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Category: Reviews

Five Beautiful (and expensive) Chess Sets

Chess sets offer artists and other creatives with almost endless possibilities to design custom and unique pieces. I came across some beautiful albeit pricey sets on the web the other night and decided to share them here for your viewing (or possible purchasing) pleasure. These sets are in no particular order:

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RawStudio Leather and Steel Chess Set ($507 USD)

RawStudio’s chess set is inspired by industrial design and those little puzzles you can find at Toys-R-Us or various mall kiosks. It looks very beautiful and designed for portability, but I cannot imagine being comfortable carrying my $500 chess set out and about.

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The STACK Chess Board [Limited Edition] ($450)

This cool board is like Legos or an Erector Set for chess! The board itself combines from four separate pieces into a full-size board. The ability to break the board down makes it perfect for travelers and for convenient storage if $400 for a nondescript chess board is your thing.

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Black Tower Dragon Set ($150)

Chess has long held a place in science fiction and fantasy lore. In the real world, companies have created countless sets based on dragons, fairies, aliens, and other characters from classic stories. This, however, is one of my personal favorites! The glass board is perched on a highly detailed tower and the gold/white creates a unique look for dragon-theme boards that are often depicted with darker purple and red colors.

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Hand-Turned Rustic Log Chess Set ($220+)

This is one of those chess sets you will see repeatedly on Tumblr or Pinterest feeds and I have fallen victim to clicking it several times before seeing the price and running for the hills. $200+ might not seem like alot for a chess set, but the size of this one makes me cautious. However, the rustic artwork and craftsmanship of the set is certainly among the best out there. This seems like more of a collector’s item than an actual day-to-day game board.

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King Arthur Fantasy Chess Set ($1,350)

Much like the dragon chess set above, sets involving castles and midieval themes like King Arthur are commonplace. However, this is one of the most detailed and beautiful sets that I have ever seen. For someone who loves chess, fine woodwork, and the legend of the Knights of the Roundtable, this thing is perfect! It is only when we get to the price that my heart stops and disappointment sets in.

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Product Review – ChessBase 14

Even numbered years are tough on the wallet because two of the largest software products I use typically release their major updates during those times. Now that Logos has taken my money for a major update, ChessBase has officially released the next major version of its popular database software. I’ve been using it for a while now and have seen enough in this update to explore those new features here on the blog.

Interface Updates

Interface and aesthetics used to be a developer’s afterthought in software design but that has radically changed over time thanks to Apple and other major corporations finding new ways to create cultural trends by integrating technology into everyday life through elegant design. ChessBase 13 did very little to modify the user interface despite some advances in the Windows Aero system. ChessBase 14 makes up for that by almost completely revamping the user experience to reflect interface changes on par with the latest version of Microsoft Office. The toolbar and ribbon has been fully updated and now integrates better with the rest of the operating system than previous versions.

Another excellent interface upgrade is the addition of highlighted variations on the main board window. For me, a major challenge of studying analyzed chess games has been the complexity of multiple variations, but ChessBase 14 fixes that with a cool new feature where the entirety of the current variation is highlighted in the notation pane! For me, this nifty little feature was worth the price of upgrade alone! Other minor refinements to the interface include deeper integration with ChessBase Account and some other upgrades that all serve to streamline the user experience.

Functional Updates

Of course no update would be worth the investment if it did not enhance the overall functional experience. ChessBase 14 still uses many of the same tools and resources as it’s predecessors but also adds some powerful analysis functions. The best of these, in my opinion, is the poorly named tactical analysis. This function brings the long-sought full game analysis of Fritz to the core ChessBase program. Users can now load a game in ChessBase 14 and perform a full analysis with the engine of their choosing without having to hop over to the Fritz, Houdini, Komodo, or similar GUI to complete the analysis. Online services like lichess.org and Chess.com, but I think that nothing beats letting Stockfish or a similar engine tear apart a game using local processing power and a predetermined amount of the user’s time. lichess.org can give me an analysis in a few seconds, but engines can go all night while I’m sleeping; allowing me to wake up to a full analysis of my most recent game.

