Some of the Chess DVD's I recently
bought from onlinechesslessons.net.
In April, the site offered a 50% discount on any order of $150 or more. I had recently come into some unexpected cash helping some old retail store customers and decided to place an order. I ordered three DVD’s by Simon Williams (the English GM whose games I followed years ago when I started playing the Dutch Defence) and a full set of DVDs of former World Champion Anatoly Karpov discussing his best games, games by Bobby Fischer, and his matches against Kasparov and Gata Kamsky. Those two purchases got me very close to the $150 threshold so as an afterthought I ordered 2 DVD’s by GM Damian Lemos going over games by top grandmasters and a DVD called ‘Fighting in the Endgame’ by FIDE Master Alisa Melekhina. All the selections come with the option of downloading the content or downloading the content and having the physical DVD’s mailed to you. The difference in price between the DVD’s and the download was only a few dollars for all but the Karpov collection so I ordered all the DVD’s except the Karpov Collection in addition to the downloads and I received every DVD I ordered before a week had passed.
Now don’t get me wrong – I have no delusions or illusions that watching a bunch of chess DVD’s is going to make me any better of a chess player. This was an impulse buy for entertainment purposes to help me get over the reduction in reruns of Law & Order, Law & Order : Criminal Intent, and Law & Order : Special Victims Unit on my favorite television stations but if I suddenly become a super strong chess player you’ll know what the secret was.
The first DVD I watched was Alisa Melekhina’s ‘Fighting in the Endgame’ (you can see the first part of the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsplMAyHkCg). I started with this one because at one hour it had the shortest running time. The endgame is my favorite part of chess – I’ve been looking at some of the favorite games I’ve played for a future post and almost every one of them has the fight going deep into the endgame. The endgame is an infrequent subject in chess DVD’s and videos with most focusing on opening preparation, attacking play, or games collections of great players. Melekhina is a frequent participant in the US Women’s championship and a master level player. The DVD has the production values of most recent chess videos - flashy graphics in the opening sequence, a computer chess board taking up half the screen with different colored arrows and squares to highlight key concepts and the presenter taking up half of the other half of the screen. The remaining quarter of the screen varies from company to company. Chessbase videos use it to show the move list, other companies show a computer evaluation or the time remaining, and the onlinechesslessons.net videos use the space for their logo.
‘Fighting in the Endgame’ has two parts with each part showing a game of Melekhina’s – in part one she fights for a draw from a poor position against an equal player and in part two she demonstrates a game in which she presses for a win against a lower rated player who seems happy to get a draw. In each game Melekhina attempts to impress four themes: adapt to a change in the position, prevent your opponent from executing their plan, take advantage of complacency, and force your opponent to make decisions. Melekhina’s sample games illustrate her themes but if I hadn’t known they were her games I wouldn’t have guessed from the presentation since she seemed to be reading the entire time. Even though Melekhina is always on screen she hardly looks in the camera although that may be because the camera was out of focus with a fuzzy looking picture. Looking at many onlinechesslessons.net video samples on YouTube, I’ve noticed the common theme of the presenter rarely looking in the camera, seeming to be reading off a script, and the video pane of the presenter looking out of focus. Compare the free part one of ‘Fighting in The Endgame’ with this Game of the Day video by Daniel King of Chessbase at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS8FIU6k7iM – King is in focus, is looking at the camera, and is engaged with the audience even though he had less than 24 hours to prepare this 15 minute video.
While the two games in ‘Fighting in the Endgame’ were interesting, in my opinion the detachment and seeming lack of enthusiasm of the presenter detracted a lot from the presentation. There are just two games on the DVD and the lack of content is offset by the low price (the download is $10 and I got the DVD and download for half off the $15 retail price). Given that half of the DVD is available for free on YouTube I was only getting a half hour of unavailable material which I hardly consider good value for my money even at half price. In fact, if I had been a savvy shopper and found the sample on YouTube I wouldn't have made this purchase in the first place.
