I should also mention a program called ChessApps (www.chessapps.net), which has a useful combination of desirable functions, including a computer engine (again, Stockfish; you can play against it as well as use it for analysis), the ability to create new moves and use the engine to analyse them, several editing functions, and allowing the user to add text annotations. You can practice with all of these by downloading the program on your PC, for example, and using the sample books (I purchased a fun monograph about irregular White tries against the Caro-Kann). I found using the engine for analysis rather awkward on my IPad, because it switches to playing mode, although you can still use all the features. I don't know if this is just a quirk of my own IPad, or if the App performs normally in Android environments. But the only real problem that I see at the moment is that the company doesn't seem to be producing many books or articles. The selection was very small to begin with and isn't expanding very rapidly. Nevertheless, this is an excellent product; I would download it and then keep an eye on how the company progresses.
Another very interesting ebook App is SmartChess! (www.playsmartchess.com). The company has had temporary problems with its In-App purchases, so you might have to be patient while a new version is being prepared. Smartchess! is somewhat different than other ebook Apps in that tapping on notation (which is beneath the board) doesn't execute the moves, which are instead controlled by arrows. But it's quick and easy to make game moves or do independent analysis by sliding the pieces around, something I don't think is possible with other apps. There's a built-in engine, not to use as an analytical engine in the middle of a game, but to play a game against, or to setup a position quickly and analyze. There are several unique functions such as being able to show a plan by executing consecutive moves from one side. A unique and rather important feature is that for independently published books the reader will be able to download the files after buying it. Thus far there is a fairly limited library of previously-published books, including quite a few Russell Enterprises books such as My System, Lasker's Manual of Chess, Dvoretsky's Analytical and Endgame Manuals, and Modern Ideas in Chess. Another superb Russell book, Zurich 1953 by Najdorf, will appear shortly. Smartchess also has electronic versions of some online material such as ChessVibes Opening and Training magazines, and ChessPublishing updates.
The publisher has alerted me as to plans (well underway) for a new kind of publishing software which lets authors and coaches to write specialized lessons for students or publish books themselves which they can sell directly on the web. This is a logical next step in chess publishing, which won't eliminate the various important functions of publishers, but will give authors more options and potentially speed up the distribution of some chess material.
There may be other similar companies and products out there, but hopefully that's a helpful introduction to some major ones. Keep in mind that I'm not an expert in this area and have doubtless made some errors in describing the programs, so the best way to find out what's going on is to try them out yourself. It will be fascinating to see at what rate and how fully this form of chesspublishing establishes itself with the chessplaying public.