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Campfire Chess Posts

The Agon Widget from Hell

Remember back in March when Agon, the FIDE puppet company responsible for organizing and managing the World Chess Championship cycle limited the live game broadcasts and infuriated pretty much everyone except their billionaire Russian investors and mafia henchmen? Well, run-on sentences aside, the Agon mafia has returned to show its ugly teeth in the run-up to the World Chess Championship in New York City this November with an announcement that broadcast of the games will be limited to a widget designed to be embedded into an external website to broadcast the games. Peter Doggers at breaks the announcement down a little more. When you have finished reading his excellent report, behold the new widget:

Agon’s WCC broadcast widget. (Credit:

According to the official statement,

First, and most importantly, the live moves of the World Chess Championship match will be made available for free to responsible chess websites and other media organizations that take our official broadcast widget.

Although it is presented as the most important part of the broadcast announcement, the idea that the WCC moves should be free is buried in the typical Agon-FIDE hyperbole and legal threats to the chess community and its myriad of online portals. For example,

It is fair to say that the furor that followed divided the global chess community. We were asked, “Does Agon have the right to prohibit anyone from broadcasting the moves as they were made?” We believe that we do and that we have a strong legal position. We also have the full support of the World Chess Federation and many others within the game.

Agon acknowledges that its actions divided a deep and thriving community, but it still fails to see that the divide is between Agon-FIDE and everyone else, not a divide among the chess community. In fact, I don’t believe that I’ve ever witnessed an online community come together en masse like the chess community did when Agon announced its monopoly. With its restrictive broadcasting agreements and tactics aimed at subverting the established ecosystem, Agon has alienated itself from countless people who care about chess and want to see it grow. Furthermore, to assert that its position is legitimized by a FIDE endorsement is no different than saying that its okay to restrict the games because the Kremlin says so. In addition, those within the game that are often quoted by Agon-FIDE couldn’t care less about broadcast rights for chess. Their names are solidified in the annals of chess history and their view is always from the front row…at the board!

What we are doing has never been attempted before in the chess world. It is a revolutionary approach and I am sure we will probably make some mistakes in its implementation before we are finished.

Really? It hasn’t? Do they mean that nobody has ever created a chess widget before to cover broadcasted games? How interesting because Chessbase has one and Chessbomb has one that regularly broadcasts live tournament games. This kind of drivel expounds on how little Agon-FIDE really knows about the depths of ingenuity, innovation, and connectedness that exist in the online chess world.

Suspicious Widget

As a veteran of nearly thirty years of computer and network development, I can say that most competent webmasters are reluctant to arbitrarily add external widgets to their platforms. Companies often gain the trust and respect of their customers by demonstrating commitment to that platform’s service before said platform allows their widget or code to be embedded within their framework. For me, I trust Chessbase and Chessbomb because they have earned trust and respect as reputable companies with a legitimate interest in furthering the game of chess. Agon has done nothing but drive a wedge between the chess community and the organization that is supposed to be championing our game.

Would you trust a Soviet JavaScript or PHP widget on your network or content platform? I sure as hell wouldn’t. Call me paranoid, but the truth is always buried in fine print and revealed in data breaches or midnight special forces raids.

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Settling Above 1100

The cycle of life ebbs and flows with some periods being more demanding than others. August to October of this year has been particularly demanding, which forced me to cut down on my chess writing and playing. Curiously, that break preceded a jump in my online game successes both in live challenges and on the damnable Tactics Trainer. My online ELO currently sits at 1101, which is the first time it has surpassed that benchmark since March 13 of this year.

Pretty charts, but still a long way to go. (Credit: Chess)

Of course, some of my recent wins were clearly undeserved (abandoned by opponent, etc.) but I believe that many of them are starting to reflect my constant dedication to studying and learning about the game. For example,

Winning and losing in chess is like the tides, so I am trying to prepare myself mentally for the time when the wins don’t come and the only way ahead seems to be down, like this heartbreaking loss:

Until next time, keep the flame burning, campers!