The upgrades to ChessBase 14’s interface and deeper integration with ChessBase Account adds solid, useful functions to the program that definitely makes it worth the investment. The ability to upload games to the user cloud introduced in ChessBase 13 is still present with easy access to the user’s ChessBase Account added to the interface ribbon. One login allows the user access to the whole of their account and cloud databases as well as the powerful ChessBase LiveBook analysis tree. The ChessBase user cloud offers around 200MB to store PGN databases online, but most people are going to prefer alternative services like Dropbox or OneDrive which offer much more storage space with effective interface options for Windows.

The program also feels much more snappy and responsive than previous generations, which is pleasing given the increased portability of today’s computers. I use ChessBase on a Microsoft Surface so seeing some refinement in the program’s performance is welcome for those of us who consider themselves chess road warriors. Using the database itself on a portable device did not place a strain on the battery until activating an engine like Stockfish or Fritz, but that’s raw processing power for the engine; not ChessBase.

Final Thoughts and Overall Value

I skipped ChessBase 13 because most of its updates did not seem worth the investment, but ChessBase 14 is a solid update to an already powerful chess database system. There are several different packages available that include add-ons such as Mega Database 2017, which activates some immense reference abilities with over 6.5 million games. Both the software and the database are available as separate purchases but are a much better value combined together as a package.

Purchase Options

  • Base Software Download: Link.
  • Mega Database Download: Link.
  • ChessBase 14 with Mega Database 2017: Link.

Campfire Verdict: ♟♟♟♟♙

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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, Chess.com‘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 Chess.com 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 Amazon.com (as opposed to $99.99 on sites like ChessUSA.com), 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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Product Review – Most Amazing Moves

I am not sure why I have struggled to finish this review, but hopefully this 4th draft will be the final version. This also turned out to be the first post of July 2016. Normally, I would already have posted several entries, but this is been a challenging month.

Alas, on to the review we go…

Like most chess players, there are certain games and moves that have left an unmistakable influence on my life. Of course, classic games like Morphy’s Opera Game and Fischer Game of the Century are highlights, but some classic games of Staunton, Casablanca have earned their way into my collection of PGN databases and FEN diagrams. So, imagine my excitement when I discovered a DVD on the growing Chessbase library that brings many of those games together in a single collection: GM Simon Williams’ Most Amazing Moves. Although the DVD itself was published in January 2015, I only recently managed to pick up a copy and go through it in its entirety.

The DVD Itself

Most Amazing Moves is a 4-hour collection of video commentary by GM Williams on a mixed collection of games featuring some of his own experiences intermixed with games from the greatest players in history. Combined with his unique brand of humor, Williams provides the viewer with an exciting overview of the games and exploration of how some seemingly small moves can change the course of a game or even the course of chess history. If British humor is not something you are accustomed to, and some of his comments could seem offputting. However, I found all of his commentary and insights into the games extremely refreshing.

The DVD itself begins with some relatively popular classical games, but it is the exploration of key moments in these games that separates this DVD apart from others. Personally, as a man who is fully aware of his chess deficiencies, I enjoyed Simon’s repeated jabs at the viewer further assumed inability to see the most amazing move and the meaning behind what makes it such an amazing move. Throughout the DVD, Simon begins by offering brief commentary on each game before moving on to a Chessbase quiz that allows the user to guess the next set of moves. There were moments in these quizzes where it seemed that no amount of calculation or guessing allowed me to determine the correct move. However, there were other times when I was able to guess the correct move, but only because it fit with a theme carried over from one or two games earlier. Or, I was able to determine the correct move but not immediately ascertain exactly why it was such an amazing move. Fortunately, Simon provides detailed explanation of the moves and even some witty comments on variations that can be selected by the user. Some of those variations come with honest and heartfelt chess instruction while others are met with a look of disdain and utter confusion and why the person would even consider trying to guess the moves. Here is an example of the gems that make up the bulk of the DVD:

While there are many examples of amazing tactics demonstrated throughout the DVD, Williams does not focus exclusively on tactics and also provides the user some opportunities to review great positional chess games as well. This variety as a unique flavor to the DVD which helps to diversify its target audience and simply add to the overall fun of watching some of the greatest chess games in history.

About the Author

GM Simon Williams is from Surrey, England and earned the title of Grandmaster in 2008 after finishing his third GM-norm at the Hastings International Chess Congress. While he continues to play in a variety of settings, Williams has recently transitioned from playing regularly in tournaments to focusing on chess commentary, tournament organization, and publishing. He runs his own website which is published a series of instructional DVDs and he is well-known for his commentary on Chessbase and Chess24. His sense of humor and depth of chess knowledge add a unique flavor to his instruction and commentary that, in my opinion, is much needed in the world of professional chess.

