When it comes to books, I’m an old-fashioned reader, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. That is, I generally prefer to hold a physical book and turn its pages, just as I do a magazine or newspaper. Nevertheless, it’s clear that as time progresses a higher percentage of published material will be coming to us in electronic form (with increased video content), including both original and reproduced content. Chess publication is no exception, obviously. We already have numerous chess news services and magazines online, for example. In addition, the word ‘ebook’ is used for a variety of formats used in electronic versions of chess books. The simplest is a PDF copy of an existing book. Most of these PDFs are scanned from existing books by individuals. This might serve a useful role of historical preservation of out-of-print books, but raises ethical issues when copies of books in print are distributed on the internet. Authors are deprived of royalties thereby, and should this practice become the norm it will seriously damage the market for conventionally-produced chess books. That is presumably one reason among several why chess publishers, looking ahead, are turning to electronic products which are potentially more secure. They can also have many more features, above all allowing the reader to click or tap through the moves in the book. Of course, the major publishers (and independent authors) also put their books up on devices such as the Kindle and the Nook, as well as selling original publications on Amazon or on websites. I’ll try to mention and discuss many of these alternate forms of publication in future reviews.
In this review, I’ll be looking at an impressive newer type of ebook put out for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch by ePlusBooks.com and their chess app, e+Chess Books. First, however, I want to present some background about established electronic publications. As indicated by my reviews, they have become a major part of the chess publishing landscape over the past decade. As an author, player, and teacher, the introduction of electronic chess products by companies such as ChessBase, Everyman, and Chess Informant has been a godsend for me. For example, Everyman ebooks are very close copies of their original physical books, preserving all moves and wording, but they are presented in ChessBase database format, which means that they are readable by the established database programs (for example, ChessBase and ChessBase Reader) and PGN readers. This provides the convenience of being able to add or edit analysis, for example, and merge games and variations from other sources into their files. Everyman ebooks were formerly DVDs (there are still many chess products out there sold only on DVD, of course), but getting them directly from their website saves time and mailing expense. Everyman has more recently developed its Chess Viewer program/App for tablets and mobile devices; this enables customized epub books to be read on IOS and Android platforms. The Chess Viewer can also read any PGN file from an external source. These new epub files, which are PGN versions, are downloadable and also readable by various readers, but must be purchased separately from the ChessBase format versions. I see 185 "traditional” ebooks listed on the Everyman site (for use in database programs or PGN readers), and it looks as though a majority of these are already available in the Chess Viewer format. As far as I know, no works have been written exclusively for Everyman’s epub format.
ChessBase, besides providing the most popular and sophisticated database and reader programs, is a voluminous publisher of original electronic publications and in particular video content. Some ChessBase productions have content similar to books. Early on, they put out a number of CDs with opening analysis, texts, and databases; these were analogous to physical books. Some years ago, this evolved into the Fritz trainer series, which are video presentations that feature a lecturer (usually a grandmaster) explaining the subject while demonstrating the moves "live” on a separate ChessBase board. Usually the trainer DVD comes with a database of games containing the analysis from the video. Review columns #101 and #102 covered typical DVDs (also available by download). The ChessBase shop lists 341 such products, mostly video trainers, which is an incredible mass of material. In addition, the 156th edition of ChessBase magazine was just published; for details on this long-running series, refer to several of my reviews over the years.
Naturally there are many other DVD and online products out there. Furthermore, with the widespread use of tablets and smartphones have come a slew of chess apps designed for them. I’m not an expert about what’s out there, and will limit my comments to the iPad. Most apps for the iPad and iPhone seem to be either for beginners or some kind of tutorial; there are also numerous playing apps. However, ebook reader apps are rare, and usually very primitive.
In this review I want to give an overview of the sophisticated e+Chess Book app by e+Books (I’ll call them "ePlus”), which can be used on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. I will also review one of its ebooks, a new translation of Chess Praxis. The app itself is free from the Apple iTunes store; what you pay for are the books you choose to download. These books, once purchased, will be updated automatically as changes and revisions are made; this is a feature heretofore unavailable to chess fans.
