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That time of the year again - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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October 4th, 2008


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10:13 pm - That time of the year again
OK, gang, about once a year I write about the world of chess. (2007, 2006, 2005.) It's chess season!

Headlines:

* World Champion Vishy Anand of India is preparing to defend his title in a match starting next month against the 2006 (and, arguably, 2000-2006) World Champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia. We're still dealing with the aftermath of the dozen or so years of dispute where there were two world champions, but there's not a great deal of dispute these days.
* Garry Kasparov retired from competitive chess in 2005, though still occasionally plays quick chess and gives simultaneous displays. These days he is a political dissident heavily associated with the "The Other Russia" coalition.
* There is no identifiable single strongest player in the world these days - as ever, being World Champion doesn't mean you're going to win every time - with a rough top half-dozen or so. Anand and Kramnik are up there along with continually-improving Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen and perennially-there-or-thereabouts hot-and-cold blowers Veselin Topalov, Alexander Morozevich and Vassily Ivanchuk, from Bulgaria, Russia and the Ukraine respectively. This rating chart is updated as frequently as possible; Topalov is currently top of the list, but there's no more than a game or two in it among the top six.
* When Vladimir Kramnik was World Champion in 2006, he played a six-game match against the Deep Fritz computer program and lost 4-2. This, as much as anything else, has been taken a sign that the best computer probably is better than the best human at chess these days. (Remember, Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997, then there was a streak of drawn computer-versus-super-GM matches from 1999 to 2003.)
* Among British players, Michael Adams rolls along happily as being easily the best but is no longer thought of as a major threat on the world stage and Nigel Short continues to wither slowly. (They both came joint second in the recent Liverpool Chess International EU championship, but took rather different routes through the Swiss to get to 7½/10.) David Howell is the best of the rest among active players, but a long way behind and only number ten in the world for his age of almost 18; merely brilliant rather than world class.

I continue to be fascinated by the United States Chess League, and continue to regard it as a well-run possible model for other similar ventures. I'm going to write less about it this year than last year, which was less than the year before, because it is on a steady path towards maturity with a reasonably well-defined form.

The league has expanded from 12 teams last year to 14 this year with the addition of teams in Chicago and Arizona, both in the Western division, meaning that the Carolina team bounce between the conferences for a third successive year. (Hopefully they will settle in their natural home of the East for good.) It's noteworthy that this year there was no public call for applications from potential expansion teams, suggesting that there may have been enough sufficiently strong applicants in previous years that they may have been waiting in the wings. Going by league commissioner IM Greg Shahade's comments last year, there may be a pause from the continued expansion in the near future. I have a suspicion that involving yourself in the USCL community early seems to be a good way to raise your profile if you have ambitions to run a team some day.

The strength of the league continues to increase. While not all of the players involved are American, FIDE say the USA has 36 Grandmasters and 51 International Masters among their active players, with another count suggesting there are 17 Grandmasters and 34 International Masters involved in the USCL - representing a slight advance on the simplification last year that around half of the top players in the country are involved.

The second highest-rated active player in the US, Hikaru Nakamura, played for the New York Knights in the USCL last year. His first season was not a happy one; he lost this remarkable game through playing recklessly quickly and I half-recall comments attributed to him that he may have not been taking his first season entirely seriously. He has a blog, which is reasonably breezy stuff, though with plenty of game analyses for the purist; he mentions that he has moved to Vancouver (a city about which I have heard much good) and that he travels about three hours each way to play for the Seattle Sluggers this season. I'm not aware of multi-season commitments for USCL players; moves from season to season are not uncommon, but broadly tend to be incidental due to life movements rather than motivated by financial concerns.