It is apparent throughout the DVD that Williams had a blast organizing, researching, and filming this product. There are many examples in the DVD from his own games and he is not shy about acknowledging the perception that can come with focusing on himself in a DVD titled Most Amazing Moves, but there are no instances throughout the four hours of DVD commentary and instruction where I felt that a game or move had been represented that was not amazing in itself.

Final Verdict

As I write this review, Most Amazing Moves is available in the Chessbase Shop for €29.90 and is available on physical media or via download option. For that price, which is consistent of most of Chessbase’s DVDs, it is an exceptional bargain for such an amazing collection of games. Both beginners, intermediate, and advanced players will appreciate the nuances of these amazing moves. If you do not have a copy of Chessbase, the DVD itself comes with a copy of Chessbase Reader or you can download the free Chessbase Reader from here. I give it 4.5 pawns out of 5.

Campfire Chess Rating: ♟♟♟♟♙

Further Reading: Chessbase Review (2015)

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Watch Chess App Brings Grandmasters to Your Wrist

I love discovering new chess apps and web services! Recently as I was looking for new (and useful) apps to install on my Apple Watch I came across a cool little app called Watch Chess (FacebookTwitter | iTunes). Mainly searching for an app to display chess games or maybe even lucky enough to play a chess game on my watch, I was blown away by the functionality of this little gem and knew that I had to offer it a short review!

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The app’s home page is simple and intuitive with a colorful list of available broadcasts. Clicking on the tournament image brings up a list of rounds for that tournament that include dates and easy select for kibitzing the game of your choice. The interface is mirrored on the Apple Watch with the only difference being the absence of the colorful tournament buttons. Each board is clear and easy to read on the Apple Watch just as it is on the iPhone. Although some people might be turned off by the lack of an engine interface, that is no reason to stop most users from enjoying the app’s presentation of high-level chess.

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Watch Chess is one of the few apps out there that offer full support for the Apple Watch. While some people still consider it to be a novelty, the Apple Watch is growing as a tool to supplement people who use iPhone or other Apple products. The app works as well as any other Apple Watch app with custom notifications and the ability to use the digital crown to scroll through archived games. Unfortunately, this means that the app also suffers from some of the watch’s setbacks including some slow load times for games. Apple has promised to fix these problems by moving more of the operating system on to the device itself with the coming release of watchOS 3 this fall.

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Product Review – Kindle Voyage

Note: As of the date of this post, Amazon.com is offering a temporary discount for Amazon Prime customers on the entire line of Kindle e-readers. $30 off Kindle makes it $49.99, $30 off Kindle Paperwhite makes it $89.99, and $50 off Kindle Voyage makes it $149.99

Chess is a double-edged sword for book lovers. There are countless chess fanatics out there whose personal book collections rival some of the greatest libraries around the world and that assessment often does not include the assessment and inventory of digital materials storage on hard drives, USB flash drives, SD cards, and cloud servers. My personal collections straddles the line somewhere between print and digital with most of my collection belonging to the Kindle family of e-readers and Chessbase. As kind of a present to myself for completing my Masters Degree in March, I decided to finally retire my Kindle Paperwhite that has served me faithfully for many years and replace it with a Kindle Voyage, which is the most recent edition of Amazon’s e-reader.

The King of Electronic Books

It is hard to argue that Apple is the undisputed king of technology, Netflix is the king of streaming media, and Amazon.com is the king of digital books. The original Kindle device was high-priced, low memory, and low on production count. It sold out in record time and remained unavaialable due to inventory problems for months! Fast forward from 2007 to 2016 and the current edition of Amazon’s high-end Kindle is called the Kindle Voyage and it is much more than anyone could ever have expected in a digital book experience.

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Kindle Voyage showing a Capablanca game (Credit: Campfire Chess)

Kindle vs. Kindle Voyage: How Far We Have Come

The original Kindle sold on Amazon.com for $400 and came with a whopping 250MB of onboard storage capacity, but that capacity could be upgraded using an expandable SD-card slot. On a sidenote, László Polgár’s epic Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games clocks in at a whopping 292MB in its Kindle edition, which would eat up around 97% of the storage capacity on the first edition.

