I have seen the future of chess instruction, and it is ChessLecture.com.
Of course, I should have seen that idea coming quite a while back when I first watched the wonderful lectures at ChessFM and ICC. But the creators of ChessLecture.com had the foresight back in the Summer of 2005 to assemble a team of great lecturers and to create a place on the web where subscribers could watch video lectures 24/7 with complete access to the archive. ChessFM and ICC do not currently allow archive access (likely due to the way they set up their contracts with lecturers), though perhaps the competition from ChessLecture will drive them to explore that idea. I can imagine ICC offering something similar as part of a multi-tiered membership system where super-premium subscribers pay about what ChessLecture charges for the privilege of accessing the full set of videos they have produced. Or maybe they can team up with ChessLecture… Until they do, though, ChessLecture.com is the only place to really appreciate the power of chess video on demand.
In the interest of full disclosure, a member of the ChessLecture.com support team gave me a weekend pass to the site because I told him I was interested in writing a review. I am not, however, the type to give anybody free publicity that they do not deserve, and I was as prepared to write a critical review as the present laudatory one. I think they should really consider giving anybody who asks a 24-hour pass, because they really have a great product and would win many customers from among the skeptics out there who think that chess on video or on your computer just is not as worthwhile as something in a book or magazine. I have watched over a dozen videos at the site, and I have come away more impressed than I had imagined possible.
I think that the way our time is structured has changed so much that on-demand video chess on the computer (combined with other computer-based chess activity) may be one of the most worthwhile methods of studying available for most people. Just ask yourself how much time you were able to devote to sitting down at a board with a book in the past week…. For me, outside of my weekly visit to the chess club, even setting up a real board at home almost never happens. Chess is either on the computer or not at all. And it can only come in small portions. Watching a 20 minute video at ChessLecture.com on the Two Knights Caro-Kann in the morning. Downloading some games mentioned by the lecturer from an online database and doing 20 minutes of analysis with the help of Fritz in the afternoon. Playing a couple games with the line during a 30-minute session of ICC blitz in the evening to help reinforce the lessons I’ve learned. I tell you, ChessLecture.com fits right into such a manageable study plan for those who only have a half-hour here or there to spend with the game.
We all know that slowly working through problems and annotated games in front of the board is probably the best real practice for classical game situations, especially for the young. But we also know that we have work to do, kids to feed, and lawns to cut and that most of us also have less and less time for classical play. It would be great to work through deeply annotated games or opening analysis at a real chess board, but for most of us that is just not going to happen any time soon. As I suggested in my review of Chess Openings for White, Explained, there are the chess books we buy because we would like to read them and then there are those we actually find time to read because they are user-friendly. ChessLecture.com is the most user-friendly mode of chess learning available and it is one you will actually use.
Further disclosure: I actually have not been a great fan in the past of chess on DVD. The videos I have watched over the years, mostly of the Foxy Opening and Roman’s Forum variety, have been useful, but something about settling into my couch to watch them tends to put me off to sleep sooner than it leads me to any knowledge. Not to say that I haven’t gotten knowledge from them—especially the very nice set of videos by Aaron Summerscale on his Barry Attack and 150 Attack (which I spent more time with than I did his excellent Killer Chess Opening Repertoire in book form, truth be told).
But that Andrew Martin just knocks me out. Literally.
I still remember the year it took me to make my way through all of Andrew Martin’s videotape on the Nimzovich Defence with 1…Nc6. I admire IM Martin very much as a writer and I think his "Bits & Pieces" columns are first rate. But something about his accent to my American ears, or the dim lighting on his face, or his overly calm demeanor and monotonous speech patterns just puts me to sleep quicker than three Ambien. A friend of mine says he always turns to his Andrew Martin video library when he needs a restful night’s sleep, and now I know why. I tell you, to make it all the way through that Martin video took me a full year, during which I must have fallen asleep on my couch two dozen times. Of course, I learned a lot – mostly because I had to watch parts of that tape over and over again. And maybe I got some hypnopaedic benefit from hypnagogic listening. But by the end of that year, I was convinced that chess on video and DVD just was not for me….
The videos at ChessLecture.com, though, are very different. They are shorter (generally 14-25 minutes), better produced than most, with very charming lecturers who have mastered a style of quick and varied delivery. Most of all, though, it is on your computer and accessible from anywhere you have an internet connection. If you spend as much time online as I do, you could probably fit that more easily into your life than an hour long DVD or video on the TV. What’s more, you can even multi-task while watching (I found myself checking and deleting e-mail and writing a portion of this review while a video was playing in another window). Somehow I just cannot manage that with the VCR or DVD.
ChessLecture charges $12.95 per month, which is just over $150 per year. That probably sounds like a lot to some people, and it’s over twice what ICC charges (and without the online play). But it is also a lot less than cable and, if you watch as little TV as I do, much more worthwhile. You can also cancel at any time, so they likely get quite a few customers who just sign on for a few months, take a break, and then return when the archive has grown.
The website is very user-friendly and very well designed. They add at least one new video every weekday (Monday through Friday) and currently have a library of over 300. Most videos are from 12-25 minutes in length, which is about what you can really absorb at one sitting (and, for me, about how long I have to spend on my lunch and coffee-breaks, both at work and at home, what with kids and chores!) You do need a high speed internet connection (Cable or DSL), because you cannot download the lectures to view later, but a sizable number of chess players now have that.