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Nazi Paikidze and Hijab Hubbub

Editor’s Note: I try to keep away from writing about politics, but sometimes the world of chess becomes intimately entangled in the affairs of the world. The battles on the board begin to mimic those of the world around us and something has to be said.

US Women’s Chess Champion Nazi Paikidze rocketed into mainstream fame recently with her vocal protest of Iran hosting the 2017 Women’s World Chess Championship due to the country’s strict laws regarding female dress codes and specifically, compulsory wear of the Muslim hijab. Given that Nazi (pronounced na-SEE) is an immigrant to the United States herself and with the foundation of our country being that of individual liberty, one would expect rousing support for the champion. Yet, that is not the case in a world gone mad.

Social Justice Warriors Weenies, who seem to insert themselves anywhere they can criticize, ridicule, or otherwise remind others of their professional victim status, have lashed out at Nazi for her protest because she is too white to make a difference… As a man who has served with people of all races, genders, nationalities, and sexual orientations, I have reached my wit’s end with the incessant blame game on race, inequality, or random social condition flavor of the week used to marginalize the voices of people trying to make a legitimate difference for others. The voices on Twitter and on television crying racism, sexism, or whatever-ism simply do not represent the truth in much of our country.

One need not look too far to see that Nazi is not alone. Chess champions Garry Kasparov, Nigel Short, and lesser entities like Campfire Chess along with thousands of others have voiced their support for the protest because silently accepting the Iranian venue demonstrates a remarkable contempt for women’s rights around the world. You can sign her protest petition here.

Chess is a game that empowers men and women of all races and all backgrounds to break down the walls that typically restrict them. That is why I am proud of Nazi and her resolve. She represents the best of what our nation was founded on.

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Advanced Reviews of Chessbase 14 and Mega Base 2017

My copy of Chessbase Magazine 174 arrived a few days ago and included an exciting voucher for Mega Base 2017 that instructed me to head over to the Chessbase Shop to buy the new database. Curiously, it is not available at this time, so that voucher is tucked away safely until it is.

In addition, Chessbase has included a brief summary and review of Chessbase 14 in the back of CBM 174’s booklet, but CB14 is also unavailable for purchase on the Chessbase Shop.

I like the product previews, but it feels strange being encouraged to go out and buy products that are not available yet… Maybe next time a simple Coming Soon notice instead?

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Celebrating National Chess Day!

Today is National Chess Day in the United States. In my opinion, that’s not too shabby for a country only recently moving back into the chess spotlight. There are chess events happening all around the country and yours truly will be taking plenty of time today to indulge in our game. What are you doing to celebrate today?

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The Queen of Katwe – A Movie Review

Too often movies are judged as success or failure simply on the amount of money generated by theater, advertising, and merchandise revenue. With those factors typically making up the outcome measurements for modern films, most chess movies are doomed to commercial failure from the start or face relegation to independent distributors. Last year’s Pawn Sacrifice is a perfect example of the challenges faced by chess films. The film opened to high hopes, received mixed reviews, premiered almost two years after completion, received a positive review here on Campfire Chess, but has since disappeared into the abyss of forgotten films and misbegotten biopics. In reflecting on Pawn Sacrifice prior to reviewing The Queen of Katwe, I realized that Pawn Sacrifice simply does not have the creative longevity to remain at the forefront of modern chess cinema. Perhaps some of the early reflections (including my own) were the result of hype and excessive expectations that were ultimately underwhelmed and left disappointed. That is why when I went to see the film reviewed in this article, I was cautiously optimistic about the outcome and determined to guard myself against personal biases.

