Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chess DVDs - ‘Play Like Tal’ and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’

Daisy kept guard over the DVD's I bought in April until I was ready to review them.

  In June, I reviewed some of the chess DVD’s I bought from on an impulse. Along with the review I wrote about how I joined their affiliate program, ran their ads on my websites, and never received the commissions I was due to receive as per their affiliate agreement. I stopped running ads in July and signed up to be an affiliate for Since Amazon has already paid me a commission I'd have to say they have proven to be a reliable partner so if you are an customer and enjoy my blog you can help me out by clicking one of their ads on this site before you make your purchase.

  Since my two favorite summer TV shows, 'Falling Skies' and 'The Last Ship' recently ended their seasons and 'The Walking Dead' isn't starting their new season until October 12th, I had some spare viewing time on my hands took a look at two more of the chess DVDs I purchased earlier this year – ‘Play Like Tal’ by Grandmaster Simon Williams and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Veselin Topalov’ by Grandmaster Damian Lemos.

A sample of 'Play Like Tal' courtesy of YouTube.

A great book!

  Mikhail Tal was the World Champion from 1960 to 1961 and a revolutionary figure in chess history. In the 1930’s the United States was considered the preeminent chess power in the world having won the chess Olympiads in 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937. When international chess play resumed after World War II, it became apparent that the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in chess and it wasn't even a close contest. The USSR trounced the United States in a 1945 ten player radio match by the score of 15.5 to 4.5 with the Americans losing 7 of the individual two game matches with one win and two ties. Mikhail Botvinnik became the first Soviet to be World Chess Champion in 1948 and the title remained in Soviet hands for the next 55 years (except for 1972-1975 when the American Bobby Fischer held the crown). Botvinnik was a national hero and considered the herald of ‘Soviet School of Chess’ which relied on physical conditioning, intense opening preparation, training matches, published analysis and annotations of games – basically a highly professional approach to chess. Because the personalities of the Soviet players were hidden by the ‘Iron Curtain’, they were thought of as robotic automatons by the western world.

  That changed when 20 year old Mikhail Tal from Riga (in Latvia) won the USSR championship in 1957. Tal’s style set him apart from the Soviet machine. He would sacrifice material for the attack and win games when his opponents would falter in their defense. Tal’s attacks would frequently prove to be unsound when picked apart in published analysis months later but that didn’t matter to him as long as he won over the board. Because of his ‘incorrect’ play, Tal was labeled as lucky and accused of hypnotizing his opponents but no one was able to stop him as he was again USSR champion in 1958, won the Interzonal tournament the same year, the Candidates tournament in 1959, and then wrested the World Championship from Botvinnik in 1960. Botvinnik won the rematch in 1961 but by holding the championship for just that one year Tal’s legacy was cemented for generations of chess players to the point that 50 years later DVDs are made about his games instead of other legendary attackers that never won the world championship.

  In the DVD, Williams takes 15 minutes to talk about Tal and another 30 minutes going over one of Tal’s 1960 games against Botvinnik. Williams then proceeds to the meat of the DVD – seven of Tal’s games produced in an interactive style. In the interactive games Williams goes over the games much like the Botvinnik game except at five to seven points the viewer is presented a choice of three moves to pick from a menu. If move Tal played is selected the DVD continues with congratulatory words from Williams and if a different move is selected Williams explains why Tal didn’t play the selected move (sometimes the chosen move was the best but just not played by Tal) and lets the viewer choose again. As a bonus there are five positions at the end of the DVD that challenge the view via the same interactive style as the critical positions in the games.

  The DVD is produced by Williams’ GingerGM company and has excellent production values. Williams takes up the right half of the screen with a chessboard in front of him while the left side of the screen has the digital chessboard with the typical arrows and highlighted squares. The entire screen is crisp and clear. Williams constantly refers to a laptop that is mostly hidden behind the digital board but does manage to make eye contact with the viewer and has a breezy conversational style. While going over the games, Williams makes the moves on the physical chessboard in front of him. The chessboard is at an angle where the viewers can see very little of it. I think the board is present for Williams' comfort level even though he has a laptop less than a yard away. The selected games are all attacking games but the interactive positions don't have obvious continuations and the viewer is forced to stop and think. I found the positions challenging and when I didn’t come up with the Tal move, Williams’ explanation were useful in helping me understand where I was going wrong.

  At seven hours of running time (not counting the time spent to calculate the moves), the 2 DVD set is a good value for $18 dollars retail price and an excellent one for the $9 I paid during a 50% off promotion. I would recommend getting the physical disk. I couldn’t figure out a way to get the player to switch to the next segment of the DVD after a game section ended when using the download, but when I put the DVD in my computer or in the player hooked up to my TV it was smooth sailing.