In contrast, the Kindle Voyage comes with 4GB of onboard storage, which allows for László’s work to sit comfortably on the device without limiting the amount of other material that can be carried along with it. For chess players whose libraries grow almost daily, this is excellent because the increased storage space means more room for chess more chess books! Personally, I liked the almost nondescript design of the Kindle Paperwhite, which is one of the reasons that it stuck with me as a personal reading device for so long. However, the Kindle Voyage takes the engineering advancements of the Paperwhite to create a near-perfect reading experience.

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Crisp, high-definition e-ink display. (Credit: Campfire Chess)

As you can see from the screenshot above, the text is incredibly crisp and has a much clearer contrast than the Paperwhite. In addition to the traditional touchscreen controls introduced in the Kindle Touch, the device comes with buttons on each side of the screen for turning the page. Before the device arrived and I was able to start using it, these were one of the design features that made me nervous. However, these controls are something that have to be used to be appreciated. Although they are not buttons in the traditional sense, pressing on them creates a brief vibration in the device before turning the page. This haptic feedback sensation is unusual at first, but became comfortable very quickly and I think it is an excellent feat of engineering because it helps to reduce fingerprint buildup on the screen over time and also gives the user a real sense of control of the content as the book progresses.

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I hope she’s reading Campfire Chess… (Credit: Amazon.com)

Although I highly recommend it, the Kindle Voyage is more of a luxury device tailored to avid readers or people who need a larger amount of storage space on their Kindle. For chess readers, it is a perfect device because the crisp display, long battery life, and large storage space combine to create a space to build an extensive portable chess library without having to lug a laptop around or depend on the limited battery life of an iPad, iPhone, or other tablet device. The Kindle Voyage currently runs for $199 on Amazon.com, although recent discounts and promotions seem to indicate that the Kindle line is mere days away from being refreshed.

Additional Reading:

  • Fans to Amazon: Leave Perfect Kindle Alone! (link)
  • Kindle Voyage vs. Kindle Paperwhite: Which Amazon e-reader should you buy? (link)
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Unimpressed with Apple’s Loop-In Event

So, you might be wondering what an article about Apple is doing on a chess website (or you may not). In addition to chess, a long time passion of mine has been technology and Apple products in particular. Growing up in the 80s led to great exposure for me and my classmates to Apple IIe computers and eventually to the Macintosh desktop. Since then, almost everything that I do, including the writing, design, and administration of Campfire Chess is accomplished using a Mac. That being said, I typically look forward to their keynotes to announce new products because there is always a chance that something new will catch my eye, but yesterdayís event was one of the worst presentations I have ever seen.

Chess.com app on iPhone 5 in 2014. (Image Credit: Campfire Chess)

$ize Does Matter

The old adage that size does not matter is a blatant lie, whether it speaks to cell phones or genitals. In this keynote, Apple introduced a series of new products that essentially downsized products that already existed in their inventory. A 4″ iPhone called the iPhone SE, which has a somewhat creepy Windows ME feel to it. After playing and watching chess on my beloved iPhone 6, I cannot image ever wanting to reduce the size of my phoneís screen.

The next entry was a series of bands for the Apple Watch. Yes, I own one of those as well, but I doubt that I will be in a hurry to run out and purchase one of the spiffy new woven nylon bands released during the keynote. It might just be me, but I cannot remember ever wearing my watch and thinking: I need something that absorbs the sweat on my wrist better than this plastic composite band.

Yuck. (Image Credit: Cult of Mac)

The final release of consequence was a smaller version of 2015’s 12″ iPad Pro. The smaller device, also dubbed iPad Pro, is a reduction in physical size, boost in specs, and addition of a feature called True Tone Display in which the color of the display changes based on the light temperature in the room.

Chess Connection?

As I stated earlier, I love Apple products but I gave up using an iPad as my primary work device several months ago in favor of a Microsoft Surface. Obviously, Chessbase runs exclusively on Windows, but Windows offers a much more efficient file management system on tablets than iPad. This makes managing large chess collections and improves my personal productivity.

I hope to finish a review of the Surface 3 in the coming months to show how I have used it both as a productivity tool and as a portable chess machine. Unfortuately, Apple continues to keep me at bay from returning to iOS for pure work productivity. The addition of the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard to the 10″ iPad is a nice start, but there is still a long way to go.

