"The new and improved CJA Awards?" is the title of a recent post at the Boylstown Chess Club Weblog, which describes some of the changes to the annual awards from the Chess Journalists of America. Edward Winter once described the CJA as "a dazzlingly undemanding body with a track-record of dispensing hundreds of awards, often to self-nominees with no realistic hope of winning an accolade from elsewhere." To judge from the site awarded Best General Chess Website of 2004, which was the practically unreadable A.J.'s Chess Home Page (actually much improved over the past three years) you can see there is some validity to Winter's scathing remark.
The idea of an organization that recognizes the best in chess journalism is laudable, but the results have sometimes been laughable. As Winter suggests, self-nomination is at the root of the problem. You have to pay $15 to join CJA, which entitles you to one nomination, and then $8 per nomination thereafter. Obviously, the economics alone dictate that people join solely to nominate their own work. After all, why spend even $8 to nominate someone else's work, even if excellent-- especially when the writer of that piece might duplicate your effort, so that your money would merely enrich the CJA? You can see that the system has the insidious effect of making everyone more interested in their own recognition than the recognition of others--hence the inevitably insular nature of the CJA Awards. It's a vicious circle.
As Howard Goldowsky has argued for years, including in comments at the BCC Weblog, the CJA Awards should be run more like a literary prize where "any CJA member should be allowed to nominate multiple pieces of work for free, not just the one piece of work per entry fee, like the current rule" and have "nominations ... whittled to a shortlist...." As he goes on to say, until such changes are made, "winning a CJA award [will be] more like winning first place in the class C section rather than in the Open section." (You can read a more detailed presentation of Howard's views on page 7 of the June 2004 Chess Journalist).
The CJA awards are promoted in Chess Life as though they were central to helping to shape our judgment of American chess journalism, but the truth is they remain on the periphery of the field, of interest only to those who are themselves on the periphery of chess journalism -- especially that ever-growing legion of people, like myself, who keep amateur chess blogs. The bigger irony is that the CJA barely acknowledges the important work being done on the web by the very peripheral writers who seem to pay the most attention to the CJA awards.... Another vicious circle that needs fixing.
One reason for their failure to acknowledge the rise of chess blogs is that the CJA membership is still emerging from a print tradition and is still quite focused on print media. They have been late to embrace the web and still have only two main web categories ("Best General Chess Website" and "Best State Website"), though several categories are "web eligible."
As the BCC Weblog suggests, chess bloggers and webmasters really ought to make an effort this year to influence the future course of the organization by not only joining the organization but by putting up some good nominations in those "web eligible" categories. Like Howard Goldowsky, they should try to make change from within. And I would go so far as to suggest that they each also nominate someone laudable other than themselves. Think of it as your "free nominee" -- the one that comes with the $15 fee to join CJA.
I know that this year I intend to nominate ChessCafe for "Best General Chess Website," since they should probably receive the award for every year. Ironically, the site has never won. ChessCafe founder Hanon Russell did win the CJA's Chess Journalist of the Year prize in 2001, but his site has never been recognized -- likely because Russell has never seen a reason to bother entering. So my "free entry" (which comes with my $15 membership fee) will be as follows:
Category 14: Best General Chess Website
If more sites like ChessCafe win awards, maybe the CJA will gain sufficient legitimacy to make winning one of their awards worthwhile.... The only way to destroy a vicious circle is to reverse it.... Who knows: with some effort by the participants, maybe some day an award will actually mean something.
Truth be told, I mostly want to enter this year because I have lived to regret not entering the CJA Awards last year. Mostly, I would have welcomed the opportunity to gain more exposure for some of my better pieces, including chess analysis efforts like The Panther, The Apocalypse Attack, Morozevich-Mengarini Variation of the Albin Counter Gambit, and Mad Dog; chess history efforts such as my features on Lake Hopatcong 1926 (multiple pieces not yet collected); or my tournament report on the 2006 club championship. I'd hate to regret it again this year.
To be honest, then: nominating someone else is the only way I can stomach nominating myself.
Here are some of my better pieces of my own which I am considering nominating this year:
Category 10: Best Tournament Report
How 15-year-old Evan Ju Won the 2006 New Jersey Open
Category 16: Best Historical Article
Fischer - Castro, Havana 1966? Not!
Category 17: Best Interview
Interview with the Former "Youngest New Jersey Chess Champion," Tyler Cowen
Category 19: Best Review
Review of ChessLecture.com
The Immortal Game and Chess History
Category 20: Best Analysis
The Caveman Caro-Kann (analysis here)
The Werewolf (analysis here)
Two Knights Sicilian (also here and others, which I might combine)
Spanish Four Knights (also here)
Category 21: Best Instruction
Patterns of Error
Category 23: Special Recognition Award
"Given to an entry that does not comfortably fit into any of the other categories (e.g., crossword puzzle, article about math and chess, etc.)"
A Chess Tourist in New York City
Chess and Evolutionary Theory
Chess as a Safe House for Learning
I will have to cut down on that number to get the payment past my wife.
That is, unless there is anyone out there willing to foot the bill for one of them...