  The only thing I didn’t enjoy about the DVD was Williams harping on Tal’s drinking (saying he would have played with a bottle of whiskey at the table if he could have) and smoking and claiming it led to his early death. Williams mentions how Tal was addicted to morphine but failed to mention his addiction came about after an operation. Tal always seemed to be photographed with a cigarette hanging from his lips but he had a series of kidney ailments in his 20s and I can’t imagine his drinking led to that and maybe the expectation of a lifetime of health problems and/or living under the thumb of the Soviet system led to his drinking. Tal lived to be 55 which was as long or longer as World Champions Tigran Petrosian (55), Alexander Alekhine (53), and Jose Capablanca (53). While Alekhine was a heavy drinker there were no indications that the other two led the kind of lifestyle that would have led to an early death like Tal’s. I’m not saying Tal should be treated and feted as if he was Derek Jeter but I wish Williams had characterized him more as a generational chess player and less as some idiot savant (at various times Williams refers to Tal as a lunatic, nutter, bonkers, crazy...) that became world champion despite his drinking and smoking.

A sample of GM Damian Lemos going over a game from his Topalov DVD courtesy of YouTube.

  The second DVD I watched was ‘Grandmaster Secrets – Play like Veselin Topalov’. In this 2.5 hour DVD, GM Damian Lemos serves as a guide through five games by Topalov. Topalov has been a top 10 player since 1995 and won the FIDE world championship in 2005 by winning an 8 player unification tournament. In 2006 he lost his FIDE title to Vladimir Kramnik in his first title defense and failed to retake his crown in a match with Anand in 2010. I have a hard time putting Topalov on the list of World chess champions since he never won a match for the championship but many people have him on their champions list and there is no question he was universally regarded as the best player in the world in the mid 2000’s.

  All five games have Topalov building up an attack on the enemy king and eventually crashing through to victory against top level competition. Lemos isn’t as engaging as Williams but he is just as thorough in going over the games. Lemos spends a lot of time going over the opening in detail and gives extra emphasis in which side will get the ‘bishop pair’. Lemos also does a good job going over the variations in Tolalov’s attacks. He goes a little overboard on the circles, arrows, and highlighted squares but in general he does a very good job explaining the games. I only have two complaints on his presentation. Lemos doesn’t seem to know how to use the Chessbase interface in his videos. Whenever he goes into a side variation a window pops up on a piece of the demonstration board and he has to click a button to get rid of it. I found this distracting but not nearly as distracting as Lemos’ penchant for saying ‘You Know’ at every opportunity in two of the five games. Check out the free sample from the DVD that I link to above and count how many times Lemos says ‘You Know’. I lost count after 75 which averaged out to once every 20 seconds…

  This DVD is an in-house production of Online Chess Lessons and like most chess videos has the digital chessboard on the left side of the screen and the presenter on the right. Most of the Online Chess Lessons videos have the presenter in the middle of the right hand side of the screen framed by the company’s logo above and beneath and this DVD is no exception. In the ‘Play Like Tal’ video, Williams is in perfect focus, is speaking to the viewer and not a microphone, and has the same outfit and same background in the entire seven hour presentation. Lemos is out of focus, speaks into a headset, is wearing different clothes and is in front of a different background for each game (once using a makeshift backdrop consisting of a sheet). In four of the games the digital board was the kind used in Chessbase and in one of the games a Internet Chess Club board is used. Normally the presentation wouldn’t make a lot of difference to me but it gave the entire video an unprofessional feel as if it was something hurriedly put together in a series of hotel rooms. When combined with the distracting presentation $20 dollars for the download of $25 for the physical DVD is not good value for the cash.

  While I enjoyed both DVDs (even if I'll never play like Tal or Topalov), GingerGM’s ‘Play Like Tal’ far outstripped Online Chess Lessons ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’ both in content and presentation. If you get on the Online Chess Lessons mailing list they will give you free downloads and large discounts pretty frequently. I like free stuff but the problem with paying cash for chess DVDs is there is so much quality free content on the internet it hardly seems worth it. On YouTube Daniel Kings's Power Play and kingscrusher channels review the top grandmaster games, while International Masters Christof Sielecki (Chessexplained) and John Bartholomew primarily go over their own games. Those four You Tube channels are just a small sampling of chess videos available for free to the viewing public. I bought this batch of Chess DVD's in April on pure impulse but I can't see myself paying for Chess DVD's again unless it were for a targeted need like learning about an opening.