Cautiously optimistic…

The Disney biopic The Queen of Katwe, which is based on the life story of Phiona Mutesi, premiered in theaters across America on Friday night and yours truly was there with my beloved to watch the film. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were among 40-50 moviegoers in the theater for the 1845L showing. In contrast, Pawn Sacrifice was less than 15 the night of its local premier. After suffering through a collection of disappointing trailers (and one about dogs that had me bawling) the movie finally began and we were treated to just over two hours of Disney’s interpretation and dramatization of the life and trials of Phiona Mutesi.

Capturing Ugandan Struggle and Pain

Because this was a Disney movie, I was interested to see to what lengths the producers would go to portray the depths of pain and suffering endured by Phiona and her family in the Katwe slums. It only took a few minutes to realize that the producers had used subtle nuances present in the daily lives of Kampala’s slum citizens to maintain a sense of vibrancy while showing a deep and resounding pain felt by Phiona and her family. Singing and dancing for personal pleasure soon gave way to singing and dancing in the streets for money to buy dinner. The daily struggles presented throughout the film were never lost in the mixture of chess and personal victories, but those struggles also never whitewashed the sense of achievement and growth brought on by Phiona’s challenges and triumphs.

Phiona was played expertly by Madina Nalwanga and her coach by David Oyelowo, but it was without a doubt the exceptional Lupita Nyong’o who played Phiona’s mother that stole the show. There were times throughout the film that I wondered if the story was actually about Phiona’s mother and less about Phiona and her brother. Yet, these powerful moments where we were treated to following Phiona’s mother through her daily struggles provided the audience with a wonderful context for the challenges that Phiona would face. Why would a mother hesitate to accept scholarships or growth opportunities for their child? These questions and many others were answered by the unique way in which the filmmakers frame the challenges, failures, and triumphs of Phiona in the parallel worlds of chess and life through the eyes of her mother. It become apparent early on that Phiona is certainly her mother’s child; a woman who refused to roll over or accept that she was not capable of rising to a higher level of achievement.

Are We Still Looking for Bobby?

It is hard to write a chess film review without comparing said film to the classic Searching for Bobby Fischer, but doing so with The Queen of Katwe sets a new precedent in chess cinema. That 1991 film staring Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc is often seen as a benchmark for chess filmmaking and storytelling. Many people, including myself, hold it dear as one of the best movies about chess ever made. Yet, I could not help but wonder as I watched The Queen of Katwe with my wife, if we were not watching what could become the Searching for Bobby Fischer of the 21st century.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the Daily Caller wrote a hit piece on Phiona Mutesi quoting anonymous Grandmasters and others leading up to the film’s release. The intent of that article was to paint her as a subpar chess player undeserving of any sort of international attention. Yet, such language and disrespect is not levied at young Josh Waitzkin in press releases for Searching. Josh was (and still is) considered a legitimate chess prodigy although he has mostly given it up to pursue other activities. In her native country of Uganda and among the most powerful chess professionals in Africa, Phiona is a chess force to be reckoned with. The hit article certainly weighed on me as I watched the film. Fortunately, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had treated Phiona and the chess world with an enormous amount of respect.

Phiona expresses her desire to be a chess master and receives both good and bad advice throughout the film, but never is the idea of rising to the top of the chess world presented as an option to Phiona without an enormous amount of personal commitment and support. Even when Phiona attends the Moscow Olympiad, her defeat becomes the crux of the film’s final act in which she finds herself struggling to play for fear of losing.

Ultimately, The Queen of Katwe exposes something about Phiona Mutesi that is often lost in stats, PGN files, and ELO references: her humanity. The film expertly balances the philosophy and challenges of playing chess but also shows how chess can bring out the truth of human struggle and triumph. Such stories are often overplayed in cinema, but here it is professionally mixed to where the chess victory is never really undermined by the struggles that it seeks to solve.