The other big move has been Jaan Ehlvest, who was on the fringes of world class at his best, moving from scoring 3.5/4 for Philadelphia in 2006 to playing for Tennessee this year. I'm not certain of the story here, but with Jaan on board (specifically, on board 1) the popular but habitual basement-dwellers of the league have even managed a narrow victory over last year's champions, the Dallas Destiny. In my interview with the league commissioner last year, he emphasised his desire to keep the league competitive and all the matches interesting; this year is a ringing endorsement of the extent to which the league design has succeeded in its aim.

The league design remains distinctive. In each match, a team is composed of four players from a roster of eight, with the criterion that the four players' average USCL rating must be lower than 2401. (2400 is legal; even 2400¾ is rounded down to 2400 and so legal.) The wrinkles to the system are that the presence of female players in the team raise the cap by ten points each, that high-ranked players are counted as being ranked at 2590 even if they're higher than that and that teams are allowed to pick which rating list, from any point during the past year, they use for their entire roster. Accordingly if you have a fast-improving player, it might be in your interest to use a rating list where they were rated at 2166, the figure that applies for USCL calculations for the entire year, when their most recent rating is 2321 and even that may not reflect their current strength. (As a case in point, those figures were taken from San Francisco's Daniel Naroditsky, who won the under-12 World Chess Championship in 2007.)

The league's fourth year has just completed the sixth of its ten weeks of regular-season play. In the Western division, San Francisco lead the way on 4.5/6, with Dallas and Seattle the best of the rest on 3.5/6; in the East, Queens lead the way with 5/6 after a 5-0 start, in only their second season, with New Jersey also impressing on 4/6. There do seem to be two main ways to USCL success; the first is to concentrate on players who are underrated by their USCL rating figure (principally by fast improvement, but possibly also by having their extremely high strength capped at 2590) and the second - which may be rather harder to achieve - is just to have your players perform out of their skin. There were analyses of the rosters at the start of the season (West and East) which have proved insightful, except to say that Boston and New York have not so far performed to their full potential; in fact, New York's 1/6 start is the talk of the league.

The week 7 fixtures look awesome to me. Normally there are one or two highlight matches on a Monday, with the remainder taking place on a Wednesday; this week, we have four on the line-up for Monday Night Chess and three of them look like absolute scorchers that would grace the championship match with style. Among the six teams in those three marquee matches, all six have exciting GMs on their top boards and four have found ways to sneak a GM in on board two while still making the rating cap. Boston - New York is the classic Eastern division rivalry with the series evenly split at 4½ matches apiece, but Queens - New Jersey may be even more exciting still this time round, with exciting players down the roster for both teams, with Board 4 featuring two of a very small number of the most exciting up-and-comers of them all. NJ Knockouts captain GM Joel Benjamin writes about the season to date in a lovely, lovely piece. The New Jersey Knockouts have got a stellar line-up; if they're taken at all lightly, it's probably due to - of all the things - their underwhelming name and logo.

Another pleasing development in the progress of the league is the extent to which it's attracting more publicity. The new Chicago Blaze team play in the suburb of Skokie; Skokie's mayor made the ceremonial first move for one of their matches. Likewise, there was coverage in the Boston Globe of a Boston - New York match in week one, simply because the Boston - New York angle is good enough for Boston column inches whatever the sport. On top of that, there are an increasing number of bloggers and fan journalists writing about the league, mostly within the chess community. All baby steps along the way towards getting the league covered as if it were any other sports league.

Once again, the league has been sponsored by PokerStars; the figure is unknown, but probably around $1,000 per team for the season. There's also sponsorship for the "Game of the Week" and "Game of the Year" competitions. The ICC are considered sponsors in kind for providing the online infrastructure to host the matches; the site's admins perform a lot of good work. Teams are encouraged to seek their own sponsors in addition, which happens to a greater or lesser extent from team to team. Some sponsors provide public space for the matches to take place in their home town, which is valuable in its way; other sponsors donate cash to the teams. (See, for instance, the Boston Blitz sponsorship page, who are particularly successful.)