The e+ venture was set up late in 2010 and the first e+ books appeared in November 2011. Eplus’ terrific new idea was to make reading their ebooks resemble reading a conventional book, recreating the experience of turning pages while seated in a comfortable chair before the fire, or reading in bed. The iPad is a good size in this context, and it’s also convenient to bring to coffee shops. The biggest difference between their books and a conventional book is that you can play through the moves on an interactive board. Much as in a typical electronic reader app, you swipe the screen to turn pages and can jump back and forth from chapters. There are also Contents, Indices, lists of games, etc., all hyperlinked to the appropriate points in the text. On the left side of the page is the "book” – i.e., the text and moves in normal book appearance; tapping on the moves (or clicking various arrows) makes the moves appear on a board on the right side of the page. You can choose to look at any position in the game or plow through variations and subvariations. One interesting feature is that if you want to see what a variation that isn’t mentioned looks like, you can look at it on the board by tapping on the piece and destination square to make a string of moves. Eplus offers a variety of features such as external links, and scalable photos. It’s also possible for the author to add sound files; for example, Jeremy Silman uses these in his Complete Endgame Course book. There are exercises and puzzles with hidden continuations activated by "Solution” and "Reveal” buttons, so the material can be used as a study tool. You can copy text (for pasting in another application), add sticky notes, highlight text, and in some cases look up the definitions of words. Text and board are resizable. These and other features are outlined in the User Guide. In most books there are a liberal number of diagrams (usually more than in the original hardcopy work). In fact, diagrams are not strictly necessary, because the reader can simply tap on any move and it appears on the board; but it’s useful and pleasing to be able to visually scan through the text to get an idea of what’s being covered.
What are the limitations of this program and format? First, you shouldn’t confuse these ebooks with a database program, in which you can merge information from outside sources, do player and position searches, or send a game to a friend, for example. Furthermore, since this is a reader program, you aren’t able to make or save changes in a local copy. The only thing I really miss, however, is an embedded analytical chess engine with which to assess positions and suggest the best moves. Fortunately, that feature is in the works and will be part of the e+Chess program in the future. As yet, there are only a moderate number of titles: I count 26 books, and in addition, there are articles from the New in Chess series Secrets of Opening Surprises, which I have reviewed in this column. You get a free sample book, Capablanca’s classic Chess Fundamentals, and an interactive User’s Manual. The good news is that this list is rapidly growing, and will expand dramatically soon, because ePlus is converting many of New in Chess’ stable of hundreds of chess books for its app. For now, these books appear in the e+chess app store, and as time goes on, New in Chess will also be using its version of the app (produced for them by ePlus) to convert some of their books, which will appear in a distinctively New In Chess e-bookstore in the NIC app.
By way of both a disclaimer and plug, I should mention that Eric Schiller and I have recently written an original book for ePlus ("Taming the Wild Chess Openings”). It deals with a huge number of irregular openings, and some conventional but secondary ones which qualify because our students so often request solutions for them. This opens me up to charges of bias as a reviewer. However, I would plead that the reason we chose ePlus is that it was easily the best app out there. Another advantage of writing in this format is that books can have an almost unlimited length, and can be continually added to and revised as time goes by. Any author will appreciate that opportunity. For now, most ePlus books are conversions of existing works, but I’m sure that there will be more original works appearing as the medium catches on.