A Final Verdict…

The Queen of Katwe was much better than I had anticipated and it tugged at the heart strings in a way that only Disney can manage. It was easy to be empathetic with Phiona and her relatives facing daily starvation and deplorable conditions in the Katwe slums. The outstanding performances combined with some great chess scenes that were obviously supervised by chess professionals that cared about how the game was represented on screen, it is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Yet, I think that only time will tell if it has the longevity to remain a classic in chess cinema. The story of Phiona Mutesi is still ongoing, but that is the crux of the film’s entire premise. Life never stops, and those places were are used to are not always the places we are meant to be.

I only hope that Phiona and this film continue to inspire people to pick up our game.

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Product Review – Voice Master Chess Set

Many chess players and learners have moved their games into the cloud via Chessbase,‘s servers, or the myriad of other iOS and Android apps available for tracking and analyzing a player’s repertoire. For me, this often involves playing on on my iPhone or using Stockfish to store and analyze games on the go when I am away from my laptop or ability to access my Chessbase database. Yet, the steady transition of chess players to cloud systems over the years has not entirely eliminated a nostalgic piece of chess history: the computer chess board.

An interesting memory of chess I have as a kid is playing against a computerized board that belonged to my dad. I remember that it had a small LCD display, some red LEDs along the side to indicate the current move, and came with an annoying voice assistant that was always ready to pounce on your emotions once it had destroyed your chess game. The hauntingly annoying words of that board are forever engrained into my psyche: “Hi, my name is Chester! How about a nice game of chess?”

The IQ Toys Voice Master electronic chess board.

As time progressed, many of these boards were relegated to discount bins at bargain stores or the miscellaneous aisles at Goodwill locations. However, I came across a computerized chess board for sale at a Toys-R-Us here in San Antonio a few weeks ago and the item piqued my interest. Was there still a market for these things? And, if there was…what kind of other boards were available out there? A quick Amazon search revealed a mixture of the same problems faced by manufacturers of other niche products: a collection of worthless products with 1-2 star ratings intermixed with legitimate boards.

I spent the next few days researching options and finally decided on a mid-range board from a company called IQ Toys. My Voice Master electronic chess set came a few days later and I thought that now was an appropriate time to write a review given that I have had about a week to play with it. So, here is what its like to use a classic digital chess board in the age of the chess cloud…

Voice Master pieces are of high-quality construction.

Construction and Presentation

Given the plethora of cheap chess sets out there, it is important for a product to present a pleasing aesthetic. This little board was well packaged and it was immediately apparent that it was of a high quality construction. The box included the board itself, a set of white pieces, a set of black pieces, and a complete set of disks for checkers. I could go off on another tangent about the constant bundling of chess and checkers pieces together, but I digress. I tossed the checkers disks into the garbage and unpacked the small, magnetic chess pieces. The board itself does not come with a way to plug it into the wall, so it requires 4 AA batteries. Fortunately, so do many other toys I have purchased for my kids, so after loading the batteries and setting up the pieces, I clicked on the power and set to starting my first digital chess board game since the traumatic days of Chester…

Voice Master size comparison to 12″ MacBook.

Game Play and Observations

It was very straight forward and easy to get a new game started. Without wanting to adjust the options such as game strength or piece odds, two clicks on the key pad and I was underway. I quickly realized that it was going to take some getting used to how the pieces interfaced with the board so that I would not be inundated with a particularly annoying buzzer when it encounters an error. The player gently presses the piece down on the board and follows the instructions on the LCD board. After a few times of having the buzzer scare my dog and receiving more than enough interesting looks from my wife, I muted the board sounds and continue on. As with most chess computers it did not take long for me to hang a piece and lose the first of many casual games against the device.

Voice Master vs. Stockfish 7 via ChessBase GUI on Microsoft Surface 3.

I have yet to beat this board, which is nothing new for me and is nothing that I did not expect. However, I was curious to get an idea of how strong the board is on a normal setting. I felt as though I was playing against a 1500-1600 ELO player and decided that the best way to compliment any kind of review of the product would be to put it into an engine match against Stockfish. I fired up my Fritz 14 GUI and launched a new game against Stockfish with White and me manually inputting moves for Black on behalf of the Voice Master board. Although there were some moves made by the Voice Master board that warranted a ?? or similar marking, I avoided annotations in the game unless the board itself provided some form of text alert.