I have a theory that there is something of a hierarchy of potential sponsors. The most desirable sponsors are companies who produce general-interest products: an airline, a drink manufacturer, a credit card company, a food company. Second most desirable are companies who are prohibited from advertising in other ways: gambling companies, tobacco companies. (Arguably, if you consider the most prominent general-interest companies in sports sponsorship, their products might often be considered at least as big a social disbenefit to the world.) Third most desirable are companies who produce goods related to the sport they're sponsoring; you knew that snooker was in trouble when one of its principal sponsors was a manufacturer of snooker equipment. (It's not the most encouraging sign, somehow, when local chess associations sponsor their teams; you would imagine that a local chess association's support would be taken for granted anyway.) Outside this categorisation altogether, though highly welcome in their own way, are private patrons who provide funds without necessarily expecting anything in return.

It's interesting to think about the future of the league. Gradual expansion seems to be the way ahead, though it has already been suggested that this expansion certainly will not take place indefinitely and potential new teams are going to have to become more and more convincing in their applications; at fourteen teams, the league doesn't feel small any more. Should PokerStars rein back their sponsorship, it seems possible that some of the top stars might no longer participate, but there are surely enough players who would play for the love of the game and the love of their team that the league would not collapse or contract. The biggest challenge that the league may face in the near future would come if Assistant Commissioner Arun Sharma can no longer devote the same amount of time to the league that he has done in the past; in this fascinating interview he suggests that this may be his last season. He has done a great amount of hard work with dedication and talent; he may be very difficult to replace. (Oh, and the web site could stand a complete overhaul.)

There have been a number of rule changes this year compared to previous ones. The ruleset got considerably longer, but most of the rules were just filling holes and fleshing out some of the nuances of behaviour that might be considered reasonable or unreasonable without every possibility being spelled out explicitly in advance. There's a rule about "the only window you're allowed to have open is the ICC one" which caused a second glance, but there's nothing to stop you from running firewalls and virus checkers in the background. These are surely good things to run in a way that analysis engines would be bad.

One version of this season's ruleset did not include the rule whereby teams including female players in their lineups were permitted ten extra points of flexibility to their rating cap. I was not the only person to notice this rule was missing; a comment at the end of the interview poses the question. It's rather a big and fundamental rule to forget to include in the ruleset, but the managers were notified of this, the rule continued as ever and no drama ensued. This may be the biggest technical misstep in the running of the league so far and yet it was resolved without controversy; surely this handy piece of damage limitation has to be a sign that the league is well-run.

More interestingly is a change to the level at which the highest-rated players' ratings are capped. In season one, players' ratings were capped at 2600. In season two, this cap was lowered to 2590, and it was suggested that this level might drop by ten points a season for the coming four seasons, with the season three cap being 2580 as planned. However, for season four, the rating cap has gone back up to 2590. How unexpected!

This has been queried, with the rather surprising justification for the rule change that "We changed the rule back to 2590 because we just felt that it was becoming too big an advantage to have high rated players." A curious motivation. I note that many teams have used their sponsorship money to attract high-rated players; for instance, see Alex Shabalov in the Boston Globe saying that he explicitly moved teams because his new team would offer better conditions. It's tempting to wonder about some of the other top-rated names, as well.

Yet it has also been noted that the champion teams seldom - never? - actually feature top-rated Grandmasters in their championship-winning line-ups, preferring a more balanced approach. Given that it's just as valuable to win a game on Board Four as it is on Board One, perhaps the most valuable players of all are the underrated ones who might still score 80% over the course of the season but, due to their inexactly low rating, permit stronger team-mates further up the list. Perhaps the likes of Daniel Naroditsky deserve to be the most valuable free agents of all.

