Gambit delivers electronic chess books

11/26/2013 – Printed chess books are very nice to read, but they have one problem: very few people can play through the moves in their heads, and hardly anyone is willing to set up a chess board to follow moves on it. PGN readers and replay apps on electronic tablets solve this problem, but they are not as aesthetically pleasing as traditional books. The Gambit Chess Studio app, which was recently released, is a step towards providing the best of both worlds. Review.

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Review of Gambit Chess Studio

The publishing world is changing rapidly. For many years, there have been forecasts about the growth of e-books and the demise of printed volumes, but until recently e-books have failed to fulfil these predictions. However, Amazon's initiative in launching its range of Kindle e-book readers, coupled with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, has finally kick-started the shift to e-books. Publishers have scrambled to make their content available in electronic media and, while their initial attempts were often hesitant, most of them have now adapted to the brave new world of electronic publishing. It doesn't seem likely that print books will disappear any time soon, but the transition is under way and electronic-only publication will become commonplace in the future, with only the most popular titles appearing in physical form.

The chess publishers have also been caught in the upheaval, and many of them have embraced the new formats. One well-respected house, Gambit Publications, has already converted many titles to the Kindle format, and has now launched an app, called Gambit Chess Studio, which runs on the iPad. This app had a hesitant start as version 1.0.0 didn’t seem to work on some iPads. However, the current version 1.0.1 does work correctly, at least on my iPad and iPad mini.

Gambit Chess Studio is an e-book reader with additional chess-specific functionality, in that you can play over the moves in the book using an on-screen board. This screenshot shows the general layout:

The book text appears on the left-hand side of the iPad screen, and can be scrolled up and down by the usual dragging method. Large-scale movement can be achieved by using the slider at the right of the text area. Although this slider achieves its function, it would be more convenient if some kind of numerical measure (such as a percentage) was attached to the slider, to make it easier to return to a specific position.

The ‘live board’ appears on the right. It is updated when you touch anywhere in the text area, or when you use the navigation functions. If there is no valid position at the point you touch (for example, if you are between two games) then the live board is not updated. The players’ names (if there are any) appear correctly on the top and bottom of the live board.

Apart from simply touching the text to display the position, you can also play over moves using the four arrows at the lower-right of the live board. The left and right arrows move to the previous or next move in the current variation. These arrows do not move down into variations, so that if, for example, you are already in the main line, then pressing right arrow will always stay in the main line.

There are two methods of navigating into variations. The up and down arrows cycle through all variations at the current point in the text. If there is no variation at the current point they will move to the last point at which there was a variation and cycle there. The alternative is to use the ‘variation box’, which appears directly under the diagram. This shows all the variations at the current point in the text, and you can just touch the variation you want to enter. This probably all sounds a bit confusing, but you get used to it quickly. In fact, I found that I more often just touched in the text area to choose the variation I wanted rather than use the up and down arrows.

The replaying of moves is of course the main reason to have an app book rather than the same title on a Kindle, and this function worked well and reliably. Once you have tried it, it’s hard to imagine going back to the old method of using a book and a chess set. The worst part about ‘the bad old days’ occurs when you have finished playing over a variation and want to reset the position to the main line, when it’s all too easy to get the position wrong. Grandmasters can play it all over in their heads, but for the other 99.9% of chess fans having an app like this is a huge benefit and is an encouragement to play over all that John Nunn analysis that you might otherwise have skipped.

To summarise the other functions available:

1. There’s a drop-down list of chapters which enables you to jump directly to a particular chapter.

2. There are ‘next game’ and ‘previous game’ buttons. It’s pretty clear what these are going to do in a book of games, but it’s less clear in an opening book as there are no ‘games’ as such. In A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White they appeared to function as ‘Next Chapter’ and ‘Previous Chapter’ buttons; in other words, each chapter counts as one ‘game’. Maybe more use could have been made of these buttons in opening books, perhaps by moving between major subdivisions within a chapter.

3. You can search for text with the magnifying glass button. The search is case insensitive, but there is a ‘whole word’ toggle so that searching for ‘Hort’ doesn’t also produce hits for ‘Short’. You can also search for chess notation. The text uses figurines, but if you search for ‘Nf3’ then the search function is intelligent enough to find the equivalent chess move with a figurine representing the knight.

4. There are ‘forward’ and ‘back’ buttons which function rather like the corresponding buttons on a browser (incidentally, the proliferation of arrows on the screen is slightly confusing and more could be done to distinguish them). The text supports hyperlinks, which appear in blue, and then these buttons are very useful. For example, in Learn Chess Tactics there are exercises, and you can follow a hyperlink to reach the solution. Then you can use the ‘back’ button to return to the exercise and move on to the next one. However, it’s not only hyperlinks that affect these arrows. Touching the screen to display a position also creates a ‘restore point’ that you can return to using the ‘back’ button. This is a pretty useful backtrack function when used in moderation, the only real problem being that if you touch the text area in several places, it may take many jumps to get back to where you started.