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Chess Informant 125 is a Game Changer

Chess Informant is a publication that I look forward to getting in the mail several times a year. Yesterday after clearing up some delivery problems (forgot to update my address when we moved over the summer) I received the latest volume: Chess Informant 125 Enigma. Also known as Informant, this periodical is not like any other chess magazine out there. It skips the drama and the social elements that surround the fame of being a top chess player and focuses attention to the action on the board. Various articles cover topics such as openings, tactics, strategy, and key moments in the top tournaments from around the world.

Informant 125 introduces some small changes that many people might not notice, but those of us who relish in the advancement of the digital chess age appreciate them. For Informant, one of its main selling points with customers is the universal nature of access to its information. It is available in print form (pictured above), download in Chessbase and PGN formats, or a combination of the two. The Chessbase format enables users to browse the articles and play through the games using many of the same tools utilized in Chessbase Magazine. The PGN files open up the articles to any platform with a basic PGN viewer. For me, that is perfect because I enjoy reading in each of the formats, but the mobile nature of my work makes reading the articles on iOS much more convenient for me. Why is CI 125 so different? It all has to do with the formatting…

In previous editions, all of the games and articles came in a single PGN file which required foreknowledge of the magazine’s layout. In CI 125 the creative minds in Serbia have divided the digital edition into multiple PGN files that are separated exactly like the content in the print edition. This may not seem like much, but it completely eliminates the guesswork for anyone wanting to access CI 125 from a standard PGN reader. In addition, the Chessbase version has also been subdivided into categories that mirror the print edition.

Because Informant carries so much information it can be overwhelming at times. These small changes are effective game changers because it subdivides the information into digital categories that make it much easier to access, analyze, and digest.

Personally I enjoy reading the print edition and playing through on my travel set, but playing along in Chessbase or a PGN viewer is a great way to quickly explore variations or to try new ideas along with the professional analysis in the magazine. For the digital chess fan CI 125 is a great way to get started with the periodical. The universal access of the information eliminates many of the proprietary boundaries that limit the audiences of publications like Chessbase Magazine.

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Pawn Sacrifice – A Movie Review

The Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice debuted this week in theaters across the United States. The film stars Tobey Maguire as the venerable chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as the pillar of Soviet Cold War chess dominance Boris Spassky. A couple of years ago when I heard that Zwick, Maguire, and Schreiber were working on a film based on Bobby and the 1972 World Chess Championship I was very excited to see chess returning to the silver screen. Although I had high hopes for the film I was skeptical that it could usurp my favorite chess movie of all time: Searching for Bobby Fischer. The story of Pawn Sacrifice‘s production is almost as dramatic as the story it tells. For the entire production and a long time after its conclusion there were only two promotional photos made available online to promote the film. When it was completed, there was a time when the film rode into festivals without a major distributor. However, Bleecker Street Media picked up the film and distributed it to audiences around the United States starting on September 24th of this year following a special presentation in Saint Louis after the conclusion of the Sinquefield Cup.


The Story

Robert James Fischer was one of the most electrifying personalities in 20th century chess. He taught himself to play chess when his mother left him alone for hours on end in their Brooklyn apartment overlooking Ebbets Field. At age 15 he became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and the youngest candidate to ever emerge for the World Chess Championship. The young boy from Brooklyn quickly took the chess world by storm and soon started winning the hearts of people outside the chess world for the way that he not only destroyed his opponents on the board, but also for the psychological damages he often caused. Bobby Fischer played chess at a time when the Soviet Union poured a significant amount of its national budget and effort into producing some of the world’s top grandmasters. Chess was seen as proof of Soviet intellectual superiority over the United States and its allies and the results of countless Chess Olympiads and World Championships seemed to validate that claim. However, Bobby’s emergence brought to light what had been known in secret for many years: the Soviet Union had been intentionally drawing games to stack the deck against players from other countries. The result was that key Soviet grandmasters were virtually assured a shot at the FIDE World Championship title, which was often played against another Soviet grandmaster. The player who had the most favor with the state at the time was allowed to win the title and hold it as long as it was beneficial for the sake of the Soviet system.