There's also the question about how important it is to the league to have the country's best players involved; the Commissioner has acknowledged "I’m sure players have refused to play due to lack of sponsorship. I’m sure that if we get more sponsorship, even more top players will want to compete." It may be more compelling to the general fan to see matches between 2600+-rated players on the top boards; it takes a degree of appreciation to understand why GMs and IMs may be left on the bench by their teams in favour of a legal line-up whose games might not have the same luster. (I wonder whether there might be merit in, in a future season, a policy whereby the rating cap is relaxed by 10 points in the post-season and 20 points in the final - or would that be too close to suggesting that football finals be played with 12 players on the field per side instead of 11?)

Again, we return to the Commissioner's words from his last interview. "If there were no rating cap, the league would be completely uncompetitive, which would make it uninteresting for the teams, fans and players, as there would be virtually no drama in certain matches." At this point, we turn to the UK's premier (face-to-face!) team chess league, the 4 Nations Chess League - almost always abbreviated to 4NCL - which avowedly does not have a rating cap and which has its first matches this weekend. (Or, if this entry gets much longer, this weekend past.) It's interesting to compare and contrast the two, especially when considering how well the rating cap does or doesn't work.

The 4NCL has its own share of interesting changes from the previous season. The most notable is that previously there were three divisions of 12 teams at the top of the league, which has been reformed to two divisions of 16 teams. (Below there is a super-division organised as a Swiss competition with lower barriers to entry.) These 16 teams in each division are split into two parallel sections of eight, separated so to even out predicted strength, with the sections performing all-play-alls in the first seven weeks of the season. Each section is then split into an upper four and a lower four, with the two upper fours and two lower fours combining to make new leagues of eight, though this time the leagues are identifiably serial rather than parallel. You carry forward your results from the three teams you've played already, plus your results in the last four matches against your four new opponents, to provide a final placing. I believe that the Top 16 league in France works in a similar way and it seems to work well enough; providing competitive games and avoiding uncompetitive ones is always a bonus by itself.

However, there's something that worries me about the 4NCL. Last season, Division 1 was won by Guildford-A&DC 1. As last year, A&DC refers to the A&DC HR consultancy founded by IM Nigel Povah, who is a loyal patron of his team, plays for the club at a local level and has been instrumental in bringing many strong players into the league to provide line-ups like this one, which is (nearly?) entirely composed of GMs. Without rating caps but with sufficient sponsorship, you get matches like the 2005-06 title decider, as strong and exciting an eight-board match as you are likely to see - likely stronger and more exciting than most six-board matches in the Chess Olympiad or the European Clubs Cup.

The problem - if you choose to see it as a problem, and I'm only about 80% sure it is one - comes when you realise that first and second place have been taken by Guildford-A&DC1 and Guildford-A&DC2 respectively for each of the last two seasons. That's just not so interesting.

The problem is compounded by the radically different business model in the 4NCL to the USCL, whereby teams pay moderately substantial sums to enter the competition (£300 in the first division) which is paid out as pretty considerable prize money. This year you win £3,600 for winning the first division, £1,800 for coming second in the first division and nothing for coming third. What this means is that the Guildford-A&DC squad appears to have scooped the entire first division prize fund for each of the last two seasons. I'm not sure how much Guildford-A&DC have had to pay in conditions to their players, and whether the club has returned a profit; I'm also not sure how much the third-placed teams of the last two seasons have similarly wagered and lost in an attempt to bring home the spoils. It certainly can't be good for morale, or for potential team patrons who might be prepared to fund professionals' involvement.

There's also the wrinkle that no club can have more than two teams in any one division. Guildford-A&DC have five teams overall; two in the first division, one in the second division and two in the third division. Theoretically, between them, they might scoop 91% of the prize money on offer this season - and the "no more than two teams per division" rule might see the first two teams take the top division prizes next year, the third and fourth team take the second division prizes next year and the fifth and putative sixth team clean out the third division pool. That wouldn't be consistent with a league run for the benefit of all its participants.