5. Options include changing the size of the text and the diagrams within the text, the line spacing, flipping the board so that Black is at the bottom and reflecting the screen so that the navigation controls are on the left (which is where we prefer them).

Perhaps the main distinguishing feature of the app is the text display. As it comes from a company with a background in print publishing, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have devoted a great deal of effort to typography. Headings are in a sans-serif font, and the layout makes use of different point sizes, paragraph indentations, first-line indents and line-spacing. In fact, it’s very similar to the book layout, as the images below demonstrate. Foreign letters, even slightly unusual ones such as ć and č, are also displayed correctly. The major difference is that the text area on the app is small compared to a standard B5 book page, but there’s no way round this.

Comparison of some book text with the same passage on the Gambit Chess Studio app

This is all very different from a simple pgn reader which displays all the text in the same font at the same point-size. Print publishing has hundreds of years’ experience with creating clear layouts, and one of the main criticisms of some e-book conversions is that they make little use of this experience.

Moving on to other aspects, the range of Gambit books currently available is presently rather limited. The titles available are

  • Nunn’s Chess Endings Volumes 1 and 2
  • Understanding Chess Middlegames
  • Understanding Chess Endgames
  • Understanding Chess Move by Move
  • Learn Chess Tactics (all by Nunn)
  • Gary Kasparov’s Greatest Chess Games Volumes 1 and 2 (by Stohl)
  • A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White (by Watson)

Obviously Gambit have to start somewhere, and it is to be expected that a wider range will become available in due course.

The actual purchase of books is handled through Apple’s App Store. Gambit Chess Studio itself is a free download, and the various books appear as in-app purchases. Possibly the design of the ‘Gambit Book Store’ could do with a makeover, as it appears somewhat old-fashioned (these days "flat" is in!).

The Gambit book shelves for in-app purchases

The Book Store is also sometimes rather slow to load and sluggish at scrolling, although this seemed to vary and may be dependent on your Internet connection or the server load.

Finally, let us take a look at the pricing. Here’s a sample of prices of Gambit books where editions exist in all three formats (book and Kindle prices are taken from

Title Print Kindle App version
Understanding Chess Endgames $17.76 $9.95
Learn Chess Tactics $14.76 $9.95
Understanding Chess Move by Move $16.56 $9.95

It’s easy to see what Gambit are thinking here, with the app price somewhere between the print book price and the Kindle price. This seems fair enough, as the app is similar to the Kindle but with the additional feature of the moves being replayable.

On the whole, Gambit Chess Studio is a very welcome addition to the publishing market and is another way to enjoy some of the best chess books available today. It will be interesting to see how chess e-books develop in the future, and it may be that there will soon be a spectrum of chess formats available, ranging from print books through Kindle and app books, and on to full computer products such as those produced by ChessBase. Personally, we would love to see some old tournament books available for an app, so that I can enjoy classic games and their notes without having to get a chess set out or switch my computer on.


  • Does what it says on the tin: displays Gambit books with the moves replayable.
  • Layout of books is very clear and closely mimics the layout of the printed books.
  • Navigation and search functions make it easy to move around the book.


  • Only for iPad
  • Limited range of Gambit books available at present
  • Old-fashioned appearance; the Book Store in particular needs a makeover

Frederic Friedel

Review of the review

We asked John Nunn (above) of Gambit Publications to comment on this review and tell us what the future holds for Gambit Chess Studio. John wrote us:

The review of Gambit Chess Studio seems balanced to me. I apologise for the problems with version 1.0.0, which have now been sorted out. I hope that anyone who gave up on the earlier version will have another go with the latest update.

I agree with the ‘old-fashioned’ criticism, and based on this and other user feedback the next version will have a different visual appearance.

We have just started work on the Android version of the app, and as Gambit Chess Studio was written in a cross-platform way, I am hoping that this will be available before too long.

A look at the forthcoming books section of our website will show you that we have a vigorous program of e-book conversions which will gradually see more and more of our catalogue converted to one or other electronic format. There are three app books scheduled on this list, the main limiting factor here being the time available to Gambit staff (in this case, myself!). As well as looking after the Android conversion, I am also working on John Nunn’s Chess Course, which will be out in the spring. I hope to launch this book in app, Kindle and print versions more or less simultaneously, and it will be interesting to see how the sales in the various formats compare.

With regard to pricing: many people believe that since there are no printing costs associated with e-book production, prices should be very low. However, the economics are less favourable than this simplified view would suggest, in part due to the complexity of chess e-book conversions. E-book distributors like Amazon and Apple also demand a sizable cut, while increasingly Governments are adding local taxes which are often hidden to the purchaser. It’s too soon to say how the economics of app publishing works out, as this is a new venture for us.

There are a lot of possibilities for the future development of Gambit Chess Studio, and Gambit are committed to the app format. How ambitious these are depends to some extent on how successful this first version is.


Topics Gambit
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