As I expected, Stockfish made short work of the Voice Master board although I was shocked at some of the moves and warnings offered by the board as the game approached its brutal conclusion. Specifically, move 21.Rxg7+ was flagged by the board as requiring caution. When the board asked me if I was sure that I wanted to proceed with that move, Stockfish’s analysis of the move bringing it to within (#8) with 21…Kxg7 22.Qg4+… at this point was more than enough for me to chuckle at the device’s overconfidence. The same thing occurred two moves later after 23.Rh7!! with the board asking if I was sure I wanted to proceed. Needless to say that the board lost shortly thereafter.

One interesting point of the game above is that the board seemed to completely ignore Stockfish’s attach after 21.Rxg7+ and go its own way. Very little was done to counter the coming assault although the board continued to offer coaching advice and precautionary alerts despite Stockfish having it at a #4 disadvantage.

Overall Verdict

The construction, appearance, and usability of the Voice Master board is nice. It does not have the cheap appearance or feeling that comes with many electronic boards sold in stores or online today. Learning the proper level of pressure to apply to the pieces during gameplay can take some practice and I highly recommend turning off the board sounds until you have a firm grasp on that pressure. Otherwise, a player can expect to be inundated with the horrific error buzzer mentioned above.

As for playing strength, the board seems perfect for beginners to mid-range skill players. It offers a classical tactile chess experience without the need to hunt down a physical opponent. However, it might be too little of a reliable challenge for some players as demonstrated in the demo game where it ignored the final mating combination almost entirely. The board retails for $39.99 on (as opposed to $99.99 on sites like, which makes it a nice gift for your favorite chess lover or child looking to get started playing the game. At least it does not have the taunting voice of the dreaded Chester set I mentioned in the beginning.

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Susan Polgar, the Times, and Hired Help

As I wrote a few days ago, the United States claimed victory in a Chess Olympiad for the first time since 1976. Shortly thereafter, World Champion Magnus Carlsen posted a sarcastic tweet in which he openly wondered if Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana were still for sale. Because I am a huge baseball fan and have often wondered about the merits of a free agency system in professional chess, I took the tweet at face value and dismissed it as nothing more than a sarcastic way of Magnus congratulating the US team. Unfortunately, in most cases, in chess not everything is as it seems.

Grandmaster Susan Polgar took exception with claims of “hired help” on the United States Chess Team.

I commend Susan for addressing the claims because although she took some subsequent heat on Twitter for her comment, the assertions about hired help were not limited to Magnus Carlsen. The New York Times, which seems to pride itself on being at the forefront of racial and social divides in America, boldly proclaimed that the United States team won with the help of imported talent.

The New York Times preferred to emphasize imported talent over national victory.

What is lost on me is the almost relentless focus by the media on the ethic origins of the players on this team and participants in countless other activities including books, music, and movies for that matter. Does it make a difference that Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana are recent additions to the United States Chess Federation dossier? The article mentions that it is unusual for players to change federations, but is it any more unusual for a person to change their citizenship? Wesley So trained under Susan Polgar at Webster University and was integral to their team before dropping out of school to pursue chess full-time. Fabiano Caruana has played for the Italian Chess Federation for years, but is actually an American citizen who was born and raised in Florida.

A Nation of Immigrants

What gets lost in these arguments and what I think really got Susan Polgar’s blood boiling seems to be that the media forgets that 99.9% of the people who live in the United States of America are the product of immigration. My family is of German descent, but does that disqualify me from representing the United States in an official capacity? Of course not, just as switching from the Philippines to US Chess does not disqualify Wesley So from representing the United States at the Baku Olympiad.

