Audio chess with pictures

Product review: Play like Tal, by GM Simon Williams. 2 DVD set, Ginger GM Productions, £24.95 from Gingergm.com

Just as the IT revolution has brought different ways of showing and popularising chess, so it has also brought new ways of teaching the game. Whilst the traditional chess book remains the single most common chess educational product, new forms are emerging to challenge the book’s dominant place. Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember the 1970s fondly recall Mike Basman’s ground-breaking series Audio Chess, which presented openings and other aspects of the game on audio cassettes. Now, in the 21st century, it is the audio-video formats which are all the rage, especially DVD s. Whilst Chessbase have been, and remain, the dominant player in this market, other rivals are also dipping their toes into the water, and by far the most impressive of these is Simon Williams’ GingerGm company. After several opening DVDs, including seminal works by Simon himself, about his beloved Classical Dutch and French Defence, the company has recently branched out into other areas, with Nick Pert producing a highly-acclaimed pair of endgame training DVDs.

The company’s latest idea is interactive training DVDs, which will focus on the games of a certain player, and the first of these is Play like Tal. The concept is simple: the presenter, in this case Simon Williams, plays through on screen a series of Tal’s games, explaining the moves as he goes along. At various key points in the game, he stops, and invites the viewer to choose what he would play next. The viewer is given a choice of three moves, two of which are false paths, and the third the correct move.  Having made his choice, he clicks on the move he prefers. If he has chosen one of the incorrect options, Simon explains why the move is wrong, and the viewer is then returned to the multiple choice point. Once he finds the right move, Simon resumes his narrative, and the exercise continues to the next key point.

The effect is much like a one-to-one training session.  Again, older readers will remember a book by Edward Lasker, called The Chess Self-Tutor, which employed a similar approach – the reader was posed a multiple-choice question, and directed to different pages further on in the book, according to which answer he gave.  Obviously, the DVD format is not quite as ideal as a live one-on-one training sessions, because the viewer may have questions that are not answered by the DVD, or he may actually like a fourth move, not covered on the DVD. Even so, by careful choice of the candidate moves, and by anticipating the sort of thinking patterns and questions of the typical club player, the vast majority of the viewer’s questions can be covered on the DVD. The fact that the DVD stops at the key moments, and does not restart until the viewer clicks on a choice of move, encourages him to take a fully active part in the training experience, although of course, it does not preclude simply using the disc as a way of playing through the games on screen.

The idea is undoubtedly a very good one, so it all comes down to how well it is executed. In this respect, there can be absolutely no complaints at all. Technically, the production standards of all the GingerGm DVDs are excellent, with professional editing  meaning that they are a cut above the general chess DVD. But the most important thing about the product is, of course, the quality of the presenter, and the average player could not ask for a better guide than Simon Williams. As well as being a GM, he is also a feared attacking player, and so there are few people better qualified to explain Tal’s games. And, as always, the down-to-earth and unpretentious manner of his presentation is greatly appealing. In a review of his Killer French DVDs, written in the BCM a year or so ago, I compared Simon’s appeal to that of “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver. Both have the ability to strip away the pretentiousness that sometime accompanies their subject-matter, and to come across as genial, likeable blokes. As millions have testified, watching Oliver makes people want to go into the kitchen and start cooking, and I find that watching Simon presenting chess material makes one want to get the pieces out and play, or study, chess.

Simon’s enthusiasm is clear from the very start, as is his straightforwardness. It is not often that one picks up a book or DVD on a certain player, and within moments of the start, hears the hero described as “bonkers”, yet that is one of the first things Simon says about Tal, in his introduction to the DVD! But fear not – as Kenny Everett used to say, “it is all done in the best possible taste”. Simon is an unabashed admirer, and comes not to bury Tal, but to praise him.  But he is right in a sense – Tal was a bit bonkers by normal standards, both in his Bohemian lifestyle and in the revolutionary way in which he sacrificed left and right, often quite speculatively, in defiance of the calm Botvinnikian positional logic, which dominated the chess of his day.

Naturally, no DVD or other product, however excellent, is going to enable you to play like Tal. in the strict sense. But what this DVD will do, as well as providing over seven hours (!) of great entertainment, is to give you a splendid opportunity to train your appreciation of attacking play, your ability to feel the initiative, and your skill in carrying out attacks and exploiting attacking opportunities. Just like any training product, you will get out of this DVD what you put into it, but it is a outstanding product, and I would highly recommend it to any club player.

Watch trailer here.

Order the DVD here.

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