In his new translations of Nimzowitch’s Chess Praxis and My System for ePlus (the latter book is just now appearing), Robert Sherwood has finally succeeded in rendering Nimzowitsch faithfully, something earlier translations have failed to do. Several books translated by Sherwood have been featured in these columns. For example, Avro 1938, Karlsbad 1907, and Pasadena 1932. His translation of Paul Morphy - a Games Collection, by Geza Maroczy, was eminently readable and is in fact also available in an e+chess edition. Sherwood’s Chess Praxis translation sticks to the spirit of the writing, particularly insofar as the English text remains light-hearted and earthy. From Sherwood’s Translator’s Introduction:
"Regarding the text itself, Nimzowitsch’s German presents its challenges. As one would expect, it is quite different from the high-brow, crystalline classicism found in the canonical writings of Tarrasch. It is dense, sometimes craggy, and is imbued with a pugilism suggestive of the wrestler rather than the abstract theorist. It is wonderful stuff to read and a challenge at times to translate as snugly as one would like. This new version keeps to Nimzowitch’s style and intent (and denseness) as closely as possible and strives to convey the man’s deep feeling and crusading struggle during a period of intellectual ferment. Such a rendering asks more of the reader than do the simplified and paraphrased versions often found, but preserving the author’s manner of thinking as revealed in the texture of his writing is an essential part of the total experience of Nimzowitsch, and such an uncompromising experience of Praxis pays handsome dividends in a more profound understanding of him and of the hypermodern spirit.”
You can see right away that Sherwood knows how to write legibly in English, and adheres to the rules of grammar. These skills are obviously essential for a translator, but missing in some previous Nimzowitsch translations. What’s more, his translation is fluent, engaging and a pleasure to read.
Chess Praxis itself is a classic that should be read for both enjoyment and instruction. Here’s a listing of the Chapters; naturally these are links that open to the relevant portions of the book:
Preface by IM Jeremy Silman
Part I. Centralization.
Part II. Restraint and Blockade
Part III. Over-Protection and Other Forms of Prophylaxis
Part IV. The Isolated Queen Pawn and the Two Hanging Pawns; the Two Bishops
Part V. Alternating Manuevers Against Enemy Weaknesses When Possessing an Advantage in Space
Part VI. Forays Through the Old and New Lands of Hypermodern Chess
Index of Strategms
Nimzowitsch’s games are the essence of the book, and his ideas and opinions are largely contained in his annotations. There are 135 games; 109 are numbered, complete, and presumably "main” games; the others include some fragments, but also complete games which are annotated in considerable depth. Nimzowitsch’s opponents range from the superstars of his time (e.g., Tarrasch, Chigorin, Maroczy, Reti, Alekhine, Capablanca, Rubinstein, Spielman, Bogoljubow, and the like) to strong club players who play surprisingly well. I think that someone who has read My System thoroughly will be surprised to see that the games in Chess Praxis often bear little relationship with the themes and ideas expressed in the former book. Several of the examples in the chapter on overprotection, for instance, seem to be a bit of a stretch, but they are instructive in and of themselves. And in general, Nimzowitsch’s insights are worthwhile whether or not they conform to the philosophic generalities expressed in his masterpiece.
The excellent chapter on isolated and hanging pawns illustrates a number of subtleties that you won’t find in most books covering the subject today. And the section "The ‘Elastic’ Treatment of the Opening: the Transition from One Opening to Another” contains a remarkably modern-looking set of examples in Indian Systems. About contemporary reaction to the concept of flexible opening play, Nimzowitsch has this typically sardonic passage: "This stratagem, introduced in his day by the author, was regarded by the wiseacres of the Tarrasch period as the product of decadence. For exam¬ple, Therkatz, an amateur of suffi¬ciently feeble ability as to have been placed in charge of a rather important chess column, asserted that to mask one’s intentions in the opening showed a "lack of courage!”
This is one of the earliest and most enduring books on chess strategy. Browsing through the book, I was struck that Nimzowitsch includes a remarkable number of endgames and late middlegames. Playing through these, I wonder if his greatest strength may have been his skill and tenacity in handling such positions. Ironically for a book by such a revolutionary, students may get the most benefit by experiencing the technique and imagination required to convert apparently simplified positions into wins. For chess history buffs, I should mention that the e+chess edition includes an unusually large amount of photographs of both famous players and lesser personalities who were Nimzowitsch’s opponents.
I strongly recommend both the e+chess app and Chess Praxis. The iPad isn’t cheap, but if you are in the tablet market anyway, this product can be an extra incentive to make the leap. For those who already have an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, check out the app and play with the free book it offers to see what you think. This may not be the sole direction that chess publishing will move in, but I predict that the e+chess format will become a substantial part of it for a long time to come.