Bobby’s distate for the Soviet chess machine was put on prominent display in his now famous Sports Illustrated article in 1962, The Russians Have Fixed World Chess. If he was not a target of the red chess machine and the KGB, this article propelled him into the international spotlight and aired the dirty secrets of Soviet chess for the entire world. The rest of the story is pretty well known. Bobby went on to defeat some of the most powerful grandmasters of the day and win a chance to challenge Russian World Champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yet, throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it Bobby was plagued by a growing sense of paranoia and mania. He was obsessed with the Russians and convinced that they were tracking his every move. While its true that the KGB was keeping close tabs on Bobby, the fear and paranoia he was experiencing grew out of control and damaged practically every relationship he had. When the match was over Bobby emerged victorious over Spassky and the Soviet chess machine. After that he disappeared and was largely unheard from until his 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia.

Pawn Sacrifice covers much of Bobby’s life from his adolescence through some of his prominent chess appearances up to the 1972 World Championship match. For much of the film the chess takes a backstage to Bobby’s growing paranoia and personal struggles. When it begins, the World Championship match in Reykjavik is a powerful backdrop for what is often seen as Bobby’s final battle to maintain his own sanity. Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Bobby as the self-confident Da Vinci of modern chess is a perfect recreation of the man that many watched throughout the years on television and in tournaments around the world. In contrast Liev Schreiber is a silent, towering man who more closely resembles a football star than a chess champion. There is a heavy sense of Bobby’s personal desire to beat Spassky than of Spassky’s desire to beat Bobby. At least, until Bobby fails to show for the 2nd game of the match and risks losing the championship to Spassky by forfeit. Spassky agrees to play Bobby in the back room away from the audience because winning the match by forfeit would rob him of a true victory against Bobby. The film’s climax comes in game 6, which is widely known as the best game of the match and one of the greatest chess games ever played.

The Good

There is a lot to love about Pawn Sacrifice for chess and non-chess fans alike. For the non-chess fan, the acting in the film is superb and the way in which it portrays Bobby’s descent into paranoia is well done. Some have complained that Bobby spent much of his time in the film yelling at people around him and this is certainly not what is portrayed in much of the archival footage of him. However, this is consistent with the testimonies of his friends and family. Bobby Fischer drove away pretty much everyone that ever stepped forward to care for him. The paranoia, which was grounded in truth, simply became too much for him to handle. Even the greatest chess player in history had a breaking point.


Although the chess itself takes a backseat to the story of Bobby and his struggles again himself and the Soviet chess machine, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the chess presentation. The producers painstakingly recreated the 1972 World Chess Championship with precision right down to the design of the Reykjavik chess set used in the match. In addition, the film does a great job of creating an authentic look and feel of the late 1960s and early 1970s without overdoing it with excessive hippies and peace symbols.

The Bad

Just as there is a lot to love, there is a lot to dismiss, loathe, or simply forgive and forget about the film. Obviously I have already discussed the use of incorrect notation in an earlier post. In addition to this, there was the general choppiness in the first half of the film as the producers struggled to fit so much of the story into such a little block of time. Given the depth of material I think that the producers did a decent job providing the audience with enough information to follow the nuances of the story without becoming overwhelmed by minutia. However, there were some elements that were unusual and seemed out of place given the pace and direction of the film narrative. The biggest example I can think of is Bobby’s brief obsession with the Worldwide Church of God in which he listened to countless recorded sermons prophesying the end of the world. Bobby became disillusioned with the church and it was a major portion of his life, but the focus of Pawn Sacrifice made Bobby’s brief time spent listening to the sermons seem out of place. There was never a noticeable change in his behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, that would have enabled the hint of his religiosity to benefit the story.


I also could not help but notice that Michael Stuhlbarg who played Bobby’s friend Paul Marshall in the film was wearing a standard issue US Air Force blue overcoat during much of the movie.

Finally, I could not help but laugh when my wife poked me in the side at the end of the film as Bobby rode away in his car from the tournament at Reykjavik. When he has cleared the crowd of people he reaches into his pocket and unzips a pocket chess set. And, this is not just any chess set…its a Chessmate Wallet! My wife recognized it because its from the same company that makes the Chessmate Ultima that I reviewed back when I first started this site.

The Final Verdict

Pawn Sacrifice is a solid psychological drama and a great historical pic about one of the greatest moments in chess history. Despite its few flaws and creative liberties taken by its creators, it stands on its own as a powerful representation of the tormented world of Robert James Fischer who, despite having his ELO eclipsed by other chess players, remains the greatest and most influential chess player in history.

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