Sunday, January 08, 2006

Opening Analysis in Chess Life

I finally opened the latest issue of Chess Life (January 2006) to discover some surprisingly useful discussion of the currently popular Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez / Spanish (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6) in two articles. GM Susan Polgar's "Opening Secrets" column (pp. 36-37) does a good job of covering some of the basic lines, especially where White avoids the standard endgame that follows 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8. Then GM Pal Benko's "Endgame Lab" column (pp. 48-49) picks up the ball to discuss the endgame line, using the two Topalov games from the recent San Luis tournament as his examples. I have been interested in the Berlin myself and rather like the endgame line, where Black's well-placed Knight, two Bishops, and solid position give him at the very least an improved version of the Exchange Variation (with 3...a6 4.Bxc6 etc.), so I was pleased to see this coverage to help me review. Anyone interested in learning more about the line should definitely read Larry Kaufman's The Chess Advantage in Black and White, where he makes it a central part of his repertoire for Black.

Seeing some useful opening analysis in Chess Life reminded me of a piece by John Hillery titled "Changes in Chess Life" that I had read on the net a while back. In it he writes: "Chess Life reader surveys going back to the 1960s have always produced similar results. The most popular features are annotated Master games and opening analysis, followed by tournament news and info... The least popular are chess art, chess movies, chess problems, human interest, etc. " It's good to see the USCF doing something that their readers want. It also makes good business sense, as the rest of Hillery's piece details. After all, attempts that Chess Life has made to appeal to the casual chessplayer have not been very successful. Meanwhile, they could easily do a lot to recapture the business of people who have dropped out of serious competition (and have therefore allowed their USCF membership to lapse) by having more interesting content for rated or previously rated players--especially opening analysis.

I know a lot of players who will only join USCF when they want to play in a USCF-rated tournament, which is increasingly rare for them with so much good action on ICC and so little time for weekend tournaments. And it's not just because they are cheap, since they spend a lot of money on books, ICC membership, and other chess magazines (such as the excellent New in Chess). They simply do not see the value in the Chess Life subscription and they recognize that the other supposed "benefits" of membership are pretty much worthless: they get better discounts on chess books through Amazon or Overstock or any number of other online outlets than they do at USCF Sales; they would prefer ICC to USChessLive even if they were members; and they value their ICC ratings as much as their "official" USCF ratings these days. In fact, if the USCF does not do more to recover lapsed members, they may very well allow the cache of the official USCF rating to completely erode in the face of alternative ratings for average players (meaning those below master).

Lately I think that the most important target of any marketing campaign to increase chess participation should NOT be new players but instead old players who have retired from the game to pursue careers, families, and other interests. As the Fischer-boomers begin to retire or reach plateaus in their careers that will allow them more time to participate in fun activities like chess (perhaps with their kids--who are probably the new members you want anyway), they begin to represent a ripe market for the game. More opening analysis in Chess Life is a start. I'm not sure what should be the next step, except perhaps a campaign to track down old members and try to woo them back, in much the way that high schools and Universities try to track their alumni. Perhaps that is the model for growth in chess: building an office of Chess Alumni Relations. It's worth a shot.

1 comment:

Newvictorian said...

Excellent points, Michael. I just rejoined USCF myself, in order to get back into tournament play after years in a small town in Alaska without any formal (rated) chess activity.

For me, sitting across the board from another person and playing with solid wood pieces will always be more satisfying than ICC, as fun as it can be. But USCF has made so many blunders with marketing and policy over the years that if there's one more we may have to start a new organization.