There is a logical consequence of this. Hilsmark Kingfisher - third place in 2006/07, after having perfectly climbed through the divisions in 2002/03 to 2004/05 - and Wood Green - champions in 2004/05 and 2005/06 - have decided that they are no longer contributing to the Guildford A&DC beneficiary fund and taken the logical decision to aid their chances. They have merged teams to form first and second teams of a club named, in a highly unwieldy fashion, Wood Green Hilsmark Kingfisher. Presumably the two teams would have enough strong players between them to challenge against the might of Guildford. Sure, this creates another extremely strong team for the league, but it also creates another relatively weak one.

The other problem I have with this move is that it creates a team that's very hard to get behind, to root for. Wood Green are a long-established chess club in North London. They have long submitted teams in other competitions and have a strong record in the (as was) British Chess Federation's national club championship. (They've won the London Chess League six years running.) If you live in London - particularly North London - then there's a clear reason to support them. Likewise, Hilsmark Kingfisher are a team with a history. I want to say that they may be a new version of the Midland Monarchs who won in 1997/98 and disappeared without trace... oh no, the Midland Monarchs are the team who renamed themselves the Betsson.com team in a sponsorship deal.

This goes back to my grumble about the hierarchy of sponsors; the 4NCL has a long history of teams renaming themselves due to sponsorship deals and prized names being lost. The champions from the first season, the Invicta Knights, merged with Home House to become Invicta Knights Home House in, ooh, 1999 or so. Then they became sponsored by GM David Norwood, who renamed them after the IT company of which he owned 20%. Then this company, Index IT, was acquired by stockbrokers Beeson Gregory and the team changed its name again. Beeson Gregory dropped out of the league a couple of seasons back and I can't remember why. I also completely lose track as to where The ADs (sorry, now The Gambit ADs) come from. ((ETA, 5/12/09, Home House became IKHH became Index IT became Beeson Gregory became The ADs. See also this history.)) The renaming of teams is a horrible mess and it's not tracked properly, to say nothing of team mergers.

You see the problem? The USCL gets it very, very right in having teams associated with cities and providing proper rooting interests - more to the point, rooting interests where each team can have hundreds of thousands or millions of natural fans. By contrast, through the lack of respect paid to team history and the lack of presenting reasons to support a team for which you do not yourself play, the 4NCL gets it very wrong. Now the USCL might struggle in the future should a team ever drop out of the league; is the situation like the MLB where the franchise is associated with a team nickname rather than a city and so a club's history might be shunted from city to city? Grief, I hope not; I hope we never have to find out.

Now as I've posted in the past, US and European sports leagues often have different goals, with US leagues being planned organisations that have goals of trying to provide an interesting league for the fans and make a profit for their teams, whereas European leagues go "OK, here are some teams who want to compete in a league and prove they're the best. Great! We'll work on the planning and the profit later". Neither approach is absolutely right or wrong, but the consequences of the teams' will to win are natural and frequently frustrating; European leagues are forced to be reactive to their teams' developments, whereas US leagues may be proactive in dealing with them.

It often makes me smile when I see Greg Shahade talk about the extent to which he has deliberately designed the league, playing around with schedules and playoff formulas with specific aims in mind, how the #1 seeds are intended to have a particular chance in the post-season and so forth. It often seems completely arbitrary as to what is, or should be desirable; but there evidently is hard thought that goes into all the decisions.

There are many considerations that apply to one league but not the other, because they have different physical constraints and set out to achieve different goals. The 4NCL is a rare opportunity for people to get to play full-length, face-to-face, FIDE rated, games at a high standard; people plan long weekend trips around it, so the concept of 4NCL postseasons or any variability from a league format cannot be possible. (Arguably the 16-team divisions offer something a little more like a postseason and exciting final rounds.) The fact that the games are rated may, alone, be enough to ensure all the players take every game in every match seriously, which is something Greg has said he has had to go out of his way to ensure in his design. The 4NCL's team problems illustrate what can go wrong when you run a league without extensive top-down planning, and specifically show why you might want to consider a rating cap. I don't think that the 4NCL's problems necessarily will happen without one, but evidently they can happen and in this case have happened.