The videos are categorized according to level, with some for beginners, intermediate, and advanced players. Most are for intermediate players, but all levels are fairly well represented. They also have lectures on endgame, middlegame and opening themes—with most on the opening, which is every chess merchant’s bread and butter. I was impressed, though, by how quickly they were able to produce annotations on the recent World Championship match games, and I think I got more out of one of their lectures on Kramnick-Topalov than I got out of any newspaper annotations I had read elsewhere.
I mostly watched videos on opening lines that were part of my repertoire or which I have written about at my blog. I found all to be very good and was impressed at how well they could pull together the most important issues in such a short time. That ultimately is the value of a lecture: giving you the big picture and the key themes to help your own analysis and thinking. The lectures at ChessLectures.com do an excellent job of preparing you to master the openings that interest you. They are not an end in themselves, but what is?
I was especially impressed with one lecture on the Two Knights Caro-Kann by IM Jesse Kraai. I have been playing this line at ICC and in blitz with some success. I have also read the few bits of analysis out there. So I know quite a bit. But it was not until I saw IM Kraai’s lecture that I recognized how important the Bishops are in the Two Knights. One of the main themes is that White’s play discourages Black from developing his light-squared Bishop in the normal Caro fashion, most famously in the line 1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5?! (Black’s favorite move against 3.d4 lines) 5.Ng3 Bg6? 6.h4 h6 7.Ne5 Bh7 8.Qh5 g6 9.Bc4! (stronger than Kraai’s 9.Qf3) 9…e6 10.Qe2 when Black is busted and usually succumbs to 10…Nbd7? 11.Nxf7! Kxf7 12.Qxe6+ Kg7 13.Qf7#. Meanwhile, in the main line with 1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 Bg4! 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 e6, White gains the two Bishops but usually fails to capitalize on them because the position remains closed. Kraai therefore suggests the gambit line with 6.d4, surrendering a pawn in order to open the position for the Bishops. And while he does not give a lot of analysis here of the critical lines, he definitely provides the key ideas I needed for my own further exploration and study. Most importantly, by drawing my attention to the power of the Bishops, his presentation really opened my eyes to what I was missing in ways that games, play, and analysis alone could not.
I also enjoyed lectures on the Albin with …Nge7, the Grand Prix Attack, the Reversed Grand Prix as Black against the English, and the Pirc (the last by IM John Watson). I was impressed both by how many of my favorite lines were represented here but also by how much I learned from these short lectures, especially considering that I already knew quite a bit about these lines. Their team of lecturers know their stuff and make a great presentation to boot.
I do have a few criticisms, but they really take more the form of suggestions for how to improve their product than any critique of what they offer. They seem open to suggestions (they are even willing to produce lectures in response to member questions), so here goes:
1) In the video list it would be useful to have a full annotation of what the video contains, including what specific opening lines it covers. Perhaps they could require their lecturers to submit a short annotation along with the lecture so they could post it on the site.
2) I do not know what sort of technical problems it might involve, but it would be nice to have the lectures more segmented, like a DVD, allowing easy navigation to specific variations (or scenes). You can fast forward or rewind, but without the sort of precision a viewer spoiled by his DVD player or TIVO would like to have. Perhaps this is a problem with video generally, which can never giveyou the same control as a Java Applet, a GUI interface, or an actual chessboard. But they could do more to approximate that freedom.
3) They may want to think about ways of selling at least some of their lectures for i-Pod viewing (the latest i-Pods now have over 30GB of memory after all), though I suppose the copyright and pirating issues make that a problem currently. Wouldn’t it be great to watch a 15-minute chess video on the train into work or while waiting at the dentist? I think that is pretty much a future market, but a promising one, unlike chess audio podcasts, which are pretty much worthless (even if some people like to hear Kosteniuk’s lovely Russian accent). Other than maybe an audio lecture on how to play chess blindfold (which is pretty much what audio lectures would have to be) or the occasional news report (which would hardly have the longevity of a lecture), I can only think of one chess program I’d really like to listen to on my i-Pod and that’s Fred Wilson’s great ChessFM interviews, which really ought to be made available on CD or as podcasts for purchase. I think there is a market for that--starting with me. But video podcasts hold a lot more promise. And I’ll tell you, if ChessLecture.com starts offering downloads for i-Pod viewing, I’d actually run out and buy a video i-Pod in order to be their first customer….
4) Finally, I think they should consider teaming up with ICC, ChessBase, or another game server in order to present users a one-stop portal for video lectures, online play, and other modes of online or computer chess study. Though some may think that model has had its day (as the demise of KasparovChess.com seemed to prove), my own view is that its full potential has just now arrived. You see, in the early days of chess online, people just were not prepared to pay anything for access, especially for access to chess. And that severely limited potential revenues. Now, however, most people have adjusted to paying for services, internet advertising has grown tremendously, and the range of online services has expanded considerably to attract an even bigger audience. I think if I had ChessLectures.com, ChessFM, ICC, an online database, and an online engine for analysis, all in one place, I would be in chess heaven. And I’d pay the full fare for premium membership for that.
In short, the future of chess on the net looks brighter and brighter. And a very interesting part of that is ChessLecture.com. Check it out.