After finishing ‘Fighting in the Endgame’ I turned my attention to the Karpov Collection. There are plenty of samples on YouTube at www.youtube.com/results?search_query=henley+karpov. These videos are remastered versions of what looks like TV shows from the late 1990’s hosted by GM Ron Henley, who was one of Karpov’s seconds in the 1990’s. Anatoly Karpov was seen by many chess fans as the chess embodiment of the ‘evil empire’ communist cold war USSR. He became the World Championship Challenger in 1974 by defeating Victor Korchnoi in a match where Korchnoi’s seconds were ‘assigned’ to other duties away from the host city of Moscow before the match and Karpov then became champion when Fischer refused to defend his title unless his conditions for the match were met (an unlimited match with the first to 10 wins taking the match but the champion couldn’t lose his title in the case of a 10-9 match loss). When Korchnoi defected from the USSR and became the championship challenger in 1978 and 1981, Karpov was accused of receiving signals from his trainers via his yogurt snack and the USSR was accused of using parapsychologists and putting Korchnoi’s wife and son in prison in order to pressure Korchnoi. In 1984, Karpov’s match with Garry Kasparov was aborted after 48 games when Karpov looked to be in danger of a historic collapse when he lost 2 games in a row to cut his lead to 5-3 in the race to six wins match and Karpov was widely accused of using his influence to have the match aborted.In Dominic Lawson’s book ‘The Inner Game’, he describes the 1992 quarter final candidates match between Nigel Short and Karpov in detail and paints Karpov as a sneering victor and the sorest of sore losers whose team has a parapsychologist that constantly stares at Short and bugs his room to listen in on his analysis with his seconds.
Whether Karpov is seen as a worthy world champion or the beneficiary of the USSR’s communist system demanding he be kept at the top of the chess world by any means necessary he was undoubtedly one of the top players in the world for a quarter century, holding one of the top two places on the FIDE rating lists from 1973 to 1991 and in the top three for six years after that (www.olimpbase.org/Elo/player/Karpov,%20Anatoly.html) and to watch a player of that caliber go over his games is a rare treat.
The production values of the Karpov DVDs are as low-tech as the ‘Fighting in the Endgame’ are high-tech. Instead of an electronic board, Henley and Karpov move the pieces on a plastic demonstration board with a pocket for each square. This means that after going over a variation the presenters must manually set up the position instead of instantaneously reverting to the game with a mouse click. There are many times in the videos where Henley resets the board and Karpov corrects him. Sometimes the White pieces are beige and sometimes red and sometimes red with a large white dot on each piece. There is no split screen of the board and the presenter - when Karpov and Henley are shown the board is not visible and vice versa. Most of the time the camera is on the presenters when they are talking in generalities but I found the few times Karpov would rattle off a variation while on camera quite hard to follow.
Having two presenters interact with each other made the games more interesting and a lot less like a lecture from a disembodied out of focus talking head. Henley is deferential to Karpov but hardly subservient. He offers suggestions, most of which Karpov shoots down with a tactical variation but sometimes giving the world champion pause as he mutters “What to do…?” before offering his opinion on Henley’s suggestion. As I mentioned before, in his heyday Karpov was described as kind of a jerk and in these videos he had no problem making some comments about other players and chess personalities that could be taken as snide. He talks about how Spassky did no preparation for his match with Fischer in 1972 and that Kasparov was too inexperienced to defeat him in their first match but learned how to be a champion from Karpov. At one point when Henley mentions a spot during the 1996 Karpov-Gata Kamsky match where Kamsky’s father (you can read about the infamous chess parent Rustam Kamsky here) seemed ready to explode, Karpov says with a chuckle that even a not-so-good player like Rustam Kamsky knew Gata was busted.
Karpov goes over Fisher’s games for almost 4 hours on the DVD collection and while he discusses the games competently enough I've seen them explained so many times by so many people that the world champion didn't have much to add. In contrast, the nine hours Karpov spends going over his own games are amazing. Since these are his games he is intimately and infinitely knowledgeable about them and easily rattles off variations to explain why he made a particular move or why the king belongs on f2 instead of g2. Karpov has a reputation as a defensive player but he shows amazing tactical acumen, oftentimes refuting Henley’s suggestions with an offhand variation. One thing I noted was Karpov’s obsession with tempo when discussing his games. He often goes to great lengths to show how a certain sequence of moves get him to his desired setup one move ahead of other sequences and later in the game shows how being that extra move ahead decided the game in his favor.
There is another DVD set in the Karpov Collection called ‘Karpov’s Russian School of Chess’. I only watched the first 10 minutes of Karpov on Openings in which he discusses the most basic beginner principles for openings at which point I zoned out. While the Karpov Collection set of DVD’s is dated in terms of production values, 13+ hours of chess discussed by a World Champion including 9+ hours of his own games is an outstanding value for the $65 price tag for the download ($119 for the DVD and download is a bit much) and at the 50% off price I paid was one of the best bargains ever even if the next penny I receive from onlinechesslessons.net in the form of an affiliate commission will be the first. I hope to review my other purchases in a future post but watching them will have to wait until I watch the Karpov Collection again.
As a postscript, a month after I placed the order I received an email from onlinechesslessons.net letting me know I had a commission coming and asking what websites I was using to link to their site. I let them know and then asked when I could expect my commission. I received no answer so I pressed the matter a week later whereupon I received an email from the president of the company letting me know I wouldn't be receiving any commissions because (and I quote) "people don't get commissions on their own sales". As my departed mother would say "How convenient..."