If I were redesigning the 4NCL then I would strongly reconsider the financial aspect of the business model and the focus upon prize money, which evidently isn't working wonderfully. Having prize money is nice, but (especially when split eight ways) isn't substantial enough to be tremendously attractive and necessitates an entry fee which is not inconsiderable. It might well prove a popular move to cut both the prize money and the entry fees considerably; if not, it might well be worthwhile reconsidering the prize structure so that many teams stand to be competing for the money at the end of the season - small graduated payments to possibly as many as 10 teams in the top division (so that even teams outside the top eight still have something to play for other than avoiding relegation) and more than two teams in the lower divisions.

I still think there is scope for an internet chess league in the UK - after all, the USCL has shown how well it can work - and the 4NCL may be the best way to put the infrastructure in place. Certainly I would insist on no more than one team per club; not sure about the rating cap, but I'd look at a "teams must be representative of their club" rule in the style of the old BCF National Club Championship, coupled with incentives to get strong players to disperse among many teams, or at least disincentives to stop squads forming super-teams with no natural constituencies. A part of me is rather dubious about the concept of professional chess players in the Western world in this day and age in the first place, but I fear that it might not be possible to run a strictly amateur league.

Another event that started very recently is the first World Mind Sports Games, taking place in Beijing and at least trying to capture some of the tail-end of the Olympics fever, even if possibly not actually reusing the infrastructure. The web site isn't brilliant, but the more I read it and think about it, the more I consider they're doing a pretty good job. The event consists of tournaments in chess, bridge, go, draughts (i.e. members of the draughts family - the 10x10 game popular outside the English-speaking world, as well as the 8x8 game we know as checkers) and Chinese Chess. It is not clear whether the last of these is a one-team concession to the host nation as it is clearly the least global of the five.

The part that sticks in my craw is the introduction which claims that there has not previously been a multi-sports festival for mind sports. This annoys me because there has; it is the Mind Sports Olympiad, it's been running for twelve years and I've long been involved with it. I know that at least the World Bridge Federation know, or at least knew, of our existence; the fact that the other mind sports federations either never knew about the MSO or chose to ignore it indicates how little success we had at becoming a major player on the world stage. There was some success outside the specialist field with the first event, and to a lesser extent with the third and fourth, but it's been downhill all the way since then.

I will give the organisation points for covering their event both in Chinese and in English, which is the minimum an event that claims to be global but takes place in China should shoot for, but we never got even close to a sniff of coverage of UK-based Mind Sports Olympiad events in a language outside English. (MSO branded events in other countries - Korea, Italy, the Czech Republic - used foreign languages, but I don't think they were bilingual either.) The web site is very light on reportage in English, which is probably an unreasonable request for non-native-language coverage, but at least it has the scores updated in full on a daily basis, and they claim to have live webcasts in three mind sports. There were years when I put a daily bulletin together both in print and on the web, and was responsible for getting results online, and sundry odd jobs as well, with very little by way of staff; it can be done by one person who knows what to do and is willing to put in ten 10-14 hour days in a row, but it's a lot to ask. But, hey, I strangely enjoyed it at the time.

It's not clear whether the first World Mind Sports Games will be the only World Mind Sports Games. It's quite possible that China might decide that it rather likes hosting World Mind Sports Games and host them again in the future. (Not every year, though, please. We proved that's a bad idea.) I note that there are half a dozen prestigious sponsors listed on the Chinese version of the web site and clearly there's the budget for a pretty impressive set of logistics. There would be sense in trying to establish the World Mind Sports Games as a quadrennial event that follows the Olympic Games around, like the Paralympics does, and doubtless several other events do as well. We all know that all multi-sports festivals want to be the Olympics, at the end of the day, so tagging along may be the best on offer.