Ultimately, these are the things that make America such a unique place. America is a country where people from all backgrounds, of every ethnicity, and of all life experiences can stand on a podium and wear a gold medal as a representative of their country. These men were not hired help or imported talent. Instead, they represent the very core of what America stands for. Asserting anything else devalues that.

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Daily Caller Fires Shots at Queen of Katwe

The Disney adaptation of Tim Crothers’ book, The Queen of Katwe is due out next week and buzz is high on social media. Phiona has held countless interviews and reveled in the international spotlight on the eve of the film’s release. Yet, as is often the case with newfound international fame, some are not taking her rise to mainstream stardom too well. The Daily Caller recently published this hit piece in which phantom grandmasters are quoted and heavy attention is paid to tearing down any hint of success and triumph that makes her story worthy of such attention.

Her actual performance in the chess world shows these to be puff pieces with very little attention paid to empirical fact. Mutesi has no doubt achieved something as a young Ugandan girl living in poverty, to capture the attention of the world, but that something she accomplished is not being good at chess.

Given the deplorable conditions in which she was raised and the odds of becoming good at anything in her life, is it not fair to say that Phiona Mutesi overcome immense odds to become much better at chess than people who live in similar conditions? ELO is not always an indicator of chess greatness. A 1600 ELO player can inspire millions with her story and encourage others to sit down at a chess board far more than a 2000+ ELO player with no personality, no spirit, and no understanding of what really makes the game great.

The Queen of Katwe will be released in most major theater markets on September 30, 2016.

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United States Victorious in Baku!

It was long before I was born the last time that the United States won a gold medal victory at a Chess Olympiad. That kind of drought is long enough for many American chess enthusiasts to start each Olympiad off with little to no hope for a competitive finish. Countries like Russia and China have dominated the scene for years, but all of that changed in the final round of the 2016 Chess Olympiad in Baku when the United States defeated Canada to earn its first gold medal since 1976! This got me to thinking…what was the world like the last time that the United States won a gold medal in a Chess Olympiad?

  • Height of the Fischer Chess Boom after the 1972 match against Boris Spassky.
  • First flight of the Concorde airplane.
  • Apple Computer Company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
  • The Canada CN tower was completed.
  • Howard Hughes dies at age 70.
  • Viking I Lander arrives on Mars.
  • Fidel Castro becomes President of Cuba.

My, how far we have come… The Fischer boom is long gone and most people under 25 probably do not remember the Concorde. But it is 2016 and chess in America is undergoing a renaissance. The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis has hosted some of the strongest tournaments in American history and the United States Chess Federation continues to transform itself into a powerhouse of chess promotion and advocacy. That strong advocacy led to the acquisition of Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, who won the United States Chess Championship earlier this year. With a renewed vigor and youthful dynamic, the United States team steam rolled into the Baku Chess Olympiad to capture a series of early victories and never letting up on their competition.

Power Out of the Gates It was readily apparent at the outset of the tournament that the United States team was a force to be reckoned with. They earned four victories early before falling behind a point to Scotland in Round 2.

From that point on, the United States team held a solid momentum to compete for placement in the tournament’s top three positions. The drama lasted, however, until the very end.

It was readily apparent that the United States team outplayed their Canadian counterparts, but was not able to pull off a complete win in that final round. Once the American games were completed, attention focused to the Ukrainian team who was competing to break a virtual tie. Despite a strong performance by the Ukraine team, it was not enough to overcome their deficit and defeat the Americans. With the tiebreaker over, the United States left Baku with chess gold!

The United States Chess Team was:

  • Captain: IM John Donaldson
  • GM Fabiano Caruana
  • GM Hikaru Nakamura
  • GM Wesley So
  • GM Samuel Shankland
  • GM Ray Robson

National Pride I am incredibly proud and feel blessed everyday to be able to play chess and to know that my country is starting to embrace the game on a grander scale. Now we can turn our attention to New York as the United States prepares to host the greatest event in chess: the World Chess Championship!

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