With the Olympic Games coming to London in 2012, I have more than an academic interest in this. If the so-called International Mind Sports Association, or the mind sports' governing bodies, can get the brand moving to the point where sponsorship isn't as almost-impossible to find for the World Mind Sports Games as it was for the Mind Sports Olympiad, I can point to a number of people who have unique experience making them well-qualified to host a World Mind Sports Games in London, not least because we've got lots of years' experience in finding out how not to do so. I can also point to a number of people who will want to be involved but under no circumstances whatsoever should be allowed within firing range of such an event. More some other day, doubtless.

Lastly, as a result of my interview with the USCL commissioner last year, I was one of four people to win a copy of Engaging Pieces by Howard Goldowsky kindly donated by the author in return for one of the most interesting USCL interviews of 2007. I'm not a habitual book reviewer, but a few words about the book would not go amiss.

The book is a compilation of Goldowsky's chess writing. The highlight is the extensive first section, containing a dozen interviews with prominent chess personalities, but the second section has half a dozen short chess-themed stories and the third contains four essays. Some of the pieces have dated slightly; each one is ascribed a foreword and a postscript with the historical context behind each piece, which aids considerably.

Goldowsky shines in his interviews, particularly when his interviewees prove expansive and interesting. Interviews by e-mail can sometimes be a little stilted, as the medium naturally lends itself to asking many questions in parallel, rather than the back-and-forth of a dialogue. The interviews which took place in person have a much more conversational feel to them and illustrate the difference between an interview as such and a mere question-and-answer session.

Five of the interviews are with authors; probably the most famous is Paul "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" Hoffman, who has considerable chess journalism to his name as well as the smash hit Erdos biography. Another standout subject is Mig Greengard, whose gossipy Daily Dirt blog is probably the must-read in chess. (Mig's a fine writer and has a sense of humour that you just don't get elsewhere in chess, but it's annoying when his cattiness falls on one of your favourites.) I also particularly enjoyed reading what Greg Shahade had to say about the USCL after week one of season one, Mark Glickman on chess ratings and the Glicko system and an executive from the planned EdgeTV channel that never made it to fruition. They all have something to say and Howard has a real talent at extracting it from them.

The fiction is less to my taste; I can't help feeling that the scenarios he has written don't paint chess in its most favourable light. The chess hustler is a theme that crops up more than once, curiously, considering how infrequent a phenomenon it is in real life. I enjoyed taking a detour to Washington Square Park where the hustlers congregate last time I was in New York, but didn't feel like paying $5 for a lesson with some bile as a free gift. Perhaps the chess hustler is the closest you can get in chess to the equivalent of poker's ramblin' gamblin' tales. The essays display Goldowsky's customary high standard of writing, but sometimes the postscripts give you the feeling that their subjects may have been a little ephemeral. There's nothing wrong with that, but there does seem to be a feeling of "historical interest" to some of the pieces; probably this is par for the course for any anthology.

It is said that the reason why publishers don't publish more picture books of horses is because the target audience is so small. The book isn't going to be sold to people who like picture books, and it isn't going to be sold to people who like horses; in order to buy it, you've got to like both picture books and horses. In order to enjoy this book, not only do you have to enjoy writing about chess - though there are only one or two games listed, so happily for me no great skill is required - but you also have to enjoy interviews and/or fiction and/or essays. (Happily, the and/or parts of the second criterion make it an easy one to meet.) If you do fit both halves of the target market, there are parts of this book that are the best of their breed, and almost all of the rest is clearly very well-written even if it doesn't do much for me. (One of the stories, a satire, is a swing and a miss, but it's short.) In short, the unhelpful old cliché firmly applies: it's exactly the sort of book you'll like, if you like that sort of thing. I certainly did - but, then again, it is.
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[User Picture]
From:missingdonut
Date:October 4th, 2008 10:01 pm (UTC)

Correcting a misspelling

(Link)
These days [Kasparov] is a political dissident heavily associated with the "The Other Russia" coalition.

"The Other Russia" coalition should be spelled "Six Feet Under."

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